In a year when world events seemed to push pop culture aside—or else become pop culture itself—the albums that hit most deeply for me were about individuals, not issues. Many of the picks below are autobiographies of sorts, and even the more “political” records blend their songs of social crackups with ones of personal breakups. The other albums here offer much-needed escape, whether with guitar solos, rave immersion, or, in one case, a new word game: “raindrop / drop top.”
1. Kendrick Lamar, Damn
The title of Damn refers in part to a divine curse, which in turn ties in with the Black Hebrew Israelite theology the Compton rapper flirts with throughout his latest masterpiece. But Lamar raps about damnation as not only a spiritual state, but also an inheritance of history, of society, and of one’s own past. The dizzying “DNA” establishes the controlling metaphor: Each person is a double helix of information and attributes, containing War and Peace and war and peace. The album then makes clear he’s not interested in drawing cute contradictions, but in drawing out truth—or rather, truths next to truths next to truths.
Lamar’s message, thus, is partly about complexity itself, and his genius is in rendering that message as music. His powers as a rapper provide the ammo for his fans to persuasively claim him as king of hip-hop, and you could spend a lot of time unwinding all the double and triple entendres across the album, starting with its title. But don’t discount the music itself, which swerves from psychedelic haze to punk noise to pop glory, which features a party-presiding DJ babbling forsaken Christian catchphrases, which put Geraldo Rivera and Rihanna and Bono in conversation. Lamar’s irreducibility even extends to the meta-narrative about his career, as seen in Damn reasserting the true meaning of “no compromise” on the way to double-platinum sales. Art and commerce? Sin and grace? Nature and nurture? He’s going to reconcile it all, just as we all must do.