19. Cobalt – Slow Forever
With Slow Forever, black metal duo Cobalt has consolidated a wide swath of styles and influences under the umbrella of their primary genre. Slow Forever embodies the edge of hardcore punk, the crushing aggression of thrash metal and the frenetic energy of noise rock. The result is an effectively dynamic spin on a genre that, given its decades-long history, often runs the risk of going stale. Cobalt refuses to let that happen.
18. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Every day, it seems like more and more of the world is lost to social entropy—war, poverty, degradation of infrastructure—and PJ Harvey knows it. The Hope Six Demolition Project—a reference to the U.S.’s HOPE VI program, which demolished low-income housing to create space for mixed-income developments—sees the British singer-songwriter embracing social upheaval in the face of insurmountable tragedy, whether it’s in the decaying and impoverished Ward 7 of Washington, D.C. (“The Community of Hope”), a war-torn Afghanistan (“The Ministry of Defence”), or Kosovo in the aftermath of the Kosovo War (“The Wheel”). The entirety of The Hope Six Demolition is one anthemic uprising, bold, thunderous, and most of all, angry.
17. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
Originally slated for release in January 2017, Run the Jewels 3’s early Christmas release came as both a pleasant surprise and a lesson to music critics who jumped the gun in making their “best of the year” lists. Run the Jewels members El-P and Killer Mike return for their third outing in just over three years, bringing the same aggressive flows and gritty machismo that made their first two albums such knockouts. Guest features include the return of producer Boots and Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, as well as Trina, Danny Brown, and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington (whose three-hour album The Epic was my favorite of 2015). The grimy beats may not hit as hard as they did on Run the Jewels 2 (still the duo’s crowning achievement), but when Killer Mike declares “RT&J, we the new PB&J” on “Legend Has It,” he does so knowing full well his and El-P’s ability to prove it.
16. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
In an interview with NPR Music, Esperanza Spalding described opening track to Emily’s D+Evolution, “Good Lava,” as an articulation of the necessity of artistic expression—that people vent, one way or another, and that release “can be a destructive release—or it can be a constructive release.” And what a release it is. Large swaths of the album adhere to Spalding’s volcano metaphor, and the final track, “I Want It Now,” provides one last burst of molten emotion, Spalding’s manic howling over off-kilter piano keys throwing the listener into total disarray before cutting to black. Sonically, Emily’s D+Evolution makes the most of its author’s talents, with the Oregonian musical prodigy giving herself plenty of room to breathe stylistically. Spalding never abandons her expansive jazz roots, instead using them as the foundation for a funky art rock record that’s as dense as it is mercurial. One gets the sense that Spalding, perhaps, needed to make this album; it’s in that realm of necessity that great art thrives.
15. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
An interesting experiment in psychedelic rock, Nonagon Infinity operates as a sort of Möbius strip; every track leads almost perfectly into the next, and at the end of the album, it loops back around to the beginning. As such, there’s a consistently present aesthetic that could easily degrade into humdrum redundancy, but leaps over such a pitfall with grace, poise and the peculiarity of a David Byrne or Ariel Pink. What the perfectly-named King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard has on their hands with Nonagon Infinity is an album that bleeds psychedelia from front to back and then back to front.
14. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
“I’ve seen you change the water into wine / I’ve seen you change it back to water, too.” Over his fifty years as a singer-songwriter, we’ve seen Cohen do the same. If You Want It Darker was a somber listen prior to Cohen’s death, it became downright devastating in the aftermath. Sepulchral pianos lay the foundation under which Cohen croakily muses about his own mortality. It’s as emotionally heavy a project as Cohen has ever done, though it favors nuance over soul-crushing doom; Cohen is too smart a songwriter to simply bank on his impending demise to elicit waterworks. He confronts death without ever outright mentioning it, giving You Want It Darker just as much power in what it doesn’t say as what it does.