Dance Pop For Lovers, 2010
Content warning: This video is NSFW and features lowkey explicit sex.
Resident Advisor’s Andrew Casillas is responsible for the perfect description of this album: “dance pop for lovers.” I think this album sits perfectly alongside Robyn’s 2010 masterpiece Body Talk, except where that album feels like the soundtrack to dancing through your most recent heartbreak, MENA feels like dancing through your most recent love affair. That could be, though, because I’m relying more on the sonics than the lyrics—I understand Spanish, but not well enough to get the fullness of what’s going on here. For example, on “Luz de Piedra de Luna,” she sings: “Aunque cuando bailo contigo/ No me preocupo mas/ Sueño contigo, luz de piedra de luna/ Cuando bailo contigo/ No, no, trato mas de entender que tu luz se apagara.” Loosely translated: “Although when I’m dancing with you/ I don’t worry any more/ Dreaming with you, moonstone light/ When I’m dancing with you/ I stop trying to understand that your light goes out.” Is this happy or sad? Fatalist or realistic (moon and sun being standard metaphors for impermanence)? It’s hard, but thoroughly enjoyable, to not know.
Experimental Cinematic Pop Soundscapes, 2010
Owen Pallett has been playing classical violin since the age of THREE. He’s scored films, written operas — and even composed music for video games. Before 2010, he made music as “Final Fantasy,” and I think the video game connection is apt because I can definitely hear “Heartland” as the soundtrack to an incredibly dense, epic RPG — like, well, a Final Fantasy game. Ostensibly it’s about the entire breadth of a relationship, though told from the perspective not of Pallett himself but his lover. This album is cinematic in scope, disarming in its idiosyncrasies, and enjoyably disorienting.
Indie Pop-Rock, 2017
Japanese Breakfast makes pretty lovely, but pretty sad, indie rock, but the album title here is incredibly purposeful — just around the edges, and in the background, infused throughout, is an ethereal, otherworldly quality. It lurks! It’s as though Michelle Zauner wrote a pretty excellent chill rock album, and then was abducted, and the aliens liked what they heard but wanted to add a little alien flair, so they did and then sent her back to Earth to share the final product with the rest of us. Also, I love Zauner’s lyrics — they are simple, direct, and dense: “I can’t get you off my mind/ I can’t get you off in general” is maybe the best encapsulation of bed death I’ve ever heard, and that and many other songs on this album seem to be poignant explorations of bisexuality from the perspective of someone married to a man. I mean, it sounds pretty terrible, to be honest, but what are you going to do? Listen to this record and relate, I guess!
27. Kelsey Lu, Blood
Weirdo R&B, 2019
Kelsey Lu makes strange, lovely music that’s hard to classify. Lu was raised as both a Jehovah’s Witness and a classical musician, learning piano, violin and cello from the tender age of six. Her first EP, Church, primarily focused on her cello, looped and chopped and interspersed with her dynamic voice. While Blood is in general more accessible than Church, with some pop hooks here and there, it’s still very weird. “Due West” is easily the most accessible song. I love “Poor Fake” for its sheer audacity. And “Foreign Car” — especially when coupled with the music video, above — seems like it’s about objectifying men, which I’m here for.
26. Kesha, Rainbow
In early 2017, I wrote a mostly tongue-in-cheek article I was going to pitch to Autostraddle about the many life lessons I’d learned from Kesha’s first two full-length albums. And then she went ahead and released “Rainbow,” and the empowering lessons were no longer in the subtext of her songs, and my article was irrelevant! I’ve always loved how, even when she was doing mainstream vapid dance-pop, there was an obvious authenticity within her silly tales of overdoing partying. Recurring motifs included being broke and dirty, not caring about men’s, or really anyone’s approval, and an affinity for the outcasts and weirdos of the world (in, I might add, a way that felt like she was one of us, not a benevolent overseer like Lady Gaga). We all, of course, know the story of “Rainbow” and her legal battle with Dr. Luke; that she was able to turn that turmoil into something so gorgeous is mad inspiring to me. I dare you to watch this without feeling something.
There’s too much to say about this decade and queer Black musicians in hip-hop and R&B. I will say, though, that I found this album charming, and as someone who grew up in the suburbs on emo and pop-punk, and grew into hip-hop in my adulthood, I find this album a charming marriage of the two. Explicitly about Abstract’s youth as a Black suburban gay, it’s relatable when so much music about high school is overly nostalgic, as on album opener “Empty:” “I hate my yearbook photo/ I hate my passport/ I hate my last name/ I hate everything it stands for/ I should probably fucking transfer/ Blue and brown JanSport/ I never went to prom/ Now I’m stuck on the dance floor/Just holdin’ your hand.”
I’ll be honest — I didn’t used to listen to Sleater-Kinney, like, back in their first heyday in the 2000s. I knew they were legendary, but I just didn’t get into it. It wasn’t until, honestly, Portlandia debuted that I thought, “Hey, I know her from somewhere!” And then a couple years later, this album came out. So I can’t tell you if this is better or worse than their previous albums. I can tell you that I do like it better than what came after. No Cities To Love hits that perfect place of accessibility, pop sensibility, and raw attitude.
Shura’s incredible 2019 album, forevher, is confident, sexy, powerful. When I’m feeling myself, it’s an incredible listen. But this, her 2016 major label debut, is hesitant and introspective; it’s more of a coming-of-age album, and as such it’s a bit more accessible and relatable to me. That’s not evident in the production; the album is gorgeous and intricate electronic dance pop.
Also Check Out: 2019’s forevher, which is, again, confident, sexy, powerful, and suuuuuper gay.
22. Noname, Room 25
Someone once told me that “rap” originally stood for “rhythm and poetry.” I don’t know if that’s true — it’s been repeated enough times that it seems impossible to really know the truth — but in my opinion, the best rappers have a healthy respect for poetry and spoken word. I first heard of Noname on a Jamila Woods feature, and I’m so glad I did. They’re perfect collaborators; both are all about Black, queer liberation, the power of poetry, and modern-yet-classic beats. Especially given what’s come out lately, I respect Noname so much. She’s never been worried about popularity or mass appeal; her lyrics are far too dense and political for that. She’s also not interested in mainstream bounds of Blackness; I love this little line on “Ace:” “Room 25, the best album that’s coming out/ Labels got these niggas just doing it for the clout/ I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out/ Saying vegan food is delicious like wait and just hear me out!”
Chill Urban Vibes, 2019
This was so hard, because all of Dounia’s albums are incredible. Each one is better than the last. I honestly don’t know if this album is better than 2018’s Avant-Garden, but here we go! I love Dounia’s swagger, her positivity, and of course her voice. Much of her music is independently self-produced, and she remains preternaturally singular and slept on. I think I’m choosing THE SCANDAL over Avant-Garden because of the trilingual verse on “LOWKEY GRL” (video above) by her alter ego “Moroccan Doll,” during which she raps in Arabic, English, and French, switching between the three seamlessly – a great example of how smooth she is in general. “DELIGHTFUL,” “UP 4 AIR,” “SPECIFIC,” and “ROYAL” are other standout tracks.
Also Check Out: 2018’s The Avant-Garden, which had Kehlani collab “Rich Girl Mood,” “If U Wanna,” and “Avant Garde.” 2017’s “Intro To” is also an incredible debut!