With landmark albums from Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Bad Bunny and Rosalía, 2022 was a year where the globe’s biggest artists stretched the boundaries of what was possible in pop music.
But it was also a year marked by incredible laziness and craven opportunism.
Sampling came back in a big way but not a clever one. Classic hits were used as a crutch for weak songwriting, often lifted wholesale instead of being re-contextualised or used as a launchpad for something more inventive.
David Guetta and Bebe Rexha did it on I’m Good – a pointless remake of Eifel 65’s Europop irritant Blue (Da Ba Dee) that was somehow more of a dumpster fire than the original.
They weren’t the only culprits: Nicki Minaj rapped listlessly over Rick James’ Superfreak; Central Cee turned Eve’s Blow Your Mind into a genuinely unpleasant track called Doja; and Yung Gravy tried to turn Never Gonna Give You Up into a banging rap anthem.
But we’re not here to talk about the year’s worst songs. Let’s celebrate the best.
Normally, I compile the BBC’s year-end list by averaging the polls published by major music magazines and prominent critics. This year, I caught the flu and ran out of time to crack open the spreadsheet, so here’s my personal list.
It’s by no means definitive – with 60,000 songs uploaded to Spotify every day, I’ve listened to a fraction of a fraction of the music that was released in 2022. I’ve also tried to make the songs work as a playlist, so the rankings are somewhat arbitrary. But enough excuses. Let’s play some music.
Warning: Some of the following songs contain language that readers may find offensive.
1) Rina Sawayama – This Hell
Who else but Rina Sawayama would have taken a rant about homophobic Christian conservatives and turned it into a sparkling country-pop song with multiple key changes and nods to Shania Twain?
Crammed with witty one-liners (“damned for eternity, but you’re coming with me“), it had a cheeky, light touch that the rest of Sawayama’s overwrought second album sometimes lacked. Plus, she had the song blessed by Abba. What’s not to love?
2) Beyoncé – Cuff It
Honestly, this could have been any song from Beyoncé’s seventh album, Renaissance – a dancefloor fantasia that honours the black, queer lineage of house and disco.
It’s a record that ripples with joy – for life, for music, for movement, for the very act of being Beyoncé – and Cuff It is the album’s most accessible cut. Powered by a Nile Rodgers guitar riff, it’s a post-pandemic anthem about the excitement of preparing for a night out that’s also somehow about Beyoncé’s expertise in the bedroom.
Euphoric and funky, it’s even better in the context of the album, where it lands in the middle of a four-song sequence that hasn’t been bettered all year: Alien Superstar, Cuff It, Energy and Break My Soul.
3) Harry Styles – As It Was
Often, the biggest hits of the year are bold and primary coloured – whether its Psy’s Gangnam Style or Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. This year, not so much.
As It Was is a vapour trail of a song, silvery and airborne, as Harry Styles searches for meaning amidst break-ups and loneliness and personal turmoil.
There’s no big catharsis or sense of resolution, just a feeling of quiet acceptance – and perhaps that’s what made it such an inescapable hit. There’s a sense that we’re all just getting on with life after the upheavals of the last few years, and Styles’ soothing meditation is the perfect soundtrack.
4) Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero
Sometimes you wonder how much mileage is left in Taylor Swift writing songs about Taylor Swift, and then she comes out with something as self-deprecating and funny as Anti-Hero and all is forgiven.
From acknowledging that she disguises her narcissism as altruism “like some kind of congressman” to imagining her own murder, Anti-Hero is a parody of self-mythology that hinges on one of the year’s most meme-able lyrics.
“It’s me, hi! I’m the problem, it’s me!”
5) Rosalía – Saoko
The scene-setting opener to Rosalía’s riotous third album, Motomami, Saoko growls and purrs and constantly contorts over its two-minute running time.
Dripping with attitude, the song is about the Spaniard’s refusal to conform to: “Una mariposa, yo me transformo,” she sings. “A butterfly, I transform”.
Underneath, the music shifts with her, from hip-hop to reggaeton, with a jazz piano break and chopped up vocal samples. A thrilling, fearless record that informed everything else Rosalía released in 2022.
6) Paramore – This Is Why
Returning after a five-year break, US rock band Paramore have lost none of their energy or bite.
“If you have an opinion / maybe you should shove it,” Hayley Williams sings, simultaneously seething and exhausted at a divided world.
“Whether it’s racism, or conspiracy theories… I think about how the internet is supposed to be this great connector, but drives us further inward and further apart,” she told the LA Times. “I’ve watched people be so awful to each other. How could we go through these things together and come out worse?”
The song has no answers. In fact, Williams retreats even further. “This is why I don’t leave the house,” she sings in the chorus.
But when that house contains guitarist Taylor York and drummer Zac Farro on supremely funky form, why would anyone venture outside?
7) Florence + The Machine – Free
Anxiety is an unrelenting master that has plagued Florence Welch her entire life.
In Free, she depicts it as a bored child, picking her up and putting her down, chewing her up and spiting her out “a hundred times a day”.
