As arbitrary as the demarcation of New Year’s Day is, it’s always thrilling to watch a new year in music take shape. While it’s often slow going in the earliest weeks, our first serious best-of contender arrived in the earliest hours of 2018 via Jeff Rosenstock’s vital, politically charged POST-. By the spring, we had the equally vital, biting pop of U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited, 03 Greedo’s essential The Wolf Of Grape Street, Jon Hopkins’ highly anticipated Singularity, and Beach House’s beguiling 7. In addition to these, The A.V. Club’s been returning to subversive, defiant statements like Ezra Furman’s Transangelic Exodus and Zeal & Ardor’s Stranger Fruit, and records that defy easy genre categorization in favor of ambiguity and a complex beauty reflecting—and often transcending—our everyday lives. See: the dream world of DJ Koze’s Knock Knock, Kali Uchis’ amber-hued Isolation, and Neko Case’s Hell-On. Each of these releases holds its own power and pull, but many are united by themes of freedom and ambition, whether it’s the elevated indie pop of Snail Mail’s Lush or The Carters’ gargantuan Everything Is Love. There’s so much more to hear in 2018’s latter half, but here are the 30 or so albums that’ve defined it so far.


The best LPs

03 Greedo, The Wolf Of Grape Street

Greedo is such a varied producer, fluid rapper—singer, crooner, yowler—and furious worker that his music can be tough to crack at album length because it swerves all over the place, from mumbly abstraction to flaring menace to delirious pop. At 21 tracks, The Wolf Of Grape Street has all of that with the added benefit of being a pretty coherent document. “Substance” is a gorgeous molly ballad. “If I Wasn’t Rappin’” is virtuosity made earwormy and fun, Greedo boasting about rearranging the laws of success as easily as he manipulates syllables. “Never Bend” is heavy as cast iron—“I’m thanking God, could have died in the pen / You haven’t been ’gainst the odds like I been”—but its gothic thump is more alive than most party tracks. Greedo’s been operating at the peak of his powers for over a year now. On Grape Street, he’s also in full control. [Colin McGowan]


Daniel Avery, Song For Alpha

Daniel Avery’s 2013 debut, Drone Logic, is among the best modern underground techno records, a tight collection of off-kilter acid-rave anthems designed for the dance floor. Follow-up Song For Alpha steps out of the club and hits the road, capturing the “late nights and hazy mornings” of the Brit’s transient lifestyle as a globetrotting DJ. Taking inspiration from William Basinski, Brian Eno, and Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series, Alpha foregrounds Avery’s ambient inclinations, with hypnotic arrangements that shift moodily like weather. Chest-rattling house rhythms still peek through the fog on songs like “Diminuendo” and “Sensation,” but more often, they’re overtaken by storms of slow, billowing synth pads (“Projector”); they’re more of an afterimage, like the club still pulsing through your body as you make your way home at twilight. Avery’s imbued every mutating melody and texture here with great care and attention, making Alpha riveting enough to pore over with headphones or anodyne enough to passively bliss out to. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Beach House, 7

In their 14 years as Beach House, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally have cut one of the steadiest paths in modern indie rock, meticulously fine-tuning their singular dream-pop sound over six excellent studio albums. Their insulated devotion to this transportive aesthetic can make them seem like mad scientists, obsessed with finding a way to leave this earthly plane, and their seventh studio album, the momentous 7, feels like their most successful attempt yet. It’s the most elusive album in a catalog characterized by impressionistic, time-bending songs, and its mercurial psych palette makes room for seemingly all of Beach House’s influences—R&B, grunge, shoegaze, folk, etc.—as well as a darker, more experimental energy. 7 manages the rare feat of feeling both wise, like its creators have been at this for over a decade, and audacious, like the work of a brand-new band with nothing to lose. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Advertisement


