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Best Game Changer: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
With this cinematic dive into what it means to be black in America now, Lamar doesn’t just avoid the sophomore slump—he drops a nuke on it so devastating, it has completely altered the hip-hop landscape.
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Best Breakup Album: Björk, Vulnicura
Björk may be reeling from her split from artist Matthew Barney, but it’s been a boon for her music. Not since that dude dumped Adele has devastation sounded so gorgeous.
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Best Rock Import: Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
On her heady and head-banging debut, the hyperliterate Aussie drapes her rambling narratives and funny asides in jittery guitar heroics.
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Best Comeback: Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
The trio still snap and crackle on their first set since 2005. No Cities might sound chaotic at first, but each element—Corin Tucker’s sweet snarl, Janet Weiss’ rugged beats, Carrie Brownstein’s noisy solos—is exactly in its right place.
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Best Drake Album: Drake, If You're Reading This It's Too Late
There’s no easy radio hit here, and that’s why it’s exceptional. Instead of worrying about his Q rating, the rapper complains about girls who ask for his Wi-Fi password and gives shout-outs to his mom—in essence, the Drakest Drake record yet.
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Best-Kept Pop Secret: Marina and the Diamonds, Froot
The Hot 100 loves substance about as much as peanut butter loves pickles. But on her third album, the tiny Welsh firecracker born Marina Diamandis builds her best Trojan horse yet: an irresistible collection of spangly pop gems packed with smart-girl poetry.
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Best Left Turn: Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
The Shakes could have stuck with the vintage Southern soul that won them so much acclaim on their 2012 debut. Instead they get gratifyingly weird, dipping into spacey experiments and giddy fuzzbomb freak-outs.
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Best Canyon-Rock Redux: Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
He may sound like he wandered away from an L.A. ashram, but don’t be fooled by the beatific-hippie vibes. There’s a killer songwriter’s instinct beneath all those dreamy Laurel Canyon melodies (and possibly a shiv in that beard; the man can write a cutting lyric like nobody’s business).
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Best Campfire Tales: Chris Stapleton, Traveller
The country crooner’s debut is full of charming devils, lapsed believers, and the havoc wreaked by drinking too much hooch, all delivered by one of Nashville’s best new voices.
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Best Indie-Disco Workout: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love
The Oregon trio aren’t just for acid-trip casualties anymore. On their third album, they punch up their psychedelic sound with funky grooves and singer Ruban Nielson’s tales of polyamory and alienation in the age of Portlandia.
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Best Non-EDM EDM Album: Jamie xx, In Colour
From icy synthed-out ballads to heavy hip-hop bangers, Jamie xx’s astonishing solo set (featuring cameos from his xx bandmates, rapper Young Thug, and dancehall star Popcaan) comes on like the best Pandora mix you’ve never heard.
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Best Basement-Rock Rager: Metz, II
These mild-looking Canadians revive the golden age of early Nirvana and ’90s grunge with 10 walloping noise-rockers—but there are surprising hooks amid all the Sturm und Drang.