Ever since I started these monthly playlists last January, I have posted them on the last day of the month. But in February 2021, it wasn’t in the cards. Because February 2021 was tough. Grey skies, freezing temps, a deadly virus, a new Tom & Jerry movie – it was all too much. So I hope you can forgive me for posting a bit late. I promise, the songs are worth it.
1. Nervous Dater – “Farm Song”
Rachel Lightner sings about depression so cleverly – “When it gets real bad I call it movie theater mode / Watching myself from the dark of the very last row” – it doesn’t register as sadness. And that twangy power-pop melody doesn’t hurt either.
2. Cardi B – “Up”
Three piano notes – that’s all Cardi B needs to make rap music that sounds like a goddamn event.
3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – “White Elephant”
Anytime we have a conversation about what’s holding society back from achieving racial harmony, there’s an elephant in the room. And we know what color it is. On Nick Cave’s stunning new album with his long-time Bad Seed and film score partner Warren Ellis, he sings from the perspective of a white supremacist with an itchy trigger finger. “I’ll shoot you just for fun / I’m a statue lying on my side in the sun,” he sneers over menacing synthesizers, trying his hardest to ensure that, like an elephant, we never forget.
4. Noname – “Rainforest”
If any artist could make an ambitious anti-capitalist polemic feel like a slow ride down a gentle stream, it’s Noname. “How you make excuses for billionaires / You broke on the bus” the Chicago rapper posits on the chorus, backed by a low-key Latin groove that even the mind-boggling logic of poverty-stricken Republican voters can’t spoil.
5. Danny L Harle & DJ Danny – “Take My Heart Away”
As the world continues to mourn the tragic death of pop visionary SOPHIE, an artist who twisted club music into shapes that would shock a geometrist, a fellow artist on SOPHIE’s PC Music label carries the torch, drilling a mindlessly catchy dance hook into our brains with the commitment of a modern artist.
6. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “See Me”
I have no idea what these genre-hopping New Zealand psychedelic rockers do when they’re not in the studio – they’ve dropped nine LPs in our laps since 2017 – but you can’t accuse them of running out of ideas. “See Me” sounds like an out-of-tune xylophone soundtracking a descent into madness, aka February during a pandemic.
7. Victoria Monét – “F.U.C.K.”
My vote for the worst album title of all time probably goes to Van Halen’s 1991 experiment in brain-dead acronyms, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I have no idea if R&B singer/songwriter Victoria Monét is familiar with this Hagarrible moment in music history, but her riveting new single resuscitates the concept by playing against expectations, demanding something more meaningful than casual sex: “I wanna be a Friend You Can Keep.”
8. Vektor – “Activate”
The sci-fi thrash-metal behemoths in Vektor are back, screaming about “gyroscopic spires” and doing things with guitars and drum kits that definitely seem scientifically impossible.
9. Syd – “Missing Out”
This synth-drenched R&B virtuoso shared her first new solo track in four years – a hushed, moonlit ode to how breaking up can be the best thing for your self esteem. Just in time for Valentine’s Day.
10. Haim (feat. Thundercat) – “3 AM”
What’s a surefire way to make this “you up?” ballad from Haim’s Women In Music Pt. III album even better? Add a guest verse from Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner – one of the most convincing, and non-threatening, sonic pick-up artists in the game.
A song can grab us in all sorts of ways. We fall for it by the time the first chorus kicks in; or it takes a dozen listens before its genius reveals itself; or it plays during a relevant moment in our lives and becomes forever attached to it; or it burrows its way into our subconscious and starts playing in our cerebral jukebox. In a year when almost everything didn’t work like it was supposed to, these 25 songs were reassuring reminders that music could still take hold of my emotions in these same old ways.
Happy listening, and happy new year!
25. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”
In 2020, I thanked god every day that I could still hug and kiss and sleep next to the person I love. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice spoke for those who couldn’t.
24. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”
“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” confesses this inherently melodic Chicago drill rapper, evoking what love feels like in a way no multi-camera sitcom ever could.
23. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”
Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”
22. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”
Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.
21. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”
This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.
What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.
19. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”
Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.
18. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love“
In December, the electro-pastiche virtuosos The Avalanches released its enchanting third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by the love story of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan, who worked together on NASA’s 1977 Voyager Interstellar Project. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to romantic transcendence.
17. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control”
An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.
16. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan still had more to give: driving newlyweds around in his limo and reflecting on the universality of marriage, all while doing his best Johnny Cash impression.
15. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”
Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue made a sparkling, return-to-form album called Disco this year. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single healed through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”
14. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi”
This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”
13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”
Per usual, Carly Rae Jepsen’s B sides were catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides in 2020.
12. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”
The next time you hear a Democratic man talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.
11. Charli XCX – “Claws”
This frayed, homemade electro-pop love song had me dancing in my living room with tears in my eyes.
10. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”
I think Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is criminally underrated. And if this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song is any indication, there’s a Montreal soft-pop band that agrees with me.
9. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”
The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our 45th president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.
8. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”
Four years after dropping one of the best rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah was back with authority in 2020. And so were ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And extended scratch solos. And the feeling that hip hop could re-energize the world.
7. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like on the ominous synth-funk hailstorm “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike connects the dots between the American education system, criminal justice system, and the destruction of Black lives with chilling precision and fulminating passion.
6. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”
A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.
5. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
When Thundercat’s dropped this adorably goofy R&B come-on as an advance single before his album’s April release date, is was an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.
4. Laura Marling – “For You”
At some point in 2020, I started putting little talismans on my dining room table, the place that had become my main workstation (and Dungeons & Dragons dice-rolling surface). They were little gifts and notes from my wife, whose job still required her to go out in the world every day. It wasn’t until I heard “For You” that I realized what I was doing. “I keep a picture of you / Just to keep you safe,” Laura Marling sings over a lullaby landscape of light hums and strums, appealing to anyone whose heart resides in someone else’s body.
3. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”
Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores In This House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.
2. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”
“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. Over a spare, radiant arrangement of guitar, organ and snare-rim clicks, the songwriter uses the fragrant, short-lived blossom of its title as a metaphor, not to dwell on mortality, but to drum up the courage to acknowledge the beauty that’s right in front of us: “I need your love too.”
1.Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
A year ago, back when traveling was still a thing, I took a trip to Hawaii with my wife. We got a place in the middle of the jungle that seemed created for the purpose of sitting down, unwinding, and appreciating how beautiful our world can be. For 10 days I was able to look up from the pages of a novel and see blooms of impossible brightness, banyan trees reaching to the sky like the hands of giants, and the ocean in the distance, conducting its prehistoric symphony. Pretty much immediately, we started talking about retiring there. It was a place where we could rest in peace.
A few months later, Bob Dylan told the world about his idea of heaven on earth – an island in the Florida Keys that’s famous for attracting 20th century literary geniuses to its shores. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a hazy dreamworld of a nine-minute ballad, its clean, reverberating guitars and gently brushed snares exemplifying how time slows to a crawl when you’re in your favorite place. In his weary, 79-year-old voice, Dylan takes us down unexpected avenues on every verse, tuning in to an old broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, pointing out Truman Capote’s old house, making sure we don’t miss the gardens overflowing with hibiscus flowers, orchid trees and bougainvillea.
But this isn’t some cryptic, “Desolation Row”-style lyrical puzzle-box. On the choruses, Dylan makes his intentions as clear as a Caribbean tide pool, sighing with audible contentment about how this island makes him feel:
Key West is the place to be If you’re looking for immortality Key West is paradise divine Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line
As the music slowly fades, the impact of what just happened washes over us. One of the least transparent artists in American history – who I have never seen actually speak to an audience beyond begrudgingly introducing his band – was singing, openly and earnestly, about where he wants his sun to set. I can only hope my last wishes will be so clear.
Music wasn’t the only thing that got me through 2020. My wife, who makes my home life perpetually exciting and meaningful and new, had me guiltily enjoying quarantine. My job allowed me to work from home, out of harm’s way. My coffee maker never broke down.
But this is a music column, and I did spend many precious hours of this past year playing old records and streaming new masterpieces while “trapped” inside my humble Maine bungalow. So if you’ll humor me, here are a few of the ways that music was there for me in 2020:
Music kept me engaged. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world this summer, new albums from several artists on the list below channeled righteous, motivating anger at America’s deeply rooted, white supremacist systems. And many classics felt even more urgent and alive – when I played my vinyl copy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 triumph What’s Going On and heard him so effortlessly croon, “Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying,” the realization of how little has changed brought tears to my eyes. A few weeks later, my wife and I were on the streets of Portland, chanting George Floyd’s name.
Music made me appreciate my age. I’m firmly in my 40s now, which means I’ve been obsessing over certain albums for decades. So when I decided to play several of my long-time favorites back to back on a long summer day, I was floored at how deeply they were ingrained in my psyche. I hadn’t properly listened to Randy Newman’s Sail Away or Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in years, but the lyrics came flooding back to me in a wave. As I puttered around the house, unashamedly singing along, it truly felt like some old friends had come to visit. I wouldn’t trade that connection to be 20 years younger if you paid me.
Music helped me relax. As a teen, I’d fall asleep to music all the time. I’d put five CDs in my beloved stereo, set them on shuffle, and let them take me away. In 2020, for the first time in ages, this happened again. I didn’t plan on napping when I put Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express on the turntable, but its cold, soothing bleeps made the book in my hand feel as heavy as my eyelids, and I drifted off. Waking up to the sound of the needle gently bumping against the label was like being told, “You’re coming back to reality now. And that’s okay.”
Here are 20 more examples of how music got me through this bizarre and challenging year. Each of these albums reminded me that the world was still turning out there, and that while creativity can be shaped by current events, it cannot be stopped by them. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays!
20. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B
When Carly Rae Jepsen named her 2019 LP Dedicated, she wasn’t kidding. The feel-good pop juggernaut wrote close to 200 songs during those sessions, in search of that perfect embodiment of love’s effervescent, organic swell. She pulled it off – and then some. Because for the third release cycle in a row, CRJ has followed up an LP with a “Side B” companion album, and this collection of Dedicated outtakes is just as effortlessly catchy and casually profound as Side A. Jepsen’s brand of ‘80s-inspired synth pop is as low-stakes-joyful as ever, combining the disco-ball sparkle of Kylie Minogue with Cyndi Lauper’s subtly emotional delivery. When she sings, “This is what they say / Falling in love’s supposed to feel like,” it’s with real wonder in her voice. And the synths and drums and backing vocals help her translate that feeling into the kind of starry-eyed, idealized pop music we especially needed this year.
19. Nnamdi – Brat
In the three years since his breakout LP Drool allowed him to quit his day job at a law firm, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has been wrestling with career-based survivor’s guilt. On his emotionally and sonically kaleidoscopic follow-up Brat, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist wonders if he’d be more valuable to the world as a farmer or astronaut, confessing that “I mostly live in silence.” Ironically, the way he confronts these feelings of self-doubt is proof that he’s in the right line of work. Brat jumps from acoustic folk to rubbery hip-hop to synth-chilled art-pop with a boldness that belies its themes. It’s a world where the materialistic banger “Gimme Gimme” and the vulnerable ballad “It’s OK” feel of a piece, because they’ve grown from the same soil of self-awareness and melodic ambition.
18. War On Women – Wonderful Hell
“We’ve gotta stop this fascist creeeeeeep!” screams Shawna Potter on “Wonderful Hell,” the fist-pumping thrash-punk centerpiece of her band War On Women’s uncompromising, anthemic third LP. While it’s no mystery who Potter is referring to, this riot-grrrl-inspired Baltimore quintet is more concerned with the petrie dish of systemic racism and misogyny from which our soon-to-be-former president is just the latest mutation. Whether the subject is domestic violence, mass incarceration, or do-nothing “thoughts and prayers” politicians, the message is delivered with the clarity of a punch to a Nazi’s face, and paired with melodic riffs that are wired directly to our adrenal glands. This is righteous indignation, distilled into one irresistible call to action after another. The louder it gets, the more hopeful it feels.
17.Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
At its best, dance music has a transcendent effect, its rhythms triggering something in our subconscious that shelves our worries so we can focus on the present moment. Jessie Ware’s fourth LP is dance music at its best. Over simmering, synth-driven R&B arrangements that hearken back to the ’80s post-disco reveries of Grace Jones, the London vocalist tells her glitter-flecked stories of dance-floor infatuations with leisurely confidence. Instead of just belting out these bangers, she adds to their nostalgic spell by tenderly crooning them, the reassuring warmth of her voice as welcome as a happy memory. To complete the effect, Ware closes with “Remember Where You Are,” a towering morning-after ballad written in reaction to the election of Boris Johnson and designed to help us cope with the world outside: “When life is hard, that’s how it goes / As your destiny unfolds, hold on.”
16. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
On April 17, when it was starting to really sink in that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, the Finnish psychedelic black metal sorcerers Oranssi Pazuzu took us on a journey of the mind, in the form of its brain-flambéing fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi. By layering synthesizer patches and guitar effects to create uniquely unsettling atmospheres, and then vaporizing them in the cleansing fire of drums and distortion, the band expresses no interest in soothing our jangled nerves. When singer Juho ”Jun-His” Vanhanen enters the fray, croaking like a disturbed cryptkeeper, the spell is completed, resulting in extended suites that stick in our heads like lucid nightmares. “Uusi Teknokratia” is perhaps the boldest display of disregard for genre norms, shifting from new age synth flutes to chaotic thrash to avant-garde horror-score classical without ever losing sight of its hellish destination.
15. Thundercat – It Is What It Is
The polarizing rock iconoclast Frank Zappa is back in the news these days, thanks to an acclaimed documentary, which I’m not rushing to see. After all, with Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner in my record collection, I have even less incentive to try and “get” Zappa’s intentionally difficult catalog. An astoundingly gifted bassist, Thundercat could probably build a loyal following by just showing off. But on his third LP, he continues to do what I always wished Zappa would – value hooks as much as chops. It Is What It Is has its share of jazz-fusion fireworks, but they’re leavened by sensual R&B grooves and synthetic yacht rock melodies. His lyrics, delivered in a crystal falsetto, are often funny, but in a sweet, self-effacing way. “I may be covered in cat hair / But I still smell good,” he belts with a wink on the adorably non-threatening pick-up song “Dragonball Durag.” This is ambitious music, exquisitely played, that also wants everyone to sing along.
