Arts Feature: The Best in Popular Music 2022

Complied by Bill Marx

Our music critics pick some of the standout albums and performances of 2022.

Paul Robicheau

Top 5 musical experiences of 2022:

Joni Mitchell singing at Newport Folk Festival 2022. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Joni Mitchell, Newport Folk Festival, July 24. It was enough to make one forget the weekend’s preceding glories, even Paul Simon’s cameo in a tribute to his own music. Brandi Carlile cut her own set to a quick warmup for a bigger surprise: Joni Mitchell’s first full public concert in two-plus decades. Given recent health issues, the 78-year-old icon could have just showed up and waved, yet Mitchell not only chimed in with the all-star cast but sang lead on a few songs and played another on guitar, which she had to relearn after her 2015 brain aneurysm. Mitchell plans to join Carlile for another public “Joni Jam” in Washington state next summer, but this was the 2022 moment when jaws dropped, eyes teared, and time stood still. Arts Fuse review.

Rage Against the Machine, Madison Square Garden, Aug. 14. In the wake of pandemic delays, the political rap-rock pioneers roared through a reunion tour even after front man Zack de la Rocha tore his Achilles on the second date. This final show of five at New York’s famed arena became their last before European and US swings were canceled for de la Rocha to heal. But it was an exclamation point; the band is still as intense as in its ’90s heyday. The rhythm section detonated monster riffs around Tom Morello’s dive-bomb guitar sonics, and a seething de la Rocha didn’t so much sit on a road case as use it as his dais to thrash and levitate.

Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (4AD). My album of the year from a foursome of spectral folk-rockers who forged a breakthrough double album of broader style and spontaneity, from playful and twangy to dark and ethereal. Arts Fuse review

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Leader Bank Pavilion, Sept. 9. Lightning doesn’t easily strike twice, and last year’s Raise the Roof didn’t hit the rarefied air of this divergent duo’s 2007 debut Raising Sand. But this harborside concert perfectly captured the languid spell and easy chemistry between the British rock star and the American bluegrass queen within the atmospheric blanket of their band of roots all-stars. Their recasting of Led Zeppelin classics “The Battle of Evermore” and “When the Levee Breaks” were alone worth the price of admission.

Tedeschi Trucks Band, Orpheum Theatre, Dec. 3. The 12-piece group co-led by Boston-bred Susan Tedeschi and husband Derek Trucks has grown in power over its year-capping runs at the Orpheum. And 2022’s closing night soared higher with the best of TTB’s 24-song cycle I Am the Moon and covers from the Beatles to Allman Brothers, balancing the ripping guitars of raga-informed virtuoso Trucks and blues-testifying singer Tedeschi with heightened ensemble brilliance, spreading the light to everybody’s talents. Arts Fuse review

Scott McLennan


I Am the Moon — Tedeschi Trucks Band (Fantasy). Released in four separate installments, I Am the Moon was an ambitious and ultimately triumphant undertaking for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. It supplied 24 new songs, a refreshed sonic palette, and a dynamic step for a band entering its second decade. By nervily choosing Nizami Ganjavi’s 12th-century Persian epic “The Story of Layla and Majnun” as the inspiration for its songwriting, the 12-piece TTB ensemble found a creative way to explore a timeless emotional and sonic landscape.

Crooked Tree — Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway (Nonesuch). Ace guitarist Molly Tuttle turned to her bluegrass, folk, and country roots and crafted a gem of an album that is burly and rustic but doesn’t lose any of this dynamic group’s fresh perspective. Tuttle’s guitar playing remains unassailable, and she just keeps getting better as a singer and songwriter.

Heavy Pendulum — Cave In (Relapse). Heavy and heady, Cave In has long been an intriguing player in the modern metal scene. The band seemed done when founding member Caleb Scofield died in a car crash back in 2018. Heavy Pendulum represents a cathartic return, as Cave In blazes through a dynamic set of songs that is both reflective and propulsive.

Just Like That… — Bonnie Raitt (Redwing Records). 51 years after the release of her debut album, Bonnie Raitt remains a creative force as a guitar player, singer, songwriter, and band leader. On her latest project, Raitt doesn’t mess much with her standard formula, but the execution is dazzling on both the ballads and the rockers. Raitt may have already earned her stature as a living legend, but she is certainly not cruising on the strength of that reputation (and Raitt gets bonus points for hiring Boston’s own extraordinary guitarist Duke Levine to be in her touring band).

