Welcome back to RIFF’s top album countdown! If you’re here just to complain about the order or lack of your favorite artist, the comments are open, and thanks for helping us in the Google algorithm. While you’re at it, make sure you complain on Parts one and two as well.
With disclaimers out of the way, we cover quite a bit of ground in this installment. The triumphant return of Lady Gaga to a more familiar sound makes the cut, along with one of this year’s most egregious Grammy snubs: The Weekend!
We’ve also got some sleepers for you to check out, so hurry up and dive in!
50. The Weeknd — After Hours – Republic – Piper Westrom
The Weeknd didn’t get a single Grammy nomination for After Hours. Many seem to be divided over whether this is justified, but millions of listeners world-wide aren’t as singles like “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” became huge hits. So why the disparity? After Hours is decidedly different from The Weeknd’s previous work and leans much more heavily on dreamy, slow-burn pop. It signifies a possible genre transition and the traditional model of multiple features. The Weeknd lets his own words and voice do all the talking. Thematically, he explores vice, overindulgence and self-hate while making it sound as frustratingly catchy as a lighthearted R&B ballad. The Weeknd left his box on this album and took creative leaps, which gets points with us.
49. MisterWives — Superbloom – Warner – Roman Gokhman
Singer-songwriter Mandy Lee and drummer Etienne Bowler were an item for nearly a decade and tied the knot in 2018. Then the bottom fell out. This 19-track album is the band trying to find whether it can continue to exist while Lee and Bowler find their new place as friends and bandmates. Could a band known for its euphoric bangers turn this major bummer into a freshly empowered force? The lyrical content of Superbloom weighs the album down. Sonically it’s as upbeat and danceable as anything MisterWives have released. For a band that’s drawn comparisons to early No Doubt (and Lee to Gwen Stefani), Superbloom is its Tragic Kingdom, trying to find a way out of sadness and onto whatever is next. Listening to the album will break your heart and rebuild it, all within an hour
48. Donna Missal — Lighter – Harvest – Onome Uyovbievbo
Writing songs about heartbreak is tough but baring your soul is even harder. Lighter takes you on a journey of discovering how to operate life on a rollercoaster of the ups and downs. Vocal powerhouse Donna Missal displays her musical prowess with powerful vocals that at times seem larger than life. Lighter produces upbeat jams that intervene with folk pop realness on “Hurt by You.” Missal’s storytelling within her songs provides vivid imagery that appeals to the hearts of everyday people and the sincerity in her lyrics come off with a sense of familiarity. Lesser-known cuts like “Bloom” and “Who Loves You” remind you of heartbreak and related feelings that you’ve experienced one way or another.
47. Lady Gaga — Chromatica – Interscope – Piper Westrom
Pop queen Lady Gaga returned to her throne after a four-year hiatus with Chromatica. She gave listeners a whopping 16 tracks, including multiple high-end features from Ariana Grande, Sir Elton John and BLACKPINK. “Rain On Me” became a powerful beacon as many endured hardships. The song constantly reminded that life is worth living. Most notable about the relaunch of Lady Gaga into the pop scene is that it felt as though she never left. While she experimented plenty with new sounds, styles and stories, there are moments when you completely forget she’s the same actor from “A Star Is Born,” which was much more of a grounded turn for her. Her vivacious sound and spunky lyricism on Chromatica wasn’t tired or overdone. Lady Gaga built off of her pop past while simultaneously incorporating elements from some of the art forms she’s experimented with over the last few years.
46. Homeboy Sandman — Don’t Feed The Monster – Mello Music Group – Tim Hoffman
Homeboy Sandman ruminates on his childhood trauma, relationship problems, his artistry and more on Don’t Feed The Monster. As he traverses the darker spaces of his mental health, he breaks things up with humorous and insightful anecdotes regarding everything from challenging his strength of will by climbing on rooftops to frustrations on waiting to go out for the evening with his girlfriend, to his absolute hatred for biters. It’s a personal album, riddled with anxieties and insecurities—but maintains a thoughtful and meditative exploration of character.
45. Poppy — I Disagree – Sumerian – Mike DeWald
Poppy’s debut album succeeds in large part because it defies convention of the hard rock genre. The dichotomy of the Poppy’s soft and angelic singing voice, compared to some of the brash and unrelenting heaviness of the music, makes for an unusual and compelling journey. No two tracks sound alike and run the stylistic gamut of hard rock, alternative and pop. I Disagree is a breath of fresh air.
44. Songhoy Blues — Optimisme – Fat Possum – Roman Gokhman
Malian rock band Songhoy Blues isn’t new to the Western music scene. In fact, it’s been making waves ever since its 2015 debut. But Optimisme is the group’s most ambitious statement yet; not only in terms of its politics or message of social justice, but musically. The quartet blends Saharan rock and Western punk via angular riffs, tight drumming and funky synths. Desert rockers from Africa have had increasing levels of success in the U.S., but Songhoy Blues is the first band to achieve success using a rock drum kit rather than traditional percussion. There’s songs on this record that sounds like psychedelic ‘70s rock turned up to 11. Then there’s “Pour Toi,” which could pass as something written by Franz Ferdinand in its heyday. Some of the credit falls to producer Matt Sweeney, who’s worked with Run the Jewels and Stephen Malkmus
43. Jayhawks — XOXO – Sham/Thirty Tigers – Sam Richards
Gary Louris, the leader of veteran Americana/pop/folk/whatever band The Jayhawks, wanted to get his bandmates more involved in songwriting and singing lead. On XOXO, they did just that, and it works like a charm. Whatever XOXO may lack in a cohesive overall sound is more than made up for by the solid, varied contributions by band members not named Louris. Keyboardist-vocalist Karen Grotberg wrote and sings lead on piano-based ballads “Ruby” and “Across My Field,” a new sound for the Jayhawks, and one that fits in perfectly. Even bassist Marc Perlman takes a turn at the mic with the acoustic “Down to the Farm.” But it’s drummer-singer Tim O’Reagan who breaks out here, with “Dogtown Days,” its dour lyrics wrapped by a Tom-Petty-ish guitar attack, and the moody, droning “Society Pages.” The signature Jayhawks sound is here, too, on “This Forgotten Town” and “Bitter Pill,” with bright harmonies and country overtones. This is a strong, varied work from an underrated American band riding a late-career surge.
42. Caleb Landry Jones — The Mother Stone – Sacred Bones – Max Heilman
You could just call this “The White Album done in the style of Tom Waits,” and that should be enough for everyone to give it a listen. What’s better is that Caleb Landry Jones has managed to create something too unique to associate with another artist. With a basis of dark psychedelia and demented circus music, The Mother Stone does away with any pretense of normality. Just when these songs feel like they’re settling into a groove, a tempo change will tastefully throw a wrench into the works. Jones’ background as an actor allows him to effectively embody many characters. His theatrical voice, coupled with dense instrumentation, makes this album a labor of love for those on the fringes of rock music
41. Royce da 5’9” — The Allegory – eOne Music – Tim Hoffman
Royce da 5’9” examines the heart of all the evil—the corrupting influence of money—on The Allegory. He looks at its ability to drive people to do terrible things, and how its emphasized importance in people’s lives will often take priority over an array of more significant and important matters. Much like his last two albums, Book of Ryan and Layers, this album will stand the test of time as one of Royce’s best works as well as a staple of hip-hop going forward.