Liner Notes: Former President Obama’s 2022 music picks were a little too good


Illustration by Ziye Wang

From SZA to Bad Bunny and Ethel Cain, former President Barack Obama chose his 2022 music picks, seemingly with an eye to Gen Z.

Elena Hubert, Audience Engagement Editor

From Oprah Winfrey’s gift guide to Reese Witherspoon’s book list, celebrity picks can be viewed as gospel. As usual for around this season, former President Barack Obama blessed us with his own gospel: his favorite songs of the year.

The 25-song list was all over the place genre-wise, encompassing R&B, reggaeton, rap, country, indie and pop. With arguably less than half the list’s artists considered “mainstream,” some have speculated whether the former president created the list himself. However, I will assume these are truly Obama’s picks, although I am guessing Sasha and Malia were the source of some. 

Obama’s playlist offers us not only a look into a usually private public figure’s preferences, but also an oddly on-the-mark compilation of plain good music. Having listened to an unhealthy amount of music in 2022, I have somehow qualified myself as fit to judge the picks of the former commander-in-chief, and, to compress the list of 25 songs, I’ve picked my most notable.

“The Heart Part 5,” a surprise release anticipating the album “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” is Kendrick Lamar at his finest: rhythmic, reflective bars that spare no prisoners. The Pulitzer Prize-winner — well-earned for his cultural behemoth “DAMN.” in 2017 — here tackles the carceral system, drug use and cancel culture. “The Heart Part 5” is definitely a valid choice in terms of cultural relevance, but I prefer “N95” from “Mr. Morale…” where Kendrick’s bars hit hardest in a punchy, breathy style with heavy 808 drum beats and synth. 

With “Tití Me Preguntó,” Bad Bunny’s inclusion on this list should be surprising to none. The Puerto Rican powerhouse was the most streamed artist on Spotify in 2022, which I attribute to the universal power of an ass-shaking anthem. “Tití Me Preguntó” is pure fun, with Bad Bunny rapidly rolling through his lines like his “novias”— girlfriends — as he details in the song. My mom discovered this song before me, much to my dismay, and I hope it has become the catalyst of many dance parties at the Obamas’ house like it certainly has in ours. 

Another Spanish-language song on Obama’s list, “SAOKO” by ROSALÍA, has similar dance-inducing qualities, but with grunge instrumentals. On the track, the classically trained flamenco singer pairs her rhythmic, high-pitched vocals with low, electronic bass as she remarks on her love of change. This theme is evident on the entire “MOTOMAMI” album, where ROSALÍA impressively weaves through flamenco, reggaeton, trap and more. My preferred track on the album is the ballad “HENTAI,” where ROSALÍA’s crystal clear vocals inspire tears, but “SAOKO” definitely follows the list’s overall theme of high-energy bops.

To Twitter’s amusement, one of Obama’s favorites was Ethel Cain’s “American Teenager,” a dreamy indie song critical of American institutions — namely, the military. “The neighbor’s brother came home in a box, but he wanted to go so maybe it was his fault,” croons the 24-year-old Cain, whose experience likely lined up with Obama’s military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can’t speculate whether Obama recognized this lyrical irony, but he did recognize a banger. To me, this track is Generation Z’s “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen: punchy, energetic and oh-so-rebellious. Following Obama’s recommendation, I hope the American people will grant the same reverence to Cain as Springsteen, but only time will tell. 

Rounding out my picks of Obama’s list, “Tamagotchi” by Omar Apollo and “Shirt” by SZA are both high-energy, drum-driven tracks that suspiciously scream Gen Z. Again, whether Obama is just really “with the kids” or one of his assistants got a fun assignment will remain a purely speculative debate. 

But anyway, indie artist Apollo takes a break from the moodiness of his album “Ivory” with the bouncy, seductive and bilingual — English and Spanish — “Tamagotchi.” However, I feel Apollo and his falsetto shine brightest on heart-wrenching, softly accompanied tracks like “Evergreen” and “Invincible.” Similarly, SZA’s return to music, following her 2017 moody masterpiece “Ctrl,” on the album “SOS” was most salient in her saddest tracks. While “Shirt” may have inspired many TikTok dances, “Nobody Gets Me” and “Ghost in the Machine” are SZA’s most vulnerable, well-executed tracks. 

For my favorite songs of the year, I’ll go with “Wet Dream” by Wet Leg, “N95” by Kendrick Lamar, “Shotgun” by Soccer Mommy and “Just Like Heaven” by The Lumineers. So, Mr. President, if you’re looking for a ghostwriter next year, I can send you my rate.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @elenahubert25

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