2022 had its ups and downs, and one of the ups is the sheer amount of great music released these past 12 months. Narrowing it down to just 50 albums was no easy feat, but we've come up with a list that spans from small DIY bands to stadium-sized megastars, from long-awaited comebacks to exciting new artists, from hardcore to hip hop, from indie rock to noise rock, from dream pop to Dream Unending. There's all kinds of stuff in between, plus honorable mentions from individual staff members at the bottom of the list and more genre-specific lists (like punk, metal, rap, R&B, folk, country, jazz, and reggae).

Thanks again to you for another great year, and read on for our list...

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    Friendship - Love the Stranger


    The fourth album and Merge debut by Philly DIY band Friendship is the group's most sprawling release yet, maintaining a balancing act between indie rock, country, and slowcore across 17 quietly gorgeous songs. The deceptively simple arrangements make the perfect backdrop for Dan Wriggins, the band's excellent lead singer, whose low voice and emotion-packed lyricism make Love the Stranger one of the most gripping indie rock albums of the year. Comparisons can be made to anyone from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy to Silver Jews to The Mountain Goats to Pedro the Lion, but Love the Stranger keeps you coming back because Friendship scratch an itch that even bands who seem similar on paper don't really scratch. They reshape familiar sounds in subtly new ways, and the way Dan delivers his words can stop you dead in your tracks. [A.S.]

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    King Hannah - I'm Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me

    City Slang

    Liverpool duo King Hannah (Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle) are not shy about the very '90s influences behind their music -- PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, Portishead, Morphine, Radiohead, Smog -- but on their full-length debut they use them with such confidence and style that it’s not so much “this sounds like someone else” as “this sounds cool.” I'm Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me is set on low simmer, with Whittle's textured, hazy guitar work enveloping Merrick's breathy, bluesy voice like cigarette smoke at the dingiest of dives. It's not just attitude and atmosphere though: "All Being Fine," "It's You and Me, Kid" and the title track are all great songs that showcase the duo's mastery of mood, eye-for-detail scene-setting, wickedly dry humor, and occasional desert rock guitar heroics. Style counts for a lot, though, and King absolutely smolder with it. [B.P.]

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    Taylor Swift - Midnights


    Taylor Swift has dominated headlines this year for everything from the ticketing fiasco surrounding her "Eras" tour to making history as the first artist to grab all top 10 spots on the Billboard Hot 100, but for all of her outsize presence in pop culture, Midnights is surprisingly subdued. It comes two years after the pair of "indie folk"-styled albums, Folklore and Evermore, she made with The National's Aaron Dessner (and guests like Justin Vernon and Matt Berninger) joining her longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, but she veered back into electronic synth-pop this time, working again with Jack. Midnight's songs, which Taylor has described as "the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout [her] life," are light on bombast and heavy on mood; Billie Eilish's minimal, slinky alt-pop is a clear influence, but Taylor makes the sound her own, rounding it out with the fullness and precision of her narratives about self-loathing, revenge fantasies, and wondering what might have been. Whether she's smiling wryly through the instantly-quotable refrain on "Anti-Hero," dropping references to eating disorders and Carrie on "You're On Your Own, Kid," or comparing karma to a cat (and thrilling the girlies on Twitter) on "Karma," she's one of the most gifted songwriters working right now, and her singular voice shines through in any style she takes on. [A.H.]

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    JER - Bothered / Unbothered

    Bad Time Records

    Perhaps you've noticed that ska has been making a big comeback these past few years, and much of the renewed interest in the genre is thanks to Jeremy Hunter. Jeremy works tirelessly on their Skatune Network covers project, whose videos have helped introduce tons of new people to ska, they spend hours hyping up the new generation of ska bands on social media, and they also stay busy playing trombone in the great ska-punk band We Are The Union. On top of all of that, they released their debut album of original music this year as JER, and it's one of the strongest albums that ska's current generation has produced yet. JER takes cues from '90s ska-punk, but their version of punk is closer to the DIY indie-punk and emo of the past decade, and they also look beyond punk, incorporating everything from traditional ska and rocksteady to modern hip hop. The production and horn arrangements are immaculate, and JER's lyrics combine the personal with the political in a way that not just recalls the genre's protest music roots but expands upon them. It still makes no sense that a genre so rooted in social change ended up becoming such a punchline, but Bothered / Unbothered has no time for your jokes. It's a reminder that ska can be very serious music – even in the moments that it's lighthearted, funny, or fun – and it's not just a great ska album but a new benchmark for the genre. [A.S.]

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    Aeviterne - The Ailing Facade

    Profound Lore

    Born out of the ashes of the now-defunct Flourishing, and also counting members of Artificial Brain, Luminous Vault, and Castevet among their ranks, Aeviterne have turned into a beast of their own. Flourishing fans will recognize Garett Bussanick's distinct shriek off the bat, but neither that album nor Aeviterne's 2018 debut EP Sireless (recorded before Samuel Smith of Artificial Brain and Luminous Vault joined the band) could prepare you for their monstrous debut album The Ailing Facade. The record's informed by black and death metal but Aeviterne reshape those familiar styles in dark, twisted, experimental ways. The record is a journey through blasts of grindy fury, passages of psychedelia, dazzling guitar work, ghostly synths, and an eerie atmosphere that hovers over the intricate musicianship. As apocalyptic as this album can sound, it's also strangely beautiful. [A.S.]

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    Beach House - Once Twice Melody

    Sub Pop

    Released in four chapters across as many months, Beach House's sprawling Once Twice Melody is a double album fairy tale that needs all 18 songs and 84 minutes to work its magic. It's the Baltimore duo's most psychedelic album to date, and subtly recasts Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally in gossamer new light. (It's also their most cohesive vision since Bloom.) Gleaming synthesizers shine like pure sunlight while choral samples surround and lift you into the heavens, and whatever gravity remains is evaporated by Legrand whose voice has never sounded so angelic. There are so many beautiful, transcendent moments -- especially the ultra-dreamy ballads, like "ESP," "Over and Over," and "The Bells" -- that it can be overwhelming, but you're in good hands. Trust them and let Once Twice Melody carry you away. [B.P.]

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    Wet Leg - Wet Leg


    Wet Leg's self-titled debut album is making a statement-that the kids are disaffected, but alright. Guided by the distinctive voices of Rhian Wight and Hester Chambers, Wet Leg is fun and cool and doesn't take itself too seriously, in a way that feels unique and true to the duo's youthful spirit. The album builds off of the viral success of its Mean Girls-referencing lead single "Chaise Longue," and other tracks like "Angelica" further Wet Leg's knack for making a cheeky mockery of the youth—without losing authenticity as a voice of teens and twentysomethings (case in point from "Angelica": "I don't know what I'm even doing here/I was told that there would be free beer/I don't wanna follow you on the 'gram/I don't wanna listen to your band"). Wet Leg are at their most potent when they're making cutting quips at breakneck speed, as on "Wet Dream," "Ur Mom," and "Too Late Now," but they're just as charming on subtler songs, "I Don't Wanna Go Out," "Loving You," "Piece Of Shit," and more. On top of their lyrical prowess, Wet Leg has created an instrumental foundation of indie rock: steady drums, fuzzed-out rhythm guitar and vivid lead guitar, and creative baselines. Wet Leg has all of the biting wit and hostile coolness of a veteran indie album; the band's fresh point of view keeps us excited for what's next. [A.G.]

