Best Albums of 2017

I get the most fun out of determining my favorite songs of the year, but I get the most satisfaction from piecing together my favorite albums. In an age dominated by playlists and cultural phenomena that burn brightly and quickly, it gets progressively harder to give proper attention to an album front to back. But devote a little time and you’ll begin to notice an album’s ebb and flow, or look forward to that one really cool part on a song you had forgotten about, or gain an appreciation for how those slower, more quiet numbers emphasize the power of the faster, catchier ones. There were dozens of albums with fantastic songs this year, but only a select few can boast a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

This year, the best music spanned genres and backgrounds. There were the self-assured truths of a rapper from Compton; the tales of city life, displacement, immigration, and struggle of a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx; the insightful musings on heartbreak and maturation from a 20-year-old New Zealander pop star; the bedroom indie pop creations of two Asian-American women; the celebrated returns of a British shoegaze band and a storied Brooklyn electronic band; pop-punk, folk, moody R&B, 2000s-style indie, and AC/DC-style rock.

I hope that you find something on this list that piques your interest and resonates with you like it did with me.

Honorable Mentions
– White Reaper: The World’s Best American Band
– Miguel: War & Leisure
– Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory
– The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions
– Alvvays: Antisocialites

(Related: Best Songs of 2017 | Best Live Performance Videos of 2017)

And now here we go, the 25 best albums of 2017.
 
 

25. Hoops: Routines
Best Tracks: Rules | On Top | Sun’s Out
For Fans of: Allah-Las; Mac DeMarco; Tennis; DIIV; breezy, beachy, lo-fi indie rock; albums that only last about a half hour

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

24. Sampha: Process
Best Tracks: (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano | Blood On Me | Timmy’s Prayer
For Fans of: James Blake, Little Dragon, Drake, electronically-inclined R&B, pianos in mothers’ homes

Hear the singles from the album:

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

23. Mac DeMarco: This Old Dog
Best Tracks: This Old Dog | One Another | My Old Man
For Fans of: Chill hangouts, weird people making normal music

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

22. Moses Sumney: Aromanticism
Best Tracks: Quarrel | Lonely World | Don’t Bother Calling
For Fans of: Sampha; a fusion of baroque pop, soul, indie, and folk; hymn-like reverie

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

21. Jay-Z: 4:44
Best Tracks: Family Feud ft. Beyoncé | Marcy Me | The Story of O.J.
For Fans of: A new introspective version of Jay; classic production/beats from No I.D.; humble responses to huge, well-crafted albums that call you out for cheating on your wife

Partial album:

Listen to the album on Tidal
 
 

20. Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love
Best Tracks: Need to Feel Your Love | Just Can’t Get Enough | Suffer Me
For Fans of: Female-fronted, good-time, riff-heavy rock; White Reaper; AC/DC

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

19. Grizzly Bear: Painted Ruins
Best Tracks: Mourning Sound | Three Rings | Sky Took Hold
For Fans of: Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Beach House, Local Natives, artful beauty, the 2000s heyday of indie

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

18. Spoon: Hot Thoughts
Best Tracks: Can I Sit Next To You | I Ain’t the One | Hot Thoughts
For Fans of: The Walkmen; TV on the Radio; consistently good, catchy, and interesting rock and roll

Hear the singles from the album:

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

17. Father John Misty: Pure Comedy
Best Tracks: Ballad of the Dying Man | Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution | So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain
For Fans of: Fleet Foxes, amazing baritone voices, songs that are condescending but also funny and beautiful

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

16. Broken Social Scene: Hug of Thunder
Best Tracks: Skyline | Halfway Home | Hug of Thunder
For Fans of: Feist, The New Pornographers, 2000s-era indie

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

15. Turnover: Good Nature
Best Tracks: Sunshine Type | Super Natural | Curiosity
For Fans of: Real Estate, chill comfort-food indie rock

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

14. Charly Bliss: Guppy
Best Tracks: Percolator | Black Hole | DQ
For Fans of: ’90s alt-rock, Weezer, Paramore, Sheer Mag, Sleater-Kinney, Veruca Salt, The Breeders, riffs, attitude

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

13. Japanese Breakfast: Soft Sounds from Another Planet
Best Tracks: Diving Woman | Road Head | Till Death
For Fans of: Alvvays, Tennis, music to get lost in, soft sounds from other planets

