The Top 20 Albums of 2016

You don’t need to read another rundown of all the things that made 2016 the absolute worst. We know what happened. So let’s seal ourselves off in a pop culture vacuum and focus on what an incredible year this was for music. I think it’s the best since 2000 – the year of Stankonia, Kid A and a Democrat somehow not becoming president even though more people voted for him. Oh shit. Sorry about that. Calm blue ocean, people. Just read on.

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20. Black Mountain – IV

If you thought rock bands were done generating fresh sounds from old ingredients, here’s some cause for optimism. This Vancouver quintet is certainly a student of 1970s and ’80s rock tropes, but the elements they fuse together on IV felt distinct in 2016. Sabbathy pentatonics make way for undulating synth patches cribbed from Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The melodies are imbued with the downcast posture and shattered beauty of Pornography-era Cure, but sung with the lithe dual-vocalist force of peak Fleetwood Mac. When these considerable influences melt together in the telling of an epic alien invasion or a graveside love affair, you have something that can only be described as Black Mountain.

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19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sang Bob Dylan in the late 1990s, while in the midst of a heart-related health scare. Gone was the artist’s typical literary remove, leaving behind an authentic beauty that he’s rarely matched. A similar sense of clear-eyed acceptance is present on what we now know as Leonard Cohen’s final LP. Released a few weeks before his death, You Want It Darker is a spare, haunting treatise on the pitfalls of faith, with the artist staring eternity in the eye and giving it a knowing wink over soft beds of synths and the occasional choir. It’s familiar territory for the writer of “Story of Isaac” and “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Hallelujah” – one last crack at the god that never wrote him backHe may not have won the war, but this final battle is all his.

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18. Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen’s third album is a plugged-in collection of rough-hewn folk songs that are resigned to love’s failure. “Heartache ends, and begins again,” she sings. But in this resignation, she finds freedom. My Woman is an ecosystem of love and pain, the evaporation of the former resulting in the thunderstorms of the latter. After the crackling chemistry of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill Me” captures that frightening moment when you realize loving someone gives them the power to hurt you. Then, in a torrential catharsis, “Woman” unleashes that hurt, clearing the way for the cycle to begin again. Like Roger Sterling once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” By admitting defeat from the beginning, you’re free to just enjoy the ride.

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17. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

With a guest verse on one of the year’s most irresistible dance songs and a weekly slot performing the theme song to ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Danny Brown seemed on a path to being one of the cuddlier MCs of 2016. Then Atrocity Exhibition came out, and we were reminded he was fire incarnate. Inspired by a Joy Division song that was inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel set in an insane asylum, Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly bleak, a musty hotel room with blankets on the windows and powder residue on the cable guide laminate. Fans of his club-friendly fare won’t find any refuge in the lyric sheet. But they don’t have to. Brown’s acrobatic flow is so effortless, his lung capacity seemingly bottomless, it’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in its energy.

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16. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs

When k.d. lang wanted to realize a decades-long dream of creating her version of the roots rock supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, she shot an email to two of her favorite songwriters, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. Within a half-hour, it was a done deal. But Case/Lang/Veirs feels like anything but a one-off experiment. Whether it’s one of Case’s sweeping country gallops, some pitch-perfect vocal jazz from lang or a plaintive folk singalong from Veirs, the production has the same, perfectly lived-in feel. Plus, the shifting spotlight feels natural, because these artists share an uncanny ability to depict the joys and jealousies of long-term relationships. “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything,” sings Veirs on one of her several standout contributions. When I looked at my wife sleeping next to me on Election Night, I knew for a fact that she was right.

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15. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.

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14. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

Few things convey strength better then staying calm as a samurai in the face of adversity. Like Charles Bronson, vengeful yet stone-faced, in Once Upon A Time In The West. Or Barack Obama, never losing his cool in the face of obstructionist hate. Or the Brooklyn firefighter and underground rapper Ka, who dives deep into the warring psychologies of street life while never once raising his voice. Over candlelit soul samples that would make any Wu-Tang member salivate, Ka delivers every line in a steady, conspiratorial whisper – even the ones about the tragically paradoxical advice of his loving parents. “Mommy told me be a good boy / Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy / Pops told me stay strapped son / You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.”

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13. Beyoncé – Lemonade

Thirteen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. This year, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestles with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment. By the end, Beyoncé has transcended being crazy in love. She’s never sounded more powerful.

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12. Masta Ace – The Falling Season

A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace writes about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC is on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits are skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace has been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. In 2016, he was my favorite teacher.

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11. The Monkees – Good Times!

On Good Times!, the surviving members of The Monkees celebrate their 50th anniversary by doing what they do best – exuberantly harmonizing over impeccably produced sunshine pop. Along with producer Adam Schlesinger and an impressive array of guest songwriters, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith lovingly recreate that warm, jangly 1966 pop sound that proved they were more than a bunch of boob-tube Beatles. Schlesinger does an excellent job mixing his authentically retro-sounding sessions with unreleased vintage recordings of Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012) and old Dolenz pal Harry Nilsson. And while Dolenz handles most of the singing with admirable verve, it’s a joy to hear Nesmith, who sings with grace and transparency on two excellent ballads. At 73 years old, the green-hatted one remains a woefully underrated craftsman.

