Earlier this year, New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica wrote a piece about pop’s Summer Of Smooth, about how many of this year’s big warm-weather crossover hits were soft and breezy and immaculately produced and comforting pieces of throwbacky, slick pseudo-R&B. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” drove the narrative, but it also encompassed Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk and Drake. If you wanted to reach a bit, you could also extend the same story to indie rock. This is, after all, the year Ariel Rechtshaid became a smart-pop production baron by helming albums from Vampire Weekend and HAIM and Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX. It’s the year the National once again affirmed their calm, tasteful, wood-scented dominance. It’s the year that Phoenix inoffensively ascended to festival-headliner status, and that Disclosure crossed over to indie by goosing its dance music with high-stepping and laser-precise R&B hooks.
But it’s also the year a lot of other stuff happened. Even as Drake arguably became rap’s center, this was the year that its margins overflowed with scarily talented wiseacre noisemakers, MCs unafraid to yelp and snarl and yammer over backfiring 808s and slice-your-face synths. It’s the year old-timer processed-guitar monsters like Kevin Shields and Trent Reznor returned with guns-blazing, sounding better, once again, than we ever could’ve hoped. It’s the year superstar acts got weird and confrontational and maybe self-undermining, making some fascinating and sometimes great music along the way. And if it’s not the year metal got smart and tough, it sure as hell is the year metal stayed smart and tough.
If you’re looking at our list as an indicator of the Year Of Smooth, you’ll find plenty to support your hypothesis. There are plenty of clean and friendly and professional melodies contained therein, and many of the Summer Of Smooth movers are represented. But there’s even more rupture: Mavericks fighting against the flow of their genres and of music in general, making messily ambitious, noisy, sprawling, smoke-emitting monsters when many would’ve been happy to see them hit their marks and get out. Our #1 pick is top-shelf superstar self-sabotage, and its close runner-up is darkness-and-light sprawl that seems, in many ways, targeted toward annoying the genre faithful. Further down, you’ll find plenty that’s both agreeable and disagreeable: Synth-drone wizards, heartfelt ’90s-indie revivalists, spacey guitar noodlers, DIY shit-starters, two different A$AP Mob members.
The cast of writers who put this list together is quite different from last year’s rogue’s gallery. That means our list is as much a reflection of those changes as it is of the year itself, and it’s part of the reason you’ll now see a word like “Gorguts” on a list like this. But all those different enthusiasms — sometimes working together, sometimes flying on cross-currents — mean a diverse and passionate mess of opinions, and at least a couple of great albums that you almost certainly haven’t heard yet.
The countdown starts here.