2022: A Challenging Year With Fabulous Music

by Peter Piatkowski

The year 2022 was a great year for veterans like Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Madonna, and Judy Collins, who made some of their best music in their later careers. Superstars like Harry Styles and Megan Thee Stallion each made a bid for legendary status with excellent releases, building on the successes of their relatively young careers.

It’s been yet another challenging year, in what feels like a challenging era (seriously, since 2016, we’ve been cursed to be living in interesting times), music has been a source of escapism and fun in the face of some grim headlines. Though some artists have chosen to address the world, others have decided to offer audiences the chance to forget. Either way, 2022 may have been a sucky year, music has been fabulous.


Beyoncé – Renaissance

For her seventh album, our Queen Bey paid homage to Black pop history as well as queer pop history and that intersection. Looking to disco, house, soul, and R&B, Renaissance is a brilliant map of Black music of the past forty years. Arguably, the greatest pop diva working today, Beyoncé has created a dance party with Renaissance, an exciting collection of club bangers and neo-disco tunes that is defiant in its celebration of queer music pioneers like Sylvester, Grace Jones, and Frankie Knuckles. The instant-classic single “Break My Soul” is a nostalgic tribute to early ’90s House and set the stage for Renaissance. Thanks to pop art like RuPaul’s Drag Race, ballroom culture, Black queer art, and dance/DJ culture has found success in the mainstream, but Beyoncé entered that conversation and elevated it with a genius album. 

Mary J. Blige – Good Morning Gorgeous

Is there a wiser woman in pop music than Mary J. Blige? The Hip-Hop Soul Queen has been in the game for over 30 years, creating cathartic albums that gave injured and damaged souls hope. On Good Morning Gorgeous, Blige yet again creates an emotional record that speaks to the experience of heartache, love, hope, and despair. Good Morning Gorgeous is the diva’s 14th studio LP and it’s an amazing creative feat because it’s easily one of her best. Despite competition from divas half her age, Blige just continues to flourish in her lane. Staying current but eschewing pop trends, Blige instead takes a page from the soul greats of the 1960s and answers an increasingly volatile and shaky world with the musical equivalent of a sturdy, warm hug. 


Madonna – Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones

Madonna has become an established legacy artist and pop legend by making fantastic records for 40 years. Though her grip on the national conscious has loosened considerably in the past few years, every time she releases a new project, we’re constantly reminded of this woman’s endless reserve of creativity and talent. On her 2022 release, Finally Enough Love, the original Queen of Pop firmly centers her attention where she rules best: on the dance floor. Though decidedly a mainstream pop artist, she has always taken the club with her to the pop charts. On Finally Enough Love, she gathers her biggest dance hits and offers listeners deep club remixes of her classics. It creates an interesting summation of her career, focused not on the radio-friendly versions, but instead the club versions of these seemingly omnipresent tunes. 


Harry Styles – Harry’s House

What Justin Timberlake started, Harry Styles finished. Though Styles’ sound, image, and music is a collage of influences like Elton John, George Michael, Michael Jackson, and yes, Justin Timberlake, Styles distinguishes himself by embracing the flamboyant, camp, and frivolous nature of being a pop star. In these difficult times, having a shiny, glossy male pop diva like Styles is just what we need. Harry’s House—the singer’s third solo album—is the natural culmination of the singer’s career after One Direction. Picking, choosing, and mixing different sounds of pop, Harry’s House is a nearly-perfect artifice of mainstream pop music of the 2020s. The songs are first-rate pop tunes, but what makes Harry’s House shine brightest is the mega-watt charm and charisma of its star.


Jennifer Lopez – Marry Me (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Does Marry Me feature the best music of 2022? Of course not. But is it one of the best records of the year? Definitely. More than just an album, Marry Me is a manifesto and an extension of Jennifer Lopez’s multi-platinum brand. More so than any other hard-working diva today, Jennifer Lopez represents a throwback to the late 1990s, early 2000s, when pop stars were deities—and treated as such. Marry Me is an indulgent vehicle for Lopez to strut her stuff as the epitome of the multi-hyphenated entertainer. Marry Me is filled with sparkly, glittery, spangly pop that covers all of Lopez’s musical bases: midtempo numbers, sentimental ballads, banging dance-pop. It’s calculated and cynical, but also a brilliant work of pop brand marketing. 


