This month is dedicated to highlighting the best music of the year. Here’s The Chronicle’s list of best albums of the year.
Kendrick Lamar, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” (PGLang/TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
The long-awaited follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Damn” was worth the wait.
Arguably the best rapper on the planet, Kendrick Lamar delivered a triumphant statement on what it means to create while standing firmly at the top of the hip-hop mountain.
The track “N95” is a deep essay on self-analysis and authenticity amid his incredible fame, veiled as a critique of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Take off them fabricated streams / And them microwave memes / It’s a real world outside,” he raps.
But “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” isn’t solely about dealing with fame. The Compton-bred artist tackles subjects that rappers are afraid to touch: transphobia (“Auntie Diaries”); daddy issues (“Father Time” featuring Sampha); and violent, destructive relationships (“We Cry Together” featuring actress Taylour Paige), among other topics.
It’s also filled with some of the best hip-hop production of the year and notable featured guests. Sounwave, Boi-1da, Jahaan Sweet and Beach Noise’s beat on “Silent Hill” (featuring Kodak Black) especially stands out. Even Portishead’s Beth Gibbons appears on “Mother I Sober.”
Lamar’s fifth studio album is yet another portrait of what an all-time great looks like — and his supporting cast shows that it doesn’t have to be lonely at the top.
Warning: The following video contains explicit content
Widowspeak, “The Jacket” (Captured Tracks)
The sixth album from dreamy, gazy Brooklyn indie band Widowspeak might just be the best of its excellent discography.
Singer and primary songwriter Molly Hamilton is a Tacoma, Wash., native whose delivery has slowly become as mesmerizing as that of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. Cowboy Western guitar grooves from Robert Earl Thomas highlight lush and lovely soundscapes for the band to riff off of and build inviting melodies.
The album’s 10 songs flow together beautifully, like the perfect soundtrack to an evening at home. Songs like “Unwind” and “While You Wait” help listeners take much needed breaths at the end of a hard day, while Hamilton’s lyrics always offer a smile. “Do you ever get tired of swimming? / Are you sleeping more in the west? / Wash your hair with peppermint and lemon / Palomine on your breath,” she sings on “True Blue.”
There was nary a better companion piece to shutting the world off for a flash this year.
FKA Twigs, “Caprisongs” (Young/Atlantic)
Reeling from an alleged abusive relationship with actor Shia LaBeouf, “Caprisongs” sees FKA Twigs reclaiming her agency, asserting her feminine energy and pushing the limits of avant-pop at every turn. En vogue musical trends coalesce on the album, and the British singer and dancer is fluent in all of them, always challenging the notions of conventional pop music.
“Careless” sees her crooning passionately on a sultry R&B cut with Canadian singer Daniel Caesar. Hyperpop meets Caribbean rhythms on “Papi Bones” with British vocalist/rapper Shygirl, while “Tears in the Club” sees her embracing massive radio-friendly pop with a foot firmly in the avant garde with the Weeknd. Then on “Darjeeling,” she’s joined with R&B songstress Jorja Smith and U.K. drill rapper Unknown T, for one of the impeccable collaborations of the year.
Rosalía, “Motomami” (Columbia)
On “Saoko,” the opening track to “Motomami,” Rosalía interpolates elements from Wisin y Yandel’s 2004 early reggaeton staple, “Saoco,” before delivering the fierce hook: “Me contradigo, yo me transformo. Soy to’a’ las cosa’, yo me transformo!” (Translation: “I contradict myself, I transform. I am all of the things, I transform.”) It’s the thesis statement to the Spaniard’s follow-up to 2018’s Grammy-winning “El Mal Querer,” a Flamenco pop touchstone. But with “Motomami,” she’s become much more than that.
Rosalía left Catalonia and ventured to Miami and Puerto Rico to immerse in reggaeton at its source. That journey informs the output on the thrilling “Motomami,” from the South Beach flair of “La Fama” (where she duets with the Weeknd and even gets him to sing in Spanish), to the infectious “Chicken Teriyaki,” where she adds to the Urbano lexicon.
While “Motomami” is an homage to a movement, it also proves that Rosalia belongs among the world’s biggest Spanish-speaking stars.
Warning: The following video contains explicit content
Tim Bernardes, “Mil Coisas Invisíveis” (Psychic Hotline)
A relatively new face in Brazilian music, Tim Bernardes is an artist in the mold of greats like Caetano Veloso and Raul Seixas. He is a deft songwriter, singing about love, romance and the beauty of the world as only a Brazilian can.
Look no further than the album’s lead single, “BB (Garupa de Moto Amarela),” where over a beautifully psychedelic and blooming arrangement, Bernardes sings the gorgeous opening verse: “Tudo em volta tem me confirmado, bebê./ Que eu e você/ Somos coisa de alma./ O universo tem deixado claro, bebê./ Só quem não quer ver, não enxerga.” (Translation: Everything around me tells me it’s true, babe. That you and I are of the same soul. The universe has made it clear, babe. And whoever can’t see it, is blind.”)
Bernardes, who represents the unique Bohemian poetry of Brazilian artists, visited the Bay Area earlier this year when he opened for Fleet Foxes, with whom he collaborated with for the recently released song, “A Sky Like I’ve Never Seen” from the Amazon Original Movie “Wildcat.” But for anyone who didn’t catch the concert at the Greek Theatre, the stunning “Mil Coisas Inviseveís” offers an opportunity to experience Bernardes at his finest.
Makaya McCraven, “In These Times” (International Anthem)
Percussionist, composer and producer Makaya McCraven has released six albums since 2017, but none make a statement like “In These Times.”
Born in France to a Hungarian mother and African American father (both musicians), the 39-year-old has called Chicago home for the past 15 years. “In These Times” is a reflection of the sounds of the world that have shaped the jazz musician, and it’s a sublime listening experience.
The cinematic “Seventh String” sees McCraven operating briskly on the drums with a bustling orchestral arrangement enveloping him. “Dream Another” introduces a flute and South Asian strings alongside his drums and chimes. “Lullaby” leans heavily on the harp, played by the incomparable Brandee Younger. As a whole, the album showcases how McCraven is not simply a masterful drummer, but also a skilled composer leading the exciting future of jazz music.