What does getting older sound like? What does reconciling relationships sound like? Well, in Mac DeMarco’s world, all of those milestones sound really, really chill, if a little sad. This Old Dog deals with some very real themes. “My Old Man” is a song about how, increasingly, DeMarco sees shades of father in himself, though his dad was an alcoholic who was mostly absent from his life. The album is a meditation on growing up, falling in and out of love, and coming to terms with his relationship with his father, who came back into his life following a cancer diagnosis (On “Watching Him Fade” he sings, “Even though we barely know each other, it still hurts watching him fade away”). But for all of the seriousness of the subject matter, thanks to its guitar melodies and wobbly distortions, This Old Dog sounds like something you’d want to listen to while looking at falling leaves on a fall day in rural Vermont. DeMarco is known for his wacky humor, but with This Old Dog, he’s shed some of the silliness and gotten a little more serious. That’s what happens when you grow up. —Leslie Horn
As the daughter of the man many consider to be the greatest French songwriter of all time, Charlotte Gainsbourg has always said she felt like she had too much to live up to as a songwriter. On her previous records she handed those duties to others, singing witty, bleak tracks written by people like Beck and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (incidentally, two descendants of her father’s drolly hilarious style.) But after the tragic death of her sister Kate Barry, Gainsbourg felt a compulsion to write her own lyrics, even if she couldn’t make them perfect. Rest, the resulting record, gets pretty damn close, facing down despair with an unflinching pen, tackling both Kate’s passing as well her father’s (who died when she was 19) in gruesome detail. On one song she recounts the strange experience of seeing the body of a loved one, describing, in French “a face of wax,” and “bare leg jutting out from under a sheet.” But the best songs feel strangely uplifting too. The producer SebastiAn—who you may know as the French guy talking about Facebook on Frank Ocean’s Blond(e)—gave much of the record an eerie lightness, informed by Gainsbourg’s affinity for weepy disco and the crisp neon of synthy horror scores. She’s called at least one of the songs “a ballad in a graveyard,” but the charms of Rest are in the willingness to capture the many sides of grief—even in the worst times, sometimes you need to laugh, to dance. —Colin Joyce
Thundercat’s Drunk is an oddball collection of music that blends 70s funk, a bit of ska, some punk, and a whole lot of anxiety. The record—23-tracks-long with most songs clocking in around two minutes—sonically captures what it’s like to be alive right now, perhaps better than any other release this year. Lyrically, Thundercat uses his soft falsetto to play around with absurdist humor, singing to cats while making love songs about drugs. The scattershot approach, bouncing from sound to sound (on top of guests like Kendrick Lamar and Wiz Khalifa, the musician taps yacht rock legends Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins) is the ideal depiction of the millennial mind, uncertain of what it’s supposed to be while clamoring at the heels of what it thought it once was. Do you like to spend your Saturdays getting hammered while talking about the end of the world? This is the album for you. —Eric Sundermann
In context, the title of Spencer Radcliffe’s first full-band record is more of a taunt than its National Park-sloganeering may suggest. Across the album he employs a crew of friends to aid him in a creeping, apocalyptic take on the slowcore tropes he’s come to love in his time as a songwriter. Guitars drone, swings swell ominously, drums crawl at a snail’s pace as he paints a picture of the world where there’s smoke rising above the horizon and you’re constantly on the run. In Radcliffe’s oft-depressing worldview, concepts like truth, trust, and interpersonal love dissolve amidst the existential anxiety that’s part of being alive in this day and age, but you know, it sounds nice, making a case for at least a little hope. It’s one final postcard from a burning world, a solid argument for appreciating the simple things when the world’s ending. And the world is always ending. —Colin Joyce
Most bands over two decades into their careers have their best records long behind them, settling comfortably into greatest-hit compilations and victory lap tours. And then there’s Spoon, an act that, despite recent years’ chorus of indie rock naysayers, arguably makes the best album of their career each time they put out a new album. Hot Thoughts builds on the brooding psychedelia introduced in 2014’s knockout They Want My Soul, and processes it through the funk and freak of frontman Britt Daniel’s hero Prince. The album departs from the relationship abstractions and observational storytelling of the band’s past work and instead offers a foray into Daniel’s id—from its feverish title track, to the kaleidoscopic, hip-shaking “Can I Sit Next to You,” to the heaving, deconstructed jazz of the experimental closer “Us.” That’s not say classic Spoon isn’t there—the Austin act’s trademark piano palettes and thick baselines still anchor the record, as does Daniel’s penchant for the political (“Tear It Down”). But what they’ve forged with those roots is arguably their most sonically innovative work yet—a strange new world that leaves us lingering. —Andrea Domanick
USBM mainstays Woe have come a long way since the band’s scrappy beginnings in frontman Chris Grigg’s Philadelphia bedroom in 2007. Over time, that raw solo project has morphed into an accomplished full band with an impressive touring history. Woe’s fourth album, Hope Attrition, is a ferocious new entry in their pristine discography. Its riffs flash with surgical precision, slicing away the gloomier melodic touches that characterized the group’s origins and trimming any fat down to the bone. Grigg still holds the reins for the majority of Woe’s songwriting, and his outside influences (punk, screamo, hardcore) haven’t changed. But where previous releases centered around depression, religion, and Satan, this one makes no bones about the band's disgust for fascism and white supremacy, especially in the magisterial fury of "No Blood Has Honor." Woe has always been relevant, but now, especially, they feel necessary. —Kim Kelly
For a moment, go with us to a summer rooftop party in Oakland. People are eating, drinking, and talking about the A’s and Cool Music. At some point during the night, space is cleared so local band RAYS can set up for a short set of their glorious indie pop. This event might solely be in our imagination, but RAYS’ 26-minute blissful indie pop record is not. On the album, the four-piece trade in wiry and urgent post-punk and pop. Songs like "Pain and Sorrow" and "Dead Mans Curve" sound like lost Flying Nun singles while “Theatre of Lunacy” is from a place where it’s always sunny. Recorded by Bay-area stalwart Kelley Stoltz, and mastered by Australian Mikey Young (Ooga Boogas, Total Control, Eddy Current Suppression Ring), RAYS blends in elements of Pere Ubu, 80s New Zealand indie pop, and absurd humor. —Tim Scott
The Lisbon label Principe Discos has been an essential documentarian of an overlapping series of sounds and styles of contorted dance music issuing from the neighborhoods surrounding the city. But even in their vast catalog of high energy gems, there’s little exactly like the new record by the Bordeaux transplant Nídia. Wrapping together her history as a dancer in Lisbon’s kuduro scene and her affinity for off-kilter rhythms, Nídia é Ma, Nídia é Fudida moves with a wonderfully herky locomotion. Listening to tracks like “Underground,” with its slot-machine synth sounds, muted guitar samples and stuttering drums, is a bit like watching someone try to footwork on a set of stilts—even when it’s not exactly pretty, you can sense what a feat it is that they’re still upright at all. —Colin Joyce
At its heart, country music is the tradition of storytelling, preaching an unbiased inclusion of all those who have at some point in their lives been shunned for who they are (and often for the decisions they’ve made). It’s a place where sinners seek redemption and where misfits find kin. But, as Karen & the Sorrows point out on this record, it is still a narrow place, forbidding even the most basic indicators of “otherness”—sexuality, gender identity, class background—in favor of what many would see as a more traditional representation of a struggle. Take "Take Me For a Ride," for example, which might be one of the first country songs about a woman going down on a woman in the back of a truck. The world is changing, though, and opening up a larger space for us to think about what country is or is not. With a nontraditional introduction to the genre and a nontraditional life experience, Karen & the Sorrows continue the legacy Lavender Country started, bringing a queer eye to country music, at once both upending tradition and continuing it. —Annalise Domenighini
In an interview last year, the Montreal-based composer Kara-Lis Coverdale said she was getting used to “being comfortable being uncomfortable,” which, incidentally, is a pretty neat summation of the experience of listening to Grafts. It’s a single 22-minute piece that relies largely on distant organ sounds and the healing chimes of electronics that sound like church bells and scrapyard thumb pianos. But where others would lean on these sounds for extended tone-setting drones, Coverdale flits between clusters of notes at a pretty rapid clip. If you’ve ever watched high-speed footage of a hummingbird, it’s sorta like that; she’s expending a lot of energy just to stay at rest. There’s an inherent tension in this pacing—your ear wants to relax, cued by the new agey palette, but it never really can. Just when you grow accustomed to a blissful melodic phrase, she’s moved onto something totally different. Somewhere in the constant motion, you can find stillness, you just have to work for it. —Colin Joyce
Obongjayar’s second project Bassey is defined as an EP, but in terms of scope, visual richness and general completeness, it may as well be an album—one of wholeness and life, a story of heaven and hell and a journey between London and Nigeria, named after the derivation of the Igbo word for God. Navigating the dark and the light with hymn-like tones and instrumentation that sounds as though it comes from six feet beneath the ground, Bassey offers as much in statements as it does in a search inside of oneself for the truth behind why we’re here on earth and what we should be doing with our time here. Call it spiritual, call it political, call it whatever you want: it’s good shit, and it’s concrete proof of Obongjayar’s unrelenting and pure vision—a brief yet ostensibly enticing insight into one of the most promising artists of our time right now. Need proof? Check out James Massiah’s feature on Bassey’s final track “Gravity,” a bold, colorful soliloquy that takes in everything from huffing balloons and doing lines before being brought back down to the ground. —Ryan Bassil
Channeling the harrowing loneliness of 80s sci-fi aesthetics, the revolting underbelly of ASMR whispers, and the general conviction that sound is a force meant to be experienced physically, Félicia Atkinson’s Hand in Hand can be a bit of an anxious listen. Funereal synthesizer drones crash into the animated found sounds of the everyday as the French multimedia artist whispers over it about desire, terror, and sometimes nothing much in particular (On “A House a Dance a Poem,” she enunciates haltingly, “sliding...glasssss...doors.”) She trades most winningly in this sort of obliteration of meaning—sound, word, and deed follow no obviously legible logic other than the collagist impulse of Atkinson’s ear for composition. Over the course of its runtime, Hand in Hand starts to feel like nothing means anything at all—even the passages that were sorta easy to follow at first—which is a terrifying thought to have, even when you’re not listening to synthesizer buzzing and splatting like a dentist’s drill through soft tissue. —Colin Joyce
Punks be new wavers. Though Orion formed from fragments of Sydney punk bands with names like Whores, Low Life, Oily Boys, and M.O.B., their self-titled album draws from the melody, mood, and sensibility of pop acts such as New Order and Pet Shop Boys. Led by the emotive and sometimes sullen vocals of Yuta Matsumura, the synth- and guitar-based tracks can be both morose and joyous. Songs like “Red Lights” and “Execution” will have you dancing to them at the gig and staring at the wall and contemplating your existence while listening to them at home. This is DIY pop that is somber, atmospheric, and beautifully bruised. —Tim Scott
There are certain types of people who seem to be born to experience life in the toughest way possible. Sometimes it’s a predetermined, almost genetic fate—inescapable not just because of who you are but who your family is. Other times it’s a product of a few poorly thought-out personal choices. For Jason Isbell, it’s both, and the songwriter has made a career out of relaying his experiences to the rest of the world as a cautionary tale. This approach to storytelling makes his sixth record, The Nashville Sound, seem perhaps more politically charged than Isbell intended. On it, he moves away from soul-crushingly intimate songs (though “If We Were Vampires” threatens to make even the happiest thing—love—into its own kind of death sentence) and eyes the bigger picture. Now a father, Isbell is no longer focused on just himself and his life. He’s questioning everything through a radical light and learning to unlearn the tough lessons in order to teach the easier ones. —Annalise Domenighini