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

12. Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up
Best Tracks: If You Need To, Keep Time on Me | Kept Woman | Third of May / Ōdaigahara
For Fans of: Beautiful, swirling, intricate, colorful folk; harmonies; Sufjan Stevens; Andrew Bird; song titles with dashes, commas, and slashes

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

11. Jay Som: Everybody Works
Best Tracks: The Bus Song | Baybee | 1 Billion Dogs
For Fans of: Intimate indie pop/rock, music that sounds like it’s being played right in front of you, buses

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

10. LCD Soundsystem: American Dream
Best Tracks: Tonite | Call the Police | How Do You Sleep? | Emotional Haircut
For Fans of: Comebacks, talking about aging, Talking Heads, David Bowie

LCD Soundsystem was one of the previous decade’s greatest bands (just see “All My Friends” as an example), and then frontman James Murphy took them away. Fans poured into their final farewell concert at Madison Square Garden in 2011 to celebrate to commemorate their end. But then, less than five years later, Murphy announced the group’s return to touring and intentions to make a new album. Some fans felt played and manipulated — “why make such a big deal out of breaking up if you were just going to come back in a few years?” they asked. But personally, I don’t give a crap. They’re back! I finally got to see them live last year and they played “All My Friends” and I teared up! And they released new music!

Let me start by saying that American Dream is not nearly as good as the group’s phenomenal Sound of Silver or their self-titled debut. If it were, it would be higher than #10 on this list. But American Dream still has plenty moments of brilliance — it is at times haunting and hypnotic (“How Do You Sleep?”), fun (“Tonite”, the Talking Heads-indebted “Other Voices”), exhilarating (“Call the Police”) and pensive (“Black Screen”). The 12-minute “Black Screen” comes at the very end, an ode to Murphy’s relationship with the late David Bowie, whom he describes as “between a friend and a father.” It packs an emotional punch, delving into Murphy’s regret for not making a greater effort to connect with him.

Aging is a common theme, which makes sense for a 47-year-old trying to find his place in the music scene again. “And all the hits are saying the same thing,” Murphy sings on “Tonite”. “There’s only tonight / And life is finite / But s—, it feels like forever.” Here’s hoping that Murphy further devotes his finite life to gifting us with more music.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

9. SZA: Ctrl
Best Tracks: Love Galore | Prom | Drew Barrymore | Supermodel
For Fans of: Kelela, Miguel, new Rihanna, Drew Barrymore

SZA, born Solána Rowe, signed to Kendrick Lamar’s record label Top Dawg Entertainment a few years ago, back when she didn’t even have enough money to get to the bank to cash her first check. Now, she has her debut album Ctrl under her belt and it’s the best R&B album of the year, full-stop.

The first six tracks are stunningly good — SZA’s voice drips like honey over the beautifully off-kilter guitar chords of “Supermodel”, the psychedelia of “Love Galore”, the deliberate bounce of the Kendrick-featuring “Doves in the Wind”, the cinematic “Drew Barrymore”, the all-encompassing youthful wonder of “Prom”, and the ’90s-style slow jam “The Weekend”. But don’t sleep on the second half of the album either. “Broken Clocks” has President Obama’s stamp of approval, and “Pretty Little Birds” is a slow, woozy gem, complete with some jazzy trumpet and a subdued rap verse from Isaiah Rashad. The vibe SZA conjures is intoxicating, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Partial album:

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

8. The National: Sleep Well Beast
Best Tracks: Day I Die | The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness | Carin at the Liquor Store | Dark Side of the Gym
For Fans of: Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, 2000s indie

The National have the distinction of being the longest-tenured band/artist in my top 10, making music since 1999. Since the mid-2000s, they have consistently released only high-quality albums, from Alligator and Boxer at the peak of their “buzz” a decade ago, all the way to this year’s Sleep Well Beast. The album has a newfound clear-headedness to it, which frontman Matt Berninger confirmed in an interview with Stereogum: “It’s less murky. A lot of that has to do with Aaron’s production, him trying things, and us knowing our records do sound a little bit like molasses in terms of sonic spectrums. I think there was an attempt to change some of [that].”

“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a straight-up rock song, built on that energetic burst of a guitar riff that accompanies Berninger’s rare raise of his voice as he sings “I cannot explain it, ahh-ahhh, any other! Any other way!” And if you think that song rocks, “Turtleneck” goes even harder. But lest you think this is just a rock album, they still come through with their signature brooding numbers, like “Walk it Back,” “Guilty Party” and “Carin at the Liquor Store.” The jumpy “I’ll Still Destroy You” reminds me of late-period Radiohead, and the anthemic “Day I Die” is one of the best songs they’ve ever written — “The day I die, the day I die, where will we be?”

