Looking back through the dense media mist of the befuddling and seemingly endless 2017, our mid-year music special notes an unusual if obvious trend: The most popular genres of music — hip-hop/R&B and pop — are also the primary incubators of innovation. Still, it’s fair to say that everyone was surprised by the degree to which that trend was reflected in the 2018 Grammys, where the biggest nominees are Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Childish Gambino, SZA and Khalid. Those artists — not to mention Migos, Sampha, Future and Kelela — are twisting hip-hop and R&B into vibrant new shapes, both musically and lyrically, while artists like Lorde (who also got a big Album of the Year Grammy nod), Taylor Swift, St. Vincent and Harry Styles are taking more traditional pop songwriting and production into intricate sonic sculptures that can sound simple but never are.

Elsewhere, Chris Stapleton and Margo Price are exciting new(-ish) voices for traditional country; Father John Misty, Waxahatchee, Perfume Genius and Sylvan Esso represent vastly different strains of an ethos spawned in alt-rock; and Tinariwen constantly reinvent the notion of what a rock band playing traditional West African music can sound like.

Despite its usefulness as a headline convention, “Best” isn’t a word that’s ever suited for art. But the songs on these albums say a lot more about a year beyond comprehension than mere words can. — Jem Aswad

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Courtesy of Matador Records

Julien Baker — “Turn Out the Lights” (Matador)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) Julien Baker is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Tennessee whose 2015 solo debut, “Sprained Ankle,” was a rough-hewn but promising album with gentle, vulnerable melodies that cloaked some often-harrowing lyrics. And while much of the same can be said of “Turn Out the Lights” — hushed vocals, simple chords paired with simple yet indelible melodies — it’s a far more fully realized effort, a giant leap beyond her debut in terms of songcraft and production. The songs are slow and stately, built around simple but embellished piano or guitar chords, overlaid with multitracked, almost choral vocals, building gradually until she leaps into her lofty upper range and the songs burst open; the quiet beginnings make the powerful endings much more dramatic. The intensity can get a bit much and this is unquestionably one of the most extreme party-killing albums of 2017, but it’s also the first major artistic statement by a gifted singer-songwriter from whom we’re likely to hear much more in the coming years. — JA


Father John Misty

Father John Misty — “Pure Comedy” (Sub Pop)
Around the release of this grandiose, gratuitous, and great album, Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman) shaved off his impressive beard, leaving behind just a cheesy mustache that looked straight out of a ’70s buddy movie. And in a way it was the perfect symbol for his post-ironic music, which is usually mesmerizing and preposterous at the same time, an elaborate joke that’s still a beautiful collection of songs. That song sounds like Elton John, and this one like John Lennon and the other like Nilsson? That arrangement is straight out of a Jimmy Webb or Lee Hazlewood album? He knows, and he knows a lot of you know, and you can take the elaborate, often-exhausting subtext and play along — or ignore it and just appreciate his classic songwriting and warm, crisp voice. — JA

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Future — “Future” / “Hndrxx” (A1/Freebandz/Epic)
Any remaining doubts about Future’s place in hip-hop’s top-tier were put to rest early this year, when he became the first artist to notch back-to-back No. 1 albums a week apart with his consecutively released “Future” and “Hndrxx.” This feat was all the more impressive considering the unlikeliness that either album would have been an obvious chart-topper just a few years ago. While Drake might have turned millennial melancholy into modern hip-hop’s lingua franca, Future went one step further and forged a marketable, strangely compelling style out of narcotized nihilism. This de facto double-album presents that style at both its most purified and most expansive, with “Hndrxx’s” far-reaching detours balanced by the more meat-and-potatoes “Future,” which provided 2017 with one of its most unexpected smash singles: “Mask Off,” in which a funereal flute loop and a mournfully incanted pharmaceutical refrain – “Percocet, molly, Percocet” – somehow conspired to create the most reliable dancefloor-filler of the spring. — Andrew Barker


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Courtesy of Tidal

Jay-Z — “4:44” (Roc Nation)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) Perhaps the biggest surprise to be found on “4:44” is that it seems Jay-Z had gotten just as tired of Jay-Z’s crap as anyone else. Abandoning his trend-hopping tendencies, delving into matters of race and politics with newfound clarity, and turning a pitiless eye on his own failures rather than simply rehashing his accomplishments, Jay’s 13th solo set is less a return to form than a striking reinvention, and perhaps the most mature album yet released by a member of hip-hop’s Mt. Rushmore. The album’s targets range from the deserving (Bill Cosby) to the left-field (Eric Benet) to the sure-to-be-Twitter-fodder (Kanye West). But Jay pins the biggest bullseye on his own back, dredging up ugly incidents from his own biography as well as the infidelity addressed by his wife on her “Lemonade” album last year. Jay has always made room for moments of genuine introspection, but never has he allowed himself to stand so nakedly unguarded — and Chicago studio wizard No I.D., who produced the entire album, brings a sonic and thematic consistency unheard since Hova’s earliest work with a young Kanye.  Up for a whopping nine Grammys, “4:44” amounts to a victory lap for a 20-plus year career that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. — AB

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Kelela — “Take Me Apart” (Warp)
Kelela’s earlier releases had a great alt-R&B sound but were so atmospheric they tended to float in the ether without much to keep them Earthbound. It’s a different story on her proper debut album, “Take Me Apart,” which features a much greater emphasis on hooks and songcraft, due possibly to the increased presence of executive producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Adele, Haim, Blood Orange). Kelela’s vocals still waft through the room like incense, but there’s much greater definition in the music and melodies supporting them. Several reviews have described the album as a fusion of Bjork and Janet Jackson, and while reductive, that shoe fits. — JA

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar — “DAMN.” (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope)
Kendrick Lamar — Variety‘s Artist Hitmaker of the Year — has always had the potential to become the defining hip-hop figure of his generation. But for a while, the only question was whether he wanted to. After the unqualified triumph of 2012’s “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City,” Lamar seemed more interested in testing the limits of his abilities than refining them, spending his cultural capital on the sometimes brilliant, sometimes exhausting experiments of “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “untitled unmastered.” But on this year’s “DAMN.” — which is nominated for multiple 2018 Grammy Awards — he returned from the wilderness to claim his throne, and it’s hard to imagine who could challenge him. From the gale-force intensity of opener “DNA” to the elegance of “Love” and the unflinching self-examination of “Fear,” this is a hip-hop album of truly uncommon range, depth, and precision. Rarely has a record’s title functioned so perfectly as its own one-word review: DAMN. All caps. Period. — AB

Lorde — “Melodrama” (Lava Music/Republic)
Lorde sounded spookily wisened in the blockbuster debut album she released when she was 16, standing outside the fray of pop life and looking in with a slightly scolding tone. But on “Melodrama” — which is nominated for the 2018 Album of the Year Grammy — the 20-year-old acts her age by jumping into the world of relationships and fully owning all the mixed feelings of breakups and makeup romances. And while the album lives up to its winking title well enough, it’s also surprisingly full of fun, as new producer/co-writer Jack Antonoff helps her transcend the first album’s hermetically sealed electro beats for something richer, like an artsier version of pal Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It’s the great weird-pop album 2017 desperately needed. — Chris Willman

Variety’s Best of 2017

Migos Culture

Migos — “Culture” (Quality Control Music/300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
Migos don’t always have that much to say, but it’s mesmerizing to hear them say it. After years as barely-below-the-radar favorites, the Atlanta trio emerged as legitimate stars with January’s “Culture,” boosted by the inescapable No. 1 single “Bad and Boujee.” Originators of one of the most distinctive — and oft-imitated — rap styles of the last decade, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff attack the microphone like boxers, with staccato lyrical jabs erupting into devastating mini-flurries of triplet wordplay that carry their own internal rhythmic logic. The beats — particularly on “T-Shirt” and “Big on Big” — are the best the group has yet rhymed over, but Migos is the rare modern hip-hop act that would be just as engaging rapping a cappella. — AB

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Perfume Genius — “No Shape” (Matador) 

Even if the sage minds at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t see fit to induct her earlier this week, the ever-growing legacy of Kate Bush continued to blossom in 2017, from Lorde’s obvious debts to the singer on “Melodrama” to Outkast rapper Big Boi’s ongoing public obsession. But the closest the year came to producing a “Hounds of Love” successor was Perfume Genius’ “No Shape,” which goes so far as to name-check “Running Up That Hill” on album centerpiece “Wreath.” Of course, Mike Hadreas’ fourth album as Perfume Genius is far from a simple homage. With a voice that can convey quivering vulnerability and supreme confidence in the same breath, Hadreas expanded his sonic palette to wonderful effect, from inside-out folk (“Valley”) to warped slow-jams (“Die 4 You”) and swooning orchestral suites (“Alan”), but his sound remains fundamentally his own. Like Bush, his chameleonic art-pop often twists song structures and chord progressions into heretofore unseen shapes, yet his sensual world remains uncannily familiar and welcoming. — AB

