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Each year, my colleague, Katie Hasty, and I trade off on producing a video piece on our favorite singles and albums. This year, she came up with a great list of albums for her video piece, while I did my top songs.
But I also wanted to spend a little time before the end of the year sharing a list of 10 albums that kept me smiling- or crying- through much of the year. Here are my top 10 albums of the year.
1. “Southeastern,” Jason Isbell: What a beauty of an album. Stripped down and lonely in all the right places, “Southeastern” features the former Drive-by Truckers singer sober and reflective. Some of the lines will tear your heart out if you let them and that’s a good thing.
2. “Spirit In the Room,” Tom Jones: The second in his trilogy with producer Ethan Johns, “Spirit in the Room” is Jones’ masterwork, right up there with Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash’s series of albums. He sinks his teeth into Tom Waits’ “Bad As Me” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul Of A Man” with a relish that can only come from someone who has really lived the words. A revelation.
3. “The Next Day,” David Bowie: Many of his fans had feared he had retired, but how wonderful to be wrong. In his first new studio album in 10 years, Bowie brought us right back into his arty, weird, magical world...on his terms. And it was beautiful, from the questioning “Where Are We Now” to the lovely “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and the dance-y, yet lamentable “Love Is Lost.” Plus, the videos were some of the most provocative of the year. There’s Bowie...and then there’s everyone else.
4. “The 20/20 Experience,” Justin Timberlake: No, it’s not perfect by any stretch and too much of the album feels unfinished, but when it hits its mark, as it did with “Mirrors,” “Pusher Love Girl,” and Prince homage, “Strawberry Bubblegum,” it was exhilarating.
5. “Beyonce,” Beyonce: The beauty of doing my list so late is that I get to add in Beyonce’s album that she dropped with no warning on Dec. 13. Sexy, potent, and powerful, the album’s 14 tracks show her breadth and why she is the Queen. Bow down and get drunk on Beyonce.
6. “Wake Up Ghost,” Elvis Costello and The Roots: On paper, this sounds like it shouldn’t work. In reality, the British singer/songwriter and the hip-hop collective created a work of funk, slightly sinister, groove-filled tunes that jump out of the stereo, from unrepentant “Refuse to Be Saved” to the beautifully gentle “Tripwire.”
7. “Same Trailer, Different Park,” Kacey Musgraves: One of country’s freshest new voices, Musgraves somehow managed to be both cynical on songs like “Blowin’ Smoke” and uplifting on “Follow Your Arrow” without ever sounding like she was contradicting herself. The perfect antidote to all the “bro country” out there right now.
8. “The Beast In Its Tracks,” Josh Ritter: Singer/songwriter Josh Ritter took the shards of his busted marriage and crafted them into songs of heartbreak and loss that were often breathtaking in their honesty. As he finds a new love, his despair gives way to forgiveness, but he hasn’t forgotten what it is like to feel shattered.
9. “The Electric Lady,” Janelle Monae: Yes, she’s a star, but why isn’t Monae a superstar? She has the talent, the vision, the ambition...and it was all displayed on this versatile set. You don’t have to buy into the concept—she’s playing android Cindi Mayweather— all you have to do is dance and groove and enjoy.
10. “Random Access Memories,” Daft Punk: If the album was only remixes of “Get Lucky” and “Instant Crush,” it would have still made my list, but it’s so much more. The French duo fearlessly combines their electronica with pop, disco and rock for a shape-shifting, often mind-bending musical exploration.