This is the one, isn’t it? The biggest song on the biggest album of the year. “Anti-Hero” arrived fully cooked and ready to dominate the charts and the conversation. From a songcraft perspective, this is Taylor Swift flexing with her signature big hook writing and gorgeous shimmering production on display. Lyrically, ya girl is cramming a lot of ideas that should feel cluttered and messy but are expertly organized (“Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism” is just not a line I associate with a Billboard No. 1 song). But it’s the audacity to slip in “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby,” knowing it will be the line to set off a million tweets, that really takes it to the stratosphere. Pair that with the potent virality of “It’s me, hi / I’m the problem, it’s me,” and it’s clear we never really stood a chance — “Anti-Hero” was always going to take over the year. —Elamin Abdelmahmoud
“Munch,” Ice Spice
Amid the chaos of a frenetic New York drill beat, Ice Spice floats above it all on “Munch,” with the breathy defiance of somebody too cool to be bothered. “You thought I was feeling you?” she says with searing dismissiveness on the extremely addictive hook. Her melodic bars induce a physical reaction: my back straightens, my chest puffs out, my step picks up a swagger, my confidence swells. “Munch” is the ultimate flex song. In an interview with SiriusXM, the 22-year-old Bronx native said she conceived it while sitting in her room “challenging myself to make the quickest song I could make, and I was just like, ‘I’m not going to think too much.’” The track runs less than two minutes. She released it online in August, and within weeks it was going viral on TikTok, Drake was sliding into her DMs, and Cardi B and Meek Mill were posting freestyles over the instrumental. In a world of broken systems and antiquated conventions, Ice Spice offers a guiding light for navigating through the muck — and a catchy anthem for a generation that promotes the wisdom of working smarter not harder. —Albert Samaha
“Bad Habit,” Steve Lacy
Thanks to TikTok, this infectious earworm made its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, moving Lacy, a 24-year-old guitarist and songwriter who’s worked with indie heavyweights like Vampire Weekend and R&B group the Internet, right into the mainstream. “I bite my tongue, it’s a bad habit,” Lacy croons in an oddly appealing, plaintive tenor from the point of view of a chump who wishes he had sealed the deal with a love interest. The mellow guitars and repeated refrain of “I wish I knew you wanted me” make this easy background music for any What I Do in a Day video. Melancholic but in a groovy way — what’s not to love? —Tomi Obaro
“Tití Me Preguntó,” Bad Bunny
At first, “Tití Me Preguntó” sounds like a classic party anthem. Fueled by ferocious dembow and suave braggadocio, the track embodies the lavish, sticky-summer spirit of Bad Bunny’s blockbuster album Un Verano Sin Ti. He raps smirkingly about his “muchas novias,” recounting for an auntie all the girls who want him: “una colombiana y una mexicana, otra en San Antonio y una dominicana.” But when Bad Bunny’s auntie scolds him during the bridge, calling him “muchacho del diablo” and telling him to settle down, he actually seems to listen to her. By the last line of the song, he drops the playboy persona, confessing, “Ya no quiero ser así, no.” He turns to face his own emotional avoidance, his indulgence in masculine fantasies of rifling through women. It’s a startling transformation arc, which somehow manages to satirize songs that treat women as sexual commodities without puncturing the song’s irrepressible joy. —Izzy Ampil
“Yuck,” Charli XCX
One of my favorite tweets this year read: “Charli XCX songs are just like ‘I’m a cheater I’m a shitty girlfriend I have commitment problems I’m a club rat I’m a hag.’” It made me think immediately of the funny and addictive “Yuck,” from Charli’s 2022 album Crash. A protest against the cringe of infatuation, this electropop ditty details all the indignities of love. Butterflies? No. Candlelight? Uh-uh. All that lovey-dovey shit? Fuck all the way off. During the chorus, Charli liberally repeats the song’s title; you can almost hear her nose wrinkle and lips curl into a sneer. “You tell me I'm pretty,” she squawks. “Yuck.” There’s some equivocation here: Either she’s not that into this paramour or she hates romance itself because it makes her feel things. Or maybe the answer is in the middle? It’s the most middle-grade vibe in the world and I love it. —Estelle Tang
“About Damn Time,” Lizzo
Who among us wasn’t sort of depressed this year, a little stuck in the mud? Lizzo formulated the perfect antidote to the sad, humdrum vibe of the pandemic’s post-vaccine era in “About Damn Time.” Never was I more ready to turn up the music, turn down the lights, and get out from under the pressure of these terrible times than now. I eagerly slathered on the sexy summer night party energy channeled in her song, ready to prance around New York City to the hot beat of a flute. “About Damn Time” is an anthem about strength, survival, healing, and celebration, about finding your groove again — and girl, did I need it. Much has been said about how the world will never be the same again after these unprecedented times, but it’s Lizzo who reframes this shift triumphantly: “I'm not the girl I was or used to be / Bitch, I might be better.” —Venessa Wong
“As It Was,” Harry Styles
It makes sense that this song became 2022’s biggest monocultural musical artifact. Styles’s lyrics about nostalgia sound like they could be about anything: a breakup, childhood, or prepandemic innocence.