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Margo Price — “All American Made” (Third Man)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) On her second album, “All American Made,” this farmgirl-turned-honky-tonk-heroine doesn’t deviate too drastically from the well-studied traditionalism that brought her to the dance last year with the acclaimed “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” but broader commentary peeks through. The new album’s title is purposeful, and not in the nationalist fashion you might expect from a more mainstream country record: “Pay gap, pay gap/ Why don’t you do the math?/ Pay gap, pay gap/ Ripping my dollars in half,” she sings on (you guessed it) “Pay Gap.” Price has taken some heat for supposedly injecting politics into her music this time around, although the lyrics seem purple enough that it’s hard to imagine them really riling up anyone who’s not in the reddest state. Her songs allude to marriage and motherhood without the usual country tropes of those being points of salvation; she finds pride, not shame, in being as much of a road dog as family gal. If the album is conflicted about the price of the good times involved in being a successful musician, there’s more than enough barroom bravado to go along with Price’s moments of self-doubt. — CW

Sampha Process

Sampha — “Process” (Young Turks/XL)
After a pair of EPs and collaborations with Kanye West, Drake, and Solange, with his debut album Sampha delivers on all of the promise of his previous work and then some. The British-born son of Sierra Leonian parents, Sampha takes the baton from James Blake in defining the 21st century piano man with ambitious songwriting and arrangements that are organically fused with electronics and are yet still soulful — it’s soul music for and from digital natives. — JA

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St. Vincent — “Masseduction” (Loma Vista)
Is an album that’s largely about loneliness, addiction, and depression supposed to be this much fun? Working with Grammy producer of the year nominee Jack Antonoff (who also had a strong hand in this year’s first-rate Lorde, Pink, and Taylor Swift albums), Annie Clark didn’t sound like someone who’d brought in a name dude to broaden her appeal, but this fifth album under the nom de plume St. Vincent brought her a step closer to actual pop sainthood anyway. It felt uncompromising and crafty. Sometimes, she comes off as the wiser older sister, worrying about whether she’s doing enough to help a drowning compadre, in a glam-rock ballad like “Happy Birthday, Johnny”; other times, as in the closing “Smoking Section,” it’s clear that maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about Johnny — that it’s her standing astride the abyss. She seduces herself into backing away from those dark impulses, and her playful mixture of rock homage and anything-goes invention rightfully seduces us, too. — CW

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Vince Staples — “Big Fish Theory” (Def Jam)
When he raps, “Just crashed a sports car / So much for the fast life,” in the early stages of his second album, “Big Fish Theory,” Vince Staples almost sounds relieved. Still flush with the acclaim that followed his 2015 breakthrough, “Summertime ’06,” the 24-year-old Long Beach rapper seems eager to take a few steps back from stardom here, offering a sharp stylistic shift designed to cull the fair-weathers and build up loyalty from the die-hards. (And in case you’re wondering why success might have him spooked, he devotes almost half a track to clips from an old interview with Amy Winehouse.) Where “Summertime” luxuriated in hyper-local details and minimalist production, this one makes a hard left turn: Recruiting electronic music maestros like GTA and Flume, “Big Fish’s” busy sound is rooted more in 1987 Detroit or 2007 London than 2017 Long Beach, with lyrics that turn just as cynical an eye on the trappings of fame as his debut did on gang life. But these are no “perils of stardom” humblebrags – Staples simply knows a rigged game when he sees one. — AB

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Universal Music

Chris Stapleton — “From A Room Volume 1” / “From A Room Volume 2” (Mercury Nashville)
(Read Variety‘s full reviews of “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” here.) Country music has been holding out for a hero, and boy, have we got one. The follow-up to Stapleton’s stellar 2-million-selling debut, “Traveller,” cements his status as everyone’s favorite old-soul upstart — 39 going on 84. His outlaw lyricism is kinder and gentler than the modern norm, putting him in line with hero Willie Nelson, whose harmonica player he borrows on “Volume 1.” But you focus on his laid-back philosophizing at the expense of ignoring his very un-Nelson-like 110-decible rasp and Southern-blues-rock guitar chops; think of him as a Willie with the pipes of a Paul Rodgers and hands of a Freddie King. The second half of the project, “Volume 2,” came out in December and proved a companion piece nearly as good as part 1.  — CW
Harry Styles
Harry Styles — “Harry Styles” (Columbia)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) At a time when streaming’s sudden supremacy has made musical genres increasingly polygenic, here comes 23-year-old former One Direction dreamboat Harry Styles with an album that gloriously, defiantly doesn’t fit in anywhere — except maybe on some Midwestern FM radio station 20 years before he was born. “Harry Styles” is that rare generation-spanning, forward-thinking retro album, one that nods to the past without garishly repeating it apart from an occasional self-aware wink. It’s loaded with acoustic guitars and has nary a trap beat, drop or apparently even an electronic drum. It even feels like an old-school vinyl album: In an era when many long-players have 18 songs and hover around the 70-minute mark, this one’s got an even 10 tracks and clocks in at 40 minutes, without feeling skimpy. But whether or not the album and its sound make a lasting impression on young ears, Styles has made a bold and brave statement of intent that completely reinvents him as an artist — and leaves a wide-open road for whatever he might want to do next. — JA

