17. Janelle Monaé, The Electric Lady
Janelle Monaé’s second full-length album may be a sprawling conceptual art record — it’s broken down into two suites that are part of a larger epic about the adventures of Monaé’s cyborg alter ego Cyndi Mayweather — but don’t let the singer’s over-the-top high concepts put you off. The Electric Lady is first and foremost a vibrant and varied R&B album. The best cuts, like “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” are firmly in Monae’s perky, quirky funk comfort zone, but the most pleasant surprise is that she’s a lot better with ballads this time around, particularly on “Primetime,” a sexy duet with Miguel. — Matthew Perpetua
16. Potty Mouth, Hell Bent
Western Massachusetts has become a haven for college educated kids making ’90s influenced music, but none do it quite as well as Potty Mouth, the all-female pop-influenced punk band. Hell Bent, Potty Mouth’s first full-length, is comically clever and un-ignorably catchy — the best kind of bratty pop music. It’s violently self-aware: both of where they come from and how they present themselves, sort of like the brilliant female protagonist of some indie flick. The best song on the band’s debut, “Black and Studs,” addresses this, the lines “What happened to you to make you wear black and studs / what happened to me to wear them just because,” mocking the punk underground they were birthed from. — Maria Sherman
15. The video for Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”
Miley’s been getting a fair amount of the wrong kind of attention for the video for this song, which features her swinging naked on a giant, literal wrecking ball. The attention may have briefly distracted viewers from the fact that this song is a fucking jam. This is song is so powerfully sad that it makes you actually wish someone would break your heart so you could justifiably listen to it 1,000 times on repeat while wallowing in glorious self-pity. Miley may look like a mess to y’all, but she is out there making the best sad bastard pop since 808s and Heartbreak. — Summer Anne Burton
14. Holograms, Forever
You already know Sweden is the epicenter for all good pop music, but it’s also home to a rebellious, young underbelly. Instead of regurgitating blasé punk, Sweden is revitalizing it, becoming home to a seedy darkness that is simultaneously horrifying and relatable. Enter Holograms: Stockholm’s post-punk darlings. They met each other while working in a factory (’80s Manchester, anyone?) and share a similar affinity for literature and Danish hardcore. When a good friend of theirs died, he gifted them a beautiful vintage ’70s Moog synth… and a band was born. With it, they’ve created their sophomore LP, Forever. It’s an anthem for those dedicated to changing their condition, and in that, empowering themselves. There is a light. — M.S.
13. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience Part 2 of 2
Part two of the 20/20 Experience is probably a lot closer to what most people were expecting from Justin Timberlake. After years of fans begging the singer to return to music, expectations were, naturally, high. But rather than churn out a lukewarm attempt at “SexyBack 2.0,” he went for a polished and throwback sound with a grown-up, modern-day Frank Sinatra image. It was a smart move, because who can say you no longer have it when you’re not trying to prove you have “it” in the first place? It was a mixed bag, though, and for those who were hoping for the funkier, Timbaland-influenced jams for yore, this album may be more up their lane. Futuresex/Lovesounds it is not, though at time it aims for that. “Gimme What I Don’t Know” has all of Timbo’s signature weird sounds and touches set against a solid handclap beat. “True Blood” does sound reminiscent of “SexyBack,” but with way more going on — wolf howls and Halloween-ish “spooky” sounds and the whole lot. But there are some gems here, too. “Cabaret” featuring Drake and “Murder” featuring Jay Z both feel like a fresh marriage between JT’s new debonair image and the R&B/hip-hop influences that previously defined his sound. The album (and the “experience”) closes out with a great slow jam called “Not A Bad Thing,” which turns out to actually be two songs. If this ends up being his last album and just focuses on acting, it’s a nice touch to take things back full circle to his heartthrob roots. — Aylin Zafar
12. The Field, Cupid’s Head
The Field’s music can feel like moving and being frozen in place at the same time, or like being at the center of some kind of time glitch. Axel Willner’s loops and micro-samples are so brief and tight, like oddly clipped animated GIFs of sound, but his arrangements are much less static, slowly shifting around subtle beats, sounds, and tones. Cupid’s Head, Willner’s fourth album as The Field, has a darker and colder tone than his last two records, but the bleaker sound has a deeper emotional resonance. — M.P.
