Our Favorite Cultural Artifacts of 2022

As our world has emerged more fully from a still-ongoing pandemic, 2022 has offered an abundance of cultural delights, from music to film to art. We asked our staff to choose one cultural work in any medium whose impact affected them and continues to resonate. Here is our idiosyncratic assortment of 2022 favorites.

The Editors


Bad Bunny, Un Verano Sin Ti

Living in New York during the summer of 2022 meant that one out of every three cars on every street blared something from Bad Bunny’s chart-destroying album Un Verano Sin Ti. Sometimes two cars would cross-play different tracks, and people on the sidewalk got to choose which one to sing along with. Un Verano cemented Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio’s position as arguably the biggest artist in the world, capping his third year as Spotify’s top-streamed artist worldwide. I love its eclecticism — the guest stars and stylistic shifts (like my #2 album of the year, Renaissance) — as well as its subtle and subversive slyness. San Benito continues to flirt with queerness, leading to the first-ever male same-sex kiss at the 2022 VMAs. And a song like “El Apagón” brings an unexpected political awareness to reggaetón. The music video shows diverse and queer Puerto Ricans dancing through disaster and displacement, before turning into a 20-minute documentary on how the U.S.’s modern-day colonialism has led to the archipelago’s crumbling infrastructure and is actively forcing natives from their homes. “No me quiero ir de aquí,” sings Gabriela Berlingeri in the outro. “Que se vayan ellos.”—David M. de León, Senior Editor

Issy Wood, My Body Your Choice

If I could select the soundtrack to the photomontage “memory” that my iPhone will surely and automatically assemble this year, I would choose painter and musician Issy Wood’s album, My Body Your Choice. With their dips and swells and their off-kilter, titillating rhythms, these songs are immediately hypnotic: I’ve had the album on repeat since it was released in August. (Self-released, it feels important to note, after her admirable—and quick—departure from Mark Ronson’s imprint at Sony.) Her weird, layered, synth-y beats induce as much head-nodding as her droll lyrics: “Show me someone who’s gonna treat me right / And I’ll try not to roll my eyes / Show me a plan for getting peace of mind / Oh, I’m sure it’s really, really nice” in “Trash.” Much like her paintings—one is featured as the album cover—which seem to come from a secondhand shop in some parallel universe, with their dreamlike arrangements of animal figurines, retro car interiors, clock faces, and teeth fillings, her music is like nothing I’ve ever encountered. So far, I haven’t wanted to stop listening. —Will Frazier, Managing Editor

Lucinda Williams, Live at the Beacon Theatre

Adrienne Rich once wrote of Muriel Rukeyser, “Gradually I found her to be the poet I most needed in the struggle to make my poems and live my life.” Over the past few years, the musician and songwriter Lucinda Williams has become that poet for me. I don’t think any artist in any medium has taught me more about economy, style, and saying what you mean. Last June I saw her perform at the Beacon Theatre in New York. In November 2020 Williams suffered a stroke that left her unable to play guitar, but this summer her voice was as powerful as ever, and in her banter she sounded a bit awed to be there, singing for us again. Her set peaked in a wry, defiant rendition of “Joy,” the song cresting repeatedly on that title word, which Williams shouted as much as sang. It’s one of the most efficient songs ever written about an unworthy lover, but in 2022 its target feels both larger and more diffuse. I shout-sing it loudly and often, at whatever kind of stressor: “You took my joy, I want it back.” —Sam Huber, Senior Editor

Todd Haynes, Safe

In Los Angeles in mid-November, I met friends at the packed Los Feliz Theatre to see Todd Haynes’s 1995 film Safe, starring Julianne Moore. Safe is a story about illness. Set in 1987, it’s haunted by the AIDS epidemic, although Moore’s character, a housewife named Carol, is sick with something else, also not fully understood. Several reappraisals of the film were published in 2020, when COVID made it feel freshly relevant—but it’s even more so in the pandemic’s late stage, when we understand COVID to be, for many, a chronic condition.

Carol’s chronic ailments are dismissed by her doctor; she self-diagnoses environmental illness. The environment has been polluted by human industry, and the environment is other humans: Carol reacts to an off-gassing new sofa; at a baby shower with so-called friends, her flare-up feels like protest. (The movie is often darkly funny.) Her search for care will lead to near-total isolation.

