10. Lorde, Melodrama: There used to be a tendency among critics not to take pop music seriously, dismissing it as frivolous and trivial. The norm now is to equate pop music with the seriousness of any other genre, though sometimes publications go a little too far, anointing any catchy song as a pop “gem,” or any high-profile pop album as “good.” Lorde’s Melodrama deserves its own special designation. Written and recorded at the end of Lorde’s teen years, this is an album for adults, danceable but daring, dramatic but universally so. If it’s a “gem,” it’s a hard-edged one; if it’s “good,” it’s because it sets the bar for pop music.
9. Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley: Shelley’s brand of folk music has always been minimalist. She herself said of this self-titled album that it was “an exercise in understatement,” which feels like an understatement. If that sounds boring, let me assure you that Shelley has an ear for the kinds of melodies that seep into the crevasses of your brain and remain their forever. She enlisted the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for this album, but he keeps things spare- just the way Shelley likes it. Indeed, the only thing to distinguish this album from the rest of her sterling catalog is that literally every song feels essential.
8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound: Consistency can be a boring thing to write about, and there’s no one who has been so consistent over the course of his career as Jason Isbell. From his elevation of an already great band in the Drive-By Truckers to his solo career starting in 2013 after he found sobriety, everything Isbell has touched has turned to gold. The Nashville Sound finds him rejoining his post-DBT band for a more robust record. Southeastern and Something More Than Free were intimate, personal. The Nashville Sound gives its full-bodied sound more panoramic subject matter, tackling racism, tribalism, and mental health.
7. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding: At first glance, The War on Drugs may appear to have the same consistency as Isbell. They certainly have been consistently good, but A Deeper Understanding is something profoundly different for them. 2014’s Lost in the Dream was anthemic, engineered to give you catharsis or release at each song’s climax. It was one of my favorite albums of the year, and in that respect, A Deeper Understanding is no different. But its effect on me has been unique, sweeping me up in its epic scope and its measured introspection, which is a wholly different experience, but no less great.
6. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.: The album that came after 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly was bound to be disappointing, because that record was one of a kind, a generational masterpiece of its genre, or any genre for that matter. And while I liked DAMN when I first heard it, I couldn’t quite give it the same devotion I gave TPAB, but time has told a different story about Kendrick’s deeply intimate diary of dread, dreams, and desire. If I first listened to it in TPAB‘s shadow, DAMN casts its own shadow now, firmly establishing Kendrick in his own damn tier as a musician. Don’t let the fact that there are five albums ahead of his on this list; the margins are small, and it’s only personal preference. Kendrick is king, top ten lists be damned.
5. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy: At one point during 2017, I would have Pure Comedy at the top of this list, and it wouldn’t have been close. Josh Tillman sings the way that I think, which is definitely not pretentious on my part and may in fact be an insult to Tillman. Indeed, Tillman is pretentious, cynical, and self-righteous, but also intuitive, empathetic, and insightful, which describes me on my worst days and my best days to a T. I associated with this album to such a high degree that I think it eventually wore me down to where I appreciated its artfulness less. I still think it’s a masterpiece (I put it at No. 5 for a reason!), but it’s not my favorite masterpiece on the list anymore.
If there’s one quality I don’t share with Tillman, it’s hopefulness, and this is not a hopeful record. That said, it is a truthful one, especially on album standouts “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” which dissect worldviews until there’s nothing left. Pure Comedy is intense, so steel yourself before you give it a listen.
4. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator: I was a theater kid through middle school and high school, appearing in plays as varied as Fiddler on the Roof and Grease at school and in a junior company in Dallas. I loved acting and performing, and I still miss it. The Navigator moved the theater kid in me.
While Hurray for the Riff Raff’s previous album, Small Town Heroes, was a folk album that leaned hard into Creole and swamp influences, The Navigator plays almost like the soundtrack to a musical. Alynda Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, split the album into two acts, making it into a loose concept album. In the first act, the Puerto Rican main character survives on the streets (“Living in the City”) and discovers a toughness within herself (“Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”). In the second act, she awakens to find everything stripped away from her people (“Rican Beach”) and calls them to action in response to oppression (“Pa’lante”), completing a work of art that empowers the downtrodden, the used- indeed, the riff raff.
3. Propaganda, Crooked: No artist has made music that challenges my perspective as deeply as Propaganda. His first solo album with his current label, Humble Beast, included a song called “Precious Puritans,” which called out evangelicals who deify American Calvinist forefathers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, without ever confronting the fact that they owned slaves. I had to wrestle with this, and that was good for my soul.
