No. 20: 'Everybody Works' by Jay Som
I saw Jay Som live in March and again in November and both times they sounded surprisingly weak. It seems as if each of the four people in the band has a different idea about what genre and style they are playing. The record is a completely different story. Stylistically moving between indie pop and dream pop and acoustic pop, painting purples and oranges with ease, the record is, along with Alvvays, more proof that women are doing the best and most creative work in the indie rock scene right now. Add to that the darling songs, add to that the “but I like the bus” line which is so full of charm who cares how long it takes them to get their act together live. Here’s to another record in 2018. — Landon MacDonald
Stream it on YouTube.
No. 19: 'Arca' by Arca
In his own work (especially Mutant and the less percussive last third of the Entrañas mix) as well as in his contributions to Kanye’s Yeezus and Björk’s Vulnicura, Alejandro Ghersi has carved out a sonic identity as grotesquely indicative of our fraught decade’s digital contortions as Aphex Twin’s music was for the more tentatively optimistic ‘90s. Obviously, Ghersi isn’t as effortlessly accomplished as Richard James—much of the time, he’s straining for effect—but he’s capable of some of the scariest sounds around. He can fold in bits of relief, too, no matter how odd or abrasive the textures get, but on this most recent album, Arca, he’s in nightmare-dread territory the whole way through. A creepy self-mangling anxiety is conveyed even though he’s organizing his textures more rigorously than usual.
It’s very anguished stuff, and original, too—almost like late spectralism in the way so many sounds begin to play the overtones of other more “vocal” sounds so that the tones bleed over and then disguise each other. Listening through headphones is strongly advised, as the low buzzes and thrums and wobbles should be very pronounced in your eardrums—especially with Ghersi miking himself so close that you’re meant to hear his parting lips and soft breathing. This music can both rattle and soothe your nerves in the midst of all sorts of mutilation and nonsense—a pitch-black digital blanket for fierce but dying contempt and sorrow at a time when everything fucking sucks. — Nathan Wisnicki
Stream it on Spotify.
No. 18: 'Soft Sounds From Another Planet' by Japanese Breakfast
It’s not exactly exoplanetary, but Soft Sounds from Another Planet covers a ton of ground. Within its 37 minutes you can find fragments of nearly every genre from doo-wop to grunge to electronica—sometimes in the same breath. These sounds have all been discovered by earlier pioneers, but under Michelle Zauner’s careful craft, they sound fresh, and they comingle and cohabitate in unexpected ways. Think genetic mutation rather than alien lifeform.
Japanese Breakfast’s debut, Psychopomp, was influenced by the death of Zauner’s mother. Soft Sounds sees her emerging from the other end, far more playful and experimental, willing to make you laugh, cry, or just chill out a little. The tiny details that emerge in Soft Sounds are evidence of her growth. Take the carbonated synths and elastic bassline on standout “Road Head”, or the blocky organs on “Body is a Blade”, or the heart-on-sleeve, tongue-in-cheek lyricism of “Till Death”. Zauner’s cottoned voice unifies it all and acts as a unifier on an album that otherwise gleefully refuses definition. — Brendan Frank
Stream it on YouTube.
No. 17: 'Saturation II' by Brockhampton
They sound like a rap crew but they call themselves a boy band—whatever they are, Brockhampton are the group of the year. Rolling 15 members deep as of the most recent tally, these guys have released two albums this year, the first one (Saturation) solid, the second (Saturation II) superb. If we’re lucky, they may surprise us with a third before the year is out. But even if they don’t, their second release gives us something to celebrate for a while.
While the first Saturation spent time introducing listeners to Brockhampton’s unwieldy roster, Saturation II finds the group sitting back and doing their thing: infectious and positive hip-hop. If you want to, you can pick out a few MVPs—group “leader” Kevin Abstract offers conscious bars about being gay in hip-hop, Ameer Vann’s flow is consistent and effortless, Matt Champion delivers one-off quips that will bring a smile to your face. But to separate any of these wolves from the pack misses the point entirely. Brockhampton has authentic and undeniable chemistry. It recalls the early days of Odd Future, minus the misogyny, homophobia, and ultraviolence (i.e. only the good parts are left). Sure, there were other strong collaborative projects this year, from Future and Young Thug to Sufjan Stevens’s Planetarium crew, but I’d wager that no one had as much fun making a record together than these guys. It’s their party, and we’re privileged to be invited. — Colin Groundwater
Stream it on YouTube.
No. 16: 'Slowdive' by Slowdive
Whatever band you most hope reunites, you can only hope they do it like Slowdive. Not rushed, not cash-grabbing, but focused on relationships and on furthering the legacy of the band. If a person asks how to get into Slowdive, the correct answer is still to start with Souvlaki but Slowdive wouldn’t be a bad second choice. — L.M.
Stream it on Spotify.
No. 15: '50 Song Memoir' by The Magnetic Fields
When placed side by side, “quintuple” and “album” are two words that would normally cause a listener to sprint as fast and far as possible in the opposite direction. But Stephin Merritt thrives when his medium is a sprawling mural, rather than a finely hewed portrait. 69 Love Songs, The Magnetic Field’s triple LP from 1999, remains a modern masterpiece because of its bloat.
50 Song Memoir is a sequel of sorts, with a topic that trades universality for the personal. Each song marks a year in Merritt’s life. Together they add up to a portrait of an artist, rarely seen with such specificity outside of literature. It’s a stunt, for sure, one that would buckle beneath its own heft and atop the shoulders of a lesser songwriter, particularly one lacking Merritt’s stylistic elasticity and Tin Pan Alley melodicism.
So 50 Song Memoir exceeds 69 Love Song’s audacity even if its predecessor’s track-by-track consistency can’t be equaled. But there’s a single LP of sterling Magnetic Fields songs here. “Hustle ‘76” is a joyous dance-pop number. “Ethan Frome” is a swooning billet-doux to Wharton’s classic. “A Cat Called Dionysus” is a chiming, baroque-pop poison dart aimed at a family pet. And “No” is a mid-tempo ballad so lush and gorgeous, its strident atheism could be forgiven by the Pope himself. The tunes peppered before, in between, and after 50 Song Memoir’s highlights aren’t filler, but experiments that sometimes soar, sometimes fail, and always strive to tell the story of a weird, wayward life. — Peter Tabakis
Stream it on YouTube.
No. 14: 'Crack-Up' by Fleet Foxes
Following Robin Pecknold on Instagram is a must. In addition to possibly winning test pressings of his next record, he gives insights into his mental processes and north stars in writing and producing. For instance, he gave one of his rules for Crack-Up—“Create and then subvert expectations.” Now re-listen to any of the songs with that in mind. While pop music is built on creating and then realizing expectations, Pecknold is living in 3017. With or without a pithy mantra taken from some textbook I have never heard of, Crack-Up is the ideal record from a band like Fleet Foxes. They steer clear of the romanticism of emotional piles and end up with a dense, cavernous, nexus of consummate paragons. — L.M.
Stream it on YouTube.
No. 13: 'No Shape' by Perfume Genius
Perfume Genius’s No Shape, in all of its queer, resplendent glory, is the best album about love of 2017. When we imagine great romantic albums, they tend to adhere to a classic narrative — infatuation and pursuit, like on Dylan’s Desire, or pain, rejection, and recovery, like Bon Iver’s For Emma, For Ever Ago. But sometimes a record grapples with love in all its many forms. This aptly titled album recognizes that love has no definitive shape. In exploring the twists and turns the emotion can take, Perfume Genius has crafted a deep and multi-faceted work that still captures its fundamental exuberance. Love is rarely easy and almost never what we expect, but it always sweeps us away. Mike Hadreas puts it well on the closing track of this album, named for his bandmate and partner of nearly a decade: “I’m here – how weird.” — C.G.
Stream it on Spotify.
No. 12: 'Sleep Well Beast' by The National
One year The National will run out of excellent songs, but it is not this year. Sleep Well Beast finds Matt Berninger and Bros. plumbing the darker depths of domestic life while reclaiming the energy of their earlier releases. The band hasn’t rocked this hard since Alligator.
The sentiments here are familiar for The National, but the songs carry an unprecedented urgency. Take “The Day I Die”, a fast-tempo meditation on mortality that lays existential despair against a sharp guitar work and one of the catchiest hooks the band has ever written. “I’ll Still Destroy You” is just as grim as the title might suggest, but a bed of wandering, frenetic synth reminiscent of Kid A pulls the track in an opposite direction. The album also benefits from the contributions of Berninger’s wife Carin Besser, who co-wrote most of the record with the band. A former New Yorker editor, she lends The National’s lyrics a rare degree of clarity that upgrades their songs from portraits of mood to pieces of insight. There’s also an added layer of intrigue—many of these tracks are about marriage in crisis, especially the somber “Guilty Party”. But the mere fact that the song exists, that Berninger can sing, “It’s nobody fault, there’s no guilty party,” is an inspiring idea—a couple can collaborate and make something beautiful out of the challenges they confront together. The unhappiness of The National has never sounded so compelling. — C.G.
Stream it on Spotify.
No. 11: 'Take Me Apart' by Kelela
Like a more sugary Solange, Kelela rhythmically whispers her nocturnal, ethereal treats like an ice cream truck driving at midnight at exactly your point of craving. Somehow working as a pump up or break up record, Take Me Apart is as versatile as it is compelling. The little production flourishes pay off. The patient songwriting is as smooth as jazz and as fresh as the IDM that constantly flies under the radar on her label Warp. Her falsetto glides up and down like Thom Yorke or Jonsi but with somehow even less effort. — L.M.
Stream it on Spotify.
No. 10: 'Pure Comedy' by Father John Misty
Father John Misty’s latest album is overstuffed. It’s self-indulgent. It’s boring, here and there. These are the most common criticisms lobbed at a polarizing album, from an equally polarizing artist. And they were my exact thoughts during the first few spins.
But after you experience it over time (and with begrudging generosity), Pure Comedy reveals its many riches and becomes a stinging, funny, sad, moving and, most importantly, grand statement of the kind few musicians attempt nowadays. Notably, it isn’t a laser-focused rebuke of Trump or America’s current, toxic atmosphere. Instead, Josh Tillman is making a philosophical declaration, about humanity as such, whose rigor and depth you can poke holes into left and right. But that’s not the point: Pure Comedy’s breadth is universal. Quibble as you may about its particular targets, this is a work of high satire that’s surprisingly effective.
It’s also a gorgeous collection of songs, which is what elevates Tillman’s grenade-launching to something close to sublime. None of his grievances against mankind would land with any force without the heft of carefully crafted, exquisitely sung, and boldly executed compositions. Its highlight and fulcrum is a “ten-verse chorus-less diatribe,” called “Leaving LA”, that represents Tillman at his most naked and assured. It shows that Father John Misty is just as eager to injure himself. He is, after all, a mere speck in this crazy, beautiful, fucked-up world. — P.T.
No. 9: 'Flower Boy' by Tyler the Creator
At its core, Flower Boy, Tyler the Creator’s fourth studio LP, tends to look inward and break through to the true core of the Odd Future trailblazer. Underneath Tyler’s hardened, immature exterior lies an impressionable psyche that pines to be understood. There’s palpable tenderness in standout tracks like “Where This Flower Blooms”, “See You Again”, and “Garden Shed”. Here, Tyler trades in barbed one-liners and subversive innuendos for something different—something pretty. His lyrics tell stories, and his cadence is tight and impressive. The token Odd Future production tactics are still there—low-fi percussive drops, MIDI-born melodic accents—but on the whole, there’s an element at play on Flower Boy that has yet to appear on previous LPs. Confidence, or something like that.
