1. Lana Del Rey
“Ultraviolence” At last, she figured it out. After a scattershot debut released amid a swirl of hype, Del Rey focused on her strengths and made an epic sophomore album heavy with torch-song seduction. Working with producer Dan Auerbach, the pop star played up a tragic poise on “Ultraviolence,” as if delivering the songs from a smoky supper club on the eve of the apocalypse.
“Aquarius” From FKA twigs to Jhené Aiko, it was a crowded field of young R&B singers revitalizing the genre this year with skeletal melodies and vaporous vocals. But Tinashe stood out. Following a series of mixtapes, her major-label debut was an assured mix of space-age balladry and pop/hip-hop hybrids featuring male rappers who were merely accessories to Tinashe’s vision of sexual healing.
“Too Bright” “No family is safe/ When I sashay,” sings Mike Hadreas on “Queen,” the fierce anthem from his third album as Perfume Genius. “Too Bright” was truth in advertising: a potent collection of muscular pop songs that weren’t afraid to reveal the swish and swagger, but also the heart and rage, lurking beneath Hadreas’s quivering voice and solemn piano.
4. NIKKI LANE
“All or Nothin’ ” In a depressing bit of irony, Lane was just too country to crack the genre’s big time the way mainstream stars like Miranda Lambert have. More in line with Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, her feisty sophomore album (also produced by Auerbach) was an unflinching deep dive into Lane’s heartache and her hell-raising ways that would make you think twice about crossing her.
“Give My Love to London” A song stylist of diminished range but vast feeling, Faithfull imbues “Give My Love to London” with her mythic status as one of rock’s great survivors. Working with admirers such as Nick Cave, Steve Earle, and Roger Waters, she remains the star attraction, a world-weary chanteuse broken by her adventures — but wouldn’t change a thing.
6. BENJAMIN BOOKER
“Benjamin Booker” Few debuts this year roared out of the speakers quite like Booker’s did. The New Orleans-born musician emerged fully formed and oblivious to just one genre. He thrashed his way through brittle punk and fuzzed-out garage rock, but he was also adept at dimming the lights with bluesy wails and stark folk laments. Exciting stuff.
“Wine Dark Sea” A decade on the fringes of American roots music finally delivered Holland to her magnum opus. The quixotic singer-songwriter blazed a crooked trail with “Wine Dark Sea,” guiding an intuitive cast of players to veer from jagged rock to shuffling folk to dusky jazz interpolations. The only constant was Holland’s conviction to make arresting music.
“Emma Jean” Modern soul rarely sounds this evergreen, with Fields turning in one sublime performance after another. Leading his nimble band through horn-stoked jubilation and tear-stained weepers, he sang with the hard-won victory of a veteran soul man who got started in the late 1960s but sounds even better with age.
9. ROBERT PLANT
“Lullaby and . . . the Ceaseless Roar” “What is this?” I’m a fan of albums that impart that kind of first impression, and Plant’s latest was a mystery of beguiling magnitude. He painted “Lullaby” in broad strokes, by turns sweeping and spectral, reaffirming his place as an elder statesman of cosmic Americana. That’s no small feat for an English rock god.
10. AZEALIA BANKS
“Broke With Expensive Taste” Years in the making and finally released with no warning, Banks’s full-length debut landed with a thud. What to make of a hip-hop album that shifts shapes like Tetris pieces, from thumping ’90s house music to industrial electronic beats to unexpected detours into Latin salsa? Just push play and listen.
“Cheek to Cheek” Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that two outsize Italian-American entertainers from New York would have such an easy chemistry together. It was still a shock to hear how well Bennett and Gaga blended on this album of jazz standards, reminding you that she’s a dexterous singer and he’s the ultimate master of understatement.
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