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Lankum’s roaring reworking of Irish folk stunned, there was unprecedented invention from Young Fathers and Caroline Polachek offered an oblique angle on pop in our critics picks of the year
More on the best music of 2023
More on the best culture of 2023
Coming off halfway between Jenny Lewis and Self Esteem, Dublin’s CMAT sets life’s greatest embarrassments to ritzy country showstoppers – the musical equivalent of piling your beehive high to distract from your tear-reddened eyes. On her second album, she tots up the price she has paid for her bad boyfriends, self-subjugation and knowing avoidance of less-than-romantic realities, always with mordant humour rather than self-pity: “I’m just some stewardess who feeds your pets / And does your dishes and pays your rent,” she sings on the delicate, harmony-heavy Such a Miranda. For all that she has lost in these songs – pride, love, literal cash – her perspective remains a firmly clasped jewel. Laura Snapes
Even if her lyrics remain pretty much the same as ever – I love you; you hurt me – and the trance-y backings (chiefly by Fred Again and Stuart Price) are well-crafted but rote, Mid Air is saved from feeling mid by the sheer character and authority of Romy Madley Croft’s singing voice. The xx vocalist lifts everything here, whether she’s being tenderly consoling on Strong, tempering the jaunty beat and saucy punning on She’s on My Mind with audible worry or giving terrified little quivers of vibrato on Twice as she realises the strength and certainly of her feelings. Ben Beaumont-Thomas
In August, Branch’s death, aged 39, left the US jazz scene without one of its most forthright trumpeters and composers, heralded for both her fiendish intricacy and bright, big-hearted themes. This posthumous album is a stunning final statement spanning country songs, hip-hop breakbeats, free improv sketches, Latin funk, organ-backed balladry and beyond, united by Branch’s zesty pronouncements and gorgeous trumpet tone. BBT
A highlight of walking around London this winter has been seeing Gina Birch’s face everywhere, screaming out of posters for the Tate’s Women in Revolt! exhibition. The still came from a Super 8 video Birch made in 1977, the year that the visual artist also formed punk radicals the Raincoats with Ana da Silva. Forty-six years later, Birch’s spindly, dub and funk-flecked debut album proves just as vital, just as attuned to scream-inducing injustice and, maybe most miraculously, just as playful as those formative works. The song I Am Rage makes classic girl-group sweetness unbearable, with Birch adopting a deathly child’s voice. In the coolly anthemic title track, the force of her bass playing has “rumbled your secrets”. At the same time, it’s full of the kind of wisdom you only get from ageing: “One day I stopped caring / On and on it went,” she sings on And Then It Happened, casual as you like – though the impact of her thought lingers like a scream. LS
Dressed in pink outfits and with a girlish voice to match, Diamond seemingly dares you to belittle her or view her pure pop project as ironic. Instead she is inspiringly sincere as she sings about wanting to be noticed and loved, and she ponders the gulfs between fame and ordinary life, between digital artifice and flesh-bound reality, with keen feeling. Her vulnerability and genuine ordinariness – so different from the performed relatability of big stars – is perhaps why she has not crossed over from the underground. But these songs (produced with Scritti Politti’s David Gamson) are true pop masterpieces worthy of any A-list singer. BBT
Made following the deaths of singer and guitarist Rachel Goswell’s mother and drummer Simon Scott’s father, the second album of Slowdive’s comeback bore a newfound clarity: their dense shoegaze haze had been lifted, as if with it youthful illusions about anything lasting forever. Everything Is Alive is barebones and contemplative, newly sharpened by chilly electronic touches yet still monumental in scale. Poignantly, its awareness of life’s cycle of endings and rejuvenation also attracted a new audience on TikTok, suggesting a pan-generational appeal for their hard-won perspective. LS
If Gilla Band’s Most Normal deconstructed rock Cronenberg-style last year, then Manchester’s Mandy, Indiana strip away the genre scaffolding altogether to deal in realms of pure, eviscerating texture. Their debut summons cold gusts whipping down wet warehouse walls throbbed by punishing techno; funereal fanfares evaporating into the ether; disembodied squalls and swarms. It’s fantastically nasty, a feeling enhanced by their unsparing approach to rhythm and Francophone singer Valentine Caulfield’s equally percussive, sibilant glee as she riffs on various abject horrors. While many artists created worlds on their own terms in these uncertain times, Mandy, Indiana, like Lankum, reverberated in the abyss. LS
This Stupid World is a testament to the 40 years that Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan have been playing together (and 30 with bassist James McNew): the product of intentionally aimless improv sessions in their own space, closed off to the rest of the world, yet unavoidably guided by their distinct chemistry. Their humour lies in the unsettled dusky groove of Tonight’s Episode, which feels vigilant, playing its cards close to its chest; Until It Happens is just as quizzical and minimal. The distortion of the title track and Brain Capers is balanced out by Hubley’s sweet country song Aselestine, with its pedal steel lens flare, while the band’s innate sense of equilibrium combines in the dualities of Sinatra Drive Breakdown, as a cool motorik pulse calms sparking noise to brooding stillness. This Stupid World isn’t prescriptive about its outlook, but makes a good argument for tight community and understanding in the face of the idiocy outside your four walls. LS
Not only did the Lewisham producer-singer-rapper co-create the backing for the year’s biggest UK rap track, Dave and Central Cee’s Sprinter, he also put out this heartfelt solo album on which each brief song is instantly, inimitably his. Legxacy’s style is of earnest R&B singing about uncertain relationships, backed by cleanly plucked acoustic guitar lines, and with samples of drill, grime and other semi-vintage Black music playing in and out as if from a passing car window. The beats can be peppily high-tempo – the Jersey club of Old Place – but the mood always stays poignant, as if Legxacy is scrolling through memories of parties and loves gone by. BBT
Another trip through the back of the wardrobe into Fever Ray’s half-frozen, half-tropical sound-world. Karin Dreijer began developing it two decades ago with the Knife, their duo with their brother Olof, and by now it is populated with a thriving and very particular sonic ecology: bird calls, lupine howls and sudden lizard-wriggles of noise, with dancehall and techno their heartbeat. Dreijer is also one of the great enunciators in pop, luxuriating in the mouth-feel of their poetry: “Will you meet me, hocus-pocus? / On the other side of hyper focus?” (Meanwhile Olof’s own brilliant 12in release this year, Rosa Rugosa, took in the same scenery but from the very height of summer.) BBT
The spectral second solo album by the low-key R&B legend seemed to waft the veil between pleasure and pain, between having everything and losing it all, between life and the great beyond. Eddie Chacon and producer John Carroll Kirby stripped back the comparatively heavy keys of 2020’s Pleasure, Joy and Happiness for an album of slurred synths and flute solos barely of this earth, percussion that evoked rain dappling the roof of a Frank Lloyd Wright bungalow and melted funk designed to soundtrack a smooth shuffle on the carpet inside, cocktail in hand. Cast in a twilit hue and preoccupied with loss, Sundown nevertheless found the revivified Chacon at the outset of a stunning creative frontier. LS
As frontman Matt Berninger confronted a debilitating breakdown towards the end of 2019, the National wondered if they would ever even make another album. Then they made two, of which Laugh Track was the surprise second release this year – and which proved that they hadn’t just regrouped but revitalised. For the first time in several years, they sounded like five guys hunkered down in the engine room, smelting lean, light-headed epics such as Deep End and Dreaming, and leaning on a quarter-century’s worth of trust to get out of their own way, letting classic ballads remain unfussed (Laugh Track) and manic dirges untrammelled (Smoke Detector – maybe their best ever song). And almost losing it all gave Berninger’s lyrics a newfound clarity about what’s worth holding on to, most strikingly expressed in Space Invader, which conveyed a kind of panicked gratitude for having recognised love and pursued it years ago when it could so easily have dissolved in a letter that went unwritten, a subway stop missed. LS
