The POW Best Albums of 2022

POW, right in the kisser...
By    December 29, 2022

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Pioneer 11 – Humanoid (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Humanoid, the full-length neo-cosmic funk offering from Pioneer 11, is an inter-dimensional journey through a nebula of influences from psychedelic rock to French touch. The three-piece band’s namesake comes from NASA’s Pioneer 11 mission, which the organization cites as carrying “a message from humanity to the cosmos.” The LA-based trio seems to fit that bill in their otherworldly layering of sound that brings the familiar right up to the line of the uncanny valley. Through its undeniable grooves and energetic melodies, Humanoid is music made for SSX Tricky if its location was on Neptune instead of a variety of unspecified snowy colosseum-like structures.

Much like the satellite they share a name with, Pioneer 11 draws from the astral realm above in a starry offering of sound for earthlings. Released on 11/11, Humanoid holds a mystical power complete with falsetto musings on technology and the indisputable bending of reality through the internet. The album could be seen as a connective branch to intergalactic visitors, inviting them to communicate via the universal language of music. We may never know, but the call of irresistible, forward-thinking electronica found on Humanoid might’ve brought the aliens for a visit through the skies. – Staley Sharples

50. Horace Andy – Midnight Rocker [On-U Sound]

It’s tempting to call Horace Andy’s voice on Midnight Rocker ripened by age. After all, the dub and roots legend is 71-years old already, with a remarkable vibrato that has a slightly raspy quality. But the truth is, Andy doesn’t sound old. If anything, his voice sounds like something that exists outside of time, defying binary descriptors. He may have honed his instrument to a point that only decades of craftsmanship can offer, but has also retained a youthful energy. And while the expert production of Adrian Sherwood has an almost solemn, dark edge to it at times, Andy’s voice shines through it like a beacon in the night.

The duo works their way through a selection of the latter’s classics, along with new material and a beautifully smoldering cover of Massive Attack’s “Safe From Harm,” which contains the lyric from which the album title originates. His many collaborations with the British trip-hop outfit ushered in a new era in Andy’s career at the time, but a lull in their releases during recent years offered a decrease in touring opportunities for him. If those don’t arise through this album, the world owes him an explanation. Because the one thing that does neatly align with his age, is that listeners can only turn to Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin’s partnership for a possible parallel: with Midnight Rocker, the septuagenarian has collaborated with a younger, revered producer, adding a masterpiece to his discography that deserves to tower above much that came before it. – Jaap van der Doelen

49. Asake – Mr. Money With The Vibe [YBNL Nation / EMPIRE]

Asake’s star-making debut album plays out like a fairytale where none of the horrors of the real world can faze him. He casts spells with an unwavering confidence: packaging intimacy and faith with a neat bow. His soothing voice splitting the difference between being an internal monologue and an omnipresent guide.

The individual ingredients of the Nigerian singer’s sound aren’t new (amapiano basslines, Fuji bounce, gospel chants) but Mr. Money With The Vibe’s concoction feels fresh and the stories are universal. Magicsticks is at the helm for the entire process, summoning emphatic choirs and grandiose instrumentals effortlessly; it’s like him and Asake went into the studio and thought: “What if we went for more, more and more?” In just 30 minutes, the duo crafts songs that each take on a life of their own. “Terminator” uses bustling drums to turn the pursuit of a lover into a romantic epic while the crowd vocals on “Organise” are an armor to the steady proclamations.

Asake’s positive spirit undergirds the record, transforming clever turns of phrase into mantras to live by. “Shout halle / ‘Cause you no get today no mean e too far,” he optimistically sings on the rosy “Dupe.” Mr. Money doesn’t dabble with doubts instead choosing hope each step of the way and asking you to tag along.- Serge Selenou

48. Rachika Nayar – Heaven Come Crashing [NNA Tapes]

Heaven Come Crashing, the follow-up full-length from Brooklyn-based guitarist/composer Rachika Nayar, evokes exactly the celestial grandeur that its title suggests. Her debut (Our Hands Against the Dust) also centers itself around the guitar, manipulating and elongating those recognizable string sounds into murky shadow. The form of that disguise warrants praise, too, but the equation is completed when the guitar is allowed to inhabit more secular forms. So much of Heaven Comes Crashing plumbs the dark and unknowable, synths woven into the unending wool of the ether. When we pierce through, like the emo riff that shreds through the end of “Tetramorph,” it is like smashing through the ocean surface from below, gasping for air.

Nayar cites Burial as an early inspiration, which is wholly unsurprising. The seminal Burial visual for me has always been something he said to Wire magazine once, dreaming about being taken out into a trash can in the alley in a black plastic bag, rain pattering down above as a truck comes to swoop him away. That kinship with and desire for anonymity is recognizable, too, in Heaven’s embrace of trance and DnB: rave floors are places to be hidden in plain sight, paradoxically places of solitude even in density.

Losing yourself is part of the contract Heaven presents the listener. Nayar said to The FADER around Heaven’s release, “I’ve always loved music that feels like it brings you to a point of overflowing. Something inside of you is so overwhelmed, so completely obliterated or annihilated, you lose your sense of self entirely, and something new inevitably comes out of it.” Heaven Come Crashing embraces and achieves both sides of that equation, music that drops you into the maze and then leads you out. So in those brief moments of renewal, this album sounds like the sunrise: not as viewed through mortal portals, from the vantage of a front porch or a third-floor window, but as if we were suspended in space, watching the sun’s first rays beam out infinitely from above the earth’s curvature. –Sun-Uni Yum

47. Gabriels – Angels & Queens – Part 1 [Gabriels/Atlas artists]

Under the name Gabriels, Jacob Lusk, Ryan Hope, and Ari Balouzian are an LA-based trio who have made music together since 2018. The group’s latest album, Angels & Queens Pt. 1, distills their influences: gospel, jazz, and R&B. Lusk’s vocals are supported by delicate violins, pianos, and crisp drums. There’s a balance of spiritual imagery––falling, being caught, being saved––at the album’s framework. On the title track, a hushed refrain rises: “somebody help me.”

Hailing from Compton, Lusk grew up in a house where gospel and jazz were the only music allowed. Still, it’s fitting when Lusk describes meeting the late Nate Dogg early in his career, and working with him as a writer. It’s easy to see why Lusk’s choir-infused toplines caught Nate Dogg’s attention.

On one of the album’s standouts, “Remember Me,” Lusk explores a melodic pocket over a 4-on-the-floor beat before finding peace. Midway through the track, lush strings arrive, and a sense of reflection shrouds the building groove.

The singularity of Angels & Queens Pt. 1 is its ability to borrow from various genres without sounding bloated. It takes discipline to spoon up a little of this, some of that, and not end up with a diminished final product, like a plate at Cheesecake Factory. It’s refreshing for a body of work to borrow from 40’s Gospel, cinematic 70’s Soul, and the stripped down R&B of the early aughts, while managing a fiercely individual sound in the musical landscape of today. – Evan Gabriel 

46. Sam Gendel and Antonia Cytrynowicz – LIVE A LITTLE [Psychic Hotline]

By now, you know the drill with Sam Gendel. Long lost folk fragments meander across the surface with snippets of rock, jazz, and various intriguing sub genres littered throughout. He concocts puzzles disguised as songs, thrilling anti-pop transmogrifications that constantly and delightfully surprise. The brilliance of Gendel lies in that ability to play with the listener, delighting in tricks and whimsy, while still sticking to a solid plan.

On LIVE A LITTLE, which the multi-instrumentalist made with Antonia Cytrynowicz–the pre-teen sister of Gendel’s partner, Marcella–Gendel concocts Blue Velvet-inspired lounge jazz fronted by a wunderkind Julee Cruise. Take the haunted space disco of “A SIGN,” which hums with alien energy and the nerviness of knowing a hazy scare is just around the corner. Gendel’s bare bones drum machine intertwines with a loop of bells and a deceptively simple bass line that mirrors the arc of Cytrynowicz’s melody.

Throughout the track, Gendel adds different melodic ideas–an acoustic guitar, an additional synth line–to imbue the song with an ever-increasing tension. Gendel is the rare sort of artistic genius that can introduce a gimmick–like working with a 12-year-old singer (her age when the album was released)–and completely obliterate it through praxis to the point that LIVE A LITTLE is unimaginable without the previously unknown Cytrynowicz on the mic. In an interview with The Guardian, Gendel explained his reasoning for the collaboration: “‘Her playfulness is infectious for someone like me,’ he says, ‘who just always wants to be playing in whatever way with any idea.’” On LIVE A LITTLE, Sam Gendel and his young frontperson prove that playfulness can land with transcendent passion and seriousness. – Will Schube

45. Enumclaw – Save The Baby [Luminelle Recordings]

Enumclaw arrived fully formed with last year’s Jimbo Demo EP, an effortlessly cool collection of 90s alt signifiers (swirling guitars, melodic bass lines, choruses about being a loser and driving around stoned) performed with Britpop swagger. The Tacoma-based quartet was quickly signed by a trendy label (Luminelle Recordings) and matched with a hot producer (Gabe Wax) who could help harness the buzz into a proper full-length.

Now, not even two years after forming as a band, Enumclaw have delivered a polished debut that highlights their songwriting strengths while expanding their sonic palette. Lead singles “2002” and “Jimmy Neutron” are perfect encapsulations of what the group does best—uptempo riffs, pensive lyrics, and soaring hooks—while the album’s slower, quieter numbers (“Park Lodge,” “Somewhere,” “Apartment”) expand upon the themes of self-actualization, introspection, and regret.

On these songs and throughout the album, singer Aramis Johnson shows a willingness to grapple with weighty topics, including the loss of his father at a young age. On the title track, he expresses a peer-group lament familiar to anyone who slacked through their twenties: “I feel so broken when I stand next to you / How could I be the one that doesn’t have a clue?”

Enumclaw have been content to lean into the grunge revivalist label, which makes sense when you’re a guitar-led rock band named after a small Washington town. But the songcraft and musicianship throughout Save The Baby demonstrate that Enumclaw can outgrow the Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. comparisons and fully inhabit their own sound. (The “Best Band Since Oasis” t-shirts should stay, though.) – Pete Hunt

44. Khruangbin and Vieux Farka Toure – Ali [Dead Oceans/Night Time Stories]

Stepping out of the shadow of a famous parent is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks a child can undertake, but West African guitarist Vieux Farka Touré is more than up to the job. In one of the more inspired moves of 2022, the son of the Mali legend Ali Farka Touré teamed up with psych-groove machine, Khruangbin, to reinterpret some of his father’s classic tunes through a new filter. With a well-established reputation for invoking and involving various world beat sounds into their own music, the Texas trio of bassist Laura Lee, axe man Mark Speer and Donald “DJ” Johnson, Jr., on skins, ran a much-beloved online radio program showcasing sounds from around the globe, making this album a well-deserved victory lap for every world music aficionado involved.

If you’re looking for a musical counterpart, West African blues in the vein of Tinariwen is as good a comparison as any, though Khruangbin make sure to put their own flavor on every track, with each song calling forth the memory and spirt of the original, though sounding completely original in their own way. The album allegedly was cut in just a week, with Farke Touré the Younger refusing to tell the Texans what they were about to play beforehand to capture new creative juices. It worked.

For another comparison, look no further than Father Ali’s ventures with Ry Cooder or the Taj Mahal/Toumani Diabate team-up, Kulanjan. Each succeeds in the same way Ali does, by combining the sensibilities of all parties. While Khruangbin easily could have taken a backseat and functioned entirely as a backing band, they choose the superior path and truly collaborated here. Tracks like “Lobbo,” with Laura Lee’s haunting backing vocals, or the spacey textures of “Ali Hala Abada,” would feel just at home in the Texans’ back catalogue as it does here. Straight out blues rocker “Mahine Me” might be the standout track here, but I suppose that depends if prefer your blues of the jump variety. Regardless, there ain’t no filler here. Somewhere, his father must be proud. – Chris Daly

43. E L U C I D – I Told Bessie [Backwoodz Studios]

Three quarters of the way through I Told Bessie, E L U C I D raps, “Words mean things but don’t have to.”  Somewhere in the haze of resonant chanting, spell casting, empathetic soul samples and guttural percussion, I had to wonder – is there any clarity to be found in any of this at all? After numerous listens, the answer to that question was no more intelligible than the run through before, but I was left with a resounding feeling that through the abstractions and dissociation, it all matters.