Tempted to dull her senses with medication, she instead finds release in music. As the song’s nervous, ticking beat fades and the music swells, she declares: “For a moment, when I’m dancing, I am free.”
8) Rema & Selena Gomez – Calm Down
Rema’s Calm Down was a major hit in Africa earlier this year, crossing over to the US and UK after Selena Gomez added a verse for this remix.
The lyrics are based on a true story. Nigerian star Rema fell for a girl at a party, but her friends stopped him from getting too close. In the song, he’s still trying to seduce her. She’s inviting, but remains in control: “Wanna give you it all but can’t promise that I’ll stay / And that’s the risk that you take.“
Sweet and seductive, the song is one of several Afrobeats tracks to make an impact in 2022, alongside Burna Boy’s Last Last and Fireboy DML’s Peru.
9) Kojey Radical – Payback (feat Knucks)
With a tip of the hat to James Brown, Payback is the strutting, funky highlight of Kojey Radical’s Mercury Prize-nominated album Reasons To Smile.
A hymn to black excellence, it also sees the 29-year-old staking his claim to be one of the UK’s best rappers, as he declares: “Black lists, black skin couldn’t hold me down / A black queen gave birth to a golden child.“
10) Little Simz – Gorilla
Less than eight weeks after winning the Mercury Prize for her 2021 album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz dropped a new record with little-to-no warning.
But rather than a victory lap, No Thank You seemed to be an angry response towards the music industry itself.
“They don’t care if your mental is on the brink of something dark / As long as you’re cutting somebody’s payslip,” she fumed on the opening track, Angel.
Gorilla is mellower, full of brass fanfares and a slinky bassline lifted from Jurassic 5’s classic Concrete Schoolyard (which in turn samples Ramsey Lewis’ Summer Breeze), but it contains that same surging confidence.
“Name one time where I didn’t deliver,” Simz demands. There’s no answer.
You can listen to a playlist of all 25 songs in this list on the following streaming services:
11) Self Esteem – Wizardry (Block Them Edit)
Cutting people out of your life is healthy. That’s the message from Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self Esteem, on this percussive declaration of self-preservation.
The ex who gets back in touch? The friend who undermines your confidence? Stop giving them your precious time.
“If it feels like someone is taking [liberties], they usually are,” she explained. “Not to be all ‘you deserve better’ about it but it’s very likely you do, indeed, deserve better.”
12) Yeah Yeah Yeahs ft Perfume Genius – Spitting Off The Edge Of The World
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs first new song in almost a decade, Spitting Off The Edge Of The World is a smouldering, sleazy song of comeuppance for politicians who put profit ahead of the climate catastrophe.
“Cowards, here’s the sun,” drawls Karen O. “Melting [your] houses of gold.”
The droning guitars and crashing drums constantly threaten to collapse on themselves, as though the world is juddering to a halt even as O sings.
Apocalypse never sounded so thrilling.
13) Soccer Mommy – Shotgun
As declarations of love go, “I’m a bullet in a shotgun waiting to sound”, is pretty extreme. But Sophie Allison, aka US indie musician Soccer Mommy, stands by it. “Beauty and pain tend to coincide, as do beauty and ugliness,” she told Pitchfork. “Love is hard even when it’s easy”.
That tension gives Shotgun a tangible realism. The itchy, lo-fi verses capture the banality of a long-term relationship (“I like dessert and alcohol and watching you as you get drunk“) before the chorus blossoms into a dreamy, loved-up hook.
Because love is always there, you just have to pull the trigger.
14) Koffee – Pull Up
It may have been recorded in London, but Pull Up is steeped in the sun-kissed vibes of Koffee’s hometown of Spanish Town, Jamaica.
The laid-back Afrobeats track finds the singer arriving for a night out in a succession of luxury cars, flexing her status while setting her sights on one particular party-goer.
Breezy and infectious, it’s a perfect encapsulation of Koffee’s positive spirit and ear for melody.
15) Cat Burns – Go
Originally released in 2020, Cat Burns’ anguished break-up anthem became a viral hit on TikTok at the start of the year, earning the singer a platinum record, a support slot with Ed Sheeran and a Brit Award nomination.
“My brain just cannot compute that [the song] is at that level. It’s mind-boggling,” she told the NME – but the success was well-deserved.
Where other break-up songs channel anger or despair, Burns’ richly-observed lyrics convey the disbelief of someone who’s been betrayed by the one person they should have been able to trust. Devastating.
16) Yahritza Y Su Esencia – Soy El Unico
Of the millions of people who got through heartbreak this year by listening to Soy El Unico, very few will have realised it was created by a 13-year-old who’d never written a song before.
Yahritza Martinez, from Mexico’s Yakima Valley, was inspired after seeing other people’s relationship dramas on TikTok – and one line in particular stuck with her.
“It was, ‘Oh, you’re not gonna find anybody better than me.’ That’s where I got the idea from,” she told the LA Times.
When the singer (now aged 16) and her brothers uploaded a snippet of the song to their own TiKTok account in February, it swept through people’s For You pages, eventually topping the US Latin songs chart. Since then, the break-up ballad has amassed 69 million views on YouTube, as fans fall in love with the trio’s stripped-down take on Música Mexicana.
17) Raye & 070 Shake – Escapism
Has a record ever been more aptly titled than Escapism?
Released independently after Raye extricated herself from a record label that refused to let her release a debut album, this single broke all the rules of modern pop. It’s long, it’s messy, it changes tempo half-way through.
And yet, it became the singer’s first ever top 10 hit as a solo artist, because every single one of those choices was driven by the emotional arc of the song, not some boardroom-driven formula.
“I feel on top of the world right now,” Raye told the BBC at the Mobo Awards. “I could throw up. I feel like I’m in a simulation, it doesn’t feel real.”
18) Charli XCX & Rina Sawayama – Beg For You
You know all that stuff I said about 2022 being a terrible year for sampling, and songwriters relying on nostalgia for easy streams? Here’s where that argument goes out the window.
In what she jokingly referred to as her “major label sell-out” era, Charli XCX took September’s 2006 Europop hit Cry For You and transformed it from a boilerplate break-up song into a story of lust and obsession.
The desperation of those lyrics combines with the insistent, unrelenting synth lines to create a more compelling, full-blooded song than the original. It’s a masterclass in updating a classic.
19) Cornelia Jakobs – Hold Me Closer
Fourth place at Eurovision, Sweden was robbed.
20) Pharrell Williams ft 21 Savage and Tyler, The Creator – Cash In, Cash Out
With a stone-cold beat and a blown-out bass line, Cash In Cash Out was a blistering comeback for Pharrell, even if it stalled at number 73 in the UK charts.
21 Savage takes the opening verse, bragging that “Pharrell made this so it’s a million dollar beat“; before Tyler takes over with the surreal couplet: “I hit the beach in a furry hat / She got a guy but she purrin’ back“.
Both stars are at the top of their game, tossing out one-liners and switching flows on the fly. “It’s like lettin’ two pit bulls loose, you know?” Pharrell told Apple Music.
21) Lewis Capaldi – Forget Me
I wavered over whether to include this. It’s not exactly cool to like Lewis Capaldi, I guess. But there’s something about the way he sings – the conviction in his voice, and the naked candour of the lyrics: “I’d rather hear how much you regret me… than forget me“.
When it came on the radio, I always left it on and if I was on my own, I’d even sing along. Which is about the best litmus test for a pop song I can imagine.
Plus, you have to admire anyone who accepts a music video pitch that goes: “It’s your song, but we do a shot-for-shot recreation of Club Tropicana”.
22) Chappell Roan – Casual
The best Taylor Swift song by an artist who isn’t Taylor Swift since Olivia Rodrigo became a breakout star in (checks notes)… Oh God, was that only last year?
Chappell Roan is a rising star from Missouri, whose breakout song is a candid account of a relationship that’s going nowhere.
She’s a little more blunt than Swift (don’t play the chorus to your mum) but anyone who’s ever been told, “I’m not ready to tell people we’re together”, by someone who’s simultaneously happy to go to bed with you, will be fully on her side.
23) Nessa Barrett – Dying On The Inside
“Beauty is a knife that I’m holding by the blade / Swallowing my pride so I won’t eat anything.“
On Dying On The Inside, Nessa Barrett sings with unflinching honesty about the eating disorder that’s plagued her since she was 12 years old.
Smart and self-aware, she observes how the media’s emphasis on beauty and size only compounds her problems – with people complimenting her appearance when she’s actively unwell.
It’s a song that changes your perspective by inviting you inside a mental illness. Barrett, who is receiving treatment, says she cried when she finished it – and hopes the song will help others too.
“I want to remind them that they’re not alone,” she told Nylon. “I want everyone to know that they are beautiful no matter what, and that it’s unfair for them to put so much pressure on themselves. And that I know how hard that is.”
24) KH – Looking At Your Pager
Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, aka KH, had quite the summer. Not only did he win a long-running royalties battle against Domino Records, but he dropped one of the biggest dance anthems of the year.
Looking At Your Pager is an absolute dancefloor monster, that flips a sample of American girl group 3LW onto a gnarly electronic bassline that sounds like a lawnmower devouring a power station.
First previewed at a live show in 2021, the song lingered in a copyright battle as fans begged Hebden for an official release. Then, in April, he took to Instagram with the phrase “the sample has been cleared” – and the song of the summer was born. Well, almost…
25) Eliza Rose & Interplanetary Criminal – B.O.T.A. (Baddest Of Them All)
Dance music came back with a vengeance in 2022 – with hits by LF System, Nia Archives and Fred Again cross-contaminating club nights and daytime radio.
The biggest, and baddest, of them all was Eliza Rose’s BOTA, which bolted a feel-good vocal hook onto the syrupy keyboard riff from 90s house classic Let The Beat Hit ‘Em.
Released in the middle of the heatwave, it eventually hit number one in mid-September, when it was finally safe to play without melting the dancefloor.
Honourable mentions & further listening
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