I close my eyes, and I’m taken back to the days of my childhood when I’m riding in my father’s car. An avid music lover and accomplished guitar player, my father would spend our lengthy long-distance car rides to lacrosse tournaments with the windows down, exposing me to all kinds of fantastic music. Perhaps I should’ve been running plays in my head or researching my opponents, but I was too busy listening to the genius of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. From an early age, I became dedicated to discovering impactful music and found a way to connect with it that continues today.
Come December, for the past few years, I have made personal lists of my favorite albums. I have a master list of my favorites of all time, but I enjoy reflecting on the year as it comes to a close and noting the ones I gravitated toward the most. I believe the albums listed are strong in instrumentals, lyricism, storyline, creativity and overall have zero skips. I have a niche for hyper pop, indie, alternative and R&B/soul. They are ranked in no particular order.
I know I said these weren’t ranked in any particular order, but as of right now, this is my top album of the year. I didn’t ever think FKA Twigs could top her notorious heartbreak masterpiece, Cellophane, but then she put out Caprisongs. From the beginning her first track, “Ride the Dragon,” takes us to a place of pure longing and lust. The album follows the storyline of yearning for a lover who keeps Twigs at bay, which only prolongs her heartache. To quote from one of my favorite tracks, “Meta Angel,” “I’ve got a love for desire/I’ve got a pain for desire.” Her melodic electronic creation was the soundtrack to my summer. With features from Daniel Caesar, Shygirl and The Weeknd, I believe this album to be a turning point for Twigs’ artistic journey. It’s a project I know I can listen to over and over again and never get bored.
As a self-proclaimed Charli XCX fanatic, I anticipated this album months before its release. After her previous project, How I’m Feeling Now, broke experimental hyper pop barriers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Crash, her fifth studio album, circles back to her pop roots while reinforcing an edgier style she adapted in her self-titled album Charli in 2019. Pitchfork called Crash her best full-length project since Pop 2, giving it a score of 8/10. This new era, in my opinion, is extremely pivotal for the British singer’s career. Her recent spike in popularity has enabled her to establish herself as a more mainstream artist. Her lead singles have found themselves as the soundtracks for viral TikTok trends, and her image has become a statement for many associated with the LGBTQIA+ community. Her branding has evolved into an edgier, sexier and campier depiction of a good-pop-girl-gone-bad. I think Crash was her project to truly be her—let loose and encapsulate the entirety of who she wants to be. After freeing herself from a suppressing recording contract and turning 30, Charli is clearly well-equipped to dominate the female pop universe.
Features from other dominating pop/indie artists Caroline Polacheck, Christine and the Queens, and Rina Sawayama, gives this project a powerful feminine perspective. Each song is one pop anthem after the next, with “Constant Repeat” and “Lightning” being two of my favorites. While I personally enjoyed the more electropop nature of HIFN, I connected with the messaging in this album, and it came at a time when I really needed it. Plus, sitting second-row and seeing her perform Crash live made it all the more impressionable.
Danger Mouse and Black Thought
Genre: Hip Hop/Rap
A friend showed me this album, and I listened to it every day in the following weeks. Something incredibly interesting about Danger Mouse is that he actually used to work at Wuxtry Records and got his start here in Athens, one of my favorite spots for discovering new music. Danger Mouse is primarily a musician and record producer who has produced several notable albums, such as Gorillaz’s essential album Demon Days from 2005 and four projects with the rock/alternative band The Black Keys. Black Thought, originally a member of the Roots, is known to be one of the most prolific rappers of his time. Together, these two created a project that excels in technique, production and verse structure. For any rap fan, critics everywhere claim it to be a must-listen not only for the year, but all of rap history. With captivating beats and features from a variety of iconic rappers, including Joey Bada$$, A$AP Rocky and the late MF DOOM, this project is one for the ages.