Jean-Michel Blais, Dans Ma Main

Still in his early 30s, Canadian post-classical pianist Jean-Michel Blais creates records that sound like the work of a veteran composer. Pushing past the minimalist compositions of debut album II, the new record Dans Ma Main is sonically much more ambitious, incorporating more contemporary electronic flourishes into his Philip Glass-like melodies and repetitions (sometimes quite literally; the track “Roses” adopts chords from Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”). At times, these divergent soundscapes—of classical piano and an avant-garde fusion of samples, synths, IDM, and even a snippet of an interview with Jean-Michel Basquiat—stand in contrast on different tracks; at other points, they overlap into a single pulsing creation. But throughout the austere and cohesive whole, it never comes across as anything but entrancing, an instrumental work of understated beauty. [Alex McLevy]


Kadhja Bonet, Childqueen

Hidden in the increasingly glossy exterior of today’s pop world is experimental soul artist Kadhja Bonet, whose musical visions deserve their own planets. On her sophomore album, Childqueen, she grants those ideas the space they need to flourish. Vintage pop ballads (“Another Time Lover”), slow-burning R&B (“Delphine”), and psych-tinted folk (“Joy”) don’t aim to please, but rather enjoy themselves as they are, like some dreamy hybrid of The Free Design and Kate Bush. Throughout, Bonet’s voice skates through vibrato-etched falsettos and then, moments later, plunges into a deeper register. The open-ended songwriting encourages lyrical themes of growth, spirituality, and love to extend as far as the borders of the music. As she submerges herself in the innocent creativity of childhood, Bonet rotates between flutes, vintage keyboards, and marching drums—an impressive feat given she’s the sole writer, singer, musician, producer, and mixer on Childqueen—for a memorably soothing and imaginative experience. [Nina Corcoran]


The Carters, Everything Is Love

JAY-Z has gradually turned into something of a niche concern, a figure of enduring praise and controversy to a certain type of aging rap nerd. This is not the case for Beyoncé, a public figure who is, at worst, loved too ardently by a very vocal sect of the American public. On Everything Is Love, they both play to their strengths, releasing nine gargantuan pop tracks that Jay can sort of bounce around on, oldly, while Beyoncé raps and roars and belts and does everything else she needs to. It works, in part because they do, turning their long, semi-public relationship into a tutorial on enduring wealth and romance. That any of this feels even remotely believable or relatable is a testament to their gifts, the reasons they became beloved in the first place. The record’s not as good as The Blueprint or Beyoncé, but that it simultaneously reminds you of both is a rare feat of pop-culture spectacle. [Clayton Purdom]

Advertisement


Neko Case, Hell-On

Neko Case emerges from the flames a phoenix on Hell-On, her most well-rounded, mature work to date. Successfully combining the expanded instrumentation of her last album, 2015’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, with the soaring vocals and poetic lyrical storytelling that have endeared her to fans for more than 20 years now, Hell-On effortlessly defies genre—not as a calculated gambit, but as the organic product of a complex artist with an assured point of view. You can hear shades of handclap pop on standout single “Bad Luck,” honky-tonk stomp on album closer “Pitch Or Honey,” and theatrical dynamics on the title track, all told from the perspective of a woman who’s sometimes defiant, sometimes terrified, and sometimes channeling the all-powerful voice of Mother Earth herself. [Katie Rife]


Current Joys, A Different Age

Current Joys’ new album opens with “Become The Warm Jets,” but references aside, don’t expect any glammy art-pop à la Brian Eno’s solo debut. Instead, Current Joys (and its former incarnation TELE/VISIONS) is the quiet and affecting solo project of Nick Rattigan, and A Different Age, his third album but first under the new moniker, is far and away his best work to date. You can affix it with any number of labels—minimalist bedroom pop, spare indie balladry—but whatever the assignation, the music is devastatingly pure. “I’m sick of being somewhere I can’t stand,” Rattigan sings on “Alabama,” and the sentiment, sung in his earnest, crackly croon, lands with a resonant force appreciable to anyone who has found themselves living in a world they wished they didn’t recognize. Amid a sea of Bandcamp-dwelling soundalikes doing their best to be the most heartfelt and sincere troubadours imaginable, only to fall into self-parody, Current Joys is the rare project that manages to transcend its simplistic trappings and achieve something like musical grace. [Alex McLevy]


