I’ve decided to stop doing Top 50 lists.
For the last few years, I’ve obsessively compiled a Top 50 albums list throughout the year. But I’ve always had a hard time quantifying the albums down in the lower reaches, those I like and admire but have just enough of a gripe with to make me not want to regularly listen to them. A lot of these albums I never wrote about and thus was unable to give them the slavish attention I give those I review. So the bottom recesses of my Top 50 albums list fills up with albums I’ve listened to two or three times (maybe in the background, usually in a short time period), liked, and never felt much desire to listen to again. I find myself ranking them arbitrarily, a practice at odds with the almost religious significance I attach to my year-end lists.
The death of my computer about a month ago – and the ensuing loss of my seventy-album-plus-strong list – was something of a godsend. Upon trying to reassemble my list with no original reference, I found it tricky to go beyond about 36. For convention’s sake, and also to be extra certain my year-end list consisted of only albums I loved, I figured I’d trim it down to 25.
These are the albums from this year that have stuck with me and grown on me listen after listen, or ones I haven’t listened to a bunch because of the length and commitment required but that I’m certain I’ll revisit when I want a certain experience out of a record. I might hate every single one of them next year, but that’s the core flaw of year-end lists – and deadline-based music journalism as a whole.
1. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show. Sometimes it’s a blessing to hear a true talent in action – not someone who can belt or noodle, but someone with a singular vision for their art and the technical means to execute it to perfection. Reality Show is an unlikely miracle from a still-young Philadelphia singer-songwriter who supposedly quit the industry after releasing two cult albums in the late ‘00s. Sullivan’s in frightening control of all artistic disciplines here – her voice, her skill with hooks and melody, and above all else, her songwriting. Sullivan’s a whip-smart songwriter with an sardonic sense of humor (Randy Newman wishes he’d written “Silver Lining”), and she’s in character-portrait mode here, giving us enough detail to feel like we know the people she’s singing about but withholding enough for us to make our own decisions about whether we should root for them or not. Hence its name, Reality Show is populated by average, hardworking people, most of them stubbornly clinging to a dogma, a man, a material possession, a faint hope for the future. Her vision is as clear as a camera’s, and she never blinks.
2. DJ Koze – DJ-Kicks. Fundamentally, this is a playlist, a selection of songs across multiple genres selected by a drunken German house producer for a venerable DJ mix series. He didn’t exactly take it that seriously, but it’s good that he didn’t; Koze’s sense of humor about his art is what makes him one of the most engaging and entertaining dance producers of the last decade. The emotional core of this immaculately sequenced 70-minute mix is a William Shatner song, for Christ’s sake, and we don’t go back for it for yuks but to genuinely feel something from his moving monologue on aging. There’s only one original composition here, and it’s “I Haven’t Been Everywhere But It’s On My List,” an instrumental hip hop composition surely designed to compete with the Madlibs and Dillas with which he populates the first half of the mix. It actually rises to this level in part because of a keening, pitch-shifted vocal sample that’s one of the most devastating single sounds I’ve heard in any song this year and, according to the music video, was made by an opera-singing T. Rex. This gets to the core of what makes Koze such a treasure. He’s capable of instilling profound emotion in his audience – and he does, often. But he’d much rather we all have a good time.
3. Fetty Wap – Fetty Wap. The Paterson, New Jersey artist born Willie Maxwell II is hip hop’s most affable humanist, both onstage and off. His breakthrough hit “Trap Queen” is a rapturous ode to the girl he loves and slings drugs with, delivered in a muscular vibrato that’s more emotional than it has any right to be, and most of his other songs are about either her or his two-man Remy Boyz crew. He’s not with the Trap Queen anymore, but he’s paying her tuition, and he just bought Remy Boy Monty a car with the cash he made from this insular album, largely composed of material he had kicking around long before anyone outside Paterson knew who he was. We get a sense of the gravity of these human connections from the music on Fetty Wap. This is an album about the friendships that offer the only respite from the harsh realities of having to sell drugs for a living. Fetty never glorifies the trap, and his braggiest songs (“Trap Luv,” “I Wonder”) feel like sighs of relief. The sense is that without his friends and his Trap Queen to keep him sane, his spirits wouldn’t be anywhere near as high. This is an album about making the best of a bad situation and finding happiness in the midst of pain – a contrast embodied in that incredible, quavering voice of his.
