10. Hinds – Leave Me Alone
In their oversized t-shirts, smudged eye-liner and beers-in-hand, the sleeve art of Leave Me Alone might as well be a photo of your best girl mates outside that sticky uni club on a Wednesday night. But this sort of dirty dilettante vibe is exactly what fuels Hinds’ appeal. They are the sort of girls you could get along really well with, whipping your hair back and forth or going vintage shopping, as well as being a grungy, Madrid-based quartet that also make really cool music. They’re not preened pop princesses. They’re girls you know. And like all the more for it. Their debut album is just as unfocused as the album cover; playful, haphazard, home-video-style, with sleepy, beach-y melodies (homage to Mac DeMarco) and whimsical, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The raucous, strident percussion and occasional chorus-chanting is often chaotic, with sounds and voices competing to be heard, but the album holds together so well because it’s undeniably theirs. It’s their heart, soul, sweat and saliva that’s gone into the production of it. Call them dishevelled. Call it careless. But whatever insouciant brand of garage these girls are operating under, they’re owning it. And whatever they’re selling, I’m buying.
9. Rihanna – ANTI
R.Kelly once sang that “after the show its the after party, And after the party its the hotel lobby, Around about 4 you gotta clear the lobby, Then head take it to your room and freak somebody”. To me, ANTI is Rihanna soundtracking that hook-up. She’s not written this album for the sell-out stadium shows, or for Grammy nominations, or for the millions of devotees that like to slut-drop to Rude Boy. This is purely for herself, and whoever has the good fortune to be invited back to her and Mary Jane’s lair. In Rihanna’s post-pop, post-language rebirth she’s created something subdued, introspective and soulful. There’s none of the flashy, chart-topping anthems that we’ve come to expect from her, mechanically engineered, year after year since 2005. Instead, rejecting the mould of badass pop star that has been built for her, and which she’s so magnificently inhabited, Rihanna has made an anti-commercial, anti-mainstream, anti-Taylor-Swift’s-cutesy-girl-gang album. And if it’s not the triumphant, catchy, provocative music you’re used to, well that’s exactly the point. That doesn’t mean the songs are bad. Consideration, Kiss It Better and Work simmer and throb with the kind of woozy sensuality that Rihanna is so brilliant at. But if ANTI does anything brilliantly, it’s give space to allow Rihanna’s voice to shine (bright like a diamond). My favourite song of hers by far is “FourFiveSeconds” in which she belted with raw, unabashed feeling, only serving to amplify the level of vulnerability and soul in her voice. Here, she builds on that foundation, revealing a side of her – though don’t be fooled, this is just how she wants you to currently see her – we’ve rarely had the joy to behold. ANTI is a brazen, bold statement of intent, and an ANTIdote to the manufactured pop of Rihanna’s yesteryears.
Sting’s prodigal daughter burst onto the music scene as I Blame Coco. But in shedding the cutesy moniker and opting to work under her given name, she returns with a moody, melodramatic and ambitious sophomore album that plays like a coruscating fever dream. Having honed in on and toned down her ‘sound’, Sumner produces an album of astonishing singularity, pulsating with vulnerability and searing synth-hooks that play to the strengths of her distinctive, husky vocals.
Brooding, menacing, searing synths and infectious pop hooks only serve to showcase Bank’s vocal talent, as she dishes up a platter of deliveries, cadences, and range over dissonant strings and thumping bass. But for all its experimental production and deeply-honest lyrics, this is an album to make you feel empowered.
6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Bon Iver, a.k.a Justin Vernon’s latest musical offering sounds like it was born out of Netflix’s Stranger Things sinister parallel universe, The Upside Down. This isn’t the Bon Iver we know and love – impressionistic, mournful, spiritual, trading in acoustic hums and strums – and it’s taken a bit of getting used. But if you can overcome your purist reservations there’s a lot to love here. Despite the glitchy, dissonant and electronic surface, the architecture of Bon Iver’s music remains visible; pastoral themes explored with a penetrating uncertainty. It clocks in at a mere 35 minutes long, but in spite of its brevity, Iver never loses the meditative quality that permeates his previous albums. Synth-heavy and processed it might be, but in pushing beyond the borders of the genre to which we’ve acclimatised ourselves to in relation to Iver, he creates something revelatory, surprising and adventurous. Which surely is what the best music should be?
5. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
Existing on the periphery of cool, you don’t lose all manner of dignity admitting you like The 1975, as you would with, say, One Direction, but certainly a big chunk of it would disappear. They’re like an edgier version of The Vamps or a grittier version of 5 Seconds of Summer, except that I like their music. And as much as I could’ve earned more regard among peers by putting Kendrick or Chance or Kanye in the number 5 spot, I’ve given it to these weed-smoking, skinny-jean wearing lads because they’re a huge amount of fun. This is music I’d dance to. And lord knows I like to do that. And with their skittish, aspirational sophomore album (see above) they might just have crawled their way into the realms of reverence.
