10. Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound
Origin: Cleveland, Ohio
The Gist: By now, you’d have to be an absolute idiot to doubt Cloud Nothings mastermind Dylan Baldi. Whereas most bands drown under the weight of their sophomore album, he brazenly carved out a new identity for himself (see: 2012’s Attack on Memory), one he fleshed out two years later by writing his greatest rock song to date (see: “I’m Not Part of Me”). On Life Without Sound, the Midwestern six-string hero proves his evolution is far from over.
Why It Rules: With John Goodmanson at the boards, Cloud Nothings have never sounded slicker, and yet they hardly lose their trademark grit and grime. As the piano suggests on “Up to the Surface”, this is a much grander affair for Baldi, but only in sound. There’s no monstrous epic like “Wasted Days” or “Pattern Walks”, but that places a greater impetus on the songwriting, a task that Baldi dutifully handles on more accessible fare like “Modern Act”, “Internal World”, and “Sight Unseen”. And maybe it’s because he hails from the Land of LeBron, but he even tries to trump himself with another all-time classic in “Enter Entirely”, which feels spiritually tied to his aforementioned MVP: “I’m Not Part of Me”. What will he do next? –Michael Roffman
09. Drake – More Life
Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Gist: How’s the view from the top? For Drake, it’s never one of satisfaction. Critical acclaim and commercial success came hand in hand for the rapper for the majority of his career until last year’s Views, where he managed his first No. 1 single as a lead artist and scored the best-selling album of 2016 despite receiving generally mixed reviews. Still, it’s not that strange to think Drake needed to present himself a new challenge: create an entirely new record concept, the playlist, where traditional labels of album and mixtape would be stretched.
Why It Rules: More Life enjoys its status as a playlist, allowing for moments where Drake hardly makes his presence known except as a curator. Its goal to present a unified vibe, a cohesive journey from a distinct point A to point B, is fully realized, while also offering a more inspired version of the rapper than was present on Views. Sure, it may not have as much chart-topping capability as he’s shown in the past, but in its stead is a keen ear that almost feels foretelling at times. Drake knows not only what is of the moment in hip-hop, but where it’s headed. Sure, that might come across as genre-hopping or trend-biting at times, but the fact of the matter is that Drake’s voice and style have been formed to be malleable. –Philip Cosores
08. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Origin: Anacortes, Washington
The Gist: Anyone familiar with Mount Eerie likely knows that songwriter Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Gosselin, died of cancer last July and that A Crow Looked at Me documents the ongoing aftermath of that loss.
Why It Rules: It’s enough to break your heart before you even drop the needle, and that’s kind of the point. After that type of sudden, life-shattering blow, what good could listening to records, jotting down thoughts, or figuring out chords really do? “Ravens”, for instance, finds Elverum a month after his wife’s death, very certain of the fact that she’s gone and yet still picking her berries and reminding himself of things to tell her when she gets back. In these deeply intimate moments, we doubt that anything will lift his grief and restore the normalcy we all depend upon, and yet the record ultimately acts as a journey that reveals how art can help the soul and heart begin to mend. Through painstaking reflection and unfathomable honesty, Elverum has crafted indie’s answer to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s not beautiful because he shares his pain; it’s beautiful because he shares the hope he finds through his pain. –Matt Melis
07. The xx – I See You
Origin: Wandsworth, London, English
The Gist: I See You, their first album in five years, explores the trajectory from inventing indie rock’s radical R&B makeover all the way to blatant EDM.
Why It Rules: The xx are so understated that you may not even notice half a decade has passed since 2012’s tender, brooding Coexist. But they’re also so influential that you cannot imagine the 2010s without 2009’s shamelessly licensed xx. These 10 songs divide X by Y; they’re the most assertive, shrewd, and uptempo of their twice-Rihanna’d career. “Here come my insecurities,” sings Romy Madley Croft with career-high confidence on “Say Something Loving” while Oliver Sims duets with his own glassy guitar on the drumless stunner “A Violent Noise”. Then Jamie Smith pillages the rhythmic cadences of Daryl Hall for a fairly good New Order song with “On Hold”. Every song on their debut sounded like an anthem, too, even the intro. But this time, they carry themselves accordingly. –Dan Weiss
06. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Origin: Richmond, Virginia
The Gist: Five years following 2012’s Charmer, and some choice hang time with New Jersey bard Ted Leo as The Both, Aimee Mann decided it was about time to create her “saddest, slowest, and most acoustic” album to date. Needless to say, she succeeded on all three counts with her ninth studio album, Mental Illness, a lush tapestry of sounds that are about as melancholy as they are embalming.
Why It Rules: Melancholy feels good sometimes, and with a voice as affecting and nuanced as Mann’s, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the drama. Songs like “You Never Loved Me”, “Simple Fix”, and “Patient Zero” reel on by with poppy melodies that stick in your head long after you’ve tossed the vinyl back in its sleeve. Aided by strings, piano, soft percussion, and a choir comprised of Leo, Jonathan Coulton, and longtime producer Paul Bryan, Mental Illness capitalizes on our curious attraction to sadness — for instance, those lonely nights we often yearn for amid happier times — and that’s an illness we’ll never shake. –Michael Roffman