Danny Brown has long had two rap voices – a high-pitched wizened tone like a Disney crone dispensing profane wisdom, and a deeper, more serious cadence – but these poles have never been further apart as on Quaranta, his reflection on turning 40. There are still plenty of rude, zany punchlines and images; a rotary phone is used for one particularly vivid sex metaphor, unprintable here. But the downbeat moments are slower and lower than ever. The title track is a mid-life crisis in real time; Down Wit It is a brutal too-late understanding of love for an ex-girlfriend, Brown’s voice splintering into static under the shame and sadness; and Bass Jam is intensely poignant as he reminisces about the music percolating through his childhood family home, giving the residents an outlet they didn’t otherwise have for their emotions. BBT
That explosion of earnest yet psychedelic adult pop in the post-Beatles US, from Simon and Garfunkel to the Beach Boys, the Byrds and even the hipper end of the Monkees, gets reanimated here in all its sumptuous Technicolor beauty. It would be inaccurate to say the duo transcend pastiche – you can almost feel the corduroy static against your ankles – but the songwriting is so ridiculously strong that were these songs released in the early 70s, the Lemon Twigs would still be on the cover of Mojo and Uncut at least once a year. BBT
With four albums and three EPs following her 2019 breakthrough For You and I, it’s been astonishing how quickly and deeply London producer Loraine James has hollowed out her own particular grotto in music: connected to other underground sounds from electronica to modern composition as well as the deeper corners of R&B, hip-hop and jazz, but decorated with the flotsam of her own life and lit with a wobbling flame. Guest singers such as Eden Samara and George Riley are on hand here for soaring vocals, but James’s own more earthbound, conversational voice remains the most affecting of all, confiding family trauma with a stoic shrug. BBT
As if emptying the contents of an overstimulated head on to a metal workbench, this triumph of art-pop is noisy, disorientating and full of possibility. The Brooklyn duo pick up punk-funk basslines, car-alarm riffs, plucked strings, spoken word, corporate chimes, pure noise and more, and hammer it all together with the haste of someone who needs to get to their next job. The end product is fascinatingly tactile and in the case of the ballad 14, utterly beautiful. BBT
The precursor to Danny Brown’s introspective Quaranta was made at the crunch point of his addictions – he was in rehab by the time it was released – and his full-length collab with Jpegmafia is hyperstimulated, like a domino effect of short circuits being blasted by too-strong currents. “Blacked out, can’t think no more / So ain’t no way we ’bout to take this slow,” he warns on opener Lean Beef Patty, sounding, as ever, like he’s rapping through molars clamped around a chew toy. There are glitches and breakbeats, the blare of cursed jazz ensembles and broken arcades, skeleton-rattling percussion and slippery samples of Kelis swimming through the whacked signal-to-noise mix. Jpeg’s production chews these sounds up as if between the teeth of a bin lorry crusher, organic source traces glinting amid the detritus and creating the record’s apocalyptic lure. LS
Fontaines DC remain a going concern, but their frontman made this solo release feel anything but a between-albums diversion. There are forays into new sounds for him, such as the breezy Rat Pack backing of Bob’s Casino and cosmic trip-hop on East Coast Bed, but what remains the same is his strength as a lyricist: he tramps moodily towards misanthropy, but a deep love for humanity prevents him from ever quite getting there. Chatten writes the way a sketch artist draws, in deft, sure lines – whether describing New York’s freezing sidewalks getting salted (“the whole of the city was seasoned to taste”) or pinpointing toxic acquaintances (“they will celebrate the things that make you who you’re not”). BBT
