Opting for a single post rather than a prolonged countdown this year. Also limiting it to a top 10, although I could’ve eked out a list of 15 or possibly even 20 (see “Also Recommended” at the end.)
10. Katie Pruitt, “Expectations”
Debut of the year comes from this 26-year-old singer-songwriter. A kindred spirit of Brandi Carlisle and Kacey Musgraves, she injects ample personality and a powerful voice into a recognizable but ever-shifting folk-rock template. The title track’s Fleetwood Mac-isms are what initially caught my attention, but it’s her lyrical prowess and point of view that really impress: “If loving her is wrong and it’s not right to write this song / Then I’m still not gonna stop and you can shut the damn thing off,” she sings, reigniting a flame for all the queer musicians who couldn’t get away with such lyrics in their mid-20s.
9. Laura Marling, “Song For Our Daughter”
So proficient and consistent throughout her twenties, it became too easy to take this British folkie for granted. On her first LP in her thirties (and first release in three years), she doesn’t much alter her sound or style and thus doesn’t produce anything as striking as past triumphs like “Master Hunter” or “Short Movie”. However, on this collection of tunes written for a daughter she hopes to one day have, her wise-beyond-her-years persona now bespeaks an actual, palpable maturity and an ease insinuating introspection rather than complacency. She’s consistently good, which is no small task to sustain for over a decade and counting.
8. Shamir, “Shamir”
Self-titling your seventh album is an undeniable statement and Shamir sure sounds like it could be a confident, solid debut (I admittedly haven’t heard any of his previous work); trilling in a falsetto occasionally threatening to ascend into Tiny Tim territory, this non-binary DIY-er mashes up Prince with The Who (“On My Own”, delectable power-pop anthem “Diet”), does the 80s with more insight and finesse than even The Weeknd (“Running”), attempts some neo-rockabilly (“Other Side” angling for an Orville Peck duet?) and indulges in genuinely majestic dream pop (“I Wonder”). Perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be to check out those other six LPs?
7. A Girl Called Eddy, “Been Around”
It’s been sixteen years since Erin Moran’s last (and debut) record under this moniker, but from the very first spin it feels like no time has passed at all. That’s not to say Been Around is cut entirely from the same cloth, as it trades in a few of A Girl Called Eddy’s Bacharach touches for insouciant Steely Dan-like jazz rock (the title track, “Jody”) and also sports a nifty Chrissie Hynde homage (“Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart”) and a lovely Paul Williams co-write (“Charity Shop Window”). The constant, of course, remains Moran’s deep, gorgeous, melancholy tone, falling somewhere between Karen Carpenter and Aimee Mann.
6. Fiona Apple, “Fetch The Bolt Cutters”
Speaking as a longtime fan, you bet this was a rare gift upon its surprise release in April—that is, until the claustrophobic-by-design nature became too much for me within this pandemic. Fortunately, upon revisiting, I can confirm it’s as built to last as Apple’s other four albums—in part because she continues to push her sound forward combined with the feeling that it still resembles nothing else. Although she can still shift from playful (“Under The Table”) to incendiary (“For Her”) on the turn of a dime, it’s difficult to name highlights for the whole thing is of a singular, maddening yet satisfying piece.
5. Nicole Atkins, “Italian Ice”
Atkins follows her great Goodnight Rhonda Lee with another worthy, genre-defying assortment cementing her status as one of the era’s best underheard singer-songwriters. There’s slinky, somewhat sinister rock (“Domino”, “Mind Eraser”), country-ish balladry (“Captain”, “Far From Home”), Bobbie Gentry-style Americana (“Never Going Home Again”), breathlessly surging pop (“Forever”) and of course, plenty of torch songs (“These Old Roses”, “St Dymphna”). Going out on the wailing, cathartic “In The Splinters” like Rufus Wainwright circa Want One, Atkins graciously exudes timelessness even as she remains in thrall to the pleasures (and a few peculiarities) of “AM Gold”.
4. Owen Pallett, “Island”
Another surprise release (weeks after # 6 came out), Pallett’s first LP in six years is a sonic departure from its electronic-oriented predecessors. An orchestral/acoustic song cycle recorded at Abbey Road Studios, Island is simultaneously beautiful and chilling, pastoral and anxious, swelling and sighing. Brief instrumental passages punctuate a set of melodies within arrangements that are alternately intimate and contained (the Nick Drake-ish “Polar Vortex”) and convincingly grandiose: “A Bloody Morning”, with its pounding momentum and lyrics referencing drowning could almost slot into “The Ninth Wave” on Hounds of Love. Like that LP and Fetch The Bolt Cutters, it’s a challenging but altogether rewarding work.
3. Róisín Murphy, “Róisín Machine”
With six of its ten tracks previously released as standalone singles (one going back to 2012!), you’d expect this to resemble a greatest hits album. While an actual Róisín Murphy singles compilation would be sublime, this totally excels as a studio album with new mixes of those six songs coalescing into a DJ-friendly playlist. And while none of the four new tracks are necessarily better than the singles, you can’t argue with an album containing the likes of minimalist wonder “Incapable” or declaration of purpose “Something More”. Marvel at how motifs from epic opener “Simulation” reappear in entrancing theme song “Murphy’s Law” or how masterful disco vamp “Narcissus” builds up to absolute banger of a finale “Jealousy”. Sure, the album title is a bit of a pun, but it’s also perfection.
2. Sylvan Esso, “Free Love”
The third studio album from this husband-and-wife electropop duo brings to mind Yaz updated for the laptop age, which is to say sonically, it’s very similar to their first two albums. As for the songwriting however, it’s a big leap forward. Even though half these tunes are under three minutes and the whole thing’s over in less than half an hour, it’s never undeveloped or slight, in part because everything feels like it belongs, whether it’s an invitation to dance (“Runaway”), reflect (“Rooftop Dancing”) or express how it feels to love and be loved (“Free”). With each listen, the melodies sharpen and the songs’ dynamics become more pronounced to the point where even the simple, zen-like lyrics on closer “Make It Easy” accumulate a rare power.
1. Jessie Ware, “What’s Your Pleasure?”
Like Róisín Machine, multiple tracks preceded this album as standalone singles, only here, each one of these twelve songs sound like they should be singles. On her fourth album, this British diva finally transcends all those Sade comparisons by returning to the dancefloor and indulging in her love for ‘70s disco (elegant opener “Spotlight”, “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”), ‘80s freestyle (“Soul Control”, “Ooh La La”), ‘90s neo-soul (“Step Inside My Life”) and 21st Century Europop (the irresistible “Save A Kiss”.) What’s more, it all segues together almost effortlessly, expertly leading up towards the one-two punch of the dramatic, searing “The Kill” and “Remember Where You Are”, a closing track as expansive and resonant as any by Stevie Wonder, Prince, Radiohead, etc. Simply put, What’s Your Pleasure is the great album I’d always hoped Ware had in her.
Ben Watt, “Storm Damage”
Destroyer, “Have We Met”
Erasure, “The Neon”
Fleet Foxes, “Shore”
Haim, “Women In Music, Pt. III”
Kate NV, “Room For The Moon”
Perfume Genius, “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately”
Phoebe Bridgers, “Punisher”
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Sideways To New Italy”
Rufus Wainwright, “Unfollow The Rules”
Waxahatchee, “Saint Cloud”