20. Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past
Origin: Richmond, Virginia
The Gist: “Keep your sisters close/ You gotta keep your sisters close to ya,” sing the backing vocalists on “Sisters”, the seventh track on Natalie Prass’ The Future and the Past. It’s a perfect, exemplary moment for Prass’ more R&B-influenced sophomore effort, a collection of songs that are the product of some careful reworking after the election of Donald Trump. Prass has reflected deeply on this particular cultural and political moment and distilled it into a portrait of a fighter who is determined not to lose herself, give up hope, or become any less human in the process.
Why It Rules: Prass is a deft and precise songwriter, but the big orchestrations featured on The Future and the Past, a natural progression from her very produced debut, are the real showstoppers here. Even on more minimalist tracks like “Hot for the Mountain”, lounge guitar licks, piano chords, and steady rhythms assert themselves under Prass’ airy vocals, creating earworms that will stick in your head for days. On top of these sounds are bigger ideas than the ones Prass worked through on 2015’s Natalie Prass; “Ain’t Nobody” tackles reproductive rights while “Ship Go Down” combats the feeling of helplessness engendered by endless, terrifying news notifications. It’s a hopeful record for a hopeless time. –Katherine Flynn
19. SOB x RBE – Gangin
Origin: Vallejo, California
The Gist: Vallejo rap quartet SOB x RBE (the “x” is silent) capitalize on their standout collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on the Black Panther soundtrack, the frenzied “Paramedic!”, with a second album that may as well be their first. Young, hungry, and ready to take on the world, GANGIN is that pivotal moment where they could evolve from stars in the making to just plain stars. Or supernovas.
Why It Rules: Despite topping off at a potentially unwieldy four members, each quarter of SOB x RBE carves out a distinct vocal identity on GANGIN. And rather than bank on the trap leanings currently washing over Atlanta, they take a note from Vallejo forefather E-40 with beats that hearken back to the trunk-rattling ’90s. The allure of GANGIN lies not in what SOB x RBE are saying, but how they’re saying it. The throwback production and relentless energy of the group’s four MCs set them apart from their more leaned-out, chilled-out brethren on the opposite coast. Supernovas indeed. –Dan Caffrey
18. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel
Origin: Melbourne, Australia
The Gist: Unassuming Aussie rock star Courtney Barnett returned with her second full-length record, as insightful, off-kilter, and melodic as ever. Barnett has always been a beautifully idiosyncratic wordsmith. Her lyrics are wry, personal, and sometimes painfully sincere. With Tell Me How You Really Feel, she pushes her sound forward while still retaining her identity, establishing that she’s an artist with enough talent and nuance to have a long and powerful career.
Why It Rules: On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett is fed the fuck up. Tracks like “Hopefulessness” and “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence” are a beautiful expansion of her trademark insight into being an anxious wreck, but single “Nameless, Faceless” and the scorching “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” are the fulcrum of the record, which dives into the psychological consequences of existing as a woman in the world while finding a way to end on a gentle and deeply human note, rather than a bitter one. –Kayleigh Hughes
17. Lucy Dacus – Historian
Origin: Norfolk, Virginia
The Gist: Historian is a massive achievement, a devastating but gorgeous musical examination of memory, loss, and identity. Lucy Dacus has always been a clever and reliable indie rock singer-songwriter, and Historian displays how she has absolutely blossomed as a musician and storyteller.
Why It Rules: Dacus’ voice is pure even as it trembles, even as it betrays longing and heartbreak. Throughout Historian, the super-smart singer is able to deeply intellectualize her experiences while still loading them with raw emotional immediacy. She’s thoughtful, committed to telling this story and interrogating these painful truths, hopefully turning them into songs more beautiful and clear than the difficult experiences that she’s working from. As a musician, Dacus keeps herself brilliantly reserved until just the right moments, skillfully employing absences of sound so as to make the surging fuzz of a guitar and the swell of her voice hit the listener like a landslide. –Kayleigh Hughes
16. Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)
Origin: Leesburg, Virginia
The Gist: “Hi, my name is Will Toledo. I’m that kid you hated in grade school who could just fly by the seat of his pants and get those gold stars you spent mornings and nights pining over. Want proof? I just took an old album of mine and managed to deliver one of this year’s better rock albums. It’s okay if you hate my guts for being naturally prolific because you’ll absolutely love my music. See you around, folks.” Yeah, that pretty much explains Twin Fantasy (Face to Face).
Why It Rules: All joking aside, Toledo is the type of singer-songwriter that critics used to champion on a weekly basis during the glory days of ’80s college rock. He’s like a young Gordon Gano, kicking out sprawling songs like the nearly 14-minute epic, “Beach Life-in-Death”, or the 16-minute saga of “Famous Prophets (Stars)”, that reach for the stars without having to stand up. Again, that may irritate you, but those hooks demand nothing but love. Hey, at the end of the day, we’re all just nervous young humans. –Michael Roffman