14. Polo G – The GOAT
This summer, America was forced to think about how dangerous it is to be a Black person within its borders. As complicit white assholes like me played catch-up, long-released books like The New Jim Crow re-entered the best-seller lists. And there were few albums better suited to soundtrack this overdue racial reckoning than The GOAT, the unflinchingly honest, sneakily melodic second album from the 21-year-old Chicago drill rapper Polo G. Released two weeks before the murder of George Floyd, The GOAT pairs heartbreaking descriptions of life in a racial caste system with minor-key piano and guitar loops that ring out like bad omens. He has no time to mince words when discussing the stark reality of this rigged game: “You gon either die or see the system / Ain’t no slippin’ up.” Yet, through the ease of his singing voice and the deftness of his pen, Polo G is somehow able to stuff these songs with hooks, turning would-be dirges into profoundly emotional pop music.
13. Megan Thee Stallion – Good Times
In 1964, Sam Cooke released a single called “Good Times,” an homage to the power of music to “soothe our souls” amidst the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. 56 years later, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion gave a similar gift of irrepressible joy to beleaguered Americans. Good Times declares independence from holier-than-thou body policers, patriarchal gender roles, bad lovers, Instagram haters, racist cops, and the misogynistic victim blaming the artist had to endure after being shot in the foot by rapper Torey Lanez this past July. Over thunderously catchy beats that hearken back to classic tracks from Naughty By Nature, Biggie Smalls and Eazy-E, Meg raps like a force of nature, melding the past and present into something exhilaratingly new. “They tried to knock me off, but a bitch still grindin’,” she proclaims with a smirk, creating a space for anyone who feels beaten down by 2020 to take a break, crank the bass, and let the good times roll.
12. Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Dana Margolin embraces contradictions. As the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Brighton, UK, post-punk quartet Porridge Radio, she’s drawn to themes that explore the faultlines between adolescence and adulthood, when we know just enough about ourselves to be dangerous. “Oh I don’t know what I want / But I know what I want,” she sings in her deep tenor on “Don’t Ask Me Twice.” “I am okay all of the time / I am okay some of the time,” she shares on “Circles.” “Baby, I was born confused,” she repeats on the opening “Born Confused.” The band soundtracks these cripplingly uncertain narratives with the care of a supportive parent, going silent when Margolin needs to whisper, bashing wildly when she needs to scream, lending structure and shading to every bittersweet melody. Resulting in one more glorious contradiction: Every Bad is very good.
11. Fireboy DML – Apollo
“Time doesn’t exist / When you’re listening to your favourite song,” observes Nigerian pop sensation Fireboy DML in the middle of his unselfconscious-grin-inducing second album, Apollo. The track, “Favourite Song,” stands as proof of its own hypothesis, its dopamine-summoning groove marked by bouncy “Sussudio” horns and an honest-to-god “Macarena” sample. The artist has a knack for taking us out of time, especially on tracks that fuse the fiery syncopations of his native Afrobeat with the pillowy sounds of ’80s adult contemporary. And despite the god-complex album title and delightfully confident opening track “Champion,” this is far from an ego fest. Apollo gives us plenty of time with Fireboy on his own, sifting through his regrets, searching for answers. “I just want to be alone / I don’t wanna see no message on my phone,” he admits over the gentle “In Your Eyes” synths of “Airplane Mode.” Press play, and set your soul to vibrate.
10. Sault – Untitled (Rise)
Perhaps there were some PR considerations behind the decision to completely conceal the identities of this mysterious UK outfit – it worked for Daft Punk, after all. But it makes for a more meaningful, holistic listening experience as well. Sault’s second “Untitled” LP of 2020 sounds like it could be a lost R&B masterpiece from the late-’70s, discovered in an auction of Prince’s record collection. Sweaty funk, rippling Afrobeat, catchy Motown, soothing spoken word, and achingly pretty jazz – it’s all here. Couple that with its restorative, motivational themes of inner peace and racial justice, and we have a record that felt like a gift from a benevolent entity. With nowhere else to look in the liner notes, we have no choice but to examine the song titles. The first three are all we need to know: “Strong.” “Fearless.” “Rise.”
9. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
One of the silver linings of quarantine has been how it stripped away life’s extraneous bits and forced us to inspect the foundation. The experimental pop cosmonaut Charli XCX spent the first few months of lockdown putting her own self-assessment on tape. What she discovered will be recognizable to any of us lucky enough to be hunkered down with someone we love. Over the malfunctioning robot glitches of producer A. G. Cook, she sings indelible hooks, evoking the bliss and terror of realizing someone else has the keys to your heart. “So I made my house a home with you / I’m right here and it feels brand new,” she swoons. A few tracks later, she confronts the power that her partner now wields: “Maybe you’re my enemy / You’re the only one who knows what I really feel.” Charli XCX may have been trapped inside, but her feelings were free as a bird.
8. Ka – Descendants of Cain
“When age speaks, youth listens sometimes,” states a crackling, uncredited voice at the outset of Ka’s fifth solo album, the gently haunting biblical allegory Descendants of Cain. And while Gen Z may not go wild for the Brooklyn rapper’s low-lit, open-hearted, hungover Wu-Tang vibes, he continues to set an incredible example, one gorgeous track at a time. “Got to be in grace first, to fall from it,” he murmurs over the ringing minor-key guitar licks of “Solitude of Enoch,” speaking to the inherent value of every American Cain driven to violence by forces beyond their control. Ka delivers every line, no matter how sad or outraged, in the same quiet, level-headed tone, like a Zen master telling stories anchored in universal truths, their life lessons burrowing deep into our consciousness.
7. Caribou – Suddenly
The title of Dan Snaith’s fifth LP under his Caribou moniker might have you expecting a bunch of sonic jump scares. But the eclectic electronic artist reportedly chose Suddenly because his daughter was “obsessed with the word.” She’s not the only Snaith who is fixated on the way things sound. Every track on Suddenly is its own carefully curated sonic universe, with constellations of pillowy synthesizers and modified soul samples that ensure Snaith’s angelic falsetto points heavenward. The overarching mood is soothing and supportive, the soundtrack to an afterparty that makes it feel less scary to come down and reenter that stark, sunlit world. When Snaith sings, “She picks up all the pieces / She’s going home,” over a touching Gloria Barnes sample, it feels like we’ve arrived at a warm, graceful place, where nothing sudden can happen.
6. Laura Marling – Songs for Our Daughter
In 2001, Leonard Cohen released a ballad called “Alexandra Leaving,” where he lies on satin sheets while using ancient Greek metaphors to brood about getting dumped. 19 years later, Laura Marling asked a question that never seemed to cross Cohen’s mind: “Where did Alexandra go?” On the UK folksinger’s impeccably crafted concept album Songs for Our Daughter, she writes about the interior lives of women who have been often cast as villains in her genre, her voice a guiding light of warmth and understanding. Marling doesn’t have a literal daughter; she’s singing to her younger self, her friends, and her future hypothetical charges. “I love you my strange girl / My lonely girl / My angry girl / My brave,” she sings, her confident acoustic strumming a reminder of how it feels to be the protagonist, walking away from pain, having chosen a better life.
5. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
When Andy Shauf’s sixth album dropped in late January 2020, its easygoing, low-stakes, clarinet-flecked folk felt as comforting as a cup of hot tea. But less than a year later, the story told heremight as well be science fiction – while hanging out at a bar called The Neon Skyline with friends, the narrator’s ex-girlfriend unexpectedly shows up, after which the group heads off to a different bar. “Oh I’m just fine / I’m wasting time / Sometimes there’s no better feeling than that,” Shauf sighs on the title track, his laid-back Paul Simon phrasing making it feel even more like a reassuring relic from a simpler, mask-free time. After his ex, Judy, shows up, it sparks all kinds of memories in our narrator, including a fight after a car crash where his selfishness gets the best of him. As the night goes on, his untreated ache grows, and we feel a different kind of social distance in the room. But Shauf ends things on a hopeful note, making it clear he believes that this guy, and all of us, can change. “I make a silent toast to the things I do and don’t miss,” the narrator proclaims toward the end, much like we all have done this year, figuring out how to make the absolute best of a challenging situation.
4. Moses Sumney – Grae
In most creative endeavors, it’s usually good advice to “kill your darlings” – cutting ideas that aren’t essential, no matter how profound you think they are. But on his sprawling double LP Grae, North Carolina auteur Moses Sumney threw this advice in the trash, writing about some of life’s most frustrating obstacles while dipping his brush in whatever genre he damn well pleased. Heavenly R&B, orchestral art rock, profound spoken word, dreamy jazz – it all works, because its connective tissue is Sumney’s voice, an impossibly elastic instrument that welcomes us in like a surprisingly friendly celebrity. Over the course of 20 tracks, he sings about the variety of boxes that society tries to trap us in: its self-destructive definition of masculinity; its cruelly efficient social media self-esteem compactor; its insistence that love is one very specific thing. “Honesty is the most moral way,” he sings in a Minnie Riperton falsetto, refusing to check any boxes in this backwards binary world, or listen to any tired old advice about how to make an album. His darlings are legion here. And we all get to listen to them, defiantly running free.
3. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
This summer, my wife and I saw new potential in our long-ignored backyard. I made a fire pit from stray bricks; we bought a projector and a big screen; and spent many unforgettable nights watching old movies under the stars. Fate had pushed us to reassess a familiar thing, and it felt good.Singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield didn’t need quarantine to shift her focus inward. Her fifth LP as Waxahatchee is the result of years of introspection, a document of an artist’s shift from cynicism to optimism, from self-loathing to self-love. “I’m a bird in the trees / I can learn to see with a partial view,” she sings on “Fire,” accepting she’ll never have all the answers and that actually, life is pretty damn good perched on this particular branch. Musically, the album is one shimmering moment of clarity, its richly hued country arrangements directing steady sunshine on Crutchfield, who lets her voice soar like never before. And as she assembles the stray bricks of her psyche into something whole, she’s free to write honest, vulnerable, built-to-endure love songs. “And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you,” she confesses, discovering that incandescent truth is within arm’s reach.
2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan spent the majority of his 70s singing the songs of his childhood, releasing a trilogy of Great American Songbook cover albums and pretty much exclusively playing those live, I imagine to the chagrin of many an entitled boomer. But this was more than just a weird rock star flex. This year, we realized that all that time dwelling in the past was preparing this grizzled poet to look clear-eyed into his future. “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” the 79-year-old softly sings at the beginning of his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The song, “I Contain Multitudes,” is a quiet autumn wood of ringing guitars, a breathtakingly simple backdrop for a Whitman-biting summation of the artist’s many contradictions. Everything on this album, even the full-bore blues stomps, bears the mark of this restrained, spacious approach – on the deeply catchy “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” drummer Matt Chamberlain doesn’t hit his crash cymbal once. This commitment to openness, both sonically and emotionally, comes to a head on “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a 9-minute ballad about a Florida island famous for drawing legendary storytellers to its shores. With each sun-kissed note, with every creak in this septuagenarian’s voice, it sinks in deeper – this is about an ideal death. “Key West is the place to be / If you’re looking for immortality,” goes the final chorus. While others rage at the dying of the light, Bob Dylan croons at it like a weary Sinatra, convincing me definitively that the best is yet to come.
1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
“Black child in America / The fact that I made it’s magic,” marvels the Atlanta rap inferno Killer Mike on the final verse of the fourth Run the Jewels LP. In a just world, that line would be hyperbolic. But in a year where violent, institutionalized American racism ran amok on the world stage, the continued existence of this brilliant, outspoken, 45-year-old Black man really did feel like a miracle. After a four-year hiatus, Mike and producer/rapper El-P returned at the perfect time to throw us all a cathartic party, summoning our deepest reserves of adrenaline to spew righteous anger at a system built to destroy Black lives. Whether the duo is exposing the “slave masters posing on your dollar,” eviscerating people who are only outraged on Twitter, or proving that shit talk is an art form (“You’re a common cold and my flows are cancerous”), their voices are crackling with purpose, like pissed-off preachers with something to prove. El-P’s production is as fluid and supercharged as ever, his bass lines and drum breaks guiding us through bursts of static like a getaway driver with ice in his veins. And Killer Mike has never been better. Over the twisted, reverb-drenched synth funk of “Walking in the Snow,” he breaks down our country’s ugly legacy on a verse written before George Floyd’s murder:
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
It would be enough if this album just featured this kind of raw, urgent, necessary poetry. It would be enough if it featured music that made you feel invincible. The fact that it contains both, and that it came out when it did? That, my friends, is magic.
Honorable Mentions: Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough, Vol. 1; Boldy James – The Price of Tea in China; Bully – Sugaregg; Bill Callahan – Gold Record; The Chicks – Gaslighter; Neil Cicierega – Mouth Dreams; Fat Tony – Exotica; Haim – Women In Music Pt. III; Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo; Kamaiyah – Got It Made; Kylie Minogue – Disco; The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives;Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism; Oceanator – Things I Never Said; Pallbearer – Forgotten Days; R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages; Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream; Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1; Tops – I Feel Alive; Thy Catafalque – Naiv; William Tyler – New Vanitas
In April 2020, I was in my car only a handful of times. This honestly made me worried that I would have nothing to share in this monthly round-up of my favorite new tracks. (This was not my primary worry in the midst of a pandemic. I’m not a sociopath. But it did crack the top 20.) Because like a lot of adults with jobs and responsibilities, my commutes are the ultimate moments to be able to focus on a song, to give it the best chance to get its hooks in me. Alas, I worried for no reason. Great artists still managed to worm their way into my workdays, providing an outlet for feelings of stress and disorientation, and giving voice to the joy I feel when realize I can stop and kiss my wife in-between meetings. No matter what is happening in the world, music will always have the power to do that. Which is an encouraging thought.
1. NNAMDI – “Gimme Gimme”
On this song about unrepentant greed, an insanely catchy dive-bomb bass line leaves me wanting more.
2. Charli XCX – “Claws”
If this frayed electro-pop love song is any indication, Charli’s imminent recorded-at-home album is going to make us all dance in our living rooms with tears in our eyes.