Writing a best-selling autobiography usually means you’ve set your legacy in stone, and to an extent that is true for the man born Radric Davis. He is the Trap God, an antihero who birthed the current sound of Atlanta rap, who went to jail but then re-emerged as a wise, hit-making elder statesman. He has nothing left to prove, so he decided to casually bang out a studio session with the hottest beatmaker in the world and create Droptopwop, easily his strongest post-prison release to date. Metro Boomin’s demonic production spurs Gucci to relive his loose cannon past through some of his most expressive performances in years. The hook of “Finesse the Plug Interlude” is a lazy drawl and he menacingly whispers sweet nothings on “Helpless.” Metro, meanwhile, becomes trap Mozart, pulling out demented chiptune synths on “Tho” and adorning 2 Chainz and Young Dolph in music box chimes on “Both Eyes Closed.” Most of the material, however, pales in comparison to the mighty “Met Gala,” where Gucci and Offset go toe-to-toe with their flows over nothing but a tolling church bell and a landslide of 808s. It’s here where Gucci’s music feels like it lives up to his outlaw legend once again. —Phil Witmer
I Love You Like a Brother showcases a sense of clarity in punk-pop auteur Alex Lahey’s writing. She sings on “Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder,” “Perth is lucky that she's pretty / Otherwise, I'd hate that city / The only place my heart's been torn in two,” before adding flatly, “Always worth the lengthy flight.” It’s a moment that showcases Lahey’s ability to vividly leverage moments of hurt alongside humor without coming off as indifferent or apathetic. Elsewhere, “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself” deftly dodges between toxic self-doubt and what happens when you project it onto the one you love (“Maybe that's why you don't love me as much / I need to start taking care of myself”). Lahey’s complete command of specifying the little feelings between love and hate—while having a bit of fun, of course—cement I Love You Like A Brother as one of the year’s best records. —Jabbari Weekes
There’s no way else to put it: 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is a vibe. Maybe that’s a little on the nose (the album’s second single, of course, is the highly memeable, “It’s a Vibe”). But that’s how 2 Chainz rolls. With Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, the elder statesman of hip-hop created a whole ambiance, complete with a real-live pink trap house to match the one on the album cover, a temporary pop-up in Atlanta that served as everything from an art gallery to a health clinic and is now back for the holidays. With this album, he was trying to communicate that he’s more than just the guy with the incredible punchlines, though how can you resist lines like “my pocket pregnant, don’t want no abortion” (“Riverdale Rd”) or “I’m so high they might call a goaltend” (“Poor Fool”).” Maybe it’s predictable that 2 Chainz is endlessly charming, has wit for days, and makes songs like “4AM” that you relate to and don’t relate to at once (Relatable: “drop a pin, send a location.” Not relatable: I’ma pull up in that bullet-coupe spaceship). This album is full of bangers you want to listen to on a loop. It’s a vibe! And it’s a good one. —Leslie Horn
The color that best describes emo-folk artist Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album is blue. It’s in the mournful guitar line of opener “Smoke Signals” and the airiness of “Motion Sickness”; on the chorus of “Funeral,” she even describes herself as “blue, all the time.” Suffice to say, blue is the color of sadness, and Stranger in the Alps is an album preoccupied with topics like depression, and death—but it’s also the color of the sky, the sea, breath, and life itself, a duality reflected throughout the album. Without self-importance or unnecessary grandeur, Stranger in the Alps traverses what it means to be human: for every painful admission of loneliness, there’s a moment of connection, too. In an appealing, accessible style, Bridgers cuts through the matters that plague us most of all with an astounding clarity: to hear Stranger in the Alps—perhaps through headphones, clutching a warm drink on a cold day—is to have a quietly revelatory experience. —Lauren O’Neill
Mozzy has rapped 18 Tolstoy novels worth of introspective rhymes and detailed stories of gang life over the last few years. Gunplay holds a standing annual contract to slap the shit out of your jaw and remind you that you feel invincible when you hear his music. Naturally, they sound like they grew up rapping with one another. Soul-revealing, bone-rattling tracks like “They Know," “Never Had Shit,” and "We Ain't Going Broke" reassure you that they're some of the only rappers who can convincingly both tell you not to get blood on the work and make you empathize with a guy in prison who doesn't even have a girl to write, all while outdoing each other’s creativity and intensity. This year, rap had a ton of fun with the duo album, bringing together high-profile names for low-stakes oneupmanship, but no project executed more effectively than Dreadlocks & Headshots. After all, if you don't listen to rap to hear dudes rap fractals out of a song called "Gangland," what are you even doing with your life? —Trey Smith
Sunrot’s debut, Sunnata, is anomalous even in a genre that celebrates the strange and unexpected. The North Jersey quartet’s take on doom metal is so thoroughly corroded with harsh industrial elements that at times, it’s reduced down to screaming noise, filtered through a nightmarish homemade vocal distortion mask. Though it’s only the band’s first stab at a full-length, it’s their fourth release overall, and it eclipses their promising earlier efforts. As Noisey noted back in August, “Sunrot treads heavily at the crux between multiple ugly, noisy genres; their sludgy, industrial clamor borrows liberally from harsh noise and hateful drone, but makes plenty of space for riffs—lumbering, distorted things that pound away at your eardrums like storm waves on a vanishing coastline—and vocalist Lex's emotional, pushed-to-the-edge howls.” Sunnata would’ve been a no-brainer for a Best of 2017 list no matter who was behind the album’s creation, but the fact that it was made by a bunch of goofy, big-hearted Jersey kids warms our cold black hearts. —Kim Kelly
That Nadia Reid’s melancholic folk-infused music comes from a place as naturally beautiful as Port Chalmers makes sense. The port of Dunedin, located at the southern tip of New Zealand, is remote and scenic and the perfect location for a such an introspective and meditative song as “The Arrow and the Aim.” “Richard” speaks of a relationship that is over. Richard “loved the sound of his own voice in the kitchen by the mirror,” sings Reid. Dick’s gone but the kitchen, mirror, and emotion remain. While fellow Kiwis Aldous Harding and Lorde may outshine her, Reid has produced a stunning album in Preservation. —Tim Scott
Lil Peep is for people who earnestly listen to Take Off Your Pants And Jacket to get over the dissolution of a high school relationship, play MMORPG games, and reject outdoor activities in favor of talking to strangers on the internet. And for the multitudes of words that have been written about Peep’s music over the last year or so, one fact seems to have been lost: it’s not supposed to be cool. It’s music for losers, loners, and outcasts, and Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One) is impactful in its simplicity, fusing Blink-182 vocal melodies with cloud-rap beats and standing as the most accomplished and succinct example of his style and persona. The songs are about depression, loneliness, self-hate, and heartbreak, complicated themes boiled down to short-but-sweet mantras (“Sometimes life gets fucked up / That’s why we get fucked up”). A lot of those mantras come off as bittersweet following his tragic death, but they remain as relatable and escapist anthems for a generation that deals with its problems by going live on Instagram about them. Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One) is now a staple within a sub-genre it helped pioneer: intense and irresistible in its uniqueness, but also charged with excitement for what could have come after. —Emma Garland
Apparently there’s a whole conceit about “mathematical growth and decay” at the heart of Gerald Donald’s new album as Dopplereffekt, but as with his previous work in Drexciya, you don’t really need to understand the concept to appreciate what’s going on in the abstract instrumentals. Here, that means nine beatless, but still percussive pieces that send the aqueous electro he’s known for making from underwater to outer space. Each piece is constructed simply, just a few synthesizer washes and jittery patches reacting volatilely with one another. The component parts are slow and staid mostly, but the way they play off each other gives each track and unsettling sort of combustion. Donald (working here under the pseudonym Rudolf Klorzeiger with a collaborator named To-Nhan) has a knack for knowing what elements will take an ambient piece and make it explode, and what can take something steely and turn it into gold. Forget math, Cellular Automata is alchemy. —Colin Joyce
Not that a take on black metal that’s this otherworldly and inventive needs a compelling creation myth, but the story behind Yellow Eyes’ Immersion Trench Reverie only magnifies its strangeness. Before the New York brothers Will and Sam Skarstad decamped to the Connecticut cabin where they usually record, they spent a month together in Siberia, absorbing the wildness of its atmosphere. That period imbues the record with a sense of foreboding—there’s field recordings of ringing bells, roving packs of wild dogs, and the chanting of a local choir. But it also just sort of makes sense that the duo would eventually end up there; their music has always shared quite a bit in common with the loneliness of Russia’s sparest realms. It’s not just the cold, it’s the openness, the sense that pieces like “Velvet on the Horns” can sprint off into any direction, from sidewinding tremolo-picked riffs to uneasy ambience to steamrolling drum punishment all within a minute or two. There’s a sense of possibility, that literally anything can happen, which is of course both uplifting and terrifying at the same time. —Colin Joyce
“Soothing,” the first song on Laura Marling’s sixth studio album, Semper Femina, begins with a brooding bassline. It pulses, serving as both a seduction and an instruction with Marling singing deeply, “I banish you with love.” The song, as sparse as she makes it, is very heavy. Marling is one of the most talented—and wisest—songwriters of her generation; since emerging as a London teenager in 2008, she’s steadily gathered an audience enraptured by her tender gestures of love and loss, and the softness she shows us in her work. On Semper Femina—her most technically concise and shortest record to date—Marling reckons with femininity as a cultural product: what makes one feminine, and how do we metabolize it? Why and how is it gendered? The subject matter may sound hefty and academic, but Marling communicates it to us via swelling strings. Then there’s the tenderest tribute to her female friend on “Nouel,” in which she sings, “She speaks a word and it gently turns / To perfect metaphor/ She likes to say I only play / When I know what I'm playing for.” Similar to Marling’s work as a whole, Semper Femina is ultimately a place of refuge and knowledge. —Sarah MacDonald
From the deep hollers of Kentucky comes Tyler Childers, born and raised in coal-mining country to a deeply religious family, familiar with how even extreme poverty cannot prevent someone from experiencing absolute joy. Though Childers has been kicking around the greater Appalachian music scene for many years, Purgatory is his first foray into the mainstream eye. With its backwoods banjo and devilish fiddle, the record creates a supernatural reading of life’s struggles. “Whitehouse Road” and “Honky Tonk Flame” both provide different tellings of the same story—the story of someone who, for better or for worse, can’t for the life of him give up on a dream—while “Feathered Indians” and “Lady May” are heartbreaking and candid depictions of the difficulty of balancing earthly vices with otherworldly experiences (in this case, absolute love). Where the record comes together is “Universal Sound,” a reminder that no matter where we end up, that’s where we are, and ultimately life is a universal sound, not an individual one. —Annalise Domenighini
Much of Maya Bouldry-Morrison’s latest record as Octo Octa is suffused with an overwhelming lightness. It’s not that her music hadn’t been before—house music is one of those forms where even its more dour moments are attended to by a dogmatic bliss—but Where Are We Going? is something different. In an interview with the multidisciplinary artist Terre Thaemlitz, Bouldry-Morrison mused on the fact that her last LP Between Two Selves was a “coded queer message” while this record is more “overt,” which could explain some of its openhearted charms. It’s joy unrestrained, expressed in dreamy vocal samples, creaky drum breaks and dizzy ambience (as on the winningly titled standout, “No More Pain (Promises to a Younger Self”). She’s said that the later stages were informed by the strange experience of making such a record on the eve of the presidency of a hateful despot, but even the record’s wistful closing moments come with an uplifting accompaniment: the chatter of a voice posing a question “Do you feel better?” Where Are We Going? makes it feel like the answer could be yes. —Colin Joyce
Denver trio Primitive Man have spent the last five years building a fruitful DIY career out of their uncanny ability to harness the purest essence of nihilistic misery, and then inject it straight into the molten core of their tense, lumbering, sludge-splattered doom metal recordings. They’re alarmingly prolific, as well; while their stunning 2017 LP, Caustic, marks only their second full-length, the band has also put out 11 other splits and singles since 2010. No rest for the wicked, indeed. On Caustic, burly vocalist and guitarist Ethan McCarthy rages against racism, corruption, structural inequality, and depression in his imposing roar, laying down juddering, noise-soaked riffs for the rhythm section—drummer Joe Linden and bassist Jonathan Campos—provide mephitic fuel for the blast furnace. The end result is as nasty as Satan’s to-do list and heavy as a sack of molten lead—a painful, carefully constructed document of grief and aggression. In year as dark and astonishingly fucked up as this one’s been, Primitive Man made sure to remind us: it’s only going to get worse. —Kim Kelly