I Told Bessie pays tribute to E L U C I D’s late grandmother who he spent time living with in Crown Heights, Brooklyn when he was searching for his voice as both a rapper and producer. His lyrics and instrumentals reverberated through the walls and floors of her brownstone. Bessie was one of his first supporters and her memory is suffused throughout in metaphysical vignettes. E L U C I D has the rare ability to drop the hardest bars with one of the most recognizable and original deliveries in hip-hop’s underground – “5K to put a body in the earth/ Twenty bucks to wear your face on a shirt” (on “Old Magic”) only to pivot into whatever this is: “Biohack the planet/ let’s fall back a bit/ Turtles all the way down/ Ladder stacked from center, what you say now?” (on “Mangosteen”). It sounds amazing even if I’ll never know what the fuck it means.

For as experimental I Told Bessie can be, it is fundamentally a New York City rap album, stretching well beyond Crown Heights. The haunting piano keys and anxious atmosphere of “Nostrand” shouts out one of Broolyn’s main avenues, painting the picture of the dangers lurking in both the borough and in growing older “The world different from the back of a police car/ Mom look old, Daddy beat down and small.”

E L U C I D didn’t sequence this album – instead he left that task up to trusted collaborator and his Armand Hammer partner in crime billy woods who features on four tracks and earns an executive producer credit. woods’ presence is felt throughout while other key collaborators like Pink Siifu and Quelle Chris are perfect foils on the marauding “Sardonyx.” The climax of the album hits on “Betamax” – the P.U.D.G.E. chopped sample triumphantly stretches to the heavens and back and the rapper finds himself in praise of the journey. He was never lost, he only had his eyes closed. – Patrick Johnson

42. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Unfold [Fat Possum]

When the French singer-songwriter Melody Prochet released her self-titled debut under the alias Melody’s Echo Chamber, she ascended as a newcomer in the rising modern shoegaze scene. You would think she would prance onto her next challenge – defeating the sophomore slump – and for a talented musician with a knack for breathing brevity to genres such as psychedelic rock, shoegaze and French pop; it should’ve been an easy feat.

Instead, what followed was a six-year hiatus: her relationship with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker shortly fizzled out, halting Unfold into development hell and in 2017, she suffered a serious accident which caused a brain aneurysm and broken vertebrae. All of this happened in between birthing a child and releasing the philosophically profound psych-rock albums Shirim and Emotional Eternal.

Addressing in an interview she always has “music inside of me. Maybe I’ll let it [stay] in there.” Unfold has the dreamlike atmosphere of its spiritual predecessor with the sage life lessons Prochet collected over the years.

Through seven songs, Unfold takes you to a land of milk and honey which is anchored by the fatality and beauty of life. Take the title song, its psychedelic yet sobering rock-pop melodies as Prochet sings: “Now you have your freedom / It’s hard when you seem so strong / Cause I’m not, I never felt so low” over fuzzy guitar riffs.

From face value, it appears to be an unsure step at one of life’s many crossroads releasing these songs – as if you’re staring at the wing mirror of your life with your foot on the gas but for an ardent fan of MEC – Unfold is a curt and stunning exploration of the sounds encountered on her debut. – Ethan Herlock

41. XL Middleton – Chrome Springs Eternal [MoFunk Records]

Funk has never died, but it faded in the early 2000s. Call this groove-deprived era a hangover from the glut of g-funk in the preceding decade, a weariness of Parliament and Zapp samples bounced to their last ounce. Dam-Funk, the permed keytar virtuoso of Pasadena, brought funk back to the fore with his weekly club night Funkmosphere (RIP) and 2009’s Toeachizown, an album that synthesized funk, boogie, R&B, electro, and g-funk to create a new genre: modern funk.

Fellow Pasadena native XL Middleton has become the nucleus of modern funk in L.A. for the latter half of the 2010s, creating a diverse solo catalog and producing new additions to the modern funk canon for Zackey Force Funk, Moniquea, and other contemporaries. Chrome Springs Eternal is XL’s first all-instrumental album, a record that allows you to appreciate the subtlety and intricacy of his new grooves as he reverently nods to decades of music that comprise modern funk’s DNA. The synth bass lines are so deep they can realign desiccated spinal discs. Every shimmering and screaming synth melody is calibrated to tap the dopamine reserves of anyone raised on funk.

Like all lifelong Angelenos, XL is forever enamored by and exasperated with his hometown. He intersperses songs with audio clips satirizing walking L.A. stereotypes and skewering greedy landlords. Chrome Springs Eternal is the soundtrack to backyard barbeques that become less likely for L.A. natives each year as skyrocketing rents and gentrification displace another generation, for sunset cruises that cost more per gallon than ever. The album bumps with grooves that will shake your rearview and burn a hole in the dancefloor, but its creator knows the city is burning. For now, modern funk and the chromed-out cars blaring it from their systems continue to shine. – Max Bell

40. Burial – Antidawn EP [Hyperdub Ltd]

Although it’s called an “EP,” Antidawn is British producer Burial’s longest record since 2007’s Untrue, the classic electronic music album that used rolling UK dubstep and garage drums, moody textural atmospheres, and extensive vocal sampling that famously turned pop R&B songs from the likes of Ray J into haunting cries of longing and despair to soundtrack a generation mired in the the banal evil of the economic and political systems that control our lives and the the hopelessness of any meaningful change of the post 9-11, post 2008 financial crash world.

After waiting for years for another full-length project from Burial, some people felt a little deflated, or at least confused, by Antidawn’s lack of beats. Instead what people found was a brooding, wintery, 40 plus minute ambient sound collage record. The record consists of a couple of “songs” made up of mostly what sounds like found sounds, crackling record hiss, violent winds, crickets chirping in the still night, rain drops hitting empty pavement, swaying wind chimes, accented by sweeping, almost hymnal, organs that move in and out of the album, and most prominently, haunting voices that at various times say or sing things like “take me into the night with you,” and probably most achingly, “Let me hold you for awhile.” The vocal samples provide a sense of narrative cohesion, that lifts the music into really emotional and cathartic places by the end of the album, that I think, like Untrue, people will feel if they give Antidawn a chance. – Sam Ribakoff

Archibald Slim – Worldly Ways (Unranked: POW Recordings)

There’s a moment on “Dead & Gone,” a track off Archibald Slim’s Worldly Ways, where he asks an unknown woman to look him in his eyes if she’s going to lie to him. It’s a plea for realness. It’s a desire for truth, regardless of its consequence.

On this follow-up to last year’s Fell Asleep Praying, Slim meditates on the things he’s seen and experienced and on his current mindset as he grows older. Backstabbing friends, fake personas, and the desire to remain solo in a world of Judases fuels the Georgia native’s raps. In the opener, “Everybody Owes Me,” he stresses the importance of self-accountability when someone owes a debt.

Even though his delivery is blunt and effortless, the sentiment behind his words is cutthroat. Like the Watcher, Slim has his eyes and ears in the streets. He avoids red flags and any relationships that could cause potential harm to him on “Dimes.” “I’m too old to be reading between the lines, so I swerve when I see the signs,” he raps as a man that’s been through it numerous times. In just 28 minutes, Wordly Ways is replete with enough soulful samples, Sopranos references, and weighted words to ruminate in your mind for days. – Anthony Malone 

39. Nosaj Thing – Continua [LUCKYME / Timetable]

It’s been too long since Low End Theory ended. Four years to be exact. It feels longer, because for a year-plus most other local live music shut down, and when it came back the scenes were forever altered. It had been too long since the last Nosaj Thing LP. Five years, to be exact. It felt longer because the avant-garde, genre-averse yet genre-indebted style of hip-hop-influenced electronica Nosaj Thing cultivated first at all-ages venue The Smell, then on Wednesday nights at The Airliner, has permeated the gamut of music across the globe.

Continua came out at the right time. Just when we needed it. Before we got too nostalgic. It works because listeners are accustomed to stylists like PinkSiifu rapping over the same type of production that makes sense with Panda Bear’s singing. What would once be left for niche enjoyers on the abstract edges is now palatable in mainstream form. Nosaj Thing is no longer confined to the bedroom. His production can fill bigger spaces, and meld with a wider array of contributors. Continua proves Nosaj Thing can construct a recognizable foundation, then piece together more fully-formed songs.

For a producer whose work emphasizes the expansive potential of minimalism, Continua is Nosaj Thing’s biggest effort yet. He wanted it to sound like a movie. Like Koyaanisqatsi scored by a futuristic derivative of Massive Attack or Portishead. There are more vocal features than on any solo LP predecessor. The songs aren’t incomplete sketches. The execution is cohesive. The album is not a reminder of its author’s legacy, but an example of Nosaj Thing’s vision coming into focus. – Will Hagle

38. Dirty Bird – Wagenmuzik [Gum Studio]

This is not the kind of dance record you hear in the background at brunch. The music industry is notorious for sterilizing trends and music scenes and this time, the target is anything even remotely resembling house. Whether it be Drake’s aqua sex tunes about long distance and iffy relationships or Beyoncé’s attempt at inclusivity with her royalty, pop artists took their best stab at revitalizing house on the grand stage. This looks over the numerous artists doing it for longer and significantly better. Dirty Bird’s Wagenmuzik is an essential record in understanding why everyone is rushing back to the dance floor.

What separates Dirty Bird from an infinite amount of vibe curators fronting as DJs are the keen details taken from various inspirations.​​ The hiccupping drums on “Effect” splash and sputter tempos and addictive synth loops. But it never detracts from the hushed soulful vocals at its core, not dissimilar from the best gospel house . “The Question” plays like a revved up Moodymann “Shades of Jae” tribute in its warmth. But at no point do these points of reference ever feel derivative. Rather, it’s a product of genuine love for the craft, attentive of its distinctions and resistant to its hollow aesthetics. Wagenmuzik is a sensational hybrid of mid-2000s racing games, humid clubs drenched in sweat, and countless hours of Detroit House mixes discovered on YouTube. – Caleb Catlin

37. Mount Kimbie – MK 3.5: Die Cuts | City Planning [Warp Records]

Mount Kimbie has always been more defined by its polarities than its cohesion. Like the dubstep moment that spawned the group, a mutant genre in and of itself that suddenly re-constituted jarring sonic influences into something monumental before being subsumed into the fabric of popular music just as quickly, their influences oscillate and circle at will, more concerned with a sense of movement than any particular destination. Even their most fully resolved, songs like “Made to Stray” or “We Go Home Together” are wilfully obscure, their only commonality being a stubborn refusal to hint at where they might go next.

MK 3​.​5: Die Cuts | City Planning is a double album of sorts, revealing the coordinates of where Dom Maker and Kai Campos each find themselves now, free to indulge personal stylistic inclinations even if the process takes them further apart. Campos’ compositions travel inward, zeroing in on minimal electronic sounds that move in kinship with Boards of Canada or maps and diagrams, constantly trading sheen for static fuzz and glitch in unexpected ways. Dom Maker’s work explores the more melodic and sample-driven aesthetics of L.A.’s post Low End Theory scene, allowing his backdrops to be torn asunder by the emotional fireworks of guest vocalists like slowthai, wiki, Danny Brown or frequent collaborator James Blake. Like everything Mount Kimbie do, this bifurcated approach feels like a natural evolution but taken as a whole, Die Cuts and City Planning shines a light on one of the most quietly compelling partnerships in all of electronic music, revealing the shape and contours of a propulsive journey that could only make sense in hindsight. – Joel Biswas

36. Nu Genea- Bar Mediterraneo [NG/Carosello]

Every now and then, a piece of art will transport you to a destination rooted in the artist’s imagination – one that’s deeply informed by their environmental influences. The latest album from Italo-Disco duo Nu Genea does just that. Bar Mediterraneo places its listeners in Massimo Di Lena and Lucio Aquilina’s native Napoli, where summer is an electric, unifying feeling, where travelers and locals alike can bask in Neapolitan sunlight whilst clutching Aperol spritz in White Lotus season two fashion, and where nights present intoxicating opportunities to shimmy into a liberating dance-floor crescendo.

Those sparkly visions are evoked on tracks like “Marechià,” named after a small village near Naples (just one of the album’s many references to locations or characteristics of the region). This track features layered harmonies led by French singer Célia Kameni. Here, the voices spin a web of enchanting lyrics in French and Neapolitan languages, lulling you into yet another night of indulgence. “The memories bewitch you, you hope but, you see / It’s true… [Although] I promised, tonight I’m not coming / The sun – he does not wait.” The layered, hypnotic vocals echo against Mediterranean melodies and 70’s disco-funk inspired synth and guitar licks. The result is a retro, must-play track for the crate-digging dancefloor DJ aspiring to bring everyone together for one night of drunken debauchery at Bar Mediterraneo.

Like Napoli in the summer, the 9-track album is a confluence of worldly artists. Nu Genea’s blending of genres was largely inspired by 70’s Neapolitan Italo-Disco pioneers like Napoli Centrale, who mixed together Mediterranean roots and jazz rock layering Afro-American sounds with Neapolitan dialect. Nu Genea has been running with that idea, drawing from Fela Kuti’s afrobeat rhythms and marrying it together with their musical roots. In this album, the duo pays homage to those inspirations on the track “Straniero,” that’s grounded in pulsating percussive oscillations recorded by the late, legendary drummer Tony Allen.

You can hear other nods to their musical forbearers on tracks like “Vesuvio,” a dance rework of a 1994 song from Neapolitan political folk band E’Zezi. It’s about the relationship between the mountain’s ominous volcanic prowess and the people inhabiting its slopes. On Nu Genea’s version, a choir of children chant existential warnings backed by urgent afro and tammurriata rhythms, howling synths, and daunting keys – all colliding into a panicked, fuck-it-life-is-short beat.

The album feels like a homage to the fires that forged Nu Genea’s musicality. The seamless blend of funky beats from track to track highlights the all-round expertise for their native regional music, while simultaneously bridging together the sonic flourishes of faraway lands. Bar Mediterraneo may just be an ideal that exists in their minds, where only they can harness the musical power to unlock its door and bring people together under one disco ball. – Liz Sanchez

35. Amber Mark – Three Dimensions Deep [Jasmine Music Limited / A PMR / EMI]

There’s a tendency for excavations of the self in R&B to take on a melancholy register. The process of unearthing your emotions, ruminating on them until they’re ripe to be written and sung, is exhausting. Consequently, the production tone will run in concert with the downtrodden lyrical tenor, deepening that genre’s depressive well. While it’s proven fruitful time and time again, Amber Mark forges a different path on her full-length debut. The New York artist’s emotive powers were apparent in her 2017 and 2018 EPs, but the grab-bag of sounds that she adorns them in sets Three Dimensions Deep apart. Instead of a laser focus on somber, cookie-cutter production, Mark’s sprawling 17 tracks ventures to the corners of soul and funk, giving the journey she embarks on through life’s lessons and philosophies a jubilant tenor.

There’s a beautiful marriage at work, with Mark’s succinct musings on relationships, insecurities, and self-worth merging the musical leaps she takes in her stylistic choices. “Healing Hurts” could have registered as simplistic upon first glance on a tracklist, but her elongated runs and pronunciations breathe life into thundering bass production. She matches reservation with her lot in life on “What It Is” with meandering synth and guitar rhythms, letting her voice provide the strength as she attempts to figure where she belongs. The confusion that she sings about in her lyrics would be enough to depress anyone. Mark instead elects to frame her painful lessons as necessary steps, celebrating the opportunities to grow at each turn. Whether she’s singing with passion over an ogan about moving on from unsatisfactory suitors in “Most Men” or doubting herself over a chopped up soul sample on “One,” she’s proving that the journey to self-acceptance doesn’t have to be a painful or solemn one. For Mark, taking the step to figure her life out is a win in its own right. – Matthew Ritchie

34. Yaya Bey – Remember Your North Star [Big Dada]

Yaya Bey’s father, the great Hempstead rapper Grand Daddy I.U., died earlier this month at age 54. While Bey doesn’t rank among the industry’s much-maligned nepotism babies — her father never cashed in on his early-’90s Cold Chillin’ run, and her own music bemoans the drudgery of service jobs — Remember Your North Star excavates her flower-child lineage. The confessional “Reprise” doesn’t pull any punches (“Back when my daddy loved my mama, and he thought I’d be a son/Even though I’m just a daughter, I still pray I be the one”), yet Bey alights on an understated grace: “There’s a window in time when my daddy loved my mama/And for that I’m alive, and for that I’m a gem/I’m the only place that keeps a certain version of them.”

Time slows down on Remember Your North Star, prolonging the record’s heartache and amplifying moments of joy. It’s a collage of breakups, recriminations, and workaday exhaustion, each frustration deepening the well of discontent. Bey’s raps are delivered like voice notes, with a second-person frankness; sometimes, she has entire conversations with herself. The album’s messy candor is offset by Bey’s neo-soul suavity, the assured melodies of “keisha” and “alright” owing more to Scott and Badu than SZA’s atmospherics. For all the soul-searching, Remember Your North Star is effortlessly stylish, and there’s an unlikely humility in Bey’s quest for self-realization. – Pete Tosiello

33. Sault – Collected [Forever Living Originals]

The emergence of musical collective Sault into a disintegrating world in dire need of soulful uplift is prophetically timed. You could argue that no artist bottled the spirit of the BLM movement better than its pair of Untitled albums released over the spring and summer of 2020, positioning the group as a latter-day Rodriguez whose identity and connection to the cause seemed every bit as wholly mysterious and unexpectedly welcome.

Masterminded by UK artist Inflo, a composer, producer and celebrated collaborator of Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka among others, Sault continue to surprise. Only six months after their last official release, Air, they re-emerge to give away five albums via on a WeTransfer link (the password was “God is Love”), every one of which arrives fully formed. 11 presents the idea of Sault at its most elemental with slabs of danceable funk powered by Cleo Sol’s soaring vocals and instrumentation that recalls the potent soul power of Stax, Josie or Curtdom. Untitled (God) is a sprawling and episodic 21 track meditation on faith and divinity punctuated with gospel harmonies and celestial string arrangements. Earth pulsates with ritual chants, Afro-Caribbean drums, throbbing bass and Brazilian flourishes. Air is an orchestral song cycle unlike anything Sault have attempted so far, while Today & Tomorrow turns up the fuzz pedals and Wah-wahs for a touch of Chambers Brothers-style psychedelia. Together, they showcase Sault’s soaring ambition and stylistic range, a celebration of the kind of freedom that comes with foregrounding the music beyond a persona – a self-contained universe where sincerity is the driving force, willing a better world into existence with every note. – Joel Biswas

32. Open Mike Eagle – Component System with the Auto Reverse [Auto Reverse]

Come to Open Mike Eagle for a lot of things, but definitely do so for an unambiguously titled LP. Unapologetic Art Rap was unapologetic art rap about unapologetic art rap. Dark Comedy was dark comedy about dark comedy. You know what Anime, Trauma And Divorce was about. This one is a little different. This one is a sense memory. Inspired by the handmade mixtapes Mike produced on the titular all-in-one stereo growing up, this one radiates eldritch “music fan” energy. Mike gets beats from longtime hero Diamond D, then pulls him in for a verse. He gets Armand Hammer and Quelle Chris to go Soundbombing with him. He gets Video Dave and Still Rift because he always does and they complement Mike’s post-trauma, post-divorce headspace perfectly, geeking out over easy mic interplay, dusting off pre-pandemic clothes to see if they still fit, going with a hoodie instead.

The point, here, is that Mike is and has always been something of a miniaturist: he goes narrow with each concept because his central discography-length preoccupation is nothing less than hip-hop itself. Big topic; each album slices it differently. This one, at last, goes at the heart, and it sounds like it, like someone who has had a pretty rough couple years (see: Anime, Trauma And Divorce) getting back in touch with what matters. It all clicks into place on “For DOOM,” which is for DOOM, and which summons all the shaggy-dazzling energy of its inspiration. In looking at the artist’s life Mike remembers what endures, and the album flows from this epiphany. – Clayton Purdom

31. Wizkid – More Love, Less Ego [Starboy Entertainment/RCA]

After “Essence” became one of the biggest songs in the history of Afrobeats, Wizkid could have gone in any number of directions. He could have decided that now was the time to push his sound in a different direction and experiment. No one would have blamed him if he had decided to head in a more mainstream direction.

But instead of doubling down on big name collaborations, Wizkid did the opposite. He made fewer concessions to the US market, only providing a solitary Don Toliver feature to those in search of Lil Baby or Doja Cat. Instead, Skillibeng, Skepta, Arya Starr, Naira Marley and Shenseea came along for the ride.

The end result? One of the warmest, most soulful albums that you are going to hear on either side of the pond. As Wizkid’s career has progressed, his sound has matured and taken on a more full and lush tone. The difference between a song like “Show You The Money” (one of his earliest hits) and More Love’s “2 Sugar” is more than evident.

What could once be described as a raucous sound has become something far more soothing. It makes for an album that you can play over and over again, discovering new aspects of each groove every time around. For many artists, an album like Made In Lagos and a song like “Essence” would become an albatross, an impossible peak to re-obtain. For Wizkid? It’s just his normal cruising altitude. – Jeff Castilla 


With razor sharp taunts (“I’ll flip and tip a n*gga like a bar maid” was the joke that lit up breakout 2016 single “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”) and a flow so placid it sounds like he’s getting a foot massage in the booth, Knucks made it big (he currently has more than three million monthly Spotify listeners) off of supremely confident party raps that mirror the slick yet lackadaisical rhyme schemes of a pre-pastor Ma$e.

Yet on ALPHA PLACE (named after the low-income council housing estate in Kilburn, North London that the emcee calls home) Knucks takes off his usual cloak of invincibility to unleash a stunning series of storytelling songs that are achingly vulnerable. “All I wanted was my mum’s embrace” he recalls on 3 a.m. confessional “Three Musketeers”—this highlight is a refreshingly open-hearted fable about the pressures of children being forced to sell drugs, yet ultimately overcoming this toxic lifestyle for brighter pastures. It captures the spirit of fallen street soldiers with a focus that recalls 50 Cent’s “Ghetto Quran.”

Beyond fully fleshing out Knucks’ backstory, the artist should also be given enormous credit for the urgency that fuels ALPHA PLACE. Every guest, no matter how big or melodic (including Stormzy, Sainte, Lex Amor, SL) is challenged to rap back-to-back with their lead man, so they can all try to match the pace of a street cypher. There’s no wet autotune singing or phoned-in lovelorn verses from Ed Sheeran here; just bars.

On the record’s title track (which features the nostalgic chimes of South London-based saxophonist Venna), Knucks reflects with real regret about getting into beefs as a 10-year-old and how his worried mother subsequently prayed yet still “didn’t have enough beads on the rosary.” By giving us a direct window into some of the more desperate times of his life, you realize Knucks’ trademark quips (“One eye on the road like Fetti” he hilariously boasts on “Hide and Seek”) are really just a defense mechanism and chance to laugh to stop from crying. ALPHA PLACE will surely consolidate Knucks as a star, and finally make his fans feel like they understand the man behind the punchlines. – Thomas Hobbs

Rhys Langston – Grapefruit Radio (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Rhys Langston is the flâneur of Los Angeles. The Leimert Park native strolls around the city, casually surveying everyone around him between sips of Fernet. He observes how they perform being alive and synthesizes what it reveals about himself. It’s easy to imagine him scribbling these thoughts in a bar’s dark corner, stubbing another cigarette into an overflowing ashtray. The words run into the margins and fill the entire page, which he then takes to the studio and raps exactly as they appear. He’s the multi-hyphenate progeny of the L.A. beat scene, the punk poet laureate of the Project Blowed tradition.