If Laugh Track sprawled, confidently sharing the fruits of the National’s unexpectedly prolific return, then their beautiful first album of 2023 held a more precarious pose as Matt Berninger tried to maintain his footing on faltering ground. First Two Pages of Frankenstein spanned the terror and rage of how it feels when home doesn’t feel like home any more, when, as Berninger duetted with Phoebe Bridgers, “your mind is not your friend”. But for all that he battled with writers’ block, these are some of his most beautiful, prismatic evocations of loss, from the nihilistic anthem of Tropic Morning News to the vulnerable shudder of undersung standout Ice Machines. LS
A one-time US national youth poet laureate, Jackson’s writerly pedigree leaps out of this droll, glum debut album. Backed by thrumming arrangements of acoustic guitar, pedal steel, ambient tones and more, and with shades of Joni Mitchell as well as a whole lineage of jazz vocalists, she sings of self worth in a world of would-be partners, lost loves and people who give her the “dickhead blues”. She captures the bafflement of heartbreak (be it romantic or grief-stricken) just right, where you’re well aware of your feelings but can’t find the route to clamber around them: “When you are stuck sinking in someone’s lagoon / Like a spoon drowns in a stew” is just one of her many spot-on, pleasingly assonant lines. BBT
Monáe’s last album, 2018’s Dirty Computer, saw the high-concept pop star returning to earth after several albums of space-age fantasia, showing a softer, fallible side for the rest time. Its songs were still divided into three categories – Reckoning, Celebration and Reclamation – indicating an artist who hadn’t quite let go of the structural safety rails. But on The Age of Pleasure, Monáe is resolutely grounded in pursuit of a new kind of body high. To the decadently rendered diasporic sounds of reggae, dancehall and Afrobeats, she hymns pleasure and desire, connecting (as did Jessie Ware also did this year) sex as self-empowerment and celebrating the kaleidoscopic nature of identity. Or, as she puts it on Phenomenal: “I’m lookin’ at a thousand versions of myself / And we’re all fine as fuck.” LS
In a career not short on left turns, PJ Harvey’s 10th solo album adapted texts from her book-length poem Orlam, a mythic account of a farm girl’s coming of age guided by the spirit of Elvis in the body of a dead soldier and watched over by the disembodied eye of her pet lamb. With experimentation and avoidance of any past repetition paramount, Harvey and her collaborators conjured a folky netherworld that crept up on you like mist over a cliff – synths that buzzed like telephone wires, rhythms like the footsteps of horses hacking out, harmonies that seemed borne on the breeze – a sound that seemed at once totally novel and as if it had emanated from the ground itself. LS
The year’s most surprising return, 24 years after their last record, and a total return to form. Everything But the Girl’s 11th album essayed the precariousness of post-pandemic life through strikingly contemporary, club-inflected melancholy: desolate post-dubstep, staticky electronics, Auto-Tuned alienation. Tracey Thorn’s wise, weary voice cut through it all, clear as a long-exposure photo of car lights in the dark, illuminating the decaying world, growing suspicion and fragmentation of community, and suggesting, in the unassailable tenderness of her melodies and outlook, that intimacy and grace are the best bulwarks we’ve got. That and – as she puts it on No One Knows We’re Dancing and Karaoke – getting lost on a dark dancefloor. LS
Hessle Audio, the British label founded by Pangaea, Pearson Sound and Ben UFO, have now spent 15 years chewing through the boundary between techno and bass music, championing sounds that are knottily cerebral and airhorn-worthy all at once. The sweet, glistening glacé cherry on the birthday cake was this album from Pangaea (AKA Kevin McAuley), who pushed the populist side of their sound harder than ever as he swerved through speed garage, deep house, ambient techno, hard trance and beyond. The cut-up chatter and fidget-house bass of Installation made it the dance track of the summer, but it’s just one of four infernally catchy vocal cuts here, while the pure instrumentals are just as spry. BBT
With huge hits for David Kushner, Lewis Capaldi and many more this year, the piano ballad remains a pop mainstay, and often boringly so – but Sampha showed off the form’s timbral and emotional possibilities. His piano playing evokes a hard-won certainty, and sturdily roots these songs, allowing for experimentation to flutter around but never get lost: sunlit hip-hop on Only, urgent secular gospel on Suspended, muted and cosmic Jersey club on Can’t Go Back, and so many imaginative genre flips. His songs, full of sun, sky and flight as he muses on his direction in life, move like murmurations in crisp evening light: clear, decisive yet poetic. BBT
