We rank the fifty most outstanding records of the year.
American Teen was a proud debut for the 19-year-old Khalid that captured the glory and opportunity of youth as much as the pressure and anxiety. Its real triumph was more subtle: Khalid drilled down deep into an age-old topic for music and found something relatable and sonically nourishing - and he executed it to perfection. PB
Standout Track: "Young, Dumb and Broke"
Choice Lyric: "What's fun about commitment? / When we have our life to live / Yeah, we're just young dumb and broke / But we still got love to give..."
Drunk is Thundercat’s 23-song foray into experimental synthpop, funk, and jazz fusion fully showcases the artistry that had previously been on display on 2013's Apocalypse and 2011's The Golden Age of Apocalypse, as well as in previous collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, one of the diverse range of artists who feature on the album.
Whilst to many an album this long could seem never ending for all the wrong reasons, Thundercat rightly uses every song as a form of exploration into his musical influences, most clearly in “Show You The Way”, an ode to ‘yacht rock’ that features arguably two of the pioneers of this pseudo genre, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Thundercat also doesn’t stray away from topical issues such as police brutality in “Jameel’s Space Ride”; however, this is contrasted by his use of sound effects. Whilst the album may also seem to be disjointed at times, arguably this is the very nature of jazz and funk music, genres that are ever present throughout the album. JA
Standout Track: "Jameel's Space Ride"
Choice Lyric: "I want to fly away off into space and into the sun / With all those spirits and space space dust and aliens / Where we belong..."
On first listen, Not Even Happiness could strike you as quite a simple record. The musical arrangements are sparse, primarily comprised of finger picked guitar and strings to accompany Julie Byrne’s hauntingly gentle vocals. But its simplicity is deceptive. It demands and deserves concentration so you can listen past its apparent simplicity and delve into Byrne’s lyrical depth.
Byrne examines life and relationships through a prism of nature, evoking the wide-open spaces of the American midwest, the stars, prairies, beetles, and mountains. Not Even Happiness provides the listener with 32 minutes of pure escapism, transported away from the commute and the rush of real life, to somewhere calmer, and slower. It’s lyrically devastating but so beautiful that it’s almost welcome.
The album’s closer "I Live Now As A Singer" is up there with the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs of recent years. The music is even more stripped back than on the rest of the record, with Byrne mournfully confessing: “And yes I have broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was nowhere close to forgiving myself”. It’s a fitting close to an arresting, sensational album. RB
Standout Track: "I Live Now As A Singer"
Choice Lyric: "And yes I have broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was nowhere close to forgiving myself..."
According to Michelle Zauner, Soft Sounds From Another Planet is a failed "science fiction musical" concept album. Failure, or just a reimagining that worked? The Oregon native's second album might only draw upon a handful of its original ideas - take, for example, "Machinist's" story of a doomed human-robot romance - but there's plenty of intergalactic sounds in orbit. Dreampop weaves through "Road Head" while "Diving Woman" indulges in shoegaze squall and thrilling, wide-eyed atmos. There's purely instrumental expanse, too, with drone, guitar delay and gooey '80s synths on "Planetary Ambience".
But there's much more to it. The latter half of the record hears Zauner tap into the college rock climes of the Pacific Northwest. "Boyish"'s startling exploration of hapless love ("I can't get you off my mind / I can't get you off in general") is projected via a slovenly kind theatricality: a melancholy ballad dressed with languid guitars and tin-pot drums.
What ties this album of two halves together is Zauner's motifs of trauma, sex, and sexuality. The former is most devastatingly explored on "Till Death" with Zauner's howling cries of "PTSD / anxiety / genetic disease / Thanatophobia". Soft Sounds From Another Planet might not have turned out as planned, but its revision is superb. CK
Standout Track: "Diving Woman"
Choice Lyric: "I can't get you off my mind / I can't get you off in general..."
SweetSexySavage was a debut record full of confident sex jams Prince would be proud/jealous of, enhanced by Kehlani’s stunning vocal ability. As adept at playing pop as she is laying down those deep cut slow jams (much like her heroines TLC, to whom the album title pays subtle tribute to), SweetSexySavage is a triumph because Kehlani knows that to be self-confident doesn’t mean being super-serious or uptight.
On “Do U Dirty” she sings “I’m cold and yet life is colder / I could fuck you now and years later on you gon' be stuck, just reminiscing,” - tongue in cheek, yet dripping in no-nonsense attitude, it’s the essence SweetSexySavage distilled into a couple of killer lines. AH
Standout Track: "Do U Dirty"
Choice Lyric: "I could fuck you now and years later on you gon' be stuck, just reminiscing / It's the way I ride you, let you stay inside and / Yeah, I'ma fuck you like a vixen / There's something 'bout me..."