The Long List:
*** 20.) Walls– Kings of Leon ***
*** 19.) The Altar– Banks***
*** 18.) The Definition Of… – Fantasia ***
*** 17.) 24k Magic– Bruno Mars ***
*** 16.) Is The Are – DIIV ***
*** 15.) A Sailor’s Guide to Earth– Sturgill Simpson ***
*** 14.) 22, A Million– Bon Iver***
*** 13.) MY WOMAN– Angel Olsen***
*** 12.) Freetown Sound-Blood Orange ***
*** 11.) Blonde– Frank Ocean ***
The Top Ten:
*** 10.) I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it ***
At 17 tracks long, The 1975’s sophomore effort seems long and a bit overstuffed (and that’s not mentioning its run on title). But as the months went on and standout track “Somebody Else” lodged its way into my head, I decided to give it a few more chances and I’m glad I did. Sounding straight out of the 80’s with its unapologetic synth and dance-rock influences with some M83 thrown in for good measure, and I’m a sucker for 80’s nostalgia. It’s a step up from their high-octane debut album. “A Change of Heart,” sounds like it was transported straight from a John Hughes movie, “UGH!” bears a striking resemblance to the songs found on the group’s debut with way more of a pop-feel (that’s not a knock), “Love Me” could moonlight as a song from The Talking Head’s discography, and “The Sound” features a bouncy piano riff with a similarly infectious hook.
There are gorgeous interludes, “Please Be Naked” and “Lostmyhead,” that allow the album a chance to breathe amongst the heavy wordplay from frontman Matty Healy, but they also tie the songs together in a way I didn’t notice on the first few listens. In fact, I’ve been surprised by how long this album has managed to stay top of mind and only get better as the year went on. It’s as fresh to me now as it was the very first time I listened to it, and that’s saying something.
*** 9.) Jackie (Original Motion Picture Score)- Mica Levi ***
There weren’t many collections of music this year that defined themselves as boldly as Mica Levi’s score for Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. The English composer, whose only other major work for film includes scoring the hauntingly strange Under The Skin, might not seem like an obvious choice to create music for a film centered around Jacqueline Kennedy but after seeing Jackie, I’m certain there couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. Levi’s work elevates the film into another playing field entirely, deepening the psychological horror that both Larraín and Natalie Portman take us on throughout the film’s duration.
According to Portman in an interview with Variety’s Kris Tapley, Levi’s score was the final component added to the film which absolutely blows my mind because the music is such an intrical part to the film’s rythym. So much so that I’m not sure the film would be as effective without it. It’s impossible to imagine what this would have looked like without Levi’s socre, so lurid, horrifying, disorienting and gorgeous all at once. Not since Hitchcock’s Psycho have strings elicited such a reaction, or seemed so powerful. Levi’s work seems worlds away from the iconic former First Lady, and quite frankly would have stuck out like a sore thumb in the worst way if this was a conventional retelling of Kennedy. But conventional, Jackie is not; Levi has managed to translate the soaring, jarringly intimate portrayal on the screen into her music.
*** 8.) Moth– Chairlift ***
A moth might seem like a weird and unconventional choice to serve as the inspiration for an album, but as Chairlift front woman Caroline Polachek told Pitchfork last year, it was actually a no brainer: “Moths aren’t something you really see in New York City. You don’t see them very often at least, but we liked the idea of the moth as a metaphor for vulnerability, for something that’s fragile but relentless at the same time. It goes towards the light; it beats its wings until it dies… there are risks everywhere, but it doesn’t question them.”
That very much sets the tone for Moth, Chairlift’s third album. Much like a moth, it’s strange, prickly but very beautiful in its own way. It’s about love and the immense feelings and sensations that accompany it. Despite its namesake being an insect, it’s an undeniably human record. The songwriting is exceptional, possessing razor-sharp hooks (“Crying in Public” and “Moth to the Flame”) with tightly wound production that submerges the listener into an ocean of feeling (“Ottawa to Osaka” and “No Such Thing as Illusion”). Each song possesses the buoyancy of their breakthrough single “Bruises” (of iPod commercial fame) and the soaring emotions that made “I Belong In Your Arms” such a knockout. And yet, Moth is still such a step forward for Chairlift, managing to sound absolutely different and familiar all at the same time. Though the 80’s has been finding its way back into pop music for awhile now, it’s never sounded as thrillingly new as it does here.
