Guitar Goddess Indie Rock, 2014
OK, this was way too hard. This decade, St. Vincent released this album as well as 2011’s Strange Mercy and the one-two punch of 2017’s MASSEDUCTION and 2018’s MassEducation. Up until I wrote this, like literally right now, I was planning to put Strange Mercy here. Because St. Vincent is a guitar goddess, I wanted to choose the album that was a bit heavier on the guitar. But her self-titled has so many incredible songs — “Birth in Reverse,” “Prince Johnny,” “Digital Witness…”
But then, my favorite song of hers overall is actually “Fast Slow Disco,” which wasn’t even on an album! I consider it part of the “Disco Suite,” which includes “Dancing With A Ghost” and “Slow Disco” from MASSSEDUCTION, then “Fast Slow Disco,” which was a single, and finally “Slow Disco (Piano Version),” which was on MassEducation. I listen to them in that order. I don’t know! Even her older albums, like 2009’s Actor, are excellent. Is Annie Clark really one of the most accomplished and talented musicians of our generation? Or Am I just a stan? Or am I simultaneously in love with and also want to be her? It’s impossible to tell.
Also Check Out: 2011’s Strange Mercy and 2017’s MASSEDUCTION. The former is a bit more rockin’, and the latter is a bit more experimental and pop-oriented. They’re both excellent.
Indie Electro Pop, 2019
This album really grew on me, especially after seeing them live earlier this year. I have a new appreciation for the complexities of the percussion on this album; their muted nature, situated a bit in the background to let the languid, dreamy melodies wash over each other in the foreground is actually incredibly unique. So many artists push the percussion to the front for power and impact, but Amber Bain doesn’t do that; letting the occasional wood block or steel drum-ish beat be surprises.
What’s still so unique here, though, after listening to this album on repeat (it appears that I’ve listened to this album at least 50 times since March, or at least once a week), is the way Bain modulates her voice. It’s always double- or triple-tracked, with some reverb, so it seems like every phrase is uttered by triplets, each with a very slightly different register. The multiple versions of the voice aren’t harmonizing — except when they are — but support each other in an endearing, disorienting way.
In all those listens, I gained a new appreciation especially for “Worms,” buried toward the end right before standouts “f a r a w a y” and “i saw you in a dream.” It begins in a pretty distorted, disorienting way, but then hits the chorus: “Only a day old, but I know what love is/ Invest yourself in something worth investing in.” I ponder this line to this day and, in the context of the rest of the song, about our culture’s obsession with coupling and the compulsory nature of romantic attachment, is still opaque but compelling to me.
Dance Pop, 2019
I didn’t know it was possible for an entire album to be full of 100% certified bangers. This is the best pop album I’ve heard in years, up there with Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION and Robyn’s Body Talk. I know that’s high praise, but seriously—this album is good. Every song is immaculately produced, with perfect swirls of synth, heavy, club-ready percussion, and harmonies that soar to heaven. What’s even wilder is Petras also released an album of Halloween-themed songs this year and it was also really good! What?
It’s also an incredibly sexy album — “Do Me,” “Sweet Spot,” and “Got My Number” are sultry as hell. I believe that trans women singing openly about sex and being desirable is revolutionary! Otherwise, lyrically, it’s pretty standard pop music fare. There are quite a few heartbreak anthems, and the rest seem to boast about Petras’ beauty and wealth—also revolutionary IMO. The one gripe I have about this album, and it’s hardly unique to Petras among pop stars, is the degree to which she — a white German — appropriates so much AAVE.
There’s another controversy, however, that I have to mention, and it honestly breaks my heart. Almost the entire album was produced by Dr. Luke, best known for being accused of a number of crimes, including sexual assault, by Kesha. Petras initially invalidated Kesha’s claim, then sort of apologized, but not really. I haven’t landed on how obligated I feel to avoid consuming art by people I don’t respect. I feel like Petras’ positionality as an out trans pop star — there aren’t many of them! — complicates how moralistic I want to get about the choices she makes for her career. If you feel similarly, this is an incredible album. If you skip it because of the Dr. Luke affiliation, I get it!
Also Check Out: 2019’s TURN OFF THE LIGHT. Who knew being creeped out could be so sexy?
It’s hard to have an incredibly mainstream pop album in your top ten. But it’s also hard to find a single fault with this one. In the 2000 film “High Fidelity,” music snob Rob describes how to make the perfect mixtape; he could be describing 1000 Forms of Fear: “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention.” “Chandelier.” “Then you gotta take it up a notch.” “Big Girls Cry,” and then she sneaks in another huge song, the severely underrated “Burn The Pages.” “But you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch.” “Eye of the Needle.” All of the singles from this album are generational statements; huge songs that spread the globe and sold missions of copies and saw literal billions of views on YouTube. “Elastic Heart” is a masterpiece. But every single song on this album is good, and she takes risks that I think get overshadowed by how good the singles are.
“Hostage” is rock solid. “Straight For the Knife” is a perfectly heartbreaking ballad. “Fair Game” is a mid-tempo ballad that has a 30 second xylophone solo 2/3s of the way through the song, that somehow WORKS! I even love closer “Dressed In Black,” which brings me back to my Evanescence days. Sia’s marble-mouthed melodies are perfect pop music; they suggest emotional experiences and pair them with soaring sonic journeys. She’s expressive without being too specific, so the listener can easily insert themselves into the narrative.
Also Check Out: 2018’s This is Acting, which is a compilation of songs that Sia wrote for other artists. It has some really incredible tracks — “Alive,” of course, and “Bird Set Free — but it doesn’t feel as cohesive.
The first song I heard of Jamila Woods was “VRY BLK,” which also introduced me to Noname. I didn’t have the experience of playing hand games with other Black children in my youth, but somehow I knew “Miss Mary Mack,” and I imagine many of you do too. That she flips it on its head to make it about Blackness and police brutality, while keeping the song’s original spirit—the ends of key lines are homonyms, homophones, or double entendres—is incredible: “Black is like the magic, the magic’s like a spell/ My brothers went to heaven, the police going to/ hello operator, emergency hotline/ if I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk/ line up to see the movie, line up to see the act/ the officers are scheming to cover up their/ ask me no more questions…”
This is the Blackest — the most radical Black, leftist, collection of songs I’ve ever heard. “Blk Girl Soldier” is an incredible ode to Black women activists as well as a clarion call. “Lonely” is an introvert anthem as well as an excoriation of the superficiality of everyday life and the pathologization of being emotionally attuned—“I put a sun in my lamp/ I put a Post-It note on my mirror/ So I might love myself/ So I might be enough today/ I’m not OK, thanks for asking/ I can tell I’ve said too much/ I’m out of touch/ Guess no one ever really wants to know.” And then there’s a flipped Paula Cole reference: “I don’t wanna wait/ for my life to be over/ to let myself feel the way I feel/ I don’t wanna wait/ for our lives to be over/ To love myself however I feel.” I love the idea of love expressed on “HEAVN:” “I don’t wanna run away with you/ I wanna live our life right here.”
And then there’s “Holy.” I spent a solid six months listening to this song every single morning when I woke up because it was the only thing that made getting up seem worthwhile. “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me/ With my mind set on loving me/ I’m not lonely, I’m alone/ And I’m holy by my own… Yeah, the bad days may come/ The lover may leave/ The winter may not/ Hey, the map of your palms/ The temple you be/ You’re all that you got.”
Also Check Out: 2019’s LEGACY! LEGACY! also a radical masterpiece, each song dedicated to a revolutionary (in their own way) person of color, most of them Black women.