1. Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”
Kung Fu Kenny returned early this year with an abrasive, yet extremely catchy new record “DAMN.” While “To Pimp a Butterfly” drew on jazz, funk and spoken word influences, his new record is straight rap, mixing boom-bap and trap sounds to authenticate his status as king of his genre. Lyrically and musically, his new sound is jarring, grim and fast paced, reflecting our dystopian media and political climate. The only downside to this record is the annoyingly catchy single,“HUMBLE.,” which seems to be a satirical take on pop rap, including a repetitive Mike Will Made It beat, and lists off every rap cliche possible (it even includes a line about “grey poupon,” the most rapped about condiment of all time). It does not seem to fit the rest of the album, but it is his only track to ever chart at number one on the billboard, proving once again that most of America is only interested in hearing formulaic pop.
Favorite Tracks: “DNA.,” “DUCKWORTH”
2. Thundercat – “Drunk”
Stephen Bruner gained significant attention after supplying Kendrick Lamar with Grammy winning bass lines on “To Pimp A Butterfly,” so it comes as no surprise that he really stepped his game up on his new record, “Drunk.” Spanning 23 songs with features from Pharrell, Kendrick, Wiz Khalifa, Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, as well as production from frequent collaborator Flying Lotus. “Drunk” is a jazz-fusion masterpiece of epic proportions. Lyrically it is a little goofy, but that is Thundercat’s charm. While boasting incredible speed and skill on the bass, he still comes off like a humble dude you can just nerd out with over video games and eighties cartoons.
Favorite Tracks: “Walk on By,” “Show You the Way”
3. Sylvan Esso – “What Now”
Durham folk-pop duo returned this year with another fantastic record that reflects on the immense popularity they received from their first self-titled bedroom-pop album. Amelia Meath’s introspective lyrics have sharpened, with heavy themes of the pressure of fame, nostalgia, the unknown future and good ol’ fashioned love. Nick Sanborn’s pop production has vastly expanded mostly due to further years of experience, including a solo EP as Made of Oak, but also in part to the larger toolkit of synthesizers, ranging from expensive Moog gear to the extremely affordable Korg Volca Beats. Despite the heavy use of synthesizers and drum-machines, the music still feels human, incorporating acoustic instrumentation from guitars, drums, violins, and vocal samples. While the pop singles feel a little out of place from the tenderness of the rest of the record, “Radio,”contains a heavy layer of irony. It takes jabs at the monotony and deception of the pop music industry, while simultaneously supplying it with a radio single.
Favorite Tracks: “Slack Jaw,” “Song”
4. Father John Misty – “Pure Comedy”
Fleet Foxes drummer, Josh Tillman, might come off like an insufferable hipster burdened with a plague of being born in the millennial era. His sarcastic, depressive, and multi-syllabic lyrics might seem boastful, narcissistic, or over-compensatory. But d*mn, if that man does not write some of the best ballads of this decade. Title-track, “Pure Comedy,” is one of the best takes on the current political climate this year, juxtaposing the anger Tillman feels towards America, with the realization that we all still have to live and work together. A few songs go on a bit too long on this record, but it also includes songs that will send tingles down your spine upon first listen.
Favorite Tracks: “Pure Comedy” “Total Entertainment Forever”
5. The Magnetic Fields – “50 Song Memoir”
It has almost been 20 years since Stephin Merritt and his troupe of musicians (occasionally including Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, on accordion) released the triple-album masterpiece “69 Love Songs.” In that time, The Magnetic Fields have released four other less ambitious projects. (although the album “i” contains a tracklist in which every song starts with the letter I). But, their newest record, “50 Song Memoir,” returns to the epic formula, with fifty songs spanning five volumes, each representing a year of Stephin Merritt’s life. While massive in scale, spanning genres left and right, and capturing that classic Magnetic Fields’ energy, the record can be a little challenging, but that is Merritt for you. Being one of the most stylistically diverse songwriters, he has been known to throw curveballs at his listeners. Even if you have the patience to sit through a two-and-a-half hour long record, expect to be tested on the more experimental tunes.
Favorite Tracks: “‘68: A Cat Called Dionysus,” “‘86: How I Failed Ethics”