It was recently announced that Moth would be the final album by the group back in December, and while that breaks my heart, what a hell of a note to go out on.
*** 7.) Anti– Rihanna ***
“I’ve got to things my own way darlin'” Rihanna sings on “Consideration,” the opening moment from her eighth album Anti. That’s perhaps the best encapsulation of the aptly named album, which really is the anti-Rihanna album in the sense it is a lane change from what we’ve come to expect from her. There’s no “We Found Love,” “Only Girl In The World” or “Umbrella.” Even lead single “Work” (which was the longest running #1 song of the year at one point) is unlike anything Rih has done thus far. But that’s what makes Anti her best effort thus far.
Despite pleas urging otherwise, Rihanna made us wait over three years to drop Anti after leading us into a sense of complacency with releasing a new album every year. The long, tumultuous and confusing release of Anti threatened to overshadow the album itself; preceded by three buzz singles (“Fourfiveseconds,” “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen”) that underperformed by standards set by the pop star herself, but proved that she was gearing up for a big change. There was the deal with Samsung that gave way to the strange #ANTIDIARY campaign (did we ever figure out the purpose behind that by the way?) and then ultimately gave way to the album’s release by leaking early on the internet before officially being offered to listeners. But Rih proved that sometimes good things really do come to those who wait; Anti was worth the wait.
As I mentioned, Anti lacks the hallmarks of earlier releases that were heavy on hits and less concerned with consistency, but is all the better for it. “Kiss It Better,” the album’s third song is the best thing Rihanna has done, possibly ever. Featuring a guitar riff and an infectious hook (co-written by former meme Natalia Kills), this is Rih’s ode to the late-Prince. It’s the album’s crowning achievement, I’m just glad it got some recognition (thank you Grammys) after being unjustly ignored in favor of “Needed Me” and “Work.” “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a Tame Impala cover that outperforms the original; her voice was made for this song. There’s the doo-wop and soul infused “Love on the Brain” that features a grit she’s never showcased in a song before and the album ends on a high with “Closer to You” which highlight the crystalline vocals Rih only hinted at before on songs like “Stay.”
I don’t think it’s foolish to call Anti Rihanna’s best album. Unapologetic and Talk That Talk had bops, but weren’t cohesive projects. Loud, Rated R and Good Girl Gone Bad are better evidence of bodies of work but Anti gives us an artistic curveball many didn’t see coming and has only gotten richer as the year has dragged on.
*** 6.) Puberty 2– Mitski ***
Puberty 2 is a deeply personal album, so much so that it plays a lot like we’re listening to Mitski herself read us entries from a diary. “Today I will wear my white button down/I’m tired of wanting more/I think I’m finally worn” she laments on album closer “A Burning Hill” before describing her broken state as both the forest, the fire that consumed it and the person watching it all burn down. On “Your Best American Girl,” a show stopping moment if there ever was one, she opens up about her desire to be a little spoon and kiss an unnamed lover’s fingers forevermore. She describes them as the sun “who has never seen the moon,” and despite the love she shared between them their differences and the are simply too great to overcome, namely her Japanese upbringing.
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I think, I think I do” she belts before admitting, “I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.”
It’s the brutal honesty and the impassioned vocal performance of Mitski herself that make Puberty 2 such a strong effort. There’s a vulnerability to her voice that, at the same time seems tinged with confidence as she addresses themes like racial identity, unrequited love, anxiety and ultimately the desire to be happy. The album couldn’t have had a better title honestly; we find ourselves revisiting that dreaded time in everyone’s life where everything feels so unbelievably raw and overbearing all at once. Four albums in, Puberty 2 does an excellent job at establishing and solidifying her unique voice and representing a personal, and musical growth that brings us full circle by the time the album ends.
“I can at least be neat/I can at least be neat/Walk out and be seen as clean/And I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep/And I’ll love the littler things/I’ll love some littler things,” she compromises. Love may have gotten her down, but it hasn’t gotten her out. In its final two minutes, we’re left swinging between a euphoric high and devastating heartbreak that we’re powerless to fight against; it’s better to just give in.
