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Beyoncé and Wet Leg top Ken Tucker's round-up of 2022's best music

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. As the year ends, rock critic Ken Tucker has been re-listening to and thinking about the pop music released in 2022. For Ken, the year has been defined by two releases in particular, Beyonce's album Renaissance and the debut album from the duo Wet Leg. He talks about these and more in his year-end roundup.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALIEN SUPERSTAR")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I'm one of one. I'm No. 1. I'm the only one. Don't even waste your time trying to compete with me. Don't do it. No one else in this world can think like me. True. I'm twisted. I'll contradict it, keep him addicted. Lies on his lips. I lick it. Unique.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Beyonce's album "Renaissance," released in the middle of 2022, felt like a return to at least some kind of normalcy after the pandemic year. Its celebration of disco rhythms and club culture was a way for Beyonce to ally herself with her massive audience, while also transcending it, to soar above her fans. Part of the pleasure throughout this big, bursting blast of an album was hearing Beyonce take the air out of her own regal image - joking on the song that began this review, I'm too classy for this world. I want to play a bit from a song I didn't get to in my original review, the lush, languid "Plastic Off The Sofa" - Beyonce's words of comfort and challenge to her romantic partner in life, filled with the sort of assurances any one of us would like to hear from a loved one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA")

BEYONCE: (Singing) We don't need the world's acceptance. They're too hard on me. They're too hard on you, boy. I'll always be your secret weapon in your arsenal, your arsenal. And I know you had it rough growing up, but that's OK. That's OK. I like it rough. That's OK, baby. Even when you let your feelings get in the way, let your feelings get in the way, I still like it, baby. Ooh, I like it, baby.

TUCKER: Beyonce's "Renaissance" is my album of the year, my favorite of any genre in the past 12 months. Listening within those various genres, I have to say that country music had a pretty weak year, with little that was fresh or innovative. In fact, my favorite country performance of the year was on TV, Jessica Chastain's portrayal of Tammy Wynette in the Showtime miniseries "George & Tammy." Michael Shannon as George Jones? Not so much.

The best music book of the year is RJ Smith's spellbinding biography of Chuck Berry. Now back to recordings. In hip-hop, there was Kendrick Lamar's "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers," as well as the very potent collaboration between Danger Mouse and Black Thought called "Cheat Codes." Among singer-songwriters, Angel Olsen, Weyes Blood, Carly Rae Jepsen and Bonnie Raitt all released beautiful, semi-autobiographical collections with vivid detailing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLAME IT ON ME")

BONNIE RAITT: (Singing) Blame it on me. Hold up my faults for all to see. Truth is love's first casualty. Blame it on me. Blame it on me. It's not the way love is supposed to be. How can you so casually blame it on me?

TUCKER: That's Bonnie Raitt singing "Blame It On Me" from her album "Just Like That..." There's also an album I would classify the debut of the year, "Wet Leg," by the two young British women who also call themselves Wet Leg. They make an intense version of punk-influenced pop and write about sex as explicitly and as romantically as Beyonce. But Wet Leg is doing everything on a smaller scale, aiming to be as common and relatable as Beyonce is exceptional and aspirational. For Wet Leg, being in love is a punch in the gut and a woozy condition for which their music rhymes meditate with medicate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEING IN LOVE")

WET LEG: (Singing) I need a lie down, only just got up. I feel so uninspired. I feel like giving up. I feel like someone has punched me in the guts. But I kind of like it 'cause it feels like being in love, being in love, being in love, being in love. I lost my appetite. I cannot sleep at night. I cannot concentrate. I do not feel too great. The world is caving in. And I'm kind of struggling. But I kind of like it 'cause it feels like being in love, being in love...

TUCKER: At the time of my review back in April, I said that we'd need to wait to hear whether Wet Leg would turn out to be a novelty act or something with staying power. But given the rave reports of their touring performances and the ongoing rewards of repeated listenings to this collection, I think it's fair to say they've earned their place among the year's most accomplished music.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. You can find his year-end review on our website, freshair.npr.org. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year with comic, actor and writer Jerrod Carmichael. This year, he won an Emmy for his HBO comedy special, "Rothaniel," that's all about secrets, secrets about his name, his family and his sexual orientation. It's like a hybrid of a comedy show and a therapy session. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN, RAUL DE SOUZA AND TONINHO HORTA'S "SOCCER BALL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FELDMAN, RAUL DE SOUZA AND TONINHO HORTA'S "SOCCER BALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.