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    The Wonder Years - The Hum Goes On Forever


    What do you do when the world's turned upside down, your band finds itself at a crossroads, and you're wondering: who even are we? What are we supposed to do? If you're The Wonder Years, you write the most definitive record of your career. The Hum Goes On Forever is the band's seventh album in 15 years, and it truly feels like the album they've been working towards the entire time. It's the ideal version of a band growing with their music, with their fans, and as people. Singer Dan Campbell is a decade older than he was when he wondered if he fucked up because all the people he grew up with had kids and wives, and now he's a father of two. He can't honestly or authentically write about the topics he was writing about then, but he can write about his current struggles and concerns with the same fervor he had on his band's early records, and that's exactly what he does on The Hum Goes On Forever. He delivers some of his best and most powerful performances yet over a backdrop that casually weaves between pop punk, emo, alternative rock, singer/songwriter material, and darker, heavier post-hardcore in a way that sounds distinctly like The Wonder Years. Hum has the instant thrills of the band's earlier records and the adventurous side of their later records, sounding like a culmination of everything they've done and yet another step forward. It's the strongest evidence yet that The Wonder Years have carved a path of their own, while continuing to uplift the basement-dwelling DIY punk scene that they got their start in, and it's some of the most sincere, soul-baring guitar rock that the past 12 months have had to offer. [A.S.]

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    Naima Bock - Giant Palm

    Sub Pop

    The former bassist for London's Goat Girl, Naima Bock made one of 2022's most assured debuts with the quietly dazzling Giant Palm. It almost didn't happen at all, as after leaving her band she went to school to study architecture and worked as a gardener. The songs kept coming, though, and working with Joel Burton of Viewfinder, they turned the spare songs she'd been playing live at solo gigs into grander, deeply beautiful creations. Giant Palm is still pretty understated, with gentle but gorgeous arrangements designed to perfectly compliment Bock's melancholic songs and breathy, often achingly beautiful, voice. Among the many wondrous, lovely moments on the record: the whistling outro of "Every Morning," when the rolling rhythm and sax kick in midway through,"Working," and the jazzy twilight beauty of the waltzing "Campervan," all woodwinds and strings. This is a deeply sad record -- you can feel it even without paying any attention to the lyrics -- documenting a permanently fractured relationship, but it is also one with hope on the horizon. "When the world crumbles at my feet," she sings on Giant Palm's title track, "I’ll pick it up and pull it tight against my cheek." [B.P.]

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    Spiritualized - Everything Was Beautiful

    Fat Possum

    Jason Pierce has basically been making the same album repeatedly for 30 years, mixing space rock, gospel, pharmaceutical references, Velvet Underground drones, noisy freakouts and grand romantic gestures into something called Spiritualized. And that's just fine. Like Wes Anderson or Yayoi Kusama, he has an instantly identifiable style and is happy to mine it forever. Sometimes albums are good, and sometimes they're great. Everything Was Beautiful, a companion piece to 2018's And Nothing Hurt, is one of the great ones. The album draws parallels to Spiritualized's 1997 masterpiece, Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, from the prescription meds cover art to the whispered intro to its scope which includes multiple studios and dozens of musicians. Clearly Pierce knew this one had the stuff to hold up to the comparisons. Everything is beautiful. May J Spaceman float in space forever. [B.P.]

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    Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Cool It Down

    Secretly Canadian

    Yeah Yeah Yeahs' first album in nine years is blissfully restrained. The album hits hard at all the right moments, with propulsive drums and kaleidoscopic synths running all the way through. Still, powerhouse that she is, Karen O creates tension, chaos, and space in key moments. Cool It Down is dotted with musical references too; Karen cited David Bowie as an influence on lead single "Spitting Off The Edge Of The World" featuring Perfume Genius, "Burning" interpolates piano and strings from Frankie Valli's "Beggin," "Fleez" lyrically and stylistically nods towards ESG, "Wolf" obliquely recalls Duran Duran in its first line, "I'm hungry like a wolf." The album's close, comprised of "Different Today" and spoken-word track "Mars," takes a softer, spacier turn. Yeah Yeah Yeahs shake up all these influences and styles with their own boundless creativity. Cool It Down blares and whispers, exploring the interplay of control and release, dark depths and soaring highs. [A.G.]

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    Sharon Van Etten - We've Been Going About This All Wrong


    Sharon Van Etten's discography over the last decade-plus has been one career high after another -- she's never made the same record twice, she's always moving deeper and more fully into her sound -- and she's kept that run going with her sixth album. Rather than release advance singles, she previewed We've Been Going About This All Wrong with a trailer featuring photos and video clips from her life, set to sweeping, cinematic music. That was the perfect preview for the album, which features some of her most dense, gorgeous music yet, and really deserves to be appreciated in full. She's described it as her pandemic record, "an emotional journey that documents the rollercoaster of the last two years," and with the red and orange sky depicted in the cover art serving as a clarion call for an approaching catastrophe, the domestic happenings she recounts are transposed to an epic scale to match the soaring, otherworldly music. She doesn't break from the narrative until the end of the arc, when "Mistakes," one of the catchiest, most pop-leaning songs she's ever written, provides a pivotal, cathartic release. It's a testament to how her music has only grown in power over the years, not only to haunt, but also to heal. [A.H.]

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    Ripped To Shreds - 劇變 (Jubian)


    Andrew Lee's San Jose-based death metal band Ripped To Shreds has multiple releases dating back to 2018 (and that doesn't count Andrew's many other projects), but 劇變 (Jubian) is an album of firsts. It's the band's first for Relapse, and the first one he made with the band's live show in mind. (Drummer Brian Do of Spinebreaker and bassist Ryan of Doomsday round out the lineup for this LP.) Throughout the record, Lee dishes out some of the most fiery thrash-indebted death metal riffs to hit shelves this year, while delivering throat-shredding screams that tackle real world issues like AAPI hatred. Even if his harsh screams and growls are indiscernible, his message is right there in the album artwork, which depicts a statue of Taiwanese sea goddess Mazu. Lee has said that one of the band's purposes is "to increase the visibility of ABCs [American-born Chinese] in extreme metal by being very blatantly Chinese," and 劇變 (Jubian) does that while offering up some of the most ass-beating death metal of 2022. [A.S.]

