All creative industries are bound by trends. Hollywood has its superhero blockbuster. The fashion world its seasonal wunderkind. Silicon Valley loves a disruptor. Before streaming’s age of excess, prestige dramas were all the rage in television. Increasingly, the machinations that help drive success in the music business—beyond sheer talent, of course—are determined by digital launching pads: a viral TikTok hit, placement on a streaming playlist, or an expertly mapped hype cycle.
Thankfully, in a year of extraordinary creative output, some of our most inspired artists chose not to play by those rules. Great music is all about deviation. It doesn’t worry itself with the crowd. It doesn’t hijack the moment by optimizing artistry to the winds of social media. The standout albums of the year were neither trendsetters nor trend chasers. In fact, what needles their remarkable originality together is a dissent from expectation. Each rejected the sugary thrall of the algorithm. Each suggested the most precious resource available to us: possibility.
As reality inches closer to social automation, and the machines dictate so much of how we live, the following 12 albums felt like supernovas. Some broke genre. Others made a home in it. All were unique reflections of what the past year has called for: the need to cultivate joy—to, above all, locate clarity—amid the encroaching darkness. Call it survival. Call it a reason to keep going.
12. The Forever Story, JID
Torchbearer of a new southern rap avant-garde. Georgia son. Heir apparent. Graduate of the school of Andre 3000 and Goodie Mob. There’s no other way to put it: JID’s got next.
11. Black Girl Magic, Honey Dijon
Honey Dijon is more than a DJ. She’s the godmother of Chicago house. Empress of the dance floor. A spell-caster and summoner of the divine. As a staple of queer nightlife, she’s got a knack for kindling the primal desires that lay dormant inside all of us. Black Girl Magic is her glittering ode to community and a call to celebration. As the lyrics on “Downtown” affirm: “Leave your cares and troubles on the floor.”
10. Luv 4 Rent, Smino
Picture this: a film about a love-drunk millennial who takes a supernatural road trip through the midwest. It’s directed by Terence Nance and produced by A24. It stars Jerrod Carmichael, Keke Palmer, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. You’re told it’s an underdog to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which you scoff at, of course, because you were quick to recognize its subtle, steady splendor, and told anyone who would listen. When it ends up winning, everyone is shocked and all you can think is, “Well duh.” That’s Luv 4 Rent.
9. Un Verano Sin Ti, Bad Bunny
Dipping seamlessly between reggaeton, dembow, bachata, and cumbia, all while never losing its pop sensibility, the Puerto Rican hitmaker delivers a summery incantation of infectious love songs. Un Verano Sin Ti was the most streamed album of 2022 on Apple Music and Spotify. It’s a lightwork of sound and place, meaning and message, pleasure and play. The math—rather, the magnetism of Bad Bunny—speaks for itself.
8. Shape Up, Leikeli47
The ferocious rattle of “Chitty Bang.” The hypnotic storytelling of “Secret Service.” The delicious ballroom bass of “BITM.” The syrupy R&B melodies of “Baseball.” The utter fearlessness of “Carry Anne.” In an age when everyone wants to be seen, liked, and TikTok famous, Leikeli47 revels in refreshing anonymity—literally (she wears a mask at all times). Her thrilling tales of Black womanhood have no allegiance to genre or structure. She does what she wants. What’s not to love?
7. Fantasy Getaway, Cuco
It’s easy to underestimate Cuco. His sound hovers between low-key stoner pop and searching psychedelic rock, occasionally drifting into the cozy grooves of soul. (The closing horns on “Artificial Intelligence” are really exquisite.) The effect of his music is not unlike being on an acid trip, a slow simmering build followed by an all-at-once flood of feels. This time, with major assists from Kasey Musgraves and Adriel Favela, the Mexican-American balladeer explores a murkier emotional landscape. But even as romance melts into regret and what-ifs, it remains about the journey. The end product is something akin to dreamlike bliss.
6. Spirituals, Santigold
There’s only one designation that encapsulates the flaring, sometimes category-averse beauty of Santigold’s music: futurepop. At once space-age, mystical, and teleporting, the Philadelphia high priestess returned in September after a yearslong absence with the fittingly titled Spirituals. The album, like the best of Santi White’s catalog, arrives from somewhere we haven’t yet been but yearn to reach.
5. 11 and Untitled (God), Sault
In November, the UK collective Sault released five albums via a password-protected WeTransfer file on their website. The albums varied in approach, and the consensus seemed to be that Aiir was the fan favorite. It made sense, naturally; the group had released its companion-piece earlier in April—a similar-sounding arrangement of orchestral brilliance titled Air (originally spelled with one “i”)—that received critical acclaim. But I’m partial to 11 and Untitled (God), which decoratively blends funk, R&B, and gospel. The songs complement one another in a way that suggests the true heart of Sault’s calling: the work of bringing people together and, in doing so, showing us how we’re more alike than we think.
4. Um, Hello, LAYA
Of all the artists on this list, I’m most surprised by LAYA, whose debut EP is an astral mood-setter that pulls from the best of R&B and transforms it into an exciting new whole. In June she released the single “Sock It 2 Me,” an ambient cover of the Missy Elliott classic, and delivered on the goods: It’s a sexy downtempo flip of the original. The vibes are immaculate.
3. Gemini Rights, Steve Lacy
Austrian writer Robert Musil once remarked how “no thing, no self, no form, no principle, is safe, everything is undergoing an invisible but ceaseless transformation, the unsettled holds more of the future than the settled.” Gemini Rights, Lacy’s sophomore solo effort, continues in that vein: happily slinking between genres, exploring the unsettled with eager ears. The album—which is about heartbreak and love and the sticky metamorphosis of relationships—lives between and beyond the binaries that have typically defined the Compton crooner’s brand of music, which is as slippery as the various identities he wears.
2. Ramona Park Broke My Heart, Vince Staples
It’s the best rap album of the year that includes one of the best songs of the year, and it’s not even close. As I wrote in April, Staples navigates the knotty realism of growing up in North Long Beach, and “the result is a remarkable feat in an aesthetic project of his that has long been concerned with locating meaning in the inevitable realities that trap us.” So, yeah: Best rap album of the year!
1. Renaissance, Beyoncé
Tragedy occurs. Fatalities magnify. Gloom is ever present. The hour calls us to the dance floor. The hour calls us to move and release. To shake free all that burdens us. On Renaissance, Beyoncé didn’t just demand our participation in the renewal ahead, in the promise of brighter days and tender nights, she willed it. Let’s be clear: This was more than an album, more than a collection of sharply sequenced songs, more than an ode to disco and house music scions, to queer havens long relegated to the underground. Her mission was bigger, more august in scope. Beyonce set out to heal. Renaissance was not meant to work as a reflection of this moment, as music often does. It did something different, something necessary. It reminded us of all the possibilities we hold. It gave us hope.
And because it was such a fantastic year for music, eight more albums (in alphabetical order) that are worth your time:
age/sex/location, Ari LennoxCometa, Nick Hakim, Dance Fever, Florence + the MachineGod Save the Animals, Alex GHonestly, Nevermind, DrakeMr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick LamarMy Shadow, Quinton BrockNatural Brown Prom Queen, Sudan Archives