Prop has always been unafraid to address social ills in his music, and Crooked takes this to a new level. There are songs called “Gentrify” and “Darkie,” and they’re as unabashed as they sound. For most of its recent popularity, Christian rap has largely kept its lyrical content to biblical truths that are easy to swallow for most evangelicals regardless of race. That’s beginning to change, thanks to Prop and other artists like Sho Baraka, and Crooked is the most recent record that serves as an example for rebuke, and the best.
2. Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway: Over the last few years, purely by coincidence, I’ve read a lot of books that deal directly with the wounds left on the African-American psyche by America’s history of slavery and racism. It started with Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was still in college, but then more recently I’ve read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. In all of these stories, slavery is presented in its unvarnished brutality, forcing a reckoning in my soul on the soil American is rooted in.
Freedom Highway feels like a continuation of the story those books tell of America’s scars and their wicked origins. Giddens, who has long been a leader in the string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, released her first solo album in 2015 with producer T Bone Burnett. They were well matched to fill out the album, which was mostly covers, with a rootsy vibe. Freedom Highway is more attuned to Giddens’s personal perspective; nine of the twelve songs are co-written by her, and they traverse the history of Southern America. Opener “At the Purchaser’s Option” contemplates that the singer, a slave, has no autonomy over her children, her sexuality, or her work. This helplessness is translated into a quiet anger on “Julie,” in which a slave confronts her owner, who claims to love her, for selling her children to another owner. And the heaviest and most hopeful song, “Birmingham Sunday,” a Joan Baez cover, details the 1963 bombing of a black church by the Ku Klux Klan and its aftermath.
Growing up white and privileged, my understanding of America’s foundation was unknowingly colored by my color. America’s principles of liberty, independence, and unity seemed natural and sewn into the fabric of our culture, when the reality is that they’re fragile and tenuous and far from pure. On Freedom Highway, Giddens joins a long history of uncovering this truth and inspiring hope for a better future.
1. Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness: There are more important things than relevance in pop art, but it undeniably matters. If an album moves me, but no one else I know has ever even heard of it, how much import can that album really hold? Does a movie matter if no one saw it but one person who loved it?
Gang of Youths forces me to ask this question, because there was no place I could put their second album on this list other than the very top. This album is the one that has stayed on repeat more than any other, the one that shot up to the top of my to-buy list as soon as I heard it, the one that I found myself thinking about long after I had turned it off to head to bed. If Father John Misty sings the way I think, Gang of Youths sings the way I feel. It’s bombastic, dramatic, and emotional from front to back; frontman Dave Le’aupepe doesn’t take breaks.
But the intensity isn’t for its own sake; Le’aupepe and his band, whom he met at Hillsong Church in Sydney, are processing real questions of mortality and purpose. Opener “Fear and Trembling” advocates for celebration and worship in the face of aging and death. The ballad “Persevere” is about the death of his best friend’s baby. Le’aupepe sings, quoting his friend, “‘But God is full of grace and his faithfulness is vast / There is safety in the moments when the shit has hit the fan / Not some vindictive motherfucker, not is he shitty at his job;” it’s a powerful examination of faith in light of grief. And my personal favorite, “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows,” contemplates what it takes to “bear the unbearable, terrible triteness of being.”
If this sounds melodramatic, that’s because Le’aupepe gets it: life is a melodrama, and you have to embrace it.
Another Fifteen Contenders (alphabetical)
Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume 1
David Ramirez, We’re Not Going Anywhere
Drake, More Life
HAIM, Something to Tell You
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
Margo Price, All American Made
The Porter’s Gate, Work Songs: The Porter’s Gate Worship Project, Vol. 1
Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
Taylor Swift, reputation
Past Top Tens
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Solange, A Seat at the Table
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Sho Baraka, The Narrative
Bon Iver, 22, a Million
Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Leon Bridges, Coming Home
Phil Cook, Southland Mission
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
David Ramirez, Fables
John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
Ben Rector, Brand New
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
John Mark McMillan, Borderland
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Strand of Oaks, HEAL
Taylor Swift, 1989
Liz Vice, There’s a Light
Jackie Hill Perry, The Art of Joy
First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Propaganda, Crimson Cord
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Patty Griffin, American Kid
Sandra McCracken, Desire Like Dynamite
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
Beautiful Eulogy, Instruments of Mercy
Kanye West, Yeezus
KaiL Baxley, Heatstroke / The Wind and the War
Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy
Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Japandroids, Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city