The 20 Best Albums of 2017
In 2017 music as an art form took a leap forward. The volatile year pushed a flurry of artist to create some of their best and most abrasive work. Comebacks arose from Kesha to LCD Soundsystem. Artist like Lorde and Kendrick Lamar felt more in sync with youth culture than ever before. The mass response to political turmoil produced some of the best satire in music. Although streaming service use continues to skyrocket, the craziness of 2017 made the album a necessary art form. Being able to present ideas in such a cohesive way will remain timeless.
20. Kesha, Rainbow
The most triumphant return of the year goes to Kesha as she was able to overcome her relationship with Dr. Luke and put out a pretty spectacular album. Kesha is surprisingly diverse on her return to music with everything from ballads like “Bastards” to hard rock with “Let ‘Em Talk. (feat. Eagles of Death Metal)” She even brings out Dolly Parton for a beautiful country duet. Despite feeling all over the place at first, Kesha’s return to music gives us a glimpse into the creative force that had been coralled for years.
Highlights: Bastards, Praying, Woman
Read our review of Rainbow here
19. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Who Built the Moon?
The two Oasis brothers, as if on cue to stir up controversy, released new albums mere weeks apart. At first, I didn’t like either one. Liam’s album felt all too familiar with the standard Oasis-ey sound while I could barely hear Noel sing on half of his songs. The more I listened the more I uncovered and the more I fell in love with Noel’s new album. The electronic sound melded with some of the classic Oasis instrumental created a stark blend that felt more updated (interesting) than Liam’s sound. The choice of “Fort Knox” as an intro track was at first odd (as Noel sings but one single line) but did a good job to shoehorn the audience into the sonic landscape that Noel was creating. Also, the memes of the scissor player in “It’s a Beautiful World” are great.
Highlights: Holy Mountain, It’s a Beautiful World, She Taught Me How To Fly
18. Randy Newman, Dark Matter
What does someone as legendary as Randy Newman have to prove at this point in his career? Making the music for our favorite Pixar movies is not enough to quench this great artist’s thirst. His latest solo effort proves that his skills in crafting great soundtrack music transitions masterfully. There are songs that will make you cry like “Lost Without You” and “She Chose Me” and that is also ripe with political satire like in “The Great Debate” and “Putin.” (a real hoot!) Randy Newman’s amazing songwriting skills also shine through (see Putin). What really got me with this album was how it evoked movies like Hercules and Toy Story while still being able to stand on its own as an artistic work.
Highlights: The Great Debate, Putin, She Chose Me
Read our review of Dark Matter here
17. Arcade Fire, Everything Now
Probably the most divisive album of the year, Arcade Fire doubled down on the dance music they've been experimenting with on Everything Now. It is hard not to see fault in this album. The lyrics and themes are cringey at best and executed poorly. I initially shared the same sentiment with many as the sound (along with lyrics/themes) really seemed lackluster. The sound just grew and grew on me and I ended up absolutely falling in love with it. The fusion of electronic, dance, and rock creates a familiar yet unique sound that I think will eventually be appreciated in the pantheon of Arcade Fire material.
Highlights: Everything Now, Creature Comfort, Chemistry
Read our review of Everything Now here
16. Roger Waters, Is This the Life We Really Want?
Roger Waters makes us yearn for Pink Floyd in one of the more politically charged albums of the year. Despite being overtly political, the latter half of the album is mostly populated with chilling Floydian ballads with “Wait for Her” and “Part of Me Died.” The song “Deja Vu” is the essence of the album as it evokes Floyd with the radio broadcasting samples and is deftly political with Waters pondering if he was a drone. The Orwellian artwork and themes do even more to make us want more Pink Floyd. There is no doubt that the constant political turmoil has caused Roger Waters to create some of his greatest work.
Highlights: Deja Vu, Picture That, Part of Me Died
15. JAY-Z, 4:44
JAY-Z had a rough 2016. Tidal continued to struggle to find space in the streaming service landscape and Lemonade made him into the most hated man of the beehive. Everyone was waiting for his response to Beyonce’s album much anticipation was to be had for this record. Although JAY-Z did not make an entire response album he did put out one of his most solid records in years. More than anything this album explores JAY-Z’s specific black culture and heritage. Continuing the legacy of rappers channeling Nina Simone with “The Story of O.J” and also some of the struggles he feels are still felt in the black community with “Moonlight” (about Moonlight almost getting snubbed at the Oscars). With someone with a large apparent guise like JAY-Z, it was interesting that he also made a very personal album. “Smile (feat. Gloria Carter)”, the story about his mother’s homosexuality and “Family Feud (feat. Beyonce)” gives us a glimpse into the personal life of a legend.