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Taylor Swift — “Reputation” (Big Machine/Republic)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) If two things seem destined not to go together, it’s the up-to-the-second rhythmic pop of 2017, where percussiveness trumps poetry 99 times out of 100, and the confessional singer/songwriter genre, where beats can come off as necessary evils. And if there’s anyone destined to prove that you can have it all, it’s Taylor Swift. On “Reputation,” terse beats and brutal honesty don’t cancel each other out; trap-style drum sounds almost seem to be setting the trap for her next lyrical divulgence. For the first time in her six studio albums, Swift has made a record that sounds all of a piece — and it’s a piece that may break the camel’s back for some old, country-leaning fans. But if “Reputation” is not her most strictly versatile album, its cohesiveness in this whiplash-inducing pop landscape is a key part of what makes it maybe her best. It’s Swift’s refusal to have to choose between delightfully effervescent sonic values and raw, classic candor that makes “Reputation” the pop album of the year — and, with its seemingly endless supply of future singles, maybe of next year, too. — CW


Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso — “What Now” (Loma Vista)
(Read Variety‘s full review here.) After making a big stir in alternative circles with their lo-fi 2014 debut, this North Carolina-based electronic-pop duo has progressed as far with this, their second album, as most groups do in two or three. Powered by months of touring behind their first album, “What Now” finds the group stepping up with bigger and more refined hooks and production and a wide variety of songs that range from dance-pop to an almost acoustic lilt to a nearly a capella track. The group’s chemistry is sparked by the contrasts of multi-instrumentalist Nick Sanborn, a trained jazz musician, and completely untrained vocalist Amelia Meath, but their pop savvy is what makes the music — particularly “Radio,” a radio song about radio songs — so memorable. — JA

SZA — “Ctrl” (Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA)
One could plausibly argue that “alt-R&B” came into its own as a genre with The Weeknd’s 2011 debut “House of Balloons,” which incorporated gloomy atmospherics and Siouxsie & the Banshees samples into the traditionally soulful and mainstream-leaning sound. In the past few years the genre has blossomed and morphed into any number of shapes — ranging from Frank Ocean and Solange to Bryson Tiller and Kehlani to outliers like James Blake and How to Dress Well — and the five-time Grammy-nominated debut full-length from New Jersey-raised singer-songwriter SZA (Solána Rowe) is the latest and most exciting. Following a string of EPs and collaborations with Rihanna (“Consideration”), Schoolboy Q and the Nicki Minaj/Beyonce tag-team “Feeling Myself,” the singer’s long-percolating debut mixes futurist, mid-tempo beats with indelible melodies over its impressively consistent 14 tracks — cosigns and contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, James Fauntleroy and Isaiah Rashad add flavor but never distract from her distinctive and deft vocals and strikingly intimate wordplay. — JA


Tinariwen — “Elwan” (Anti/Epitaph)
Hailing from the war-torn Saharan region between Mali and Algeria, Tinariwen’s sound is a unique, guitar-driven fusion of North and West African musics with Western rock. While the group has existed since the late ‘70s, it first toured outside of its home region in 2001 and has since attracted many fans among indie rock musicians, and this latest outing features guest appearances from singer Mark Lanegan and guitarists Kurt Vile and Matt Sweeney, although none of them detract from the group’s circular, spidery riffs and haunting melodies, which are frequently punctuated with whoops and whistles. The recent violence in Mali forced the group to record this album at studios in southern Morocco and Joshua Tree, California, and while the lyrical themes are generally lost to anyone who doesn’t speak the Berber dialect Tamasheq, the yearning and sense of exile are palpable in every note. — JA

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Waxahatchee — “Out in the Storm” (Merge)
Honestly, we’re shocked that the whip-smart songwriting and powerful delivery of Waxahatchee founder Katie Crutchfield hasn’t already won over every person pining for the classic 1990s indie-rock sound of the Breeders and Liz Phair — thus, let this review act as a gift guide for anyone you might know who’s looking. The band’s fourth full-length is their strongest yet, mixing powerful harmonies (concocted with Crutchfield’s twin sister Allison), indelible melodies and some razor-sharp lyrics are hallmarks of this band’s sound, delivered in best-ever form on this album. To wit, the “I tried but f— this!” breakup anthem “Brass Beam”: “I endured your criticism, self-loathing and all your doubt/ I held you up above myself trying to ride it out/ I got lost in your rendition of reality/ All my offering rendered boring hyperbole.”

Variety’s Best of 2017