Grapefruit Radio, Langston’s latest collection of bardic missives, is a fascinating listen. Over production full of sun-bleached L.A. jazz, he uses the malleability of language to investigate the malleability of identity. Langston is the child of a Black mother and a Jewish father, both of whom are working actors, so the language he uses about who he is becomes what he describes as a “latte-colored prosody;” he considers himself a “Black trapeze artist balanced with bagels [and] capers.” At times, he’s fired up, rapping about how his “political awakening began as a Black kid in synagogue.” Often he’s searingly, sneeringly funny, imploring other musicians to “decolonize their VSTs” after threatening to send “Thomas Jefferson’s ectoplasm through an infernal noise gate.” Grapefruit Radio is as acerbic as it is opaque, as guarded as it is vulnerable, a brilliantly blurry look at how weird this all is. – Dash Lewis

29. Theo Parrish – DJ-Kicks: Theo Parrish [!K7 Records]

In a year where pop superstars grafted onto the superficial signifiers of house music past, Theo Parrish captured the genre’s heartbeat on Detroit Forward. The legendary selector/producer was a teenage participant at the dawn of Chicago house, and he relocated to Detroit in the ‘90s as the style spread from the Great Lakes to the rest of the world, losing some of its soul to get-rich-quick interlopers along the way. In a 2013 interview with Crack Magazine, he said dance music “should be an honest reflection of the human condition. But there’s a tendency to make everything slick and pristine and take our human part out of it.“

Parrish’s contribution to the esteemed DJ-Kicks series is a corrective. The compilation of previously unreleased tracks from Detroit musicians is less a dance mix than an AND1 mixtape highlighting the city’s talent. Specter’s “The Upper Room” nods to classic house with ten minutes of staccato organ and kick drum. On “Moonlite,” keyboardist Ian Fink mutates the distinctive one-chord, three-bar phrase of a 1997 Parrish track along with two percussionists, recorded live at Fink’s Wednesday night residency at a Detroit winery. Meftah’s sampled drums on “Full” swing like mid-‘90s hip-hop and John C. brings a loping flow to match, boasting about his self-worth in one of the mix’s few raps. The disparate musicians and styles are all united in house’s utopian vision of loose limbs, shaking asses, and everlasting dopamine. Parrish’s compilation is proof that Black dance music is not bound to any synth patch, drum machine, or timeline, and it’s flourishing right now in Detroit. – Jack Riedy

28. FKA twigs – CAPRISONGS [Young Recordings]

The organizer Mariame Kaba famously describes hope as a discipline. Hope, not as something you feel at all times for no reason, but something that must be consciously practiced to sustain. I feel like CAPRISONGS approaches its joyfulness the same way. FKA twigs wrote her previous album, MAGDALENE, in part about a high-profile breakup with Robert Pattinson and the racist tabloid coverage that followed. Then last year, she accused Shia LaBeouf of abuse and sexual assault. On the closing track to CAPRISONGS, she admits that she once wanted to die. Still, this is some of the most resilient and joyful music that twigs has ever made. CAPRISONGS is inflected with pain, but it clings to the restorative properties of simple ideas: Be free, love more and have more fun. These are songs to go out with your friends to, to dance and cry in the club and have sex to. It’s bounce-back music for the pretty and sad.

Presented as twigs’ first ever mixtape, CAPRISONGS plays fast and loose with the format. There are more guest features here than on any of her other projects before, and twigs runs through genre influences including Afrobeats, dancehall, grime and hyperpop in rapid fire. A few are forgettable; most are tantalizing examples of what happens when one of R&B’s great ethereal vocalists changes in her avant-garde stylings for something a little closer to street level. The Shygirl-featuring “papi bones” sounds like something you could hear at either a dancehall party or a rave in outer space, while “darjeeling” is a drill-tinged ode to London that sounds like it was sung by angels.

CAPRISONGS was recorded in the early pandemic after an episode of creative burnout that left twigs unsure of whether she still wanted to make music; collaboration was one of those things she found peace in. Community, and the presence of love and care in her life, is another. Taken with the chart-reading interludes, maybe it seems like superfluous hippie shit at times, but CAPRISONGS is really about little more than just feeling yourself in the moment. I never thought that FKA twigs would be such an optimist, but then I found out she was born under a new moon in Sagittarius. – Kevin Yeung

27. Nancy Mounir – Nozhet El Nofous [Simsara Records]

Nancy Mounir’s debut album drifts like a dream through a landscape of forgotten names and neglected ideas. Flexing her skills as an arranger, performer, multi-instrumentalist and researcher, she has put together a masterful reinterpretation of classical Arabic repertoire that doubles as a master class of ambient mood building.

Her main collaborators on the album are the voices and instruments of musicians from the early 20th century. Mounira El Mahdeya, Saleh Abdel Hay, Fatma Serry, and others were bold artists in their day, pioneers during a period of immense creative output in Egypt, Mounir’s home country. Over eight tracks, Mounir samples these singers outright, reclaiming their heady microtonal tunings, non-metered rhythms, and gender-bending lyrics about late-night trysts and torrid love affairs. She slips into the open spaces left by the murk of 78 RPM crackle to add a minimalist accompaniment of piano, contrabass, woodwinds, and other instruments. On a technical level, the album brings together a multiplicity of techniques and approaches, and in less capable hands the result could have been an absolute mess. But Mounir’s keen ear and powerful understanding of her ghostly collaborators gives her the ability to navigate past and present with a grace that seems effortless.

Mounir is pointedly going against the grain with Nozhet El Nofous. She looks past the endlessly-replayed songs of canonical Egyptian artists like Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez to focus instead on the sounds of a more radical era. She also dodges the trend of slicing-and-dicing and effect-processing that you hear from some European and American experimental artists—rather than revel in the oldness or decayedness of her archival source material, she focuses instead on harnessing the treasure-trove of creativity and passion that the material contains. This approach gives Nozhet El Nofous its subtle but potent power: it’s a beautiful meditation with a burning-hot core. – Peter Holslin

26. Brian Jackson – This is Brian Jackson [BBE Music]

Music history is full of Scottie Pippen-type characters, but almost none have suffered as much as Brian Jackson. For too long the multi-instrumentalist has been considered a water carrier for the genius of his legendary musical partner, Gil Scott Heron. Jackson suffered years of royalties being denied, sampling checks not materializing, songwriting credits being minimized, a solo career that never got off the ground. By the time Scott Heron died in 2011, his one-time kindred spirit had spent years working as an IT specialist at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. It’s enough to make even the most saintly person feel a deep animosity burn deep in their chest and, for a time, he was angry.

But retiring from his day job has helped bring Jackson back. Allying with Phenomenal Handclap Band’s Daniel Collás, serving here as a producer and co-writer of five songs, This is Brian Jackson sees him sketching his own portrait. The title even seems pointed: this is Brian Jackson and everything Brian Jackson can do. The pieces of a man.

The album honors his past—the genesis of a couple of songs even date back to the 1970s. There’s cosmic keyboards, buzzing synthesizers, funky guitars, jazz flutes, Collás’s bongos, congas, and timpani. Jackson’s instinct for social justice is undimmed by age. The grooves on songs like “All Talk” and “Hold On” are slick and the melodies are exhilarating, facilitated by Jackson’s singing voice, less spirit-shaking than Scott-Heron’s baritone, but exciting nonetheless.

It’s tempting to believe that some fresh cultural gains this year will also benefit Jackson—the Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, E-40, and Too $hort supergroup project Mount Westmore became the latest to sample one of his and Scott-Heron’s compositions; the song “Pieces of a Man” was featured in an episode of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty of the same name that covers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion to Islam. But what’s most important is that Jackson has found a route to his creative center. It’s a reminder that the greats, no matter the hardships that land on them, are only ever a slug to the machine away from rediscovering themselves. – Dean Van Nguyen

25. Adrian Quesada – Boleros Psicodelicos [ATO Records]

Adrian Quesada was cruising around his hometown of Austin,TX when he first heard “Esclavo y Amor.” He said the ’70’s psychedelic bolero by the Peruvian combo Los Pasteles Verdes sounded like something a hip-hop artist might sample, something unlike anything he’s ever heard before. That retro sound haunted him so much that it’d serve as a beacon of inspiration for Boleros Psicodélicos, a further progression in the genre-bending he was so enamored with.

The Grammy-winning artist is known for bringing a modern, soulful groove to his other works like the Black Pumas and Grupo Fantasma. He goes a step further on this new 12-track album by recruiting some of the finest vocalists in the Alt-Latinx genre. The first track features Calle 13 musician iLe. The Puerto Rican songstress is known for her range of Latin musicality, and doesn’t fail to deliver a weighted blow to the heart on “Mentiras Con Cariño.” She cries, “Tu oleaje fatal / Buscaba destruirme / Y pude escapar / Sin llegar a hundirme,” (Your fatal wave sought to destroy me / And I managed to escape without sinking).

Historically, boleros have been composed by mostly men with male-centered storytelling that depict women as cruel seductresses. In modern times, female artists, like Kali Uchis on Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) and Mon Laferte on Norma, have been at the forefront of these revived songs. Their sharp emotional balladry grabs your ear with a confrontational sadness that demands to be heard.

One of two solo projects released in 2022, Quesada’s new work supports that movement. Other featured vocalists on his album lament a painful lovelorn memory in breathy prose. Like indie-pop artist Girl Ultra on “El Payaso,” who whispers over a haunting harpsichord and thumping palpitations. Or, Chicano-Batman collaborator Angélica Garcia on “Idolo,” whose vocals snake up and down against a psychedelic backdrop. Or, singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno on “Puedes Decir de Mi,” who belts a cover of Cuban soul legend La Lupe. All artists are known for their vocal range, and for their abilities to blend genres. They’ve each painted their own colors onto the album’s canvas refined by Quesada’s production. If Quesada’s goal was to propel a new generation of boleros (or maybe, more appropriately “boleras”) forward into the new age, this album righteously does that. – Liz Sanchez 

24. Brian Ennals and Infinity Knives – King Cobra [Phantom Limb]

Tariq Ravelomanana, better known as Infinity Knives, looped much of what would become King Cobra through a vintage tape machine Brian Ennals lugged around in his car. It adds a warmth, texture and humanity to the largely electronically composed album. And in a sense, the same can be said of how King Cobra feeds the news of the past few years back to us. The adventures of the self-described “post-apocalyptic RUN DMC” are painfully familiar; it’s an unflinching soundtrack to every protest against injustice in recent memory, full of fire and vitriol but somehow, without giving in to cynicism.

Yes, Brian Ennals and Infinity Knives are angry. About swastikas slathered onto doors, pedophile priests, and the Baltimore Orioles continuing to suck. But in all their anger, they’ve refused to give up on the idea that this world can be a better place. Ennals his sharp wit and ability to cut to the heart of an issue in a few words, paired with Infinity Knives’ singular brand of disjointed synthesizer funk, regularly flirts with nihilism, but never fully succumbs to it. There’s simply too much humanity at their core. Too much left for which they’re willing to fight. House the unhoused. Trans lives matter. Chug that motherfucking molotov cocktail and feel the heat of its flames lick your face. And somebody give The Black Eyed Peas a call; through coke-addled twitches and chugs of cheap beer, we’ve finally found where the love is. – Jaap van der Doelen

23. Brent Faiyaz – WASTELAND [Lost Kids]

Brent Faiyaz’s third studio album Wasteland is a masterwork of atmosphere. The record’s production, replete with slowly building keys and the brooding strings of three-time Grammy-winning violinist Jordan Waré, contours a dark, but elegant sonic landscape. It’s noir with an air of luxury — like the dark musk of a Valentino cologne, or the wine red of a velvet loveseat. It’s the perfect contrast to bring out the brightness in Faiyaz’s tenor voice as it flows through each track like a gentle breeze.

