The 20 best songs of 2022 - The Guardian
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The 20 best songs of 2022 - The Guardian

Alongside landmark records from Kendrick and Beyoncé, the year saw standout tracks from Steve Lacy, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and more
More on the best culture of 2022
More on 2022’s best music
The debut single by London girlband Flo is a time machine. For three minutes, it’s 2000 again: The Writing’s on the Wall is the world’s biggest album, Darkchild reigns supreme over pop, and no pair of trousers is complete without five superfluous pockets and a dangerous array of straps. Flo weren’t even born then but they’re a great study: this effervescent No Scrubs for the TikTok era was one of the freshest pop launches in recent memory, palpably floating on a sigh of relief as Jorja, Stella and Renée kick some bug-a-boo back to Y2K where he belongs. LS
Holiday sees Confidence Man doing what they do best: toeing the line between cheesy and calculated, cutting anthemic vocals and a bouncy groove with radiant synths and filtered interludes. Connecting the dots between 2022’s indie sleaze and Y2K revivals while also nodding to 2010s EDM, Holiday is warm, nostalgic, and prioritises pure joy over pretension. SB
French touch icons Alan Braxe and DJ Falcon reunited to figure out how their pioneering 90s house might have mellowed into middle age. Step By Step turns down the aggressive filtering of their heyday (an evolution akin to how our hearing range fades with age, maybe) for wistful soft rock that sails, Christopher Cross-style, into a hazy horizon with no division between sea and sky. “As I try to find a new way forward / Feels like there’s something in the air,” sings Panda Bear (AKA Noah Lennox), his voice evanescing into their limitless pop future. LS
Before he even shared a single note of his fifth album Mr Morale and the Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar was priming the world for what would be a fractious comeback. The Heart Part 5 – the fifth in his long-running pre-album single series – opens with what is essentially Mr Morale’s thesis statement: “As I get a little older, I realise life is perspective, and my perspective may differ from yours.” Over the next five minutes, as he rides a luxurious, funky Marvin Gaye sample, Lamar unpicks ideas of unity and equality, laying bare the fallacy of “community” in a greedy, money-hungry world. It’s a prickly return, and, make no mistake, Lamar’s intent is to sting: “In the land where hurt people hurt more people, fuck callin’ it culture.” SD
Since she was shot in 2020, Megan Thee Stallion has faced some of the most brazen misogyny the music industry has to offer, with male rappers and industry figures coming out in droves to support her alleged shooter. Plan B was Megan’s perfect rejoinder: rapping over a beat that samples Jodeci’s Freek’n You remix, the Houston rapper unleashes a perfectly calculated callousness, cutting her ex down to size with a hardened, devastating wit. Throughout, she lands justifiably low blows (“The only accolade you ever made is that I fucked you”) before offering a feminist rap pearler: “Ladies, love yourself – ’cause this shit could get ugly.” SD
Released in Charli XCX’s pop star sell-out year, bimbo anthem Hot in It would be a fairly rudimentary slab of Eurodance sex hokey-cokey (“rocking it, dropping it”, etc) if it weren’t for Charli’s impressive blunt weapon of a voice. Pretty much denatured of flesh and blood, she goes through the motions of her revenge kiss-off with metronomic efficiency that’s barely extricable from Tiësto’s relentless cymbals. Yet it winds up surprisingly human: burning with the monomania of getting one over on your ex, not to mention Charli’s menacing brand of sexuality. LS
How do you follow up a maximalist blast out of the pop leftfield loved by everyone from pop Twitter to pop royalty? Go bigger, crank the processors and dial up the lyrics to Broadway musical pitch. This Hell is a declaration of intent from someone fearlessly willing themselves into pop’s valkyrie frontline. Mainlining early-2000s energy to the point of overdose, here’s where the high-drama, don’t-spare-the-key-change, everything-all-at-once fusillade of Rina Sawayama’s patchy second album came into focus. LS
