By Corey Koepper
1. DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. isn’t so much a declarative statement after taking seat on his genre’s throne, but conversely, a series of questions he asks himself – “How did I get here?” “What is my place in all this?” “Do I matter?” With songs showcasing some of his most exploratory musicianship, collaborating with Rihanna (“LOYALTY”), Zacari (“LOVE”) and even U2 (“XXX”), Kendrick weaves together eclectic tracks that stand alone brilliantly, while maintaining his status as hip-hop’s most engaging, vivid storyteller.
The overarching narrative is a moral study of being at the top of your game, questioning your place within your community and industry, talking down your ego and talking up to God, all while reeling in your pride and making sense of your feelings in cold-blooded America. Examining his lineage in the astonishing final track “DUCKWORTH,” Kendrick comes to a personal revelation: “You take two strangers and put ’em in random predicaments, give ’em a soul so they can make their own choices and live with it… because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life, while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
The gunshot afterword gives me chills every time, the punchline to a startlingly profound realization. “Ain’t nobody praying for me” is a line frequently woven through DAMN., but while Kendrick may occasionally feel forsaken, his journey guides us to the spirit within ourselves.
2. Melodrama by Lorde
“Every perfect summer’s eating me alive,” sings 21-year-old Lorde on piano ballad “Liability,” possibly the finest, most heartbreaking song she’s written. It’s also the perfect lyric to encompass Melodrama, her second album and first in four years, a pop masterpiece where every track feels like a deeply personal gift. “But I hear new sounds in my mind,” she sings on explosive break-up song “Green Light,” and that she does, with songs ranging from amped up electropop to those laced with downbeat synth and pulsating trap beats.
Expanding her vocal range to channel the most intricate, relatable emotions, Lorde’s Melodrama is a breathtaking, confessional accomplishment. Loosely based around the events of a house party in a single night, the album is both elating and devastating, the striking intimacy of its lyricism complemented by stadium-caliber bombast. Lorde’s cathartic statement of sadness, solitude, and youthful, “I guess we’re partying”-style hedonism truly feels universal – no matter how old we are, when it comes to figuring out relationships and getting our shit together, it often feels like we’re all at the same adolescent level.
“I’m a little much for everyone,” she sings. But perhaps a “little much” is exactly what we need from pop music, and from a stadium full of people, all belting out the same words; together, finding a way out of loneliness.
3. Sleep Well Beast by The National
There have been few albums as desperately romantic and emotionally naked since, well… the last National album. Sleep Well Beast is lyricist and lead singer Matt Berninger’s self-proclaimed ode to “marriages falling apart,” and every intimate, slow-burning track feels like a first-hand account of romantic collapse from the inside. Meanwhile, few rock bands have proven as capable in the 21st century of expanding their sound without losing what makes them great. Brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner incorporate diverse electronic elements into the mix for the first time, often the melancholic backbone of their front-and-center pianism (“Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Guilty Party”). And guitar solos, whaat? Aaron shreds on “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Day I Die” like he never has before.
Despite the band’s clear sense of freedom and experimentation on Sleep Well Beast, the National still succeed at what they’ve always done better than anybody – capturing the personal anxieties and afflictions we rarely vocalize, but are the baseline for stifling periods of sadness. Sadness flows continuously on Sleep Well Beast, framing intimate failures within the greater picture of an anxious time. “Nothing I change changes anything,” Berninger proclaims on “Walk It Back,” not shying away from his preference for self-medication (“Until everything is less insane, I’m mixing weed with wine”).
The most pivotal moment on the album arrives on “I’ll Still Destroy You,” when Berninger practically mumbles, “I have no positions, no point of view or vision, I’m just trying to stay in touch with, anything I’m still in touch with.” It’s a quiet, heart-wrenching confession of reaching your lowest, when caring about nothing seems like a reasonable alternative to living in pain. “Can’t you find a way?” Berninger begs on “Empire Line,” and in a way he asks us the same question, quietly advocating for perseverance in a life where nothing is guaranteed, and holding onto something is the best we can hope for.
4. Ctrl by SZA
R&B breakout Solána Rowe’s debut is an experience of unfiltered vulnerability, of heartbreak and romantic battles unresolved, of questioning whether true control over your life is even possible. SZA’s impassioned vocal talent is matched by diversely inviting instrumentals that make each song feel like a comforting, empathetic slice of understanding. Ultimately, her message is an empowering statement of free will, of being unafraid to live your own life despite whoever passes you over.
Her closing track “20 Something” is a revelatory example. “Hoping my 20 somethings won’t end, hoping to keep the rest of my friends, praying the 20 somethings don’t kill me, kill me” is lyricism just as stirring every time you hear it, a beacon of hope in and of itself. SZA deserves to be a star, as much as she believes her listeners deserve to explore their own means of control, and at the end of the day, find joy in themselves.
5. Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
On his 13 minute, chorus-less track, “Leaving L.A,” indie folk aficionado Josh Tillman laments, “Oh great, that’s just what we all need… another white guy in 2017, who takes himself so goddamn seriously.” Maybe not, but the self-deprecating wit of J. Tillman’s Misty fits the bill for a tumultuous year, one that’s certainly matched the criteria of an existential black hole. For all the indulgence the Misty persona takes in his bleak worldview and sense of irony, Pure Comedy is his most timely and ambitious project, taking on a politically dysfunctional and technology addicted society (“Total Entertainment Forever” is a true jam) as he searches for meaning in the darkness.
Near the end of “Leaving L.A,” Tillman describes the first time he recalls hearing music as a child, while choking on a watermelon candy in JCPenney’s with his mom. He sums it up by crooning, “That’s when I saw the comedy won’t stop for, even little boys choking in department stores.” It’s a moment, and record, that makes you laugh and cry about the weird, unpredictable madness of it all. And with Tillman’s gorgeous sounds echoing in your ears, it sure seems easier to endure.
6. American Dream by LCD Soundsystem
American Dream begins the way most albums end, a soaring ballad with James Murphy wailing “You’re already gooooone” with Adele-like gravitas, concluding with “my love life stumbles on.” It’s a fitting contradiction for a band that has always smashed conformity to smithereens; here, they reunite with their first album in seven years, still owning the electronic-dance-punk hybridism that made them one of the new century’s most influential bands.
Exploring inner darkness amidst societal turmoil, LCD fittingly drops the best alt-rock song of the year with “Call the Police.” “This is what’s happening, and it’s freaking you out,” sings Nancy Whang earlier on, and from a band whose last album was titled This Is Happening, there’s no further proof needed that LCD is here to stay, perfectly tailored for the new age of paranoia.
7. Near to the Wild Heart of Life by Japandroids
Rock ‘n roll isn’t exactly a hot ticket in 2017. But can you really expect the band that played 500 shows between 2009 and 2013 to care? That live energy, the impassioned power of a guitarist and drummer making as much noise as they can and screaming at the top of their lungs, flows through every chord of their first album in five years. Mostly poetic, riffy anthems about breaking free of your hometown to experience all of what life has in store, there’s a genuine sincerity about Japandroids’ youthful, punk-edged, Springsteen-esque yearning.
The instrumentation is slightly broader this time, there’s even (get ready) an *acoustic* guitar! Sometimes earnestness is its own form of rebellion. There may be an inherent cheesiness to lyricism like “I left my home and all I had, I used to be good and now I’m bad,” but rarely has it seemed so refreshing.
8. MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent
Annie Clark is an unapologetic futurist. Her music as St. Vincent feels lightyears ahead of anything else in the realm of modern “pop” music, highlighted by her unparalleled guitar sound, glam rock aesthetic, and genre-transcending musicianship, harkening to one of her core influences, David Bowie. Dysfunction is on full display on MASSEDUCTION, an album that addresses romance, drugs, sex, despair, and loss from an angle that is unafraid to expose personal contradictions. It is often these contradictions that shape us, that make us individuals, and St. Vincent is certainly no exception.
Her singularity is the basis for an exhilarating album, at times heartbreaking, funny, or completely badass, and totally enthused to be at odds with itself. “New York” is a mournful ballad, free of Clark’s signature guitar, about the end of a relationship intrinsically associated with a place. According to Clark, it’s as much about saying goodbye to the musicians we lost in 2016, including Bowie, as any given lover. But the beauty of it, along with St. Vincent’s music overall, is that it’s everything it needs to be at once, seducing you with pure, authentic honesty.
9. A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs
We lost Tom Petty this year, the definitive king of heartland rock. Carrying on the tradition into a new era, through synthy, beautifully expressive rock songs rarely shorter than six minutes, is the Adam Granduciel-led War on Drugs, with an album just as lavishly haunted as their 2014 masterpiece, Lost in the Dream. A Deeper Understanding often feels like a dream itself, sorting through ever-elusive feelings in search of some sort of clarity. As a songwriter, Granduciel composes lush soundscapes that, with unmatched elegance, rightly find “the space between the beauty and the pain.”
10. Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples
Fame is dark place if you’re Vince Staples, and using heavy electronic beats and politically resistant textures to layer his second album Big Fish Theory, the California rapper’s good-humored personality is no match for dissecting the no-bullshit attitude within. In doing so, he forms a somber, aggressive picture of being expected to produce hit bangers in an era of, uhh… bullshit. That being said, he lays down some of hardest club tracks of the year. “How am I supposed to have a good time, when death and destruction’s all I see?” he asks on “Party People.” Fair point. Turn up?
Okay, a few more…
Fleet Foxes returned with their densely orchestral, emotionally revelatory Crack-Up, while Tyler, The Creator grew up with his personal, progressive, and sonically adventurous Flower Boy... and let’s the forget the free-flowing, genre-bending experimentation of The OOZ by King Krule and Drunk by Thundercat. If this year is any indication, the foreseeable future does belong, sincerely, to the artists who dare to challenge us.