Despite the angelic voice, Faiyaz is full of contradictions. One moment, on “Rolling Stone” he’s admonishing his lover for accusing him of gaslighting; the next, on “FYTB” — shorty, it’s only you and me / ‘Fuck is you talkin’bout? — he’s putting on an olympic display of it. In a strange, roundabout way, this deceitfulness exhibited so plainly is honesty in its acutest form — and that’s a huge part of what makes Faiyaz so compelling. As he put it in an interview on his post-release press tour: “Everyone done been the problem. If you say you’ve never been the problem, you’re lying.”

Whilst much has been made about the commercial decline of R&B, Wasteland, which debuted at Number 2 on the Billboard 200, clearly has resonated. For a generation whose romantic lives have been defined by situationships and never-ending talking stages, perhaps the fairy tales of idyllic love that the genre is known for just aren’t cutting it anymore; perhaps, listeners are just looking for someone to be honest. – Dario McCarty

22. Lucrecia Dalt – ¡Ay! [RVNG Intl.]

Lucrecia Dalt is into rocks. Spend enough time on the Berlin artist’s Instagram page and you’re bound to find them: alien and austere forms, images of history and immeasurable forces laid bare. A similar approach courses through Dalt’s music, which frequently feels both inscrutable and ancient. On No era s​ó​lida, her record from 2020, Dalt conjured entire worlds out of flickering synthesizers and twilight-zone ambiance. It moved quietly and deliberately, opting for disorientation at every turn. Even the title—which translates to “she wasn’t solid”—suggested a transience, an unknowability.

If No era s​ó​lida was an exploration of the uncanny valley, then ¡Ay! might be best understood as an excavation. Throughout the record, she digs into the sounds she grew up surrounded by: specifically, folk musics from across South and Central America. But it’s hardly a time capsule. ¡Ay! feels both otherworldly and suspended outside of time; here, bolero and merengue are reimagined for a world of scraped-metal synthesizers and disquieting emptiness. It is richly textured and wildly imaginative; it takes centuries-old styles and rockets them into the future.

Throughout ¡Ay!, Dalt traces the experiences of Preta—an alien experiencing Earth for the first time. It’s fitting: the record’s sheet music might as well be a crumpled mess of timelines. It’s full of creeping double-basses and busted-amplifier ambience, disembodied poetry and horror-flick electronics. It plays like the soundtrack for a Soviet-era neo-noir, but it is hardly rote traditionalism; it gestures towards countless unknown futures by collecting half-remembered detritus and sepia-tinged beauty. Like the earth that Preta explores, and the earth that Dalt walks, ¡Ay! is an accumulation: of distant memories, of still-lingering traditions, and of radically new ideas, building on centuries of history and stretching towards the stars. – Michael McKinney

21. Quelle Chris – Deathfame [Mello Music Group]

There’s a beloved 1950s Bollywood film, Pyaasa, about a poet who’s ignored by the masses until something bizarre happens: Confused reports of a train accident lead everyone to believe he’s been killed. A conniving executive then publishes the poet’s work and markets it as posthumous, to great commercial success. At the end, the poet himself reemerges to the shock of his newfound fans—only for him to lament an artistic marketplace “where man’s status is a plaything,” where “death comes cheaper than life.”

Sixty-five years after Pyaasa’s release, Detroit rapper Quelle Chris has constructed a fitting portmanteau, Deathfame, to describe this phenomenon, and to grace the title of his latest album. The project demonstrates how the themes Pyaasa explored so long ago weigh on musicians like Quelle even today: remaining unappreciated while you’re alive, having your livelihood determined by a business that profits off artists’ deaths. “There’s no relentless celebration of people until they pass,” Quelle told Okayplayer this year. Like Pyaasa, Deathfame’s 14 songs provide a sobering example of how this fact undercuts artists while they’re still working. As Quelle raps on the title track: “Run this up like I’m dead, love me like you miss me … posthumous spit, let these corporations sink their fangs in my legacy’s neck.”

This isn’t a new theme for Quelle. The last time I wrote about him for this blog, it was to commemorate 2019’s “Obamacare,” in which he demanded credit for his decade-long contributions to the culture—e.g., making some of the best albums of the last decade and producing for rappers like Danny Brown. Yet while “Obamacare” sounded aggressive and bracing, Deathfame as a whole is grimmer and more pensive, with Quelle’s production alternating between murky sample-and-synth collages (“CUI Podest,” “The Agency of the Future”) and tinkling, jazzy piano loops (“So Tired You Can’t Stop Dreaming,” “How Could You Love Something Like Me?”). Throughout, his lyrics are less forceful than existential, tussling through what it means to be successful in a world that often neglects its creatives until it’s too late. Ultimately, Quelle is determined not to end up like so many others—he will earn his due recognition while he’s still here. After all, like he sneers on “Feed the Heads”: “If I’m not the greatest, then who am?” – Nitish Pahwa

20. Jay Worthy x Larry June x LNDN DRGS – 2 P’z In A Pod [GDF / The Freeminded / EMPIRE]

Despite their frequent collaborations, Jay Worthy and Larry June had never made a full-length album together until March’s 2 P’z In A Pod, a shimmering G-funk glide that depicts a luxurious mafioso lifestyle, accompanied by Suga Free, CeeLo, Roc Marciano and Jim Jones. It is a defiantly, effortlessly West Coast modern-day classic.

On “Vanilla Cream,” their sedated flows mirror their leisurely, care-free wake up routine. Worthy raps about his Egyptian cotton pillow sheets, velvet slipper house shoes and chai tea, before June details his start to the day; sipping juice, wiping down his kitchen counters and counting up his money. As the project progresses, you can hear their spirits gradually come to life as the expensive caffeine and exquisite strains of THC kick in.

The G-funk and ‘80s samples inspired production from Sean House (one half of LNDN DRGS), creates an ideal soundscape. There are bouncy, uplifting synths and dance-worthy drums paying homage to the Bay and L.A.’s influence. Worthy is grateful that he doesn’t need to be in the streets anymore, while June subsequently reflects on the paranoia and sacrifices made in order to get here. Their complimentary verses and chemistry reveal their ability to feed off of each other without stepping on one another’s toes. Both Worthy and June had typically prolific years, but this was the clear highlight. A trunk full of game that bumps unapologetically, full of impact, conforming to no one. – Isaac Fontes

19. Toro y Moi – MAHAL [Dead Oceans]

Toro y Moi aka Chaz Bear was a central ambassador of chillwave during its emergence. But Bear, originally from South Carolina but now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, has forged a more interesting career than that origin story suggests, his body of work characterized less by that initial chillwave benchmark than in his disinterest in being shackled to it. Bear long ago made it clear that any trappings associated with his baseline lo-fi indie rock aesthetic would be disregarded; as his career progressed, he has dabbled indiscriminately in dance pop, house, R&B, and crunchy, guitar-forward rock.

Mahal, Toro y Moi’s latest album, is similarly omnivorous but never self-consciously showy. It’s comfortable in its own skin, rarely straining to impress. Bear has often been concerned first and foremost with vibes, and on that front, he has delivered something unimpeachable. The songs here luxuriate, rarely overinflating the stakes; “The Loop” marinates in a stubborn cloud of FOMO anxiety, but its underlying posture still signals that whatever happens is probably fine, man.

That unpretentious approach allows Bear to prioritize songcraft, and Mahal contains some of his most undeniable material. These songs emanate a spirit of improvisation that suggests anything is in play, as when “Goes by So Fast” periodically collapses into weathered saxophone sighs. But the more traditional pop confections get under your skin too. The slithering funk of “Postman” is an earworm so potent as to be debilitating. The stoned, breezy “Last Year” basks in the glow that follows a therapeutic breakthrough. Mahal’s purest slice of pop, “Millennium”, suggests that no matter how dire the current circumstances, the arrival of a new year promises hope and opportunity. It’s not a sentiment I would typically echo, but in Bear’s hands, the optimism is contagious. – Alex Swhear

18. Boldy James x Nicholas Craven – Fair Exchange No Robbery [Nicholas Craven Productions]

In the streaming era where hip-hop albums have gradually and all the more frequently transitioned into 23-track vibe playlists in the name of our algorithmic overlords, Fair Exchange No Robbery dialed it back, stripped it down and found its pocket for a mere 30 skipless minutes.

Starring Montreal producer/ prominent Who Sampled adversary Nicholas Craven and Detroit rap veteran Boldy James, we once again hear the latter floating over the obscure, marauding, divine samples of a singular producer. It’s a tried and true formula, a foundation laid by The Alchemist, Sterling Toles and Real Bad Man’s Adam Weissman – for which Nicholas Craven has perfected in his own beautiful way. If you ever wondered what Boldy would sound like rapping over an ’80s sitcom intro, “Designer Drugs” has you covered. “Real hustler, I can sell a vampire blood,” he raps over triumphant sped-up horns. The minimalist “Scrabble” is a sum greater than its parts – there’s no reason why an instrumental that simple and a delivery that laid back should go that hard, but it does. “From where the FBI and DEA’ll snatch you/ Give you so many letters, shit look like you playing Scrabble,” Boldy raps, connecting an intricate web of ducking the alphabet out to get him.

Craven and Boldy saved their best for last with the outro “Power Nap,” a hip-hop-head lullaby where Boldy contemplates promethazine dreams, sleeping bags of a more eternal nature and federal nightmares. Boldy spends restless nights mourning the death of his brother. Craven skips the drums on the production as to not wake the listener from his trance, instead opting for the bare essentials — electric piano keys, stark guitar plucks and the haunting echoes of a chopped up backing vocal. “I go to sleep, go to sleep.” Québécois and Michiganders know all too well – sometimes you just need to bundle up and listen to some cold shit. – Patrick Johnson

17. Two Shell – Icons [Mainframe Audio]

Forget the send-ups of DJ culture, the marketing stunts, the seemingly unnecessary anonymity. Don’t treat Two Shell as something disruptive in the world of UK bass, or a chess move in any culture wars. Just press play. Dance. Jerk your head side to side. Sing along to the vocaloid stutters. Enjoy the controlled cacophony of the drums and bass, without placing it within any evolutionary strains of DnB. Let the Sophie-like sound design slot gracefully between the loosened gears of your brain, without overthinking whether that Sophie comparison is apt or sacrilegious. Or fuck it, be overzealous. Feel as though you’re hearing the next Daft Punk. The new Chemical Brothers. Get too excited about this music, both because it’s good – excellent even – but also because being overeager about something is a rarer and rarer experience in music these days. Coronate Two Shell, born from the world of bootlegs and lawsuit-baiting samples, because we don’t root enough for our heroes that aren’t already millionaires fronting corporate-entertainment conglomerates. Feel free to rescind their crown later if the duo can’t live up to the promise of the seven songs they officially released this year.

Very few artists have more than one “Ghosts” or “Memory” in them. Cycle back those seven songs again and again and again for as long as they keep delivering that dopamine rush unique to jungle, techno, and breakbeat, especially an iteration of those sounds both this chirpy and cheery yet also bone-gnawingly gritty. If they never release anything better than this, so be it. That’s why we make these lists anyway, to catalog what made us feel something before we have the hindsight to limit or dampen our excitement. However you want to interpret the arrival of Two Shell, predict where they might go next, or what they portend for the scene, what matters is that they are doing something worthwhile right now. – Pranav Trewn

16. NBA YoungBoy – 3800 Degrees [Never Broke Again/ Atlantic Records]

Youngboy isn’t asking for sympathy. One of the central theses of his album 3800 Degrees is spoken plainly on the first song: “Life of a G I don’t need you to pray for me.” He doesn’t claim to be a good person, and he most certainly isn’t given the litany of attempted murder and assault charges he’s plead guilty to, including one particularly heinous one against his ex-girlfriend. But by many metrics, Youngboy remains the most popular musician on planet Earth, and despite his massive personal character flaws, there’s a reason his music resonates with so many people. Maybe it’s the same craven reason so many people love serial killer documentaries, maybe it’s the titillating details in his personal anecdotes, or maybe it’s just as simple as the fact that his melodies sound sweet, and his musical aggression allows people a safe way to live out the daily rage that life can induce.