Sunrise on Slaughter Beach — Clutch (Weathermaker Music). Like Raitt, the masters of heavy cosmic rock ’n’ roll doesn’t mess around with what it does. What’s admirable is that Clutch manages to do it so very well on this album. Sci-fi and horror freak-outs, odes to horseshoe crabs, and denim-clad anthems to the ’70s are among the treasures on Slaughter Beach.

Things Happen That Way — Dr. John (Rounder Records). The inimitable Dr. John was working on this project at the time of his death in 2019. The giant of New Orleans R & B funk had long wanted to explore country and western songs and do so with Willie Nelson. This album is the realization of that dream: the two legends team on “Gimme That Old Time Religion,” and Dr. John applies his gris-gris to other country classics. Willie’s son Lukas Nelson is also featured on this project, collaborating with the good doctor on a spooky new version of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” A wonderful parting shot from an American original.

Me/And/Dad — Billy Strings (Rounder Records). In a year of meteoric career growth, guitarist Billy Strings took time to honor where he came from. Me/And/Dad teams Strings and his father Terry Barber on a set of country and bluegrass standards. The result is a grand hootenanny that includes a killer backing band. What could have been a tossed-off vanity project is anything but — this is a fierce and tender performance. Strings is a heralded guitarist and performer, but Barber is a dazzling player as well. A beautiful musical dialogue between father and son.

Dripfield — Goose (No Coincidence Records). If you wanted to see Goose in 2019, you could grab a ticket at the door of whatever club the band was playing that night. These days, Goose is selling out arena shows and headlining big summer festivals. Many want to crown Goose the new kings of the jam scene. You will  find endless threads on social media referencing the torch being passed from Phish to Goose. Listening to Dripfield makes it clear that Goose isn’t interested in carrying anyone else’s torch. Yes, the band can work its way through long, jammy versions of songs. But the tunes themselves are sturdy and stand on their own, which is something most jam bands, including Phish, can’t claim.  This album’s opening sequence of “Borne,” “Hungersite,” and “Dripfield” put on perfect display how Goose balances craft and exploration, comfortably reaching beyond the expectations of jam rock.

Live in Colorado, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 — Bobby Weir & Wolf Brothers (Third Man Records). Bob Weir, 75, remains a spry purveyor of a musical catalog that stretches back nearly 60 years to the earliest days of his work with the Grateful Dead up through material he developed as a solo artist just a few years ago. Wolf Brothers began as a trio, with bass player Don Was and drummer Jay Lane joining Weir. That rhythm-heavy combo took flight with the permanent addition of keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, plus the guest appearances by pedal steel player Greg Leisz and the strings and brass quintet dubbed The Wolf Pack. It’s this larger ensemble — performing live versions of Grateful Dead standards and Dead-affiliated covers by Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and others — that is presented on the two volumes of Live in Colorado. It’s a blast hearing Weir and crew revive ’80s Dead deep cut “Brother Esau” and then turn in a majestic 20-minute version of “Terrapin Station Suite.”

Live at the Fillmore (1997) — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Warner Records). Head straight to the “deluxe” version of this release. All 58 tracks are worth the listen: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play originals and songs that they love with a wild fury that reminds you why this band is so deeply missed. Recorded during a 20-night residency at the famed San Francisco concert hall, this album is testament to the shamanic powers of Petty in full flight. Guest appearances by John Lee Hooker and Roger McGuinn are a bonus, but Petty and the Heartbreakers are responsible for the blazing fireworks in this collection. Petty had many more great years ahead of him, but in 1997 he and the Heartbreakers were in peak form.

Favorite concert: Rage Against the Machine, August 9, Madison Square Garden, NYC. It’s been more than 20 years since Rage Against the Machine produced any new music and over a decade since it went on tour. Yet this stop, part of a five-night stand at Madison Square Garden, was no lazy dip into nostalgia. Front man Zack de la Rocha — hobbled by a leg injury sustained during the first week of the concert tour (which was twice delayed by the pandemic) — remained seated center stage atop a road case. Regardless, he came across as a prophet back down from the mountain, once again decrying the cruel and abusive tactics of a morally bereft society. The metallic funk was cranked loud, the energy was uncontainable, and the acidic messages landed with a righteous indignation that left mere relevance behind. It was a shame that this tour never made it to Boston.

