2017 was a difficult year for a lot of people. If it wasn’t tough for you, it was probably tough for someone you care about, someone you love. It’s during a year like this one that the power and pleasure of a stronghold like music reveals itself with more clarity than usual. So in an effort to spark a few revelations, here’s a collection of fifty albums that gave our staff respite from an often overwhelming onslaught of negativity, or that spoke truth to power while many of the most privileged remained silent, or that simply succeeded in reminding us of our humanity, in an era where a lack of empathy, grace, and compassion dictated our country’s often disappointing trajectory.
Ranking beautiful albums always feels foolish, like pretending they’re race cars instead of representations of other people’s hearts, but the positioning here is meant to reflect a combination of the artist’s impact in their respective genre, and beyond, and a reckoning of the record’s quality lyrically, sonically, and emotionally. Hopefully, there are plenty of your own favorites here, along with some discoveries that will be unexpected additions to your own year-end listening.
Finally, in order to cover as many albums of possible, and give some shine to the many incredible albums that came out in the last calendar year beyond these fifty, we will be rolling out ranked genre-specific lists throughout the rest of this week. In order to better achieve that goal, inclusion on this main list disqualifies an album from appearing on a ranked genre list. Happy listening and happy holidays!
Without further ado, here are what the Uproxx music staff feels are the best albums of 2017.
50. Bonobo, Migration
For Bonobo’s sixth studio album, the producer takes on a rather weighty subject with grace: The movement of people across the globe. The Los Angeles-via-Brighton transplant was inspired by his own travels during the world tour in support of his previous album, The North Borders. To its credit, the resulting album is full of movement suited to the concept, with songs like early standout “Outlier” pulsing with a life and human energy. Its shuffling beat and gilded synth lines bring to mind the endless streams of people that oscillate through airports, train stations and across borders daily.
But what makes Migration such a standout this year — and in Bonobo’s career in general — is that it not only puts those movements to sound, it offers moments to contemplate that movement as well. Like the title track “Migration,” which is centered around a plaintive piano line and phasing percussion that sound more like the memory of migration than the sound of it happening in real time.
Because not everyone has the privilege to move around the globe as freely as a Billboard chart-topping artist, and by inviting that fact head-on in these slower, more introspective moments, Bonobo can celebrate the beauty in seeing the world first hand, while exposing the forces that determine who can and cannot move.–Michael Rancic
49. DJ Quick And Problem, Rosecrans
I could be accused of West Coast, Los Angeles bias — especially when it comes to Hub City, my homeland. Compton has produced legends, taking rap far beyond its established parameters; in turn, rap has taken Compton’s legends and conveyed them even further beyond the city’s ten square miles and into the stratosphere of pop culture. One of the earliest beneficiaries of this phenomenon was DJ Quik, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he remained close to home even as he became a worldwide household name.
Problem, on the other hand, is nothing more or less than a hometown hero. While he’s had tastes of nationwide success, he’s also been content to stay rooted to his home soil and continue banging out independent smashes that nevertheless result in money made and the sort of neighborhood star power money can’t buy.Then one day, DJ Quik and Problem decided to make an album that sounds like sunny days on Central Ave, hoops at Leuder’s Park, Centennial High School dances, the Willowbrook train station, KDAY midday drive time, the lifeblood of the city, and they decided to call it Rosecrans.
It’s a slice of everything that people think of when they picture West Coast hip-hop, only fresher, more lively. Crisp hand claps, dazzling synth grooves, and smooth, slightly off-kilter, hyper-enunciated rhymes blend into an audio reproduction of the Los Angeles sunset. Close your eyes and you’re instantly transported to that eponymous boulevard in a lowrider with the top down, feeling the faintest sea breeze on your skin as you cruise from one end of the city to other, all the way down to the beach. Every album tells a story; Rosecrans tells the story, sets the mood, and creates a sense of time and place that no other collection of songs even comes close to. Take a listen for yourself, and suddenly, I won’t seem quite so biased after all.–Aaron Williams
48. Blis., No One Loves You
If you’ve never heard of Blis., now is the time to acquaint yourself. No One Loves You, the Atlanta quartet’s debut album, feels like an effort from a seasoned band that has already spent several years refining their craft and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It’s an immensely confident first full-length effort, blurring the boundaries of emo, shoegaze, and even post-hardcore, making for a collection of songs that is hard to categorize by “genre.”
No One Loves You was written across the better part of three years, allowing for the album’s tracks to capture the full-circle moment of frontman Aaron Gossett’s songwriting. Where some of the record’s earliest songs discussed his relationship with his own father, the more recently-penned cuts reveal a changed approach after the birth of Gossett’s son. Once you get used to the abrasive, instantly engaging instrumentals, this full-circle nature of the lyrics makes this record stand out from the pack.–Zac Gelfand
47. Vagabon, Infinite Worlds
Laetitia Tamko took her time when crafting her debut release under the name Vagabon. She released an EP called Persian Garden in 2014 that contained early versions of the tracks that appear on Infinite Worlds, spending the following two years listening to new music, revisiting the tracks she already considered complete, and incorporating these new influences into songs old and new. The resulting record is an incredibly diverse collection of eight tracks that span the entire spectrum from folk to rock to pop, sometimes during the course of a single track.
Within the confines of Infinite Worlds are fast tracks (“Minneapolis”) that are perfect for hyping up a crowd, and tracks that could be performed solo in a living room while the crowd sits on the ground (“Fear & Force”). Since the release of Infinite Worlds, Tamko has seen her recognition grow, embarking on several high-profile tours, including an opening slot for Tegan And Sara. This is just the beginning for Vagabon.–Z.G.
46. (Sandy) Alex G, Rocket
A lot changed for (Sandy) Alex G in 2017: He affixed the parenthetical to his name, and on his new album Rocket, he’s very much borrowing from country, or at least alt-country or folk.”I think country is [my] new thing because it’s real,” he told Uproxx earlier this year. “The narrator is trying to be earnest like country music, too. Maybe it’s a little less self-absorbed [kind of] earnestness in country music than it is in ’90s rock music.”
