#4: Chelsea Wolfe – “Abyss”

Perhaps the most aptly named album of the year, Abyss combines thunderous doom metal guitar riffs and quiet folk to create an experience that is like being thrown into a bottomless pit and eventually forgetting what sunshine and happiness feel like. This is high praise that I don’t toss around lightly.

Chelsea Wolfe is a prolific artist who never feels limited by genre, and her ability to effortlessly switch between the folk and heavy sounds on Abyss is an impressive musical feat. I’ve heard metal bands that try to mix in a quiet folk song and fail, and I’ve heard a lot of folk artists who (*shudder*) attempt to go heavy to try to gain rock cred and fall flat on their faces. Wolfe does both styles, often in the span of the same song, but it always feels cohesive and natural.

The album takes dynamics to the furthest possible limit, which makes for very dramatic and theatrical songs, with roaring crescendos mixed with near silence. Very little of this album is at a normal, reasonable volume. The dynamics also provide the fascinating duality of Abyss: somehow this album manages to feel epic and intimate at the same time. Wolfe’s voice and lyrics shine in the folkier stretches, but she’s not afraid to sometimes let her voice get buried by the guitar and noise, and the music really does sound like an abyss.

Abyss seems like a difficult album to love given its relentless bleakness, but I really love Wolfe’s artistry and intensity as a performer. She pushes her music to its limits here, going as deep into this hole as she possibly can and emerging with something that sounds truly special.

#5: Wax Idols – “American Tragic”

Writing all these year-end posts inevitably makes me confront the reasons I like all these albums over others. The word I find myself wanting to use in virtually every post — especially now, near the top — is “complete.” My favorite albums feel like they’re accomplishing exactly what the artist intended and are a fully realized vision (I’ve been using “vision” a lot, too).

American Tragic is an album that feels very complete to me. The band is mostly a one-woman show, with Hether Fortune doing everything but the drums, and the album is powered entirely by her sensibilities, her songwriting, and her charisma. A new-found emphasis on production gives American Tragic its crystalline gothic rock sound, while Fortune channels the feelings of a recent divorce into lyrics that are often about the intersection of love and pain. The way all these elements complement each other makes American Tragic one of the most compelling rock albums of the year.

Despite the heartbreak that went into the album, American Tragic remains remarkably nuanced, avoiding the kind of self-pity and blaming we’ve come to expect from the post-breakup album. Fortune touches on loneliness and grief, but her performance has a steely resolve, a refusal to let any of those feelings define who she is.

Fortune is very different from most rock front-people, and her personality and her refusal to conform to expectations is what makes this album consistently exciting. She can also really write a hook, and American Tragic has some surprisingly poppy moments, like “Lonely You” and “Severely Yours.” Those two songs, in different ways, explain how sometimes love can hurt.

#6: Carly Rae Jepsen – “Emotion”

A lot of recent pop doesn’t feel like it was made for people who care about music. The songs are just tools to enhance the artist’s multimedia brand, which is about gifs, videos, thinkpieces, awards show moments, etc. Emotion is a pop album for people who actually like music, who appreciate the craft of a catchy chorus and the feelings that a well-made pop song can create. At its center is Carly Rae Jepsen, who delivers a performance that can win over even the crankiest pop music cynic.

Jepsen reinvents herself on this album by consciously zigging when everyone else is zagging. With the focus of everyone on branding and trying to be current, Jepsen embraces the music of the past and puts the focus on the songs rather than herself. This could make Emotion feel like a cheap 80s nostalgia exercise, but it never does, because Jepsen’s warmth and enthusiasm are so endearing — this is an artist making the music she has always wanted to make, the type of timeless pop she grew up listening to.

Despite its nostalgic sound and the large number of personnel she worked with on the album, Emotion always feels like a distinct Carly Rae Jepsen vision. It dodges the focus-grouped feeling of other pop albums, which have the obvious singles and then a bunch of filler, and instead feels like a complete album. Jepsen reportedly wrote 250 songs for Emotion before narrowing them down, which might be why it often sounds like a cohesive greatest hits compilation.

That element of craft is what I keep coming back to with Emotion —  it’s the result of an artist given the chance to make the album she always wanted by putting in the proper amount of work, time, and care. And Jepsen’s enthusiasm for performing this music is infectious, which gives the album its humble, sincere quality that stands out so much compared to other pop.