In a year when your favorite long-dormant musical act finally released new material after a multi-year hiatus, only a precious few releases -- from voices old and new -- were truly able to capture the pop culture zeitgeist. These are those albums.
10. Mack Keane - 2107 EP (MasonMack)
One listen to "I Would", the stunning horn-centric slice of soul that sits at the heart of NYC-bred Mack Keane's 2107 EP, and it's obvious that beyond some obvious blue-eyed soul comparisons, Keane means what he sings, continuing on Jamie Lidell's electronic/R&B hybrid experiments to its logical conclusion. From the midnight bedroom sleekness of "Unconventional" to the stuttering "Benny and the Jets"-aping piano bounce of "Model Behavior", Keane establishes his pop credentials firmly on this seven-track sampler of his skills, seemingly stuck between genres but never once sounding out of place. He masters any style of song thrown his way without succumbing to mere chamelonisms, his vibrant warble finding its place within the songs but never showboating just for the sake of it. No matter which way you slice it, this is an absolutely thrilling debut.
9. !!! -- Shake the Shudder (Warp)
Let's pour one out for !!!, shall we? It seems that no matter how brilliant and propulsive their shuddering brand of dance-rock gets, people just kind of expect this level of quality from Nic Offer at this point, almost to the point of dismissal. It's a real shame too, because Shake the Shudder marks yet another high watermark for the band, mixing hard grooves with weird lyrics and this time out featuring some of the group's synthiest excursions yet. "The One 2" tussles with drum-and-bass for the first time ever, but the humorous lounge groove of "Imaginary Interviews" shows that no matter how (or how little) press !!! receives these days, Offer isn't without a great sense of humor. Joke's on us though: !!! are just going to keep getting better whether we give them the time of day or not. Would write more about this album but can't: too busy dancing.
8. Amelia Airhorn - Amelia Airhorn (self-released)
Release for free due to the sheer number of samples used here that would be too expensive to license, this glorious mixtape matches up the sleek dance music kings The Knocks with the creator of PopMatters' 2015 Best Pop Album Skylar Spence, and the melding of minds results in a project that doesn't even try to hide how much it sounds like The Avalanches, which is just -- great. Songs are built out of scraps and pieces, meaning you hear a bit of a pitch-shifted Jay-Z verse here, the Friends TV theme song there, a crazy drum break underscoring all of that. The two "Street Performers" are custom-made for getting crazy on the dance floor and "NY Is Red Hot" grinds and boogies with horns blaring out the lead melody lines, but it's that solo pop single that is "Miracle" that truly captivates, the first new lick of Skylar Spence music we've heard in some time. It's a barn-stormer of a banger, rife with sampled disco strings, Daft Punk-aping synth work underneath, and a feeling of euphoria that washes over you before the song even ends. The whole album may have been conceived as a one-off goof of a collaboration, but these songs will stick with us for years to come.
7. Lorde - Melodrama (Lava)
It's hard to know what we were expecting for Lorde's second full-length, 'cos as dominating and intriguing as her sparse-beats-meets-hyperspecific-lyrics mindset was, her debut album came out when she was only 16 years old. Impressive as it was, a lot can change during your teenage years, so when she took four years until the release of Melodrama, we didn't know certain things, like how she had snuck off to make the album with go-to pop music producer Jack Antonoff, whose piano-based pop leanings seemed like a natural fit for everyone's favorite New Zealand diva. The end result was still surprising though, as her songs were more fully musically realized, more fleshed out. Her lyrics, however, were as cutting as ever, and songs like "Homemade Dynamite" and "Supercut" showed off her biting view towards romance, later dropping casual swears in the midst of otherwise soundtrack-ready songs like "Perfect Places" because why not? Lorde's been offered a lot of freedom in a very short amount of time, and she's using every inch of it to lay out a very specific vision -- we're all just lucky to bear witness.
6. St. Vincent - MASSEDUCTION (Loma Vista)
St. Vincent wasn't in need of saving: she switched to the major label system for 2014's self-titled effort, and it turned into her highest-charting record yet despite the fact that it was arguably her weirdest record to date.. Yet the St. Vincent we get on MASSEDUCTION can't turn off what turns it on, and even with some Jack Antonoff pop overtones, it somehow manages to out-weird even its predecessor, layering the guitar parts and over-elaborate production to the point where it feels like the album is an alien machine that spits out nothing but sex jams for robots that can feel. Yet as lusty and lovely as the whole affair is, Annie Clark still found time to write her most concise and unadorned pop songs to date, leaving "New York" as a true blue classic that sits outside of her eccentricities yet is born from them regardless. It's a stunning work from one of indie rock's most daring artists, a pop record that's recognizable in structure but gloriously foreign in the details that could only come from St. Vincent and no one else.