Music was full of fury, confusion and resistance in our first post-election year. Albums came with titles like American Dream (LCD Soundsystem), American Teen (Khalid) and All American Made (Margo Price). And indeed, artists did get explicitly political, from Randy Newman to Jason Isbell to Jay-Z. But music in 2017 was also about a more slippery sense of self, as genre lines fall away and artists searched for identity and purpose in weird times. Some of the year’s best classic rock came from pop stars like Kesha and Harry Styles; some of the year’s most acclaimed pop statements came via glossier sounds from alterna-rock icons like Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear. SZA melded emo self-evaluation with the sounds of modern R&B, Chris Stapleton joined classic soul to contemporary country, Jlin added experimental cutting-edge textures to Chicago dance music, Valerie June explored decades of American music and Drake pulled sounds and collaborators from all across the world. Here’s the best of a tumultuous year.
The Pittsburgh hardcore-from-hell outfit delivers state-of-the-art heaviness with its third full-length LP, and its first for storied metal imprint Roadrunner. Befitting drummer/vocalist Jami Morgan’s well-documented love of Nine Inch Nails, Forever thrives on atmosphere as much as aggression. Merciless precision bludgeonings are still the focus – aptly, the band soundtracked the entrance of menacing wrestler Aleister Black at a recent WWE event – but the ominous ambient passages in tracks such as “The Mud” only heighten the album’s thick aura of dread. The most riveting moments belong to guitarist Reba Meyers, who provides eerie melodic vocal turns on “Bleeding in the Blur” and “Dream2” in between the other tracks’ beatdowns. H.S.
“I don’t wanna be king/I just wanna sing a love song,” declares Dave Grohl – a default mission statement from the eternal sideman-turned-frontman. It opens what might be his group’s most polished set, produced by pop guru Greg Kurstin, who sweetens the Foos’ hard rock hooks without de-fanging them. The paradigmatic “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” is latter-day Beatles with Queens of the Stone Age crunch; “Sunday Rain” even has Paul McCartney playing drums on it. From stadium dive bombers like “Run” and “La Dee Da” to the acoustic soul that opens “T-Shirt,” it’s classic rock from a punk who never stopped believing. W.H.
With this mighty, roots-minded debut LP, the 25-year-old from Spanish Town, Jamaica, has spearheaded a reggae revival that’s more than merely retro. Grounded in the post-Marley golden era – think Barrington Levy, Aswad, Gregory Isaacs and Yellowman, who Chronixx shouts out on “Likes” – the man brings Rasta-informed wisdom and conscious vibes into a new century, with vintage dub grooves (“Big Bad Sound”) and modern pop-R&B sonics (“I Can”) rocking the dancehall side-by-side. The most promising reggae ambassador in a generation, Chronixx is here just when the need for healing music has never been greater. W.H.
These Philly rock & roll revivalists haven’t lost any of their grit or oomph on album four, with Adam Weiner’s pumpin’ piano powering a solid take on Prince’s “Controversy” and boogieing them past the “Death and Destruction” the singer claims he sees everywhere. They adorn their stripped-down bar-band essentials with gnarly guitar licks and unexpected lyrical twists, even including a protest song of sorts called “What Size Shoe.” (“Ain’t this the United States?/I got something to say.”) Weiner’s tales of dive bar existence sound so lived-in he may even be telling the truth when he sings “All my friends got herpes in Montreal/All my friends don’t open their mouths at all.” OK, maybe not all his friends. K.H.
This is the final album Sharon Jones made before her death last fall, recorded with her longtime backing band, the Dap-Kings, in stolen moments between chemotherapy treatments. She was an irreplaceable talent, and her loss can’t help but change the way one hears the gospel show-stopper “Call on God,” the brass-driven workout “Sail On” and the tender farewell “Pass Me By.” At its heart, though, Soul of a Woman is a joyful album. It makes you feel lucky that we got to share a planet with her voice for as long as we did. S.V.L.