Birdie, the sophomore album from Modern Baseball singer/guitarist Jake Ewald’s new(ish) project Slaughter Beach, Dog, establishes that he’s a man wise beyond his years. While Modern Baseball saw the 24-year-old cutting his teeth with poppy, coming-of-age emo songs, with Slaughter Beach, Dog he showcases an astonishingly rapid maturation as a songwriter and producer. He all but scraps the raucous rock formula that earned him a huge and rabid following, replacing it with softer, more patient mutations of folk and Shins-style indie-pop. With his heartfelt, reading-from-a-journal style of lyrical delivery, Ewald is quickly positioning himself as the Tumblr Generation’s John K. Samson, and Birdie shows off an eclectic musical palette that songwriters twice his age would envy. —Dan Ozzi
The notion of finding strength in being vulnerable is not a new one, especially not to Caroline Spence. Spades and Roses, the Nashville-based songwriter’s second record, takes that idea and expands it, tapping into an ancient tradition of finding strength grounded in femininity and toughening up. Spence paints a picture of a woman caught in the middle of reckoning with herself as an individual and as a product of a life that maybe never planned to include her. It’s a well-measured account of the small things in life that can make living so frustrating—from being the product of a divorce and struggling to find the place you fit (“Southern Accident”) to watching the rules change as soon as you think you’ve made it (“Softball”). Spence follows the footsteps of singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling, adding a splash of whiskey and quiet anger that only southern women shaped by years of circumstances and condescension can. —Annalise Domenighini
Daniel Caesar didn't need a Grammy nod for Best R&B Album, a performance with Chance the Rapper on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, or a well-curated roster of features like Kali Uchis for this to be clear on Freudian: now is his time. While Toronto sound tends to be hyped on its darkness, 22-year-old Caesar is pure light, shining on the low-end bounce of his debut album Freudian with a warmth that lingers. Freudian inhales and exhales all facets of a relationship, biblical references and soulful backing choirs likening memories of a muse lost to the divine. “Blessed” declares love as worship backed by soft organ; "Neu Roses (Transgressor's Song)" reconciles the sin of adultery against devotion to a partner; “Take Me Away” sighs on the confusion that comes with romance centered on the bedroom—a tender standout assisted by Syd from The Internet. Gifted with an enveloping falsetto and sincere pen, Caesar is one of few artists who can make a record on the highs and lows of love feel butterflies-in-stomach light, not downcast. —Jill Krajewski
Precious Art has songs about boogers, watching the Weird Al movie UHF, and wishing to be turned into a dog. (That last song is mostly just barking.) There’s really no way to describe the qualities of this effort from Rozwell Kid without making it sound silly and juvenile, but underneath its playful and often flippant exterior, there’s an album with a lot of heart. Sure, frontman Jordan Hudkins might use humor and nostalgic pop culture references like MADtv and Michael Keaton to deflect his feelings about love, friendship, and mortality, but that’s the challenge. While Precious Art offers enough catchy rock riffs to be enjoyed on a surface-level, to truly appreciate the record is to look past the jokes, the self-deprecation—and yeah, the boogers. —Dan Ozzi
As the relevance of classic, O.C.-core indie rock became a surprising point of discussion this year, only one album bothered to chart new directions within the genre. Soft Sounds from Another Planet is a star chart of many possible futures for indie and for Japanese Breakfast’s mastermind Michelle Zauner, who got married to her bandmate prior to writing the songs. Her lyrics teem with the multitude of feelings that the blessed event stirred up: excitement, anxiety, nostalgia, sometimes all at once. “Looking back, how did I keep moving? / Didn’t know that half of me was missing” she sings on “12 Steps,” a chipper, jangly rocker that’s an apology from Zauner to a former lover for finding her soulmate. Bucking modern indie’s occasional penchant for arty obscurity, Zauner keeps her sneakily complex arrangements clean rather than drown them in reverb or distortion. The decision benefits the album’s eclectic nature. From afar, Soft Sounds is a patchwork (some of the songs date back to Zauner’s old lo-fi demos) of giddy fusions and homages. Rangy opener “Diving Woman” unspools into a guitarscape of Television proportions, while “Machinist” is a thrilling, oddball electropop jam featuring Auto-Tune and a sax solo. But the album’s gooey center is a set of lush, swooning ballads (the title track, “Boyish,” “Till Death”) that find Zauner constructing palaces to shield her worries and her loves. Fearful yet fearless, Soft Sounds is a tribute to change in all its messy glory. —Phil Witmer
"The world needs a good band right now,” goes one of Partner’s tongue-in-cheek phone skits on In Search of Lost Time. “One that is going to excite people again, like KISS.” And with chunky 90s-inspired riffs, clever lyrics on everything from sex toys to queer crushes, and chewing gum-sweet harmonies that stick to you, Partner might be the next group to break through. In Search of Lost Time is an energizing, guitar solo-heavy, polished step forward from 2015’s “The ‘Ellen’ Page,” the Canadian band’s first single to earn lo-fi buzz (and approval from the titular actor). Ringleaders Josée Caron and Lucy Niles are funny as hell, with a genuine back-and-forth chemistry that shines on tracks like “Play the Field,” “Everybody Knows,” and “Gross Secret,” trading refreshingly candid stories on high school, tampons, and getting reaaaaal high, like friends passing notes in a classroom. —Jill Krajewski
The Homostupids confounded and confused many with their take on hardcore punk deconstructuralism. So the news that some members were involved with new Cleveland band The Cowboy had fans smiling at the thought of more blown out and ridiculous rock ‘n' roll. The Cowboy (not to be confused with The Cowboys, who also released a fine album in 2017), take the riffy and yelly sounds of acts found on Am Rep Records in the 90s and then smear on an extra layer of misanthropy. The songs don’t run much longer than 90 seconds but when the MO is a musical shin-kicking, that’s all it takes. —Tim Scott
The artwork for Pleasure, Leslie Feist’s first album in half a decade, depicts a woman leaping into a hedge like a surrealist version of that meme where Homer Simpson recedes into the bushes. It fits an LP that’s secluded, thorny, and a little bit absurd. The most prominent sound here other than Feist’s voice and her gorgeously ragged guitar-playing is the ambient fizz of the studio. She and producer Mocky explore that negative space so thoroughly that the dynamic shifts—a sudden clatter of drums, or a particularly heartfelt belting note from Feist—hit like thunderclaps. Those surprises serve as punctuation for the claustrophobic ruminations on heartbreak and new love that form the bulk of the album’s writing. On “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You,” Feist finds that her town of residence has “shrunk to the size of [her] thoughts” in her attempts to escape a breakup. “Any Party” finds her feeling trapped in some terrible backyard gathering and yearning to go back to her “party of two.” She’s followed nonetheless by a drunken chorus of revellers. Feist’s epiphany comes on the bluesy highlight “I’m Not Running Away,” wherein she learns to roll with the punches (“Water is running like I stay”) but also admits that “it got hard for me to believe in true love.” Though this is her sparsest, darkest album, playfully strange touches like the Mastodon-sampling outro on “A Man Is Not His Song” make Pleasure inviting to outsiders. —Phil Witmer
John Maus, huh? The Midwestern deep-thinking avant-synth artist is often impossible to parse when it comes to what he says on record, and he’s also infuriatingly verbose in interviews—a true American original, perhaps, and there’s certainly something singular about Screen Memories. Maus’s fourth album is a showcase of sorts when it comes to what Maus is known for: crisp drum programming, synth lines that resemble barbershop poles, and elusive statement-making that is reflective or as shallow as you see fit to interpret it. The most straightforward song is called “Pets,” in which the chorus goes, “Your pets are gonna die.” The truth hurts, but listening to Screen Memories doesn’t, so there’s that. —Larry Fitzmaurice
By embracing Broadway drama, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra could have easily ignored the realities of her Bronx-born Latinidad in favor of La La Land fantasy, but she knows the value of a good narrative twist. As a result, The Navigator, an autobiographical Americana opera unlike any other, is a reconciliation of sorts. Segarra’s protagonist, a young Puerto Rican-American woman like herself named Navita, travels through city streets, her 14-floor apartment, and eventually time (there’s a bruja—a witch—because why the hell not) in search of herself. The story’s more out-there turns can be tough to follow but its overall arc of dissatisfaction, departure, and regret is universal, echoing not only Segarra’s own exodus from New York but the ongoing crises of the Latinx diaspora in America. That libretto is nothing, however, without equally imaginative music. Segarra proves her mastery of folk traditions on effortless songs like the Springsteen-ish “Living in the City” and the stately Wrecking Crew sway of “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” then branches out into showstopping experiments like the funky protest “Rican Beach” and the climactic, Sgt. Pepper’s-esque suite “Pa’lante.” The latter song’s wrenching finale, with Navita/Segarra urging her family and friends and fellow Latinxs to persevere, unearths the layer of hurt residing beneath the album’s stage-decorated exteriors. The Navigator is a remarkable work because it’s a dazzling spectacle, but a haunting, hopeful story could never truly just be fiction. —Phil Whitmer
Five years and one hefty legal battle after Kesha's second release, Rainbow arrived this year to nearly universal acclaim. With its mix of rock, country, and pop, the album showcases Kesha’s talent and personality without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard. Given the circumstances surrounding the record’s release, it seemed bound to be an expression of struggle, both internal and external. Instead, Rainbow puts the power back into power pop, serving up personal and musical redemption with a huge side of glitter. Songs like “Learn to Let Go”—with its group vocals, pulsing drum, and sudden tempo changes—or “Boogie Feet”—a celebration of being alive featuring the Eagles of Death Metal—both renovate Kesha’s pop-heavy foundation and solidify them. If it wasn’t glaringly obvious from her first two records, Rainbow proves Kesha to be a powerful, soul-driven rockstar, determined to take partying as seriously as working and showing us all that every dark cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes you just need a little extra elbow grease to make it really shine. —Annalise Domenighini
David Nance plays raucous and squalling blue-collar rock that sounds just as good if you work hourly at the local plant or study English at a local liberal arts college. On this follow-up to 2016’s excellent More Than Enough, the Omaha guitarist and songwriter shows a deep respect for the music of 70s Cleveland and 80s New Zealand. He reworks Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” into lo-fi twang, and on the record’s title track, he belts out some of most ragged and stomping rock you’ll hear in 2017. The acronym in “DLATUMF Blues” is “Don’t Look at This Ugly Motherfucker.” Crack open whatever cheap beer you can find, and enjoy. —Tim Scott
Despite the outlaw country revival and popularity of Americana, country music is still in an identity crisis, torn between pop-friendly depictions of happiness and the downright ugliness of real life. Jaime Wyatt—a real-life outlaw from way out west who’s giving teeth to the genre after quietly joining the country music ranks earlier this year after a stint in prison for robbing her dealer—represents a grittier side of the genre. Felony Blues puts together an intimate portrait of a woman-turned-outlaw: “From Outer Space” details the alienating feeling a fuck-up of that proportion creates in a person, while “Giving Back the Best of Me” and “Your Loving Saves Me” reach out and beg their subject to still see them as who they were before. Not everything is awful though, and both “Stone Hotel” and “Wasco” focus on flaunting a little of the street cred a felony can bring in some circles. It’s tough as nails, and at times, arrogant, but have you ever met a cowboy-type with a worthwhile take on life who isn’t? —Annalise Domenighini
In the middle of a year frayed by apocalyptic anxiety and brutal divisions, a singular Puerto Rican-Irish-American came out with a vivid celebration of the “stew” that is New York, the thriving metropolis where our President may have grown up but that he will never understand. And this young rapper’s not going to let himself get too down, because that’s not what Manhattan taught him: “Wik, you gon’ sit and complain? / Damn / Come on man what do you like?” Answer: bagels, subways, sunsets over the water on the West Side. His collaboration with Ghostface Killah sounds effortless, the two snapping hardscrabble rhymes that contradict the 25 years between them and the sliver of water between the islands they call home. But Wiki is also intent on searching his soul—so there’s “Pandora’s Box,” a candid account of a past relationship. “I was responsible / For every time I fought with you,” he raps, halfway to tears over Dadras and Sporting Life’s woozy beat. Still, No Mountains ends with a triumph, because this is a New York story: “Made my own flag / I’m a nomad, a mutt.” —Alex Robert Ross
