11. Father John Misty — Pure Comedy
A masterpiece of post-irony, Pure Comedy provides a Randy Newman-esque backdrop for the Donald Trump era, shining a light on the many contradictions inside modern society with a wry and sometimes abrasive sense of humor. Songwriter Josh Tillman places his astute and dark vocal observations alongside acoustic guitars, horns, and punchy grooves, managing to ride the paper-thin edge between an educated superiority complex and careless, almost reckless honesty in a truly unique and compelling manner.
12. SZA — Ctrl
Budding Top Dawg Entertainment star SZA firmly grips the spotlight with her first full-length album, a compelling work of contemporary R&B that does well to showcase her clean and rhythmic lyrical style. Fellow TDE member Kendrick Lamar appears as one of very few guests on this first outing, a group of 14 songs that relies heavily on her own talent rather than on the abilities of others. That’s a welcome change from the feature-heavy debuts that often occupy this space, and one that easily places her alongside Moses Sumney and Sampha as one of the most important new voices in the R&B universe.
13. The War On Drugs — A Deeper Understanding
A Deeper Understanding is more tightly composed than The War on Drugs’ previous album, 2014’s Lost in the Dream, but somehow manages to sound more epic. Every track is dense, with guitars, keyboards, harmonicas, and other instruments layered atop each other like sandstone formations. The songs are built on steady rhythms and bright melodies, swelling to grand choruses where the guitars soar. Songwriter/bandleader Adam Granduciel understands the power of a well-placed solo, and they are frequent throughout A Deeper Understanding, but never overwrought. Instead, Granduciel’s playing is expressive, carried by memorable licks and smooth bends.
14. Tinariwen — Elwan
Round African rhythms and bluesy guitar tones are the heartbeat of the latest album from Malian artists Tinariwen, which contains some of the most downright soulful compositions we’ve heard in the past several years. Much of the album’s dark beauty comes as a result of personal struggles and turmoil in their homeland, with one member of the group having even been kidnapped (and eventually released) by Islamist group Ansar Dine. Though all of the lyrics are sung in the band’s native Tamashek, and the scales and time signatures may be all new to your eardrums, there is something approachable and familiar about the group’s latest music, with songs like the guitar-and-voice-driven Ittus painting clear and eerily familiar images of a nation’s people in distress.
15. The National — Sleep Well Beast
On their seventh album, The National returns to familiar themes — feeling uncomfortable in a room, the little tensions that tear at a relationship — and familiar sounds. Bryan Devendorf’s tempestuous drumming, the Dessner brothers’ dancing guitars, and Matt Berninger’s baritone crooning are all present, but as always, the band experiments with new twists on their signature sound. Among the stylistic flourishes on Sleep Well Beast are drum machines, staccato trumpets, and furious guitar solos. Between the swaggering rock of the first half and the roving electronic ballads of the second, Sleep Well Beast shows The National is a band that only gets bolder with age.
16. Ryan Adams — Prisoner
Alt-county hero Ryan Adams‘ Prisoner easily ranks as the best breakup album of the year, a driving work of contemporary rock with painful and personal edges. The first album since Adams’ marriage to Mandy Moore ended is a more mature version of the songwriter’s earlier heartbreak-fueled material, with ’80s-influenced production that’s glued together by elegant lyrical explorations. “Everyday I find another little thread of silver,” he sings midway through the album, “Waiting for me when I wake/Some place on the pillow/Then I see the empty space beside me and remember/I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn/Nothing really matters anymore.”
17. Big Thief — Capacity
With Capacity, Brooklyn quartet Big Thief expand upon the intimate songwriting style that drew listeners in on last year’s debut album Masterpiece, offering complex and deeply personal folk rock compositions that ruminate on love, childhood, and human nature. Like its predecessor, the album finds success in its vibrant and compelling arrangements and recorded performances, with layered guitar tones, shifting rhythms, and beautiful vocal pairings that grab your ears and draw you in.
18. Tyler, The Creator — Flower Boy
Controversial rapper Tyler, The Creator has earned his fair share of criticism over the years for his use of misogynistic and homophobic lyrics early in his career, but as he has personally matured, so has his subject matter. With Flower Boy, the rapper looks more inward than ever, investigating his own conflicted sexuality and various other, deeply personal matters over dense and creative hip-hop beats. Where much of his previous work can seem to be entirely fabricated to troll audiences or generate a few laughs among a California in-crowd, Flower Boy is imbued with authentic personality, a record on which the artist literally implores people to “be who they are” from the outset.
19. Grandaddy — Last Place
The first album from indie rock heroes Grandaddy in more than 10 years, Last Place is a comeback record with something new to offer. Though songwriter Jason Lytle hasn’t changed his main formula — he still writes crisp lyrical structures atop driving drum grooves, with distorted guitars and classic synthesizer tones spicing things up — the recipe for each of the album’s 12 tracks feels more concentrated and robust than on previous releases. This is the rare reintroduction of a band that easily stands alongside their best early work.
20. Jay-Z — 4:44
Who else but Jay-Z could turn a therapy session into a master class on finances, a dance party, and then back into a therapy session? On the 10-track 4:44, the acclaimed rapper kills his ego (Kill Jay-Z), dissects race relations (The Story of O.J.), and extols the virtues of establishing generational wealth (Legacy). Everything on the record feels more personal than ever, with the rapper even going so far as to stagger an otherwise pristine flow on the confessional, Grammy-nominated title track, because conversations rarely have a rhythm fit for radio. This is Jay Z’s first classic album since returning from “retirement” in 2003, and hopefully a sign the 48-year-old icon is far from done.