This 21st-century reimagining of Tracy Bonham’s spitfire 1996 debut The Burdens of Being Upright brings time and perspective to spirited alt-era anthems like the ruminative “One Hit Wonder” and the jittery “Navy Bean.” Singer-composer-violinist Bonham takes a loving approach to updating her younger self’s whip-smart songs, imbuing the radio-beloved letter to home “Mother Mother” with Trump-era weariness and transforming “The Real” into starlit fuzz-pop. Peers like Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly and Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley supply cameos that keep the atmosphere celebratory, even when the source material is wracked with angst. M.J.
The best power-pop band of the last 20 years has always specialized in making knotty ideas and rich abstractions churn with the hummable buzz of bubblegum gold. New Pornographers’ latest is steeped in the hypnotic headrush repetition of the Feelies and Seventies Krautrock, heavy on drum throb, Sensurround synth swirls and micro-managed glowing-fractal harmony elation – like Steve Reich co-producing an ELO record in 1979, or a vision of early New Wave if MTV had beamed forth from some collectivist art cooperative in the Canadian wilds. It would all be neon soup without the wonderful tune-mad songs, which mull states of depression and unease, post-Trump and otherwise, to come up with music that manages to confront real-life anxieties and transport you above the fallen world of theater itself. J.D.
This multimedia box set contains the last notes ever played in public by saxophone revolutionary Ornette Coleman, part of a 2014 tribute event in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. And what gorgeous notes they are, fragile lines that still drip with Coleman’s trademark sense of joy and yearning. But the star-studded, three-hour-plus set also acts as a musical family tree, charting the way Coleman’s liberation-music philosophy has played out across generations. We hear Flea funking away alongside Coleman’s drummer son Denardo on “Broadway Blues”; Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Nels Cline dueting on a spooky, feedback-laced version of 1962’s “Sadness”; and sax geniuses Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane taking flight on Coleman’s signature dirge “Lonely Woman.” It’s a testament to Coleman’s genius that the whole set, including all of the Brooklyn show as well as cuts from Ornette’s wake, sounds like the avant-garde party of the century. H.S.
After the mellow gold sounds of his folk-rock Grammy magnet Morning Phase, Beck’s latest pivots into of-the-moment big-box pop music. It’s not parody – though the baked old-school flow on the trippy trap track “Wow” is laugh-out-loud funny. Instead, it does something tougher, locating the sublime in the music many love to hate, while connecting its truths to a broader pop history. “Dear Life” nods to both the Beatles and late virtuoso Elliott Smith, and the title track apparently jacked its flow from Melle Mel’s “White Lines.” And “Dreams” glistens like a John Chamberlain car wreck sculpture: chrome-plated funk with twisted, pitch-shifted vocals and Seventies stadium rock flourishes. It makes mass-market pop science feel positively artisanal. W.H.
The final album by Gregg Allman, who died in May, is a moving farewell statement à la twilight masterworks by Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. Yet while Southern Blood is rich with intimations of mortality, it’s easygoing, too, with a laid-back generosity that recalls Allman’s kindest Seventies work – see his warm take on Lowell George’s Southern-rock salvo “Willin’,” or versions of tender folk reckonings by his friends Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne. The most moving moment is the searching blues “My Only True Friend,” sung as a conversation with his brother Duane. “It feels like home is just around the bend,” he sings. It’s the elegiac sound of gracefully moving on. J.D.
A decade or so ago, Grizzly Bear helped define the new wave of psychedelic-leaning folk-rock on 2006’s Yellow House and 2009’s Veckatimest. Enough time has passed for that sound to begin creeping back into fashion – which makes it all the more impressive that Grizzly Bear swung hard in another direction entirely on their first album since 2012. Painted Ruins is an audacious pivot to synth-pop, using the band’s most direct hooks ever (“Mourning Sound,” “Losing All Sense”) to address break-ups and the end of the world. It’s also spiced with plenty of jazzy weirdness, particularly on the delightfully Steely waltz “Glass Hillside.” Fully charged and ready to break new ground, this is the kind of post-hiatus comeback most band’s fans only dream of. S.V.L.
Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner has always been the kind of indie songwriter who takes on the big stuff – for her last album, she wrote a collection of downbeat grief confessions and gave it the witty title Psychopomp. But on Soft Sounds, her music has opened up with a grandeur worthy of her lyrical concerns – it’s an expansively trippy album saturated in science fiction and 1980s shoegaze sounds. It all comes together in “Diving Woman,” a six-minute synth-drone flight, as she meditates on underwater isolation. And in “Boyish,” she talks tough about a useless relationship, sneering: “I can’t get you off my mind/I can’t get you off in general.” R.S.