Natural Brown Prom Queen
This one I didn’t get around to listening to until recently, but it immediately made the top of my list. Sudan Archives’ first album, Athena, is an intricate and introspective experience, and likewise, this musical anthology is nothing short of perfection. Her sophomore project is a blend of R&B, blues, rock and even spoken word, all the while establishing technical innovation and creating emotion through storytelling. It is a wholly individual and original project that absolutely blew my mind from beginning to end. For any soul fans or lovers of feminist art, this is definitely one for your library.
Genre: Pop/House music
Do I really have to explain this? No, but I will. It just wouldn’t feel right making this list and not including this album. What I love most about Beyoncé is how she always does the unexpected— and she does it well. Each album she releases is more unpredictable than the last, whether that be via thematic structure or maximalist instrumentals. Renaissance was the artist’s first dip into house music, which surprised fans and critics everywhere. As a single, “Break My Soul” took listeners by surprise; it was a new sound for the Houston powerhouse that was completely different from songs on her previous album, Lemonade. In Renaissance, she incorporates dancehall, Miami flair and even hyper pop genres. Charli XCX’s right-hand man and producer, AG Cook, is the mastery behind the beats in “All Up In Your Mind.” While her music is ever-changing, she still manages to maintain her feminist and political perspective throughout her messaging. Beyoncé knows how to make an anthem that people everywhere can relate to. Most importantly, she reflects on her ability to return to her full esteem, and Renaissance is truly her phoenix from the ashes. As she says in “Cozy,” “She’s a god/she’s a hero/she survived/all she been through/confident/damn, she lethal.”
Once Twice Melody
I don’t know what it is, but every album Beach House has come out with, I have absolutely worshiped. This band has been one of my favorites since I was 16 years old. Its sound is so rich, dreamy and original that when I listen to its music, I feel as if I’m melting away into the calmest oasis I could ever imagine. Majestic, mesmerizing and surreal, this project only enhances Beach House’s quintessential dream world, extending beyond previously unexplored realms they had yet to cross. This band is a constant favorite of mine for a reason—and it’s no surprise to me that its album and lead single, Once Twice Melody, topped indie charts this year. If you’re looking for an ethereal, immersive music experience, I’d definitely recommend giving this album a listen.
A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up On Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun (Deluxe Edition)
Aly & AJ
A mouthful, I know. But trust me, this album is worth it. Who knew these two could use their success from the iconic “Potential Breakup Song” to transform into a powerful pop-rock duo? This album is excellent, and I wasn’t expecting it from the former Disney Channel stars. Aly and AJ established themselves as a musical duo after releasing their album, Ten Years, in 2018 (after not making music for ten years!). This sophomore album, since their reboot, is only the beginning of what I believe to be a fantastic career for them. They perfectly capture a dreamy California sound while touching on heartache, isolation and chaos. Tracks like “Paradise” and “Pretty Places” transport me to Venice Beach. What I love most about this album is how you can observe the vast amount of influences they considered: pop, soft rock and even disco for a modern twist. My personal favorite track, “Symptom of Your Touch,” is incredibly relatable lyrically. To say I’ve belted the line “if it feels so good/why does it hurt so much?” a thousand times would likely be an understatement. These two are open and vulnerable and leave nothing left unsaid. While the album initially came out in 2021, the deluxe edition with four additional tracks was released earlier this year. Considering I found it in May, I’m adding it to my list, and no one can say anything about it.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of albums I enjoyed this year, but I will say the majority of them are from female artists. This year was specifically interesting because I felt that while many artists came out with new music this year, a lot of big-name personas dropped underwhelming projects. Online, it seemed music critics felt the same; many were disappointed by overhyped potentials, such as Jack Harlow’s Come Home the Kids Miss You, a massive letdown for fans everywhere (especially me). Despite the prominence of lackluster projects, this year was important for many female artists to make statements in the industry, and so many of them found ways to reclaim power and address the need for justice in their music. As an avid music lover, I’d say it was a relatively successful year.
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