Indie Pop, 2015
Escape From Evil is ‘80s-style pop rock music, but seemingly without a hint of nostalgia. Instead the album sounds like it went back into the mainstream ‘80s – with its glam rock and genderbending still stuck, somehow, in an explicitly heterosexual framework—and liberated it from that patriarchal cage.
Experimental Classical/Jazz, 2019
This is like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s experimental, piano-based instrumental music, with flourishes of… all kinds of stuff: found sounds like walking through gravel, seagulls on the coast, the stretch and sway of a hammock. There aren’t lyrics, but Keith has discussed that it’s about her childhood, mental illness, her transness, and, especially, death. “Maranasati” is a kind of Buddhist meditation practice that centers on the contemplation of death. A lot of art evokes, discusses, or rebukes death, but this album seems to convey a warmness to its inevitability that I haven’t experienced in quite this way. Keith explains this as well—sort of: “Death has been presented to me since my youth as this mysterious, magical force. That’s made it softer to untangle.” That softness is both alluring and frightening.
One of my favorite music narratives is the standout artist who breaks free of their singing group to start a solo career, especially when it’s an “I wanted more creative control” situation. I never listened to Danity Kane, to be honest, but from what I’ve heard Richard was one of the best parts of it. I love this electro-R&B; it reminds me a lot of Kelis’ post-”Milkshake” output. It’s relentlessly futuristic, but still incredibly accessible.
Also Check Out: 2019’s New Breed. Less futuristic, warmer, incredibly authentic and personal, and miles ahead of most mainstream R&B that’s come out recently.
Sad Lesbian Low-fi, 2010
I saw Jenn Champion perform songs from this album at the last lesbian bar in Seattle not long after it came out. This was before I knew I was a lesbian, and before anyone knew that bar would soon close. It’s possible that the nostalgia makes this album sound better than it is, but that image is a perfect encapsulation of Champion’s music (did she choose the band name “S” to purposely be virtually unsearchable?). I really think that these sad, largely finger-plucked guitar ballads, with their over-confessional, over-vulnerable, pleading, whisper-sung, super DIY, low-fi sound are beautiful in their own way. It brings me back to my emo days, but it feels a lot more authentic than the Bright Eyes and Fall Out Boy and Early November I was listening to back then.
Also Check Out: Jenn Champion’s style evolved for 2014’s Cool Choices, with a slightly more upbeat-sounding piano and percussion setup in addition to the guitar, and a slightly more professional recording setup (though lyrically it was just as dour). But she really shined on 2018’s Single Rider, when she ditched the DIY basement rocker aesthetic wholesale and decided to make dance music. If you just listened to the single in the video above it’ll be hard to believe, but it works. Really well.
36. Arca, Xen
Weird Electronica, 2015
This decade, a wave of electronic musicians like Ultrademon and SOPHIE (see below), gained prominence. Gone are the club days of EDM and big-name DJs. The underground artists, like Arca, making electronica-as-art have come. Well, it’s not that they’ve come, as they’ve always been around, but they’re starting to bubble up to the surface. Arca even had a hand in creating KanYe West’s Yeezus album. This is a strange, dark album of weird glitchy synthy goodness; it’s definitely not an album to play at a party — unless maybe it’s a goth/industrial drugs and sex party, in which case, it’s probably the perfect album to play!
35. Clairo, Immunity
Indie Rock, 2019
This is one of the best albums I heard all year. One of the things I love about it, that I find fascinating and stirring, is how Claire Cottrill makes her not-quite low-fi, not-quite trip-hop, not-quite indie pop sounds warm, as though it was all recorded live. The drums feel live. The bass feels live. Somehow even her understated, reverberating vocals feel live. She’s made the transition from bedroom pop to the big leagues without losing the charm that makes low-fi so endearing. She got rid of the microphone hiss but not the heart.
Retro Pop Rock, 2019
I think, for me, this album suffered from over-saturation. There was the steady stream of singles, including non-album tracks (“Pussy Is God” isn’t on here?), and just way too many mainstream “this is the new face of queer music” takes or “King Princess is dating Amandla Stenberg, no she’s dating Quinn Wilson” celebrity coverage that I got too tired to give the album complete listens. But it’s actually excellent. She or her team were smart to leave “Hit The Back” for the album release, though, because it’s one of the songs of the year in my opinion. But her whole retro, soulful, pop-rock vibe is a really good look in an era when everyone and your mom is releasing trap-infused pop. I do feel like this album is mostly better-than-average filler tracks, though, which is why it isn’t higher on this list.
Slack Rock, 2015
“If you can’t see me, I can’t see you” transforms, in Courtney Barnett’s hands, from a mundane bumper sticker seen by thousands of freeway commuters daily into a refrain used to tie together seemingly unrelated quotidian observations. She mulls over pesticides in vegetables, then roadkill, then a near-crash with a semi, then gas prices on “Dead Fox,” but stops just shy of actually making a statement about the food industry or capitalism or anything, really. That’s the charm of this album: Barnett’s slacker-rock aesthetic is a perfect confluence of the sonic and the lyrical; she notices interesting things, ties them together in a fascinating, accessible way, and lets the listener do the work.
Folksy Jazzy Soul, 2011
“Le petite mort” — translated, “the little death” — refers to the momentary loss of consciousness that occurs either simultaneously with or immediately after orgasm. To be real, Meshell Ndegeocello crooning “Who’s your daddy?” nearly gets me there. This album is incredibly sexy.
Folk Rock, 2019
I don’t know how it’s possible to choose between U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, two masterpieces by Big Thief just this year. I reviewed Two Hands here, so I guess I’ll give this one its due. One of the things that folk music does best is storytelling. And raw, expressive, precise, heartbreaking storytelling is exactly what Big Thief does, and they do it better than anyone else. “Cattails,” the song linked above (they don’t do music videos, really, but this live version is excellent), is especially fascinating to me as someone who loves pop music: this song doesn’t have a chorus. It has a motif, sure, and a somewhat-repeated melody, but otherwise it trudges forward, kind of slowly, building a narrative in hazy vignettes pregnant with emotion. The stories are somehow impenetrable yet accessible; the characters have proper names as though Adrienne Lenker, principal singer and songwriter, is tapping into a bard’s role, passing down stories we already know the broad strokes of but are learning new details about. It’s immersive and beautiful.
Also Check Out: 2019’s other incredible album from Big Thief, Two Hands.