he music critics of The New York Times share their picks for the best pop and jazz albums of the year.
1. Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) Monumentally ambitious and just as ambivalent, Kendrick Lamar shoulders a spokesman’s burdens on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” an album-length immersion in all the choices and contradictions facing a rapper with a conscience. Race, poverty, fame, lust, cultural heritage, the direction of America and the trajectory of his career are all on his mind. Ideas and atmosphere govern the tracks, not immediate catchiness. But it’s an immensely musical album: a dense caldron of funk, jazz and soul that draws hope and determination from the past, confronting problems that past eras have left unsolved. (Read theCritic’s Notebook | Listen to the Popcast)
2. Joanna Newsom “Divers” (Drag City) The melodies on Joanna Newsom’s “Divers”have a foundation of vintage American simplicity: Appalachian tunes, waltzes, ragtime, parlor songs, lullabies. She sings them in her high, guileless but determined voice, accompanied by her harp. But things get more intricate from there. Edifices of counterpoint materialize around her; verses stretch and detour toward incantations. The lyrics ponder time, mortality, love, war, nature, cities and the elusive joy of life — often cryptic and allusive, sometimes utterly transparent. The songs add up to a cycle, illuminating one another’s mysteries. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
3. Grimes “Art Angels” (4AD) “Art Angels” is a solo tour de force. Everything on it, except for selected guest vocals, is by Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes. As songwriter, singer, instrumentalist, producer and engineer (not to mention illustrator and video director), Grimes has reverse-engineered the high-gloss, short-attention-span mechanisms of current pop to give it her own spin — a matter of bravado, feminism, taunts, questions, eccentricities, hurdles overcome, “commodifying all the pain” and, every few seconds, another musical zinger. (Listen to the Popcast)
4. Sleater-Kinney “No Cities to Love” (Sub Pop) Reunited for its first album in 10 years, Sleater-Kinney returns as joyfully rigorous as ever, sinewy and ready to grapple. Once again, Corin Tucker’s lead vocals make her a banshee with a mission, singing about minimum-wage purgatory, fervent iconoclasm and “dread in our own Gilded Age.” And once again, Janet Weiss’s gut-punching beat propels the endlessly wrangling, endlessly interlocking electric guitars of Ms. Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, which also bristle now with multitracked passages. It’s not a nostalgic reunion; it’s a united front, renewed and contentious. (Listen to the Popcast)
5. Björk “Vulnicura” (One Little Indian) The paralyzing sorrow of a breakup, and the slow recovery that followed, were the makings of Björk’s “Vulnicura,” an album that’s simultaneously emotionally open and meticulously plotted, plush and austere. Björk’s voice is constantly exposed, inhabiting some of her most declamatory melodies. Around her, a string orchestra provides cushioning, cinematic expansiveness and sometimes desperate turbulence, while electronics add flickers of rhythm and startling, ominous swaths of noise. She sounds all alone in unstable realms, wounded but strong — coping. (Read the review | Listen to thePopcast)
6. Adele “25” (XL/Columbia) In an era of ever-narrowing niche targeting, it’s an achievement to make the album virtually everyone wants to hear — to be the big-voiced, sympathetic, vulnerable, natural woman who overshadows all the bionic pop superstars and unites a fragmented pop audience. From piano ballads to booming programmed (but organic-tinged) pop, Adele radiates empathy. The vengeful rejected lover of “21” has moved on; at 27, she is already mourning lost youth and striving for deeper connection. Sure, she can be lachrymose, but we all need a good cry sometimes. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
7. Alabama Shakes “Sound & Color” (ATO) A soul-revival time capsule was too confining for Alabama Shakes. The band still shows its roots, from Brittany Howard’s swoops and shouts on down, and its songs still have down-to-earth messages like “Don’t Wanna Fight.” But the music steers away from echoes of particular eras; with arty determination, the band uses different tempos (sometimes daringly slow), different production approaches (sometimes barbed, sometimes subdued), different instrumental sounds and colors. For Alabama Shakes, soulfulness isn’t a thing of the past.
8. Sufjan Stevens “Carrie and Lowell” (Asthmatic Kitty) Mourning is inextricably tied to memory on “Carrie and Lowell,” which reflects on the 2012 death of Sufjan Stevens’s mother, a mentally troubled woman who was largely absent as he grew up. Mr. Stevens’s voice is gentle to the point of ghostliness as it floats amid dainty webs of fingerpicking and eerie clouds of reverberation. The lyrics struggle with kinship and estrangement, need and loss, luminous details and possibilities forever unrealized. On this intimate whisper of an album, the songs are pretty yet utterly unsparing. (Read the review)
9. Mbongwana Star “From Kinshasa” (World Circuit/Nonesuch) Bouncy Congolese pop — music that has been a blissful contrast to decades of dictatorships and civil wars — gets a startling, spooky makeover on “From Kinshasa.” Mbongwana Star is a band from the Democratic Republic of Congo, led by singers from the band Staff Benda Billi, that added its Irish producer as a member. Their collaboration is driven by the band’s crisp, versatile rhythm section, its angular guitar and its lived-in voices, but the album is emphatically a studio concoction. It warps sounds and spaces with distortion, reverb, filtering and hyper-close-ups on unexpected details; rhythms ricochet, small sounds loom, silences gape. With all its shadows and scars, the surreal music conjures harsh realities.
10. Miguel “Wildheart” (RCA) The funk-rock-psychedelia-soul songwriter Miguel Pimentel, who concentrated on carnal pursuits on his previous albums, made “Wildheart” a push toward self-realization and a panorama of his hometown, Los Angeles, in both music and lyrics: from funk to rock, from Hollywood to the ghetto. Defying most current R&B, he favors electric guitars, using them like the smog that makes sunsets more colorful. But he hasn’t forgotten the erotic; the album’s best song, “Coffee,” happens to be about a blissful morning after. (Read the review)
1. Kamasi Washington “The Epic” (Brainfeeder) This is an album that runs nearly three hours, with a 10-piece jazz band, orchestra and choir; at its center is a crew of Los Angeles musicians in their 30s whose musical connection goes back half their lives. It evokes Coltrane, ’70s funk, gospel and a classical education, and if you think it should be more streamlined and concise, you’re missing the point: The muchness of the telling is central to the tale. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
2. Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) Mr. Lamar’s hip-hop statement record is all paradox all the time — self-absorbed and proactive, dense and agile, groovy and bleak, triumphant and downhearted. (Listen to the Popcast)
3. Jen Shyu “Sounds and Cries of the World” (Pi) The singer Ms. Shyu represents a new kind of improviser-composer-ethnomusicologist hybrid; this is the result of her own fieldwork (in East Timor, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea), pushed through an extraordinary voice and a circle of high-level improvisers. (Listen to the Popcast)
4. Ava Rocha “Ava Patrya Yndia Yracema” (avarocha.com) The Brazilian singer Ms. Rocha has inherited the aesthetic breadth and playfulness of the late-1960s Tropicalia movement and connects it with new rock, funk, samba, free improvisation, “serious” composition, and noise; few records this year were as deep and fun.
5. Tenement “Predatory Headlights” (Don Giovanni) Bright, melodic punk, on the face of it, from a do-it-yourself Wisconsin trio. But punk wide enough to absorb master-class songwriting detail, ballads and long passages like loose impressions of John Cage’s early percussion pieces. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
6. Joanna Newsom “Divers” (Drag City) Like many of the other best records this year, Ms. Newsom’s newest was layered and complex, art done the long way around. But it was also the condensed version of her gifts, an argument that she’s not an odd-voiced outlier but one of the best singer-songwriters we’ve got. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
7. Helen “The Original Faces” (Kranky) A beguiling record involving Liz Harris, who records on her own as Grouper and who here applies her usual principles of distance, erasure and triple-strength echo to a rock band. It’s always there and not there.
8. Big | Brave “Au De La” (Southern Lord) Big | Brave is a young, loud and minimal power trio with two guitars and drums, from Montreal. But the spaces, chanted through by the singer Robin Wattie, are as important as the heavy moments.
9. Marta Sánchez Quintet “Partenika” (Fresh Sound) Ms. Sánchez, a Spanish jazz pianist living in New York, writes strong and sometimes folklike melodies but allows for all kinds of drift and smear from her band.
10. Royal Headache “High” (What’s Your Rupture?) A second album by a scrappy Australian band, adding heart and substance to what you could call garage punk and led by an exceptionally soulful singer named Shogun: your tour guide to love, desire and outrage. (Read the review)
1. Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance “Synovial Joints” (Pi Recordings) The alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman hasn’t met a complex system he couldn’t hijack and adapt for creative uses. On this absorbing album, partly inspired by anatomical terms of movement, he leads an improv-chamber group — woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, the whole deal — through oblique tangles of counterpoint. The results could have felt impenetrable, but Mr. Coleman and his crew keep the music light and lithe, with a slithery sense of groove.
2. Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) Furious, exhortative, self-excoriating, grandiose: Kendrick Lamar’s latest album is all of these, and a show of staggering lyrical and musical ambition besides. Pulling from gangsta rap, psychedelic funk, hard bop and neo-soul, it’s a word-drunk magnum opus that can still feel at times like a taut psychological thriller. And while its earnest sprawl recalls a bygone concept-album heyday, its grim urgency isblisteringly of the moment. (Read the Critic’s Notebook | Listen to thePopcast)
3. Maria Schneider Orchestra “The Thompson Fields”(ArtistShare) Ethereal in its effect but firmly grounded in its purpose, “The Thompson Fields” is a large-group jazz album of extraordinary depth, precision and subtlety. Ms. Schneider has been the leading composer in this style for a while nowç, but here she exceeds her own high bar, with an elite corps that has fully internalized her language. And the pastoral glow and painterly shading of her arrangements carry an implicit point about the delicate balance of the natural world. (Read the review)
4. Vijay Iyer Trio “Break Stuff” (ECM) The pianist Vijay Iyer has led this deftly incantatory trio, with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, for almost a dozen years, and it only keeps getting better. There’s a futurist slant to its stride, no less on several jazz standards than on Mr. Iyer’s darkly ruminative compositions, which flesh out stark rhythmic ideas with a deep, gathering intrigue.
5. Joanna Newsom “Divers” (Drag City) A breathtaking work of elegiac reflection, gothic detail and flinty self-assurance, “Divers” is the most potent distillation yet of Joanna Newsom’s extravagant aspirations. Some songs resemble chanteys, and others inhabit a pool of stillness, but what never wavers is the intensity of her focus — as a wry, allusive lyricist; an ingenious harpist and composer; and a calm, deceptively guileless singer. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
6. Rudresh Mahanthappa “Bird Calls” (Act) Charlie Parker, the eternal bebop paragon, serves as a distinctly permissive muse on this volatile tribute, by one of his many heirs. Featuring a bladelike quintet with Mr. Mahanthappa on alto saxophone and the impressive young Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, it’s a whirligig of brisk dynamism and bustling modernity.
7. Ben Wendel “The Seasons” (self-released) The multireedist Ben Wendel enlisted a dozen eloquent duet partners — accomplished peers like the pianist Aaron Parks and personal heroes like the tenor saxophonists Mark Turner and Joshua Redman — for “The Seasons,” a series of finely drawn chamber pieces inspired by the months of the year. He posted them at regular intervals as online videos, bringing a welcome visual element to each exchange, a sensation of being in the room. So why call it an album? Why not?
8. Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth “Epicenter” (Clean Feed) Mr. Lightcap, a well-traveled bassist with a feel for sturdy song form, presents a new batch of tunes for Bigmouth, a band with two expressive tenor saxophonists, Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby, and an adaptable rhythm team. Beyond the loose New York City theme — and a stylistic frame that runs from Ornette Coleman to West African kora music to the Velvet Underground — it’s an album of alert cohesion and unpretentious charm.
9. D’Angelo and the Vanguard “Black Messiah” (RCA) After taking 14 years to release his follow-up to “Voodoo,” D’Angelo couldn’t wait an extra few weeks to hit a January target. So “Black Messiah” landed earlier than expected, but still too late for last year’s tabulations. Put an asterisk on it, then, but don’t put it aside: The album, a viscous haze of Mothership funk and unhurried soul, sounds as intoxicating now as it did on first arrival. One measure of a good comeback album, evidently, is that it makes people forget you ever left. (Read the review)
10. Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Mike Reed “Artifacts” (482 Music) To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, this collective of broad-minded younger association members — the flutist Nicole Mitchell, the cellist Tomeka Reid and the drummer Mike Reed — made a rare sort of repertory gesture, drawing from a well that isn’t tapped often enough. The results are intrepid, soulful and, on a piece like Steve McCall’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting,” hauntingly beautiful.