Whatever Calle 13 fans expected of their conscious rap hero Residente, it probably wasn’t this self-titled debut. Residente is a statement of global solidarity, co-starring a madcap assortment of collaborators from 10 different parts of the world, to which the Puerto Rican icon traced back his DNA from a saliva test. Each song is its own new genre, assembled from regional sounds: The Latin Grammy-winning “Somos Anormales” draws hip-hop from Central Asian Tuvan throat singing; featuring French it-girl SoKo, “Desencuentro” is a transatlantic chanson. “I wasn’t trying to make a world-music album, but you know,” Residente told Rolling Stone. “The radio right now, I’m in shock, everyone sounds the same. It’s like junk food. You need to eat better, otherwise [you’re] going to die a slow, cultural death.” S.E.
The Gallagher brothers waited until nearly the exact same moment to make their best music in ages, releasing great albums within weeks of each other. It’s almost as if they’re locked in some sort of competitive sibling rivalry or something. Neither wandered much from the Oasis template, matching Brit-pop charge with sunburst Beatles melodies. Eight years down the road from Oasis’ messy split, there are moments of grown-up honesty: “In my defense all my intentions were good,” Liam sings on As You Were‘s hilariously titled “For What It’s Worth.” Noel’s version of same was the angsty old-timer’s warning “Be Careful What You Wish For.” But the pleasure here came during sweet, swaggering anthems like Liam’s “Wall of Glass” and Noel’s “Holy Mountain,” knock-outs rich with the smell of 1995. J.D.
With Mick Fleetwood and John McVie serving as rhythm section, all that keeps this album from being a Fleetwood Mac reunion is the absence of Stevie Nicks. (She’d toyed with joining in, but opted to tour solo instead.) Buckingham and McVie make a revelatory pairing – their sound here doesn’t depart from the band’s style so much as it accentuates certain aspects. Listening in is like viewing a familiar landscape viewed from a different angle, and the production tinkering of Mitchell Froom, who adds unexpected percussive details to the mix, contributes to the novelty. Whether getting funky on “Too Far Gone” or blissing out on “Red Sun,” the duo showcases the effortlessness of pop/rock veterans doing what they do best. K.H.
Rock’s most influential songwriter hasn’t released an album of original compositions in five years. He’s focused instead on the Great American Songbook, in particular those pre-rock standards immortalized by Frank Sinatra. On his third album in this series, a sprawling yet intimate three-disc epic, Dylan doesn’t shy away from tunes as familiar as “As Time Goes By” and “Stormy Weather” – it’s almost as though he tackles the well-known tunes so you can hear how he’s Dylanized them. Backed by a small band (and the occasional horn section), he sings with care and nuance, looking back on past loves and losses with a tone of brooding regret that eventually ebbs into a kind of reluctant acceptance. When Dylan raggedly croons, “I find that I’m smiling gently as I near/September, the warm September of my years,” well, the Nobel Prize winner couldn’t have said it better himself. K.H.
Part journalist, part fiction writer, part diarist, Open Mike Eagle is in a league of his own with an easy, effortless flow. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream pays tribute to a housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes, which existed on Chicago’s South Side until it was demolished in 2007. While the building is itself an important part of the story, it is the tale of a kid and his wild imagination that reaches far past the concrete into the surreal. B.S.
Jazz keyboardist Vijay Iyer has been making great records for more than 15 years, but Far From Over still feels like an arrival. Here, Iyer – a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and a Harvard faculty member since 2014 – brings together a dream team of cutting-edge improvisers and turns them loose on a set of new pieces that combine proggy intricacy, elegant drama and breakneck rhythmic thrust. Saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim add fire, while cornetist and flugelhorn player Graham Haynes lends an element of simmering, electro-kissed cool. Meanwhile, drum virtuoso Tyshawn Sorey makes even the brainiest moments feel like fierce funk. Retro looks and sounds have dominated the jazz narrative in recent years; Far From Over is a reminder that the future’s where it’s at. H.S.
