Kendrick Lamar, “Damn” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
The year’s most immediate album — and also its most replayable — “Damn” showcases the pride of Los Angeles hip-hop at the top of his game.
St. Vincent, “Masseduction” (Loma Vista)
A pop outsider tries on pop for size, and she makes it fit.
Ethan Gruska, “Slowmotionary” (Sire)
Few songwriters are as skilled as this young Valley native; fewer still are secure enough to present their work as nakedly as Gruska does here.
Jay-Z, “4:44” (Roc Nation)
Rap’s CEO submits to an unsparing performance evaluation.
Randy Newman, “Dark Matter” (Nonesuch)
Who Father John Misty wants to be when he grows up.
Demi Lovato, “Tell Me You Love Me” (Safehouse/Hollywood/Island)
At last, this veteran pop striver finds material worthy of her voice.
SZA, “Ctrl” (Top Dawg/RCA)
Modern love songs as anxious and self-conscious as modern love itself.
Jade Jackson, “Gilded” (Anti)
Even in the Instagram era, car wheels roll down gravel roads.
Taylor Swift, “Reputation” (Big Machine)
“They say I did something bad / Then why’s it feel so good?” Swift sings — which, exactly.
Drake, “More Life” (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic)
Proof that streaming isn’t just a distribution model; it’s an aesthetic position too.
Disappointment of the year
Whither the high-concept pop album? Used to be that no female superstar would come without strong ideas to match her strong hooks and strong looks. But after spending months talking up their latest efforts, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus finally released slapdash projects — “Witness” and “Younger Now,” respectively — that bore little evidence of any organized thought process.