Year-end lists are a particular thing trying to be universal. That’s where the pleasure, and frustration, lies: discovering you agree with strangers on the internet (and trying not to be smug about it), or being miffed that strangers on the internet are wrong. At best, scrolling down a list of the year’s best “____” is like thumbing through the pages of a well thought out CD binder, streaming playlist, record crate — pick your medium.
Still, choosing the “best” of anything poses a problem: it’s dumb. If a list is universally recognized as right, it’s boring. If a list is too individual and idiosyncratic, it shuts out the reader altogether. That tension powers a perpetual motion machine for barroom debate, a full employment bill for music critics.
This kind of argument is like a game: it works when everyone playing agrees on the rules. When these arguments turn sour, it often comes down to a list pitching itself as definitive and objective. We stumble into a hallway with a floor made out of papier-mâché, plenty of places to put your foot through. Does “best” mean “most important,” “most successful,” or “my favorite”? When a critic is making the judgement, there are new wrinkles: what should be declared “best” wars with what a writer imagines will be. This is why, when a publication puts out a list, I always find myself looking for lists made by individual contributors. In the publication-wide list you find consensus, the album that was “good enough” for enough people to be the “best” overall. But rarely is that choice what most held as their favorite. It is album of the year by ranked choice voting. It tells us something about the year’s music, but it’s bloodless. Instead, it’s in those individual lists where I find real gems that would otherwise pass me by.
In that spirit, I’ve produced a list that is the obvious product of one person. I’ll lay out my criteria: It is ten spots long; I had to actually listen to the album in question a lot, without this list in mind; and, I had to think the album was good enough that I’d try to get someone else to listen to it, all of it, more than once.
That leaves off plenty of great stuff. Ten isn’t that many albums. Lots of things I liked didn’t catch me at the right moment when they came out and I’m only now picking them back up again — both of Big Thief’s albums, Jaime by Brittany Howard, and Billie Eilish’s debut all fill that space. Others, I listened to a lot, but I’m not going to push them on anyone else (I won’t tell anyone they should listen to Tove Lo’s algo-robo-scando-pop unless they already want to do that; Polo G is great, but you need to want to hear someone sing-rap over a music box to get all the way there). Finally, there were things I loved this year that came out last year (Bad Bunny) or that weren’t full albums (Rosalía).
With all that said, here are ten of the best albums of the year:
10) GoldLink — Diaspora
This album reminds me of a what a thoughtful version of Drake’s More Life, one made by someone who wrote his own raps and cared about the sounds he was touring through, might sound like.
9) Burna Boy — African Giant
I’d hear a lot of these songs before the album came out, but they found an undeniably worthy vehicle here. It deserves a listen if only to stop halfway through and Google the colonial past of Unilever.
8) (Sandy) Alex G — House of Sugar
This is a tighter record than Alex G’s last, sometimes for the worse, but often for the better. I don’t know if there’s a better recommendation than Frank Ocean’s delighted response on an episode from blonded RADIO when he heard they were playing something from it.
7) Denzel Curry — ZUU
This album delivers all the good parts of listening to a bloated, 80-minute, skit-filled major label rap record from 2003, in under 30 minutes. It’s always going to be weird to listen to someone remember XXXTentacion fondly, but after seeing Denzel Curry on The Cave, I’m glad I gave this record a real chance.
6) Tyler, the Creator — IGOR
What would Kanye sound like if he were, well, a completely different person. But what if that person overcame juvenile bullshit to make interesting, thoughtful music? Maybe a Travis Scott with ideas? This record is as good as Flower Boy, maybe better, which is high praise.
5) FKA Twigs — MAGDALENE
Happy to report that Twigs second album is exactly/nothing like what I was expecting.
4) Oso Oso — Basking in the Glow
This choice represents something about my music-listening past. It’s the kind of record I would have loved when I was thirteen but that makes me glad I’m thirty.
3) Nilüfer Yanya — Miss Universe
For the first four to five months of the year, this would have been my choice for #1. Maybe the overall conceptual arc doesn’t hang together, but it makes me very glad she’s already swinging this big.
2) Clairo — Immunity
This one is #2 because I can’t help but value pretense/ego/mess over tight, controlled excellence. Immunity is my personal favorite of the year, a wonderful gem of a record.
1) Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Let’s get it out of the way: Lana Del Rey is not Joni Mitchell. She is somewhere in the lineage of Fiona Apple, which should be enough. This is decidedly not a perfect album, if there is such a thing, but it is a messy, intriguing document of an evolving musical persona as captivating as it is confusing. The title track is like listening to one of the voiceless women Father John Misty sings about (which, it turns out, is more interesting than listening to FJM himself). It’s a great album that works as an album, despite featuring both a nine-minute song that puns “beach” and “bitch” and a Sublime cover. It’s impressive. Lana Del Rey is not “America’s greatest songwriter,” but she is very good, and so is this album. Honestly, it might be better than Red. Who knows, I’m not a professional.