With a title that evokes primal discovery and heroic burden, Carry Fire finds Plant nuancing the mystic stomp of yore for darkening times. “New World…” is a wearily surging “Immigrant Song” for the age of xenophobic travel bans; “Bones of Saints” surges with “Going to California” promise, then becomes an anthem against mass shootings. The overall feel is at once ancient and new, cutting Led Zeppelin III‘s Maypole majesty with the Velvet Underground’s careful guitar violence (see the “All Tomorrow’s Parties”-tinged “Dance With You Tonight”), and the patient power of Plant’s golden-god-in-winter singing can be astonishing. More impressive is the way that, at 69, he remains youthfully committed to rock & roll rejuvenation. One fine example of that spirit: his duet with Chrissie Hynde on “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” remaking a Fifties gem recorded by Richie Valens and, later, the Beach Boys, into a slow-roll barn-dance Bacchanal, complete with a levee-breaking yowl. It proves that Plant’s athletic power, like his musical idealism, burns undiminished. J.D.
Some of the year’s funkiest and hardest rocking music comes from this Hendrix-and-hip-hop-loving desert blues crew. As Mali, their home country, is torn apart by violence, young ragers Songhoy Blues respond as both a political band and a party band, playing hard dance grooves that decry racism (“One Colour”), respond to police violence or big-up their city’s afterhours scene (“Bamako”). They even get a fun assist from game passenger Iggy Pop, who sounds like David Byrne spieling for the Chili Peppers on “Sahara”: “There ain’t no condos, there ain’t no pizza/It’s a genuine culture, no Kentucky Fried Chicken.” C.W.
A collection of songs written 10 years ago, Stapleton’s eagerly awaited follow-up to 2015’s Traveller could have come across like some K-Tel Best of the Beard compilation. But the supremely talented singer doesn’t rest on old laurels. These performances crackle and pop with new energy, as Stapleton embraces the R&B, Southern rock and country components of his pedigree. On “Second One to Know,” he lets his voice run wild, setting up a wicked one-note guitar solo, and later dials it back on the hushed “Either Way.” It’s that kind of juxtaposition that makes Volume 1 (as well as the just-released Volume 2) an authentic snapshot. J.H.
Written, recorded and produced entirely in her D.I.Y. soundproofed bedroom, Melina Duterte’s sophomore LP sets a high bar for introverted pop. But for a product of hermetic genius, Everybody Works glows with warmth and goodwill for her fellow humans, most successfully during the swoon-worthy, lo-fi highlight “The Bus Song,” a lilting love note to a crush (and public transit). A jazzy undercurrent sprawls throughout tracks like “One More Time, Please” and “Baybee” – both slow jams for shoegazers, nestled in the intersection between Sade and Hope Sandoval. S.E.
If Vince Staples’ album title suggested a life of fish-bowl containment and observation, his music outlined a break-out strategy. The Long Beach rapper drew on house, electro and U.K. garage for a shifting set of thumpers more fitting for a festival dance tent than a Rap Caviar playlist. “Yeah Right” critiqued hip-hop’s material fixations from the inside out, with a verse from Kendrick Lamar to “twilight the zeitgeist” and production from EDM experimentalists Sophie and Flume. “SAMO” nodded at Jean-Michel Basquiat, while Staples flexed his cold-bloodedness, and Sophie demonstrated how trap could be an even more skeletal terror trip. Big Fish Theory was a throwback to hip-hop’s heyday, when the only rules were for breaking. J.L.
Part grime-experiment, part-trop house rendezvous, Drake explored a “playlist” with his expansive, blissfully voyeuristic More Life. On this 22-song project, we see many of Drake’s sides: the piña colada-sipping partier shines on “Passionfruit,” the nostalgic heartbreak kid emerges on “Teenage Fever” and the boastful jetsetter traps on “Gyalchester.” A variety of friends – old and new, local and global – shine with solo interludes and features, including Giggs, Skepta, Young Thug, Partynextdoor, Sampha, Jorja Smith, and even Kanye West, who made one of his very few musical appearances on the sweet, simple standout “Glow.” Following the gaudiness of last year’s Views and 2015’s back-to-back chart-topping mixtapes If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive, hearing Drake take a step back makes this project a no-frills victory lap. B.S.
