Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Columbia Records, Interscope Records, Matador Records, Milan Records, Warp Records
The best music of the young year is a celebration of the endurance of the human spirit through breakups, political strife, illness, and death, a colorful array of attempts to answer the question of who and what we are living and fighting for. The resolutions aren’t all rosy; the conversations are too important to sugarcoat, though there’s plenty of reassuring sweetness amid the soul-searching.
All albums are listed from newest to oldest.
Boygenius — comprising Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, each an impressive indie-rock singer-songwriter in her own right — set anticipation sky high with their self-titled 2018 debut EP. This year’s bluntly titled the record meets those expectations head on. From the bittersweet romance of “True Blue” to the smirking self-destruction of “$20” to the nihilistic resign of “Satanist,” the record is the sound of a few of the sharpest pens doing devastating work over a batch of the catchiest tunes of their careers.
Read Craig Jenkins’s review of the record.
Pioneering U.K. synth-pop act Depeche Mode grapples with its storied past and an uncertain present on Memento Mori. It’s a somber survey of a back catalogue that covers spiky post-punk, ghoulish blues rock, bubbly pop music, and esoteric experiments as the duo reflect on the unexpected loss of founding member Andy Fletcher. A buffet of intriguing electronic sounds and textures, their 15th album is a reminder that Dave Gahan and Martin Gore are capable of everything.
2021’s Blue Banisters felt like a concerted effort at fitting the divergent moods and quirks of Lana Del Rey in the same space, but it was more intriguing as a series of snapshots of the artist at different points in her career. This year’s 78-minute follow-up, Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, achieves what the previous album set out to do in earnest, melding stark folk songs, gloomy pop tunes, skeletal trap production, dour Disney energy, and deep California lore as it stages an unsubtly religious jettisoning of the pettiest concerns, the better to reinforce the artist’s bonds with faith and family.
Read Craig Jenkins’s review of Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd.
After Beyoncé and Drake released summer albums focusing on house music, the savvy R&B fan started to yearn for new work from Kelela, the Washington, D.C., singer-songwriter and producer who spent the past decade making notable strides toward fusing the melodies and emotions of classic hip-hop soul with production that pushes back against the sweetness of the vocals. Kelela delivered with Raven, her second album, a wave of aqueous sound baths enveloping and often overtaking her voice. You can either commiserate with the love stories told by the verses and choruses or float on the waterlogged synths.
Read Craig Jenkins’s review of Raven and Tirhakah Love’s interview with Kelela.
Texas polymath Liv.e produces, writes, and sings, and her albums revel in the exploding possibilities of an auteur in her world-building stage. Her latest, Girl in the Half Pearl, threads the needle between jazz, rap, soul, and dance music, expanding her musical purview while the lyrics tap into the internal struggles that spring up alongside rapid growth and change. Everything sounds homegrown and a little melted, like pie and ice cream left out just long enough for the temperatures and textures to start to blend into one another.
Read Craig Jenkins’s interview with Liv.e.
From the seminal synth-based ’70s party music of Yellow Magic Orchestra and the progressive explorations of 1978’s Thousand Knives to the icy ambience of the score for 1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Japanese electronic music innovator Ryuichi Sakamoto left massive footprints on the landscape of modern music. His creative wanderlust was as inspiring as his most memorable hooks were sampleable. This year’s 12 documented a difficult stretch in the life of the late legend as he committed to getting up to play piano during a year in which he was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. 12 is a document of unfailing determination, a collection of gorgeous, minimal piano and synthesizer compositions whose only binding rhythm is the breathing of the man himself and a quiet war between beauty and the hand of time.
The 17th full-length album from New Jersey indie-rock lifers Yo La Tengo splits the difference between raw, primal guitar workouts like the opener, “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” or the squealing, sprawling title track and lighter acoustic grooves like the reflective “Aselestine” or the conciliatory “Apology Letter.” The trio has been refining its quiet-loud dynamics since the Reagan era; this album celebrates that enduring chemistry and professionalism as it seeks solace from the deluge of stresses threatening to sink us in this decade.