3. Jean Deaux (ft. Saba) – “Moody!”
Two Chicago rappers melting the lingering snow with their flows.
4. Laura Marling – “Fortune”
An almost unbearably beautiful breakup song.
5. Thundercat (ft. Zach Fox) – “Overseas”
Another delightful, international travel-based ditty from our planet’s resident jazz-pop goofball/genius.
6. Rina Sawayama – “XS”
If Destiny’s Child and Korn had teamed up on a single back in 1999, it would’ve broken TRL records. And, as this Japanese-British pop craftsman posits here, it would have also supersonically slapped.
7. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight”
Jessie Ware brings Sade to the club: “A dream is just a dream / And I don’t wanna sleep tonight.”
8. Duck Sauce – “Captain Duck”
The DJs responsible for the playful, unpretentious early-’10s jams “It’s You” and “Barbara Streisand” return, reminding us that the bass line to Chic’s “Good Times” is anything but a misty watercolored memory.
9. Khruangbin – “Time (You and I)”
Even when they employ vocals, as they do here, this Houston psych-funk trio uses them as mantras, ushering the groove even more expeditiously into our souls.
10. Yaeji – “When I Grow Up”
Over a skittering, hi-hat-strewn backdrop, Yaeji whispers about the intimidating permanence of adulthood: “You feel crazy / You’re hurt maybe / You don’t have room to say maybe no more.”
11. Bob Dylan – “I Contain Multitudes”
So many things are comforting about Bob Dylan’s new ballad.
1. A legendary lyricist scratching his name-dropping itch for the thousandth time, borrowing the song title from Whitman and referencing Indiana Jones, Chopin, Poe, etc.
2. A percussionless arrangement of acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars that is the sonic equivalent of organic honey.
3. A message that we’re all complicated beings, who can be expected to do unexpected things – like, perhaps, vote for a Republican president in 2016 and then turn on him in 2020.
This February was loaded with great music. Songs that showed up at your door looking handsome in that half-vulnerable, half-mischievous way, holding a single rose with a big red bow tied to it for some reason. “Hey,” these songs said to me. “Wanna get stinko and watch Nights in Rodanthe?” “Yes,” I immediately responded. “A million times yes!”
1. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”
“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. It resonates on a skeletal level.
2. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”
Four years after dropping one of the rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah is back. And so are ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And so are extended scratch solos.
3. TOPS – “Witching Hour”
I believe that Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is underrated AF. And I have a sneaking suspicion that this Montreal soft-pop band agrees with me.
4. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”
A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.
5. Otoboke Beaver – “Dirty Old Fart Is Waiting For My Reaction”
Remember when Liz Warren only needed a minute to rip Michael Bloomberg’s limbs off? This 60-second troll-slaying punk onslaught would work perfectly as the soundtrack.
6. Caribou – “Never Come Back”
Manitoban electronic artist Dan Snaith continues to create deeply emotional, insidiously absorbing dance music, which speaks to those of us who understand that Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” is a modern classic.
7. Boldy James & The Alchemist – “Carruth”
This rap song does not slap. It sighs with unknowable pain.
8. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
Thundercat’s new album drops April 3. And this advance single – an adorably goofy R&B come-on that contains the line “Baby girl / how do I look in my durag?” – is like an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.
9. The Avalanches (ft. Blood Orange) – “We Will Always Love You”
Weaving samples from Smokey Robinson and The Roches into an ethereal electronic ballad, these Aussie techno-pastiche legends may have created their prettiest soundscape yet.
10. Yves Tumor – “Gospel for a New Century”
“I think I can solve it,” proclaims Yves Tumor on his latest single. When it comes to figuring out how to infuse splintered, brassy hip hop and fist-pumping hard rock into a pop song, he’s definitely on some Miss Marple shit.
It’s 2020 everyone. You know what that means: Optometrists everywhere have a year’s worth of killer material. Also, it’s a whole new year of me telling you what songs I like. Here are the ones from the month that was…
1. Andy Shauf – “Neon Skyline”
As this Saskatchewanian soft rock virtuoso describes two friends meeting up at a bar, his syllables tumble like jukebox quarters. Bringing the scene to life with such guileless ease, I can practically taste the Molson.
2. Caroline Rose – “Feel the Way I Want”
On her first single in three years, former folkie Caroline Rose abandons the smirking power pop of her last album, in favor of a neon-bright synth groove. In case you’re wondering why she’d make yet another genre shift so early in her career, just take another look at that song title.
3. Kvelertak (ft. Troy Sanders) – “Crack of Doom”
One of the most blisteringly fun heavy metal bands on earth return with a fiery new singer and a bit of garage rock grit added to their arena thrash formula. My neck aches just thinking about it.
4. Rosalia – “Juro Que”
5. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”
Serious ’80s Fleetwood Mac vibes abound on this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song.
6. Thundercat (ft. Steve Lacy & Steve Arrington) – “Black Qualls”
Bass virtuoso, session legend and yacht rock crooner Thundercat is finally dropping is third LP this year. And judging by this lead single, it’s going to be funky as fucking hell.
7. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”
The next time you hear a Democratic candidate talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.
8. R.A.P. Ferreira – “DOLDRUMS”
The artist formerly known as Milo (and the pride of Biddeford, Maine), raps about getting kicked out of a Wegmans over mesmerizing eddies of piano jazz.
9. Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band – “Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists”
As outlaw country legend Terry Allen sings wistfully about Harry Houdini’s efforts to expose the hoaxes of spiritual mediums in the 1920s, one can’t help but feel bad for ol’ Harry. Despite his best efforts, cheaters are prospering now more than ever.
10. 070 Shake – “Morrow”
The best part of Kanye West’s uneven 2018 album ye was the Brooklyn vocalist 070 Shake, who took control of an unstable narrative with unique gravitas. “Morrow” underlines her strengths even further, its sinuous new age atmosphere giving her recounting of a breakup the spiritual clarity it deserves.
So you’ve read my Top 20 Albums of 2017 and find yourself wanting more. Here you go, person who doesn’t exist! It’s my Top 25 Songs of 2017. My all-time favorite songwriter is on here. A segment from a radio show is on here. And Fergie is on here? Yes, Fergie is on here. There’s a full playlist below, after I’m done yammering.
25. Fergie ft. Nicki Minaj – “You Already Know”
Over a dynamite interpolation of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two,” Fergie catches fire, outrapping her legendary guest against all odds.
24. Laura Marling – “Soothing”
“I banish you with love,” croons Laura Marling over one of the grooviest bass lines of the year. Getting dumped never sounded so good.
23. Young Thug – “Do U Love Me”
This preternaturally melodic rapper sings a love letter to himself over a sprightly dancehall beat, teaching us the difference between ego and self-confidence.
22. Randy Newman – “She Chose Me”
If you’re lucky enough to know how it feels to have a partner you don’t deserve, this stark ballad from our greatest living songwriter hits hard.
21. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – “Continental Breakfast”
Two brilliant slacker/songwriters, singing about their intercontinental friendship over a loose, rolling groove. Should be played in lieu of presidential speeches to the UN from now on.
