Last year felt particularly cruel as we watched so many of our pop-culture icons get taken from us without warning. By December, we all yearned for a pause, an ending, a reset. However, none of the comfort that comes with the hopeful act of flipping a calendar page lasted long into 2017. Instead, we’ve felt the pain more acutely and more personally than a year ago. Most of us have witnessed our core values challenged, felt our realities shaken, and endured daily reminders that who we are in our most basic integrity remains very much at stake. For that reason, it’s been a year in which we’ve turned to music out of necessity perhaps more than ever. The albums you find on this list aren’t just records we admired or caught ourselves dancing to. In many cases, they’re part of the reason we’re still here. They’ve consoled and empowered us, understood how we’ve felt, and in a time of such ugly, bitter divisiveness, reminded us that we’re never truly alone in mind, heart, or spirit.
These are the 50 albums we’ve leaned on most this year. Here’s hoping they don’t have to do such heavy lifting in 2018.
50. Johnny Jewel – Windswept
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After placing Chromatics’ Dear Tommy in the Red Room, Italians Do It Better producer and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel issued this daring solo album mostly inspired by his work behind the scenes on Twin Peaks: The Return.
Why It Rules: With Windswept, Jewel sounds more assured as a producer than ever, conjuring up a moody amalgamation of his signature brooding synthpop and a style of free-form jazz akin to David Lynch go-to Angelo Badalamenti.
Essential Tracks: “Windswept”, “Slow Dreams”, and “Between Worlds”
49. Oneohtrix Point Never – Good Time
Origin: Wayland, Massachusetts
The Gist: Two years after the interstellar, metallic Garden of Delete, esoteric electronic experimentalist Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never) returned to score a crime drama starring Robert Pattinson. Retaining his own burning palette and pushing it through a Vangelis/Carpenter mesh, Lopatin continues to find new ways to inject anxiety and awe under the skin.
Why It Rules: A somber, piano-heavy collaboration with Iggy Pop in which the Stooge dreams about petting crocodiles is a good place to start, but Lopatin delivers the high-voltage thrills all on his own.
Essential Tracks: “Hospital Escape / Access-A-Ride”, “The Acid Hits”, and “The Pure and the Damned”
48. Jay Som – Everybody Works
Origin: Oakland, California
Why It Rules: In what can only be described as bedroom maximalism, Duterte dug her lyrics into the granular, banalities of existence and aimed her production at expansive soundscapes. On “The Bus Song”, Duterte sings, “I can be whoever I want to be,” and that’s exactly who she is on Everybody Works.
Essential Tracks: “The Bus Song”, “Everybody Works”, and “For Light”
47. The JuJu – Exchange
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: After rising to session-player fame by collaborating with Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Vic Mensa, 24-year-old trumpeter Segal (FKA Donnie Trumpet) wrangled three fellow Chicago musicians together to expand his interest in experimental jazz, ultimately showcasing how the backbeat of hip-hop’s new sound is worthy of its own spotlight.
Why It Rules: On their debut LP, The Juju Exchange follow in the footsteps of producers like Flying Lotus and Knxwledge — not in sound, but in audience awareness, drawing listeners out of their usual jazz associations and into a world of smooth, free-form, low-key musings that inspire with their use of ample space.
Essential Tracks: “The Circuit”, “We Good”, and “Morning Of”
46. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish – Blade Runner 2049
Origin: Santa Monica, California; London, United Kingdom
The Gist: All signs pointed to chaos when director Denis Villeneuve parted ways with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson at the 25th hour, but Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish rose up to the challenge with an unexpected Hail Mary score.
Why It Rules: In addition to time restraints, both Zimmer and Wallfish had to follow in the footsteps of Vangelis, whose original Blade Runner score remains inimitable. They succeeded with a follow-up that’s both reverent and wholly intimidating.
Essential Tracks: “Sea Wall”, “Rain”, and “Wallace”
45. Paramore – After Laughter
Origin: Nashville, Tennessee
The Gist: Another lineup change and personal turmoil almost broke up Paramore, but Hayley Williams, Taylor York, and a returning Zac Farro came back stronger than ever to record their most pop-leaning album to date.
Why It Rules: On After Laughter, Paramore step completely away from their pop-punk origins and embrace the influences of Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, and Blondie. Catchy sing-along hooks and ’80s pop production combine for a bright, polished sound that barely conceals the heartbreak and pain in the lyrics underneath. Williams describes the album best with the catchphrase “cry hard, dance harder.”
Essential Tracks: “Rose Colored Boy”, “26”, and “Hard Times”
44. Khalid – American Teen
Origin: Fort Stewart, Georgia
The Gist: The 19-year-old R&B singer’s debut album builds from the buzzing lead single, “Location”, and demonstrates a strong grasp of the pulse of his generation without alienating a greater audience.
Why It Rules: Khalid’s silky-smooth voice and anthemic hooks combine with pop/R&B production for a fresh sound that doesn’t push the rookie too far outside his comfort zone. American Teen is a solid effort in its own right while also allowing plenty of room for growth as he comes of age.
Essential Tracks: “Young Dumb & Broke”, “Location”, and “8teen”
43. Phoenix – Ti Amo
Origin: Versailles, France
The Gist: Caught between the brutality of the Bataclan massacre and the subsequent ascent of France’s right-wing reactionaries, veteran synth rocker Thomas Mars and co. escaped the tension by looking backward via this Italo-disco ode to bygone Riviera summers.
Why It Rules: Released just in time for the warm-weather months, Ti Amo hit like the aural equivalent of a white wine spritzer: Singles “J-Boy” and “Ti Amo” bubble with a radio-ready fizz, while deeper cuts like “Tuttifrutti” and “Fleur De Lys” add a shade of heady longing to all that sunbaked pop.
Essential Tracks: “J-Boy”, “Tuttifrutti”, and “Fleur De Lys”
42. Migos – Culture
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: Riding high off the runaway hip-hop hit “Bad and Boujee”, the prodigious trio of Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff fully capitalized on that momentum with a splendid set of tracks that put even the best work in their mixtape-heavy discography on notice.
Why It Rules: Backed by a cadre of producers, including Metro Boomin and Zaytoven, the success-obsessed bars and hedonistic hooks of Culture perfectly encapsulate the breadth of trap music, from its hypnagogic highs to its unapologetic lows.
Essential Tracks: “Bad and Boujee”, “Slippery”, and “T-Shirt”
41. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein – Stranger Things 2
Origin: Austin, Texas
The Gist: Another season of Netflix’s Stranger Things means another vintage score from Survive’s own Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and that’s exactly what they dropped back in October ahead of the series’ highly anticipated premiere.
Why It Rules: A year has passed. They’re a little older. They’re a little wiser. No longer are they echoing the iconic sounds of John Carpenter or Goblin, but indulging in more modern fare like Bon Iver and M83. Hawkins has never sounded so hip.
Essential Tracks: “Eulogy”, “Eight Fifteen”, and “On the Bus”
40. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: When David Bowie gives you the seal of approval, you can turn a permanent conclusion into a five-year hiatus and a stellar return album. James Murphy and co. ended all the rumors once and for all with American Dream and did so with a bang. The album feels incredibly present, addressing the pervasive existential loneliness and concern while bringing the family back together.
Why It Rules: American Dream retains all of LCD Soundsystem’s ability to fill the dance floor and bring tears to your eyes. There were plenty of fears that they’d lose the goodwill earned by a public exit, but with an honest, powerful record like this, LCD only further cemented their spot as dance rock’s best friend.
Essential Tracks: “oh baby”, “call the police”, and “i used to”
39. Power Trip – Nightmare Logic
Origin: Dallas, Texas
The Gist: Nearly four years since making shadowy underground moves with their brash debut, Manifest Decimation, these young lions of thrash step into the spotlight emboldened with furious purpose.
Why It Rules: While fellow crossover revivalists Iron Reagan mix horror with humor, Power Trip come across as grave and grim as their considerably more hardcore forebears, levying heaviness in a deadly whirlwind of shreds and shouts.
Essential Tracks: “Executioner’s Tax”, “Firing Squad”, and “Nightmare Logic”
38. Vic Mensa – The Autobiography
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: After breaking through with 2013’s Innanetape and working closely alongside Kanye West, Vic Mensa finally delivers on his tremendous promise with his debut studio album on JAY-Z’s Roc Nation label with a major assist from legendary producer No I.D.
Why It Rules: Mensa sheds the mismatched sound from his scrapped album, Traffic, to rediscover the full range of his rapping and songwriting abilities. He takes listeners on a journey of his past several years struggling with drug abuse and dealing with a failed relationship while also addressing issues of racism and social inequality.
Essential Tracks: “We Could Be Free”, “Memories on 47th St.”, and “Coffee & Cigarettes”
37. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
The Gist: After spending years on the road performing as part of a fiercely independent DIY music community, Julie Byrne stayed put in New York City and coalesced the thoughts and experiences of her past few transient trips around the sun into this unnervingly beautiful album.
Why It Rules: Not Even Happiness is a stunning combination of strong lyricism and technical skill. Byrne fingerpicks a guitar she inherited from her father and pours every ounce of herself into these compositions, laying her innermost feelings completely bare in the process.
Essential Tracks: “Sleepwalker”, “Natural Blue”, and “I Live Now as a Singer”
36. The National – Sleep Well Beast
Origin: Cincinnati, Ohio
The Gist: On their first album since scoring a Grammy nomination four years ago, The National have mastered their own sound, a brooding tunefulness they’ve streamlined into their prettiest batch of songs in a career of constantly topping themselves.
Why It Rules: Sleep Well Beast flexes this fairly grayscale band’s impressive range more than anything they’ve done in years. The quietude of the vaporous, Notwist-like opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” is driven into the red on the careening blues metal of “Turtleneck”, this band’s hardest-rocking song since 2005, and they plot points along their widest-cast grid ever on all 12 of these songs, which rank among their tightest and most surprising; check out those hypnotic synth pings on “Walk It Back”. You could even say they’ve finally made an album that won’t have to grow on you.
Essential Tracks: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Turtleneck”, and “Sleep Well Beast”
35. Sampha – Process
Origin: South London, United Kingdom
Why It Rules: Process proved more than worth the wait, a masterclass in restraint built around minimalist arrangements that felt like a collection of private moments he had deigned to share, displaying a quiet strength.
Essential Tracks: “Blood on Me”, “(Nobody Knows Me) Like the Piano”, and “Timmy’s Prayer”
34. BROCKHAMPTON – Saturation 2
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: On their second studio album in the span of only a few months, the nebulous LA rap crew still sound like a hurricane barreling toward solid ground. But thrilling individual performances from ringleader Kevin Abstract and Ameer Vann show that BROCKHAMPTON’s quality is starting to match the dizzying quantity of their output.
Why It Rules: Coming hot on the heels of the first Saturation, Saturation II is the sound of a young group innovating on the fly. The beats are stranger, funkier, and more hypnotic throughout, and tracks like “Junky” and “Gummy” embrace the group’s status as quasi-revolutionary upstarts in a hip-hop world built on the twin pillars of ego and machismo.
Essential Tracks: “Junky”, “Swamp”, and “Sweet”
33. Thundercat – Drunk
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After earning a Grammy for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, LA bassist and producer Stephen Bruner (AKA Thundercat) wove a relatable oddball soundscape that drew equally from ’70 cratedigger soul, anime fan fiction, and the political hip-hop of his most famous collaborator.
Why It Rules: You mean beside the fact that it’s probably the only record that will ever feature guest spots from both Kenny Loggins and Wiz Khalifa? Try the woozy production from Flying Lotus, or the genre-hopping, existential nerdery that manages to cover everything from Dragon Ball Z to police brutality with the same beguilingly, tipsy energy.
Essential Tracks: “Bus in These Streets”, “Show You the Way”, and “Them Changes”
32. Tori Amos – Native Invader
Origin: Cornwall, United Kingdom
The Gist: On her 15th album, Tori Amos takes inspiration from the Smoky Mountains’ childhood of her mother, who recently suffered a debilitating stroke, and the election of Donald Trump, bringing listeners along for a powerful exploration of the glory inherent in nature, femininity, and vulnerability.
Why It Rules: On this surging, cathartic album of pop piano poetry, Amos’ giant voice and expansive imagination wrap you up tight and warm, giving you the space to bawl your eyes out. Together, the soaring vocals, complex arrangements, and vivid imagery offer a painful, inspiring, holy experience that could only exist in 2017.
Essential Tracks: “Up the Creek”, “Bang”, and “Climb”
31. King Krule – The OOZ
Origin: London, United Kingdom
The Gist: As King Krule, lifelong Londoner Archy Marshall trucks in darkly melodic trip-hop that never shies away from unearthing Marshall’s deepest emotions and fears. On The OOZ, he sifts through the detritus of daily life, bumping up against what he perceives to be his own artistic limitations as he examines the aftermath of a failed relationship.
Why It Rules: Marshall is a master of atmospherics, creating entire ecosystems within his work that operate by their own rules. The OOZ, Marhall’s second as King Krule, finds him strategically and periodically emerging from the murk he’s created to strike out in anger and pain, only to retreat again. It’s as immediate and compelling a listening experience as you’re likely to find this year.
Essential Tracks: “Biscuit Town”, “Dum Surfer”, and “Half Man Half Shark”
30. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Origin: New York, New York
The Gist: Once the poster children for the neo-folk resurgence of the early aughts, Fleet Foxes returned after a six-year absence ready to push beyond their own well-honed musical boundaries.
Why It Rules: Still very much a Fleet Foxes record at heart, Crack-Up nonetheless succeeds in being Robin Pecknold and co.’s most interesting and experimental affair yet. If it took them more than half a decade to deliver on their third record, at least they made it worth the wait.
Essential Tracks: “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprnt Scar”, “Fool’s Errand”, and “Kept Woman”
29. Kweku Collins – Grey
Origin: Evanston, Illinois
The Gist: Not one to be lulled by a little critical acclaim (in this case, for 2016 standout Nat Love), 20-year-old MC Kweku Collins continued his push to champion the resolute boho poetics of Chicago’s burgeoning Closed Sessions label within the diverse energies of Chicagoland’s at-large hip-hop scene.
Why It Rules: Like that of fellow poet and labelmate Jamila Woods, Collins’ best work marries openhearted introspection with equally clear-eyed understanding of macro-level political concerns. Plus, “Oasis2: Maps” is the best reimagining of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs classic since that Ted Leo bootleg from like 12 years ago.
Essential Tracks: “Aya”, “International Business Trip”, and “Oasis2: Maps”
28. The Kickback – Weddings and Funerals
Origin: Vermillion, South Dakota; Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: After working with Jim Eno on their catchy 2015 debut, Sorry All Over the Place, The Kickback trekked out West under the guidance of Modest Mouse mastermind Dennis Herring for a sophomore follow-up that’s as engaging as it is ambitious.
Why It Rules: Recent years haven’t been too easy on singer-songwriter Billy Yost, who channels his breakups and burdens into the aptly titled, Weddings and Funerals, an addicting assemblage of mutating power pop that goes down like deep depression in November.
Essential Tracks: “Hotel Chlorine”, “Reptile Fund”, and “Will T”
27. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
Origin: Berkshire, United Kingdom
The Gist: The young and endlessly inventive talent from the United Kingdom continues stretching the boundaries of folk with Semper Femina, a raw, intimate, and beautifully empathetic album about relationships between women.