From the toddler’s voice in the opening, to Styles's own theatrically subdued vocals, the pop star presents himself as a kind of sensitive daddy figure, caressing you into accepting loss or change. Amid retro synths, he emotes about loneliness: “In this world, it’s just us / You know it’s not the same as it was.” There are bursts of mysterious autobiographical specificity — “Leave America / Two kids follow her” — but the lack of contemporary vernacular gives it all a floating, timeless feel.
The combo of abstractness and universality helped it break records to become the longest-running solo song in US chart history. Ultimately, “As It Was” captures the sense of persistent apocalypse that we’re living in, making it a memorable pandemic-era anthem. —Alessa Dominguez
“Diet Coke,” Pusha T
If there’s one thing Pusha T is going to do, he’s going to rap about cocaine. This is a given. Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure I want Pusha to rap about anything else. And nearly 30 years into his career, even as the subject matter remains the same, Pusha remains one of the most compelling rappers working today. On “Diet Coke,” you hear him wielding a startling economy of words to level withering insults at his enemies. “Diet Coke” is classic bars Pusha, and he sounds so damn good doing it. By the time Pusha scoffs, “You ordered Diet Coke, that’s a joke, right?” you might even begin to feel bad for his opps. —E.A.
“I Was Neon,” Julia Jacklin
In recent years, Jacklin has built a cult following among indie rock fans with her clean, unsparing articulations of a young woman’s slippery self-doubt. In “I Was Neon,” it’s the perfect line, “Am I gonna lose myself again?” It distills overwrought neuroticism into something simple and cathartic. Jacklin chants it over and over, as though she’ll find an answer if she only keeps asking, but the driving, decisive loop of guitar chords simmering underneath her voice prevents her from ever sounding too pensive. Instead the friction builds, and she kindles a spark of stubborn conviction, insisting, “I quite like the person that I am.” The fluid harmonies in her chorus — low and minor at first, then sweet and airy toward the end — echo this movement from grim self-reflection toward new confidence, tempering the churning angst of the song with the simplicity of hope. —I.A.
OK sure, Burna Boy’s “Last Last” was probably the most played Afrobeats song of the summer, but Asake’s got next. He’s smartly woven South African amapiano into the genre to create improbable party bangers. “Organise,” from his debut album Mr. Money With the Vibe, is arguably the most intriguing of the bunch. With its choral vocals and hypnotic chorus, “O logbon ju o gbon o gbon o gbon,” which roughly translates to “you are smart” in Yoruba, it’s weird but undeniably mesmerizing. —T.O.
“Western Wind,” Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen had a huge TikTok moment this year. “I’m coming back for you, baby!” flooded the feed until maybe you started to wish it wouldn’t come back, ever. But “Western Wind” was the real standout from the Canadian pop star’s sixth album, The Loneliest Time. This is one of the most chill-sounding CRJ songs ever, but if you think that means it’s less emotional than her excitable pop hits of yore…wrong! It’s true that the teenager-ish jitters of early romance are missing here. Instead, relaxed percussion and airy vocals convey the comfortable intimacy of feeling anchored and steadied by love, the kind that sticks around no matter where the wind blows. “Do you feel home from all directions?” she asks. Because she sure does. —E.T.
“Thousand Miles,” The Kid Laroi
I remember the first time I heard “Thousand Miles.” I was alone on a bus to West Hartford, Connecticut, to visit my best friend this past spring, and the song was playing on iHeart Radio. I was drawn by Laroi’s raspy plea for a lover coming his way to turn around, because, it seems, he knows he is bad news. His notes climax in the chorus, “If I was you, if I was you then I would stay / A thousand miles away.” Now, a normal person would have thought almost anything at that moment besides what I thought, which was, “Wait…is that grammatically correct?” “Thousand Miles” no doubt succeeds as a catchy song about a self-aware, self-destructive heartbreaker who will never change even if he wanted to (“for youuuuuuu”), but I think it really was stuck in my head for most of 2022 because I couldn’t stop going over the grammar of this lyric. The answer to my idiotic question is, no, it is not grammatically correct. It should be “if I were you,” not “was you.” “The Kid should’ve used the subjunctive mood to convey that his statement was contrary to fact,” BuzzFeed News’ copy editor Sarah Schweppe explained to me. It’s a common mistake in songs, she added. Taylor Swift sang “if I was a man” in her 2019 song “The Man.” Miranda Lambert has a song called, “If I Was a Cowboy.” A 1985 hit song by Midge Ure is titled “If I Was.” Only Beyoncé got it right with “If I Were a Boy,” Schweppe told me, but “as this mistake becomes more and more commonplace, grammar may change to reflect that.” Anyhow, now you know. I’m sorry if this ruined a perfectly good 2022 song for you. Bet you wish you were a thousand miles away from me right now. —V.W.
“United in Grief,” Kendrick Lamar
Serious times call for serious rappers, and no rapper is more serious than Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar. Untitled in Grief, the opening track of Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, his first album in five years, begins with a melodic voice that seems to speak to the rising anxieties of our moment: “I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime…” Then, over a shape-shifting instrumental hopscotching across tempos and sounds, Kendrick does what he does best, spitting rapid-fire bars filled with vivid images and witty wordplay, building to a crescendo before hitting the breaks. The character he portrays is a broken one consumed by the toxic traits of conventional masculinity, pursuing salvation through reflection and reconciliation. But while his character’s journey is specific and personal, the roots of his struggle trace to a universal burden: grief. Kendrick examines how people respond to that pain at a time when all of us are collectively navigating an ongoing wave of pandemic death. Left unchecked and unhealed, Kendrick warns, grief can morph into a monster. —A.S.
“Problem With It,” Plains
If you’re not careful with nostalgia, it could devolve from sincere tribute to pastiche. Plains, the name for the duo comprised of Waxahatchee aka Katie Crutchfield and songwriter Jess Williamson, put out their debut record, I Walked With You a Ways, and you’d think the pair have been making music for 35 years. It’s a tender, quiet country-pop album that pays homage to a bygone era of country without being subsumed by it. “Problem With It,” the album’s lead single, is a stunning breakup song, a fierce ode to conviction. “If it’s all you got, yeah, it’s all you gave / I got a problem with it,” Plains gorgeously harmonize in the chorus, and you take them at their word. They may be reviving a sound, but they’re also infusing it with something so deeply personal you can’t help but be brought in. —E.A.
“Cuff It,” Beyoncé
Is “Cuff It” actually my favorite song from Renaissance? No. That honor goes to “Energy.” But “Cuff It” is a warm invitation, an album opener that makes it clear: Beyoncé really is here to have a good time, to go out dancing and be outside. “I want to go missing / I need a prescription,” she sings in the prechorus. Yes, me too! And the seamless transitions from “Cuff It” all the way to “Break My Soul” are just chef’s kiss! —T.O.
“Detour,” Maren Morris
The Country Crossover has long been an obsession of country music — what happens when a star transcends the boundaries of the genre to become a bonafide pop star? Taylor Swift is probably the most successful recent crossover, but she is far from the only one. In 2018 and 2019, Maren Morris crossed over big time, finding success in pop. But then something remarkable happened: In 2022, she crossed back to country with her sixth album, Humble Quest. “Detour,” a tender song about navigating the unexpected setbacks in life with the person you love, adorns the back half of Quest and captures the essence of what makes Morris one of the most compelling country artists working right now. There are a thousand ways to say “I love you,” but I’ll always prefer the ones captured in a country song. —E.A.