Twenty-two years after releasing their last album, Slowdive has returned, drummer Simon Scott back in tow, picking up where its 1993 shoegaze opus Souvlaki left off. The time away has done the band well; the self-titled work offers both the speaker-blowing grit (“Star Roving”) and deft attention to detail (“Sugar for the Pill”) that defines Slowdive’s back catalog, and combined is as fresh as it is thoughtful. It’s a welcome salve and epiphany amidst chaos—a record so damn beautiful that it allows you to forget the external noise and get caught up in its own instead. Maybe that’s because narratives and studied lyrics have never really been the point of a band like Slowdive—the vocals of Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead are just other instruments, soft guidepoints within a womb of hazy feedback, lusty melodies, and drowned rhythms. Shoegaze may no longer be enjoying the du jour revival of a few years ago, but maybe that’s what makes the album—debatably the best of Slowdive’s career—all the more effective: It’s music greater than the sum of its parts, giving us space, stripped of context, to be comfortably vulnerable. —Andrea Domanick
Corbin (formerly Spooky Black) has an air of mystery about him but he still comes across as relatable, which is probably how he became one of the leaders of the Sadboy movement to begin with. On Mourn, he’s pushing that movement forward, offering a window into the maturation and evolution of this musical enigma. On 2013’s FOREST, he was a kid who was forthright with his feelings and message, and on his latest effort, he’s made it clear that he’s an incredible storyteller comfortable working with metaphors and figurative imagery. “Bled dry, ignite/Show them their holes, welcome them home/Cast out, you drown/Swallow the salt, blue for the fall,” he wails on “No Title.” With its brooding atmosphere and raw yet refined vocals, Mourn is the logical next chapter for Corbin. Low-fi, synthy beats from Shlomo, D33J, and Juice Jackal back Corbin’s dark tales of loneliness and confusion navigating life’s obstacles. “Revenge Song,” a bleak tale of the assault of an underage girl, for whom Corbin ostensibly seeks revenge, is a prime example of this execution. Corbin’s biggest accomplishment with the album is acknowledging that life is scary, but convincing anyone who listens that the pursuit of love makes it worth living through the terror, even if that pursuit itself is borderline hellish at times. What we’re left with is a piece of work that embodies the horror of 2017, especially for young people who can’t help but wonder they even have to look forward to in the future. —Trey Smith
Much of Haram’s visceral power derives from its Lebanese-American vocalist, Nader Habibi, who delivers all of his lyrics in Arabic, translating his mother tongue’s versatility into the language of punk via his own acerbic yowl. Haram has always been a fiercely political band, more by necessity rather than choice, and When You Have Won, You Have Lost, the group’s first full LP, is no exception. Songs like “Not a Terrorist” and “American Police” cut like a knife, and more unexpected tracks like album closer “Road to Liberation” or the noise-drenched “Voice of the Hari'meen" show a willingness to experiment with sounds well outside punk’s scraggly borders. In 2016, Habibi was placed under surveillance and interrogated by the FBI, who were suspicious of his band’s name aggressive music (the case was later dropped, though one wonders whether Habibi ever received an apology). It’s easy to paint his visceral screams in Haram as a direct response to a racist, Islamophobic system—and that is certainly a part of what fuels him—but the band’s raw intensity and passion also springs from their own shared appreciation for ultra-distorted Japanese hardcore, and the joy of making noise. The road to liberation is long and hard, but Haram is a few steps ahead of the curve. —Kim Kelly
The World’s Best American Band opens with a sound effect of an arena full of people cheering and applauding—because, in White Reaper’s mind, that’s exactly where the band belongs. And maybe they’re right. The Louisville, Kentucky, act has put together a record of unabashed rock worship that’s bratty, fun, and—as you might’ve gathered from the title—a little arrogant. It fuses the party rock anthem vibes of Thin Lizzy and KISS with the obnoxious can’t-tell-me-nothin' attitude of the Ramones. The World’s Best American Band is a record for anyone who has put on their denim jacket and practiced Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar strumming in front of a mirror and dreamed about looking out into an endless sea of fans with their lighters held up. —Dan Ozzi
Where 2016’s King of Memphis was a grand announcement of Dolph’s intent to climb to the top of the rap game, this year’s Thinking Out Loud finds him at the top of that mountain, holding off all challengers to his throne. On Thinking Out Loud he diverts slightly from the traditional trap sounds of KoM to create a more refined and accessible picture of his life, collaborating with other big names like Ty Dolla Sign and DRAM for bangers that feel more club-ready than his previous output, while still delivering the invigorating narratives that have become a staple of his appeal. Sometimes lyricism isn’t about complex wordplay and rhyme structures, it’s about being direct about how you think and feel, not dressing things up to make reality sound prettier than it is. Expressiveness, openness, and honesty are at least as challenging (if not more so) than being a wordsmith, and Dolph continues to be one of the best at telling it how it is. He doesn’t care if you’re not impressed by his lyrics, because you’re going to be impressed by the wisdom he shares (and the expensive shit he owns). Dolph doesn’t want to simply entertain, he wants to motivate and encourage you to do what he’s done, and knows that for him to tell you anything but the truth would be a disservice to everyone involved. —Trey Smith
Mozzy suffers from a problem that many of his rap peers may envy. His unrelenting output of brutally honest raps and cutting wordplay has been so consistently good over the past two years that it’s hard to distinguish if he has true standout projects. With this year’s 1 Up Top Ahk, the Sacramento native finally made the necessary tweaks to clear that hurdle by giving an even deeper look into what drives him emotionally. On “Prayed for This” he’s reminded of his demons whenever he visits the old neighborhood, even if he’s there to mend wounds he caused in the past. “Afraid” finds Mozzy embracing hardship and proposing that help isn’t necessary when you’re on the right side of God’s wrath. “Sleep Walkin” is one the year’s best pure displays of rap skills by any artist, but what makes it particularly rewarding is that it exposes listeners to the things that rattle him the most: losing his daughter to child protective services, the downsides of being gang-affiliated, and wanting the best for people born with the least. —Lawrence Burney
Too Bright, Mike Hadreas’s previous album as Perfume Genius, found the Seattle-based singer-songwriter expanding into more synthetic territory—and his follow-up, No Shape, continues in this vein, to explosive effect. Hadreas is still a chronicler of intense and difficult subject matter, but his music has never sounded more open and inviting, moving effortlessly from M83-style blowouts to Enya-esque new age with not a single move sounding out of place. Hadreas got his start at the beginning of this decade as a guy with a piano, his songs distant and out-of-focus in a way that was nonetheless relatable; since then, the picture’s gotten clearer, and No Shape is an affecting snapshot of an artist who continues to develop in new and surprising ways. —Larry Fitzmaurice
It all sounds so easy for Lil Uzi Vert on Luv Is Rage 2. As he casually mentions on one track, he “made an album in a month,” and whether or not that’s true, Uzi plows through carnival-sounding production and 808s throughout, making it sound like a good thing to be on auto-pilot. He showcases his natural knack for see-sawing melodies, as well as a newfound talent for dance instructional “Cha-Cha Slide” bangers—but much like his arguable predecessors Young Thug and Lil Wayne, he strikes hardest when mining his emotional side. His instincts are still ahead of the curve, showcased as ever on the teenage audio drama that is Luv Is Rage 2. —Jabbari Weekes
There’s something comforting about knowing that Propagandhi are always out there, hiding in the Manitoban shadows and waiting for the right time to swoop back into the saddle and lay down the hammer. The past year of unfathomable political hell must’ve served as a Bat Signal for the iconic punk band, who returned this fall with Victory Lap. It’s an odd space Propagandhi occupies these days: Though they began their musical career as snotty Canadian punk teens in the mid 90s, they now serve as the genre’s revered elder states-band. Their voices are welcomed, but they’re now more content to amplify the voices of the marginalized. Sonically, Victory Lap incorporates a lot of the unexpected turns Propagandhi has taken with their sound over the years, from poppy punk to thrashy rock to power metal. —Dan Ozzi
Carrying a song with little more than a piano and a voice is a skill—a grand talent pumping in the veins of omnipotent icons like Elton John and Stevie Wonder. British rapper Dave doesn’t create a similar music to those two legends, but on Game Over he presents that same artistically virtuous skill. On “How I Met My Ex,” he skillfully tells the titular story over seven minutes, with no backing track except the dark, foreboding tinkling of black and white ivory, each chord impressing the intensity of the situation upon the listener. To rap as impressively as he does here—and at such length—is something that hasn’t been seen before in British rap, and similarly lengthy cuts—“Question Time,” a message to the British Prime Minister, and the intricate and diaristic “My 19th Birthday”—highlight how special of an artist he is. Skepta may have broken the door, and Stormzy may have had the chart success, but on Game Over, it’s Dave who stands on the top of the UK’s rap throne. —Ryan Bassil
Here, for the first time ever, Dylan Baldi says he worked on his lyrics before going in the studio, and the little bursts of nihilism that shot through Cloud Nothings’ first three studio albums got some shape and intent. After moving to Massachusetts to live with his girlfriend, then feeling the whole thing fall apart while she was out on tour, Baldi, in solitude, had to reconsider everything: his behavior, his lifestyle, his songwriting. So Life Without Sound is the 25-year-old growing up in real-time. It opens with the relief of coming “Up to the Surface” and out of inertia; it ends with him trying to figure out his fate and thinking about a higher power. Along the way he finds strands of virtue within himself that he wouldn’t mind holding onto while he batters everything else: “Darkened rings, with a few bright highlights.” There’s now something deeply human beneath Cloud Nothings’ dextrous, melodic post-hardcore. Thank whichever God Dylan Baldi is thinking about reckoning with. —Alex Robert Ross
Benjamin Booker was treated like some sort of rock and roll boy wonder around the release of his 2014 debut album. And why not? To rock diehards who are constantly in search of the guitar messiah that might come along and restore the genre back to its glory days, whenever those were, Booker seemed to fit the profile—handsome, charismatic, riffs for days, handpicked by Jack White as tour support. He looked to be the total package. But on his follow-up, Witness, Booker doesn’t seem to be interested in fitting anyone’s mold. Here, he bashes the walls down around him to make room for the rapid expansion of his sound. He’s traded in much of the foot-stomping rock ragers for slower tunes that unfold at a blues pace. The title track even has a gospel vibe to it with the help of astonishing backing vocals from the legendary Mavis Staples. Witness is a record about confronting the things that scare you the most, but clearly Booker was not afraid to evolve. —Dan Ozzi
Listening to Guppy, the debut album from Brooklyn four-piece Charly Bliss, is like going on a candy binge: very sweet, pleasantly sour, only without any the resulting stomach ache. Frontwoman Eva Hendricks is one of the best-sounding singers in rock right now, her sugary tone elevating the record’s hooky songwriting and introspective, slacker-ish lyrics. Stacked with songs that sound ripped from the soundtracks of teen movies like Josie and the Pussycats or Ten Things I Hate About You, Guppy is both a loving throwback and an exciting look into the future—and, most importantly, it’s also excellent fun. —Lauren O’Neill
Teenage rappers of today are typically preoccupied with how to find the next party, where to get the strongest weed, and what clothes the most expensive streetwear brand just dropped. As young adults with access to excess cash, they have every right to indulge. That isn’t quite the thrust of Baton Rouge teenager YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s AI YoungBoy tape, though. This year, the 18-year-old evaded an attempted murder charge and welcomed his third child into the world. The weight of both events and all the complications that come with them are heard on just about every song here. YoungBoy is rapping harder than ever about doing what’s necessary to stay on a path to salvation. The bigger space he gives to spirited harmonizing adds more tenderness to his sentiments towards getting his family on solid ground, outside of Louisiana’s borders. The result of both is a layered emotional outpouring well beyond his years. —Lawrence Burney
Weaves are one of Toronto’s best rock bands. Their self-titled debut last year gave a glimpse of their lasting power which is now a fully cemented fact on their outstanding follow-up record, Wide Open. Weaves framed their excellent sophomore release as having distinct parts and personalities. For example, from opening track “#53” to “Walkaway,” they see their songs as ones being sung by a house band in a bar; entertaining and slick, though deep and purposeful, like the pointed and raucous “Law and Panda” where Jasmyn Burke sings, “I dare you to question the man / because we got something he can’t stand.” From “Wide Open” to the album’s focal track “Scream,” which features Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, there is an explosion, of sorts; a reckoning and a falling apart. The latter bit of the record is harmonious, a piecing back together. Burke’s songwriting has excelled beyond that of the group’s equally excellent debut. Wide Open’s closer “Puddle” is a gut-wrenching track that begins with acoustic guitar and Burke singing “I’m giving a voice to the person you saw in my eyes,” sounding like this generation’s Karen O. —Sarah MacDonald
Over the past few years, Stormzy has gone from “child of grime” upstart to being as intrinsic and beloved to UK culture as, say, an Adidas tracksuit with poppers or roasted potatoes or raves in fields. The guy is basically more royal than the Royal Family itself. With that in mind, the release of his 16-track debut album Gang Signs & Prayer was never going to be taken lightly. And guess what? He delivers. From the UKG-flecked “Big For Your Boots” to the ferocious, icy grime of “Cold” to the rich gospel warmth of “Blinded By Your Grace Part 2 (feat. MNEK)” and the romantic, slow jam shapes of “Cigarettes & Kush (feat. Kehlani and Lily Allen),” this album feels like more than a showcase of talent and an exercise in genres; it’s a mission statement, a flag placed firmly in the mud. —Daisy Jones
Apricot Princess, the debut album from Rex Orange County, has to be one of the most colorful, emotionally rich albums that this year has blessed us with. And while you could put the whole thing under vague umbrellas of rap, pop, or soul, it’s far broader than that, far less hard to pin down. It’s an album defined by feeling, by aesthetics, by sensation. Made up of reflective strings, joyous synths, and soft smatterings of piano, with both rapped and sung vocals spread over the top, it feels like the sonic equivalent of a Harmony Korine movie or a collection of Polaroids taken the summer you first fell in love. “And there's not a day that I won't be yours, and I'm glad I'm not alone anymore, is this too good to be true?” he sings on “Sycamore Girl,” perfectly capturing that honey-drenched, “first three months” feeling, which is basically the essence of the album itself. —Daisy Jones
Last year, Chicago’s Haley Fohr made a collection of experimental song cycle seemingly inspired by outlaw country. Rather than just toss them on Bandcamp, she created a whole new character for herself: Jackie Lynn, a cocaine-slinging fugitive with a blood-red cowboy hat. Her new record as Circuit des Yeux doesn’t have such an elaborate backstory, but the one it does come with is no less intense. Following a period of existential and interpersonal turmoil—which at one point apparently left her “convulsing and vomiting and crying” after collapsing on the floor—Reaching for Indigo is the sound of Fohr born anew. On the open-road prog-folk jam “Paper Bag,” she sings with the heady confidence of Moses coming down from the mountain (or at least Robert Plant circa Zeppelin III). It’s a spiritual awakening made manifest in eight short songs, and a fulfilment of the prophecy spoken by Belinda Carlisle and the Book of Revelations: that heaven can indeed reside here on Earth. —Colin Joyce
“The party” referenced in After the Party is your twenties, and all of the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that come with those years. So as soon as you press play on this album, you’re immediately taking a journey with the Menzingers into the great beyond that is life after the big 3-0. “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” singer Greg Barnett asks in his signature raspy growl on the album’s opener. The record doesn’t provide answers to that question, but instead spends most of its time lamenting time gone by and waxing nostalgic about memories both sweet and painful. Ultimately, as the album winds down, Barnett seems to have found solace in the collection of mental images he’s amassed of his youth, however mundane—the guy sure can make a cup of coffee sound romantic. —Dan Ozzi
2017 has been a victory lap for 21-year-old Londoner Mabel. Earlier this year, she released her first EP Bedroom, and has since continued her impressively long winning streak with the stellar mixtape Ivy to Roses. There’s something to love in every single song on the tape, from the carefree skip of “Low Key”—an anthem for anyone who’s ever had to tell a Tinder match that they’d actually rather not meet the parents after two dates—to the soulful and higher-stakes, “Ivy,” on which Mabel is accompanied only by a piano and announces herself as a vocalist with a capital-V. She’s versatile without sacrificing her glossy signature sound, and so Ivy to Roses blends clean, traditional pop and R&B songwriting sensibilities with contemporary dating angst—a bunch of love songs made millennial; music to fuck, fight, and DM to. —Lauren O’Neill
Charli XCX’s Number 1 Angel is possibly her most cohesive offering so far, showcasing her evolution from hit songwriter and Iggy Azalea collaborator to someone interested in left-of-center sounds. The project is ten tracks of experimental, squeaky pop with a vivid streak of nihilism, most of them maximizing flash-in-the-pan feelings: ”Roll With Me” is the wicked glint of possibility when someone shoots you The Look across a dancefloor, “Drugs” is the all-consuming yearning that only presents itself at the crush-stage of a relationship, and “3AM” is the internal conflict that arises when they drunk dial you after it all goes to shit. Sonically speaking, Charli XCX has always gone where there’s fun and rebellion to be had, but Number 1 Angel finds Charli collaborating with artists and producers in a manner so intimate it feels like they’re passing the mic at a house show, finding fun and rebellion within a world she’s created intentionally without compromise. —Emma Garland
Lots of artists have attempted to make music for the end of the world. With Hug of Thunder, Broken Social Scene actually did it. On songs like “Halfway Home” and “Skyline,” the Canadian indie rock stalwarts’ layered instrumentation and choral sounds wrap around you like one of those weighted anxiety blankets. “All along we’re gonna feel some numbness / Oxymoron of our lives,” Leslie Feist croons sweetly on the album’s title track. It’s real and it’s raw, but somehow it makes you feel better. That’s because with all the brass and horns and guitars and pianos, Hug of Thunder sounds like what the concept of safety in numbers feels like. —Leslie Horn
Buddy, you wanna fly? Power Trip’s visceral Nightmare Logic will have you launching your body into the nearest crowd ASAP, shamelessly surfing all the way into the apocalypse. The exhilarating sophomore effort from the Dallas quintet is an aggressive record that’s been a crossover success, one that carries old-school thrash, death metal, and hardcore mentality into the new world. The monster, syrupy riffs that splatter across the album sound like flamethrowers drenched in chainsaws—yes, that’s right: flamethrowers drenched in chainsaws—while maintaining a bizarrely beautiful melody within the chaos. Lyrically, the band leads with sardonic political wit in songs like “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)” and “Waiting Around to Die,” embracing a twisted and absurdist mentality that makes heavy music so goddamn wonderful. —Eric Sundermann
At this point, calling Future prolific is practically a cliché. We get it. Future releases a lot—a lot—music. This, dear friends, is simply how Future works. The 34-year-old artist relentlessly churns out project after project, challenging himself as an artist to grow and change with each sound while maintaining the essence of what makes his music so gripping. With FUTURE, his self-titled LP (and one of three Future releases this year), he serves up one of his most complete works to date. Nayvadius knows this is what represents him the most, too—he called the damn thing FUTURE. Tracks like “Draco” and “Mask Off” showcase his party-starting hedonism, while “Might as Well,” “When I Was Broke,” and “Feds Did a Sweep” provide a lens into the destructive side of our hero and his drug-laced nights fueled by inevitable regret. The world spins madly on, yet Future remains—as beautiful and as tragic as ever. —Eric Sundermann
For all true believers in the radical possibilities of pleasure, Fever Ray’s sophomore record is basically a hymnal. Living on the verge of nuclear, ecological, and interpersonal disaster Karin Dreijer—the driving force behind the project—offers a way of taking the power back, however minimally: “every time we fuck we win.” The record’s industrial rave standout “This Country,” and its lead single “To the Moon and Back” make a case for the transformative power of queer desire. It explores the ways in which personal existences become inherently political and the ways in which explorations of those spaces can remap the toxic and abusive power dynamics that threaten the continued existence of humanity. It’s all soundtracked by Dreijer’s—as well as her cohort of technoise-futurist producers, including Peder Mannerfelt, Paula Temple, Nídia and more—bleak dial-tone beats and screaming bursts of noise. That makes the whole thing feel pretty apocalyptic, but so’s the world. And if it’s gonna get fixed, we’re gonna need to get busy. —Colin Joyce
Millennials are depressed and they love the sounds of the 1980s, so it follows that Paramore’s fifth and best album After Laughter is an of-the-times record that deeply resonates with anyone who’s young-ish and full of bad feelings. But it’s really hard to properly nail down—to elucidate in a way that doesn’t sound like pure fetishization—the bad feelings that Hayley Williams elbows her way through here. And yet: After Laughter cements Williams as a chronicler of her generation in a way that most hope to be, making the anxiety of living and the necessity of acknowledging your own pain sound like a raucous, synth-laden good time. And most importantly, she recognizes that even under infinite cloud cover, there can be light, too: “They say that dreaming is free,” she sings nakedly on the album’s most downtempo moment “26,” “But I wouldn’t care what it cost me.” —Larry Fitzmaurice
Ragana’s sophomore album, You Take Nothing, often shrouds its inherent rage and sorrow with cold winter’s light, its sparse melodic passages and whispered words the menacing lull before the storm hits. The Olympia, Washington-turned-Bay Area duo carries the earthy spirit and misty, muted atmosphere of their hometown with them, imbuing You Take Nothing (as well as its predecessor, Wash Away) with a sense of openness, wildness, and, crucially, vulnerability. It’s hard to describe why Ragana is so special; really, one just needs to listen. At its heart, You Take Nothing is an incredibly emotional album, one on which the personal is political and vice versa. Each syllable they scream is a curse and a prayer; each note they strike a warning. The two members' anarcha-feminist politics and staunch dedication to DIY take center stage in everything they do, imbuing the band with a sense of radical urgency, simmering anger, and emotional depth.” —Kim Kelly
From the opening moments of Swear I’m Good At This, Diet Cig want you to know exactly what the Brooklyn duo is all about. The first track, “Sixteen,” starts with a tremble, but three minutes later it’s a furious disavowal of a shitty relationship—by way of a less-than-ideal sexual memory—set to break-neck pop punk. It’s a pretty comprehensive mission statement. Putting gutsy honesty front and center, Swear I’m Good At This feels like catharsis for both Diet Cig and the listener: as singer Alex Luciano exorcises her demons (her voice, as it happens, is so pure in tone that there’s no way it could ever disguise how it’s feeling, whether jubilant or completely heartbroken), you’re all in with her, lamenting a sad birthday, or spitting with rage at gender imbalances in punk rock. Swear I’m Good At This is relatable because it speaks its mind—no emotion too large or unwieldy—and it’s exhilarating because it’s so uncompromising. Also, it shreds, which really helps. —Lauren O’Neill
Turn Out the Lights, the sophomore record from Tennessee’s Julien Baker, feels like the second part to a double album—the first, of course, being last year’s dazzling breakout Sprained Ankle. If that work confronted God, substance abuse, mental health, and relationships, Turn Out the Lights reckons with the hollow spaces and traumas left in their wake. This time, however, Baker is less quiet, trading the understated folk compositions of her debut for simple but lush songwriting cradled in piano, guitar, and strings (it’s only after a couple of listens that you realize there’s no percussion at all). Each track is a slow burn; Baker’s voice often emerges cracked, with plainspoken confessions like “But there's a comfort in failure / Singing too loud in church / Screaming my fears into speakers / 'Till I collapse or I burst.” But then she transcends, belting moments of weakness and reclaiming them as triumphs in the process—not quite closure, but catharsis nonetheless (if the end of closer “Claws in Your Back” doesn’t give you goosebumps, please see a doctor). Turn Out the Lights is painfully candid, insecure, and, at its core, anchored by the only kind of hope that makes sense anymore: “Maybe it's all gonna turn out alright,” she sings on “Appointments.” “Oh, I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is.” —Andrea Domanick
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile sitting down to make a record together makes so much sense that whoever is the President of Indie Rock needs to be impeached for not making it happen sooner. Lotta Sea Lice is a perfect Sunday afternoon haze of an album. Two pals who are extremely good at what they do spend nine tracks casually showcasing just how good they are at what they do. Barnett’s free-flowing, rambling approach to writing lyrics is supported by Vile’s love for the drone-y, breezy riffs that have always populated his music. Songs like “Over Everything” and “Continental Breakfast” display the seamless perfection of the pairing, a couple of stoners embracing the psychedelic joy that only can be found in a guitar. But the true joy comes when they rework each other’s songs. Barnett’s spin on “Peepin’ Tom” is a blueprint for introspective songwriting, while Vile’s take on “Outta the Woodwork” is a bluesy country grind that will have you popping the collar of your leather jacket in an effort to feel as cool as these guitar riffs sound. —Eric Sundermann
