The 100 Best Songs Of 2022 (20-1)
It took 50 people to make this list of 2022's 100 best songs. Why put in that much effort, when algorithmically generated playlists can give a listener what they already know they want? Because there's more to a year than the insulated corners that, in the streaming era, can feel so cozy. That's especially true in a year like this one, whose thrills, even with hindsight, are tough to organize into neat categories or hierarchies. For the staff and contributors of NPR Music, making this list felt messy, but there's an upside to the effort: We got together. We talked. We listened. We ended up making a ranked list of 100 songs that reflects the sprawling, energetic messiness of 2022. Because the end of a year is a nice moment to celebrate what you love, but it's the perfect time to listen to something outside your comfort zone. A guarantee: You'll find something here that does the trick. (And while you're at it, be sure to check out our 50 Best Albums of 2022.)
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This is Molly Nilsson's first appearance on an NPR year-end list, but that's our fault, not hers. The Berlin-based DIY deity started writing, recording and releasing ecstatic synth-pop completely on her own while Barack Obama was still a senator, averaging almost an album per year during that span. "Pompeii" is arguably her finest five minutes, pairing ardent emotion and sardonic wit with rapturous synthesizers charting a path to the astral plane. "I wish we could stay forever this way," she yearns, "just like Pompeii." She gets it. Caring is creepy. —Otis Hart
Third Coast Percussion
In an unexpected, irrepressible confluence, the underground dance music known as footwork and the traditional classical percussion quartet have found common ground. The electronic music artist Jlin, who has transformed footwork into her own masterful realm, crafted the 30-minute suite Perspective for the members of Third Coast Percussion. Midway through, "Derivative" struts a woozy, 161 beat-per-minute groove fueled by an arsenal of gongs, water bowls and drums. —Tom Huizenga
"Abilene" falls into the long tradition of country songs named for somewhere that's receded into the rearview, but Plains' Jess Williamson and Katie Crutchfield found room for something fresh in the form — there's exquisitely subtle bite to how they depict a woman disentangling herself from the nostalgic pull of a small-town fantasy. "Well, Main Street was cute and the rents there were cheap," Williamson allows, before brushing away the romance of the image: "But I was too much for you and for your Abilene." —Jewly Hight, WPLN
Fireboy DML & Asake
Two of Nigeria's ascendent Afrobeats stars come together for a functionally perfect pop song: The two bars of plucked electric guitar establish the central hook during the intro. A flipped clave rhythm takes hold. Fireboy DML's lilting melody rises and falls like a hand riding the wind out an open window. Asake's cavernous chorus takes us to church. And then there's that final touch of sentimental strings during the outro, all without losing an ounce of momentum. Everything's in its right place and nary a second is wasted. And that titular "Bandana"? It's an homage to 2Pac. I mean, how could anyone not love this song? —Otis Hart
"About Damn Time"
After a yearslong ascent finally rendered her a household name back in 2019, Lizzo returned with one of this year's most omnipresent anthems. From its instantly quotable opening words ("It's bad-b**** o'clock / Yeah, it's thick 30") to its bass-driven, flute-forward, roller-disco-worthy arrangement, "About Damn Time" is a three-minute pop masterclass that's impossible to resist. —Stephen Thompson
First teased on social media as far back as 2020, the shadowy background vocals of "Shirt" allow SZA's messiest confusions to float freely, unencumbered by insatiable fears that feed them. But, like a surprise anvil in a cartoon, the rib-rattling sub weighs down this fever dream, reminding us to pay attention to the severity of her words: "In the dark right now / Feeling lost, but I like it / Comfort in my sins, and all about me / All I got right now / Feel the taste of resentment / Simmer in my skin."