*** 5.) Emotion: SIDE B– Carly Rae Jepsen ***
Carly Rae Jepsen released the most criminally underrated and best pop album of 2015; E•MO•TION, as I wrote last year, was Jepsen’s magnum opus. It was a love letter to the 80’s and the album that Taylor Swift wanted 1989 to be. But for all of its brilliance, it floundered on the charts and didn’t come close to replicating the success of Jepsen’s signature single “Call Me Maybe” (though it did inspire the now infamous “Run Away With Me” saxophone meme). But E•MO•TION move the dial critically, ending up on numerous ‘Best Of’ lists and establishing Jepsen as more than a one hit wonder, but an artist in her own right. Side B isn’t a sequel to its parent album, but more of a continuation and a great example of why Jepsen is still pop’s most underrated act.
The brilliant “First Time” starts things off with the sound of a cassette tape being put in the player, once again evoking and immersing us in the feeling of the 80’s. The choruses of “Higher,” “The One” and “Fever” swell to infectiously sugar sweet highs, demanding you sing along. Jepsen gets vulnerable on “Cry” and the beautiful closer “Roses,” proving she knows her way around a ballad. And while “Store” is just downright silly, it’s unmistakably fun.
But if there’s a crowning achievement amongst this list of songs, it’s “Body Language.” Co-written by Jepsen and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, the song is a burst of pure pop brilliance. Hynes and Jepsen previously collaborated on “All That,” a dreamy standout from E•MO•TION, while Hynes has previously lent his talent to the likes of Sky Ferreira (“Everything Is Embarassing”) and Solange (“Losing You” and her pitch-perfect True EP). These two make absolute magic when they’re together, and “Body Language” is no exception. The booming handclaps and 808s serve the chorus perfectly, with Jepsen pleading to her lover to talk things out before hanging up the phone. The song’s soaring climax and conclusion demand that this song be entered into the pantheon of great pop songs. But then again, you could make a case for just about every song on Side B. Carly’s vivid illustration of riding off into the night to steal her lover’s bike on “Fever” and the beautiful metaphor of “Roses” showcase Jepsen’s evocative songwriting talents.
Side B is just another glance into the E•MO•TION era as we wait for whatever Carly’s third album will bring us, and serves as a gift to her devoted fanbase. 250 songs were written for E•MO•TION; I’d personally be happy if Jepsen spent the rest of her career issuing releases of those songs, because the eight she chose to release here are nothing short of brilliant. What does it say about the state of pop music when Jepsen’s outtakes are more polished than just about anything released by much “bigger” names in pop today?
*** 4.) Dangerous Woman– Ariana Grande ***
If there’s anything Ariana Grande has shown us in the years since she emerged as the heir apparent to the throne of Mariah Carey, it’s that she refuses to be pinned down. Though her debut album Yours Truly was a love letter to the kind of breathy mainstream pop-tinged R&B that Carey herself introduced into the mainstream, Grande’s recent efforts have veered into other genres. Her follow up, My Everything was simply a collection of bangers that defined 2014 (“Problem,” “Break Free,” “Love Me Harder,” “One Last Time”) and solidified her status as pop’s new it girl. This year she gave us Dangerous Woman and reminded us of her Broadway chops by starring as Penny Pingleton in Hairspray Live.
The former is the best example of her versatility thus far, and is the best she’s ever sounded on an album. Gone are the vocal and enunciation flubs that plagued her previous releases. “Into You” deserves to be added to the pantheon of the greatest songs ever made, while her soaring and seering vocals on the album’s title track lay waste to any naysayer or critic who feels Grande is a flash in the pan. “Side To Side” featuring Nicki Minaj (their third collaboration) is great if only because it’s a song entirely about being sore from getting dicked down, but remains as infectious and catchy as the first time I heard it. The key-change on “Greedy” remains one of the top 5 things that happened this year along with the transition from “Knew Better/Forever Boy,” and demands to be a single at some point. Perhaps the most impressive moment is “Leave Me Lonely,” a duet with Macy Gray where Grande more than holds her own. There are some weak moments (“Sometimes,” “I Don’t Care”) but even they are more interesting than the filler typically found on big name pop albums. In a year littered with mediocre releases from less accomplished pop artists, it is Ariana who delivered.