Watching Safe, I thought of Kathryn Savage’s book Groundglass, which also considers how health is inextricable from environment. Like Haynes, Savage knows individual safety is a fantasy. Still, we can—in community—reduce harm and tend the compromised place where we find ourselves grounded. —Rachel Mannheimer, Senior Editor

Margot Bergman, Anton Kern Gallery

I had a totally mind-opening time at the Margot Bergman exhibit at Anton Kern Gallery in April. Bergman is known for using amateur paintings by strangers, mostly purchased from thrift stores, as canvases on which to paint other forms: usually distorted, vacant human faces. But rather than completely obscuring the original painting, she always leaves some fragments of the original artwork peeking through untouched. A face might have a lighthouse-shaped lesion on its cheek, or a dachshund on its forehead, or a nude figure instead of a nose. The resulting image has multiple authors and multiple subjects: the goggle-eyed person whose face it portrays, but also the silent correspondence between the two painters, and the palimpsestuous process of painting itself. In many pieces, one face pierces through the wound in another. Always, the foreground is haunted by the scene underneath, the latter artist haunted by the former: a spectral third troubling the relationship between portraitist and subject. A party. A polycule. A pentimento. Maggie Millner, Senior Editor

Alison Espach, Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance

It has been some time since a book affected me as deeply as Alison Espach’s unconventional coming-of-age story, Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance. Sally is a young teenager when her older sister (and idol) Kathy is tragically killed in a car accident. The book, written entirely from Sally’s perspective, is a series of utterly heart-wrenching notes from Sally to her dead sister. Espach so expertly captures the angst and innocence of adolescence; I teared up more than once reading about Sally’s attempts to recalibrate her place in her family and the world in the wake of her sister’s death. When Sally turns to her sister’s grieving boyfriend for comfort, their unusual friendship grows into a deep bond, and what could be a clichéd plot line becomes, in Espach’s deft hands, a raw, intensely moving portrait of grief and a story of how tragedy can bring unexpected connection. I can’t remember the last book I’ve recommended to so many people. Jill Pellettieri, Deputy Editor

Alyssa Songsiridej, Little Rabbit

This year, as I waded through a cultural discourse riven with moral paranoia, I thought about the complexities of desiring things that have “bad” political implications, which brought me to Alyssa Songsiridej’s sensual debut, Little Rabbit. In the novel, the unnamed narrator, a 30-year-old half-Asian writer, enters into a sub-dom relationship with a male choreographer. The choreographer is much wealthier and more recognized as an artist than she is—not to mention twenty-something years her senior. I delighted in the novel’s unabashed portrayal of pleasure and its careful refusal to penalize the narrator’s desires. Reading Little Rabbit, I was reminded of Sigrid Nunez’s quietly electric debut, A Feather on the Breath of God. Its final chapter narrates a relationship between the (also unnamed) half-Chinese protagonist and Vadim, a recent immigrant to New York City from Odessa who is at least ten years older than her. “Why did you go with this man? What did you want?” a therapist asks her at the end of the story. The narrator considers this. “I look at that face and think: How can she possibly understand? This woman has never been ravished.” Kathy Chow, Assistant Editor

MUNA

Spotify Wrapped tells me I am in the top .01 percent of MUNA’s listeners, and that’s because they are the greatest band in the world. I’ve had their self-titled album on an endless loop this year, which includes such bangers as “Silk Chiffon” (whose music video riffs on the 1999 lesbian masterpiece But I’m a Cheerleader) and “Anything But Me.” Nothing captures the existential drama of your late twenties quite like MUNA’s lyrics: “I’m not some kind of minor trope / Who’s never gonna change, that’s so derivative.” And no one writes a better bridge than Katie Gavin.

It is both melodramatic and the god’s honest truth to say MUNA’s very cheery, very depressing, very smart, very gay pop has been the soundtrack to my 2022. I can confirm it is great for the gym, weeping on nighttime walks, PhDing, having a crisis, writing poetry, writing conference papers, running, growing into yourself, bouldering, crying in your car, growing into yourself, moving on, and cross-stitching—among other things. Lacey Jones, Assistant Editor

Industry

This year, I was most impressed by season two of HBO’s Industry, a drama that follows a group of recent college graduates working at a prestigious bank where sexuality, race, class, and gender all influence the toxic workplace culture. Season two begins directly after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and tracks the pandemic’s influence on the economy, as these morally flawed characters navigate a new world and explore the limitations that money places on global change and its defenses. Industry depicts power dynamics in the workplace better than any show I’ve ever seen. Its enthralling characters are ruthless, but I fell in love with them despite their many shortcomings, which is all I can ask from popular media. Christion Zappley, Intern

Daniels, Everything Everywhere All at Once

I watched Everything Everywhere All at Once at a time when I was mourning the alternate lives I could have had in a world without COVID. A friend ordered me to see the movie. It’s the best metaphor for depression I’ve ever experienced, they said. It breaks everything down, and then it shows you a true sliver of a way forward. In the film, Chinese immigrant Evelyn Quan (played by Michelle Yeoh) is deeply unhappy with the choices she’s made that have led to her running a laundromat with her husband. Her unlived lives become literal, taking her on a multi-genre adventure—comedy, drama, sci-fi, animation, martial arts. When she feels all of them, all at once, she comes to a knowledge that nothing matters. At first, Evelyn inhabits her nihilism in the logical way: letting her life and relationships crumble. But bit by bit, she chooses to ascribe meaning to small things. Watching her do so was the most special and personal artistic experience I’ve ever had.IsaBella Zou, Intern

Originally published:
December 21, 2022

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