The Top 20 Albums of 2018

The term “escapist” is usually applied to story-based art forms – like a 1,000-page high-fantasy novel or a blockbuster IMAX adventure. But in 2018, music was my escape hatch. The one thing every album on this list had in common was that it drew me into its unique sonic universe. Whether it was satirical hip-hop, sci-fi death metal, or romantic pop-country, I floated through it, gobsmacked by melody, moved by poetry. It was indescribably comforting to know that, no matter what atrocity was leading the news that day, the play button was an arm’s reach away.

https_images.genius.com469bb24dc0e092bff3f3003c8229ecf3.1000x1000x120. Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar

This Scottish-by-way-of-Africa trio was one of 2018’s most successful genre omnivores, fusing lush, electronic R&B with bursts of twitchy grime and the occasional harmony-drenched sunshower. The third Fathers record, Cocoa Sugar, finds the group filtering its legion of influences through the framework of slow-build dance music, layering one subtle element on top of another in a determined attempt to reach that jumping-up-and-down moment of transcendence. “Border Girl” begins with three squelching bass notes and ends up with what might as well be 1,000 voices, beckoning for miracles. On “Lord,” the pristine first single, a falsetto gospel chorus greets us, only to drop out, leaving behind a unstable atmosphere of wispy piano, heavy bass drops, and chilly sentiments like “If wishes were horses / Then beggars would ride.” When the chorus makes its glorious return, we can almost feel the mane in our hands, and the wild breeze in our faces.

a3297919058_1019. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

After the runaway success of her 2015 debut, Courtney Barnett went through an extended bout of writer’s block. She tried writing only on a typewriter. She took a break to make a fun, freewheeling album with Kurt Vile. It was all worth it. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a darker, more conflicted work, a floodlight shining on a noisy world, overflowing with fake friends and sexist trolls. Everything you need to know about the album’s emotional grey areas is built into the first song title, “Hopefulessness.” Featuring a string tuning down, a tea kettle screeching, and lines like “It’s okay to have a bad day,” it’s not forthcoming with easy answers. The rest of the album is equally honest, but also sneakily catchy. Especially “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” which boasts a delightful power-pop crunch that belies its title. When Barnett and her band launch into the chorus, it’s like they’re simultaneously having one of the most depressing and freeing adult realizations – everybody is making it up as they go along. “I don’t know anything!” they harmonize. If certain powerful men were strong enough to admit this, the world would be an unrecognizably better place.

220px-Teyana_Taylor_KTSE_Cover_Art18. Teyana Taylor – KTSE

Teyana Taylor knows a thing or two about staying positive. Even though she signed to Pharrell’s label way back in 2007, her debut album didn’t drop until 2014. And by the time LP2 finally arrived this summer, it had zero chance of untainted publicity, thanks to the public self-immolation of its executive producer, Kanye West. Which is a goddamn shame, because KTSE packs enough joy into its 23 minutes to counteract even the heaviest dose of dragon energy. The title stands for “Keep That Same Energy,” and Taylor’s commitment to the mantra is something to behold. Her voice is tinged with reflective wisdom. It’s a confluence of talent and life experience, a direct ancestor of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. West provides little more than spartan soul samples on most of these tracks, and it’s all Taylor needs. Until “WTP,” that is. A ballroom-inspired ’90s dance tour de force, complete with clips from Paris Is Burning, “WTP” closes this record with a deliriously satisfying blast of self-confidence. “Save your tears honey,” advises guest emcee Mykki Blanco. “You’re a motherfucking diva!”

https_images.genius.comd556b68ca7ed856d1efd2badd494260a.1000x1000x117. Jean Grae & Quelle Chris – Everything’s Fine

Study after study has shown that life in America is stressful AF. And the imaginative indie rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have taken a deep dive into the causes of this collective anxiety, and our continuing addiction to baseless claims that it’s all gonna be okay. They bring in authoritative-sounding comedians like Nick Offerman and John Hodgman to repeat the album title over soothing elevator music, giving the record its own brand of insidious, hilarious propaganda. As a result, Everything’s Fine is that rare rap album where the skits are essential, because they put these formidable emcees on the offensive. Grae & Chris rap with fire and irony about police violence and lost childhoods, exposing the lie of the album title over hazy, atmospheric production. Grae is especially dynamic, her verses an encyclopedic whirlwind, her shit-talk positively elegant: “Fire, brimstone, magma, lava, Dylan, molten granite, dollars, kimchee / Longer it sits, stronger the MC.” On the next track, Offerman tries to make us forget. “Why would you have to do anything about issues that don’t directly affect you?” he purrs. This record is a herculean battle between truth and comfort; nutrition and junk. It’s like watching the news, if pundits were poets.

https_images.genius.com408f28c254a33a5d96647336a9e972cd.622x622x116. Tierra Whack – Whack World

Sometimes, limitations are an artist’s best friend. Like John Lennon having to belt out “Twist and Shout” with a hell of a cold, and only 15 minutes of studio time left to do it. 15 minutes also happens to be the running time of Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack’s debut album – that’s 15 tracks, at precisely one minute a piece. I call Whack a rapper, but Whack World is so much more than a rap album. Within these cozy confines, she bounces from moody trap to sunshine pop, introspective R&B balladry and a full-on country twang. She sings about board games and dead pets, and raps with feeling about how she loves to see her mother laugh. Every transition feels effortless. And the same can be said about Whack World’s accompanying video, which depicts the artist’s ideas with the technicolor verve they deserve – imagine if Lemonade was shot in Pee Wee’s Playhouse. This album is a complete artistic statement; a celebration of an independent spirit, alive with humor and humanity. And it’s over in the time it takes to boil an egg. “Music is in my Billie genes,” she boasts. It’s the only explanation for how she could have pulled this off.

https_images.genius.comaee8d20d98f75c9f52ae97a5ebd8637c.1000x1000x115. Vince Staples – FM!

Exposing the illusion of California as a sun-dappled promised land has been a go-to writerly pursuit since Steinbeck was in his prime. But it’s hard to think of any artist who has broken this spell with the muscular precision of Long Beach rapper Vince Staples. On his perpetual motion machine of a third record, Staples plays with our expectations like an especially sly feline. Track one is called “Feels Like Summer,” and it outlines a different kind of heat wave, an ever-present danger that makes the artist sweat all year round. “Cold weather won’t stop no gunner / Wrong hat, wrong day, I’ll kill my brother,” Staples raps. (His everyday challenges would make the Beach Boys shit their shorts.) The genius of FM! is how Staples balances these grim street narratives with infectious energy. Whether he’s rapping about the sun coming out or the guns coming out, his flow is the great equalizer, delivering this stark street poetry with exhilarating percussive force, the perfect foil for the gritty minimalism of producer Kenny Beats. It’s the 2018 equivalent of Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” except the good times rarely last for a whole couplet, let alone 24 hours. When Staples raps, “Broad day, I’m ’round your way / SK, come out, let’s play,” it almost feels like kid on summer break, until we learn that an SK is a Soviet semiautomatic weapon. It’d be enough to make your head shake, if it wasn’t already bobbing like crazy.

https_images.genius.com24c0326732e628586966e81c5ca9ea27.700x700x114. Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology

It all started with a pun. UK metalheads Matt Moss and Kev Pearson couldn’t believe that out of all the sludge metal bands with animal obsessions, none had connected “sludge” with “slug.” So in 2012, Slugdge was born, complete with its own crackpot theological backstory, centered on a vengeful, slimeridden, interdimensional god named Mollusca. After years of wriggling its way through the metal underground, Moss and Pearson’s band truly burst from the soil in 2018, with the release of its fourth LP, Esoteric Malacology. The Lovecraftian mythology and Pythonian absurdity have reached delirious new heights – “The walls shall liquify beneath / The force of Rhaexorog’s harrowing screams.” And the duo has developed its own particular brand of pummeling prog-metal, proving that very heavy music can also be clear and accessible, without upsetting too many die-hards. The riffs writhe like tentacles, undulating to their own arcane rhythms as they rise to blot out the sun. Clean, worshipful harmonies sit shoulder to shoulder with low demonic growls. When it all comes together, like on the relentless track “Crop Killer,” Slugdge is metal at its most ridiculously fun – painstakingly crafted compositions played with whizbang ability, and delivered with utter dedication to a bonkers sci-fi narrative based on a tortured pun. All. Hail. Mollusca.

https_images.genius.com2a57c6ea1f460c4a71f44de202ea1330.620x620x113. Neko Case – Hell-On

“I’m an agent of the natural world,” proclaims Neko Case on her self-produced sixth LP. The singer/songwriter has long favored themes of mother earth as a sleeping giant; her discography is full of tornadoes and floods, pent-up cyclones and hovering bees. But Case has never written as caustically about our impending doom as she does here. “Don’t you tell me I didn’t warn you,” she sings omnisciently over the gloomy waltz of the title track. In fact, Hell-On finds the artist so appalled by our collective eco-ignorance that she goes full Howard Zinn, telling stories about groups that tend to be ignored by the conquering generals who write our history books – extinct lions, female sailors, traumatized children. If Case wasn’t such a skilled producer, all of this foreboding might make for a tough sit. But this is her lushest album yet, with each track possessing some kind of fulfilling sonic surprise. Like the ’60s pop bounce of “Bad Luck.” Or the swelling wave of a chorus that crashes over “Winnie”: “We were warriors!” The seven-minute “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a stone-cold spine-tingler, pairing the artist’s touching remembrances of her first days on the road with duet partner Mark Lanegan’s reassuringly scratchy basso. If we’re all going down with the ship, then what better time to sing?

