20 Best Albums of 2017

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20 Best Albums of 2017

The year has proven itself to be a transitional one for music. It’s the year that hip-hop officially became the most popular genre in music, a year where massive names stepped aside for the rise of a new generation of stars like Lorde and SZA. While big names like Drake, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar dominated once again, many of the he best albums of 2017 have come from breakout artists or mid-tier acts. This has been a year defined by new voices, new sounds, and statement records. Here are the 2017’s best.

20. Thundercat – Drunk

Any album that can make Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins cool with millennials is obviously doing something right. Thundercat’s unironic approach to music is endearing at a time when everything is done with a smirk. His oddball lyrics are authentic, sometimes adorable, occasionally hilariously absurd, but the words hardly matter when they’re sung over such mind-boggling musicianship.

19. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

While the band’s return stylistically retains the lush, bongo-obsessed production, funky bass lines, and chorus of hyper-specific influences of their past records, LCD Soundsystem avoids the emotional climaxes of “All My Friends” and the drops of “You Wanted a Hit.” This LCD Soundsystem is more reserved—adult, one might say—with the maturity to focus on the nuances of construction rather than the thrills of the ride. That might not be as fun for some, and it might not be the best stuff for LCD Soundsystem-themed dance parties. But for others—people like James Murphy—it might be a total blast, something to nerd-out on through top-of-the-line studio headphones.

18. Zola Jesus – Okovi

Okovi should not be such an easy album to listen to. It’s a weighty album, inspired by Nika Roza Danilova’s own experiences with depression and people close to her being diagnosed with cancer and attempting suicide. Yet somehow, despite all the pain behind it, Okovi is both a beautiful and hopeful album. “I will do anything I can to rip you from the edge in time,” she sings on “Witness.” Her voice cuts between a swirl of stunning orchestral arrangements like she’s reaching you from the bottom of a trench. Elsewhere, she overpowers the crushing strength of doomed drums on “Siphon.”

17. The National – Sleep Well Beast

On Sleep Well Beast, Matt Berninger sings, “The day I die, where will we be?” Well, considering they’re one of the most consistent bands in rock music, the answer is: probably listening to another new National album. On their seventh album, the band manages to do it again. Gloomy and thoughtful, Bryan Devendorf once again provides the propulsion to Berninger’s thoughts. Those two gears in motion provide a canvas for Bryce Dessner, Aaron Dessner, and Scott Devendorf to set the meditative train in motion.

16. Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

There’s hardly a phrase that better describes 2017 than the title of Priests’ debut album. Everything is wrong right now. And yes, we can distract ourselves with other things, but sometimes you kinda just need to let that frustration out. As such, Priests’ Nothing Feels Natural is a completely cathartic experience. Now is the time to harness that aggression, to just fucking scream into the noise, to be weird, to call the system what it is, something that’s “too pitiful to be obscene, too cowardly to be embarrassing.”

15. The XX – I See You

It was only a matter of time that the XX would loosen up a little bit. For so many years, their music has been timid—never quite exploding, but keeping the grooves closely guarded like a secret. As they’ve become more comfortable with themselves in the studio and on stage, they’ve opened up a little bit more musically. Much of this is thanks to Jamie XX, who was freed in 2015 with his first solo album. Inspired by his club-friendly sound, the XX has evolved into a band capable of having, well, a little bit of fun.

14. Drake – More Life

To be completely honest, there’s a lot of filler on Drake’s More Life. But that’s okay because the album is 22 songs long, and—according to Drake—it’s just a playlist. This is a term that Drake ingeniously and somewhat ambiguously applied to his most recent collection of music. It’s something that removes him from the pressures of a proper album and even a mixtape. As such, More Life is loose; it’s unconcerned with pop hits or chart placement. It’s not even concerned with making Drake the focus. If anything, it’s proof that Drake deserves his placement at the top of popular music.

13. Girlpool – Powerplant

There are so many turns of phrase on Girlpool’s Powerplant that are impossible to forget. Lyrics like “Your mouth is like broken glass,” “Keep on walking back outside to see a sigh under nice light,” “I wanna be a puzzle super glue into you,” “She’s like a shelf the way she looks at the wall” are like lines of a dreamy hipster nursery rhyme. They’re bizarre and sweet and poetic and sung over angular arrangements that feel like indie rock from a different universe.

12. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference EP

There’s something transcendent about the movements, which grow from a feel-good motif to a spiritual chorus of voices. There’s a true zest for life, like this is what happiness should feel like. It’s possible to get so lost in the song’s many wordless emotions that you can miss the drums, which almost ceaselessly shred for the entire quarter of an hour. It’s called “Truth,” a title that gives all the information you need. Truth is life, it’s growth, it’s beauty, it’s everything we take for granted while bombarded with television news, with the politics of hatred and conflict. This is a reminder that there’s something greater out there.

11. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet

On her sophomore album, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner fully embraces the otherworldly expanses of dream pop. Lyrically and sonically, the album creates entire universes, like some sort of picturesque, hipster space opera. The title track itself is like an escape from earthly pain into the mysteries of the cosmos—as if Mazzy Star caught some sort of trip to space. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, exciting, and still familiar. The album never reaches too far, nor does it stay within Zauner’s comfort zone.

