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“Channel Orange” The back story and hype nearly eclipsed the album itself. Just before he released his debut, Ocean posted online an open letter explaining that he had fallen in love with a man who didn’t return his feelings. It was refreshing, then, to realize the songs on “Channel Orange” packed just as much honesty and emotional heft, a spare collection of R&B and soul that bent the boundaries of those genres.
“Lonesome Dreams” Led by Ben Schneider, a Michigan singer-songwriter now living in Los Angeles, this indie-folk ensemble delivered mightily on the early promise of its EPs. Folk and country were simply the starting points on an album transcendent with global sounds, watercolor harmonies, and a vast love of nature.
“Interstellar” The art of the perfect pop song is elusive, and yet Rose mastered it on her second solo album. With glimmers of 1980s guitar bands such as the Smiths (and a dash of the Go-Go’s), “Interstellar” was concise and celebratory at once, the kind of record that left you wanting more but electrified by what you just heard.
“Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone” Nina Simone was an iconoclast, practically a genre unto herself. Jazz, blues, folk, pop — she did it all, and on her own terms. Ndegeocello’s salute to her legacy was equally quixotic, deconstructing the songs and rebuilding them as soulful elegies to a woman who would have appreciated such fierceness.
“Cigarettes & Truckstops” That little quiver you hear in Ortega’s voice – the one that suggests she’ll burst into tears any minute now – is real. Conjuring the sass of country spitfires past (Loretta Lynn) and present (Neko Case), this Canadian singer-songwriter could also turn tender and bewitching with a line like “If you want to get your fix/ Darlin’, use me.”
“Half Way Home” A folk singer with the heart and soul of a rocker and a voice as slippery as mercury, Olsen came on strong like a cosmic blues mama on her sophomore release. She turned her heartache inside out, belting and crooning about “fruitlessly waiting for someone not thinking before they start rushing to my door.”
LOS MÍTICOS DEL RITMO
“Los Míticos del Ritmo” From Cali, Colombia, Los Míticos del Ritmo are the seven-piece studio band for British musician Will “Quantic” Holland, but the spotlight was theirs on this joyous album of instrumental cumbias. Among the originals was the most memorable cover of “Another One Bites the Dust” you’ll ever hear.
“Devotion” This English soul siren rarely raised her voice on her debut. She didn’t need to. Everything you needed to know was right there in the smoke and sultriness of her stark vision of modern R&B. “Devotion” felt familiar and fresh at the same time, at the intersection of Sade and Beyoncé.
“Put Your Back N 2 It” Step away from the speakers. That was the overwhelming sensation I got from listening to Mike Hadreas’s deeply felt second album as Perfume Genius. Often featuring just piano and his tremulous voice, the songs touched on dark moments (isolation, substance abuse, pedophilia) that somehow imparted a sense of hope and resilience.
“American Standard” I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: They don’t make singers like Dayna Kurtz anymore. Unsung and unsinkable, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter got down and dirty on this album, which felt like a crash course on the past 60 years of American music.
“Little Broken Hearts” For anyone who has ever called her Snorah (and you know you have), Jones dispelled the notion that she’s predictable with this sly, after-hours album produced by Danger Mouse.