“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” begins The White Album, journalist Joan Didion’s mosaic essay collection about the late American ’60s and early ’70s. In the opening essay, Didion finds herself at a point in her life and time in our nation’s history where the old narratives begin to fail her. What was once explainable, predictable, and able to be plugged into proven formulas and woven into familiar plot lines with tried-and-true outcomes no longer fits so neatly. Maybe it’s because I’ve been devouring short stories recently and outlining a novel, but so many of the albums that made this list struck me as having narratives with little precedent or guarantee of a happy ending.
Take some of the unlikely narratives these albums fit into. One of his generation’s most prolific artists gets his heart broken, binge-writes 80 songs, and spins his bewilderment into arguably the finest album of his career 16 records in. A seminal band returns to the studio for the first time in 22 years and somehow manages to recapture the same magic that influenced so many others during their absence. After penning what could be considered the Ulysses of hip-hop, the reigning king realized if you can’t go grander in your vision, then go more grounded and direct to the masses. How about these premises? An album in which no men exist. An album in which an artist memorializes his wife’s dying of cancer and documents his subsequent search for answers in almost real time. Again, not your typical stories.
The artists alluded to above each found themselves as Didion once did: part of a story that they hadn’t planned on taking part in and one of which they likely didn’t know the outcome. But when the world takes it upon itself to alter, rearrange, or upend our lives for us, we can only have faith that our art can also shift, bend, and transform to help us make sense of our newfound circumstances. Each of the 25 albums on this list has its own story to tell, and together they form the first half of a narrative that will no doubt keep us listening straight through to the final scene — whatever that may be.
25. Jay Som – Everybody Works
Origin: Oakland, California
The Gist: We’re all for education, but who can criticize Melina Duterte for opting out of enrolling in a jazz conservatory, making a quick study of music production, and instead focusing on her own songwriting? She may not have a fancy diploma framed on her wall, but she’s got two acclaimed records under the moniker Jay Som, and that’s something they just can’t teach you in school.
Why It Rules: Duterte is D.I.Y. incarnate, a one-woman band who writes her own songs and plays all the instruments on her Jay Som recordings. With one foot in the bedroom (“Remain”), the other in the garage (“Take It”), and a borrowed limb planted in more experimental terrain (“One More Time, Please”), Everybody Works showcases a young, multifaceted songwriter who can shift between gritty and vulnerable aesthetics without so much as raising her voice. And when all those elements coalesce, we’re left with a breakup tune like “The Bus Song”, as insightful as it is impossible not to hum between stops. –Matt Melis
24. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens
Origin: North Wales, United Kingdom
The Gist: Kelly Lee Owens Anyone who’s ever been in a record store would love to imagine this scenario: their clerks, who recommend them fitting new pieces to their collection based on their likes and dislikes, are more than just layfolk well-versed in music history. They are, in fact, the next generation of artists that would be populating the shelves. And this is what happened when and Daniel Avery met while working together in a record store, the latter helping the former get her start in dance music, with both of them now standing on the cutting edge of the genre. On her self-titled debut, Owens manages to marry pulsing electronics with sturdy songwriting, using voice as both an instrument in the fold and as a driving force behind her song’s directions. She even gets Jenny Hval to show up for an assist.
Why It Rules: Every year, we get a handful of new players who do more than just fit into the current music scene; they actually manipulate the landscape around them to conform to their own voice. That’s how the music of Kelly Lee Owens feels: complex and moody, changing on a dime without ever being jarring, and as vibrant and vivid as humanity itself. That balance of weaving the human voice with throbbing techno finds the two aspects of her sound bleeding into each other, creating a universe where the organic and the synthetic make convincing arguments for each other. –Philip Cosores
23. Grandaddy – Last Place
Origin: Modesto, California
The Gist: The unlikely origins of Grandaddy go back to a knee injury prematurely ending skateboarder Jayson Lytle’s career, and, for a long time, it seemed as though the natural demise of the group would be the band’s 2005 split, six months prior to the release of their then-final album, Just Like the Fambly Cat. Luckily, a string of 2012 tour dates made a proper reunion seem plausible, and the release of Last Place this March solidified their return.
Why It Rules: The main irony of Last Place might be that the band’s reunion album also happens to be a breakup record, the majority of the material drawn from Lytle’s divorce and reflecting on what a middle-aged breakup in modern America looks and feels like. Slow and steady, Lytle paces us through his marriage’s dissolution, from the initial denial (“Way We Won’t”) and finding ways to delete/hold onto each other (“The Boat Is in the Barn”) to the final realization (“A Lost Machine”) and a sweet, if pained, remembrance of better times (“Songbird Son”). It’s all there and masterfully woven into the band’s brand of lo-fi, melodic indie rock. A fitting return for a much-missed band and a sad swan song of sorts for bassist Kevin Garcia, who died of a massive stroke in early May. –Matt Melis
22. Charly Bliss – Guppy
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: Three years after releasing their three-track Soft Serve EP, Charly Bliss have expanded their crunchy, very ’90s power pop sound into a delectable full-length debut that spans 10 enjoyable tracks. It’s called Guppy — there’s a big fishy swimming on the front with some smaller fishy pals — but it might as well have been called Sundae LP, as it’s sugary, summery, and doused with all sorts of chocolatey distortion.