11. Body/Head, Coming Apart
Sonic Youth leaders Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon announced that they were getting a divorce last year. For many (aka me and other indie rock nerds) this meant love was dead… and that SY would never play live again. The latter has yet to be determined, but what we do know is that both parties haven’t ceased making incredible music. Moore’s latest project, Chelsea Light Moving, is dissonant psych-pop, but doesn’t hold a candle to Gordon’s Body/Head, the guitar-only monotonous noise project that, at times, feels heavy and claustrophobic, but like, in the best possible way. When the world ends, this will be a part of the soundtrack. I guess you can tell who “won” this divorce. — M.S.
10. Jessy Lanza, Pull My Hair Back
Jessy Lanza’s debut album is a sparkling and spare electronic R&B record, co-produced by Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys. There’s a real sneaky buoyancy in the slightly off-kilter rhythms and soft synth details on Pull My Hair Back. It’s an elegant record that manages to feel both languid and pleasantly overstuffed with detail. Lanza has studied jazz performance and Greenspan marveled to Resident Advisor that she is “the only person I’ve met who knows the chords to every great R&B song of the last 15 years.” This combination of chops and loving, nostalgic homage makes for a beguiling listen. — Alex Naidus
9. Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium
Will Sheff’s songs have explored every first-person perspective imaginable — from rock stars to porn stars, high school murderers to war criminals, cheating women to divorced men. It was about time he wrote about himself, and it feels like The Silver Gymnasium is that moment. Set in Sheff’s childhood home of Meriden, New Hampshire, these songs are about the edge of a fairly innocent childhood and the great expanse of exciting adulthood looming ahead. Produced by legendary ’80s producer John Agnello, this is the band’s lightest and poppiest work to date. The album’s highlight, “Stay Young,” is precisely the kind of song Sheff mentions on another track, “Down Down the Deep River” — a song you taped off the radio and play again and again.” — S.A.B.
8. Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks
By all appearances, Trent Reznor’s life is pretty good right now. He’s a married man with two young children, he’s been sober for over a decade, he’s won both creative independence and an Oscar for scoring The Social Network, and he’s working with Beats By Dre and Jimmy Iovine to build a subscription service that could make Spotify the Friendster of streaming music. But even when your life is going great, there’s still plenty of room for incredibly dark feelings. Hesitation Marks, Reznor’s eighth major work under the name Nine Inch Nails and the first to be released since 2008, is his way of reconciling the differences between the man he was in his ’90s heyday, and the man he has become. It’s basically an entire album about the nagging fear that you will ruin everything good in your life by falling back into old habits, or worrying that the new people in your life will discover the horrible parts of yourself that you’ve tried to bury. It’s a little more relaxed than old school NIN, but it’s just as emotional and chilling. — M.P.
7. Mazzy Star, Seasons of Your Day
When the band that wrote the soundtrack of some of the most important moments of your life — learning to play guitar (“Five String Serenade”), making mix tapes for your unrequited crush (“Look On Down From The Bridge”), and losing your virginity (“Fade Into You,” obviously) — reunites for a new album and a tour, more than a decade after their dissolution, it’s natural to be very, very afraid. A terrible album could have broken my heart and stained my Mazzyfied adolescence forever. Luckily, Seasons Of Your Day is gorgeous. The album is awash in organ notes and pedal steel and nostalgia and sad sex, and it all sounds mysteriously familiar, filling my mind in with new memories of pretty teenage moments that never actually happened. — S.A.B.
6. Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
The first single and title track from Arcade Fire’s new album produced by LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy certainly sounds like an Arcade Fire song co-produced by Murphy. It’s the best of both of their worlds, really — epic and moody, but also sleek and groovy. (Also, David Bowie turns up for a brief vocal cameo near the end. They’re really stacking the decks here.) It’s the best kind of artistic curveball from an established artist: a bold new direction that is consistent with everything else they’ve recorded over the past decade. The band produced two videos for the song, and though the traditional clip by veteran director Anton Corbijn is quite good, the one you need to see is the interactive version created in collaboration with director Vincent Morisset and Google Chrome that allows you to control the lighting. — M.P.
5. Haim, Days Are Gone
It’s not easy to pin down the sound of Haim’s debut album — their songs touch on a wide range of eclectic influences from classic rock and ’70s folk to glossy country pop, synthpop, and moody alt-rock. This is a good thing: Even when they feel cozy and familiar, they always sound modern and very much like themselves. The album’s lead single “The Wire” steals the show with some of the best pop-rock hooks of the year, but album tracks like the gorgeously harmonized “Honey & I” and the slightly off-kilter jam “Don’t Save Me” make the whole record a very rewarding experience. — M.P.
4. Lorde, Pure Heroine
Lorde’s been a brilliant surprise. Last November, the 16-year-old New Zealand singer released her debut EP, The Love Club for free online; this past spring, thanks to the excellent, sleek, infectious first single, “Royals,” she broke out stateside and soon everyone was asking, “Who exactly is Lorde?” Well, she’s Ella Yelich-O’Connor and she’s probably the coolest, most intimidating, most mature teenager in music now. As a songwriter, she’s clever, melancholy, and self-aware, and her debut full-length album, Pure Heroine, reflects that confidence. — A.Z.
3. Drake, Nothing Was the Same
For many, Drake’s last album, Take Care, was a turning point in their relationship with the rapper. Where previously it was unclear where exactly Drake fit in in hip-hop, the former Degrassi actor began to carve out a unique lane all unto himself. On Nothing Was The Same, we see Drake more confident and more vulnerable than ever, and the outcome was apparently enough to drive people to tears the night it leaked. Drake’s power and resonance lies in his ability to boil down complicated and nuanced emotions and thoughts into their simplest form. They’re about things we’ve all experienced — like the feeling of immense distance that suddenly wedges itself between you and your partner after someone utters a sentence that changes your whole relationship. “Girl don’t treat me like a stranger / Girl you know I’ve seen ya naked,” he says on “The Furthest Thing.” Upon first listen it sounds crass, but it gets to the heart of the feeling when someone so close to you — who you’ve seen emotionally and physically naked could suddenly feel so far away. He continues this directness throughout the album, delving into issues with his family and his mother’s health on songs like “Too Much.” While there’s lighter fun too, “Started From the Bottom” continues its reign as my favorite song of the year, the album is meant to be poured over and given a close reading; it’s not without its flaws and it won’t be for everyone, but it’s an album I feel many people will be willing to slow down and spend some time with, and for good reason: We can relate. — A.Z.
2. Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe
Chvrches’ The Bones of What You Believe may be the best synthpop album in a generation. It’s packed with excellent, fully formed songs that recall the best of old school synthpop icons like Human League, Depeche Mode, and Erasure without seeming particularly dated and retro. The melodies and beats are amazing across the board, especially on singles like “Gun” and “The Mother We Share,” but the biggest draw is the bright, forthright vocals of lead singer Lauren Mayberry. Her lyrics can get very dark and dramatic, but she keeps it all grounded and at least superficially cheerful. — M.P.
1. Ariana Grande, Yours Truly
Words I never thought I’d hear myself say: The best pop album of the year (so far) has been released by a Nickelodeon star. On her debut album, 20-year-old Ariana Grande effectively taps into the palpable nostalgia for a certain era of ballads, as well as ecstatic, feel-good R&B and pop. Grande may have been too young in the ’90s to really enjoy the peak of that era, but she really loves it, and you can tell. The comparisons to her idol Mariah Carey are rampant but not unwarranted — there are moments on the album where she sounds exactly like her idol. Grande shows off her four-octave range and whistle tones as well the hushed tones and coos of ’90s divas like Mariah and Janet. What’s brilliant about the album is in its balance — it’s a fine line between bouncy and corny pop and Grande expertly walks it; the music is effervescent and fun, but it never feels cheap, juvenile, or too syrupy-sweet. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. She dabbles in ’50s doo-wop on “Tattooed Heart,” and brings back the classic pop ballad with “Almost Is Never Enough,” her touching duet with The Wanted’s Nathan Skyes. What’s special about Grande and her ballads in particular is how normal she seems. She lets herself be vulnerable in a way that other current pop stars won’t allow themselves to be. Her laments are relatable; and while she has a big voice, she has reasonably scaled wants and needs and feelings. She is’t looking to take over the world or assert her greatness, but rather share her joy and her sorrow. Those are the reasons we loved the ’90s divas in the first place, and why Yours Truly sounds so refreshing now. I don’t want to “roar” or put up monster claws in the air, I just want someone who understands me: “Can we get back to the way it was?” — A.Z.
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