The stack of hyperlinks until the Previously… at the bottom of this post remind me of just how long I’ve maintaining this particular end-o’-the-year tradition. Clicking on any one of those hyperlinks confirms that my summary introduction is almost always some expression of tepid frustration that I can find no startlingly insightful way to condense a year of fine records into trendspotting commentary. For this time, I’ll learn the lesson and move as quickly as I can to:
1. Julien Baker, Little Oblivions — The third full-length from Julien Baker is diary written on singed pages in tear-thinned blood. As if salving her existential wounds, Baker crafts exquisite music of fierce motion and resonant restraint, giving her life-hardened words a protective place to nestle. The material is unforgiving in its exposed-nerve pain and nurturing in its commiserating confessions.
2. Indigo De Souza, Any Shape You Take — Downright inspiring in its roving energy, Indigo De Souza’s sophomore album acknowledges boundaries between genres only long enough to stride past them. Soulful and sharp, the tracks are tightly packed wonders of sly songcraft that feature De Souza nuzzling up against different personae only to routinely jolt her own distinct, unmistakably original personality to the forefront.
3. Turnstile, Glow On — This absolutely resplendent hardcore punk album brings expert studio polish to the material without blunting its piledriver force. Turnstile echoes some of the powerhouse hard rock bands of the nineteen-nineties, when the surge of grungy alternative briefly made room in the mainstream for unrepentantly deafening music, but Glow On is too ferociously alert to be slotted as retro pining.
4. Olivia Rodrigo, Sour — Adolescent misery is the catalyst for this set of piquant tracks. For her full-length debut, Olivia Rodrigo roars and curses herself free of the Disney-kid dungeon to establish herself as a music artist worth pledging devotion to. Rodrigo’s breakup anthems are spiked with pop-punk and other emo-adjacent sonic sensibilities, nicely conveying the fury coupled to her heartache.
5. Lucy Dacus, Home Video — Adolescent misery proves to be just as wounding when viewed through the lens of retrospection and with an adult perspective. Lucy Dacus’s detailed, evocative songwriting can make for brutal storytelling, but there is also catharsis to be found in the jagged honesty. Sometimes the earth must be scorched to revive the soil’s ability to sprout healthy foliage that juts skyward.
6. The Weather Station, Ignorance — Filled with impressively precise pop music that does some thematic heavy lifting, the latest from the Tamara Lindeman’s prime creative outlet merges different instincts — folk, jazz, dance grooves — into a radically fluid work. Preoccupied with climate change and similarly downbeat topics, Ignorance is a plummet that feels like flying.
7. Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever — It’s entirely unsurprising that Billie Eilish’s sophomore album is artistically satisfying, and yet the ways in which it slides away from the expected means she surprises anew. Abetted by Finneas O’Connell, her brother and key collaborator, Eilish evolves the sly-eyed, downbeat pop numbers that dotted her debut into jazz-inflected neo-folk with a low, barely discernible indie-soul buzz.
8. Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic — A vital reclamation project in music and lyrics, Adia Victoria asserts her lineage as a Black, Southern woman. By wrenching regional ownership from bigoted Lost Cause adherents with music so saturated in classic blues and soul styling that a spectral juke joint practically coheres around it, Victoria makes an album that seethes with purpose.
9. St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home — Annie Clark plopped chunky headphones with a coiled cord snugly onto the questing ears of her inner creative soul and pumped in nineteen-seventies soul music until it took. Daddy’s Home is an album that’s exciting precisely because it’s messy and imperfect. It’s an apt representation of an artist who continually tries to push her talent into new, unexpected corners of musical invention.
10. Snail Mail, Valentine — Delicate and steely at the same time, Snail Mail’s second album is a gem. It’s the equivalent of emerging from a shadow-laden labyrinth to allow the eyes to adjust to light again, patiently and with determination. I don’t think it’s just the title cut’s vague evocation of one of my favorite Replacements tunes that makes me sense a Westerbergian tang to Lindsey Jordan’s songwriting.
—Top Ten Albums of 2011
—Top Ten Albums of 2012
—Top Ten Albums of 2013
—Top Ten Albums of 2014
—Top Ten Albums of 2015
—Top Ten Albums of 2016
—Top Ten Albums of 2017
—Top Ten Albums of 2018
—Top Ten Albums of 2019
—Top Ten Albums of 2020