The 33-year-old dropped a lusciously cruel video to accompany the song that finds her and actor LaKeith Stanfield cosplaying as a Tumblr-era Bonnie & Clyde before double-crossing each other. Dysfunction might never have stung so sweet. —Sidney Madden
"Something in the Orange"
The most resonant song from 2022's biggest country music breakthrough exudes the unvarnished poeticism that's made this young Oklahoman Navy vet a sensation. Over a driving acoustic strum, Bryan pours out his confusion as a love affair ends, and the jumble of his thoughts — poetic observations, desperate pleas, intrusive anger — form a confession that refuses Nashville's crafty sentimentality in favor of an immediacy that's a little bit ugly and wholly relatable. The orange, Bryan has said, is the sunset, but it's a killer metaphor. It could be a pill bottle, a shot of bourbon, a departing car's tail lights, the color of frustration. It's a short story in one line. —Ann Powers
"Jackie Down the Line"
"Jackie Down The Line" is a warning: Don't get too close. The main character is cruel, destroying relationships out of boredom. The band wields acoustic guitars like switchblades, nodding toward The Stooges' "Gimme Danger," another dispatch from utter despair. This is not a feel-good song, but it is multilayered. The pain on display humanizes the villain at the center, turning a bleak ballad into rock transcendence. —Art Levy, KUT
"As It Was"
Like a fling who would have never dated you in real life saying arrivederci at summer's end, this song is by turns forlorn, resigned, apologetic and a little caddish. Its slippery nostalgia is grounded in a synth line evoking the New Romantic era of Styles' parents' youth and in the singer's cool, bossa nova-ish croon, which sounds like the way it feels when that departing lover wistfully strokes your hair. The Easter-eggy verses matter to fans, but the chorus is what made "As It Was" so sticky in 2022: It renders regret comfortable, a service everyone needs in a time of chronic heartbreak. —Ann Powers
Stromae's meditation on loneliness and the madness it can animate within feels more like a hand-held ride to nirvana. He conjures this, in part, with a sweetly carefree melody that ambles beautifully with a gently pulsing piano and chiming wine glasses. But the real lift comes from a recurring group of backing voices, sturdy and fearless, that seem to assure that, yes, life is hell. But we're in it together. —Robin Hilton
Even though Steve Lacy's been around the block — you might recognize him as The Internet's eclectic guitarist — he only blew up the mainstream this summer when "Bad Habit" became an instant R&B staple. In the addictive, three-act ode to a lost not-quite lover, Lacy blends anachronistic influences like Prince's '80s synth, clumsy grunge guitar clashes, D'Angelo's 2000s falsetto and '60s baroque pop. The micro-global hit is a seductive tragedy: Lacy's lyrics and vocal delivery alternate between petulant, obsessive, regretful and smug as he tries but fails to figure out how to approach the one who got away. —LaTesha Harris
Joyce Wrice x KAYTRANADA
Joyce Wrice has proven to be a catalytic presence in R&B and soul. For anyone on the journey of tapping into their divine feminine, this empowering dance hit is the perfect soundtrack. Featuring and produced by KAYTRANADA, "Iced Tea" has an exhilarating force of hard-driving synth bass and myriad percussive layers — tastefully contrasted with Wrice's lustrous vocals — that exudes a goddess-like energy and preaches the message of standing tall on your own. —Ashley Pointer
"What I Want"
A throbbing yearning defines the pulsating synth-pop of "What I Want" — so intense it has singer Katie Gavin shaking. "There's nothing wrong with what I want," she sings, and for a second you might think the proclamation unnecessary. But in a year in which the desires and bodies of LGTBQ people were highly legislated and targeted, the simple, strobe-lit freedom of "What I Want" rings out more like a protest. On MUNA's dancefloor, a shot isn't just a shot, a kiss isn't just a kiss and such desires have to be claimed, again and again, with all the strength one can gather, against a world that rather they be silenced. —Hazel Cills
"This is Why"
Paramore's first single in five years captures the agoraphobic paranoia of the post-isolation era of the still-ongoing pandemic, impending climate disaster and general cultural doom with a skittering rhythm guitar and dynamic pressure. Hayley Williams sings its verses in the rare, soft register she embraced in her 2020 and 2021 solo projects while the chorus blooms in her signature belt. With shades of Talking Heads, the track builds on After Laughter's project of dancing in the dark. It's a perfect excuse to stay home. —Stefanie Fernández
Gunna & Future feat. Young Thug
A ridiculous RICO case put Gunna and his label boss, Young Thug, in prison for much of the year, but before they were wrongfully detained there was "Pushin P," a glorious, cryptic celebration of three generations of protean Atlanta trap. Over a Wheezy beat that is at turns crystalline and sludgy, the deeply alliterative raps tumble out of them. Gunna and Future do slow-mo call-and-response like an Actavis-activated Jadakiss and Styles P. Young Thug somehow does pantomime in verse. They take turns ad-libbing. It's a casual hit, as if they're only half-trying. Listening then, the song felt like the world's coolest in-joke, a moment of rap capital domination. Listening now, it feels like a waypoint to a brief time when reality hadn't yet encroached on new-year optimism. —Sheldon Pearce
