Big Thief – UFOF
Anchored by sturdy, stunningly pretty folk-rock backings, Adrianne Lenker, her voice tremulous but tenacious, makes existential musings amid verdant nature.
What we said: “Full of subtle charm, it’s an album of deceptive depths in which to immerse yourself.” Read the full review
Cass McCombs – Tip of the Sphere
The Californian troubadour, who has steadily wound his way through the fringes of Americana and indie for over 15 years, delivers another romantic, faintly psychedelic masterpiece.
What we said: “McCombs rewards deep listening. Tip of the Sphere is his ninth studio album of ever-expansive Americana, one where his myth properly matures.” Read the full review
The Comet Is Coming – Trust in the Life Force of the Deep Mystery
With as much an affinity with hip-hop and progressive rock as jazz, the trio of reeds player Shabaka Hutchings, synth player Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett make one of the most cosmic statements of the current British jazz revival.
What we said: “This is hardcore music for a generation weaned on rave and grime, jazz’s cutting edge. The comet isn’t coming, it’s arrived.” Read the full review
Dave – Psychodrama
Socially engaged and emotionally complex, Streatham’s finest frets on black history and family strife with his clearly enunciated flow – but there’s still a faint summery heat to tracks such as Location, Disaster and Voices.
What we said: “The album lasts for the best part of an hour, and not a minute of its running time seems wasted or padded out. The end result is certainly the boldest album to emerge from UK hip-hop’s renaissance. It may also be the best.” Read the full review
Angel Bat Dawid – The Oracle
Spiritual jazz is reborn in Dawid’s beguiling songs, layered from recordings made on her phone: dizzyingly beautiful runs on her clarinet are paired with keening harmonised vocals.
What we said: “This is an intriguing album, futuristic in tone but hardwired to an ancient and deeply spiritual vision of what music can achieve.” Read the full review
Dawn – New Breed
Simpler than the futuristic trio of albums that preceded it, New Breed welds musical reflections from Dawn’s home town of New Orleans with spacey psychedelia as indebted to krautrock as southern screw, coupled with forthright lyrical assertions of the effort it has taken to forge her musical identity.
What we said: “The music on New Breed is often hugely inventive but it also functions as pop: you get the feeling she spends as much time bulletproofing her choruses as she does tinkering with the futuristic sound design.” Read the full review
Deerhunter – Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
Bradford Cox’s outfit continue to be the best indie rock band in the US, considering everything from Jo Cox’s death to environmental collapse over Kinks-y psychedelia with wit and wonderment intact.
What we said: “There’s a confidence about its stylistic leaps that means it feels like the expression of an authentically idiosyncratic imagination rather than someone being weird and eclectic for the sake of it.” Read the full review
Durand Jones & the Indications – American Love Call
An overlooked masterpiece of modern soul, the Indiana quintet are shamelessly retro in their style: all pert brass and crooning close harmonies. But when the songwriting is this perfect, who cares about originality?
What we said: “There simply isn’t a weak or even middling track, and the strongest can go toe to toe with the best of Al Green or Bobby Womack.” Read the full review
Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
The gothic teen queen came through with some characteristically unsettling productions on her debut album, but equally showed an unexpected love of show tunes that posited her as a Gen-Z Fiona Apple.
What we said: “Like a horror auteur, Eilish uses intimacy to amplify scares. She sings in a discomfitingly close gasp, like an ASMR actor having a panic attack.” Read the full review
Fontaines DC – Dogrel
The most exciting new Irish band in a generation, Fontaines DC’s songs, populated by a vivid cast of characters from yuppies to nationalists, are full of vim and vigour – but also tenderness.
What we said: “This is the kind of songwriting quality that bands can take years to reach, or never reach at all: brilliant, top to bottom.” Read the full review
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi – There Is No Other
The purposeful folk star Rhiannon Giddens teams with the Italian multi-instrumentalist for an album that explores how sounds and rhythms from Africa and the Arabic world connect with traditional music from Europe and America.
What we said: “The project could have got suffocated in impossible worthiness, but fear not – it’s wonderful.” Read the full review
Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next
Released just six months after Sweetener, an album that channelled Grande’s resilience in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing, Thank U, Next was a looser, more experimental creative burst that delved deeper into Grande’s psyche following the death of former fiance Mac Miller, and let her swaggering id run free on tracks such as 7 Rings and Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.
What we said: “As with Rihanna’s Anti, this feels like the work of a pop star previously happy to act as conduit for other people, finally working out who they are and what they want to say.” Read the full review
Aldous Harding – Designer
The finely turned folk-pop on Harding’s third album was as beautiful as her lyrics were cryptic – you can join her in puzzling over what she was doing in Dubai (indeed, were she ever there) while swooning to her finger-picked nylon guitar.
Holly Herndon – Proto
For Proto, Herndon processed human voices through an “AI baby” she named Spawn, though the results remained pleasingly human: choirs spliced into fractal wonders, and on Eternal, a towering pop song to tickle the synapses.
What we said: “Herndon counters the hysteria around AI with an album that presents it as a quizzical, cute pet on the leash of a human master: a sensitive, responsive part of the family.” Read the full review
Jayda G – Significant Changes
Born out of Jayda G’s research as an environmental toxicologist and her clubbing life as a resident of Berlin, Significant Changes is a funky delight that shifts nimbly from exhilarating highs (Leave Room 2 Breathe) to orca-aided ambience.
What we said: “Jayda G’s own grooves are as captivating as her DJ sets, whether they’re freely bathing beneath Chi-town sun or dipping into more sombre waters.” Read the full review
Angélique Kidjo – Celia
Last year, the Beninese artist released an inspired full-album cover of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light; this year, she turned her hand to songs by Celia Cruz, queen of salsa, highlighting the Cuban star’s African roots with assistance from Tony Allen, the west African Gangbé Brass Band, Britain’s Sons of Kemet and American Meshell Ndegeocello on bass.
What we said: “This is not just an album of covers but an inventive reinterpretation.” Read the full review
Kelsey Lu – Blood
The New York-based cellist transcended her status as a collaborator with artists including Solange and Blood Orange on her stirring debut: disco reverie Poor Fake is a particular highlight.
What we said: “Blood is an enticingly restrained debut, showing a consistency of tone without compromising on Lu’s inventiveness.” Read the full review
Rustin Man – Drift Code
His naive, trembling voice may be a little like Robert Wyatt’s, but is still a uniquely arresting instrument, haunting a series of wonderfully meandering folk-rock backings.
What we said: “Each instrument’s contribution to the album was recorded in turn, rather than track by track, yet it sounds like an organic whole. In fact, it sounds magnificent.” Read the full review
Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters
A supergroup comprising North American roots musicians Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah: together, these banjo-wielding heroines confronted the historic and continued abuse of African American women with authority and intimacy.
What we said: “But what Giddens and her cohorts have managed to create is a record of great importance and exceptional beauty, its darker moments countered by points of bright wonder.” Read the full review
Maja SK Ratkje – Sult
One of the most plainly beautiful releases from the experimental Norwegian vocalist – using a retrofitted pump organ, plaintive ballads sit alongside whimsical flights of fancy.
What we said: “Ratkje can write strong, vocal-led songs, such as Sayago and Øine Som Råsilke, that transform this collection from background music into something that stands alone.” Read the full review
Lucy Rose – No Words Left
Made in the throes of an identity crisis and a floundering sense of purpose, Rose’s fourth record paradoxically found her at her most artistically assured, possessed of a new lyrical profundity and melodic weightiness.
What we said: “Her fourth album is her starkest, filled with lyrics about uncertainty and isolation, and yet her most striking, conveying the strongest sense of her artistic identity yet.” Read the full review
Sleaford Mods – Eton Alive
The one saving grace of Brexit Britain being so utterly toxic is that Sleaford Mods still have something to write about: they remain the great contemporary poets of a nation that is much worse than it thinks it is.
What we said: “Despite its title, Eton Alive isn’t a grand statement on the health of the nation or the ever-powerful English ruling class. It prefers to critique this troubled isle through the minutiae of daily life, which is perhaps even more effective and damning.” Read the full review
Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Another wretched yet amused state-of-the-nation address delivered in a broad, leering Midlands accent, Slowthai draws on sounds that have long chimed with the disaffected in the UK: grime, garage, punk and trip-hop.
What we said: “Clever, bleak, funny, bracing, aware of a broad musical heritage but never in thrall to it.” Read the full review
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
An ambitious and richly produced album, with buzzing industrial electronics newly folded into Van Etten’s torrid indie-rock songcraft: here are big emotions splashed across an even bigger canvas.
What we said: “This ambitious, arresting album feels like the work of an artist wielding her considerable talents with newfound confidence and conviction.” Read the full review
Aki Takase/Japanic – Thema Prima
At 71, jazz pianist Aki Takase is more sprightly and inventive than people half her age: Thema Prima bursts with energy, with blurts of sassy big band, screwball improv and classy balladeering.
What we said: “It’s a wilfully intoxicating jazz brew that only Takase could have stirred in quite this way.” Read the full review
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Returning after a six-year break, Vampire Weekend – now Ezra Koenig and a heap of collaborators – remain smart but never smart-arse. Addressing the environment, Jewishness and love, this is classic American songwriting reaches back to classic country and Paul Simon while facing forward.
What we said: “It deals with many topics that have exercised songwriters of late, from the noise of social media and its bubbles to the rise of populist politics, and does so with an elegant turn of phrase: ‘Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?’” Read the full review
WH Lung – Incidental Music
Every other year seems to throw up its own nervy motorik combo – and this year’s contenders are the Manchester group WH Lung, whose debut adds to the equation exhilarating psychedelia and compellingly obscure lyricism.
What we said: “Incidental Music is like a rollercoaster ride you want to get straight back on and do all over again.” Read the full review
Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
With each track title named after a significant black cultural figure – Zora, Eartha, Basquiat, and so on – this beautiful record also draws from across the black musical spectrum: rap, R&B, soul and gospel.
What we said: “Her contemplative, modern style of soul is built both for marching, and for recuperation, when you need to recover from the fight.” Read the full review
Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe
The London guitarist hardly needed the between-song skits about contemporary anxieties to make her point on her rapturous and compellingly uneasy debut, laced with rare, bona fide indie anthems (In Your Head) and ripcord yelp shocks (Heavyweight Champion of the Year).
What we said: “A ragged miscellany of styles – rackety alt-rock, radio-ready pop, saxophones that appear to have escaped from a Sade album, jagged left-field guitars, primitive drum machines and what sounds like an attempt to make the kind of 80s AOR ballad that’s popular with Magic Radio on a lo-fi, bedroom-bound budget.” Read the full review