“Part of the past, but now you’re the future,” Lana Del Rey sings on Lust for Life‘s opening track, “Love,” as the bass hollows out a cavernous space that connects Phil Spector to Atlanta trap. Del Rey’s fifth album drifts along on a sunset cloud so familiar and comforting, it’s easy to miss how focused and quietly audacious this music is. She shuffles mythic figures like she’s scrolling contacts in her phone. The lyrics invoke Iggy Pop, Patsy Cline, Brian Wilson and Led Zeppelin; the guests include the Weeknd, Stevie Nicks, A$AP Rocky and Sean Ono Lennon. Whatever she needs to invoke the weightlessness of life in our new not-normal, she takes. “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” she intones in “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” “No, it’s only the beginning.” As true, and as terrifying, a thought as any song this year produced. J.L.
The tension between Paramore’s high-intensity hooks and withering lyrics explodes into fluorescent colors on After Laughter, which aims toward pop’s most hypermanic ideals while detailing inexorable drifts toward despair. The mania resulting from that split manifests in despondent-yet-danceable jams (“Hard Times”), mirror-image synth-pop (the acid-laced “Rose-Colored Boy”) and heartbreakingly wise balladry (the string-laden “26”), with highlife guitar tones and shimmering countermelodies adding to the overdriven atmosphere. Hayley Williams remains a powerful up-front presence, a belter who can croon as convincingly as she can yelp. Her vocal bravado almost makes you forget that After Laughter is an up-close chronicle of her weariness with the world. M.J.
Valerie June perfected her handsomely idiosyncratic brand of Americana on this second LP, steeped deep in electric blues and old-time folk, gilded in country twang and gospel yearning. The press-repeat standout is “Astral Plane,” with its woozy reverb and disarmingly tender, flying-on-the-ground vocals. “Shakedown” is an impressionist juke-joint party jam. But the headiest moments are “If And,” which taps into Tuareg styles to map African sounds from old world, to new, then ’round again; and “Got Soul,” a matter-of-fact re-braiding of Southern musical history with banjo, fiddle and Stax/Volt brass. Who knew musicology could feel so good? W.H.
The year’s best electronic album is a dizzying, disorienting, delirious clatter of hyperreal, synthetic sounds. Rhythmically, Gary, Indiana-based producer Jerrilynn “Jlin” Patton creates polyrhythmic cyclones similar to the high-octane Chicago dance music known as “footwork,” but her textures are purely avant-garde, an airbrushed sound with buzzing thumb pianos, clipped vocal flickers and hi-definition virtual reality noise that wouldn’t sound out of place from experimental artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Oneohtrix Point Never, the PC Music crew or collaborator Holly Herndon. C.W.
Having mastered the short form on three airtight EPs in as many years, scrappy Philly punks Sheer Mag finally scaled the album summit with Need to Feel Your Love. Thankfully, they didn’t tweak the recipe. Need to Feel Your Love features the same boombox fidelity, garage-metal shred quotient and heavy-duty soul-powered hooks (courtesy of mighty-voiced singer Tina Halladay) that made their prior releases so much fun. What’s different here is that the band lets its tender side show, to stunning effect, on tracks like sultry disco strut “Pure Desire” and wistful power-pop nostalgia trip “Milk and Honey.” Plus, they’re still writing some of the most badass love songs (“Just Can’t Get Enough”) and stylish protest anthems (“Expect the Bayonet”) in contemporary rock. H.S.
“I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road,” sings Jason Isbell on “Hope the High Road,” the declaration of unyielding perseverance that ties together his sixth studio album, a 10-track Americana jewel. Indeed, Isbell elevates relationships (“If We Were Vampires”), discussions about privilege (“White Man’s World”) and the art of songwriting itself to a higher plane on The Nashville Sound. But the LP addresses nationwide blue-collar hardships, from the trap of addiction (“Cumberland Gap”) to crushed dreams (“Tupelo”), proving Isbell is a voice for all people, not just the ones in the South. J.H.
After a trio of promising EPs and a prominent feature on Rihanna’s Anti, the budding alt-R&B star showed what she could do on a full-length LP. SZA unravels through largely improvised meditations on love and sex and all the promise and abandonment that can result from both. From a side-chick manifesto (“The Weekend”) to the appreciation of a rom-com icon that mulls the singer’s own self-worth (“Drew Barrymore”), SZA flourishes in her own hazy spotlight. B.S.
