1. SUFJAN STEVENS
“Carrie & Lowell” A meditation on his mother’s death and the emotional avalanche it triggered, “Carrie & Lowell” was often a painful but compelling listen. Stevens kept the music cloaked in spectral beauty, while his words, barely sung above a whisper, opened up old wounds, only to soothe them with forgiveness and light. It’s brave to make an album this openhearted, to let the listener lean in so closely.
2. COURTNEY BARNETT
“Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” So many times I heard Barnett’s studio debut and felt like she was in front of me, rattling off stories over a few pints. But talk about weird and woolly tales! The Australian wordsmith, a dark-horse nominee for best new artist at next year’s Grammy Awards, turned the mundane into the miraculous with kamikaze lyrics delivered in a deadpan croon over the crunch of power chords.
“Wildheart” “I wanted to make an album that felt like twilight in LA.” That’s how Miguel, talking to the Globe in July, described his latest adventures in the steamier realms of R&B, soul, funk, and rock. He succeeded, too, somehow harnessing the nocturnal energy of his hometown to produce jams that surely provided a backdrop to countless evenings with the lights dimmed.
4. KACEY MUSGRAVES
“Pageant Material” She didn’t reinvent the wheel, but Musgraves did remind fans of classic country music why they loved the genre to begin with: It’s all about the storytelling. With its homespun odes to roots, self-acceptance, young love, and the unbreakable bonds among family, “Pageant Material” played like the soundtrack to a small-town newspaper come to life.
“Ibeyi” Lisa-Kaindé Díaz and Naomi Díaz, the young twin sisters who comprise Ibeyi, honored the rich tapestry of their heritage on this intoxicating debut. Touching on the notion of home, their songs brimmed with elements of Afro-Cuban music while staying rooted in the sleeker contours of contemporary soul and R&B.
6. CASSANDRA WILSON
“Coming Forth by Day” The veteran jazz vocalist was one of several artists to salute this year’s centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth, but no one reimagined Lady Day’s catalog with quite the same vision, mood, and skill that Wilson did. With plenty of space for her to weave in and out of the songs, the album was one long exhale.
“Axis Mundi” What was supposed to be the Rhode Island duo’s swan song, after founding member David Lamb died last year, instead became an elegy to the redemptive power of music. MorganEve Swain, Lamb’s bandmate and widow, finished this album with the help of friends and family, creating shape-shifting songs that cut awfully close to the bone. “Axis Mundi” didn’t end the story of Brown Bird – it immortalized it.
8. BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE
“At Least for Now” Born out of the streets but also suited for a supper club, Clementine’s debut was a wild ride into the far reaches of his mind. Born in London and based in Paris, the pianist, poet, and songwriter was impossible to pin down on these byzantine songs pitched as a cosmic blend of cabaret, jazz, and R&B.
9. CARLA MORRISON
“Amor Supremo” Morrison, an indie singer-songwriter beloved in her native Mexico, flooded the senses on her commanding sophomore album. Backlit by electronic melodies and strings that added orchestral sweep, not to mention the sumptuous shades of her voice, Morrison plumbed the lower depths of love and relationships. Atención, Lana Del Rey fans.
10. BEACH HOUSE
Tie: “Depression Cherry”/“Thank Your Lucky Stars” Why pick one excellent Beach House album when there were two in a single year? The Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally continued to move in mysterious ways on their latest albums, where the destination was not nearly as important as the journey and how it made you feel.
“Shadows in the Night” “But he can’t sing anymore!” Oh, shut up. Yes, he can, as this curveball from the master proved. This murky homage to songs made famous by Frank Sinatra revealed a cracked, worldly sophistication we don’t expect from Dylan anymore.