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    Chat Pile - God's Country

    The Flenser

    From the murky depths of Oklahoma comes God's Country, the grimy, nihilistic, antagonizing debut album from Chat Pile. Blurring the lines between noise rock, sludge metal, and post-hardcore, and fueled by the gut punch of primitive, early industrial-style snare cracks, Chat Pile have been compared to everyone from The Jesus Lizard to Godflesh to Big Black to the Melvins, and they've funneled these '80s/'90s era influences into something that feels vital today. From the nine-minute, THC-fueled nightmare "grimace_smoking_weed.jpeg" to songs that deal with homelessness, corrupt capitalism, gun violence, and other aspects of the dark underbelly of American society, God's Country has a way of being darkly funny and dead serious all at once. "It's the sound of your world collapsing," vocalist Raygun Busch sneers on "Anywhere"; it could double as the album's mission statement. [A.S.]

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    Earl Sweatshirt - Sick!

    Tan Cressida/Warner

    Earl Sweatshirt was once poised to be on the path to rap superstardom, but he'd rather hang out with experimental underground acts like Armand Hammer and Zeeloperz, who both appear on his latest project Sick! and fit perfectly within Earl's increasingly progressive sonic palette. Sick! is built upon a warped, trippy base crafted by The Alchemist, Navy Blue, Black Noi$e, Samiyam, Earl himself, and a few others, and Earl matches that with dizzying rhymes that avoid easily digestible hooks and defy traditional rap song structure. His words are as daze-inducing as the music itself, coating stories about Earl's personal life and the pandemic in cloudy metaphor. It's an album unlike anything Earl's made in the past, and it pushes the envelope just as much as the innovative non-major label acts that inspire him. [A.S.]

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    Leikeli47 - Shape Up


    The conclusion to Leikeli47's Beauty trilogy is also her best album yet. One of the most unique and charismatic rappers around, Leikeli busts out memorable hooks, hilarious punchlines, and hard-earned boasts as she bounces between moods; she can go from fun and lighthearted to serious introspection at the drop of a hat. And in a year where mainstream hip hop has embraced house music and ballroom culture more wholly than it has in a while, credit where it's due to Leikeli47, who's been doing that for years and did it as expertly as ever on Shape Up. Whether she's offering up a pulsating ballroom anthem like "Jay Walk," beating radio-rappers at their own game on "Chitty Bang," or subverting a famous rapper's moniker on "LL Cool J" (that's "ladies love cool jewelry"), Leikeli47 strikes a balance between catchy, innovative, and fun that puts Shape Up in a league of its own. [A.S.]

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    Zach Bryan - American Heartbreak


    The streaming era has turned the idea of an "album" on its head, and it's caused some artists to ignore the format's traditions entirely, like fast-rising country star Zach Bryan, whose major label debut American Heartbreak has 34 songs. "I have this weird fear of like, if I don’t put this music out, someone 20 years from now isn’t going to be able to hear it," he recently told The New York Times. "If some kid needs this in 40 years and he’s 16, he’s sitting in his room, what if I didn’t put out ‘Quiet, Heavy Dreams’? What if that’s his favorite song of all time?" Since releasing the LP in May, he followed it with a nine-song EP and a two-song single within the next few months. It's a formula that you might not expect to jive well with our generation's increased access to entertainment and decreased attention spans, and yet, Zach has quickly become one of country's most widely loved rising stars. You may not always listen to all 34 songs every time you click play on American Heartbreak, but there's so much great stuff on there to choose from and very little filler. As an artist who can compete in the mainstream (Zach's one of only two artists to dethrone Morgan Wallen at the top of the country charts this year) but also values indie music (he cites Bon Iver and Radiohead as core influences and he's a close affiliate of go-to alt-country producer Dave Cobb), Zach has a little something for everyone. American Heartbreak ranges from somber country folk to amplified heartland rock to line-dance-inducing fiddle songs, and Zach's personal, emotional storytelling is nearly impossible to ignore, regardless of your preference in subgenre. [A.S.]

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    Undeath - It's Time...To Rise from the Grave


    The old school-style death metal revival has been upon us for the past few years, and it's not hard to see why Undeath rose (from the grave) to the top of it. They aren't really messing with the formula established by their late '80s / early '90s forebears, but they aren't doing anything overtly retro either. It's Time... has crisp, modern production that really opens you up to the onslaught of riffs, gore-obsessed guttural growls, and pummeling rhythms that make up Undeath's music. It's death metal that takes itself seriously but not too seriously, and it never wastes your time. There's a lot to be said for the many great recent death metal albums that push the genre in unexpected directions, but there's also something to be said for some good ol' fashioned death metal, and if you wanted that this year, It's Time...To Rise from the Grave always delivered. [A.S.]

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    Conway the Machine - God Don't Make Mistakes


    Conway the Machine's got over a decade of flexes, shit-talk, and knockout punchlines under his belt, but does anybody care that he's stressed? For his long-awaited major label debut, the Griselda rapper offers up his most personal album yet, addressing an array of tragedies and demons without abandoning the gritty, East Coast boom bap-inspired exterior his fans have come to know and love. The album's centerpiece is "Stressed," in which Conway opens up about the death of his baby son, his cousin taking his own life, suffering physical abuse as a child, and dealing with depression and addiction. These feelings and experiences loom large over the rest of the album too; elsewhere on the LP, he discusses suffering a near-fatal shooting and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. His intense storytelling is made even more gripping by his ability to twist words into hardened couplets, and the morose backdrop that The Alchemist, Beat Butcha, Daringer, and other producers crafted for this record. "I'm far from my final chapter," he raps on "Tear Gas," and he sounds hungry enough on this album to live up to the promise (not to mention the multiple other 2022 projects he released since this one dropped in February). [A.S.]

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    Pool Kids - Pool Kids

    Skeletal Lightning

    A self-titled album often feels like a statement that this is an introduction -- or a re-introduction -- to the artist making it, so Pool Kids may be this Florida emo band's sophomore LP, but it feels like an arrival. The seeds were being sown on their promising 2018 debut LP Music to Practice Safe Sex To, but Pool Kids is the album that this band was always destined to make. There's historically been a divide amongst certain emo fans between noodly, fingertapping, '90s Midwest emo and the more polished emo-pop that blew up in the mid 2000s, but Pool Kids toss that divide out the window. They pull from both eras in equal measure, and do it in a way that always looks forward. The result is an album that feels new and familiar all at once, but stylistic decisions aside, the real reason Pool Kids emerged as one of the year's best emo albums is the songs, songs that would drill their way into your heart and brain regardless of production choices or guitar techniques. Christine Goodwyne writes in a way that's personal and widely relatable at once, and she belts her words with a forceful delivery and wraps them in melodies that make you want to belt right along with her. There's been some talk these past couple years about a "fifth wave" of emo, but no matter what you wanna call it, it's clear that there's a thriving new generation of emo bands, and Pool Kids already feels like a landmark of this exciting new era. [A.S.]