It’s more than just acoustic guitars and twang, though: There are ethereal baroque influences on tracks like “County,” straight up noise on “Brick,” and an otherwise huge sense of experimentation all over. It might sound like these disparate vibes live on a disjointed album, but it’s a testament to the creative prowess of Alex G. These things maybe shouldn’t work together, but here, they just do. Change is supposed to take an artist out of their comfort zone, but if it did in this case, it doesn’t show.Revisit our interview with (Sandy) Alex G here.–Derrick Rossignol
45. Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness
It’s in the nature of folk music to sound timeless. But Julie Byrne’s brand of folk does more than simply remove you from the present — it causes a nostalgia for vague notions of time gone by. Still, there is still the sense that Byrne is onto something new on her sophomore LP, Not Even Happiness. It’s in the way she lets the ghostly harmonies of “Natural Blue” bubble below the surface, in the way that a lonesome flute and harmonica float in like the wind on “Melting Grid,” and in the way “I Now Live As A Singer” takes its title literally to put Bryne’s vocals bravely ahead of a traditional song structure. On their own, these moments might not stand out as confidently as they do when put together, and that speaks to the self-assured nature of the record. Byrne sings as if she were the first person to ever do so, and the result is a listening experience that can feel as cleansing as it is refreshing.–Philip Cosores
44. Kevin Morby, City Music
It’s a testament to the genius of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed that so many young musicians continue to emulate their respective styles, and often weave them — along with other influences — into one ‘60s indebted folk-rock conglomerate. Then again, it’s a testament to the genius of Kevin Morby that even with his heroes embroidered so plainly on his sleeve, his work remains fastidiously, compellingly his own. City Music excavates spaces that have long been spelunked, but Morby’s pathway through the sometimes desolate, sometimes exuberant world he sees inside a nameless city is a joy to follow along with.
As for where exactly he explores, it could be New York, it could be Los Angeles, but most of all it’s the feeling of being young and confident that the only place your heart can possibly reveal its deepest meanings is in a specific place, packed in with tall buildings and many others, who are also looking for their prefered self. “I never was someone that I liked,” Kevin Morby mewls early on the record, on “Crybaby,” but by the time he hits album closer, “Downtown Lights,” (his “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” if you will) all his self-deprecation is rendered moot. Couple more records like this, and Morby’ll be one of the greats himself.–Caitlin White
43. The Weather Station, The Weather Station
Tamara Lindeman has a voice like the wind. She can speed it up or slow it down in the same phrase, have it come rushing through with mighty, righteous rage, or sneak it in under the threshold, low and sweet, barely there. Whichever instrument she selects to accompany herself — piano, guitar, organ, banjo — gets imbued with the same treatment, and the modulations make her musical palette feel limitless. This sonic expanse, paired with devilishly intimate lyrics, gives her work a feeling of the eternal.
On her fourth album as The Weather Station — her second for folk/Americana stewards, the storied North Carolina label Paradise Of Bachelors — Lindeman plays and sings the best songs of her career with a newfound confidence. Perhaps the source of that confidence can be attributed, partially, to age; this self-titled album is anchored by a jumpy single dubbed “Thirty,” and Lindeman herself is cresting the early years of that decade. Whether she is obtaining a better understanding of her chamber folk style, or of herself, this is the finest, most elegant and severe record from an artist who is only beginning to spread her wings.–C.W.
42. Phoenix, Ti Amo
It’s hard to remember the last time synths sounded this gorgeous. You might have to go all the way back to Tears For Fears’ seminal Songs From The Big Chair to find a worthy comparison. Phoenix’s bread and butter is the intricate construction of massive, shimmering pop anthems. On Ti Amo, they may have finally perfected the formula. We’re talking big, rolling tom fills, clashing keyboard melodies, and lithe, near-falsetto vocal melodies.
The aesthetic is distinctly ‘80s, especially on tracks like “Fleur De Lys” which carries massive shades of Duran Duran, but for the most part, Phoenix manages to ride the vibe without devolving into full-on tribute status. There’s enough contemporary touches here that you never fully forget that this wasn’t something cooked up in 2017 instead of 1987. The end goal is to get your ass out on the dance floor and it would fill my heart with joy to see wedding receptions and bar mitzvah’s throw the title track into the playlist.–Corbin Reiff
41. Travis Meadows, First Cigarette
Travis Meadows is a brand new old country stunner that everybody in Nashville has been talking about since his debut album, Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, began making the rounds among heavy-hitters back in 2011. A lo-fi, homespun revised collection of his journals and notes from a final, successful stint in rehab, Meadows followed that searing record up with another lowkey EP, Old Ghost & Unfinished Business in 2013.
But it wasn’t until this past year or so that Meadows scraped together enough cash to cut a country record the way he saw fit; First Cigarette is the result, a grizzled, world-weary but still beaming collection of songs that salute topics as like underdogs, backroads, and Bruce Springsteen with the same fervor and cleverness of any fresh-faced youngster singing radio-friendly fare.
Helmed by hitmaking country producer Jay Joyce, and refined and revised with and songwriter Jeremy Spillman, First Cigarette is Meadows working at the height of his powers, plumbing the depths of despair, and delivering everything from brutal, buzzy lullabies like the title track, to bluesy, zydeco kiss-offs like the ornery closer, “Long Live Cool.” Even on the album’s clear centerpiece, “Pray For Jungleland,” Meadows tempers his nostalgia with a burning appreciation for the present, something more of country’s elder statesmen could stand to emulate.–C.W.
40. Delicate Steve, This Is Steve
This Is Steve is 28-minutes’ worth of upbeat jams you didn’t know you needed in your life. Performed and recorded solely by Steve Marion aka Delicate Steve, it’s an album that goes a long way to re-certifying the bonafides of the electric guitar as a lead instrument. Our traditional view of the lone “guitar hero” is someone like Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen. Someone well-versed in dazzling fretboard gymnastics that delights in stacking as many notes they can in the tightest window imaginable, while a floor-mounted fan blows their long, luscious locks out of their face. This is not Steve’s M.O. There’s no pretentions to be found here. You need only scan through the list of songs — “Cartoon Rock” and “Swimming” for example — to get the sense that this is not a project to be taken very seriously. Still, with its myriad of psych-rock aural sweeps, and afro-pop beats, it’s almost certainly going to put a smile on your face.–C.R.
39. Chris Stapleton, From A Room Vol. 2
I’m personally still a bit confused as to why Chris Stapleton decided to release two different albums that both run around the 30-minute mark in 2017 and name them Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 rather than just collecting them all onto one, larger release, but that’s neither here nor there. While some will hold up the earlier collection of tracks as the superior document, I’m personally of the mind that Stapleton saved his best stuff for the winter months. From a Room Vol. 2 is an album streaked with heartache and bathed in whiskey.
It’s hard to pick a single standout, but a strong case could be made for “Scarecrow In The Garden,” the downtrodden, acoustic duet sung along with his wife Morgane Hayes. Everyone knows Stapleton for the volcanic fury that he’s capable of unleashing at any minute — which he shows off to stunning effect on “Midnight Train To Memphis” — but he’s even more engaging when he shows off some measure of restraint. The visions of Lucifer and allusions to the book of revelations are even more fearsome with the knowledge of the fury that lies just beneath his tender croon.–C.R.
38. Kelela, Take Me Apart
It didn’t take long for Kelela to be recognized by her peers following her 2015 Hallucinogen mixtape, since not long after, she got to work with Solange on A Seat At The Table and with Gorillaz for a Humanz collab, and spent some time opening for The xx. That’s a diverse cast of collaborators and a testament to Kelela’s flexibility, and the fact that Take Me Apart was released on experimental electronic label Warp is also telling.