In which Josh Tillman updates the Seventies singer-songwriter tradition for our dystopian, post-ironic era, using its melodicism and “sincerity” as both comfort food and grim punchline. “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift” was the most quoted couplet, from the culture-indicting “Total Entertainment Forever,” a send up of virtual reality and Kanye West-style audience bait. But the most impressive writing is “Leaving L.A.,” a 13-minute Dylan-esque anti-hero epic that locates Tilman himself in its crosshairs (“Oh, great, that’s just what they all need/Another white guy in 2017/Who takes himself so goddamn seriously”). Predicting his own backlash was just another way he seemed to be one step ahead of nearly everyone this year. W.H.
Annie Clark manages a double gainer with her fourth LP, making both her most hook-filled, pop-savvy set and what feels like her most personal. Memoir-pop cheerleader Jack Antonoff assists on production, ditto Mars Volta head-puncher Lars Stalfors. But it’s Clark’s wit and the new warmth in her songcraft that make this record so impossible to shake. See the heartbreaking “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” the wry show tune “New York,” and the chilling-hilarious “Pills” – the latter graced with a seizure-inducing Clark guitar outburst and a Kamasi Washington sax coda. W.H.
After a stellar run with One Direction, Harry Styles could have gone anywhere he wanted. What would he try for his big solo move: Glitzy radio pop? Celebrity guests? The usual slate of big-name producers? Instead, Styles stakes his claim as a rock star, getting personal with a sublime album of Seventies-style guitar grooves. “Sweet Creature” and “Ever Since New York” are intimate acoustic ballads; while “Kiwi” lets him strut his Oasis-style self at top volume. “Two Ghosts” is a break-up lament worthy of his muse and cosmic mentor Stevie Nicks. Unlike most boy-band dudes going solo, he never sounds like he’s sweating to get taken seriously – he never loses touch with the exuberance and swagger he brought to One Direction in the first place. So get used to this man – you’ll be hearing a lot more from him. R.S.
Margo Price’s 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, established her as one of the sharpest songwriters in Nashville, but her second LP upped the ante in remarkable fashion. All American Made is a fierce protest album about the ways that the American dream has failed so many – see the feminist ballad “Pay Gap,” where she channels Loretta Lynn and Donna Summer for a frank discussion of capitalism’s double standards. It’s also a reverent tribute to music’s past, featuring a tender duet with Willie Nelson and a slew of other songs that recall his Seventies heyday. No other country act, and precious few from any genre, went nearly as deep as Price did this year. S.V.L.
A match made in indie-rock heaven. Vile is a sly lyricist with a stoner’s demeanor who’s always made his most articulate statements with his guitar. Barnett is a sly melodist, and so adept a wordsmith you can imagine any randomly-ripped-out page from her diary would make an engaging song. Together they craft a sublimely chilled-out set that shines with tossed-off bedhead dazzle, whether rambling about fabric softener, their daily routines, or – on the standout “Continental Breakfast” – the flickering disconnect of maintaining relationships while schlepping around the world playing music. It’s also sweetly romantic, never more so than on the giddy “Blue Cheese” when the duo harmonize the line “so kiss me with your mouth, girl of my dreams!” W.H.
No songwriter handles the curves and swerves of modern romance quite like Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield. Her band’s fourth album Out in the Storm is the kind of breakthrough that heralds a major artist truly finding her voice, as she digs herself out of what sounds like some gnarly emotional wreckage. It’s like a punk rock answer to Carole King’s Tapestry. “8 Ball” and “Silver” are full of wise-ass guitar twang, as the Alabama-born Crutchfield talks shit about the menfolk but mostly dishes the dirt about her heart-on-fire self. In “Sparks Fly” she gets a spiritual boost from twin sister Alison, who dropped her own excellent album this year with Tourist in This Town. This is the best kind of break-up journal – the kind you want to blast out loud. R.S.