Highlights: The Story of O.J., Smile (feat. Gloria Carter), 4:44
14. Mac DeMarco, This Old Dog
Mac DeMarco delivers yet again on this album of mellow gold. DeMarco has perfected the art of a so-called “chill vibe” as is evident on the super groovy “On the Level” (along with many other songs). Along with his usual, Mac DeMarco also delivers a very personal album. “For the First Time” and “Watching Him Fade Away” are gut-wrenching love songs that do a fantastic job of conveying complicated emotions to the listener. This album can help you relax and cry at the same time as Mac DeMarco continues his string of brilliant releases.
Highlights: My Old Man, For the First Time, On the Level
13. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
For a band that is usually monotone throughout their albums, A Deeper Understanding showcases the incredible range of The War on Drugs. There are the usual, slow-burning, somber tracks like “Pain”, but there are also more upbeat, interesting tracks like “Holding On.” The album may drag on towards the end but the way that the band is able to sneak so many instruments in their songs baffles me. The variance of styles allowed me to not fall asleep to their music and appreciate the lyrics/vocals even more. The usual slow burners that I disliked on their previous album turned into beautifully emotional power ballads.
Highlights: Up All Night, Holding On, Thinking of a Place
12. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
Back in 2015, I didn’t see the hype with Vince Staples’s, Summertime ‘06, as it seemed sloppy and bloated. As a result, I was very excited when I saw the length of Big Fish Theory was only 36 minutes long (and those minutes are populated with bangers). The sound of this album is incredible. It feels as if Vince Staples is creating the future of club/dance music with tracks like the album opener, “Crabs in a Bucket” and “Love Can Be…” It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact genre of this album (rap, hip-hop, dance?). Vince’s ability to blend these genres in such an interesting and fulfilling way is amazing. The way he uses other voices on the tracks (besides Kendrick’s voice on Yeah Right) lean more towards dance than rap or hip-hop but many of his themes keep him on track with his hip-hop story. Also here is Vince Staples on Hot Ones (classic).
Highlights: Big Fish Theory, Yeah Right, BagBak
11. Big Thief, Capacity
Big Thief creates a relatable, emotional world on their sophomore LP. The soft rock that they explore can seem dull at times but under the surface, the band creates beautiful vocals and melodies that seem to kiss your ears. Songs like “Capacity” and “Great White Shark”, have a meandering sound that builds to vocals that are gentle and lovely instead of being climatic like normal rock anthems. This creates an atmosphere that is very reflective and emotionally gut-wrenching. Fantastic.
Highlights: Capacity, Mythological Beauty, Mary
10. LCD Soundsystem, american dream
The prodigal band returns in one of the most anticipated albums of the year. LCD Soundsystem’s hiatus ended with a boom that finally fulfilled James Murphy’s elusive dream of obtaining a chart-topping album. On the surface, this album may seem in a different vain than any other album the band has put out. Stylistically this may be true as the message is much more direct (ie. “tonite” and “call the police”) but LCD Soundsystem keeps a level of experimentation and attention to detail that has been constant throughout their career. Specifically the mountainous “how do you sleep?” and the ethereal “black screen” showcase the band pushing the envelope. The themes are heavy-handed in this project and show once again James Murphy’s brilliance in songwriting and world building. The band doesn’t skip a beat with this return, once again assuming their throne as one of the biggest bands on the planet.
Highlights: how do you sleep?, tonite, american dream
Read our review of american dream here
9. The xx, I See You
The xx create such a voluptuous sound on their latest album, I See You. A blend of indie rock and dream pop, the resulting sound is just gorgeous. The vocals become an instrument of their own as they fill your ears with pure bliss. This is the dream pop element that stands out to me the most. On the indie rock side of the coin, the band uses instrumentation that one wouldn’t expect to blend well with the flowing vocals. The remarkable part is that the band is able to transition between their vocals and a myriad of instruments in a way that doesn’t take you away from the aesthetic of the overall sound. In this way, the album is able to create such a vivid sound landscape that pulls you in for the full 39 minutes.
Highlights: Dangerous, Lips, On Hold
8. St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION
When I first saw the title of St. Vincent’s new album I thought “masseducation, asseducation? Good for her.” Aside from the odd title and album artwork, St. Vincent (and producer Jack Antonoff) created a very 80’s inspired record. The album is filled with numerous 80’s tropes from the reverberated drums in “Hang On Me” or “Los Ageless” to the synths on “Sugarboy.” It seems as if enough time has passed to make these strategies popular with today's producers (see also: Lorde’s Melodrama). When announcing the album on Facebook St. Vincent said that the album was purely about love. I am still conflicted by this analysis partially because the album artwork suggests a perversion of this “pure love.” Regardless of this Anne Clark continues her steady trek to becoming a musical titan.