4. Wolfgang Voigt – Rückverzauberung 10/Nationalpark. This isn’t quite the return of Gas, the legendary Wolfgang Voigt project that quietly dropped four albums of psychedelic, forest-themed ambient music in the latter half of the 1990s. But in spirit, it might as well be. Designed to commemorate the opening of a new national park in Voigt’s native Germany, Nationalpark finds Voigt turning back to the forest for inspiration. This is a single track, which may put some listeners off, but it’s the most consistently interesting single-track ambient album since Vladislav Delay’s Anima, and that album never comes close to the sweeping beauty of Nationalpark. The sounds here are “big,” but the awe is small-scale. Nationalpark doesn’t evoke the beauty of seeing a forest from above as being inside and focusing on each tiny detail – acorns, twigs, birds, squirrels. Aside from the title and cover, nothing here explicitly evokes the forest, and Nationalpark sounds as good on the beach, in the desert, in the mountains. But few ambient albums so effectively capture our simultaneous love of and disconnect from the wilderness.
5. Future – Dirty Sprite 2. Future’s third studio album might be the definitive sonic statement so far of Atlanta’s bizarre new wave of hip hop, but it plays almost like a ‘90s rock album, balancing ugliness with smoothness, misery with pop smarts, ennui with energy. Future’s a miserable codeine addict whose cries for help just barely pierce his unemotional facade; he doesn’t glorify his situation, and we certainly don’t want to be him. But Dirty Sprite 2 doesn’t feel sad in the way something like Ready To Die does. It’s just ugly. There’s something repulsive even in its poppiest moments, if only because the mere idea of partying to this unhappy music is enough to make one feel a bit gross. But it’s hard not to zone out to Future’s ambient monotone and the spacious cathedrals of sound behind him – not to mention the hooks and quotables around every turn. “I’ma choose the dirty over you, you know I ain’t scared to lose you” is a quotable enough line to rap along to, but then you realize just how sad it is, and it leaves a bitter aftertaste. “They tried to make a pop star, they just made a monster,” he moans on the hideous “I Serve The Base.” On Dirty Sprite 2, he’s both.
6. Archy Marshall – A New Place 2 Drown. Since bursting into the global music consciousness at 16 with his Zoo Kid and King Krule projects, London musician Archy Marshall’s had a fully formed sound and aesthetic. But he hasn’t translated it into a compelling studio release until now. This is even more remarkable given that A New Place 2 Drown doesn’t sound like much else Marshall’s released. Ostensibly a low-stakes beat tape designed to accompany a book and movie, A New Place 2 Drown nonetheless encapsulates the world Marshall’s spent his entire career trying to create, a London that’s sinister and decrepit but also oddly beautiful. A New Place 2 Drown uses cloudy house chords and clanking, evocative percussion to create a sense of everyday awe, the kind you get from walking down the street stoned and noticing small, quotidian shit you’d normally pass by. But there’s the nagging feeling that if you stare too long at that patch of ivy or that cool tree in the distance, someone might come up from behind and club you to the ground.
7. Young Thug – Barter 6. The easy hook on Atlanta rapper Young Thug is his weirdness, so the culmination to his impressive mixtape run over the past couple years should have ideally been an eccentric masterpiece on par with Tha Carter III. It’s not, but it fits in Thugger’s tradition of unpredictability by being by far his most understated release yet. There are few mind-bending vocalizations or conspicuous non-sequiturs. This is just a solid, solid album, with few missteps (aside from a few dreadful weed-carrier features) and a concise 50-minute runtime that feels like 35, 40 tops. It’s an album for people who have heard the mixtapes and know the rap (pun not intended), and it’s as unlikely to wow anyone who hasn’t heard Young Thug as it is likely to even further convince longtime fans of its creator’s genius. Thug switches flows fluidly and nearly constantly, fitting his versatile voice to the needs of his song; above all else, Barter 6 is an exercise in good taste, something we didn’t know Thugger had until now. It’s not going to drop any jaws, but it’s proof that this guy’s talent goes far, far beyond being “weird” or “eccentric.”
8. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint. Sprawling and unpredictable, The Pinkprint is a deeply flawed album, but somehow, its flaws make it all the more fascinating. Amid novelty songs like “Anaconda” and the still-unlistenable “Only” are stellar pop songs, technically dazzling rapping and singing, and a devastating opening suite that might take those expecting more schizoid Roman Zolanski shit aback. Nothing here’s really mediocre, and even the bad songs give the record a bit of a White Album feel; given the sheer volume of music here, it’s easy to forget what song’s coming next and be either thrilled or disappointed by any given tune coming next. The one thing that feels constant is that devastating opening suite, a triad of confessionals that explain unflinchingly and calmly what’s been going on in her life. It’s the ultimate counterargument to anyone who might argue Minaj is somehow “fake,” which was bullshit in the first place given that she’s one of mainstream rap’s most unconventional auteurs (I’d say she’s “uncompromising,” but then again there’s that second disc of Roman Reloaded) and one of the least afraid to speak her mind. “THIS is The Pinkprint,” she defiantly snarls on opener “All Things Go.” She challenges us to take her magnum opus strictly on its own terms, and it’s the only way to listen.
9. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album By Earl Sweatshirt. The rapidly maturing Odd Future alum has developed as an artist faster than he’s been able to produce albums, so it’s been a different Earl on each of his releases. He solves this problem on his second studio album by being… just himself. In uncomfortable detail, he discusses his relationships with his fans, friends, and family – the latter two of which seem to be fraying. It’s easy to call this album “unflinchingly honest,” but that implies a clarity of thought absent from this deeply uncertain album. He never seems sure whether or not he’s really enjoying his life and newfound fame. One of the most impressive things about I Don’t Like Shit is that it doesn’t forget Earl is famous. Many “confessional” albums like Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell shirk away from fame, if only because it’s hard to talk about being an unhappy pop star without coming across as spoiled. But the hordes of people who love his music seems to be the only reassuring thing in the rapper’s life. Thus the album’s 30-minute runtime. “WHEN YOU GET DONE LISTENING TO IT, LISTEN TO IT AGAIN,” he tweeted after the album’s release. It’s an odd way to sell an album this raw, but above all else, I Don’t Like Shit is designed to be listened to, and it’s better for that.
10. Drake/Future – What A Time To Be Alive. By any definition, What A Time To Be Alive is a poor collaborative effort. The two singer-rappers on the marquee have no chemistry, and though they try to find common grounds between their problems, Drake’s gripes about ghostwriting accusations no one cares about are petty compared to Future’s harrowing addiction narratives. But What A Time To Be Alive works precisely because of this discrepancy. Future feels almost like an older version of Drake, numb to the debauchery Drake still gazes in wonder at, and his bored croak makes a fantastic contrast with Drake’s enthusiastic bleating. They might as well be father and son out for a trip to the strip club. Behind it all are the towering, gothic beats of Metro Boomin, a young Atlanta prodigy who’s such a good fit for Future their relationship is practically symbiotic. Future’s disowned the album, cryptically claiming it “never happened.” But this is a spontaneous and strange enough release to suggest they could have created it psychically a la The Ring without their knowledge. I can imagine Future groggily getting out of bed, scoping a few new Boomin beats in his e-mail and finding a week’s worth of verses already on them.
11. Jamie xx – In Colour. An expertly sequenced demo reel of stately dance music and exuberant pop from one-third of the xx. It’s a good enough record to make it easy to forget all about the xx, and though its discrepancies in style are shocking, spanning from rave pastiche to an enthusiastic Young Thug-featuring dancehall track, they somehow fit together. In Colour’s been criticized for being sexless, which is valid, but In Colour isn’t designed for dance floor abandon. Rather, it’s a work of pure craftsmanship, and even the most subtle decisions pay off.
12. Janet Jackson – Unbreakable. Janet Jackson’s twelfth studio album is above all else a gesture of gratitude to those who stuck with her after that rough last decade. Unbreakable is nothing more or less than 64 ridiculously enjoyable minutes of new Janet Jackson music, jettisoning the skits and unnecessary concepts of her past work in favor of focusing on pure pop. This is one of the year’s most gorgeous pop records, rife with swooning major seventh chords and held together by Jackson’s wise, monolithic voice. It already feels like her most timeless work.
13. Mount Eerie – Sauna. Phil Elverum’s latest Mount Eerie album is defined by the contrast between the fast pace of modern life and the slower changes happening all around in the natural world. As Elverum waits for airplanes and walks to and from work, glaciers are moving, continental plates are pushing against each other, cliffs are worn down by wind and water. Small things like a pumpkin split against the rocks or a tractor idling a few blocks away serve as sobering reminders of this throughout Sauna. It’s a humbling and haunting experience.
14. Mac DeMarco – Another One. Amid all the grime, grease and nicotine, it’s easy to forget that Mac DeMarco is a very conservative pop musician. His songs fit the Beatles ideal of pop, hovering between two and three minutes and containing multitudes in very simple combinations of words. He mastered this approach on last year’s Salad Days, and he executes it as well on this 24-minute gem with only minor differences; the songs are more melancholy and self-loathing, and there’s an absolutely gorgeous organ sound that shows up on a few songs.
15. Foodman – Couldwork. Footwork is one of the few genres that’s actually gotten less out there as it’s evolved; it got big because it sounded like nothing else, but now it’s been diluted with trap and other things. Thus, Japanese producer Foodman’s Couldwork feels almost quaint in spite of being so out-there as to raise the question of whether or not it’s even footwork. Mosquitos, robot sounds, Chinese rap, Iggy Azalea impressions and some truly beautiful samples mash together here into a punk-electronic thrill that’s over in a breathless 26 minutes.
16. Babyface – Return Of The Tender Lover. Not giving a fuck is the best vibe to get from an artist, and Babyface’s Return Of The Tender Lover brims with give-no-fuckness – remarkable, given that it’s a collection of hyper-positive pop that might scan as schmaltzy to many. In rejecting any attempt at incorporating contemporary trends or dimming its positivity to appeal to edgier tastes, it stands alone as a work of artisan pop, all rapturous love, strings, horns, and twirling in meadows. For those who are into this shit (and I sure am), Return Of The Tender Lover is grin-inducing.
17. Gonno – Remember The Life Is Beautiful. Chill music doesn’t get enough love – that which is designed to relax, to inspire, to be listened to baked. Japanese producer Gonno’s debut is immediately accessible and extremely “chill,” but it’s just gnarly enough to tickle the senses and keep the listener on edge. Inspired as much by Balearic house as the ambient techno of the Orb, Remember The Life Is Beautiful is a great argument for music, electronic or otherwise, that doesn’t need to be edgy to succeed.
18. Strategy – Noise Tape Self. Strategy leaves a lot to the imagination on his latest, slapping it with a nondescript blue cover and a title that’s more about the process than the music. It was a decision for the best. These six short ambient tracks are so abstract and texturally complex it’s hard to find a frame of reference in any pre-existing aesthetic or atmosphere. Noise Tape Self fires the imagination up like crazy. I personally imagine a fancy meal, the liquid textures like oysters sloshing in their shells – but forget I said that and let the music do the work.
19. Dam-Funk – Invite The Light. Though the lesser of Dam-Funk’s two studio albums so far, Invite The Light is the poppier, weirder, dumber, and funnier of the two, and it works better as an album back to front. Starting with a few tracks of peppy funk-pop, Invite The Light slowly descends into an ambient abyss before reprising its earlier mood for a guest star-heavy final stretch. This is an album that’s easy to get lost in if you let it, and at about the length of a Pixar movie, it’s vast enough to provide new thrills with every listen.
20. Post Scriptum – Post Scriptum 01. “Whether in quiet solitude or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated…” This is part of Homer Simpson’s ridiculous wedding vows to Marge, and I can’t help but think of it when I listen to Post Scriptum 01. This is high-velocity, relentlessly forward-pushing techno; you can practically feel the wind whistle by your ears as you listen. There’s hardly any melody, just jackrabbit rhythms and a constant kick, but these beats can move. This is the most viscerally thrilling – and best – techno album of the year.
21. Stara Rzeka – Zamknely sie oczy ziemi. Polish act Stara Rzeka’s final album is a baroque nature-folk album that keenly evokes both the beauty and the terrifying vastness of the natural world. It’s a similar mission statement to Mount Eerie, but Zamknely doesn’t just bemusedly observe how we’re all tiny ants on a blue orb in space. It takes you into the beyond, its sylvan tangles of acoustic guitar like twigs against a bushwhacker’s foot. Its 95 minutes dare you continue onward, and each minute seems to take you a bit further from home.
22. DJ Earl – Live Love Teklife EP
23. DJ Paypal – Sold Out. These two records epitomize the approach to footwork its OG North American participants have taken after DJ Rashad’s death. These are more populist records than the avant-garde maelstroms Rashad and his peers first captured the world’s attention with, but they’re still rife with the unpredictable snaps and cracks that make the Chicago house mutation such a heady genre. They’re equally good; Earl’s is prettier with lush harmonies and distant klaxon synths, while Paypal’s is jazzier, more mischievous, and ultimately more fun.
24. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell. Carrie & Lowell peels the curtain back on a famously extroverted songwriter. Over fragile spiderwebs of guitar, Sufjan probes his relationship with his mother and the self-destructive behavior he engaged in the wake of her recent passing. It confounds expectations for a Sufjan record: it’s not ambitious, it’s explicitly personal, and it features indie’s most beloved Boy Scout swearing, having sex, and doing drugs. But it’s no outlier: rather, it’s so him as to suggest all his records are the same sort of exorcism.
25. DJ Firmeza – Alma Do Meu Pai EP. “Experimentation” in regional genres often means incorporating outside influences. It’s thus refreshing that Lisbon producer DJ Firmeza’s debut EP tries to expand the scope of his city’s distinctive club sound while maintaining a purist stance. The title track is more sound art than dance music, its drums tumbling through the air and converging in odd combinations. The shorter tracks that follow feel quaint in comparison, but they’re no less compelling, bringing a bit of menace to the jubilant Lisbon sound.