No one wants to hear musicians wanging on about the difficulties of fame, but if more of them pulled it off with the addled desperation Mitski brings to Love Me More, things might be different. After TikTok made her song Nobody (from 2018’s Be the Cowboy) into an unwitting hit, Love Me More finds the once-underground songwriter going “well alright then” and proving that she can do high-glamour self-loathing quite as well as the Weeknd, thanks very much. Are the audience’s screams feeding her soul or killing it, she wonders in a chorus so delirious and rafter-tickling it probably counts as an act of masochism. LS
N95 is all sinew – it writhes and slithers like no other Kendrick Lamar song ever really has, playing like 2017’s Humble with all the fat scraped away. As with so much of Mr Morale, it eschews coherent moral for snarky, crystalline realpolitik; the song’s jagged, electrifying bass line, punctuated by Lamar’s cry of “bitch, you ugly as fuck!” roils in the song’s bowels, threatening to crack its surface like a tectonic event. SD
The sly, tense Body Paint is like a number from some lost Cassavetes musical, a narrative that turns mutual deception in a relationship into a surrealist game of cat and mouse. Alex Turner prowls around his set trying to uncover the truth he already knows, while refusing to show his own hand: “I’m keeping on my costume and calling it a writing tool.” The song’s grand instrumental denouement might be a blowout or it might be sex; either way, it’s spectacular. SD
Women have always been intrinsic to UK garage, but its most recent revival has too often centred DJ bros. This summer, London DJ Eliza Rose brought the sound to the mainstream and the baddies to the front with Baddest of Them All, a surprise No 1 that combines feelgood 90s house with the slightest shade of cheesy Euro sensibility. Featuring one of the year’s most unforgettable refrains, it was a unifying floor-filler. SB
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Home was ground zero for one of electronic music’s biggest 2022 mysteries: Who the hell are Two Shell? The mysterious London duo, who have only ever given one interview and are supposedly prone to hiring actors to show up to their gigs and hit play on a pre-recorded DJ set, dropped their now-signature track in January. It refused to fade away: by the time summer rolled around, it seemed to have lodged itself at the peak of every weirdo DJ set and between-set festival playlist. And no wonder: Home is like aural amyl, a raucous, discombobulating garage track that splits the difference between Sophie’s McDonald’s ad era and Four Tet at his most banging. It’s one of the year’s most embodied dance tracks while being somehow, totally weightless – more a feat of impossible physics and dangerous chemistry than synths and drums. SD
American Teenager is the year’s best Taylor Swift song – a heart-racing, impossibly euphoric piece of heartland pop from a musician who, until that point, had been known as a kind of high priestess of gothy, streaming-era slowcore. Like the best Swift songs, American Teenager works as taut Top 40 pop but contains an entire universe, and unearths universal youthful emotions that often feel impossible to articulate. With just two perfect lines – “Jesus, if you’re listening let me handle my liquor / And Jesus, if you’re there, why do I feel alone in this room with you” – Cain manages to capture all the intertwined recklessness and insecurity of being a teen. SD
Virgo’s Groove is the axis on which Beyoncé’s Renaissance turns. It arrived about two years later than the rest of the 2020s disco revival but it instantly obliterated the competition – even if they had put their considerable talents together, Dua, Kylie and Jessie couldn’t have hoped to record a song as luxurious, as dazzling, as impossibly rich as this. Virgo’s Groove is perfect pastiche: its gleaming surfaces and infinite grooves capture all the wonder and mystery of peak Donna Summer songs, the feeling of being in a superclub filled with plush couches, mirrored dancefloors and grand balconies. But dig in and it’s electrifyingly novel, too – although Beyoncé pushes her vocals to new zones throughout Renaissance, Virgo’s Groove finds her switching cadence and tone with remarkable fluidity. The rest of the album radiates outwards from Virgo’s Groove: the nucleus of a new era of Beyoncé. SD
On the promo trail for Arctic Monkeys’ seventh album, Alex Turner has been sporting an array of V-neck woollen jumpers, a far cry from the more macho costumes of AM and Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino. This is sensitive menswear that leaves the jugular vulnerable, an anti-pose that carries through into the lead single from The Car. “Don’t get emotional / That ain’t like you,” Turner croons, apparently to himself, then admits that he just can’t help but give it “the old romantic fool”. The elegiac There’d Better Be a Mirrorball dwells on a departure; we don’t know what kind, but in the nerve-holding arrangement – the looping synth spiral suggesting nicotine-stained purgatory, the millpond-calm hand percussion – and Turner’s unusually romanticised lyrics, you feel his effort to fix the final image as something beautiful. LS
