The year drew raw emotion from some of my favorite picks of the year, with many familiar (to me) artists pushing beyond their comfort zone, either lyrically, musically, stylistically, or all of the above.
These are the albums that I adored, listened to a bit too much, had to take a break from for fear we’d get sick of each other, and ultimately decided it’s worth the risk.
- Kishi Bashi | Omoiyari (Joyful Noise Recordings)
This beautiful yet tragic album tells the story of life in a time of internment camps—star-crossed lovers torn apart in one of the most shameful moments in US history. The melodies are light and bright as ever while the lyrics feel like letters written in wartime. The plucking and layering on “Marigolds” dazzle while “Angeline” and “Summer of ‘42” will put a tear in your eye.
- Ty Segall | First Taste (Drag City)
Hot damn, this is a ripper. If the first track, “Taste,” doesn’t have you sneering and howling along, maybe you should check your pulse. The pace hardly lets up from the there. Variety abounds, with some really sinister brain rattlers and some delirious labyrinths, such as “When I Met My Parents 3.”
- Oh Sees | Face Stabber (Castle Face Records)
Maybe it’s impossible to invent a new color, but John Dwyer continues to invent new sounds. This album sees some of (Thee) Oh Sees’ longest jams, some hitting double-digit minutes in length, though their inertia keeps them from feeling heavy or belabored. “The Daily Heavy” is easily one of my favorite songs this year. “Henchlock” is the twenty-one-minute gift that keeps on giving.
- King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard | Fishing for Fishies (Flightless Records)
The umpteenth album from the music collective falls more on the Paper Mache Dream Balloon end of the spectrum. Song vary widely and stand alone, as on Oddments or Gumboot Soup, but the project still feels cohesive and fabled, like Polygondwanaland or Murder the Universe. “The Bird Song” reveals the bands affinity for, and commonality with, 1970s jazz-rock collaboratives like Steely Dan.
- Raphael Saadiq | Jimmy Lee (Columbia Records)
It would be so much harder to listen to this tale of an ambitious king’s fatal fall from grace if Saadiq hadn’t made the melodies so damn captivating. Social ills and societal pressures chew up and spit out a shell of a man, and we see it all unfold from behind screened eyes. He composes, writes, and produces, but it’s his immense talent as a bass player that really shines through in “So Ready” and “Something Keeps Calling.”
- Jenny Lewis | On the Line (Warner Bros.)
Her style continues to morph with each new release, this one emphasizing her grace, glamour, and lounge-singer charisma. It’s an album of gauzy, sequined, fur-trimmed excess, which, of course, cannot guarantee happiness but can dull the ache of its absence. Slick, flippant melodies such as the sultry “Little White Dove” and the stripped-down emotion of “Taffy” tether her newest iteration to her past.
- Operators | Radiant Dawn (Last Gang Records)
The second album from this synth-heavy project continues the futuristic, moody tone of their debut. It leaves you feeling victorious for maintaining your humanity despite it all. Check the glittering despair of “Terminal Beach” and stubbornly hopeful “Strange.”
- Cherry Glazerr | Stuffed & Ready (Secretly Canadian)
With each album, the band grows more pointed and thoughtful. Stuffed & Ready feels like reading an angsty teenager’s diary, if that teenager had a capacity for metaphor and sense of self-reflection well beyond their years. It’s heavy, in both uber personal content and in damning riffs, and it’s all laid to bare on tracks like “Daddi” and “Juicy Socks.”
- Fruit Bats | Gold Past Life (Merge Records)
This album is a stunner. So breezy and full of light, this album demands a road trip through wide open spaces and subtly passing scenery. The pedal steel and falsetto harmonies of the title track entice your freer, more ambling spirit to pack a bag and walk away from it all in pursuit of that unattainable, gentle-on-my-mind ideal. The melancholy of “Barely Living Room” shines a different light on the vastness of those empty fields.
- Quantic | Atlantic Oscillations (Tru Thoughts)
Sometimes you just want really catchy grooves. This album scratches that itch and then some. A heavy dose of jazz-house with a touch of disco, it’s a gloriously updated take on a beloved ‘90s sound. “September Blues” nods to the trip-hop glory of anime soundtracks like Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop. “Now or Never” features Alice Russell on some of the most gorgeous, expressive vocals of the year. | Courtney Dowdall