Best Albums of 2017
2017 was an undeniably crowded year for music. The sheer volume and quality of albums makes any best of list riff with deserving omissions. Still, in the course of the year, a top 10 began to solidify itself and the rest seemed to emerge organically. In my quest for creating a list, I've tried to highlight a gender balance, promote racially diverse musical styles from the around the world and give credit to emerging whose first or latest albums show incredible promise. The end result is a window into what made 2017 so great.
50. Susanne Sundfør – Music For People In Trouble
49. Jackie Shane – Any Other Way
48. Sophia Kennedy – Sophia Kennedy
47. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
46. Forest Swords – Compassion
45. Sabrina Claudio – About Time
44. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
43. Octo Octa – Where Are We Going?
42. Bomba Estéreo – Ayo
41. Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
40. TORRES – Three Futures
39. Snoh Aalegra – FEELS
38. Gabriel Garzón-Montano – Jardín
37. Equiknoxx – Colón Man
36. Tei Shi – Crawl Space
35. yaeji – EP2
34. Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors
33. LCD Soundsystem – american dream
32. Nidia Minaj – Nídia É Má, Nídia É Fudida
31. Smino – blkswn
30. Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer
29. Jay Som – Everybody Works
28. Laurel Halo – Dust
27. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
26. The 25th Hr – Eutaxy
25. Syd – Fin
24. Hercules and Love Affair – Omnion
23. Run the Jewels – RTJ 3
22. The xx – I See You
21. Pierre Kwenders – MAKANDA
20. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
19. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
18. Sevdaliza – ISON
17. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
16. Austra – Future Politics
15. Bonobo – Migration
14. BATHS - Romaplasm
13. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
12. Aldous Harding – Party
11. Jlin – Black Origami
10. Lorde – Melodrama
At just 21 years old, Lorde has managed to create a pop album that captures both our attention and our hearts by focusing in on the trials and tribulations of being a young woman seeking agency and love through the prism of nightlife culture. From the electric opener of "Green Light" to the anthemic "Supercut," Lorde creates an intimate, genuine, relatable album that takes us from highs to lows without missing a beat. Jack Antonoff's production work is simple and effective because Lorde's gifts as a storyteller ("Jack and Jill get fucked up and possessive when they get dark" being a standout) shine through. It's hard to imagine what she can manage to do next but she proved there was no sophomore slump in 2017.
9. Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
Tyler the Creator was never really on my radar until this year. His previous efforts have been deeply misogynistic and rife with homophobic slurs. On this album, however, Tyler begins to shed his tough exterior for a brand of introspective rap that brings to mind Frank Ocean (a major collaborator on this album) and The Internet. Loose arrangements produced by Tyler himself feel surprisingly warm and tender. Even the album's most bombastic track - "I Ain't Got Time!" -involves Tyler distancing himself from his peers through a recognition that he's different. Does it make Tyler queer? We might never know but the album is about young Black men and loneliness, which is refreshing in an era where hip hop as a genre finally seems to be embracing sensitivity.
8. Arca – Arca
What a year it has been for Arca. The Venezuelan electronic producer has managed to temper his previous brash and rough-edged tendencies for an electronic album that channels his darker experiences into something more cathartic and cutting edge. The album is anchored, of course, by "Desafío," which is about being penetrated, devoured and destroyed by society at large. Yet his vocals, so pure and dextrous in an upper register, float above the violence against queer bodies. Like Perfume Genius or Moses Sumney this year, defiance comes not through overt and explicit lyricism but what the lyrics and vocals do to (and with) the underlying music. This album sets him on course to be one of the most compelling queer voices in his music of his generation.
7. Sampha - Process
Of all of 2017's albums, Sampha's is perhaps the one where humanity - through grief, loss, anxiety and repair - is on full display. Though it's hard to quantify what genre he operates, Sampha blends many more traditional instruments like harp and piano with a more forward-thinking electronic sound to create something thrillingly alive, warm and of the moment. From the opening track "Plastic 100C," which plumbs the depths of his fears to the standout track "Under," where he spits out the memorable line "sophisticated, bitter queen," there's no denying that the long wait for this album was worth it because he's channeled every ounce of his himself into this. There's nothing you can imagine changing in this album to make it any better or more complete.
6. SZA – Ctrl
I wasn't sure when, and if, this album was ever going to make it. SZA's M.O. has always been self-doubt but she finally worked through her perfectionistic tendencies to drop Ctrl. The result is a work of technical sophistication, that slinks from pop to indie rock and R&B, while sounding cohesive. Live, SZA's vocals can sometimes be a little rough around the edges, but here she's always in command, singing about whack ass men and female agency in the process. There will be fierce debate over which track is best but for me "The Weekend" not only shows off soaring vocals but the undeniable ability to turn a slow groove into something more profound; whether it's a night at home with a glass of wine or at a party, you can't help but get lost in it.
5. Fever Ray – Plunge
Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2017 was Fever Ray's return after a 9 year hiatus, even if these violent times, laced with misogynistic and xenophobic sentiments, seem exactly the moment for Fever Ray to take to the microphone. The album itself is a fascinating mix of post punk aesthetics and electronic underpinnings. It's often times audacious and manic, moving at a breakneck speed, featuring distorted vocal patterns, and shrieks, but there is never a moment where it feels too much or unlistenable. This is because the album, though it stakes political stands, is about love, sex and desire being a guiding force through darkness. It can be hard to love, yes. It might be fucked up and feel wrong surrounded by death but it's what adds electricity, joie de vivre, when we need it more than ever.
4. Björk – Utopia
Björk has finally shed the darkness of the Vulnicura era for some light. And oh, how I am excited to see Björk move back into the light. This album was conceived with Arca, whose previous work on Vulnicura seems to take a much more central role in the making of this album. No longer are they just collaborating, they are building off of their experiences as women and queer people to create the makings of utopia, a world in which they feel safe, valued and free to express themselves any way they see fit. The result is an organic world of flutes, Icelandic bird calls, and a feminist manifesto that is the perfect antidote to Donald Trump and his political ilk. The album meanders but it never loses its vibrancy; Björk, no longer standing in the shadows of a breakup, pieces life back together, for herself and those who she still loves.
3. Perfume Genius – No Shape
Perfume Genius has always had a soft spot in my heart. From his earliest days, he always managed to use music to break apart trauma and showcase resiliency. If 2014's Too Bright was his break into the mainstream, No Shape is the use of his newfound popularity to return to his roots, albeit with glossier and more sophisticated production. The opener "Otherside" begins paired down, his vocals floating above a simple piano line but the end explodes into a jingle of electronic sound. There is something particularly cinematic about this album: from the steel drums of "Slip Away" to the evocative violins of "Choir" to "Die 4 You," where his voice seems to float outside of space and time. But it is still, as has always been the case, unapologetically about the trials and tribulations of queer life.
2. Kelela – Take Me Apart
Kelela begins this album with "LMK," one of the most audacious and best realized opening tracks of 2017, an R&B jam that recalls Aaliyah in her prime: not willing to wait around for love but still welcoming it if it materializes. The rest of the album is part R&B, part pop, very much living in the 1990s universe but dialing the sound into something that feels current and alive in 2017 through the use of subtle electronic distortions and sonic adjustments that reflect the emotional states of songs, whether its five minutes or two and a half. On "Onanon," a standout track produced by Arca, she sings about how conflict in relationships seems cyclical and unavoidable. So much of Take Me Apart is about exploring the manifestations of love and while we come away with this album with more questions than answers, it's clear Kelela is the one who has made us realize the nuances of love.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Since first hearing this album, I've always placed it at the top of my list for 2017. It is Kendrick Lamar's best album to date and one I am certain will hold a place in hip hop cannon for decades to come. As I have said before, DAMN. is so special because it manages to bring his sensitive insights into culture and masculinity on To Pimp A Butterfly to a more clarified, electric and urgent sound that has massive appeal. DAMN. might not seem high concept in a conventional sense but the way that Kendrick Lamar manages to make gestures to the politics of a Trump era without getting locked into the genre of "protest album" is admirable. On "DNA." and "FEEL.", he unleashes some of the most massive, scorched earth verses we've ever seen him spit out. But on "FEAR.", a seven minute examination of his life, he uses subtle flow shifts to highlight his life in three different stages. Kendrick might have nowhere else to go on DAMN. but his willingness to stand in the spotlight but not be consumed by ego is why he has the best album of 2017.