6. KENDRICK LAMAR “DAMN.” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
Kendrick Lamar traded the jazzy density of his 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” for tracks built with stark loops on “DAMN.” But he hasn’t pared back the dexterity of his rhymes or the scope of what he sets out to address, which encompasses his Compton neighborhood, his career, American politics, spiritual matters and the state of hip-hop. [Read the review]
7. LORDE “Melodrama” (Lava/Republic)
Breaking up, moving on, getting a crush, hooking up, breaking up, moving on … Lorde plunges into that cycle with very recent memories of what it feels like to be 19 and “on fire,” going to drunken parties where every moment is fraught with possibility and nerves. Below Lorde’s somber voice and precise pop melodies, the tracks pulse with tension, like racing heartbeats behind a cool facade. [Read the review | Read the interview]
8. SZA “Ctrl” (Top Dawg/RCA)
How complicated is modern love? Factor in desire, intimacy, self-consciousness, competition, lies, the internet, jealousy, mixed allegiances, loneliness, rhythm, economics, gossip, insecurity, selfishness and unselfishness, and they lead to the perpetual negotiations that SZA details throughout the shadowy, fitful grooves of “Ctrl.” The songs suit slow-dancing all alone, wishing for that elusive true partner. [Read the review]
9. VALERIE JUNE “The Order of Time” (Concord)
Rootsy, leisurely, genre-blurring Americana grooves roll along and evolve behind Valerie June’s assorted voices — nasal, clear, cracked, breathy — in songs with a casual, conversational surface. But they often contemplate past and present eternities, from her family’s history to the promise of lifelong love. [Read an essay by Valerie June]
10. VINCE STAPLES “Big Fish Theory” (Def Jam)
“How’m I supposed to have a good time/When death and destruction’s all I see?” Vince Staples raps near the end of his second studio album. It’s just one of the questions he grapples with — about neighborhood, celebrity, love, hip-hop, racism, politics and private pain — in tracks that use sparse, brittle electronic sounds for jittery syncopation and gaping spaces, an abstracted dance-club backdrop for aspirations and nightmares. [Read the interview]
1. NOTHING,NOWHERE. “Reaper” (DCD2/Equal Vision)
An indicator of walls soon to fall: Joe Mulherin, who records as nothing,nowhere., finds common ground between the charred screams of second- and third-wave emo and the easy swagger of contemporary hip-hop, using both in the service of stark emotional vulnerability. [Read the interview]
2. SZA “Ctrl” (Top Dawg/RCA)
SZA’s debut album is full of R&B that saunters confidently, full of raw sexual candor, savage slice-of-life humor and arched eyebrows. She is a woman whose self-doubt is no match for her ability to dissect the shortcomings of her partner, making it clear just who is in charge. [Read the review]
3. MOUNT EERIE “A Crow Looked at Me” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)
Phil Elverum wrote these not-quite-songs in the wake of the death of his wife, Geneviève, and they are meticulously detailed and unbearably wrenching. More than that, though, they suggest what it might be like to look at a person but, instead of seeing their clothes and skin, gazing directly upon their strained muscles, their nerves firing sparks, their blood frantically coursing through their arteries, and understand just how fragile the whole damn thing is. [Read the review]
4. HEY VIOLET “From the Outside” (Hi Or Hey/Capitol/Caroline)
Perhaps this year’s most punk pop album, “From the Outside” is saccharine and stern and, most importantly, stinging. Rena Lovelis is a savvy writer and singer, and in a year where female pop rebels took over the genre’s center, she out-sneered them all. [Read the critic’s notebook]
5. TAYLOR SWIFT “Reputation” (Big Machine)
An impressive full-spectrum modern pop album from a performer who’s steadily insisted she wasn’t making pop music when she really was all the while. Unburdened of those debates, she’s a savvy adapter of prevailing styles, vacuum wrapping them around her longstanding foundation of sturdy songwriting. [Read the review | Listen to the Popcast]
6. NIIA “I” (Atlantic)
The debut album by the patient soul singer Niia moves at a deliberate pace, and the slower it goes, the more you can hear: a voice that’s husky in depth but tender in tone, production that’s so spare it’s almost nervy. In theory, this album is a contemporary update on trip-hop, but in practice it’s brutal romantic theater with just the faintest musical glue to hold things together. [Read the review]
7. OZUNA “Odisea” (VP/Dimelo Vi/Sony Music Latin)
Sort of a cheat here — not all of the great 2017 Ozuna songs are on this album, but even without them, this is an essential digest of what’s been happening in Latin pop: late-wave reggaeton is speaking to trap and bachata and club-pop. Navigating it all with a slick, lithe voice, Ozuna might be the most versatile young talent in pop since Drake. [Read the interview]
8. J. COLE “4 Your Eyez Only” (Dreamville/Roc Nation/Interscope)
Music business compromise can be disheartening, but it is not without its perks: It can bolster an artist’s ego, provide financial succor, hornswoggle the masses. It’s tempting to stick with it. Some artists never recover from it. On his fourth studio album — released last December, after 2016 lists were complete — J. Cole says goodbye to all that with an admirably and affectingly scarred and intimate song cycle about having it all while losing yourself. [Read the review | Read the interview]
9. JULIEN BAKER “Turn Out the Lights” (Matador)
Few if any songwriters are as evocative as Julien Baker, and few if any singers are capable of capturing despair and resilience quite like she can. Her second album is full of harrowing folk hymns about spiritual woe sung with the determination of someone who’s triumphing nonetheless. [Read the interview]
10. LORDE “Melodrama” (Lava/Republic)
An album of actual art-pop from a left-field thinker still young enough to bruise easily. “Melodrama” bristles with pulpy romance and pulpier romantic disaster, rendered by a performer not content with the usual language they inspire. [Read the review | Read the interview]
A wild funk album masquerading as a pop-soul album masquerading as a hip-hop album. [Read the interview]
12. 21 SAVAGE “Issa Album” (Slaughter Gang/Epic)
When you boil gangster rap down over a raging fire, what you get is this: instinctual, bare-bones menace, seemingly dead-eyed but actually cleareyed. [Read the critic’s notebook]
13. DRAKE “More Life” (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic)
It’s a playlist, not an album, which just means that rather than Drake wearing his influences on his sleeve, he can stand side by side with them. [Read the review]
14. KENDRICK LAMAR “DAMN.” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
15. J HUS “Common Sense” (Black Butter/Epic)
The most promising musical exchanges of the last couple of years have been among Africa, Europe and North America, and no album made that clearer than this one. [Read the feature]
16. JIDENNA “The Chief” (Wondaland/Epic) [Read the review]
17. SOB X RBE “SOB X RBE” (SOB X RBE)
18. KELSEA BALLERINI “Unapologetically” (Black River) [Read the review]
19. YOUNGBOY NEVER BROKE AGAIN “AI YoungBoy” (Never Broke Again) [Read the critic’s notebook]
20. FUTURE “Future” (A1/Freebandz/Epic)
22. SAMANTHA FISH “Chills & Fever” (Ruf)
23. DOWNTOWN BOYS “Cost of Living” (Sub Pop)
24. FIFTH HARMONY “Fifth Harmony” (Syco/Epic)
25. CHIEF KEEF “Thot Breaker” (Glo Gang/RBC)
1. NICOLE MITCHELL’S BLACK EARTH ENSEMBLE “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” (FPE)
Ms. Mitchell, a flutist, recorded a couple of outstanding albums this year (the other was “Liberation Narratives,” with the poet Haki Madhubuti). On this one, her eight-piece Black Earth Ensemble draws inspiration from an Afrofuturist concept, creating freely improvised music that’s wide open, deeply rooted and utterly cooperative.
2. WADADA LEO SMITH “Najwa” (TUM)
Mr. Smith’s trumpet is all the things that electrified music ostensibly isn’t: slow, shapely, somatic, preverbal. But the five tracks on this album — full of bubble and clang and spilling electric guitars — take on the understated demeanor of his playing, while pressing their case.
3. TYSHAWN SOREY “Verisimilitude” (Pi)
Mr. Sorey, a drummer (among many other things), leads his trio into some turbid and haunted places. Across “Verisimilitude,” he creates a feeling that the parachute is tight and you’re gliding — then the dream changes, you look up, and there’s nothing above you. Gravity wins. [Read the interview]
4. JAIMIE BRANCH “Fly or Die” (International Anthem)
Sometimes charging forth, sometimes rerouting, the debut album from Ms. Branch is always on the move. A formidable solo performer, she could get by on extended technique alone. Instead she’s enlisted a wonderfully unorthodox band (Tomeka Reid on cello, Jason Ajemian on bass and Chad Taylor on drums), and created a work of hardscrabble imagination.
5. ROSCOE MITCHELL “Bells for the South Side” (ECM)
A magnum opus from one of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians’ most vital elders, this two-CD suite is full of open space — bell tones and scattered piano and staccato saxophone — but it hardly lacks form. The bigness invites you in, asks you to hear your way into the room where the album’s nine musicians convened.