10. Sampha – Process

Sampha had proven himself as a vocalist alongside every big name in hip-hop and R&B—from Solange to Drake, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean—before he ventured into a solo debut. What he shows on Process is that he doesn’t need these mainstream names to support his voice. His ideas and moods are complex, ranging from urgent to heartbreaking to pensive. He is deeply introspective and open with the feelings and memories that shape who he is. It’s this honesty—powered by his torn vocals—that makes this album such a deeply personal experience.

9. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy

Much has been written about Tyler, the Creator’s intentions—good or bad. Bloggers, critics, and fans have tried endlessly to explain him, to make sense of the often crazy and sometimes brilliant shit he does in his music, his lyrics, and his performances. His music is polarizing in both sound and effect. On just “911/Mr. Lonely” it moves from a smooth soul beat, to Tyler’s horrorcore flow, to a fluffy Frank Ocean interlude to a spitfire outro. But this album is an excellent portrait of Tyler’s complex, sporadic mind.

8. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples refuses to be pigeonholed, categorized, analyzed, or even commended for his music. He rises above all of that. He told L.A. Weekly, “We making future music. It’s Afro-futurism. This is my Afro-futurism. There’s no other kind.” But then, talking to Trevor Noah, he said that label doesn’t mean anything: “I like saying stuff about black people to white people.” If anything, Staples is confident. His music has always remained, above anything, cocky while bordering on abrasive. So when he plays with his listeners, with his own analysis of his music, it’s because he knows it speaks for itself. And on Big Fish Theory, he transitions his dark, urgent, and sparse sound to the club.

7. King Krule – Ooz

From the opening moments of “Dum Surfer,” which sounds like the ambient noise outside of a dirty club, King Krule lets you shadow him on a journey. It goes to dark places, but it’s undeniably cool. By the end, you’re rolling a cigarette next to someone playing the sax on some surreal street corner. And even if you don’t get all the gritty imagery told through his British slang, you still get the picture and can probably put together what “I’m feeling slightly mashed” means. It’s his talent as a vivid songwriter that makes Ooz one of the most fascinating albums of the year—an album that brings the curiosity and edge back to rock music.

6. Perfume Genius – No Shape

After an intimate, lonely piano intro, Perfume Genius’s latest album explodes. It’s mid-beat about one minute into “Otherside,” the first track on No Shape. It bursts into a shimmering, beautiful chord of guitar, bass and vocals that fall like confetti from a cannon. I jumped the first time I heard it. Then I laughed. You know what this album is going to do. It’s going to surprise you. It’s going to deconstruct and challenge pop music. No Shape truly lives up to its name—fearlessly twisting structure, melody, and feeling into whatever is necessary at the moment.

5. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

If there’s any proof that indie rock is a splintered and amorphous umbrella term, it’s in (Sandy) Alex G’s Rocket. It moves from early Wilco, to charming string-forward bedroom folk, to worshiping Elliott Smith, to sounds that have quite literally directed Frank Ocean’s new music. This might seem unfocused, but Alex G manages to unite all of this thematically in one record. It seems cutting-edge in fact, that in the era of streaming services, genre is whatever you want it to be. Titles are meaningless as long as the music is honest, and that’s exactly what Rocket is.

4. Lorde – Melodrama

At 20 years old, Lorde somehow has an empathy that transcends her age. It’s as if she embodies this idealized version of a young adult—like if someone over a certain age could go back in time and relive his or her 20s with their adult worldview. Lyrically, Lorde feels of-the-moment as she analyzes the concept of youth in real time. Her music never fully embraces EDM, hip-hop, pop radio, club music, and classic artists like David Bowie and Kate Bush. Rather, Lorde’s music is all of these things at once; one single influence never overpowers the total package. She’s been directing this shape of pop music since she was 16 years old. If Melodrama is any indication, she’ll continue to do so for many more years to come.

3. Jay-Z – 4:44

In 2017, Jay-Z returned humbled, apologetic, and pensive. In fact, Jay Z is dead—that era of the artist is killed off on the opening track of 4:44, the new album by Jay-Z. Where Magna Carta Holy Grail was loud and arrogant, put through the pop-music machine by dozens of expensive producers, 4:44 features a sole production credit for No I.D. It’s quieter and subtler, with a soft patchwork of chopped samples like the The Alan Parsons Project’s “Don’t Let It Show” on the opening track. Along with addressing his relationship with his wife—including their very public relationship problems—he gives space to his mother to come out as a lesbian and, on a bonus track, gives his daughter Blue Ivy the mic to record her first vocals. It’s an album of resolve, of true passion, and Jay-Z’s best work in a decade.

2. SZA – Ctrl

After two stunning EPs in the early 2000s, SZA signed to Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment as a relatively unknown 23-year-old singer. After her first official EP in 2014, it was a long, three-year wait for her first official full length album. And it was well worth the wait. Ctrl is subtle, fluid neo-R&B that weaves between beautiful soul vocals and adept, powerful rapping. She addresses sexuality, feminism, and empowerment with vivid, confessional imagery. With features from Lamar and Travis Scott—plus lush, romantic production—this marks one of the best debut R&B albums in years.

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Years from now, music scholars will still be trying to decode every metaphor, allusion, and rhyme on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. There are few active lyricists today who demand such intense analysis as Lamar. His words are dense, they’re funny, they’re powerful. In a world where ideas are lost into the noise, Lamar forces you to stick around to listen—then listen again and eventually understand. DAMN is a triumph of writing first and foremost, a composition that just happens to be spoken over a collection of some of the greatest beats constructed in years.

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