As always, this best-of list isn’t so much a statement of hierarchy as it is a time management tool to help you prioritize your listening. Our time is precious no matter how it moves.
10. Kacey Musgraves, “cursed by the stars”
The Texas-born country star seems to have spent the past three years mastering all of his flatwater stuff. She never sounded deeper or calmer than she does on this tidy batch of breakup songs, singing of disappointment and heartbreak with mysterious composure and innocuous sweetness. Adele made the biggest divorce album of the year but Musgraves made the best.
The fourth wall is already a very permeable thing in rap music, but it still felt like a massive thrill when Yeat, a novocaine-mouthed rapper from Oregon to California, punctuated his viral hit “Get Busy.” , warning his audience of a big jingle in their immediate future: “This song has already been shot, but here’s a bell.” DING! This album followed soon after, filled with artfully smeared rhymes and a surplus of ring-a-ding-ding-ding-dong.
8. Yasmin Williams, “Urban Driftwood”
How many different ways can this acoustic guitarist make those six strings vibrate – and how many different ideas can those vibrations hold? Williams unfolds his answers throughout these 10 instrumentals in an unorthodox style, slapping and ripping melodies from his guitar in gestures that ultimately signal empathy, humility, patience and other virtues that shouldn’t seem so strange.
7. Lana Del Rey, ‘Chemtrails on the Country Club’
Sixty-one seconds into her seventh studio album, our weird heroine whispers something about that trip she took “to the Men in Music Business Conference in Orlando,” and the moment immediately applies to the permanent residence in our heads in two different ways. First as music, as a hook, as melodic lyrics described as catchy despite their particularity. And secondly as an image, or a place, or, in his words, “a scene”. What does this conference look like? Who is here? What do they do? What are they wearing? What happens next? And then there’s a larger metaphysical question about listening itself: when you’re still wondering about the social dynamics of MMBC in silence as you try to fall asleep at night, are you still listening to a song by Lana Del Ray?
6. Natural Information Society, Evan Parker, ‘Descension (Out of Our Constrictions)’
The propulsive jazz that bassist and guimbri player Joshua Abrams does in this awesome Chicago ensemble continues to feel like a living, breathing, growing thing. This time, however, the focus is on the breath. Legendary British saxophonist Evan Parker is part of the group, using his signature circular breathing techniques to help elevate the groove to an even more ecstatic level.
5. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, The London Symphony Orchestra, ‘Promises’
Alongside John Coltrane in the 1960s and in his shadow forever, Pharoah Sanders showed us how the human breath – even when channeled into music via a saxophone – can serve as a scream, scream, cry or of warning. Now, as Sanders enters his 80s, he reminds us that breath can be fragile too. Flanked by UK producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, he revamps his rambunctious sound into something delicate, demure and utterly unabashed in its own beauty.
Disciplined and imaginative, this quintet from Baltimore approaches hardcore punk as a tradition to uphold and a boundless realm of possibilities to explore. Can hardcore be so colorful and sumptuous? Can he have dreamy synth interludes? Can it refer to Baltimore club music and DC go-go and the Delfonics? Can it sometimes feel like Jane’s Addiction? Can he do all of these things without sacrificing his intensity, his moshability, or his sense of purpose? It can.
3. Caetano Veloso, ‘Meu Coco’
This sweet colossus of Brazilian song has made a lively and vital quarantine album that follows an astonishing array of beats in all sorts of directions, but the most interesting paths seem to lead 79-year-old Veloso to the youngest alive. “Meu Coco” contains a lullaby dedicated to a grandson who had already learned to sing himself to sleep, and another which, according to an interview with the songwriter, essentially appeals to a generation of newborns, “What will be your role in the salvation of the world?”
As a Grouper, Liz Harris records her magnetic folk songs in a way that makes them sound like they’re breaking through a thin wall or thick fog. You’ll wish you could walk up to them and inspect the details, but you can’t. It seems like a bad trick, but if you keep listening, his evasion becomes his generosity. In a chaotic world, this music keeps you in place.
1. Playboi Carti, “Whole Lotta Red”
This great Georgia rapper seems to form his favorite lyrics in spontaneous bursts of ecstasy, then commit to them completely, driving them into our psyches with relentless repetition, daring us to feel hardened. ‘Whole Lotta Red’ dropped on Christmas Day last year, a deluxe edition didn’t materialize in the new year, and Carti’s promised follow-up ‘Narcissist’ still hasn’t landed . No problem. This album is unlike anything else on our melting planet, and wrapping our ears around its vastness takes time. Here’s how it starts: “Never too much. Never too much. Never too much. Never too much. Never too much. Never too much. Never too much. Never too much.”