Yeah, let’s go with confidence because I’ve never heard Tyler sound so sure of himself. That’s not to say he has ever come off as timid or hesitant; what he’s doing here just seems more natural. Even his club-ready tracks feel more galvanized than any of his previous work. Pre-launch singles “Who Dat Boy”, and “I Ain’t Got Time!” are absolute bangers, while the lyrical precision on tracks like “Garden Shed” and “911/Mr. Lonely” posit Tyler as a bona fide hip-hop juggernaut. — Austin Reed
No. 8: 'Ctrl' by SZA
It can be a (negative) cliché to say an album sounds like reading an artist’s diary, but SZA’s debut album certainly feels that way as she grapples with distant lovers, self-esteem issues, generational malaise and the eternal struggle of shaving her legs. It helps that this, the most interesting character study of the year, comes with one of the most versatile singers in the “alternative R&B” genre; witness her flickering her voice from sweet to angry in “Drew Barrymore” or trying to find strength in “Supermodel” and “Love Galore”. She’s so captivating that heavy hitters like Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad barely shift the spotlight away from her if at all, and turns Pharrell into a horny whisper. “I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me,” goes one of a handful of low-key hooks on the first song, and by the end of the album, we all do believe and do see it in her. — Marshall Gu
No. 7: 'I See You' by The xx
Twelve months ago, viewing the xx as a one-album wonder was a justifiable position. Unusual is it for bands to disappear for five years and return with what is arguably a career best. Turns out the time apart was the best thing that could have happened to the trio.
I See You wasn’t just an excellent album in its own right, it was a proclamation from a band many viewed as a one-trick pony. Instead of a retread, I See You is a gentle evolution. It affirmed and strengthened the xx’s musical identity, innovating within the carefully delineated lines they’ve drawn for themselves. From the opening moments of “Dangerous”, the xx make that abundantly clear. This is a naturally quiet band screaming at the top of their lungs.
The group’s penchant for intimacy is still on display here, captured in the likes of “Lips” and “Performance”. But the record’s title encapsulates the sentiment behind that intimacy. I See You isn’t a closed-off conversation. Where the xx’s debut reveled in what goes on behind closed doors, I See You is an acknowledgement of the outside world, and an invitation to share in something. For a band that thrives in negative space, that’s downright audacious. — B.F.
No. 6: 'A Deeper Understanding' by The War on Drugs
Let’s be honest — “rock” music is not the dominant cultural force it used to be. It’s certainly not the genre-shaping the current of popular music. But evidently, no one told The War on Drugs. The band composed a masterful, sprawling heartland rock Bildungsroman that scraped the sky like a relic of an era when rock ruled the airwaves. And that was just 2014’s Lost in the Dream. How could they possibly top it?
Turns out, pretty amazingly. A Deeper Understanding does the nigh-impossible and not only matches but surpasses what was already one of the decade’s best albums. Everything is bigger and better—this thing was engineered in a lab for stadium climax. “Strangest Thing” is a psychedelic power ballad for the ages, devolving into a screaming guitar operetta in its final moments. “Thinking Of A Place” is a dreamy, not-so-quiet epic that evolves and changes in different movements over its 11-minute runtime. Opener “Up All Night” is perhaps the most fittingly titled track of the year, its frenzied opening synths giving way to a galloping beat that would propel any nocturnal joyride straight through to the morning.
And yet, what makes Adam Granduciel’s music so compelling is the way that it manages to be intimate and massive all at once. Even as his songs energize you with thunderous drums and skydiving guitar solos, it’s the smallest moments that resonate most powerfully. I ultimately keep returning A Deeper Understanding for these little moments—that mournful guitar tremolo hovering above the final choruses on “Holding On”, that masterfully building climax on “You Don’t Have to Go” where the rhythm begins modulating right as Granduciel hits “winds of change,” the specific drum hit that presages the moment when “In Chains” explodes into a widescreen highway epic. It’s easy to see why Granduciel is such a notorious perfectionist—it shows in his command of the tiny details that comprise his band’s rich, wall-of-sound mosaic. Rock isn’t dead, not yet at least, as long as Granduciel keeps working his magic. A great many records by returning favorites let me down this year. I couldn’t be happier that this wasn’t one of them. — Zachary Bernstein
No. 5: 'DAMN.' by Kendrick Lamar
Stepping back from To Pimp a Butterfly’s jazz/funk-influenced (cultural) sweep, Kendrick Lamar pulls some of the biggest names in mainstream pop/rap to make what is — on paper — his mainstream record. Except, all expectations are subverted: in hindsight, lead single “HUMBLE.” seems more like a feint compared to the knockout blows of the other two Mike Will-helmed tracks, a U2 feature turns out to be a quiet Bono, and Rihanna raps more than she sings on “LOYALTY.” Hard to remember a mainstream rap album that deploys a song about love as gorgeous or genuine as this one and follows it immediately with Kendrick Lamar freely stating he’ll kill anyone who touches his family before framing it in the current political landscape. Yes, some of the songs will bring to mind other artists: Lil’ Wayne, Drake and Travis Scott all come to mind, but you won’t mistake the visceral verses or the subject matter for anyone else. It’s another win in his book that simultaneously shrugs off any expectations; it’ll be interesting to see what he decides to do next. — M.G.
No. 4: 'Big Fish Theory' by Vince Staples
To say Staples is on a mission to subvert the industry standard would be to diminish his ambition and his abilities as an artist. “Fuck the entire status quo forever,” seems like more of a Staples-esque mantra than “I’d like to make people second-guess their opinion of hip-hop music.” And assertions of this caliber are only bolstered by the thematic inner-workings of Staples’ phenomenal second LP, Big Fish Theory.
Because Theory is more than just a future-facing hip-hop record. It presents (and attempts to solve for) a fundamental battle within the human condition: the primal desire to fulfill every carnal craving in every format, versus the spiritual desire to understand and accept one’s place in the universe. “Adam, Eve / Apple Trees / Watch out for the snakes, baby,” Staples croons rather plainly on “745”. When it comes to providing thematic context, more prominent examples exist than the Book of Genesis. But Staples’ decision to reference the Bible mirrors his decision to lean heavily on house music forebears J Dilla, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard throughout the majority of Big Fish Theory’s production, rather than the household hitmakers prevalent on the Top 40 today. These are high-level decisions to make, and the fact that they’re purely preferential only means Staples is even smarter than we originally thought.
Now that I think about it, maybe the most confounding element of Big Fish Theory is how, despite its penchant for existential undercurrents, the album still feels holistically club-ready. These tracks are deep, but they’re also bangers by nearly every definition. Technically, this isn’t new territory; DAMN. arguably accomplished the very same juxtaposition in a “best practice” kind of way. But Big Fish Theory wins in a way DAMN. can’t because it takes the time to expose the blurred lines and, in a very Staples-ish way, satirize them. Rather than contributing to a constantly shifting, hip-hop-indebted pathway, he goes back to the source of dance music and partners with producers who pay homage to it in fresh, unique ways. This is Big Fish Theory in its basest form: A truly progressive, existential, emotionally saturated hip-hop album that re-establishes the value of dance-centric collaboration by reminding us that it’s exactly that. And it will win this way, every single time. — A.R.
No. 3: 'American Dream' by LCD Soundsystem
It took the band breaking up and reuniting for me to realize just how indebted James Murphy is to the concept of heartbreak. He’s seemingly never been able to escape it; dating back to the band’s 2005 debut self-titled LP, Murphy has used varying degrees of heartbreak as a propellant for nearly all of LCD’s most vivid imagery—of gnarled cynicism (“Losing My Edge”), of harsh reality (“Someone Great”), of wistful reminiscence (“All My Friends”) and of pessimistic foresight (pretty much all of them). On-paper, LCD Soundsystem may be that band that dropped danceable hits like “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and “Dance Yrself Clean”. But underlying a majority of their singles is a degree of heartbreak—of longing to make a positive change to the world in which they reside.
I think that’s why LCD’s decision to reunite after a six-year break was met with such overwhelming derision. Following a (somewhat) surprise breakup announcement in 2011 and a subsequent farewell show that handily sold out Madison Square Garden, the band’s most loyal followers were suddenly left feeling discarded and forsaken. So it’s easy to understand why, when LCD reappeared at the end of 2016 to announce a reformation, the response wasn’t exactly unanimously positive. Murphy saw this coming, so he did his best to pre-empt the onslaught with generous apologies and promises for new material and a world tour. Even still, the needle barely moved.
Out the gate, it’s hard to tell how much of this adversity made its way into the thematic undertones of American Dream, LCD’s triumphant 2017 LP. But what’s less difficult to extrapolate is the variety of heartbreak that informed it. While every previous LCD outing comprised an air of observational despair, American Dream is the only LCD album erected upon self-disappointment. For once, Murphy doesn’t focus on the head-scratching decisions of the status quo. He focuses instead on the head-scratching decisions he himself has made. This is a different kind of heartbreak—one of immediate regret and of frantically asked questions that’ll never be answered. As such, Dream tends to sound a little more urgent and a lot more personal.
You get the idea. American Dream may not be the danciest LCD outing, but it’s undoubtedly the most well-rounded and emotionally versatile LP they’ve ever released. It wins because it successfully exposes a level of Murphy we had yet to hear—one that lowers the guard and curtails the middle-aged snarl in favor of a more vulnerable approach. Do we owe this sea change to LCD’s legion of pissed off fans? It’s possible, but it’s also a moot point. American Dream is clearly fueled by a new kind of heartbreak—the kind residing deep within Murphy—and the result is more dazzling and more relatable than ever before. — A.R.
No. 02: 'MASSEDUCTION' by St. Vincent
MASSEDUCTION feels like a third apex for Annie Clark, an artist who, like Mount Kilimanjaro, has a trio of distinct peaks. On Strange Mercy, St. Vincent announced herself as a supreme songwriter, one who deftly mixed style with substance. With her eponymous 2014 masterwork, Clark shed the past and replaced preciousness with a muscularity that recalled such rock giants as Prince and Bowie. Her latest apex doubles down on the Bowie references, particularly his most mainstream album Let’s Dance.
MASSEDUCTION stands as an all-around amplification and expansion of Clark’s maturing pop instincts and consistently terse song structures. The album defies you to find an ounce of flab. Lean and ferocious, tender and heartbreaking, its 41 minutes blow by with the emotional force of a battering gale. Though bursting with immediate, throat-grabbing melodies, MASSEDUCTION is very much a St. Vincent record. Its arch. Its droll. Its cataclysmic. These are not the characteristics from which multi-platinum blockbusters are made. But MASSEDUCTION does make for a phenomenal work of art, a benchmark Clark exceeds with a brazen catwalk strut.
Annie Clark isn’t interested in descending from her weird mountain perch. She’s hauling the rest of us upward, to join her in the clouds. MASSEDUCTION joins Grimes’ Art Angels and Lorde’s Melodrama as the inverse of a traditional pop album, one that undercuts the very genre it lifts. St. Vincent has consolidated, digested, and now transcended her former styles. What’s left is an artist reframing the landscape, a reverse-chameleon who can’t camouflage, but transforms her surroundings instead. — P.T.
No. 01: 'Melodrama' by Lorde
“Broadcast the boom, boom, boom, boom,” Lorde whispers on “The Louvre”, “and make 'em all dance to it.” The “boom” in question is a heartbeat, which pounds like a metronome throughout Melodrama, her extraordinary sophomore album. The lyric is a statement of purpose, a revelation from an emerging songwriting dynamo, here bending dance-pop trappings to suit her artistic needs. Melodrama has been called a concept album, one that chronicles the aftermath of a house party. And there’s a narrative through-line to support such a claim, particularly between “Sober” and “Sober II (Melodrama)”. But Melodrama is so much more than this pat description. It’s a record that explores interiority and loneliness, a young cousin to Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
Remarkably, Melodrama sounds of-the-moment without breathlessly chasing modern trends (ahem). Its antecedents and inspirations include masterworks by Paul Simon, Tori Amos, Madonna, and Tom Petty; Lorde idolizes Prince and David Bowie (see: “Perfect Places”). She effortlessly synthesizes these classic influences, and yet paints on a modern canvas. With Most Valuable Producer Jack Antonoff at her side, she pulls off the impossible: a contemporary club nocturne whose BPM belies an all-encompassing woe.
Melodrama is, most of all, a thrilling formal accomplishment. Lorde and Antonoff construct an immaculate sonic bedroom, a confessional space for this young woman to exploit with aplomb. It’s a transporting record, one that seems to exist outside of time and place, specific and universal at once. Every generation has the voice it deserves. Lorde may have inadvertently claimed that title for one still without a name. — P.T.