Rock music doesn’t tend to be the typical arena for discussions about domesticity. Maybe because it’s supposed to be an escape from, rather than an invocation of, the mundanities of the day-to-day. In Cowgirl Blues, however, Philadelphia band Katie Ellen have made an important, tender-hearted exception. Its concerns are relationships, marriage, cohabitation, love, and readiness for them (or lack of). Across ten songs, songwriter Anika Pyle takes a deep dive into the mental fight between societal expectations, her emotions, and her own reality. What results is a fascinating patchwork of feelings—anger at institutions, frustration with practicalities (“Love is not enough,” as one refrain goes), and an overarching regret that sometimes, the things you want just don’t work out—told against a complementary backdrop of twangy power-pop and slow-building indie sounds. In its frankness at every level, and its refusal to put on rose-tinted glasses, Cowgirl Blues achieves something special: it’s an album that tells the truth. —Lauren O’Neill
It’s tempting to call Mackenzie Scott’s third album as Torres an immense leap forward into unique and uncanny territory, and that would be true to an extent. The minimal, synthetic pulses that underpin her metropolitan mysticism here weren’t immediately present on her occasionally hesitant self-titled 2013 debut, and straightforward guitar work still made up the bulk of 2015’s Sprinter. But she’s always been spiritually and sonically restless, confronting God, staring down her tangled upbringing, and probing away at her guitar’s outer limits. On Three Futures, she’s more confident and ambitious with that restlessness, and in perfect control. This is an accompaniment to a ten-room house with matching smells and tastes and colors and textures, in which Scott builds bleak rhythmic ticks into warm crescendos, before bringing the whole thing back to rubble with one curt word. She takes her all-consuming voice to new places—soft and holy one second, sneered and terrifying the next, never anything less than completely engrossing. With all of this sprawling brilliance, it’s easy to wonder what space Scott will choose to inhabit next. “One of our generation’s great rockstars” is a good bet. But she might already be there. —Alex Robert Ross
Syd, who is only 25 years old, already feels like a veteran of this industry. She is a core part of the LA-based R&B group The Internet and also has affiliations with Odd Future, counting Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean among her peers and friends. It was almost baffling to see that Syd hadn’t struck out on her own yet because she is such a wellspring of talent. In that regard, Fin is a peculiar title for a debut. What could be the fin here, perhaps, is a particular phase of her life coming to its end. She’s positioning herself front and center, like on her first single, “All About Me,” instead of being part of a collective. Relationships and love are dominant themes, too, so a particularly hard end of a relationship she's had may be the fin as well, as she croons her realizations on the album’s final jazzy track, “Insecurities.” However, a moment of pure sexual and sensual joy and celebration occurs on the record’s peak, “Body,” a classically paced R&B track complete with soft moans and a drumbeat absolutely sure to make your eyebrows raise. Syd’s commitment to self-excavation on this record over sleek R&B flavors, including glitchy drums and gentle guitar strums, make the album a standout. —Sarah MacDonald
Vince Staples is known for being insightful and sharp while casually imparting cool, cruel, and cutting commentary that’s designed to challenge and document the bitter truth that is life. None of this has changed on his sophomore album Big Fish Theory. What has changed, though, are the beats behind those words. Well, slightly. Industrial-reminiscent sounds have always been present in projects Summertime 06 and Prima Donna but the decidedly more electronic tempered beats of a “745,” in line with the likes of West Coast artist MC Frosty as he notes, carries more bounce than before. On “Yeah Right,” Staples questions frequently trafficked false narratives in rap, while the SOPHIE-produced track bubbles and clangs into formless bass—with neither side losing ground to the other. The Long Beach rapper’s concise vision keeps everything in check, as the tense 12-track album delivers its ultimate thesis on the perils of success (“Couple problems my cash can't help / Human issues, too strong for tissues/ False bravado all masked by wealth”) while providing in equal measure ear candy to keep your attention. With his so-simple-it-smarts commentary and little patience for excess, Staples delivers a project in Big Fish Theory that feels at once different and familiar, and sticks out like a sore thumb (in a good way) against his peers. God bless, Staples… and the Ray J feature on this album. —Jabbari Weekes
Rap fans have historically looked to JAY-Z to set the tone for how culture would be moving in the near future. When he said that jerseys weren’t the wave for grown-ass men anymore and that they should trade them in for cheesy, oversized button-ups, a lot of people listened. When he said that Auto-Tune rap was oversaturating the market, people listened—for a bit. But once he started to rap about buying artwork no one could afford, Mr. Carter started struggling with tone-setting. So as he described in a recent New York Times interview, if a rapper’s career is moving the right way, the next phase after boasting about the things you were never able to buy for most of your life is coming to the realization that “the most beautiful things are not these objects. The most beautiful things are inside.” 4:44 works on that theory almost exclusively. Jay talks about cheating on his wife and the fear of revealing that hard truth, being proud of his mother finding love on her own terms, and embracing therapy as a means of liberation. Though it is unlikely that a 48-year-old man will convince people in their early 20s to see a therapist, the fact that an artist widely considered as the best his genre has ever seen is advocating for mental health is a beautiful prospect for the future of rap. —Lawrence Burney
Phil Elverum has referred to A Crow Looked at Me, a record grappling with the death of his wife Geneviève, as “barely music”—and in some senses, he’s right. Very few of the record’s 11 songs feature more than an instrument or two, the majority of which belonged to Geneviève. That minimalism is the most obvious sign of the record’s most evident theme: the way that death can strip everything away. Elverum describes both the bodily details of Geneviève’s decline—of seeing her face replaced with something “jaundiced and fucked,” of cleaning the garbage of her “bloody, end-of-life tissues”—and the contradictory, overwhelming feelings he experienced afterward. He describes the way he’ll carry her on, both in stories and in the way he raises his daughter. On the record’s final song, Elverum describes hearing that “sweet kid” murmur in her sleep as she rests in his backpack on a hike. She utters a single word, but amidst all the sorrow, it feels something like hope: “Crow.” —Colin Joyce
Kristina Esfandiari has been everywhere this year. The sloe-eyed Bay Area native has been touring like mad with both her angsty solo project Miserable and her dark folk-shaded doom band, King Woman; she’s lent her lush, hazy pipes to live performances with Thou (and others); and also overseen the release of King Woman’s Relapse Records debut, Created in the Image of Suffering. The latter is perhaps her most impressive accomplishment in a year chock full of wins and crossover successes. Within its blurred fault lines, gentle waves of deconstructed doom, drone, shoegaze, and post-rock coalesce into a deeply emotive, mesmerizing, and quite personal offering from Esfandiari and her bandmates Joey Raygoza, Peter Arensdorf, and Colin Gallagher. As Noisey has noted, her husky, earthy contralto is the inevitable eye of any musical tempest she tosses herself into. —Kim Kelly
When Margo Price made her formal debut in 2016 with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, she brought with her a spirit the genre was sorely missing. With a cunning lyrical mix of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris, and a biting, edgy twang to her sound, she laid out her life story in the toughest way possible, a move that earned her a great deal of respect and turned all the right heads. A year and a half later, All American Made threatened to feel like a rush job, an unanalyzed look at the reaction Donald Trump’s win cobbled together in the emotional state many found themselves in after Trump’s election and an attempt to make sense of it all. But Price, though obviously shaken, did not ask us to follow her down an unproductive rabbit hole of anger. Instead, she presented us with a set of songs to remind us that the heartbreak, while nothing new, is all American made. —Annalise Domenighini
The seventh LP from prolific 24-year-old singer-songwriter Alex Giannascoli builds around country inflections, from the jaunty upright piano of “Proud” through the perfect melancholy of “Bobby” to the stream-of-consciousness minimalism of “Powerful Man.” But, if the wildly divergent LPs he’s released since 2010’s RACE weren’t proof enough, Rocket shows that Giannascoli can’t sit still. “Brick” is a splurge of howled, industrial post-hardcore; “Sportstar” plays with pitched-up R&B; “Horse” is an unclassifiable clatter of keys, synths, and handclaps. Rocket is marvellous in its sonic variety, and it calcifies the image of Giannascoli as a kid who can go wherever he wants, whenever he chooses, and always produce something fascinating. And he deserves every bit of praise for that. But Rocket is more than a showcase. Giannascoli slips in and out of character, trying on new masks and questioning himself as he goes. He’s confident and all-knowing one moment, terrified and inadequate the next. On the album’s opener he sings, “Now I know everything,” but a few minutes later he’s singing through depression and coming up without answers. On “Sportstar” he wants to get hurt, but then he sets himself free: “I play how I wanna play / I say what I wanna say.” He’s honest—perhaps more honest than he’d like to be at times. That’s what sets Rocket apart as his best album yet, and that’s what will keep people marvelling at him long after the “prodigy” tag has worn off. —Alex Robert Ross
Lana Del Rey has clearly always divided people. On one side, there are those that say she’s boring, eye-roll-inducing, and shallow. On the other, she’s considered a great American storyteller, the queen of turning pop iconography into symbolism, an artist who is a dark, grand, cinematic genius. If you’re in the first camp, you probably didn’t bother giving her fifth album a spin anyway. But if you’re in the second, Lust for Life is peak Lana. On the title track, she teams up with her male mirror image, the Weeknd, and sings about dancing on the H of the Hollywood sign. On “13 Beaches,” she outruns the paparazzi and dreams of real love. On “Heroin” she name-checks Charles Manson, hot weather, liquor stores, movie stars, and soft decay. From beginning to end, the whole thing is sickly sweet, silly, and totally, beautifully glorious. —Daisy Jones
Black Origami is the sonic equivalent of a Magic Eye poster: If you try to focus on any specific part of it, it loses its effect. And for the Indiana producer, that’s kind of the point. "I'm one of those people who needs to know why I'm doing something," she told Thump this year. "I need to actually know what I am studying and why it works the way that it works." She was speaking about her affinity for math, but the instinct carries well over into the deconstructed puzzle of her second full-length—a gauntlet thrown that sets the much-buzzed-about artist alongside compositional alchemists like album collaborators Holly Herndon and William Basinski. The result is an engrossing assemblage of contradictions: Black Origami is born from Jlin’s footwork roots, but with its drum corps, Bollywood, ambient, and industrial influences, is squarely genreless within its electronic framework; it’s wildly arrhythmic, but finds momentum in the spaces between beats; its components are a brilliant, if often baffling, cerebral flex, but together amount to a stream of consciousness experience that feels natural, even easy. Black Origami hits right at the gut—music made to be felt rather than heard. —Andrea Domanick
Khalid’s American Teen is a 15-song collection of sugary art-pop and 80s synths that could’ve soundtracked a John Hughes film, a force of nostalgia driven by the uncertainty of youth. The songwriter—a 19-year-old Army kid from El Paso who just graduated high school last year—sounds wise beyond his years, attempting to try to accept and understand what it means to get older. Over pop-friendly jams like “Location,” “Young Dumb & Broke,” and “Hopeless,” Khalid showcases his beautiful full baritone, one of the sweetest sounding voices to enter music in the last year. Moreover, the songwriting reckons with eternal general questions about what it’s like to be a young person—getting older, falling in love, fearing the future—but with a modern twist (the lead single’s refrain focuses on sending a GPS pin). To top it all off, the manner in which this album entered the pop-culture echelon is so poetic it’d feel like a cliché to write: a feature on Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat. That’s too perfect, right? Sometimes that’s the way life works. —Eric Sundermann
On paper, 45 minutes of twisted, dissonant electronic music probably doesn’t sound that appealing unless you’re the kind of person who writes personal haikus and thinks plastic bags are beautiful. In reality, though, Arca’s third self-titled album is genuinely astonishing and a pleasure to listen to. The Venezuelan producer and Björk collaborator uses his voice like another digital instrument, warping and shaping it into different textures, weaving it through spidery electronics, icy blue synth tones and industrial, clattering beats. The result is a collection of songs that are as cold as they are romantic, as expansive as they are intimate, and as chaotic as they are meticulous. It’s like staring at an oil painting and thinking it’s made up of just one color until you peer closer and realize it’s made up of so many hidden colors and shades that you can’t even count them. You just have to step back and take it in. —Daisy Jones
Regionality is at the heart of what makes new rap exciting. For listeners, it can either serve as a portal to learn what drives culture across borders, or if you’re from a particular area, it can affirm your identity and life experiences. It’s what makes West Coast rap decorated with G-funk special, what helped Atlanta’s trap infiltrate the mainstream, and makes Chicago’s drill an extension of a city in crisis. When your city doesn't have a detectable rap sound, that presents a challenge. GoldLink took on that obstacle and came out victorious with this year’s At What Cost. Instead of primarily leaning on his native DC’s famed go-go sound, he caught the essence of the city by recalling childhood memories and recruiting hometown peers to shine in their most comfortable spaces. Wale joined him for a silky look back on school break flings (“Summatime”), “Have You Seen That Girl?” revisits Link’s adolescent hot spots within the DMV region, and Grammy-nominated “Crew” sees Southeast DC standout Shy Glizzy offer his best verse in recent memory and gets one of the year’s best hooks from Maryland’s Brent Faiyaz. —Lawrence Burney
The Unlawful Assembly Is one of the most important metal records of 2017 by a long shot. As Noisey wrote back in September, Dawn Ray’d artfully channel “revolutionary spirit into a strain of black metal that owes as much to Iskra and Anti-Cimex as it does the windswept folk traditions of working class Northern England and classic Norwegian black metal.” Not only is the Liverpudlian trio's album an impressive musical accomplishment, but the people are listening: the response to The Unlawful Assembly has been remarkable, and the band has now been snapped up by metal behemoths Prosthetic Records. Of course metalheads are free to double down on the genre’s escapist roots and focus on dragons, sleaze, or cartoon violence—but some of us would rather try to make the world even a little bit better for the next generation of heshers. This is a record that also channels black metal’s small but sturdy leftist tradition. Change can only come from within. You cannot make the revolution; you can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere—and there’s a righteous and necessary fire burning inside of Dawn Ray’d. —Kim Kelly
Following the chart success of “Bad and Boujee” in the early weeks of 2017, the expectations Migos faced with the release of Culture, their second studio album, were astronomical. But they delivered, and no one should be surprised. The Atlanta rap trio have always spoken individually about how Migos is a band of brothers, how their chemistry is a result of years of growing up together, and there’s no better example of that than Culture as a whole. The rapping and melodies created on standout tracks like “T-Shirt” and “Get Right Witcha” feel like watching synchronized swimming, but with more drug references. Moreover, pretty much every song on this album—like “Call Casting,” “Slippery,” “What the Price”—is a certified banger. The record showed individual growth, too. While Quavo still has the most star power with casual listeners, Offset proved himself as a viable solo act and Takeoff showcased his lyrical brilliance. In other words, when talking about Culture and thinking about its impact on 2017, there wasn’t a more aptly named album that came out this year. —Trey Smith
HNDRXX is the Future project we’ve all been waiting for since the Atlanta rapper first entered our collective consciousness. It’s more than an improved version of Honest, and it’s an exploration of more traditional R&B and pop aesthetics that Future has always been adjacent to but never fully applied. Songs like “Use Me,” “Neva Missa Lost,” and “I Thank U” follow the styles of 90s acts like Jodeci (who are sampled on “Neva Missa Lost”) and New Edition. HNDRXX is one of Future’s most mature lyrical displays—he talks about love with more regret than bitterness, and the moments of singing express more beauty more than they do pain. “Fresh Air” is a return to the “happy” Future many of his fans and critics were convinced was gone. HNDRXX is Future deciding he’s done with lamenting on the wrongs he’s committed or the hurt he’s felt in the past, and sees him looking towards the excitement of new relationships to come. Also, “Sorry” is as good, if not better, as an outro than “Codeine Crazy.” It’s true. —Trey Smith
In years to come, your young children will pull at the hem of your trousers and ask you how the Best Band in the World came to be. And you, well, you will pull them atop your knee, and you will tell them the story of Sheer Mag. It goes thusly: after crafting three of the most thrilling rock EPs of the early 21st Century— I, II, and III, put out between 2014 and 2016, and named as though the band knew the gravity of what they’d be giving unto the world early on—Sheer Mag released their first album, Need To Feel Your Love, in July 2017. In doing so, they ascended their rightful position as a shining bastion of the possibility that still exists within guitar music. Need To Feel Your Love is technically skillful but still a total adrenaline rush, dotted throughout with hooks aplenty, without losing any of the bite provided by burly, accomplished riffs and the raw, rockstar-wattage power of Tina Halladay’s vocal performance. On a grander scale, the album is evidence that Sheer Mag really are greats to their bones, drawing as much clear inspiration from classic Americana like Neil Young and Crazy Horse as they do from the DIY punk community from whence they came. That’s what you’ll tell your kids. And then you’ll put on Need To Feel Your Love (your kids will pit; it’ll rule). —Lauren O’Neill
Lorde is a proud Scorpio, if reference to the zodiac is your bag (which it is for her), and Scorpios revel in intensity. On her 2013 debut Pure Heroine, Lorde tip-toed trepidatiously, showing us certain parts of herself, but on Melodrama she blows that open and begs us to take a look at the unraveling inside of her. It’s confident and extremely honest. Pop musicians are often met with resistance with respect to authenticity; that what they do, some argue, isn’t authentic but manufactured. That’s a wildly narrow viewpoint to take and, with respect to Melodrama, couldn’t be more untrue.
Across Melodrama, Lorde negotiates the intensity a broken heart can cause. After the end of a three-year relationship, and going from a teenage girl to a young adult in the glaring public spotlight, Lorde’s Melodrama becomes a pop manifesto in the ways one needs to hurt, fuck up, live, and learn—all over hip-hop drums, synths, and a lone piano. The production assist from friend and Bleachers member Jack Antonoff helped complement all of Lorde’s bewildering, peculiar, and tender moments.
Melodrama is cohesive. It sounds like a night out, beginning with “Green Light,” a petty, anthemic pre-drinking track. The album treks a rise through to hand drums on “Sober” and frantic “dy-dy-dynamite” on “Homemade Dynamite” to its sharp comedown around “Liability,” reckoning with sobering realities and not just the glossy sheen of getting lost in the night, but of getting lost in New York City. The album’s strength, however, is not necessarily in this cohesiveness; songs isolated from the meticulous tracklisting are just as impactful and empowering. “Supercut” could very well be an important anthem we point to 20 years from now. (“We were wild and fluorescent / Come home to my heart” is a goosebump-inducing lyric.)
If Melodrama were a tarot card—to be mystical yet again with our contemporary pop child raised on the wisdoms of Stevie Nicks—it would be The Tower. And though that card’s destructive imagery is wholly terrifying, it’s also liberating in a sense: burn it all down and start again. Lorde did just that on Melodrama, and beautifully so. —Sarah MacDonald
If St. Vincent’s self-titled record is her ascension to a modern-day Homo Superior Bowie persona, MASSEDUCTION is the bruise of a woman who fell—no, faceplanted—to earth. Gone are her larger-than-life silver crown, pink throne, and confident stare of 2014, ass-first loss and lust her only scepter now. It’s hard to maintain cool and detached otherworldliness when your very human love life becomes public fascination spread thin across red carpets and gossip rags and Instagram. With everyone suddenly boring peep holes into her bedroom, Annie Clark said fuck it and let us in, resulting in her most naked work yet.
MASSEDUCTION is a tumultuous album on post-heartbreak excess, maniacal synthpop giving way to choir-like vocals, keys weighing with sadness, or more familiar distorted thrusts of guitar. It’s the glitter clinging to your skin on your hangover, the unwanted but inevitable clarity of sunlight on your sheets, the bottom of the bottle that finally reveals the ground. Tellingly, MASSEDUCTION doesn’t even hit the three-minute mark when Clark’s highly-publicized ex Cara Delevingne appears directly, singing the robotic chorus of “Pills.” St. Vincent doesn’t hide that she’s overdosing: “I can’t even swim in these waves I made / From the bath to the drain, and the plane to the stage / To the bed, to give head, to the money I made.”
“Sugarboy” is the record’s strongest pop whiplash, burbling synthetic production nearly overwhelming Clark’s delicate soprano as she details male and female lovers. Her defeated groan on the chorus snaps her past alien goddess image in two: “I am a lot like you / I am alone like you.” By “New York,” the most poignant piano-pop ballad to casually throw “motherfucker” around, the high of mindless sex and drugs has faded into earnest mourning for lost friends, heroes, and love. MASSEDUCTION’s other city song, the dizzying “Los Ageless,” is what ultimately crystallizes its motif: "How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?" Clark’s loss is St. Vincent’s gain: MASSEDUCTION proves she has an arena-worthy pop sensibility on top of her guitar virtuoso to be reckoned with. —Jill Krajewski
Kelela was only ever going to make a debut album when she was damn well ready. She implied as much, in a celebratory Instagram post addressed to her ride-or-dies in July, where she referenced their patience as she pieced together the follow-up to her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me and 2015 Hallucinogen EP. The result—the rippling, intimate, lovesick Take Me Apart—throbs with an intensity that carries you from a post-breakup talk in your now-ex’s apartment, to the car, to the club, to your bedroom when you entangle yourselves in each other’s limbs again. It was more than worth the wait.
That’s largely because Take Me Apart sees Kelela stretch out into the most honest version of herself that she’s put on record so far. There’s an openness, a familiar vulnerability that she gathers in her hands then turns up the brightness on by a few thousand kilowatts. It feels like a warm light. It could be imagined, in fact, as a humming glow born from talking frankly about love and lust and confusion without the limitations of restraint. For all the jokes about 2016 being a terrible year, or one that made no sense, 2017 managed to top its destabilizing properties. In a time when the world feels one tweet away from nuclear war, or when horrifying headlines melt into the shifting slush of the timeline, Take Me Apart is a tightly focused refuge. It whispers, “here you will find tenderness” whether jolting your organs to the wobbling bass of “Blue Light” or stroking your hair to downbeat “Altadena.”
As has been Kelela’s MO since she appeared with Cut 4 Me, her voice wraps you in down-comforter softness while angular, slick production cuts through it like a shard of glass. Kelela served as the album’s executive producer, which is worth mentioning so as not to minimize her as “just a vocalist” but to understand how, as a second-generation Ethiopian girl raised in Washington, she has always straddled worlds. Musically, she does so with genres, styles and sonic textures. Jam City, who she’s worked with since 2013, helps breakup opener “Frontline” rumble and sparkle as Kelela sings “If you think I'm going back, you misunderstood” with all the jaunty confidence of someone yet to hit the day two crash-and-burn of a relationship split. Elsewhere on the album, Arca is joined by Ariel Rechtshaid, Kwes, and Bok Bok (sometimes all on the same song), tugging the contours of basslines and synths around Kelela’s gossamer vocal.
She has always occupied a somewhat shaky space in whatever you’d call “the musical zeitgeist.” Her voice may be R&B to the core, but she has no interest in producing fit-for-radio mainstream R&B, or being marketed with the lip-glossed, weave-flipping sheen that implies. Instead she has put out an album that centers her story as a black woman navigating love, free of cliche. There is hurt. There is a bluntness about being DTF, on the album’s lead single “LMK”. There are the tear-stained fights of “Onanon.” Sure, fans had to wait a few years—but Kelela has given over all of herself to those willing to listen. —Tshepo Mokoena
Similar to any towering staple of the North American economy, Drake is too big to fail. His fourth studio album, last year’s Views, was rightly pilloried by fans and critics alike for being too long, too inconsistent, and too, well, Drake-y; despite this, it did Adele-level sales numbers in a year where he was literally competing with Adele in the marketplace.
Drake is nothing if not self-aware, though—and that goes beyond a level of billboard-advertising that even Frances McDormand would call a bit much. “I was an angry youth when I was writing Views / Saw a side of myself that I just never knew,” he admits on “Do Not Disturb,” the final track on this year’s excellent project More Life. He’s right: Views might’ve actually been pretty good, but it was also thoroughly dismal in its outlook, displaying an artist so used to looking over his shoulder that he’s seeing things that may not even exist. At another point on the record—the outro to the tough-talking “Can’t Have Everything”—his mother Sandi Graham confirms the existence of this Achilles’ heel: “That attitude will hold you back in life.”
So More Life is the sound of Drake letting go—of freeing himself up of others’ expectations and trying on new sounds like prom dresses. There was much snickering about his decision to call More Life a “playlist,” but reflections of the modern era aside, it’s a quietly brilliant way to lower the stakes and offload a bunch of solid-sounding and guest-packed songs. Throughout, he flirts with grime and different types of dance music, allows Quavo to (possibly unintentionally) point out his own flow-jacking hypocrisies, makes a questionable 9/11 joke, and treats every song like a different postcard from a vacation you’ll never be able to afford.
None of these songs were hits this year, and it seems like everyone stopped talking about More Life shortly after it was released—and yet, Drake ended up releasing this incredibly strong pop-workout of a record less than a year after putting out an album that nobody supposedly liked but sold over four million copies anyway. Isn’t that crazy? —Larry Fitzmaurice
Every few years, the exuberance of an artist just barely arriving at their adult years brightens the rap realm. They make big claims of changing the world, if for no other reason but their wave-starting talent and how their music positions the world they grew up in as an epicenter for culture. They introduce us to new language started in their hoods and peer groups. Their youth excites us, just as equally as their proximity to danger. But the shame of the average American listener is that they barely look outside of their nation’s borders for these types of characters. But they surely exist.
This year’s prime example is East London’s J Hus and his debut album Common Sense. The 21-year-old artist did us all a favor by making an album that joined much of the most exciting music coming out of the African diaspora—dancehall, afrobeats, hip-hop, and grime—in a way so fluid that it feels like he needs a new genre exclusively credited to him. In songs like “Fisherman” and “Did You See,” his deep crooning reflects the harmonies most associated with afrobeats but in lyrical content, he offers the hood stories and boastfulness of rap. “Clartin” has the hectic energy of grime. “Spirit,” much like roots reggae, is a beautiful testament that self-worth should be informed by ideals and the ability to make it through hardships rather than one’s personal possessions. It also argues that one’s immoral decisions don’t fully define their character: “No money but we had life, I go hungry, let my brother take my slice/ Ride outs and drive-bys, but deep down they're nice guys.” J Hus is rap’s newest knucklehead golden child, and Common Sense is the foundation for what feels like a promising career. —Lawrence Burney
Tyler the Creator’s fourth studio album, Flower Boy, is the moment his vision seamlessly came together, a place where the seeds he’d been scattering across his last few releases bloomed into one colorful, complete release. Designed to be listened to during the “golden hour”—an unspecified but aesthetically defined time of day just before or just after sundown, the period when the orange hue of the day burns with light, enticing promise—it’s an album centered in the vivid landscape we’ve seen Tyler paint across his last four projects, a place of serene lakes and natural beauty.
But where previous albums were rooted in a degree of darkness, Flower Boy shines like a bright beacon of freedom. That’s not to say there aren’t glum moments; stand-out track “9/11 / Mr Lonely” is an honest, personal ode to solitude. And yet its production is built around soothing tones of purple, pink, and white: a sound that’s reflected back in the track’s video where multiple iterations of Tyler dance to a backdrop of blossom trees. There are other feelings too—he references his career anxiety in “November,” asing “what if ‘Who Dat Boy’ is rhetorical and this is over”—but these are counteracted with production and guest features that keep the album centered somewhere peaceful and reflective, making Flower Boy the first fully rounded Tyler the Creator album. All hail the king of creation. May he one day release a full-length film and finally own that damn planet, filling it with trees, peony bushes, and bicycles. —Ryan Bassil
In one scene from the short film Process, a visual companion to Sampha’s debut album of the same name, the camera cuts between shots of the artist playn a narrow alley and a bus terminal in London performing “Kora Sings” on the piano. At first glance, these settings are simply hubs where one passes from one destination to another. But within the confines of the film, and for Sampha specifically, they represent both a literal and figurative limbo. In the lyrics of the song, he come to terms with letting go of the physical memories of his mother while hoping there’s something more for her in the afterlife: “But if you go away / Please don't disappear… My hands together looking at the stars / I really hope there's angels.” At the core of Process is the singer trying to decipher the impasse between grief and acceptance.
Process an album full of metaphors. The first voice we hear on the album is a recording of Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon, and he uses the parable of the tragic Greek figure Icarus “Plastic 100°C,” warning of the dangers of flying too close to the sun while illuminating the distance he feels from the world.
The fidgety cowbells of “Blood On Me” and the playful dance of strings on “Kora Sings” raise the production to new and interesting heights. But what makes this record particularly impactful lies between the sonic flourishes. Sampha never loses hold of the emotional beats he’s trying to explore, wrestling with anxieties trivial and significant. On “Under,” he references seminal anime film Ghost In The Shell to discuss an ex-lover who has rendered his spirit paralyzed. On “Timmy’s Prayer,” he digs into the depths of his heartbreak after losing both of his parents to cancer: “If heaven's a prison/Then I am your prisoner.” Still, “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” feels like the heart of this album, with Sampha reaching a rare moment of centeredness as he recalls the warmth and love his mother’s home provided him.
And that’s what we get with Process: an intimate epic of the worst minutes hours, days, and years of Sampha Sisay’s life. But it’s also a story about the small moments of levity that allow one to endure what comes next. —Jabbari Weekes
Archy Marshall’s second album as King Krule is smeared with puke, grime, cum, soot, Coke, run-off, the sticky residue of regurgitated lager, the inadequate grease of a store-bought stir-fry mixed with stomach acid, a little dried blood. Or, as Marshall put it, “the snot, the earwax, your spit, your jizz, your piss, your shit… your beard, your nails.” The Ooz is, like Marshall himself, consumed by waste to the point of self-destruction. “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, don’t be scared / Deface me already / I’m a waste, baby,” he sings on “Slush Puppy.” The Ooz smells like the solvents, smoke, and musty cologne of “Logos;” it feels like the gunk-brains on “Vidual;” it tastes like butane and flesh. It crawls through muck, broken-down guitars and back-alley bass tripping over lazy drums, interrupted by wailing, atonal background saxophones.
These are the sorts of obsessions that come from prolonged solitude, staring at a snotty handkerchief and wondering about its implications, worrying about the color of your own urine. Marshall has a preternatural feel for building life out of torpid textures, whether he’s playing with hip-hop or off-kilter jazz. And, lyrically, he’s always been sat alone. There’s not much in the way of communal euphoria on his 2013 debut, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, or on 2015’s A New Place to Drown (released under his birth name). On The Ooz, though, he barely even looks up. He opens the record with the soft rumble of “Biscuit Town,” singing over portentous keys: “I seem to sink lower, gazing in the rays of the solar.” On “The Locomotive,” he sings, “I’m alone, I’m alone / In deep isolation,” unable to pick out other humans but for the tracksuits they’re wearing. On “Sublunary,” over uncanny jazz, he’s “not here.” On “Half Man Half Shark,” his sudden, uncontrollable spiral downwards is articulated starkly: “Simple soft thoughts / Simple soft thoughts become menacing.”
The brilliant thing is that this darkness feels rich and real. For all the talk of The Ooz’s length—its 19 songs stretch out over 66 minutes—the pace changes often enough to keep the listener interested. Halfway in, the almost poppy, heavy-strummed “Emergency Blimp” gives way to “Czech One,” a mournful, crooned half-ballad. Later, the warm, cerebral buzz of “The Cadet Leaps” eases into the beautifully psychedelic title track. Marshall’s drawl often sounds like it’s coming from a drunk in crisis, and he’s finding new ways to exploit that odd timbre, talking, whispering, shouting over “Dum Surfer,” crooning through the uncanny jazz of “Midnight 01.” (“Why’d you leave me? Because of my depression?” he asks).
Rising and falling like this, he creates his own world, occasionally terrifying and lonely though it is. Marshall clearly hates the “voice of a generation” tag that was slapped onto him in the critical crush that followed 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. But his unblinking attention to physical realism, bleak mental troughs, and sonic surrealism sets him apart as something special. Whether or not he cares is a different matter. —Alex Robert Ross
“To Pimp a Butterfly was addressing the problem,” Kendrick Lamar told T Magazine earlier this year, shortly before dropping his fourth studio album, DAMN. “I'm in a space now where I'm not addressing the problem anymore."
The “problem” Lamar was referring to is the state of black America, a community suffering the effects of police brutality, black-on-black crime, and a lack of self-love. But to K. Dot, obsessing over those worldly things was getting in the way of The Almighty Power showering him and the the rest of the diaspora with blessings. "We're in a time where we exclude one major component out of this whole thing called life,” Lamar told the interviewer at T: “God.”
DAMN. finds Kendrick leaning on Black Hebrew Israelite sensibilities—which propose that blacks across the globe are cursed because they have gotten away from God’s teachings—to make sense of the world around him. That inner conflict—between setting an example for an entire group in need of salvation and being a human with earthly desires, like “Lust” and “Love”—forms the crux of the album. Songs like “Fear” dive into this dilemma head-on, with Lamar comparing himself to Job, the biblical character who, in order to prove his loyalty to God, needed to sacrifice everything and everyone he ever loved. It’s a big psychological burden to take on, but generational trauma sometimes works this way: feeling that you need to be just shy of a superhuman to deserve anything that comes your way. Kendrick confirms that being the best rapper alive doesn't do away with those feelings, either. “The shock value of my success put bolts in me / All this money, is God playin' a joke on me?”
Underlying messages aside, DAMN. provides what many criticized To Pimp a Butterfly for lacking: accessibility. A jazz-heavy album aiming to lend a shoulder to a generation in need can lull at times. But DAMN. is filled with ego-boosting songs that bang without having to dig deep. Tracks such as “HUMBLE,” where Lamar takes pride in not needing drugs to get into a groove, and “ELEMENT,” in which he vows to convincingly outdo his contemporaries with style, are further proof that, at this stage of his career, Kendrick Lamar’s biggest challenge is topping his own work. —Lawrence Burney
There is a particular kind of loneliness that affects young people in the modern world. Having unlimited access to anyone, anywhere, anytime often only serves to amplify silence, making relationships—potential, failed, and past—feel even more confusing, and turning guilt over lack of emotional connections inward (if you’re struggling to forge them and have everyone alive at your fingertips, the problem must be you, right?). It also makes it that much easier to avoid dealing with things head on, creating an environment that is essentially this tweet writ large. Ctrl, then, is a masterpiece born from a minefield.
Across the album, 28-year-old SZA doesn’t dance around anything. Desire, revenge, romance, body image, and anxiety over the passing of time all bubble up and cross over in the most powerful display of vulnerability since Frank Ocean’s Blond(e). Unlike Blond(e), though, Ctrl doesn’t play with smoke and mirrors. There’s no curtain for SZA to hide behind; she’s front and center with the spotlight on her, speaking directly. She doesn’t mince words as she runs her sexual history through the ringer and mines the roles of those involved, including—especially—herself.
The album opens with the sound of paper being ripped in half and crumpled, while a voice recording says “that is my greatest fear—that if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just, you know... I would be fatal.” It’s a subtle but clear statement of intent. The narrator could be ripping up anything—a letter received, a letter not sent—or perhaps ripping open something—something documented, oneself. Either way, the action is delivered decisively. The narrator has chosen to tear something up and start over, to take control over something by discarding it; external elements become secondary to the person they affect, “things” become “I.”
Ctrl is as much an investigation of who that “I” is as well as an ownership of it. On opener “Supermodel” she sings about sleeping with her ex-boyfriend’s friend as revenge. On “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” she admits needing attention and affirmation to feel good about herself. On “Normal Girl,” she longs to be different (“type of girl you take home to your mama”), perhaps to the “difficult” girl she claims to be elsewhere on the album. “I really wish I was a normal girl,” she sings, vocalizing the insecurity many women swallow every time we are made to feel unwanted or inconvenient.
While there are countless moments where SZA is confident, uncompromising and unapologetic, Ctrl is set apart by her admission of her own flaws and weaknesses. As well as the dexterity with which Ctrl plays with R&B, soul, and indie in a way that dismisses any attempt categorize it, the record’s uniqueness comes from its voice, its beauty from strength. It’s an album that sounds like it could only have come from someone who has done so much self-reflection they’ve broke through to the elusive other side, where there’s self-acceptance. Women are scrutinized so harshly—as public figures and in life generally—but often the voice that stings the most is our own. To hear SZA come through and not just doing a fearless exposé on her emotional make-up, but being at peace with it, even when she wishes she was different, is vital and invaluable. —Emma Garland
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