20. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Los Angeles, California
The Gist: When Adam Granduciel relocated from Philadelphia to Los Angeles following the release of 2014’s Lost in the Dream, his musical perspective simultaneously exploded outward and bent inward. The result is an album of densely packed soundscapes that gradually unfold to reveal an inner voice racked with ambivalence about the modern world.
Why It Rules: A Deeper Understanding makes no compromises that might dilute Granduciel’s vision. The album’s songs stretch beyond the prescribed length for rock singles, and its melodies nearly suffocate under carpets of instrumentation. Such traits should cripple a rock album in 2017, but here they’re vital and thrilling elements of a grand architecture designed to keep the demons at bay.
Essential Tracks: “Pain”, “Strangest Thing”, and “You Don’t Have to Go”
19. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Arriving five years after the upbeat and rock-oriented Charmer, Aimee Mann’s latest album takes her music in a decidedly opposite direction, making for one of the most hushed and sweetly melancholic records of her long career.
Why It Rules: Mental Illness is as much a character study as it is simply a record, and it’s a great one at that. Mann willingly plays into the wounded persona that so many listeners identify her with, but the songs resonate so strongly that it’s hard to take it as a put-on.
Essential Tracks: “Lies of Summer”, “Goose Snow Cone”, and “You Never Loved Me”
18. Pallbearer – Heartless
Origin: Little Rock, Arkansas
The Gist: Pallbearer continue their ascent into the rarified air of crossover success with their third full-length of bruising doom metal wrapped in the spangled cloak and knotty time signatures of prog rock.
Why It Rules: The outer edges of Heartless are tinged with the moodiness and grandeur of goth, thanks to extended synth washes and gloomy airs. But the core of this album remains the turgid rock that will dynamite your speakers into oblivion.
Essential Tracks: “A Plea for Understanding”, “Cruel Road”, and “Thorns”
17. Perfume Genius – No Shape
Origin: Tacoma, Washington
The Gist: With No Shape, Mike Hadreas reaches further into the heavens — but without pretending that any of his flaws or struggles have disappeared. His first album in three years feels at once entirely of his body and transcendent, each lush instrumental composition further exploring a new happiness with partner and collaborator Alan Wyffels. And he does so in elaborate excess, penning unforgettable hooks and grand, emotional experiences.
Why It Rules: Whether it feels like being shot out of a cannon through a Victorian gala or sighing into your lover’s arms in a meadow under a meteor shower, there’s something idyllic about every moment on No Shape. And despite that grandiosity, there’s plenty of emotional subtlety, a record of nooks and crannies to burrow into.
Essential Tracks: “Slip Away”, “Alan”, and “Wreath”
16. Arca – Arca
Origin: Caracas, Venezuela
The Gist: Just one year after the boiling, beatific mixtape Entrañas, Alejandro Ghersi returned stronger than ever with his self-titled, adding several new wrinkles to his formula. Inspired by friend and collaborator Björk, the Venezuelan electronic composer circles closer to simplicity, adding his own voice and nearing traditional structures. But at the same time, he refuses to shy away from confrontation, finding the highs and lows equally interesting without needing to pick a side.
Why It Rules: Whether singing soft lullabies or letting out an animal longing, Ghersi’s voice is a welcome addition to an already bewildering stew of intercontinental, time-lapsing, intertextual depth. Like a mirror through a prism, Arca breaks apart the composer and everything around him into a million surreally real iterations.
Essential Tracks: “Piel”, “Fugaces”, and “Anoche”
15. Future – HNDRXX
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: The woozy, contemplative, hangover to Future’s self-titled companion album, which was released only a week prior.
Why It Rules: While FUTURE served the trap, HNDRXX is food for the tortured soul. He’s perfected his unique take on the sensitive bad boy trope here, responding to the gossip blog fodder created by his love life and flavoring his lean-soaked loneliness with a smack of venom.
Essential Tracks: “My Collection”, “Selfish (featuring Rihanna)”, and “Lookin’ Exotic”
14. Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound
Origin: Cleveland, Ohio
The Gist: Meat-and-potatoes guitar-alt stalwarts clean up the fuzz a bit and turn in their most no-nonsense, radio-ready-for-1996 batch of appetizing verses and meaty choruses yet.
Why It Rules: Unlike most peers who refuse to outgrow the simplicity of hooky riffage, Dylan Baldi’s songwriting has continued to bloom without softening a thing. Life Without Sound is every bit as revelatory as 2012’s more ambitious and abrasive Attack on Memory, yet he’s flirting with arena-rock territory. Good – not many rising hopes in that field beyond Paramore right now.
Essential Tracks: “Modern Act”, “Darkened Rings”, and “Things Are Right with You”
13. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
Origin: Memphis, Tennessee
The Gist: In 2015, 20-year-old Memphis singer-songwriter Julien Baker stunned folks with her debut album, Sprained Ankle. The spare arrangements, plaintive vocals, and candidness about how she relates to everything from significant others and herself to times of trouble and God’s mysterious presence in her life were all striking revelations, especially from such a young voice.
Why It Rules: Turn Out the Lights finds Baker seasoned far beyond what you’d expect two years later. Her growth as a lyricist astounds, and she’s expanded her still-minimalist instrumentation to include piano and ambient parts and now trusts her voice to harmonize and draw attention to itself by raising her volume as songs call for it. No record out this year boasts a more affecting and beautiful one-two punch than singles “Appointments” and “Turn Out the Lights”, and few emerging singer-songwriters have us as excited as Baker.
Essential Tracks: “Appointments”, “Turn Out the Lights”, and “Everything That Helps You Sleep”
12. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: For a few years, Moses Sumney had locked down the top spot on the list of artists we’d most hoped for a debut album from. And Aromanticism more than lives up to all that anticipation, bringing his otherworldly voice and intricately layered songwriting into contact on an ethereal plane. A plethora of hyper-talented artists help him along his journey, but Sumney remains at the center, an enigmatic singer-songwriter at once capable of a beauty beyond words and tied into the deepest, most instinctual threads of the heart.
Why It Rules: Both re-envisioning old favorites like “Plastic” and “Lonely World” and creating new heavens, Sumney amasses a round-sketched concept album of life without romantic love. Though it should be weighted down by concept and thought, Aromanticism floats sublimely.
Essential Tracks: “Lonely World”, “Doomed”, and “Quarrel”
11. Kelela – Take Me Apart
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Kelela made her presence known on both her 2013 breakthrough mixtape, Cut 4 Me, and 2015’s Hallucinogen EP, but now returns with her long-awaited full-length debut. Multiple songwriting and production experts and past collaborators joined her in the studio, including Arca, The xx’s Romy Madley Croft, Jam City, Al Shux, and Bok Bok.
Why It Rules: Kelela is concerned with the physicality of bodies and space, but in a way that still evokes carnal thirst and the incandescence of love. The lifeblood is literally in the pulse of her music — clubby and stunted beats and ‘90s Janet Jackson-meets-futuristic R&B create a surreal, alternate world unique to Kelela’s vision and language. Take Me Apart cements the idea that not only is she in it for the long haul, but has what it takes to be one of today’s premier artists.
Essential Tracks: “LMK”, “Frontline”, and “Take Me Apart”