10. Smino – blkswn
Origin: St. Louis, Missouri
The Gist: Following two EPs and a number of assists, this St. Louis MC finally pieced together his own debut album with the help of his Zero Fatigue pals, among them being MVP producer Monte Booker, who handled 16 of the 18 tracks.
Why It Rules: For over an hour, Smino jogs at an enviable pace over a trail of genres (soul, funk, and R&B) and a rolodex of guests (Noname, Bari, Ravyn Lenae), never stumbling as he layers his Booker-stamped beats with melodies rivaling Frank Ocean.
Essential Tracks: “Netflix and Dusse”, “Glass Flows”, and “Amphetamine”
09. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Origin: Austin, Texas
The Gist: For album number nine, a band known for consistency took a slide-step out of their comfort zone, and the result is Spoon’s danciest, jazziest LP yet.
Why It Rules: The hardest trick in music is for an established band to sound new while still sounding like themselves. This is old Spoon but with a tab of acid under the tongue; this is the grooving chords that we know and love, all spun through a disco ball.
Essential Tracks: “Do I Have to Talk You into It”, “Hot Thoughts”, and “First Caress”
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 pancreatic 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? 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.
Essential Tracks: “Ravens”, “Seaweed”, and “Swims”
07. SZA – Ctrl
Origin: Maplewood, New Jersey
The Gist: After a handful of mixtapes and EPs, the Jersey-bred artist born Solana Rowe finally gifts the world with her gorgeously raw full-length debut, complete with cosigns from and the collaborative backing of Pharrell Willliams, Drew Barrymore (seriously), Travis Scott, and fellow Top Dawg Entertainment label mates Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad.
Why It Rules: Being the realest isn’t always pleasant or pretty, but SZA tells it like it is, her life on Ctrl an open book of scars and sexuality, desire and insecurity, confidence and conflict. She speaks and owns her truth — no matter how painful or uncommon — and embraces the vulnerable, blurry spaces these truths lead her to. In a society still so choked by patriarchy and false standards of womanhood, hers is a voice necessary for survival, or at the very least, comfort.
Essential Tracks: “Love Galore”, “Normal Girl”, and “Drew Barrymore”
06. St. Vincent – Masseduction
Origin: Dallas, Texas
The Gist: While other artists attempted high-concept album roll-outs in the last year, none did so as successfully or cohesively as St. Vincent’s Masseduction — in part because her themes are vital in our current cultural conversation. For her first album in three years, Annie Clark dissects sexuality, power dynamics, and fractured identity in an industry embroiled in assault and harassment. And though she addresses the loss of control head on, she asserts her own power and control without ever presuming either can be had. Masseduction is defiance writ large by exploring reality’s smallest and most pervasive pains.
Why It Rules: Starting with an album introduction in which St. Vincent offered pre-prepared answers to demeaning and innocuous questions, set herself up in a giant pink box for interviews, and offered up pieces of bodies on art rather than whole selves, Masseduction unravels the self as art and the art as self. But not even that duality is as clean as it might seem, the music and the whole world swelling in beauty and then decimating moments later.
Essential Tracks: “Slow Disco”, “New York”, and “Los Ageless”
05. Slowdive – Slowdive
Origin: Reading, United Kingdom
The Gist: Three years after reuniting at Primavera Sound, Slowdive returned with their first studio album in over two decades, channeling all the dream pop wizardry that gave the English shoegazers such a critically acclaimed footprint.
Why It Rules: Reunions are all too often about the memories, but Slowdive insists upon the future — and one that’s both mesmerizing and impressionistic. This is the rare late chapter that reads better than everything that came before it.
Essential Tracks: “Star Roving”, “Slomo”, and “Sugar for the Pill”
04. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Origin: North Long Beach, California
Why It Rules: Staples’ sharp writing has never been so attractively packaged. The skittering beats and infectious melodies are flashes of color that highlight the lingering darkness underneath.
Essential Tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, and “Party People”
03. Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Origin: Jacksonville, North Carolina
The Gist: Fueled by the maddening depression that comes from divorce, Ryan Adams did what he does best: He wrote about it. For 12 tracks, the shaggy singer-songwriter wrestles with his worst demons, reeking of pathos and abandon.
Why It Rules: Not since Heartbreaker has Adams sounded this earnest. Every track beams with the kind of fragility you’d want from a denim lothario like Adams, but instead of wallowing in grief, these songs attempt to resolve it. They do.
Essential Tracks: “Doomsday”, “Anything I Say to You”, “To Be Without You”, and “Outbound Train”
02. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Origin: Compton, California
The Gist: Kung Fu Kenny follows up his Grammy-winning 2015 opus, To Pimp a Butterfly, with an album that thumps, grooves, spits, and rips like nothing else in his already masterful catalog — and maybe even more so when played backwards. His guest list isn’t too shabby either: U2, Rihanna, James Blake, Mike WiLL Made It, Greg Kurstin, Kaytranada, The Alchemist, and The Internet’s Steve Lacy all pop in to lend a hand.
Why It Rules: King Kendrick’s storytelling craft has been sharpened and the accompanying production is explosive and refreshingly varied, but it’s his piercing self-awareness — wrestling with mortality, fear, lust, love, broken kinships, and a divided America — which stokes the fire at DAMN.’s volcanic core. On his fourth studio effort, he manages to sustain the greatness of his predecessors while still evolving in a way few musicians ever do.
Essential Tracks: “HUMBLE.”, “FEAR.”, and “DNA.”
01. Lorde – Melodrama
Origin: Auckland, New Zealand
The Gist: In 2017, Lorde makes an iconic plea for a revolution, commanding its throne, sounding brazen, rhythmic, and powerful. When she burst onto the scene with 2013’s Pure Heroine, the New Zealand artist’s sudden arrival resulted in immediate fervor for a follow-up as well as no base of knowledge for what to expect from it. But Lorde exuded a mystic depth, meaning that whatever would come next would be worth the wait. After four years of updates and growth, the now-21-year-old Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor returned with Melodrama, a record that spins like a top around decades of pop tradition, plucking pieces into its orbit and reconfiguring them into magnificent new shapes. Despite her surreal abilities and preternatural maturity, Lorde is still a young woman dealing with all of the accompanying pains and joys, and no one captures them as well or as fully in the pop vein — or any vein for that matter.
Why It Rules: Lorde plumbed the depths of her experience and created an album that captures the pomp and circumstance of sudden fame as well as the endless concentric circles of self-analysis and heartbreak. She makes the offbeat seem virtuous, mirroring her optimism in the hyper beats and glossy synths. She renders her heartache all the more realistic by pairing it with a danceable epiphany. And her words — poetic as always — are especially outstanding, touching on resilience, courage, and, yes, pain that lingers like a phantom limb. With 11 tracks brimming with impenetrable confidence, defiance, and heartbreaking sacrifice, this album creates an intimacy through familiarity. Lorde sees the world equally full of shmockos, naysayers, and genuinely pure people and uses it to power her growth — heck, our growth. She is an artist we can learn from while she learns how to navigate through life. At once immediate and layered, massive and minute, thoughtful and instinctual, Melodrama fully solidifies Lorde as the leading voice of pop and an artist, thinker, and capturer of reality beyond comparison.
Essential Tracks: “Green Light”, “Sober”, “Perfect Places”, and “Liability”