Dangerous Woman is her best work yet, showcasing a growth, consistency and vocal mastery that escapes her peers and has catapulted her into another stratosphere entirely. People have knocked her on skipping around genres, but it’s her eclecticism that makes her so musically interesting; no matter what type of song she’s doing, it’s unmistakably hers, and that’s because of her vocal chops. While the Mariah comparisons will never fully escape her (who else has range like that?) Grande has successfully established herself as an artist in her own right. No genre is safe from her earth shattering vocals, and I won’t be satisfied until she has tackled every single one.
*** 3.) Coloring Book– Chance the Rapper ***
Amidst all the discourse concerning Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the overall disappointment that was Drake’s highly anticipated Views, Chance the Rapper went and quietly released one of the best collections of music, rap or not. Coloring Book, an Apple Music exclusive mixtape, is more in line with the gospel infused offerings found on The Life of Pablo, though it exceeds the highs found on that album. It’s a far richer and more thrilling and interesting listen than whatever Views was going for. And while there are some high profile features like Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and Kanye, none of them can outshine the music behind them and the man at the center of Coloring Book. The freedom the mixtape platform allows Chance sees him soaring to new heights, both in his bars and with the scope of his ambitions as evidenced in “No Problem,” his warning to major labels.
Overall, it’s an uplifting and deeply personal effort, one that’s beaming with as much confidence and radiance as Chance himself is on each song. When he says “I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom,” we believe him. Masterfully blending influences from the past with much of what makes rap great today, amounts to one of the most sonically adventurous, cutting edge music released this year. He raps about Chicago, his daughter, his faith and his place in the music industry. There are many things I could call Coloring Book, but none of them would really give it the credit it deserves. Yes, Chance really did that.
*** 2.) A Seat At The Table – Solange ***
(Here are some great some great essays by black women specifically about A Seat At The Table that you should absolutely read. They offer more insight and perspective than I could ever offer.)
To say that Solange’s follow up to her brilliant and criminally underrated EP TRUE was needed this year is an understatement. As we witnessed the countinued acts of police brutality against black people and the rise of Donald Trump who emoboldened groups like the KKK and the “alt-right,” no one can gleefully ignore, deny and turn away from the fact that racism is inexplicably tied to the foundation of America. Solange has been vocal about the desparity black people face in the face of white supremacy, either through acts as large as brutality or through microaggresions; earlier this year she wrote an essay “And Do You Belong? I Do” that tackled these very themes.
That essay has seemingly manifested into A Seat At The Table, Solange’s invitation to listen. She reounts her personal experiences and weaves them together with the experiences of people who have inspired and shaped her (mother Tina, father Matthew, 90’s juggernaut Master P). She balances pain and sadness with joy, pride and the will to perservere. “Cranes In The Sky” is perhaps the best example of this, where Solange’s ethereal vocals detail a sadness so overwhelming that nothing could pull her out of it. And yet, she’s still here.”Don’t let anybody steal your magic… I’ve got so much, y’all can have it,” Solange sings before “Junie.” She works through her feelings of anger on “Mad,” validating her feelings and expression of anger. “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Junie” detail the daily microaggresions faced by black people and cultural appropriation. There’s no standout moment on A Seat At The Table, it’s an all encompasing work that refuses to be consumed as anything but all at once. Songs blend into one another, sometimes broken up by interludes featuring Solange’s guests. But even those interludes are necessary to the album.
In many ways, it is similar to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, similarities that have been discussed at length already. But A Seat At The Table is its own work that stands proudly on its own merits; where Beyoncé was unmistakably the narrator of Lemonade‘s narrative, A Seat At The Table sees Solange occasionally handing the mic to others for their perspective and it’s clear to see how her upbringing shaped her into the accomplished artist she is today. That these brief anecdotes are perfectly weaved and stitched into the rest of the album only heightens this accomplishment further. A Seat At The Table silences anyone that wants to keep referring to Solange as “Beyoncé’s sister” and anyone who though “Losing You” might’ve been a fluke. I can’t wait to see what she does next. I only hope we don’t have to wait as long to find out.
*** 1.) Lemonade– Beyoncé ***
(As I said in my mid-year writer up, I implore you to read these think pieces published about Lemonade by black women. They’re more insightful and better written than anything I could hope to type out.)
