For music critics, your year-end list is like a combination of a masters’ thesis and an I.D. — something labored over that defines you, if only in one moment, because all of us would redo the list within the next hour, year or decade. I always try to make these lists an honest representation of the new music I loved and listened to most in the preceding year, without boosting certain albums to make myself look cooler or more prescient or part of a cheerleading squad. And apparently I gravitated mostly to alt-R&B (Jorja Smith, Tirzah, Kadhja Bonet), pristine pop (Robyn, The Blaze, Christine & the Queens), alt-rock (Mitski, Cat Power, Ultimate Painting, Superorganism) and for the first time in years, metal (Deafheaven, Sleep), although the most innovative, visionary and future-looking album I heard all year came from 22-year-old Tierra Whack. The list below would make an absolutely awful playlist, because many of the artists and styles are so different from each other… which is as good a reflection of this extreme and chaotic year as any.
1. Robyn “Honey” (Konichiwa-Interscope)
It’s hard to imagine what pop music in general — let alone the genre snootily known as “intellipop” — would sound like without Robyn’s visionary self-titled and “Body Talk” albums, which infused the genre with a level of musical innovation and freshness that can be heard everywhere from Charli XCX to Ariana Grande. Some eight years after “Body Talk,” the long-awaited follow-up proved to be worth the wait. (Read more here.)
2. Jorja Smith “Lost & Found” (FAMM)
This smokey-voiced young Brit had duetted with Kendrick Lamar and Drake and opened an arena tour for Bruno Mars before she’d even turned 21, let alone released her debut album. Not surprisingly, “Lost & Found” is a remarkably precocious debut, with a vibe that recalls Amy Winehouse, Sade and early Erykah Badu. (Read more here.)
3. Tierra Whack “Whack World” (self-released/Interscope)
Want a glimpse at the future of music? Look no further: This brilliant and bizarre semi-conceptual collection reinvents the idea of the album — and even the concept of pop songwriting — in a constantly fast-forwarding reflection of our ADHD world. The 22-year-old Philadelphia native (whose real name is apparently Tierra Whack) races through 15 songs — each one exactly one minute long — in a brain-boggling string of genres and voices: R&B, several strains of hip-hop, there’s even one sung in a ridiculous southern accent. It’s bonkers and genius in equal measure, but what’s most remarkable, apart from Tierra’s towering talent, is the way she manages to cram an entire song into 60 seconds — each one feels complete, even though you’re often thirsting for more. The entire album is accompanied by an even more conceptual series of videos that are alternately hilarious, arresting and very disturbing, often all at the same time.
4. The Blaze “Dancehall” (Animal63)
This subtly immersive dance-pop hydra, created by two French cousins, has vocals that are so comical that it’s initially difficult to take the album seriously: They’re so doofy, down-tuned and cartoonish that a common reaction is “Are you kidding me?” Yet the album’s atmospheres, beats and especially its gorgeous hooks become so addictive that I’d sit through a Fred Durst rap to get to them …
5. Janelle Monae “Dirty Computer” (Wondaland/Bad Boy/Atlantic)
… Wherein Monae’s complex, far-reaching and multi-genre vision snaps into focus. On previous albums her brilliance was obvious, but the songs were too stiff, too overthought, too bound to a larger concept to really breathe. And ironically, her most musically and conceptually ambitious work to date — the album is accompanied by a less-successful 45-minute film — is also her most free and fluid, a joyous fusion of R&B, pop, hip-hop and alt-rock that includes some of the year’s most indelible songs.
6. Mitski “Be the Cowboy” (Dead Oceans)
If you’re looking for an album that practically defines “maturity,” “artistic progression,” “coming of age” and other such clichés, it’s this one. With her fifth full-length, Mitski has shaped her angst-ridden, often unsettling melodies into remarkably approachable songs that at times recall St. Vincent but create a beautiful framework for her unique vision.
7. Deafheaven “Ordinary Corrupt Human Love” (Anti-)
With blast beats, roaring guitars and vocals that are usually a distorted and unintelligible shriek, Deafheaven are mostly a metal band — but one that is also capable of piano-driven moments of quiet subtlety and atmospheres worthy of film composers. Their fourth full-length is their most refined and memorable yet. (Read more here.)
8. Soundtrack “Black Panther” (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
It’s hard to imagine that a soundtrack helmed by Kendrick Lamar could be anything but brilliant, and he and his assembled contributors — including The Weeknd, SZA, Vince Staples and Jorja Smith — do not disappoint. Even on the songs that weren’t specifically recorded for the soundtrack, one gets the sense the artists knew they were a part of something important.