ILIWYSFYASBYSUOT (more effort than typing the actual title) is self-indulgent, sprawling, self-proclaimed ‘art’. It’s obscenely pretentious and it’s not hiding the fact. It riffs of the effervescent sounds of the 80s; all neon-drenched rhythms and resounding hooks, the gleaming glossiness of which is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s 1989, just less neatly packaged and besieged by introspection, digression and experimentation. The ‘hits’ (The Sound, UGH) are interspersed with 6-minute spasms of instrumentals. It tackles BIG SERIOUS TOPICS like fame, faith, loss, love and sex with a trademark bluntness and wit and whilst the profundity the band might be aiming for doesn’t always come of, the playful wackiness certainly does. It’s hard to not to admire the sheer appetite for genre that The 1975 display and how earnest and eager they are to be irreverent. And for that reason they earn this (much coveted) spot.
4. Solange Knowles – A Seat at the Table
Solange (a.k.a. sister of Beyoncé) comes into her own with this Motown-esque, but thoroughly current album packed to the rafters with dreamy melodies and soulful laments. Not dissimilar from The 1975’s interlude-heavy artistic endeavour, almost every full length song is sandwiched between spoken word vignettes, memoirs depicting the reality of black lives and fragments of intensely personal experiences that often serve as context for the subsequent songs. I wanted to resist comparing it to Lemonade (more of which later), but its difficult when both albums are so determined to push the boundaries of what an ‘album’ is or can be. They subvert and remould and transform expectations. Both are bold statements of intent. Despite the soft, whispery vocals throughout, Solange’s statement is loud and clear. There’s a seething and simmering, but equally gentle and languid undercurrent as she traverses topics from gentrification, heritage, drugs and cultural appropriation. Yet A Seat at the Table never relinquishes its irresistibility in favour of politics, but rather becomes a pitch-perfect integration of the two. In “Don’t Touch My Hair”, the sparse production, drowsy rhythms and barely-there falsetto gives birth to a song of poignant protest. Indeed the tenderness with which Solange performs the entire album makes it that much more resonant. A Seat at the Table occasionally suffers at the hand of its plaintive textures, but keep listening, keep revisiting and you’ll unearth a lavish feast of intricate harmonies, intimate interlocutions and elegiac lyricism. Pull up a chair.
3. Angel Olsen – My Woman
Not dissimilar from the transformation undergone by Bon Iver in 22, A Million, Angel Olsen has emerged from her folk-rock makings and gone electric, a la Dylan circa 1965. From the brooding intensity of Intern onwards, Olsen doesn’t let up and track after track delivers something fitful, fevered and fierce. It might be heart-break fuelled, but it fizzes and flares with attitude, spunk and the conviction of an artist who is fully realising or harnessing her talent. Olsen has frequently explored the wrenching, conflicting nature of love, but never in such a way that displays all the sullen colours of her voice. Her vocals are at once soul-crushing and electrifying, and despite all the twinkly synths and burnished bass-lines, the staggering thing about the album is the rage Olsen unleashes. The line “hurts to be around you” in Give It Up is a perfect example of where upbeat guitars and riffs almost disguise the anguish this album deals with. It plunges you into the depths of Olsen’s emotions in all their raw, chaotic splendour and never loosens its grip. Which oddly becomes an exhilarating, rather than wearying experience. Amid murmurs, wails and swelling guitar solos, Olsen gifts us an intoxicating, bittersweet record. Fearless.
An anthemic manifesto. A film. A piece of concept art. A staggering achievement that cements Beyoncé as an artist at the height of her powers and influence. Who knows how the hell to define Lemonade. But lord am I glad life gave Bey some lemons. It’s punchier and more potent that anything she’s hitherto delivered; a visceral and profound insight into the speculated infidelities between her and Jay-Z and her subsequent journey through anger, revenge, jealously, acceptance, forgiveness, redemption and so much more. The whole album is a force to be reckoned with, but particularly tracks 2 – 6 are the best we’ve ever heard from Beyoncé (despite the shade it’s received, I’m a big fan of Daddy Lessons). Her vocal prowess is unprecedented. The sheer range when combined with her distinctive patois, individualistic inflections and overall poise confirm her as artist of singular talent. There is no-one like her. But equally Lemonade isn’t afraid to mix things up and incorporate artists as diverse as Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and James Blake, which never once dilutes this being completely Beyoncé’s album, but rather augments it. She emerges from the swirling flavours and samples a post-genre pop star, as comfortable singing country as hip-hop or soul. As sonically audacious as it is emotionally excavating, Beyoncé is at once the most human we’ve ever seen her and the most divine. An utterly transcendent experience.
1. Christine & The Queens – Chaleur Humaine
Christine & The Queens, the adventurous, androgynous outfit of French songstress Héloïse Letissier, has been performing for a while in her native France. Reminiscent of St. Vincent’s self-titled album in its slick execution and infectious tapestry of beats, but equally inventive, Chaleur Humaine confirms Letissier as an artist deserving of mainstream attention. In exploring the liminal spaces and contours of one’s identity and sexuality, Letissier produces something quick-witted, subversive, joyous, colourful and empowering. Segueing from mesmeric ballads to jaunty pop anthems (try getting Titled or iT out of your head), don’t be fooled by the slinky exterior of these sparkling synth-pop productions, this is a formidable album from an enigmatic personality. Surrender yourself to the Queen.