15. Marina – Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land [Atlantic/Neon Gold]
With her fifth studio album Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, yet another return to solely her own words, Marina Diamandis re-embraces her inner strength and has quite possibly created her magnum opus. (Diamandis even characterizes it as her best album.)
“You don’t have to be like everybody else / You don’t have to fit into the norm / You are not here to conform,” she boldly asserts on the opening title track, as a reminder to both listeners and herself. “I am here to take a look inside myself / Recognize that I could be the eye, the eye of the storm.” The central theme of the record finds itself here, one that champions (without being preachy) the old souls and underdogs who have never been able to conform, the same ones who have always found themselves seen and reflected in Marina’s lyrics and stage presence. In addition to creating a safe space for those soldiers, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land also promotes the singer’s signature brand of confidence: the one we sometimes have to fake when forced to fold into inauthentic versions of ourselves. – Jeffrey Davies
14. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever [Darkroom/Interscope]
How does an artist follow When We All Fall Sleep, Where Do We Go, Billie Eilish‘s bona fide smash debut? It skyrocketed Ms. Eilish into the stratosphere, such that she only had two choices for a sequel. One, she could repeat the formula of her first album, with subversively moody lyrics in ballads and alt-pop soundscapes. Or, two, she could take a sharp left turn to an unexpected destination.
Cleverly, she and brother/producer/co-writer Finneas chose a third option. They leaned into her mood swings, dug deeper into her whispery and ethereal vocals, but then they dressed the songwriting in jazz stylings (“my future”), bossa nova (“Billie Bossa Nova”), electropop (“GOLDWING”, “OverHeated”, and rock (the title track). Those who achieve fame tend to produce records that unpack the criticism, insecurity, and loss of privacy that accompanies the achiever’s ascent. Eilish does exactly that here, relaying her experiences with the public (and often male) gaze (“Not My Responsibility”), with the changes in her relationship to music and herself (“Older”), and with her evolving understanding of personal and systemic power dynamics (“Your Power”).
Eilish continues to be a quiet singer with loud lyrics. What’s on display now is her mastery of letting her lyrics breathe so that she never crowds the rhythm. Happier Than Ever is likely a sarcastic title, given the world’s struggle with the pandemic and Eilish’s individual growth. But the lessons she’s learning are genuine, fashioned into vignettes that do more than capture the moment. Rather, she has infused these tracks that bump, pulse, and groove with a demonstration of how much distance she can cover through only the tiny steps mega-fame will afford. Fortunately, that means Billie Eilish is still on the move. – Quentin Huff
13. Demi Lovato – Dancing With the Devil [Island]
Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over is Demi Lovato like we have never heard before. They are sassy and carefree while serious about identity and personhood in a way they have been itching to be for years. Although the singer came out as bisexual in 2017, their new record embraces all the messy parts of their sexual identity and doesn’t seek to define them rigidly.
This is also the first of seven Lovato albums not to be released in conjunction with the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. The creative freedom resulting from their new management is recognizable from the moment the title track begins. “Give me a pen, I’m rewriting another ending / It didn’t turn out the way that I wanted / I had the armor, I wore it much in the summer / But the arrow hit me right where the heart is.”
Thankfully Lovato lived to reach a place of well-deserved freedom where they learned to celebrate the human they are. Especially so for an artist who had a long-established brand of recording songs called “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore” and “Old Ways” supposedly about their past selves. “Now I’m in a good place,” they preach on the standard edition closer. And for once we are finally listening and hearing them. – Jeffrey Davies
12. CHAI – Wink [Sub Pop]
Pop and punk are constantly in motion in the uniquely exuberant sounds of CHAI. Professing an inclusive doctrine of neo-kawaii in their visual and sonic aesthetics, the Nagoya-based four-piece band tend toward high energy and irrepressible positivity, all with a satisfying rock edge. It’s a little bit of a surprise, then, when the new album Wink opens not with a bang but with full-body synthpop bliss. “Donuts Mind If I Do” is slow, warm, and sweet (“Everybody fall in love with something / Sometime / Somehow,” sings lead vocalist and keyboardist Mana), with sharp hits from guitarist Kana adding height to the subtle cool of Yuuki’s subtle bassline and Yuna’s crisp drumbeats. — Adriane Pontecorvo
11. Remi Wolf – Juno [Island]
On her debut album Juno, Wolf continues to be one of pop’s biggest partiers. “Guerrilla” is a frat-house bacchanal put on a Tilt-A-Whirl, keg-stand chants and chuckling synths zooming around in a blur until the lo-fi hangover blearily comes in. And like Kesha, last decade’s star of legendary debauchery, she veers towards the grotesque without a flinch. “I could move to Pasadena just to be a serial killer,” she swoons on “Sexy Villain”, its bassline so sludgy it could be lacquered with the blood of her victims.
More so than her previous EPs, Juno is a garish and zany funhouse of different genres. On “wyd”, she blends slot-machine synths, Doja Cat yelps, and a static-fried electric guitar into a medicated swirl. At half-speed, “Volkiano” could have been landfill bedroom pop in the same sleepy bossa nova-infused strain as “Surfaces”, but its sputtering horns and lava-bright harmonies are revitalizing. Towards the album’s end is “Sally”, which begins plaintive and minor as a mid-2000s rock song until Billy Joel piano keys chug in and the beat ping-pongs around into a frenetic jungle-like stutter. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel of her past discography so much as she expands it to greater, more joyous heights. – Austin Nguyen