I became a more active listener of music this year. Not as curious as I used to be; I’m not currently obsessed with finding out producers, mix engineers or how things were recorded. But it’s been a big re-emergence in an art form that I’d become extremely passive in. I started 10 SONGS, a live playlist I updated weekly with 10 songs out of the batch of newly released songs that blow my mind. There’s major-label work in here as well as independent. I’m not sure how you define it by genre but I find a lot of the work within the “Top 40 genre” regressive—looking within the past and coming up with the wrong lessons. The great songwriters and songs of today look to the past not to find respite from the present day, but attempt to diagnose and reckon with current political and cultural abuses.
The independent music sector shares a lot of commonalities with the independent cinema—recent years have been overflowing with great artistry that probably couldn’t exist within the major-ecosystem and some of the most exciting of the sounds are within the list below.
I use TIDAL now more than Spotify. Spotify’s algorithmic discovery is still far superior, but I generally believe TIDAL has a bigger opportunity to innovate as an artist content platform.
- Kendrick Lamar — “Mother I Sober”
Built around a repeating, piano progression and a cascading rap, Mother I Sober is an expansive exploration of horror, therapy and acceptance. Starting with a whisper, Kendrick digs into his own past, the sexual assault of his mother and his childhood understanding, and how that’s followed him, untreated, throughout his own life. Remaining sober, unlike his contemporaries, Kendrick targets how the hurt survives without using drinks or drugs but sex addiction to mask the pain, and where acceptance and salvation was ultimately found through treatment. He becomes full-throated when he starts to look outside himself and sees a collective Black pain and a struggle to heal. The song carries a Radiohead-like intensity, constantly propelled forward with each new awakening. Kendrick charts a pathway for forgiveness through his mother, his sister, his wife, his children and God. “This is transformation”—the song’s coda welcomes his clarity like heaven’s gates.
- SZA — “Good Days”
I appreciate SZA releasing “Good Days” on SOS is that I get to include it on my 2022 tracks list. Easily one of the smartest songs written and released in the last few years. From the arpeggiated guitar, floating on reverb to SZA’s vocals stuck on relentless introspection, “Good Days” moves like nothing else. Includes one of the great honest and funny lines (“feeling like Jericho, feeling like Job when he lost his shit”), the song ends with nearly 2 minutes of instrumental. After articulating her mind breathlessly, SZA lets the song release into its own, unforgettable sonic palette. A counterpoint to “Mother I Sober”—if that song is about power through realization, “Good Days” finds bliss in revelations.
- Wizkid, Ayra Starr — “2 Sugar”
A global breakout year for Wizkid, and a breakout year for Ayra Starr (still flying under the radar in comparison), “2 Sugar” is 2022’s smoothest sound. Creates one of the greatest musical moments of the year via the acoustic snare hit that gets used as an exclamation point throughout. It’s a syncopated, early hit just ahead of the new bar, but it doesn’t follow through, only appearing twice. When it does come, it emphasizes the syncopated rhythm and introduces a rhythmic tension that doesn’t release.
- Phoenix — “After Midnight”
The song is new but the sound is pure nostalgia. Reminds you of meeting someone in a new city and never seeing them again. That last trip out of the city to the airport, alive with possibilities and soon just a memory. Breezes through on a swing and arrangement that comes from songwriters working comfortably at their peak.
- Smino, Cruza — “Louphoria”
I don’t know anything about Smino. I only know what I hear: the Dave Fridman-like compressed bass, the Frank Ocean-like sense of melody and hook, and the J Dilla-like drum distortion. This is the kind of composition you hear when an artist is in total command of their vision. There weren’t many better songs released this year.
- Nilüfer Yanya — “midnight sun”
A sleeper in the way it invites repeated listens, the song really opens up in the chorus as all of the instrumentation drops away and an acoustic strums underneath. It took me a long time to work out what it reminded me of; “Sometimes” by My Bloody Valentine. I’m now certain this song was on the mind of the writer, from the open tuning of the guitar to the similar chord choices. And then when the chorus repeats, it comes as no surprise that there’s a wall-of-sound guitar distortion underneath. The influence is obvious but the song is remarkably fresh.
- Burial — “Strange Neighbourhood”
Burial has long eschewed the danceable beats of his Untrue era. His works are now kaleidoscopes of aural information—part-phonography, part-documentary and part-music. But in Burial’s hands it’s all musical. There’s music to be found within the soundscape, often overwhelmingly beautiful, but Burial leaves it deep in the mix. He continues his act as one of London’s great stenographers.
- Tems — “Vibe Out”
Kind of cheating (this was released September 2021) but my discovery of Tems’ music wasn’t until this year. The most profoundly original voice in music today, Vibe Out features a Tems vocal with a quiet temperament. You won’t find her pushing for power or volume in her vocal here—Tems vision of vibing is deeply personal and intimate, offering a richer experience with each listen.
- Sampa the Great — “Bona”
A breakout year for Sampa the Great, touring the world to acclaim and absolutely killing every audience she performed in front of. A Zambian-artist by way of Australia, Sampa experimented with her sound and enriched her songwriting in the process.
- JID, Lil Durk — “Bruddanem”
Lyrically the closest any other male rapper this year came to Kendrick’s wild personal vision this year. A celebration of family and brotherhood.
- The Smile — “The Smoke”
Saw The Smile on a whim, not having heard any of the music, only that Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood were in it. The Smile’s debut album carries sounds over from their work with Radiohead, and Thom’s solo work. So too does their songwriting skills—they seem to create arrangements and hooks with ease, allowing vocals and instrumentation to float in and out of the soundscape. Part dream and part reality.
- Neil Cowley — “Dormitory”
A Reznor-like piece. I get drawn into this piece as it transcends each movement.
- Dave Okumu, The 7 Generations, Wesley Joseph, Eska — “Blood Ah Go Run”
Reminds me of Bill Duke’s excellent “The Killing Floor”. A study of Black history in protest, unionization and solidarity, told through real news reports and a modern recreation of musical ideas from the past.
- Little Simz — “No Merci”
There’s nothing complicated about Little Simz production or her rhymes and lyrics. She uses this to her advantage because she spends every second of every track speaking her truth straight. Everything is mixed and engineered around her lyrical ideas and she brings a startling clarity to her perspective. And the beat just goes.
- DUCKWRTH, Juls — “Sneaky”
Simple—a smooth rhythm and vocal with plenty of bounce, and lyrics that stray between lustful horniness and cringe horniness.
- Bonobo — “Elysian”
Bonobo’s always been great at creating pieces that float amongst the dance and beat-heavy others. Here’s one that really floats—from its Japanese-influenced strings to its percussive strings. This song is a sunrise or sunset, depending on where you’re traveling.
- Chance the Rapper — “Child of God”
“Do ya thing, child” becomes the refrain throughout. Chance, more than any other rapper today, works the stage like a preacher standing on the pulpit. He creates vivid, wild metaphors that link to lessons of strength, humility and grace.
- Alexander Flood — “LDN”
For some reason this reminds of the original score for the film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” but incorporates dance and acid jazz instead of an overweight Gary Oldman.
- The FaNaTiX, Idris Elba, Lil Tjay, Davido, Koffee, Moelogo — “Vroom”
I don’t know, this is catchy as hell. Minus points for using the sound of a car with a combustion engine after Koffee says she’ll “pull up in a Tesla Model S”.
- Montell Fish — “And i’d go a thousand miles”
Built around a repeating minor chord progression, Montell Fish finds new, unique hooks and melodies with each repeat, letting his vocal drift between reverb and delay to create even more melodies.
- Africamuq, Riccitykun — “Riccitykun”
Features one of the great chorus hooks in a song released this year. Soars above the beat and the whole song just grooves on a “vibe” setting.
- Sam Gendel — “Sax Market”
Great live recording and mix that captures the space of the recording as well as the instruments. The sax explores the recording hall, leaving no corner untouched and we get to bask in the sound that’s created.
- Ayra Starr — “Stars”
I don’t know, I played this album for my son so I’ve heard this song a lot. It’s a pretty song and it helps him sleep. Probably the number one song then.
- Beyoncé — “PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA”
An all-caps song title that refers, I believe, to Beyoncé and Jay-Z taking the proverbial plastic off the sofa of their relationship by dint of him cheating. And so the thing that was preserved no longer is, except now there’s something new to sink into and she’s realizing that she enjoys all of those things. I think. The vocal runs are good and end before becoming annoying, and the beat is a nice half-time step compared to the straight dance of the rest of the album.
- Clap! Clap!, Domenico Candellori, TOROZEBU — “El Campesino”
Clap! Clap! produces huge dance beats steeped in African percussion and rhythms. Great sampling and composition. Extremely surprised to find out he is a white Italian DJ. Makes sense, I guess.
- Badbadnotgood, Laraaji — “Unfolding (Momentum 73)”
Badbadnotgood have been putting out solid, if not always inspired, beats and jazz crossovers. Working with Laraaji seems to have opened up their sonic palette. Laraaji’s instrumentation and sense of composition becomes the air on this song, making it lighter than a lot of their other work, opening up the door to endless possibilities and experimentation.
- SZA, Phoebe Bridgers — “Ghost in the Machine”
I can never remember if Phoebe Bridgers is the artist from the viral Pharrell discovery video. Does it matter? I guess not. A standout on SZA’s album. “Can you touch on me and not call me after?"—SZA continues to explore different sides of her temperament, asking for things that can bring her peace while also understanding the things that won’t, and the recognition that those two things can be the same.
- Ishmael Ensemble — “Morning Chorus”
Has a Bon Iver-like vocal sound and melody laid over a propulsion engine of clipped electronic beats and ethereal pads. No idea what the lyrics are or what the song is about. It’s a soundscape that invites.
- Koffee — “Pull Up”
I don’t think Koffee has put out a bad song. Each of them carry an infectious energy and she owns each cut with her unique sense of syncopation and lyrical imagery.
- Lonnie Liston Smith — “Love Brings Happiness”
When the song title gets sung, with this power, it tears holes in your walls and ceiling, opening up cracks to worlds outside your own. A song designed to bring everyone into the same room.
- Sault — “God is Love”
Sault brings feeling and grit to this song that celebrates worship. The bass bites underneath a snapping drum. It’s a funky song. Sault put out a great album this year, playing with genre and ideas. This feels like the culmination of her focus.
- Terence Etc. — “In Contemplation of Clair’s Scent”
Terence Nance has the best tv show of recent memory (Random Acts of Flyness S01 & S02 on HBO), the closest to cinema tv has ever been, has made one of the great feature films of modern cinema (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) and it’s outrageous that he still has only directed one feature. So it makes sense that his music is equally imaginative, experimental, funny and very good.
- Nduduzo Makhathini, Jaleel Shaw — “Emililweni”
Nduduzo had one of the great albums of 2020 and follows it up with a belter. Here he and his band gallops, the sax gets dirtier and the astral projections start happening.
- Kendrick Lamar, Bxlst, Amanda Reifer — “Die Hard”
Who would have thought Kendrick would have one of the greatest vocal hooks of the year?
- King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, DJ Shadow — “Black Hot Soup”
Old school breaks and beats vibes. Drums are squashed and best heard on a large system with the volume up high enough you can see the dust shaking off the speaker. Kind of think this could have been a Regurgitator jam too.
- Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs — “Blood In The Snow”
Love the Prophet sounds on this one. Carries a kind of rising tension due to the chords but the vocal makes it dreamy enough the 5 mins are gone before you realize.
- Yves Tumor — “God is a Circle”
Yves Tumor has always been a fascinating artist and visionary. Here we find them in a solid, Cure-esque bop. And it rocks.
- Thundercat, Ryuichi Sakamoto — “Thousand Knives”
I’m not sure if this is a Thundercat flip of a Ryuichi Sakamoto arrangement, or the other way around, or a straight collaboration. It’s just a cool sound.
- Bill Laurence, Michael League — “Sant Esteve”
Winds up the tension like a ticking bomb.
- Eluvium — “Sleeper”
Somebody thought or wrote this, wrote it out, performed it, recorded it, mixed it, mastered it, released it so that you can hear it and be frozen in time. This is a sound bath (I saw that phrase recently and I think this is the correct usage).
- Ego Ella May — “Beautiful Days”
From Sleeper to Beautiful Days, this is now time to wake and soak in a morning coffee or tea while the morning sun streams through an open window.
- Neil Young — “Break the Chain”*
This is Neil bringing back the Rust/Daniel Lanois/Le Noise era distortion and putting a bar room stomp underneath it. The distortion is sharp enough to cut your face and we get to enjoy Neil and band yelping “break the chain” more times than you thought you’d like it. *not included in Spotify playlist.
- The Smile — “You Will Never Work in Television Again”
I like how the wild energy of their performance eventually shows through towards the end of the album recording. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was recorded live together. The chorus notes remind me of “Pattern Against User” by At The Drive-In.
- Earl Sweatshirt — “2010”
Written smart enough that says everything it needs to say in 1:30s. Earl said what he said, bring on the next beat.
- J-Doe, BJ the Chicago Kid — “Headphones”
A smart pop song that balances rap, RnB and 80s instrumentation that’s been creeping through the industry the last 5-10 years.
- Cisco Swank, Luke Titus — “Nothing’s Changed”
Floats a hard beat underneath a walking piano jazz progression and a vocal that speaks straight and honest of a lifetime of hardships and legacies.
- Ojerime — “Alarming”
Ojerimi has a really interesting vocal that keeps me coming back to this song. Like the singer is lost in her feelings and her mind and searching for a way out of the dense production that’s swallowing her.
- SiR, Scribz Riley — “Life is Good”
SiR’s vocal rolls along in this one, moving between octaves and styles, repeating “life is good”. This is a song that comes coupled with a window down ride on the highway.
- Koffee — “Where I’m From”
The song really opens in the second verse when the funk guitar rises up in the center channel. Koffee’s really working on different levels and lets this song roll through, making it all seem effortless as she lays out a vision of her history.
- Kota the Friend, Hello O’shay — “SOHO HOUSE”
A summer song. You listen to it during a hot summer afternoon and it makes sense. Probably written at Dumbo House.
- Ezra Collective, Sampa the Great — “Life Goes On”
This song captures the energy of Sampa the Great’s live shows. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was recorded live together. Ezra Collective put out great work this year as well, but Sampa cuts through here. I’d see this live. Twice.
- Jay Hosking — “A horizon you never saw”
I found Jay from his YouTube channel where he builds out songs like this live with analog synths. It’s fascinating to see the process and deeply rewarding when you can then listen to something like this on repeat.
- Nick Hakim — “Happen”
If a funeral dirge had depression, it might sound like this. There’s a really cool vocal treatment going on. Vocals are doubled and panned left and right with no center channel vocal. This becomes key to the vocal interplay as he sings against himself, and at some point we don’t know what we’re hearing and what we’re dreaming.
- Gilles Peterson, Lionel Loueke — “One Finger Snap Version”
Starts out with a type of madness, an Ornette Coleman riff of musicality mixed through a computer processing data in a 1960s Batman show before it glitches, and the four beat comes in and now we’re raving. Explosive genre-crossing and an example as to why music remains exciting.
- Charles Lloyd, Julian Lage, Zakir Hussain — “Desolation Sound”
I don’t know if Desolation Row by Bob Dyan was an inspiration. Both songs evoke a similar mood, era and idea.
- Marco Plus — “Cage”
With this chorus, Marco’s trying to be the biggest rapper in the world. Production stays clean and he keeps the strings underneath and gives us one of 2022’s smoothest sounds.
- Brent Faiyaz — “ALL MINE”
2022 gave us Brent Faiyaz’ debut album after a string of increasingly great singles over the past few years. I don’t think any of the songs match the whip smart composition of GRAVITY (with Tyler, the Creator), but ALL MINE sets Brent in a different mood and it’s hard to think of a hornier or sexier song.
- Svaneborg Kardyb — “Fragt”
Blissful 4:58s. Like if Phoenix was on diazepam but still making sounds for the next Sofia Coppola movie.
