Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Every year by June or July, many critics of various entertainment media will post a top ten list of things that are in their opinion the best of the year till that point. It’s a way of spotlighting entertainment that might be forgotten by year’s end. I am not a music critic, but I do enjoy music very much and have tried to keep up on current releases. Having sampled or listened to dozens, if not about a hundred albums in genres across the board, I have compiled a list of not 10 but 25 albums that I think are the best of the year. You can see that full list on my personal blog. For purposes here, I will select what I feel are the crème de la crème from the categories of Country, Rock, Pop, R&B and Rap. Here are those selections:
10. WORLD ON THE GROUND by Sarah Jarosz – the 29-year-old from Austin, Texas, has this as her fifth studio album. She’s signed to a bluegrass music label and her first and previous record did top the bluegrass charts. Jarosz has been playing music since she was a child. In fact, she was essentially discovered 20 years ago when she was 9, while playing the mandolin at a festival. She formed a group with two other women called I’m With Her. That group won Best American Roots Song at the 61st Grammy Awards last year for their tracj “Call My Name.” This would be the third Grammy Award for Jarosz. She had been nominated six times, starting at the 51st Grammy Awards, but she had her best year at the 59th Grammy Awards where she took home two trophies. One was for Best American Roots Performance and the other for Best Folk Album. Sheryl Hunter of Glide magazine says this album “is a work of quiet beauty that brims with irresistible melodies and compelling storytelling.”
9. THE ALBUM by Teyana Taylor – Taylor’s third studio album is the first to debut in the top ten of the Billboard charts. Like Jarosz, Taylor started performing at age 9. When she was a teenager, she was a dancer and choreographer, working with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. She transitioned into acting, performing in films and TV shows where she could also dance. Ten years ago, she started working with Kanye West and was put on some of his songs. Despite her previous album being critically acclaimed, Taylor claimed that she didn’t have full control, which disappointed and frustrated her. This album was released on Juneteenth and like the holiday, she considers her record a celebration of African-American or Black culture.
8. VELVET by Adam Lambert – The 38-year-old rock star was the runner-up to the eighth season of American Idol back in 2009. This is his fourth studio album. His first garnered him one Grammy Award nomination. His second studio album debuted as number-one, making him the first openly gay artist to top the Billboard charts. During his time on American Idol, Lambert made it no secret that he was highly influenced by glam rock of the 1970’s, including the work of rock group Queen. It was no surprise that Lambert began working with Queen in 2011 around the time of his debut album. Lambert essentially joined that band as their lead vocalist. Even though it was made clear that Lambert wouldn’t be replacing Freddie Mercury, who was Queen’s lead singer until his death in 1991, Lambert for all intents and purposes is this generation’s Freddie Mercury.
7. UNGODLY HOUR by Chloe x Halle – The duo consists of Chloe Bailey, 22, and her sister, Halle Bailey, 20. They’re from Atlanta, Georgia. They started in acting before posting covers to songs on YouTube. They were discovered by Beyoncé and signed to the pop star’s label. They were even the opening act to Beyoncé’s 2016 concert tour. They released an EP that same year and a mixtape in 2017. They were cast in the TV series Grown-ish (2018) before their debut album came out later that same year, which earned them two Grammy Award nominations, including Best New Artist. This album’s release was also in June and was delayed out of respect of the Black Lives Matter protests. Neil McCormick for The Telegraph writes, “There’s plenty here to suggest Chloe x Halle have the chops to rival their superstar mentor [Beyoncé].”
6. MONOVISION by Ray LaMontagne – The eighth studio album from the 47-year-old, folk musician from New Hampshire still has some of the most incredible vocals of any living performer who isn’t a gospel singer. His voice is always captivating and occasionally very powerful. His is quite soulful and the collection of ten songs here hooked me like no other this year.
5. 3.15.20 by Childish Gambino – Childish Gambino is the alias for Emmy-winning actor Donald Glover. He’s been nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, thanks to this alias. He’s won four, thanks to his song “This is America.” His fourth studio album does something ballsy. The cover picture is just a blank white background, mirroring the cover for The White Album by The Beatles. It could be pretentious or hubris for him to think an album cover is necessary because his fame and success don’t necessitate it. It could also be a reflection of the current, Internet era that album covers in general aren’t necessary because albums aren’t sold or even considered as they used to be. This line of thinking wouldn’t connect to the track listing, which has a collection of songs that don’t have specific titles but instead time stamps. For example, one of my favorites is track #10, which is titled “42.26.” This is because the song begins exactly 42 minutes and 26 seconds from the beginning of the record. It could be Childish Gambino’s way to get people to consider the whole album and not just individual tracks. The lyrics to that song do talk about slowing down and enjoying something like the summer.
4. LOVE, DEATH & DANCING by Jack Garratt – The 28-year-old from England has this as his second studio album. He created it after suffering from depression, or an extreme case of anxiety and self-doubt. A lot of that anxiety came from fears about living up to expectations after his first album went very well. He then met with a producer named Garret Lee aka “Jacknife.” This producer had a similar sounding first name as Garratt’s last name. Jacknife though is an Irish producer who has worked with such acts as U2 and R.E.M., so together the two came up with the material on this record, which Charlotte Krol for NME magazine says, “There are sparks of brilliance..” and “Garratt’s multifaceted talent is undeniable and his honesty is admirable.”
3. SET MY HEART ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY by Perfume Genius – According to the editors at Metacritic, this is the number-three album of the year. Based on 25 reviews, the artist whose real name is Michael Alden Hadreas has five reviews that are perfect 100’s. Alexis Petridis for The Guardian writes, “Whatever he’s doing, the results are uniformly fantastic: rich, fascinating and moving, packed with gorgeous melodies and arrangements that feel alive, constantly writhing into unexpected new shapes.”
2. RTJ4 by Run the Jewels – Michael Santiago Render, aka Killer Mike, is a 45-year-old rapper from Atlanta, Georgia. He rose to prominence through his work with rap group OutKast, even winning a Grammy Award through his association with OutKast. His debut album in 2003 is probably his best-selling record. His subsequent four albums as a solo artist haven’t perhaps done as well. In 2011, Killer Mike started working with producer El-P and they formed the group now called Run the Jewels. His acclaim and success began to rise. However, I didn’t really catch wind of him until he became a social activist, speaking out about the Black Lives Matter movement and certain political candidates, as well as certain campaigns. That activism and engagement are certainly felt in this latest album, which is the fourth from his group.
1. FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS by Fiona Apple – According to the editors at Metacritic, this is the number-one album of the year. Based on 27 reviews, she has 11 that are perfect 100’s. It’s practically universal acclaim. The same could almost be said from her previous album eight years ago. It seemed difficult for her to top herself, but it seems as if the 42-year-old from New York has done just that. Fifteen publications have already put this album on a list, similar to this one. The review from The New York Times was one of the most glowing. It featured four writers, all having a dialogue about the record. A more succinct description though comes from Seth Wilson for Slant magazine when he says, “On a purely musical level, it’s a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apples stretches her talents in adventurous new directions.”