Partial album:

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

7. Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness
Best Tracks: Natural Blue | Follow My Voice | Sea As It Glides | Sleepwalker
For Fans of: Folk, acoustic guitars, serenity

Singers with acoustic guitars have always been a dime a dozen, but only a few have that indescribable quality that elevates their music from merely good and pleasant to exceptional. Maybe it’s Julie Byrne’s round, wise-sounding voice. Maybe it’s her subtle, elegant songwriting. Maybe it’s her confidence in and reliance on these strengths. Either way, Not Even Happiness is simply gorgeous.

The album opens with “Follow My Voice,” Byrne’s mission statement of sorts: “To me, this city’s hell, but I know you call it home / I was made for the green, made to be alone.” But despite Byrne’s desires standing in contrast with those of her song’s subject, she deeply cares for this person: “The clouds are passing by on by, my darling / Your eyes are breathing / I’ve seen them in the light.” “Natural Blue” is Byrne’s best song, slaying in its delicate beauty. The muted guitar picking lets Byrne’s voice be front and center, buoyed up by light atmospheric touches, strings, and airy harmonies. Not Even Happiness serves as a fitting soundtrack to a cold, dreary day, but rather than wallow along in the weather, it provides comfort and warmth with its grace and tenderness.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

6. Slowdive: Slowdive
Best Tracks: Sugar for the Pill | Star Roving | Go Get It | No Longer Making Time
For Fans of: My Bloody Valentine, shoegaze, dream pop, windy winter music

Slowdive, the influential shoegaze band from Reading, England, last released an album 22 years ago. That’s a long time to be gone to then come back with such a vivid-sounding record. Slowdive is dreamy, majestic, impressive. It has the power to transport you to another place, if you let it. In my case, it takes me to a cloudy coast, where the air is thick and wet, and while my face is too cold to exposed, it also feels refreshed and alive. Of the many remarkable elements of the album, I love the sound mixing the best — guitars ring out and move throughout the sonic tapestry, as the voices of band leaders Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell float and lull on top.

The album’s highlight though (besides the epic climaxes of “Go Get It”) is when Halstead and Goswell’s voices are most clear and unadorned, on “Sugar for the Pill.” They lament the end of a relationship: “And I rolled away, said we never wanted much / Just a rollercoast’, our love has never known the way.” Slowdive is a triumph two decades in the making, and the wait was worth it.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

5. The xx: I See You
Best Tracks: On Hold | Say Something Loving | Dangerous | I Dare You
For Fans of: Jamie xx, serene singing over satisfying beats, creative leaps forward

If you told me last year that Spoon, Fleet Foxes, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, and The xx were all releasing music in 2017, I don’t think I would have expected The xx to make my favorite album of the bunch. The trio from south London built off the minimalism of their first two albums and expanded their sound at the direction of Jamie xx and his production. The music is bigger, more booming, more colorful, more dance-y, closer in style to the exhilarating emotion of Jamie xx’s solo work.

Though I See You is still introspective and quiet at times, and lead singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims are still hushed as always, there is room for a little more fun and a bigger beating heart. “Dangerous” could almost be a club anthem, “Say Something Loving” breathes and seethes with newfound power, and “On Hold” is probably the most fun track the group has ever released (though don’t get me wrong, it’s still plenty melancholy). The bigger sound makes it so the quieter and slower tracks (like “Lips” and “Performance”) stand out even more than on previous albums. That balance makes I See You The xx’s best work.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

4. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
Best Tracks: DNA. | HUMBLE. | XXX. | FEAR.
For Fans of: West Coast hip-hop, bangers mingled with introspection, Bono, visionary genius

With Section.80, Kendrick Lamar introduced himself to us. With Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, he made us love him. With To Pimp a Butterfly, he took over the mantle of “world’s current greatest rapper.” With DAMN., he solidifies it.

“I think DAMN. is a hybrid of all these projects,” Kendrick says. “It’s the message behind To Pimp a Butterfly, the sonics [and] beat-slapping on Good Kid, and the rawness of being able to do what I want on Section.80.” To Pimp a Butterfly was all ambition, expansive in length and sound and endlessly impressive — his magnum opus. DAMN. maintains that ambition but narrows and focuses it, with less jazz influence and more lean and mean radio-friendly production. “HUMBLE.” and its insanely awesome video was our first taste of the new album — a song that takes a West Coast-style banger of a beat from Mike Will and allows Kendrick to deliver the immediately iconic “Sit down! Be humble!” line.

There are too many impressive moments on DAMN. to count: Kendrick’s technically masterful rapping on “FEEL.”; the silky smooth synthy production on “LOVE.”; the chilling fury of Kendrick’s rapping at the end of “DNA.”; the satisfying beat drop 9th Wonder beat drop on “DUCKWORTH.”; the jittery energy juxtaposed with Bono’s jazzy feature on “XXX.”; the spacey James Blake piano line on “ELEMENT.” But of all those moments, my absolute favorite is the transition between “BLOOD.” and “DNA.”, when Kendrick plays a Fox News segment critiquing his lyrics from his previous hit “Alright.” “And we hate the po-po,” the anchor quotes, “Wanna kill us in the street, fo sho.” The other anchor responds with, “Ah please. Ugh! I don’t like it” right before the fiery opening to “DNA.” comes storming in: “I GOT I GOT I GOT I GOT LOYALTY, GOT ROYALTY INSIDE MY DNA.”

Not only are the beats and flow on each song amazing, but DAMN. was also the perfect album for our moment in 2017. “But is America honest?” Kendrick asks on “XXX.” “Or do we bask in sin?” Kendrick knows the weight that his words have on the culture. On “FEAR.”, he looks inward to tell us the compelling tale of three moments in his life where he experienced feelings of terror, at age 7, 17, and 27. “At 27 years old,” he tells us, “my biggest fear was bein’ judged / How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city.” He feels the responsibility to represent himself well. “What they see from me would trickle down generations in time / What they hear from me would make ’em highlight my simplest lines.” Don’t worry, Kendrick. So far, you’re doing a remarkable job.

Collectors’ Edition (tracks in reverse):

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

3. Lorde: Melodrama
Best Tracks: Green Light | Perfect Places | Homemade Dynamite (Remix) | Liability
For Fans of: Kate Bush, perfect pop full of personality, Jack Antonoff, wisdom beyond someone’s years

I was watching the video for “Green Light” the other day when Lorde’s captivating essence fully hit me. Her charisma levels are off the charts. Every move, every facial expression, every random tick is compelling. That would be noteworthy in and of itself, but she’s also only 21 years old (and was just 19 when the bulk of Melodrama was recorded)! It’s unbelievable.

Lorde linked up with Jack Antonoff, the official producer of the moment, who has produced recent material from Taylor Swift, Sara Bareilles, P!nk, St. Vincent, and his own band, Fun. I’m personally not the biggest fan of Antonoff’s other work — it’s largely fine, with really great moments, but not as good as that of other pop producer extraordinaires like Max Martin. However, Melodrama is another story. Lorde and Antonoff bring the best out of each other, resulting in a triumph of an album.

The course of Melodrama is meant to follow the highs and lows of a house party. It begins with “Green Light,” pure manic elation distilled into song form. The syncopated piano and Lorde’s impassioned singing give it a contagious energy, and the line “She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar” is bitingly brilliant. “Sober” and “Homemade Dynamite” feel effortless in their excellence. “Liability” is reminiscent of Adele in its heart-on-sleeve piano balladry, but with Lorde’s unique melodic and lyrical sensibility. “So I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love…/ We slow dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see / Is one girl swaying alone, stroking her cheek.” Every track, one after the other, is thoughtful, unique, and refreshing.

It all wraps up with “Perfect Places”, one of the best album closers I’ve ever heard. Antonoff’s production picks up steam as it goes along, matching the fervor of Lorde’s overtures: “All the nights spent off our faces / Trying to find these perfect places / What the f— are perfect places anyway?” The last part of the song, when all the instrumentation ceases save for a piano and Lorde’s voice, is honestly breathtaking. “Perfect Places” feels like earned catharsis — a song full of invigorating emotional release.

I like Taylor Swift. I don’t think it’s always fair to compare her to Lorde. But I have to say it — Lorde is who Taylor Swift wishes she could be. I guarantee you she watched the “Green Light” video too and thought to herself, “Damn. I wish I could pull that off.”

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

2. Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Navigator
Best Tracks: Living in the City | Hungry Ghost | Pa’lante | Finale
For Fans of: Americana, Puerto Rico, folk, late ’60s soul, Dusty Springfield, rock, bomba, salsa, protest music

The Navigator was the album that took me most by surprise in 2017. I had never heard of Hurray for the Riff Raff until this year, and when I started seeing the name mentioned by various critics, I didn’t think a band called “Hurray for the Riff Raff” would warrant my attention. I have never been more wrong. Alynda Segarra, a Bronx-native of Puerto Rican descent, has fronted the project for ten years now, which has evolved from more restrained Americana to a full-fledged melting pot of genres on The Navigator. The impeccable songwriting and lively, creative production give the album a satisfyingly professional feel. I don’t mean professional as in “slick” or “flawless” — I mean it as a descriptor of its reliable excellence and authenticity throughout.

When I first heard the expertly-crafted, gritty, Rolling Stones-y vibe of “Living in the City”, I felt chills down my spine. Then came the propulsive indie rock feel of “Hungry Ghost”, and I was immediately enamored. Segarra touches on so many styles — country-blues on “Life to Save”, Americana on “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl”, quiet folk on “Halfway There”, slinky, smooth Latin grooves on “The Navigator” and “Rican Beach” — and yet they all cohere so well. The music is further elevated by Segarra’s singular voice, full of character, weary at times, passionate other times, and endlessly compelling. The penultimate track on the album serves as its climax — the show-stopping “Pa’lante”, a hopeful anthem of defiance that Segarra helms with grace and power.

I can’t recommend The Navigator enough. It’s an album that can appeal to large swaths of people of all ages, sexes, and ethnicities, with all sorts of musical tastes. It’s an album confident in itself, swinging for the fences while staying within its element. It’s by far the most underrated album of the last few years, and I urge you to take a listen.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 

1. The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding
Best Tracks: Pain | Strangest Thing | Holding On | Thinking of a Place
For Fans of: Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Ryan Adams, ’70s rock with ’80s production, epic & gorgeous rock n’ roll

Innovation takes different forms. Some artists create new sounds and formulae that have never been heard before. And some take a formula, tweak it, and improve it dramatically. Adam Granduciel, who writes and records as the War on Drugs, has a sensibility born from Springsteen-esque heartland rock of the 1980s, with all its twinkly guitars and synths. But he takes all the best elements from that era of music and compiles them in not just a unique way, but in a more emotionally resonant way.

I’m not saying the War on Drugs are better than Springsteen or Bob Dylan or Tom Petty or Mark Knopfler. All I’m saying is Adam Granduciel, with his obsessive vision and studio wizardry, is an expert at utilizing a palette of sounds from those that have come before him, adding a dash of atmospherics, and creating music that achieves maximum cathartic impact.

Thank goodness Granduciel is such a perfectionist. If not, we might not have had the xylophone line that comes in midway through “In Chains”, or the poignant “Show me how you do it!” line on “Clean Living” and great bass riff that follows, or the lull in the middle of “Thinking of a Place” that has you begging for the bass and drums to return and give sweet release, or the slow and steady lead-up that makes the guitar solo on “Strangest Thing” so epic. We wouldn’t have had the swirling catchiness of “Pain” or the comforting sway of “You Don’t Have to Go”. And maybe the heartwarming energy of “Holding On” wouldn’t have caused such a big, stupid grin to spread across my face.

A Deeper Understanding makes me feel connected to my memories, to loved ones, to the outdoors. It makes me want to hit the open road and just drive, a sentiment that can’t possibly be more of a cliché, but is still true nonetheless. A Deeper Understanding is wide-screen, American-made, horizon-chasing music that makes me feel alive.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 
And now, in compact list form:

1. The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding
2. Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Navigator
3. Lorde: Melodrama
4. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
5. The xx: I See You
6. Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness
7. Slowdive: Slowdive
8. The National: Sleep Well Beast
9. SZA: Ctrl
10. LCD Soundsystem: American Dream
11. Jay Som: Everybody Works
12. Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up
13. Japanese Breakfast: Soft Sounds from Another Planet
14. Charly Bliss: Guppy
15. Turnover: Good Nature
16. Broken Social Scene: Hug of Thunder
17. Father John Misty: Pure Comedy
18. Spoon: Hot Thoughts
19. Grizzly Bear: Painted Ruins
20. Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love
21. Jay-Z: 4:44
22. Moses Sumney: Aromanticism
23. Mac Demarco: This Old Dog
24. Sampha: Process
25. Hoops: Routines

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