20. CupcakKe – “Barcodes”
This sex work empowerment anthem is a blast of exuberance from a Chicago rapper on the rise. “Pay the damn price or go home to your wife,” CupcakKe demands, backed by the funkiest horns we heard all summer.
19. Bebe Rexha – “I Got You”
A pop song about building trust, with a chorus that feels like falling into somebody’s arms.
18. Brockhampton – “Gummy”
We get a few seconds of lush, harp-trilling Disney music before the plug is pulled, the feedback squeals, and rap’s most energetic crew takes off.
17. Kreator – “Side By Side”
The loudest anti-fascist music in 2017 was made by Germans. The pealing riffs and pummeling drums of “Side By Side” are almost as explosive as the rallying cries.
16. Offset & Metro Boomin – “Ric Flair Drip”
Metro Boomin beats don’t hook us. They mesmerize us. So while Offset unleashes his masterful triplet flow on “Ric Flair Drip,” it’s the producer’s dark, pinging synths that linger on in our memory.
15. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cut to the Feeling”
On paper, lyrics about breaking through the ceiling, dancing on the roof and playing with the angels are pretty cliché. But when paired with the sonic equivalent of carbonated helium, they’re perfect.
14. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – “Hop Off”
The dive-bomb bass and chirping synths are fun enough on their own. Then one of the most elastic voices in hip hop jumps in, and we reach a whole new plane of party.
13. Thundercat – “Tokyo”
An electro-jazz-yacht-rock bass virtuoso sings about how a great vacation can bring out the kid in us: “Gonna eat so much fish I think I’m gonna be sick / Gonna blow all my cash on anime!”
12. Power Trip – “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”
The headbanger of the year, with a riff that chugs like a locomotive from hell, and a chorus that demands to be shouted at top volume, like a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts.
11. Big Boi – “All Night”
The still-underrated half of Outkast made this year’s anthem for the blissfully monogamous. “Hit you with your bonnet on by the nightlamp,” he raps, over a big toothy smile of a piano loop.
10. SZA – “Drew Barrymore”
This devastating breakup song was inspired by Drew Barrymore’s insecure character Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed. There’s no Hollywood ending here. But when the strings swell, so do our hopes for one.
9. Black Thought – “Hot 97 Freestyle 12/14/17”
Sometimes, nothing is flashier than stamina. Like when the voice of The Roots hopped on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show and unleashed 10 minutes of fiery, perfectly crafted bars. By the end, he was sweating. And so were we.
8. Feist – “I’m Not Running Away”
I can’t shake this tune. Bold declarations of loyalty are held up by little more than Feist’s stark, bluesy guitar. She finds a kind of rhythm that drummers can’t reach.
7. Drake – “Passionfruit”
Over a swirling dream of a dancehall groove, a narrator mourns a fading long-distance relationship. It’s emotional and entrancing – in other words, a signature Drake summer smash.
6. Jeremih – “I Think of You”
Jeremih seriously flirts with MJ status here, making sunset references sexy again over an utterly joyful, marimba-inflected beat.
5. Julia Michaels – “Uh Huh”
This accomplished pop songwriter has apparently saved the best material for herself – especially this starry-eyed acoustic gem that crescendos to an instant high of a chorus.
4. Calvin Harris ft. Frank Ocean & Migos – “Slide”
A smooth-as-ever Frank Ocean sings about moments when “whatever comes, comes through clear” over a breezy disco groove from Calvin Harris. Corona wishes they could bottle this.
3. Haim – “Little of Your Love”
Our finest purveyors of ’80s adult contemporary singalongs serve up a chorus so effervescent, it made this especially heavy year feel lighter.
2. Kendrick Lamar – “DNA”
Over the levitating sitar n’ bass rumble of the year’s best rap song, Kendrick Lamar brags about his ability to reach nirvana in yoga class. As his rapid-fire syllabic mastery carries us away, we get a real idea of what he’s talking about.
1. Kesha – “Woman”
TheNew York Times ran astory last Julyabout the health benefits of cursing – including stress relief and higher pain tolerance. The best song of 2017 definitely backs up these findings. When Kesha sings “I’m a motherfuckin’ woman!” punctuated by the profoundly funky Dap Kings horns, the combination of positive vibes and disregard for pop norms is exhilarating. Unlike the way our president talks, “Woman” is not vulgar. It’s defiant, and important, and very, very good for us.
Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – “Sleep When U Die”;Bob Dylan – “Braggin'”; Nick Hakim – “Cuffed”; Hus Kingpin – “Wave Palooza”; Jonwayne – “TED Talk”; Kamiayah – “Dope Bitch”; Kesha – “Hunt You Down”; King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – “Crumbling Castle”; Kendrick Lamar – “Element”; Aimee Mann – “You Never Loved Me”; Migos – “Slippery”; Frank Ocean – “Chanel”; Angel Olsen – “California”; Pallbearer – “Thorns”; Syd – “Got Her Own”; TT the Artist – “Real Bitch Problems”; Tove Lo – “Disco Tits”; Ulver – “Nemoralia”; White Reaper – “Eagle Beach”; Your Old Droog – “Grandma Hips”
Music is the best. Nothing that happened this year could change that. For every stress-inducing headline, there was a soothing melody. For every messy situation, there were 16 perfectly constructed bars. Every time we wanted to scream, a great metal song provided an outlet. Here are just 20 of the recordings that made life easier for me this year. The next time you can’t believe what you’re hearing, start listening.
20. Nick Hakim – Green Twins
Nick Hakim approaches his brand of earnest R&B like a master restauranteur, valuing the ambiance as much as the meal. On his debut LP, the gifted Brooklynite refuses to just point and say “isn’t this catchy?” It’s seductive. At first listen, the reverberating piano chords of “Needy Bees” are merely soothing; by listen five, they’re inescapably beautiful, supporting every twist and turn of the melody. As a songwriter, Hakim is refreshingly astonished by things like love, and dreams, and pregnancy. He attains poignancy through simple language, including one of the most romantic sentiments of the year: “If there’s a god / I wonder what she looks like / I bet she looks like you.”
19. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
As a legend of the Scandinavian black metal scene, Kristoffer Rygg understands the mechanics of slow-building soundscapes and folkloric songwriting. And on his 11th album fronting the shapeshifting outfit Ulver, Rygg applies these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it works. Over the nine-plus minute expanse of “Rolling Stone,” the band rides a throaty synth riff until we’re in its thrall. And on “Nemoralia,” Rygg goes full Depeche Mode, his voice floating over hauntingly catchy synths, connecting the pagan feast of the goddess Diana to the tragic demise of the princess of the same name. Obsessed with ancient history and aglow with gloomy beauty, this is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.
18. CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch
This Chicago rapper first garnered attention in 2015 with exuberant, X-rated club tracks like “Deep Throat.” But her music is as much about tension as it is about release. Her second mixtape, Queen Elizabitch, is full of empowering, sex-positive summer jams – she’s got clever genitalia metaphors for days. But these moments are complemented by darker tales pulled from the artist’s childhood, when she spent years living in homeless shelters. After hearing her spit fire about having to share clothes with friends or watch rats run over her mother’s feet, the calendar-exploding swagger of “33rd” and the horn-fueled sex-work anthem “Barcodes” become more than tracks to dance to. They’re states of mind to aspire to.
