Robyn, “Honey” (Interscope)
Robyn’s first album in eight years opens with a song about death. Maybe that’s no surprise, considering how her friend and longtime collaborator Christian Falk died while she was working on the album.
The Swedish singer-songwriter established herself as one of pop music’s brightest stars with a string of hits like “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend” that combine heartbreak and dance beats. But “Honey” goes far deeper than her previous seven albums. It’s a poignant yet joyous journey of healing that you can dance to every step of the way. Starting with the stark realization of “Missing U” and moving through life’s rebuilding stages, Robyn eventually reaches the slinky, hopeful “Ever Again.”
Most pop acts would launch their albums with “Ever Again,” whose soothing synths and funky bass line conjure up memories of Prince in the “When U Were Mine” era. “Honey” often has the feel of Janet Jackson’s “janet” album, especially in the gorgeous “Because It’s in the Music,” which shimmers in its disco-inspired string flourishes and thumping bass line.
However, Robyn is too crafty to do anything that straightforward. The bubbly yet chill “Beach2k20,” produced by Mr. Tophat, is like a deconstructed house anthem deconstructed, mixed with echoes of her breakthrough hit “Show Me Love.” On the plaintive “Baby Forgive Me,” she teams her breathy voice with a mechanically processed harmony that makes it sound like she’s being haunted by the lyrics as she sings them.
The mood of “Honey” pivots in the title track, as if it’s the moment when Robyn allows herself to be happy again. That’s only fitting considering how much joy “Honey” will bring to the world as one of the year’s best albums.
Glenn gamboa, Newsday
Usher and Zaytoven, “A” (RCA)
The interminable wait for 2016’s “Hard II Love” found Usher discarding such A-list material as 2014’s excellent “Good Kisser,” so streamlining his approach is a good look for the now 40-year-old R&B idol. His ninth album is just eight songs entirely produced by Migos/Future whisperer Zaytoven, whose up-to-date trap’n’B style is best consumed in under 30 minutes. After a too-typical Future duet for an opener, “A” is all aces, with the proudly Young Thug-influenced hook of “Ata” flowing into the sexy sparseness of “Peace Sign” and “You Decide,” which sounds like a “Black Panther” soundtrack deep cut gone a bit reggae. The gorgeous but lurid “Birthday” caps off one of the strongest sequences in Usher’s catalog, so why does “A” still feel meaningless? Maybe because 2012’s thrilling “Looking 4 Myself” promised more innovations than just chasing current sounds, and this guy was once Beyoncé’s peer.
DAN WEISS, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Tenacious D, “Post-Apocalypto”
• Marianne Faithfull, “Negative Capability”
• Sun Kil Moon, “This Is My Dinner”
• Dead Can Dance, “Dionysus”
• Dan Mangan, “More or Less”