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NPR Music's 10 best rock albums of 2022

We still believe in rock and roll — as a force for good, laughter, debauchery, introspection or whatever revs your energy on a Saturday night. In 2022, the top 10 rock albums took a pilgrimage to Memphis, communed with theologians and poets, found the interconnectedness of all beings and danced through pain and pleasure.

Below, find a ranked list the year's most essential rock music, along with a short list of personal favorites, by NPR Music staff and contributors. You can also hear a conversation about 2022 in rock via All Songs Considered.

10. Kevin Morby, This is a Photograph

Another young, white rock songwriter pilgrimages to Memphis, mining the river city's heritage of tragedy, triumph and soul-baring music that maps the route between the two? Stop the presses. But sequestered in a Peabody suite as the pandemic raged outside, Kevin Morby used Memphis' legacy as a lens to look inward, to ask incisive questions about family, love, fame, careerism and what he wants from life itself over nuanced soul, folk and chamber ballads that unspool like a deep eddy.

"The living took forever," he offers during one such slow beauty, "but the dying went quick." It's a fitting existential mantra for these times, dispatched from a place accustomed to transmuting loss.

Grayson Haver Currin

9. Soul Glo, Diaspora Problems

Soul Glo's Epitaph debut is as thematically bold as it is musically visceral. Trauma, family, self-love, racism and the fecklessness of white leftists are all addressed on Diaspora Problems. Songs like "We Wants Revenge" and "Coming Correct is Cheaper" build on hardcore's decades-long tradition of fury and catharsis, and distill it into a potent, 40-minute punch. It's refreshing and exhilarating to hear such a sharp critique of contemporary Black life that sounds this wild and unhinged.

— John Morrison, WXPN

8. Special Interest, Endure

When Earth's human race finally meets its demise — whether via climate catastrophe or impending asteroid or zombie apocalypse — the sound emitting from the last nightclub standing amid the rubble might sound like Special Interest's Endure.

The New Orleans band crafts a pummeling, righteous dance-punk opus that takes aim at fascism, gentrification and corporate greed while espousing the importance of community and pleasure. The sounds of '80s post-punk, house music and the spitfire cadence of ballroom manifestos melt into a chaotic, magnetic vision unmatched by any punk album this year.

— Hazel Cills

7. caroline, caroline

There's a seed inside every caroline song; sometimes it's a weighted-blanket chord progression, a mournful interval or a simple phrase repeated. And in that fragile inkling of an idea, something grows outward and seeks light. On its self-titled debut, the London-based octet pulls from minimalism, Midwestern emo, post-rock, free-jazz, folk and chamber music not as genetic genre splice, but as a way to build community sprouted from an unforgiving Earth.

— Lars Gotrich

6. Hurray for the Riff Raff, LIFE ON EARTH

"Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast," adrienne maree brown writes in Emergent Strategy, "and more than anything, that we need each other ... in order to get free." Alynda Segarra's eighth album as Hurray for the Riff Raff, deeply inspired by that text, embodies that maxim. Its eleven tracks of "nature punk" are sharply constructed and deeply felt, finding hope in the power of compassion and the fundamental interconnectedness of all living things.

— Marissa Lorusso

5. Alvvays, Blue Rev

The general feeling of disaffection — tempered by urgency, turbulence and angst — is masterfully relayed in Alvvays' third and best record so far. Replete with hooks, licks and clever lyrics that are never too-clever, Blue Rev is a monument to power pop furnished with a rich cultural and musical lexicon, and delivered with explosive defiance. Simply put, and as my best friend said, "It makes me wanna put my head inside a speaker."

— Vita Dadoo

4. Wet Leg, Wet Leg

Wet Leg's "Chaise Longue" was one of last year's greatest songs, an introductory single whose deadpan come-ons exuded wiry wit and playful cool. Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers' full-length debut lives up to that track's enormous promise, with songs that tap into several generations' worth of rock and post-punk influences while still capturing a cocktail of moods that's unmistakably of-the-moment: somehow both over- and under-stimulated, introspective but distant, lusty but numb.

— Stephen Thompson

3. Nilüfer Yanya, PAINLESS

Listening to Nilüfer Yanya sometimes makes me feel like I'm handling one of those self-defense trinkets designed for girls — a plastic comb that splits at the center to reveal a switchblade, a pretty, innocuous thing with grim intent. The British singer-songwriter often pairs her gorgeous voice with devastating electric guitar melodies and chillingly simple lyricism that only reveals its bruising later.

On her second full-length album PAINLESS, she drags her listener into a maximalist swirl of insecurity and existential dread like never before, filling its tracks with brooding, grungy rock that masterfully honors the quiet darkness of her work.

— Hazel Cills

2. Alex G, God Save the Animals

Alex G's most confessional album builds its lofty questions about morality with the base reactions of animals, human and not. For an artist of few clarifications, God Save the Animals is ambitious in its questions about consciousness, flitting between transcendentally aware observation and nearsighted emotional desperation — and forgiveness, a maybe-fake thing made real all the time by people who choose to give it.

This fragmented meditation is given flesh by, in addition to theologians and poets, Alex G's baroque melodic sensibility, sick groove and the ascetic simplicity of his observation: "Yes, I have done a couple bad things."

— Stefanie Fernández

1. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

I wouldn't normally associate tenderness and humor with rock music, but those are just a few of the outstanding qualities that make Big Thief's Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You deserving of our No. 1 spot.

Recorded in four cities and produced by drummer James Krivchenia, this double album is both a sonic adventure and an insightful lyrical exploration. In a single song, there are words of whimsy (rhyming "finish" with "potato knish") while at the same time exploring and accepting the differences in ourselves and those around us. And that's just one of 20 songs in an album that reveals something new for me on every listen.

— Bob Boilen

12 more, in no particular order

Tomberlin, i don't know who needs to hear this...: 2022 brought us many records birthed in isolation, none more stunning than this. It's an album bathed in ambiance and uncertainty, yet somehow warm and compelling. — Bob Boilen

Enumclaw, Save the Baby: Pacific Northwest rock in the classic fashion: heartfelt, rebellious and as rough-edged as a dock stained by salt air, with a view as big as Puget Sound. — Ann Powers

Jockstrap, I Love You Jennifer B: A great, mind-expanding, constantly surprising, possibly controversial answer to the perpetually re-upped question, "What does 'rock music' even mean anymore?" — Jacob Ganz

MJ Lenderman, Boat Songs: The Asheville, N.C., guitarist and singer-songwriter (and member of Wednesday) brings exceptional humor, wit and empathy to twangy tracks about fulfillment and failure. — Marissa Lorusso

Editrix, Editrix II: Editrix Goes to Hell: Like Van Halen beamed from an alternate dimension via cable-access television, this is a noisy and sometimes goofy rock record that smiles through crooked teeth and baffling riffs. — Lars Gotrich

Metric, Formentera: Formentera is escapism that doesn't buy the possibility of escape from modern decay. Instead, it makes its dark peace with synth-rock clarity, a companion that offers to sit with you in late-night lost time. — Stefanie Fernández

Just Mustard, Heart Under: This Irish five-piece has found its happy place: in a basement corner, incanting obliquely and confidently toward the scrappy concrete in deep, dark thuds. The whiff of desperation underlying it all feels like a native species to the present day and age. — Andrew Flanagan

Angel Olsen, Big Time : I was head over heels in love with this deeply earnest, beautiful album from singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, that dives into the sound of classic country. — Hazel Cills

Soccer Mommy, Sometimes, Forever : On Soccer Mommy's dreamy and assured third album, Sophie Allison's indie-pop palette seamlessly incorporates everything from blissful early-'90s shoegaze to throbbing, glitchy industrial sounds. — Stephen Thompson

Young Jesus , Shepherd Head: A compendium of natural sounds funneled through snares and synths, Shepherd Head is delicate and grand at once — an open-air monastery or agora with the traces of a dance floor. — Vita Dadoo

Peter Matthew Bauer, Flowers: The Walkmen member wrestles with age, not to mention the joy and sadness of being alive. Flowers conjures a feeling of grandeur that recalls I Am the Cosmos, the only solo album by Big Star's Chris Bell. — John Morrison, WXPN

Drive-By Truckers, Welcome 2 Club XIII: Following a suite of timely sociopolitical screeds that delivered necessary messages to its Southern brethren, this century's most consistently great rock band digs deep into its own archival baggage. The result is a galvanizing reminder that it didn't earn that honorific without catastrophe or controversy. — Grayson Haver Currin

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