Newman opens his first album of new material in eight years with three songs that play the end of Western civilization for laughs – starting with a Marx Brothers version of the Scopes Trial and culminating with a Vladimir Putin variety show – and then hits one that plays the end of life for tears: “Lost Without You,” in which a husband listens in the shadows as his dying wife tells her kids to take care of him after she’s gone. It’s a stunning miniature, with swells of American prairie strings and horns giving way to Newman alone at the piano delivering a simple message: The darkness is coming to us all, one way or the other. J.L.
As young, self-examining artists like Lil Uzi Vert and XXXTentacion ushered in hip-hop’s emo stage, a 47-year-old multi-millionaire dropped the year’s best self-lacerating Bugatti-dashboard confessional. Utilizing rap’s unique ability to convey deep and vivid truths, Jay confronts his own failings, excoriating himself as an unfaithful husband (“4:44”) and egocentric public figure (“Kill Jay Z”). With multiple samples from Sixties firebrand Nina Simone and a chopped-up flip of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” Jay and producer No I.D. ease into an explicitly conscious tack as well, giving his own wealth – and the one his daughter will inherit – a political importance. C.W.
Where the Ohio-bred, Brooklyn-forged band makes its leap from admirable indie-rock high achievers to mainstream contenders, not via marketplace pandering but, rather, the old fashioned way: upping its musical and lyrical game. The band’s trademark Joy Division gloom gets cut with sexiness and dark humor, abetted by co-writer Carin Besser (singer Matt Berninger’s wife) plus backing singers Lisa Hannigan and Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon. The soundscapes, meanwhile, are more striking than ever, with prominent electronics, edgy string arrangements and lancing guitar (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”). It’s a rock record that rages against our freakish cultural moment not by sloganeering but by turning inward, circling wagons, taking stock of beauty and love and gathering strength for what lies ahead. W.H.
Sam Smith is a fluid soul man, with style channeling Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles alongside modern icons like Amy Winehouse and Adele. The follow-up to his massive In The Lonely Hour leads with That Voice, and what it lacks in the club beats that were his early signature (see Disclosure’s “Latch”), it more than makes up for in dazzling, falsetto-barbed vocal pyrotechnics. The standout is “Him,” an uplifting tear-jerker about queer love and cultural intolerance that, in its understated, gospel-charged way, is an LGBTQ civil rights anthem. It’s the sound of a gay man intent on reaching a universal audience on his own terms, and succeeding handsomely. W.H.
As trap has become pop’s lingua franca, no one can better celebrate the triumph than Migos. The smoked-out slow roll of their music connects studio maximalism with the D.I.Y. instantaneity of iPhone and YouTube auteurs. Anyone can do it, but no one else can do it like this. The sound-effect hooks come from keyboards and their own mouths, each bwah, skrrrt, brrrup signifying their ability to transform nothing into something, and back again, in a blink. Their flows changed up moment to moment, presenting an authority at once casual and complete, and working pop music’s greatest trick: turning the transitory into the eternal. J.L.
Nearly 20 years in, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme still gets down like a black leather jacket zapped to life by Dr. Funkenstein himself. He called in a surprising assist for the SoCal rockers’ seventh album, Top 40 genius Mark Ronson, who perks up zany Zeppelin grooves like “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “Head Like a Haunted House,” playing up the swing in their strut. Ultimately, though, Villains is less about reinvention than refinement. It’s a beast of a record, and its red-hot heart is pure Queens. S.V.L.
The bad blood is coming from inside the house! After laying low for months, Taylor made a spectacularly bold return with this glittering palace of luxurious grudges and crystalline trap beats. The heel turn of “Look What You Made Me Do” is one for the history books, and pop scholars will likely debate for generations whether it was a brilliant P.R. coup or an epically tone-deaf move. Luckily, the singles are only half the story with Reputation, whose ultra-polished surface conceals some of Swift’s realest, most lived-in songs ever. On “Dress,” she’s high on the rush of a new romantic thrill; on “New Year’s Day,” she’s trying to figure out what she has after the party’s over. It adds up to a pointed reminder that Her Royal Swiftness can reclaim her place at pop’s cutting edge whenever she feels like it. S.V.L.
The year’s most distinctive new voice was a teen star, not a trap star. His conversational vocals staked out a new kind of R&B: laid-back but charged with wide-open emotional struggle, as well as hooks that stuck. He sang about kids who didn’t have money or cars; who still lived with their parents (and worried about coming home smelling of weed); who longed for human contact to go along with a love stirred by subtweets and texts. Hits like “Location” and “Young, Dumb & Broke” were alive with fresh possibilities – including the possibility of combating outmoded stereotypes. “I’m an African-American man with an Afro, who isn’t your typical athlete – who wasn’t as masculine as other guys,” Khalid told Rolling Stone. “And now people are looking at me like, this is ‘The American Teen.'” J.L.
James Murphy gathers his old gang of New York punk-funk virtuosos together for some truly festive paranoia – in the masterfully pissed-off American Dream, he can’t decide whether he’s making a party album for the end of the world or an apocalypse album for the end of the party. LCD Soundsystem meet the audience on equal terms – “You’ve lost your internet and we’ve lost our memory” – while Murphy rants about feeling like just another smug loser in a collapsing culture. As he says in “Emotional Haircut,” “You’ve got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete.” Yet the music crackles with the joy of communal celebration, from the cracked Detroit techno of “How Do You Sleep?” to the art-funk guitar squall of “Change Yr Mind.” And in “Black Screen,” he gives David Bowie the kind of chilly farewell that Ziggy Stardust himself would have appreciated. R.S.
After her legal travails, anything Kesha released would have a veneer of triumph. But this comeback set, seven years since her debut, was an artistic warrior cry more potent than any might’ve expected. It began gently with “Bastards,” an acoustic guitar-led anthem and instant lighters-up classic, pivoting into punk-pop (with Eagles of Death Metal) on the badass “Let ‘Em Talk,” in which she caps the line, “I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick,” with a cheek-pop. The gem-like moments keep coming, but the best is the sound of her cracking up mid-verse on the fist-pumping, Dap-Kings rocking “Woman” – it’s the sound of someone who’s survived a journey through hell knowing unquestionably she’s stronger for it. W.H.
Opening with a prayer and benediction – “Love Is All We Have Left” – that finds Bono leaping down a rabbit hole of pop-vocal processing to deliver one of his most emotive songs ever, U2’s latest finds the band coming to terms with a world closer to the brink than at any time during their career. They meet the moment with precisely the right balance of grandeur and grace, harnessing their earnest post-punk past to their remarkable facility for modern pop gestures, abetted by producers Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, Steve Lillywhite, Danger Mouse and others. Fittingly for dark times, images of love and light abound (“There Is a Light,” “Lights of Home,” “Ordinary Love,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way”), and Kendrick Lamar even drops in to flip some Biblical Beatitudes. But alongside piousness is pure fun. See “The Showman (Little More Better),” which is vintage sock-hop shimmy-shake with a seasoned protagonist cheekily declaring “I got just enough low self-esteem to get myself where I need to go.” It’s a rock & roll creation myth that manifests the music’s eternal magic, delivered by a band that refuses to let it fade. W.H.
At age 20, the teen prodigy of “Royals” raised the bar, marrying the massive vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade on her second LP, with help from co-producer Jack Antonoff. The invulnerable high-school snark broadened into a wider emotional palette – musical too, with guitars and brass lacing through synthetic beats and dub effects. At its most ambitious, it could recall art-rock godmother Kate Bush (see the single “Green Light”). But its greatest achievement was making 21st century pop feel as genuinely intimate as as it did huge. A record that should stand as a touchstone for young pop hopefuls for years to come. W.H.
Rap’s most powerful voice at the absolute top of his game, with nothing left to prove but his staying power. Where 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and 2016’s Untitled Unmastered exploded rap formally with disparate flows, kaleidoscopic Flying Lotus beats and Afro-delic Kamasi Washington jazz-funk jams, Damn. shows how dazzling the man can be simply spitting verses. On “Feel,” he unloads his head over a trippy Sounwave slow jam, going roughly 50 lines without break on one stretch, a virtuoso synaptic display echoed across the set. Lamar’s political conscience hasn’t flagged, but he’s more about self-examination here. On the fearless “Fear,” one of his deepest moments, he chronicles a lifetime of anxieties and cites his “fear of losin’ creativity.” It’s a sentiment easy to relate to – but based on the evidence, one imagines he’s got little to worry about. W.H.