In a year when world events seemed to push pop culture aside—or else become pop culture itself—the albums that hit most deeply for me were about individuals, not issues. Many of the picks below are strongly autobiographical, and even the more “political” records blend their songs of social crackups with ones of personal breakups. The other albums here offer much-needed escape, whether with guitar solos, rave immersion, or, in one case, a new word game: “raindrop / drop top.”
1. Kendrick Lamar, Damn
The title of Damn refers in part to a divine curse, which in turn ties in with the Black Hebrew Israelite theology the Compton rapper flirts with throughout his latest masterpiece. But Lamar raps about damnation as not only a spiritual state, but an inheritance of history, of society, and of one’s own past. The dizzying “DNA” establishes the controlling metaphor: Each person is a double helix of information and attributes, containing War and Peace and war and peace. The album then makes clear he’s not interested in drawing cute contradictions, but in drawing out truth—or rather, truths next to truths next to truths.
Lamar’s message, thus, is partly about complexity itself, and his genius is in rendering that message as music. His powers as a rapper provide the ammo for his fans to persuasively claim him as king of hip-hop, and you could spend a lot of time unwinding all the double and triple entendres across the album, starting with its title. But don’t discount the music itself, which swerves from psychedelic haze to punk noise to pop glory, which features a party-presiding DJ babbling forsaken Christian catchphrases, which put Geraldo Rivera and Rihanna and Bono in conversation. Lamar’s irreducibility even extends to the meta-narrative about his career, as seen in Damn reasserting the true meaning of “no compromise” on the way to double-platinum sales. Art and commerce? Sin and grace? Nature and nurture? He’s going to reconcile it all, just as we all must do.
2. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
Great nostalgic entertainment presents a riddle. If you enjoy Stranger Things, is it for the memory of ’80s-era Spielberg, or is it for the way that it uses the same techniques as ’80s Spielberg to create an authentic sense of wonder? If you love The War on Drugs, is it because you remember hearing “Sultans of Swing” in a time of innocence, or because bandleader Adam Granduciel has reopened the same portal to gently rockin’ bliss last accessed in 1978?
In the case of The War on Drugs, there’s no question that genuine inspiration plays a huge role. If Granduciel begins with rock history, he transforms it deeply: cleansing it of machismo and swagger, performing detail work worthy of a cathedral ceiling, expanding the runtimes to encompass meditation sessions. The results are shockingly beautiful. “In Chains” is the most reliable mood enhancer of the year, though it’s tough to name the resulting mood—does “bittersweetly embracing life’s finitude” count? And when the majestic hook breaks in halfway through “Holding On,” the marvel isn’t that it sounds like something that’s come before, but rather that it sounds like something that should have always existed.
3. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir
The concept of Stephin Merritt’s latest album—one song for each year of his first five decades of life—would seem a perfect nightmare in the age of oversharing by Karl Ove Knausgaard and friends who Facebook Live from the supermarket. But the glum-voice ironist Merritt doesn’t “spew.” As on his other preposterous triumph, 69 Love Songs, each of these chapters are like finely crafted music boxes, distinct from the last, decorated in jewels and razors. Recognizing that a life story is more than a series of sequential events, his tale includes a devastatingly funny account of coming to atheism in childhood (“’74 No”), a magnificent tribute to drinking while thinking (“’02 Be True to Your Bar”), and a celebration of the Stonewall riots (“’69 Judy Garland”) that had no direct relation to his own biography except for making his entire romantic life allowable. Depression deeply shapes his story, but so does the joy provided by encounters with great music, which he’s paid forward in double-digit quantities.
4. Migos, Culture
Musicologists should be studying every bird call, machine-gun sound, and “skrrt” voiced by the Atlanta rap trio Migos, who’ve made the most purely fun album of the year. Surely there’s a mathematical brilliance at work whenever one of their goofy onomatopoeias ricochets satisfyingly off a high-hat. Or when the rapid-fire triplets from Offset get (ahem) offset by his comrade Quavo’s computerized warble. Or in the many times that they surprise the ear with fussy vocabulary (“pockets strong / wrist anemic”). Traditionalists hate Migos for leading a rap fad defined by dada brags over woozy backdrops, but in the end, Culture’s full-body trip is grounded in the classic hip-hop story. As the hook of their No. 1 hit “Bad and Boujee” says, they “came from nothing to something.” Or as Quavo puts it elsewhere with typical attention to fun vowel sounds: “Came from a Cup O’ Noodles / I fucked the game, Kama Sutra.”
