Enjoy and let me know what made you hit repeat this year *heart emoji*
1. St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCATION is amazing and very hard to explain without making you listen to all of it. On this most recent album, she has managed to make more accessible her sound with its galloping embrace of genres (pop, rock, electronica, new-wave, punk) without sacrificing her appetite for blending melody with noise. This album is loud with guitars and synths, yet tucked with sweet refrains and clear control over the seemingly chaotic moments of climax. “Los Ageless” careens across genres but seems most nestled in the glitch skittering sound of a new-wave synthesized dance sound. The chorus is full of biting critique of Los Angeles, continuing St. Vincent’s frequent attention to the complex interplay between our actual lives and the lives we see in/through the media environment that shelters us. Where the verses are presented in almost a snarl, the choruses swell with multitracked voices and a beautiful melody as the song shifts from snark to discontent and melancholia. The song rides into escalating noise before tipping into a softer, sadder fade out.
2. The concept of Lorde’s Melodrama tracks the rise and fall of house party as fun and social anxiety jockey for prominence. On her sophomore album Lorde remains idiosyncratic in her vocal phrasing and her incisive lyrical ability. She knows you think she’s insular and adolescent and she knows she’s smarter than you. There’s a fuller sound yet the album is also comfortable with silence, spaces between songs and within tracks, negative space that makes the listener wait and wonder. On “Sober II (Melodrama)” the full might of a string section is brought to bear on a snearing response to both the petty drama of life and those who would mock this drama. As the song ends, the chorus is repeated by several layered iterations of Lorde who seem to be straining their vocal chords as if pushed to their limit. “Perfect Places” starts with a simple drum machine beat and builds to a boisterous jubilant chorus that resists the idea of the perfect experience of the perfect evening.
3. On Meaning of Life, Kelly Clarkson leans into her giant bombastic voice. With a new recording contract, she is able to stop chasing pop music trends and this album is her attempt at making an “Aretha” record. The sound is more soulful without the retro gloss that often is applied to this type of venture. She generally relies on backup singers and live music over electronic sound. I love this whole album but “Would You Call That Love” and “Move You” are probably most replayed. “Would You Call That Love” is a propulsive beat-driven track laced with the resentment of the lost love who doesn’t realize what he’s left behind. Clarkson’s rages against the coos and questions of her background singers and it’s a delight. “Move You” is a slow burn track dripping with desire and longing, built around a ringing synth sequence.
4. I liked the first Haim album, but it didn’t have a staying power for me. This second album Something To Tell You however feels more cohesive and richer in emotional weight. I bought a car this summer and for a long time all I listened to when I drove was this Haim album. The Haim sisters blend beachy, Fleetwood Mac-y harmonies with big guitars and a willingness to explore beyond the purview of pop rock as needed to fill the nooks and crannies of their sound. “Found It In Silence” with its driving strings is the perfect song for driving home after a long day while “Right Now” is intimate and hushed, bathed in reverb. “Walking Away” is a circular slice of pop rock with the sisters’ voices moving in and out.
5. As Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas has made some of the saddest and most melancholy queer lullabies with his crystalline voice raising through them sometimes as a whisper and sometimes like a wraith or a banshee. On his most recent album No Shape, Perfume Genius shifts most directly into happiness and the comforts of love found and kept. “Wreath” propels forward on with the backing instruments and Hadreas’s voice both pushing us further and further into the Kate Bush fantasia of love as the bittersweet moments between visiting gravesites and exploring bucolic fields. The song is rich with tinkling sounds and rising orchestral notes and ends with the music skidding off into silence like the end of “A Day in the Life.”
6. On her debut solo album Fake Sugar, Beth Ditto from the band Gossip stretches her voice into the rootsy end of rock and disco. Ditto plays ably across genres on the album but “In And Out” is the track I still have to listen to at least three times in a row. The song builds from simply her rich thick voice and a guitar to a full band that leaves me wanting to dance. There’s lush production complete with handclaps but it’s the contours of Ditto’s voice that always touch me. She moves between wistfulness and coquettishness as the song tracks the back and forth of a tumultuous relationship with the thrust of a barroom dance.
7. Kelela’s “LMK” mixes the cold space age sound of 90s r&b with the decidedly millennial uncertainty of being left on the hook by the vagaries of digital communication. The song follows the dance of wanting to know where you stand with a lover and yet seeking to be casual. Every time I’m taken in by the synthesized sounds chiming throughout. And the video – with its homage to the best of 90s r&b videos – is divine.
8. Jessie Ware’s Glasshouse is both her sleepiest album and her album that I most enjoyed top to bottom as an album. She’s consistently made some of the most beautiful tracks but this was the first album I luxuriated in throughout. On “My Domino,” Ware sings in hushed warm tones as she asks to be loved, to be the one. There’s a lot of theatricality on Glasshouse, especially the drama of “Selfish Love” with its dancey kiss-off and the Whitney-meets-Elton “Midnight” (both of which I also live). “My Domino” is quieter and simpler in many ways and this allows it a kind of contemplation I adore.
9. Let’s be clear, Miguel makes the most consistently sexy music. His newest album War & Leisure seeks to balance babymaking with a world in turmoil and does so without ever feeling false or preachy. The album pivots on the need for pleasure in a world gone to shit, and “Pineapple Skies” is the song that I consistently return for a jolt of pure joy. The song’s lyrics imagine a surreal brightly colored world and promise “everything gonna be allright.” Miguel namechecks Stevie Wonder and there’s a trippy 60s vibe and a lightness that gestures towards Wonder’s mix of joy and gravity. I imagine this song as a perfect day at the park, laying in the grass, watching the clouds and forgetting the world beyond the moment.
10. Curtis Harding’s Face Your Fear is a masterpiece of 60s r&b blended with the twang of garage rock guitars and synths. The rich Danger Mouse production compliment Harding’s warm and complex vocals. “Go As You Are” brings together girl group backing vocals, thick electronic guitars, and forward drums for a claustrophobic and intimate feeling. “Need Your Love” conjures up obvious comparisons with Cee Lo but is more wistful in its desire for love and affection.
11. For their newest album the Gorillaz basically just called everyone in their address book and everyone said yes. I love many of the songs on the album but “Let Me Out” is the standout for me, ably balancing Pusha T’s impassioned bars about police brutality, the rich textures of Mavis Staples on the hook, and excursions into the dream land of Damon Albarn’s vocals. It shouldn’t work and of course it does.
12. This was Demi Lovato’s year between the smash of “Sorry Not Sorry,” the fact that she got to get all hot and bothered with Jesse Williams in the video for “Tell Me You Love Me,” and her documentary. While I don’t think that she’s quite making full-fledged albums (parts of Tell Me You Love Me feel like factory-made filler with the whiff of attempts at guessing the market), I was impressed by her range and the way she pushed her voice. My favorite track is “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore,” a downtempo ballad with spare production. The song allows Lovato to show off her pipes with r&b runs shot full with despair and builds to an impressive climax. At times her voice can’t quite reach as far as she wants it to, and yet her feeling carries off this lovely track.
13. Technically Jamila Woods released HEAVN in 2016 but it was re-released in a deluxe edition in 2017 and this is the year where I really dug into it. Woods is most well-known for her work with Chance the Rapper but she holds her own on HEAVN which blends soul, hip-hop, and poetry and at all times keeps central her black feminist and antiracist politics. “Holy (Reprise)” closes the album and it’s a beautiful affirmation of self-love in a world that seeks to undermine so many. Woods has a warm voice which moves between singing and spoken word cadences as she shares mantras which recast the negative as a positive. The song is built on top of a bright keyboard riff and percussion and it feels like a perfect way to begin your day.
14. Bad Baby isn’t my favorite Sarah Jaffe album but it’s still a lovely showcase for her indie pop sensibilities. “Between” is a simple bubbly song that argues for the space between the extreme feelings of our everyday. She calls for a dialectic reading of the world as a way to bring people and figure out futures.
15. What can I write about “Redbone” that you haven’t already read, heard, thought? I think there’s a bit of Childish Gambino fatigue at this point (and some people questioned the album’s prominence in Grammy nominations) but all I know is that this summer anytime I bought songs on the jukebox in a bar I played this song. Childish Gambino sounds like he’s singing to us from across a tear in the time space continuum, like he’s coming to us from a 70s radio left out on a back porch on a summer night thick with moisture. The blend of the call to “stay woke” and the psychedelic production gets me every time.
16. Jennifer Hudson has a giant voice (like Kelly) and the record industry seems unsure what to do with her. She’s frequently saddled with second-rate r&b songs or tinny uninspired pop songs. “Remember Me” was a single from an album that hasn’t arrived and I love it. J Hud’s voice is best suited for either the kiss-off (“Spotlight”) or the depths of despair flecked with rage. In “Remember Me” her voice is allowed free reign as she calls on a lost love to not cast her aside and it gets me every time.
17. Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom is kind of witchy dark bedroom pop that seemed to dominate certain corners of white woman pop in 2017. Her sound on this album has clear debts to the multitracked eccentricities of Lorde’s first album and the more lo-fi sounds of many indie pop/dream pop groups. The single “Bad at Love” is delightful, but I am more drawn to “100 Letters” and “Don’t Play.” “100 Letters” is built on top of a simple kick drum beat and the lingering brightness of a synth tone that never fully decays. She’s intimate and personal, nearly diaristic in this track. “Don’t Play” is buzzier and glitchier, built on top of what sounds like a music box, full of biting verses that are spat out as the song builds to its weird cluttered conclusion. I don’t think every song on Hopeless is successful but I loved it in spite of my initial feeling that it would be too calculated or overwrought.
18. King Kendrick really arrived in the mainstream landscape in 2017 with an album that blended his eccentricities with poppier sensibilities. My favorite off DAMN is “LOVE” where he lays down some of the most moving verses about his fiancée alongside the haunting singing of Zacari whose verses frequently interrupt the raps as if finishing the ideas. Kendrick shifts his flow back and forth across the song and it’s just lovely.
19. With all love to Bryson Tiller and Asahd’s dad, for me “Wild Thoughts” is Rihanna’s track. The cheesiness of Santana’s guitar riff from “Maria Maria” makes sense alongside Rihanna’s ice queen come-ons. There’s a laziness about the track – the smoothness of the guitar (see what I did there, eh eh eh?) and Rihanna’s clear pleasure in the punchlines wrapped in her verses – and I know this is a perfect summer song but I am still geeked at 10 degrees.