6. LIZZ WRIGHT “Grace” (Concord)
This is Ms. Wright’s ode to the South — a generous bestowal from one of today’s great voices. It’s the sound of a woman claiming ownership of a regional repertoire (“Southern Nights,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You”) and a troubled memory bank, forgiving where she can’t forget. [Read the interview]
7. MATT MITCHELL “Forage” (Screwgun)
Mr. Mitchell is a pianist of dynamic sensitivity and dauntless energy. He’d already mastered many of the saxophonist Tim Berne’s scattered, mischievous compositions before the two met; now they’re musical confidants. So this one’s only logical: a lush solo piano album consisting entirely of Mr. Berne’s tunes.
8. DAVID VIRELLES “Gnosis” (ECM)
Mr. Virelles here plays pianist, bandleader, scholar and student. Surrounded by a dozen musicians (many, like him, Cuban-born), he travels with his band into various zones of disquiet. Rhythmic patterns become uneasy pacts, open spaces shudder with dark energy.
9. TUNE RECREATION COMMITTEE “Voices of Our Vision” (self-released)
Led by the trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, this alliance of young South African musicians delves into the country’s syncretic cultural heritage — then ventures beyond. You hear Balkan folk, American funk, West African high life, South African free jazz. Most of all, you hear five bristling improvisers dancing together, modeling a kind of thoughtful communion.
10. VIJAY IYER SEXTET “Far From Over” (ECM)
Mr. Iyer’s best asset remains his propulsive, fortified pianism. But with a sextet, he builds arrangements that have a stubborn, towering new power. [Read the critic’s notebook]
11. KATE GENTILE “Mannequins” (Skirl)
Ms. Gentile, a drummer and vibraphonist, deals in commingled motion and variegated textures. On this searing debut, recorded with a quartet, her key sparring partner is Mr. Mitchell, who doubles on piano and electronics.
12. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA’S INDO-PAK COALITION “Agrima” (self-released)
Mr. Mahanthappa, an alto saxophonist, writes along the divide between contemporary jazz and South Asian classical, always with a sense of acute direction and well-hewn architecture. But it’s his trio’s synergy that gives “Agrima” what it needs: possibility, irony, tenderness.
13. MAKAYA MCCRAVEN “Highly Rare” (International Anthem)
Days after the 2016 presidential election, Mr. McCraven, a drummer, convened a one-off quartet at a Chicago dive to play what must have been a body-shaker of a show. What you hear here — the inky throb of the bass, the rattling kick drum, the sibilant tape — is not what that audience heard. Mr. McCraven recorded the gig to a four-track, then set about mincing and splicing and augmenting the sounds, until he had this.
14. THUNDERCAT “Drunk” (Brainfeeder)
Angsty young adult wants to revel in his inordinate bass chops, mess around with friends (Kendrick Lamar, Michael McDonald) and occasionally meow into the mic. What, were you about to stop him? [Read the preview]
15. IRÈNE SCHWEIZER AND JOEY BARON “Live!” (Intakt)
Ms. Schweizer — a veteran Swiss pianist with a vast vocabulary — teams up for the first time with the drummer Mr. Baron. Together they’re rambunctious, comic, openhearted.
16. AVISHAI COHEN QUARTET “Cross My Palm With Silver” (ECM)
There’s still room in jazz for an acoustic quartet playing thorough, pensive, slowly mounting music. And for the voice of a starkly affecting trumpeter.
17. BETSAYDA MACHADO Y LA PARRANDA EL CLAVO “Loe Loa: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree” (Odelia)
La Parranda El Clavo has been playing Afro-Venezuelan folk songs for 30 years. Much of this declamatory, infectious music comes from deep in the past; all of it feels both venerable and vibrant.
18. CRAIG TABORN “Daylight Ghosts” (ECM)
On his first quartet album, Mr. Taborn’s piano can dance and nearly catch fire without ever losing its poise.
19. JEN SHYU “Song of Silver Geese” (Pi)
Ms. Shyu says each of these nine songs — sung in eight languages, and played on an array of instruments — is a “door.” Into what? Memories that never formed, maybe, and new visions.
20. RON MILES “I Am a Man” (Yellowbird)
Leading a powerful quintet, Mr. Miles — an underappreciated talent, as both cornetist and composer — uses these eight tunes to meditate on experiences of disappointment, discrimination and transcendence. He and the band sound loose and warm and free, as if unburdened by the reckoning.