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    Wormrot - Hiss


    Hiss is Wormrot's last album with co-founding lead vocalist Arif, and Arif is going out with a bang. The Singapore trio's fourth album finds them cruising through grindcore, death metal, thrash, and punk, making a few pit stops along the way for some sludge, noise, and post-hardcore, and coming out with one of the most thrilling heavy albums of the year -- regardless of subgenre -- in the process. The album veers from pure brutality to mind-bending experimentation to parts that even the most metal-averse listeners could bang their head to. It's an ever-changing, unpredictable record that pushes one boundary after another. It's not easy to pigeonhole this record, but it's very easy to rock the fuck out to. [A.S.]

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    The Beths - Expert in a Dying Field


    The title track to The Beths' wonderful third album is about scholarship in love via repeated heartbreak, but singer-songwriter Liz Stokes has proven herself to be an expert in another dying field: the perfectly crafted indie rock pop song. Stokes, lead guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck have always had an affinity for jangly, fuzzy earworms with a yearning spirit that mirrors the often downcast lyrics, but there's nary a misstep on these 12 songs. Classic pop and rock conventions are rarely deployed as expertly as they are here, with every middle eighth, every key change, solo and big chorus sounding effortless, aiming straight at the pleasure center. Stokes also understands how a minor chord, a bittersweet lyric, or a delicate slide into falsetto can make sugary melodies so much more satisfying -- see "Knees Deep," "Your Side," "Silence is Golden," and the perfect title track. It would be wrong to say "third time's the charm" because all three of this NZ band's albums have been great, but Expert in a Dying Field is their best yet. [B.P.]

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    The Smile - A Light for Attracting Attention


    What are The Smile? A side project? A post-Radiohead project? Radiohead's two main creative forces Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, drummer Tom Skinner and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich aren't saying, but the music on their fantastic A Light for Attracting Attention certainly speaks for itself. The songs, some of which have been kicking around the Radiohead camp for over a decade, are great and show off sides we haven't heard them do in years. It's been a long time since Yorke and Greenwood rocked out like they do on "You Will Never Work in Television Again" and "Thin Thing"; "Free in the Knowledge" is a welcome return to swooning, string-laden spacerock balladry; and the funky, Afrobeat inspired "The Smoke" finds them in mostly uncharted territory. It's songs like that, or the jazzy and magisterial "Pana-Vision," where Tom Skinner's lithe touch behind the kit really shines, and the skeletal arrangements the trio lineup allows seems to have freed everyone up. The Smile have a skip in their step and Yorke and Greenwood haven't sounded this engaged since perhaps In Rainbows. We certainly hope Radiohead are not done. but a second The Smile record, which seems likely given the amount of new songs in their tour setlists, would be very welcome. [B.P.]

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    Dream Unending - Song of Salvation

    20 Buck Spin

    Especially with death metal making a big comeback, the metal scene can often seem like it's in competition to make the nastiest, goriest, heaviest, most gruesome album possible, but as for 2022's most beautiful metal album, that would have to go to Dream Unending. The duo of Derrick Vella (Tomb Mold, Outer Heaven) and Justin DeTore (Innumerable Forms, Sumerlands, The Rival Mob, Boston Strangler, Mental, Righteous Jams, etc) separately have tons of records under their belts, including multiple other releases this year, but together, they make music that stands out from everything else they've ever done. Song of Salvation, Dream Unending's sophomore album, owes as much to death and doom metal as it does to dream pop, prog, psych, post-rock, and other clean, melodic, atmospheric styles of music, and Dream Unending are masters at pushing their music to both extremes. Song of Salvation significantly expands upon the duo's great 2021 debut LP Tide Turns Eternal left off, and their in-studio extended lineup has gotten bigger too. Like the debut, Song of Salvation features additional vocals by McKenna Rae and actor Richard Poe and keyboards by Derrick's father David Vella, and it also brings in guest vocals from Derrick's Tomb Mold bandmate Max Klebanoff and Justin DeTore's frequent collaborator Phil Swanson (ex-Sumerlands, currently in Solemn Lament with Justin), as well as trumpet from Leila Abdul-Rauf (Hammers of Misfortune, Vastum, etc). The result is a vast, enveloping album that's full of surprises, even after multiple listens. Metal lovers may spot similarities to the Peaceville Three, while others may pick up on influences that range from Pink Floyd to The Cure to Mineral. It's an album that truly transcends genre, and it feels equally geared towards music fans of all stripes. [A.S.]

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    billy woods - Aethiopes & Church

    Backwoodz Studioz

    Like he did in 2019, billy woods blessed us with a double-header this year, and two albums in 12 months is perfect for an artist like billy woods, whose music engulfs you more and more the more time you spend with it. And two albums in one year is even more of a treat when each one is so different, as Aethiopes and Church are. Aethiopes finds the NYC underground rap lifer (and Armand Hammer member) teaming up entirely with producer Preservation, who's also a frequent collaborator of Ka. Pres' minimal style makes Aethiopes one of the most tucked-away-sounding billy woods albums yet, one that's most rewarding after close, repeated listens. Five months later, he dropped Church, which reunites him with frequent Armand Hammer producer Messiah Musik, and this one's one of woods' most immediate, accessible albums to date. It's still a billy woods album, so words like "immediate" and "accessible" are all relative, but Church feels the storm after Aethiopes' calm. And on both albums, woods remains a lyricist like few others, weaving together personal tales, eccentric references, and subtle punchlines that could only have come from the mind of billy woods. (See also: woods executive-produced his Armand Hammer partner ELUCID's great new solo album I Told Bessie.) [A.S.]

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    Special Interest - Endure

    Rough Trade

    New Orleans' Special Interest are a wild, roiling culture clash where house and disco join forces with punk and noise -- a sweat-drenched 4 AM warehouse party where Black Flag and Black Box are the same band -- while Alli Logout holds court, ruling on crimes personal and global. The band's third album, and first for Rough Trade, is their most focused yet, armed with some of their gnarliest hooks, biggest bangers and most fiery, pointed polemics. With charisma that threatens to pull you through the speakers, Logout rails against governments, the police, corporations, real estate developers, "nepotistic dumb fucks" that "thrive in police states," liberals who glommed onto Black Lives Matter protests for their own gain, not-worthy lovers, you name it, and all with a Revolution Now! intensity, style and wit. Ruth Mascelli meanwhile lays down irresistible beats, Nathan Cassiani propels things with driving, fuzzed out basslines, and guitarist Maria Ellen slashes and burns. "No one will ever Rest In Peace / When their value is less than property," Logout shouts on the album's fiercest cut, the punk-techno call-to-arms "Concerning Peace," arguing the only way through is to fight, to dance, to endure. [B.P.]

