The Best Albums of 2022
From Beach Bunny to Beach House, 2022 had amazing albums. Here's the best.
What future does the album as a format have? Plenty of it, if 2022’s releases are anything to go by.
It seemed like everyone except Frank Ocean had something to say last year. Many of music’s best and brightest had full-length sonic spectacles released, from Björk's first album since 2017, through Mitski’s long-awaited comeback post-TikTok resurgence, and Harry Styles continuing his seemingly endless dominance over the pop charts. Short of a Pavement comeback album, it seemed like everyone’s favourite artist had something new for us to enjoy.
Regardless of where your musical interests lie, there’s been incredible releases by artists of all genres. Megan Thee Stallion continued her unstoppable momentum with the phenomenal Traumazine, spearheading a wave of incredible rap albums by the likes of Flo Milli and Rico Nasty. Cavetown returned with his strongest album yet with the electronic-influenced Worm Food, joining contemporaries such as Spector and Smidley as indie-rock-adjacent artists finding bright success through diversifying their sound. And who can forget SZA’s unforgettable comeback at the eleventh hour of the year? If you didn’t spend most of December with Kill Bill stuck in your head, then you’re a liar.
With new releases of 2023 in full swing including gems from the likes of Fireworks and Young Fathers, let’s take a moment to look back on some of the best albums that 2022 brought us. These are the cream of the crop, incredible records that soundtracked a pivotal year for so many of us. Queue them up as you read, and get ready to turn the record back to 2022.
Hellfire - Black Midi
My album of the year is black midi's Hellfire, a lurid and disorienting genre blender of an album that creates something novel from a wide range of sources. I definitely hear glimmers of Mr. Bungle, Frank Zappa, and Foetus here, but unlike other bands with such striking influences, they don’t become subsumed by their forebears.
I had previously slept on this band because, honestly, their debut Schlagenheim (2019) didn't inspire me and I had expected more of the same. But it's clear they've matured a lot in the four years since then, and this album grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. Dragging the listener to a circus or a battlefield or maybe both, the album eternally evolves, oscillating between orchestrated chord sequences and violent big band stabs. It's discordant in places, beautiful and rhapsodic in others, creating quite an addictive feedback loop of a listening experience. By the end, I am only regretful that the chaotic carousel has rolled to a stop. ~ Mal Morgenstern
Preacher's Daughter - Ethel Cain
Blessed be the Daughters of Cain. Some songs leave an unforgettable impression on first listen. On Ethel Cain’s debut album, Preacher’s Daughter, every single song left me reeling. From the very first notes of the Family Tree Intro, I knew I was listening to a record that would stick with me. I just didn’t know quite how strongly it would resonate.
As an ex-Christian with a complicated relationship to faith, I’ve always been drawn to artists with similar experiences who address this in song. Think Julien Baker or Brian Fallon - not “Christian artists”, but those who’ve clearly gone on journeys of faith and have a lot to say about what they’ve learned. Similarly, I naturally gravitate towards queer artists, for reasons obvious to QSO readers. When there’s artists in the centre of that Venn diagram, magic happens.
That’s not to say that Ethel Cain’s music is defined solely by her religious themes or her queerness, of course. The simple fact is that Cain is one of the brightest and best songwriters of our generation, and Preacher’s Daughter is one of the most incredible, unforgettable albums of my lifetime. At its core, it’s a folk album, but one that straddles pop, shoegaze, and noise-rock to create a unique blend of styles that transcends her diverse influences. Sure, there’s flecks of Lana Del Rey here, smatterings of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal there, and if you squint, Thoroughfare sounds like a lost Dolly Parton classic. However, only Cain could make an album like this.
Towards the end of the year, Barack Obama put American Teenager on his end-of-year playlist. On one hand, it was a worthy victory for a gifted songwriter for one of her best songs to be given such a lofty platform. However, as Cain herself pointed out, there’s irony in a former president celebrating an explicitly anti-war self proclaimed “fake pop song”. Indeed, some publications described the track as a red herring of sorts - one big commercial anthem before the labyrinthine darkness of the album properly kicks in. I’d argue that the context of American Teenager is important framing for the tragedies that pan out over the record’s remaining 11 songs. The American dream is more of a nightmare, after all.
