Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums Of 2022

Before I share my list, I need to repeat my regular “year-end list” disclaimer. If you already know the drill, feel free to skip ahead.

1) Ranking albums is dumb …
We all know this. Art isn’t a competition. I can’t really distinguish between my 13th favorite album and my 15th favorite. This is all talk. None of it really matters.

2) … but it’s kind of fun …
Of course it is! Because it’s about sharing music recommendations. And I do mean share — make your own lists and show them to me, especially if you’re the sort inclined to complain about lists. Put yourself out there and let me complain about you, too!

3) … because it’s really about discovering an album or two (or possibly more!) that you might not have known about otherwise.

Now, let’s rank!

15. Gang Of Youths, Angel In Realtime

This is not the best album of the year, but it is the most album. David Le’aupepe is not a man lacking in inspiration — on this album his heart and mind are set ablaze by the memory of his late father, indigenous music native to his family’s Samoan and Māori cultures, ’90s Britpop and hip-hop, and deathless widescreen rock classics like U2’s Achtung Baby and Paul Simon’s Graceland. His reach is wide and his aspirations are sky high, which inevitably results in a record that at times feels a little overstuffed by all the sounds and ideas he’s desperate to explore. But Le’aupepe’s willingness to go for broke — not to mention his knack for powerful emotional gut punches — is never not exhilarating.

14. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms And Lava

My favorite album of 2022 whose title I can never remember in full. (From now on I ask that we refer to it simply as Ice, Death, Etc.) For years, I have tried to crack the code on these maniacally restless Australians. I have long respected and appreciated what they do without ever fully loving it. But that changed this year, when they put out five records, including three in just one month. Even by King Gizzard standards — they’ve put out 23 albums overall since 2012 — that’s a large haul. More crucial for me, though, was their shift from the relentless Osees-style psych rock of their earlier work to a style that can only be called Phish-esque, particularly on the standout track from this record, the nine-minute funk workout “Iron Lung.”

13. Mo Troper, MTV

This was a really good year for power-pop records, and this pitch-perfect balance of chaos and craft was among the most winning examples of the form. Troper clearly has never stopped listening to the finest ’90s lo-fi music — Guided By Voices and Elephant 6 are undeniable touchstones — but he also has a thorough understanding of what made O.G. geniuses like Big Star and Badfinger so good. (Spoiler alert: Hooks!) Fuzz and noise permeate MTV, but they never obscure the miniaturist melodic pleasures of sweetly melancholic strummers like “I Fall Into Her Arms” and the exquisite “Play Dumb.”

12. Good Looks, Bummer Year

The highest compliment I can pay the debut album from this self-described bar band from Texas is that they open with one of my three or four favorite songs of the year — the stirring heartland rocker “Almost Automatic” — and still always manage to compel me to play the rest of the record. With Bummer Year, Good Looks have produced one of the most empathetic portraits of MAGA America to come out of indie rock in recent years. Actually, this might be the only empathetic portrait of MAGA America to come out of indie rock. The characters in these songs exist outside of that culture and yet remain enmeshed in it — stuck in dying towns and saddled with dimming prospects, their only escape is the joy of a rock song with a surging chorus and heart-lifting outro guitar solo.

11. Goose, Dripfield

After following these guys for a few years, I finally wrote a column this spring calling them “America’s next great jam band.” The following months did nothing to dispel that claim, as this Connecticut outfit steadily rose from club act to burgeoning arena stars. But the most surprising development for Goose in 2022 is that they made a genuinely great studio record. Not even the kingpins of the jam scene have managed to pull that one off with regularity. Anchored by the Zen spiritualism of guitarist and primary songwriter Rick Mitarotonda and balanced with bouncy McCartney-like contributions from guitarist/keyboardist Peter Anspach, Dripfield is informed by 2010s indie — particularly Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver — and powered by the band’s understated instrumental virtuosity. In the end, however, the focus never really shifts from the durable and endlessly re-playable songs, which sound as good playing for five minutes as they do for 15.

10. Bartees Strange, Farm To Table

Along with investing in Goose, I have also been buying up loads of stock in this Oklahoma native. In August, I saw him win over a large audience in Utah while opening for The National with one of the most impressive and versatile backing bands in all of indie rock. But as good as he is live, he seems most committed to exploring the possibilities of the studio. Like he showed on his 2020 debut Live Forever, Strange has a fluid musical personality on Farm To Table that seamlessly melds emo with hip-hop, alt-rock with neo-soul, and bar-band blues with honky tonk. What’s new on Farm To Table is a silky sumptuousness that pervades every melody and groove. It feels like this record is massaging your eardrums.

9. 2nd Grade, Easy Listening

In the world of 2nd Grade’s Peter Gill, rock bands still aspire to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, clever underground tunesmiths fashion song titles out of Beatles and Beach Boys references, and Seinfeld remains at the center of culture. Judging by these cultural allusions, Easy Listening could have easily come out in 1994 and instantly infatuated an audience hooked on Teenage Fanclub and Material Issue CDs. But since it actually came out in 2022, it stood out to me as an earnest celebration of good old fashioned late-20th-century rock culture that (fortunately) never goes completely out of style.

8. Zach Bryan, American Heartbreak

There were a lot of big albums this year, but this one might be the biggest. (I’m talking in terms of song tonnage, though it was also one of 2022’s commercial breakouts.) At 34 tracks, American Heartbreak contains so much data that I still haven’t absorbed it all. But maybe that’s the point — this prodigiously talented 26-year-old Americana wunderkind is out to show you just how many bangers he has in his coffers, even if it means occasionally gumming up the works with lesser material (which is generally still pretty strong). At his best, he writes with the insight and heartfelt sentiment of Southeastern-era Jason Isbell, though with a scruffier, more lo-fi sensibility. What makes this album so exciting is the implication that he could have made three separate classics from this batch of songs had he chosen to stop writing new tunes and refine what he had. But I suspect that plenty of refined classics are looming on Bryan’s horizon.

7. Wild Pink, ILYSM

One of the best (and most unsung) indie bands of this young decade was in danger of becoming almost too consistent. Last year’s A Billion Little Lights capped Wild Pink’s early trilogy of records, in which singer-songwriter John Ross applied his obsession with boomer-era rockers (Springsteen, Petty, Browne) to a post-Lost In The Dream, emo-tinged heartland rock template. Jolted by a cancer diagnosis, Ross was moved to change course on a record that sounds simultaneously more epic and more introspective. ILYSM inevitably comes across like an attempt to process life-changing news, with Ross shellshocked voice numbly contemplating mortality over deconstructed soundscapes that unexpectedly shift between noisy squalls and spooky quiet. The album’s arc — like life — is gut-wrenching but ultimately rewarding.

6. Nilüfer Yanya, Painless

An album I liked a lot that narrowly missed my list was A Light For Attracting Attention by The Smile. That record was the year’s second-best supply of Radiohead methadone; Nilüfer Yanya’s Painless barely edges out the LP made by 40 percent of Radiohead for that distinction. Not a bad achievement for an English singer-songwriter born the same year that The Bends was released. The kinetic electro-rock adrenaline rushes come fast and furious on this record, with Yanya warbling largely incomprehensible laments – just like Thom Y. — over hyperactive beats and jittery guitars that become even grabbier once the choruses arrive. It hits like an anxiety attack that’s been transmogrified into heady art rock.

5. S.G. Goodman, Teeth Marks

This Kentucky singer-songwriter checks all the authenticity boxers — grew up on a farm, still lives in a rural community, sings like Loretta Lynn if she had grown up listening to punk-reared garage rock bands. But what makes her second album, Teeth Marks, so powerful is how unaffected it is by the usual signifiers of Americana “realness.” Goodman doesn’t write about a romanticized version of the south; her world feels lived-in and mundane and blighted by everyday tragedy, though it is ultimately heightened by the artistry of the storytelling and the working-class anger she administers in just the right doses. Her ballads sound like dreams and her rockers hit like the morning-alarm clock; when she sings the bitter blue-collar blues of “Work Until I Die,” she doesn’t sound like an artist, she’s testifying for the community from whence she came.