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    The Callous Daoboys - Celebrity Therapist

    MNRK Heavy/Modern Static

    "I'm aiming at pop music, I just happened to take this pretty big left turn," Carson Pace told us earlier this year, referring to the second album by the impossible-to-pigeonhole, seven-piece collective that he co-founded and fronts, The Callous Daoboys. If there's one genre that gets thrown at the Daoboys the most, it's probably mathcore, and they do indeed share traits with a handful of classic bands in that realm (Every Time I Die, Botch, The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Chariot), but that's a far too limiting descriptor for Celebrity Therapist. The album dances between jazz, blues, showtunes, emo, art rock, and much more, often changing shape multiple times in just a few seconds. It goes from campy and sarcastic to poetic and serious, from personal introspection to socio-political commentary, from abrasive and heavy to clean, melodic, and beautiful. It's closer in spirit to Mr. Bungle or Cardiacs than to most mathcore or metalcore bands, and like both of those bands have done, The Callous Daoboys are in the process of carving out a lane occupied by them and them alone. [A.S.]

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    Alvvays - Blue Rev


    Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but Alvvays definitely got better in the five years since Antisocialites. Blue Rev plays like a Greatest Hits, with many thrilling moments, from the falsetto "ah-ooohs" of "Line By Line," the lump-in-your-throat key change in "Belinda Says," the Smiths-y leads in "Pressed," the warm synthy glow "Fourth Figure," and all 185 seconds of "After the Earthquake." Alvvays have not changed what they do -- jangly guitar pop that owes much to '80s anorak indie -- but there is a new confidence in the tight, hook-packed arrangements, the exciting, just-muscular-enough production and, especially, Molly Rankin's across-the-board great vocal performances that go from tender to belt-it-out bold. (She's never sounded better.) Is it possible to be winsome without being wimpy? Blue Rev is an emphatic yes. [B.P.]

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    Hurray for the Riff Raff - LIFE ON EARTH


    After spending much of their career reckoning with the past, Alynda Segarra stepped fully into the present with LIFE ON EARTH. Its glorious "nature punk" pulls from their broadest array of sonic influences yet, from Beverly Glenn-Copeland to Bad Bunny to The Clash, and tackles just as wide a range of subjects, from the personal to the political and back. There's plenty that's heart-wrenching on Life on Earth, from the haunting narrative of an immigrant detained by ICE on "Precious Cargo," to the story of trauma, inspired by Christine Blasey Ford's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, on "Saga," yet there's just as much that's life-affirming. Segarra's activism has lost none of its potency as their sonic pallet has expanded, and Life on Earth may be their strongest statement yet. [A.H.]

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    Mindforce - New Lords

    Triple B Records

    In 2022, the term "hardcore" has come to incorporate a vast array of bands that range from shoegaze to death metal, but if you're looking for a new album that gives you nothing but no-frills, ass-beating, bark-your-head-off mosh fuel, look no further than New Lords, the sophomore LP from Hudson Valley hardcore kings Mindforce. This record offers up 10 tracks in 17 and a half minutes, and not a second is wasted. Mindforce have built up a reputation as a must-see live band, and what you see live is what you get on New Lords. They're a razor-sharp band, and New Lords captures that, without any bells or whistles to distract from their pure fury. They've got an arsenal of '80s thrash and '90s metallic hardcore-inspired riffs, and each one is used as efficiently as possible -- no long solos, no patient interludes. And Jay Peta tops it off with tough, shouted mantras that are as aggressive as they are catchy. New Lords feels like a gift to the devoted hardcore scene that Mindforce have been part of for years, and I'd just as quickly recommend it to a metalhead or a hardcore-curious Turnstile fan. I don't think Mindforce are trying to appeal beyond their core fanbase, but when the music is this undeniable, it just might happen anyway. [A.S.]

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    Charlotte Adigery & Bolis Pupul - Topical Dancer


    Most dance acts just want to make you move, but Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul also want to make you think. It's right there in the title of their debut, Topical Dancer, an album that has the Belgium-based duo taking on a variety of issues while never losing sight of the beat. It's a very 2022 litany of topics these dancers tackle, including casual racism, misogyny, wokeness, social media obsession and vanity, among other things, all with serious style and wit. (No preaching here.) A lot of that comes via Charlotte, who can belt it out, coo like a bird of paradise and adopt a variety of characters along the way. Bolis Pupul's beats and production are just as clever, mixing house, techno and other clubby styles with a little Talking Heads / Laurie Anderson-style arty experimentation. The album is loaded with thought-provoking, quotable bangers like “Blenda,” “It Hit Me,” “Ceci n'est pas un cliché,” and “Thank You.” Charlotte and Bolus are a perfect pairing, two halves of the same whole, and Topical Dancer is a total mind and body workout. [B.P.]

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    Roc Marciano & The Alchemist - The Elephant Man's Bones

    ALC/Marci Enterprises/EMPIRE

    For such an elusive artist, Roc Marciano is everywhere. Between his own music, his production work on albums by rising rappers like Stove God Cooks and Flee Lord, and his vast influence, Roc Marci has either directly or indirectly had his fingerprints all over underground hip hop for over a decade. When he puts out his own albums, he rarely misses, but some points are higher than others, and The Elephant Man's Bones is one of those highs. It was entirely produced by The Alchemist, who's also been on a roll lately -- having recently helmed entire albums for Armand Hammer, Freddie Gibbs, Boldy James, Curren$y, and more -- and it marks Roc Marciano's first album entirely produced by one person since 2018's DJ Muggs-assisted Kaos. Marci and Alc are both lifers and true believers in underground, boom bap-inspired rap whether that style of music is trendy at the moment or not, and Alc's glistening keys are the perfect foil to Marci's subtly brutal delivery – not to mention the perfectly-matched features by Boldy, Action Bronson, Ice-T (!), and Marci's underrated frequent collaborator Knowledge The Pirate. This is the kind of album that creeps up on you, and once you're hooked, it opens you up to a whole new world. (For more, try to track down to the two worthy bonus tracks that only appear on the vinyl-only "Pimpire Edition" of the record.) [A.S.]

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    Beth Orton - Weather Alive


    Weather Alive is the first album in Beth Orton's career where she is the sole producer, and she did not waste the opportunity. Written on an ancient piano, these songs conjure ghosts, memories of friends and lovers lost, misspent youth and other regrets; and with a band that includes The Smile drummer Tom Skinner, bassist Tom Herbert, multiinstrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and saxophonist Alexander DePlume, she brings them to life, letting them swirl around around the room, vivid as a sunbeam but as elusive as the dust that floats in it. Orton sounds weathered and weary but comfortable in her skin as she lets the songs flow out in unconventional structures that nonetheless transfix thanks to the masterful performances that feel like they were born of pure instinct. Beth calls Weather Alive "a collaboration with time, of someone struggling to make sense," saying, "in that struggle, something beautiful got made.” Not just something beautiful, the best album of her career. [B.P.]

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    Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn - Pigments


    Dawn Richard has spent the past decade or so pushing the boundaries of R&B in a variety of different directions, while Spencer Zahn has carved out a space in the venn diagram center of jazz, contemporary classical, and ambient music. On Pigments, their first album together, Dawn and Spencer bring out the best in each other and find the quietly thrilling and often unpredictable ways that their musical paths cross. Pigments exists at the crossroads between the pop music world and the jazz/classical world, appealing to fans of both and never fully falling into either. Spencer's instrumentals are among the most warm, blissful compositions I've heard all year, and Dawn's vocals give the songs an accessible side without taking over; it feels like a very egalitarian collaboration, where both artists' contributions come through loudly and clearly. Pigments is the kind of album where songs segue directly into the next and it just starts to feel like one grand piece of work; you're not snapped out of the album's daze until the thumping bass drums of closing track "Umber" finally kick in. [A.S.]

