No matter that I’ve had some distractions this year, new music is a constant presence. Year’s end is a good time to summarize, and while it was more difficult this year to single out an album as a far-and-away preference, there was no shortage of great music across the genres.
There were several albums that came close in the running for my top 10, but I found them a little transitory on the iPod (Neneh Cherry, LaRoux, Sylvan Esso, Perfect Pussy, Angel Olsen). Some of the recordings I spent time with were clearly larger-than-life but were either too polished for my liking (Beyoncé), too distracted (D’Angelo), too thin (The War on Drugs), too crude (Sleaford Mods) or too much of an artistic departure from form (Sharon Van Etten). Van Etten’s move into a richer, textured and fully-formed sound was a departure I’m still debating.
There were many absences from my typical top 10: No jazz album (David Virelles and Fred Hersch produced good ones, though), no Canadiana (New Pornographers, White Lung and Caribou were close calls), no country (Sturgill Simpson would have made my top 15), no major stars (some terrible steps backward this year by a lot of big artists), and precious little hip-hop (Drake and Kanye, get on with it).
My top 10 came from a list of about 200 albums I sampled, streamed, downloaded and bought. In reverse order:
10. There is usually one rough-and-tumble album on my list, but the only one close to that this year was the strong self-titled offering from Warpaint, a band I wish I’d seen because I have the sense the album is constraining. Still, there was much to like about its mix of aggression and melody.
9. Sia is a better writer than many of her counterparts in this modern pop realm. I thought 1000 Forms of Fear was the best presentation yet of her talent, even if it was a supersized meal.
8. The Aphex Twin recording, Syro, was the electronic album I most enjoyed this year and one of the most sonically challenging yet pleasing. Richard David James is a big emerging leader in this field.
7. FKA Twigs’ LP1 was promising, thoughtful, durable, and thoroughly modern, so it kept me intrigued every time I heard it. I regret not seeing her perform; had a ticket, just didn’t go.
6. The debut Broken Twin album, May, was the most beautiful recording I heard this year. Majke Voss Romme sounds like Margo Timmins in her prime, and this was one of the best recordings I heard when I wrote or read.
5. The Run The Jewels album, Run The Jewels 2, was anything but a background recording. It was the most lyrically inventive, intense music I heard this year, and I can understand why it topped many critics’ polls.
4. The vigorous synth-pop Future Islands album, Singles, found a regular place on my playlists after I saw the band perform on Late Night with David Letterman (the most-watched music video in the show’s history), and it might have been my top album were it not for its slight unevenness.
3. Mark Kozelek, recording under Sun Kil Moon, created a dark, morose, folk-inflected album, Benji, that was initially striking, ultimately a little difficult to hear repeatedly, but inspiringly written.
2. I am susceptible to the siren sound of heavily produced, keyboard-laden female artists (Florence, Grimes, Poliça come to mind), so the Banks album this year found its way into regular play and never really relented. Goddess was my favourite debut album.
1. My favourite album this year was one I frankly don’t know if I’ll be savouring. But I kept hearing something new each time with the Perfume Genius release, Too Bright, a sonically diverse stage for Mike Hadreas and an exceptionally personal recording of real artistry. In some years I select an album that summarized the year, and in years like this, I chose an album that hints of the future.