4. Alvvays, Blue Rev

With this album, Canada’s reigning dream pop masters confirmed that they are one of the most reliable brands in indie rock. Reliable in the sense that you know what to expect — perfectly constructed pop songs with heavy reverb, chiming guitars, and sweet vocals — and also in terms of the uniformly excellent quality of their records. On Blue Rev, the riffs are a little heavier than usual, and Molly Rankin’s lyrical barbs draw more blood. (Did any band skewer their own fanbase as effectively as Alvvays on the song “Very Online Guy”?) But the level of craftsmanship remains so high that it’s difficult to imagine this band ever making a bad album — or anyone coming close to overtaking them in their lane.

3. The Weeknd, Dawn FM

This album came out in January, and I wonder if it has suffered from “released too early in the year” syndrome. When I first heard it, I thought it was the best big-tent pop record of the last five years. It seemed like an Album Of The Year lock. But in the time since various other whales — Beyonce, Harry Styles, Taylor Swift — have come along to overshadow it. Now Dawn FM feels slightly under-appreciated. For me, however, The Weeknd’s panoramic homage to 1980s stadium pop remains a singular achievement and the ultimate manifestation of his lifelong goal to make his own version of Bad. Like Michael Jackson’s 1987 opus, his album sounds shiny and enormous, an absurdly expensive Trojan horse that he has stuffed with loads of paranoia and anti-fame anxiety. (He even integrated Quincy Jones into the record’s fabric.) The final result feels both personal and universal, a pop cupcake that leaves a sweetly bitter aftertaste.

[After much deliberation, I have reluctantly decided that there must be two albums tied for first. I don’t like ties, but this stalemate could not be broken. Allow me to explain …]

1a. Big Thief, New Warm Dragon I Believe In You

When this album dropped in February, I called it a masterpiece. In my head, there was a small voice that asked, “Are you jumping the gun here? Do you really want to call this record a masterpiece so quickly?” But nearly a year later, I feel confident that I made the right call. What made this album so overwhelming in the moment was the sense that one of our greatest contemporary rock bands set out to make a classic record, and they made it difficult for themselves by including 20 songs — any of which could have sucked and thus blown the gambit — and yet they pulled it off. It was like watching a pitcher execute a perfect game or an all-time great team maneuver through an undefeated season. Just as a physical act of music athleticism, New Warm Dragon I Believe In You felt like an incredible feat, spotlighting every facet of what makes Big Thief great — Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting, the band’s understated musical interplay, their empathy, their loopiness, their adventurousness — and none of their weaknesses. And I still feel that way. This one is an all-timer. It is the Album Of The Year. But there is also another Album Of The Year for me.

1b. MJ Lenderman, Boat Songs

I heard this album for the first time about 10 months ago but it already feels like a lifelong friend. It has 10 songs. The fidelity ranges from “decent” to “cassette tape left in the shower.” The guitar sounds can only be described as “what Neil Young sounded like in 1973.” The singer alternately sounds like he’s in emotional pain or like he’s drunk. (Is there a difference?) Some of the tracks contain references to athletes from the 1980s and ’90s. In one song, he quotes Ronnie Hawkins’ “big time Bill, big time!” ad lib from The Last Waltz. (It’s in a song called “Dan Marino.”) In the song after that, a wry rocker I have listened to 300 times called “You Are Every Girl To Me,” he sings “Jackass is funny / Like the Earth is round.” It is, like the record overall, irreverent and true and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m playing it now for the 301st time just to confirm this. I plan to play it for the 302nd time immediately afterward. If this album were a person I would always volunteer to help it move and/or drive it to the airport. And it would do the same for me.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.