Alex Szeptycki

Top Ten Albums


After releasing multiple albums with dizzying conceptual weight, FKA twigs lowered the stakes with Caprisongs. The mixtape is a fruitful excavation of the UK club scene, buoyed by a roster of local guest artists. Twigs’s performance mastery tied this excellent project together.

The Weeknd Dawn FM

Abel Tesfaye, as The Weeknd, has slowly developed a captivating sort of self-awareness. Even as he dove headfirst into the hedonistic haze, he reveled in the obvious debilitating irony — the drug-fueled party scene is the epitome of emptiness. On Dawn FM, Tesfaye makes conceptual drama of these existential fears. Set up as a radio broadcast, this is serene dance music sent from an isolated after-party purgatory.

Big Thief — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You

Dragon New Warm Mountain sees the members of the Big Thief reconvene after three years apart and several successful solo projects (see front woman Adrienne Lenker’s excellent 2020 projects Songs and Instrumentals). On this new album, the band tries nearly everything: there’s the stomp and holler country of “Spud Infinity,” the desolate folk of “Time Escaping,” or the twangy indie rock of “Little Things” (just to name a few). The ideas may be disparate, but there isn’t a single one that doesn’t work.

Ibibio Sound MachineElectricity

The London-based ensemble Ibibio Sound Machine embraces infinite possibilities, linking Afrobeat and funk with everything from disco and post-punk to EDM. Their latest effort is produced by UK synth-pop outfit Hot Chip, and the combination is magical. The synths thump and bounce, the drums crash forward with regal weight, and vocalist Eno Williams presides over everything with passion and flair.

Plains — I Walked With You a Ways

Singer-Songwriter Jess Williamson combines with Waxahatchee front woman Katie Crutchfield to produce a country album that breezes by almost too quickly.

Beyoncé — Renaissance

In many ways, 2022 was the year of dance pop. As clubs reopened and parties returned, a legion of artists set about making music for the dance floor. It seemed as if everyone got in on the act. But of course, no one could top Beyoncé. Renaissance featured the best production money can buy, a legion of guest stars, and iconic performances from the queen herself. But these things are the baseline for a Beyoncé album these days. Renaissance wows with the loving, almost archival care it shows for the Black and queer roots of dance music.

Cover art for Ants From Up There.

Black Country, New Road — Ants From Up There

Ants From Up There was released amidst a time of turmoil for Black Country New Road. Lead singer Isaac Wood announced his departure from the band on the eve of the album’s release. Thus the music serves as an imperious capstone, exuding the style that made Black Country an intriguing listen. Musical references are pulled from every corner, mashed together with a prog rock sensibility that can only be pulled off with plenty of musical virtuosity. Wood presides over this cacophony, unleashing volley after volley of reflective, sometimes self-lacerating verses. The result is an often harrowing, but never boring, realization of the band’s vision.

Shygirl — Nymph

Shygirl’s verses have always overflowed with well-earned confidence. Over a series of excellent EPs and entertaining guest appearances, the London performer has never doubted that she would be a success. Nymph sees the London MC deepening her electrified clubby sound while she complicates things by adding a more introspective slant to her vocals. She manages to grow as an artist without losing her popular edge.

Leikeli47 — Shape Up

From the first moments of Shape Up, Leikeli47 hooks you in and refuses to let go. The Brooklyn rapper dashes adeptly over brash vocal samples, shouted choruses, and trunk-rattling beats. Adroitly moving from bold hip-hop to smooth R & B, Shape Up is an adventurous and engaging listen.

Charli XCX — Crash

Two years ago Charli XCX released How I’m Feeling Now, a Covid album that revolved around her cabin fever. She was trapped at home, away from her beloved parties. Now she’s left the house with reckless abandon; her sleek, digitized pop is back in the clubs and it is ecstatic about being back home.

Matt Hanson

Ryan Lee Crosby released a new record in June called Winter Hill Blues. Crosby is, I think, a very underrated musician. He has punk roots and yet has expanded his sound to the point where he can tap into the earthy, muddy, metaphysically bleak haunted sound of the Mississippi Delta and mix it with Indian instrumentation. I love the pairing of two musical forms that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily meet. Crosby’s guitar growls and murmurs, while the ecstatic drone of the Indian influence adds depth, and his poignant vocals float above the bustle. Winter Hill Blues continues his previous work, which shows a resolutely unique artist settling deeper into his groove.

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