Why It Rules: Some may be put off by Eva Hendricks’ vocals, and for good reason: At times, she can sound a little too mawkish, as if she’s just inhaled a tank of helium and rubbed her teeth with the powdery sugar that comes from pixie sticks. But, give the songs a couple of spins — or, you know, just let Guppy swim along — and mawkish turns to punchy and punchy turns to addicting and addicting turns to love. And when that happens, poppy ditties like “Percolator”, “Black Hole”, “Ruby”, and “Gatorade” start sounding like all the ’90s college rock you once skipped over for Savage Garden and Everclear. Sigh. –Michael Roffman
21. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
Origin: Louisville, Kentucky
The Gist: The garage punk quartet from the Bluegrass State threaten to break out of the garage for good on their sophomore outing.
Why It Rules: Give White Reaper credit. They go to great lengths to make sure they get a pat on the back, even if only from themselves. After a fun-filled full-length debut dubbed White Reaper Does It Again, they returned with a second offering called The World’s Best American Band. And as a stadium crowd surges at the beginning of the record’s opening title track, listeners find themselves both wanting to and starting to believe them. After a debut where most songs felt like bank robbers making for state lines with the law in hot pursuit, here the band expand their sound (in both scope and variety) and learn to shift between gears without losing the joyful abandon that appealed to listeners the first time around. White Reaper might not be the best American band just yet, but once you drop the needle on this record, no other band will matter for the time being. –Matt Melis
20. Sampha – Process
Origin: Morden, South London, England
The Gist: The long-gestating debut album from Sampha Sisay, Process highlights the London musician’s finely carved songs and resonant voice, drawing Sampha into a new tier of heartbreaking singer-songwriters. Influenced by his mother succumbing to cancer, the record is full of love and grief, pain and beauty, carefully shaped by the vocalist’s gentle, thoughtful, yet undeniably powerful mind.
Why It Rules: Few records explore inner worlds this openly and honestly, let alone through a voice this stunning. Sampha’s elegiac, elegant songwriting manages to cross through genre borders from soul to electronic, all while leaving nary a dry eye in the house. –Lior Phillips
19. Arca – Arca
Origin: Caracas, Venezuela
The Gist: For Alejandro Ghersi’s third studio album, the mind behind Arca took the lessons he learned after working with vocalists like Björk, FKA twigs, and Kelela and applied them to his own music — complete with putting his own voice front and center for the first time. And throughout the self-titled album, he pushes that passionate, naturalistic voice through everything from cutting-edge electronic production to traditional Venezuelan balladry, all pushing deeper into his thoroughly thrilling instincts and brilliant mind.
Why It Rules: Arca runs on dichotomies and the dense conflicting realities of the world. The energy is so palpable, his voice so honest, that even those that don’t speak Spanish can feel the depth of his words. From concussive, flammable electronic rhythms to fully fleshed-out arrangements, Ghersi’s world is slowly becoming more intimate even in its challenge. –Lior Phillips
18. Future – HNDRXX
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
Why It Rules: Future is the intoxicated rapper who makes intoxicating music. Not a track goes by without a memorable moment: a joke, a turn of phrase, or one of his signature slurred melodies. HNDRXX is a sonic contact high, with the wild and woozy energy of a house party at the trap house. –Wren Graves
17. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
Origin: Eversley, Hampshire, England
The Gist: Acclaimed English singer-songwriter Laura Marling returns with her sixth solo album and not a bloke in sight.
Why It Rules: Trying to write about women from the perspective of men would have been an interesting exercise. That was the initial concept Marling brought to the recording studio. However, somewhere along the way, she found the confidence to tackle the subject of women from her own viewpoint; hence, we have Semper Femina, a record that CoS reviewer Kayleigh Hughes describes as “strong, elegant, and self-assured … full of complexity and depth” … and entirely sans men. And, really, it never comes across as a concept or gimmick, but rather as, like on “Wild Fire”, which Hughes calls “fierce, sensual, and barbed,” a chance to come clean about how one woman feels about another on several different levels. Removing men from the picture opens up needed room for relationships, stories, and dilemmas that popular music so often misses out on. At least that’s one man’s opinion. –Matt Melis
16. Migos – Culture
Origin: Gwinnett County, Georgia
The Gist: Migos have been around; they’ve seen things, to paraphrase Al “Hoo Ha” Pacino. Since 2009, the familial hip-hop trio of Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset have been turning all the right heads with their dozen mixtapes and nearly two-dozen singles, crafting a signature staccato sound and flow that’s attracted a star-studded fanbase that includes everyone from Drake to Gucci Mane to, yes, Donald Glover. While their studio debut, 2015’s Yung Rich Nation, saw Migos go “legit,” as Pat Levy pointed out in his favorable review, Culture finds the three Southern rappers on deck to take over the entire game.
Why It Rules: What makes that truth so confounding, though, is how Migos didn’t really need to make any adjustments. Culture is an expansion of everything they’ve set into play for nearly a decade. The difference is that all three sound far more assured, as evidenced by juggernaut singles “Bad and Boujee”, “T-Shirt”, and “Slippery”, the former of which is responsible for the album’s jaw-dropping debut atop the Billboard 200. And while Glover’s Golden Globes co-sign certainly aided in that feat, it would be unfair to dismiss their organic appeal. It would also be untrue; after all, this is an outfit of substantial power, one who’s always two steps ahead of their banner-name guests and one who’s now fielding calls from Big Sean, Lil Yachty, and Katy Perry. Rest assured, they’re made men by their own volition, and everyone wants to be a part of their culture. –Michael Roffman