Why It Rules: Laura Marling lays herself bare on the soulful and elegant Semper Femina, and the results are vibrant, daring, and wholly affecting. While confronting the “fickle” and “ever-changing” nature of womanhood, the musician is at turns adoring, resentful, bewildered, afraid, and worshipful. It’s a record that shows powerful, exquisite growth.
Essential Tracks: “The Valley”, “Wild Fire”, and “Nouel”
26. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
Origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Gist: (Sandy) Alex G is one of those artists who dumps dozens of lo-fi albums on Bandcamp, but few catch the spotlight the way he has over the last three years — and deservedly so given the musical growth visible on Rocket, proving those “prodigy” tags slapped on him back then weren’t over-exaggerated hype.
Why It Rules: On its surface, Rocket is a vaguely Americana record where he finally sheds Elliott Smith comparisons for those of Cassadaga-era Bright Eyes, but it’s the experimental tracks — like “Brick”, an unnervingly distorted thumper, and “Sportstar”, essentially a Blonde outtake — that make Rocket burn bright.
Essential Tracks: “Bobby”, “Proud”, and “Powerful Man”
25. Jay Z – 4:44
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: In a post-Lemonade world, Jay-Z reckons with his personal failings for the first time since TMZ released the now infamous elevator footage.
Why It Rules: It’s Jay-Z’s quietest, most restrained, body of work. Over a long career of throwing heat, Hov reveals the change-up we never knew he had.
Essential Tracks: “The Story of OJ”, “4:44”, and “Marcy Me”
24. Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk
Origin: Santa Monica, California
The Gist: By now, scoring a picture for Christopher Nolan is child’s play for Zimmer, who’s handled the filmmaker’s biggest blockbusters to date. But Dunkirk is an exception: a graceful portrait whose dramatic weight leans heavily on the composer’s shoulders.
Why It Rules: Zimmer goes six-for-six with Nolan, following up his celestial work on 2014’s Interstellar with a marathon run of anxiety, tension, and poise, all of which enriches the dire wartime proceedings. This is a genuine masterpiece.
Essential Tracks: “End Titles (Dunkirk)”, “The Mole”, and “Home”
23. Jlin – Black Origami
Origin: Gary, Indiana
The Gist: This Midwest-bred producer revealed her second full-length album with some vital assists from fellow sonic adventurers William Basinski and Holly Herndon.
Why It Rules: Inspired, in part, by South Asian dance and a growing interest in sound art, Jerilynn Patton spends the entirety of Black Origami leaping over any genre distinction while still staying true to her footwork roots.
Essential Tracks: “Kyanite”, “Holy Child”, and “Challenge to Be Continued”
22. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After putting out her debut 7″ on Ryan Adams’ PAX AM label and opening on tour for Julien Baker — irrefutable references in a music world where being heard can be as difficult as penning a remarkable song — CoS Artist of the Month Phoebe Bridgers delivers a stunning first full-length full of pathos and wit.
Why It Rules: Stranger in the Alps not only deserves to be heard, but showcases songs that’ll demand repeat listens. Whether it’s the more traditional, plaintive singer-songwriter fair of lead track “Smoke Signals” or single “Motion Sickness”, which adds instrumentation and opens up into an almost pop-like affair, Bridgers shows she can flex different muscles, keep listeners guessing, and, most importantly, captivate.
Essential Tracks: “Smoke Signals”, “Scott Street”, and “Motion Sickness”
21. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference EP
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: In 2015, saxophonist Kamasi Washington simultaneously fit his virtuosic skill into Kendrick Lamar’s rap masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly and forged a new path into the deep space of 21st century jazz with the appropriately titled three-disc set The Epic. After touring the festival circuit and bringing the sax gospel to the world, he brings back a relatively concise, yet no less powerful EP that examines unity and discord in grand scales.
Why It Rules: Harmony of Difference builds out a six-song suite like a full universe in intricate detail, the apex of Washington’s playing and composing alike. All together, the set acts as a mesmerizing wash, the world slipping away until we see the threads connecting us all.
Essential Tracks: “Truth”, “Desire”, and “Knowledge”