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10. Jamila Woods – HEAVN

Chance the Rapper had a massive 2016, his relentlessly positive Coloring Book mixtape resonating big time with a traumatized American populace. But to me, Chance’s frequent collaborator Jamila Woods was the one doing the lord’s work this year, radiating strength and self-worth in a society that is hell-bent on destroying it. HEAVN is one beautifully constructed ode after another – to resilience in the face of police brutality, to Lake Michigan, to her name – over gentle, rolling grooves that feel like they were warmed up on a windowsill. The Chicago native is a meditative singer along the lines of Erykah Badu, her voice a balm, exuding serene confidence without ever pretending there isn’t a reason to be afraid.

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9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd

A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.

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8. Anderson Paak – Malibu

Throughout his sprawling second album, Anderson Paak intersperses interview clips of professional surfers, who discuss the dangers and sensory thrills of their sport. It’s an appropriate motif for the artist, who treats Malibu like one 62-minute wave, created when the current of 2016 hip hop meets the undertow of 1976 soul. And I’ll be damned if he ever loses his balance. Paak is an R&B singer first, but his masterful syncopation and raspy tone are more reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar than any crooner. He’s just as comfortable on an Isley Brothers jones as he is trading verses with Schoolboy Q. One of the surfers says it best: “I enjoy some of the old, and I enjoy the new, and if I can find a balance between it, that’s where I find my satisfaction.”

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7. Solange – A Seat at the Table

In a year that tried its hardest to crush our spirits, Solange Knowles made an album of crisply focused R&B that felt like the eye of a hurricane. Seat at the Table had been gestating for years, but it doesn’t sound remotely fussed over. The artist favors a less-is-more production aesthetic, putting kick, snare and keyboards together in ways that evaporate tension. She sprinkles in a series of compelling conversational interludes to accentuate the informal vibe, while deepening the record’s theme of irrepressible black pride. Whether she’s admitting to weariness, bristling at cultural appropriation, or explaining all the reasons she has to be mad, Solange does so with preternatural calm and emotional insight, like the moment of clarity that comes after a long, productive cry.

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6. David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie wasn’t one to sugarcoat. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality. So it’s hard to imagine a more perfect coda to his career than Blackstar, released two days before his passing in January. Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one more glance over the shoulder before he ends his transmission to us all, leaving no doubt he gave us everything he could.

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5. Rihanna – Anti

Rihanna didn’t call her eighth album Anti as some sort of faux-punk Avril Lavigne pose. This is a truly remarkable example of a massive pop star pushing back hard against weighty commercial expectations. Her favored production style is a shadowy electronic murk – faint bass lines rumble under jittery drum machines and the whispered rumor of a keyboard. “Woo” is straight-up label-head-baiting, dissonant art rock, all squealing guitars and Auto-Tune howls. And it works, as does everything here, because of Rihanna’s voice, the beating heart of these compellingly cold environments. She’s always been an underrated vocalist, but on Anti, she’s living the notes, inhabiting the melodies. And it’s 100% why a risky late-album shift to straightforward R&B feels like a spine-tingling coup instead of a money grab. “Higher” is the best of the four excellent ballads that end the album – a raw, drunken plea with a great lyric about being too heartbroken to write great lyrics. When her voice frays on the chorus, I’ve been known to cry.

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4. William Tyler – Modern Country

There’s something about the way William Tyler plays guitar that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK. So this year, Modern Country was an absolute blessing. It’s an album of transportive, richly reverberating instrumentals, the kind of music that gets played in the background but refuses to stay there. Tyler is a Nashville native, and his bluegrass chops shine through in the gorgeous way he clusters notes together. His production instincts are open, warm, and never rushed, like a stroll in the country with someone you love. And his tone is pure honeysuckle. Lyrics would ruin this.

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3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service

The day after Donald Trump got elected on a wave of fake nostalgia, A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to give us the real shit. On We Got It From Here, the group accomplishes the difficult task of appeasing nostalgic fans, and mourning one of its members, while never pandering to anyone. It’s full of the warm Rhodes chords, spacious jazz-fusion loops and glorious vocal syncopation of classic Tribe. But rapper/producer/visionary Q-Tip leads his crew down some fruitful new avenues as well, including an embrace of guitar sounds that encompasses distorted Jack White atmospherics and Can’s cold funk. Even more amazing is how great these MCs sound, with Tip and the late Phife Dawg effortlessly trading couplets like old times, and former hype man Jarobi delivering some of the year’s most purely enjoyable bars from out of nowhere. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever,” rap Tip and Phife together on the instant-classic opener. Even on November 9, it made me feel hopeful.

