Kendrick Lamar DAMN. (Aftermath/Interscope) Hip-hop’s undisputable new king bounces from the jazz-funk density of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly to stripped-back beats and atmospheres, only to dazzle on another level. Cameos by Rihanna and U2 don’t distract from the rapper’s pointed flow and his morph into R&B/pop sonics.
LCD Soundsystem American Dream (Columbia) Forgive the false farewell of their supposed swan song in 2011 at Madison Square Garden. A five-year hiatus has yielded this recharged gem of dark, percussive dance-rock, nodding to textural predecessors like Talking Heads.
Big Thief Capacity (Saddle Creek) Nearly speaking in tongues, Adrianne Lenker channels music as intimate art, weaving ghostly sketches through her band’s impressionistic folk-rock like gorgeous, vulnerable secrets in a dream state.
St. Vincent MASSEDUCTION (Loma Vista) After a tabloid-wrung romance, Annie Clark takes charge with artistic vengeance, balancing cool calculation and a more personal peek into her world, parsing identity, seduction, drugs and consumerism. Lorde and Taylor Swift producer Jack Antonoff of Bleachers fame boosts digital programming, but Clark still rips a rapier-sharp guitar to buttress her vocal tour-de-force in this hall of mirrors.
Father John Misty Pure Comedy (Sub Pop) Folk musician Josh Tillman’s misanthropic alter-ego-—a ’70s-styled balladeer wallowing in the ironies of today’s cultural terrain—only grows deeper with this album’s clever tidbits of subject and scope. Love the dying man who “checks his newsfeed to see what he’s about to miss.”
SZA Ctrl (Top Dawg/RCA) Long delayed and worth the wait, this full-grown debut reveals a young alt-R&B siren in clear control of her sound and sexuality, tackling self-doubt and tricky relationships with cheeky, chameleonic vocal dexterity.
Julien Baker Turn Out the Lights (Matador) This album is a cry in the dark, released in the wake of love, loneliness and mental illness. “I know it’s not gonna turn out all right, but I have to believe that it is,” Baker sings, her pain and hope ringing over the cushioning reverb of her piano and electric guitar like mantras.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit The Nashville Sound (Southeastern) It’s all in the details for a great songwriter whose sobriety doesn’t mean he avoids characters flirting with alcohol and drugs any more than current socio-political biases. He’s got a rural-born affection for music that’s come to straddle country, folk and rock.
Priests Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon) Raw and expansive in its sweep, this full-length debut from the D.C. post-punk quartet echoes past spectral pioneers from Sonic Youth to Sleater-Kinney while focusing its wrath in the present.
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile Lotta Sea Lice (Matador) This sublime, low-key collaboration has two of indie-rock’s most idiosyncratic voices trading drawls at a leisurely pace like a jam session over intercontinental breakfast.
“Green Light,” Lorde (Universal) Spinning in delirium like a night gone wild, this hit is the grandest of a few Kate Bush-ish strokes on sophomore outing Melodrama.
“Feel It Still,” Portugal. The Man (Atlantic) These Northwest indie-rockers crack the best soul-pop crossover hit since Gnarls Barkley.
“Big Fish,” Vince Staples (Def Jam) A rapper on the edge and ready to dive forward delivers this futuristic banger.
“Dum Surfer,” King Krule (XL/True Panther Sounds) The English producer rides a percolating dark wave that’s both hazy and infectious.
“To Live and Die in New England,” Terence Ryan (3QTR/LVSND) This song is a resonant postcard to working-class life from a Pembroke singer/producer who struck gold in acoustic simplicity. ◆
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