“Free Yourself,” Jessie Ware
The only musical performer I saw live in 2022 was English singer Jessie Ware. Her October performance at Brooklyn Steel was full of irrepressible verve and delight, but it felt like so much more than a concert. According to Ware’s onstage telling, it was a kind of reciprocal benediction; her 2018 US tour had been miserable until she played the venue we were in. The “warmth” she felt from the audience inspired cornerstone tracks on her 2020 album, What’s Your Pleasure. So when she performed “Free Yourself” this year, it felt like a gift in kind.
The disco-inflected single, just as joyous as the dancefloor bait of What’s Your Pleasure, begins with bright, driving piano. Then Ware breaks in with the titular phrase, rich with infectious confidence. Just try to deny that four-on-the-floor rhythm, or her insistence — ”Keep on moving up that mountaintop” — which nevertheless acknowledges it’s not always easy to let loose. I couldn’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel this year, but this song gave me a peek. —E.T.
“Te Felicito,” Shakira
It feels like Colombian pop star Shakira doesn’t rest, and never misses. The woman has done it all: pop rock, Andean exotica crossover, merengue, ska. And this year she teamed up with the rising star Rauw Alejandro, whose R&B-tinged “Todo De Ti” dominated the airwaves last year, and seemed to inaugurate a sunny pop reggaeton era.
In “Te Felicito,” the Alejandro sound meets Shakira in her favorite guise: annoyed girlfriend. The always-private pop star has barely commented publicly on her breakup with soccer star Pique despite the rumors of cheating. But in “Te Felicito,” she’s a sarcastic observer, congratulating a cheating boyfriend for perfectly playing innocent.
Her electro vocals and robotic dance video helped the song shoot to No. 1 on the Billboard Latin charts, extending her reign as the woman with the most Latin chart No. 1’s. Guess someone came out on top. —A.D.
“Waterfall,” Disclosure, Raye
Through all the shitty parts of 2022, “Waterfall” was my soundtrack for sweet release. It feels like bliss, like silk on skin. Between Raye’s sensuous vocals and Disclosure’s immersive, intimate production, the song feels almost tactile, like you can wrap it around you and shelter in it. Raye sings of succumbing to the best parts of love, asking, “Won’t you please / Pour your loving over me?” as Disclosure swaths the song in gentle, padded synths and shimmers, whispered beats like the dash of a brush over cymbals, bass notes that sound round and hollow as bubbles in a bath. It is almost certainly a song about and for rolling, with its attentive celebration of sensation. But as I can attest, it feels equally purifying when you listen to it while driving down Santa Monica Boulevard on a spring evening with the windows down, letting the lush clarity of it wash over you with the wind. —I.A.
“Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs feat. Perfume Genius
Like its title, this rock hymn is at once stately and the musical equivalent of flipping the bird. On the lead single from Cool It Down, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first album in almost a decade, the aughts stalwarts imagine an apocalyptic moment of reckoning so powerful it could scorch your soul to cinders. Spare electronic notes reverberate so powerfully they could fill the Grand Canyon. Perfume Genius’s Michael Hadreas jumps in to plaintively echo Karen O’s declarations. It feels kind of embarrassing to try to say anything about this grand anthem — deceptively simple and unadorned, it’s what the end of an era sounds like. —E.T.
“Skinny Dipping” — Sabrina Carpenter
It’s not entirely fair to Sabrina Carpenter that for the last two years, any mention of her name has been twinned with the mention of another Disney star turned megapop star. Nonetheless, it was this dynamic that led to a colossal overlooking of Emails I Can’t Send, Carpenter’s fifth studio album and low-key one of the best pop albums of the year. Stuffed with confessional and sensitive songs, Emails delivers lush vocals and fantastic synth-pop. “Skinny Dipping” is a standout, alternating between a diaristic stream-of-consciousness sing-speak that builds to stunning harmonies and a big anthemic chorus. It’s pop music done right. —E.A.
