The latest wave of gender-defying youth just got wavier with Shamir, a 20-year-old cutie-patootie from Vegas who's tearing down rigid archetypes by way of gender ambiguity and a brazen "no fucks to give" attitude. You can read it – "it" being his convention-confronting manifesto – on his Twitter feed, and you can hear it in the spunky nu-disco dreaminess of his criminally catchy throwback debut. "On the Regular" strides with drag-queen fierceness (and cowbells!), boasting a swaggering rap about how, despite his size ("5-foot-10, about a buck twenty / Skinny as a rod but still won't fuck with me"), he packs a powerful punch. And that's no joke (for further proof, hear the sweetly flowing "Demon"). On the whole, Shamir's "Ratchet" is a potent boundary buster with some of the year's best, most neon-bright beats.
Madonna, 'Rebel Heart'
Major misfires – oh, religion and sex meet again? ( Is she really sampling herself?) – kept it from breaking into the Essential Madonna Echelon, but these days, when it comes to Our Girl, you take what you can get and just hope and pray it's not another "MDNA." We made it out of the wilderness, then, didn't we? "Rebel Heart" is not another "MDNA"; rather, and thankfully, it's the sonic equivalent of Madonna picking herself back up after that Brit Awards fall. She stumbles a bit here, but the difference? Those mishaps are quelled by some of Madge's most innovative, trend-bucking cuts in years. "Living for Love" rouses with "Like a Prayer" realness, "Ghosttown" works itself into a welcome moment of tenderness, and the title track is more in touch with Madonna than Madonna's been in years.
Kendrick Lamar, 'To Pimp a Butterfly'
Even T. Swift has a thing for Kendrick Lamar, the urban innovator featured on the pop star's No. 1 "Bad Blood" radio remix. If you, too, have lost yourself in his thought-provoking brilliance, you understand what Taylor sees in him. The musician du jour's "To Pimp a Butterfly" sits impressively outside the box, the accumulation of various genres – spoken word, hip-hop, jazz, funk, etc. – to create a cultural touchstone that grapples with heavy of-the-zeitgeist matters. Big moments abound, but it doesn't get more ambitious than "Mortal Men," a moving 12-minute, posthumous conversation he has with Tupac.
Susanne Sundfor, 'Ten Love Songs'
Do you know Susanne Sundfor? You don't? You should. The ultra-talented Norwegian songstress' sixth release is a captivating caper through and through, reveling in brokenhearted synth-pop and orchestral detours that conjure cinematic magic. An ethereal 10-minute behemoth, "Memorial" takes a drum-slapped torch song and caps it with a stunning orchestra outro, a wistful wind-down that lingers even after its last haunting note. Her pop sensibility is equally as sharp on the soulful "Fade Away," an enveloping synth song, and on "Slowly," an evocative, pure gold, '80s-shimmered wallop produced by fellow Norwegian duo Royksopp. And just when you think Sundfor's achieved Robyn-caliber pop genius, there's the biting "Delirious," which builds into a crushingly brilliant beat after a John Carpenter's "Halloween"-esque preface. It's one genius move among many on "Ten Love Songs."
Marina and the Diamonds, 'FROOT'
After record execs tried to turn her into Pop's Next Big Thing – a position, she later confessed, wasn't for her – Welsh singer-songwriter Marina and the Diamonds gets back to basics on "FROOT." Awash in the left-of-center sound that launched her career, "FROOT" feels like an artistic manifestation rather than a business fulfillment. Both musically personal and powerful, it begins with a paean of self-expression that suggests a newfound professional freedom. "I sang a hymn to bring me peace / And then it came, a melody," she sings on "Happy," boldly easing into the album with this raw moment of piano-led minimalism. On "FROOT," it only gets sweeter.
Sufjan Stevens, 'Carrie & Lowell'
"You'll never see us again." And just like that, Sufjan Steven rips your heart open with his seventh studio album, a gut-punch of grief-stricken emotions inspired by his mother's passing. One such blow is "Fourth of July," the kind of personal experience – a play-by-play of a parent's final moments – rarely set to song. And for all its harsh truths, what a beautiful lullaby-like tune it is. That graceful appeal extends throughout Sufjan's wrenchingly stunning tribute to his mother, "Carrie & Lowell." The lulling melodies leave their mark. Sentiments drawn vividly from the past are stark and real and relatable. But there's light in the dark, and by the time he gets to the penultimate "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross," you'll want to give Sufjan the biggest hug. You'll also need one of your own.
Belle and Sebastian, 'Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance'
Girls in peacetime want to dance… and, apparently, so does Belle and Sebastian. "Jump to the beat of the party line," they urge. And we do, of course. On yet another solid release from the always-dependable Glaswegian sextet, they're more "weeee" than twee. Producer Ben H. Allen shimmers their sound while still maintaining the band's trademark melancholy and hopefulness. Escapist vibes run throughout "Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance," as frontman Stuart Murdoch finally addresses their album's motive on Belle's most quintessential track, "Ever Had a Little Faith?," a jangly little daydream: Basically, don't be sad. And, you know, dance.