Top 10 Albums
10. Miranda Lambert, Weight of These Wings (RCA Records)
In a field with lots of competition, this was the mainstream country record that dug its hooks in me the deepest this year. Songs about dreams of escape and the consolation of fantasy (as well as when those things come up short), along with the dangers of routine and habit—all strapped to the spine of trying to be a good person and live truthfully to oneself. It’s highlighted by arrangements with space to breathe and contemporary flourishes—especially on drums and keys—tied to a vocal that speaks to tradition with a teasing wink.
9. Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, Touch My Beloved’s Thought (Greenleaf Music)
This is the best example in recent of years of reconfiguring a touchstone (in this case Mingus’ classic Black Saint and the Sinner Lady) into something fresh, modern, and just as deep as the original. Held down by the quintessential Chicago rhythm section of Jason Roebke (bass) and Marcus Evans (drums), Ward’s alto screams, growls, and draws the reader in with ferocious harmonies from two other reeds and two trombones.
8. Aoife O’Donovan, King of All Birds (Yep Roc Records)
More complicated than her debut, this second record from O’Donovan was one I came back to again and again. It’s songs are about developing a hard-won ease with the world, while honoring the pain and joy other people bring you and knowing the real work has to happen on yourself.
7. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate (Interscope Records)
Kiwanuka came into his own here with hard-edged rhythms built around his classic Terry Callier–ish folk-soul. This album has hooks for days.
6. Pill, Convenience (Mexican Summer Records)
Pulsing with rock energy, this album’s grit belies its artful construction. Songs about what authenticity means and how we navigate it for ourselves are marked by throbbing basslines, cut-up guitar, and ecstatic saxophones. It’s the record most likely to make me start bouncing up and down like an idiot.
5. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition (Warp Records)
This record is a grim look at the way American insanity can drive us all to the end of our ropes. Jazz-flecked basslines strip rust off drums that owe a debt to classic industrial, then are set on fire by dissonant, bleating horns and keys. Beats blister, crack, and crumble behind the fire in Brown’s voice. His words crack like rifle bursts, full of unsparing self-criticism and fearless honesty while rapping about things like not being able to get it up, grinding his teeth, and becoming an addict.
4. David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia Records)
I’m not sure what else to say about Blackstar that hasn’t been said, but I don’t think I went a week this year without putting it back on. It was Bowie’s one last deep breath to sing about the whole world. Donny McCaslin’s razor-sharp quartet digs into these song-forms in a way devoid of ego or showiness, with everything in service to painting these pictures perfectly.
3. Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You (Firehouse 12 Records)
Halvorson expanded her septet with a key player, avant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, and the group expanded to an extra dimension. Atmosphere sits closer to the fore on this new record, but it’s packed with the same off-kilter hooks and unexpected turns that make her writing and this band so exciting. Strings pop like static and gunfire through a cloud of mournful horns, while warm-bath harmonies slowly add acid.
2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam Records)
Argue’s writing and his crack band are perfectly in sync on this blood-dark kaleidoscope of a doomsday clock. He utilized the format of a jazz big band to investigate the systems that govern our lives and the injuries history inflicts on us all, some more than others, while also putting the lie to easy, facile conspiracy theories. Smoking solos from John Ellis, Ryan Keberle, and Ingrid Jensen, among others, add to the panoply of perspectives here; this was music that acted as both a balm and a call to arms during dark days.
1. Beyonce, Lemonade (Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records)
As with Bowie’s Blackstar, I don’t have a lot to say about this record that hasn’t already been covered ad nauseum, but this felt like a new peak in consistency and intensity for Beyonce. Firing on all cylinders and engaged with the world, she made an album so infectious that it wormed itself into my brain and wouldn’t let me be.