The best albums of 2017 so far

SZA (Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images), Kendrick Lamar (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MTV), and Perfume Genius (Photo: Matador Records)
SZA (Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images), Kendrick Lamar (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MTV), and Perfume Genius (Photo: Matador Records)

Even at just over six months old, 2017 has already given us more than enough good music to fill playlists from here until December—enough that it would be fine, really, if everyone just took a knee until next year. It’s also been an unusually busy year for comebacks: High-profile returns from the ’00s indie-rock class and the ’90s shoegaze scene have bumped up against new albums from pop’s current reigning champions, enough that you could easily fill this list with nothing but solid efforts from established veterans. Yet the most exciting thing about the year in music so far is how many of its most exciting moments belong to newer voices, from the forward-momentum R&B of SZA and Sampha, to the political post-punk of Algiers and Priests, to star-making hip-hop from Vince Staples and Tee Grizzley. It wasn’t easy narrowing that crowded field to just 30 albums—so we cheated and made it 31—and our vast, diverse, and hotly debated runners-up list contains just as many worthy contenders for our favorite records of the year. But these are the artists and albums that we’ve found ourselves returning to most often, in this brief interim before fall brings a second deluge.

Algiers, The Underside Of Power

“Important” records can feel like homework; “message” records doubly so. But the sophomore album from electro-gospel-punk firebrands Algiers, The Underside Of Power, couches its polemics in music that never sags under the weight of its seriousness, capturing the anger that roils around the Resistance with a popping, hissing, handclapping energy that finds the unlikely fulcrum between industrial churn and Motown soul. Frontman Franklin Fisher has a powerful preacher man’s voice and a graduate student’s erudition, and he wields both with staggering authority against the world’s many systemic ills, offering rebuke, remorse, and calls for revolution over songs that similarly pit noisy dystopia against a thumping human heart. Written directly in response to Trump’s election, Brexit, and the ongoing travails of Black Lives Matter, The Underside Of Power is also saddled with that other “important” music onus: “timely.” Yet the oppression it rails against is so unfortunately enduring, so sadly universal in nature, this is an album that should light fires under generations to come. [Sean O’Neal]

Blanck Mass, World Eater

On his third full-length as Blanck Mass, John Benjamin Power—better known as one-half of junkyard noiseniks Fuck Buttons—delivers a set of songs that mirrors his main gig’s whirr of apocalyptic anxiety and electric ecstasy, but with a fanged bite now unmistakably his own. Industrial synth surges, sliced-and-diced footwork beats, slow-pitched R&B vocals, and chopped-up cheerleader screams all converge here in a sound that rides the red line between punishment and pleasure, conjuring surprising grace out of so much extreme excess. And just when you think you have Power pegged with the brutal, John Carpenter-goes-black-metal carnival of “Rhesus Negative,” he pivots into the more seductively sinister “Please,” capturing the violent mood swings of a world that’s angry and uneasy, yet still down to fuck. It’s a digitally processed sound that also feels rawly human. [Sean O’Neal]

Charly Bliss, Guppy

It’s rare for a band to pull off a record that’s consistently great from start to finish. Even when it’s a debut, for which the group presumably had as long as was necessary to whip into shape, pulling off excellence remains an elusive feat. So kudos to Charly Bliss and its first album, Guppy, which manages to create effortlessly appealing pop-rock that avoids wearing out its welcome on the 10th, 50th, or even 1,000th play. By presenting deceptively simple tunes that mask the sophisticated songcraft at work in every drum fill and bridge, the band’s exuberant energy and willingness to keep an edge of noise and abandon keeps even the most overt harmonies and hooks from becoming mired in saccharine sap. It’s a fantastic record—and it feels fantastic to listen to as well. [Alex McLevy]

Feist, Pleasure

It took a while for Leslie Feist to release Pleasure: The album arrived six years after Metals, the earthy follow-up to her Apple-boosted breakout, The Reminder. And there’s nothing hasty about her fifth solo album, a fact readily gleaned from the running lengths of its tracks about growing older, understanding loneliness, and adjusting to the midpoints of your life and the emotional spectrum. But that’s apparent in the way these songs unfurl, too, a looseness that enhances their directness. Pleasure is Feist’s music at its unembellished peak, from the ragged strumming of the title track to the bedroom-demo vibe of “Get Not High, Get Not Low.” (Not that it’s without stirring arrangements: Witness “The Wind” build chamber pop for a chamber of intimate dimensions.) It’s all a lot like the poetry reading Jarvis Cocker gives in the middle of “Century”: A little wobbly at first, but once it gets going, it’s a knockout. [Erik Adams]

Forest Swords, Compassion

Matthew Barnes carved out a unique place in electronic music with 2013’s Engravings, wending a Far East exoticism through his fractured R&B textures, psychedelic flourishes, and dub beats that gave them a haunted, Old World atmosphere. That stylistic palette expands with this year’s Compassion, which draws much of its power from wordless chants and, in a first for Forest Swords, discernible vocal melodies like those heard on “Panic,” in which a voice clearly warbles, “I fear something’s wrong / The panic is on.” If this sounds like another one of those ominous, everything’s-gone-apocalypse albums that are so in vogue this year, yeah, it is: Barnes has said Compassion was inspired by his own pessimism over the “uncertain, aggressive new world we’re experiencing,” and that’s certainly borne out in the many tracks here that seethe with international tension and inarticulate grief. Still, Barnes also provides moments of restorative, melancholy beauty like “Arms Out,” which confirms there’s still a resilient humanity beneath all the self-inflicted suffering. [Sean O’Neal]

Future, Future and HNDRXX

When Kendrick Lamar dropped “Humble” in March, the consensus narrative was that it was an elaborate, expensive attempt to snatch attention from Drake’s More Life, which had been released one week earlier. But “Humble” (and Damn) also had the net effect of distracting from Future’s double-album accomplishment from February. When the plumes of earthy smoke dissipate from Future’s career, HNDRXX will look like the album he was building toward for years, the pop-R&B play he attempted on 2014’s Honest crossed with the heartsick debauchery of the intervening years. How can you know love—even if it’s with an endless parade of anonymous video vixens and starlets—if you haven’t first known the epochal misery of watching Ciara leave you for Russell Wilson? HNDRXX serves as an exuberant counterpart to the more straightforward self-titled effort, which fired off 17 immaculate shots at rap radio, and hit the bullseye with the woozy, menacing “Mask Off.” While Kendrick and Drake take shots at each other, Future stays a prolific, friendly neutral party—and meanwhile he’s just quietly getting better, year after year. [Clayton Purdom]

Gas, Narkopop

Gas didn’t need a comeback. Wolfgang Voigt’s four records under the name, released from 1996 to 2000, traced a perfect odyssey, from dark alien swoons of Zauberberg to the crystalline perfection of Pop, perhaps the most immaculate ambient album of this millennium. Why return, 17 years after that? Turns it out was because, like David Lynch returning to Twin Peaks after a quarter century, Voigt had another masterpiece in him, something dense and weird and, best of all, new. Like that long-awaited revival, Narkopop picks up where its predecessor left off, utterly uninterested in retreading a single idea, only stopping to pick up old ones when they can be dramatically recontextualized and made new. The result fades imperceptibly from meditative synthesizers (“Narkopop 7”) to woozy, head-spinning repetition (“Narkopop 4”). It isn’t exactly relaxing, nor is it disconcerting—a sort of mood music for a year when normal never feels right. It came just in time, in other words. [Clayton Purdom]

Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life

Five months since the release of Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, it’s clear that Japandroids’ third album will not top 2012’s wall-to-wall classic Celebration Rock, but that’s no slight. It’s also clearly not the Canadian duo’s mission for Near To The Wild Heart Of Life, which stretches Japandroids’ canvas to accommodate moodier, more textured moments beyond the fist-pumping anthems that made the band’s name. More than anything, Japandroids ease off the gas on Wild Heart, the telltale sign of a “maturing” rock band. It’s an album much more focused on true love than getting wild and shit-faced, though in Japandroids’ world, there’s considerable overlap between the two. While the slower moments occasionally drag, and the lyrics can read like Bukowski caricature, the power of the album’s best moments—like the triumphant title track—puts Near To The Wild Heart Of Life into contention for the year’s best. [Kyle Ryan]

Jlin, Black Origami

A footwork producer with a composer’s ear, Jerrilynn “Jlin” Patton is the best thing to happen to the insular, Chicago-bred genre of super-fast dance music since DJ Rashad and the best act to come out of nearby Gary, Indiana, since The Jackson 5. Black Origami, her follow-up to the name-making full-length debut Dark Energy, strikes a remarkable balance between footwork’s sense of humor and its martial-industrial-exotic sense of percussive attack. At once stark and energetic, sinister and party-hardy, it slices and beats its way through headphones and speakers, sounding like a Breton bagad band whose consciousness has gotten lost in synth-space in some forgotten William Gibson story. One the year’s most addictive electronic albums, it further establishes Jlin as a considerable talent. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Kendrick Lamar, Damn.

In which Compton’s poet laureate ditches all pretense toward jazz and fussy spoken-word interludes and drops 14 tracks in 55 breathless minutes, engineered almost exclusively to snap your damn neck back. The ambition of Untitled Unmastered and To Pimp A Butterfly will always have their adherents, but what a breath of fresh air it is to hear this version of Lamar—striving not for leather-armchair respect, but out for the blood of other rappers. On Damn., he cooks up a Stankonia-like mix of deeply unctuous funk, thudding ride-around bangers, and revivalist Primo boom-bap while dialing in for his most concise record since Overly Dedicated. (That it’s full of technically virtuosic lyrical firepower should go unsaid.) And, sure, it’s got a broad-scope narrative and some unifying conventions, but the goal here was clearly to retake your turntable and rap radio, and for Lamar to claim with finality the throne of best rapper alive. It’s hard to argue with Kung-Fu Kenny. [Clayton Purdom]

Laura Marling, Semper Femina

“Woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.” This line, originally issued as a warning in Virgil’s Aenid, becomes a sort of smirking confrontation on Laura Marling’s sixth full-length, Semper Femina. A subversive yet understated exploration of womanhood and female relationships—and particularly the ambiguities surrounding both—the album is an emotionally frank affair, not unlike much of the prodigious British songwriter’s catalog. But it stands apart in its sensuousness and sense of fluidity, in its suffusion of natural light throughout. Production by Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius) finds room for both Nick Drakean string arrangements and quirky experimentation, striking the perfect balance of timelessness and progress. Even as they mark a fresh direction for Marling, these songs feel as if they’ve always existed—a testament to her craft and singular presence in modern folk. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Metro Riders, Europe By Night

Europe By Night is the result of Swedish composer Henrik Stelzer’s dogged pursuit of a particular aesthetic, a gloomy, hypnagogic palette achievable only through obsolete analog technology. Taking strong cues from the work of John Carpenter and Italian horror films, Europe By Night pulses with an urban grind seemingly transmitted from another dimension—or perhaps “Stockholm 2024,” as its leadoff track suggests. In reimagining the use of his laborious equipment, Stelzer (who also works under the name Fluorescent Heights) captures the crude textures and shadows of modern Europe’s nightscapes, from the warehouses of Berlin to the graffitied streets of Athens, and assembles them into a deliciously menacing yet dreamy soundtrack at once nostalgic and forward-looking. An exemplary analog synth record in an era flooded with attempts. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked At Me

“Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art.” So begins Phil Elverum’s A Crow Looked At Me, a very real expression of his very real grief for the very real death of his wife, Geneviève, in 2015, which left him alone with their infant daughter and no way to process it all, besides singing songs you shouldn’t sing. His is a brutally honest assessment, and here’s another: Death isn’t exactly easy to listen to, either, and as such there’s a very good chance that Crow will become one of those albums that’s highly regarded but rarely played, so devastatingly straightforward is it in conveying Elverum’s pain, cataloging the constant, often banal reminders of Geneviève’s absence, brooding over the minutiae of memory, and—especially—in quoting conversations with the confused little girl she left behind, all to heart-wrenching effect. But sorrow can be cleansing, both for Elverum and for those who listen to him sing about it. And in allowing this unsparing look at loss, A Crow Looked At Me, despite Elverum’s reservations, turns death into art, one that clears away the clutter and reminds you of the fragility, and therefore value, of life. [Sean O’Neal]

Perfume Genius, No Shape

Moving beyond both the after-hours piano of his early albums and the glam-rock flourishes of the breakthrough Too Bright, Seattle’s Mike Hadreas (a.k.a. Perfume Genius) continues to expand his art-pop yearnings on No Shape, an album that brings to mind everything from Lindsey Buckingham’s work with Fleetwood Mac (“Wreath,” which also quotes Kate Bush) to post-minimalist chamber music (“Choir”) to M83-esque bombast (on the choruses of “Otherside” and “Slip Away”) to the slinky sound of today’s futuristic alt-R&B (“Die 4 You,” one of the album’s gorgeous standouts). It’s a credit to Hadreas’ personal songwriting and to Blake Mills’ production that the 13 tracks that make up this protean record seem so of a piece; if the Perfume Genius heard on Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It at times sounded like the songs were being recorded in the bedroom, the new iteration often brings to mind the sort of music one listens to in a bedroom while fantasizing about being somewhere better. It’s sometimes big and always a little weird, promising escape. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Pile, A Hairshirt Of Purpose

What engenders such devotion in Pile fans? Sure, the band can play wildly inventive fusions of jagged noise rock, swaggering blues, and soulful country and make it all feel like it fits together perfectly. And yes, A Hairshirt Of Purpose is the group’s most cohesive and accessible album yet, with frontman and Svengali Rick Maguire delivering a moving and potent combination of heartbreak howls and weary warbling. But the fanaticism is likely born from hearing a band that sounds old and new at the same time, with a classic ’90s-era Touch & Go Records vibe to much of the music (shades of Jesus Lizard carrying on through to current acts like Stnnng), but nonetheless strangely original and rewarding in its own warped way. Anytime you think you have the band pegged, they pivot to a different sound, yet each adaptation is no less immediate and rich. It’s an impressive balancing act, but Pile seems in no danger of losing that magic. [Alex McLevy]

Planning For Burial, Below The House

Without hearing a note of the music, it’s possible to anticipate the hauntingly depressive mood of Below The House. That’s because Pennsylvania singer-songwriter Thom Wasluck has mastered the lost art of presentation: The funeral atmosphere starts with the name of his one-man band, carries over to the album’s title (is it a body or something worse down there?), and finds full expression through the wintry suburban chill of the cover artwork—an image beautiful enough to be hung on a wall, rather than just squeezed into thumbnail form. All of the above foreshadows the rich melancholy of Below The House, communicated through the organ, chimes, and distorted squawks Wasluck uses to augment his bone-rattling shoegaze metal. As it turns out, the implied death is of a relationship, but whether moaned or screamed, lines like “I recognize the smile / As a distant reminder / This ever-fading memory / Of who we once were” sound a hell of a lot like a eulogy. Remarkably, the songs—heavy but delicate things, choked with heartache, vibrating with despair—match the mental images conjured by their packaging. Here’s to truth in wrenching advertising. [A.A. Dowd]

Playboi Carti, Playboi Carti

Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut is hip-hop as glossy luxury magazine, a look-book of 15 immaculately arranged styles. Tracks glide into the room with the effortless presence of a model, as if you’re supposed to be impressed by their mere existence; as an emcee, Carti barely registers, chirping enthusiastically along with the beats like a guy who taught himself to rap by doing it in the mirror. It would all be extremely easy to hate as the apotheosis of disposable SoundCloud rap if it weren’t all so goddamn hot, from the shimmering intro “Location” and the impeccable bounce of “Magnolia” through the flute-laden “Kelly K.” It fades out as louche and tidy as it came, the sort of thing you check off your listening list and file away only to find yourself quietly returning to it, again and again, until you realize you’ve been hitting it up more reliably than albums you ostensibly like more. Like any other fashion, Playboi Carti may only sound good for a season, but this is its time. [Clayton Purdom]

Power Trip, Nightmare Logic

Nightmare Logic is only Power Trip’s second full-length, but it wouldn’t quite be fair to call these Dallas bruisers a “new” band: They’ve been playing shows for almost a decade—hitting the road with punk and metal peers alike, upstaging headliners on the regular, growing their fan-base one apocalyptically enthusiastic set at a time. Every hour spent in the touring trenches can be heard on Nightmare Logic, which compresses the force of Power Trip’s furious live shows into a tight, infectious 32 minutes. Lurching from beefy, chugging guitar to full-bore sprints, the album harkens back to a 1980s heyday (the riff that drives opener “Soul Sacrifice” could come straight from a Big Four classic) while never feeling ostentatiously “retro.” Likewise, these eight crushing anthems boast a crossover alchemy—the speed and heft of thrash, the energy and political charge of hardcore—that always sounds organic, never forced. Power Trip has been conquering stages for years. Now they’re coming for your iPhone and stereo, too. [A.A. Dowd]

Priests, Nothing Feels Natural

Of the many “timely” and “prescient” political albums arriving this year, few feel as natural as the debut full-length by Priests. That’s because this isn’t a trend or a new cause for the D.C. punks—it’s a lifestyle. Since 2012, the four-piece has issued one EP after another of bruising social and political commentary; Nothing Feels Natural just happens to arrive at a time when our collective anxiety runs closer to the surface. Addressing forces like systemic oppression and consumerism, Priests deliver an insistent 33 minutes of song, incorporating elements of funk, surf-pop, R&B, and industrial noise. It’s a thrilling blending of genres that honors the complexities of its subjects while embodying the provocative heart of punk music with urgency and vulnerability. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Sampha, Process

Like the year’s other best R&B debut (SZA’s Ctrl), Process was a long time coming. Though the soulful British singer, songwriter, and producer has been busy for years on work by artists like Jessie Ware, Drake, and Kanye West, Sampha’s own project was slow to coalesce as he cared for his mother while she battled cancer. That much of Process was written during this difficult time means the album is also one of the most intimate of the year, a collection of songs saturated with great pain, yes, but also great optimism. Even the darkest of songs here fight for a crack of light, and as a meticulous writer and producer, Sampha has imbued Process with a quiet brilliance at every turn. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Sleaford Mods, English Tapas

A “post-Brexit album” for people who would find that sort of thing insufferably pretentious, the Rough Trade debut of British pub poets Sleaford Mods does take some fleeting pot-shots at elitist “neo-libs” and allude to a growing sense of political unrest amid all the usual things pissing off vocalist Jason Williamson. But true to the duo’s chip-shop-narrow worldview, English Tapas remains squarely focused on the thoroughly average tragedies of the working class, whose disenfranchisement stems from far more local concerns. There’s only the slightest variation on the Mods formula here—mostly a little more singing from Williamson, who punctuates his usual rant-rap with some stabs at John Lydon-esque warbles on the refrains, all over another fresh MacBook batch of throbbing, dubby grooves from partner Andrew Fearn. But it’s a rubric that still yields a lot of caustic and cathartic pleasures, with Williamson spewing his funny quips with a three-pints-in ferocity and capturing a dyspeptic discontent that—references to U.K. politics and weird British snacks aside—feels wholly global. [Sean O’Neal]

Slowdive, Slowdive

By returning with a new album 22 years after Pygmalion, Slowdive risked spoiling a discography that is more or less considered perfect, giving its abbreviated run a decades-later coda that, sure, might be warmly received out of nostalgic devotion, but would always feel slightly inessential. What a pleasant surprise then that Slowdive not only isn’t a mere cash-in on the shoegaze pioneer’s legacy, but a record filled with transcendent moments to rival those originals. With the band reuniting after decades away, its members have spent half their lives now gaining distance from and achieving perspective on that legacy, as well as forming myriad splinter groups that have kept their skills sharply honed. They’ve been preparing for this a long time, in other words, and the result is an album that reprises those familiarly epic atmospherics and expands on them with a force that’s nothing short of triumphant. Slowdive’s discography remains perfect. [Sean O’Neal]

Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory

When Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 and Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside both came out in 2015, they sounded like enormous evolutionary leaps forward from the churlish sub-Neptunes provocation of the two rappers’ Odd Future days. Since then, Earl’s gone quiet (again), but Staples has remained in the limelight, both via his quick, evocative 2016 EP Prima Donna and his endlessly entertaining smart-ass public appearances. But Big Fish Theory registers as another evolutionary leap still for the rapper: a 36-minute electronic sonic assault, with his diamond-tight raps set to maximum strength. And while the post-apocalyptic ride-around music of “Big Fish” or the almost nihilistic flossing of “745” will catch your ear first, it’s the keening, wounded part of Staples that forms the album’s beating heart. He’s one of our very best lyricists, but on Big Fish Theory he proves himself a sonic architect of the first order as well. [Clayton Purdom]

Starlito & Don Trip, Step Brothers Three

Listen to Step Brothers Three if only for the glory of hearing that rarest of things: true chemistry. Now on their third collaborative mixtape, the Tennesseean duo Starlito and Don Trip have turn into each other’s necessary ballast. Don Trip’s the more traditional of the two, and his clean, emotive voice stands out on most tracks, but those qualities are drawn out by Lito, who raps in a catatonic croak full of wry punch lines. All of the Step Brothers tapes are good—and thankfully, only the first one really leans into the Will Ferrell theme—but this year’s volume features a few more highlights than usual, like the trilling snap of “Yeah 5X,” the swooning soul of “Good Cop Bad Cop,” or the martial statement of purpose “The 13th Amendment Song,” which finds both rappers at their lucid best. “Looked for more of my kind / Lito’s all I could find,” Trip says on the typically unfussy, excellent “Just Want It All,” and you’ve got to give thanks, at least for a second, that they found each other. It’s one of those rare mixtape series that keeps getting better. [Clayton Purdom]

Sylvan Esso, What Now

Where Sylvan Esso’s 2014 self-titled debut found the duo of Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath exploring their newfound partnership, What Now is their supremely confident statement of purpose. Sanborn’s off-kilter beats never feel like stock dance-pop (especially in the skittering, choppy “Kick Jump Twist”), even when they’re in service of a big-sounding pop song, as is the case of “Radio,” another entry in the time-honored tradition of songs bashing pop stardom and its medium. (Although even Elvis Costello would’ve blanched at a line like “Don’t you look good sucking American dick?”) Meath’s sharply observed lyrics give her breathy vocals an edge, which makes her more sentimental moments—like the lovesick “Die Young”—hit a little harder. Wonderfully layered and surprisingly affecting, What Now will likely emerge as one of 2017’s landmark releases. [Kyle Ryan]

SZA, Ctrl

SZA’s much-delayed debut, Ctrl, comes after three mixtapes full of beguiling sonic flourishes—that Fleetwood Mac sample on S!—but on which the singer-songwriter seemed more comfortable hiding behind big walls of reverb, letting the music do the talking. No longer: Ctrl is full of confessions, disses, jokes, and eccentricities, with SZA’s voice presented clean and unvarnished on the mix. Her habits of easily hopping genres and naming tracks after actresses they evoke spawns the breezy, ’90s-inspired “Drew Barrymore,” which comes directly after SZA chops it up with Kendrick on “Doves In The Wind” and directly before she fires off a John Hughes anthem in “Prom.” The album turns vaporous and abstract in the back half, but retains its easy beauty. That it holds together at all is a tribute to SZA herself, who might be a star if she doesn’t make good on all those promises to quit. [Clayton Purdom]

Tee Grizzley, My Moment

2017 is starting to look like Tee Grizzley’s moment. The Detroit MC has had a big year: From signing to 300 Entertainment (home to Migos, Young Thug, Fetty Wap); to the accolades around My Moment’s release in early April; to hitting the studio with Meek Mill; to LeBron James rapping along to Grizzley’s breakout track, “First Day Out”; and a Twitter shout-out from Jay-Z, Grizzley experienced quite a turnaround since being released from prison last fall. My Moment explodes with the energy and introspection that simmered for three years while Grizzley was locked up. While My Moment has plenty of de rigueur braggadocio, its most powerful moments come when Grizzley gets pensive, like the inventory of tragedy he chronicles in “Day Ones.” But even then, Grizzley can’t help but drop the strangest boast of 2017: “ISIS members on speed dial / Have ’em run up on you with a bomb on.” [Kyle Ryan]

Thundercat, Drunk

Drunk is the type of record that makes you wish more pop virtuosos had a sense of humor like Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner’s—until you realize there are already enough dorks running around pretending to be Frank Zappa. Drunk, meanwhile, is an impossibly groove-laden 51 minutes that just happens to know how to tell a good joke, whether it’s spoofing entitled Diablo obsessives on “Friend Zone” or the recurring lyrical theme of misplaced belongings (“I think I left my wallet at the club,” “Where did I lose my phone at?“). Re-teaming Thundercat with Flying Lotus and extending his Grammy-winning collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, Drunk performs fearless feats of crate-digging fusion, calling upon the power of really smooth music to conjure Michael McDonald’s and Kenny Loggins’ guest verses on “Show You The Way,” or contributing to the canon of great Isley Brothers’ samples with the hi-hat sizzle of “Them Changes.” Bruner’s fleet fretwork on the six-string bass is here to push you through your nocturnal revelry, his grasp on insomniac melancholy is for the comedown, and the comedic grace notes of Drunk will have you laughing through the hangover. [Erik Adams]

Visible Cloaks, Reassemblage

Ambient music is always hard to describe, defying conventional terms and narratives and leading to much more hifalutin discussions of what the music evokes, or how it was composed. Visible Cloaks’ second record, Reassemblage, offers plenty such food for thought, but it also succeeds on a much more direct level: It is full of wonderful-sounding things, paced like a walk through a garden. Its first 10 seconds are the fluorescent pulse of a screen coming to life, a delightful ASMR flutter that it repeats and layers; gradually, the album explores trickles of water, whispered conversation, blissful ambient hums, xylophones, and swooning singing sine waves. The duo behind it has spent close to a decade releasing meticulously curated, deeply researched mixes, often pulled from Japanese culture, but here they find their own magically clean sounds to pull from, reassembling them toward quiet, pleasant ends—sometimes with a hint of melancholy, but never less than gorgeous. The ideas behind it are, no doubt, profound, but thankfully so is its surface. [Clayton Purdom]

Waxahatchee, Out In The Storm

Five years since the tinny minimalism of American Weekend, Waxahatchee—a.k.a. Katie Crutchfield—produces her biggest-sounding and most accomplished work to date. A searing post mortem of a toxic relationship, Out In The Storm spares neither Crutchfield nor her ex, but it feels liberating, not sad. (“I went out into the storm and I’m never returning,” she sings on “Silver.”) Part of that comes from execution; Out In The Storm is Waxahatchee’s most rock-oriented album to date, from the hooky opener “Never Been Wrong” to the almost Weezer-esque “Silver” to the overdriven “No Question.” Attribute some of that to producer John Agnello and his deep guitar-rock discography (The Hold Steady, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.). But quieter moments also abound, like “Recite Remorse,” which plays like a sibling track to “Breathless” from 2015’s Ivy Tripp. That album took No. 8 in our best of the year, and Out In The Storm will likely make the 2017 list. [Kyle Ryan]

White Reaper, The World’s Best American Band

Every few years, it seems, a back-to-basics rock band breaks through to provide a corrective to whatever overly fussy, bloodless laptop music is currently bewitching the indie scene. That would put White Reaper’s excellent The World’s Best American Band right on schedule, packed as it is with no-shits-given garage punk and semi-comprehensible vocals about nose drugs. But that narrative is a myth, considering retro-minded bands can be just as empty and affected as whatever “no real instruments” act rockists are deriding that day. And the charms of The World’s Best American Band don’t need to stand next to, say, Forest Swords’ chilly Compassion to pop; the blissfully catchy and explosive chorus of “Little Silver Cross,” for instance, just works. That goes for The World’s Best American Band in toto, as White Reaper begins to live up to its tongue-in-cheek honorific. [Kyle Ryan]