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Ann Powers' Top 20 Albums Of 2022

Stromae's <em>Multitude</em> is one of Ann Powers' favorite albums of 2022.
Photo Illustration: Jackie Lay/NPR
Stromae's Multitude is one of Ann Powers' favorite albums of 2022.

2022 feels like the right time to make some basic inquiries about popular music. What is a song now, when the listening experience for millions has shifted toward algorithm-driven, fragmented viral sounds, or their opposite, the seamless vibe flow that makes tracks indistinguishable on streaming services? Why make albums if so few people even bother to listen beyond the first track that pops up in their playlists? These questions are hardly new; yet this year I felt a greater commitment to exploring them among the artists whose music lingered in my memory. Albums veered into the realm of ideas, even when they weren't "concept albums," per se. Track by track, they laid out powerful narratives, or web-like, explored particular themes, or formed self-portraits in layers of melody, rhythm and verse.

Today we experience so much noise, and often without thinking turn it into an infinite soundtrack. I wake up to my alarm's little snippet of Joan Shelley's "Amberlit Morning" and head to the kitchen, where the smart refrigerator beeps and the coffeemaker zings. I walk outside, and Bad Bunny plays on a worker's truck radio as I walk the dog, while the groans of the garbage trucks mingle with the whoosh of the accordion bus and a train whistle in the distance. At the gas station, a tiny television on the pump shouts out the deals in the quick-mart; downtown, electronic billboards blare and tailored-to-retail playlists chase me from door to door. All of this competes with and feeds the sound-bit memory loops in my own head: the song that lingers from that movie I watched last night, that anthem the band played at the show a week ago, the tearjerker I only listen to when I'm alone.

Multi-tasking is a myth, and while multidirectional hearing is possible, listening requires focus. Meaningful encounters with sound both create and demand the kind of openness that comes with a little time. What the culture calls music responds to the cacophonous world and makes space to contemplate and make some meaning within it. The abundance of albums with strong shapes this year is a gift. They made and marked the space around me, and within.

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(I've also made a playlist of 100 songs that stuck with me this year, all of which helped stretch my listening experience into a new shape. You can hear it here.)

1. Anna Tivel, Outsiders

Unmatched as an empath among her folk-leaning peers, the Oregon-based Tivel has the voice of a wobbly angel and a gift for making the poetic palpable. She's built her latest album around the idea that we are all on some kind of edge, partially unseen by others. Some of her antiheroes — a homeless man, a youth shot in a police incident — fit standard descriptions of outsiders, but most are folk who'd pass as getting by. Quietly exceeding the usual folk frameworks, Tivel and producer Shane Leonard's arrangements work like fine cinematography, perfectly framing her devastating scenes.

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2. Silvana Estrada, Marchita

The debut solo album from one of Mexico's most distinctive young talents delicately reassembles a heart broken by first love, acting upon Estrada's insight, culled from listening to Chavela Vargas, that "sorrow is a vehicle to understand the world." The restraint she shows in these almost internal confessions, centered around gentle, compelling rhythms she pulls from the Venezuelan stringed cuatro, highlights their poignancy as the reckonings of a heart full of longing, dented by regret, but determined to love and learn.

3. Jockstrap, I Love You Jennifer B

The English duo of principal songwriter-vocalist Georgia Ellery and sound manipulator Taylor Skye specializes in world-building on hallucinogens. Ellery's tales of youthful adventuring, sexual and otherwise, careen from confession to surreal word games to cheeky jokes, recalling the work of autofictional tricksters like Patricia Lockwood. Skye recognizes Ellery's playfulness and pushes it into overdrive by juxtaposing orch-pop and Bollywood beats, indie strums and weird loops, dancefloor mayhem and musique concrète. The closest an album comes this year to actually going inside someone's head.

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4. Stromae, Multitude

With Bad Bunny and Rosalía in the lead, mainstream pop took a turn toward auteurism this year as mega-hitmakers cultivated innovative sounds and very personal, often political, lyrics. Leading the way in this heartening trend is Stromae, the Belgian rapper/singer/composer whose early-2010s hits like "Papaoutai" rearranged the global dance floor. After an eight-year, health-related hiatus, the maestro risks scathing self-critiques and real vulnerability on a set melding the pathos of the chansonnier tradition with a flawlessly executed fusion of instrumentation and beats from all over the globe. Whether celebrating essential workers — including sex workers — or reflecting on the paternal love he feels cleaning up his son's poop, Stromae distills a world's worth of sounds into his very personal visions.

5. Tommy McLain, I Ran Down Every Dream

When musical elders return to the studio after decades of semi-obscurity, often they're encouraged to follow a template — that Johnny Cash-derivative story of life's big ups and downs, ending on a hopeful note, usually with an assist from God. At 82, the Louisiana swamp-pop singer Tommy McLain has the hypnotic, weathered voice and life experience to deliver. What makes his first album in 40 years exceptional is the care with which he and his collaborators — old friends like this album's producer C.C. Adcock and new ones like Elvis Costello — tend to the details of his life in original songs (and a few choice covers) that feel deeply specific, authentic and resonant.

6. Fontaines D.C., Skinty Fia

What if you could hear what displacement feels like? That's the question the Dublin-born, now London-based band Fontaines D.C. asks on its third album. Pushing past the taut mosh pit punk of its earlier albums, the group seeks a groove inspired by '90s Manchester bands like the Stone Roses and ends up also echoing risk-taking American rockers like Afghan Whigs. The music drifts and intensifies and devolves as Fontaines singer Grian Chatten wanders through neighborhoods that don't welcome him, reaches for a sense of the home that's now just "a pin rusting through a map" and wonders when he'll see the future clear. The unmoored mood the band so expertly cultivates is one of the ruling spirits of our time.

7. Hurray For the Riff Raff, LIFE ON EARTH

The world is teeming with wanderers, from iridescent-shelled beetles to migrating hawks to the people who follow their own migration patterns, all seeking some way to survive. Over 15 years of developing their own vibrant form of roots music, Alynda Segarra has dedicated themselves to those in motion, whether they're wild, lost or free, or all of the above. LIFE ON EARTH sounds like what Segarra describes as "nature punk" — cosmic in feel, anthemic in reach. With producer Brad Cook, they've found a sound that connects the tough innocence of girl groups with the delicate retro-futurism of contemporaries like Weyes Blood. "Life on earth is long," Segarra sings — a line inspired, they've said, by a 200-year-old turtle. That old spirit runs through these stories of 21st century danger and hope.

8. Leyla McCalla, Breaking the Thermometer

This rich text first came to life in the rare books room at Duke University, where the composer and multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla found the archive of the independent station Radio Haiti-Inter, an organ of free speech during the despotic Duvalier and Aristide regimes. McCalla, whose family is Haitian, followed her curiosity into a history that she shaped into a multi-disciplinary performance piece and then this album. Breaking the Thermometer demonstrates how sound itself does the telling as McCalla weaves the voices of freedom fighters into a virtuosic chamber piece that's also highly danceable — a tale of resistance through rhythm. As McCalla's warm voice serves as a guide, her ace band sets the stage and provides counterpoint.

9. Jessie Buckley and Bernard Butler, For All Our Days That Tear the Heart

Give this one a Tony award for Best Original Score for a Drama Not Yet Staged. The actor Jessie Buckley, so affecting in films like Wild Rose and The Lost Daughter, met veteran Britpop guitarist and producer Bernard Butler on a collaborators' blind date. They took a trust fall into each other's creative lives, and two years later these mysterious, grandiose, elegant songs came together. Within Butler's bold, elegant arrangements, Buckley's alto can move mountains — seriously, watch out Adele — and her lyrics have the poetic wildness of Laura Nyro. The album feels like a soundtrack to a hero's journey that's yet to reach its peak.

10. Gang of Youths, angel in realtime.

Epics are complicated, especially when family is involved; just think of the messed-up relationship between Odysseus and his son. David Le'aupepe's dad was a wanderer, too, and this album relates the saga of his double life and the fallout when, after his death, the Gang of Youths singer found out Dad had a whole other family in his native Samoa before raising David. Le'aupepe relates this thorny history in rockers and ballads that soar with U2-style inspirational choruses only to touch ground in the novelistic lyrical and sonic detail surrounding them. The songs are augmented by samples from Pacific Island choirs and strings redolent of old Hollywood, like Le'aupepe's story itself.

11. The Suffers, It Starts with Love

Becoming a major American city's pre-eminent party band is no small achievement, but those golden handcuffs can also chafe. The best push the boundary by injecting the fun with depth and daring. Houston's Suffers, led by the endlessly inventive vocalist and producer Kam Franklin, has always done this, but takes a major artistic leap on this set. It's a sonic diary of its multiracial members' lives as working artists contending with the hectic loneliness of road life and the rapaciousness of the music biz — all while living in a world where the idea that Black and brown lives matter is still, horrifically, a matter of debate to some. Joy is the vehicle for the serious messages Franklin and her crew impart. Dance to this album as if your life depends on it.

12. Adeem the Artist, White Trash Revelry

When Steve Earle's Copperhead Road came out in 1988, country music got a new dose of realness: Nashville craft in service of stories about people and situations marginalized by the town's entertainment machine. Fast forward a quarter century, and that spirit has a new champion. Adeem is a nonbinary working-class radical with a wicked wit, a heartstring puller calling out white supremacy, a boot-scoot boogie devotee reclaiming their redneck heritage even as they call out its prejudices. If they're going to hell, as they sing here, that's OK, because there they play the country music loud.

13. Raveena, Asha's Awakening

Following on the chrome-plated path of Janelle Monáe's Cindi Mayweather, the Indian Punjabi-American singer-songwriter Raveena crafts a sci-fi bildungsroman on this sweetly psychedelic project. Her heroine travels through time and space, gets enlightened, falls in love. Along the way she confronts white colonialist tourism, conjures her idol Asha Puthli (the legendary singer has a cameo here) and engages in a guided meditation. It's an everywoman's adventure in a cosmic frame, and with help from producers including Rostamand Jeff Kleinman, Raveena dances through it with the lightest of touches.

14. Fern Maddie, Ghost Story

When Vermonter Fern Maddie introduces a song from her repertoire in a video, she'll say, "I learned this from the singing of..." and name her source. This folkish phrase reflects the banjoist, signer and songwriter's stance on the tunes, often from the British Isles, that she reinterprets — singing is a form of authorship as each one who passes on a song reconstitutes it. Maddie does this herself, updating an ancient tale with a feminist twist or adding a synthesizer to haunt a ballad poet Robert Burns collected in the 18th century, achieving incredible immediacy through subtle adjustments. Her own haunting originals intertwine with her traditional selections, giving voice to the loss and resilience that define human existence across the epochs.

15. Alabaster dePlume, Gold (Go Forward in the Courage of Your Love)

I don't know if it's even right to call this work by English jazz poet dePlume an album. It's a gathering, a welcoming, a moment in time committed to ones and zeroes that, no matter how often I listen, never feels fixed. DePlume is a fixture on the London avant-jazz scene whose greatest value is openness, and for this project he gathered 21 collaborators to flesh out his ideas in any way they saw fit. Free saxophone melds with dub rhythms, West African griot tones, kitchen choirs and acoustic funk, with dePlume's disarmingly but genuinely innocent lyricism sliding around near the center. Can an album be an organism? This one is.

16. Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart

Rappers love to revisit past stomping grounds, mining those often hardscrabble neighborhoods for credibility, pathos and the weary swagger of survivors. Rarely do they capture the haziness of memory or confront regret, the shadow twin of nostalgia. Vince Staples takes those risks on Ramona Park, a song suite about his childhood Long Beach, Calif., neighborhood. With an immediacy that makes him all the more vulnerable, the syrupy-voiced rapper recalls criminal experiments (and produces a career high point in the love song about a gun, "When Sparks Fly"), sex and love gone wrong, the existential instability of adolescence and how all of those sources of trauma created him. The music, riding on subtle samples, is steamy, pure summertime sadness.

17. Lou Turner, Microcosmos

Innovation doesn't have to be high-concept; it can happen quietly, the way a knitter might pull a brightly colored thread through the sleeve of a neutral-colored sweater. Poet and singer-songwriter Lauren Turner surprises this way — line by line, with turns of phrase that evince a laugh at first, then really make you think. She sees the world in startlingly transformative ways: In one song on this, her second album, she compares her own manic energy to "a burp in the middle of a kiss"; in another, she promises a friend that if their head "shrinks with the weather," she'll help screw it back in place. Turner's mischievous assertions flow forth within settings that broker a friendship between Americana and vintage indie sounds to feel homey and buoyant, reflecting the question she says this album asks: What does it mean to seek adventure in the space where you live every day?

18. Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul, Topical Dancer

Wicked humor has always revved the engine of avant-garde dance pop, from Grace Jones' deadpan sneer to the glitchy giggles of Yeule. Adigéry and Pupul deploy their laughs — literally, in the showstopping "HAHA," which turns Adigéry's laughter into a rollercoaster of self-expression — to dismantle racism, sexism and generalized human foolishness on this beguiling and endlessly inventive manifesto of an album. Some tracks critique pop music itself — "Making Sense Stop," for example, lovingly takes down white appropriators — while others take on the absurdity of everything from courtship rituals to tourism to motherhood. Thanks to these two Belgian pranksters for insisting that we always need a laugh.

19. Flora Purim, If You Will

A doyenne's tribute to her own remarkable career, the first album by Brazil's 80-year-old jazz jedi connects her past triumphs with the present day by rejuvenating some of her classic songs (in tribute to late collaborators George Duke and Chick Corea) alongside new material that follows the path Purim created from bossa nova to her groundbreaking work in both jazz and world music, and toward the Balearic dance floors where her aerial voice became iconic. Elders should never have to prove their relevance, but this set puts Purim right next to fusion revivalists like Moonchildon today's cutting edge.


Body Type, Everything Is Dangerous But Nothing's Surprising Enumclaw, Save the Baby

The elasticity and strength of the album form allowed for many exciting experiments this year. Simplicity can still work, though. Start with solidly great songs and put them in the hands of musicians who spark each other's imaginations. That's what happens on these two debut albums, one by an all-woman band from Sydney and the other from a mixed-race band from Tacoma, Wash. Indie rock's lineage marks both efforts — Sleater-Kinney and Dinosaur Jr. are obvious touchpoints — but with new minds and fingers involved, old riffs sound vital, clamorous. Just goes to prove that every day in a human life can be an experiment.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.