John Preston shares his top 10 albums of the year, in no particular order.
Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters
Of the albums Lana Del Rey released this year, it seemed likely that Blue Bannisters would be the riskier choice of the two, what with the departure of frequent producer Jack Antonoff (he produced the other, more mannered Chemtrails Over the Country Club) and the inclusion of several songs that had been floating around as demos for years. Beautiful, disturbing and sometimes laugh out loud funny, Lana Del Rey continued to prove everyone wrong, however.
Self Esteem, Prioritise Pleasure
Self Esteem’s debut from 2019, Compliments Please, was very good but criminally overlooked. With this record, Self Esteem (aka Rebecca Lucy Taylor) has now got the attention of a significantly larger crowd. More sonically cohesive and with a singular, simpler message of ‘fuck them’, this is a thrillingly powerful record that will make you dance, laugh, think, and wonder why more pop music can’t sound like this.
LOW, HEY WHAT
‘Textural’ feels too limited a word to try and describe the fractured soundscapes of husband and wife duo LOW, but it does come close in capturing what appears to be the fundamental point of the band’s music over the last five to six years. Wondrous harmonies, static and clashing electronic frequencies, wilful distortion and pure, organic space and sound, HEY WHAT captured something magical and moving that no one else has been able to.
Halsey, If I Can’t Have Power, I Want Love
An intriguing and unlikely collaboration between pop singer Halsey and Nine Inch Nails frontman and soundtrack composer Trent Reznor pays dividends, and then some. A story is told here with a distinct beginning, middle and end, and along the way Halsey narrates and plays various parts with passion and conviction along with some stupendous tunes. It’s all you need and this is a record that makes it sound so easy.
Laura Marling’s electro-prog side-project with Mike Lindsay is so beautifully crafted and musically exceptional that it is hard to believe that this is not their main gig. Animal encourages constant revisits as its undulating electronic rhythms are so melodic and appealing, whilst remaining resolutely strange and lyrically surreal, that there is a dopamine thrill experienced when occupying this otherworldly soundscape. And that’s before taking into account Marling’s twin-side as an authoritative and seductive synth-pop chanteuse.
LoneLady, Former Things
The beats and rhythms on indie rock artist LoneLady’s reinvention album, Former Things, borrow mainly from the New York-centric and underground electro-hip-hop from the late 80s whilst maintaining a very British synth-pop sensibility from the decade that followed. There is a boisterous and staccato severity that is the foundation for almost every song here but LoneLady adds warmth in unusual ways, resulting in a dance record that feels like so much more.
Aimee Mann, Queens of the Summer Hotel
There is a musicality to Aimee Mann’s 10th album that would lead the curious to dig deeper and discover that this is a lost soundtrack to a musical version of Girl, Interrupted. Aimee Mann’s songwriting has never been more transcendent both lyrically and melodically, and the often full orchestra arrangements know when to swell and then when to shrink back. One of the America’s most accomplished singer-songwriters’ best albums.
Boys Noize, +/-
Boys Noize has remained a leader and innovator of underground club music, occupying a subcultural space which has a lot of standing room. It’s a career in which he has consistently managed to attract an intriguing mix of contemporary vocalists, which on this occasion include Rico Nasty, Kelsey Lu and ABRA. Cold industrial techno clanks shoulders with crystalline pop and deranged club bangers, but it’s all so perfectly realised that nothing jars or feels like filler as is often the case for producer-led dance albums.
Magdalena Bay, Mercurial World
There is a lot on Mercurial World to take in, not that it ever feels like a chore. Aaliyah, smooth disco, a Madonna reference and even Stevie Nicks make up a vintage set of references with a shimmering coat of electro pop that belongs to the here and now. There are wonderful songs here about extreme emotions and relationships, and Magdalena Bay have made an album which slowly reveals all of its charms before it takes you captive.
HARDFEELINGS, HARD FEELINGS
Dance music and particularly disco, or an interpretation of the genre at least, has gone mainstream over the last 18 months or so of semi-lockdown life. Lead singer and established songwriter Amy Douglas and Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard share a love affair with nightlife and its soundtrack throughout the decades – and over deep house, disco and even hi-energy, they prove that soul is often the missing, but essential, ingredient needed to elevate things to that next glorious level.