Last year felt particularly cruel as we watched so many of our pop-culture icons get taken from us without warning. By December, we all yearned for a pause, an ending, a reset. However, none of the comfort that comes with the hopeful act of flipping a calendar page lasted long into 2017. Instead, we’ve felt the pain more acutely and more personally than a year ago. Most of us have witnessed our core values challenged, felt our realities shaken, and endured daily reminders that who we are in our most basic integrity remains very much at stake. For that reason, it’s been a year in which we’ve turned to music out of necessity perhaps more than ever. The albums you find on this list aren’t just records we admired or caught ourselves dancing to. In many cases, they’re part of the reason we’re still here. They’ve consoled and empowered us, understood how we’ve felt, and in a time of such ugly, bitter divisiveness, reminded us that we’re never truly alone in mind, heart, or spirit.
These are the 50 albums we’ve leaned on most this year. Here’s hoping they don’t have to do such heavy lifting in 2018.
50. Johnny Jewel – Windswept
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After placing Chromatics’ Dear Tommy in the Red Room, Italians Do It Better producer and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel issued this daring solo album mostly inspired by his work behind the scenes on Twin Peaks: The Return.
Why It Rules: With Windswept, Jewel sounds more assured as a producer than ever, conjuring up a moody amalgamation of his signature brooding synthpop and a style of free-form jazz akin to David Lynch go-to Angelo Badalamenti.
Essential Tracks: “Windswept”, “Slow Dreams”, and “Between Worlds”
49. Oneohtrix Point Never – Good Time
Origin: Wayland, Massachusetts
The Gist: Two years after the interstellar, metallic Garden of Delete, esoteric electronic experimentalist Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never) returned to score a crime drama starring Robert Pattinson. Retaining his own burning palette and pushing it through a Vangelis/Carpenter mesh, Lopatin continues to find new ways to inject anxiety and awe under the skin.
Why It Rules: A somber, piano-heavy collaboration with Iggy Pop in which the Stooge dreams about petting crocodiles is a good place to start, but Lopatin delivers the high-voltage thrills all on his own.
Essential Tracks: “Hospital Escape / Access-A-Ride”, “The Acid Hits”, and “The Pure and the Damned”
48. Jay Som – Everybody Works
Origin: Oakland, California
Why It Rules: In what can only be described as bedroom maximalism, Duterte dug her lyrics into the granular, banalities of existence and aimed her production at expansive soundscapes. On “The Bus Song”, Duterte sings, “I can be whoever I want to be,” and that’s exactly who she is on Everybody Works.
Essential Tracks: “The Bus Song”, “Everybody Works”, and “For Light”
47. The JuJu – Exchange
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: After rising to session-player fame by collaborating with Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Vic Mensa, 24-year-old trumpeter Segal (FKA Donnie Trumpet) wrangled three fellow Chicago musicians together to expand his interest in experimental jazz, ultimately showcasing how the backbeat of hip-hop’s new sound is worthy of its own spotlight.
Why It Rules: On their debut LP, The Juju Exchange follow in the footsteps of producers like Flying Lotus and Knxwledge — not in sound, but in audience awareness, drawing listeners out of their usual jazz associations and into a world of smooth, free-form, low-key musings that inspire with their use of ample space.
Essential Tracks: “The Circuit”, “We Good”, and “Morning Of”
46. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish – Blade Runner 2049
Origin: Santa Monica, California; London, United Kingdom
The Gist: All signs pointed to chaos when director Denis Villeneuve parted ways with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson at the 25th hour, but Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish rose up to the challenge with an unexpected Hail Mary score.
Why It Rules: In addition to time restraints, both Zimmer and Wallfish had to follow in the footsteps of Vangelis, whose original Blade Runner score remains inimitable. They succeeded with a follow-up that’s both reverent and wholly intimidating.
Essential Tracks: “Sea Wall”, “Rain”, and “Wallace”
45. Paramore – After Laughter
Origin: Nashville, Tennessee
The Gist: Another lineup change and personal turmoil almost broke up Paramore, but Hayley Williams, Taylor York, and a returning Zac Farro came back stronger than ever to record their most pop-leaning album to date.
Why It Rules: On After Laughter, Paramore step completely away from their pop-punk origins and embrace the influences of Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, and Blondie. Catchy sing-along hooks and ’80s pop production combine for a bright, polished sound that barely conceals the heartbreak and pain in the lyrics underneath. Williams describes the album best with the catchphrase “cry hard, dance harder.”
Essential Tracks: “Rose Colored Boy”, “26”, and “Hard Times”
44. Khalid – American Teen
Origin: Fort Stewart, Georgia
The Gist: The 19-year-old R&B singer’s debut album builds from the buzzing lead single, “Location”, and demonstrates a strong grasp of the pulse of his generation without alienating a greater audience.
Why It Rules: Khalid’s silky-smooth voice and anthemic hooks combine with pop/R&B production for a fresh sound that doesn’t push the rookie too far outside his comfort zone. American Teen is a solid effort in its own right while also allowing plenty of room for growth as he comes of age.
Essential Tracks: “Young Dumb & Broke”, “Location”, and “8teen”
43. Phoenix – Ti Amo
Origin: Versailles, France
The Gist: Caught between the brutality of the Bataclan massacre and the subsequent ascent of France’s right-wing reactionaries, veteran synth rocker Thomas Mars and co. escaped the tension by looking backward via this Italo-disco ode to bygone Riviera summers.
Why It Rules: Released just in time for the warm-weather months, Ti Amo hit like the aural equivalent of a white wine spritzer: Singles “J-Boy” and “Ti Amo” bubble with a radio-ready fizz, while deeper cuts like “Tuttifrutti” and “Fleur De Lys” add a shade of heady longing to all that sunbaked pop.
Essential Tracks: “J-Boy”, “Tuttifrutti”, and “Fleur De Lys”
42. Migos – Culture
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: Riding high off the runaway hip-hop hit “Bad and Boujee”, the prodigious trio of Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff fully capitalized on that momentum with a splendid set of tracks that put even the best work in their mixtape-heavy discography on notice.
Why It Rules: Backed by a cadre of producers, including Metro Boomin and Zaytoven, the success-obsessed bars and hedonistic hooks of Culture perfectly encapsulate the breadth of trap music, from its hypnagogic highs to its unapologetic lows.
Essential Tracks: “Bad and Boujee”, “Slippery”, and “T-Shirt”
41. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein – Stranger Things 2
Origin: Austin, Texas
The Gist: Another season of Netflix’s Stranger Things means another vintage score from Survive’s own Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and that’s exactly what they dropped back in October ahead of the series’ highly anticipated premiere.
Why It Rules: A year has passed. They’re a little older. They’re a little wiser. No longer are they echoing the iconic sounds of John Carpenter or Goblin, but indulging in more modern fare like Bon Iver and M83. Hawkins has never sounded so hip.
Essential Tracks: “Eulogy”, “Eight Fifteen”, and “On the Bus”
40. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: When David Bowie gives you the seal of approval, you can turn a permanent conclusion into a five-year hiatus and a stellar return album. James Murphy and co. ended all the rumors once and for all with American Dream and did so with a bang. The album feels incredibly present, addressing the pervasive existential loneliness and concern while bringing the family back together.
Why It Rules: American Dream retains all of LCD Soundsystem’s ability to fill the dance floor and bring tears to your eyes. There were plenty of fears that they’d lose the goodwill earned by a public exit, but with an honest, powerful record like this, LCD only further cemented their spot as dance rock’s best friend.
Essential Tracks: “oh baby”, “call the police”, and “i used to”
39. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic
Origin: Dallas, Texas
The Gist: Nearly four years since making shadowy underground moves with their brash debut, Manifest Decimation, these young lions of thrash step into the spotlight emboldened with furious purpose.
Why It Rules: While fellow crossover revivalists Iron Reagan mix horror with humor, Power Trip come across as grave and grim as their considerably more hardcore forebears, levying heaviness in a deadly whirlwind of shreds and shouts.
Essential Tracks: “Executioner’s Tax”, “Firing Squad”, and “Nightmare Logic”
38. Vic Mensa – The Autobiography
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: After breaking through with 2013’s Innanetape and working closely alongside Kanye West, Vic Mensa finally delivers on his tremendous promise with his debut studio album on JAY-Z’s Roc Nation label with a major assist from legendary producer No I.D.
Why It Rules: Mensa sheds the mismatched sound from his scrapped album, Traffic, to rediscover the full range of his rapping and songwriting abilities. He takes listeners on a journey of his past several years struggling with drug abuse and dealing with a failed relationship while also addressing issues of racism and social inequality.
Essential Tracks: “We Could Be Free”, “Memories on 47th St.”, and “Coffee & Cigarettes”
37. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
The Gist: After spending years on the road performing as part of a fiercely independent DIY music community, Julie Byrne stayed put in New York City and coalesced the thoughts and experiences of her past few transient trips around the sun into this unnervingly beautiful album.
Why It Rules: Not Even Happiness is a stunning combination of strong lyricism and technical skill. Byrne fingerpicks a guitar she inherited from her father and pours every ounce of herself into these compositions, laying her innermost feelings completely bare in the process.
Essential Tracks: “Sleepwalker”, “Natural Blue”, and “I Live Now as a Singer”
36. The National – Sleep Well Beast
Origin: Cincinnati, Ohio
The Gist: On their first album since scoring a Grammy nomination four years ago, The National have mastered their own sound, a brooding tunefulness they’ve streamlined into their prettiest batch of songs in a career of constantly topping themselves.
Why It Rules: Sleep Well Beast flexes this fairly grayscale band’s impressive range more than anything they’ve done in years. The quietude of the vaporous, Notwist-like opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” is driven into the red on the careening blues metal of “Turtleneck”, this band’s hardest-rocking song since 2005, and they plot points along their widest-cast grid ever on all 12 of these songs, which rank among their tightest and most surprising; check out those hypnotic synth pings on “Walk It Back”. You could even say they’ve finally made an album that won’t have to grow on you.
Essential Tracks: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Turtleneck”, and “Sleep Well Beast”
35. Sampha – Process
Origin: South London, United Kingdom
Why It Rules: Process proved more than worth the wait, a masterclass in restraint built around minimalist arrangements that felt like a collection of private moments he had deigned to share, displaying a quiet strength.
Essential Tracks: “Blood on Me”, “(Nobody Knows Me) Like the Piano”, and “Timmy’s Prayer”
34. BROCKHAMPTON – Saturation 2
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: On their second studio album in the span of only a few months, the nebulous LA rap crew still sound like a hurricane barreling toward solid ground. But thrilling individual performances from ringleader Kevin Abstract and Ameer Vann show that BROCKHAMPTON’s quality is starting to match the dizzying quantity of their output.
Why It Rules: Coming hot on the heels of the first Saturation, Saturation II is the sound of a young group innovating on the fly. The beats are stranger, funkier, and more hypnotic throughout, and tracks like “Junky” and “Gummy” embrace the group’s status as quasi-revolutionary upstarts in a hip-hop world built on the twin pillars of ego and machismo.
Essential Tracks: “Junky”, “Swamp”, and “Sweet”
33. Thundercat – Drunk
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After earning a Grammy for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, LA bassist and producer Stephen Bruner (AKA Thundercat) wove a relatable oddball soundscape that drew equally from ’70 cratedigger soul, anime fan fiction, and the political hip-hop of his most famous collaborator.
Why It Rules: You mean beside the fact that it’s probably the only record that will ever feature guest spots from both Kenny Loggins and Wiz Khalifa? Try the woozy production from Flying Lotus, or the genre-hopping, existential nerdery that manages to cover everything from Dragon Ball Z to police brutality with the same beguilingly, tipsy energy.
Essential Tracks: “Bus in These Streets”, “Show You the Way”, and “Them Changes”
32. Tori Amos – Native Invader
Origin: Cornwall, United Kingdom
The Gist: On her 15th album, Tori Amos takes inspiration from the Smoky Mountains’ childhood of her mother, who recently suffered a debilitating stroke, and the election of Donald Trump, bringing listeners along for a powerful exploration of the glory inherent in nature, femininity, and vulnerability.
Why It Rules: On this surging, cathartic album of pop piano poetry, Amos’ giant voice and expansive imagination wrap you up tight and warm, giving you the space to bawl your eyes out. Together, the soaring vocals, complex arrangements, and vivid imagery offer a painful, inspiring, holy experience that could only exist in 2017.
Essential Tracks: “Up the Creek”, “Bang”, and “Climb”
31. King Krule – The OOZ
Origin: London, United Kingdom
The Gist: As King Krule, lifelong Londoner Archy Marshall trucks in darkly melodic trip-hop that never shies away from unearthing Marshall’s deepest emotions and fears. On The OOZ, he sifts through the detritus of daily life, bumping up against what he perceives to be his own artistic limitations as he examines the aftermath of a failed relationship.
Why It Rules: Marshall is a master of atmospherics, creating entire ecosystems within his work that operate by their own rules. The OOZ, Marhall’s second as King Krule, finds him strategically and periodically emerging from the murk he’s created to strike out in anger and pain, only to retreat again. It’s as immediate and compelling a listening experience as you’re likely to find this year.
Essential Tracks: “Biscuit Town”, “Dum Surfer”, and “Half Man Half Shark”
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”
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”
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”