Lucy Dacus_ Historian12. Lucy Dacus – Historian

Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations. Where pop artists tend to prefer briskly discovered a-ha moments, this Virginia singer/songwriter explores the periphery and then works her way in. So by the time we realize that addictions can be interpersonal, or that our homeland isn’t as homey as we hoped, or that death is coldly, poignantly final, the whole experience has been enriched by context, the volume rising steadily like the tide. Historian is Dacus’s first LP with Matador Records, who won a very public label war for her services. All signs point to the execs staying out of her way. Otherwise, the fantastic chorus from the opening track “Night Shift” would’ve been burned off within 30 seconds. Instead, Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins, including an image of a man staring at his feet, waiting for his guilt to be lifted, that works pretty well as a metaphor for what’s wrong with the world. Then, only when we understand, does it happen. The chord progression changes; the band drops out; and Dacus sings, “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” It’s more than a cool breakup line. It’s a rejection of everyday drudgery, and Dacus sings it more confidently each time, as if she’s realizing in the moment that she deserves better. Historian is full of songs like these. Ideas that develop in steady crescendo, until they blossom as breakthroughs – bright, and loud, and true.

Love-loss--and-autotune-by-Swamp-Dogg11. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune

By the time an artist gets around to releasing their 22nd album, the best we can usually expect is a respectable return to form under the guidance of a savvy producer – a Time Out of Mind or American Recordings. But since he began dropping eccentric cult R&B records under the name Swamp Dogg in 1970, Jerry Williams Jr. has done anything but what we’d expect. His 22nd album is absolutely influenced by his producers, but its similarities to other late-career triumphs ends there. True to its title, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune layers Williams’s beautifully weathered tenor in pitch-correcting robotics. But it’s not like his voice needs help, or that the material requires some kind of chilly remove. Like Eno with a synthesizer, this is just a boundary-pusher exploring new frontiers. Whether he’s crooning a Nat King Cole standard, begging his love to wait up for him so they can sip “Dom Perignon ’69,” or busting out a spoken word screed about our fucked-up economy, the effect is absolutely unique – and stop-you-in-your-tracks emotional. This isn’t some novelty record. The love swells. The loss hurts. And the Auto-Tune elevates it all, more then any dumb guitar solo could.

https_images.genius.comf9fec989d8a03a8204fd4ff1189d2dd5.1000x1000x110. Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

When the Scottish dance-pop enigma Sophie released a collection of singles in 2015, she gave it the perfect title – PRODUCT. Because this DJ and producer has made her mark by turning lifeless hitmaking technology against itself, resulting in shamelessly mechanical, outrageously plastic earworms. This astounding trademark sound is still evident on her proper studio debut, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, but this time, her mission is a therapeutic one. It might be twisted and distorted beyond recognition, but Sophie begins this album by featuring her own singing voice for the first time, on a gentle, spectral ballad called “It’s Okay To Cry.” “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” she shares. “But I think your inside is your best side.” Then there’s “Immaterial,” a hand-clap-driven pop reverie that presents our metaphysical selves as our true selves, resulting in a pure expression of freedom. “Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live?” Throw in some classic Sophie anti-pop – “Faceshopping” sounds like a Casio being shoved down a garbage disposal, stray pieces skittering across the linoleum – and you’ve got an album unlike any other, that celebrates how each of us is unlike any other.

https_images.genius.comce9271c9c0f795669e05dfd21bf39cdd.1000x1000x19. Caroline Rose – Loner

Is it possible for an artist to be low-key ambitious? To explore all kinds of fertile new ground without being all in-your-face about it? Caroline Rose’s second album leads me to believe so. Loner finds the former Americana singer/songwriter leaving that down-home strumminess in the dust, using a phalanx of synth patches and a chameleonic singing voice to hearken back to ’60s garage rock, ’70s punk and ’90s trip hop. Along with co-producer Paul Butler, Rose manages to corral all of this mood- and genre-hopping into a small-group setting. Other than the keyboards, the instrumentation pretty much doesn’t change. All the hard work is left to the songs and players. And rightfully so. Loner should be, on paper, a fairly depressing record. Narrators sit alone at diner counters, and lose their sense of wonder in a homogenized world. But Rose approaches every song with a sardonic grin. She’s not hopeless; she’s bemused. And she’s at her absolute best when taking on the satirical role of a crass, Randy Newman-style huckster: “We’re gonna put you in the movies and on TV / All you’ve gotta do is put on this little bikini!” As the guitars churn and the synths rain down, the last thing we’re thinking about is the genre. We’re too busy being electrified.

https_images.genius.com8b54877e9543c6577be5d6e963e02452.750x750x18. Denzel Curry – Ta13oo

There’s a throughline connecting the rise of grunge in the ’90s, nü metal in the ’00s and Soundcloud rap in the ’10s – new generations flocking to the sound of young men venting. In all three cases, this has resulted in a lot of entitled, peacocking garbage. But with the release of Florida rapper Denzel Curry’s second LP, Soundcloud rap may have found its ideal torchbearer. Ta13oo features many of the building blocks of this much-derided/beloved genre. Confessional lyrics flow like open veins. Dark, electronic beats swoosh past like rusted throwing stars. A working knowledge of Nirvana, Korn and Stephen King is made clear. But Curry elevates the formula beyond your typical teen angst, by just writing and rapping his ass off. “Sky is the limit / I could die any minute / Got my mind in a skillet / Suicide not the mission,” he spits over the light, strolling synths of “Black Balloons,” beautifully encapsulating the painful uncertainties and careening energies of youth. He begins the record by pledging to always be there for a partner who suffered childhood abuse. He uses Kurt Cobain’s suicide as a cipher for materialism. He references Chowder and Jimmy Neutron and South Park and Black Sabbath. He reaches rap nirvana, over and over again.

https_images.genius.com22ebcc3f86cf57b0438e81d03b492955.1000x1000x17. CupcakKe – Ephorize

When a brilliant, charismatic rapper is just starting to blow up, there are few things more exciting for a listener – being there for that moment, pressing play on the album that could put them on the short list for Best Rapper Alive. Which is just what Ephorize has done for CupcakKe. The third LP from this prolific, seemingly unstoppable Chicago rapper was a significant leap forward from 2017’s excellent Queen Elizabitch – pairing her sharply honed lyricism and whitewater-rapids flow with club-ready production that sends all the positive vibes into the stratosphere. The artist is most famous for explicit, sex-positive bops, and she delivers one of her greatest here with the Statue of Liberty-referencing “Duck Duck Goose.” But Ephorize is equally defined by themes of personal growth and celebratory wokeness. “Most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” she raps on “Self Interview,” a fearless recitation of her anxieties that ends with a vow to be true to herself. When this inward empathy explodes outward, CupcakKe is in rarefied air. “Boy on boy / girl on girl / Like who the fuck you like / Fuck the world!” she proclaims over the sax-laden dancehall groove of “Crayons.” It’s like we’re riding a rainbow rollercoaster, double guns drawn, the Best Rapper Alive at the controls.

DirtyComputer6. Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe’s talent has always been enough. Her ear for indelible hooks, adventurous arrangements and effective collaborators has made her records feel like signposts for the future of R&B – despite the fact that all of them were weighed down by an utterly confusing dystopian sci-fi premise. Until Dirty Computer, that is. Monáe’s third LP is technically a concept album. But for the first time in her discography, it doesn’t really matter. The songwriting reckons with real life. In this world. In 2018. “I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American dream,” Monáe declares over the confident ’80s pop synths of “Crazy, Classic, Life.” This is the album in microcosm – a stark acknowledgement of the challenges facing the black and LGBTQ+ communities in Donald Trump’s America, and a simultaneous declaration of exuberant badassery. It’s the most politically present, and openly romantic, she’s ever been – and the melodies bubble up and embrace us like they always have. “Pynk” turns an Aerosmith sample into a test tube of life-sustaining sunshine. “Screwed” boasts one of the snappiest guitar riffs of the year. And “Make Me Feel” finds Monáe doing justice to Prince’s memory by fusing funk and pop and lust and love into an interplanetary cocktail of truth. What a perfect time for her to shake things up, and give us all the feels.

https_images.genius.com639af7c3779547263444a0acdd2ffcde.1000x1000x15. Noname – Room 25

As we’ve learned the hard way in this country, the people who loudly brag about how strong and smart they are tend to be the weakest and stupidest of the bunch. On her patient, radiant second album, the Chicago rapper Noname calmly delivers verses about struggling to find yourself, the frustrating Venn diagram of sex and love, and the frightening impermanence of existence. It’s powerful because it’s not trying to sound powerful. Featuring live musicians playing low-lit, after-hours R&B vamps, Room 25 has a restorative quality. It’s hot soup on a cold day. When Noname admits “Everybody think they know me / Don’t nobody really know me,” producer Phoelix supports her with a synth patch that sounds like a music box – the sound of the adolescence she’s leaving behind. As she ponders the human condition on “Don’t Forget About Me,” the gentle snare hits and burbling organ are a balm. And on the opening “Self,” where she proves that quiet confidence can shatter foundations, we get an absolute motherfucker of a Fender Rhodes soul groove. It sounds like good news, like a long kiss, like maple syrup on your oatmeal. And Noname drops the verse of the year over it, hurling a pie in the face of rap’s patriarchal gatekeepers: “My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism / In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus / And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”

a3868691890_164. Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo

Khruangbin makes dreamy, contemplative funk instrumentals. But that description doesn’t do them justice. I’m not nearly cultured enough to properly convey what this Houston trio’s second album sounds like. It bears more passport stamps then every record on this list combined, incorporating Thai, Spanish and Middle Eastern influences into the kind of grooves that will turn any walk into a strut. Mark Speer’s acrobatic guitar playing is center stage, slithering its way through “Maria También” with venomous grace. But that song would be mere noodling without Laura Lee’s searching bass and DJ Johnson’s breezy drums. The end result sounds like Ennio Morricone recording for Stax. I could listen to it on repeat. This cosmic chemistry is all over Con Todo El Mundo, which showcases the most beautiful thing a band can be – an interconnected support system of otherwise-impossible sounds. When they dip their toes into jazz balladry on “Hymn,” Johnson’s congas and sleigh bells are the perfect top notes to the reverb-drenched guitar and beseeching bass. And when they do decide to add vocals to a track, it’s profoundly minimal. After the sand-dune-smooth riff that opens “Evan Finds the Third Room,” Lee voices what we’re all thinking: “Yes!”

b266198ecaf03cafb955bee91d331fa75e2398ad3. Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells

“There’s a vibrational current between every fingertip and the unseen,” declares Esperanza Spalding on 12 Little Spells. In the context of the soundscapes she builds around it, this line feels like incontrovertible truth. Because the artist we could once describe as a “Grammy-winning jazz composer, singer and bassist” has reached heights of sonic expression that transcend genre. Or song structure. Or the physical plane. Only in this rarefied air could she take on this album’s lofty and amorphous challenge – sing a dozen songs about physical reactions to art, and transfer her own feelings to listeners. Spalding’s arrangements are largely percussionless, freeing up her bass lines to bob and weave around our expectations – even the low end is rising skyward. Resulting in music that makes us feel like that batty old man in Mary Poppins, floating to the ceiling in his pajamas, laughing at the wonder of it all. What’s even more amazing is that, at its heart, this is a pop album, meant to connect with as many of us as possible. Few things stuck in my brain in 2018 like the gentle, swaying funk of “Thang.” “‘Till the Next Full” evokes Hejira-era Joni Mitchell with its swirling, nocturnal acoustics. The title track swells like a old movie score, toeing the edge of dissonance but always choosing beauty. Making us feel the way the artist must have felt – entranced and inspired, our goosebumps rising like voices.

RobynHoney2. Robyn – Honey

Nobody used dance music as a weapon of resilience like Robyn did in the first decade of a scary new millennium. The Swedish singer, songwriter and producer wielded bass drum eighth notes like emotional armor, resisting despair’s powerful undertow, bravely choosing to dance on her own. But in the eight years since her absolutely essential Body Talk albums turned our insecurities into ecstasies, a lot happened in this artist’s life. Relationships ended. A close friend and collaborator passed away. And the world kept spinning ever more out of control. So it shouldn’t be a total shock that Robyn has left her suit of armor hanging on the castle walls. On Honey, the pain of the past comes flooding in, exposing universal human weak spots – nostalgia, grief, love. Instead of being repelled by otherworldly pop hooks, their power is captured, and harnessed for good. “Because it’s in the music / Yeah, we’re dancing to it / I’m right back in that moment / And it makes me want to cry,” she sings, in perhaps the clearest example of how her perspective has evolved since 2010. But the track’s rolling, playful bass line and frolicking synth strings communicate the therapeutic nature of her words. Robyn pulls off this trick all over Honey, processing these emotions through the language of adventurous dance-pop, without blunting their impact. It’s a genius songwriter at work. And when she takes a break from soul-searching, we get the avant-garde banger “Beach2k20,” an entrancing ’90s dance concoction during which Robyn has a muffled conversation with herself arranging a beach trip. The only words that bubble completely up to the surface are “Let’s go party!” You’d think nine tracks wouldn’t feel like enough after an eight-year absence. It’s as generous as music gets.

Golden-hour-Kacey-Musgraves1. Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings Kacey Musgraves, on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, it never feels the least bit trite. Because this songwriter has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis. “These are real things,” she marvels. Golden Hour is largely about these “real things.” In fact, its songwriting is so focused, it makes me realize how so many of our idioms for romance have to do with not seeing straight. Clichéd love makes us “starry-eyed.” It “knocks us off our feet.” It makes us “crazy about” someone. Musgraves approaches the subject from a variety of angles, from the lovely ache of missing someone to the frightening joy of trusting them. And her vision never blurs. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore.” This clarity is also evident in Golden Hour’s production. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records, but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem. “Oh What a World” features a chorus of robotic voices. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album. But for all these feats of songcraft, the moment that moved me the most was as simple as can be. The band drops away, and it’s just Musgraves, at her piano, telling her love the one thing we all want to hear: “It’ll all be alright.”

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Against All Logic – 2012-2017; At the Gates – To Drink from the Night Itself; Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest; Brockhampton – IridescenceCardi B – Invasion of Privacy; Mariah Carey – Caution; City Girls – Period; Cupcakke – Eden; Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs; Flatbush Zombies – Vacation In Hell; Future – Beast Mode 2; JPEGMAFIA – Veteran; Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread; Hermit and the Recluse – Orpheus vs. The Sirens; Horrendous – Idol; Jeremih & Ty Dolla $ign – Mih-Ty; Kero Kero Bonito – Time ‘n’ Place; Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V; Mammoth Grinder – Cosmic Crypt; Parquet Courts – Wide Awake!; Pistol Annies – Interstate Gospel; Natalie Prass – The Future and the Past; Pusha-T – Daytona; Rhye – Blood; Rico Nasty – Nasty; Saba – Care for Me; Screaming Females – All At Once; Sofi Tukker – Treehouse; Anna St. Louis – If Only There Was a River; Tenacious D – Post-Apocalypto; Kurt Vile – Bottle It In

Kanye West – Ye

“Everything I did or thought was aimed at creating music that would make people happy and also keep them away from me, and because I was successful, my weirdness was accepted.” That’s a quote from Brian Wilson, the infamously troubled leader of the Beach Boys. For the handful of years that his band was on top, Wilson faced immense pressure from his label to keep cranking out hits. And from his bandmate Mike Love, who just wanted to keep making “Surfin’ U.S.A.” over and over again. And from his own desire to be revered, to be spoken of in the same breath as Gershwin, Spector, McCartney. This pressure, coupled with unresolved childhood trauma and drugs, triggered Wilson’s mental illness. He finally broke down in 1967, in the middle of the sessions for his greatest workHe never reached those artistic heights again.

I’m guessing Kanye West can relate. Ever since that night in 2009 when he crashed Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech, the artist has had to compensate for his “weirdness.” Every uncomfortable interview and narcissistic tweetstorm would be chum for an American public with a voracious appetite for celebrity failures. But then he’d drop another masterpiece, and we’d lose the scent. We’d focus on his production choices instead of his personal ones. He could be spinning out of control, yet still control the narrative.

It’s amazing that it lasted this long. It would have made sense if West bottomed out after 2010’s astounding, leave-it-all-out-on-the-field My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But three years later came the stripped-down primal scream of Yeezus. And in 2016, the sprawling sinner’s gospel of The Life of Pablo. Which brings us to Ye, the artist’s eighth solo LP. And his first attempt at breaking the cycle.

Like all five of the albums West is releasing this summer, Ye is seven songs long, recorded in a remote studio in Wyoming. A loose, murky affair, it’s a clear aesthetic shift for the producer, a notorious perfectionist. (Merely weeks earlier, West was flexing his still-peerless ability to turn old soul tunes into luxurious summer hip-hop on Pusha-T’s Daytona.) For the first time, it feels like he walked into the studio and just shared what was on his mind, off the cuff, awkward vibes be damned. It’s as much of a performance as it is a purge.

“The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest,” muses the artist during the extended spoken-word opening of “I Thought About Killing You.” It’s a mission statement on a record that explores what it’s like to be a bi-polar celebrity, the highs and lows, the likes and blocks, the emotional cycles and media cycles. That song title is more than just a provocation, with West sharing that because he’s thought about killing himself, it only stands to reason that he’s thought about killing you too. As he admits, “Sometimes I think really bad things,” he pitch bends his voice downward, a chilling moment of truth.

“Yikes” contains Ye’s most traditionally catchy hook, as he does some of the most convincing singing of his career over a chopped-up vocal sample from the underground ’70s psychedelic funk group Black Savage. But it’s a song about opioid addiction, and it’s appropriately haunting. “Sometimes I scare myself,” West croons on the chorus, which I absolutely can’t get out of my head.

The other major highlight is “Ghost Town,” a soaring, guest-heavy melodic sunburst reminiscent of The Life of Pablo’s gospel opener “Ultralight Beam.” Kid Cudi sings about unrequited love; Kanye sings about “taking all the shine,” and newcomer 070 Shake brings down the house with her extended outro, sung with pure, deliberate joy – “I feel kinda free / We’re still the kids we used to be.”

Notice I’m not talking much about rapping here. West has always been unafraid to bust out a cheesy play on words, but on Ye, he’s lost a lot of the conviction that could make those moments charming. “If I pull up with a Kerry Washington / That’s gonna be an enormous scandal,” is typical of this newfound laziness. Then there’s “Don’t get your tooth chipped like Frito-Lay.” On the closing “Violent Crimes,” West finds his fervor for bars again – but its queasy father-daughter narrative does him no favors. “Curves under your dress / I know it’s pervs all on the net / All in the comments, you wanna vomit,” he raps. He may be opening his eyes to our culture of toxic masculinity. But he’s a long way from woke.

Hey, maybe he’s just more comfortable singing these days. Because that, along with his sparse, rain-spattered production choices, make Ye a rewarding listen. It’s a small album, not just in length, but in the space it inhabits – the internal world of one very famous and conflicted man. It is the absolute definition of what a self-titled album should be.

What it’s not is an event. In the headwinds of West’s latest stint in the news – the Trump support, the “dragon energy,” the victim blaming of slavesthat song where he raps “Poopy-di scoop / Scoop-diddy-whoop” – it folds like a tent.

Perhaps he wants it that way. Perhaps he made a quiet album about mental illness and addiction because he’s tired of summoning the flood every few years. Perhaps he’s done making music to keep people happy, and away from him. Kanye West has made his Pet Sounds, and his Smile, several times over. He’s earned the right to just surf.

The Top 25 Songs of 2016

2016 was an incredible year for music. Icons left astounding goodbye notesLong-gestating masterpieces dropped from the sky. Artists that you thought would never come back did – and sounded unbelievably good. This is probably the toughest time I’ve ever had whittling a list of songs down to 25. “Formation” is only an honorable mention! Well enough of my blather. Here are the tracks I cranked in my 2005 Honda Civic with the most gusto this year. You can listen to the whole playlist on the player thingie at the bottom. Happy New Year, friends.

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25. Kendrick Lamar – “untitled 8 / 09.06.2014”

Over a dreamy MJ groove, Kendrick details what it’s like to be a broke American, from the perspective of a broke South African.

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24. Azealia Banks – “The Big Big Beat”

Just the latest in Azealia’s seemingly bottomless well of snappy dance-rap masterpieces. She should be on the charts as often as she’s in the tabloids.

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23. Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”

In a very tough year, this I’ve-seen-it-all soul number from the retiring Iggy (with an assist from new pal Josh Homme) contained some welcome perspective – the shitter things get, the closer they are to becoming sweet again.

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22. case/lang/veirs – “Best Kept Secret”

I hadn’t heard of Laura Veirs before this collab with kd lang and Neko Case. So I was doubly surprised when she outshone them both, with this irrepressibly catchy folk song.

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21. 2 Chainz ft. Drake – “Big Amount” 

I want to hear flutes on everything now.

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20. Usher – “Crash”

It’s remarkable that Usher can still make songs like this – an R&B ballad about feeling vulnerable that takes you higher than an ego boost ever could.

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19. The Avalanches ft. Danny Brown and MF Doom – “Frankie Sinatra”

Calypso rap witchery.

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18. Anderson Paak – “Come Down” 

An ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.

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17. Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”

The lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.

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16. Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”

Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.

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15. The Monkees – “She Makes Me Laugh”

Romantic sunshine pop to soothe our inner cynic, from the singers of “Daydream Believer” and the writer of “Island in the Sun.”

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14. Drake ft. Wizkid and Kyla – “One Dance”

Dancehall, Afrobeat and hip hop collide on Drake’s entrancing hit – one of the few things most of us could agree on this year.

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13. Kvelertak – “1985” 

A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by one of Satan’s sandpaper-throated emissaries.

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12. Anohni – “Drone Bomb Me”

On this gut-wrenching takedown of modern warfare, Anohni rips our hearts out, if only to prove we still have them.

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11. Kero Kero Bonito – “Trampoline” 

Dance-pop that’s as blissfully bouncy as its subject matter.

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10. Solange ft. The-Dream and BJ the Chicago Kid – “F.U.B.U.”

Solange sings about racial profiling with calm confidence, over floating organ and crisp, darting horns.

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9. Fifth Harmony – “Work From Home”

When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.

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8. Kamaiyah ft. Zay – “Out the Bottle”

Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware.

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7. Kanye West – “Ultralight Beam”

An artist who once claimed to be a god lies prostrate here, before the majesty of a gospel choir, and the nimble footwork of an all-time-great Chance the Rapper verse. He calls it a god dream, and I can’t argue.

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6. A Tribe Called Quest – “The Space Program”

When Q-Tip leans into his first verse on this, the first track of Tribe’s impossibly perfect comeback LP, I feel less silly about believing in something like fate.

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5. Frank Ocean – “Self Control”

Nobody reflects on lost love like Frank Ocean. “Keep a place for me / It’s no thing,” he sings. There’s no regret or bitterness. Just sweet humility, and warm light.

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4. DJ Shadow ft. Run the Jewels – “Nobody Speak”

Killer Mike and El-P bring mics to a gunfight.

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3. Rihanna – “Higher”

“I know I could be more creative / And come up with poetic lines,” sings our narrator, emboldened by alcohol, voice fraying from the sheer force of her feelings. They don’t make love songs like this anymore.

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2. Angel Olsen – “Shut Up Kiss Me”

A total gem of a rock and roll song, powered by love’s frightening adrenaline.

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1. Beyoncé – “Hold Up” 

Remember how awesomely cathartic it was to watch Angela Bassett set fire to her shithead husband’s car in Waiting to Exhale? Now you can sing along.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”; Azealia Banks – “Skylar Diggins”; Beyoncé – “Formation”; Black Mountain – “Cemetery Breeding”; James Blake – “Always”; David Bowie – “Lazarus”; Danny Brown – “When It Rain”; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Distant Sky”; Hannah Diamond – “Make Believe”; D.R.A.M. – “Cute”; Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj – “Side to Side”; Homeboy Sandman – “Talking (Bleep)”; Masta Ace – “Young Black Intelligent”; Metallica – “Spit Out the Bone”; M.I.A. – “Bird Song”; Frank Ocean – “Solo”; Isaiah Rashad – “Free Lunch”; Rihanna – “Love On the Brain”; Run the Jewels – “Talk to Me”; William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”; Vektor – “LCD (Liquid Crystal Disease)”; Kanye West – “Real Friends”; YG – “Twist My Fingaz”; Young Greatness – “Lingo Dripping”; Young M.A – “OOOUUU”; Young Thug – “Wyclef Jean”

The Top 20 Albums of 2016

You don’t need to read another rundown of all the things that made 2016 the absolute worst. We know what happened. So let’s seal ourselves off in a pop culture vacuum and focus on what an incredible year this was for music. I think it’s the best since 2000 – the year of Stankonia, Kid A and a Democrat somehow not becoming president even though more people voted for him. Oh shit. Sorry about that. Calm blue ocean, people. Just read on.

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20. Black Mountain – IV

If you thought rock bands were done generating fresh sounds from old ingredients, here’s some cause for optimism. This Vancouver quintet is certainly a student of 1970s and ’80s rock tropes, but the elements they fuse together on IV felt distinct in 2016. Sabbathy pentatonics make way for undulating synth patches cribbed from Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The melodies are imbued with the downcast posture and shattered beauty of Pornography-era Cure, but sung with the lithe dual-vocalist force of peak Fleetwood Mac. When these considerable influences melt together in the telling of an epic alien invasion or a graveside love affair, you have something that can only be described as Black Mountain.

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19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sang Bob Dylan in the late 1990s, while in the midst of a heart-related health scare. Gone was the artist’s typical literary remove, leaving behind an authentic beauty that he’s rarely matched. A similar sense of clear-eyed acceptance is present on what we now know as Leonard Cohen’s final LP. Released a few weeks before his death, You Want It Darker is a spare, haunting treatise on the pitfalls of faith, with the artist staring eternity in the eye and giving it a knowing wink over soft beds of synths and the occasional choir. It’s familiar territory for the writer of “Story of Isaac” and “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Hallelujah” – one last crack at the god that never wrote him backHe may not have won the war, but this final battle is all his.

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18. Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen’s third album is a plugged-in collection of rough-hewn folk songs that are resigned to love’s failure. “Heartache ends, and begins again,” she sings. But in this resignation, she finds freedom. My Woman is an ecosystem of love and pain, the evaporation of the former resulting in the thunderstorms of the latter. After the crackling chemistry of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill Me” captures that frightening moment when you realize loving someone gives them the power to hurt you. Then, in a torrential catharsis, “Woman” unleashes that hurt, clearing the way for the cycle to begin again. Like Roger Sterling once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” By admitting defeat from the beginning, you’re free to just enjoy the ride.

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17. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

With a guest verse on one of the year’s most irresistible dance songs and a weekly slot performing the theme song to ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Danny Brown seemed on a path to being one of the cuddlier MCs of 2016. Then Atrocity Exhibition came out, and we were reminded he was fire incarnate. Inspired by a Joy Division song that was inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel set in an insane asylum, Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly bleak, a musty hotel room with blankets on the windows and powder residue on the cable guide laminate. Fans of his club-friendly fare won’t find any refuge in the lyric sheet. But they don’t have to. Brown’s acrobatic flow is so effortless, his lung capacity seemingly bottomless, it’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in its energy.

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16. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs

When k.d. lang wanted to realize a decades-long dream of creating her version of the roots rock supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, she shot an email to two of her favorite songwriters, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. Within a half-hour, it was a done deal. But Case/Lang/Veirs feels like anything but a one-off experiment. Whether it’s one of Case’s sweeping country gallops, some pitch-perfect vocal jazz from lang or a plaintive folk singalong from Veirs, the production has the same, perfectly lived-in feel. Plus, the shifting spotlight feels natural, because these artists share an uncanny ability to depict the joys and jealousies of long-term relationships. “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything,” sings Veirs on one of her several standout contributions. When I looked at my wife sleeping next to me on Election Night, I knew for a fact that she was right.

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15. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.

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14. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

Few things convey strength better then staying calm as a samurai in the face of adversity. Like Charles Bronson, vengeful yet stone-faced, in Once Upon A Time In The West. Or Barack Obama, never losing his cool in the face of obstructionist hate. Or the Brooklyn firefighter and underground rapper Ka, who dives deep into the warring psychologies of street life while never once raising his voice. Over candlelit soul samples that would make any Wu-Tang member salivate, Ka delivers every line in a steady, conspiratorial whisper – even the ones about the tragically paradoxical advice of his loving parents. “Mommy told me be a good boy / Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy / Pops told me stay strapped son / You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.”

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13. Beyoncé – Lemonade

Thirteen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. This year, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestles with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment. By the end, Beyoncé has transcended being crazy in love. She’s never sounded more powerful.

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12. Masta Ace – The Falling Season

A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace writes about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC is on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits are skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace has been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. In 2016, he was my favorite teacher.

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11. The Monkees – Good Times!

On Good Times!, the surviving members of The Monkees celebrate their 50th anniversary by doing what they do best – exuberantly harmonizing over impeccably produced sunshine pop. Along with producer Adam Schlesinger and an impressive array of guest songwriters, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith lovingly recreate that warm, jangly 1966 pop sound that proved they were more than a bunch of boob-tube Beatles. Schlesinger does an excellent job mixing his authentically retro-sounding sessions with unreleased vintage recordings of Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012) and old Dolenz pal Harry Nilsson. And while Dolenz handles most of the singing with admirable verve, it’s a joy to hear Nesmith, who sings with grace and transparency on two excellent ballads. At 73 years old, the green-hatted one remains a woefully underrated craftsman.

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10. Jamila Woods – HEAVN

Chance the Rapper had a massive 2016, his relentlessly positive Coloring Book mixtape resonating big time with a traumatized American populace. But to me, Chance’s frequent collaborator Jamila Woods was the one doing the lord’s work this year, radiating strength and self-worth in a society that is hell-bent on destroying it. HEAVN is one beautifully constructed ode after another – to resilience in the face of police brutality, to Lake Michigan, to her name – over gentle, rolling grooves that feel like they were warmed up on a windowsill. The Chicago native is a meditative singer along the lines of Erykah Badu, her voice a balm, exuding serene confidence without ever pretending there isn’t a reason to be afraid.

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9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd

A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.

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8. Anderson Paak – Malibu

Throughout his sprawling second album, Anderson Paak intersperses interview clips of professional surfers, who discuss the dangers and sensory thrills of their sport. It’s an appropriate motif for the artist, who treats Malibu like one 62-minute wave, created when the current of 2016 hip hop meets the undertow of 1976 soul. And I’ll be damned if he ever loses his balance. Paak is an R&B singer first, but his masterful syncopation and raspy tone are more reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar than any crooner. He’s just as comfortable on an Isley Brothers jones as he is trading verses with Schoolboy Q. One of the surfers says it best: “I enjoy some of the old, and I enjoy the new, and if I can find a balance between it, that’s where I find my satisfaction.”

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7. Solange – A Seat at the Table

In a year that tried its hardest to crush our spirits, Solange Knowles made an album of crisply focused R&B that felt like the eye of a hurricane. Seat at the Table had been gestating for years, but it doesn’t sound remotely fussed over. The artist favors a less-is-more production aesthetic, putting kick, snare and keyboards together in ways that evaporate tension. She sprinkles in a series of compelling conversational interludes to accentuate the informal vibe, while deepening the record’s theme of irrepressible black pride. Whether she’s admitting to weariness, bristling at cultural appropriation, or explaining all the reasons she has to be mad, Solange does so with preternatural calm and emotional insight, like the moment of clarity that comes after a long, productive cry.

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6. David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie wasn’t one to sugarcoat. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality. So it’s hard to imagine a more perfect coda to his career than Blackstar, released two days before his passing in January. Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one more glance over the shoulder before he ends his transmission to us all, leaving no doubt he gave us everything he could.

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5. Rihanna – Anti

Rihanna didn’t call her eighth album Anti as some sort of faux-punk Avril Lavigne pose. This is a truly remarkable example of a massive pop star pushing back hard against weighty commercial expectations. Her favored production style is a shadowy electronic murk – faint bass lines rumble under jittery drum machines and the whispered rumor of a keyboard. “Woo” is straight-up label-head-baiting, dissonant art rock, all squealing guitars and Auto-Tune howls. And it works, as does everything here, because of Rihanna’s voice, the beating heart of these compellingly cold environments. She’s always been an underrated vocalist, but on Anti, she’s living the notes, inhabiting the melodies. And it’s 100% why a risky late-album shift to straightforward R&B feels like a spine-tingling coup instead of a money grab. “Higher” is the best of the four excellent ballads that end the album – a raw, drunken plea with a great lyric about being too heartbroken to write great lyrics. When her voice frays on the chorus, I’ve been known to cry.

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4. William Tyler – Modern Country

There’s something about the way William Tyler plays guitar that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK. So this year, Modern Country was an absolute blessing. It’s an album of transportive, richly reverberating instrumentals, the kind of music that gets played in the background but refuses to stay there. Tyler is a Nashville native, and his bluegrass chops shine through in the gorgeous way he clusters notes together. His production instincts are open, warm, and never rushed, like a stroll in the country with someone you love. And his tone is pure honeysuckle. Lyrics would ruin this.

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3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service

The day after Donald Trump got elected on a wave of fake nostalgia, A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to give us the real shit. On We Got It From Here, the group accomplishes the difficult task of appeasing nostalgic fans, and mourning one of its members, while never pandering to anyone. It’s full of the warm Rhodes chords, spacious jazz-fusion loops and glorious vocal syncopation of classic Tribe. But rapper/producer/visionary Q-Tip leads his crew down some fruitful new avenues as well, including an embrace of guitar sounds that encompasses distorted Jack White atmospherics and Can’s cold funk. Even more amazing is how great these MCs sound, with Tip and the late Phife Dawg effortlessly trading couplets like old times, and former hype man Jarobi delivering some of the year’s most purely enjoyable bars from out of nowhere. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever,” rap Tip and Phife together on the instant-classic opener. Even on November 9, it made me feel hopeful.

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2. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto

In 1992, Ice Cube illustrated how rough most days were in Compton by painting a vivid picture of a good one. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape extends Cube’s party into the evening, with a collection of pristine, lowrider gangsta shit about how much better champagne tastes when you’ve been broke all your life. The Oakland MC is the definition of charisma on the mic, her flow easygoing, her rhymes both celebratory and reflective. “I shine so hard that you can’t ignore it,” she raps over the rubbery synth bass and vintage high-register keyboard runs of “Out the Bottle,” and it’s a goddamn fact. No album in 2016 was stacked with more hooks than A Good Night in the Ghetto, and Kamaiyah fills them with laid-back swagger that comes naturally to her, like a sigh of relief on payday. She’s like the protagonist on the cover – arms raised with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of Hennessy in the other, triumphant in her newfound belief that life is good.

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1. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Frank Ocean took a long time recording his follow up to 2012’s magnificent channelORANGE. And it seems like most of those four years were spent deconstructing. More often than not, Blonde is as stripped down as a folk song. Keyboards are abandoned. Guitars are stranded. His peerless voice goes unsupported as it seeks salvation through loneliness, attempting to transcend the temptations and limitations of fame. It’s passionate, therapeutic and heartbreaking all at once. On some level, Ocean must feel a connection with the haunted geniuses he references on Blonde – Elliott Smith, Karen Carpenter, Nirvana. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws. Anything means more when he’s singing it. And here, he’s singing for his soul.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – Daniel Son Necklace Don; Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid; Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me; ANOHNI – Hopelessness; The Avalanches – Wildflower; James Blake – The Colour In Anything; Bloodiest – Bloodiest; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree; De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody; Drake – Views; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression; Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows; Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.; M.I.A. – AIM; Noname – Telefone; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool; Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade; Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Survive – RR7349; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere; Vektor – Terminal Redux; Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery; Young Thug – Slime Season 3

The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016

Is there anything better than crankin’ some rockin’ tunes while cruisin’? Break out your drivin’ gloves and coastin’ shades, cuz I’m about to press your boogie-woogie button with The 2016 Songs of the Summer Megamix 2016. Crank it loud. Crank it far. Crank it like a dude with a ‘tude who makes the squares unglued.

SWEENDOGG’S TRACK BREAKDOWN

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Kamaiyah – “Out the Bottle”
Combining syrupy ’90s gangsta with the lit bluntness of Mustardwave, this magnetic Bay Area rapper shows us why the self-confident have no need for stemware. The I-just-don’t-give-a-fuck anthem of the year.

 

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Anderson .Paak – “Come Down”
The year’s most ambitious R&B auteur contemplates a state of permanent highness over a crackling funk break from Hi-Tek.

 

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The Monkees – “You Bring the Summer”
This lilting highlight of the superb Monkees reunion disc Good Times! is brimming with love’s wide-eyed optimism, making a chips-and-dip picnic sound like a trip to Paris.

 

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Kvelertak – “1985”
A beer-swillingly addictive single from these Norwegian black metal heroes. Sounds like Van Halen fronted by a sandpaper-throated emissary from Satan.

 

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Lady Leshurr – “Queen’s Speech 4”
Personal hygiene has never sounded this hardcore.

 

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Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom”
Full of audacious swagger and undeniable craftsmanship, this is the lavender Lamborghini of dance-pop hits.

 

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Sturgill Simpson – “Keep it Between the Lines”
Sturg goes full Stax on this groovy homage to fatherly advice, full of stabbing low-register horns and a loose falsetto refrain of “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

 

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2 Chainz ft. Lil Wayne – “Bounce”
Two rap vets going in like there’s nothing to lose.

 

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Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – “Work From Home”
When you’re in love, the worst part about being in the office during summer doesn’t involve what you could be doing outside.

 

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William Tyler – “Kingdom of Jones”
An offering to the sun god, in the form of an achingly beautiful country guitar instrumental.

 

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Kanye West ft. Chris Brown – “Waves”
Effervescent, soulful and hopeful, “Waves” feels like the old Kanye. In the thorny, paranoid sprawl of The Life of Pablo, it’s a striking breath of fresh air.

 

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Iggy Pop – “Chocolate Drops”
If you think your summer is going to shit, the indefatigable Iggy is here to remind you that you’re right around the corner from sweet relief.

 

The Top 20 Songs of 2013

Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)

Prince

20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”

On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.

Danny Brown

19. Danny Brown – “Dip”

Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.

Jim James

18. Jim James – “A New Life”

On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.

   Action Bronson

17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”

Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.

Thundercat

16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”

2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.

1 Train

15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”

Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.

Robin Thicke

14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”

Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.

Pistol Annies

13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”

For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.

Retrograde

12. James Blake – “Retrograde”

“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.

Finnaticz

11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”

And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.

Kanye West

10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”

Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.

Chance The Rapper

9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”

When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.

Janelle Monae

8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”

If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.

Rhye

7. Rhye – “Open”

When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.

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6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”

Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”

Disclosure

5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”

Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.

M.I.A.

4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”

M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.

Drake

3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.

Kanye West

2. Kanye West – “Bound 2”

You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.

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1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”

Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.

The Top 20 Albums of 2013

Dear readers,

Before we dive into yet another year-end rundown of music sounds that I deemed pleasurable, I wanted to say that this particular list was most likely influenced by events other than the physical media spinning on my Discman. This June, my wife and I realized a dream by moving to Maine, and the sudden proliferation of beauty and happiness made me more susceptible to messages about life being worthwhile and love being the most important thing. Am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, you ask? Well, I just jabbed a pen at my eye area to check, and nope! No glasses. So even though my retina is bleeding, if I had to pick one lyric I identify with from the albums on this list, it would be “I really am a lucky man.”

future20. Future – Future Presents F.B.G.: The Movie

Auto-Tune was invented to be a form of sonic retouching, a way to ensure pitch perfection for any vocalist. But if you’ve heard Cher’s “Believe,” or seen a cover of Vogue lately, you know that the more you hide flaws, the more you’re hiding signs of life. Which makes Future’s artistic identity all the more transgressive and intoxicating. The Atlanta rapper uses Auto-Tune not as a support system, but as a sparring partner, his voice rejecting its attempts to correct it, resulting in an entrancing, narcotic croak that frays and stutters like a YouTube video played over spotty Wi-Fi. So while FBG: The Movie suffers a bit from your typical rap crew mixtape bloat (it’s intended to be a showcase for Future’s Free Bands collective), it has Future delivering pretty much every chorus, sounding deliriously confident and dangerously vulnerable, all at the same time. Like last year’s Rick Ross tape Rich Forever, FBG: The Movie has so many classic, filthy-loud beats it almost feels unfair. But where Ross washed his kingpin tales in bright comic book colors, Future is a decidedly flawed superhero – a man masked in Auto-Tune, fighting for air.

The Electric Lady19. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Sometimes an artist is too talented for their own good. They operate on a different plane than their audience, seeing things they couldn’t possibly see, and thereby creating things that are difficult for them to digest. Like sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune is a breathtakingly intricate achievement of the human imagination, and also boring as shit. Then there’s sci-fi R&B singer Janelle Monae, whose artistic vision is painstakingly complete to a level of confusion. On her magnificent 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, the whole Blade Runner-ish concept didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t matter, thanks to stone cold grooves like “Tightrope.” It’s essentially more of the same on The Electric Lady, which means Monae gives us an album’s worth of monster jams (“Dance Apocalyptic” will make you do just that, for instance), but almost buries them in unnecessary world building. There’s enough greatness here to forgive these failed attempts at concept album transcendence, but here’s hoping her next record is all sandworm, and no sand.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar

If Kevin Barnes has made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. But it’s not for lack of trying. Over the course of a dozen albums, the driving creative force behind Of Montreal has taken his music in all kinds of questionable directions – he’s written the twee-est of bedroom folk songs, stacked harmonies like Phil Spector on acid, spilled his guts about a divorce over dance-pop beats, and then created a hedonistic alter ego to take that same approach into some seriously apeshit-sounding places. Lousy With Sylvianbriar represents his first major creative shift since that incredible divorce album (2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) – convincingly appropriating 1970s country-rock vernacular, full of cheerful slide guitars, chiming mandolins and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-style duets. It should come as no surprise that it works; in fact, it’s the most focused collection of Barnes songs in years. Whether he’s burrowing in the pocket of a loose, Sticky Fingers-era Stones groove or cooing an Opry-ready ballad, Barnes sticks to the one thing that has been consistent throughout his crazy-ambitious career arc – dense, whimsical, unforgettable wordplay. Like this doozy: “The voice with the synapse that calls blood bats into action has now entered the tablelands.”

Push The Sky Away17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

If anybody was worried that original guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey’s exit from the Bad Seeds would be a death knell for Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the refrain from “Water’s Edge” should’ve quelled some nerves: “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/But the chill of love is comin’ down.” Lyrics don’t get much more Nick Cave-y than that, and Push The Sky Away, his 15th Bad Seeds record, is full of similar ruminations on romance and death and dark destinies coming to fruition by the seaside. It’s the band’s most beautiful work in this century, a collection of quietly ominous, pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. Perhaps Harvey could’ve convinced Cave to prune a lunkheaded line or two, or at least save them for Grinderman 3 (which is a thing that I’m just going to say is happening because IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN), especially the first couplet from the otherwise crushingly gorgeous “Mermaids.” But on the whole, this is a legacy-worthy installment, a deliciously restrained effort from a band that seemed due for an overreach.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze16. Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

In my best of 2011 list, I tried to explain why Kurt Vile’s lackadaisical brand of folk-rock is so damn compelling. The best I could do was the old cliché that “not trying makes you cool” (which, really? come on, self). Luckily, I don’t have to attempt it again this year, because on the warm, rolling dream that is Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile delivers a line that pretty much nails it – “Feeling bad in the best way a man can.” These are songs with narrators in need – of love, vindication, succor, direction in life, etc. Yet instead of wallowing, they’re more likely to step out into the sunshine, make a wisecrack and coast on the reverberating, 12-string acoustic waves. Songs like “Pure Pain,” “Shame Chamber” and “Too Hard” aren’t titled ironically, yet they’re streaked with hope, and anchored by Vile’s singing, which never rises above an “everything’s gonna be OK” kind of murmur. He’s singing about feelings that sting like freezing rain, if only because they make pretty days that much prettier.

Yoko Ono15. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell

Yoko Ono’s music has a pretty entrenched reputation as the ultimate in avant garde art student bullshit. And while she’s done plenty of that sort of thing – much of it with a man who remains universally thought of as a genius – her actual sonic identity is much more nuanced, marked by hyperactive new wave freakouts, strikingly fragile balladry, and nostalgic 1930s-style romps that make you wonder if she’s been a closet McCartney fan all these years. Her latest album with Plastic Ono Band (which includes son and bandleader Sean Lennon, as well as guests like Questlove, Nels Cline and the surviving Beastie Boys) is a worthy addition to a musical legacy both aggressively offbeat and quirkily traditional. Yes, there are the stereotypical Ono shriek-outs, which make tracks like the opening rock/poetry slam pastiche “Moonbeams” sound off-the-rails dangerous, but there are also meditations on true love that would fit snugly on Double Fantasy (“There’s No Goodbye Between Us”) and a cheeky, cabaret-style kiss-off to an ex that’s as charming as music got in 2013 (“Leaving Tim”). Now an octogenarian, Yoko sounds as feisty and invested as ever – so much so that a trip to hell now feels like one unforgettably whacked-out kind of party.

The Next Day14. David Bowie – The Next Day

If somebody put a gun to my head and demanded I point out a weakness of David Bowie in his prime (which for my money began with 1971’s Hunky Dory and ended with 1977’s Heroes), I’d probably single out his singing voice. In reality, Bowie’s reedy quaver had an enchantingly alien quality that fit all the interstellar/dystopian subject material quite snugly, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful, and hey, this guy’s about to kill me here. And that makes the distinctive pleasure of Bowie’s 21st century material downright ironic – and an argument in favor of the artist being something more than human, like that all-knowing glow-being from The Abyss or something. Because on records like 2002’s Heathen and this year’s surprise release The Next Day, David Bowie’s singing is the number one reason to pay attention – his timbre more resonant, his phrasing more nuanced, his 66-year-old vocal chords responsible for some of the most solemnly pretty noise in rock and roll. The Next Day treads some familiar terrain for Bowie fans – elegant, gothic rock songs about fame, the apocalypse and space dancing – but this time around, our messenger traverses it with a deep, knowing croon, and that makes all the difference. His message used to be “hang onto yourself,” but now that the ride is almost over, he’d rather we sit back, relax, and accept the inevitable with a smile.

Modern Vampires13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

Like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend is a band that invites an easy kind of hate – for starters, you’ve got the Graceland-aping trust fund ballads, upper crust New England hipster duds, and tween-friendly band name. But let’s pretend that their ’80s Afro-pop hooks weren’t discussed as if they were revolutionary, that they’re all children of Indianapolis schoolteachers, and that they’ve had a good band name this whole time (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll go with “Good Band Name”). And you’ve got a group that can craft a cheerful hook as effectively as anybody, who stuffed its first two albums with so many of them that it seemed unfair, and whose third release manages to work in some stunning mid-mid-life crisis poetry without skimping on the earworms. In this vacuum I’ve created, Modern Vampires Of The City (aka Good Band Name III) is a fantastic work of art, where singer/co-writer Ezra Koenig (aka Frank Stevens) tries to reconcile his faith in God, which is tough to do when he can’t even keep a relationship from falling apart during a cross-country trip. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings during the lyrical encyclopedia that is “Step.” Considering how compelling his band has become since the days of “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma,” I’m compelled to disagree.

Carcass12. Carcass – Surgical Steel

I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, he feels a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This is Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it’s (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, the guitar parts containing just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it makes me especially, screamingly grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.

Pusha T11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Even for a genre where boasting is like breathing, 2013 was an especially egomaniacal year in hip hop – whether it was thrillingly unstable, moody and defensive, reeking of flop sweat, or recorded while waiting for the yacht cable guy. But nobody explored the depths of their own awesomeness with the level of measured cool achieved by Pusha T, whose first official solo record completely delivers on the audacious yet matter-of-fact confidence of its title. It’s a feat even more impressive when you consider the pressure to perform – years into his solo career after the demise of Clipse, Pusha T had put out a mixtape and an EP, and landed some prominent guest verses, but hadn’t really proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned in the least over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” where he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of the drug game in a way that’s both romantic and weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from the seemingly unstoppable Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.

Matangi10. M.I.A. – Matangi

It’s always been tough to accept the plight of the wealthy celebrity – “heavy lies the crown” makes more sense when applied to presidents than, say, Super Bowl halftime show performers. But ever since making an indelible, kaleidoscopic imprint on the world of popular music with her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. has been in active rebellion against the idea of being a pop star, and it has been as compelling as any artistic evolution this millennium. On Matangi, her fourth record, the English/Sri Lankan singer, rapper, songwriter and noise wrangler remains in distress about her position of influence, exhorting her listeners to both dance and revolt over squalls of mechanized drumming. And while no song avoids these thrilling, dissonant bursts, M.I.A. does gives those pop sensibilities more room to breathe than she did on her last record, 2011’s cold, tangled, underrated Maya. Sensibilities that are most evident on “Come Walk With Me,” which pairs a sunny, it-takes-two philosophy with an endlessly hummable chorus, giving us enough time to appreciate those incomparable summer jam chops before the sledgehammer drums shatter our reverie. The crown remains heavy, but M.I.A. has come up with a surefire way to deal with it – make sure her records are even heavier.

Muchacho9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a recent lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter is just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s all threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like the rawest, most solemn promise.

Blue Chips8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2

Apparently Action Bronson has been recording his major label debut for Atlantic Records. Here’s hoping they’re saving as much of the budget as possible for sample clearance. Because this mixtape, a sequel to last year’s stellar Blue Chips, contains what is possibly the most entertaining melange of looped pop hits this side of Paul’s Boutique – after Blue Chips 2, any record that doesn’t give Bronsolino at least one ironically applied oldie or ’80s smash to spit over will feel like a disappointment. Not to make BC2 sound like a gimmick, because it’s not. (It doesn’t work because it samples “Sledgehammer,” it works because it has Action Bronson opining, “Uhhh … fly shit … grown man shit” over a sample of “Sledgehammer.”) Like the first Blue Chips, this tape features plenty of RZA-like, scratchy soul loops to back up verses loaded with references to food, sex and 1990s athletes (Nick Van Exel, take a bow). But the whole thing is just more fun this time around, what with the snippets of Applebee’s commercials and beats born from “Tequila” and Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason.” Few rappers are feeling it like Action Bronson these days, and BC2 is the perfect platform for his magnificent, tongue-in-cheek shit talk.

Neko Case7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case is sick and tired of your expectations. “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes,” one of many tracks on her stunning sixth album that discover freedom through fatalistic directness. The singer/songwriter has never sounded this fed up – with crummy parents, dumb-ass lovers and those pesky illustrated lampreys – and her scalding sarcasm turns the lovely, warm bath of a typical Case production into a complex, simmering stew. Gone are the love-as-tornado metaphors, replaced by the rallying cries of the defiantly heartbroken – “You didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you,” she belts triumphantly over the sensational gallop of “Man.” All this vitriol does not change the fact that The Worse Things Get is a joy to listen to on the level of Case’s two previous masterworks (2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009’s Middle Cyclone). From ghostly a cappella breaks to burbling baritone-sax arrangements, quiet acoustic reflections to finger-wagging girl group choruses, this is as ambitious and assured as Case has ever sounded. On the record’s opening song, she asks herself if she’d rather be a king or a king’s pet. Hearing the absolute power she wields in the studio, you can guess which one she chooses.

Rhye6. Rhye – Woman

R&B is generally viewed as the sexiest genre of music, the go-to soundtrack for doing stuff on bearskin rugs by the fire and the like. And while there’s great R&B that embraces such corny clichés (see Kelly, R.), I think that for the most part, this stuff is at its most sensual when it’s about more than just sex. Enter Rhye, an L.A. duo whose immaculate quiet storm of a debut album is full of excellent pick-up lines, but delivers them with the sweetness and vulnerability of a heat-of-the-moment “I love you.” It’s the same delicate emotional balance that defined Sade at her peak – and listening to how Woman weaves blankets of synthesizers for lead singer Milosh to tuck us in with, there’s no doubt that Rhye is more than just influenced by the queen of slow-burning romance. This album is a tribute to her. So for those of us who find tenderness to be erotic, these guys were the smoothest operators of 2013.

Overgrown5. James Blake – Overgrown

When artists say they don’t really care about attention or awards, it’s usually a lie they’re not even trying that hard to sell. But on the title track of James Blake’s hypnotic second album, his pleas for constancy over frivolity are either totally sincere, or the product of a magnificent fibber: “I don’t wanna be a star/But a stone on the shore/A lone door frame in the wall/When everything’s overgrown.” I can’t help but take him at his word, because Overgrown itself is an argument for the beauty of things that last, a collection of simple mantras about what truly matters woven through a wintry forest of lulling, whispering electronica. Blake has created a consistently entrancing experience akin to his devastating 2011 debut, continuing to draw no lines between moments of transcendence and pain. But there’s a lot more of the former this time around, thanks to a handful of love songs that are as profoundly spartan as a blue collar engagement ring – “To the last/You and I,” he croons, leaving the flowery language to those who crave stardom above all.

Nothing Was The Same4. Drake – Nothing Was The Same

The most compelling thing about Drake is the way he has his cake and eats it too – crafting verses that are drenched in both bravado and insecurity, making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom, making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands – and on lesser Drake albums – but on Nothing Was The Same, the artist’s vision is so thoroughly realized, his collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears make for a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. If the arc of his tortured millionaire persona is a put-on, it’s a fantastically executed one, because on NWTS, the cognac-for-one romantic despair of Drake’s previous work evolves into a grander fear of the other shoe dropping. The more money he makes (which, according to his verse on “All Me,” is so much he’s forgotten the amount), the more he feels like it can’t last. So much of the record finds the rapper revisiting the fantasies of his 1990s childhood, creating a two-song sequence based on Wu-Tang Clan’s most magnanimous single, making Fresh Prince of Bel Air references, comparing his earning potential to Dan Marino’s in his prime. These would seem to be the only things this prodigy-turned-superstar can take comfort in, if it weren’t for all those sumptuous, late-night-neon grooves.

Yeezus3. Kanye West – Yeezus

A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with an aging Snarf, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.

Dream River2. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years after releasing an album called Apocalypse, Bill Callahan resurfaced in 2013 with the most life-affirming record of the year. Dream River begins with Callahan in full story-song cowboy mode, sitting alone in a hotel bar. But instead of brooding about stuff like how every flower turns to hay, he relishes in the simple joy of a three-word vocabulary (“Beer” and “thank you”), appreciating everyone in the room, just because they exist. From an artist who has tended to espouse a worldview where even the silver linings are tarnished, this is an unexpected, enlightening surprise, like encountering a Larry McMurtry character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. And just when you start to ask why, track two starts playing, and you realize he’s in love. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” Callahan sings in his rich, whiskey-barrel basso. “You looked so peaceful, you scared me.” Fear of losing one’s full happiness is right there in that voice. Fear, and awe, and gratitude. Dream River overflows with moments like these – a cycle of eight songs that represent a metaphysical moment of clarity. Bill Callahan might look at life as one arcing flight through the air, but he’s made an album about the times before you land in which you truly feel weightless.

Chance The Rapper1. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fuels Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives a fascinating, charismatic performance that puts him on the short list of young artists who seem primed to leave their fingerprints all over the ’10s. The 20-year-old Chicagoan spent his formative years ingesting Kanye West’s college trilogy and Lil Wayne’s mixtape revolution, and he soaks his second tape in the balmy soul samples of the former, and the effortlessly hilarious, cough-addled wordplay of the latter. But Acid Rap is about way more than influences. Chance has his own fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He litters his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but instead is as playful and essential as a Kanye “Haaah!” “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Atoms For Peace – Amok; Danny Brown – Old; Cakes Da Killa – The Eulogy; Disclosure – Settle; The Flaming Lips – The Terror; Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God; Paul McCartney – New; Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels; Ty Segall – Sleeper; She & Him – Volume Three; Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed; Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?; Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out; Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt