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The Collapsar & Friends' Best Albums of 2017

 Banner image courtesy of James Brubaker and his dope record collection. 

Banner image courtesy of James Brubaker and his dope record collection. 

Here are the best albums of 2017, barring Carly Rae Jepsen doesn’t drop anything in these last two weeks. (Hey, at least we didn’t publish our list in November like everyone else. We got Bjork in!) More than 150 unique albums were nominated by 20 of The Collapsar’s editors, contributors, and friends. A huge thanks to Collapsar co-founder James Brubaker, who dusted off his ol’ Google Sheet to make the calculations. The top five this year was much harder to predict than in previous years; we lost patience with some of our old favorites, and even the loftiest production couldn’t drown out the demand for political statements (lookin' at you, Taylor). But, our number 1 was a landslide. Post-Weinstein, Still-Trump, it is wickedly satisfying that the best album of 2017 is by a woman of color taking “CTRL.” Let’s make sure we keep listening in 2018.


 

30. Lotta Sea Lice | Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
 

 Matador 

Matador 

Friendship is a funny thing in the social media age. Its so easy to stay up-to-date on the comings and goings of people you haven't seen for months that taking the time to sit down and really catch up just doesn’t always seem necessary. On Lotta Sea Lice, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile seem to hit pause on the world so they can really talk shop, bringing us into a musical conversation about being a musician. The duo are similar enough in style that they have no problem sharing the sonic space on a track, though they each take the reigns completely when covering the other’s material. Their respect for each other’s craft is palpable and heartwarming. This isn’t the dawn of a new indie-twang supergroup; its just a moment to stop and appreciate friends made during the pursuit of a mutual dream.  —Michael Manwaring


29. 4:44 | JAY-Z

 ROC Nation 

ROC Nation 

Despite yet another lameshit corporate synergy rollout and an unfortunate lyric that embraces Jewish stereotypes, JAY-Z’s 4:44 was a pleasant surprise. After a decade of largely uninspired output, nobody would have been surprised if, like new Star Wars movies and Justice League, 4:44 ended up being just another expensive slog. But thanks to Lemonade and a rising awareness of racial intolerance brought forth by the election of our piece-of-shit president, JAY-Z dug deep this time out, making an album both deeply personal and overtly political. Driven by No I.D.’s spare, vintage production, Hov delivers some of his best verses since The Black Album. Of course, the trick of 4:44 is that it’s most profound when at its simplest, as on the repetition that drives “The Story of O.J.” or in the earnest representation of his own success on “Legacy.” —James Brubaker


28. Antisocialites | Alvvays

 Polyvinyl 

Polyvinyl 

Alvvays somehow manage to sound more like themselves on their sophomore album; The production is tighter, the guitars twanglier, and Molly Rankin’s melody writing does an even better job at showcasing the wonderful duality of her chest and head voice. In Summer 2014 you couldn’t escape “Archie, Marry me” from their self-titled debut, and as the band got in front of larger and larger audiences, they rocked a little harder than the record might have one believe. Antisocialites seems like a reaction to the experience of having a huge room under your spell; the songs are imminently dance-able even when the lyrics take a turn for the reflective or mournful. The mission statement is laid out in the final lyrics of the album: “Underneath this flickering light / Do you want to forget about life with me tonight?” —Michael Manwaring


27. Harry Styles | Harry Styles 

 Erskine

Erskine

It was obvious to anyone who cared to look closely enough that Harry Styles’s first solo effort was going to be good. Just how good, and how interesting, was the question. As it turns out, Harry Styles was birthed from a real melee of odd and no-duh influences, the love child of a weird orgy attended by Bowie and Lindsey Buckingham and Jackson Browne and Nancy Wilson and Jack Johnson’s stepson. At times more Alanis than Madonna; at others more 1975 James Taylor than 2017 Taylor Swift, it’s a headspin of a debut, especially from someone so young and so immersed in pop’s unwavering probe of an eye. There’s so much fascination with the private lives of our public idols, so much attention paid to the questions left unanswered in their art, that what got too often forgotten this year was just how well-written and how well delivered the songs on Harry Styles are. It’s a wild introduction for an extremely promising talent—the future could look like anything at all, and nothing is more thrilling. —Brad Efford


26. Half-Light | Rostam

 Nonesuch Records Inc. 

Nonesuch Records Inc. 

Though it was released in September, Half-Light serves the Christmas season well, with its jaunty instrumentation and shimmering vocal arrangements. “Wood,” a single released six years before the album’s release, is driven by its own “par rump pa pa pum.” While he might not be today’s trendiest producer, as a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, Rostam is certainly one of the most imaginative, effortlessly blending strings, horns, lap slaps, and tablas. He is after all, the guy who saved Vampire Weekend from being buncha white dudes in boat shoes whining about the Cape, and brought out the best in Hamilton Leithauser, Charli XCX, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Half-Light is a remarkable solo debut, confident in its sophistication and whimsy. In less than an hour of music, we meet the man behind the sound-proof glass, full of hope and glorious contradictions. If only he’d popped his head out sooner. —Susannah Clark


25. Rest | Charlotte Gainsbourg

 Because Music 

Because Music 

This year saw the release of two of the greatest grief records we’ve been gifted in years, and they couldn’t possibly sound more different. Unlike Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me—a sparse, barely-there grappling with ghosts—Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Rest straps glow-stick bracelets on misery, bathes it in strobe lights and vintage silk bellbottoms. The effect is dizzying, intoxicating, and utterly destructive. If you don’t speak French or aren’t paying attention, you might think “Lying With You” is a come-hither appeal to romantic lusting in the club, not a stark memory of spending time prostrate with the dead body of one’s father, “bare leg stuck out of the sheet without shame and cold blood at the corner of your face.” The narratives of grief only multiply from there, darkening and lightening in measure but maintaining all the while the unsettling sheen of gauzy pop maximalism. Come for the pulsing lights, but stay awhile for the shadows they cast in the corners. —Brad Efford


24. Luciferian Towers | Godspeed You! Black Emperor

 Constellation Records

Constellation Records

Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Luciferian Towers feels like a revelation, both for the post-rock giant and for 2017. Godspeed’s previous efforts have often been described as apocalyptic, and another album in this vein could have represented 2017 well enough. Instead, Godspeed has crafted their most optimistic and euphoric music since the brief glimpses of celebration on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Godspeed recorded the soundtrack to the joyous occasion of their completed manifesto: an end to foreign invasions; an end to borders; the total dismantling of the prison-industrial complex; healthcare, housing, food and water acknowledged as an inalienable human right; the expert fuckers who broke this world never get to speak again. Godspeed has written the music of hope and inspiration, music to keep us tumbling forward to a better world. If all goes well, Luciferian Towers will be the soundtrack we deserve. Alex K. Hughes


23. Always Foreign | The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die

 Epitaph Records

Epitaph Records

The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid to Die first made their (comically long) name for themselves in the post-rock emo scene by approaching the mundane and personal—gig life, dissolving friendship, youthful ennui—with sprawling instrumental grandiosity and reverent, if nebulous, lyrical introspection. Always Foreign, their third full length and fifteenth release, positions them as vanguards of the scene’s focal shift to the world beyond the self--one overrun by, among other things, the opioid crisis and rapidly deteriorating democracy. Always Foreign accomplishes this masterfully, using a deft mix of gut-punch, relatable lyrics (“Can you still call it a country if all the states are broken?”) and lush instrumentals (complete with strings and a bombastic horn section) reminding listeners that, even when subbing punk’s rage for emo’s vulnerability, music can and should be political, and the political is always moshable, jammable, and most urgently, personal. —Moira McAvoy


22. Plunge | Fever Ray 

 Rabid

Rabid

Fever Ray’s second solo album, Plunge, is her first since the dissolution of her group The Knife, whose 2013 effort, Shaking the Habitual, will surely stand as one of the best albums of the decade. By comparison, Plunge is far more accessible musically than the last Knife album. However, Fever Ray (whose real name is Karin Dreijer) manages to continue that album’s tradition of social commentary, this time with a focus on polymorphous, transgressive sexuality. One highlight is “This Country,” which boasts the hilarious lyric “This house makes it hard to fuck / This country makes it hard to fuck!” Other highlights include the title track and “To the Moon and Back,” which both harken back to the sound of The Knife’s breakthrough effort Silent Shout. Fever Ray continues to make challenging dance club music, and Plunge is yet another reminder of her wykkid talent. —Brian Flota


21. Capacity | Big Thief 

 Saddle Creek

Saddle Creek

Full disclosure: My sister works for indie darlings Saddle Creek Records. And given my penchant for introspective singer-songwriters, she’s been quite the Big Thief hypewoman since they released the first single off their sophomore record Capacity back in April. Alas, I slept on Capacity for a good while because I fixate on working through back catalogs of mid-century singer-songwriters. But I didn’t sleep too long—and thank god, because lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker & co. deliver. In eleven tracks, Lenker strings together a shitload of beautiful narratives and abstractions detailing the everyday dysfunction of love (see: “Black Diamonds”), friendship (see: “Capacity”), family (see: “Mythological Beauty”), and life in general. Through the dysfunction, resiliency is what rings out by the penultimate track “Mary,” a stark and beautiful devotional. It also doesn’t hurt that Lenker has the voice of an angel—one as strong as it is sweet. Don’t sleep on this one too long. —Emma Murray


20. The Navigator | Hurray for the Riff Raff 

 ATO

ATO

Alynda Segarra made a name for herself writing Americana music, precious folk songs in which the native New Yorker confided in us: “My heart is a Blue Ridge mountain.” Her voice is beautiful enough that you almost believed her. The Navigator, her sixth studio album, is an ode to city life and a loud proclamation of her Puerto Rican heritage, both in her lyrics and the spectacular instrumentation. Far from navel gazing, Segarra’s exploration of identity is an urgent political cause, as hurricanes and hatred threaten not only Puerto Rico, but the rest of The United States too. In the finale, an “A Day in the Life”-style suite, Segarra gives us a mantra: Pa'lante, which means “forward.” But the past is not forgotten. She marches on in the bloodied footsteps of activists before her, demanding justice from the so-called free world. I can’t think of anything more American than that. Susannah Clark


19. After Laughter | Paramore

 RCA Studio B 

RCA Studio B 

How do we reckon with a band like Paramore in 2017? How do we convince the world that they’ve made this year’s most dynamic, wildly fun rock record? After Laughter is nothing else if not exhibit A in the argument for taking albums as they are, regardless of expectations, preconceived ideals, judgments of genre, of narrative, of fandom. The same Paramore you’ve watched climbed so solidly and predictably up neo-emo’s fickle mascara ladder has suddenly written a collection of pop songs that straddle that most difficult of all lines in pop music--nostalgia and newness, a memory you can’t remember ever remembering before—better than any other since before or after Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion. It needed to come from left field, to be a complete jaw-dropping shock to our system. We needed to forget what we thought we knew we knew this year—we needed to drop the masks and just submit. —Brad Efford


18. Dedicated to Bobby Jameson | Ariel Pink

 Mexican Summer 

Mexican Summer 

Ariel Pink continues his hot streak with Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, his first album since 2014’s brilliant weirdo-pop set Pom Pom. Pink shows a little more restraint here, but the results are nearly as stunning. The hilarious opener, “Time to Meet Your God,” is vintage Ariel Pink. “Feels Like Heaven,” which on Bizarro-Earth would be a #1 hit, is in contention for his best song ever, drawing inspiration from his favorite band, The Cure. “Bubblegum Dreams,” “Dreamdate Narcissist,” and “Kitchen Witch” give his fans even more examples of his mastery of hypnagogic pop. The closer, “Acting,” with frequent collaborator DaM-FunK, is an off-kilter yacht rock classic. The titular reference to Bobby Jameson doesn’t really pay off in the songs, but he is a musician whose story is worth looking up. Even if Pink is stuck in a holding pattern here, it is one of the highest order .—Brian Flota


17. Aromanticism | Moses Sumney 

 Jagjaguwar

Jagjaguwar

Every individual thing involved in the music Moses Sumney makes is a plea for patience. Breathe in, hold five, breathe out, hold five, breathe in, hold five, breathe out. The songs on Aromanticism crest in layers, like waves approaching an empty gray shore at middle tide. When these waves crash—the album’s first release of drumwork, on “Quarrel,” which feels so satisfying precisely because we waited so patiently for it to arrive, or the record’s ecstatic emotional peak, the climax of  “Lonely World"—they come upon us with much more force than we reckoned they would. The ocean threatens to pull us under; we high-knee from the water, chilled suddenly to the bone. This metaphor is too romantic. You are already under these waves; these songs will only level you. —Brad Efford


16. Take Me Apart | Kelela 

 Warp Records 

Warp Records 

It was a brisk fall night in 2015 when I heard Kelela for the first time. My friend JB excitedly asked for the car auxiliary cord and put on “Rewind” from her 2015 EP Hallucinogen. From the moment I heard that Miami bass, paired with the sweetest of voices, I was hooked. This year, Kelela finally delivered her debut LP, Take Me Apart. Somewhere between heartbreak and new love, Take Me Apart explores the nuances of committed love and explorative relationships. “It ain’t that deep, by the way. No one’s tryin’ to settle down” speaks to that sexual exploration in first single “LMK,” while “Onanon” seemingly laments the negative cycle of a toxic relationship. Take Me Apart executes a level of vulnerability to be admired. In the realm of contemporary R&B (shoutout to producers Arca & Jam CIty), there is no one who does it with more heart and sensuality than Kelela. —Sarah Murray


15. Soft Sounds From Another Planet | Japanese Breakfast 

 Dead Oceans 

Dead Oceans 

Before I listened to Soft Sounds from Another Planet, I had never even heard of Japanese Breakfast. I was hooked within seconds of hearing the driving, danceable shoegaze of the first track. At various times psychedelic rock, lo-fi punk, autotuned robot pop, or ambient soundscapes, Soft Sounds from Another Planet flirts with several genres without every fully exemplifying one. Yet it never feels jarring or non-sequitur—Michelle Zauner’s raw, arresting vocals and catchy guitar melodies thread the varying styles together seamlessly. Add her haunting, never-rhyming-yet-always-lyrical lyrics and the end result is a unique, captivating romp through musical outer space. —Caitlin Furio


14. Drunk | Thundercat 

 Brainfeeder

Brainfeeder

Bassist/vocalist Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, returned in 2017 with a 23-track concept album, Drunk. With features from the likes of Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By”), Wiz Khalifa (“Drink Dat”), and Kamasi Washington (“Them Changes”), Drunk celebrates the small things while simultaneously chronicling the difficulties of day-to-day life. From Mortal Combat, to Dragonball-Z, to being placed in the “Friend Zone,” Drunk is a funk, jazz and R&B infusion album, led by the bass and vocal stylings of Bruner. As the album continues, heavier subjects are broached (fear, the monotony of life, death), but with humor and quirky musicianship. As one of the most prolific modern bassists, Thundercat is best known for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. All this to be said, Thundercat is a force all on his own, and Drunk is only further proof. —Sarah Murray


13. Sleep Well Beast | The National 

 4AD

4AD

The sound of The National’s albums has been rather consistent over the last decade, but Sleep Well Beast introduces new sonic layers; these largely digital flourishes are reflected in the album art’s blue pixel-like glitches. Anxiety-based and substance-induced “glitches” have always been central to The National’s music, but are now represented expressionistically in digital manipulation and instrumentation. Despite the band’s political activism, their music has rarely been expressly political, and it’s hard not to read the album’s expressionism as a reaction to a post-2016 world where internal personal anxiety is mirrored by the precariousness of the systems holding together the outside world. —Jacob Floyd


12. Utopia | Bjork 

 One Little Indian Records 

One Little Indian Records 

Is it possible that Bjork is underrated? Every new album she releases is an immediate Music Media Event, but is she more curiosity, more butt of the joke, source of the eye roll, than properly lauded contemporary genius? These are rhetorical questions I’m relying on to crutch up an argument—let me be more clear: Yes. She is underrated. And Utopia should without question and without pause put the case to rest. Bjork is a genius, always has been, and her avant garde performances both on stage and off, her swan dresses and earthen set pieces, her off-kilter interviews and Biz Markie track feats, are part and parcel of the wild dream. History has given us more records about falling in love than we’ll ever be able to count, but Utopia might be the first that feels so specifically, so gorgeously, like this one person falling in love. Deeply personal, enthralling, all-encompassing, impeccably produced, and above everything else almost painfully beautifully, these 14 tracks are really only one. They connect like a single vein to a single pulsing heart; they feel that vital, that glowing. —Brad Efford


11. Flower Boy | Tyler the Creator

 Columbia Records 

Columbia Records 

I would be lying if I said I didn’t approach Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy with a little bit of caution. He had been banned from the U.K. for his lyrical content alone. Of course, times change and people change, and Flower Boy seeks to set the record straight, or at least complicate his musical persona. The songs on Flower Boy are raw with sensitivity, understanding, and loneliness. He works to normalize homosexuality and dismantle machismo masculinity: “Tell these black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit, I'll do it too / Look, I smell like Chanel / I never mall grip with my manicured nails.” Throughout Flower Boy, Tyler proves he’s a master of the rap game, and every line is essential. Tyler’s production is at least as good as his lyrics: full of summer’s shimmer and surprise turns. The music is entrancing, and this next stage of his lyrical persona is moving and captivating. He is a beautiful contradiction, and we must keep listening. —Alex K. Hughes


10. Turn Out the Lights | Julien Baker

 Matador 

Matador 

“Over,” a sparse strings-and-piano instrumental, opens Turn Out The Lights before bleeding into the lead single, “Appointments,” so naturally that I first mistook them for one song. This feeling of inevitable progression is emblematic of the album as both a collection of songs and an entry into Julien Baker’s musical narrative—where her first effort achingly navel-gazed on a litany of struggles, TOTL achingly pans out to a life lived in tandem with them. With just her voice, a guitar, piano, and violin accompaniment, Baker weaves reminders that while the eye is still part of the storm, calm can (and must) be found within tumult, an idea realized most fully on “Appointments”’ bridge: “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is” in haunting repetition. It’s fitting; what else but this hesitant hope could we take away from 2017? —Moira McAvoy


9. A Crow Looked at Me | Mount Eerie 

 P.W. Elverum & Sun

P.W. Elverum & Sun

“Death is real…It’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art,” Phil Elverum sings on “Real Death,” the opening track of A Crow Looked at Me. It’s a provocative statement, the thesis for the album, and challenges one of the most persistent beliefs about artists: they take their pain and turn it into something comprehensible. Yet for Eleverum, who recorded the album after the death of Genevieve Castree, his wife, creative partner, and the mother of their child, death is not a concept, but an ever-present reality. The album’s power lies in its frank presentation of that reality; the mundane personal details portrayed in a sparse, personal manner. What Elverum may mean is that art suggests a distanced viewing while this album is interested in immediate experience. It breaks that distance down. It invites us in. It shows us that death is real. —Jacob Floyd


8. MASSEDUCTION | St. Vincent 

 Lorna Vista Recordings 

Lorna Vista Recordings 

Like many of her past albums, MASSEDUCTION is a complete artistic rebranding for St. Vincent. She has shed the stark, black and white roboticism of her last record and addresses us now as a sexualized, plastic, cherry-red pop queen. The music echoes the aesthetic: MASSEDUCTION is an album of fabulous yet edgy pop anthems. Yet it isn’t simple; it is a complex, layered artistic vision highly reminiscent of David Bowie’s best work. It is completely unlike anything we have seen out of St. Vincent before. And yet, somehow, in the clever lyrics about addiction and see-and-be-seen culture, in the asymmetrical yet catchy melodies, in the sharp guitar riffs that rip through the clean dance beats—somehow it is still unmistakably St. Vincent. —Caitlin Furio


7. Slowdive | Slowdive

 Dead Oceans 

Dead Oceans 

Initially, I wasn’t excited about a new Slowdive album. My Bloody Valentine’s strong mbv, I reasoned, seemed more like a fluke of the long-dormant-artist-makes-a-comeback genre. But here we are—Slowdive is a lush, gorgeous album that makes perfect sense following the band’s previous album, 1995’s stunning, minimalistic Pygmalion. For folks who didn’t like Pygmalion in ‘95, Slowdive might sound like a return to form, rooted in the rich shoegaze textures that thrived on Slowdive’s earlier albums. For folks who did like Pygmalion, Slowdive is an evolution beyond minimalism towards more familiar textures and approaches. Whether it’s the tense guitars of “Star Roving,” the quiet thrum of “Sugar for the Pill,” or the desolate, shimmering piano that haunts “Falling Ashes,” Slowdive, like mbv before it, gives us a glimpse of what shoegaze looks like all grown up, something we never quite got to see back in the genre’s first run. —James Brubaker  


6. A Deeper Understanding | The War on Drugs 

 Atlantic Records 

Atlantic Records 

I want to hook “Pain,” the first single from A Deeper Understanding, right into to my veins; “Pain” is 5 minutes and 30 seconds of absolute The War on Drugs perfection, as refined an example of the band’s soaring-and-yearning sound as you’ll find. I want to pipe the song’s video—which is black & white, and features TWoD on a barge on the Schuylkill River & shots of the city & kids popping wheelies & industrial architecture & that special Philly grime—directly into my homesick soul. A Deeper Understanding is your favorite old denim jacket, the one you bought on South Street before Tower Records closed. It may not be a perfect record, but it comes damn close, and TWoD gets my vote for the best rock band in the country at the moment. 2017 may have been a garbage year, but at least we have A Deeper Understanding. Kevin O'Rourke


5. American Dream | LCD Soundsystem

 DFA Records 

DFA Records 

Thankfully, American Dream builds on LCD Soundsystem’s near-immaculate legacy. It might not be as utterly perfect as the all-time classic Sound of Silver, nor is it quite as tight and shiny as This is Happening, but American Dream is exceptional. As has defined some of his finest moments (See: “All My Friends” and “All I Want”), on American Dream James Murphy is digging deep into the fears and insecurities of getting old—the results make for a profoundly moving, if not quite as danceable as we’ve come to expect, album. “Oh Baby” brings the expected burbling synth hooks, while “Call the Police” and “Emotional Haircut” froth with the raw punk energy that’s always made LCD’s music feel a little bit dangerous. But the biggest and most satisfying moments on American Dream are its left turns, the dark and unsettled “How Do You Sleep?,” the fuzzy and anxious “American Dream,” and the gorgeous, death-obsessed album closer, “Black Screen.” —James Brubaker


4. No Shape | Perfume Genius 

 Matador 

Matador 

Despite the violent bigots who forced him to drop out of high school and his struggles with addiction and chronic illness, Michael Hadras is alive, a successful artist, and in love in 2017. Hadras regards the stability he’s found in life and love as improbable to the point of being fantastical. “I’m here,” Hadras sings to his partner Alan Wyffels on the track bearing his name. “How weird.” On No Shape, his relationship with Wyffels lives in a sonic Hogwarts—a magical place he never expected to be, full of great halls, sparks and booms, cozy fireplaces and quiet places to hide; but also beset by dark forces bent on its destruction. Contentment is elusive in a love that rose out of personal calamity and exists in a calamitous world. Hadras fears it could fall apart, but comes to regard those fears as exhausting. Why ruin the escape of a strange and beautiful story by picking apart its logical inconsistencies? If love in any way resembles fairytales, it’s not in their happily-ever-after ending, but their required suspension of disbelief. —Frank Matt


3. Melodrama | Lorde 

 Republic Records 

Republic Records 

I’ve listened to this more than any other album in 2017, usually while drunk and bummed out about another soured relationship, but I’ve also listened to it under less harrowing circumstances and it’s just as amazing. Note: Lorde wore a Cramps t-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone, and she’s covered a Replacements deep cut, so everything she does is pretty much a row of fire emojis. Bow down. HOT TRACK: “Perfect Places.” —Brian Alan Ellis

 

 


 

2. DAMN | Kendrick Lamar 

 Top Dawg Entertainment 

Top Dawg Entertainment 

On his 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar embraced his role as a leader in his community. This is an easier thing to do if you think the world is getter better, albeit gradually, than when you think the world has taken steps backward. On DAMN, we find Kendrick questioning, in the grandest and smallest scales, whether his efforts at leadership can make any difference. Is mankind fundamentally wicked, or simply weak? To that end, which is Kendrick? In 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Kendrick engages in a timeless theological debate, a lens through which to consider whether the American experiment in self governance is doomed or redeemable. DAMN is an album both for the moment and for the ages.

 But DAMN is really two albums, reaching opposite conclusions about mankind’s nature and fate. In early December, Kendrick released a collectors edition with the order of the tracks reversed, in which damnation proves inescapable. The fact that Kendrick considers both versions of his album valid shows he still isn’t sure about our nature and prospects for a better world. I for one see Kendrick’s extraordinary gifts as reason to have faith at the end of a very bad year. —Frank Matt


1. CTRL | SZA 

 Top Dawg Entertainment 

Top Dawg Entertainment 

At a sold out show in Brooklyn this month, SZA, channeling a 90s R&B girl group in baggy neon track pants and a crop top, polled the crowd: "How many of y'all were popular in high school?" It was a rhetorical question, meant to transport us directly into the back seat of our mom’s minivan, lost in thought on the way home from tennis practice. But CTRL is not about high school; rather, it’s a musing on the era in every weird teen girl’s early twenties when she realizes she’s cool now, spurring an intense reexamination of high school and everything she thought she knew about herself up to that point.

SZA is a talented lyricist: brutally honest —about her loneliness, neediness, pride — but always forgiving, patient, empathetic. So much of being a young woman, particularly a young woman of color, is shoving away your vulnerabilities, anxieties, and insecurities lest they inconvenience someone else. This year, twentysomething girls are feeling disrespected and defiant, and CTRL generously provides us with a mood board. "Do do you even know I’m alive?" is a 2017 mood if I ever saw one.

She’s also a masterful scene setter, pairing the hypnotizing, lush vibes she’s become known for with syncopated melodies that nest in some corner of your brain to reappear at random times. Her best moments are when she manages to be poetic, plainspoken, romantic, needy, and funny all at once: "You know I'm sensitive about havin' no booty / Havin' nobody, only you buddy / Can you hold me when nobody's around us?" It’s no coincidence that this album dovetails nicely with another black woman-led project that’s felt indispensable this year, the HBO series Insecure. Not only was SZA's music featured multiple times on the show, but Issa Rae also cited SZA’s pre-CTRL work as an early inspiration for the show's soundscape and later got her to record an original song for the season two soundtrack.

Above all, SZA is a classic American 90s kid. She grew up an awkward black, Muslim girl in post-9/11 suburban New Jersey, trying to figure out how to be hijabi cheerleader (she was just in it for the tumbling FYI), and steeped in nerdy girl pop culture. In her music and in interviews she effortlessly name drops a telling mix of icons: Helga from Hey Arnold!, Jenny from Forrest Gump, Drew Barrymore in everything but especially Josie Grossie in Never Been Kissed, Pepper Ann, Martin's girlfriend Gina, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and Kathy Bates breaking James Caan's ankles in Misery, to name a few.

The breakout track on CTRL is arguably "The Weekend," which is either an empowering sidechick anthem or a ballad about community dick, depending on whom you ask. But its emotional core is universal. A Muslim friend who has a strict monogamous-and-platonic-dating-only policy told me that it is this track on CTRL that she finds most relatable. Miguel did a hauntingly beautiful a capella riff on it in an art gallery and called it a "foxy-ass song," and last month, "The Weekend" was both certified platinum and nominated for a Grammy, one of five nominations for SZA this year.

At its heart, CTRL is about our relationships: with lovers and friends and all in between, but most importantly, ourselves. In a year I spent trying to salvage one shred of dignity amidst the racist travel ban that won't die and the periodic reminder that men are trash, SZA knew just what to say to make it feel less miserable. Sanya Dosani

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