1. Hercules and Love Affair — The Feast of the Broken Heart (Big Beat/Atlantic)
The joyous third album from Andy Butler’s disco-house group is a bracing paean to the queer underground. Its jacking, analog-worshipping house beats are full of crafty and subtle touches, and the songwriting overflows with confrontational emotionalism thanks to a roster of top-notch collaborators that includes Krystle Warren and John Grant (and John Waters if you count the hilarious samples from Mondo Trasho).
2. D’Angelo and The Vanguard — Black Messiah (RCA/Sony)
After a 14-year wait, funk showman D’Angelo rush released his third album in the wake of mass protests against the killings of unarmed black men by police. Black Messiah includes warped and distressing songs that allude to violence and dispossession but also playful missives about sex and love that are as potent as anything else on the album. Melodies simmer and pop through squalling guitar and fiery funk basslines. The vibe is as loose as the analog production is studious. Although the influences are spiritual and gospel, Black Messiah is the year’s most compellingly humanistic album.
3. Perfume Genius — Too Bright (Matador/Beggars)
A radical pop album that plays like a queer and femme-y spin on PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, Too Bright is full of experimental earworms that boldly challenge marginalizing societal attitudes with lyrics like “No family is safe when I sashay.” With so many fucked-up double standards laid bare this year, Mike Hadreas’s timing could not have been better.
4. Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)
Killer Mike and El-P’s instant hip-hop classic is a grimy and aggressive takedown of vapid machismo and its many forms (namely, police brutality, political corruption and misogyny) that also manages to uphold a semblance of freakishness that should go over nicely on particularly dirty dancefloors. Thrilling guest verses by Zack de la Rocha and Gangsta Boo seal the deal.
5. Dum Dum Girls — Too True (Sub Pop)
A tight, punchy pop album that hovers between conviction and detachment. Dee Dee Penny turns complex feelings into direct and timeless pop that channels Ronnie Spector by way of the dreamy distortion and guitar effects of 1980s and ’90s shoegaze. You don’t imagine her staring in a mirror as she sings, but rather waking up in the morning to face a blurry makeup imprint on her pillow.
6. Eli Escobar — Up All Night (Night People)
Proof that real-estate prices have not sent every New York DJ packing for Europe, Up All Night is alive with nocturnal energy that transforms heady disco riffs and rhythms into gritty and glamorous house music that feels inextricably New York. Best of all, it indulges in a little regional weave-snatching by flipping Sylvester’s SF disco classic “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight” into a bangin’ NYC club anthem.
7. The Juan Maclean — In a Dream (DFA Records)
Some of the best pop albums are the ones about getting old that don’t sound old. (Usually those albums are made by Pet Shop Boys or Saint Etienne.) In a Dream is an album about getting old that sounds vintage. Yes, there is a difference. Meticulously produced on analog gear, it combines elements of prog, cosmic disco and New Romanticism to utterly gorgeous effect.
8. Arca — Xen (Mute)
Arca makes electronic music that sounds like a stream-of-conscious therapy session that goes to hell and back again. It is instrumental and abstract, and yet the emotions — which apparently spring from identity and gender issues — could not feel more vivid or personal. A strange and enticing album.
9. Azealia Banks — Broke with Expensive Taste (Prospect Park)
One of rap’s most adventurous MCs surprise-released her debut LP three years after her club single “212” blew up online. Dance tracks on hip-hop albums tend to reek of tokenism, but Banks is unashamedly in love with four-on-the-floor rhythms — classic UK garage and ’90s acid, specifically — and her singing and melodies are as beautiful as her rhymes are bawdy.
10. Tink — Winter’s Diary 2 (Independent)
So-called futuristic R&B that pairs irregular rhythms with traditional themes of love was a hot topic this year, but experimental sounds are not the only way to measure progression. Chicago singer/rapper Tink’s missives about the spoils and pitfalls of young love are a reminder that buttery harmonies and finger-snapping will do the trick if they become gateways for complicated dreams, moods and feelings.