Looking at my list of favorite albums of the past year illustrates why serious music fans like to follow artists. They’re going to grow, evolve, please us, frustrate us and sometimes surprise us.
1. David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant - Talking Heads were the greatest band ever. Period. They were an intriguing collective anchored by Kentucky’s own Chris Frantz on the drums. But at the center of it all was quirky frontman David Byrne whose interests guided the Heads through projects like True Stories and his own career through collaborations with Twyla Tharp, Brian Eno and many, many others. When I heard he was teaming with idiosyncratic artist St. Vincent, my immediate thought was, “That’s perfect!” But it was so much more than that. Love This Giant is a constantly renewing journey with two brilliant minds all anchored in brass and as exquisitely crafted as we’d expect.
2. Jack White, Blunderbuss – We have always heard Jack White in the context of bands such as The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, but knew he was the driving force and individual voice behind those acts. His solo debut brought White’s vision into full focus with two same-sex bands backing him on tracks that renewed his strongest influences. A lot of artists play the blues, but few play it like White.
3. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange – Hip hop and R&B are genres full of posturing cool, so it was refreshing when Frank Ocean stepped onto the stage at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and hung himself out there with his performance of Bad Religion, a confession of an unrequited love for another man. The story was intriguing; the album was an engrossing meditation on being a young man trying to navigate the world.
4. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die – One of the most polarizing artists of the year, you either loved her stylized, morosely idealized West Coast mope or you thought she was a complete fake — a previous career under another name fueling that perception. I loved it. At times, she tried a bit too hard. But overall, Born to Die was an astonishingly complete and compelling vision for a young artist I want to hear more from.
5. Mumford & Sons, Babel – Mumford & Sons had a strong following for a genre band when Babel was released this fall. This release just strengthened it, showing the British band’s take on American roots sounds was a genuine exploration of its possibilities. It also affirmed this is a band we will be listening to years from now.
Best single: Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars. The man is a flat-out entertainer, as his Grammy Awards and Saturday Night Live performances showed. Locked out of Heaven, which closes out the year riding high on the charts, is an addictive collection of hooks brilliantly produced to showcase one of the decade’s strongest voices.