Byrne’s third album seems cast in halo light: production shimmering and celestial, melodies swooping like warm winds or moon tides, synths glittering and dancing. These are heart-in-mouth songs of real benediction as Byrne hymns the true love she experienced with collaborator Eric Littmann, who died during the album’s making, and how he taught her to stand for nothing less. Her deep, gorgeous voice is as sturdy as Nico’s yet gentle as a caress, sustaining a vision of intimacy that is as grounded as it is limitless. LS
“Spinnin’ around in circles / I could do it forever,” Kylie sings on Green Light, a wink to her pop pedigree and to her intention to spend an eternity reinventing. Unlike her previous two albums, Tension has no theme – other than perhaps that between the past and the present. Lovers are cast in a perpetual now, weighing up what was against what might be; the music shimmies between Kylie’s 80s heyday (via the Weeknd), French touch frisson, her own Body Language-era sultriness, EDM confetti cannons and even a little springy funk à la Doja Cat. She’s taking the pulse of the dancefloor – and the beat goes padam, padam … LS
The air fairly throbs with light, colour and scent in this intoxicating album by the Colombian-American R&B singer-songwriter: a study of the divine feminine in a truly heavenly setting. There are rapturous statements of love and feelings of impotent hurt, but Uchis is no simpering fool. “Every time I see you smile, that’s all me,” she reminds her lover on All Mine, before turning to a rival: “You couldn’t keep him even if I gave him to you.” Meanwhile on Moral Conscience she tells an ex with brutal simplicity, “when you’re all alone you’ll know you were wrong”, using one of the many thrillingly bright melodies that sharpen the glow of this superb album. BBT
With masterful arrangements that concertina between delicate fingerpicking and voluptuous orchestral heft, Sufjan Stevens socks you again and again with bolts of pure feeling. He allows his voice to become frail to better amplify its opposite: angelic backing vocalists who offer consoling choruses and sunbeams of wordless love as Stevens frets about his failings and yearns for human connection. By finessing the stark folk of 2015’s much-loved Carrie & Lowell into the grand visions elsewhere in his catalogue, and with electronic percussion more subtly woven than ever before, Stevens is at the top of his songwriting game. BBT
Hypocrisy haunts Paramore’s sixth album, both in the world outside – the demand to be heard but the refusal to hear one another; compassion fatigue; a “smooth operator in a shit-stained suit” – but also internally, as Hayley Williams grapples with the gulf between her best intentions and faltering actions. These frustrations make This Is Why the Nashville band’s most studs-up record, fired by a bolshie, splintered attack inspired by 2000s British iconoclasts Bloc Party and Foals. Magnetically restless and unresolved, it only finds resolution on the bittersweet Liar, read by many fans as Williams’ admission of love towards her bandmate and now-boyfriend Taylor York after years of self-denial: an admissible strand of hypocrisy with a happy ending. LS
Like the sunflower of one of Dreamer’s track titles, Iqbal seems to bend towards light – a musician chasing warmth, beauty and transcendence in whatever form she can find it. Her grounding in club culture means that deep house tracks such as Gentle Heart and Sky River properly bump, but this is mostly a dream-pop album, with Durutti Column-ish electric guitar plucking, Cocteau Twins loveliness and, in This World Couldn’t See Us, an unabashed A-ha-meets-New-Order 80s pastiche. BBT
Flanked by a sweat-beaded crack team of underground producers – LSDXOXO, Bambii, Asmara, Florian TM Zeisig and more – Kelela travelled the breadth of club culture from the strobe light in a black-box dancefloor to the pallid sun through the taxi window on the way home. She champions breakbeat, dub techno, dancehall, ambient, R&B and more but never in straightforward genre studies – Let It Go, say, is a deep house track without the drums – and Kelela’s voice, heartfelt yet with a touch of guardedness, says so much in its tone alone. BBT