“Simulation Swarm,” Big Thief
It was very hard to select just one song from the indie rockers’ latest and most expansive album, the mouthful Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, but “Simulation Swarm” is the epitome of Big Thief — it has Adrienne Lenker’s figurative lyrics paired with her whisper-soft vocals and a gnarly, unpredictable, technically challenging guitar solo. —T.O.
“Dolls,” Bella Poarch
Every generation gets its own anthems contesting constraining beauty standards, from the grunge desperation of Hole’s “Doll Parts” to TLC’s self-help empowerment anthem “Unpretty.” And Bella Poarch, a Filipina American Navy vet and third-most-popular TikToker, is doing it for Gen Z.
Her “Build a Bitch” from last year and “Dolls” from this year mine that territory with wholly original sounds. Alongside collaborator Sub Urban, she’s come up with a style that’s like dark nursery rhymes passed through a TikTok attention filter.
“Build a Bitch” critiques men’s fascination with women’s body parts, adopting a children’s storybook tone, intoning the chorus in an almost sickeningly sweet voice: “This ain't build a bitch.” This year, “Dolls” expanded that theme in a nightmarish but delightfully poppy soundscape. She syncopates perfectly to the song’s uptempo speed, until the bass drops and the threatening chorus comes out: “Baby dolls kill / Don’t provoke us or we will.” Poarch’s provocations capture the terrors of objectification, but wrapped in her melodies, it’s impossible not to listen. —A.D.
“Billions,” Caroline Polachek
My friend likes to joke that Caroline Polachek sounds like a mermaid, but I prefer to compare her to a siren: There’s something both compelling and confounding about her music. This month, Polachek announced a new album, to land on Valentine’s Day in 2023, but she’s been issuing a slow drip of singles this year. The most compelling was “Billions,” which really does sound like a pop song made by a mythical creature. Glitchy, percussive beats lead into a dark fantasia bracketed by sliding wails (she’s a trained opera singer) and intimate murmurs. Lyrically, Polachek jettisons full sentences in favor of impressionistic imagery, referencing concepts both contemporary (sexting) and capital-r Romantic (a pearl, an oyster). To end, there’s a warbling chorus of children. She’s a witch, all right. —E.T.
Who said Hyphy is dead?!?!?! OK, I did, back in like 2009. But I was wrong. I was mourning the diminishing presence of the defining hip-hop movement for northern California millennials, and in that grief, I gave up hope. Thankfully, P-Lo didn’t. The 31-year-old Filipino-American Bay Area native has emerged as the standard bearer for both his diaspora and his region’s long-underappreciated rap scene. With bouncy hooks and light-hearted verses swirling over trunk-rattling beats designed to make even the hardest dudes dance exuberantly, P-Lo keeps alive the Hyphy flame. He is such a local legend that he rode in the Golden State Warriors championship parade this summer, yet he is so little known nationally that he still doesn't have his own Wikipedia page even though he’s been making music for more than a decade. But as he points out in “Good,” a laid-back jam from his 2022 album STUNNA that oozes Yay Area swagger, he lets the disrespect roll past him while he keeps it moving. “Doing good, doing well, they ain’t tell you that the real prevail?” he raps. “You know me, stay low key, I’m just living how it’s ‘sposed to be.” —A.S.
“Shotgun,” Soccer Mommy
Mental health check: This year, I listened to Sophie Allison aka Soccer Mommy’s “Circle the Drain” more than the expected amount for a song that came out in 2020. It made a splash at the time because of the tenderness of Allison’s misery: ’90s-inspired guitar and drum lines underscored frank phrases like “I think there’s mold in my brain,” yet its sweetness could crush your heart. “Shotgun” does something similar, with a little more menace in the melody this time. Over muddy guitars, Allison paints a portrait of youthful love that shines mostly in comparison with uglier experiences and “bad things.” Life isn’t always pretty, and the singable chorus asserts a dangerous kind of loyalty in the face of that. Should anything ever happen, she’s “a bullet in a shotgun waiting to sound.” You gotta fight fire with fire. —E.T.●
Correction: Asake's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.