More info about drum reverb making a comeback
Highlights: Sugarboy, Los Ageless, New York
7. Alvvays, Antisocialites
While Antisocialites does not have the same caliber of anthemic tracks that populated Alvvays’ previous album, the expanded repertoire shows a maturation of the band. Comparing this album to I See You (similar dream pop sound) shows a contrast in the direction indie bands are going in 2017. The xx’s album focuses heavily on distancing the instrumentation from the vocals to create an atmosphere while Alvvays melds the instruments and vocals together. Both bands show off multitudes of instruments, but Alvvays does this in a way that creates very different sounds throughout the entire album. The first two tracks are very traditional dream pop while the next two feel more like indie rock songs. There is also a variety of mood that is created with the different styles of songs. “Lollipop (Ode to Jim)”, one of the indie rock songs has a more playful tone than the more dream pop “Forget About Life.” The variety in this album makes me excited to see continual growth and new sounds.
Highlights: Dreams Tonite, Not My Baby, Lollipop (Ode To Jim)
6. Perfume Genius, No Shape
Right off the bat Perfume Genius commands your attention with “Otherside,” a mystically produce, rollercoaster of a song. This production seeps into this album without seeming unauthentic or overwhelming. For example, you can still hear the soft piano melody on the opening track (in between seeming fits of studio rage). “Otherside” functions as somewhat of an overview of the two moods presented throughout the album. “Slip Away” and “Just Like Love” showcase the bombastic feeling that shoots through the first track (accompanied by ringing of some sort) while “Die 4 You” and “Choir” explore the more somber tone in “Otherside” (accompanied by simple, droning instruments). This is an album that feels crafted in every sense of the word. Each instrument has a purpose in creating a working atmosphere for each song that makes for great music.
Highlights: Otherside, Slip Away, Choir
5. Tyler, The Creator, Flower Boy
Probably the biggest surprise of 2017, Tyler, The Creator’s new album turns a new leaf in his career. Tyler’s previous work has often felt insincere and childish (related to his demeanor) but Flower Boy finally shows us his creative potential. The one promise Tyler has shown in the past is his sharp, usually witty, lyrics. This is turned up to 11 as his lyrics are elegant while not being too tongue and cheek. Along with his lyrics, Tyler pays immaculate attention to the instrumentation throughout the album. Both of these traits are exemplified in the first track “Foreword (feat. Rex Orange County).” The lyrics are boastful, yet funny and intelligent, while the instrumentation zigzags between a sick beat and haunting strings. Another dichotomy that makes this album so fantastic Tyler’s balance between being an egotistical, rapper and opening up to his fans. Many of his songs fall into one of these two categories but “911 / Mr. Lonely (feat. Frank Ocean and Steve Lacey)” mixes these two moods elegantly. The 911 section boasts about 5 car garages and name drops like no other showing Tyler’s egotistical side. The second section, Mr. Lonely, explores his own loneliness in a very intimate way. Tyler talks about his outspokenness being a direct reflection of how lonely he is. This project makes me ecstatic because it shows the creative monster that has been hiding behind a comedic guise for so long.
Highlights: See You Again (feat. Kali Uchis), Who Dat Boy (A$AP Rocky), 911 / Mr. Lonely (feat. Frank Ocean and Steve Lacey)
Read our review of Flower Boy here
4. Lorde, Melodrama
If you want to know what star power looks like in 2017, it's Lorde. After a long four-year wait Lorde’s sophomore LP, Melodrama finally arrived. Lorde’s songwriting in Melodrama shows her unrivaled connection to youth culture that makes her music so infectious. From the tear-jerky “Liability” to the very meta “Writer in the Dark” Lorde crafts relationship dynamics that very easily resonate. We’ve all felt like a liability or like our relationships are deserving of immortalization ('The Lourve"). It comes with the territory. Jack Antonoff produced this and as such his 80’s inspired drums are all over it. The 80’s influence is a little less intense than on MASSEDUCTION, but you would be hard-pressed to find a song that doesn’t contain some of this reverb (maybe “Liability”). The intense production is juxtaposed beautifully in moments where it is mainly Lorde singing that reaches our ears. Little sounds are placed during these moments that are used to keep the flow but these moments overall feel very personal. This is a component of Lorde’s relatability. These moments are usually followed by a sonic wall of sound that make her songs almost like a sine wave. My favorite example of this is the slow building of “Hard Feelings/ Loveless.” The soft moments start out with Lorde singing with just snaps in the background and slowly build to this beautiful wall of almost metallic sound. Almost every song can be seen as this up and down of sound that travels upwards to an ultimate climax. Lorde’s music is at an intersection of story and sound that is just right.
Highlights: Green Light, Hard Feelings/Loveless, Liability
3. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN
With DAMN, Kendrick Lamar cemented himself atop the cultural zeitgeist. Being one of the most popular names in one of the most popular music genres, Kendrick has proven album after album that he has no equal. Much like Lorde, Kendrick seems deep in touch with a section of youth culture. Kendrick is able to explain the black experience through his deeply personal and witty lyrics. What impresses me the most is Kendrick’s ability to keep one foot in the mainstream and still being political and maintaining "street cred." He does this by changing his style from Jazz and G-funk, to be more in tune with mainstream rap. The best example of Lamar’s stylistic pivot and personal/witty lyrics is his biggest single yet, “HUMBLE.” In this song, Kendrick ushers in his style change as the beat is more trap inspired than the Jazz influence of his previous album. The lyrics also serve as a window into the American Dream in Kendrick’s eyes. The rest of the lyrics, on the contrary, are not very humble and the song evokes a very ‘respect your elders’ feel from Lamar. Kendrick masterfully mixes in his chart-topping friends (Rihanna, U2, even sampling Bruno Mars) with his relatable, insatiable lyrics to even deeper his influence. On the opposite side their on songs of pure storytelling. “DUCKWORTH” retells the story of Kendrick’s manager frequently robbing the KFC that his father worked at when he was younger. Kendrick Lamar cements his star power by melding deep personal, political moments with sounds of mainstream rap.
Highlights: DNA, HUMBLE, GOD
2. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up
Another comeback of sorts, Fleet Foxes latest album is a journey through the ever-changing world of folk rock. Although Robin Pecknold confirmed a Reddit user’s theory that the last track on their previous album flows seamlessly into the first track on Crack-Up, the seven-year gap is pronounced in the vastly different mood of the album. The band’s previous album, Helplessness Blues, is more upbeat and dreamy, while Crack-Up has a darker, more introspective mood. The album’s title is a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of essays, The Crack-Up, in which Fitzgerald grasp with the mental crisis of becoming famous. We can infer that Fleet Foxes may have been dealing with a similar issue. The seven-year hiatus that followed their wildly successful album, Helplessness Blues, indicates to me musings on similar topics as Fitzgerald. This is the lens to which many of the Crack-Up songs can be seen through. The band does this directly on the opening song Pecknold sings “I am all that I need” as if to try to cope with the apparent loneliness of fame. Another angle that they approach this topic is an outsider. On the title track, “Crack-Up” Pecknold sings about someone who has “cracked like a china plate” because of “the world insisting that the false is so.”
There is quite a lot of romantic imagery about the ocean that is conjured up on “Mearcstapa” and “On Another Ocean (January/June)” that furthers the feeling of a lonely traveler. The sound of this album is quite incredible. The ‘gather around the campfire’ soft sound of their previous album is replaced by a deep production value that fills your ears to the brim. The beginning of “Third of May / Odaigahara” immediately assaults your ears with booming guitars and vocals. There is a healthy variety of sound though as the album opener creates an up and down of sound that is haunting. The album ends with beautiful horns that usher our traveler into the unknown.
Highlights: I Am All that I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar, Third of May / Odaigahara, Crack-Up
1. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
A year as tumultuous as 2016 was primed to give us great protest music. To my dismay, much of the music cultivated in the fallout of 2016 are subpar jabs at the government with no real substance or commentary. Father John Misty’s album, Pure Comedy, is the exception. His social commentary and story building create vibrant songs that are contextualized in today's society. The most direct of the songs, the title track “Pure Comedy,” muses about human life and then turns into a scathing takedown of the right. Though controversial, the songs instrumentals and booming chorus make it one of the best songs of the year. Another direct commentary is seen in the 13-minute diatribe “Leaving LA.” Father John Misty goes in on the toxic, Los Angeles, movie star culture singing about everything from boy band factories to his first memory of music.Most of the songs are less direct and are stories that serve as some form of political commentary or satire. “Total Entertainment Forever,” one of the more satirical songs, tells the tale of how our virtual reality obsessed species will be looked upon by future civilizations. Sounds like some deep stuff but the opening lyrics of “bedding Taylor Swift, every night inside the Oculus Rift” and the video give it a more lighthearted feel. Another jab at millennial culture comes in the form of “Ballad of the Dying Man.” The story chronicles a man who is wondering if his life as a social justice warrior was well spent well.
Pure Comedy has intense production that is not always apparent. Even on “Leaving LA,” there are tidbits of production that create an echo-like sound. The piano is used as the main instrument on many of the songs and it provides a base for the rest of the production. “Pure Comedy” and “Ballad of the Dying Man” are built from the piano and then, with booming production, make into incredible folk rock sounds. “The Memo” goes back and forth between vocoding Tillman’s voice to create a robotic sound and a very classic folk rock sound. A similar voice change happens during the climax of “Birdie.” The super crisp production serves as a sort of distraction to the issues of the world. Regardless of this, Father John Misty creates one of the most beautifully produced topical pieces of satire in 2017.