10. Sam Smith, ‘The Thrill of It All’
Sam Smith is a fluid soul man, with style channeling Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles alongside modern icons like Amy Winehouse and Adele. The follow-up to his massive In The Lonely Hour leads with That Voice, and what it lacks in the club beats that were his early signature (see Disclosure’s “Latch”), it more than makes up for in dazzling, falsetto-barbed vocal pyrotechnics. The standout is “Him,” an uplifting tear-jerker about queer love and cultural intolerance that, in its understated, gospel-charged way, is an LGBTQ civil rights anthem. It’s the sound of a gay man intent on reaching a universal audience on his own terms, and succeeding handsomely. W.H.
9. Migos, ‘Culture’
As trap has become pop’s lingua franca, no one can better celebrate the triumph than Migos. The smoked-out slow roll of their music connects studio maximalism with the D.I.Y. instantaneity of iPhone and YouTube auteurs. Anyone can do it, but no one else can do it like this. The sound-effect hooks come from keyboards and their own mouths, each bwah, skrrrt, brrrup signifying their ability to transform nothing into something, and back again, in a blink. Their flows changed up moment to moment, presenting an authority at once casual and complete, and working pop music’s greatest trick: turning the transitory into the eternal. J.L.
8. Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Villains’
Nearly 20 years in, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme still gets down like a black leather jacket zapped to life by Dr. Funkenstein himself. He called in a surprising assist for the SoCal rockers’ seventh album, Top 40 genius Mark Ronson, who perks up zany Zeppelin grooves like “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “Head Like a Haunted House,” playing up the swing in their strut. Ultimately, though, Villains is less about reinvention than refinement. It’s a beast of a record, and its red-hot heart is pure Queens. S.V.L.
7. Taylor Swift, ‘Reputation’
The bad blood is coming from inside the house! After laying low for months, Taylor made a spectacularly bold return with this glittering palace of luxurious grudges and crystalline trap beats. The heel turn of “Look What You Made Me Do” is one for the history books, and pop scholars will likely debate for generations whether it was a brilliant P.R. coup or an epically tone-deaf move. Luckily, the singles are only half the story with Reputation, whose ultra-polished surface conceals some of Swift’s realest, most lived-in songs ever. On “Dress,” she’s high on the rush of a new romantic thrill; on “New Year’s Day,” she’s trying to figure out what she has after the party’s over. It adds up to a pointed reminder that Her Royal Swiftness can reclaim her place at pop’s cutting edge whenever she feels like it. S.V.L.
6. Khalid, ‘American Teen’
The year’s most distinctive new voice was a teen star, not a trap star. His conversational vocals staked out a new kind of R&B: laid-back but charged with wide-open emotional struggle, as well as hooks that stuck. He sang about kids who didn’t have money or cars; who still lived with their parents (and worried about coming home smelling of weed); who longed for human contact to go along with a love stirred by subtweets and texts. Hits like “Location” and “Young, Dumb & Broke” were alive with fresh possibilities – including the possibility of combating outmoded stereotypes. “I’m an African-American man with an Afro, who isn’t your typical athlete – who wasn’t as masculine as other guys,” Khalid told Rolling Stone. “And now people are looking at me like, this is ‘The American Teen.'” J.L.
5. LCD Soundsystem, ‘American Dream’
James Murphy gathers his old gang of New York punk-funk virtuosos together for some truly festive paranoia – in the masterfully pissed-off American Dream, he can’t decide whether he’s making a party album for the end of the world or an apocalypse album for the end of the party. LCD Soundsystem meet the audience on equal terms – “You’ve lost your internet and we’ve lost our memory” – while Murphy rants about feeling like just another smug loser in a collapsing culture. As he says in “Emotional Haircut,” “You’ve got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete.” Yet the music crackles with the joy of communal celebration, from the cracked Detroit techno of “How Do You Sleep?” to the art-funk guitar squall of “Change Yr Mind.” And in “Black Screen,” he gives David Bowie the kind of chilly farewell that Ziggy Stardust himself would have appreciated. R.S.
4. Kesha, ‘Rainbow’
After her legal travails, anything Kesha released would have a veneer of triumph. But this comeback set, seven years since her debut, was an artistic warrior cry more potent than any might’ve expected. It began gently with “Bastards,” an acoustic guitar-led anthem and instant lighters-up classic, pivoting into punk-pop (with Eagles of Death Metal) on the badass “Let ‘Em Talk,” in which she caps the line, “I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick,” with a cheek-pop. The gem-like moments keep coming, but the best is the sound of her cracking up mid-verse on the fist-pumping, Dap-Kings rocking “Woman” – it’s the sound of someone who’s survived a journey through hell knowing unquestionably she’s stronger for it. W.H.
3. U2, ‘Songs of Experience’
Opening with a prayer and benediction – “Love Is All We Have Left” – that finds Bono leaping down a rabbit hole of pop-vocal processing to deliver one of his most emotive songs ever, U2’s latest finds the band coming to terms with a world closer to the brink than at any time during their career. They meet the moment with precisely the right balance of grandeur and grace, harnessing their earnest post-punk past to their remarkable facility for modern pop gestures, abetted by producers Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, Steve Lillywhite, Danger Mouse and others. Fittingly for dark times, images of love and light abound (“There Is a Light,” “Lights of Home,” “Ordinary Love,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way”), and Kendrick Lamar even drops in to flip some Biblical Beatitudes. But alongside piousness is pure fun. See “The Showman (Little More Better),” which is vintage sock-hop shimmy-shake with a seasoned protagonist cheekily declaring “I got just enough low self-esteem to get myself where I need to go.” It’s a rock & roll creation myth that manifests the music’s eternal magic, delivered by a band that refuses to let it fade. W.H.
2. Lorde, ‘Melodrama’
At age 20, the teen prodigy of “Royals” raised the bar, marrying the massive vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade on her second LP, with help from co-producer Jack Antonoff. The invulnerable high-school snark broadened into a wider emotional palette – musical too, with guitars and brass lacing through synthetic beats and dub effects. At its most ambitious, it could recall art-rock godmother Kate Bush (see the single “Green Light”). But its greatest achievement was making 21st century pop feel as genuinely intimate as as it did huge. A record that should stand as a touchstone for young pop hopefuls for years to come. W.H.
1. Kendrick Lamar, ‘Damn.’
Rap’s most powerful voice at the absolute top of his game, with nothing left to prove but his staying power. Where 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and 2016’s Untitled Unmastered exploded rap formally with disparate flows, kaleidoscopic Flying Lotus beats and Afro-delic Kamasi Washington jazz-funk jams, Damn.shows how dazzling the man can be simply spitting verses. On “Feel,” he unloads his head over a trippy Sounwave slow jam, going roughly 50 lines without break on one stretch, a virtuoso synaptic display echoed across the set. Lamar’s political conscience hasn’t flagged, but he’s more about self-examination here. On the fearless “Fear,” one of his deepest moments, he chronicles a lifetime of anxieties and cites his “fear of losin’ creativity.” It’s a sentiment easy to relate to – but based on the evidence, one imagines he’s got little to worry about. W.H.