Dolly Parton – Run, Rose, Run

Despite 2022 being pretty much garbage for most of us, for Dolly Parton it was yet another banner year in a succession of many. Not only was the legendary country diva inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but she was essentially canonized as a living saint. Her charitable work in education/literacy, COVID vaccine research, poverty relief, and queer rights has made her a beloved figure. Where once her Hollywood glitz and pop crossover ambitions threatened to overwhelm her music, it seems that her secular sainthood is doing the same. But Run, Rose, Run is a great reminder that Parton is still a stunning musical force to be reckoned with. Despite her age, that glorious, angelic voice retains much of its strength and power. Though the album is a weird side-project paired with a novel Parton penned with James Patterson, it’s strong enough on its own merits to transcend any whiffs of trends or gimmicks. Parton’s love of mountain music and Appalachian song informs much of Run, Rose, Run.


Bonnie Raitt – Just Like That…

Welcome back, Bonnie Raitt. Waiting six years to release her latest studio LP, Just Like That… proved to be worth the wait. Raitt’s genial and raspy voice has remained remarkable intact. Her phrasing still communicates a deep and profound humanity and warmth. The music on Just Like That… is a pleasing return to the kind of blues-tinged rock/pop that made her a superstar in the 1990s. There are funky riffs and bluesy electric guitars complementing Raitt’s knowing and friendly crooning. Raitt produced the album with Ryan Freeland, and together they create a mature, adult-pop record that sports a clean studio sheen even if Raitt strives for an intimate, acoustic feel. There’s something joyful about hearing a veteran like Raitt just kill it on a record like Just Like That… Just listen to the wonderful first single, “Made Up Mind,” which the singer struts through with rock diva aplomb.


Judy Collins – Spellbound

An artist like Judy Collins comes to represent eras and generations. Like her peers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, and Carole King, Collins is a key figure in the singer-songwriter movement that was born in the 1960s. She forged an idiosyncratic career in the decades since, recording moving folk-pop as well as trilling, lilting renditions of Broadway showtunes. Though she’s an accomplished tunesmith, she’s also a revered song stylist, applying her quavering warble to other’s lyrics, making them her own. Collins’ 29th album Spellbound is revelatory because it’s an album solely devoted to Collins’ songwriting. The tunes on Spellbound spin gossamer tales of love, friendship, history, and the past. It’s a lush and nostalgic album with a sweeping, swirling sound that is ethereal and lovely. And though she’s over 80 years old, Collins’ unique, high-pitched, pinched voice is still stirring and capable of evoking a rainbow of emotions.


Betty Boo – Boomerang

Betty Boo is an artist who can be easily dismissed as a novelty pop star. She found success in the early 1990s with House-flecked rap-pop, and though no one would confuse her with MC legends like Queen Latifah or MC Lyte, she was gregarious and found success creating smart and canny dance-pop that was unabashedly escapist bubblegum pop. The gist of Betty Boo’s success is that she approached her rhyming skills with an appropriate sense of humor and good-natured sense of fun. On Boomerang, Boo’s third studio album (but first LP in 30 years), the pop-rap diva offers another delirious platter of bright, sparky flashes of dance-rap. Though rap legend Chuck D puts in an appearance as well as folk-pop troubadour David Gray, the duet partner who makes the most sense is neo-disco chanteuse Sophie Ellis Bextor, who shows up for “Shining Star.” Their roller-disco collaboration is a perfect encapsulation of the sheer giddy brilliant ridiculousness of Boomerang. It’s the candy-coated flip-side to Beyoncé’s more accomplished and ambitious Renaissance, but finds its heart in a similar place: on the dancefloor.


Megan Thee Stallion – Traumazine

Megan Thee Stallion’s second studio album, Traumazine is a startling artistic move forward for the talented rapper. Growing as an artist, there’s a genuine expansion and development of her considerable gifts on the album. It’s a darker record, reflecting the artist’s personal troubles, and she responds to her traumas with a complex and fantastic record that further establishes her reputation as a formidable talent. Her rapping chops are unimpeachable: she has a fluidity and a vocal dexterity and deftness; listen to “Ungrateful” as she spits complicated, layered lyrics with a remarkable potency. On “Anxiety,” Megan Thee Stallion shows a candor and vulnerability that belies the stoic power behind her breakneck-fast rhyming. Though there are isolated moments of mainstream, radio-friendly pop (her dance-pop duet with Dua Lipa, “Sweetest Pie” is a cherry outlier on the record) and a lot of Traumazine has an eye for radio-play, it’s also a confessional, soul-baring album, akin to Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Carole King’s Tapestry.