5. Margo Price, All American Made
Anxiety, rather than argumentation, has understandably fueled many of the protest records to emerge in year one of Donald Trump: Lana Del Rey’s twirling in the face of nukes, Vince Staples’s middle finger to the White House, and Mavis Staples’s succor to the discouraged among them. But on All American Made, the Nashville subversive Margo Price uses her sweet voice and clever-classicist sensibility for persuasive storytelling—sometimes about (don’t run) policy itself. The wage gap between men and women, big-business exploitation of small-town U.S.A., and the general American tendency to judge people by their wallets all receive takedowns defined by moral clarity and writerly compassion. She’s no lecturer, either: The one-two of “Weakness” and “A Little Pain” shows she can craft country bummers as outstanding as anyone’s, forged by a sharp understanding that heartache is always, on some level, a shared experience.
6. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me
It’s still not clear what, exactly, is the right time or place to listen to an album this gutting. Definitely alone, definitely somewhere quiet, which would mirror how Phil Elverum recorded it: in the room where his wife had months earlier died of cancer, with his young daughter elsewhere in the home. Speak-singing in mesmerizing rhythms and picking gingerly at his instruments, the rocker formerly of The Microphones unloads his loss and grief in ways that both embrace and defy the opening epiphany: “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.” Elverum’s serious about not getting sentimental, yet you still hear him wrestle with the impulse to find meaning in pain as nature and household junk seem to present omens from the beyond. The strange comfort of this otherwise discomforting listen is, in fact, the proof that artmaking survives everything.
7. SZA, Ctrl
I still gasp at the opening passage of Ctrl, in which Solána Imani Rowe kisses off an ex by revealing she cheated on him with his friend on Valentine’s Day. Icy, icy, icy. Amid a generation of R&B artists drawing on hip-hop’s cadences and storytelling, SZA stands out for her inimitable rasp, her willingness to allow narrative—rather than pop conventions—to structure her songs, and, more than anything, her fearsome emotional poise. Spoken-word interludes communicate how she faces big self-doubts, but that just gives her indignation more power. “I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike, I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night,” she offers on the great single “Drew Barrymore,” before executing a typically assured turnaround: “I’m sorry you got karma comin’ to you.”
8. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural
The line “There’s no future … for you,” from the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” summed up punk rock’s everlastingly negative ideology as well as anything. But so does the title of Washington D.C.’s Priests’ first full-length, an addictive and moving exercise in standing athwart everything and yelling “Stop!” As her bandmates jitter and skywrite with a vandal’s glee, Katie Alice Greer free-associates about all the ways that commerce—and even enclaves supposedly against it, such as DIY music scenes—consigns its participants to inauthenticity and compromise. Her cleverest maneuver is to read big political dynamics into small personal situations, as when her mockery of a pretentious ex-friend culminates in a radical thought: “Who ever deserves anything anyway? What a stupid concept.”
9. Kelly Lee Owens, Kelly Lee Owens
Long ago it became clear that techno could be transcendent outside of the warehouse, its steadiness allowing for spiritual inspiration, internal focus, and really good home cleanings. Recognizing those attributes as shared between dance music and songwriter pop, the electronica newcomer Kelly Lee Owens splices luscious Cocteau Twins–influenced hymns with passages of four-on-the-floor hypnosis. The analogue sounds of bells and guitar give standouts like “Bird” or “Arthur” a homespun feel, and there’s plenty of structural and lyrical intrigue nestled within the album’s all-enveloping, pastel pulse.
10. Jay-Z, 4:44
Bow down to Jay-Z and Beyoncé for realizing that to save their image as pop’s royal couple they needed to both, individually, scuff it up. The rapper’s 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail showed late-career bloat, but 4:44 is lithe and focused, the sound of a legend drawing on his core talents to level with the listener rather than shore up his spot in the marketplace. Personal mea culpas twine with political messages here, and if not all listeners agreed that his investment portfolio (or newfound vulnerability) contained the key to black progress, he was successful, at least, in sustaining an album-length argument. He hasn’t forgotten fun, either, and some of the most excellent moments come from him play-scrapping with critics across generations. At one point he lovingly parodies the kids today for groupthink and then mocks his own peers for the same: “Y’all stop actin’ brand new / Like Tupac ain’t have a nose ring too?”