30. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Origin: New York, New York
The Gist: Once the poster children for the neo-folk resurgence of the early aughts, Fleet Foxes returned after a six-year absence ready to push beyond their own well-honed musical boundaries.
Why It Rules: Still very much a Fleet Foxes record at heart, Crack-Up nonetheless succeeds in being Robin Pecknold and co.’s most interesting and experimental affair yet. If it took them more than half a decade to deliver on their third record, at least they made it worth the wait.
Essential Tracks: “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprnt Scar”, “Fool’s Errand”, and “Kept Woman”
29. Kweku Collins – Grey
Origin: Evanston, Illinois
The Gist: Not one to be lulled by a little critical acclaim (in this case, for 2016 standout Nat Love), 20-year-old MC Kweku Collins continued his push to champion the resolute boho poetics of Chicago’s burgeoning Closed Sessions label within the diverse energies of Chicagoland’s at-large hip-hop scene.
Why It Rules: Like that of fellow poet and labelmate Jamila Woods, Collins’ best work marries openhearted introspection with equally clear-eyed understanding of macro-level political concerns. Plus, “Oasis2: Maps” is the best reimagining of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs classic since that Ted Leo bootleg from like 12 years ago.
Essential Tracks: “Aya”, “International Business Trip”, and “Oasis2: Maps”
28. The Kickback – Weddings and Funerals
Origin: Vermillion, South Dakota; Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: After working with Jim Eno on their catchy 2015 debut, Sorry All Over the Place, The Kickback trekked out West under the guidance of Modest Mouse mastermind Dennis Herring for a sophomore follow-up that’s as engaging as it is ambitious.
Why It Rules: Recent years haven’t been too easy on singer-songwriter Billy Yost, who channels his breakups and burdens into the aptly titled, Weddings and Funerals, an addicting assemblage of mutating power pop that goes down like deep depression in November.
Essential Tracks: “Hotel Chlorine”, “Reptile Fund”, and “Will T”
27. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
Origin: Berkshire, United Kingdom
The Gist: The young and endlessly inventive talent from the United Kingdom continues stretching the boundaries of folk with Semper Femina, a raw, intimate, and beautifully empathetic album about relationships between women.
Why It Rules: Laura Marling lays herself bare on the soulful and elegant Semper Femina, and the results are vibrant, daring, and wholly affecting. While confronting the “fickle” and “ever-changing” nature of womanhood, the musician is at turns adoring, resentful, bewildered, afraid, and worshipful. It’s a record that shows powerful, exquisite growth.
Essential Tracks: “The Valley”, “Wild Fire”, and “Nouel”
26. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
Origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Gist: (Sandy) Alex G is one of those artists who dumps dozens of lo-fi albums on Bandcamp, but few catch the spotlight the way he has over the last three years — and deservedly so given the musical growth visible on Rocket, proving those “prodigy” tags slapped on him back then weren’t over-exaggerated hype.
Why It Rules: On its surface, Rocket is a vaguely Americana record where he finally sheds Elliott Smith comparisons for those of Cassadaga-era Bright Eyes, but it’s the experimental tracks — like “Brick”, an unnervingly distorted thumper, and “Sportstar”, essentially a Blonde outtake — that make Rocket burn bright.
Essential Tracks: “Bobby”, “Proud”, and “Powerful Man”
25. Jay Z – 4:44
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: In a post-Lemonade world, Jay-Z reckons with his personal failings for the first time since TMZ released the now infamous elevator footage.
Why It Rules: It’s Jay-Z’s quietest, most restrained, body of work. Over a long career of throwing heat, Hov reveals the change-up we never knew he had.
Essential Tracks: “The Story of OJ”, “4:44”, and “Marcy Me”
24. Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk
Origin: Santa Monica, California
The Gist: By now, scoring a picture for Christopher Nolan is child’s play for Zimmer, who’s handled the filmmaker’s biggest blockbusters to date. But Dunkirk is an exception: a graceful portrait whose dramatic weight leans heavily on the composer’s shoulders.
Why It Rules: Zimmer goes six-for-six with Nolan, following up his celestial work on 2014’s Interstellar with a marathon run of anxiety, tension, and poise, all of which enriches the dire wartime proceedings. This is a genuine masterpiece.
Essential Tracks: “End Titles (Dunkirk)”, “The Mole”, and “Home”
23. Jlin – Black Origami
Origin: Gary, Indiana
The Gist: This Midwest-bred producer revealed her second full-length album with some vital assists from fellow sonic adventurers William Basinski and Holly Herndon.
Why It Rules: Inspired, in part, by South Asian dance and a growing interest in sound art, Jerilynn Patton spends the entirety of Black Origami leaping over any genre distinction while still staying true to her footwork roots.
Essential Tracks: “Kyanite”, “Holy Child”, and “Challenge to Be Continued”
22. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After putting out her debut 7″ on Ryan Adams’ PAX AM label and opening on tour for Julien Baker — irrefutable references in a music world where being heard can be as difficult as penning a remarkable song — CoS Artist of the Month Phoebe Bridgers delivers a stunning first full-length full of pathos and wit.
Why It Rules: Stranger in the Alps not only deserves to be heard, but showcases songs that’ll demand repeat listens. Whether it’s the more traditional, plaintive singer-songwriter fair of lead track “Smoke Signals” or single “Motion Sickness”, which adds instrumentation and opens up into an almost pop-like affair, Bridgers shows she can flex different muscles, keep listeners guessing, and, most importantly, captivate.
Essential Tracks: “Smoke Signals”, “Scott Street”, and “Motion Sickness”
21. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference EP
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: In 2015, saxophonist Kamasi Washington simultaneously fit his virtuosic skill into Kendrick Lamar’s rap masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly and forged a new path into the deep space of 21st century jazz with the appropriately titled three-disc set The Epic. After touring the festival circuit and bringing the sax gospel to the world, he brings back a relatively concise, yet no less powerful EP that examines unity and discord in grand scales.
Why It Rules: Harmony of Difference builds out a six-song suite like a full universe in intricate detail, the apex of Washington’s playing and composing alike. All together, the set acts as a mesmerizing wash, the world slipping away until we see the threads connecting us all.
Essential Tracks: “Truth”, “Desire”, and “Knowledge”