The 10 Best Albums We Heard In January
Every December, the NPR Music team peruses 11 months' worth of albums and songs and crams its collective reflections and critical assessments into a handful of big lists. This year we've decided to dissect the torrent of new releases as they're happening and share a list of the most notable albums and songs from each month. January featured a couple of consensus favorites: We loved Sharon Van Etten's Remind Me Tomorrow for its sonic adventure and deeply personal revelations on love and motherhood; Pedro The Lion's first official album in 15 years, Phoenix, delivered potent tales of lost youth and the universal struggle to fit in a troubled world. Other highlights on our multi-genre list include Florence Price, a pioneering African American composer in the Jim Crow era, Belgian-Congolese DJ and producer Nkisi, the electro-folk of Ecuadoran artist Nicola Cruz and ... well, just scroll downward and you'll see.
Oh, and you'll also want to check out our list of the 20 best songs we heard in January over here.
Better Oblivion Community Center
Better Oblivion Community Center
This surprise popped out into the world last week and immediately this collaboration between Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst became my favorite record of this young year. They call their project Better Oblivion Community Center. The album is, as I understand it, a conceptual record with an imagined wellness center called the Better Oblivion Community Center as its linchpin. Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers complement each other in voice and in words in ways that feel eerily as if they've been together for decades, even though their first public collaboration was on Phoebe Bridgers' 2017 debut album. It's a rich, thoughtful record that I'll spend this year digging and digging into. —Bob Boilen
Bring Me The Horizon
Too often, when hard rockers play with other musical categories, they stomp all over them. Not this English favorite of heavy music connoisseurs and emo teens alike. Always one of the most evocative and experimental on the Warped Tour spectrum, on its sixth album Bring Me The Horizon goes deep into the electronic sphere and crafts some great pop hooks in the process. Still heavy, though! —Ann Powers
Layale Chaker & Sarafand
French-Lebanese violinist and composer Layale Chaker offers up a beguiling debut that intertwines the bright and beautiful strands of her musical life so far: Western classical music, jazz, and the rich legacy of Arab music and poetry. Structurally, the album limns the architecture of the 12 classical Arabic poetic meters — but you don't have to be steeped in that heritage to appreciate the gorgeous, wine-dark swirls of her music. —Anastasia Tsioulcas
Siku is a meditation on vibrations. A blend of folkloric music from Nicola Cruz's native Ecuador with electronic music, it involves collaborations with other musicians (the title is a reference to an Andean wind instrument and a tradition of playing in pairs, Cruz recently told NPR's Scott Simon) as well as experiments that sent him deep into the land around him. Literally: Cruz recorded the track "Arka" in a cave. He records for ZZK Records, a Buenos Aires-based collective of artists whose music continually blows my mind – if you don't know the label, Siku is a perfect place to start. —Felix Contreras
Dawn Richard is one of those artists who finds comfort (and maybe even creative fuel) in being in flux. The New Orleans native formerly known as D∆WN plays a strategic game of genre hopscotch on her latest album, new breed. The 10-track project serves as both an ode to hers hometown and an open love letter to any woman of color who's felt unappreciated, oversimplified or underestimated. Bops on new breed range from highly symbolic pop ballads ("vultures/wolves") to sexy, straightforward proclamations ("shades") to spoken-word teardowns of other people's preconceived notions ("we, diamonds"). Dawn Richard takes the listener all around her city and into the depths of her mind, where every insecurity is balanced with a mantra. —Sidney Madden
Fort Smith Symphony / John Jeter
Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4
A pioneering composer in Jim Crow-era America, Florence Price acknowledged her struggles when she wrote: "I have two handicaps — I am a woman and I have some Negro blood in my veins." These two symphonies deftly blend European and African-American traditions and mark two pivotal points in her amazing story. Premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, Price's Symphony No. 1 marked the first time a work by an African-American woman had been performed by a major orchestra. And this world premier recording of her Fourth signals a boost for Price (who died in 1953) as it was recently discovered among a trove of manuscripts thought lost forever. —Tom Huizenga
Sonic particles collide and combust on London producer Nkisi's debut album, 7 Directions, as if in the slipstream of a thousand planetary movements. Cosmic synths rise above chaotic drums that count Congolese polyrhythmic percussion and Belgium's 1990s gabber scene amongst their forebears. The sound design is exquisite: a digitalised intake of breath bolsters a beat on "II," while an unknown entity calls out a high-pitched greeting on "VII." This is trance music in the ritual sense, not the genre. It can lift your senses into another dimension on a long walk just as easily as it fosters a meditative state on the dance floor. —Ruth Saxelby
Pedro The Lion
In the 15 years since the last Pedro The Lion record, singer-songwriter David Bazan has released a string of solo albums — some unrelentingly bleak, some brash and hard-driving, all shot through with insight about human nature — and spun off a few side projects like Headphones, Overseas and Lo Tom. Now, Bazan has re-formed his old band and brightened his sound on Phoenix, the first in a planned series of records about the places in which he came of age. Each freshly invigorated new song bursts with diaristic detail and relentless reflection on the moments that shape us and the compromises we make along the way. —Stephen Thompson
Sharon Van Etten
Remind Me Tomorrow
Sharon Van Etten has stayed busy over the past few years. Between 2014's Are We There and her latest album, she spent time pursuing various creative and intellectual goals, like acting in Netflix's The OA and studying for a degree in mental health counseling. She also became a mother. It makes sense, then, that Remind Me Tomorrow sounds like the work of an artist with a lot on her mind and an incessant desire to drive forward. On her fifth album, Van Etten builds buzzy, atmospheric textures and explores love, freedom, fear and regret while crafting a stark and breathtaking reminder of the aching sense of melody and emotional vulnerability that has been the backbone of her songwriting. —Marissa Lorusso
Three months have barely passed since Summer Walker released her full-length debut and already she's returned with a four-song set to kick off 2019. CLEAR, a smoldering set of live recordings, doubles down on the promise heard on Last Day Of Summer. The Atlanta vocalist is part of LoveRenaissance, the Atlanta label rekindling the strongest R&B vibes to emerge from the city since the heyday of LaFace Records. Walker's labelmate 6lack also had a big 2018 with his sophomore release, East Atlanta Love Letter. Walker's clearly addicted to heartache on torch songs like "Wasted" and "Settling," but she also bears the uncanny ability to seduce even as she surrenders. This is old soul poured from new wineskins. —Rodney Carmichael
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