From the dark ambient R&B of “LMK” (that synth bass sounds a ton like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight,” by the way) to the dubstep-lite of “Blue Light,” Kelela is all over the place on her debut, but it never feels out of place.”I am a black woman, a second-generation Ethiopian-American, who grew up in the ‘burbs listening to R&;B, jazz and Björk,” she said in a press release. “All of it comes out in one way or another.” That it does, and the results are a masterclass in innovative R&B.–D.R.
37. The xx, I See You
For years The xx existed in black and white. Their live performances were cloaked in smoke and shadows, and their albums recoiled from the light like centuries-old vampires. There was always woozy romance it the words of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, but it was the lust that only comes out at night, illuminated by headlights, cell phone screens, and lit cigarettes. But something happened on their third album, I See You.
Maybe it comes from riding the success of the trio’s breakout star, Jamie xx, and his mirror-ball spinning, house roots. Maybe it’s a response to those that took in their live shows and responded to a band based so much on chemistry with boredom. Or maybe it is an answering of the bell, where the opportunity to become a festival headlining arena act stood in front of them, and the music needed to match the ambition.
Either way, I See You is a confident step into technicolor, Dorothy’s first steps into Oz in audio form. Jamie is putting more of himself into the records, slyly slipping in samples that can either provide the backbone or adornment to the compositions. It turns out that the group’s previous mastery of minimalism works just as well as maximal bangers, with the tension that Croft and Sim exude impervious to the pitfalls of grandeur. It’s rare that a band can go big without losing a piece of themselves. The xx managed to do so and become more complete than ever.–P.C.
36. Strand Of Oaks, Hard Love
Careening rock solos pegged to raw confessionals seem to be on the outs these days, a fact that had absolutely no impact on Timothy Showalter as he pieced together Strand Of Oaks’ fifth album, Hard Love.
Then again, during the last decade or so Showalter has already faced down the disintegration of a relationship, his house burning down, and severe injuries sustained in a major car accident, what does he care about a couple rock is dead thinkpieces? Moreover, what other genre could possibly contain the anguish, anxiety, and exhilaration he needs to get out?
Hard Love doesn’t really live up to its name in a literal sense; this album is extremely easy to love. It’s literary, euphoric and compelling, the output of a man shifting into a new emotional and artistic gear in order to comprehend his own abilities. Showalter’s early work with Strand Of Oaks was soft-spun folk, so the move toward surging, electronic arena-ready anthems is a somewhat surprising, if not wholly welcome, transition.
Press play on “Radio Kids” for a quick hit of psych-rock glory, or sway long and slow on the album closer “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother.” In a world of limitless, bullshit hedging, the straightforwardness of this album is both a blessing and a relief.–C.W
35. Land Of Talk, Life After Youth
I’ve dubbed the particular expression Elizabeth Powell has adopted on Life After Youth as “dream punk,” a micro-genre that neatly splits the difference between dream pop and punk rock. After a tragic seven-year hiatus, inflicted partially by her father’s sudden illness, and her own lost hard drive, Powell is back with the kind of force that only a long self-imposed silence can fuel.
When Powell last checked into the indie rock universe, her past as a member of Broken Social Scene and recent collaborations with members of Arcade Fire and Stars on Land Of Talk’s 2010 release Cloak And Cipher placed her in the upper echelon of the genre’s inner workings — a Polaris Prize nomination for that same album didn’t hurt either.
But now, after returning from her long interlude as a civilian, there doesn’t seem to be a trace of early 2000s indie posturing in Powell’s voice, or her artistic goals. Deeply influenced by a meditative form of ambient music, Japanese tonkori, Life After Youth is moody, mesmerizing and guileless.
It’s easy to hear the impact of grief and healing in the deep grooves of the album, and the sometimes frenetic lyrics, but all of this emotional heft just adds to the album’s already powerful narrative. If this is what it sounds like to lose youth, perhaps more people will stop fearing maturity, and begin to embrace it.–C.W.
34. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid is all about seeing the world through the wide-eyed wonder of a child: thriving on new experiences, asking questions, and being awestruck by life itself. For that concept to work, the music rose to the challenge as a proof of concept, showing us how breathtakingly amazing the world can be through that perspective.
What’s so surprising about The Kid is how well it succeeds. The expansiveness and depth to the music on the album is a significant departure from Smith’s 2016 breakthrough, EARS, which bubbled with its own life and vigor while still sounding very lean and human. Whereas this material sounds monolithic in its nearly hour-long size and scope, starting with Smith’s layered vocals which make her sound like the celestial being she’s depicted as on the album sleeve.
Songs like “In The World But Not Of The World,” where Smith sings “I try to put life in everything I touch,” evince a sophisticated complexity. All of its living moving parts — Smith’s voice(s), otherworldly ambience, pulsing melodic line, digital gasps and clicks, strings— find harmony with one another, contributing to the song’s greater whole. There’s no better way to convey the beauty of the world’s expanse and interconnectivity.–M.R.
33. Sorority Noise, You’re Not As _____ As You Think
Sorority Noise has always been a band that can be categorized as “heavy.” This word is vague, but somehow perfectly describes exactly what Sorority Noise is able to accomplish in their songs, both musically and lyrically. With their third full-length You’re Not As _____ As You Think, both are immediately present as the band’s bash instrumentals soundtrack frontman Cam Boucher’s off-the-cuff storytelling, recounting experiences with loved ones recently departed, often in the form of an impassioned scream. Sometimes, he told us earlier this year, screaming is the only way he can get the lyrics across.
Pairing up with producer Mike Sapone (known for his work with Brand New and Taking Back Sunday), the band was able to put to tape their cathartic live show, and the proper way to express one’s soul-crushing existential contemplation in the wake of death. The record’s ten tracks showcase Sorority Noise’s mastery of the loud-soft dynamic, many songs building and building until they can’t anymore before an emotional release. You’re Not As ____ As You Think is one of those albums that will punch you in the face, and then do it again once you’ve recovered enough to give it another spin.–Z.G.
32. Julien Baker, Turn Out The Lights
You are going to be hard-pressed to find a record that is tear-inducing for reasons that can be equally attributed to its sheer beauty and devastating lyrical content. That said, Julien Baker’s Turn Out The Lights manages to fit the bill. It’s an astoundingly gorgeous assembly of tracks that observe the contradictory aspects of life and begin to reconcile with the fact that they might be able to coexist. At only 22, Baker has perfectly encapsulated her experience, while also incorporating the thoughts and experiences of others.
Across the record’s eleven tracks, Baker tries to use her voice as more of an instrument, in addition to the piano and strings that help to fill out the sound that was present on her sparse, dissonant debut Sprained Ankle. With her vocal at the forefront, Baker’s lyricism takes precedent on Turn Out The Lights, which allowed her to challenge herself to not over-edit and remain truthful to the gut instinct of the writing process, as she explained just before the record’s October release. Over and over again, Turn Out The Lights proves its staying power and strength as one of the most beautiful efforts to be released this year.–Z.G.
31. Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Navigator
Yearning. That’s the predominant emotion that runs throughout Hurray For The Riff Raff’s magisterial sixth album The Navigator. Yearning for a different time. Yearning for far-off places. Yearning for feelings you can’t call your own. “Well I just wanna prove my worth,” singer Alynda Segarra croons on “Pa’alnte.” “I just wanna fall in love / Not fuck it up, and feel something.” The Navigator is one of the rare concept albums that doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own unifying theme. In essence, it’s a sonic travelogue, documenting the wide journey that Segarra took from the Bronx to Puerto Rico. As such, it pulls in a wide range of different flavors — Latin rhythms, folk beats, congas, guitars, synthesizer. All of these disparate seasonings are thrown together in a single stew, carefully mixed and balanced by a chef who is confident in the vision of what the end result is supposed to taste like.–C.R.
30. Joey Badass, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$
Joey Badass wasn’t supposed to be able to make it this far — the haw, the haw. His mimicry of the ancient ways of hip-hop’s late-nineties flagbearers wasn’t supposed to amount to anything more than a gimmick. He was Black Juno, waxing nostalgic for an era he was too young to remember, destined to be overshadowed by flashier counterparts who grounded themselves in the moment and willingly embraced trends rather than trying desperately to resurrect a past they weren’t even around to remember.
Then All-Amerikkkan Badass happened, and suddenly Joey seemed less like a dorm-room wannabe revolutionary in his big brother’s Che Guevarra T-shirt and more like a legitimate heir to the legacy of the iconic backpack rap stalwarts he spent his early career aping. It wasn’t even so much the sharpening of his craft, although he did level-up his pen skills considerably since the days of 1999. No, it was his newfound willingness to expand his musical palette, painting in shades of blues he’d never before dared to risk trying that sparked his sonic evolution from timid imitator to swaggering torchbearer. From “Devastated” to “Rockabye Baby” to “For My People,” Badass dipped into new musical pools and cleansed himself of his prior stigma, emerging fresh, clean, and revitalized, ready to do exactly the same for hip-hop.–A.W.
29. Sheer Mag, Need To Feel Your Love
Despite the many think-pieces floating around out there making the funeral arrangements, rock is far from dead. While, as a whole, the genre may have ceded its place at the forefront of pop culture to hip-hop, there has been a wealth of amazing rock records to drop in 2017. At the forefront of the recent boom exhilarating rock and roll is a fearsome five-some named Sheer Mag who this year, followed-up a string of well-received EPs with one of the most explosive debuts in recent memory.
You don’t even need to drop the needle on Need To Feel Your Love to understand where this band is coming from. “Meet Me In The Street,” is a perfect song title. It conjures images in your mind of grit and danger and confrontation as only the best rock songs do. Then you hear the snarling, AC/DC meets Big Star guitar riff and the police siren-like voice of Tina Halladay and you’re in the arms of angels…or maybe devils. Crank this up in a 1987 IROC Z28 for maximum effect.–C.R.
28. Perfume Genius, No Shape
“Oh, ooh love / They’ll never break the shape we take / Oh, ooh / Baby let all them voices slip away,” Perfume Genius sings in the emotional hook from “Slip Away,” off his bombastic and vulnerable fourth album No Shape.It’s a very real lyric about ignoring the detractors and being comfortable with your own skin, which is especially poignant here due to his fluid relationship with gender, and his struggles with Crohn’s Disease. It hasn’t always been easy for Mike Hadreas to feel at home in his own body, but No Shape is a supremely confident-sounding record of theatrical yet raw songs. Those two traits don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, but a huge part of the reason the album is as strong as it is is how legitimately human and genuine it comes across. No Shape is a power move, and there’s strength in that.–D.R.
27. Sampha, Process
Even with the general familiarity that comes with a co-sign from one of the biggest names in the industry, Sampha has remained one of the most unique voices that music has to offer, while Drake continues to lean on him for songwriting and crooning whenever he sees fit. In 2017, the time was finally right for the British singer to step out of Aubrey’s shadow, make his own lane and forge his own identity for the public eye to see, and he accomplished that and so much more with his debut album Process.
Clocking in at a brisk ten tracks, the impact of the album was felt just a few months after its release at Coachella, when his audience at the Mojave stage for a midday filled up the entire tent arena and spilled out of the allotted space, into the common area where Sampha was just a mere speck in the distance, but the lush sounds of his voice could still be heard loud and clear. The sunny aesthetic was a stark contrast from the intimate, lustful sounds of Process, but with Sampha’s soft voice, and the vivid instrumentation that backs every song, he made 4 PM in a California desert feel like a sensual evening in a high rise condo for a party of two, just like the album.–Eddie Gonzalez
26. Feist, Pleasure
Success hasn’t changed Leslie Feist. Even though “1234” launched her into ubiquity a decade ago, her fifth full-length arrived this year without any of the bells and whistles that a star of her caliber could get away with it. No, Feist’s work feels untouched by the outside world, retaining the playfulness, insightfulness, and ethereal nature despite the ever-changing world around her. On one of the album’s best song’s, “Any Party,” she sings one of her sweetest lines: “You know I’d leave any party for you / ‘Cause no party’s so sweet as a party of two.” The song paints the picture of a social gathering, but it’s telling that it’s not a fancy ball or posh hotel, but a backyard affair where old friends are meeting.
It’s moments like this throughout Pleasure where Feist’s feet feel firmly planted in the same world as our own, that make it so revelatory. Her craftsmanship can feel like a miracle, and her unconventional guitar hums and vocal hoots like the paradigm of quirkiness. But it all works deftly toward a balance, so when she delves into singing about the natural world around her or offering harder to crack poetry, it’s with the confidence that the listener has plenty to hold onto. “Constant growing up,” she repeats on “I’m Not Running Away,” making it clear that she is always a work in progress. But in maintaining the spirit of youth even as her work matures, Feist have revealed herself as a career artist that fame couldn’t possibly get the better of.–P.C
25. Drake, More Life
It might not be the most popular opinion out there, but I’m firmly of the mind that More Life is the best project that Drake has released in his decade and change of making music. Yes, better than Take Care, better than Nothing Was The Same, and worlds better than the glacially-paced Views from last year. While it’s hard to argue with the commercial success of Views and its billions of streams, the critical consensus was not kind.
In light of that, Drake bunkered down with his ever-faithful collaborator Noah “40” Shebib and rolled out a project that’s diverse in sound, and light on the morose, self-reflection that dominated the project previous. Between bangers like “Passionfruit,” “Gyalchester,” “Madiba Riddim,” and “Blem” to name a few, it feels like Drizzy finally escaped the harsh, Toronto winter and finally got some much-needed fresh air. This is a summertime record if there ever was one. It’s true powers only become fully-realized in the warm, pastel glows of Miami or the yellow-baked landscape of Austin, Texas, while sipping from mojitos and margaritas.–C.R.
24. Carly Pearce, Every Little Thing
Breaking into country music as a new, young female artist remains one of the hardest feats in the music industry, but trapdoors have begun to appear here and there, to transport young would-be stars from outside the city walls directly into the inner circle. One such secret weapon is the producer busbee, who almost single-handedly propelled Cam’s debut album Untamed into the mainstream via the smoldering, unlikely single “Burning House.” Carly Pearce has a similar trajectory.
After dropping out of high school to perform at Dollywood, and working through an unsuccessful label development deal, it was the slight piano ballad “Every Little Thing” — which later became the title of her debut album — that put Pearce on the map. After co-writing the song with busbee, Pearce landed a deal with Taylor Swift’s label, Big Machine Records, and proceeded to release the biggest country breakout record of the year.
Considering “Every Little Thing” hit No. 5 on country radio, and her album itself hit No. 4 on the country albums chart, Pearce is poised to help kick down the door that has continually shut women in her genre out of even small successes like these. With fascinating deep cuts like the poignant, homesick “I Need A Ride Home” or the frisky, come-what-may “Everybody’s Gonna Talk,” Pearce’s range knows no bounds — if only the powers-that-be will let her run free.–C.W.
23. Charly Bliss, Guppy
The pop-punk strain that runs through the music of young indie bands in the ’10s tends to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. If a DIY act dares to acknowledge Blink-182, Weezer, or Paramore as an influence, it tends to obscure hooks with layers of grubby noise and dull the impact of choruses with sloppy performances. What makes Guppy, the debut album by the extremely likable Charly Bliss, so refreshing is that this punchy fourpiece regards itself as a pop band first, and as a punk group a distant second. Eva Hendricks’ bright, cooing vocals are pushed high in the mix, and the band sounds unabashedly sunny and effervescent. Songs like “Westermerck” and “DQ” are so guileless and eager to please that you want to pull these nice kids aside and explain that they don’t make American Pie soundtracks anymore. But while the sonic references to ’90s rock are impossible to miss, Charly Bliss is blessedly free of that era’s authenticity politics.–Steven Hyden
22. Gorillaz, Humanz
Humanz is the weirdest Gorillaz album yet. Considering that we’re discussing a cartoon band, that’s a pretty hefty statement. It’s also their busiest album. It’s their most sonically adventurous. It has the most female artists that the band’s co-creator Damon Albarn has ever worked with. It is strangely soulful while remaining jagged, electronic, boxy, robotic. It sounds less like the future than a sidestep into a parallel dimension where maybe humanity recognized all the warning signs of impending fascism and nationalism and armed itself accordingly.
It jumps and skips and glitches and bops from oddball house grooves like “Strobelite” to the vaguely militant buzzing of “Charger” without missing a step. The creeping sense of slowly encroaching authoritarian sentiment hovers over the proceedings like the Shadow Monster from Stranger Things, sinister, menacing, ominous. And yet, the Gorillaz are primarily consumed with one thing: Dance as defiance. Yes, the world is headed to hell in several handbaskets. We are bearing witness to the rise of a new crop of potential and aspiring dictators. Everything is awful. The best way to rebel, according to these animated freedom fighters of rhythm, is to disconnect from the intuition of impending doom and surrender to the beat. Music, as always, will save us.–A.W.
21. Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
There isn’t a band that embodies the recklessness of summer like Japandroids. This feeling isn’t lost as a drum roll comes to a close and their third full-length Near To The Wild Heart Of Life explodes with its title track, complete with one of the best lines the band has ever written, and one that describes the song’s strength as a whole: “She kissed me like a chorus.” Throughout the record, the hooks are so strong, the catharsis so apparent, that it’s nearly impossible to get the simple lyrics out of your head. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is at times a rollicking headbanger, and also features the unexpected ballad.
It features the band’s shortest and longest song, sequenced one after the other. “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” leans toward the aforementioned ballad, a quiet track with heavily distorted vocals and electronic drum sounds as frontman Brian King sings of newfound love. It is followed by “Arc Of Bar,” which exists on the other end of the spectrum, a track that clocks in at just over seven minutes and builds to a noisy climax. Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is Japandroids’ most pop-leaning album, but never strays too far from the sound that duo perfected with their first two efforts.–Z.G.
20. Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
Sometimes, the most unexpected thing a songwriter who has recently put out an album can do is put out another one. Right away. Perhaps Hiss Golden Messenger’s recent three album streak has been prolific enough to disorient their fans — Heart Like A Levee, its bonus companion Vestapol, and this year’s Hallelujah Anyhow all came out within twelve months — but that doesn’t make this year’s release any less of a feat.
For those who missed this album quietly sliding under the radar mid-year, MC Taylor’s fourth Merge Records release is his finest yet, and the existence of the other three should in no way inhibit you from pursuing this one with all your heart. In his own way, Taylor grapples with the impending storm clouds that have hung heavy over the rebellious, freedom-loving American spirit in recent months.
Hallelujah Anyhow draws on the rich folk and southern rock tradition that Hiss Golden Messenger has always occupied, but it also incorporates rich brass and swampy bluegrass with even more anthemic songwriting than ever before. The title is a burst of praise and jubilation in the face of growing despair, a record of contrasts that’s not to be missed for diehard fans or newcomers alike.–C.W.
19. Kurt Vile & Courtney Barnett, Lotta Sea Lice
Forces seemed to be working against Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett when it was announced that they had started work on a collaborative album, given the fact that they live on opposite ends of the planet. However, it seems that they somehow made the distance worked to their advantage, with substantial breaks during production that allowed them to critically evaluate their songs and be picky. The resulting Lotta Sea Lice is a perfect summation of the strengths of both artists, showcasing their quirky songwriting tendencies and simultaneous knack for crafting the perfect indie rock hook.
The record opens with the instantly gratifying “Over Everything,” which sees Vile and Barnett trading lines before they trade the role of a twangy lead guitar. A faint laugh from Barnett opens “Fear Is Like A Forest,” before the entrance of distorted, Neil Young-inspired guitars and the effortless vocal harmonies on the chorus. The record’s highlight comes from its centerpiece with “Continental Breakfast,” a subdued track with Vile taking the vocal lead for the marjority, Barnett entering for the chorus and the hummed instrumental break before a final outro. All in all, Lotta Sea Lice is a thoroughly enchanting collection of nine songs from two of indie rock’s most promising young voices.–Z.G.
18. Milo, who told you to think??!!?!?!?!
Trying to annex Milo to one niche of the hip-hop universe is a fruitless mission. While many fans would take a listen to the breakbeats, dense lyricism and relatively obscure literature references on his who told you to think??!!?!?!?! album and associate him with a brand of “underground” rap adjacent to MF Doom, a deeper listen reveals much more. who told you to think??!!?!?!?! showcases Milo on a mission to defy standards, artistic and otherwise – and you should just give him space and enjoy the results.The fifteen track album was produced entirely by milo (and recorded in 24 hours), and offers a traverse into the mind of one of music’s most exceptional thinkers. When he surmises, “freedom is its own kind of salary” on the glorious “call + form (picture),” it’s not just a bar, it’s a mission statement — and he’s loaded.
The album is comprised primarily of lo-fi, experimental production augmented by milo’s poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyricism. His thoughtfulness is evident in witticisms and astute theorizing on living a purposeful existence, eschewing conformity, and race, exemplified by his “they’re imitating god trying to mimic our sound” summation on “landscaping.” In a figurative sea of hip-hop populists complacent with slothing through surface level themes, Milo is indeed “a strong black man two-stepping through banality,” like he spits on “take advantage of the naysayer.” On who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, we were dancing right along with him.–Andre Gee
17. Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger In The Alps
When you have names like Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst associated with you, people pay attention. At least that’s what got me to give Phoebe Bridgers debut album, Stranger In The Alps, its first listen. But the funny thing about associations like that is that they are fleeting. The collection of songs that chronicles years of work as a songwriter stands firmly on its own, betraying an artist with a keen eye for details and the generosity to serve her melancholy looks at heartbreak and depression with enough humor to keep the record from wallowing.
Even though Bridgers is just beginning her career, she already has a voice and a perspective that feels vital. It’s enough that whether she is invoking 90’s breezy rock with “Motion Sickness” or reflecting over spare atmospherics on “Smoke Signals” or singing the words of a man she doesn’t really admire on her version of Mark Kozelek’s “You Missed My Heart,” the many forms paint a distinct picture of an artist in tune with her own view of the world. It’s not an indulgent album, it’s a necessary once, where a guitar-toting Angeleno announces her presence to the world, without needing her famous friends to hold anyone’s attention.–P.C.
16. Gangs Of Youths, Go Farther In Lightness
The second album by the messianic Australian band Gang Of Youths is a passionate, literary, and endlessly ambitious sixteen song behemoth that lasts for almost 80 minutes. The rockers are life-or-death affairs loaded up with slashing guitars, furiously syncopated drums, and denunciations of Ayn Rand. The ballads are mini-operas performed by string quartets and crooned with pained soulfulness by frontman David Le’aupepe. This is a rock and roll opus through and through, which explains why it was a huge hit in the band’s home country and mostly ignored here.
There were countless thinkpieces written this year that attempted to explain why grandiose rock bands with charismatic singers don’t seem to break out anymore; it’s a shame those people didn’t simply write instead about the greatness of Gang Of Youths. Go Farther In Lightness demands to be loved with a white-hot fervor that burns hotter than 100 suns, or disparaged as pretentious and bloated with extreme prejudice. The only crime is overlooking it. —S.H.
15. Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds From Another Planet
“The album is a lot about thinking of your pain or the circumstances of your life more objectively,” Japanese Breakfast’s frontwoman Michelle Zauner previously told Uproxx. For Zauner, that means her second solo album is a thorough, no-punches-pulled self-examination of her values and perceptions, from singing about how she admires the dedication of the “diving women of Jeju-do” on “Diving Woman” to feelings of inadequacy on “Boyish”: “I can’t get you off my mind, I can’t get you off in general / So here we are, we’re just two losers / I want you and you want something more beautiful”In this case, it’s both easy and hard for a listener to empathize with her pain: There’s an apparent truth to her lyricism, but when these reflections are presented in this aesthetic wonder of a dream pop/indie rock package, it’s kind of impossible to feel anything but good.–D.R.
14. Tyler The Creator, Flower Boy
Soon after the release of Flower Boy, a tweet made the rounds online saying that the record marked the beginning of Tyler, The Creator’s transition from Johnny Rotten to John Lydon, likening Tyler Onkonma’s trajectory to that of the former Sex Pistol as he grew from anarchy into the public image. Perhaps this analogy is a little heavy-handed, but the point remains effective: Flower Boy is without a doubt Tyler The Creator’s best work to date both musically and lyrically. In typical Tyler fashion, there are abrasive tracks (“Who Dat Boy,” “I Ain’t Got Time!”), but there are also tracks that are more tender than anything he’s released before (“Boredom,” “November”), the latter of which are jam-packed with lyrics that give us the clearest insight into what it’s really like to live a life of excess and fame. Rather than masking his love for friends under a thin layer of hate, there are songs throughout Flower Boy that are just simply love songs (“See You Again”). With help from Frank Ocean, Jaden Smith, A$AP Rocky, Kali Uchis, and more, this is Tyler’s most coherent effort, and sees him taking a big step out of his Odd Future days.–Z.G.
13. The National, Sleep Well Beast
The National has long specialized in shadowy barroom ballads that set a mood pitched somewhere between gin-soaked euphoria and morning-after melancholy. But they’ve never made a record as perfectly suited for rueful 3 AM introspection as Sleep Well Beast. The title is ironic misdirection — these songs are loaded with anxieties about marriage, the frayed social fabric, Karl Rove and “dead John Cheever,” the same amalgam of the personal, the political, and the dreamlike surrealism you might recognize from your own sleepless nights during the past 12 months. Favoring a dynamic range of blood-splatter guitars and ominously murmuring electronics, Sleep Well Beast never settles into a groove like most National records. You never quite know when a deliciously corny joke, or an earnest plea to not let good love go bad, or a guitar solo, or a primal scream, or an unhinged rant about the shittiness of Donald Trump’s suits — an extremely National putdown, by the way — will hit you in the face. This album, so full of anger and fear and cautious hope for the future, is an exquisitely unpredictable animal. —S.H.
12. Rostam, Half-Light
When someone leaves a band, it’s easy to focus on the ending of something rather than the beginning of something else. And when that band is Vampire Weekend, and that person is Rostam Batmanglij, it was understandable when people responded to the split with worry about how the band would continue without him. But on Half-Light, his debut album as a solo artist, Vampire Weekend can be seen more as a stepping stone toward a vision. It just happens to be a very successful stepping stone. Many of the touchstones that we’ve heard from Rostam are present: fully-realized vocal performances, fanciful orchestration, and a global spins on American songwriting.
But the listener can hear the new-found freedom that Rostam feels, where the songwriter can let his songs breathe in space and move at their own pace. For someone that’s worked in the pop songwriting universe for the last several years, it’s a decidedly uncommercial turn that still manages to exude warmth and accessibility. Rostam has spoken about the desire to convey positivity and optimism, particularly as the world seems bleaker than ever. And this is particularly profound coming from a queer Iranian-American, for whom the country seems more hostile than ever. In Rostam’s music, the half-light is more of a dawn than a dusk, conveying the wholehearted belief that better things are ahead.–P.C
11. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
Rarely has an artist managed to condense so much beauty, pain, and bewilderment into as compelling a package as Jason Isbell has done with The Nashville Sound. As a collection of songs, it feels both timeless and wholly of this moment all at once. Take “White Man’s World,” for instance, a mournful ballad that Isbell wrote shortly after Trump got elected. Rather than composing an anti-Trump excoriation, he goes deeper, tapping into the resentment and unsettled feelings of self-proclaimed “forgotten” white working class that fueled his campaign.
He brings a similar level of deep thought and nuance to “If We Were Vampires,” a song about how the inevitability of death enhances the short moments you get on this planet with someone you really love. Then there’s “Anxiety,” my personal favorite, and the most energetic cut on the whole album. You can feel his angst and anger rise over his own mental state amidst a chorus of slashing guitars and thumping basses. “Annnnnnnxiety!” he cries in desperation. “How do you always get the best of me?” That sound you hear is your heart falling imploding inside of your chest cavity.–C.R.
10. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
Silly me. I thought I could predict what Vince Staples was going to do on the follow-up to his stunning debut double album, Summertime ’06. I walked right into his trap. The thing about Staples is, he never wants to be predictable. So when the prediction is that Big Fish Theory will be a similarly bombed-out, post-apocalyptic gangsta rap fever dream, what we get instead is an intergalactic game of laser tag being played inside a doomsday pinball machine from the future. Vince threw the whole “nihilistic gangbanger from the desolate streets of North Long Beach” (a place that can be every bit as bad as he paints it, but with little rays of sunshine sprinkled in) vibe out the window and replaced it with Afrofuturism, because who could possibly have predicted the smart-mouthed, Hobbesian street philosopher would be as well-versed in the ways of Wakandan physics as in the art of set tripping and stone facing well-meaning, hipster art critics? The best part of Big Fish Theory is Vince’s adamant refusal to define just what the “big fish theory” is. His plan is to force you to engage with the art, to think critically about it, to synthesize your own belief system with regards to the ultimate meaning behind his frenetic communique. The big fish theory is whatever you want it to be — maybe. The answer might be the question itself.–A.W
9. Big Thief, Capacity
It’s during the opening song on Big Thief’s sophomore album, Capacity, where singer Adrianne Lenker touches on a familiar line: “Lips like sugar.” It’s a phrase that we’ve heard sung before, but Lenker lets it go as if it were hers and hers alone. And that’s where the power of Big Thief lies. Lenker frequently crafts tales that don’t suffer from ambiguity –“Mythological Beauty” describes an accident where Lenker was almost killed by a railroad spike as a child, “Watering” vividly delves into a violent assault, highlight “Shark Smile” is a road trip romance that ends in tragedy– but the album is bound in comforting tones, juxtaposing its darkness with a palpable warmth. And it’s done in an effortless manner. “You just put a story, a real story, that feels like the most honest way that you could say it,” Lenker told our Steven Hyden earlier this year.
If the words ever become hard to stomach, it’s because life it like that, too. It might make us cling onto the brightest moments so we don’t sink in the rough waters and hold on firmly to a line we’ve heard before or an arrangement that sounds inviting. But Capacity wears its humanity as its proudest badge, sure that its words will resonate because there is a capital-T Truth at its center. And, they do. –P.C.
8. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up
Be yourself. That’s a phrase that’s been repeated so many times it has arguably lost its beauty. While the forces of popularity, cultural significance, and commercial appeal have shifted enormously throughout the career of a Pacific Northwest folk band called Fleet Foxes and their primary songwriter, Robin Pecknold, they have remained singular, unchanged, themselves. This was the big relief and reveal of their return this year after a six-year hiatus, the kind of break that often leaves a band sadly disconnected from their former iteration, and fiddling with defunct variations that yield a sad semblance of their past, but nothing more.
Instead, in the intervening time Pecknold pursued personal interests (namely college) and placed a little more trust in his bandmates — primarily Crack-Up’s co-producer, and the band’s longest member aside from Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset. The six years were not spent scrapping old ways or on a discovery mission, but simply refining a process that was already in place.
It feels overly dramatic to call Crack-Up a comeback album, but the record is such a stunning suite, so completely of a piece with their past releases, while still building consistently upon their previously established sound, that high drama is almost necessary. Certainly, it would only be echoing the grandiose lyrical provisions that have been a hallmark of this band from the start.
Over and over, without wavering, Pecknold has argued for truth, beauty, wisdom and confidence, examining his own doubts in plain view, so others may feel safe in doing so. With so many forces buffeting a band of this significance, Fleet Foxes have managed to return, wholly, as themselves. What a gift.–C.W.
7. Jay-Z, 4:44
Since the mid ’00’s, Jay-Z has been exercising his status as a hip-hop elder statesman with mixed results, but he perfected the role on 4:44. Gone are “I don’t pop Molly I rock Tom Ford” nonsequiturs, as he highlights the generational disconnect with clever lines about money phones — before reminding his generation that Tupac wore a nose ring too. He drops theories about financial independence in lieu of merely bragging about his latest deals. The album is chockful of the kind of measured, thoughtful social commentary that explains all his success.Where 4:44 becomes a transcendent, canonical work however is in his analysis of his failures.
On “4:44”, he uses a wailing Hannah Williams sample to cull through his own ego in an urgent apology to his wife, daughter and girlfriends past. Honest reflections like, “What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate?” and admission of guilt for letting down his daughter Blue Ivy elicited a much-needed conversation on fidelity and reckless masculinity within the hip-hop community — specifically the Black community. Jay managed to spin a major L (emonade) into his own cathartic album full of forthright reflections on his missteps as a man.Thanks to producer No ID’s soulful production and curatorial virtuosity (exemplified by a “no loops” ethos), 4:44 feels like traditionalist sensibilities and “grown man” content perfectly tailored for a generation of young listeners. It’s the kind of album that could serve as an, ahem, blueprint for lyricists — but then again very few could pull it off like Jay-Z.–A.G.
6. St. Vincent, Masseduction
There’s a saying, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” For St. Vincent, she releases her albums as if she were playing arenas or stadiums, as if the music world were ready to pause and reflect on her every decision as it did this year with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Arcade Fire. It doesn’t matter much that she hasn’t reached that status yet commercially; her work leading up to her fifth full-length album supports such grandeur. With every release, there’s been the feeling of a fuller realization of her potential, and on MASSEDUCTION, that unveiled itself as a new and exciting marriage between the worlds of pop and rock. Pop producer and co-writer du jour Jack Antonoff shows up in the credits, but it’s hard to hear anything but Annie Clark’s vision in the music.
Songs like “Pills” and “Los Ageless” shimmer with previously unheard studio sheen and she’s ditched the horn-infused arrangements that have been popping up since she met David Byrne. But more interesting is how deftly she balances her own harrowing heartbreak with her usual insights into the shadows of suburbia and the realities of city life. By album’s close, she sounds literally worn out on “Smoking Section,” as if she’s laid everything on the table for the past 40-minutes of music. And, she has. MASSEDUCTION only adds to her perfect record of stellar releases, cementing her place as an event artist that doesn’t need the numbers to support her status.–P.C
5. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
When Father John Misty revealed “Bored In The USA” as the lead single from his sophomore album under that moniker, it fit into a wave of ’70s songwriter nostalgia that was rampant in 2015. It also was a bit of an outlier on a record that had more to do with applying a sharp, cynical wit to romance than it did with that song’s existential musings. As it turns out, “Bored” foretold Pure Comedy, in which Misty takes his philosophical diatribes to volcanic levels, spewing ash and fire and smoke all over the very fabric of 21st century American life. It’s a marvelous display, still evoking the likes of Elton John and Harry Nilsson in his piano-driven stylings, but it’s also smoldering with lava at its core.
The balancing act that it takes to not convey complex idea in songs, but to proselytise convincingly, could easily be too heavy-handed in someone else’s hands, but FJM’s songs hold together because his dense lyricism are only a part of the equation. He’s also a master of melody, his arrangements are flat-out inspired, and he’s often as funny as he is insightful. In a year when many of us looked around at the world with equal parts disbelief and disgust, Father John Misty turned that misanthropy into the best album of his career.–P.C.
4. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
It’s DAMN. What more do you want? Okay, so look. This was Kendrick’s departure from the expected, his rejection of expectation, and his realization of his best musical self. “Fear” is, quite simply put, one of the single most relatable rap songs since Rakim thought of his master plan. Every Black and brown child in the continental United States feels that first verse on a visceral level, and since I came up not quite so far away from Kendrick myself — both sides of the tracks are the bad side in Compton — his “I’ll probably die walkin’ back home from the candy house” line felt eerily like watching myself at 17 (FYI, my neighborhood’s candy house was literally across the street and I still felt like this at times. Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough).
“Loyalty” is masterful. “Humble” shook up the world. “DNA” is going to bang for the next decade. “Duckworth” is a tour de force — and just when you finish listening to Kendrick’s most digestible, mainstream-ready album and think, “I expected more,” you realize that you can play the damned thing in reverse and it still tells a story. Even when you think K. Dot is finally thinking on a normal human level of comprehension, BAM! The camera pans out and you realize he’s been playing multi-dimensional chess and you’re still stuck in one corner of the board. DAMN. works on so many layers that even working with stripped-down, bare bones samples and trap drums, Kung-Fu Kenny is creating esoteric texts that will take years to fully decipher. DAMN. isn’t just the title of Kendrick Lamar’s best album — it’s the review, the reaction, and the message, all rolled into one.–A.W.
3. The War On Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
A Deeper Understanding is a record of culmination. It is the fulfillment of a vision, not just of a song cycle, but of a musician pursuing a specific version of himself. From the time Kurt Vile exited The War On Drugs circa 2008 to lean into the folksy side of this sound, Adam Granduciel has been sharpening his synthy, pulsing vision of the future of rock. First introduced on 2011’s Slave Ambient, and nearly perfected three years later on Lost In A Dream, it was with the support of a major label like Atlantic that Granduciel was able to achieve his tour de force.
This year’s A Deeper Understanding is a widescreen vision of Americana-psych that the world is better for having. Without revealing specifics of his own struggles, Granduciel writes of life’s challenges, desires, and confusion within dark fables and cliffhanger poetics, always pulling back at the last moment to let his melodies finish the thought. The magic of A Deeper Understanding is within this interplay, the songs speak more emotion through guitar and synth than they ever do in words.
In a world inundated with every kind of music, from every decade, available to be heard at any moment, Granduciel has still succeeded in creating a singular sound all his own, reframing heartland rock in his own image, and elevating himself to the level of his heroes. Plenty of people released albums this year, few released anything nearing a career-defining opus. Even if The War On Drugs never put out another second of music, this record cements them as one of the finest rock bands of our moment, our century, and our world. If you are looking for a record to lead you away from the darkness, here it is. We ain’t going.–C.W.
2. SZA, CTRL
Watching SZA try to grapple with fanatic reaction to her compelling, naked, regal debut album is a visceral reminder that black women in America are lied to every day about their worth. It feels criminal that Solana Rowe listened to her own songs for months, and sometimes even years, without feeling confident that she is one of the sharpest, most tender and brave songwriters in a generation — maybe longer.
The impact of a record like CTRL is almost unfathomable, because women, and particularly women of color, have been undervalued, passed over, and written out of their own narratives so many times in American musical history that we don’t really know what will happen when they finally get the honor they have rightfully always deserved. The women that CTRL will uplift and inspire will be a tidal wave, and Rowe’s recently announced five Grammys nominations are but a drop in the bucket of what is yet to come for her, and for them.
No, CTRL is not a collection of sidechick anthems. No, SZA is not an angry ex-girlfriend. Please, stop with the easy cliches, the whole point of this record is to explore the extraordinarily messy, painful, and puzzling reality of relationships, sex, desire, and lust while letting go of the unrelenting need to control it all. And no, being this open and vulnerable is not a sign of weakness, but the utmost strength, the utmost power, and the utmost vision. Arguably, this kind of vulnerability is even an artform unto itself. If that is the case, then maybe CTRL is the first of its kind.
Guided by the twin pillars of her mother and grandmother throughout the album, Solana comes to terms with the most difficult relationship of all — the one she has with herself. Foraging the recent history of R&B, pop, and hip-hop to create an album bursting with rap’s texture and swagger, then effortlessly sung in a million different self-imaginings, CTRL is a treatise of the heart that I would argue was only equaled once this year (see below). I dream of a world where SZA hears her own voice on CTRL and knows its worth the first time, and every single time after that.–C.W.
1. Lorde, Melodrama
Even if it hadn’t come out in the midst of a down year for pop music, when so many would-be blockbusters by major stars failed to take over the world in spite of flooding our social media feeds with endless content, Lorde’s masterful sophomore album would still be a wonder. But in light of painfully bloated (cough, Reputation, cough) or downright botched (woke cough, Witness, woke cough) efforts by the competition, Melodrama seems all the more special.
Was any album more playable this year? Melodrama clocks in at 44 minutes, but it’s so well constructed that it feels like half that. Praise the Lorde for not making us endure another over-indulgent pop-star slog in 2017! Emerging on her winning 2013 debut Pure Heroine as a wised-up 16-year-old with a healthy skepticism of pop-music machinations, Lorde revealed herself on Melodrama as a master of those very conventions, utilizing dramatic builds and deeply pleasurable payoffs to amp up the romantic angst and youthful decadence of songs like “Green Light,” “Homemade Dynamite,” and the excellent closer “Perfect Places,” which reimagines and improves upon fun.’s “We Are Young,” the defining generational anthem of that distant era known as the early ’10s. At heart, though, Lorde is still a classic singer-songwriter, and she’s crafted Melodrama as a song-cycle for the romantically destitute, like Blue if Joni Mitchell had grown up a fan of Teenage Dream.–S.H