4. David Bowie, “Blackstar”
Would this have been as beloved if Bowie hadn’t died days after its release? Does it matter? Far more focused, innovative and affecting than The Next Day, it both encapsulates everything we loved about the man, and also blows it all up. The title track mirrors the structure of “Station to Station” without sounding anything like it; “Girl Love Me” shrugs off Major Tom-style mythmaking with a sobering directness; “Lazarus” looks death straight in the eye, shattering any claims of shielding himself from the world with another persona. What a way to go out, to sum up a life like only Bowie could, while still leaving people wanting more: not for naught is the final track called “I Can’t Give Everything Away”.
Favorite tracks: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus”, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
3. Field Music, “Commontime”
I had high hopes for this record after its six-minute-plus first single/opener “The Noisy Days Are Over” dropped late last year—it reiterated everything good about this English art-pop combo while also opening up their sound to contain beefy horns and a funk-rock rhythm not far off from vintage Talking Heads (even the now-departed Prince (of all people) linked to it on his Twitter feed). Although it’s the undeniable highlight here, the rest doesn’t disappoint, as they temper their always-appreciated XTC fixation with welcome nods towards Squeeze, Split Enz and Paul McCartney circa “Take it Away”. Equally welcome: the newfound maturity and insight of tracks like “The Morning is Waiting” and poignant closer “Stay Awake”.
Favorite tracks: “The Noisy Days are Over”, “Disappointed”, “Stay Awake”
2. Michael Kiwanuka, “Love & Hate”
If Kiwanuka’s 2012 debut confirmed a talent for Bill Withers-like folk-soul, his follow-up reveals this Londoner’s ambition and vision. Opening with “Cold Little Heart”, a ten-minute, two-part extravaganza that crosses Pink Floyd with Donny Hathaway, Love & Hate rarely lets up from there. It graciously finds space for jazz-inflected, classy but incensed protest songs (“Black Man in a White World”, “Rule the World”), extended, expansive soundscapes (the title track, “Father’s Child”) and good old, radio-friendly pop (“One More Night”). For once, Danger Mouse’s baroque production compliments rather than overwhelms the artist’s intentions as the swooning strings, Stax-ish horn charts and both acoustic and electric guitars all seem to fit perfectly together with Kiwanuka’s warmhearted croon.
Favorite tracks: “Cold Little Heart”, “One More Night”, “Father’s Child”