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2. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto

In 1992, Ice Cube illustrated how rough most days were in Compton by painting a vivid picture of a good one. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape extends Cube’s party into the evening, with a collection of pristine, lowrider gangsta shit about how much better champagne tastes when you’ve been broke all your life. The Oakland MC is the definition of charisma on the mic, her flow easygoing, her rhymes both celebratory and reflective. “I shine so hard that you can’t ignore it,” she raps over the rubbery synth bass and vintage high-register keyboard runs of “Out the Bottle,” and it’s a goddamn fact. No album in 2016 was stacked with more hooks than A Good Night in the Ghetto, and Kamaiyah fills them with laid-back swagger that comes naturally to her, like a sigh of relief on payday. She’s like the protagonist on the cover – arms raised with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of Hennessy in the other, triumphant in her newfound belief that life is good.

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1. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Frank Ocean took a long time recording his follow up to 2012’s magnificent channelORANGE. And it seems like most of those four years were spent deconstructing. More often than not, Blonde is as stripped down as a folk song. Keyboards are abandoned. Guitars are stranded. His peerless voice goes unsupported as it seeks salvation through loneliness, attempting to transcend the temptations and limitations of fame. It’s passionate, therapeutic and heartbreaking all at once. On some level, Ocean must feel a connection with the haunted geniuses he references on Blonde – Elliott Smith, Karen Carpenter, Nirvana. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws. Anything means more when he’s singing it. And here, he’s singing for his soul.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – Daniel Son Necklace Don; Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid; Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me; ANOHNI – Hopelessness; The Avalanches – Wildflower; James Blake – The Colour In Anything; Bloodiest – Bloodiest; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree; De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody; Drake – Views; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression; Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows; Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.; M.I.A. – AIM; Noname – Telefone; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool; Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade; Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Survive – RR7349; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere; Vektor – Terminal Redux; Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery; Young Thug – Slime Season 3

Frank Ocean – Blonde

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I’m not exactly sure why, but I feel like Blonde, Frank Ocean’s long-awaited third record, could go away at any moment. Lemme just check real quick … yes, it’s still there.

There’s something about Blonde (née Boys Don’t Cry) that feels even more elusive than 2016’s other long-awaited splashes. It’s partly because of how much we’ve been teased – first it was a July 2015 release date, then July 2016, then 8/5 – but Avalanches fans scoff at an album merely 13 months overdue. Maybe it’s the last-second name change? That’s nothing compared to Kanye’s indecision. No, I think it’s because of the nature of Frank’s music itself.

2012’s channelORANGE was an emotional experience, prefaced by the artist’s moving Tumblr post about a man he fell in love with. It was one gleaming anthem after another about the triumphs and challenges of being honest with yourself. Ocean’s voice became the voice that told us it was OK to feel lost, OK to pour out our feelings to a stranger, OK to be hopelessly in love, thinking about forever. Four years is a long time to wait to hear that voice again.

And on the opening track and debut single, “Nikes,” Ocean toys with our separation anxiety. A bed of dreamy synths begs him to break out that falsetto, but instead Ocean pitch-alters his voice to unrecognizable lows. That warmth and vulnerability is stunted, fighting to stay pure through whirlwinds of materialism and drugs. “Demons try to body jump,” he warns, setting a bleak tone of self-preservation that is at least one of the prevailing themes of this overtly inscrutable record.

It’s awfully hard to analyze what Blonde actually means after a few listens. Ocean does not give us the benefit of a roadmap this time around; he’s far less interested in clear narratives – and for that matter, beats, hooks and choruses. The most immediately arresting tracks on the album are as stripped down as a folk song. A lone keyboard run symbolizes the thin line between heaven and hell on a song called “Solo.” “Godspeed” is in a similar boat, giving Ocean nothing more than some subdued gospel organ and scattered backup vocals to work with. “Self Control” wrings every drop of pathos out of a stranded, Tracy Chapman-ish electric guitar line. All of these songs are gorgeous, their messages of hope through loneliness, of integrity through selflessness, ringing all the deeper for how starkly they’re delivered. By following a richly layered, widely celebrated masterpiece with a raw singer/songwriter album that’s sure to divide his audience, Ocean has pulled a reverse Joni Mitchell.

It’s no coincidence that my favorite tracks are the ones where the production clears the way to let Frank flat-out sing. His voice remains his genius. While it’s probably going to be rewarding to parse the Othello and Little Mermaid references of “Nikes,” Ocean is still better at letters than poems. “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight,” he proclaims in “Self Control,” his yearning laid bare, full-throated and utterly heartbreaking. The more I feel the impact of moments like these, the less I worry that they’re somehow going to be stolen from me.

Ocean struggles a bit with the connective tissue tracks, those little 1-2 minute breaks that helped make channelORANGE such a perfectly sequenced experience. “Good Guy” dampens the poignant heartache of its lyrics with tossed-off tape-recorder fidelity. The French DJ Sebastian wastes our time with a story about a girlfriend getting upset because he wouldn’t friend her on Facebook (she’s right to be suspicious, dude). A voicemail from Ocean’s mom about being yourself is so on the nose, we may have to call an ambulance. When an album has been clearly obsessed over for as long as Blonde has, you’ve gotta wonder how these snippets still made the cut.

