Trying to determine what makes a song great is futile.
For some, it’s the lyrics. Others, the melody. Many, the beat.
In 2022, thousands of songs landed on streaming services and radio, with TikTok leading the charge to create the next viral hit.
Jack Harlow’s “First Class,” David Guetta/Bebe Rexha’s “I’m Good (Blue)” and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Freaky Girl” were all shoved into the spotlight, thanks to homemade videos and clever massaging of familiar songs (Fergie’s “Glamorous,” Eiffel 65’s “Blue [Da Ba Dee]” and Rick James’ “Super Freak,” respectively).
The year also cannot pass without a hat tip to Netflix’s “Stranger Things” for unearthing Kate Bush’s galloping musical brew of intrigue, “Running Up That Hill,” and launching it higher up the charts than in 1985.
Whittling such a massive output to a list of 10 is an unenviable challenge. But here are some of the year’s champions.
10. Kendrick Lamar, ‘N95’
The lead single from the critically lauded “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” showcases vintage Lamar: bracing lyrics, a shifting cadence, sharp-edged rap that detours mid-song into a pop break. Lamar’s spiky words illuminate our collective hypocrisy – both cancel culture and materialism get called out – as he angrily spits, “I’m done with the sensitive takin’ it personal/ Done with the black and white/ The wrong and the right.” There’s a reason Lamar has been bestowed with a Pulitzer Prize for music.
9. Steve Lacy, ‘Bad Habit’
Lacy has been in the business more than a decade – first with his band, the Internet – and he’s finally achieved his mainstream breakthrough with this easily digestible marriage of R&B and pop. The springy synths couched in a thumping beat belie the song’s undercurrent of melancholia as he explores a missed opportunity (“Kinda mad that I didn’t take a stab at it”) that bleeds into confusion (“I wish I knew you wanted me”).
8. Sam Smith featuring Kim Petras, ‘Unholy’
Some songs just sound dirty, and this one celebrates its filth from the ominous keyboard stabs that open it. How fun to hear the usually sad sack Smith ditch his trademark ballads for a greasy chorus that slinks as much as it pulses (“Mummy” definitely doesn’t know what Daddy is doing at the body shop), while Petras adds some delicious camp. Additional kudos as the pair became the first openly non-binary and trans artists to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
7. The Weeknd, ‘Less Than Zero’
The underrated “Dawn FM,” the creative concept album from The Weeknd, only spawned one major hit, “Take My Breath.” But this single, which didn’t crack the top 40, is the highlight of the release with its propulsive beat, gorgeous ascension of synths and a hook that defines earworm. The Weeknd may have self-destructed in the romance depicted in the song, but we benefit from his angst.
6. Rosalía, ‘Despechá’
A brisk banger that blends electropop elements with more traditional Latin mambo, the song represents a major advance for the Barcelona native. It arrived mid-summer, a perfect complement for beachy sun bathing or sticky club nights, and turned into a worldwide smash. Despechá means “to spite,” but under Rosalía’s guidance, it also means get off the couch and dance.
5. Florence + The Machine, ‘Free’
A standout track on the excellent “Dance Fever” album that fidgets with nervous energy as it builds into its engaging climax. London-born singer Florence Welch so seamlessly glides between throaty concern and upper-range ecstasy that listening to her shifting voice is reason enough to be captivated. Welch’s jumble of anguish is relieved by the power of music, but only after we knowingly nod at lyrics such as, “Because it’s all in my head/ And ‘you’re too sensitive,’ they said/ I said, ‘OK, but let’s discuss this at the hospital.’ ”
4. Beyoncé’s, ‘Break My Soul’
While Queen Bey’s seventh studio album, “Renaissance,” arrived stocked with numerous tracks worthy of year-end regard – the soulful bop “Cuff It” and Donna Summer-sampling “Summer Renaissance” foremost among them – it’s still the lead single that refuses to un-lodge from our consciousness. Owing a rhythmic debt to Robin S.’s 1993 dance floor pumper “Show Me Love” and Big Freedia’s “Explode,” the throbbing “Break My Soul” turns personal reinvention (“I just quit my job/ I’m gonna find a new drive”) into triumph.
3. Bad Bunny, ‘Tití Me Preguntó’
Among chart dominance (Billboard crowned him Top Artist of the Year), a sold-out stadium tour and general ubiquity, finding a global star bigger than Bad Bunny in 2022 is impossible. The cheeky “Tití Me Preguntó” (“Auntie Asked Me”) is one of seven hits from his “Un Verano Sin Ti” album that landed on both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot Latin Songs charts. Between the teasing lyrics of explaining to his aunt why he has so many girlfriends and the trap-meets-reggaeton rhythmic swings, the Puerto Rican wunderkind has developed into a wizard of sound and style.
2. Taylor Swift, ‘Anti-Hero’
As with Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” Swift’s “Midnights” album offers a sonic feast. From the sly “Karma” to quixotic “Lavender Haze” to wistful “Snow on the Beach,” the album’s best remain on replay. But “Anti-Hero,” with its unflinching excavation of apologies and regrets, finds the always-astute songwriter in peak form. No other song this year contained such devastating introspection as the line, “I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror.” But we also can’t overlook the ready-made T-shirt slogan: “It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.”
1. Harry Styles, ‘As It Was’
At first, it sounds like a generically pretty pop song. But then you understand Styles’ longing for the perfect something that was yanked away, his dreamy vocals taking on a sadness as he recalls that blissful bubble and resigns himself with a sigh to his current reality. The giggly opening by his goddaughter, pillowy ‘80s-rooted synths, tubular bells and urging beat contradict his pensiveness. But don’t worry, Harry. We get it.