1. Tracey Thorn, “Record”
Yes, it’s an all-female Top Five, led by one of my all-time favorite artists. Thorn, a national treasure in the UK, has amassed an enviable oeuvre both as one-half of Everything But The Girl and through her sparse but generally superb solo work. However, Record, which via its cover sticker contains “nine feminist bangers” (go directly to the insurgent, eight-minute-long “Sister”) may be her most immediate and accomplished collection since Amplified Heart.
With an electronic dance tableau feeling homespun rather than secondhand, Thorn reclaims herself as a personable diva, her ever low-throated vocals enhanced, not defeated by age. She details her family history (“Smoke”), her musical origin story (“Guitar”), her decision to have children exactly when she was ready (“Babies”) her first grown child leaving home (“Go”) and her own status as pop star emeritus (“Queen”) all with an authority but also an uncommon closeness, as if coming from a mother, daughter or confidante. On Record’s glorious finale, dancing and drinking with her friends, she notes, “Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me”–the kind of epiphany one looks for but rarely uncovers in pop music.
2. Christine and The Queens, “Chris”
On Christine and the Queens’ opener “iT”, Héloïse Letissier brashly suggested, “I’m a man now”; on album number two, she pushes that notion even further, creating a male persona she inhabits both visually and conceptually. But she remains more aspiring popstar god than art project, especially on the first half’s brilliant run of four singles (“Girlfriend”, “The Walker”, “Doesn’t Matter”, “5 Dollars”) which all build upon the ingenuity and hooks of past gems like “Tilted” and “Saint Claude”. The second half has plenty of hooks as well, but the slower songs, such as the devastating “What’s-Her-Name” or the tender “Make Some Sense” cut deepest. And, for all those hooks, on everything Letissier writes and sings, you always sense something timely, crucial and trailblazing is at stake.
3. Natalie Prass, “The Future and The Past”
Following a self-titled debut that grew on me slowly but steadily, Prass firmly establishes she’s so much more than just a sweet-voiced singer/songwriter in love with classy divas like Dusty and Dionne. From the deliciously itchy funk of “Oh My” on down, she’s no longer paying tribute to the past but anticipating the future, crafting vicious manifestos (“Sisters”), squishy electro-R&B (“Never Too Late”) and piano-laced prog-rock (“Ship Go Down”), all with the same care and aplomb. On “The Fire”, she subverts the potential tinniness of late ‘80s/early ‘90s dance pop with a sharpness and warmth that sounds entirely of its own accord; far too nuanced to reach a wide contemporary audience, I suspect it, like the rest of the album will age like a fine Cabernet.
4. Robyn, “Honey”
Given her past championing of non-LP formats, for Robyn to finally return with a nine-track, forty-minute set was a bit of a surprise; even better was how complete and satisfying it felt. It has discipline and restraint like none of her previous albums but doesn’t at all dilute from or sacrifice what makes her such a compelling, unique artist. Those looking for another “Dancing On My Own” might feel let down, but those open to a more mature and subtle sonic (not to mention emotional) trajectory will find lots to fall in love with, from the ethereal breakbeats of opener “Missing U” to liberating, near-euphoric closer “Ever Again” and all the good stuff in between (rest assured, she totally gets away with titling a track “Send To Robyn Immediately”.)
5. Sam Phillips, “World On Sticks”
As I had predicted/hoped, Phillips’s first album in five years is another worthy addition to her discography that also includes a few new shifts in her sound. Simultaneously her cleanest, most to-the-bone record since A Boot and A Shoe, most noir-inspired release since Fan Dance and most explicitly political record ever (“American Landfill Kings”, “Roll Em”), this long-gestating collection easily makes the case for her relevance three decades after her secular debut. Working ever more closely with longtime drummer Jay Bellerose, she crafts an instrumental palette and gently caustic tone succinctly relaying the album’s title, with closer “Candles and Stars” serving as both a lament and a hymn for stability and grace.
“Candles and Stars”:
6. Field Music, “Open Here”
The Brewis Brothers hit their stride with a record even better than 2016’s terrific Commontime. It’s their shortest, tightest collection in years, bookended by two epics: one ecstatic (“Time In Joy”), the other, gorgeous and dramatic (“Find A Way To Keep Me”, which aims for the fences and gracefully surpasses them.) In between are a bevy of compact prog-pop gems, some of them booming and insistent (“Share A Pillow”, “No King No Princess” ), others wistful and a bit warmer (the title track, “Daylight Saving”.) They’ll never be more than semi-semi-popular (not even as relatively big as obvious forebears XTC) but they’ve mastered their craft while retaining their tendency to view the world with an open mind and heart.
“Find A Way To Keep Me”:
7. Janelle Monae, “Dirty Computer”
As calculated and expected as anything she’s ever done, Monae’s return to music is easy to take for granted. However, listen closer, for she no longer sounds like she’s recklessly throwing darts and seeing what hits the target. As opposed to her previous LPs, this plays like a seamless, complete work (its compact frame helps a lot)–a considerable achievement when you parse all the genre (and of course gender) fluidity and big name cameos (Brian Wilson and Stevie Wonder) it makes room for. “Make Me Feel” is a great, great Prince rip, but a song like “Screwed” goes beyond tribute/pastiche, to the degree that one can imagine it as the basis for a good Monae rip someday.
8. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “Hope Downs”
“Talking Straight” is one of those sit-up-and-pay-attention radio hits (well, College radio, anyway) that are increasingly rare, and I’m happy to say this Melbourne-based band’s entire debut LP is generally of the same quality. Of course, I’d find anyone who loves fellow Aussies The Go-Betweens as much as them difficult to hate (those vocal cadences in “Exclusive Graves” are so very Robert Forster); I’d even go as far to say this has the star power (but thankfully not the pomp or distance) of the first two Oasis albums. Here’s hoping they continue to build on their sound rather than quietly fade away.
9. Amen Dunes, “Freedom”
Like many, I hadn’t heard of Damon McMahon’s long-running project until this year; I point to his peculiar vocals (resembling David Gray after a few too many pints) as the reason why, and suspect this fifth album was his breakthrough because of the sheer strength of its melodies and hooks. Musically, it’s another guitar-centered indie rock record, but rarely is it obvious or overly familiar. At once, songs like “Time”, “Miki Dora”, “Believe” (with its stirring key change midway through) and the title track carry the gravitas of classic rock chestnuts and yet feel intensely personal, convincingly wavering between intimacy and expansiveness.
10. Calexico, “The Thread That Keeps Us”
Though this is not as solid as 2015’s Edge of The Sun, Joey Burns and John Convertino still have yet to make a subpar album. Their ninth continues to explore new vistas beyond their tried-and-true mariachi-flavored roots rock: “Under The Wheels” skanks along quite nicely and “Another Space” could be a Southwestern Talking Heads. More significant is a renewed urgency in their lyrics, no doubt heightened by the current, caustic climate (both literally and socio-politically.) The ballads, from the traditional-sounding “The Town and Miss Lorraine” to instrumental “Unconditional Waltz” and gentle closer “Music Box” rank among their all-time best.
“Under The Wheels”: