In a word, this was a great year for hip-hop, as evidenced by the worldwide acclaim for To Pimp a Butterfly, a record I listened to a lot, and the only reason it didn’t land on this list was probably because in the last few months so many other albums pushed it out of my consciousness. That doesn’t detract from its value, but it does make it less of a presence in my world, which is what these lists are all about. It’s impossible to be objective about music, though it’s nice if you have the time to be able to try to be objective, but of all the albums on this list only the Future joint didn’t immediately grab me the first time I listened. In contrast, there were a few country albums I liked right off the bat–Alan Jackson, Maddie & Tae, Ashley Monroe, Jason Isbell–but they didn’t sustain themselves for as long as it took to make it to the end of the year, which isn’t to suggest I’ll never listen to them again. I didn’t really like the Kacey Musgraves album much when I first heard it and I still think the themes are too conventional, but her craft eventually got to me, just not enough to make me forget Brian Henneman’s. And, yes, I did splurge for the Dylan opus, but not the 18-CD version. What do you take me for?
1. Ghost Notes, Veruca Salt (El Camino): The reunion of Louise Post and Nina Gordon is happy news for rock fans who couldn’t understand why grunge hadn’t received its scheduled renaissance in the public imagination, but Veruca Salt was always a pop band first, and Ghost Notes‘ amazing consistency stems from its acknowledgement of the hook as the holy grail of existence. That and two solo careers’ worth of hard-won hindsight.
2. Art Angels, Grimes (4AD/Hostess): I really, really, really, really, really, really like that Carly Rae Jepsen album but, as far as electro-pop goes, much prefer fellow Canadian Claire Boucher’s late season entry. It’s not just that Boucher balances the playful with the sinister. In an industry environment where every track is constructed by committee, Grimes trusts her impulses, and if occasionally that impulse is to be Kyary or 2NE1, then so much the better.
3. From Kinshasa, Mbongwana Star (World Circuit/Rice): From now on when I hear the term “urban music” I will think of the capital of the DRC, whose music embodies city life with a bracing intensity. Fronted by two vocalists from Staff Benda Bilili, Mbongwana Star’s rhythms range from the frantic to the languorous, with the instrumental complement, including Liam Farrell’s chaotic electronica, darting in and out of the mix like commuters on a subway platform. Sometimes they even let you sit down.
4. DS2, Future (Epic/Sony): Depression is the new rap state of mind, not de rigueur but certainly acceptable. Future doesn’t boast. His victories in bed and at the club are merely triumphs of sensation over despair, and most of the time he’s so focused on the high that nothing else seems to matter. But that doesn’t mean he’s incoherent, or that his music isn’t vivid. Self-loathing has a weird way of arranging your priorities.
5. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Courtney Barnett (Milk!/Traffic): With her non-melodic vocal style and non sequiturs, Courtney Barnett often sounds as if she doesn’t get her own jokes, and while her songs are conventionally confessional you get the feeling she isn’t comfortable explaining herself. But everything you need to know is in those jerry-built garage rock arrangements: You may not understand who she is, but you definitely get where she’s coming from.
6. Surf, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment (self-released): If you accept the opinion that Chance the Rapper is too self-effacing to affix his own name on this free album, you’ll miss the significance of the moniker that’s there instead. Chance is nothing if not a member of his touring band, and while his personality dominates this diffuse collection, it’s a communal effort. Kendrick conquered the world with his magnanimity. Chance’s heart is just as large, his musical vocabulary even bigger, his joy in the ability to connect immeasurable.
7. b’lieve i’m goin down, Kurt Vile (Matador/Hostess): This prodigious young Philadelphian shouldn’t be so concerned about death at his age, but when you decide to make a whole album of the blues you may feel it’s expected of you. Playing mostly acoustic but sporting a wiseass drawl that emphasizes his peculiar colloquial diction (“That’s life, tho/almost hate to say”), he won’t be mistaken for a poor black dude, but he knows how funny a young white dude can sound trying on the style, and he’s right.
8. Garden of Delete, Oneohtrix Point Never (Warp/Beat): Daniel Lopatin has finally found that crossroads of purpose where the impressionistic skronk of electronica locks into the utilitarian bounce of EDM, and while he isn’t the first artist to arrive there, he is certainly the only one to have ever used it as a platform for a rock opera, albeit an abstract one. Once fixed on an idea, Lopatin’s mind works so fast that the transition from death metal dread to hyperactive pop glee is only a thought away.
9. Don’t Lose This, Pops Staples (Anti-): In turning the late soul-gospel giant’s final, unfinished tracks into a complete album, daughter Mavis and producer Jeff Tweedy draw out his inherent funkiness in such an organic way that when Tweedy inserts a glimmering guitar solo you can practically hear Pops egging him on from the grave. More to the point, Pops does Dylan’s Jesus song right and a salacious blues with no hint of moral trepidation. Spirit made flesh, and vice versa.
10. My Love Is Cool, Wolf Alice (Dirty Hit/Hostess): More love for 90s hard indie rock UK division, but don’t expect boy-bound Britpop. Ellie Rowsell demonstrates a penchant for P.J. Harvey and Elastica in her dynamic preferences. Her themes are adolescent in approach, but they’re sufficiently dramatic to pull you in, and once you’re caught in the band’s emotional centrifuge it’s difficult to break free–not that you’ll necessarily want to.
Eat Pray Thug, Heems (Megaforce): The Das Racist MC knows white exceptionalists aren’t going to catch the nuance of meaning in songs like “Flag Shopping” and “Suicide By Cop,” which is OK. They wouldn’t like them even if they did. They might dig the love songs, though.
Ba Power, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (Glitterbeat/Rice): Again, this Malian musician and his family have produced the rock guitar record of the year, even if what he and his colleagues play is not guitar but ngoni, a kind of lute; which just goes to show it’s all in the attitude.
South Broadway Athletic Club, The Bottle Rockets (Bloodshot): Brian Henneman’s blue collar disaffection isn’t as sour as he lets on. Just because he’s too tired to party doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his woman and his dog. Buy him a beer and he might summon the energy to country rock you out of your Wolverines.
Unbreakable, Janet Jackson (BMG/Sony): At first, Janet’s vocal resemblance to her late brother on her first original album since his death is kind of creepy, but then the songs take over and you realize some legacies can only be passed on through blood.
Perpetual Motion People, Ezra Furman (Bella Union/Hostess): This Jewish gender-bender from Chicago addresses mental illness in his sometimes folky, sometimes doo-woppy songs, but isn’t so inner directed that he can’t step out of them and comment on the moment. He’s not afraid of depression as much as boredom.