In no particular order, all listed with great love and respect.
[ Disclaimer: pop music is my favorite kind of music, so most of this list is pop-y. ]
True - Solange (2012)
This album is short and powerful - only 7 songs, but each of them packs heat. Solange croons honestly about heartache and confusion over airy, pulsing rhythms and you feel like she's reading your diary.
Favorites: "Losing You", "Lovers in the Parking Lot", "Don't Let Me Down"
I remember hearing bits and pieces of this album as a kid, and absolutely adoring it. It's so perfectly named - the whole thing pounds and cranks along like machinery. I love the dose of hair-banging 80s rock, I love the twinkling xylophones, I love the fearless, ferocious quality of the album as a whole.
Favorites: "Rhythm Nation", "Miss You Much", "Love Will Never Do (Without You)", Escapade", "Black Cat"
Body Talk - Robyn (2012)
A modern electropop classic. Every song leaves you bleeding, in the best way. [ Side story: one summery Sunday after college I watched my best friends pile into a car to roadtrip to Milwaukee to see Robyn perform Body Talk...as I got ready to go to work. I will NEVER forget the irrational rage I felt toward my job, my life, and everything in the universe on that morning that was keeping me from going with them.]
Favorites: "Dancing on my Own", "Indestructible", "Hang With Me", "Dancehall Queen"
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill - Lauryn Hill (1998)
This one has been a standby since I was a little kid, reading the Sunday ads that came in the paper, checking each week to see if Lauryn was still listed in the bestsellers at Target & Best Buy (she always was). This album digs deep into you, lays you out flat, then pulls you back off the ground again. Gorgeously vulnerable, but never weak for even a moment. It shattered records, blew our minds, became absolutely irreplaceable.
Favorites: "Ex-Factor", "To Zion", "Doo Wop (That Thing)", "Every Ghetto, Every City"
Angsty, minimal, odd lyrics and beats spun together to create a perfect mood. The very first words of the whole album sum it up: "Don't you think that it's boring how people talk / making smart with their words again, well I'm bored / because I'm doing this for the thrill of it, killin' it / never not chasing a million things I want".
Favorites: "400 Lux", "Buzzcut Season", "Team"
Loud - Rihanna (2010)
Perhaps because it reminds me of late nights running around Chicago at age 23, perhaps because Rihanna is the master of the art of DGAF, perhaps because this album is full of perfect pop songs. The subject matter is familiar and the lyrics aren't particularly piercing, but Rihanna's voice gets it all. She knows.
Favorites: "What's My Name", "Only Girl in the World", "California King Bed", "Man Down"
Take Me When You Go - Betty Who (2014)
The most danceable, sing-a-long-able, joyful celebration of young love I've ever heard. Betty Who sees all of it (uncertainty, nerves, laughs, firsts, lasts, fights, and the lovers themselves) with an incurable optimism and at the end of it you know she's wise beyond her 23 years.
Favorites: "Just Like Me", "Runaways", "Alone Again", "California Rain"
Morning - Amel Larreiux (2006)
Amel is a poet, and her way with words is only matched by her effortless vocals. This album makes me want to dance, curl up with a huge mug of tea, read epic novels, learn new languages, buy plane tickets, march down the street high-fiving people, drive to the beach at 4 AM to watch the sun come up. Her effervescent spirit is 100% contagious.
Favorites: "No One Else", "Earn My Affections", "Morning", "Just Once"
Frank - Amy Winehouse (2003)
The title sums it: this album is frank. There are no frills, no elaborate language, no rose-colored glasses. It's smudgy and dark and definitely intoxicated, and that raw honesty grabs me in the gut. It sounds so real it's easy to miss the beautiful instrumental arrangements in the background, or the ease with which Amy's voice navigates some crazy notes.
Favorites: "Stronger Than Me", "I Heard Love Is Blind", "In My Bed", "What Is It About Men"
4 - Beyonce (2011)
I know I said I wouldn't play favorites, but....
this one wins, for me. In fact it wins so hard that I am incapable of picking favorite tracks.
Favorites: ALL. OF. THEM.