DJ Koze, Knock Knock

Across two albums and numerous mixes, veteran Hamburg DJ and producer Stefan Kozalla has established a distinctly warm, soulful take on electronic music, influenced by an omnivorous crate-digging habit and his own stint in ’90s hip-hop with German group Fischmob. His third studio effort as DJ Koze, Knock Knock, is perhaps his best yet, blending hip-hop, R&B, dream pop, funk, ambient, house, psych, and more into a prismatic daydream. Its 16 tracks drift loosely between melancholy and joy, populated by a stellar cast of guest vocalists, sampled and otherwise: Róisín Murphy, Sophia Kennedy, Gladys Knight, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, Bon Iver, José González, and rapper Speech (Arrested Development). Koze’s lush productions feel uniquely unguarded and playful, like invitations to forget about time—“a social institution and not a physical reality” (“Music On My Teeth”)—and revel in the complex beauty of the universe. Upon Knock Knock’s release in May, we called it 2018’s most purely enjoyable album yet, and it remains a high bar to clear. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Advertisement


Nils Frahm, All Melody

German composer Nils Frahm made most of his previous music based on some self-imposed restriction: playing a piano whose strings were wrapped in felt, say, or using toilet brushes to scrape out a rhythm. Compared to these, bringing in human voices, pipe organs, and drum machines doesn’t seem especially experimental, but they yield some of the minimalist’s most maximal work yet on the revelatory All Melody. Frahm recorded the album within the cavernous spaces of his new Berlin home studio, and its openness colors every track—both in the airy reverberations you can sense in intimate piano pieces like “My Friend The Forest” and “Forever Changeless,” and in Frahm’s willingness to experiment with genres beyond his usual neoclassical milieu, whether it’s film-noir jazz on “Human Range” or the exotic trance rhythms of “Sunson.” It turns out Frahm actually does some of his best work when he’s completely free. [Sean O’Neal]


Ezra Furman, Transangelic Exodus

In an era where ironic detachment is the norm, it’s downright rebellious to make music as unabashedly passionate as Ezra Furman’s Transangelic Exodus. The album, bursting with love and longing and joy and pain, puts a feather boa and a coat of lipstick on the all-American archetype of the brooding, leather-jacket-clad rebel, subverting the hormone-driven rock ’n’ roll urgency of Jim Steinman and Lou Reed with a concept album about angelic queer lovers on the run from the law—and from the figurative, but equally oppressive, prison of gender. “Angel, don’t fight it / To them you know we’ll always be freaks,” Furman rasps on album opener “Suck The Blood From My Wound,” a defiant declaration in the same rebellious spirit as Bruce Springsteen when he sang, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.” [Katie Rife]


Jon Hopkins, Singularity

British producer Jon Hopkins makes head-trip music, his melding of ambient introspection and rugged techno propulsion evoking the peaks and valleys of a wild night out for listeners who are more likely to be sitting on their couch. His 2013 breakout album Immunity traced this archetypal going-out/coming-down narrative more literally, but the new Singularity captures it more loosely—and more spiritually. Hopkins said he wrote it while in an intense period of near-monastic retreat into transcendental meditation and desert wanderings, and it shows in the album’s intensely emotional swings between starry-eyed euphoria and somber contemplation. Hopkins, as always, has an exceptional command over every sparkling sound in his repertoire, from the scrubbed and slightly-off beats that give his electronic music such human soul to the endless array of twinkling arpeggios that glimmer across standout “Emerald Rush.” As with Immunity before it, you’d be hard-pressed to hear a more inexplicably moving electronic album this year. [Sean O’Neal]