Just moments into her finger-snapping, symbol-crashing album, la Rosalía comes crashing in — shattering the jazz club scene with biting vocals abreast a hard-hitting dembow line. Packing all of the ambition of the artist herself, this 4-in-1 opening track serves as the expertly crafted gateway drug to the unapologetically experimental Rosalía universe. —Anamaria Sayre
Fan theories abound regarding the identity of this sideways pop gem's title character — it could be a drug buddy, a dog, a god or Dave Pirner. The object of this panegyric doesn't matter; it's great because it captures the feeling of devotion itself. The surrender in Molly Germer's tender, rolling keyboards, the insistence of drummer Tom Kelly's snare and Alex G's vocal as it builds from intimate to cathartic all add up to a kind of rapture: Whoever that runner is, it's his wife and it's his life, and he's not letting go. —Ann Powers
Bad Bunny kickstarts his opus to Puerto Rico with bomba percussion, but as the song builds into a house beat, it unfurls a complicated reality for Boricuas. Benito loves his home to an explicit extent — but he also sends a stern message to those who colonized and now gentrify the island. With an irresistible groove, Gabriela Berlingeri sums it up: Puerto Rico belongs to its people. Everyone else can get the hell out. —Isabella Gomez Sarmiento
On "ALIEN SUPERSTAR," Beyoncé is a ringmaster presiding over a high-drama, opulent spectacle. "Stilettos kicking vintage crystal off the bar," she pouts in an aloof monotone, then breaks into a sex-kitten moan. She changes the vibe again with the snap of a manicured finger, and we're at her whim, along for the ride, as she raps about reveling in the power of our sexuality. With credits from star house music producer Honey Dijon, "ALIEN SUPERSTAR" pays homage to ballroom, and accomplishes what the art form does best: enrapturing the audience in an exquisite fantasy. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED
Hitkidd & GloRilla
"F.N.F. (Let's Go)"
The mechanism of the pop machine remains, by and large, boring. Assign blame wherever you like: to the algorithmic TikTokery that makes every song feel like a ringtone, to that crack team of Swedish producers who have, at times, been behind as much as half of any given week's Top 10 tracks, to an industry that clings to the established celebrity of those already in Billboard's or Hollywood's topmost crust. But there are occasions that remind me to show it gratitude — without all its roteness, the few songs that T-bone us out of nowhere each year would never feel like such freak, dazzling accidents.
No genre in contemporary America is better at preserving the miracle of surprise and keeping sacred the distinctions between space and time than hip-hop. Its unspoken policy isn't to move out of its cradle into the centrist mainstream; rap's inbuilt regionality ensures that the heritage of home accompanies any breakout artist. In a given year, any city could feasibly become the temporary center of the universe. Past prizewinners include Baton Rouge, Toronto and back-to-back-to-back laurels for Atlanta. This year, all hail Memphis, our chart busting bolt-from-the-blue.
Success is a slippery, selcouth thing — familiar in its outline, but distinct and incalculable in its details. When producer Hitkidd sent a woman named Gloria Hallelujah Woods an evilish backing track heavy with the aroma of old-school Memphis — flat but bass-heavy, two notes carrying the beat — she was, per her admission, "on the toilet," preparing for a lash appointment. GloRilla brought her alto voice and easy, Project Pat-like cadence to the studio, and after 30 minutes, one good hook and one economical lyric sheet — in-and-out, like McCartney with a Backwoods — we had "F.N.F.," a track with one of the fastest ascents in recent history, ex nihilo to a Grammy nomination in just shy of seven months.
"F.N.F." is a song of experience, not of innocence. Its video is all Memphis, gleamless, glossless — from the Hyundais parked in suburban streets to her mob of girlfriends in Shein camisoles to someone's baby running into the frame — but it could've taken place in a neighborhood in any state in the contiguous. It wants you to become her, to drown in her gospels, to take up her armor. I am not afraid. I don't need that sort of love. Learn from me. She says none of these things but means all of them. Self-help mantras dominate the charts, but girls like GloRilla can deal mentorship in the form of an acronym, can teach you that sacrifice for love can be a mistake, that the liberty from the baggage that you don't have to carry any longer is a lightness you should treasure. It feels meaningful that you can memorize the lyrics in seconds, like a prayer.
Pop's biggest magic trick has always been to turn the very specific into the nonspecific, but GloRilla's monster success in 2022 reminds us that the country has always been peopled with potential folk heroes ready to help you make the usual pains of living more bearable. Their ascent is not so much a fluke in the system but a testament to the strength of a star's gravitational pull. And GloRilla's has made a supernova of Memphis, cannoning it and her into the center of the universe. By fate, by exception, by her will, GloRilla belongs to pop now. —Mina Tavakoli
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