Getting a hold on pop music in 2022 was a fun undertaking, even if doing so was a bit like trying to throw one’s arms around the world. There were definitely blockbuster releases in the mix: Bad Bunny’s summer-bummer album “Un Verano Sin Ti” spent 13 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200; Beyoncé's dancefloor opus “RENAISSANCE” amassed 43 million Spotify streams on its first day of release; and Taylor Swift’s woozy yet anxious “Midnights,” which came out in October, landed 10 of its songs in the Hot 100 after its release. But the music that fanned out from those mega-releases was more unpredictable, as fragmented as a selection of playlists from a loosely connected group of people.
That splintered landscape is one reason why pop so easily embraced the past, likely ranking just behind the relative bleakness of the present. One of the biggest leftfield successes of 2022 was the 37-year-old “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” a churning synthpop track from the English savant Kate Bush’s fantastic 1985 album “Hounds of Love.” Its use in a pivotal scene from “Stranger Things” helped remind that show’s viewers of its glitchy greatness, and word got around; streaming activity and radio play caused It to peak at No. 3 on the Hot 100 this summer, besting the No. 30 high-water mark it hit upon its initial release.
Other retro-minded artists broke through with interpolations and samples. French DJ David Guetta teamed up with the robust-voiced Bebe Rexha for “I’m Good (Blue),” which lifted its insistent hook (and parenthetical title) from Eiffel 65′s late-’90s earworm “Blue (Da Ba Dee).” Kentucky MC dipped into ‘00s nostalgia with his single “First Class,” which borrowed its breathy vocal counterpoint from Fergie’s luxe 2006 track “Glamorous.” Perhaps the most egregious was the meme-happy MC Yung Gravy, whose breakthrough single “Betty (Get Money)” spun out of Rick Astley’s booming “Never Gonna Give You Up” — a song that’s been at the forefront of online culture since the mid-’00s, and that Astley is performing in arenas to this day.
On the video-sharing app TikTok, pitch-shifted versions of old chestnuts remained a reliable soundtrack for dance crazes and work-stinks confessionals. Demi Lovato put out a punky new full-length in 2022, but her stomping 2015 track “Cool for the Summer” got attention earlier this year when it was given the “nightcore” treatment, sped up just enough for its whooshing synths and storming drums to sound like they were soundtracking a wee-hours drive. The Swedish metal band Ghost made its first Hot 100 appearance with “Mary on a Cross,” a 2019 psychedelia nugget that hit big on TikTok; they celebrated by officially releasing a “slowed and reverb” version of the track, a floating-in-space pitch-shift.
Even Bad Bunny, whose “Verano” single “Títí Me Preguntó” spun out of bachata king Antony Santos’s 1999 cut “No Te Puedo Olvidar,” and Beyoncé, whose “RENAISSANCE” was a gleaming history of club music that capped off with an “I Feel Love”-interpolating tribute to Boston-born disco diva Donna Summer, got in on the retro act, although their nods toward the past helped root their music in pop’s present and future.
Still, there were some modern pleasures to be had within pop playlists and commercial-free radio blocks. “Better Days,” by the Swedish collective NEIKED and the English belter Mae Muller, was an impeccably breezy example of the happy-sad pop confection, triumphing despite an uninspired verse from the Chicago MC Polo G. (Shoehorned-in features like this are enough to make one long for even the most rudimentary guitar solo.) The singles from chart enigma Harry Styles’s third album, “Harry’s House,” including the pillowy “Late Night Talking” and the glassy “As It Was,” reflected the idea of artists being defined not so much by genre as by a general vibe. And funk guitarist Steve Lacy’s bedheaded “Bad Habit” bridged the gap between TikTok’s love of lo-fi and funk’s adherence to grooves, its sumptuous sonics enhanced by its elliptically seductive lyrics.
My own listening during 2022 was similarly all over the map. Since the early 2010s I’ve kept a yearly “good songs” playlist, into which I drag tracks that catch my ear; the 2022 edition is at 17-plus hours and 298 tracks, including the pop auteur Kilo Kish’s rain-slicked romp “AMERICAN GURL,” the British act The Cool Greenhouse’s witheringly sardonic “Hard Rock Potato,” The 1975′s George Michael-meets-shoegaze epic “About You,” the Kpop group (G)-IDLE’s theatrical “NXDE,” and the Houston hip-hop duo Tobe and Fat Nwigwe’s paranoid “They Want It, But No.” It’s a lot. But I, too, looked toward the past: Nearly every day, I tune in to Classic American Top 40, a station programmed by the radio conglomerate iHeart that only plays Casey Kasem-hosted countdowns from the 1970s and ‘80s. If nothing else, it offers many hints of which songs might be next for excavation by music supervisors and hit-hungry pop stars.