Advertisement


Nipsey Hussle, Victory Lap

It’s all there in that title. Nipsey Hussle worked the mixtape circuit for well over a decade before releasing Victory Lap, his triumphant, sprawling major-label debut. He spent that time getting shuffled between labels, selling his Crenshaw tape for $100 a pop, building a fleet of regional businesses, and spitting on what’s still the best anti-Trump track ever. On Victory Lap, produced almost front-to-back by longtime collaborators Mike & Keys, he raps like he’s ripping the sentences out of his guts, his voice now a barbed, emotive rasp. You start to notice how expansive the whole thing is a few tracks in—say, when the ride-around anthem “Dedication” flips on, or maybe when the narcotic thump of “Hussle & Motivate” creeps up midway through the album’s runtime. Hussle bears the full weight of his history in his raps, equally wise and weary. It’s a hell of a debut—and a victory lap. [Clayton Purdom]


Maxo Kream, Punken

Maxo Kream adds another step to the old Spacemen 3 stratagem: move drugs to take drugs to make music to take drugs to. So obviously, Punken’s opening track is called “Work.” (As in: whippin’.) A forced sabbatical—dealing with a trafficking case, then the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey—has deepened the Houston rapper’s writing, which has shed some nihilism to make room for specificity. “Grannies” is a wild, punctuation-free record of familial exploits—petty theft, murder and assault, trips to the can—that manages, in the end, to still express weary love and affection. “Roaches” contains the image of a young Maxo “watching 12 search for shells like Easter” in his backyard after his neighbors called the cops reporting gunshots. This is all faintly familiar hood-tale fare, but it’s well-told, as often funny or strange as it is bleak. Maxo’s art has grown, but he hasn’t moved on from the trap. He’s just lensing in on it more crisply than ever. [Colin McGowan]


Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer

Driven by a declaration—“I consider myself a free-ass motherfucker”—instead of a concept, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer is a sexy, sonically adventurous ode to liberation. Her third studio album is as tightly composed as those that came before it, moving in three acts: personal reckoning, resistance, and finally, self-acceptance. Her wide-ranging influences are on display, from the rapid-fire raps about black excellence of “Django Jane” to the beats written by and in tribute to Prince on “Make Me Feel” and “Screwed.” She even manages to out-St. Vincent Annie Clark on “Take A Byte.” “Dirty Computer” is the title track and the first lyrics she utters, but the album ends with Monáe chanting “Love me for who I am” with a chorus of other “Americans.” Dirty Computer isn’t just a testament to Monáe’s ability to merge disparate forms of art; it’s an urgent yet stylish rallying cry. [Danette Chavez]

Advertisement


Mount Eerie, Now Only

How do you come back from losing the love of your life? On Now Only, Phil Elverum goes looking for the answer in his past and present, tracing the roots of a partnership that cancer cut cruelly short and sketching his own mourning process through anecdotal story-songs. It’s a companion piece to—and maybe a continuation of—last year’s devastating, draining A Crow Looked At Me, which addressed the profound void opened up at the center of Elverum’s life by the death of his wife, cartoonist and fellow musician Geneviève Castrée. If that album was stripped to its minimalist bones, Now Only allows for an occasional supplement to his confessional folk sound, from the ironically upbeat chorus and flashes of self-deprecating humor on the title track to the brief blast of doom-metal guitar that opens “Distortion.” These variables don’t imply anything like recovery—the real answer to the question above is probably “You can’t, completely.” But they do suggest that Elverum will keep finding new ways to locate beauty in his sorrow. [A.A. Dowd]


No Age, Snares Like A Haircut

In 2013, when last we heard from No Age, the duo were tearing down the mid-’00s drone-punk sound they helped define. Five years later drummer/vocalist Dean Allen Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall came back together to rebuild it into something even bigger and more self-assured. Snares Like A Haircut plays almost like a revue of the band’s career, with all-out punk stompers nestled next to shimmering instrumental meditations, shoegaze ballads, and combinations of the three. Most striking, though, is the poise with which the band has returned to this material, assembling this worthy comeback with even more confidence and musical depth than they showed off at their peak. [Matt Gerardi]


Oneohtrix Point Never, Age Of

We’ve entered Daniel Lopatin’s “pop” moment, for lack of a better term, as the experimental producer known for his decaying drones and bricolages of digital excess has become something of a household name (in certain houses), thanks to his lauded score for Good Time and some impressively high-profile collaborations with Iggy Pop, David Byrne, and FKA Twigs. His newest seems poised to meet it: Age Of is Oneohtrix Point Never’s “poppiest” album by a mile. That’s most immediately clear in its prominent vocals—from guest stars like ANOHNI, but more unexpectedly Lopatin himself, whose heavily treated voice carries the corroded country ballad “Babylon” and the sad, Future-esque soul of “Black Snow,” surrounded by death-metal shrieks and what sounds like baroque chamber music being fed through a busted 14.4k modem. It’s another ambitious record, backed up by another typically complex concept involving artificial intelligence, idiot humans, and nothing less than the entire, fragmented history of civilization. But Age Of also represents Lopatin’s strangest experiment yet: accessibility. [Sean O’Neal]

Advertisement


Pusha T, Daytona

Kanye went one for five in his wildly ambitious five-albums-in-five-weeks project, but Pusha T goes seven for seven on Daytona, the first and best album in the suite. Barring a dud Rick Ross cameo, it’s 22 minutes of restless, ruthless radio rap, barely any hooks or intros or outros, just laser-precise beats and Pusha’s characteristically writerly snapshots of the high life (“The skybox is right next to RiRi”) and how he got there (“V-A sent bales, ’bout that trap life”). It all ends with the venomous simmer of “Infrared,” on which Pusha, after years of slapping, teasing, and loathing Drake from afar, finally incited the rapper to throw a haymaker. Ultimately, though, the ensuing beef is only a footnote to Daytona, a ramification of what happens when one of our most quietly lethal emcees finally releases a masterpiece under his own name. [Clayton Purdom]


Rhye, Blood

Change may underscore Rhye’s sophomore album–L.A. (by way of Toronto) vocalist-producer Mike Milosh struck out on his own minus Danish producer Robin Hannibal, who was integral to their debut, Woman; he also left his label, went through a divorce, and found new love in the past few years–but Milosh’s commitment to his sensual mood music clearly persists. Blood expands on Woman’s bedroom R&B, Milosh’s featherweight falsetto floating over the groove on slow-burn soul numbers “Please” and “Count To Five,” but it’s when he and his skilled band move beyond the slinky Al Green-isms and artful minimalism that best reveals the evolution of Rhye’s sophisticated pop. The air of mystery around the project’s debut (many listeners initially thought they were hearing a female singer) drew many curious listeners, but with live instruments replacing that album’s synthesized production and nods to jazz and world music, Blood proves a staying power beyond alt-R&B trends. By the time the record closes with the dramatic “Sinful,” powered by a desert-blues guitar melody, Rhye’s sonic seduction takes on a newfound—and welcome—urgency. [Tabassum Siddiqui]


Rival Consoles, Persona

Both the title and concept of Ryan Lee West’s latest Rival Consoles album are drawn from Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1966 psychological drama, a film whose fragmented, allusive meditations on identity can barely be pinned down by reams of scholarly writing—let alone in an album of instrumental electronic music. But West works that ambiguity to his advantage, evoking those tensions through the slippery interplay of clattering beats (some of his heaviest yet) and paranoid synth drones with comforting layers of airy textures and almost-naïve piano melodies. Like the film, it’s not always easy to follow, or to sit with. But it similarly rewards repeated visits, allowing you to discover the moments of nuance hidden there by West. Most of these come just by nature of his uniquely expressive—and wholly analog—approach to genuinely playing this kind of music, rather than simply programming it. [Sean O’Neal]