The itinerant Peruvian producer minted an instant Balearic classic, destined to be played in full in beach bars at sunset for a decade or more. Avoiding the heavy-handed emotional manipulation by some producers of this type of deep, songwriterly dance music, Kourtesis doesn’t overegg the drama and moves you – in every sense – with the certainty of her melodies and grooves. The synths shift in soft eddies, but there are sharp glints of light on the surface: the Villalobos-esque trumpet stabs on Habla Con Ella, say, or the stuttering vocal sample on How Music Makes You Feel Better. That latter track name might as well be this enriching, soul-filling album’s subtitle. BBT
“Build and destroy, build and rebuild”: the Chicago rapper mulls over the challenges and opportunities, the hypocrisies and epiphanies, of post-BLM America in the year’s most piercingly intelligent hip-hop album (and it was a crowded field). She imagines new modes of living outside a society that has never cared for her people, and the euphonious boom-bap and neo-soul backings keep the mood positive. But she isn’t suckered into Pollyannaish utopian thinking, always provoking her own community, and bracingly frank when assessing toxic relationships or beauty standards. BBT
Now that’s an album title, and moreover, that’s a rock star. Tumor made the competition look creatively timid, spiritually blinkered and sartorially basic as they delved deeper into the scuzzy sound of excellent 2021 EP The Asymptotical World. In this raunchy street-punk setting, basslines prowl around flaming dustbins, guitar riffs etch lightning into leather, and Tumor’s focused, exacting vocals wrap you tight around their finger. Operator has a cheerleader chant of “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!”, the most obvious wakeup call on an album that reminds you to resist a safe and cosy life. BBT
Seditious barn burners, snowy ballads, new folk standards: the debut album by Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus was an instant indie rock classic, made by an emotionally literate hydra whose bond was tight enough for them to turn over what it means to know someone, and what it takes to let yourself be known, in intimate, brutal, hilarious detail. In the Boys’ world, devotion and destruction go hand in hand, each rendered precisely as terrifying and alluring as the other. “It’s a bad idea and I’m all about it,” as Baker sings on $20, as romantic an invitation to conspiracy as you’ll ever hear. LS
As a solo artist, label head and collaborator, including with the duo Armand Hammer, Billy Woods has long been revered in underground rap circles, but this album gave him some of his most accessible backings and brought him to a more mainstream audience. Newcomers and longtime fans alike thralled to his metre, which is focused yet chatty, rhythmic yet unbounded. He also has a gourmand’s lipsmacking appreciation for the tang and bite of language, and appropriately enough, food and drink appears throughout: “Slurp noodles out of clear soup / Delivery fee is oof”; “Julienned scallions and other alliums”; “I sip Mexico’s best slow mezcal Negroni / sitting atop the corral smokin’, watching unbroken wild ponies.” BBT
Rush, the deliciously bawdy opening song on Troye Sivan’s third album, is a bit of a feint: after all the body-to-body bumping, the Australian pop star turns wistful, even lovestruck, as he muses on the boys he wants, the boys he can’t have and the boy he lost. He’s twisted up by desire: the robotic vocal processing on lament One of Your Girls embodies how dehumanising it is to want someone so unattainable; Still Got It is an organ dirge that makes crushing into an act of holy devotion; infatuation leaves him lightheaded on In My Room. All the while, he tries to maintain a cosmopolitan cool, his sleek synth-pop slipping from French touch to Spanish guitar to UK garage 2-step. But globetrotting can only get him so far. “I’m just tryna get outside of this body,” he admits on Silly. LS
Nearly 20 years on from her breakthrough, Anohni’s singular voice still feels like a sun lamp lighting up the grey everyday, and the backings here (co-produced by Amy Winehouse and Duffy collaborator Jimmy Hogarth) allow her to dwell on the warm, soulful end of her remarkably expressive register. But as lovely as the music and vocal delivery is here, the songs grip and sting, confronting as they do the baffling unfairness of grief, guilt at ecological collapse and the cruel violence of transphobia. BBT
