Our top 40 records of the year, voted for by our contributors
If our Albums of the Year list feels a little earlier than usual this year, it’s because it is. The reason is something as boring a print schedule change on the magazine, where we always publish our top 40 first (issue 156 – out now – also features some interviews with some of the artists below). So the list is loose, you see? It’s been compromised. Thousands of readers know exactly what albums we’ve rated the most this year, and in what order, and they’re currently nodding their heads and licking their lips at what we think. Don’t get left behind. We’ve thought about this a lot, and here’s what we’ve landed on.
One of America’s greatest modern rappers continues to steadily take over the world, this time with an album of sleek, uncompromising, utterly cutting-edge contemporary hip-hop. Brash, innovative and never less than 100% accessible, music like this is the reason Megan is so beloved of both the commercial mainstream and the rap underground alike.
With the help of adventurous producer James Holden, the trio of Luke Abbott, Laurence Pike and Luke Wylie have created another widescreen jazz odyssey, all arcing sax, shivery percussion and lush atmospherics. It’s meticulous and expertly-engineered, but never alienatingly so; Szun Waves’ technical mastery is simply a tool for them to get to the essence of their sound in the most efficient way possible.
Caustic, shrill, scatological, troubling, vulgar – what’s not to love? The south-east London bizarro-hardcore troupe, fronted by the gleefully sinister Sister Sniffany, have made one the year’s best punk records by virtue of being as horrible as possible. It’s hard not to admire that.
Alongside the likes of 404 Guild, Coby Sey and Mica Levi, Wu-Lu is spearheading a loose movement of restless, genre-bending London artists fascinated by the grimiest intersections of post-punk, UK bass and weirdo hip-hop while never committing fully to one particular style. It’d be too contrived to call this a ‘scene’ just yet, but if it ever becomes one, LOGGERHEAD could well be looked back on as its defining early product.
Although it’s less obviously ferocious than its predecessors, Melt My Eyez See Your Future retains the intellect and bite of Denzel Curry’s most potent music, the low-slung assurance of old-school hip-hop brought into the mix to put a little more flesh on the bones of his wiry, economical style.
Forced by the pandemic to concentrate solely on recorded sound rather than her preferred medium of live performance for the first time, on Aura Japanese vocal artist Hatis Noit expands her range in every possible way, stretching the power of her voice into daring, unsettling new territory.
Despite their enormous success – particularly in the States, which is extra-impressive for what remains a fairly awkward band from the UK – it still feels like Alt-J are fundamentally misunderstood by a lot of people. Beneath the strangely accessible allure of their sound lies darkness and experimentation complex enough to reward real attention from listeners, and The Dream is their best album yet.
It’s amazing how quickly Julia Jacklin has become one of Australia’s most beloved contemporary songwriters, and with PRE PLEASURE it feels like her place in the canon is pretty well-cemented. With melodies as elegant and storytelling as smart as this, there’s no going back now.
As intellectually ambitious, sonically inquisitive and vocally compelling an underground rap record as you’re likely to hear, Aethiopes feels like a record about which we’ll be continuing to learn decades from now. Deep, complex and without compromise.
Teaming up with octopus-like Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, Radiohead nucleus Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood seem to have found a new lease of life as The Smile. It’s still identifiably them – Yorke’s snaking melodies and Greenwood’s unheimlich guitar and synth arrangements are more or less instantly recognisable by now – but in Skinner, they’ve found a creative foil capable of pushing them in vital new directions.
Japanese psych five-piece Kikagaku Moyo bow out after a decade of explorative noise with arguably their finest work, a dense web of rock subversion that ensures the group quit while they’re far, far ahead. Other bands could learn from this kind of stylish sign-off.
Since making an impressive entrance onto the musical landscape with the sparsely beautiful Debris in 2020, actor and writer Keeley Forsyth has carved out a singular niche for herself as a creator of bruised, yearning songs which float through their mournful structures like little else. Limbs is a subtle development of her sound; its shadowed contours leave plenty to the listener’s imagination, and the record is all the richer for this eerie ambiguity.
Like their live shows, Black Midi’s recording schedule is unrelenting. A year on from souped-up second album Cavalcade comes HELLFIRE, their most expansive, ambitious and occasionally puerile record yet. It still feels like they’re making a joke at our expense, but somehow – perhaps thanks to the sense that they’re too good, too smart, to actually not give a shit – they get away with it, in style.
Founding member of The xx Oliver Sim finally stepped out solo this year, and the resulting album (not to mention the amazing short film) was better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Intimate, brutally honest alt-pop delivered in his trademark croon, it was a welcome left turn from a key member of one of British indie’s most influential groups.
Haunted and transporting, Welsh artist Gwenno’s latest Cornish-language voyage is a glistening work of withering psych-pop, its conceptual ambition buoyed by insistent hooks and smart arrangements which roll and crest like the dramatic West Country landscape in which it was created.
The former Goat Girl member makes an unassuming return to music after a period of reflection and study with this album of verdant indie-folk, her engaging vocal framed wonderfully by collaborator Joel Burton’s careful arrangements. It’s a markedly more tranquil record than we might have expected – a welcome oasis of calm among the chaos.
Inspired by the Japanese art of forest bathing and every bit as meditatively transformational as that might suggest, A Journey… is a balm of a record, gusty and diffuse, its textures gently made and remade like the arrangement of leaves on a woodland floor.
It’s not reinventing the wheel, but the latest from Pusha T is a masterclass in lean, deliberate hip-hop. Precise beats, perfectly weighted rhymes, the rapper’s unmistakable presence – it’s all here. Unfortunately, so is Kanye. Hmmmmm.
Two artists with nothing left to prove go back to the hip-hop old school to remind us just how dexterous and inventive they can still be on Cheat Codes, Danger Mouse’s explorative production melting effortlessly into Black Thought’s whip-smart rhymes with the quiet assurance of the experienced professionals they are.
Two-step garage, PC music, leftfield hip-hop and classic R&B slink together in perfect sync on Nymph, the long-awaited debut album proper from an artist who’s always threatened to become one of UK pop’s most inventive young talents. This is a special record – finally, it’s Shygirl’s time.
The gorgeous vastness of Everything Perfect Is Already Here is perhaps its most accessible quality, those great drapes of synth and reverb-doused piano which lap at the record’s edges like ripples on a lake. Yet it’s the tiny details which make it truly stick with you – the creaking of a chair, the gust of wind – and make this an album to move into and shelter for a while.
Master drummer, producer and all-round mastermind Makaya McCraven presents his most ambitious solo work yet with In These Times, an opus of cascading harmony seven years in the making which deserves to secure him a place at the very top table of contemporary jazz.
The UK’s greatest contemporary folk artist returns with another near-flawless work of luscious, shapeshifting songcraft. The third instalment of a trilogy that started with 2017’s Peasant, The Ruby Cord is a profound meditation on modern collapse viewed from the vantage point of future ruins; on it, Dawson is in fine voice as ever, now matched by a masterful backing band.
Having quietly been one of pop’s most influential figures of the last 15 years, Scottish producer Hudson Mohawke stretches out on Cry Sugar, giving his ideas the room to breathe and expand like never before. It’s a triumph of future-facing dance music from one of the field’s most consistent innovators.
The reigning queen of, well, all music returns with her most rhythmic, club-focused record ever, proving that she’s obviously amazing at dance music as well as pop, R&B, and more or less everything else. 25 years on from her initial rise to fame, she’s still at the very top. It almost makes you sick.
Gnarled, upside-down surf guitar? Check. Eerily profound speak-sung word collage? Check. A throbbing, lurching rhythm section? Check. It’s Dry Cleaning, as compelling and tightly-wound as ever, with a little more vulnerability added into the mix this time around.
Having first made her name as the singer in cult DC punk band Priests, Katie Alice Greer’s debut solo album is a wondrous left turn. Gone are the garage rock beats and buzzsaw guitars, replaced by dislocated industrial pop vignettes whose hooks and structures fall just about on the sweeter side of unsettling. A genuinely singular, durable piece of work.
It was never in doubt, was it? The highly-anticipated return of the greatest rapper on the planet absolutely delivers on all fronts, his flow unmatched, his narratives spellbinding, his ear for a breathtaking one-line zoom-in almost supernatural. Mr Morale and the Big Steppers is a worthy addition to Kendrick’s generation-defining discography.
Silly but insightful, heavy but danceable, sonically misshapen but ‘very sexy, actually’, Thank are a band of brilliant contradictions. Their sardonic noise-rock bludgeons you one minute and cracks you up the next, feeling strangely warm and inclusive the whole time.
Vertiginous post-rock, skeletal folk and clattering improv are woven together expertly on the self-titled debut from sprawling London collective Caroline, a record which contains moments of almost overwhelming beauty around the corner from passages of mind-expanding experimentation. Stunning.
At this point, it’s almost like Charli XCX holds the copyright to capital-P Pop; her stuff is so direct, vivid and fully-formed that other people trying to make these kinds of bangers just sound like rubbish tributes who aren’t allowed to use any of the original material. 100% fat-free and engineered like a rocket, Crash is sublime.
Like his GLOO comrades Babii and Iglooghost, Kai Whiston possesses a fiercely independent spirit, and this latest album is as freewheelingly singular as anything he’s made so far. A future-facing melange of breakbeats, glitches and bursts of dizzying beauty, Quiet As Kept, F.O.G. is a world unto itself.
We always knew the debut Jockstrap album would be special, but I Love You Jennifer B surpassed even our loftiest expectations. By virtue of their preternatural production talents, pirouetting hooks and unique chemistry, Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye have quietly become the best band in the UK – with the album to prove it.
The rough-hewn underground yin to Kendrick’s blockbuster yang, King Cobra is just as clear-eyed a commentary on modern America as the Compton king’s latest, but what makes it stand entirely alone is its incredible spirit. Vigorous, explorative and righteously angry, nothing struck quite so profound a chord with us in 2022 as this extraordinary record from Baltimore’s Infinity Knives and Brian Ennals.
If you find something in here you like, please consider supporting the artist by buying the record rather than just streaming it. Below is our Buy Music Club list of the records on Bandcamp (a few aren’t available on there, but you can probably find a way to buy the Beyoncé album yourself if you’re so inclined).