Advertisement


Jeff Rosenstock, POST-

If anyone can capture the despair of the moment with the appropriate cathartic angst, it’s Jeff Rosenstock. Written in the days following Trump’s inauguration and recorded live to tape in a marathon 86-hour session, POST- is understandably loose-limbed, an alternately hyper-anxious, explosive, and remorseful reflection of the troubled times that inspired it. POST- serves as a fitting postscript to 2016’s excellent and appropriately titled Worry, with an even rawer, “came to the studio straight from the practice space” sound. POST- slows down on “TV Stars” and “9/10”—which qualify as ballads—but the album never feels at ease. Yet it ends optimistically: Inverting the directive of the song’s title, a chorus of people repeatedly sing “We’re not gonna let them win” during 11-minute closer “Let Them Win.” That segues to Rosenstock quietly crooning “no” over an acoustic guitar as the song fades into an ambient coda. Rosenstock remains defiant and relevant as ever. [Kyle Ryan]


Saba, Care For Me

There’s an uncredited patience to everything Saba does, and his second studio album, Care For Me, exemplifies how much that patience pays off. The Chicago rapper welcomes listeners into his disheveled home of a mind-set after the death of his cousin. Saba is transparent and conversational, a calm host despite the emotional wreck that surrounds him. While his delivery doesn’t flex his mettle, the smooth intonation of his verses heightens the devastation he’s reeling in. It allows the beats behind him—on “Life,” an upright bass line that morphs into the thudding of a blown-out subwoofer, or on “Logout,” introspective piano chords that vary in volume—to propel the momentum of his anecdotes. The loneliness is sobering. When he finally breaks down on seven-minute standout “Prom / King,” his unflinching details become gutting. At 23 years old, Saba shows a solemn awareness and downtrodden endurance of life that’s uncomfortably relatable, even when his experiences are undeniably singular. [Nina Corcoran]


Screaming Females, All At Once

As The New York Times declared in a roundtable of female rockers last summer, “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women.” And Screaming Females’ latest LP, All At Once, is Exhibit A, a big, burly, joyous, angry guitar-rock record whose feet are as nimble as its shoulders are wide. Bent over her guitar like a determined commuter forging through a blizzard, frontwoman Marissa Paternoster coaxes everything from furious fretwork to booming sludge to mellow surf-rock from her instrument over the course of the 15-song album, tied together by a thought-provoking lyrical through line exploring themes of freedom and oppression. The queen of rock ’n’ roll has announced herself; long may she reign. [Katie Rife]

Advertisement


Sir, November

What a compulsively listenable, endlessly strange album November is. Technically the second full-length by Sir, it’s his first on Top Dawg Entertainment, the best-out-there vanity imprint that also houses Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad, and SZA, among others. The 30-minute effort is tied together by a deep-space sci-fi concept, and yet its lyrical concerns are entirely corporeal, etching out the shady gray spaces in a relationship that seems to be dissolving and coming together at the same time. It veers musically from clattering hip-hop to sinuous space-age R&B, often in the same track; the midnight-blues boom-bap of “Something Foreign” turns into a leering Schoolboy Q rap, while “Never Home” pairs light bars from Sir with trilling Roy Ayers vibes. (The hook is a voicemail recording.) The sonic detritus all seems to be circling some unseen planet, everything held together by the gravitational force of Sir’s slick, wine-drunk melodies. [Clayton Purdom]


Snail Mail, Lush

When writing about Lush, Lindsey Jordan’s debut full-length under the musical pseudonym of Snail Mail, critics (including this one) often bring up Jordan’s age: She’s only 19, not yet old enough to technically gain admission to some of the clubs where she plays. And her youth is more than just a bullet point on a press release; it’s the driving force behind her music, exquisitely crafted, guitar-driven confessional indie pop that speaks to the intensity of emotion that peaks in late adolescence. Whether she’s singing about being bored at a party or convincing herself that “I’ll never love anyone else,” as she proclaims on lead single “Pristine,” Jordan elevates the genre, both with her unapologetically slick, studio-produced sound and with her revolutionary self-assurance. [Katie Rife]