So, at first blush, this is not an instantly accessible, world-conquering work of art like its predecessor. It’s a messier, less sonically assured, more challenging experience. It’s entirely possible that I will like it less once the joy of hearing his voice again wears off.

But I don’t think so. The more I listen, the more I see Blonde as a bold, unfettered document of an artist beloved for his honesty, struggling with the trappings and temptations of fame. Struggling so much that I almost worry about him. “I want to see Nirvana / but don’t want to die,” he sings on “Nights.” It’s the first of two mentions of the band on this album“Close to You” is an interpolative cover of The Carpenters’ classic, with new lyrics but the same melody. “Why am I preaching / To this choir, to this atheist,” he sings through the trappings of AutoTune. Then, on the solemn, introspective “Siegfried,” he sings the chorus from Elliott Smith’s “A Fond Farewell.” Here are callbacks to three artists, all destroyed by the burdens of societal pressure and their own personal demons. On some level, Frank Ocean feels a connection with them. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws.

OK, I feel better. Blonde has grabbed me. It’s here to stay.

The Top 20 Albums of 2015

Ah, the holidays. A time for nailing giant socks to the wall. A time for singing about pudding. A time to reflect on the year in music. Here’s a list of the 20 audiodiscs that gave me the most earjoy in 2015.

TD2CH_album_cover 20. Boosie Badazz – Touch Down 2 Cause Hell 

Lil Boosie has always commanded our attention with the quavering intensity of his bars. But there’s something even more visceral happening on this, his sixth album, and first since being released from a five-year stint in a Louisiana jail. You best sit down before pressing play on “Intro – Get Em Boosie,” because it’s one minute and 16 seconds of severe passion, the sound of a rapper freeing a long-suffocated muse. There’s anger in there, and sadness, but the overarching feeling is triumph. Over 18 ensuing tracks, this feeling of grand catharsis rarely subsides, and what seemed like the typical branding moves – dropping the “Lil,” the chaotic promise of the album title – are revealed as truth. This is an inspired, determined, grown-azz man.

homepage_large.c73306d019. The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ

You don’t need to care about pro wrestling to appreciate John Darnielle’s 15th record. But if you’ve ever been in love, caved under pressure, or searched for goodness in the world, Beat the Champ has something for you. The singer/songwriter uses the squared circle as a launching pad for autobiography, explaining his childhood obsession with regional star Chavo Guerrero – “I need justice in my life/ Here it comes.” Elsewhere, the metaphors fly like feigned punches, from the sweetly romantic tale of a long-sundered tag team to the unexpected sting of a foreign object in your eye. In his inimitable, nasally verbose way, Darnielle turns what could have been a novelty record into a strikingly emotional work. He is the world champion of wistful pride.

a1859956754_1018. Panopticon – Autumn Eternal

Few things are as metal as leaf-peeping. People come from miles away to watch the trees blaze with a million little deaths, their once-verdant finery destined to rot. At least, Austin Lunn thinks so. He’s the man behind every note of Autumn Eternal, a black metal showpiece that plays like a drive through peak foliage – at first, with the sights blurring by, it feels like everything’s on fire. Then you slow down and realize you’re surrounded by beauty. Panopticon’s sixth record loses the bluegrass elements that made its prior work so haunting, in favor of walls of guitars, organs, drums and screams that swirl with enchanting grace. The melodies unfurl slowly amidst the chaos, gorgeous reminders that nothing is so natural as death.

51GqlPejStL._SY300_17. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again

Jessica Pratt is the kind of enigmatic folksinger who sounds like she was meant to record alone, hurling complicated emotions into the void. Her phrasing is messy, her pronunciation odd – “can” is “keen”; “time” is “tam” – but in the psychedelic malaise of her second LP, these quirks sound less like grating affectations and more like the artist’s own personal language. The joys of her guitar playing, however, are clear as day. She interrupts gorgeous finger-picked cascades with staccato minor notes, playing with a narrative thrust that gives the record its bone density. When we hear that scratch of pick on acoustic, we’re trained to expect some diary-entry-type emoting. Pratt plays against that expectation beautifully, leaving just enough breadcrumbs to get us lost. (excerpt from my review in The Quietus2/11/15)

cover_2253201862015_r16. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

Of all the fascinating moments from the 2009 Iron Maiden documentary Flight 666, nothing compared to the footage of a Brazilian fan who had just caught one of Nicko McBrain’s drumsticks. He stands awestruck, unaware of the camera, tears of gratitude streaming down his face. It’s a feeling I can relate to when listening to the band’s excellent new double-disc, because it shimmers with the commitment and energy of a band half its age. While never straying from that classic Maiden formula– dramatic intro, triumphant gallop, insanely catchy solo, repeat – The Book of Souls avoids nostalgia though the use of a panoramic lens.  The two best songs on the record are also the two longest songs in the entire Maiden catalog. “The Red & The Black” especially slays, its chorus a fist-pumping “whoa” that makes we wish I was in a stadium, expressing my gratitude loudly.

R-6768364-1426270272-2606.jpeg15. Bjork – Vulnicura

When Bjork released Vespertine in 2001, it was the most direct statement of her career. Starry-eyed, triumphant, vulnerable and otherworldly, it remains a breathtakingly accurate depiction of an all-consuming love. Fourteen years later, here is the denouement. Vulnicura details the demise of Bjork’s marriage in the same stark, unflinching way that Vespertine celebrated its beginning. It’s a  devastating work. The artist and co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak paint pictures of dissolution with little more than a string section and a spare drum machine. The story arc begins with our narrator seeing the cracks in the foundation, surprised at how little she cares. “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not too bothered / Either way,” Bjork sings in ghostly three-part harmony, extracting as much wonder from winter as she once did from spring.

drake_albumcover-300x30014. Drake – If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

Here is perhaps the most downplayed of 2015’s surprise album drops. Even though it was released like a traditional, for-purchase-only record, Drake has insisted that If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late is a mixtape, a mere prelude to his much-hyped and still-imminent Views From the 6. (Are the rap semantics making your head hurt too?) For whatever reason, the artist basically told us to think of this as a minor release. But after hearing the first five songs, that is impossible to do. It’s rap’s strongest opening stretch of the year, a beautifully sequenced malaise of ego, death and crew politics that is about 200% catchier than I’m making it sound. The Torontonian has become a master at delivering hooks, filling this record with the same airy confidence that made “0 to 100” one of last year’s best singles. “Energy” is a great song entirely because of the way he draws out those syllables – “Tryin to take a waaaaaave from a n***a!” If this is just a preview, then I am going to pee right now – don’t want to miss a second of the feature presentation.

1035x1035-a852ee70f2b3aba31d06a9f3_609x60913. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material

Country music has always understood how to wallow. Some of its finest moments have taken us down the whiskey-soaked alleys of Self-Loathing, USA. But I’m a bigger fan of the singers that return from the abyss and report on how they overcame it. Like Kacey Musgraves, whose filtered sunbeam of a second record sparkles with self awareness, jam packed with life lessons destined for cross-stitched kitchen wall hangings. It begins with a honey-sweet ode to the calming influence of marijuana, complete with strolling whistles, Dusty Springfield string swells, and a flamenco guitar solo. “It’s a fine time to let it all go,” she sings, the profoundly pleasant melody backing up her argument. Feel so lonely you could cry? Just cry already. You’ll feel better.

549_waxahatchee_ivytrip_2500px_sq-54bba7c022cb7d50f49076a72151daf0f3840630-s300-c8512. Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

Ivy Tripp is one of those raw-nerve breakup albums that finds clarity in despair. Katie Crutchfield’s songs are all about sifting through wreckage, directing blame, taking brief escapes through nostalgia. Yet there’s real comfort in them, the reserved, homespun production a testament to the healing powers of a focused mind. No matter how many sad-sack, Reznor-ian sentiments Crutchfield throws at her work – e.g. “You’re less than me / I am nothing” – it never comes close to toppling. Whether it’s through a lone organ run, a gentle rockabilly groove, or an extra-slow, hunched-shoulder riff, every one of these tracks is built to be a grower.

screen-shot-2014-12-10-at-9-32-40-am_sq-2768c011b744709ef14c5eb2230eb19a61b0b895-s300-c8511. Matthew E. White – Fresh Blood

“Everybody knows that rock and roll is cold,” croons Matthew E. White on the most rock ‘n’ roll-indebted song he’s ever done – 12-bar blues structure, ooh-la-la chorus and all. And in the lush, lovestruck context of his second LP, the irony of that line cuts even deeper. Fresh Blood finds the artist continuing to scratch his Randy Newman itch, slathering his compositions in strings and woodwinds and vocal harmonies, his unique baritone standing out in spite of it all. The difference here is Cupid’s arrow, washing away any trace of sarcasm. We’re talking celestial metaphors for love at first sight, picnics under laden fruit trees, a refrain of “nobody in this world is better than us.” With such shamelessly gorgeous production behind him, White has the power to swoon.

a0925d371d-TCOTN-300x30010. Tribulation – The Children of the Night

If you ever hear somebody bemoaning the lack of good guitar-based music these days (like, if you’re Dave Grohl’s fishing buddy), hand them a copy of this, the third LP from Swedish gothic metal band Tribulation. The Children of the Night is stuffed with the kind of layered, anthemic, utterly beautiful guitar interplay that will have you considering airbrushing a Gandalf/Balrog fight on the hood of your Honda Civic. When paired with a penchant for theatrical organ playing and singer Johannes Andersson’s gravesoil-spewing croak, Tribulation creates a completely immersive experience, where you can hear about the existence of gateways to netherworlds populated by dreaming corpses and be like, “of course.”