17. Drake – More Life
Ever the savvy brand manager, Drake decided to follow up his massively successful 2016 by pursuing a little less market saturation. More Life isn’t exactly a “playlist,” as its cover proclaims. But it is a gorgeously sequenced, decidedly low-stakes affair. The Toronto rapper steps down from his chilly CN Tower perch and ups the Celsius levels with forays into pulsing dancehall, UK grime and Atlanta trap. A lengthy guest list promotes the party atmosphere – Young Thug, Quavo and Skepta are given all the bars they need to steal the show. And whether he’s reflecting on pre-fame Applebees runs or picking through the ruins of a relationship, our headliner sounds more comfortable on the mic than he has in years.
16. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacks feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.
15. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two
The first line on this L.A. rapper’s second album isn’t your typical hip hop boast – “You never seen a man so calm in your life.” Released after the artist announced a break from touring due to his struggles with alcohol, Rap Album Two makes good on that initial claim in low-key, redemptive fashion. Jonwayne is a steady, comforting force as a rapper, his reflective bars gelling with serene, meditative loops. As he pours his heart out about his demons, and how he fears his art will suffer without them, the quiet understanding in his voice makes it obvious it’s not an act. “I need to slow down / But I need a good friend to come and tell me how,” he raps. It takes a significant amount of calm to admit that on wax.
14. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe
This Australian psychedelic rock septet went on a studio bender in 2017, releasing five full-length albums and showing no signs of letting up. All are worthwhile listens, but Murder of the Universe is the crown jewel – a breathless fusion of propulsive riffs and sci-fi fever dreams that reminds us how fun a concept album can be. As spoken-word narration guides us through tales of human/beast mind-melds, balrog fights and cyborgs who would give anything to understand how it feels to vomit, the Gizzard’s relentless dual-drummer attack feels capable of carrying us anywhere – even to the end of it all.
13. SZA – Ctrl
SZA songs are the sonic embodiment of the phrase “hopeless romantic.” On her striking debut album, she cuts to the quick of how it feels to get cheated on: “I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me,” she sings to a philandering ex, mourning the self-confidence that could have been. The production is intimate, with little reverb added to contemplative guitar figures and raw, one-take vocals. But there’s a reason this record is called Ctrl. SZA is not wallowing here. She’s settling scores via slow jam, directly confronting assholes by exposing how they’ve hurt her. All while refusing to lose faith in love.
12. Brockhampton – Saturation II
This summer, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up two mixtapes with enough personality and adrenaline to distract the grumpiest pessimist. The first was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power. On the second, they start wielding their magic. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision: rappers getting shit off their chests over party-ready golden-age beats. It’s compulsively listenable music, full of instantly memorable choruses and effective, cathartic verses. How they made a record featuring seven rappers feel this light is beyond me. All I know is, I want more.
11. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic
God bless the power chord. Just three notes splitting an octave to create a simple, beautiful symmetry. As the Dallas thrash band Power Trip proved this year, these compact sonic gifts can be utilized to brutal, exhilarating ends. These guys aren’t just out to detonate your eardrums on their punishing second LP. Chaos isn’t their game. Instead, Nightmare Logic is a relentless succession of irresistible guitar riffs, which were crafted with as much attention to rhythm as volume level. Whether it’s the chugging eighth notes of “Executioner’s Song” or the circular triplets that kick off “If Not Us Then Who,” this shit swings. As frontman Riley Gale cries out against “the slumber of reason” in his strangled yawp, those power chords roil and slither underneath, girding us for whatever nightmare the world’s gonna belch up next, reminding us of the power inherent in noise.
10. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
2 Chainz has been a reliable source of fun, wordplay-encrusted bangers since “I’m Different” kicked off his second wind in 2012. But the Atlanta veteran has never made a record like this. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music finds the rapper formerly known as “Tity Boi” slipping wistful drug-game reminiscences in between inspired bursts of fantastical materialism (this time he’s got a see-through fridge). His knack for painting pictures is buoyed by a vibrant and versatile slate of beats – the opening “Saturday Night” features a dramatic torch song groove from the always-in-demand Mike Will Made It. “I went to work and I made an abundance / Gucci flip flops with the corns and bunions,” 2 Chainz raps over the sinister synth strings and throbbing bass of “Riverdale Rd.” All that hard work is paying off.
9. Haim – Something to Tell You
If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips, the rise of Haim should correct that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continues to revel in the supermarket pop of yesteryear, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drums and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs are the singles, which pair catchy choruses with quirky production wrinkles – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender. The sum and total of this commitment to fizzy pop hooks is a significant amount of joy. Even during this very, very difficult year, it made me sing in my car like a fool – helping me hold on for one more day.
8. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – Drool
In 2014, while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and playing drums in several bands, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya wrote this on his Chicago apartment wall: “You’re not normal, so why are you trying to be?” Three years later, the restless artist turned his focus to rapping and made a record that is thrillingly, definingly weird. Drool weaves together squelching synths, programmed drums and rat-a-tat sing-raps like distorted DNA strands, with Ogbonnaya exploring his full vocal register in the process. It’s not as intimidating as that sounds. “Hop Off” marries thrumming bass with chirping organ runs, and when the rapper enters the fray, we get within a stone’s throw of the radio. It’s purposefully off-kilter, yet easy to enjoy – a sign we’re dealing with a serious talent. We should follow him closely, even if he doesn’t necessarily want us to.
7. Kreator – Gods of Violence
The legendary German thrash band Kreator released its 14th album one week after Inauguration Day. It was a bomb to my headphones, and a balm to my nervous system. “Resistance must rise when freedom has died,” screamed Millie Petrozza in a voice as violent and alive as it was in ’85. Gods of Violence is full of visceral rallying cries like this. It stares fascists in the face, catalogs their sins, and tells them to beware the power of the people, over jet-fuel drums and riffs full of manic, Pixie-stick energy. It’s a goddamn reckoning. And by the time we make it to the penultimate track, “Side By Side,” Petrozza has decided that catharsis isn’t enough. So he makes an oath: “As we crush homophobia / We’ll never let the shame turn our vision to ice / And I’ll remain by your side.”
6. Feist – Pleasure
A decade after a song called “1, 2, 3, 4” made her a star, Leslie Feist is thinking even simpler. Her fourth album, Pleasure, finds new depths within her moonlit folk aesthetic. It’s been six years in the making, and it feels like it’s been in a slow cooker for that entire time. Each arrangement has been boiled down to its essential elements, finding its rhythm in the marrow. The fortunes of “I’m Not Running Away” rest completely on a swaying blues guitar riff, and it’s as exciting as a high wire act. “Any Party” relies on a chorus of non-singers to deliver its grand romantic refrain. “Century” breaks down time itself into its smallest components. And through it all, Feist’s voice is strong and clear, never straining to get its point across. It’s the sound of an artist in complete control.
5. Thundercat – Drunk
Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner has made his mark. Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that have entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicts, the potential of this artist is only beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of a versatile, funny, kaleidoscopically imaginative songwriter. The music is rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, and it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sings about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with the same awestruck, childlike energy. As a result, Drunk makes you feel the opposite of wasted.
4. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”
3. Pallbearer – Heartless
It’s appropriate that Pallbearer uses Roman numerals instead of typical track numbers on its staggering third album. The Arkansas quartet has written an honest-to-god symphony – a grand, interconnected composition that takes its time to unfurl, demanding to be seen as a whole. Heartless draws a direct line from the cavernous power chords of doom metal to the immersive atmospherics of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” In between long, seamless suites of guitar music, which bellows and soothes as it seeks our emotional core, singer Brett Campbell belts gorgeous vocals about the end of the world. It’s like hearing tectonic plates moving, conspiring our demise in ancient, beautiful ways.
2. Kesha – Rainbow
“I’m waiting for my spaceship to come back to me / And I don’t really care if you believe me,” sings Kesha on her ambitious, assured comeback album. Released in a year when “I believe the women” began to be said out loud, in public, Rainbow is both a zeitgeist-capturing statement of what it means to be a survivor and a canny, genre-bending ’10s pop album par excellence. Kesha deftly augments the pulsing dance-pop we’ve come to expect with elements of arena rock, modern country, piano balladry and twee folk. She belts out sweeping anthems of empowerment, threatens a would-be cheater with a wink and a smile, and looks to the skies for hope, revealing an impressive vocal range for the first time on tape. Rainbow sounds better than anything Kesha ever recorded with her longtime producer Dr. Luke, who the artist sued in 2014 for sexual assault. She lost that lawsuit in all-too-familiar fashion. But no court can stop this album, this free-spirited outpouring of emotion, from inspiring others to believe – in UFOs, in basic human decency, and in themselves.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released a song called “How Much a Dollar Cost,” about ignoring a panhandler who turns out to be God. Throughout the sprawling crisis of faith that was his To Pimp a Butterfly album,this was one of the most overt pleas to trust in humanity. Then, a year and a half later, Election Day came to prove him wrong. Lamar didn’t make any public statements after Donald Trump’s victory. I can’t imagine how it’s affected him. But this spring, with the release of his laser-focused fourth album, it became clear that the effect on his art has been extraordinary. Determined instead of conflicted, realistic instead of religious, DAMN outlines a vital artist’s transformed approach to navigating a fucked-up world: Have faith in yourself. It’s a “back to basics” record both psychologically and sonically, where the artist has stripped away everything he can’t count on in the world and started over from there. That’s why DAMN is, to me, the best album of 2017. It’s titanically satisfying music that’s driven by the kind of visceral, personal feeling that will never stop being relevant. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” the rapper shares, over and over again, throughout this album. The first time he says it, it’s a plea. Eventually it becomes a mantra. By the end, it’s a declaration of independence. We may not be praying for you, Kendrick. But to our great benefit, we’re listening.
Honorable Mentions: 21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin – Without Warning; Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice; Beachheads – Beachheads; Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time; Bjork – Utopia; Bob Dylan – Triplicate; Hus Kingpin – 16 Waves; Kamaiyah – Before I Wake; Migos – Culture; The Mountain Goats – Goths; Randy Newman – Dark Matter; Angel Olsen – Phases; Syd – Fin; Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm; Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls
Call me a cheeseball, but I’ve always been excited at the prospect of new summer music. One of the best things you can say about a song is that it sounds perfect blasting out of a car window, air conditioning be damned.
I remember exactly how it felt to discover my first song of the summer, in May 1992, when one of Buffalo’s 17 classic rock stations debuted the new Black Crowes single “Remedy” just as my mom was pulling into the driveway. I ran inside to catch the rest of it. To this day, when those incredible backup singers come in on the chorus to bolster Rich Robinson’s shaggy blues riff, I get chills. I will forever associate that moment with feelings of warmth and possibility.
25 years later, figuring out the “Song of the Summer” has become its own cottage industry. We make our predictions in May and declare the winner in September. And for the most part, the criteria is the opposite of most pop culture analysis – mainstream acceptance is a must. In 2013, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” won the season not just because of its pristine, inescapable disco hook, but because the Internet was obsessed with it as well. It’s easy to be cynical about arbitrary “awards” like this – it is the the essence of music blog clickbait, after all – but it’s important to talk about music we can generally agree on as a culture once in a while. The more I hear that our country is hopelessly divided, the more I want to prove that wrong. Searching for, and honoring, these shared musical moments every year is one tiny way to do it.
Plus, I really really like to make lists of songs. So here are the ones I’ll be running into the house to tape off the radio this summer.
Jeremih – “I Think of You”
Jeremih flirts with MJ status, yearning for a mistletoe moment in July over an utterly joyful, marimba-inflected beat.
Thundercat – “Tokyo”
An electro-jazz-yacht-rock bass virtuoso sings about how a great vacation can bring out the kid in us: “Gonna eat so much fish I think I’m gonna be sick / Gonna blow all my cash on anime!”
Haim – “Want You Back”
This California trio finds a sweet spot between Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips. Hope they luxuriate in it for a while.
Bebe Rexha – “I Got You”
A pop song about building trust, with a chorus that feels like falling into somebody’s arms.
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”
The best rapper alive, tearing a monster Mike Will Made It beat to shreds. Bring on the Summer of the Low-Register Piano.
Power Trip – “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”
The headbanger of the summer, with a riff that chugs like a locomotive from hell, and a chorus that demands to be shouted at top volume, like a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts.
Bob Dylan – “Braggin'”
The more Dylan digs into the Great American Songbook, the happier I get. This sprightly shuffle off his excellent Triplicate album is a pure pleasure, full of folksy, spot-on commentary on what passes for leadership these days: “When you should be busy plowin’ and a-plantin’ / You stand there a-rantin’ / Get no harvest tootin’ your horn.”
Calvin Harris (ft. Frank Ocean & Migos) – “Slide”
A smooth-as-ever Frank sings about moments when “whatever comes, comes through clear” over a breezy disco groove from Calvin Harris. Positive vibes abound.
Beachheads – “Your Highness”
Shimmering, harmony-laden power-pop that sweeps you up like a hang glider.
CupcakKe – “Barcodes”
This sex work empowerment anthem is a blast of exuberance from a Chicago rapper on the rise. “Pay the damn price or go home to your wife,” CupcakKe demands, backed by the funkiest horns you’ll hear all summer.
Drake – “Passionfruit”
Over a swirling dream of a dancehall groove, a narrator mourns a fading long-distance relationship. Emotional and entrancing, it has all the makings of signature Drake summer smash.
Feist – “I’m Not Running Away”
Sparse, introspective blues songs don’t usually make me want to bat a beach ball around. But I can’t shake this tune. Its mix of slinky guitars and bold declarations are as thoroughly bad-ass as the Power Trip song on this list. I’d suggest throwing it on while a bonfire is burning.
Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)
20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”
On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.
19. Danny Brown – “Dip”
Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.
18. Jim James – “A New Life”
On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.
17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”
Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.
16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”
2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.
15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”
Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.
14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”
Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.
13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”
For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.
12. James Blake – “Retrograde”
“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.
11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”
And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.
10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”
Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.
9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”
When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.
8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”
If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.
7. Rhye – “Open”
When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.
6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”
Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”
5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”
Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.
4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”
M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.
3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.
2. Kanye West – “Bound 2”
You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.
1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”
Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.