The settings of Wednesday songs tend to be pretty shabby: truck crashes, car park overdoses, accidental firework arson, a “sex shop off the highway with a biblical name”. But songwriter Karly Hartzman practically consecrates the defining locales of her North Carolina youth into sites of religious pilgrimage, honouring this vanishing, violent detritus and the overlooked rural lives of those who witness it. Blurring allegory and anecdote into ripping anthems caught halfway between the disaffection of the 90s Touch and Go catalogue and the Drive-By Truckers’ take on southern rock, Rat Saw God is the year’s best rock album, and a place you’ll want to keep visiting again and again. LS
Guts, as a title, is a statement of bravado and one of fallibility: on this album, Rodrigo is more brazen and far less sure of herself, scaling impossible heights before reminding herself, often callously, that she’s human. It’s an album on which Rodrigo is in a constant battle between feminist duty and her base impulses towards desire and jealousy, rendered in punk as it seemed when you were a kid: loud, angry, melodic, giddily girly, the kind of music that Lindsay Lohan played in Freaky Friday and which Josie and the Pussycats used to wake the world up from a state of bubblegum-pop-induced hypnosis. Read more. Shaad D’Souza
Fountain Baby is a lavish and playful album with a borderless vision shaped by Amaarae’s upbringing between Accra and Atlanta: the sleek percussive elements of Afrobeats and the euphoric boundlessness of alté meet the cascading vocal delivery of southern US trap, or breathy Janet Jackson-esque trills. Revelling in excess and ambiguity, densely saturated and constantly shapeshifting, Amaarae’s experimentation also takes in punk, R&B, flamenco, melodic rap, g-funk, soft rock and more, all topped off with her sugar-sweet voice. Read more. Tara Joshi
In a year peppered with guitar-heavy albums that deal in very real mid-life grief – Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters – Blur’s is a less specific, softer focus kind of anguish. For much of the record Damon Albarn sings in his lower register like a washed-up lounge act, deep and simple and full of gorgeous regret. Relationships end, selves are reassessed, goodbyes are said and the future is eyed warily. Even the Britpop era that they came to typify and have historically been repelled by gets a generous reconsideration. “’Cause every generation has its gilded posers,” Albarn sings on the relatively raucous St Charles Square, while The Narcissist is something like an apology for the youthful arrogance of the rockstar. For the first time, maybe, Blur have found a balance that gently lays Britpop to rest. Read more. Kate Solomon
Across 13 songs, Yaeji moves through a lifetime of hurt, confusion and resentment. Lyrically the songs explode with feeling, but the Korean-American producer’s sound is controlled and often pared back, taking more inspiration from pop structures than her previous EPs – the songs carefully fitted out with synths, woodwind and tidy vocal melodies – and lyrics are sung like mantras. On the title track, she releases the tension that has been accumulating across the album. “There were days I gave up / And put a mask on my face, brain and heart,” she sings in a deep hush. Now, she sings, it’s “time to wake up from my dream”. Healing takes time, and Yaeji understands the power of music that holds space for mending. Read more. Katie Goh
On Ocean Blvd, Del Rey’s inbuilt ambiguity seeps deep into the music. Instead of the smattering of pop songs that made her name in the 2010s, she now deals almost exclusively in impressionistic material that doesn’t instantly hit the pleasure centre. These tracks reward repeated listening, such as Candy Necklace – a Jon Batiste collaboration dense with Del Rey tropes (idealistic love, obsessive love, soul-sucking love) that is meandering at first, later potent and indelible. It pays dividends to invest in her world, an articulation of American darkness, of female pain, of the quest for temporary transcendence. Del Rey’s music has always been partly about cheap, empty thrills, but this richly imagistic, captivatingly cryptic album is never one itself. Read more. Rachel Aroesti
After Laurel Hell’s prickly two-step with the big leagues – and the distorted guitar pop that made her name – The Land … was as intimate and penetrating as a dark night, filtering the shadowy hum of Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out through the country classicism of her adopted home in Nashville. It was Mitski’s own quiet crossroad blues, turning her tender negotiations between the cold certainty of isolation and the warm risk of connection into spooked, hymnal allegories populated by angels, kings and gods; bugs, dogs and birds, all spotlit beneath a benevolent moon. Read more. LS
That! Feels Good! is couched in rapturous hedonism and propelled by breathless ecstasy, Ware inviting you to step into your pleasure. What’s more, she leads by example. “I’m a lover, a freak and a mother / Walking on the line, it’s my human nature / I crave a little danger,” she winks on shimmering satin floorfiller Pearls, before giving you a little push towards the disco ball: “I know you wanna / Go to the moon / But if you don’t go, you’ll never get there.” On Free Yourself, Ware rides bucking pianos, funky bass and Italo disco strings, lassoing together satisfaction and sexual autonomy; Beautiful People, with Ware’s grinning self-aware rapping, cowbells and cajoling horn section, prescribes the communion of the dancefloor as medicine for life’s melancholia: “Put the day on ice, pour a cocktail / Mix your joy with misery.” Read more. Alim Kheraj
Throughout her fourth solo album, Caroline Polachek is a technically immaculate vocalist, tracing complex melodies as if matching the light-trail of a sparkler wielded by a toddler, but she’s never showing off. The meaning of Desire, I Want to Turn Into You itself is carried in how these vocal lines search high and low, babbling in excited melody, yearning hard to reach top notes, or occasionally speaking in a careful monotone: this is a drama about the all-consuming nature of desire, played out across very topography of Polachek’s perfect voice. The production (chiefly by Polachek and Danny L Harle) also lays pop elements at strange, oblique angles to one another. There are kitsch juxtapositions everywhere – 80s orchestral hits set against UK garage beats, Billons’ clashing orientalisms, Dido guesting alongside Grimes – that might scan as ironic, but are clearly ardently sincere. This is perhaps Polachek’s lane: being the bard for a generation of digitally savvy, cultural cherry-pickers for whom irony is so dull, even hateful, compared with loving something intensely. Read more. BBT
Heavy Heavy is packed with ideas that probably shouldn’t work in tandem, but somehow do, which pulls you headlong into a world where a distorted, glam stomp-driven excoriation of Brexit and the head-in-the-sand mentality behind it that winds up as an exuberant, irresistible choral singalong – “Brush your teeth! Wash your face! Run away!” – is far from the most improbable thing on offer. Pop hooks meld with warp-speed beats and soulful vocals; warm, euphoric melodies break through production that fizzes and seethes; wild experimentation is crammed into the confines of three-minute songs; industrial noise and scrambled hip-hop samples coexist with piano ballads. All this happens in barely half an hour – in that sense at least, Heavy Heavy is a model of economy; 30 minutes of music marked by the thrilling and increasingly rare sense that you’re in the presence of something that’s unique and completely modern, that couldn’t have been made before now. Read more. Alexis Petridis
Lankum’s fourth album is a stunning collection of Irish trad – and a few originals – reimagined over the roar of droning, emotive arrangements and tight vocal harmonies. Broken up into sections by three “fugue” interludes, False Lankum defies genre while yanking classics into the 21st century. In a year of braggadocio rap, highly personal pop and TikTok-fuelled hits, it hacked out its own path: an undeniable work of scale and dynamic builds, with few songs ending sounding as they started. That variety was intentional, and ends up being incredibly effective. As singer Radie Peat put it: “Things work best in contrast because it makes both parts stand out. If something is the same for two hours, your brain stops hearing it.” There’s no chance of that happening here: the staggering beauty of False Lankum stays with you long after its run time concludes. Read more. Tshepo Mokoena