Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Give Kendrick Lamar credit for plenty of things on To Pimp A Butterfly -- his forward-thinking approach to hip-hop, unflinching social politics and gorgeous integration of jazz into his rap world -- but perhaps he deserves the most acclaim for being bold enough to follow good kid, m.A.A.D city, now widely understood as one of the best hip-hop debuts ever, with a project so thematically and sonically different. Lamar's sophomore album may be breathtakingly ambitious, but it's also tethered to a voice that remains as riveting now as it was on his first mixtape.
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens spent 10 years roaming away from folk music before returning this spring with a collection of meditations on the death of his mother, who had abandoned him at a young age. It's an emotional, at times unsettling listen, but it's also the sound of Stevens doing what he does best: telling stories atop uncluttered arrangements, lingering in the hurt with a heartbreaking falsetto. "What's the point of singing songs/If they'll never even hear you?" Stevens asks at the end of "Eugene." Even if he doesn't know the answer, we hope he continues to sing them.
Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence Welch has always bathed her voice in elegant fantasy, but How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the first time she balances that pageantry with the unshakable sound of humanity. After all, that album title references the sky, and Welch spends much of the full-length trying to figure out how to exist under it instead of rise into it and away from her problems. Florence + The Machine will always operate in major keys, but the group's third album makes time for the minor details that feel the realest to a listener.
Jamie xx, In Colour
In Colour never stops moving. Jamie xx's 42-minute opus flies by because it refuses to settle on a single pose or idea, constantly shapeshifting while bringing its listener along for the ride. The 26-year-old producer has wiped away the cobwebs from the xx's patented somberness and presented an electronic album that explodes with life, passion and color (er, make that colour). Listen to it again and again and again -- you'll find new things to love each time.
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
"Pedestrian At Best" is the biggest lie of the year. Pedestrian at best? Courtney Barnett is far from pedestrian, a truly special talent who this year has finally earned the audiences she has long deserved. The Melbourne singer-songwriter made waves last year with The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, but Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is the type of front-to-back winner that every indie artist dreams of making someday.
Drake, If You're Reading This It's Too Late
One can listen to If You're Reading This It's Too Late and reasonably long for a radio single like "Hold On We're Goin' Home" or "Started From The Bottom." That was never the point of Drake's surprise mixtape, though: a new proper album is coming for radio, and this collection of anti-mainstream musings features rap's latest king brooding in a fashion that's less accessible but no less impressive. The beat change on "Know Yourself" can still blow off a rooftop, "6 Man" is the best song to ever shout-out a Toronto Raptors sixth man, and the production on "Jungle" is as stirring as anything Drake has ever rapped over. Drake may still be on his "Worst Behavior" tilt, but he's never sounded better.
Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
It's no secret that Kacey Musgraves has become the Country Star For Non-Country Fans, but pop diehards latching onto the singer-songwriter's oeuvre has less to do with her genre experimentation and more to do with her knack for engaging melodies and honest vocal performances. On sophomore album Pageant Material, Musgraves continues playing the outsider, but she also keeps improving her craft with an integrity one can't help but admire.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, Surf
Surf is not a Chance The Rapper album, although the free LP exudes the zany spirit of the mercurial Chicago MC. Instead, Surf belongs to a collective of artists known as The Social Experiment, and each song sounds like it comes from a community of like-minded, multi-talented individuals. Naturally, Chance's commercial appeal helped bring in artists like Big Sean, Busta Rhymes and Quavo, but Surf glows with a selflessness and utilitarianism that's too rare in hip-hop.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
Cinderella released the song "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)" 27 years before Sleater-Kinney made their triumphant return and proved that title correct. For years, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss released superb studio albums that were under appreciated; in 2006, they broke up, and interest in the group's catalog slowly accumulated before they announced a comeback late last year. No Cities To Love seamlessly returns the trio to its razor-edged rock sound, and possesses an urgency that was sorely missing from the genre over the past decade.
Rae Sremmurd, SremmLife
Imagine a teenage Richie Rich had an equally wealthy best friend, and the pair decided to pursue a rap career together -- the resulting album would sound a lot like SremmLife, right? The debut of Rae Sremmurd swims in overindulgence in the same way that Scrooge McDuck splashed around in a money pool: Khalif "Swae Lee" Brown and Aaquil "Slim Jimmy" Brown rap about having no limits and living the craziest lives possible, all while running around with enough major-label cash to work with Mike WiLL Made-It, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean and Young Thug. The resulting album is the most magnificently hedonistic and satisfyingly unrelenting rap project of the year. Unlock the swag? The swag, unlocked.
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