There’s a reason Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter has outlasted many of her peers, commercially and critically speaking. Six albums in and she shows no signs of slowing down. Instead, she continues to challenge herself as an artist and performer as the music industry around her continues to change. As the sales climate moves closer and closer to being dominated by forgettable hit singles, Beyoncé manages to produce whole albums that demand to be digested as a whole, refusing to conform to the confines of a particular genre. She set the bar pretty high with 2013’s self-titled, a “visual album” which broke iTunes sales records and, despite having no promotion or press prior to its release, shifted how, and when, artists and labels release and promote their music releases. That she was able to top herself yet again is astounding, but it should come as no surprise; there is a reason we call her Queen.
Lemonade is many things. It is even more focused on visuals than her last record. Where BEYONCÉ had a different music video for every song Lemonade was released a mini-film special for HBO, using the music and the visuals to tell a story of heartbreak, anger and ultimately redemption. And while the story at the heart of the album (“did Jay really cheat on Beyoncé?” “WHO is Becky with the good hair?”) is powerful and affecting, to whittle it down to simply that is ignoring that at the heart of Lemonade is Beyoncé’s proclamation that she loves her blackness, and that black lives DO matter.
The first single, “Formation,” was just the conversation starter. Released a day before she would go on to perform at the Super Bowl Half Time show, Beyoncé sent the internet ablaze yet again and got white football fans and conservatives alike talking. It’s no surprise that white people, by large, missed the message completely. Whether or not this was an intentional attempt to derail the conversation, something Fox News has called, “the war on cops,” it has once again proved that white privilege breeds ignorance. The music video features unmistakable references to black, southern culture and the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. The lyrics saw Beyoncé declaring her pride in her heritage, asking her fellow black women to follow her lead: “Okay ladies now let’s get in formation.” Her Super Bowl performance combined these elements and, topped off with her backup dancers’ Black Panther costumes, sent a clear and powerful message to institutions of power in the wake of the continued brutality inflicted by police to the black community.
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”- Malcom X
Sure, there is a universal element to Lemonade that speaks to those who have had their heartbroken. “Hold Up,” sees Beyoncé asking herself “What’s worse? Lookin’ jealous or crazy, jealous or crazy?/ Or like being walked all over lately, walked over lately,” before declaring, “I’d rather be crazy.” Me too girl, me too. “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” sees Beyoncé immersing herself in full on rock n’ roll, with an assist from Jack White. It’s a song seething with fury, directed at a lover who’s been unfaithful, and don’t get it twisted Beyoncé is here to remind Jay-Z (assumedly) just how good he has it. “Sorry,” is the fun kiss off that launched a thousand think pieces thanks to “Becky with the good hair.”
But these universal themes are just one element to this much larger story about the struggle of the black woman.”Hold Up” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry” validate the anger of a scorned lover, but also the anger and hurt in black women who are continually disrespected by society. Malcom X’s quote about the most disrespected person in America being the black woman is smartly included in the “Don’t Hurt Yourself” segment, driving home this very point. “Daddy Lessons” reclaims country music, silencing Donald Trump surrogates and conservatives who falsely see country music as a white genre. “Freedom,” featuring rapper Kendrick Lamar, sees Beyoncé rising from the ashes of heartbreak, stronger than ever and staring oppression straight in the face: “I break chains all by myself/ Won’t let my freedom rot in hell/ Hey! I’ma keep running/ Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”
“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the sinner strength to cool off. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade,” Hattie White, Jay Z’s grandmother, says in a bit of audio sampled at the end of “Freedom.” The penultimate song, “All Night” is about resolution and ultimately hope, followed by “Formation” which was a very clear choice. This is the quintessential message of the album, that despite the struggle black women will continue to survive, love themselves, stand together, thrive and be heard in a world that wishes they would stay silent.
“Ashes to ashes. Dust to sidechicks” and forget about anyone who is still questioning Beyoncé’s place as one of the greats.
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order):
- The Colour In Anything– James Blake
- Glory– Britney Spears
- Joanne– Lady Gaga
- The Life of Pablo– Kanye West
- Love You To Death, Tegan and Sara
- A Moon Shaped Pool– Radiohead
- Still Brazy, YG
- This Is Acting– Sia
- This Is What The Truth Feels Like– Gwen Stefani
- Untitled Unmastered– Kendrick Lamar