Observer music writer Courtney Devores rounds up her favorite albums of the past year:
1. Lydia Loveless’s “Real”: The Ohio singer-songwriter has never shied away from brutally honest, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking lyrics. On her fourth record, she comes across as more vulnerable but no less tough and steers toward the pop side of her alt-country/folk-rock sound for 12 absolute earworms. From the stalker love song “European” to the sarcastic “Midwestern Guys” to the stellar title track, “Real” rarely leaves the turntable.
2. Phantogram’s “Three”: Full disclosure, this is my 6-year-old son’s favorite band, so we heard this album a lot. “Three” is an emotionally charged collection following the suicide of co-vocalist Sarah Barthel’s sister last winter, and Barthel and musical partner Josh Carter address that loss on beautiful songs like “The Answer” and “Destroyer.” But don’t cave under the thematic heft – there are also dance-rock romps like “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore.”
3. Amanda Shires’s “My Piece of Land”: Written while the singer-songwriter/fiddler was under doctor’s orders to stay home from touring in the last trimester of her pregnancy, Shires outdoes herself ruminating on impending motherhood, family, distance and home. The song “Mineral Wells,” about growing up the child of divorce, is jaw-droppingly good.
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4. Aesop Rock’s “The Impossible Kid”: The veteran rapper pens odes to his kitten Kirby and waxes nostalgic about seeing Ministry in concert as a kid and his strained relationship with his brother. He does it all with a literary level of detail and musical creativity that keeps the listener’s ears open through repeat plays, while the catchy, creative production warrants the repetition.
5. B.J. Barham’s “Rockingham”: The frontman for Raleigh’s American Aquarium wrote these eight tracks about life back in his hometown in Rockingham County while touring Europe during the Paris attacks last year. Stripped down and folksy, Barham – who writes rocking country songs with his band – shows hints of greatness in league with John Prine, Drive-By Truckers and Josh Ritter.
6. Esperanza Spalding presents: “Emily’s D+Evolution”: The loss of Spalding’s one-time collaborator Prince left a seemingly unfillable void, but the acclaimed jazz bassist’s adoption of her alter-ego Emily, who flits from jazz to funk to rock to R&B with little regard for genre and ample attention to the theatrical, would probably make the purple one proud.
7. Faye’s “Faye”: I would have been a total groupie, in front of the show at every show, if this Charlotte trio had been around in the ’90s or early 2000s. Co-vocalists Sarah Blumenthal (bass) and Sarah Plante (guitar) channel everything good about ’90s riot grrrl, alt-rock and indie pop that would have been at home at Sub Pop or K Records back in the day. Plus, the ode to Plante’s deceased dog, “Ancient Bones,” is the best track I’ve heard in years.
8. Santigold’s “99 Cents”: The musically adventurous Brooklyn-based artist may have admittedly had more fun making this, her third album, but that doesn’t mean it’s intellectually light. She tackles selfie-culture, the power she draws from multi-tasking motherhood, and consumerism, but she does it all as a soundtrack for a dance party.
9. Against Me!’s “Shape Shift With Me”: The second album frontwoman Laura Jane Grace has made since her transition from male to female doesn’t address gender identity as deeply as her band’s groundbreaking and intimate 2014 album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” But it rages with the same punk furor and pop hooks, while still crossing into uncharted lyrical waters.
10. Beyonce’s “Lemonade”: Continuing the self-aware ascent she started in 2013, Bey drew curious listeners with barbs culled presumably from her own imperfect relationship. But more than her willingness to go there, it’s the evolution from the girl-power anthems of her Destiny’s Child youth to more-progressive feminism (heavy on what it means to be black and female in today’s world) that made this such a revelation.