Soccer Mommy, Clean

When you first listen to “Still Clean,” the spare opening track from Clean, debut album of Soccer Mommy (a.k.a. Sophie Allison), you could be forgiven for thinking the entire record to follow contained a similarly spare, coffeehouse-performance vibe, all strummed guitars and barely-above-a-whisper vocals. But once the stately beat of “Your Dog” begins, and she’s spitting “I don’t want to be your fucking dog,” you realize the former purveyor of Bandcamp-ready minimalism has a much more ambitious sonic palette to explore. Her lyrics cut like glass, belied by their often plainspoken delivery, a vocal counterpoint to the equivalent balance of austere, Low-esque guitar melodies that gain an expansive full-band accompaniment across the record. Some of the best, like “Flaw,” start as the former, only to slowly work in the other instruments, building to a rich catharsis—and creating some of the most intimate and affecting tracks this side of Julien Baker, with a heavy dose of caustic emotional fire to boot. [Alex McLevy]

Advertisement


U.S. Girls, In A Poem Unlimited

In A Poem Unlimited took the stories and attitude Meg Remy had been showing off in her experimental U.S. Girls albums and wrapped it in an accessible new form. Instead of cold, solo affairs created with loops and keyboards, Remy took on an army of collaborators and live musicians to deliver an electrifying collage of pop styles that works to subvert the form’s sugary, empty-headed reputation at every turn. Remy has a persona to fit every mutation, acting the disco queen on “M.A.H.” or channeling Madonna amid the sophisti-pop of “Rosebud,” and settles into her band’s catchy grooves to shockingly juxtapose them with stark narratives about the abuse and sacrifices that women endure—and occasionally, fantasies of violent revenge for those affronts. It’s subject matter Remy has made a career of exploring, but in this year, with this ingenious and vicious of a delivery, it feels more potent than ever. [Matt Gerardi]


Kali Uchis, Isolation

It’s unusual that an artist earns the high expectations Kali Uchis had going into her first full-length, Isolation, let alone actually delivers on them. But Isolation is not only a continuation of the immaculate, genre-fluid pop teased out in Uchis’ earlier short releases and high-profile features, but a graduation of it. The 23-year-old Colombian-American singer and producer effortlessly traverses doo-wop, reggaeton, funk, and R&B across the album’s 47 amber-hued minutes, with production from Uchis and a murderers’ row of talent: Om’Mas Keith, Thundercat, DJ Dahi, BadBadNotGood, Gorillaz, and more. Isolation is a name-making debut on par with last year’s long-awaited efforts from Sampha, SZA, and Kelela, and like those albums, formally introduces its creator as a vital voice in modern pop and R&B. [Kelsey J. Waite]


Kamasi Washington, Heaven And Earth

Kamasi Washington’s music has attracted this narrative of making jazz relevant again by marrying it with modern hip-hop and R&B. But that wasn’t true of his breakout as a bandleader, 2015’s appropriately titled, three-hour opus The Epic, and it’s even less true of the equally ambitious Heaven And Earth. Washington’s sounds are indebted to jazz’s masters—Miles’ fusion, Pharoah’s spiritual grandeur—and R&B of an older vintage, like Stevie’s resplendent soul and blaxploitation’s funk. From those parts he’s assembled a two-sided concept album that conjures two distinct but interconnected worlds: our dark, troubling reality in need of saving, and the bright, harmonious future it has the potential to become. At nearly two and a half hours, it’s a staggering amount of music that manages to balance conceptual cohesion and stylistic variation. More importantly, it’s capable of moments of both great beauty and genuine heartbreak that even jazz deniers should be able to appreciate. [Matt Gerardi]

