The 100 Best Albums of the 2010s

The music of the past 10 years has felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.



Photo: Kendrick Lamar/Interscope Records

There’s a popular meme—shared most often by Gen Xers and tech-capable boomers—that self-deprecatingly laments the perception that the 1990s were just a few years ago. The absence of a generally recognized way to demarcate the first two decades of the 21st century (aughts? Teens? ‘10s?) has, perhaps, rendered the “decade” as a measure of time more arbitrary than ever before, resulting in one nebulous blur. The music of the past 10 years has likewise felt like a streak of shifting genres and seemingly rehashed trends.

Of course, a lack of obvious trends—like synth-pop and hair metal in the ‘80s, and alternative rock and R&B in the ‘90s—doesn’t mean there weren’t important milestones in music. Bolstered by albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, hip-hop continued to rediscover both its conscience and its voice in the 2010s, while artists like Robyn and Katy B proved that even when dance-pop is pushed to the margins, as it was after the EDM explosion of the late aughts, it will always find its groove.

As is often the case with pop music, whose wiles aren’t often immediately apparent, some of the titles on this list of the greatest albums of the decade took their sweet time taking root. Taylor Swift’s 1989, for example, sits at a lofty perch here but failed to garner a mention on our list of the Best Albums of 2014. Others, like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, were released just days after we published our list that same year. And yet another 2014 album, Bright Light Bright Light’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, came to our attention a year after its initial release.

Some of the artists with multiple entries on this list, like Kanye West, began the 2010s at their creative and commercial zenith but floundered on both counts by decade’s end. Others, like Lana Del Rey, started out with great but uncertain promise and ultimately fulfilled it as the decade came to a close. Holdovers from the ‘90s like Radiohead, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as artists whose legacies stretch even further back, like the dearly departed David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, released some of their most compelling work to date in the last 10 years, making the task of clearly defining the decade even more of a fool’s errand. What these 100 albums do have in common is quite simple: They moved us. Sal Cinquemani


100. Bright Light Bright Light, Life Is Easy

At a time when pop music is defined foremost by cynicism, Bright Light Bright Light, né Rod Thomas, offers a refreshingly sincere voice, unafraid to be poignant or vulnerable. Though the melodies on the Welsh singer-songwriter’s sophomore effort, Life Is Easy, are often uncomplicated, they’re also instantly familiar and accessible. The album’s opening synths nod to Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, as Thomas paints vivid, cinematic scenes of love lost and imagined, drenched in retro-minded synth-pop reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys and George Michael. The album is littered with tales of disintegrating love (“Everything I Ever Wanted,” “I Wish We Were Leaving,” featuring Elton John) but also the wide-eyed optimism of a hopeless romantic (“An Open Heart,” “I Believe”). It makes life—and love—sound easy. Cinquemani

99. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.

The first of two stellar albums Big Thief released in 2019, U.F.O.F. is less immediate and rhythmic than the subsequent Two Hands. It’s all ambience and texture, unfolding like a reverie, with chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios and cooing melodies so natural and easy that they sound like they sprung up from the ground or out of the trees. Singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s songs don’t so much progress as they circle mesmerizingly around themselves, and the best of them—“Cattails,” “Century,” “From”—seize on sing-songy melodic motifs with repetitious snake-like structures that become almost like mantras. Lenker and Buck Meek’s guitar work is sparkling throughout, with every pluck and strum sounding sonically optimized. This is an album as difficult to categorize as it is easy to listen to. Jeremy Winograd

98. Pet Shop Boys, Electric

Electric found the Pet Shop Boys taking an easy and well-earned career victory lap. This isn’t a nostalgia cruise through the sounds of its creators’ lost youth, but rather a daringly foolhardy effort to communicate with the kids in their own blissed-out lexicon. For this task, Electric brought in the man most perfectly suited to marrying ‘80s electro-pop classicism with genre-straddling EDM modernism, Stuart Price. More importantly, the duo brought a collection of wry and wonderful earworms that are every bit as huge as Price’s canyon-sized sound. A reminder that classic songs don’t have to arrive already frozen in amber. Blue Sullivan

95. Lindstrom, Real Life Is No Cool

Norwegian DJ Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and vocalist Christabelle’s Real Life Is No Cool is a pop-funk odyssey that draws on early Massive Attack, Prince, and especially the space-disco of Giorgio Moroder. The album is, perhaps, Lindstrøm’s most accessible work to date (the single “Lovesick” appeared in a car commercial and the U.S. version of the album is even more polished than the original Rough Trade incarnation), but despite clear standout tracks and copious pop hooks, it’s a testament to the strength of Lindstrøm’s singular vision that the album plays best as one whole piece, no small feat considering that it was at least seven years in the making. Cinquemani


96. James Blake, James Blake

A friend recently played me James Blake through his new subwoofer with the dial turned to about 5, an experience that nearly made our heads explode. It served as a reminder of how amazingly rumbly, strange, and unique of an album it is, a fact that may have been forgotten in the nine months since its release. Cloaked in a cloud of mystery, it defies the usual bedroom-recording template, with an expansive sound that ranges from creeping, percussively stripped-down R&B to eerie MIDI-inflected dirges, with textures that provide padding for one of the most uniquely smooth voices to come around in years. Jesse Cataldo

95. Aphex Twin, Syro

Few artists could record an album as downright adventurous as Syro. It jumps from eerily funky trip-hop (“produk 29”) to disjointed, robotic acid house (“CIRCLONT6A [141.98]”) and then concludes with a solo piano piece that wouldn’t feel out of place on a recital program alongside Chopin and Satie. But only Aphex Twin could record something this outlandish and appear to be toning down the experimentalism. Syro is a refinement of everything that Aphex Twin has accomplished in his career of genre invention and deconstruction. As a complete work, it’s enveloping, with moments of virtuosic composition (the prog-rock-on-ecstasy of “syro u473t8+e [141.98]”) balanced out by larger, propulsive gestures like rave banger “180db_[130].” While the rest of the electronic music world has been trying to catch up, Aphex Twin is finally taking a breath and, in turn, had released his most accessible—though still profoundly idiosyncratic—album to date. James Rainis

94. Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

Tyler, the Creator’s obvious talent has always been undercut by an insistent immaturity, with callow, prankish antagonism proving a continued obstacle to his artistic development. With Flower Boy, rap’s resident enfant terrible has finally found a way to channel his hostility, on an album that still retains his inherent unruliness and intensity. Tyler taps into the internal reservoir of insecurity and doubt motivating his anger, expanding his range and revealing new creative layers in the process. Building on the glimmers of tuneful sweetness found on 2015’s Cherry Bomb, the album finds existing horrorcore inclinations mixing freely with polished electro jazz, hard-edged psychedelia, and hazy R&B. Surprisingly smooth but still never easily digestible, its diverse palette provides insight into the wide variety of sources influencing a mounting wave of paradigm-fracturing rappers, helping to spearhead the genre’s fervent push into new modes of expression. Cataldo

93. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

As everyone who’s caught his sprawling live show already knows, jazz bandleader Kamasi Washington’s maximalism will not be contained, and that, ludicrous as it may sound, even a three-hour label debut broken down into three volumes titled “The Plan,” “The Glorious Tale,” and “The Historic Repetition” and given the title The Epic still ever so faintly suggests the tip of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic. “Change of the Guard”? That might be an overstatement, but there’s something undeniably thrilling about an artist who doesn’t seem to dislike a single reference point. Washington, better known as Kendrick Lamar’s go-to arranger, pulls not a single punch as he draws from big band, fusion, swing, and bebop traditions, pays homage to Malcolm X, Ray Noble, and Claude Debussy, and overlays heavenly choral and string arrangements to send the entire enterprise into orbit. Eric Henderson


92. Katy B, On a Mission

As the coolly altered colors of the cover art indicate, Katy B’s On a Mission is euphoric without aggression. It’s awash in the newness of discovery, and represents the perfect confluence of elements that all but transcends any single camp. This isn’t merely a house album, a pop album, a dubstep album, or an R&B album. It’s a bright, cheerfully mainstream-friendly record that’s almost completely built from the ingredients of much darker, grimier dance music subcultures in a way that recalls the sunnier moments of Basement Jaxx, or Kathy Diamond’s Maurice Fulton-guided retro jaunt through the Loft on Miss Diamond to You. But softer still. On a Mission is a glowstick Alice in Wonderland, a tour of sensations as narrated by an emotionally reserved young girl whose “curiouser and curiouser” reactions ultimately wind up giving in to the moment, hungry for the next chapter. Henderson

91. Mariah Carey, Caution

“Caution” is an apt warning for those about to consume Mariah Carey’s first album in over four years. While her voice may be a reedy version of what it once was, she makes it abundantly clear on Caution that she isn’t to be fucked with in this or any other decade. She wisely relies on the rap-inflected R&B sounds that have been her bread and butter since Butterfly, while bringing in unexpected collaborators like Skrillex and Blood Orange. She also switches up the message: In the aftermath of a highly public breakup, a sense of inevitable heartache hangs over the whole thing, from the delightfully salty lead single “GTFO” (“I ain’t tryna be rude, but you’re lucky I ain’t kick your ass out last weekend,” she quips) to the even more savage “A No No,” in which she summons her verbally gymnastic falsetto for a Gilligan’s Island-related diss. The adoption of patois and clearly intentional use of “irregardless” suggest Mimi (still) has no time for notions of cultural appropriation or grammar, and appearances by Slick Rick and Biggie (via sample) let us know that her heart will always lie in hip-hop. Where it belongs. Paul Schrodt

90. Destroyer, Kaputt

With the lone exception of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” no music this year has better captured the glitzy, breezy, unaware charm of ‘80s air pop better than Destroyer’s Kaputt. There’s an almost stark obliviousness to the album’s caricatural, glossy atmosphere, obtuse lyricism, and plethora of jazzy brass, but therein lies its allure: Dan Bejar exists in his own little bubble, making songs for himself as much as others, and leaving us narrative riddles that perhaps only he can ultimately decipher. Yet as confoundingly esoteric as Kaputt can often be, it’s still a joy to listen to: Luxurious and blissful and playful in a way that conjures up the psychedelic pop storytelling of Al Stewart. From the bouncy hotel lobby ballad “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and the delicate melancholy of “Chinatown” to the almost ridiculous, full-on saxophone and vibes explosion that is the title track, Kaputt is the consummate balancing act of the cerebral and the irreverent. Kevin Liedel

89. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

With Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 braintrust Anthony Gonzalez reportedly aimed to combine the aesthetics of the decidedly more shoegazey Before the Dawn Heals Us with the all-out, sparkling post-punk of Saturdays=Youth, with synth-pop tracks like “Claudia Lewis” and “Reunion” alongside ambient throwbacks like “Echoes of Mine.” As always, Gonzalez goes grand, aiming for the bright lights and saturated echoes of stadium anthems. One need look no further than the opening blast of “Intro” for evidence, where Gonzalez masterfully stacks buzzing circularity and distant choir strains with the seagull synths of “Kim & Jessie,” over which Zola Jesus delivers her muscular vocals. Liedel


88. Taylor Swift, Reputation

In the run-up to the release of her sixth album, Reputation, Taylor Swift was excoriated by fans and foes alike for too often playing the victim. The album’s lyrics only serve to bolster that perception: Swift comes off like a frazzled stay-at-home mom scolding her disobedient children on “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” But it’s her willingness to portray herself not as a victim, but the villain of her own story that makes Reputation such a fascinatingly thorny glimpse inside the mind of pop’s reigning princess. Swift has proven herself capable of laughing at herself, thereby defusing the criticisms often levied at her, but with Reputation she’s created a larger-than-life caricature of the petty, vindictive snake she’s been made out to be. By album’s end, Swift assesses her crumbling empire and tattered reputation, discovering redemption in love—only Reputation isn’t so much a rebirth as it is a retreat inward. It marks a shift from the retro-minded pop-rock of 2014’s 1989 toward a harder, more urban aesthetic, and Swift wears the stiff, clattering beats of songs like “…Ready for It?” like body armor. Cinquemani

87. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2

Righteous anger is potent fuel for art, and in a year that desperately beckoned for protest music that could stand up to systematic economic and racial oppression, Killer Mike and El-P drew on just that to create Run the Jewels 2. It’s not a political treatise (there are too many absurdist threats and flights of linguistic fancy to qualify), but tracks like the drug-dealer’s lament “Crown” and the accusatory “Lie, Cheat, Steal” hold a mirror up to society’s blemishes and implore you to get fucking pissed about it to El-P’s punishing, Bomb Squad-reminiscent production. Decades after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the sonic revolution is still being fought, with brothers-in-arms Killer Mike and El-P as the new ringleaders. Rainis

86. DJ Koze, Knock Knock

DJ Koze’s eclectic third effort, Knock Knock, tones down the psychedelic flourishes of 2013’s Amygdala for a more accessible album that’s inviting and soothing while also, at times, preserving a plaintive sense of yearning. “Music on My Teeth” opens with a sample of Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts intoning that “time is a social institution and not a physical reality.” Whether it’s a Gladys Knight & the Pips sample on “Pick Up” or a guest spot by an Auto-Tune-drenched Kurt Wagner from Lambchop on “Muddy Funster,” Koze seamlessly melds eras and genres to fashion shape-shifting sonic textures. He plays to his guests’ strengths, giving the music the semblance of a mixtape at times, but overall the sound nevertheless remains cohesive. Seamless shifts from trip-hop to R&B to deep house create a multidimensional aesthetic that runs the gamut from retro to futuristic, from analog to digital, all while exuding Koze’s mastery of making the uncanny feel oddly familiar. Josh Goller

85. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love

“I hate ‘love’ in my own language,” Jenny Hval says on the title track of her seventh album, a spoken-word exchange between herself and Lasse Marhaug about the notion of reproduction and its impact on humanity. Although Hval has admitted to feeling some anxiety about dealing with love as a theme when she’s spent so much of her career focusing on anything but, on The Practice of Love she explores the concept with closely observed specificity. Over propulsive, trance-influenced musical backdrops that lend a disarming sheen to its raw lyrics, Hval analyses the presence—and lack—of love in nature (“Lions feat Vivian Wang”), in pregnancy and childlessness (“Accident”), and in communion with the dead (“Six Red Cannas”). Her lyrical style, equal parts allusive and up-front, makes for an exposing, raw album, as disquieting as it is dazzling. Anna Richmond


84. The Weeknd, House of Balloons

The collaboration of producer Doc McKinney and singer Abel Tesfaye, House of Balloons is entirely without precedent in R&B. The gothic production aesthetic is influenced as much by industrial, trip-hop, and downtempo as it is by urban radio, while Tesfaye’s tortured falsetto conveys both vulnerability and predatory intent. It’s a lurid exercise in subterranean world-building, its depictions of dependency and desperation soundtracked by some of the catchiest, sexiest R&B jams you’ll never hear in the club. Matthew Cole

83. Wild Beasts, Smother

True to their name, Wild Beasts builds on and fully inhabits an undomesticated musical world far removed from the familiar grounds of their indie peers. The band’s experimentation in flaky, embellished baroque pop is ultimately a reward for its loyal audience: The weirder they get, the better Wild Beasts become. For those who stuck with them through Two Dancers, Smother is another masterful step in that surreal journey, albeit a quiet, sensuous one. Largely shouldered by the band’s two lead vocalists (a libertine cooer in Hayden Thorpe and the earthier, huskier Tom Fleming), Smother is both alluring and purposeful, not to mention full of beautiful surprises. What other group could achieve something like “Invisible,” an undisguised hat tip to the kind of soft, safe ballads one would expect from Phil Collins circa 1985, and still manage to infuse it with their own brand of unpredictable artistry? Liedel

82. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir

The knock against Stephin Merritt and company’s latest long-sit is the lack of “company” in the equation: Where 1999’s 69 Love Songs varied its three-CD sprawl with rotating vocalists, Merritt’s sad-sack monotone is all we get for five discs on 50 Song Memoir. But, then, per the title, this is Stephin’s story: The songs each correspond to a year in the prickly 50-year-old songwriter’s life, and it wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to tell it. Merritt the aesthete understands this, and so he indulges in songs that wouldn’t really make sense for anyone else to sing: It’s hard to imagine “A Cat Called Dionysus” being such a laugh riot without his deadpan pivot from “He hated me” to “I loved him,” and only Merritt could find musicality amid the drolly listed maladies on “Weird Diseases.” What 50 Song Memoir has in common with 69 Love Songs is that it’s one of the Magnetic Fields’s most consistent albums. Merritt’s lyrical concepts hold together as albums better than his aesthetic ones—and duration only helps the charm of his offbeat writing to sink in. Sam C. Mac

81. Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe

With her punk-yelp drawl, Santigold at first seems to be trying to affect Karen O’s style on her second album’s first single, “GO!,” but then the beat drops out and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman herself takes the mic, all elongated syllables and spliced-up vocals, and it’s clear Santi isn’t just playing dress-up, but skillfully, reverently co-inhabiting Karen’s world. Santi is a shapeshifter, and the beats and arrangements of each track are likewise perfectly tailored to their lyrics. “Don’t look ahead, there’s stormy weather,” Santi warns just as guitar licks crackle like electricity on “Disparate Youth,” an expertly layered piece of dub-pop, while her cavernous background vocals reverberate beneath the mechanical rhythm section of “God from the Machine.” Even if hip-hop-leaning tracks like “Freak Like Me” and “Look at These Hoes” feel more derivative than the album’s copious nods to new wave and synth-pop, Master of My Make-Believe is still a genre-defying exercise in exerting one’s mastery over all.  Cinquemani


80. Björk, Vulnicura

Let’s be honest: Björk, more than any chanteuse, needs no tangible catalyst to trigger emotive seizures in song form. She’s felt violently happy about the backs of men’s freshly shaven necks, imagined herself a girl-shaped fountain of blood, promised a volcano eruption just below your aeroplane simply so you would know that some day you’ll blossom. Losing the man whose dick once inspired an entire album of the porniest Christmas music ever penned? Well, you may as well go ahead and strap some LED lederhosen onto the Tsar Bomba. If you ever wanted Björk to get close to a human, the raw hurt at the heart of Vulnicura gives you the motherlode. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, disoriented, ashamed. Not just her best album in ages, but her most shockingly unfiltered. Henderson

79. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

A sense of finality pervades You Want It Darker, as Leonard Cohen seems to make peace with his mortality. That sense of bowing out is most obvious in the card-game imagery of “Leaving the Table,” as well as on the title track, where a backing chamber choir adds solemnity to a song that finds Cohen gruffly intoning, “I’m ready, my Lord.” But it’s not all end-of-the-road gloom. Even as he laments old age during “On the Level,” the singer-songwriter basks in a woman’s smile and fragrance, still finding space to take in those moments of fleeting beauty that can make even a person in the bleakest of circumstances feel momentarily happy to be alive. Though rife with his customary religious imagery, Cohen’s final album never seeks to lead us down a particular path, but instead challenges us to play the hand we’re dealt. Goller

78. The National, Trouble Will Find Me

Trouble Will Find Me is a black-tie affair, formal and reserved, but it gracefully extends the intricate, sometimes hermetic formula of the National’s last two albums into a general invitation. The album’s haze of harmonies and damp, layered production techniques demand repeat listens, but it’s the arrangements that reward that patience. The orchestration is complex, but never overtly avant-garde. The experimental flavors are subtle: mixolydian scales, jazz chords, polyrhythmic drumming, quiet oboe, and french horn. The tension is no longer raw, but it’s still there, simmering below the surface of tracks like “Sea of Love.” And don’t let Matt Berninger’s shadowy baritone and opaque lyrics fool you: When he mumbles, “I’m having trouble inside my skin,” on “Slipped,” that’s exactly how he likes it. Caleb Caldwell

77. Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels

Miranda Lambert’s entire solo career has been based on using a unique point of view and perfectly chosen first-person details to create a fully realized, complex image, and that’s exactly what the Pistol Annies accomplish on their debut as well. A truly collaborative effort in terms of songwriting, performance, and construction of a distinct persona, Hell on Heels succeeds because of how unified Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe are in terms of their vision. That they’re successful in meeting this goal in just barely 30 minutes’ worth of material is one hell of a trick. So much of contemporary country gets mired in pointless handwringing about authenticity, resulting in a host of interchangeable singers who do little more than rattle off lists of rural signifiers in ineffective attempts to establish their country cred. The Pistol Annies don’t bother with any of that; Hell on Heels is an album that trades heavily in artifice, and it’s all the better for it. Jonathan Keefe


76. Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy

If you thought sprawling, 90-minute rock operas about characters with split personalities went out of fashion shortly after the Who put out Quadrophenia in 1973, well, you’re probably right. But such an overambitious concept has been uncool for so long that it’s apparently become punk, and Patrick Stickles and Titus Andronicus, modern-day torch carriers of the DIY punk ethos, have proven, unequivocally, that the two ideas are far from incompatible with The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Built around a storyline that represents Stickles’s struggles with bipolar disorder, the band adapts, across 29 tracks, a broader view of rock n’ roll than ever before, from teeth-gnashing hardcore (“I’m Going Insane”) to Springsteen-inspired bar-band rock (“I Lost My Mind,” “Fatal Flaw”) to dramatic piano balladry (“No Future Part V”). The Most Lamentable Tragedy is an unabashedly epic, classic rock album, in the radio-format sense. Thank God that Titus Andronicus didn’t shy away from the pomp and circumstance that such an undertaking entailed. Winograd

75. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

Coloring Book announced that the precocious author of 2013’s Acid Rap had definitively grown up, delivering on the gospel masterpiece Kanye promised but didn’t quite deliver. The West-produced opening track “All We Got” connects Chance’s earlier coup with the triumphant tone pursued across this diversely arrayed mixtape, with the 23-year-old rapper sounding so happy to be rapping he nearly breaks into joyous laughter on his opening line. The rest of Coloring Book is just as irrepressible, packed with a sense of infectious fun modern hip-hop often lacks, while still managing to insert real gravity at opportune moments. Cataldo

74. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Wisconsin breeds crazy, but it also allows for glimmering brilliance. There are flashes of both in Bon Iver, the connoisseur’s choice vehicle for robotripping. Justin Vernon’s second album boldly sheds For Emma, Forever Ago’s sequestered, no-fi realness in favor of a thawing, immersive, yet still remote existence outside of the cabin—though admittedly naming all the songs for near and distant locales may have been a tad too on point. While clearly some fans would have preferred everyone’s perceptions remain gruffly unaltered, others found it within their Movember hearts to allow this acoustic Robert Bly a chance to tap into his secret Björkian loins. Henderson

73. Japandroids, Celebration Rock

To dismiss Japandroids as milking middle-aged white-guy nostalgia is to miss entirely the broad populism that drives Celebration Rock. Songs like “The House That Heaven Built” and “Adrenaline Nightshift” are all about looking at even seemingly inconsequential interactions as an opportunity for deep, personal connections, and then asking if there’s anything that could possibly be more enduring or important. The duo’s massive, perfectly constructed hooks, which build to rousing sing-along choruses, only reinforce the idea of shared experiences. Ultimately, Celebration Rock isn’t about empty nostalgia, but about being truly present in what’s happening now.  Keefe


72. The Knife, Shaking the Habitual

Dense, visual, and unapologetically aimless, its social conscious half-concealed below a mixed artifice of ubiquitous and macabre imagery, Shaking the Habitual is probably the album David Lynch had in mind when he made Crazy Clown Time. A combination like that could easily be clunky in the hands of a lesser band, but the Knife has always possessed an innate ability to make their creepy inclinations sound both pretty and interesting. Thus, when broken, nightmarish chimes and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s androgynous drone come slinking out of the fog four minutes into “A Cherry on Top,” it’s like a sonic Grand Guignol, as captivating as it is frightening. Liedel

71. Mitski, Be the Cowboy

Only three of the 14 tracks on Mitski’s Be the Cowboy exceed two-and-a-half minutes, but the Japanese-American singer-songwriter manages to pack so much into those scant running times that they play more like miniature suites. It’s this laser-like focus that makes the album so likeable and engaging in spite of its dark lyricism. Producer Patrick Hyland almost completely avoids adding any effects to Mitski’s voice beyond basic reverb, shining a spotlight on the singer that plays up her vulnerability. This is an effective strategy for the album’s close-to-the bone subject matter, which is often overtly sexual—but not necessarily sexy. Even as she continues to explore the dark parts of her soul lyrically, Mitski sounds more confident than ever. Winograd

70. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains

Purple Mountains is nothing short of a suicide note from erstwhile ‘90s indie-rock stalwart David Berman, who was found hanged in his apartment less than a month after the album’s release. This long-gestating batch of songs—the first new music from Berman since the breakup of the Silver Jews in 2009—is downright rollicking at times, like on the barrelhouse “That’s Just the Way That I Feel” and the bouncy “Storyline Fever.” Which almost makes the lyrics more chilling. Reading them on the page, Berman’s hopeless state of mind couldn’t be clearer: estrangement from his wife on “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” existential dread on “Margaritas at the Mall,” and any number of one-liners throughout that practically telegraph Berman’s impending suicide. It would make for a completely perverse listen if it weren’t for the sensitive, utilitarian production by Woods’s Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl, who populate the album with chummy acoustic guitars, simple, clinical guitar and synth lines that sound like grinning through tears, and Berman’s flat, laconic delivery, which blurs the line between sincerity and sarcasm. Talk about whistling past the graveyard. Winograd

69. Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles

Crystal Castles’s second album found the Toronto duo wisely softening their palette from harsh, experimental throwaway pieces to a decidedly gentler brand of electronic pop. Whereas their debut often smacked of a noisy, one-note, look-how-clever-we-are tantrum, their second self-titled album is subtly layered: reflective and dreamy but also tense and conflicted, full of crisp, Atari-inspired severity (“Birds,” “I Am Made of Chalk”), pristine, starry melodies (“Celestica,” “Suffocation”)—ultimately a restless balancing act between the grim and the sanguine. In the divide between the lo-fi and the polish, the artistic gulf between Ethan Kath and Alice Glass is beautifully represented—he as the architecturally minded shut-in and she as the unpredictable, aggressive noise-punk performer. The album is taut with a ferocious give-and-take energy, and it’s the very antithesis of a sophomore slump. Liedel


68. Miguel, Wildheart

Hopscotching from cooing love ballads and tormented identity anthems to salacious hook-up fantasies and grimy hate-sex confrontations, Wildheart seems for most of its length like a breakup album, a wide-spanning post-mortem on one relationship’s intense highs and lows. This impression persists until the clouds part on the closing track, “Face the Sun,” a declaration of renewed dedication that recontexualizes everything that’s come before it, confirming this grab-bag collection of emotionally turbulent material as a single defined statement on the shaky equilibrium of sustained commitment. All this on an album that simultaneously taps into the wistful mythos of California’s equivalently dramatic hills and valleys, where starry-eyed dreams and old ghosts commingle to form the evocative backdrop to this tumultuous tale of modern romance. Cataldo

67. Tune-Yards, whokill

Merrill Arbus is theatrically, radically, self-reflexively weird, but she’s also the rare example of an artist earning that distinction completely. She goes about justifying her style in the same way she justifies her rampant borrowing from African polyrhythms, vocal approaches, and percussion, an activity many artists have engaged in recently with far less originality or success. In both respects, there’s the sense that a uniquely creative mind is behind all this, turning what could be dissonant, irritatingly obtuse music into something fascinatingly daffy instead. Cataldo

66. Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love

Sheer Mag’s Need to Feel Your Love is a stiff punch in the mouth that chews up anachronistic forms from the 1970s—disco, soft rock, arena rock—and spits them back out as something urgent and dangerous. Opener “Meet Me in the Street” is the most ferocious, teeth-rattling rock protest song in recent memory, powered by Kyle Seely’s furious fuzzed-out riffing and Tina Halladay’s piercing, throat-shredding vocals. Revolutionary fervor abounds: On one of the album’s most memorable cuts, Halladay warns “rich men in their white skin” to “expect the bayonet.” But even when she’s just singing about fucking (the deeply soulful title track and the the disco burner “Pure Desire”) or plugging in and rocking out (the righteously pissed “Turn It Up”), Sheer Mag attacks their material like a raging inferno. Winograd

65. Sleigh Bells, Treats

Already dubbed by many as the Loudest Record of All Time, Treats isn’t so much about volume as it is about conveying the raw energy of barely contained sound. Playing as though it were recorded entirely from within the guts of a dilapidated amp, the album is a constant tug of war between Alexis Krauss’s sweetly sung vocals and Derek Miller’s thrashing grain distortion. It’s as if the homecoming queen and the headbanger you knew from high school formed a band and decided to violently mash their discrepant tastes together. Thus, we get gems like “Tell ’Em,” which somehow finds room for an unapologetic hair-metal guitar line, pounding wet-snap percussion, and a kick-ass cheerleader chant all in one three-minute track. And yet, as something like the chilled “Run the Heart” proves, Sleigh Bells has also mastered the ability to dial back the sonic shredder in favor of subtler dynamics, thus lending Treats more than just the benefit of eardrum-punching power. Liedel


64. Jay-Z, 4:44

Jay-Z’s 4:44 anticipated 2017’s most important trend: how the court of public opinion would overturn the cultural regression of the 2016 election by finally waking up to the realties of bigotry, misogyny, intolerance, and hate. But that’s only half the story, because 4:44 is also a response to fellow White House exile Beyoncé, whose 2016 album, Lemonade, publicly pilloried Jay for infidelity. The twinned purposes of a political and a personal manifesto lead to an outpouring of knowledge, whether it be the suggestion that the best way for successful black people to escape the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism is by investing in the future of their culture, and their family, or the dedications to the women in Jay’s life, including his closeted mother, the wife he knows he wronged, and the daughter he’ll one day have to explain his actions to. The album ends with “Legacy,” delivering a universal message: The desire to see beyond the present troubles and plan for what comes next. Mac

63. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree

Over a nearly 40-year career, Nick Cave has crooned dew-eyed love poems, bellowed profane murder ballads, and preached about God, but he’d never been forced to reckon with personal tragedy through his music until his 15-year-old son, Arthur, fell from a cliff and died in Brighton last year. It follows, then, that the album resulting from this tragedy stands alone in Cave’s vast and impressive catalogue as his most experimental, spellbinding, and emotionally devastating work to date. Cave doesn’t explicitly address Arthur’s death, largely couching the event in lyrical abstraction and some of his usual menace on tracks like the swirling drone “Jesus Alone.” But his grief comes pouring out on a trio of album-closing ballads, most notably the towering “I Need You,” on which the singer displays a level of emotional vulnerability that’s as borderline uncomfortable as it is profoundly moving. Winograd

62. The Black Keys, Brothers

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Brothers, let it be that the blues sounds better plugged in. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney tackle all of the genre’s conventional staples with fervor and angst, putting a rugged contemporary spin on classic blues and soul. Take the way Auerbach rages about romances gone awry in “Next Girl,” his syncopated delivery only amplifying the passion with which he delivers his prose. And on “Everlasting Light,” his newfound falsetto acts as a sublime contrast to the march of ever-swelling distorted guitar. This is the most cohesive the Black Keys has ever sounded as a unit, the duo greatly benefitting from the DIY production approach, and yet Brothers feels like their loosest jam to date. Huw Jones

61. Jessie Ware, Tough Love

Jessie Ware’s sophomore effort, Tough Love, doesn’t contain the obvious singles and peaks of her debut, but it doesn’t need them. The entire album rides a sinuous groove, from the breezy “Keep on Lying” and the hesitant, softly bubbling “Kind of…Sometimes…Maybe” to the more insistent “Sweetest Song” and the Prince-esque title track. And while Prince’s influence can certainly be felt here, it’s much less pronounced than on Devotion; a more accurate touchstone would be Sade. “Timeless” is a term often affixed to Ware’s music, and it’s an apt one: Tough Love could have been released at any point in the last 30 years and still sound positively fresh, its modern, muted atmospherics and vintage R&B touches swirling around Ware’s supple, emotive voice. Cinquemani


60. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Sturgill Simpson described A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as “a love letter to my boy and wife,” but the album isn’t hung up on sentiment. “Do as I say/Don’t do as I’ve done,” he sings to his newborn on “Keep It Between the Lines,” telling him to stay in school and off drugs—a bit of life advice by way of autobiography. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth also features a Nashville-coffeehouse take on Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” the rollicking antiwar stomp of “Call to Arms,” and a Stax workout on “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” making it gleefully zigzagging and unapologetically soulful. Another massive step in Simpson’s musical evolution, the album further positions the world-weary songwriter as the outlaw’s outlaw, whose strangest move yet is starting a family. Jonathan Wroble

59. Björk, Utopia

Following her emotionally devastating 2015 breakup album, Vulnicura, Björk returns to bliss with the majestic Utopia. Stretching past the 70-minute mark, this sprawling album offers a sensory experience adorned with flutes and harps and propelled into sublime rapture by the Icelandic singer-songwriter’s intimate, otherworldly vocal in songs that appear alien at first blush but upon repeated listens convey profound truths that seem plucked from a collective field of consciousness. “Blissing Me” finds Björk reveling in the thrill of infatuation, describing a new lover as someone whom she kisses with her “whole mouth,” even as she maintains enough self-awareness to wonder, “Did I just fall in love with love?” And yet, in her euphoria, she doesn’t completely abandon the darker side of romance. The painful breakup—from husband Matthew Barney—that informed Vulnicura, manifests again on “Sue Me,” where she insists that no amount of legal wrangling and melodramatic discord should come before their daughter, a sentiment echoed on “Tabula Rasa,” in which she demands children break free from the “fuckups of the fathers,” a prescient notion for an era that’s at last reckoning with toxic masculinity. Goller

58. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy

Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy, is drenched in autobiographical detail, repeatedly drawing a line from her humble beginnings to her current role as an in-demand rapper. But the album makes a seemingly recognizable arc feel fresh, in part because of her uniquely female perspective and experience. Hip-hop’s rags-to-riches stories resonate because they allow listeners to imagine themselves as scrappers, fighters, and winners. Cardi knows this, and for as much as this album is about her own celebrity, it also seeks to empower her audience, especially women. “‘Fore I fixed my teeth, man, those comments used to kill me/But never did I change, never been ashamed,” she raps. In a single line, she expresses a particularly feminine vulnerability, acknowledges her own insecurities, and doubles down on her uncompromising tenacity. Cardi climbed her way up from the bottom, and Invasion of Privacy is a soundtrack for anyone who dreams of doing the same. Josh Hurst

57. Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe

Blood Orange’s sophomore effort proudly wears its affection for that mercurial era between the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when pop, hip-hop, house, and R&B started to coexist at the top of the charts. The album plays like chilled-out odes to Prince as delivered by a forlorn and androgynous lothario holed up in his city loft, its isolation appearing to be mostly self-imposed. The anxious, nasal-voiced Hynes presents himself as an outsider protesting against the privileged cool kids, sealing himself away in some private domain to craft an angst-ridden, funk-kissed rebuke to both ex-girlfriends and bullies. Following through from the bitter pill that was Coastal Grooves’s “Dinner,” “You’re Not Good Enough” is the diary of a chafed lover, employing the sort of milky organs and liquefied basslines reminiscent of Private Eyes-era Hall & Oates. Indeed, every chillwave groove on Cupid Deluxe comes tinged with a kind of despondent venom, and the cruelest invectives are cushioned by sweet, gentle melodies. Liedel


56. Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan

Without sacrificing too much in musical intricacy, David Longstreth offers ever-more-inviting albums with each passing year. Take 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, a more straight-ahead effort than 2009’s Bitte Orca. Longstreth’s much-touted, medievally derived vocal arrangements remain alluring, but they’re less likely to spin your head this time around, even on good speakers: Simpler arrangements win the day, and Swing Lo Magellan is Dirty Projectors’ most tuneful disc to date. The canticle-turned-rocker (“Offspring Are Blank”), the piano-led meditation (“Impregnable Question”), and the horn orgasm (“Unto Caesar”) are all winners, but the lead single bears more than cursory attention: “Gun Has No Trigger” finds Longstreth sounding less like a choirboy and more like Thom Yorke. In other words, “the bowl of tears” finally sounds as though it belongs to him. Sure, the band’s lyrics still include verbs like “redact.” But what with all the acoustic leg-stretching and sing-along arrangements, Longstreth’s suddenly coming off as a musician rather than a magician. It’s a neat trick. Ted Scheinman

55. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

No one else makes music like Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, a pseudo-cult leader who combines a singer-songwriter’s earnest aesthetic with Prince’s flamboyance and a talent for satire as dry as dirt. I Love You, Honeybear—truly catchy, truly hilarious—finds Tillman playing equal part folk hero and sarcastic balladeer. As he spins acoustic tall tales decrying both the impossibility of love and the impossibility of living without it, it’s unclear whether even Tillman knows where his character ends and he begins, creating a living monument to the 21st-century musical celebrity, a bizarre amalgamation of talent, confession, and obfuscation. How fitting that he rose to national attention performing his ennui ballad “Bored in the U.S.A.” on Letterman, featuring a player piano, a laugh track, and jokes about subprime loans. Like that famous performance, I Love You, Honeybear is at once tragic, heartfelt, cathartic, and tremendously funny, proving the old adage: There’s little difference between laughter and tears. Jesse Nee-Vogelman

54. Drake, Take Care

Drake finally grew up with Take Care, shedding most of the crippling doubt that made him such a fascinating but inconsequential figure in the past. The album strikes a perfect mix of confidence and sensitivity, tempering its big, arrogant tracks with equally unsure expressions of neurotic anxiety. He still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with his newfound fame, but on this immaculately produced effort, surrounded by top-tier guests, he at times sounds almost pleased with himself, even as he continues to struggle with lingering specters and insecurity and guilt. Cataldo

53. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

The War on Drugs has a clear root in what might be the most mainline brand of American rock. It’s a strain of sleek, swaggering blues refined by the Stones and Springsteen and hordes of less talented adherents, all drawn to the romance of the road and its attendant sorrows, crafting tales of roughly handled dreams whose charging 4/4 thrust is undercut by an essential sense of melancholy. It’s a mode that’s by now largely ceded to parody and creative decay, but an album like Lost in the Dream again shows that influence doesn’t have to be oppressive. It’s energizing to hear the Philadelphia band drain any lingering bravado out of this mythos, locating some essential element of exhaustion and stripping things down to the basic, inherent sadness of the form, on long songs that stretch out helplessly toward some uncertain conclusion. Cataldo


52. The Internet, Hive Mind

At first listen, the jazz-inflected bedroom R&B of the Internet’s fourth album, Hive Mind, isn’t far removed from that of the Los Angeles band’s prior work. Producer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Martians still specializes in sun-kissed, slightly offbeat neo-neo-soul, laying down lush blankets of sound for singer Sydney Bennett, a.k.a. Syd, to luxuriate in. But the subtle differences this time around are worth noting: Seven years after their debut as an offshoot of alt-hip-hop collective Odd Future, the Internet now sounds more than ever like a musical unit unto themselves. The songs themselves are crucially the work of all five members, not just a vehicle for a charismatic singer. The result is the Internet’s most musically diverse and synergetic album to date. Zachary Hoskins

51. Disclosure, Settle

From the disco fantasy of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories to the roller-rink soundtrack that was Classixx’s Hanging Gardens, 2013 was a good year for the dance album. No entry, however, was as unadulterated or unapologetic as Disclosure’s Settle. Brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence feel no compulsion to water down their house tastes, leading to funky, muscular cuts like “Latch,” where percussion opens and snaps shut like a syncopated bear trap, and “January,” a liquefied, Italo house-inspired jam whose rapid-repeat bassline is pure sex. The album’s title, then, is not so much a recommendation for calm, but the Lawrence siblings assuring listeners, “Relax, we got this.” Liedel

50. Frank Ocean, Blonde

Frank Ocean’s Blonde is less a cohesive album than a collection of beautiful, half-polished ideas. Its impressionistic songwriting often does more to confuse Ocean’s identity than reveal it: The thumping “Nikes” and the jangly, upbeat “Nights” feature layered vocal effects and evasive lyrics, while “White Ferrari” renders a Beatles melody nearly unrecognizable in a fog of voice loops, ambient synths, and improvised guitar. Acoustically warm yet thematically oblique, Blonde is a fascinating, challenging assessment of one of music’s most temperamental creators, and in the way of true art, it draws more attention to his process than his persona. Wroble

49. Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20

The Ghosts of Highway 20 is a loose concept album stylistically and thematically broad enough to serve as a suitable summary of the entire musical and cultural heritage of the part of the country surrounding the Southern-spanning interstate after which it’s named. At nearly 90 minutes long, covering genres ranging from jazz to gospel and topics from romantic contentment to death’s icy grip, it’s certainly sprawling enough for that. But two cohering factors—Lucinda Williams’s ever-craggly sandpaper voice and especially Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz’s brilliant guitar work—keep the album’s scope from getting out of hand. Other than some fleeting pyrotechnics near the end of the sweeping, freewheeling opener “Dust,” Frisell and Leisz don’t hog the spotlight, and they eschew the same old twangy Americana licks that these songs would seem to call for. Instead, they add silky, lonesome-sounding atmospherics around the edges, allowing Williams’s deliberate, lived-in story songs to breathe with splendor. Winograd


48. Thom Yorke, Anima

Both of Yorke’s previous solo efforts, 2006’s The Eraser and 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, lacked the musical and lyrical cohesion, not to mention the sonic punch, that has driven Radiohead’s best work. Like those albums, Anima largely eschews guitar altogether; only album closer “Runwayaway” features a discernible guitar sound, and even that’s heavily processed. But Anima still achieves a sonic and thematic through line. The album’s juxtaposition of lyrical techno-dread with austere, ghostly electronic music is satisfyingly unsettling. The lyrics are evocative in their economy, and rather than feel like guide tracks, the arrangements feel more fully realized than on Yorke’s past albums. Seth Wilson

47. LCD Soundsytem, This Is Happening

Music tailor-made for my Eno-loving heart. Not unlike the woefully undervalued Another Day on Earth, This Is Happening is a frantic elegy to a man’s crippling ennui. This is not as emotionally uplifting a record as Sound of Silver, but it doesn’t want to be. It is, though, unquestionably affecting, eerily, bombastically, and resonating with loss, self-doubt, and regret. James Murphy is more of an analogue man than the boys of Hot Chip, but like them, he insists on linking upbeat sounds with downbeat emotions, knotting his aspirations and fears to create a sound that disconcertingly and beautifully hurts. Ed Gonzalez

46. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

The effortless serenity with which Kacey Musgraves presents her fourth album, Golden Hour, mirrors the country artist’s current romantic contentment. The singer-songwriter offers outright love songs to her new husband in the album’s title track and “Slow Burn,” on which she rejoices in settling down into a quieter, more peaceful life. While the album primarily relies on gentle acoustic guitar and Musgraves’s tender vocal, “Oh What a World” unexpectedly pairs Vocoder with pedal steel and Musgraves deviates from country-tinged folk entirely on “High Horse,” which is infused with a breezy disco pulse. What the album lacks in edginess it makes up for with a dizzying sense of sweetness that’s never cloying. Musgraves wields her voice subtly and precisely, never belting it out like so many of her country contemporaries. A refreshing embrace of simplicity and mindfulness in response to a world that keeps moving faster, Golden Hour hinges on the imperative of allowing ourselves the space to feel happiness. Goller

45. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…

The Idler Wheel… is by far Fiona Apple’s most dense and ambitious album. The idiosyncrasies of her songwriting only heighten the impression that she’s just winging it when she walks into the studio. “Left Alone” captures both her tendency to prioritize wordplay over coherence (she rhymes “orotund mutt” with “moribund slut”) and her ability to write a gut-check of a line like “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone?” The arrangements convey a sense of spontaneity and fearlessness; it’s a busy album from a production standpoint, but it’s to Apple and co-producer Charley Drayton’s credit that it doesn’t sound overworked. The album’s tone is one of urgency, of needing more than anything to make these exact statements at this exact moment. To that end, The Idler Wheel… captures what’s made Apple one of the defining artists of her generation: a persona that’s reflected changing views of private versus public spheres. The results have often been misunderstood, but Apple has continued to present herself as someone who refuses to resort to niceties of tact or self-censorship when she engages with her audience. Keefe


44. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

As the group learned on Neon Bible, it’s difficult to strike a balance between sweeping musicianship and pretentiousness. Just as Arcade Fire began to settle into their rock-star pomp, the knives were out and all of a sudden the seven-strong Montreal outfit had an overblown and grandiose sound. The Suburbs doesn’t necessarily fly the flag for a back-to-basics approach though: Not only is there nothing basic about what is served up here, but their regression from Neon Bible’s pageantry takes them to a decidedly different sound than Funeral. Losing yourself in these labyrinthine arrangements is a joy, as are repeated visits to the utterly tremendous refrains from “Rococo” and the title track. The Suburbs seems to have everything, sashaying through innumerable sounds with the majesty of musicians at the very peak of their powers. Jones

43. St. Vincent, Strange Mercy

Strange Mercy thrives on the interaction between the said and the unsaid, with Annie Clark using her guitar to evoke the shuddersome feelings she can’t bring herself to vocalize. That means it has to make some pretty awful sounds, so Clark channels some of noise rock’s great guitarists (principally Steve Albini and Lee Ranaldo) to give voice to the voracious id lurking behind her coyly measured singing. Cole

42. FKA twigs, Magdalene

A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigs’s shimmering sophomore effort, Magdalene. Coming off the back of a major public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and a period of ill-health which left her creatively and physically depleted, twigs made it her mission—both in the writing of this follow-up to 2014’s LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tour—to embrace her pain. There’s little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes there’s an ideal way to be; all she can do is learn how to accept her own contradictions as a necessary part of growth. The album is a knotty meditation on the process of separating self-perception from public perception, and of twigs’s reclamation of her body and work as hers and hers alone. Richmond

41. Kanye West, Yeezus

As raw and straightforward as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was sparkling and expansive, Yeezus was another self-deifying shrine to an artist so much more sensitive than his stature should allow, turning everything he releases into a messy blend of the personal and the political. Never has this been clearer than on stellar songs like “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves,” which conflate personal and historical traumas into one chaotic mixture, communicating both the insidious, lingering effects of a racist culture and the unmistakable imprint of an artist who refuses to be quieted by his own insecurities. Cataldo


40. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

With Black Up, Shabazz Palaces managed to give rap both one of its most experimental albums and its most compulsively listenable, and in doing so they vindicated the massive preparatory work done by pioneers like De La Soul, Anti-Pop Consortium, cLOUDEAD, and the Anticon crew. The rhymes are loose, funky, and cerebral, but the production is what makes Black Up such a masterpiece. The backing track on “King’s new clothes were made by his own hands” is a swelling, orchestral mass of loops that sounds like its being shaken as it plays—and it’s breathtakingly poignant. The subliminally appealing sonics work, like the album’s oblique political slogans, to nurture a consciousness that is both personal and shared. Cole

39. David Bowie, Blackstar

David Bowie’s final album may also be his strangest, a concise collection of outré mood pieces doubling as improvisatory free-jazz vamps. In keeping with his celebrated practice of blending self-commentary, cerebral philosophizing, and ribald showmanship, Blackstar coalesces as a commentary on the artist’s impending death while also covering a wide variety of other topics, an approach that leaves Bowie’s final creative form feeling both immediately present and completely detached, gone but still speaking back to us from the other side. From an opening track that extends the exoticized mysticism of Lodger to a closing one that samples one of Low’s more upbeat transitional tracks, Blackstar maintains a morbid focus, yet never feels remotely gloomy or grave. An essential sense of hope is ingrained in the album’s tone, which manages to sound both apocalyptic and optimistic, a final vanishing act which allows music’s most famous extraterrestrial to disappear with his dignity, mystery, and panache all intact. Cataldo

38. Vince Staples, Summertime ‘06

Vince Staples incited the wrath of the hip-hop police with a tweet that dismissed the influence of the classic rap canon on his music (“In 1999 I was 7 years old and toy story 2 had just dropped you niggas really think I was worried about hip hop?”), but on his monstrous, unrelentingly dark double album, Summertime ’06, is worthy of that very canon. Sure, its production eschews samples and scratching for Latin rhythms (“Senorita”), gloomy house beats (“Surf”), and twisted Yeezus-indebted electronic pulses (“Hang N’ Bang”), but lyrically it’s a no-frills dive into the psyche of the young black male, conflicted about romance and rapping to white audiences who wouldn’t dare step foot in his neighborhood. Like the rap legends he says haven’t influenced him, Staples burns down the past and creates a sound that’s more dangerous than they ever imagined—a hip-hop story as old as the genre itself. Rainis

37. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

Drawing in a host of featured guests, these 16 sleek tracks serve as far more than a nostalgia act, a tribute to the late Phife Dawg, or a last hurrah for collagist hip-hop artists whose genre-bending union of disparate styles set them apart from their 1990s contemporaries and pioneered positively themed alternative rap. With its surviving members now well into their 40s, the group doesn’t chide the shifting tides of culture, even admitting on “Kids” that today’s youth do the same stupid stuff kids have always done. Yet social commentary rises up throughout We Got It from Here… Thank You for Your Service, most obviously through the circa 2016 bigotry-in-a-nutshell of “We the People…” and “The Space Program.” But A Tribe Called Quest doesn’t use this platform as a protest so much as to artfully shine a light on society’s ills through the kind of impeccable production and seamlessly crafted verse we’ll never hear from them again. Goller


36. HAIM, Something to Tell You

It may seem like a low bar to clear, but when was the last time a pop-rock album managed to keep the tempos upbeat, the percussion driving, and the melodies memorable for over 30 minutes? Haim’s second album, Something to Tell You, manages the feat. Move its pristine opening sequence to the late 1970s or early 1980s and watch it compete convincingly with the Pretenders’s go-for-broke debut, or 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, or even Blondie’s Parallel Lines. But HAIM’s album came out in 2017, a time in which pop albums aren’t especially known for brevity, so the group tack on an extra few tracks, including a soberingly self-satisfied lead single, and a cavernous hymnal of a coda—both lovely but decidedly slower. Thankfully, the level of craft never wavers: With an amount of help that shouldn’t be too overstated from producer Ariel Rechtshaid, the Haim sisters have come up with a well-tooled sound, one that’s immaculate and immediate, chockfull of vintage keyboard patches, slap bass, and Linn drum—and that uses all of its affects in service of the songs. Mac

35. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens has had one of the most eclectic and ambitious, almost manic, careers in contemporary independent music. He’s written everything from a ballet score to a long-form symphony for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. All of which made 2015’s Carrie & Lowell something of a departure. He’s never produced an album this nakedly autobiographical, so stripped of complex conceptual trappings. If The Age of Adz harnessed Stevens’s limpid melodies to crashing electronica, Carrie & Lowell finds that electronic experimentation sublimated, emerging primarily in the album’s timing, which, like a click track, is more precise and mechanical than anything on Stevens’s purely folk efforts. Caldwell

34. SZA, Ctrl

Few recent debuts have been as consistent as that of SZA, who accomplishes the even rarer feat of constructing an assured album around themes of anxiety and self-doubt. Sleek and sly in its production, cool and certain in its lyrical articulation of nagging insecurity, Ctrl manages to bundle dull, quotidian concerns into a shiny pop package. SZA refuses to replicate familiar subject matter or deal in well-worn clichés, instead offering confessional personal narratives that also sound universal. These compress sprawling, diaristic accounts of struggle and confusion into models of songwriting concision, collectively detailing a sustained battle against perception and expectations. Most of these come courtesy of the singer herself, as tracks like “Clocks” and “20 Something” describe in fine detail the self-applied apprehension of time gradually bearing down on you. In a year when so many pop albums are produced by committee, via boilerplate templates paying lip service to hot-button issues, the frank airing of emotional concerns carried off on Ctrl feels entirely refreshing. Cataldo

33. Bat for Lashes, The Haunted Man

The Haunted Man is the least immediate of Natasha Khan’s art-pop albums. In particular, “Horses of the Sun” and “Oh Yeah,” one of only a few tracks not adorned by an orchestral arrangement, aren’t as initially inviting as the lush synth-pop offerings on 2009’s Two Suns. But your attention is greatly rewarded, as exquisite details like the softly chugging aquatic pulse that underpins album closer “Deep Sea Diver,” reveal themselves. Though the album lacks an obvious crossover hit like “Daniel,” a would-be smash single in a much cooler universe than ours, the muted, Brazilian-inflected guitar on lead single “All Your Gold” is reminiscent of the Luis Bonfá sample from Gotye’s ubiquitous “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Stardom, however, might be out of reach for Khan, as she seems to get a little bit closer to Earth with each new album.  Cinquemani


32. Spoon, They Want My Soul

If Spoon’s previous albums cast them as experimentalists rooted firmly in the rock milieu, They Want My Soul is where they twist their classicist and post-punk influences into something stranger and headier. Britt Daniel strikes his “sensitive tough guy” poses, alternately trying to incite street brawls (“Let’s go get out in the street/Somebody’s gotta”) or falling desperately in love (“And if you say ’run,’ I may run with you/I’ve got nothing else, I’ve got nowhere else”) over Spoon’s expanded textural vocabulary. Every noise is lovingly curated, whether it’s the screeching string figures that lend tension to “Knock, Knock, Knock” or the uncharacteristically wooly keyboards of “Inside Out” and “Outliers.” They Want My Soul is as complete a statement as Spoon has made, a testament to Britt Daniel’s ability to compose Beatles-esque melodies while his band casts them in thrillingly unfamiliar soundscapes. Rainis

31. Lorde, Pure Heroine

Few things are more dire than the lyrical scribbling of 16-year-olds, as my own buried marble notebooks can surely attest. But New Zealand teen Lorde manages to be both precocious and perceptively relevant on her debut album, a portrait of desiccated youth. Full of strikingly concise, surprisingly mature pop songs, Pure Heroine conveys the exhaustion of growing up in a hall of mirrors, the usual difficulties of identity formation further confused by the hollow expectations of a fame-obsessed, copycat culture. There’s nothing inherently groundbreaking here, the sort of rebellion that’s been into practice put by teen-pop artists for decades, but rarely have those proclamations been issued with such impressive articulation and grace. Cataldo

30. Robyn, Honey

Part of Robyn’s cult appeal resides in her ability to package candid, relatable, and often fragile emotions in beats that are the equivalent of Styrofoam peanuts; you might be dancing on your own, but the rush of epinephrine is both the reward and the remedy. In the past, she juxtaposed love songs like “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Be Mine!” with feminist-warrior anthems like “Fembot” and “Handle Me.” But the fembot persona has been scaled back on Honey, as Robyn more fully embraces the flesh-and-blood woman behind it. Or at least a facsimile of one: The way she sings “I’m a human being and so are you” on the tech-pop “Human Being” makes her sound like a cyborg marveling at its newfound consciousness. At nine lean but often seemingly formless tracks, Honey feels raw and incomplete, like a work in progress—and maybe that’s the point. For Robyn, making music is an ongoing exercise in expression, and when heartbreak threatened to silence her, she apparently let the songs do the talking. And the healing. Cinquemani

29. Solange, A Seat at the Table

Finally moving out from the fringes to offer an audacious personal statement of her own, Solange Knowles’s third album is an explicit breakthrough, both a stately, pride-inflected response to her sister’s bombastic almost-breakup opus and a momentous standalone achievement. Sparkling, magisterial soul with a mission statement, the album assembles an argument that’s firm but never didactic. A Seat at the table stands as a reminder that black lives don’t just matter, they excel, inspire, and endure, in all their complex glory. A celebration of culture and history that functions as its own personal story quilt, the album patches together a wide range of different voices representing black experiences and perspectives through the lens of a singularly assured artist. Cataldo


28. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen

Released four years after the accidental death of the singer’s 15-year-old son Arthur, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen explores with immeasurable generosity the line that separates magical thinking and faith, and the contradiction between the individual pain of grief and the universality of death. Sonically, the album isn’t unlike its predecessors, Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, each propelled by Warren Ellis’s unearthly, pulsing synthesizers rather than a traditional rhythm section. Although most of Skeleton Tree was written before Arthur’s death, it’s often interpreted as being marked by a ghostly presence thanks to those weightless, searching synths. And while they’re still very much present here, Ellis and Cave create an ambient field where all of the ambiguities of grief and hope can exist at once. Richmond

27. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe asserts that sex can save the world on Dirty Computer, and throughout the album’s 14 lusty, hyper-intelligent tracks, she makes a compelling case. “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down,” she sings on “Screwed,” a track ripe with sexual innuendo and a blunt summation of global affairs. Sex is power, Monáe argues, and the expression of sexuality is freedom. Prince obviously serves as an influence (he also reportedly worked with Monáe on the album before his death), and she taps guests like Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Grimes, who adds her synth-pop dynamism and high-pitched vocal to “PYNK,” Monáe’s sublime ode to the vagina. Monáe publicly began identifying as pansexual in conjunction with this album, but Dirty Computer is less about her personal identity than it is a call to arms against puritanical oppressors who would lay siege to the bedroom, and a sensuous rallying cry for universal sexual empowerment. Goller

26. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah

Reportedly recorded on around 200 reams of analog tape, with his team still doing the math on what kind of budget that works out to, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah is ever-worked, ever-tweaked, and perfected (in its distinctively imperfect way), but soul-bearing and raw like little else. The album’s full strength can be felt on “1000 Deaths,” a distortion-heavy slab of locomotive rock that finds Questlove banging out the “Pharaoh’s Dance” beat over crude guitar shapes so insistent they will themselves into hooks. The album is a cry to be remembered, to be again present and accounted for, a sentiment that extends not only to D’Angelo, reasserting himself and his career after a long leave of absence, but to the men and women marching through streets around the country with “Black Lives Matter” signs. Among all its many interpretations and meanings, social injustice—or more broadly, the state of the black community—is key, both as the catalyst of Black Messiah’s impromptu release in 2014 and the principle concern of an album not just in its lyricism, but in its musical sprawl. Mac