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    redveil - learn 2 swim


    Even in today's vast, musically diverse rap landscape, redveil feels like an anomaly. The unsigned, 18-year-old rapper/producer/pianist from Maryland is an open-minded auteur in the spirit of Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt -- the former of whom was one of his earliest supporters -- and he's also got a shapeshifting delivery that sometimes reminds you of Denzel Curry, who he toured and collaborated with this year. The lush backdrop of his third album learn 2 swim is built off of fragments of jazz compositions, pitch-shifted soul samples, and woozy textures, and redveil seamlessly moves between melodic hooks and confidently rapped verses, revealing more and more intricate details at every turn. Like his aforementioned forebears, redveil makes music that defiantly bucks trends but is too widely appealing to go unnoticed forever. learn 2 swim is one of the year's catchiest, most thoughtful, and most fulfilling rap records, and by the looks of things, redveil is just getting started. [A.S.]

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    SZA - SOS


    SZA finally returns after five years to remind us that nobody does it like her. Even within the ever-crowded field of R&B, her distinctly hoarse yet soaring voice and her intimate, conversational lyrical style can be spotted from a mile away. The long road to SOS was paved with instant-classic singles ("Good Days," "I Hate U," "Shirt"), and throughout the album's remaining 20 songs, she offers up even more of the R&B magic that sparked those songs, and finds time to veer off into folk, rap, alternative rock, and other styles of music, all in a uniquely-SZA way. Whether she's fantasizing about killing her ex and his new girlfriend, telling the world about her new therapist, candidly expressing sexual frustration, or dropping pregnancy puns in boastful punchlines, SZA conveys a wide scope of raw, real human emotion, within a collection of songs that already feels on par with her game-changing debut. [A.S.]

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    Yaya Bey - Remember Your North Star

    Big Dada

    The music on Yaya Bey's third album was inspired in part by a tweet that read "Black women have never seen healthy love or have been loved in a healthy way." Yaya's response is Remember Your North Star, an album of handwoven neo-soul with flourishes of jazz, reggae, rap, and Afrobeat that explores and celebrates the intersection of Black womanhood and love. Gaining comparisons that range from Erykah Badu to Billie Holiday, Remember Your North Star is an album that's expansive and intimate all at once. It's tinted by a vintage crackle, and it's a patchwork quilt-like album that's strung together by sketches and interludes and really can only be heard start to finish. The closest it does come to a pop song is standout track "Keisha" and its instant-classic hook ("the pussy is so, so good and you still don't love me"), but North Star is more about the bigger picture than about one or two playlist-friendly songs. It's personal, honest, creative, and ambitious, and it's some of the best album-oriented R&B of the year. [A.S.]

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    Angel Olsen - Big Time


    Angel Olsen began work on her sixth studio album in a tumultuous time, buoyed by coming out as queer to her adoptive parents, then left reeling from their deaths, only two weeks apart from each other, soon after. Love and loss are painfully intertwined on the resulting record, Big Time, which features some of Angel's most immediate songwriting yet. It finds her building on the ornamented chamber pop of 2019's All Mirrors and turning to country, pairing the twang of lap steel with beautiful string and horn arrangements. Country is a natural genre for her to work in, and Big Time's songs run the genre's gamut, from lovelorn ballads like "This Is How It Works" to towering anthems like "Right Now." That Angel possesses one of the most moving, unmistakable voices of anyone in indie rock is basically a given at this point, but in case you needed a reminder, these songs serve as further evidence -- and count among the best of her career so far. [A.H.]

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    Sudan Archives - Natural Brown Prom Queen

    Stones Throw

    Sudan Archives has one of the most specific and incisive points of view in music right now—case in point, her sophomore album, Natural Brown Prom Queen. Opening by scanning through a selection of instrumental soundbites, she lands on disco-influenced dance pop on "Home Maker," before laying out the album's sonic thesis on title track "NBPQ (Topless)": thrilling rap verses backed by northeast-African strings give way to dramatic beat switches and interludes. There's a high-gloss finish to every song on Natural Brown Prom Queen, but Sudan Archives impressively maintains all of her humor (see "OMG BRITT") and vulnerability ("Homesick [Gorgeous & Arrogant]"). She cuts straight through the multi-layered landscape she singlehandedly wrote and produced, showing a deep humanism. Per Sudan, this was the goal of her second LP; she told The Guardian, "It felt like time to let people know who I am… My stage name is kind of academic and on Athena, I created this thoughtful persona centered on divine Black femininity. Now I want to show my looseness, too. I'm a deep, insightful person, but I'm also fucking silly." Natural Brown Prom Queen is a massive accomplishment, both in its lyrical groundedness and sonic multiplicity. [A.G.]

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    The Weeknd - Dawn FM


    "The last few months, I've been working on me," Abel Tesfaye sings on his fifth album as The Weeknd. "There's so much trauma in my life." It's clear that -- like many people -- the chaos of these past few years has taken its toll on Abel's mental health, and he responded by making his darkest, most paranoid album yet. Dawn FM is a concept album, a psychological thriller set to retro-futuristic synthpop and narrated by Jim Carrey. Abel made it with the art pop dream team of hitmaker Max Martin and weirdo electronics wiz Oneohtrix Point Never -- along with a few other key collaborators including Tyler the Creator, Lil Wayne, Calvin Harris, and Swedish House Mafia -- and that allowed him to dive equally into both of his extremes, his sugary pop side and his experimental side. The result is an album where more than half the songs feel like singles (four of them actually are), and those crowdpleasing tracks hit even harder when you listen to this masterwork as a whole. Dawn FM is The Weeknd's second album in a planned trilogy that began with 2020's After Hours, and it looks like trilogies work out pretty well for him, as right now he's making the strongest music he's made since he changed the R&B game with his mixtape trilogy over a decade ago. Dawn FM in particular is the deepest, most focused album of his career thus far -- he's a rare artist who's gotten more creative and experimental post-superstardom, not less. [A.S.]

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    Drug Church - Hygiene

    Pure Noise

    The music world is still getting out all the pent-up energy from 18 months of no shows, and one of the bands that really seemed like a pipe bomb ready to blow this year was Drug Church. Their explosive Market Hotel set remains one of the best gigs I've seen all year, and they siphoned all of the energy of their live show into Hygiene, their fourth full-length album and best yet. Toeing the line between hardcore and alt-rock and unafraid of a little pop melody, the Drug Church of Hygiene churn out chords the size of small countries and rhythms that would make even the most cynical listeners bop their heads. The gravelly-voiced Patrick Kindlon tops it off with his razor-sharp wit, vivid imagery, and a wearied worldview that adds depth to the album's flat-out fun exterior. Few albums this year made you use and bang your head like this one did. [A.S.]

