Who buys albums anymore? Hell, who makes them for that matter? I’m fully aware that I’m probably in the minority, but I’ve always been an unwavering album guy. Not a one-click-song-and-done or streaming kinda guy. Regardless, of how you package and spin it–vinyl, cassette tape, cd, digital download, etc.–I like to own it, spend time with it, swish it around a bit, chew on it for a while, decipher it, read the liner notes. First listening to it the way it was compiled by the artist, from its beginning tracks to the very last cut, then simply randomizing the songs, for days, and weeks on end, eventually shelving it, only to dust it off and rediscover it all over again. Buying an entire album can be risky–I get it, I’ve been burned before too–thinking one great song is representative of the entire album–but every once in a while the gamble pays off–with dividends. Every year I encounter a handful of really outstanding and worthy audio companions out of a vast landscape of great music.
So here are my picks for the “best” albums worth owning this year, in no particular order or rank.
Dawes: We’re All Gonna Die
Lead singer, Taylor Goldsmith oughta change his last name to Wordsmith, because he sure has a way with them. This is the LA band’s 5th studio album, and despite having the quintessential travelogues and reverberated guitars, the album has a lot more flavor than previous ones, making it the most non-Dawes sounding album, Dawes has ever recorded.
When life hands you lemons…you’re inspired to craft one of the most critically acclaimed, culturally iconic concept albums ever produced. Each song is a cathartic anthem–unburdened by genre–for all the betrayed and scorned. Although, if you’re looking for bitter lamentations here, you’re out of luck: this album is refreshing and packs a mighty good, self-empowered punch.
Black Mountain: IV
In a large bowl, sift together heavy guitar riffs akin to The Black Keys, sprinkle in a dash of dystopian Pink Floyd-esque psychedelia, add vocals reminiscent of Pat Benatar, stir in some synths, now throw some gasoline on your neighbor’s lawn, light a match, start the car, peel out, and crank the volume up as loud as it’ll go.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones: Sea of Noise
Blessed with a cavernous soul sound, the sextet creates songs that are fervently brass-infused, gospelly, Staxy…all around divine. You’re telling me the lead singer, Paul Janeway is white? I don’t believe it! The record is nothing but funky, joyful noise. So if Heaven’s Hammond organs and golden trumpets sound this warm and inviting, then take me now Lord.
Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
Say what you will about Kanye–admittedly he’s probably deserving of some of the eye-rolls and disdain–but at the end of the day, Yeezy’s a visionary artist. TLOP is an living, breathing document–his magnum opus. Listeners get a peek into Mr. West’s subconscious, and the digitized download is a multi-layered, Auto-Tuned, brain-banging, narcissistic, soulful, egomaniacal, emotional cry for help.
Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Essentially a tattered moleskin notebook’s collection of songs that ink a narrative backstory of Price’s own life journey, her dreams, struggles, hopes, losses, warts and all. Her debut has the one thing old country possessed, yet modern country music seems to have lost over the years–a soul.
Jim James: Eternally Even
It’s the Louisville native’s 3rd solo album, and the sound is densely layered with mixture of soul-funk rhythms and electronic synths. However, it’s surprisingly spacious with James’ haunting falsetto mantras, threaded with socially and politically relevant lyrics and themes throughout. While most of James’ work is contemplative in nature, this solo effort shifts his focus outwardly, on a world in need of some introspection, and more importantly–love.
Charles Bradley: Changes
Dude’s got more funk and soul in his little pinky toenail than most mere mortals. He was discovered late in life, while moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator. While the influence of the Godfather of Soul is undeniable in both his stage presence and to a lesser extent his sound, it’s merely a faÃ§ade. Having seen him perform live this year, it’s apparent to me and others, Bradley has found his own voice. And with vocals that are extremely raw and vulnerable–he’s about as real as it gets.
Dylan LeBlanc: Cautionary Tale
Despite creating two critically acclaimed albums, the troubadour, exhausted and disillusioned, turned to all too familiar, destructive vices, to deal with such immediate success, eventually succumbing to the most damaging one of all–self-doubt. This struggle fueled his latest release, and in forty-five minutes you’d be hard pressed to find the same collection of honest, melodious, soul-searching, and downright gorgeous audio-novellas from any other young singer-songwriter this year.
Combining such distinct voices together in one album seems like a no-brainer. With Neko Case’s forceful, yet beautifully-strangling vocals, layered with the trembly, flinty voice of Laura Veirs, and underscored with the textural crooning of k.d. lang–I’m surprised they waited this long to record one.
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
Q-Tip and crew felicitously waited nearly two decades to release the most woke album in a pre-apocalyptic, Trump presidential world. From the earliest samples, until the last repeated shout-outs, it was worth the wait. RIP Phife Dawg.
Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Embarking on his darkest and most experimental journey yet, the Kentucky trailblazer takes his musicianship and songwriting gifts into uncharted territory. The album is a deeply personal message in a bottle to his wife and newborn child. It’s his best work to date, essentially two middle fingers to the entire so called country music establishment–that for whatever reason–refuses to acknowledge his existence.
Andy Hull & Robert McDowell: Swiss Army Man Soundtrack
Despite being a peculiarly crude and controversial film, it’s one of the most profoundly beautiful movies ever made. Sure it’s about a farting corpse, but the soundtrack’s tranquil, necromantic arrangements are haunting and primal.
Michael Kiwanuka: Love & Hate
In his sophomore album, British singer-songwriter, Michael Kiwanuka channels his soul and R&B forefathers, creating a velvety-smooth and vintage-sounding album, following in the mnemonic of Otis Redding and Ben E. King.
Andrew Bird: Are You Serious
Bird’s wondrously ambiguous wordplay is only matched by an array of eccentric instrumental sounds, some standards including plucky and romantic violins, reechoing guitars, tight percussions, and of course his own unmistakable, redolent whistling.
Anderson .Paak: Malibu
Remember when I said earlier that I wasn’t ranking these albums? Well, that was true. You’re not going to get a #1, but if there ever was an essential album to buy on this imperfect and shortened list, Malibu might be the one. Amongst contemporaries like: Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and the Weeknd who all made stellar–yet darker offerings this year–this album could easily get lost on me. So maybe it was kismet that I found it. Truthfully, I purchased the album right after watching Paak and his band The Free Nationals perform on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert performance. Essentially, Paak has conceived the most mellifluous, diverse, nimble, non-genre conforming record this year, courtesy of the artist’s own gritty voice and drumming, the warm soul/R&B riffs and melodies, funky bass licks, jazzy instrumentals, and the hip hop-esque lyrics and cadence, all of which combined make this album so magnetic.
Ultimately, the beauty of these albums lies in the content as well as the listening experience, in that they’re all magnificently-crafted, and yet many, if not all, cannot be easily pigeon-holed into a particular genre. No single album is greater than the other, they all stand on their own merit. I know what you’re thinking, “these are fantastic album recommendations my man…let me borrow them.”
Well, unfortunately the answer is “no my brotha–you got to buy your own!”