If you like genre-bending folk music or introspective dance/R&B, have I got a list for you:
12) St. Vincent, Masseduction – Annie Clark continues to solidify her reputation as one the premiere personas in music, but what makes the songs on Masseduction memorable are the ways in which they subvert pop music expectations. Songs like “Los Ageless” unfold in standard verse/chorus form, but each section adds something unique to make the song a journey.
Essential listening: “Los Ageless”, “Masseduction”
11) SZA, CTRL – Although CTRL is full of mellow, slow-simmering R&B jams, the production is subtly diverse, as instrumental timbres are rarely repeated on multiple tracks. SZA also stands out for being boldly feminist, adopting a more aggressive sexual tone typically only commandeered by male artists.
Essential listening: “Supermodel”, “Pretty Little Birds”
10) Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors – As full of catchy grooves as it is introspective sonic experimentations, Dirty Projectors’ self-titled eighth album is an intriguing rumination on aging in the digital age.
Essential listening: “Up in Hudson”, “Keep Your Name”
9) Spoon, Hot Thoughts – Nine albums in, Spoon continue to craft well-constructed songs built around deconstructed guitar riffs and percussive grooves. They have expanded their sonic palette with more synthesizers and other electronic effects, yet it all melds into their established sound organically.
Essential listening: “WhisperI’lllistentohearit”, “Shotgun”
8) Laura Marling, Semper Femina – Femina is mostly a departure from the heavier Short Movie, and though it kicks off with the haunting jazz-folk jam “Soothing”, it is largely a collection of stripped-down, intimate songs that showcase Marling’s songwriting and vocals.
Essential listening: “Soothing”, “Don’t Pass Me By”
7) Gorillaz, Humanz – Presented as a dance party for the end of the world, Humanz is perhaps Gorillaz’ most purely pop dabbling to date, supplementing their trademark dizzying array of guest artists with ample dark synths, infectious hooks, and ironic optimism.
Essential listening: “Strobelite”, “Submission”
6) Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up – While much of the folk revival movement has added glossly production value and a pop sensibility to the genre, Fleet Foxes continue to record beautifully antiquated folk music. Though raw and rootsy in sound, their compositions remain ambitious, stretching their dreamy vocal harmonies over wandering, through-composed, and at times symphonic gems.
Essential listening: “- Naiads, Cassadies”, “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me”
5) Queens of the Stone Age, Villians – There is a slickness to the production quality on Villians courtesy of producer Mark Ronson (most known for his pop collaborations with artists such as Bruno Mars and Amy Winehouse), but it is still clearly a QOTSA album with all its desert highway chill. The collaboration adds a nice freshness to the band’s repertoire, including some of the brightest, most optimistic songs in Queens’ recorded history in “Fortress” and “Villians of Circumstance”.
Essential listening: “The Evil Has Landed”, “Fortress”
4) The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding – There is a homogeneity to The War on Drugs’ songwriting – they are mostly down-tempo anthemic epics saturated in a cocoon of warm reverb. That sounds like a complaint, but it’s really not. They may be exploring a very refined niche, but their compositions are undoubtedly gorgeous, and their commitment to their established sound world works well when sustained for a full album.
Essential listening: “Strangest Thing”, “Nothing to Find”
3) Father John Misty, Pure Comedy – Misty’s unique combination of rambling balladry and vocal timbre sounds like if Elton John were raised on a steady diet of Faulkner and Country & Western music. Phrases extend seamlessly and ceaselessly in ways that recalls late Romantic writing, which is fitting, because Misty is an unapologetic romantic at heart.
Essential listening: “Total Entertainment Forever”, “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”
2) The Cornshed Sisters, Honey & Tar – Though they would most likely be considered a folk band, the Cornshed Sisters (an all-female and decidedly non-sister quartet from England) navigate an impressive array of styles on Honey & Tar, which spreads their tight vocal harmonies across folk and piano ballads, Fleetwood Mac-esque pop, barbershop quartets, and even a bit of skiffle. The songs here are catchy and efficient, though the album’s diversity adds depth to the music when taken as a whole.
Essential listening: “Running”, “The Message”
1) Sampha, Process – Groove is at the foundation of several of Process’ songs, and these grooves are intricately composed mosaics of percussion, guitars, keyboard, and plenty of enveloping reverb. There is a layered density to these compositions, however, as there are ample angular hooks and adventurous harmonies woven throughout the album’s breezy ten tracks. Uniting everything is Sampha’s mournful, introspective singing, which is an effective complement to the sound world his production creates.
Essential listening: “Blood on Me”, “Incomplete Kisses”