On 3800 Degrees, the outlaw superstar wraps all those appeals into arguably his best project to date, which says a lot given the torrid pace he’s been releasing music since 2015. Even though it is shorter than his more meandering projects, it’s still not neat: the music is messy, personal, and contains an abundance of conflicting thoughts and feelings over the aggressively bluesy Baton Rouge-twanged beats. He’s a street soldier, and still has the spirit of the kid who would steal car batteries to pay for studio time. And on the album whose cover art pays homage to fellow Louisiana legend Juvenile, he walks us through the life situations and decisions that paved his survivalist mentality in a way he hasn’t since some of his earliest projects. But he is also looking askance at his own life and the attitudes that raised him.

It’s difficult to parse and a mental hurdle for many rags to riches characters – how can the philosophies and attitudes that made him who he is, and got him this far, also be so destructive on a personal level and lead to so much pain and suffering? He wipes tears from his mother’s eyes and sees himself dying in them. He sends his heart out to his friends whom he admits will be gang-banging until they die, but then doubles back with melodic taunts against those who might test his mettle. He yells with spastic gun-toting onomatopoeia, then sings tenderly about the costs of such acts on his mental.

Many rappers live in the space between these two and rap or sing about the toll it takes on them, but it’s the details in Youngboy’s writing (he’s not raising havoc, he says he’s bringing the “night noise” with a shivering howl) that bring the album to life. 3800 Degrees doesn’t draw any moral lines either. When he tells his little brother to keep the machine guns out of their mother’s house, Youngboy leaves it up to you and God to judge him.  – Harley Geffner

15. Daphni – Cherry [Jiaolong]

Daphni has often felt like Dan Snaith’s reset button. It started as less of a side project than a side process: between Caribou records, Snaith would DJ club gigs around London, whipping up loops and edits to keep the dance floor moving. Sometimes, these loops would germinate into full Caribou songs. Others would simply exist as fun DJ tools. Cherry, Snaith’s third full-length as Daphni, uses these small moments to massively transcendent effect. He fully embraces the ethos of casual construction here, offering body-moving electronic music that has no other aspirations.

Snaith’s Daphni compositions only have a handful of elements, but each creates a seismic shift. The sudden addition of a hi hat or 909 clap often glues everything together, pushing the tracks out of headphones and firmly onto the dance floor. He somersaults through a ton of different styles; “Mania” features a filtered arpeggio cascading through a delay set against syncopated chords, creating a dubby acid house bounce; the fried disco loop of “Take Two” teeters between cocaine anxiety and close-eyed euphoria; Snaith combines a plunking piano line and shuffling percussion into the Theo Parrish microdose of “Amber.” Each track starts in media res and ends before you’re ready, but it’s more enticing than frustrating. It’s a shining testament to his instincts and skills as both a composer and a DJ. Cherry is perhaps the most cathartic, emotional, and beamingly joyful dance record in ages. – Dash Lewis

14. Earl Sweatshirt – SICK! [Tan Cressida/Warner Records]

What’s there to make of an artist who finally stopped making devoutly bleak music just as we reckoned with a crisis the likes of which we hadn’t seen in a hundred years? SICK! is Earl Sweatshirt at his most accessible. His vocals are mixed with resonant clarity and half of the beats he picked wouldn’t be out of place on an A$AP Rocky album. There is discernible optimism and acceptance here, even notes of triumph.

The title of the album refers to the ever-present pathogen that paid no heed to our plans, preferences, grievances, relationships, obligations, careers, and finances. It offered no lessons, revealed no truths. On SICK!, Earl documents the pandemic, not with the objective distance of Ken Burns, but as someone living its consequences and hard choices on top of everything else foisted on us by God, nature, and gain-of-function research.

As he was making this album, Earl entered his late twenties and welcomed his first son. Perhaps the heretofore unseen swagger and sense of purpose (“2010”) is Earl grasping at a world he wants for his son, where confidence and dedication earn some reward. And the headier moments (“Old Friend” and “Tabula Rasa”) are Earl acknowledging a life far more complicated, with sweaty late night assignations, sub rosa lessons of generations past, and a balkanized world of warring narratives, not to mention a virus that has swallowed the world.

Maybe. Earl may have shelved the more claustrophobic production of Some Rap Songs, but his writing remains opaque – evocative and thrilling, but inviting varied interpretation. For his coughing and unmoored audience, Earl offers no parable or sop, but a 24-minute cocktail of his excellent taste and the fractious chords of modern life. Avowedly honest, but for the moment, not despairing. – Evan Nabavian

13. Kikagaku Moyo – Kumoyo Island [Guruguru Brain]

Sayonara, Kikagaku Moyo. The Japanese wayfarers, who ushered with them a coalition of globally-reaching East Asian outfits under their Guruguru Brain label, spent 2022 saying goodbye. Their playful-as-ever fifth studio album serves as the quintet’s swan song, capping off a decade of channeling their street art sensibilities into mind-warping studio wizardry and stage-scorching live performance. Kumoyo Island features everything the group has become known for, from transcendentally meditative riffage to hallucinogenic harmonies. As has been a theme across their career, the album doubles as a history lesson on the undersong eastern lineage of psychedelic folks heroes, from Nobuyasu Okabayashi to White Heaven, that rivals our own fabled rockers in the West. Yet Go Kurusawa and co. have always aspired to more than paying their dues to past achievements, instead overshooting their influences to earn their own slot in the canon.

In its confident range of techniques and hand woven textures, Kumoyo Island could wind up a Rosetta Stone for future crate-diggers – a rich text of sample swatches producers will be pulling from for decades. Imagine a Ghostface-disciple tearing up a flip of the guitar and horn swell from “Cardboard Pile”, or Roc Marciano spitting over a sinister loop of the synths that close “Field of Tiger Lillies”. Across these 11 arrangements, Kikagaku Moyo string together a montage of sensory pleasures that scratch at the back of your brain. You could drop the needle at any point on the LP and immediately be transfixed, with iridescent hooks tucked into the most unassuming pockets.

If the record retails for $35 today, you can guarantee a used copy will double in value by the time of the next vinyl boom-and-bust cycle. It’s the kind of band Kikagaku Moyo was, a crew of talented journeymen so ahead of their time that their intended audience were the future nostalgics. If you failed to appreciate Kikagaku Moyo during their initial run, you will surely come to before long. – Pranav Trewn

12. CEO Trayle – HH5 [Do What You Love/10K Projects]

There’s a serious evil which pulls at the strings of HH5, the fifth album in CEO Trayle’s Halloween series. It is a macabre weight which runs deeper than the whispered, ghostly wheeze of his raps, deeper than the derelict vignettes he paints. Trayle erects a world which looks like our own but feels so precarious, as though the boogeyman is just around the corner waiting for your eyes to close.

It’s not a new theme for Trayle, the Atlanta-based rapper whom used the virality of “Ok Cool” and its Gunna-helmed remix to expand his reach. But there’s a new attention to detail on HH5, textures which run through the album’s 18-song tracklist and enrich the project in ways that were less present on earlier albums like 2019’s El Gato Baby and G.O.A.T. (Gotta Over Analyze Things).

Album opener “Sincerely, Yours” finds Trayle introducing himself as Virgil, guiding us down Fulton County’s nine layers of hell. Creeping past the hallucinatory nightmares of songs like “Chokehold,” “Spare Me” and the haunting “Alter Ego 2,” Trayle’s mastery of trap noir becomes more and more apparent. The subtle, restrained production allows Trayle to glide without many obstacles. Trayle raps against nostalgic horns on the Trauma Tone-produced “Craxk Flow,” his flow edging on a sound which could have come from somewhere in Michigan while also echoing the soft plugg of Atlanta underdogs like Tony Shhnow. Others, like “Took Some Time” feel like Santana off Percocets. Not every nook and cranny of the song is filled, but rather Trayle leaves negative space for fear to emerge. The album is deeply insular, sounding as though it was written and recorded while locked in a room of his own thoughts. There’s nothing gimmicky, either; Trayle’s HH5 feels as poignant a reminder as anything that reality is far scarier than any ghost story. – David Brake

11. Pusha T – It’s Almost Dry [G.O.O.D./Def Jam]

In his mid-40s Terrence Thornton is still rapping with a sneer after every sentence. With his clear enunciation and a cyanide tone, he’ll always be a lecturer at heart. DAYTONA was an exercise in the power of a lecture – why it works and who is done to. The hollowness of his younger foe finally nudged Push to his limit – so much so that the entire world found out about Drake’s familial neglect. While his recent album, It’s Almost Dry, doesn’t have any disses towards the aforementioned Toronto man, it is still the same old Push: snarling and spicy, under the microscope of his past crimes.

To take from Ghostface Killah, Push is saying “fly shit on records”, not recounting specific details in his criminal consciousness. On “Brambleton”, he does though, telling the story of how former Clipse manager, Anthony Gonzales, allegedly became a snitch. The hot steel on “Neck & Wrist” is one of the best beats of the year, with Pharrell’s shiny beat allowing Push to sound like Valee. “Dreamin of the Past”, produced by Nazi sympathizer Kanye West, is a beat that wouldn’t be out of place on The Blueprint. On that song, Push says something pertinent: “didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, just a better design.” And it’s hard to deny the caliber of production, track sequencing, and sheer rapping on It’s Almost Dry. With age comes something of value: he knows exactly what he’s doing. – Jayson Buford

WiFiGawd – CHAIN OF COMMAND (Unranked: POW Recordings)

WiFiGawd works with the same obsessive focus and tireless pace as a mad scientist trapped in a lab. Armed with a supernatural grasp for melody and an insatiable thirst for the most subversive beats on the internet, WiFi’s prolific output can seem mountainous to the uninitiated. Except there’s virtually no real possibility of experiencing listener fatigue with a futuristic stylist of WiFi’s nature. Dating back to the mid 2010s, WiFi has ceaselessly fed the Soundcloud underground with projects that push the genre to interesting sonic territories, all while embodying rap’s Golden-Era traditions.

The great Lucas Foster – who chronicled and prophesied WiFi’s rise like no other rap journalist working – once likened the DC rappers’ sense of rhythm and timing to that of a jazz drummer, and the characterization is strikingly apparent on every release. WiFi’s debut for POW Recordings, CHAIN OF COMMAND from last February, marks another masterclass in vocal elasticity and ranks among his most bulletproof projects to-date. COMMAND finds WiFi navigating a typically complex array of beats that range from loungey jazz-trap (“At Da Spot”) to fuzzy and distorted G-Funk (“365.”)

On an album filled with effortless rhyme schemes, “Kawasaki” stands out as a dazzling apex. Over kaleidoscopic keys that gleam against subdued 808s, the DC rapper alternates from harmonizing to slick rapping with a virtuosic ease. The way he abruptly stops and accelerates in entirely new vocal directions evokes a motorist knifing through a sand-smoothed desert. It’s astounding when you realize CHAIN OF COMMAND is one of five projects WiFi dropped this year, adding to his growing legend as an innovator with a relentless work ethic. – Ross Olson

10. Omar S – Can’t Change [FXHE Records]

Omar S album titles reveal a lot about the Detroit techno legend. The producer, who was once as well known for riling up the vanguard and pioneers of his city’s dance scene by displaying an almost willful ignorance, eventually let the music do most of the talking, creating funk-inspired dance floor grooves with such flavor that even the haters had to acquiesce. When Omar was tasked with creating his own mix for Fabric in 2009, he wanted to honor his city’s sound, but didn’t want to bring back oldies and wasn’t fucking with anyone of his generation. So, in an all-time nut-swangin’ move, the mix was made entirely of his own songs. The equally self-confident It Can Be Done but Only I Can Do It dropped two years later, and helped turn Omar S into a full-fledged electronic star.

In 2022, he came through with the stellar surprise release, Can’t Change. Almost two decades into his career, Omar S has perhaps come to terms with who he is as a person and a songwriter. Can’t Change confirms that at least in terms of the latter, he belongs in the same category as those heroes he once scorned. There are standouts aplenty, but I’m particularly fond of “Start This Over Again,” the Supercoolwicked-assisted acid house jammer is built around an infectious piano groove and vocals from his frequent Detroit collaborator. It seems straightforward, but like all of Omar S’ best dance floor hits, each listen reveals new, radiant layers that reach towards Detroit’s past and catapults it into the future. – Will Schube

9. Kendrick Lamar – Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers [pgLang/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope Records]

Artists are no strangers to using their music as therapy and their audiences as therapists. But this year Kendrick made that concept as literal as ever before, using the album as a couch to scrape his soul and dump his notebook. It’s brave work, setting his demons straight in public on an album about the messiness and contradictions, the inescapable unbearableness of the self. But it’s work that some argued he should’ve done years ago and kept to himself. For instance, Kendrick, our Kendrick, opens ceremonies by encroaching on the territory of the dreaded “Free Thinker” combatant in the culture war, lashing out against censorship in his music, thought, and speech when calling out, *deep breath* cancel culture as a drunken and fascistic body politic. On “N95,” after ranting for a while, he sets expectations for the proceedings, “Oh you worried bout a critic?”

Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers can be accused of committing the following sins, each unforgivable in its own right: homophobia, dead naming (“Auntie Diaries”), misogyny, depictions of domestic violence (“We Cry Together”), platforming convicted sex offenders (“Silent Hill”), and perhaps the most damning to some, the worst betrayal of their fallen savior: hypocrisy, lazily passing the buck to an inheritance of loss and cycles of poverty and violence to explain/excuse shitty words and deeds (The crux of whether or not you can buy into the entire album).

This is all a shallow reading of course, one that doesn’t bother to parse Kendrick’s intention in including all this on his album. His defenders will fairly argue Mr. Morale is merely utilizing all the world-building, nuanced character work, and complex literary devices he once employed to create the classics we loved him for, when they cohered with a noble worldview and corresponding values. But now, he’s turned these tools to weapons used to look inward and interrogate himself, his past, his behavior, and his beliefs. To which his harshest critics could fairly clap back: Who gives a fuck about your art and your process? You’re putting lives and entire vulnerable communities at risk by using words and ideas that can easily, willfully be misread and manipulated by bad faith fans. And agree or disagree with the responsibility of the artist to make every thought and feeling readily obvious to those fans, those critics, on a base level, are correct.

The reasons why Kendrick initially earned his accolades and built that trust with those former fans turned critics are apparent throughout the album. He is, without question- as he will tell anyone who will listen- still the greatest rapper alive. Over a score that reflects Kendrick’s inner turmoil, noodling around jazz piano one moment, then bouncing to his city’s native electro synths the next- bar by bar you are inside the brain of a genius thinker delivering spoken word polemics that force you to sit up and pay attention with cutting insight embedded in rococo wordplay. You simply can’t passively listen to Kendrick Lamar, a nearly extinct quality in rap.

Love it or hate it, this album represents the greatest test and accomplishment of Kendrick’s gifts. He’s no longer reaching for low fruit and swinging at the piñatas of the state. This time he’s taking aim at an army that has been in the trenches everyday for years, who speak his language and have practiced the tactics he helped teach them. They’re unmoved by his stature, comfortable returning fire at whoever challenges their authority. He comes for us, putting himself first and foremost at the head of the charge, and brings new light and perspective to stale and boring arguments.

The album is far more than the controversial moments, the provocative third rail licking its critics reduced it to. Kendrick is fighting for his soul on “Rich Spirit” and elsewhere, trying to find himself inside a modern prison of wealth and celebrity, challenging himself to be a generous partner, an evolved nephew, a good person. This is the sort of uncomfortable assumption testing, a refusal to settle with himself we all could use. Dismiss him if you will, as a vocal minority of his fanbase has, but that may have been his intention in the first place. He appears ready to move forward on his journey with or without us. Say what you will about his logic and reason, but that takes courage and conviction.

At some point we as a culture have to reconcile the idea that in some corners, “This Is What The World Sounds Like.” That all of us are shitty and flawed main characters working our way towards grace from the ocean floor of our personal trauma plots, placed there by structures and systems intended to drown us. As Kendrick, that supreme avatar of Obama-era political virtue says, everyone is stupid, and as he is answered on “Father Time”: We all need to talk to someone. It’s a sentiment that even applies to our unimpeachable heroes and saviors, of which we have frighteningly few left, which should maybe force us to reconsider our tendency towards blind hero worship, the all white or all black hats we assign others to wear.

The album demands we live in the world as it is, not as we wish it could be. It can also be seen as making us choose between the upstanding and performatively righteous young rapper we fell in love with, and the the fucked up, disappointingly fallible rapper in front of us. But really, it’s a demand to accept the duality of Kendrick Lamar, and accept that that Chimera is a single, complicated human being. It’s the messiest and most challenging album I’ve heard this year, and my greatest praise, and most damning condemnation, is seven and a half months and many listens later, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. – Abe Beame

8. Ralfy the Plug – Skateboard P (Deluxe)/Pastor Ralfy 2 (Deluxe) [Stinc Team]

It felt like South Central multi-hyphenate Ralfy The Plug spent every waking day of the past 365 debunking the bullshit, stratums of nonsense profligated in equal measure by bummy opps and the bloodthirsty State. Yes, he can rap on the level of his late brother, iconographic flu flammer Drakeo The Ruler. No, this isn’t just a continuation of big bro’s patented “nervous music” and stylistic singularities. On the duo’s “Who Car We Using,” Ralfy rhymes that “this is ARSON music.” Yes, he’s raking in stupid paper and is almost certainly with your girlfriend as you read this. No, Ralfy’s “not a pimp, I’mma ruthless coach/you know why The Plug came over here, for blues and throat,” he clarified on “Kudos.” Yes, he and the Stinc Team are home from Men’s Central. No, they didn’t say a word, go ask former District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Ralfy was quite literally fighting for Drakeo’s life on the night of his assassination in Inglewood, scrapping in that same fatal ambush. In the year since, Ralfy’s been soldiering for everything his brother and crew mates minted.

The worlds he invited us into in 2022 were somehow hilarious and thrilling, from January’s blistering Pastor Ralfy 2 to the walk-in touchdown that was Skateboard P to the triple-digit video output on YouTube (among the highlights: a loosey that basically functions as foreclosure over the “Stunt 101” beat, yup, that’s his now). Grief and get-back have never felt this funny. Purple four ounces slushed into Jamba Juice. Enemies’ wifeys selling the cat and turning Christian Mingle dot com to an OnlyFans. Scam victims and ass-beating recipients thankful for the mere chance to meet The Plug.

Like Drakeo, Ralfy invented code that will be forever etched in his listeners’ souls (in particular, the phrase “Perc-y meat” is prolifically inspired and very disgusting). Unlike Drakeo, the man dropped a country-pop album that merged a fugitive, pistol-brandishing NoCap with a rejuvenated Sean Kingston. Pastor Ralfy 2 and Skateboard P are both furnished by longtime collaborators like ThankYouFizzle, Al B Smoove, RonRon The Producer and cohorts, but the copious amount of co-productions make for some truly complex and dense landscapes. Expensive swords clink, Tibetan winds and harp plucks ring out, drums spastically cascade. Ralfy emerges from all this sounding like prime Suga Free atop the pagoda, and looking like LA’s most promising talent since The Ruler himself. – Steven Louis

7. Kuedo – Infinite Window [Brainfeeder]

The list of musicians who began releasing music in the dubstep era who are still creating interesting art is slim, but Kuedo makes the process look easy. After throwing Vangelis, Lex Luger and footwork in a blender for 2011’s Severant and pivoting towards more experimental territory on Slow Knife, Kuedo (née Jamie Teasdale) delivers his most accomplished work yet on Infinite Window, combining dance music drums to increasingly sophisticated synth lines, resulting in a work of pure imagination.

While Infinite Window would be a thrilling listen in any era, it feels particularly impressive in our current context, where streaming services devalue instrumental efforts by packaging them as bland mood music to wash dishes to. While tracks like the triplet heavy “Time Glide” will certainly get your plates clean, personally, I found it to be the perfect record to put on while reading high concept science-fiction, as Kuedo continues to reimagine the glassy textures of synthesizers past into new sonic vistas.

While the record remains indebted to both classic film scores and dance music’s rhythmic innovations, the record’s home on Brainfeeder should serve as a sign that there’s plenty to dig into for lovers of abstract hip-hop. It’s not hard to imagine Teasdale coming up on SP-404 grooves rather than tech-step Drum & Bass, had he grown up in California instead of England, only to arrive at this same place. Divorced from scene politics and carefully considered, Infinite Window is the best kind of “mature” album, one fully realizing the potential shown in its creator’s wild and woolly youth, without losing the enthusiasm and energy that got us here. – Son Raw

6. Young Slo-Be – Southeast [KoldGreedy / Thizzler On The Roof]

On August 5 2022, about six weeks after the release of Southeast, Disean Jaquae Victor was murdered in Stockton, CA – the same city he told me that he was planning on leaving once he was financially stable enough. In hindsight, our conversation feels foreboding. We discussed the tragic passings of Bris and Drakeo the Ruler, both friends and collaborators, reflecting on Slo-Be’s fondest memories of the two whisper rap pioneers. He had a tendency of morphing grief into celebration, celebrating legacies and lives lived instead of dwelling on loss. Music was his outlet.

Southeast is a horror film on wax. Young Slo-Be says it himself on “Rock Out”: “Last skit was a movie, n***a, that part.” From the cover art to the instrumentals, Slo-Be creeps around the corner of Seventh St & Nightingale Ave. His lyrics itch for self-indulgence and condemnation through lust-driven R&B samples and murky bass drum hits.​ The soundscapes crawl like spiders, nimbly arpeggiating and oscillating to match your blood as it curdles through your veins.

Death scores the album. Final moments flash in and out of consciousness. Young Slo-Be posthumously features Bris on “Bedrock” alongside EBK Young Joc, reviving the once-leaked song for the three of them to shit talk one last time. Slo-Be repeats Drakeo’s mantra, “We Know the Truth,” on songs like “This Ain’t That” and “Track Stars” as a postmortem tribute to yet another West Coast trailblazer. Even on “Blast It,” Slo-Be eulogizes an unnamed cuddy. He reminisces about the last night they spent together and the bittersweet memory of telling his friend that he loved him, one last time. 

Young Slo-Be prophetically closes out the album with the “Don’t Kome 2 My Funeral,” a 2010s-era sample drill track that delivers his own elegy. Donning an iced-out 2100 chain and a diamond grill, the music video depicts him standing at the altar, confessing his sins once and for all. Ignoring the cross tattooed on his right cheek, Slo-Be proclaims: “All my life I’ve been a fuck-up / I already know I’m going to hell, shut the fuck up.” He only repents for the pain he’s put Nikki through, and he only wishes for Man Man and Diamond J to know that he loves them too.His dying wish was that we “free the thugs.” Young Slo-Be didn’t want us at his funeral.   – Yousef Srour

5. billy woods – Aethiopes [Backwoodz Studios]

Maybe it’s a simple coincidence, a byproduct of cause and effect. Perhaps it was inevitable that the singular, fractured narratives of billy woods – a Nobel Prize caliber writer – would eventually deepen in scope and mainstream music critics making a big show of how smart they are would eventually catch up. I know, I know; density begets portentous exploration, but much of woods’ gifts are lost in such a practice. Like his second-to-none gallows humor: shooing a crack smoker away from his apartment building, a mother’s bemusement over a pair of “almost new waterproof boots” lifted off of a deceased man.