All in all, Preacher’s Daughter is a resounding success story. A self-written and self-produced gothic opus from a queer, neurodiverse woman leading to arena tours supporting her childhood idol - it’s heartwarming stuff. I’ve never heard an album quite like it, and I doubt I ever will. Whatever Ethel Cain goes on to do next, you don’t want to miss it.
Las Ruinas - Rico Nasty
SOPHIE’s legacy has left an indelible mark on my worldview. One notion that has particularly stuck with me is the idea that we could move beyond the traditional concept of what pertains to an “album”. Although she meant this in regards to using technological innovation to rethink how we can interact with music, I now frequently find myself using this lens when listening to an album: is this an album in the traditional sense that we understood it? Or, does this album do something new and refreshing with the format?
This thought particularly played on my mind during my first listen of heavy hyperpop queen Rico Nasty’s sophomore (studio) album, Las Ruinas. The album sprawls across a 45-minute period, stringing together 17 songs to create a sonic landscape out of arpeggiators, high harmonies, and perhaps most unexpectedly, a Fred Again… remix. The album bounces around from track to track in terms of genre, texture, and composition without compromising on a sense of cohesion across the wider piece. Instead of forcing Las Ruinas to take on a certain shape as an album, Rico takes the listener on a journey through the titular ruins to question precisely what an album should be.
Even album structuring aside, the songwriting and production on particular tracks are exemplary and demonstrate a truly exciting point in Rico’s career. She built every track on the tape herself from scratch, leaving an evident and identifiable stamp on each song without the tracks becoming sonically homogeneous. My standout favourite is the dreamlike and dancy Skullflower. The snares are doused in a fascinating reverb that walks a tightrope between a wet tone and short release, making the drums sound like popping bubblegum. The vocal processing calls back to IPHONE, one of her earlier singles produced by 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady, without feeling like it’s treading already heavily walked ground.
The last track on the album, Chicken Nugget, is another highlight. An unexpected, cinematic keyboard ballad provides a spark of hope at the end of the ruins, in the form of a love song to her son. The song simultaneously looks back on the past with strong 1970s-80s vibes - a fitting choice, considering Stevie Wonder’s beautiful Isn’t She Lovely was also written for the birth of his daughter - while also looking to the future with suitably Rico production choices. The retrofuturistic track feels like the ideal framing for a song that simultaneously looks back on the birth of her child, while also speculating on the child’s future.
Throughout 2022, it felt that SOPHIE’s stamp was everywhere; her influence is undeniable and unavoidable on a multigenre basis. Of all the releases this year that evoked her legacy, Las Ruinas is my favourite. I would argue that the album will be hugely influential in the near future, and while I do hold that perspective, I also think that Rico is already making waves and leaving an impact on electronic music, rock, and rap with her signature stylings and endless pursuit of the “new”. The album is a beautiful meld of previous concepts in sound innovation with new ideas, aptly pulling the field forward while paying a remarkable homage to those before it. ~ Toni Oisin H.C.
The Hum Goes On Forever - The Wonder Years
“I don’t want to die.” These are the first words you hear on The Hum Goes On Forever. The opening track, Doors I Painted Shut, is a revelation of a song - it’s only three minutes long, but my God, it crams so much emotional weight in, continuously building throughout into one long crescendo. When you think it can’t get any more intense, it collapses, giving way to one of their heaviest instrumentals, a painful vocal yelp, and then sudden silence. It’s emotional purgatory - a meditation on living with mental illness, fostering relationships, fatherhood, masculinity, and nostalgia. And it’s not even the best song here.
For so many emo and pop-punk bands, there’s a “you had to be there” kind of attitude that’s often taken when describing them. I’m guilty of this, to some degree. I can’t fully explain what makes The Wonder Years such an important band to me, other than when I discovered them at eighteen or nineteen, their music was a lifeline. I’d hear songs like I Wanted So Badly to be Brave or Came Out Swinging and feel heard and heartened; I’d hear lines like “I’m not sad anymore” and do my best to internalise them. But to quote the band themselves, “It’s not about forcing happiness, it’s about not letting sadness win”. What happens when you realise that the sadness never goes away, a constant hum in the background?
Seven albums in, The Wonder Years have made their best work of art yet. They don’t throw out the palette that made their previous releases so good, they’ve just got better at painting with it. Songs like Lost It In The Lights are as punishingly heavy as anything on Sister Cities, and Low Tide is as energetic as anything on their breakthrough album Suburbia. Singer and lead songwriter Dan Campbell’s lyrics have continued to improve with each successive release, and they’re at their absolute best here. Summer Clothes may be his most beautiful song yet; a love letter to an old friend, recalling one of the first times he felt truly happy. It’s a gorgeous portrait of two young men, driving around, enjoying simple pleasures - listening to music, feeling the sunlight, swimming together. It’s like golden light sonified, a blissful oasis of calm.
As a collection of expertly written songs, The Hum Goes On Forever is a roaring success. As a concept album on familial anxiety and mental illness, it’s even better. Everything peaks in the last two songs. Old Friends Like Lost Teeth is a devastating reflection on grief wrapped up in a three-minute pop-punk rager, and it’s as good as anything they’ve ever done before. However, it’s the final track, You’re The Reason I Don’t Want the World to End, that stands out as their best song yet. It’s heartbreaking yet triumphant, ambitious yet anthemic, and offers a stunning closing stanza that acts as the record’s thesis statement: “put the work in, plant a garden, try to stay afloat”. ~ AC
Glitch Princess - yeule
This is probably the only time I’ve picked an album of the year that I haven’t technically finished listening to. But, in my defense, the last song on yeule’s (Nat Ćmiel) genre-bending Glitch Princess is 4:44:00 long. However, I can confidently say that the first 43 minutes of the album are one of 2022’s musical highlights.
When you hear the word “glitch”, you picture something wrong, misplaced, angular; if you think of glitched audio you picture something harsh and sharp. On the album, yeule demonstrates real weight as a producer and musician in the way they manage to tame this harshness into smooth, sweeping, cinematic layers for their tracks. Electric and Flowers are Dead seem to particularly capture an electronic softness that’s difficult to create. As noise and static course through the track, particularly on the reverberant drum fills, warm drones and sweet harmonies create compelling contrasts. This textural dynamic flows throughout the whole album, demonstrating Ćmiel’s exceptional grasp of their craft.
This sense of misplacement that is conveyed and played with throughout the album seems to expand beyond the sonic, into the thematic and lyrical. Ćmiel said in an interview with The Sampler that feeling like an outcast is a familiar feeling due to their lived experiences; yeule is almost a narrative companion who supports them in sharing their story musically and artistically. I frequently think of the idea that at the centre of a poem, there is a core emotion - as inspired by Louise Glück’s foreword to Richard Siken’s seminal chapbook Crush. At the centre of Glitch Princess, it feels as though a cascade of complex emotions are competing to come out all at once: loneliness and empowerment, isolation and comfort. This effectively captures a sense of duality or plurality that feels in keeping with Ćmiel’s life stories and their expression as yeule.
The fifth track on the album, a collaboration with Tohji, is named after Perfect Blue, a film by Satoshi Kon and a book by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. The book’s full title is translated and localised as Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis. This feels fitting during what feels like the aftermath of yeule’s metamorphosis as an artist. Over the last few years, they have graduated from university, became a full-time musician, shifted across and played with genre, and used a number of different pseudonyms (Ćmiel has taken on a number of monikers for previous works, such as Penelope and Matilda). Glitch Princess, both as an album and an extension of one’s identity, feels like a butterfly moment post-metamorphosis for one of the most exciting electronic musicians on the scene right now. ~ Toni Oisin H.C.
Mal Morgenstern is a writer, visual artist, and musician. Follow them on Twitter here.
AC is the Head of Written Content at QSO Media. Read more of their articles here.
Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.
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