A critic's list of the top 10 albums of the year, as well as the 15 best pop songs.
Ariana Grande, Neneh Cherry and others took the personal and gave it a beat this year. Genre lines continued to blur and the definition of album shifted further in another year of upheaval in pop music. Here is what arose as the best of the best.
1. Janelle Monáe, ‘Dirty Computer’
The interaction of human and machine has been a major theme of Janelle Monáe’s entire recording career. Her latest concept album, “Dirty Computer,” deploys funky riffs (often with Prince echoes), snappy beats and crisp pop-song forms to promise that love, polymorphous sensuality and an inclusive American spirit can conquer all, even an impending apocalypse. Meanwhile, Monáe’s full-length accompanying video — billed as an “emotion picture” — is far more dystopian.
2. Mitski, ‘Be the Cowboy’
On her fifth album, Mitski hasn’t figured everything out. Her asymmetrical songs are still trying to make sense of lust, love, life as a performer and countless contradictory impulses. But she has grown ever bolder musically, moving well beyond the confines of indie rock and chamber pop to try synthesizers, disco beats, country and more, while savoring the sweep of her voice. On her larger canvas, her dilemmas just sound more immediate.
3. serpentwithfeet, ‘soil’
Intimate confidences grow dizzying and titanic in the songs of Josiah Wise, who records as serpentwithfeet. As he sings about love at its most devotional and all-consuming, his androgynous voice arrives as a multitude — tenor and falsetto, whisper and proclamation, moan and chant — and it appears from all directions. His vocals become dialogues, colloquies, choirs, armies and ghostly wisps, all part of an endless search for connection.
4. Esperanza Spalding, ’12 Little Spells’
The songs on “12 Little Spells” have extensive intellectual superstructures. The lyrics are tied to particular body parts, while the music flaunts its jazzy chord progressions, devious melodies, odd meters and cleverly interlocking patterns. No matter; Spalding sings her complex insights with such breezy charm that the songs come across as lighthearted, even lightheaded.
5. Neneh Cherry, ‘Broken Politics’
Contemplating the current state of the world led Neneh Cherry and her husband, Cameron McVey, to write songs that mix meditation and puckishness, global concerns and personal reflections: “It’s my politics living in a slow jam,” she sings. Four Tet’s production sets her voice amid plinking, pinging loops and subtle beats, a surreally synthetic backdrop that somehow feels homey and organic.
6. Rosalía, ‘El Mal Querer’
Spanish singer and songwriter Rosalía Vila Tobella, now 25, immersed herself in the deepest traditions of flamenco before infusing them into thoroughly contemporary pop. With her songs on “El Mal Querer” (which could translate as “Bad Desire” or “Bad Love”), produced by electronic musician El Guincho and others, she explores passion, jealousy and betrayal while handclaps interweave with minimal trap beats and the arabesques of flamenco singing segue into Auto-Tuned quavers: age-old sentiments expressed in the present tense.
7. Ariana Grande, ‘Sweetener’
To celebrate romantic and carnal bliss along with career success while trying not to sound too smug, Ariana Grande enlisted pop-factory experts — Pharrell Williams, Max Martin — to clear ample space around her voice. Elaborate yet insistently skeletal tracks let her vocals tease, swoop, push back against pressure, blossom into harmonies and bask in satisfaction. And then, less than three months after the album’s release came a postscript, a single announcing that the romance was over: “Thank U, Next.”
8. Soccer Mommy, ‘Clean’
Sophie Allison, the 21-year-old songwriter who records as Soccer Mommy, got her start with home-recorded songs, and her official debut album, “Clean,” still relies on low-fi fundamentals: spindly but sinewy guitar parts and a voice that doesn’t hide its imperfections. Her songs grapple with desire, insecurity, betrayal and self-assertion, learning from every bruised emotion.
9. Jupiter & Okwess, ‘Kin Sonic’
Jupiter Bokondji Ilola, the son of a Congolese diplomat, grew up in Tanzania and East Germany but returned to the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. He leads a band, Okwess (“food” in the Kibunda language), that draws on rhythms and languages from all around Congo. It’s a statement of unity; it’s also a trove of ideas that happens to be magnificently funky, with a different groove in every song.
10. Autechre, ‘NTS Sessions 1-4’
The electronic duo Autechre delivered a magnum opus — eight hours of music — commissioned by the online London station NTS. It’s a fully imagined artificial universe of improbable timbres and rhythms, of repetitions cracked and warped, of long waits and sudden tangents, of propulsion and suspension, of expectations set up and undermined, of menacing implications and funny noises. Brittle, fractured, pointillistic patterns lead, eventually, to weightless, sustained rapture. The final track is nearly an hour long: a reverential, euphoric haze.
1. The 1975, “Love It if We Made It”
2. Sade, “The Big Unknown”
3. Rosanne Cash featuring Sam Phillips, “She Remembers Everything”
4. Jorja Smith, “Blue Lights”
5. The Internet, “Look What U Started”
6. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow”
7. Kendrick Lamar, “Black Panther”
8. Fatoumata Diawara, “Nterini”
9. Richard Thompson, “The Storm Won’t Come”
10. Cardi B featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin, “I Like It”
11. Sudan Archives, “Nont for Sale”
12. Anderson .Paak, “6 Summers”
13. boygenius, “Bite the Hand”
14. Marie Davidson, “Work It”
15. Yo La Tengo, “Shades of Blue”