10. Charli XCX—Pop 2
Part of the reason I don’t release my year-end list until January is that there always seems to be a mid-December release that doesn’t make people’s lists until the FOLLOWING year, when no one cares anymore. The second-best pop album of the year, Charli XCX had been on a bit of a downturn since her phenomenal debut, True Romance. Trying a lot of stuff that didn’t stick previously, this year Charli’s weird brand of electro-pop, rap, and her bizarre taste in collaborators(for example, this album features a dream collab with Carly Rae Jepsen and one with a Puerto Rican drag queen and YouTube star, Pabllo Vittar) all comes together brilliantly. Charli herself recently tweeted, “I’m underrated”, and she’s not wrong. If you’re a fan of unique pop music that bridges the gaps between a lot of genres, this is your bag.
Most of the time, it feels like when your favourite producers finally get around to releasing an album, it’s an embarrassing amalgam of all their worst ideas that pop stars wouldn’t buy. Luckily for us, Sampha is also an extremely interesting singer with a great ear for melodies, and a lot of these songs would lack the gravitas they have without him singing them. A lot has been made of “No One Knows Me Like the Piano”, but you wouldn’t have found a more exciting opening two songs for me this year than “Plastic 100ºC” and “Blood on Me”. An arresting debut.
8. Broken Social Scene—Hug of Thunder
You know, I felt like we didn’t need another Broken Social Scene album. I liked Forgiveness Rock Record, but it never really stuck with me, and with so many of the members putting out decent to above-average solo projects, it seemed like we weren’t getting another BSS album—and I was okay with that. But this return to form is better than you could expect. It has all the hallmarks of a BSS classic—huge, cascading jams and quiet, intimate moments—and everyone here feels energized. I think in a decade this has a chance of standing up as their best record.
7. The National—Sleep Well Beast
Speaking of bands I didn’t need another album from, we have The National, whose last album, Trouble Will Find Me, felt like a band that was out of ideas. Some people have argued that this album was also a display of a band out of ideas, but I strongly disagree. This album the band finally took its best weapon—drummer Bryan Devendorf—and mixed him to the forefront. Along with some glitchy electronics, they’ve made some of their most arresting songs in years. I’m not sure everyone needed another sad National record, but this one hit me in all the right ways and made it feel to me like this is a band we still need to have around.
6. Khalid—American Teen
Every year, there seems to be an album I come to months late, one that I didn’t hear a whole lot about when it got released and so it slid under the radar. This one additionally felt like one I could skip because a whole lot of my students were listening to it, and generally, their taste is garbage. But holy smokes is this an assured debut. This album was released shortly after his 19th birthday, and feels like the logical extension to the world of Frank Ocean, if Frank Ocean had a gravelly voice and finally acquiesced to everyone wanting him to make a pure pop record. This album has jams for days and couldn’t get off my stereo in the summertime.
In a year where pop stars couldn’t reinvent themselves for trying (Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, etc. etc.), Lorde proved once again that her keen ear and ability to string a melody out of just about anything puts her in a pop class all her own. Jack Antonoff worked with just about everybody this year, but it was Lorde who made him the most relevant, making pure pop pleasures (“Green Light”, “The Louvre”) and unique bangers (“Homemade Dynamite”, which was Tove Lo’s best song this year, “Supercut”, etc.). Pop music sounds the best to me when the artists are attempting to reinvent it, and nothing from the pop world sounded as good as this.
4. Grizzly Bear—Painted Ruins
Grizzly Bear are one of the best bands in the world to see live. They’re not exciting or engaging, but they’re very nice boys who are very good at music, and it’s a treat just to see them recreate their music in a live setting. And their drummer, Christopher Bear, drives their music forward in a way that pushes it from uninteresting chamber pop to the groovy, funky mélange that has made them such a popular band. Much like The National, Bear’s drums were finally mixed to the forefront of the record, and it makes the record better for it. It’s weird to describe what is ultimately a collaboration between four music nerds as “funky”, but that’s what this record felt like to me: self-serious and yet somehow danceable. It shows a band at the height of their powers, and showed that Shields was only a brief misstep.
3. Jay Som—Everybody Works
My top 3 records this year are all by women, and no album was more completely made by a woman this year than this one, where Melina Duterte played every single note of every instrument on this album. So-called “bedroom pop” I generally find uninteresting and self-involved, but this is proof-of-concept for the entire genre. Skirting the edges of Ty Segall-like power-punk(“1 Billion Dogs”), slinky pop(“Remain”, “One More Time, Please”) and 80s-coloured guitar pop(“Baybee”, “Everybody Works”), it feels like a united concept that was one of the more eminently listenable albums I heard this year. I can’t imagine anyone hearing this and not finding something to like.
2. Alex Lahey—I Love You Like a Brother
I’ve been trying to tell everyone who will listen about Alex Lahey since I heard her B-Grade University EP at the start of the year. The comparisons to Courtney Barnett are inviting since they’re both Australians who like to play straight-ahead rock with a lean towards storytelling in their lyrics, but Lahey feels like Barnett’s more fun younger sister. The songs are more poppy, the stories more relatable, and this record was another ridiculously strong debut in a year of them. This sounds weird, but I can’t remember a record recently where the “oh-oh”’s were so good. An inviting singalong record and sometimes there’s absolutely nothing better.
1. Phoebe Bridgers—Stranger in the Alps
Goddamnit did this record hit me hard this year. All of my top-3 albums are by female artists, and they’re all under 25. Bridgers is 23, and despite being so young, seems to wear the world on her soul. Even seeing her live, you get the sense that these songs are coming from a very real place, someone who eminently feels what she’s written, and it made for one of the best shows I saw this year.
These are clichés, of course, but it gives her songs—already sad and dreary—additional meaning. That said, she also offers hope, with a beautiful voice that carries the songs along, no matter the content. The swiftly moving “Motion Sickness” tells the story of dating an older man, and “why do you sing with an English accent/I guess it’s too late to change it now” was one of the most scathing digs on record this year. “Scott Street” offers wistful nostalgia for growing up, and “Georgia” is a love song dedicated to a man’s mother. But that is balanced with the crippling sadness of “Funeral”, and “Killer”, where she compares herself to Jeffrey Dahmer. It was a debut album that was wise beyond its years and it came along at a time in my life where I needed it most. My undisputed favourite record this year.