Kurt_Vile-2015-Blieve_im_goin_down_art_hi-res-300x3009. Kurt Vile – B’lieve I’m Goin Down

There have been moments – caused by exhaustion, an intoxicant, or both – when I’ve become obsessed with the sound of a word I’ve heard a million times before. “Di-no-saur,” I’ll say out loud, as everyone slowly backs out of the room. “Does that sound weird to you?” I share this boring anecdote in an attempt to explain the singular joys of listening to Kurt Vile, whose mesmerizing brand of folk-rock can make the most played-out phrases feel profound. On his sixth album, he has a song called “That’s Life,” a chorus about looking at the man in the mirror, another refrain about rolling with the punches. When delivered in the lulling sea of Vile’s finger-picked guitars and deconstructed piano chords, these clichés transform into a sort of everyman poetry. Dude could sing “It is what it is” for five minutes and have me in tears.

miguel_CVR_sq-563d9067c42173588ea2fbe88175d55171bd8d23-s300-c858. Miguel – Wildheart 

In a year when the top R&B song was an ode to the joys of facial numbness, Miguel’s third album was the sound of feeling returning. On his previous records, the Los Angeles vocalist did striking things within the confines of the late-‘90s neo-soul sound that so clearly inspired him. But Wildheart is something else entirely. Earthy and psychedelic, introspective and sex positive, it’s one of those thrilling documents of an artist ditching the old templates and exploring what’s underneath. It never strikes poses. “The Valley” weaves religious metaphors into its lustful narrative, not to seem controversial, just to make the point that great sex is spiritual. “Coffee” celebrates the context of making love with its simple, elegant arc of a chorus, placing conversations and caffeine on the same sensual pedestal as the act itself. “Face the Sun” positions true love as a moment where we see the light. Miguel has never been more confident in what he’s saying, in the sounds he wants to hear, in the sensations he thinks we all should get to feel. And that is a turn on. (from my review in PopMatters, 12/4/15)

No_Cities_to_Love_cover7. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

2015 would’ve been a perfect cash-in year for Sleater-Kinney – a decade since dissolution; 20 years since its debut album. The trio could’ve easily booked a tour where they play that record front to back and made thousands of people very happy. Instead, they made a new one. And it’s better. Impressively, No Cities To Love doesn’t just recapture the band’s signature sound, it continues the spirit of evolution that preceded it. Where 2005’s thrillingly loud The Woods played like a radio station .2 off on the dial, NCTL is crisp and considered, a 10-song study in artistic chemistry. Honing in on Carrie Brownstein’s endlessly inventive riffs, Corin Tucker’s flamethrower of a voice, or Janet Weiss’s propulsive drumming can be just as rewarding as letting the whole thing wash over you. “We’re wild and weary / But we won’t give in,” sings Tucker, selling the idea with every syllable. This is why fans hope for reunions.

Unknown6. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06

“My mama caused another problem when she had me.” When gangsta rap was at its height, a line like this would be a swaggering boast, a motto for an artist starring in his own ego-driven, cartoonish noir. But in the hands of 22-year-old Long Beach rapper Vince Staples, it’s something else entirely. First off, it’s a lie. A deception the narrator needs to believe in order to live with those bodies in the alley. Summertime ’06 is named after the season that drove Staples to nihilism – “the beginning of the end of everything I knew.” And producer No I.D. gives the darkness no place to hide, save a drum beat and a few strangled notes. Like Yeezus, it finds irresistible hooks in unvarnished territory. Unlike Yeezus, it doesn’t believe in any kind of god.

florence-2-web-300x3005. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Going by the title of this London ensemble’s third LP, one might expect a collection of songs that look outward, searching for profundity in the expanses above us. Instead, we get the opposite. These tracks are so focused on the internal workings of their creator that they make a delayed phone conversation feel like a burgeoning electrical storm, giving love the power to hurl us into canyons – breaking bones, but not our devotion. Florence Welch isn’t merely exploring her emotions here. She’s calling them to the mat, with a voice that could bend street signs. Factor in sweeping arrangements that rise like tempers, and we have a record that transforms the daily commute into a grand, cathartic singalong. Because while the universe is vast and intimidating, it’s got nothing against the fear that goes hand in hand with falling for someone. (from my review in PopMatters12/4/15)

61rIrx-CesL._SY300_4. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear 

I Love You, Honeybear sounds like a vintage Elton John LP, its rich, sad vocals buoyed by strings. It’s also marked by John’s old penchant for costumes. Recording for the second time under the guise of his sarcastic crooner-douche character Father John Misty, singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman falls into an ironically confessional groove. Behind the armor of a beard and fitted suit, Tillman can tell us that he’s in love, that it makes him brash and boastful, that it also terrifies him. In “Nothing Ever Good Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” he bellows at the men who hit on his girlfriend in bars, “Why the long face, jerk off? / Your chance has been taken.” As the pedal steel notes bend to the heavens, we’re hearing a form of male bravado we’re not used to – the swagger of the monogamous. Then there’s the closer, where the band takes five, and the costume comes off. Over his own gentle acoustic strum, Tillman sings about heading out on a routine errand, and learning that fate can feel tangible: “For love to find us of all people / I never thought it’d be so simple.” If he keeps writing songs like this, he can call himself whatever he wants.