Thematically, the characters of woods’ writing—which possibly includes, as some have presumed, woods himself—aren’t too far removed from the ones of the narratives he’s been brilliantly sketching since the days of History Will Absolve Me. They find themselves somewhere between here and spiritual (or material annihilation); crouched alongside cultural irony, historical figures from the monuments to the deep cut list, and uncertain and unsympathetic circumstances. On Aethiopes, woods fine-tunes his ability to write full stories into single bars, to recite full worlds into his verses. He covers the rush and the dread of emotional infidelity; explores a community of teenagers in various states of processed trauma; catalogs the numerous problems you’ll face if you go to your supplier with that “I don’t have it” shit.

But it’s Preservation’s sample-snitch-proof production that elevates Aethiopes onto another level of woods’ aesthetically and intellectually daring work. Spanning the globe for musical inspiration, the veteran beatmaker dug even deeper in the crates than his inspired 2020 album Eastern Medicine, Western Illness to supply woods with instrumentals to match the emotional (and sometimes moral) complexity of his words. There’s the wailing, layered psychedelia of of “No Hard Feelings,” the downcast, ominous folk of “Christine,” the Ethiopian jazz (and what the real heads called the new music) of “Haarlem” and the twilit harmonica(!) of “NYNEX” (featuring the historic team-up of Armand Hammer and rhyme superduo in the making, Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey).

The man known as billy woods could never be misinterpreted as toxic optimist, but his words provide relief to survivors of atrocities both political and personal. Even when he says, “True, children are the future, but the future you building already look miserable.” To be alive is to survive misery, so you might as well create beauty out of its ugliness. – Martin Douglas

4. Drakeo the Ruler – Keep The Truth Alive [Stinc Team]

The challenge of producing a posthumous album is unavoidable and obvious: how do you make something that sounds alive? Efforts cobbled together by estates of dead artists and bad-faith record executives intend to celebrate and extend the artist’s legacy, but usually do the opposite; they extend not the artist’s work but the tragedy of their untimely death through the inescapable feeling that the artist would never actually make this album.

Released eight months after his murder, Drakeo the Ruler’s first posthumous work feels like a magic trick. His brother Ralfy The Plug and the extended Stinc Team family assembled a real, living, breathing record – arguably his most laser-focused and consistent since his 2017 masterpiece, Cold Devil.

In the year following his incarceration, Drakeo recorded and released music at a breakneck speed. He released a much-lauded trilogy of albums (We Know the Truth, The Truth Hurts and Ain’t That The Truth), while finding time to drop a collaborative tape with his brother Ralfy (A Cold Day In Hell) and re-record his 2020 album Thank You For Using GTL, originally captured through a jail phone. Drakeo was making up for lost time, reclaiming the throne of LA’s premier rap stylist. It felt like more than Drakeo just capitalizing on what he knew was his moment. It felt like he was purging his past self, burning through the hundreds of pages of raps he’d written while behind bars, finishing what he started with Cold Devil all those years earlier, before he’d been unjustly ripped from the streets by vengeful and corrupt enforcement. It felt like closure.

By comparison, Keep The Truth Alive feels like rebirth. It sounds like Drakeo moving beyond the trauma of his past and finally looking forward with perspectives new and fresh. “Get Yo Boogie On” and “Hang With The Opps” have genuine single potential and elevated Drakeo’s signature brand of nervous rap to new, club-friendly heights, with the former clocking in at under a minute and thirty seconds long, easily able to be played three times in a row. “John Lennon” is a tornado of rock references and double entendres that surely has the Beatles frontman himself spinning pleasantly in his grave.

It’s hard to pick one favorite song or moment because they all flow together so seamlessly, and at a short and sweet 38 minutes, it’s meant to be played all the way through in a single sitting. In between songs are audio clips ripped from Drakeo’s now-infamous Instagram Live sessions, making it feel as if he were still alive reintroducing classic Drakeo-ism’s like “won’t be doing that!” and “them yo friends?!” into the lexicon. It’s more thoughtfully put together than previous Drakeo albums, which wouldn’t always be a compliment coming from a fan of his long, scattered album formula. But in the hands of Ralfy and in-house producers like Thank You Fizzle and Al B Smoov, the album does exactly what the title promises and shows us another side of Drakeo in the process. Just remember: It’s DRAKEO not Drake-O, get it right. – Donald Morrison

3. Makaya McCraven – In These Times [International Anthem]

The exceptional talents of Makaya McCraven are such that International Anthem, the Chicago jazz–not–jazz powerhouse, was initially founded as a hub for his ideas (and those of his friends, and friends of friends.) Despite all of McCraven’s accomplishments and recordings for the label, In These Times got marketed as the album he always wanted to create—a seven-years-in-the-making mission statement that sums up his ideas of improvised ensemble music sharpened by a drummer/producer’s ear. It also marks the first official co-release between his musical home and the legendary UK indie label XL.

So, the stakes were high, but In These Times makes good on its promise of complexity—rhythmically, referentially, historically—the second you press play. It starts off with a Harry Belafonte quote over hectic strings that evoke the formalism of Steve Reich, before giving way to the most expansive instrumental, topped by a divine alto sax solo. It combines Minimal, Dorothy Ashby, and the stargazing spirituality of Pharoah Sanders all within a matter of minutes. One track further, “The Fours” builds just as broadly, only to get crushed into structure by a snare so heavy that it drags along the arrangement like an anchor. From there, McCraven cruises through Khruangbin-type-psychedelic romp (“Dream Another”), swaying strings (“Lullaby”), mid-tempo grooves that are pleasing but never banal (“So Ubuji”, “The Title”), and drum-less nostalgia reminiscent of Bill Lee’s best scores for his son (“The Calling”).

Listening to In These Times feels like eavesdropping on a séance of close conspirators. No wonder, if you look up the credits, you find many core players from the Intl. Anthem extended universe, such as Junius Paul, Jeff Parker, Brandee Younger, Greg Ward, and Rob Clearfield. The way how all these singular artists gather behind McCraven’s vision is a perfect display of the label’s biggest strength – building a truly communal artistic movement, a constellation of individual talent that rises to new heights when they collide.

For all it is, aimed to be, and accidentally became along the way, In These Times is a perfect record. The rare case where ambition and virtuosity are so neatly packaged, you can put it on to calm and disturb your senses in equal measures. – Julian Brimmers

2. Roc Marciano x The Alchemist – The Elephant Man’s Bones [ALC / Marci Enterprises / EMPIRE]

In the first draft of The Elephant Man’s Bones, Roc Marciano selected the mink coat-in-the-wintertime beats from Alchemist that you’d have expected. You can easily picture the sound: filthy soul loops meticulously outfitted for the flamboyant venom of Hempstead’s underworld kingpin. It probably would’ve been great, but it wouldn’t have been the flawless grade of blood diamonds-white bricks-and-Brioni rap that dropped at the dregs of a cold summer.

Somewhere within the experiment, Alchemist did what separates producers with panoramic vision from merely outstanding beatmakers. He told his favorite working rapper that what they were making was conventionally excellent, but rarely exceeded the sum of its parts. By embracing a psychedelically minimalist path, they could engineer something exactly unlike anything that either legend had made in almost a quarter-century in hip-hop. The finished product yielded an acid-boiled masterpiece that wrings new life from an old tradition – one that the bulletproof vets have once again reanimated.

The Elephant Man’s Bones is the soundtrack to robbing a Swiss bank with a semi-automatic and not a stain on you. It’s the music cue for hijacking a yacht filled with Colombian cocaine smugglers forced to begrudgingly offer praise for your impeccable plotting and sheer chutzpah. Roc Marciano raps like a wary hustler who could outtalk death, a shrewd knockout artist always quick to block and counter-punch a blind jab, a chess grandmaster who could checkmate Deep Blue in a few moves and yawn. He is rap’s Most Interesting Man in the World, if he received his scarves from Pablo Escobar.

Only vintage Prodigy, Nas and the Wu have been as effective as condensing so much game into so few syllables. Roc tosses off one-line aphorisms with a sense of humor as dry as the deformed skeleton that inspired the album title: “A hurtful text couldn’t disturb my rest; Every b*tch wearing cheetah ain’t a cheater; you ain’t a boss till you take a loss.” He’s dropping bodies in the swamp and scrawling epitaphs with Montblanc pens. It sounds simultaneously written on a private jet at 36,000 feet and in a Bronx sewer surrounded by crocodiles.

The Alchemist has reached a pinnacle where Future and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard are his only rivals for the throne of the “most accurately named artist” in hip-hop history. This is more cosmic sorcery: a woozy labyrinth of negative space and haunted revenge fugues. All excess whistles and noise are slashed away in a quest for leanness, leaving nothing but the bell-ringing essence. 35 songs were trimmed to 14. The drums sometimes sound like the whispered underwater threats of Luca Brasi’s ghost. At other times, they slap like they’re backgrounding the execution of an Omerta-violating traitor, sentenced to be buried alive underneath a mountain of Timb’s.

This is their Casino: a mid-career work from two masters still in their prime, exploring familiar themes but subtly refining and expanding their technical innovations. The guest list is limited. Action Bronson and Boldy pop up like consiglieres, as violently effective as a baseball bat in a cornfield. But it’s the synchronicity of Roc and Al that drives the action, the best combination of Jews and Black people since Larry David and Leon.

With The Elephant Man’s Bones, they have crafted something intricate but simply adorned, artesian and elemental, mysterious and mathematical. Timeless as a pyramid, thrilling as a tomb robbery. Once again, Roc and Al exhumed the past, transforming it into fossil fuel that will last forever. – Jeff Weiss

1. Sudan Archives – Natural Brown Prom Queen [Stones Throw Records]

The prom queen has long been the only kind of ingenue that America will allow for: virginal yet impossibly sexualized, self-assured among her peers but deferential to the adults in the room. She’s young, she smiles. She’s white. Sudan Archives’s sly, kaleidoscopic second album, Natural Brown Prom Queen, subverts that archetype as a matter of course. But it’s not interested in simple narrative reversals, and it wastes little time dispensing them. This is instead an album that explores—and, frequently, widens—the gaps between poise and doubt, comfort and unease, belonging and not. The didactic way to do this would be for Sudan to write about containing these contradictory feelings and struggling to reconcile them. But she chooses, over and over, to wedge her way into those faultlines by leveraging tones and rhythms that shift rapidly, often in conflict with one another. And so she arrives, over and over, at places where familiar emotions are processed without the bias of routine or those organizing narratives—and are left to feel raw, alien, totalizing.

To get there, the songs molt. Sudan writes and produces on virtually all of them, and plays multiple instruments, including her signature violin; she has deep roots in the experimental music scenes of Los Angeles, where she lives, and Cincinnati, where she’s from, as well as years spent studying American and African pioneers. That depth of knowledge and experience enables her to slink from “Ciara”’s taunt to “Selfish Soul”—a moment of such catharsis (“Am I good enough?/Am I good enough?”) that its placement in the album’s opening third is itself a provocation—without ever seeming scattered or in anything less than total control. “NBPQ (Topless)” telegraphs its hairpin turns while “Yellow Brick Road” treats the listener like the frog in water that boils too slowly to raise any suspicions. By the time Sudan sings, on closer “#513,” that “Hollywood will make you hollow,” she’s earned the latitude to make each lyric its own prism: the line is at once her own lament and received wisdom for her to reject, to transcend.

For all those smartly integrated influences and all that virtuosity, Natural Brown Prom Queen is never ostentatious. This is due in part to its pacing, which is perfect down to the second and allows ideas to resolve (or stay irresolvable) according to their own momentum. So Sudan, despite being an auteur by any definition, seldom shows her thumb on the scale. Rather than artificially elongating tracks into sprawling suites or chopping them into schizophrenic bursts, she seems to have excised everything but instinct. At the risk of sounding cultish, there are points on Prom Queen that strike you as channeled. This is never clearer than on songs like “Freakalizer,” where her flirtatiousness is set against elements of the beat that threaten to turn the whole thing mournful. Sudan wants her writing—diaristic enough to have real names and proper nouns, but epigrammatic when it suits her—to be used as one mood among many, her determination and despair ringing out and then lingering as texture. The self becomes diffuse but never disappears. —Paul Thompson

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