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Tune into these artists for the soundtrack of 2017

We look back at the year’s best offerings in music, from Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album “DAMN.” to breakout artist Margo Price’s “All American Made.” Jeffrey Brown sits down with Ann Powers of NPR and Mikael Wood of the Los Angeles Times to review their pop music highlights from 2017.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    New Year's Eve is just around the corner, a perfect time to catch up on some of the best music of the past year.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with a conversation he recorded about some songs you may know, and many you may not.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And we take a look and listen to some of the highlights of the year in popular music.

    Joining me are two music critics, Ann Powers of NPR, and Mikael Wood of The Los Angeles Times.

    And welcome back to both of you. We did this last year. Glad to have you back here.

  • Ann Powers:

    Happy to be here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ann, let me start — let me start with you, Ann.

    Two top — a couple of top choices of the year.

  • Ann Powers:

    Well, definitely, the critics' favorite is "Damn" by Kendrick Lamar. It's the Los Angeles rapper's fourth album. It highlights more of his amazing flow, his amazing rhyming skills. The production is really great.

    It tells a cohesive story about kind of like fallen virtue and redemption and struggle.

    Personally, the Kesha album "Rainbow" is at the top of my list. Kesha emerged several years ago as a pop star, kind of a comedic heroine. She has for a long time been involved in a court case with her ex-producer Dr. Luke over alleged sexual misconduct.

    This album is her coming back to the forefront. It's really just, like, overflowing with great songs and triumphant, wonderful, boisterous music. And I love Kesha.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Mikael, I think you have got a couple of big names for us, too, to start.

  • Mikael Wood:

    Sure, one of the biggest, who is Taylor Swift, of course.

    The year started off a little rocky for her. She put out a single called "Look What You Made Me Do" that was pretty polarizing, but the album that came out, "Reputation," I think is a pretty fascinating one.

    It kind of does two things at once. It wants to show that Taylor, who started in country music before moving into pop, it wants to show that she can move into the sound of the mainstream, at the same time that she can make her writing more detailed and more grown-up. So it's sort of moving in two directions at once, which I always enjoy.

    And then Jay-Z Also had a very interesting year, put out a record called "4:44," which is the sort of headlines are about his response to the marital struggles that his wife, Beyonce, had previously outlined in her record "Lemonade."

    But the record also talks about the challenges of and the importance of black entrepreneurship. I think it's an important record in this year of so much political discussion. It made a lot of waves.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ann, how about somebody in a breakout category, somebody who made a statement this year?

  • Ann Powers:

    Well, I really want to highlight how many amazing women are working in various kinds of rock 'n' roll and also roots music.

    I love Margo Price, who's based here in Nashville. She released a great record "All American Made."

    But my favorite breakout album from a young woman is by Katie Crutchfield. Her band is called Waxahatchee. She released three previous albums, kind of bathroom, indy pop, very raw. And her sound just comes together on this album "Out in the Storm."

    It's about a breakup, but it's really about embracing her own authority and just saying no to, you know, male directives. She toured with an all-woman band this year. She just totally ruled on the touring circuit. "Out in the Storm," it is a little rock 'n' roll masterpiece. I really recommend it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, Mikael, who do you have in that breakout category?

  • Mikael Wood:

    Great record "Ctrl" — C-T-R-L — by a singer called SZA — S-Z-A.

    She's parts of Kendrick Lamar's Top Dawg crew and a great R&B singer with just some really, really vivid, profane, funny songs about life and love in the Instagram era or the era of swipe right, swipe left Tinder.

    She writes so vividly so and sharply about what it's like to be in relationships in this kind of Internet age.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You two listen to so many things.

    One category I always like to ask about is something that you just wish more people knew about.

    Ann, is there somebody in that category?

  • Ann Powers:

    Absolutely.

    A young artist, actually a 75-year-old artist, named Don Bryant is my pick in this category. Don Bryant is a longtime singer and songwriter, soul artist, gospel artist, that wrote for Hi Records and Royal Studios, where Al Green recorded a lot of his great songs, is married to Ann Peebles, another R&B great.

    He made his first secular album in, I don't know, something like 40 years this year. It came out on Fat Possum Records. And his voice at 75 is completely intact. Such beautiful melding of gospel and soul music, I cannot recommend Don Bryant higher.

    Also, please see him live, if you can. What a voice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mikael Wood, somebody you want tell us about that we maybe haven't heard of?

  • Mikael Wood:

    Yes, I'm going to cheat here.

    There's two names, both from California, one a young woman named Jade Jackson, who is from a small town on the Central Coast, writes beautifully evocative songs about life in a small down.

    And the other is a young guy called Ethan Gruska, who is connected to the record business here in Los Angeles. But he writes about family and childhood in a way that reminds me of Randy Newman 40 years ago. Really, great record, both big talents.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Last year, we talked about the move to streaming. It's clearly solidified.

    But, Ann, what kind of impact do you think it's having?

  • Ann Powers:

    Oh, streaming definitely had a day-to-day impact this year. When we were making our list of the best albums on NPR Music, we as a team found that we had fewer consensus picks than ever before.

    And I believe that's because of streaming in many ways. The music industry is atomizing more than ever. People are not necessarily even listening to whole albums, although artists are responding by making concept albums, I have noticed, like Kendrick Lamar's "Damn," like St. Vincent's "Masseduction."

    All of these records have story lines. It's like they're trying to pull people back in from their play list playground.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But that means things are even more siloed, right? So, it's hard for anybody to really have a mass audience, Mikael?

  • Mikael Wood:

    That's true.

    But I think you also see people using streaming as like an aesthetic position. Drake put out a record — he called it a play list, in fact — this year called "More Life."

    And I think, in a weird way, it's like the flip side of what Ann is describing. I think he felt liberated from the need to make something tight and coherent. And he went in all kinds of directions, because streaming kind of gave him maybe the license to sort of roam and the license to sort of say this can hang together in whatever way it fits into your life.

    And so I think, going forward, we will see more of how streaming kind of shapes the aesthetic of record-making, which is pretty interesting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the year in music.

    Mikael Wood, The Los Angeles Times, Ann Powers from NPR, thank you both very much.

  • Ann Powers:

    Thank you.

  • Mikael Wood:

    Thanks.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Over the past few weeks, we have compiled a number of lists outlining the best of 2017. You can to see more from the artists we just mentioned, plus the best movies and TV shows of the year, on our web site.

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