Honorable Mentions

“Hold Me Closer,” Elton John and Britney Spears – After years of battling with personal demons, abusive family, and an oppressive conservatorship, Spears returns to pop music, joining Sir Elton on a reworked, icy-EDM take on his 1971 classic “Tiny Dancer.” Produced by Andrew Watt and Cirkut, the track features the duetting superstars crooning over thumping beats, their distinct voices smeared and obliterated with studio tuning. It’s an effervescent, breezy hit, in which both singers sound rejuvenated and reenergized.

“Unholy,” Sam Smith and Kim Petras – A truly odd but mesmerizing pop tune that features the two pop pioneers trading verses over the grinding, pounding dance beats. Smith’s soulful croon is arresting (as always).

“Turn Up the Sunshine,” Diana Ross and Tame Impala
– Miss Ross had a banner year in 2021 with the release of a new album Thank You which teamed her with some hot, hip young producers. For the ’70s-influenced soundtrack to the animated film Minions: The Rise of Gru, the legendary diva is paired with Tame Impala for this breezy, sunny disco-pop tune. Ross hasn’t sounded this frisky and funky since her work with Chic on diana.

“Break My Soul” (Queens Remix), Beyoncé with Madonna
– Queen Bey teams up with the Queen of Pop for the remix of her 2022 house-pop hit, “Break My Soul” which samples the beats and synths from Madonna’s 1990 classic hit “Vogue.” Beyoncé does the original song one better by centering black excellence, paying homage to the Black and queer influence of dance music and voguing, especially in the song’s rap bridge in which Beyoncé replaces Madonna’s list of Hollywood glamour icons with equally legendary Black superstars.

“Big Energy,” Latto with DJ Khalid, feat. Mariah Carey
– Latto’s fantastic tune “Big Energy” starts off with Mariah Carey’s legendary whistle-register trills before the beats—courtesy of Carey’s 1995 hit “Fantasy”—jump in, before headliner Latto muscles her way in, taking her rightful place as the song’s lead star. The explosive trio of Latto, Carey, and DJ Khalid create a funky, poppy, tune.

“2 Be Loved (Am I Ready),” Lizzo – Who in pop music is more empowered and positive than Lizzo, the Queen of Self-Esteem. Known for her anthems of self-love, “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” is a high-octane dance tune that harkens back to the jumpy, fun tunes of the 80s like Patti LaBelle’s “Stir It Up,” the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited,” or Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.” On this boisterous tune, our Lizzo is inspirational, gregarious, and funny.

“Waking Up Dreaming,” Shania Twain – For most of the 1990s, Shania Twain reigned as the biggest pop star of the decade. Then it seems like she embarked on a series of breaks from recording due to personal and health travails. She made a measured comeback in 2017 with Now. For her new album, she continues to embrace shiny, glossy pop sounds and on “Waking Up Dreaming” she channels her inner ’80s New Wave dance diva.

“Lavender Haze,” Taylor Swift – The 21st century’s answer to Carly Simon, Taylor Swift takes to pen to work through relationship issues as well as to vent her frustrations of being a young, intelligent, and opinionated woman. On “Lavender Haze,” Swift uses her sharp point of view to assess her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. The lyrics—cowritten with, among others, actress Zoë Kravitz—take a frustrated look at being famous and in love, irritated by the public and media attention of her love. The song is a sinewy synth-pop that sports some of Swift’s cleverest and most pointed lyrics.

“I Drink Wine,” Adele – Adele continues to churn out bluesy, torchy pop tunes with her fourth album, 30. On “I Drink Wine” the British songbird goes to church (well, sorta) with a gospely pop tune that has a typically spiritual and inspired vocal performance by the singer. It’s one of those amazing soul-pop songs that has our heartbroken songstress sing with an emotional candor and honesty that is bracing and bruising.

“Love In The Way” Young Bleu and Nicki Minaj – The moody synth-R&B tune is a beautiful, ruminative number that has echoes of the atmospheric, romantic synth-pop ballads of the ’80s New Romantics. Young Bleu and Nicki Minaj are suitably poignant and understated, matching the song’s somewhat bleakness. It’s a lilting, moving number that features appealingly vulnerable performances by the pair of superstar rappers.

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