Music is the best. Nothing that happened this year could change that. For every stress-inducing headline, there was a soothing melody. For every messy situation, there were 16 perfectly constructed bars. Every time we wanted to scream, a great metal song provided an outlet. Here are just 20 of the recordings that made life easier for me this year. The next time you can’t believe what you’re hearing, start listening.
20. Nick Hakim – Green Twins
Nick Hakim approaches his brand of earnest R&B like a master restauranteur, valuing the ambiance as much as the meal. On his debut LP, the gifted Brooklynite refuses to just point and say “isn’t this catchy?” It’s seductive. At first listen, the reverberating piano chords of “Needy Bees” are merely soothing; by listen five, they’re inescapably beautiful, supporting every twist and turn of the melody. As a songwriter, Hakim is refreshingly astonished by things like love, and dreams, and pregnancy. He attains poignancy through simple language, including one of the most romantic sentiments of the year: “If there’s a god / I wonder what she looks like / I bet she looks like you.”
19. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
As a legend of the Scandinavian black metal scene, Kristoffer Rygg understands the mechanics of slow-building soundscapes and folkloric songwriting. And on his 11th album fronting the shapeshifting outfit Ulver, Rygg applies these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it works. Over the nine-plus minute expanse of “Rolling Stone,” the band rides a throaty synth riff until we’re in its thrall. And on “Nemoralia,” Rygg goes full Depeche Mode, his voice floating over hauntingly catchy synths, connecting the pagan feast of the goddess Diana to the tragic demise of the princess of the same name. Obsessed with ancient history and aglow with gloomy beauty, this is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.
18. CupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch
This Chicago rapper first garnered attention in 2015 with exuberant, X-rated club tracks like “Deep Throat.” But her music is as much about tension as it is about release. Her second mixtape, Queen Elizabitch, is full of empowering, sex-positive summer jams – she’s got clever genitalia metaphors for days. But these moments are complemented by darker tales pulled from the artist’s childhood, when she spent years living in homeless shelters. After hearing her spit fire about having to share clothes with friends or watch rats run over her mother’s feet, the calendar-exploding swagger of “33rd” and the horn-fueled sex-work anthem “Barcodes” become more than tracks to dance to. They’re states of mind to aspire to.
17. Drake – More Life
Ever the savvy brand manager, Drake decided to follow up his massively successful 2016 by pursuing a little less market saturation. More Life isn’t exactly a “playlist,” as its cover proclaims. But it is a gorgeously sequenced, decidedly low-stakes affair. The Toronto rapper steps down from his chilly CN Tower perch and ups the Celsius levels with forays into pulsing dancehall, UK grime and Atlanta trap. A lengthy guest list promotes the party atmosphere – Young Thug, Quavo and Skepta are given all the bars they need to steal the show. And whether he’s reflecting on pre-fame Applebees runs or picking through the ruins of a relationship, our headliner sounds more comfortable on the mic than he has in years.
16. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacks feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.
15. Jonwayne – Rap Album Two
The first line on this L.A. rapper’s second album isn’t your typical hip hop boast – “You never seen a man so calm in your life.” Released after the artist announced a break from touring due to his struggles with alcohol, Rap Album Two makes good on that initial claim in low-key, redemptive fashion. Jonwayne is a steady, comforting force as a rapper, his reflective bars gelling with serene, meditative loops. As he pours his heart out about his demons, and how he fears his art will suffer without them, the quiet understanding in his voice makes it obvious it’s not an act. “I need to slow down / But I need a good friend to come and tell me how,” he raps. It takes a significant amount of calm to admit that on wax.
14. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe
This Australian psychedelic rock septet went on a studio bender in 2017, releasing five full-length albums and showing no signs of letting up. All are worthwhile listens, but Murder of the Universe is the crown jewel – a breathless fusion of propulsive riffs and sci-fi fever dreams that reminds us how fun a concept album can be. As spoken-word narration guides us through tales of human/beast mind-melds, balrog fights and cyborgs who would give anything to understand how it feels to vomit, the Gizzard’s relentless dual-drummer attack feels capable of carrying us anywhere – even to the end of it all.
13. SZA – Ctrl
SZA songs are the sonic embodiment of the phrase “hopeless romantic.” On her striking debut album, she cuts to the quick of how it feels to get cheated on: “I could be your supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me,” she sings to a philandering ex, mourning the self-confidence that could have been. The production is intimate, with little reverb added to contemplative guitar figures and raw, one-take vocals. But there’s a reason this record is called Ctrl. SZA is not wallowing here. She’s settling scores via slow jam, directly confronting assholes by exposing how they’ve hurt her. All while refusing to lose faith in love.
12. Brockhampton – Saturation II
This summer, the self-described hip hop boy band Brockhampton filled up two mixtapes with enough personality and adrenaline to distract the grumpiest pessimist. The first was like hearing young wizards beginning to master their power. On the second, they start wielding their magic. Saturation II finds bandleader Kevin Abstract and producer Romil Hemnani zeroing in on a shared vision: rappers getting shit off their chests over party-ready golden-age beats. It’s compulsively listenable music, full of instantly memorable choruses and effective, cathartic verses. How they made a record featuring seven rappers feel this light is beyond me. All I know is, I want more.
11. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic
God bless the power chord. Just three notes splitting an octave to create a simple, beautiful symmetry. As the Dallas thrash band Power Trip proved this year, these compact sonic gifts can be utilized to brutal, exhilarating ends. These guys aren’t just out to detonate your eardrums on their punishing second LP. Chaos isn’t their game. Instead, Nightmare Logic is a relentless succession of irresistible guitar riffs, which were crafted with as much attention to rhythm as volume level. Whether it’s the chugging eighth notes of “Executioner’s Song” or the circular triplets that kick off “If Not Us Then Who,” this shit swings. As frontman Riley Gale cries out against “the slumber of reason” in his strangled yawp, those power chords roil and slither underneath, girding us for whatever nightmare the world’s gonna belch up next, reminding us of the power inherent in noise.
10. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
2 Chainz has been a reliable source of fun, wordplay-encrusted bangers since “I’m Different” kicked off his second wind in 2012. But the Atlanta veteran has never made a record like this. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music finds the rapper formerly known as “Tity Boi” slipping wistful drug-game reminiscences in between inspired bursts of fantastical materialism (this time he’s got a see-through fridge). His knack for painting pictures is buoyed by a vibrant and versatile slate of beats – the opening “Saturday Night” features a dramatic torch song groove from the always-in-demand Mike Will Made It. “I went to work and I made an abundance / Gucci flip flops with the corns and bunions,” 2 Chainz raps over the sinister synth strings and throbbing bass of “Riverdale Rd.” All that hard work is paying off.
9. Haim – Something to Tell You
If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips, the rise of Haim should correct that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continues to revel in the supermarket pop of yesteryear, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drums and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs are the singles, which pair catchy choruses with quirky production wrinkles – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender. The sum and total of this commitment to fizzy pop hooks is a significant amount of joy. Even during this very, very difficult year, it made me sing in my car like a fool – helping me hold on for one more day.
8. Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – Drool
In 2014, while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and playing drums in several bands, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya wrote this on his Chicago apartment wall: “You’re not normal, so why are you trying to be?” Three years later, the restless artist turned his focus to rapping and made a record that is thrillingly, definingly weird. Drool weaves together squelching synths, programmed drums and rat-a-tat sing-raps like distorted DNA strands, with Ogbonnaya exploring his full vocal register in the process. It’s not as intimidating as that sounds. “Hop Off” marries thrumming bass with chirping organ runs, and when the rapper enters the fray, we get within a stone’s throw of the radio. It’s purposefully off-kilter, yet easy to enjoy – a sign we’re dealing with a serious talent. We should follow him closely, even if he doesn’t necessarily want us to.
7. Kreator – Gods of Violence
The legendary German thrash band Kreator released its 14th album one week after Inauguration Day. It was a bomb to my headphones, and a balm to my nervous system. “Resistance must rise when freedom has died,” screamed Millie Petrozza in a voice as violent and alive as it was in ’85. Gods of Violence is full of visceral rallying cries like this. It stares fascists in the face, catalogs their sins, and tells them to beware the power of the people, over jet-fuel drums and riffs full of manic, Pixie-stick energy. It’s a goddamn reckoning. And by the time we make it to the penultimate track, “Side By Side,” Petrozza has decided that catharsis isn’t enough. So he makes an oath: “As we crush homophobia / We’ll never let the shame turn our vision to ice / And I’ll remain by your side.”
6. Feist – Pleasure
A decade after a song called “1, 2, 3, 4” made her a star, Leslie Feist is thinking even simpler. Her fourth album, Pleasure, finds new depths within her moonlit folk aesthetic. It’s been six years in the making, and it feels like it’s been in a slow cooker for that entire time. Each arrangement has been boiled down to its essential elements, finding its rhythm in the marrow. The fortunes of “I’m Not Running Away” rest completely on a swaying blues guitar riff, and it’s as exciting as a high wire act. “Any Party” relies on a chorus of non-singers to deliver its grand romantic refrain. “Century” breaks down time itself into its smallest components. And through it all, Feist’s voice is strong and clear, never straining to get its point across. It’s the sound of an artist in complete control.
5. Thundercat – Drunk
Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner has made his mark. Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that have entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicts, the potential of this artist is only beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of a versatile, funny, kaleidoscopically imaginative songwriter. The music is rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, and it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sings about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with the same awestruck, childlike energy. As a result, Drunk makes you feel the opposite of wasted.
4. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”
3. Pallbearer – Heartless
It’s appropriate that Pallbearer uses Roman numerals instead of typical track numbers on its staggering third album. The Arkansas quartet has written an honest-to-god symphony – a grand, interconnected composition that takes its time to unfurl, demanding to be seen as a whole. Heartless draws a direct line from the cavernous power chords of doom metal to the immersive atmospherics of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” In between long, seamless suites of guitar music, which bellows and soothes as it seeks our emotional core, singer Brett Campbell belts gorgeous vocals about the end of the world. It’s like hearing tectonic plates moving, conspiring our demise in ancient, beautiful ways.
2. Kesha – Rainbow
“I’m waiting for my spaceship to come back to me / And I don’t really care if you believe me,” sings Kesha on her ambitious, assured comeback album. Released in a year when “I believe the women” began to be said out loud, in public, Rainbow is both a zeitgeist-capturing statement of what it means to be a survivor and a canny, genre-bending ’10s pop album par excellence. Kesha deftly augments the pulsing dance-pop we’ve come to expect with elements of arena rock, modern country, piano balladry and twee folk. She belts out sweeping anthems of empowerment, threatens a would-be cheater with a wink and a smile, and looks to the skies for hope, revealing an impressive vocal range for the first time on tape. Rainbow sounds better than anything Kesha ever recorded with her longtime producer Dr. Luke, who the artist sued in 2014 for sexual assault. She lost that lawsuit in all-too-familiar fashion. But no court can stop this album, this free-spirited outpouring of emotion, from inspiring others to believe – in UFOs, in basic human decency, and in themselves.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar released a song called “How Much a Dollar Cost,” about ignoring a panhandler who turns out to be God. Throughout the sprawling crisis of faith that was his To Pimp a Butterfly album, this was one of the most overt pleas to trust in humanity. Then, a year and a half later, Election Day came to prove him wrong. Lamar didn’t make any public statements after Donald Trump’s victory. I can’t imagine how it’s affected him. But this spring, with the release of his laser-focused fourth album, it became clear that the effect on his art has been extraordinary. Determined instead of conflicted, realistic instead of religious, DAMN outlines a vital artist’s transformed approach to navigating a fucked-up world: Have faith in yourself. It’s a “back to basics” record both psychologically and sonically, where the artist has stripped away everything he can’t count on in the world and started over from there. That’s why DAMN is, to me, the best album of 2017. It’s titanically satisfying music that’s driven by the kind of visceral, personal feeling that will never stop being relevant. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” the rapper shares, over and over again, throughout this album. The first time he says it, it’s a plea. Eventually it becomes a mantra. By the end, it’s a declaration of independence. We may not be praying for you, Kendrick. But to our great benefit, we’re listening.
Honorable Mentions: 21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin – Without Warning; Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice; Beachheads – Beachheads; Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time; Bjork – Utopia; Bob Dylan – Triplicate; Hus Kingpin – 16 Waves; Kamaiyah – Before I Wake; Migos – Culture; The Mountain Goats – Goths; Randy Newman – Dark Matter; Angel Olsen – Phases; Syd – Fin; Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm; Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls