In recent years, I’ve had a way of coming up with top album choices that haven’t been on the radar of most publications. This year, I can’t for the life of me understand how my album of the year, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s “No Mercy in This Land,” hasn’t shown up on any best albums lists I’ve seen so far. (It just, however, got nominated for a Grammy.)
Perhaps I hear virtues no one else notices. Maybe I’m clueless when it comes to recognizing great music. Or, maybe a lot of critics have decided blues-rooted music isn’t relevant these days. Whatever the case, “No Mercy in This Land” has stayed atop my best album list since it was released last spring. Here’s my full list of this year’s best albums.
1. BEN HARPER & CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: “No Mercy in This Land.” The album starts with a bang reeling off five sterling rockers that bridge the worlds of blues, gospel, soul and rock, beginning with the stinging “When I Go” and culminating with “Found The One,” a rousing gumbo of funk, soul and rock that feels like it could have been a left field hit single. From there, Harper and Musselwhite spread out, with acoustic tunes and a couple of lovely ballads. Together, the songs on “No Mercy in This Land” provide a master class in blues and related styles.
2. LUCY DACUS: “Historian.” Dacus makes quite an introduction with the opening track, “Night Shift,” which takes a biting look at a breakup and musically builds from a low-key beginning to a thrilling crescendo. More winning moments follow, as Dacus shows she has the musical and lyrical chops to make some history while she continues her musical story.
3. KACEY MUSGRAVES: “Golden Hour.” This luminous album finds Musgraves pondering what’s right in the world, lyrically dropping hints along the way about her life, her hopes and who she is as a person. The songs are pretty and finely crafted, ranging from the bluegrass-flecked “Love is a Wild Thing” to poppier fare, such as “Slow Burn” and the standout tune “Happy & Sad.” I do miss the more rambunctious country side Musgraves occasionally showed on her two earlier albums, but it’s hard to fault an album as strong and thoughtful as “Golden Hour.”
4. SUPERCHUNK: “What A Time To Be Alive.” For almost 30 years, this band from Chapel Hill, N.C., has been responsible for some of the best melodic, high-energy rock on the scene. “What a Time to Be Alive” doesn’t vary much from the Superchunk template, but with the band’s songwriting remaining at a peak, change is the last thing this band needs.
5. FANTASTIC NEGRITO: “Please Don’t Be Dead.” Blurring the lines between soul, rock, blues and rap, Negrito delivers a diverse and dynamic collection of sharply written songs that’s anything but dead. The eclecticism of “Please Don’t Be Dead” may be challenging at first, but the more you listen, the more this Grammy-nominated album impresses.
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6. MITSKI: “Be The Cowboy.” Mitski isn’t easy to pin down stylistically. There’s some Kate Bush, Cat Power, a little Bowie, Florence + the Machine and Morrissey, to name a few touchstones, in her songs. Whatever the musical setting, the songs, with only a couple of exceptions, are very good and entertaining.
7. JANELLE MONAE: “Dirty Computer.” Adapting a more personal perspective on this collection, Monae is both brazenly confident — her declarations on the joys and the power of her sexuality in “Screwed,” “I Got The Juice” and “Django Jane” don’t pull punches — and uncommonly vulnerable (just listen to the artifice-shedding confessions of “Don’t Judge Me” or the fragility of “So Afraid”). Her sound still is a futuristic mix of hip-hop, rock, soul and electronica, with a good bit of classic songcraft, too. “Dirty Computer” reaffirms that Monae is one of the most intriguing and compelling artists on the scene.
8. BRIAN FALLON: “Sleepwalkers.” The frontman from Gaslight Anthem returns with his second solo album, pulling back a bit on the intensity of that band and broadening his musical range a bit. Hopefully, Gaslight Anthem will make more music, but Fallon is doing fine on his own.
9. FATHER JOHN MISTY: “God’s Favorite Customer.” It’s tempting to view Josh Tillman — as his alter ego Father John Misty — as being more open and vulnerable than ever on “God’s Favorite Customer.” But his songs still seem more like puzzles with clever wordplay and maybe a little insight into Tillman’s state of mind or his character. Trying to interpret his songs is part of the fun with this album, while the songs, which evoke the likes of the Beatles, Harry Nilsson and Bob Dylan, are strong enough musically to carry the album alone.
10. SCREAMING FEMALES: “All at Once.” Seven albums into their career, the Screaming Females continue to get better at creating multifaceted, hard-edge and taut guitar rock. On “All at Once,” the band consistently unfurls winning songs that take unexpected twists and turns in tempos, melody and riffs.
HONORABLE MENTION: Amanda Shires: “To The Sunset”; Kali Uchis: “Isolation”; Ashley Monroe: “Sparrow”; Rosanne Cash: “She Remembers Everything”; Parquet Courts: “Wide Awake”; Saba: “Care For Me”; Paul Collins: “Out of My Head”; Cardi B: “Invasion of Privacy”; Ron Gallo: “Stardust Birthday Party”; Pusha T: “Daytona”