In April, my home state will be opening up vaccinations to all adults. This is a fact that has not completely registered in my mind – even after I get my shots I’m guessing I’ll be flinching at shadows in crowded places for a long time. But I do find myself being more easily comforted by the thrumming noise of woodpeckers searching for sustenance outside my home office window. And the songs that really spoke to me in March include the work of two octogenarians, deriving joy from doing what they love, as well as a reverential cover of Dolly Parton’s most hopeful song. Things are changing out there, even more than a typical spring.
1. Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”
And here it is, the first serious contender for 2021’s Song of the Summer (for me at least) – an airy synth pop gem about the need to believe in someone that feels like it’s existed ever since Cyndi Lauper first promised “If you fall, I will catch you.”
2. Zara Larsson – “FFF”
I could spend this whole space talking about the grammatically heinous and somehow perfect line, “Is this a story arc? / Cause if it are, it’d be iconic.” But then I’d be ignoring that insanely catchy beat, which sounds like the Vengaboys trying to impress Kylie Minogue in 1998.
3. Tune-Yards – “Nowhere, Man”
This duo loves establishing a monster drum and bass grove, and then doing everything they can to get in its way. On “Nowhere, Man” they try telephone vocal effects, a shouty chorus and a bridge that throws the kitchen sink into the mix. None of it kept me from dancing.
4. Aesop Rock – “Long Legged Larry”
Did you know that March 20 was World Frog Day? Aesop Rock did, inventing an amphibious character called Long Legged Larry who rescues cats from trees and poodles from high-wire act disasters, rapping about him in a sing-song storytelling style that will have listeners of all ages jumping for joy.
5. Loretta Lynn – “I Saw the Light”
New music from a profoundly influential, 88-year-old country legend, singing Hank Williams’s timeless ode to spiritual epiphanies with palpable delight in her voice? Maybe there is a god.
6. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Mufaro’s Garden”
Evocative, jazz-inflected instrumental hip-hop that doesn’t need a rapper to resonate – it’s already rhyming with our souls.
7. Genghis Tron – “Pyrocene”
This synthesizer-fueled prog-metal group has reunited after over a decade apart, seemingly on a shared mission to uncover a new form of interstellar sonic beauty.
8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – “Movement 4”
The 80-year-old saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders has teamed up with a British producer and world-famous orchestra on a gorgeously interconnected suite called Promises. This is my favorite bit, because it begins with Sanders vocalizing into the mic over a soft bed of mallet instruments. He doesn’t form one word, aware that his improvised gibberish has a soothing quality, like the sound of bubbles racing to the surface of a pond.
9. Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
By titling his new single with his real-life first name and tossing in an homage to one of the first gay films he ever watched, Lil Nas X is not bowing to the pressure he must be facing to give the world another “Old Town Road.” He’s taking us along on his personal journey instead, rapping over a flamenco-flecked beat about a real-life COVID crush and confessing “I wanna sell what your buyin’ / I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii.”
10. Waxahatchee – “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”
As the vaccination numbers continue to rise, and more and more people step out into the world with something resembling relief, the timing was right for Katie Crutchfield to release her cover of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” hewing closely to the golden-sunrise country-pop arrangement of Dolly Parton’s cynicism-destroying original. It’s the sound of hope, pure and true.
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
Here are my favorite songs from March 2020, a month where we needed good music even more than usual. Each of these tracks speaks to our post-COVID reality in different ways, from bemoaning separations to appreciating the upsides of nesting to calling out all the craven shitheads who keep pointing at a trainwreck and calling it a fender bender. More importantly, they all slap. So press play, stay safe, and remember that while we’re physically apart, that can’t stop us from harmonizing.
1. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”
I thank god every day that I can still hug and kiss and sleep next to my wife. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice speaks for those who can’t.
2. Dixie Chicks – “Gaslighter”
Every time Trump says COVID is just like the flu, this should get a million streams.
3. Caroline Rose – “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?”
The panic attacks that go hand in hand with true love serve as a hell of a metaphor for our shared existential crisis – and the fizzy synth-pop arrangement helps it all go down easy.
4. R.A.P. Ferreira – “Leaving Hell”
A song about how art is a pathway to joy is itself a pathway to joy.
5. Waxahatchee – “Can’t Do Much”
Katie Crutchfield nails what it’s like to work from home with your soul mate: “In my loneliness I’m locked in a room / When you see me I’m honey on a spoon.”
6. Cupcakke – “Lawd Jesus”
“When I hop off my flight / Naomi Campbell with the wipes.”
7. Deb Never & Kenny Beats – “Stone Cold”
This ethereal R&B track about a famous wrestler speaks to our need for human connection, which ironically connects all of us.
8. Protomartyr – “Processed by the Boys”
“When the ending comes, is it gonna run at us like a wild-eyed animal?” barks lead singer Joe Casey over a feral, cleansing cacophony of guitars.
9. Laura Stevenson – “Time Bandits”
Over hopeful “Don’t Think Twice” acoustics, Laura Stevenson makes it a little bit easier to not give in to despair: “Quit smoking baby / Even though the world is ending.”
10. Channel Tres – “Weedman”
Whether it’s via THC, or an impossibly chill rap song about loving THC, we’ve gotta revel in our moments of bliss when we can find them.
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.
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.
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.
19. 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.
18. 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.
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 Quietus, 2/11/15)
16. 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.
15. 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.
14. 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.
13. 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.
12. 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.
11. 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.
10. 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.”
9. 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.
8. 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)
7. 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.
6. 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.
5. 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 PopMatters, 12/4/15)
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.
3. 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.
2. 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.
1. 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 – Repentless; Slugdge – Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms; Chris Stapleton – Traveller; Wilco – Star Wars; Windhand – Grief’s Infernal Flower; Young Thug – Slime Season 2