In some ways it’s been a hard year to be Harry. Box-office opprobrium, spitting on Chris Pine … “Stick to the day job” may be a little harsh, but few deliver so successfully on that remit like latter-day Styles. Occupying the slim valley between A-ha’s Take on Me and Vampire Weekend, As It Was delivers bruised-peach hurt, sophisticated languor from the back seat of a tastefully expensive car. He can sing something as vague as “In this world, it’s just us / You know it’s not the same as it was” and make you feel that he really means it: probably the very definition of a good actor. LS
On his fifth album Dawn FM, the Weeknd – modern pop’s greatest, most brilliantly disturbed hedonist – finally tries to repent. A concept album about a party monster’s journey to the afterlife, Dawn FM finds Abel Tesfaye dipping into previously unthinkable images: making someone a cup of tea, settling into domestic life, confessing his undying love and devotion. Then, on the album’s penultimate track, its final real song, the fantasy comes crashing down. Less Than Zero is a flickering neon sign reading “PEOPLE CAN’T CHANGE”, an achingly wistful apologia that suggests the past 45 minutes of contentment and kindness were a feint. “I try to hide it, but I know you know me / I try to fight it, but I’d rather be free,” he sings, turning one of his darkest songs ever into one of his purest singalongs – and the year’s most devastating heel turn. SD
For 20 years, Karen O has staked out thrilling extremes with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, vaulting from vituperative disgust to heart-melting compassion. Spitting is their first to straddle both poles so magnificently: over sparkling, grinding ooze, O seethes at the cowardly politicians who have put capitalism ahead of climate, finding bittersweet vindication in the knowledge that the burning sun will melt their “houses of gold”. The plot twist, and gut punch, comes in the second verse: “Mama, what have you done?” O sings, adopting the voice of the generation who have to live in this mess. The cavernous Spitting makes room for all these feelings at once: it’s grand and ruined, wracked and comforting, furious and hopeful, adding new shades to O’s already kaleidoscopic palette. LS
Beyoncé sometimes feels less like a pop star than a magnet for think pieces, and so her first solo single in six years invited reams of heavy-handed theorising. A single mention of quitting her job saw Break My Soul held up as a worker’s anthem; it’s apparent interpolation of Robin S’s Show Me Love, coming a month after Drake’s house-heavy Honestly, Nevermind, prompted hasty declarations that these heterosexual pop superstars were reviving grassroots, queer club culture (often uninformed claims that, in and of themselves, drowned out the music they purported to celebrate). Really what’s most striking about the lead-off from Renaissance is its levity, as Beyoncé nimbly flicks off expectations to assert her own pleasure principle. LS
Bad Habit could be the most noncommittal song to ever grace the pinnacle of the US singles chart. From its opening line – a meek, half-whispered utterance of “I wish you knew …” – Steve Lacy’s surprise smash mumbles and drags its feet, shrugging its way through flirtation and forlorn glances. Bad Habit captures all the brilliance of Lacy’s outstanding second record Gemini Rights – its sun-warmed cocktail of indie-rock, pop and R&B – but it also represents the apex of a few trends that have been percolating over the last few years.
It’s the most popular (and, arguably, best) song to spring forth from the new wave of TikTok-beloved lo-fi bedroom pop stars such as Clairo and Beabadoobee; at the same time, it fulfils the promise of Rihanna’s Anti, SZA’s Ctrl and Frank Ocean’s Blonde, three mid-2010s records that brought a profoundly indie, guitar-centric sensibility to the shimmering textures and graceful heartache of R&B, and went on to revolutionise a genre and inspire an entire generation of shy, weirdo would-be pop stars. Lacy is a deserving heir to those artists’ thrones – and, if Bad Habit is anything to go by, he’ll scuff and stumble his way there, Bottega Veneta-clad eyes firmly trained on his shoes. SD



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