As a rule, I acknowledge trends in music only grudgingly, believing the creative process is ultimately far more elusive — and operating on chronologies likely quite different from that suggested by the release schedules — than perception bias allows. The desire to see a year of excellence in pop culture as a collective statement is mighty, but it strikes me as false, especially since any individual’s list, no matter how far afield they’re willing to go, is more of a telling representation of personal taste.
Without many deductive leaps, I can finds all sorts of parallels among the ten albums that follows, but the only thing I know for sure is that several artists issued music that deeply spoke to me over the course of the past twelve months. And that’s all I really want and need.
1. Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer — This is so clearly the album Janelle Monáe has been building to her whole career, each previous tentative statement of self leaving another hairline crack in whatever barriers she had in place. Few other albums felt like such manifestos of claiming power than never should have been denied in the first place. It echoes the pinnacle works of her funk, soul, and R&B ancestors and then, through sheer force of will, transcends the obvious comparisons. It’s relentlessly marvelous.
2. Mitski, Be the Cowboy — Mitski’s follow-up to the properly beloved Puberty 2 is a contained furnace of feeling. The songs are artfully constructed to heighten tension, and Mitski delivers them with a steely delicacy. Or maybe it’s a delicate steeliness. Either way, Be the Cowboy is enveloping in its sonic beauty and has the emotional potency of tear-softened journal pages written so forcefully that the pen occasionally tore the paper.
3. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour — Working with a handful of simpatico collaborators, Kacey Musgraves writes plainly perfect songs, steeped in the country music of her Texas youth and yet always poised to pirouette off to any other nearby style with a gracious smile. Pristine in production and thoughtful in manner, Golden Hour hints that Musgraves can do just about anything.
4. Spiritualized, And Nothing Hurt — I feel like the latest from Jason Pierce has gone somewhat undervalued, as if his luxurious soundscapes are now familiar enough from previous releases — infrequent as they may be — that they’re easy to take for granted. They shouldn’t be. There is rich, disarming artistry still on display.
5. Anna Calvi, Hunter — Raw and lean, the third album from Anna Calvi is so fervent it becomes beautifully discombobulating. There’s an unmistakable similarity to early P.J. Harvey, if only in the album’s scalding assurance. Calvi’s distinctiveness repels comparisons, though. Hunter is often pop as unsettled abstraction, simultaneously wild and enticing.
6. Caroline Rose, Loner — The third album from Caroline Rose boasts piquant songwriting and tracks that stalk the land like cunning predators. Individual tracks can seem like a half dozen musical ideas colliding in the middle of busy intersection, but Rose’s personality keeps the whole endeavor smartly unified.
7. Beach House, 7 — As is often the case with the strongest offerings from Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, 7 is haunting, its layered surprises emerging over time and after repeat listenings. The duo’s seventh album is another strong entrant in a truly sterling body of work.
8. Lucy Dacus, Historian — There’s a lot of forlorn reflection on the sophomore album from Lucy Dacus, but the tinge of sadness comes across as quietly triumphant. The songs are cathartic and piercingly true, crafted with reserved complexity. The novelistic details in the lyrics add to the album’s already considerable weight.
9. Neko Case, Hell-On — Simply put, Hell-On is a master being masterful.
10. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Hope Downs — The debut full-length from Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is modern indie rock channeling a playlist from an extra cool college radio station, circa 1988. I am utterly powerless to resist.