2017 so far has been a mixed bag of drops, with blockbuster albums from names like Ed Sheeran and breakout debuts from rising stars like Khalid. Here are 10 of the best, chosen for their ability to reflect each artist’s distinct and powerful musical and social perspective—as well as their knack for making a full afternoon’s worth of tracks we’ll gladly listen to all the way through.
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Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Lamar’s fiery album sees the Compton-born rapper in top form, layering political invective with unbridled self-confidence and nimble lyricism. Lead single “Humble” is the earworm of the bunch, but there’s plenty to get stuck on throughout the wide-ranging work. Lamar has long been a cult favorite but not necessarily a radio mainstay, given the unedited nature of past mixtapes like 2016’s ferocious “untitled unmastered.” But with DAMN., he managed to streamline his frenetic energy into listener-friendly tracks that still pack a complex punch.
The xx, I See You
Champions of minimalist alt-pop The xx returned to claim their crown in 2017 with a sound that’s fuller, richer and more energetic than their well-received past iterations. Still moody and introspective, the British group allowed more joy to seep into their melodies this time around — and it’s a good thing, giving rise to beautifully balanced lo-fi pop like lead single “On Hold.”
Ed Sheeran, Divide
Success is both a blessing and a curse: it makes you a target. For Ed Sheeran, once upon a time an unassuming musician from the U.K. with shaggy red hair and quirky tattoos, success has brought global superstardom — and some backlash. But the fact that Divide managed to topple charts with everything from ballads to bangers to Irish folk tunes testifies to his instincts as an artist. Taken as a whole, there’s no denying the power of Divide.
Drake, More Life
From the melodic slow jam “Passionfruit” to the flute-backed hard rap of “Portland,” Drake’s “mixtape” plays like the musical equivalent of a house party, featuring a global parade of artists and sounds. In a divisive year, there’s something reassuring about Drake’s willingness to include and experiment — while still, of course, sounding very much like himself.
Sampha was previously known as a low-key hip-hop producer behind many of the genre’s biggest stars, but on Process, he found his own voice. The spare but tender collection of tracks riffs introspectively on themes of heartbreak and devotion over smartly minimalist beats and piano, Sampha’s flexible voice flowing generously into and around the melodies.
The R&B of the future will probably sound a lot like Syd’s pared-back, darkly sexy tracks on Fin, the debut solo project of the Odd Future and Internet member. Fin is subtle, technical, and alluring, her tunes in turns slinking and unexpectedly aggressive. Over beats that start and stop in sharp production, her voice slithers with a light touch.
Little Big Town, The Breaker
The country quartet aren’t new kids on the block, yet in their eighth studio album The Breaker, their group dynamic finds a newly invigorating groove. From Taylor-Swift-penned contribution “Better Man” to the reflective ballad “Lost in California,” they tactfully bridge country roots and pop-leaning influences, creating an experience that all listeners can connect with.
Khalid, American Teen
It would be hard to find a more cohesive debut work than American Teen, 19-year-old Texan singer Khalid’s breakthrough hit album. His thoughtful, relatable reflections on modern youth culture and the limitations of love are just as pitch-perfect as his soulful, measured delivery — and have launched him into stardom and charting territory on pure strength of musicality.
Future Islands, The Far Field
The rich, distinctive voice of lead singer Samuel T. Herring leads the way through the Baltimore trio’s fifth album as Future Islands continues to embrace emotional honesty in expansive synth-filled melodies. Drilled through with heartbreak and loneliness, The Far Field is the story of a broken man, grandiose and cathartic.
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Josh Tillman’s third album is a collection of easily accessible ballads, a folksy project that sounds old-fashioned in its simplicity. But his incisive lyrics are all modern: “Just how quickly would you rate yourself / in terms of sex appeal and cultural significance?” he muses at one point. “Are you feeling depressed?” As a cultural manifesto, Tillman’s work continues to hit its mark with uncanny accuracy—even if he’s couching it in pleasant chords.