9. Kadhja Bonet “Childqueen” (Fat Possum)
The remarkable debut album from this classically trained multi-instrumentalist often gets described as “psychedelic soul,” and while that shoe fits, it sounds nothing like, say, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” “Childqueen” is an innovative and highly original fusion of those two sounds, but also at times the music from France and Brazil in the late 1960s, an evocative sound that feels as much like a place to visit as an album to play.
10. The Internet “Hive Mind” (Columbia)
For a group that exploded onto the scene as hip-hop’s psychedelic nightmare come true, Odd Future unexpectedly has spawned some of the greatest, and most old-school, R&B of recent years in the form of Frank Ocean and The Internet. Syd has grown into a vocalist of rare nuance, and the group supports her with supple and sumptuous grooves.
11. Cat Power “Wanderer” (Domino)
Amid all the talk of her nervousness and early train-wreck concerts, people rarely seems to focus on how great Chan Marshall’s (aka Cat Power’s) albums are, even 25 years after she first emerged. The understated “Wanderer” is yet another one, and it finds her songwriting and especially her singing as strong as ever — and a show she performed in New York the week of the album’s release was spellbinding. (Read more here.)
12. Beach House “7” (Sub Pop)
The Baltimore dreampop duo has been making pressing plants work overtime over the past few years, with a surprise companion album as well as a B-sides collection following their last proper full-length, 2015’s “Depression Cherry.” A change was due, and Beach House has made their sound darker, crankier and more aggressive than before, without losing the ethereal qualities at their core. (Read more here.)
13. Cardi B “Invasion of Privacy” (Atlantic)
The only thing more surprising than Cardi B’s lightning-fast rise to superstardom is the fact that she’s backed it up with one of the best albums of the year: Funny, fierce, foul-mouthed, in-your-face and filled with hot beats, stinging rhymes and indelible hooks. (Read more here.)
14. Christine & the Queens “Chris” (Because)
In one of the more confusing pronoun conundrums of this grammatically challenging era, we are asked to refer to Christine & the Queens as “she,” as Héloïse Letissier has no actual band and in fact wrote, performed and produced this album entirely by herself. None of which matters: It’s one of the most memorable and powerful pop albums of the year, with her trademark indelible melodies and elated hooks.
15. Ultimate Painting “Up!” (unreleased)
It’s probably unfair to list an album that was pulled back just weeks before its scheduled release — due to this British power-pop duo’s apparently bitter breakup — but it’s also one of the best rock discs of the year. The Kinks, Big Star, the Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3 and other of my all-time favorite bands flit through this group’s reverent but still original songs, which hopefully will see release one day.
16. Tirzah “Devotion” (Domino)
This British singer came up in the same class as FKA Twigs and shares with her a certain tripped-out R&B template. And while “Devotion” is a forceful and strong-willed album, there’s something oddly undemanding about it: It’s the kind of album that is there when you want to focus on it, and also makes for a soothing but intriguing background as well. Such purposeful versatility is rare in a time when seemingly everything is screaming for attention.
17. Sleep “The Sciences” (Third Man)
Sleep is a metal band whose legend tended to outweigh its actual recorded output, but all of that has been put to right with the release of their first album in nearly 20 years — a towering opus that worships at the twin altars of marijuana and Black Sabbath and contains the heaviest riffs and most powerful drumming you’ll hear all year. An ultimate stoner-metal album.
18. Superorganism “Superorganism” (Domino)
One of the most frustrating things about alternative and rock music these days is the sense that everything has been done before … until a weird-ass band like this one comes along. A London-based collective of young people from all over the world, Superorganism throws so many sounds and ideas into this quirky yet hooked-filled album that it defies any categorization.
19. Rosalia “El Mal Querer” (Sony Music (Spain))
A next-level flamenco album appearing on countless year-end critics’ lists might seem like a punchline, but this young Spanish singer makes it all happen on the remarkable — and largely self-produced — “El Mal Querer.” She combines traditional styles with fully contemporary sounds into a fusion that is both soothing and unsettling, often in the same song.
20. Georgia Anne Muldrow “Overload” (Brainfeeder)
This L.A.-based singer has been releasing albums at a frantic pace since 2006, many of them in the jazz realm. For this one she’s wholeheartedly embraced R&B, and has made one of the most forward-looking R&B albums in a year filled with forward-looking R&B albums. She’s internalized the jazz and more avant-garde sounds of her previous work so that it’s integrated into the whole. And while this one is definitely more approachable than some of her previous work, she’s still buried the album’s most killer hook — called, fittingly enough, “Williehook” — into a 54-second-long skit.