25. Charli XCX, True Romance

Charli XCX’s biggest hit, Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” co-written by and featuring the U.K. singer, wasn’t included on her debut, True Romance. Which might explain in part why the album, despite being backed by a major label, barely made a blip on the mainstream radar. But the album is chock-full of potential pop smashes, the crunchy, lo-fi electro-pop of early singles “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons” complemented by the more radio-ready, just-left-of-center bubblegum pop of tracks like “Take My Hand” and the Gold Panda-sampling “You (Ha Ha Ha).” The result is a postmodern pastiche of ‘80s-inspired synth melodies and standard Top 40 lyrical tropes juxtaposed with pitch-shifted vocals and growling, subterranean basslines from the end of the world. Cinquemani


24. Beach House, Teen Dream

Those are stripes on the cover of Beach House’s Teen Dream (it helps to know that one of the tracks is called “Zebra”), but they could pass for leaves, an X-ray of the brain, or the surface of a conch shell. The music itself is similarly confounding: gorgeous dream pop at once sunny and shadowy. These are moody love songs, full of florid allusions and lovelorn sentiments—a bittersweet drone of a record that derives its beauty from the intricately bound relationship between Nico-like Victoria Legrand husky vocals and Alex Scalley’s equally fraught musical textures. It’s like hanging out inside a beachside gospel tent, a ray of light illuminating our hope through gray, thundering cumulonimbus clouds. Gonzalez

23. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes

Right from the get-go, Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes gets some. “Youth Knows No Pain.” Youth delivers it. Slinging her rigid vocal cords like a truncheon, the Swedish songstress sure knows how to bring a party down, purring and pleading in “Sadness Is a Blessing” (which sounds every bit like Phil Spector song bouncing off a curved funhouse mirror), adding twang to her pangs in “Unrequited Love,” retreating into a sad clown-infested trash compacter in the stark, album-capping “Silent My Song.” If Betty reached her emotional apocalypse listening to Rebekah Del Rio, you can be sure the spirit of Diane Selwyn is now perpetually being torn asunder to the strains of “I Know Places.” Henderson

22. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion

Carly Rae Jepsen’s sophomore effort, Emotion, has rightfully been compared to Taylor Swift’s 1989. Both draw on the music of the years their creators were born to craft near-perfect pop albums that somehow manage to sound contemporary. There are few key differences, however, that distinguish Emotion from Swift’s similarly retro blockbuster. For one, songs like the sax-fueled “Run Away with Me” and the sublime R&B slow jam “All That” (a collab with Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid that sounds like it was recorded in 1985) revel in the glory of the ‘80s in ways 1989 only hints at. Jepsen’s album is more evolution than reinvention: While Swift’s country roots were effectively scrubbed from her latest album, songs like “Boy Problems” and “I Really Like You” will sate Jepsen’s fans who have a hankering for a sugar rush a la “Call Me Maybe.” And with its breathy verses, deep-house groove, and pitched down vocals, the standout “Warm Blood” also affords Emotion something conspicuously absent from 1989: sex appeal. Cinquemani

21. Beyoncé, Lemonade

Accompanied by an intricate full-length film, Beyoncé’s Lemonade was most revelatory as an open-faced discourse on her husband’s infidelity and her own insecurity. Otherwise stylistically meandering, cycling from modernized R&B (“Hold Up,” “Sorry”) to country (“Daddy Issues”) to soulful rock (“Freedom”), the album holds up as a body of work thanks to its consistent exploration of Beyoncé’s emotional devastation, and the pairing of her trademark showiness with a captivating intimate drama. Yet perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Knowles/Carter dynasty appears healthy as ever 10 months later, and so the complex legacy of Lemonade is at once personal, commercially viable, and theatrical—a perfectly conceived and dynamic show originally disguised as a tell. Wroble


20. Lady Gaga, Born This Way

To call Born This Way one of the decade’s best albums will come as heresy only to the pop-, queer-, and woman-averse who Lady Gaga assails throughout this magnum opus with the force of a Gatling gun. A self-consciously, some might say Warholian, act of re-appropriation, Born This Way rises cannily and hilariously phoenix-like from its primordial soup of influences, which includes chunks of Cher, Madonna, David Bowie, Queen, Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones, even Dead or Alive. With its relentlessly throbbing beats and plethora of fierce breakdowns, this resuscitated vintage would be perfectly content as the soundtrack to fashion weeks and underground sex dungeons the world over, though really it’s intended as a sincere ode to the bedazzled hearts of outsiders past and present, real and imagined. Gonzalez

19. FKA twigs, LP1

FKA twigs (a.k.a. Tahliah Barnett) makes R&B, I guess, but it’s as menacing, incantatory, and experimental as anything Björk has done. Danceable grooves are arrested, deconstructed, and released again in arrhythmic chaos, surrounded by car alarms, digital sonic sludge, and frosted synths. twigs’s lyrics are equally surreal: On “Two Weeks,” she threatens to “pull out the incisor” and promises that in “two weeks you won’t recognize her.” Her first brush with fame was as a dancer for Ed Sheeran and Jessie J, and the industrial anonymity of the position persists in her own music, especially in “Video Girl,” which repeats the question, “Is she the girls from the video?” and answers, “I can’t recognize me.” For the rest of us, she’s unmistakable. Caldwell

18. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die

However much hate she may have accrued for her sleepy, sarcastic take on pop stardom, Lana Del Rey emerged as one of the decade’s true success stories, pushing past the flash-in-the-pan accusations into a uniquely absorbing post-modern figure, succeeding not in spite of the remarkably exposed, freely exploitative bent of her music, but because of it. Born to Die stands out as a startlingly composed premiere effort, a daring, dead-eyed statement from a chanteuse who wears her character on her sleeve, making herself immune to the flung arrows of detractors by exaggerating the sexuality, vapidity, and artificial gangsterism to cartoonish levels, an album of lush orchestral pop capped by Del Rey’s inimitably somnolent delivery.  Cataldo

17. Lorde, Melodrama

Lorde’s 2013 debut, Pure Heroine, was a snapshot of disaffected youth punctuated by sardonic black humor beyond the New Zealand singer’s years. Functioning in a similar fashion as Adele’s numerically titled efforts, Melodrama captures Lorde on the cusp of adulthood, at a remove from the overnight stardom prompted by her first album. Fame has the potential to keep creative minds hermetically sealed away from their former lives, their worldview myopic and out of touch with the rest of society, but the opposite seems to be true here. Whether it’s due to the consequences of that notoriety or simply the result of the inevitable maturation afforded by the nearly four years in between albums, the inner life Lorde reveals on Melodrama is richer and, in many way, more accessible than the one presented on Pure Heroine. With its tales of drunken meet-cutes and messy mornings after, Melodrama is an unexpected house-party record—thematically, if not sonically. But whether it’s a party record disguised as a breakup album or a breakup album disguised as a party record, it’s cathartic, dramatic, and everything else you could want an album titled Melodrama to be. Cinquemani


16. Chromatics, Kill for Love

A too-long, wispy ramble of an album, or a brilliant statement on reclamation and decay, exhaustion and inspiration? Either way, Kill for Love contains an embarrassment of riches, full of songs that push beyond the typical ‘80s fetishism, spinning those tropes into odd, repetitive exercises in genre-tweaking. Opening with a remarkably disassembled version of Neil Young’s “Into the Black,” the group uses this virtuoso reimagining as the template for a series of daring digressions, from the hypnotic echo effect of “Lady” to the washed-out soundscapes of “A Matter of Time,” using Ruth Radelet’s lonely voice as an eerie siren’s call.  Cataldo

15. Grimes, Art Angels

Whereas Claire Boucher’s past work as Grimes felt intentionally obscured, perhaps as a way to hedge against her undeniable pop instincts, Art Angels is shamelessly open. Boucher seems to have indulged her every whim: the dive-bomb guitars on the nü-metal-gone-right of “SCREAM,” shoegazing phasers slicing up the bubblegum hooks of “Flesh Without Blood,” the wistful K-Pop of “Pin.” At every turn she’s challenging herself to invent a new sonic palette, a new mashup of genres. It never feels shoehorned or forced, since Boucher has internalized her influences, as eclectic as any Internet traveler’s music library on shuffle, and repurposed them into a work that feels welcoming in its experimentation rather than exclusionary. Art Angels is the sound of a truly self-styled pop star emerging from the bedroom, as delightfully weird as ever. Rainis

14. Jessie Ware, Devotion

Quietly, almost sneakily, a modern wave of British-born soul has slinked its way back into musical vogue. Adele’s success has certainly helped, but the tracks currently being laid down by the xx, Burial, SBTRKT, Roses Gabor, and Jessie Ware seem to be a better—and more diverse—indication of the coming soul-pop renaissance: simple, chilled, house-infused concoctions that borrow liberally from both indie electronica and Sade-style R&B. With the dusky, siren-like Devotion, Ware switches easily from darkly romantic electro-ballads (“Running”) to breezy late-night jams (“110%”) to trickling dream-pop (“Something Inside”) without ever seeming forced or contrived, quickly establishing herself as the most promising and versatile of the young vanguard.  Liedel

13. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV)

What with the pompadour and skinny ties (and matching uniforms for the band) and the James-Brown-by-way-of-Prince-by-way-of-Andre3000 gimmickry, Janelle Monáe’s kooky act at first seemed like an elaborate put-on. But the whole of The ArchAndroid, with its fearless, forward-thinking vision of contemporary rock and R&B and its twitchy sci-fi imagery, proved otherwise. Girl gets real damn weird with it, but the confidence and swagger with which she shouts, “I used to believe there was something wrong with me!” in the middle of “Cold War” proves that Monáe is comfortable in her most peculiar skin. Keefe


12. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead sidestepped headlines in favor of personal trauma on A Moon Shaped Pool, their most nuanced work to date. Apart from red herring “Burn the Witch,” which indeed skewers the times, the album cycles through grief, loss, and quiet anger, with exquisite orchestration that underscores—as opposed to obscures—Thom Yorke’s stunning melodies. Radiohead finally recorded some of its oldest skeletons for A Moon Shaped Pool (the glitchy “Identikit,” which becomes a muted, Eastern-tinged storm; “True Love Waits,” which simply and gorgeously hovers) and yet, given the album’s atmosphere of heartbreak, these songs sound less brought to life than just barely rescued from death. When Yorke laments plainly on “Daydreaming” that “this goes beyond you, beyond me,” he’s not singing about typical Radiohead themes like corruption and greed, but of the private world where he once escaped shattering before his eyes. Wroble

11. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

Polly Jean Harvey has howled at the wind, men, cities, and scripture. Here she shakes her fists and barbed dulcet voice at England, the country of her birth. This bewitchingly strange album, so retrograde by design, not only invokes images of the Great War, both solemnly and sarcastically, to comment on a once powerful empire’s currently slacken political identity, but also sounds of yore—sounds, such as the perfectly utilized bugle from “The Glorious Land,” I’ve never heard referenced outside of old black-and-white Hollywood war dramas and Looney Tunes shorts. Of course, this being the product of Polly Jean, Let England Shake doesn’t simply rage against a nation’s history of war, past and present, and its place in the West. It’s also a canny confession from one of music’s greatest poets that her own evolution, as a woman and a musician, is forever intertwined with the light and dark of her birthland’s own. Gonzalez

10. Taylor Swift, 1989

Taylor Swift’s 1989 severed whatever vestiges of her country roots remained on 2012’s Red, replacing acoustic guitars and pedal steel with multi-layered synthscapes, drum machines, and densely packed vocal tracking. Swift, of course, got her start writing astutely observed country ballads, and these songs bolster her trademark knack for lyric-crafting with maximalist, blown-out pop production courtesy of main collaborators Max Martin and Shellback. 1989’s standout tracks retain the narrative detail and clever metaphor-building that distinguished Swift’s early songs, even amid the diversions wrought by the aggressive studio production on display throughout. Songs like “I Know Places” ride a reggae swagger and trap-influenced snare beats before launching into a soaring, Pat Benatar-esque chorus. It’s an effortless fusion that, like much of 1989, displays Swift’s willingness to venture outside her comfort zone without much of a safety net, and test out an array of sonic experiments that feel both retro and of the moment. Annie Galvin

9. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett doesn’t waste even a second getting down to business on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. As soon as the needle drops on the album’s opening cut, “Elevator Operator,” she immediately embarks, in a laconic Aussie brogue, on a verbose slice-of-life tale replete with a great journalist’s eye for detail over an invigoratingly upbeat bed of wiry guitars and buzzing Wurlitzer. The result is the wittiest, rockingest, most life-affirming song that’s probably ever been written about a guy considering jumping off a roof. That infectious energy rarely lets up on the rest of the album, and Barnett never lets her wry, rambling wordplay, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious, get in the way of fashioning maddeningly catchy vocal hooks. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she claims over a ferocious guitar stomp on the single “Pedestrian at Best.” But we might have to anyway: Sometimes I Sit and Think is undoubtedly one of the most exciting debut rock albums to come along in ages. Winograd


8. Kendrick Lamar, Damn

Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album is less grandiose and novelistic than 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. But it’s still a Kendrick Lamar album, which means that it’s packed with lyrically dense meditations on death, God, fame, responsibility, and the African-American condition—and it’s also sequenced so you can listen to the tracks in reverse order. Even if Lamar remains the biggest overachiever in hip-hop, though, he’s also thrown a bone to those listeners who miss the more straightforward hooks from 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. “Humble” and “DNA” are among his most club-ready bangers to date, pairing Mike Will Made It trap beats with the tireless flow of “Kung-Fu Kenny”; the Rihanna collab “Loyalty” fits right in with R&B radio while also expanding the genre’s thematic and emotional palate. Beyond the singles, Lamar narrows his focus from To Pimp a Butterfly’s dizzying kaleidoscope of styles to craft songs that sneak up on the listener, their solid construction belying layers of intricacy. At once accessible and demanding, a work of literary complexity with a mixtape-gritty presentation, Damn is Lamar’s third consecutive masterpiece. Hoskins

7. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

In a decade where plenty of artists simply toyed with the seductive power of ‘90s-style R&B, Frank Ocean full-on pursued, captured, and tamed it to produce the saga that is Channel Orange. But the album’s smooth confidence, evident in everything from the jazzy bounce of “Super Rich Kids” to the juiced-up funk of “Crack Rock” and “Pyramids,” is only part of the draw. The remainder is Ocean’s storytelling, where he breathes life into dozens of imperfect, alluring characters that are just as desperate, confused, and beautiful as their narrator. Channel Orange did more than just prove that Ocean is far and away the most talented of the Odd Future crew; it established him as a songwriter whose lyrical and musical craft borders on the literary.  Liedel

6. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires in the City

In the halcyon days of the British Empire, there was a tradition among explorers of strange and uncharted lands to exhibit upon their return a so-called “cabinet of curiosities,” a hodgepodge of keepsakes, decontextualized and random but fascinatingly foreign. Vampire Weekend’s first two albums similarly possessed a magpie’s eye for the unusual, but with little that was revelatory below the surface charm of the unfamiliar. Modern Vampires of the City, by contrast, finds the band looking closer to home, as frontman Ezra Koenig traces a lyrical road trip across the U.S., from Providence to Phoenix. Scoring sardonic deconstructions of the rock-n’-roll myth with Dick Dale-style guitars (“Diane Young”), novelistic half-sketches of peripatetic romance with loping Gershwin-esque strings, (“Hannah Hunt”), and even a confrontation with the man upstairs with church organs and semi-ironic gospel choirs (“Ya Hey”), Vampire Weekend seems to have finally exhausted their wanderlust, and come home wiser, more soulful and more vital than ever. Mark Collett

5. Robyn, Body Talk

When music historians look back on the battle for ultimate electro-pop diva of the new millennium, they will inevitably reward the LED-encrusted tiara to Robyn. The Swedish dance club princess delivered her T.K.O. with her Body Talk series, three punchy releases essentially culled from the same big music party (and it is, unmistakably, Robyn’s party—the rest of us are just invited for a peek at all the fun). Body Talk represents both a culmination and perfection of today’s synth-driven Euro-pop craze, which has effectively become like crack for radio on this side of the Atlantic, obsessively mimicked and pushed through every thumping, Auto-Tuned R&B-rap-pop monstrosity climbing the charts. Rarely, however, is the genre delivered with as much snarky wit, steely beauty, and remarkable consistency as Robyn manages here. Both lost in the moment and yet keenly future-minded, Body Talk regularly provides a kind of self-aware accessibility that most pop musicians have lazily abandoned for the past decade. When Robyn finally pauses to whisper “kick drum” with deadpan nonchalance on “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do,” the sorely missed lost art of not taking oneself too seriously comes roaring back with glee. Liedel


4. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

On her fifth album, Annie Clark trains her focus on contemporary media culture, critiquing the vapid, self-indulgent aspects of social networking and the alienation and boredom that it produces. Whether singing about selfies or death, Clark probes the existential convergence between humans and their digital devices, as when she laments, “I’m entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones.” The gorgeously laconic torch song “Prince Johnny” finds Clark imploring, over layered backing vocals and a discretely funky guitar lick, for someone “to make me a real girl,” another nod toward the blurred lines between humans, animals, and machines that she explores throughout the album. Despite its thematic weight, St. Vincent wears its politics lightly, as Clark makes space for her trademark experiments with guitar effects and playful lines like “I prefer your love to Jesus.” She’s an auteur perfectly suited for the age we’re living in: a heretic with her own sense of ethics, an eccentric with a conscience. Galvin

3. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell

Norman Rockwell’s vision of America defined much of the 20th century, with illustrations that often depicted a sentimental—some might say naïve—interpretation of American life. Despite its parodic title, though, Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell doesn’t so much subvert an idealistic notion of the American dream as perform a postmortem of it. On “Venice Bitch,” which is rife with references to quintessential American icons like Robert Frost, Del Rey pines for a world that had already coughed its last gasp by the time she was born. And she wistfully delivers a eulogy for both pop culture and the planet itself on the apocalyptic “The Greatest”: “The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball,” she laments with a shrug. Distilled to their barest elements, the songs reveal themselves not to be hollow vessels for vapid self-absorption, but frank assessments of the psychic effects of a world spiraling into chaos. Del Rey has long cemented her status as a cult icon in the vein of a Tori Amos or Fiona Apple, whose influence on the title track is unmistakable, and she inspires the kind of fanaticism that often leaves her detractors perplexed. With Norman Fucking Rockwell, however, she’s made an album with the unfettered focus and scope worthy of her lofty repute. Cinquemani

2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Few albums in recent memory have seemed so intensely timely and vital as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. On his third LP, Lamar addresses both violence and awakening with a deftness that crystalizes his reputation not only as the greatest MC of his young generation, but also as a dynamic political voice and the country’s social conscience. Coupling his poetic lyricism and lofty intellectualism with a tremendous musical ambition that combines funk, jazz, and unprecedented vocal flexibility, it’s no surprise that To Pimp a Butterfly stands after just nine months as a modern classic. “Alright” is already a canonical anthem of hope for justice and faith in future redemption. “King Kunta” is the rare song as equally applicable to the club as to the scores of protests sweeping urban America. To Pimp a Butterfly is more than one of the best albums of the decade; it’s an awesome chapter in the making of a legend. Nee-Vogelman

1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Insisting, on whatever grounds, that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of rap’s great milestone’s doesn’t do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I’ve heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal (“Dark Fantasy” imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it’s Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It’s all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. Cole

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