Whether due to the ravages of age or encroaching apathy (itself a ravage of age), I found it more difficult this year to retain much familiarity with music I listened to. When I started reviewing the year in mid-November in order to compile this list, except for a half dozen albums that had made an exceptionally strong impression during our initial encounter, I seriously questioned if I had really listened to many of the other albums that were in my devices, though I was almost sure I did. One hypothesis is that I don’t listen to any new music on CD any more, only older music, because I stopped buying physical product several years ago, having reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to accumulate any more things in what is left of my life. Whatever else they offer, CDs provide more of an emotional anchor for the music they contain, something MP3s can’t provide. And now that iTunes, as much as I hated it, is gone, the music files on my computer seem that much more ephemeral. In the end, however, a guitar lick here, a particularly clever lyric there did penetrate the fog of my short-term memory, but basically I had to reboot, which explains why I’m late with the list. And it’s not as if I didn’t care about the music I was hearing. If anything, the short list I came up with ended up being pretty long. One aspect that often boosted a record’s appeal in my estimation was whether I’d seen the artist in question play live this year. I don’t attend half the number of shows I did twenty years ago, so maybe I appreciate concerts more than I used to, but one of the reasons I stopped going was that live shows increasingly held less interest for me (ravage of age, check), so if I do go out of my way to see someone, it’s almost always because I like their latest record a lot, so, in a sense, the concert is like a double reinforcement of their appeal. Yeah, I know most people see artists they already like, but for so long, because of my work, I was invited to almost every concert in town, and I took advantage of that. Not so much any more, but that’s not a ravage of age. More of a realignment of priorities. P.S., No decade-best from me. Since the dawn of the millennium, time has been a continual blur.
1. Covert Contracts, Control Top (Get Better): Gang of Four had the right idea when it came to setting anti-capitalist dogma to punk: Make it funky and the politics sells itself. This Philadelphia hardcore trio uses less academic rhetoric (“Service with a smile/Eat shit”) and a more emotional attack, and it works surprisingly well in that you can’t ignore the fact that Ali Carter is singing right at you. Even if the jagged hooks weren’t so catchy she has your number and takes your name. Sure, try to be complacent about your job and the patriarchy, but we’re not going to let you. Turn it up, that’s a good boy.
2. Two Hands, Big Thief (4AD/Beat): Adrianne Lenker obviously had a troubled childhood. It’s not so much there in the high, quavering voice or even the cutting lyrics, but rather in her measured guitar playing, which sounds like pain deferred until she lets loose with a solo that makes your heart ache. She’s super focused here, and her bandmates seem to hover just out of reach, keeping her afloat and ready to catch her if she goes under. But she’s more resilient than that voice leads you to believe, and the songs, often quiet and barely there, are so haunting they’ll keep you up at night. Kind of scary, but kind of reassuring, too.
3. Miss Universe, Nilufer Yanya (Ato/Octave): Another young woman with a seriously idiosyncratic guitar style, this Londoner’s debut album takes most of its musical cues from Sade, though the relaxed vibe is misleading. She has a way of undercutting her languorous vocals with choppy chords that belie her self-possession. Her melodies churn rather than sparkle, and her arrangements are almost self-defeating, as if they were formulated as problems that needed solving. And yet in their own difficult way her songs make plain feelings that maybe even she didn’t know she had.
4. Nur, Dua Saleh (Against Giants): Born in Sudan, resident of St. Paul, Dua Saleh is described as a singer-activist-poet who prefers to be addressed with gender-neutral pronouns. Much of the poetry on their debut EP is in the service of personal observations that are stunning in their tactile candor (“pussy melting like a glacier”). And while they don’t exactly sing, Saleh isn’t really a rapper either. Their voice is used sparingly while the compact beats provide the kind of presence that makes every performance sound like a one-off. Saleh only puts out as much of their self as they deem necessary to give you goose bumps.
5. Pity Party, Liz Lawrence (Second Breakfast): Pop in a British vein but don’t call it Britpop. If anything, Lawrence’s instantly hummable songs avoid the kind of self-seriousness that Britpop bands took for granted; tough melodies abetted by succinct lyrics, and themes that push her pop priorities in the right direction. When she says she wants to get married in a song called “What People Do,” you suspect she’s taking the piss because the chorus is so hell bent on making you believe she’s sincere. Suspicious and irresistible at the same time.