- Brandee Younger — “Unrest II”
Furious piano and bass moves that get offset by the ethereal harp, at certain points it all starts to move apart and then everyone comes back together. It’s a tightrope masquerading as music.
- Stormzy — “Sampha’s Plea”
Sampha had another great feature this year (with Kendrick Lamar) but Stormzy lets him run the full song. It’s a plea and a prayer and brings us to a clear recognition of ourselves.
- Ibrahim Maalouf, De La Soul, Pos Of De La Soul — “Quiet Culture”
Some songs just get put on a list like this. The bass just sounds low, like the beat is ready to drop out of the bottom of the speaker.
- Nas — “Michael & Quincy”
Straight-talking instant classic by Nas. Lays out a personal past, present and future defined by a lived-in experience of street brutality and artistic inspiration.
- Nuri, Clap! Clap! — “OMG”
It’s the same formula but it works.
- Ezra Collective, Kojey Radical — “No Confusion”
Groove that mixes funk, afro-futurism and hip-hop. Mixed together in a confounding composition infused with a personal and global history.
- Ben LaMar Gay — “Água Futurism”
The majesty of this song only starts to emerge from a cacophany of distorted noise—the cicada-like notes blend to create a layer for percussive and brass expression.
- Topaz Jones, Elujay — “Broke”
There’s a really cool slap echo or double track of the vocal that elevates the listening experience of this song.
- Burial — “Shadow Paradise”
A continuation of “Strange Neighbourhood”, even borrowing some of the spoken samples and musical ideas. Every day is the same but slightly different. The soundtrack of our lives can be monotonous and beautiful.
- KeiyaA — “Camille’s Daughter”
You don’t expect the two-step beat to drop. It’s a compositional and production choice that gives this song a bigger identity—an off-kilter bop that builds its repetitiveness like a heartbeat.
- Anteloper — “Delfin Rosado”
There’s a cool dynamic between the electronic drums and the acoustic drums that makes this song so interesting.
- King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard — “Magenta Mountain”
Infuses the punchy 70s-drum sound of Tame Impala (wouldn’t be surprised if they shared a producer here) and the modern post-Silverchair vocal ideas of Daniel Johns.
- Phony Ppl — “dialtone.”
Seems like kind of a minor-throwback sound but play it with friends and it’s a great work of pop-funk.
- Sudan Archive — “Home Maker”
Sudan Archive has always been an interesting songwriter—unafraid of experimentation. The opening of this song is an exciting movement of samples and musical ideas before settling into the four on the floor dance beat that only gets built open and the song grows bigger as a result.
- Quadry, Topaz Jones — “Cardinal”
You close your eyes and let the haunting piano sit with you. The beat lets you bounce your head and there’s a shifting use of raps and vocal production that elevates this track.
- Julian Lage — “Word For Word”
What’s cool about this is the modal, Bill Evans-like playing on the guitar and the great recording of the drums. Defined details of the playing, the clarity of the ghost-notes and tapping. Over far too soon.
- Butcher Brown — “Unbelievable (Instrumental)”
A brilliant slice of Miles Davis-like jazz-funk.
- Gabriel da Rosa — “Bandida”
I don’t know about the specifics of the artist or the recording. I only know that listening to this song is like a form of personal transport. There’s history here—some of the artist’s and some of your own.
- Ziv Ravitz, Lionel Loueke — “Malika”
Playing around with slight intervals. There’s a cinematic atmosphere to what’s going on here. The drums get a dub-like reverb treatment. Best with headphones to appreciate the instrument placement and performance across the channels.
- Big Smoak, Skeng & Skillibeng — “Rage 66”
A fascinating dancehall/reggae hype song, relentless in its vocal delivery and creates a mean beat without a beat at all.
- Kamasi Washington — “The Garden Path”
The challenge with Kamasi Washington recordings is capturing how huge what is actually happening with the band. It’s not always to capture that within the spectral range of audio recording. Listen to this song with headphones though and enjoy the interplay between the two drummers out of the left-right speakers. Listen for the way the bass and keyboards sit together. And then get your face melted off with a blistering Kamasi solo as he charts the way to Eden.
- Photay, Carlos Niño — “Feeling, Now”
This song is a breeze that keeps its vibe light while making its arrangement complex and always interesting.
- The Smile — “Free In The Knowledge”
There’s a fascinating trick of the mind happening here, where Thom Yorke’s vocal gets a big reverb treatment and yet he sounds wonderfully intimate—like a whisper in your ear. “This was just a bad moment we were fumbling around” is a brutally honest admission, a recognition of regret and introspection. It starts with Thom’s vocals and a guitar and only gets bigger.
- Nilüfer Yanya — “shameless”
I feel like this chord progression is a cheat code. It’s an immediate grab and recognizable as an emotional appeal. In the right hands it’s transformative and that’s what it is here.
- Andy Shauf — “Catch Your Eye”
A romantic, David Lynch-like sound of major seventh chords that create a virtual phantogram. There are musical visions here that invite you in but part of you knows there’s a danger to not going back. That’s love. This is a song about love.
- Zack Fox, Diamond Cafe — “holdin’ on”
There’s much to admire about the authentic genre and sound recreations here. But Zack Fox also packages it with a memorable hook that asks the question of the decade.
- Fousheé — “Simmer Down”
The lovechild of Devo and M.I.A.
- Mellow & Sleazy, Tman Express, SlavasDaDeejay — “Amasango”
Subverts what we expect of the afrobeats sound and creates plenty of open space. Let the song sit around you, rather than on you.
- The Necks — “Imprinting”
There’s a “big mood” vibe to this song. It perplexes in many ways but it’s hard to stop it before it ends.
- SuperShy — “Don’t Let Go”
Fairly straight forward Daft Punk/Caribou style electronica and there’s an interesting counterpoint between the bass and the synth.
- Grupo Um — “Onze por Oito”
The opening berimbau brings me back to being a kid and hearing Soulfly’s “Back to the Primitive” for the first time. And then it explodes in a coupling of avant-jazz and prog.
- Stan van Dijk — “Dimitive”
Begins floating in space before snapping to a tight percussive rhythm and electrifying keytar solo.
- Arthur Liory — “Sinopsis”
The way the thin snare snaps across the fat bass makes this song work.
- The Bad Plus — “Anthem for the Earnest”
Has a cool live feel to the drum recording and reminds me of cosmic jazz and electronica of Shabaka Hutchings and The Comet Is Coming. Starts at a gallop and races through its runtime.
- Robert Glasper, Killer Mike, BJ The Chicago Kid — “Black Superhero”
Glasper has built a compelling catalog across his Black Radio series. I saw him before last year as August Greene with Common, and Q-Tip jumped up from the audience and performed. One of the most mind-blowing musical genius moments I’ve ever witnessed. Glasper’s working in comfortable territory here, but the vocal work here is smart.
- Beyoncé, BEAM — “ENERGY”
Not sure why this stands out from the other songs on the album. “BREAK MY SOUL” hits differently in the context of the album and I think a big part of it is the way “ENERGY” runs into it. I’m also not a big fan of the faux-British accent she adopts throughout, so the addition of BEAM here makes the song better.
- Binker and Moses, Max Luthert — “After the Machine Settles”
Love the huge sound of the drums here. They punch through with an epic intensity.
- Mansur Brown — “Meikai”
A stunning blend of sounds and musical ideas. Carries an energy of exploration and a deep understanding of a place within the world.
- Move 78 — “Follow the Earworm, Pt. 2”
There’s something about this that just works. I don’t know what it is. Hits deeper than “lofi muzak” and sounds like an actual writer is behind it.
- Sault — “Angel”
Probably the most ambitious song on Sault’s album. The lyrical and musical ideas evolve throughout and we get a sense of where Sault the artist is going and how big the ambitions are.
- Akinyemi, Johan Lenox — “Phone Down”
I struggle with phone addiction and I feel this song deeply.
- Sunny War — “No Reason”
It’s a terrible indictment that searching for Americana/folk renders a wall-to-wall of white artists (who really gets to see themselves as Americana?). Sunny War stands out in that sense, and stands out as a songwriter and arranger with a fresh sense of production ideas as well. It’s a simple, catchy song with deeper ideas and rendered unique through its unique approach to sound production.