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    Anxious - Little Green House

    Run For Cover

    There's been a lot of talk about where exactly Anxious fit in, about how they started out (and still have a place) in the hardcore scene, but now write songs that are poppier or more emo -- but that stuff is really just a footnote. The main reason that their debut album Little Green House has been on constant rotation for nearly 12 months straight is that these ten songs hook you right away and just get better and better with time. It's a coming-of-age album with meaningful, lived-in lyrics, effortless hooks, bangers, ballads, and boundless energy. It often sounds like it could've been one of the best emo albums of 2001 or 2002, but it sounds so fresh because they've got similar influences to the bands of that era -- and a few different ones -- and they fuse them in ways that are entirely their own. They've landed on their sound by figuring out how to build a bridge between '80s youth crew and early 2000s power pop, not by trying to imitate Saves The Day or Taking Back Sunday. Sometimes the best way forward is reshaping the past, and Anxious have written a rock record for the ages by doing just that. [A.S.]

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    Jockstrap - I Love You Jennifer B

    Rough Trade

    What a giddy pop pleasure Jockstrap's debut album is, overflowing with ideas, hooks, melodies and surprises. Even after dozens of plays, there are moments on I Love You Jennifer B that still catch you off guard, like when opening track "Neon" turns from delicate folk to crashing, glitchy psych worthy of The Flaming Lips. Or the synthesizers that flicker across the sky in the swooning "Concrete Over Water" as dog bark samples fire like choral chants, or "Greatest Hits" that sounds like it's existing in five different decades at once. Acoustic guitars nestle up to dubstep bass, '80s drum machines, '90s hip hop beats and classic Disney soundtracks, occasionally all within the same song and Georgia Ellery's gossamer voice is as much a wonder as Taylor Skye's inventive production. There are times on this wonderful record where it seems they may be unsure where they are going, but the duo's instincts always take the songs to the right place. For Jockstrap, there are no rules, no roads, only possibilities. [B.P.]

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    Big Thief - Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You


    From the outset of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, Big Thief's fifth full-length album, it's clear they're doing things a bit differently. Adrianne Lenker's quiet "okay" before launching into gentle folk ballad opener "Change" foreshadows the subtle assertiveness with which they introduce the album's ever-expanding range. Right away, "Time Escaping" plays with polyrhythmic percussion, and for the first time Big Thief sounds a little like Animal Collective. Immediately after, on "Spud Infinity," the quartet are back in full-fledged country attire, replete with Adrianne's brother Noah Lenker on jaw harp. Dragon continues in this manner, yo-yoing between the familiar and the foreign to shape their most aesthetically diverse record to date. While the album is packed with newness—not to mention its double-LP length—it doesn't feel overwhelming. There's a casualness about Adrianne, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia's ability to shake up their songs with embellishments like the jaw harp or drops of synth in "Heavy Bend." It keeps the album cohesive, rendering a rich musical atmosphere that floats across genre boundaries with impressive subtlety. There's a parallel to be drawn between this album and Adrianne Lenker's instrumentals album from 2020 in the way it delicately weaves musical threads, seemingly plucked from the ether. Even more so than Adrianne's solo work, though, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You continues to press Big Thief's sonic boundaries outward. They bring in a fuzzy, distorted side while recalling Portishead on "Blurred View," or while veering towards Grateful Dead territory on jammy rough cut "Love Love Love." On tracks like "Heavy Bend" and "Simulation Swarm," they play with rhythms that drift almost into pop/R&B territory. In closing the album, though, Big Thief makes a definitive statement; they've proven they can make any genre work for them, and on "The Only Place" and "Blue Lightning," they return home to their outstanding indie-folk. [A.G.]

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    Bad Bunny - Un Verano Sin Ti


    As Bad Bunny continues to break records and barriers and defy the industry's previously-held expectations for Latin music, he's also released his best album yet, Un Verano Sin Ti. It's only been out for about seven months, but the 23-song album already feels like a greatest hits; so many of its songs have become inescapable this year, even beyond the eight (!) that were officially released as singles. The album's omnipresence comes as no surprise -- these songs are irresistible and you don't have to look hard to see the strong connections that people from all different backgrounds and walks of life have formed with this music. Un Verano Sin Ti constantly changes shape without ever losing focus, from the lively mambo of "Después de la Playa" to the dembow-rap banger "Tití Me Preguntó" to the tender bossa nova of "Yo No Soy Celoso" to the indie pop of the Marías collab "Otro Atardecer" to the reggae of "Me Fui de Vacaciones" to reggaetón anthems like "Me Porto Bonito" with Chencho Corleone, "La Corriente" with Tony Dize, and "Party" with Rauw Alejandro, to airy ballads like "Un Ratito" and "Neverita." The album varies from party music to calming comedowns, from love and lust anthems to songs (and videos) that get overtly political. It's long and it's front-loaded with most of its biggest songs, but it never lulls. If you give it the time it deserves, even its deepest cuts start to feel like hits. [A.S.]

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    Rosalía - Motomami


    Across three albums, Rosalía has gone from redefining flamenco for the 21st century to making some of the most adventurous pop music around, period. Her third album, Motomami, incorporates everything from reggaetón to dembow to bachata to hip hop to dance-pop to industrial to piano balladry to her flamenco roots, all warped and manipulated by Rosalía's experimental tendencies. Interpolations range from Burial's post-dubstep classic "Archangel" on "Candy" to Wisin & Daddy Yankee's 2004 hit "Saoco" on "Saoko," and Cuban singer Justo Betancourt's 1968 song "Delirio de Grandeza" gets treated to a fresh, modern cover. Guest appearances include The Weeknd singing in Spanish on "La Fama" and Dominican rapper Tokischa on "La Combi Versace," and the deluxe edition features a remix of "Candy" with an added guest appearance by reggaetón veteran Chencho Corleone, whose former group Plan B's 2014 song "Candy" is the Rosalía song's namesake. Rosalía has said that the multi-cultural sound of the album was inspired by touring all over the world and connecting (or reconnecting) with various cultures, and it always sounds like she does justice to all the music that inspired this album and pulls it off with respect for the source material. Spanish speakers will pick up on the album's themes, which range from struggles with adjusting to fame to life during a pandemic, but even if you don't understand the words, Motomami transcends language. Rosalía's expressive voice and remarkable performances convey so much feeling and emotion, whether she's humming a mournful ballad or nearly rapping. It's an impassioned, inventive pop album, one that stands out within the mainstream space it occupies and the more avant-garde corners of the music world that it clearly pulls from. [A.S.]

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    Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers


    "Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your savior." Of the many themes on Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, this is one of the most prevalent. Kendrick presents the listener with so much across this 18-song double album -- he opens up about struggles with mental health, lust addiction, and infidelity, he confronts homophobia and transphobia, he explores generational trauma, he makes some controversial remarks about cancel culture -- and he wants you to know that if you try to turn him into your role model, your spokesperson, or your hero, he's going to disappoint you. Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is messy and problematic by design, and it rarely has answers, but it makes you think -- and feel -- a lot. I don't think it's possible to agree with or feel good about everything Kendrick says on this album, but he wants you to know that that's the point. And as far as music that made me think this year, not a single album did that as much as this one did. The album dives into so many topics that are rarely explored this deeply by a chart-topping, arena-headlining superstar, and the lyrics carry so much weight that you almost forget how remarkable the production, arrangements, and songcraft are too. Mr. Morale uses innovative electronics, grand string arrangements and choirs, gorgeous R&B hooks, adrenaline-rush rhythms, weeping pianos, and more to create an ever-changing, genre-defying backdrop that rarely settles into a traditional hip hop production style. Guest appearances are only used to enhance the plot, whether it's Sampha blessing "Father Time" with a shimmering chorus, Portishead's Beth Gibbons punctuating the stream-of-consciousness verses on "Mother I Sober" with her haunting hook, actress Taylour Paige staging a couple's nasty blowout with Kendrick on "We Cry Together," or Summer Walker and Ghostface Killah both bringing vastly different perspectives to the album's messy ode to love, "Purple Hearts." Mr. Morale is a taxing, immersive listen that really needs to be heard from start to finish and can't really just be tossed on in the background, but as towering and overwhelming as it is, it's got bops too. They might take a little longer to reveal themselves than the more immediate singles that Kendrick put out in the past, but the more you listen to Mr. Morale, the more these songs stick with you and pop into your head. It's an album of many, many moods; it can be devastating, thought-provoking, depressing, confusing, off-putting, awe-inspiring, anxiety-inducing, anger-inducing, and hopeful. And as much as Kendrick has made this a challenging, intensive listen, he's also made it a rewarding one. [A.S.]

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    Nilüfer Yanya - PAINLESS


    If you wisely invested in Nilüfer Yanya around the time of her terrific 2019 debut, she pays out huge dividends on Album #2, refining the sound of that album, paring everything down in a way that sounds sharper, bigger, brighter and more memorable. The beats are jazzy, and so are the guitars when they're not melting into shoegaze and post-punk territory. It all fits so well with Yanya's sly, smoky vocals that both embrace her London accent and are also capable of diaphanous harmonies. PAINLESS is a low-key tour-de-force with Nilüfer displaying her mastery of a myriad or styles - rock, soul, dance music, pure pop -- but also her ability to absorb them and synthesize a sound that is her own. From the rush of "the dealer" through the sultry, ethereal "anotherlife," Nilüfer exudes an effortless, genuine, cool -- the kind that's not saying "I don't care" but "I don't care what you think." You should care, though. On PAINLESS she's got it all figured out and deserves your attention [B.P.]

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    Beyoncé - Renaissance


    "Renaissance" is indeed the most fitting title for Beyoncé's seventh solo album—it's a revelation in dance pop, stuffed with contagiously bouncy beats accompanying Bey's velvet voice. The album's composition feels entirely new for Beyoncé, with seamless club transitions and synthetic electronic sounds throughout, and yet it suits her extremely well. The album flows with a steady, almost narrative, progression—not dissimilar to its two most recent, iconic predecessors: her self-titled 2013 LP and 2016’s Lemonade. While Beyoncé chose to break from the visual format this time, the rising and falling energy of the newest album nonetheless reflects Bey's deftness at shaping a rock-solid aesthetic within a sonic landscape. Beyoncé attacks the album with everything from understated coolness ("Cozy," "Energy," and "Move") to unrelenting assertiveness ("Thique," "Alien Superstar," and "Virgo's Groove") to songs that do both ("Heated," "Pure/Honey," "Summer Renaissance"). It muses on self-love, self-worth, liberation, and pure joy in the face of constant resistance. Just as significant as Beyoncé's stunning performances on this album is all the other music it references. The album was largely inspired by '90s house and '70s disco, and also touches on reggaeton, dancehall, Afrobeats, and more. Beyoncé also pays tribute to many of this album's forebears in the form of samples, highlighting a multi-generational array of Black and queer artists and touching on ball/club culture, vogueing, and much more in the process. "America Has A Problem" borrows from "America Has A Problem [Cocaine]" by Kilo Ali; "Summer Romance" augments the synth line and iconic vocal riffs of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love"; funk classics like Teena Marie's "Square Biz" and Lyn Collins' "Think (About It)" get reworked on "Cuff It" and "Church Girl," respectively; New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia's "Explode" gets worked into "Energy"/"Break My Soul"; "Break My Soul" is also largely powered by a rework of Robin S' house classic "Show Me Love"; '90s drag legend Moi Renee's "Miss Honey" is incorporated into "Pure/Honey"; Black trans activist TS Madison's spoken word "Bitch I'm Black" gets worked into "Cozy" -- the list goes on. She does the same with the album's few but well-chosen guests, like the legendary Grace Jones, rising Afrobeats star Tems, and Jamaican-born rapper Beam. The more you zoom in, the more you see that every detail has a purpose, but from afar, Renaissance is some of the most welcoming, purely enjoyable music that any artist released this year, and it's purposeful in that sense too. [A.G.]

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    Soul Glo - Diaspora Problems


    Having grinded in the underground hardcore and screamo scenes for nearly a decade, Soul Glo are ready for the world. They've leveled up in just about every way with Diaspora Problems, from their songwriting to their production to the record's truly awesome music videos; this is what it looks like when an already-great band manages to defy every high expectation that was set for them. Across the boundary-pushing, genre-defying Diaspora Problems, Soul Glo offer up the most life-affirming hardcore punk songs you'll hear all year, the controlled chaos of '90s screamo, industrial-rap that's loud and booming enough to fill a stadium, and chilled-out, permastoned boom bap. Often, they combine elements of three or more of these things in the same song. More than any prior Soul Glo release, the songs on Diaspora Problems are full of space and air, blaring through your speakers with the energy of Soul Glo's live show while maintaining the rounded edges of a well-produced rock record. (The album was produced in-house by Soul Glo bassist GG Guerra in the band's practice space, and later mixed and mastered by Turnstile/Code Orange/Title Fight collaborator Will Yip.) Pierce Jordan's lyrics are full of intent, dealing with internal issues like mental health and suicidal thoughts and external issues like the corrupt voting system and the left's reluctance to militarize with the same intense, personal passion. Guests like underground rappers Mother Maryrose, lojii, McKinley Dixon, and Zula Wildheart, and Kathryn Edwards of Nashville hardcore band Thirdface, add their own fire to the album, and help keep things even more unpredictable than it would've already been without them. It's a great punk record, a great rap record, and a great rock record. It's innovative, honest, purposeful, and as catchy as it is abrasive. And it's a record that really makes you feel something, from the moment that first snare hit strikes you like a bolt of lightning to the album's horn-fueled fade-out. [A.S.]

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