6. uknowhatimsayin, Danny Brown (Warp/Beat): He thinks he’s funny, and more often than not he is, which is a relief after Atrocity Exhibition, but not because you feared for his soul. It’s just nice to hear what he brings to a more conventional mix, and, as always, the results are unconventional by default, even with executive producer Q-Tip bringing his commercial “A” game. Brown’s raps are so circular you don’t know if he’s coming or going, and yet each track ends up somewhere definite, fixed in space. It’s Brown at his most skillful and, some might say, normal, which isn’t to say it’s reverent. Not with a whacked-out voice like that. He’s funny because he’s making fun, maybe of you.
7. Songs of Our Mothers, Kefaya & Elaha Soroor (Bella Union): Elaha Soroor is a star in Afghanistan, and not just because she won a TV talent contest. She also translated that victory into an activist stance that drew deadly opprobrium from conservatives. Now an emigrant, she teams here with the London “global fusion” group Kefaya, who turn her folk songs into beat-nasty bangers without sacrificing their feminist particulars, though when things calm down and the acoustic instruments come out, the band proves its own particulars with credibility and verve. They certainly seem made for each other.
8. Titanic Rising, Weyes Blood (Sub Pop/Octave): No tentative chirping for Natalie Mering. Her tone is as full-throated as KD Lang’s and her enunciation as clean as a Vatican window sill. Creditably adopting the soft rock sounds of 70s California, she marries her considerable anxiety about the future of the earth and her own fragile state. The music borrows the best from the Carpenters, but the imagery, per the title, is rife with destruction and attempted rehabilitation. A pretty song always makes it easier to face the hell around you.
9. Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, The Comet Is Coming (Impulse/Universal): This meeting of minds is filed under jazz, though the group’s appeal is closer to that of a jam band in that saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings simply latches on to the repetitive beats provided by drummer Max Hallett and keyboardist Dan Leavers and steers them to the outer reaches of the solar system. Never was a three-piece better named: There’s something apocalyptic about the way the songs, which aren’t really that long, ebb and flow, all the while hinting at the armageddon at the end. Not just spine-tingling, but back-breaking, too.
10. Desert Dove, Michaela Anne (Yep Roc/BSMF): Lush is as lush does, and the third album by Brooklyn transplant Michaela Anne aims for full-blown Nashville countrypolitan but ends up somewhere just north of San Diego. An easy, assured songwriter and the kind of singer who doesn’t trust herself with her own material, Michaela Anne’s reticence at times is the album’s hidden charm maker. That her producers pay her no mind and go all out with the strings and guitars was perhaps something she didn’t expect, but the sound is so tantalizing that it seems to fill your whole head.
Cuz I Love You, Lizzo (Atlantic/Warner): Not an ingenue, but definitely the year’s breakout artist for the way she realigned mass-appeal pop with the force of her convictions and a voice that can pretty much do anything.
Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey (Interscope/Universal): The music has provided diminishing returns since its release, but it started so high in my estimation that it still sounds great. I never bought her brand of white privilege, though I knew she leveraged it for (ironic) cultural clout. I can find her persona shallow and still think she’s making compelling artistic statements. Grey Area, Little Simz (Age 101/Beat): She sees rap classically, as aural and verbal provocation, and though it’s often difficult to appreciate the latter due to the former, the whole effect is immediately stimulating, even nerve-wracking.
Beware of the Dogs, Stella Donnelly (Secretly Canadian): Another new artist who eschews the kind of vocal trepidation that has undermined indie rock in recent years, this Australian singer-songwriter’s disarmingly cheery facade masks a caustic take on romantic dysfunction. Be careful what you long for.
Jimmy Lee, Raphael Saadiq (Columbia/Sony): In which the esteemed R&B producer-performer confronts his internal demons in the form of his late brother and finds new reasons to appropriate Motown as a desperate grasp for creative survival.
thank u, next, Ariana Grande (Republic/Universal): What’s not to love when a deserving superstar takes control of her career and makes better music than what she made when she wasn’t in control?