“Turn Out the Lights” The Memphis singer-songwriter’s quietly devastating, remarkably assured sophomore album houses her white-knuckle reckonings with depression and faith in crystalline arrangements. At the center of it all is her voice, an instrument of once-in-a-generation sensitivity and power; to hear her raise it to a glass-shattering scream is to hear a force of nature unleashed, in hopes that it hurts less to let it out than hold it in.
“American Dream” The Brooklyn dance-punks’ fourth album explores James Murphy’s favorite conundrum: how to age gracefully when the pop music you’ve given your life to demands you stay forever young. The solution he settles on involves mourning the past (“I Used To”), confronting the issues of the present (“Call the Police”), and dancing like there’s no future (“Other Voices”). The fruit of his struggle is an intelligent, multifaceted statement that “hobbled veteran[s] of the disk-shop inquisition” like himself will cherish for years to come.
“Melodrama” In a year defined by conflict, the brilliance of “Melodrama” was one of the few subjects on which seemingly everyone could agree. After redefining modern pop with the cool minimalism of 2013’s “Pure Heroine,” Lorde’s next act was a grandiose pseudo-concept album about the reckless abandon of young romance, yet none of that heightened ambition came at the expense of her writerly knack for expressing the messiest emotions with the simplest lines.
“A Black Mile to the Surface” For the last decade, no band has embraced emotional maximalism as wholeheartedly as the alt-rock underdogs in Manchester Orchestra, and “A Black Mile to the Surface” takes their already-epic odes to feeling everything at once and blows them up to IMAX-worthy proportions. Singer Andy Hull’s melodies infuse the group’s lumbering emo-grunge with plaintive beauty, while the softer numbers, especially the one-two punch of “The Alien” and “The Sunshine,” are almost painfully gorgeous.
“A Crow Looked at Me” A voice, an acoustic guitar, an unfathomable grief at the death of his wife, and a desperate need to convey some small part of that grief in the most direct language possible: These were the tools at Phil Elverum’s disposal when he made “A Crow Looked at Me,” and it’s hard to imagine a more affecting album coming from those circumstances. Elverum’s raw lyrics allow no distance between the listener and his loss, rendering mortality in the starkest possible terms.
(SANDY) ALEX G
“Rocket” The preternaturally gifted Philly singer-songwriter (real name Alex Giannascoli), who earned his sizable cult following through years of uploading home-recorded albums to Bandcamp, gifts fans with his most free-wheeling record yet. “Rocket” skips from tearjerking alt-country (“Proud,” “Bobby”) to noisy ragers (“Brick”) to warped, unsettling bedroom indie (“Witch,” “Judge”), and while that might sound disjointed on paper, Giannascoli makes it hang together like an eclectic yet perfectly sequenced mixtape from a friend.
“MASSEDUCTION” The transition from art-rock to art-pop is always a tricky one, but Annie Clark pulls it off handily on her fifth album as St. Vincent. “MASSEDUCTION” is what happens when you dress an achingly personal record in a stylish, uber-catchy pop record’s wardrobe, smashing exhilaration and heartbreak together until it’s impossible to separate one from the other.
TYLER, THE CREATOR
“Flower Boy” Who would have guessed that the abrasive, controversy-baiting Odd Future ringleader would come through with the year’s prettiest, most tender rap album? The shift toward lush sonics and introspective verses isn’t entirely without precedent in his discography, and the record has its share of snarling, classic-Tyler bangers (“Who Dat Boy,” “I Ain’t Got Time!”), but “Flower Boy” is still a bracing left turn, not to mention a quantum leap forward.
“Big Fish Theory” In which the Long Beach rap wunderkind speaks his no-punches-pulled truth on race, love, and fame over techno-influenced beats as well-suited for dancing as for twitching in anxious anticipation of the apocalypse. Packing an almost frightening density of musical and lyrical innovation into 36 minutes, “Big Fish Theory” is both compulsively listenable and brutally frank about the demons, both internal and external, that hound Staples’s every step.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
“A Deeper Understanding” 2017 was the year that hip-hop and R&B finally surpassed rock as the most popular musical genres in America, and in light of that fact “A Deeper Understanding,” a heartland-rock fever dream from a rapidly decaying past, proves that the War on Drugs understand their cultural context far better than any young band consciously striving for modernity. Like all great rock auteurs, Adam Granduciel knows that to achieve the largest emotional impact, you have to obsess over the tiniest details, and “A Deeper Understanding” is the sound of his talent catching up with his vision.
LOCAL ARTIST PICK
“Cost of Living” This Providence band brings the same determination to fight for a better world to their bilingual sax-punk anthems as they have to their work as community activists. There’s plenty of anger at the rampant injustices of modern America, but the music’s true animating forces are unity and uplift, along with the belief that revolutions are always better when you can dance to them.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley