1. DAMN., Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album marks another distinct shift in tone for the rapper, bringing to light his continued struggles with self-doubt, fame, and his troubled upbringing. The album is laced with contradiction, seemingly reflecting Lamar’s own state of mind as it bounces between moods, tones, and messages as quickly as he can conceive them. Big-name collaborations fit comfortably alongside Lamar’s commanding star status and at times are an unexpected complement to his songs. Throughout DAMN., Lamar maintains the dense and engaging lyricism of his previous albums while bringing a modern and radio-ready sound that handily secures his project as the best of the year
2. Ctrl, SZA
Soulful, sorrowful, deeply intimate, and intensely powerful, SZA’s Ctrl is an R&B masterpiece. The opening song, “Supermodel,” is only backed by subdued guitar strumming and cymbal rolls, a simplicity that carries through the entire album and allows for SZA’s voice to shine as it should. Despite or even because of this ease and simplicity, Ctrl is one of the strongest albums of the year, featuring brutally honest lyrics that exemplify feminine frustrations with relationships and personal image. Though her vocals stay soft and melodic, there is an obvious power in her message. It is this complexity and control that makes SZA’s first album an immediate classic.
3. Saturation II, BROCKHAMPTON
BROCKHAMPTON is a powerhouse cast of mixed race, queer, and straight rappers and producers whose music boasts a spirit of inclusion. That spirit pulses beneath the surface of Saturation II, which snarls, shouts, and serenades for those with little voice in modern America. There’s a sense of rebellion achieved by letting the 15-member group thrive on tracks that crackle with energy and ideas. Across songs spanning huge Outkast-like choruses (“TOKYO”), fierce West Coast siren synths (“GUMMY”), and gauzy guitar campfire sing-alongs (“SUNNY”), their collective chemistry fizzes— indicating that the crew is really coming into their own. On Saturation II, BROCKHAMPTON dares to imagine blazing trails in a better hip-hop world.
4. 4:44, Jay-Z
4:44 is a reflection: Jay-Z speaks as an artist, father, husband, and black man. Tracks like “Kill Jay-Z” and “4:44” find Jay-Z apologizing for his past transgressions; his honesty is tangible on the album. No I.D’s subtle production on “4:44” is haunting, but never outdoes Jay’s delivery. On “Marcy Me” Jay-Z quotes Hamlet, “Lord, we know who we are, but not who we may be,” while he reflects on life in Brooklyn before his fame. His reflections are solemn, but there’s optimism in the realizations he finds. Jay-Z is concerned with his legacy, but 4:44 is timeless.
5. Something to Tell You, HAIM
Pop-rock sister trio HAIM released their punchy and electric sophomore record Something To Tell You and cemented their status as masters of 1970s inspired rock. While the album focuses on familiar themes of heartbreak, loss, and longing, the group does so in a way that’s complex and multifaceted, bringing in seamless instrumental twists and turns, intricate guitar riffs, and belting, powerful vocals. The sisters are experts of rhythm, always perfectly in control of where their songs are going, resulting in a record that is effortlessly satisfying and full of youthful energy.
6. Culture, Migos
After taking the country—and every college party—by storm with the hit single “Bad and Boujee,” Migos dropped Culture and redefined the triple threat as Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff encapsulate the best that trap rap has to offer. Culture is relentlessly energetic and fun, painting shamelessly opulent vignettes of the group’s trips through strip clubs, designer stores, and their drug business. The album’s 13 tracks are a romp through the ideal life of a self-made rapper, and Migos spare no artistic flourish or perfectly-executed bar to describe it. As the rappers deftly trade verses and continually surprise and excite with their ingenuity and wordplay, it becomes clear why the triumvirate stole the show this year.
7. Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples
Vince Staples’ most recent album, Big Fish Theory, solidified his status as an elite modern rapper. In a change from Staples’ last full length album, Big Fish Theory features up-tempo, dance club-like beats to complement his fast-paced vocals. The album explores both the highs of celebrity culture and the darker themes that come along with it, as Staples raps about depression in “Party People” and intersperses audio from a 2006 Amy Winehouse interview in “Alyssa Interlude.” Ultimately, Staples’ project continues to build on his rising stardom in the rap world.
8. Hug of Thunder, Broken Social Scene
Eighteen years and five albums later, Broken Social Scene is not done reinventing itself. Their latest studio album, Hug of Thunder, is a diverse array of sounds paying tribute to their past while introducing something new. The band’s lineup has changed greatly over the years, featuring up to 20 people at times. This collaboration of creative minds can best be heard on Hug of Thunder. Tracks like “Towers and Mansions” and “Victim Lover” evoke the bliss of late 90s alternative with the band’s own tranquil spin. The album reads like a chronology of alternative music, going period by period while making it all uniquely their own.
9. MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent
Annie Clark, also known as St. Vincent, continues to push her musical boundaries with MASSEDUCTION. The album is a profound and bold collection of stylistically diverse tracks that are meant to be played on full blast. Tracks like “Los Angeles” and “Mass Seduction” are unapologetically brash while others like “Happy Birthday, Johnny” are much more lyrical and sentimental. It’s a little disappointing that Clark’s voice is not at the forefront of more songs; the aggressive bass beat in some of the pop-anthems overshadows the sensitivity and delicacy of her voice. Still, MASSEDUCTION is ultimately a comprehensive representation of Clark’s range of talent and ability.
10. I See You, The xx
I See You is sparse and mellow but strikingly upbeat and dynamic relative to The xx’s reserved and famously shy beginnings. Each synthetic tone is carefully placed to bring out the best of the duo’s admittedly short-range vocals, marking the skill of producer Jamie xx. The album’s energy peaks with a couple’s dialogue on lead single “On Hold”—which samples another stellar duo, Hall and Oates—then transitions to cooler pieces reminiscent of The xx’s older works. Corollary to the band’s blossoming and heightening sound, the lyrics focus on finding courage, in spite of anxiety, offering support to audiences as the band members strive to reassure themselves.