Advertisement


Zeal & Ardor, Stranger Fruit

“Ain’t no shelter for us,” Zeal & Ardor mastermind Manuel Gagneux chants over the ghostly coos and roaring feedback of Stranger Fruit’s title track. Tweaking the name of Billie Holiday’s sorrowful lament for lynched Americans, Gagneux makes it clear which “us” he’s addressing on an album whose lyrics largely read like ominous warnings. If last year’s Devil Is Fine spun its unintuitive but surprisingly potent genre mixture from an irresistible alternate-history premise—What if slaves turned to the devil instead of God for salvation during bondage?—this electrifying follow-up speaks, abstractly but forcefully, to clear and present danger. The songcraft is sharper, too, offering a more organic mixture of black metal and black music: riding a smooth R&B falsetto into the powerhouse chorus of “You Ain’t Coming Back,” alternating blues guitar with Mayhem-worthy shredding on “We Can’t Be Found.” What started as a cross-pollination lark, in other words, has become a ferociously resonant project, meeting the threats of a racist America now with the soul and fury of its hybrid sound. [A.A. Dowd]


The best EPs

Barker, Debiasing

Sam Barker, one half of electronic duo Barker & Baumecker and longtime DJ at legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain, made his solo debut for the club’s in-house label, Ostgut Ton, with Debiasing in June. Its four hypnotic tracks subvert the well-worn conventions of club music by forgoing the kick, snare, and clap, illuminating the under-explored corners of the dance floor with skittering, inverted rhythms and ethereal atmospherics. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Clairo, Diary 001

Clairo first came to attention for “Pretty Girl,” a low-key electro-pop track accompanied by an endearingly low-rent YouTube video that has, to date, netted some 16 million views. There’s an immediacy and unforced cool to the short clip that can’t be faked, qualities that are all over Diary 001, a six-track collection of her follow-up works. The warm digital tones of “Flaming Hot Cheetos” are here, as is the squiggly roller-disco funk of “4ever,” both cuts that suggest “Pretty Girl” was no viral fluke but the emergence of a versatile stylist. [Clayton Purdom]

Advertisement

DJ Seinfeld, Sakura

The name sounds like a joke, the kind of moniker some painfully self-conscious millennial would adopt for his night of ironically “spinning” lame ’90s hits off his laptop for Rugrats Meme Night at the La Croix bar (or whatever). But the music DJ Seinfeld actually makes is, grudgingly, the real deal. His new Sakura EP is even more dead serious, filtering his love of classic house, trance, dub techno, and electro (there’s that ’90s stuff again) through a far heavier grind than his more “lo-fi” early work, all with a truly expert ear for detail and design. What’s the deal with that? [Sean O’Neal]

Jenny Hval, The Long Sleep 

On The Long Sleep, Norwegian avant-pop artist Jenny Hval abandons the heavy conceptual drive of earlier releases in favor of a more intuitive compositional process. Hval and her backing band of jazz improvisers follow the music, making meaning from an almost subconscious place, and the result is a four-song set striking in its fluidity and freeheartedness. Anchored by excellent opener “Spells,” it revisits and reinterprets lyrical and musical themes throughout, making for a circular, surreal experience. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Advertisement

Karim Sahraoui, Plenitude

French techno artist Karim Sahraoui made his debut on the revered R&S label with this EP, a record that also marks something of a rebirth for the producer and DJ who’s been kicking around since the ’90s under various names, but never quite broke through like some of his contemporaries. Plenitude deserves to change that: It’s an expertly crafted, emotive spin on the Detroit sound Sahraoui has spent his career paying homage to (he also curates a playlist series dubbed Neo-Detroit), while adding cosmic grooves and a widescreen, desert-wandering sweep—most evidently in the standout, nearly 10-minute journey of closer “Before The 2nd Coming.” [Sean O’Neal]

Sudan Archives, Sink

Violinist, songwriter, and producer Sudan Archives—real name Brittney Denise Parks—makes earthy, mind-expanding R&B that grounds itself in African music traditions while pursuing boundaryless experimentation. This sound advances on the six-song Sink, Parks’ second EP for Stones Throw, with tracks like “Sink,” “Nont For Sale,” and “Mind Control” in particular showcasing the 23-year-old’s captivating versatility and style. [Kelsey J. Waite]