kendrick-lamar-to-pimp-a-butterfly-album-cover-636-636-300x3003. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly 

We’re used to the narrative of pop stars rejecting their “voice of a generation” status. Dylan hid in the woods. Cobain set out for darker places. But I don’t think we’ve ever had an artist respond quite like Kendrick Lamar did this year. On his third album, the Compton rapper doesn’t reject or embrace the title. He obsesses over whether he’s worthy, snarling about the hypocrisies that should disqualify him, pinballing between belief in a just god and helplessness in the face of temptation. And he’s not afraid to make us feel the weight. To Pimp A Butterfly is a long, challenging LP, full of murky jazz and slow-building poetry, soaked in survivor guilt. For long stretches, Lamar doesn’t give us, or himself, much of a rhythm to latch onto. Listening to his bars unfold over slippery sax runs and ungrounded drums can be like trying to eat Jello with your hands. Which, in these violently racist times, is the point – there are no easy answers, no purely satisfying resolutions. But there are reprieves. Like “Alright,” the defiantly hopeful rallying cry and centerpiece of TPAB. “Do you hear me? / Do you feel me? / We gon be alright,” goes the refrain over a shimmering Pharrell beat. In that moment, in spite of himself, Kendrick Lamar is leading.

Young-Thug-Barter-622. Young Thug – Barter 6

In an October feature on Young Thug for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica gave us a fascinating peek at the rapper’s creative process. In the studio, with a beat playing, he stitched together stream-of-consciousness outbursts like quilts. It’s something different from freestyling. It’s more like freecrafting. And on Barter 6, his first proper solo LP, we got to see that knack for building songs take center stage. It’s a spacious experience, with producers like London On Da Track favoring subdued, synth-heavy environments, where the bass bubbles up like lava. It’s the perfect milieu for Thugga, for my money the most inventively melodic rapper alive. Every couplet could be a chorus in his hands, every boast about drugs and cars enlivened by the undulating squawk of his voice. “I got Hot Wheels like a motherfuckin’ chariot,” he boasts. In the midst of this impressively assured work of art, it’s clear he’s not talking about toys.

Cournetbarnett1. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

When somebody has a great voice, people say they’d pay to watch them read the phone book. I’d pay Courtney Barnett to write about the phone book. On her debut album, the Aussie singer/songwriter exhibits an uncanny ability to turn the most mundane daily activities into poignant ruminations. A visit to an open house becomes a reflection on the life of the previous owner. An elevator ride becomes a suicide hotline conversation. A morning swim becomes a metaphor for the awkwardness of a new crush. Barnett sings with with a lackadaisical, seen-it-all edge that’s reminiscent of ’90s alt-rock at its finest. She refuses to dramatize, to court us with her ideas. So when she heads to the beach to mourn the destruction of the environment, we follow, knowing the last thing we’re going to feel is manipulated.

Honorable Mentions: Drake & Future – What a Time To Be Alive; DVS – DVTV; Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap; Future – DS2; Goatsnake – Black Age Blues; High On Fire – Luminiferous; iLoveMakonnen – Drink More Water 5; Jamie xx – In Colour; Jay Rock – 90059; Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone in the Universe; Meek Mill – Dreams Worth More Than Money; Ashley Monroe – The Blade; My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall; Petite Noir – La Vie Est Belle; Screaming Females – Rose Mountain; Shamir – Ratchet; Slayer – RepentlessSlugdge – Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms; Chris Stapleton – Traveller; Wilco – Star Wars; Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower; Young Thug – Slime Season 2

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (70-66)

70. Beck – Midnite Vultures (1999)

“Loud/quiet/loud” is about as standard as rock n’ roll formulas get. But few artists have applied the concept to entire albums the way Beck did from the mid-’90s to the early ’00s. After his sample-heavy, Def Jam-meets-Folkways pastiche Odelay made him an alt-rock hero in ’96, he followed it up with a gorgeous, late afternoon stroll of a country album. Which meant that he was due for a “loud” album by the time Midnite Vultures came around. And holy shit, did he deliver. Not only is the album in-your-face in a sonic way – being pretty much a string of intense electro-funk workouts from beginning to end – but its overall aesthetic is as thrillingly brash as the neon-green cover art. Beck’s trademark non sequiturs remain in full force, but they’re applied in a more distinctly sexual milieu, with titles like “Peaches & Cream” and “Milk & Honey,” and pick-up lines that reference satin sheets, tropical oils, Hyundais and JC Penney. It’s like a parody of a Prince album that just happens to be as musically adventurous as it is hilarious, a snapshot of an artist dealing with supersized expectations by making the craziest party album he possibly could. The music is wildly imaginative throughout, from the slick game show horns of “Sexx Laws” to the fembot synth pop of “Get Real Paid” and the classic Stax groove of “Debra,” Midnite Vultures’ shit-hot closer. With full-on falsetto verses, whispery sex talk and Vegas-ready horn stabs, “Debra” is an ingeniously absurd epic, and one of the most purely enjoyable R&B cuts of the decade. It’s that mix of rare quality and endearing irreverence that still makes Midnite Vultures a thrill of a listen. Of course, Beck’s next release was a tear-streaked breakup album.

No track embodies this album’s horndog-nerd-funk spirit like “Hollywood Freaks,” which satisfies your desire for hot milk nipple baths and Old Navy shout outs.

69. Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever (1997)

If a decision to make a double album ever felt like a no-brainer, it was this one. After Wu-Tang Clan blew the doors off of hip-hop with the indefatigable Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, ensuing solo albums from GZA, Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man all became classics in their own right. So if Wu-Tang Forever was going to give all of these evolving mythologies and expanding egos any kind of breathing room, it was going to take two discs. RZA makes the most of the extended running time, his approach more cinematic than ever before, wrapping those trademark kung-fu sound bites and blaxploitation soul loops in ominous layers of strings. Which was all too appropriate, because if anything, the crew’s successes had made their worldview darker. This was the second album from the biggest rap crew on the planet, and they rarely, if ever, brag about money on it – something that would probably never happen in our post-Puffy and -Kanye world. The first single, “Triumph,” was a killer bee swarm of a showcase track; from the molten-hot rhymes of Inspectah Deck’s first verse on, the mood is more confrontational than triumphant. Because at its peak, the Wu wasn’t interested in non-fiction boasts. It was about world-building. They knew that if Wu-Tang Forever could do what most movie sequels can’t – stay true to the characters while taking them in compelling new directions – the money would come. And as all of the Wu Wear in my closet circa 1997 could attest, they most definitely pulled it off.

Give “For Heavens Sake” a spin, and marvel at how RZA can turn an old soul sample into a billowing thunderstorm.

68. Nirvana – In Utero (1994)

If what happened hadn’t happened, and In Utero didn’t end up being Nirvana’s de facto swan song, it wouldn’t be taken so gosh darn seriously. Which would be infinitely to its benefit. Because while the record does work as Kurt Cobain’s ragged middle finger to the trappings of rock stardom (his lyrics had never been so beautifully barbed), it works even better as a snapshot of geniuses fucking around. Beyond the accomplished demon-wrestling you get from the singles, In Utero is littered with blasts of punk deconstruction that are the sonic equivalent of a movie scene where an actor gets to destroy something. As Cobain screams maniacally during “Tourette’s” or bends his squealing guitar skyward on the riff to “Scentless Apprentice,” it sure sounds like he was having fun. Then there’s the irrefutable evidence. Toward the end of my favorite of these anarchic cuts, “Milk It,”  Cobain laughs as he delivers the thoroughly batshit chorus for the last time – “DOLL STEAK! TEST MEAT!” In that moment, any angst you were feeling goes up in smoke.

Listen to “Milk It,” whydontcha?

67. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994)

With the release of Ill Communication, its third-straight stone-cold masterpiece, the Beastie Boys had completed one of the most remarkable artistic evolutions in pop music history. Within an eight-year period, the trio had gone from a snotty frat boy marketing concept to one of popular music’s most sonically expansive and socially conscious acts. If Licensed To Ill purists had any hopes that this one would hearken back to that fun-in-spite-of-itself debut, they were dashed on the opening cut, “Sure Shot.” Over that hallowed jazz flute sample, MCA poured out his regret over the Beasties’ once-misogynistic bent: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I offer my love and respect to the end.” Blending this kind of soul-searching with infectious rap free-for-alls, blistering punk romps and Mayfield-caliber funk instrumentals, Ill Communication is the sound of hip-hop ending its adolescence, flexing its muscles and realizing its own power.

Can any rap song boast the kind of dynamic chemistry the Beasties and Q-Tip possessed on “Get It Together”? It makes for one of my favorite tracks of the ’90s, despite my dislike of pineapple Now And Laters.

66. Air – Moon Safari (1998)

If you wanted to look cool smoking a cigarette in the late-’90s, putting Moon Safari on repeat was a pretty safe bet. Taking all of the stereotypical American ideas of what constitutes “French music” – loungey jazz, whisper-soft female vocalists, songs with “sexy” in the title – and filtering them through electronica’s spaciest kaleidoscope, Air’s debut album was a beautiful, warm bath of an acid trip. This was music that people in the ’90s would put on “chill-out” mixtapes to show they were men of many moods, deeper than the stammering, opinionated goofball on the surface. Not that I ever did that or anything. But Moon Safari is so much more than “chill-out” music – it’s not so much dreamy as it is an actual dream, a hazy sonic adventure that makes good on the promise of its title, where elegant bass lines guide you through alien, synthetic landscapes, with the occasional full-blown pop song to remind you that you’re earthbound. Air went on to make even more adventurous music, much of it lovely, none of it a voyage like this one.

Here’s one of those aforementioned pop songs, the otherworldly “All I Need.”