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.

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The 15 Best Live Performance Videos of 2017

 
Our year-end coverage continues here, with the 2nd annual installment of the best live performance clips of year. We already covered the best songs of 2017, and check back here for the best albums of 2017, coming soon.

Before proceeding, I want to give quick honorable mentions to both Moses Sumney’s and Jay Som’s exquisite Tiny Desk Concerts, the War on Drugs owning the stage in Amsterdam with an epic version of “Under the Pressure,” and Rae Sremmurd bringing energy to the Ellen Degeneres Show and making white people dance in hilariously awkward fashion to “Black Beatles.”

Alright, let’s go.

15. Japanese Breakfast (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Michelle Zauner went atmospheric on her newest album, but all the production is absent during her Tiny Desk Concert. Zauner brings in a string quartet to help round out her arrangements, which are emotionally resonant and deeply beautiful.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tK4gaJwXw_4
 

14. Slowdive: “Sugar for the Pill” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Slowdive, who came back in 2017 to release their first album in 22 years, inhabit the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn to play “Sugar for the Pill.” They have no trouble filling the large, empty space with their dreamy soundscapes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tWhPv2U6aQ
 

13. Anderson .Paak: “Am I Wrong” (Live on Ellen)
In January, the human ball of talent named Anderson .Paak stopped by the Ellen Degeneres Show to play “Am I Wrong” from one of last year’s best albums, Mailbu. Paak sings, dances, hypes, jumps, and plays drums tremendously, and then tops it off by bringing his cute son to bust some moves at the end.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dxOpxdp0kI
 

12. Bon Iver: “8 (circle)” (La Blogotheque: One to One)
All Justin Vernon needs is a guitar and an echoey room to enthrall just about anyone (emphasis on the “one”). In a new series from La Blogotheque called “One to One,” artists play a song for just one person. Here, Vernon plays a stripped-down version of “8 (circle)” from last year’s anything-but-stripped-down album, 22, A Million. Watching him bare his musical soul to one person seated inches away is a bit awkward, I’m not going to lie. But the unimaginable beauty of Vernon’s voice and guitar makes it worth it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f2-88pyRtU#t=57s
 

11. Mac Demarco: “Still Beating” & “This Old Dog” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
La Blogotheque has recorded their “Take Away Shows,” where artists play in unconventional settings in and around Paris, for about a decade now. My favorite offering from them this year was by the eminently chill Mac Demarco. Demarco takes his acoustic guitar on a cloudy stroll through a noisy park, complete with kids playing and yelling, birds chirping, sirens blaring, and multiple French dudes hilariously deciding it was a good idea to talk to/sing at him while recording, which Demarco engages with affably. Even through the funny distractions, the beauty and intimacy of his introspective songs still shine through.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5RSQaF0I2o
 

10. Frank Ocean: “Nikes (Rehearsal)” (Live from Frank’s Tumblr)
Frank Ocean’s voice is the eighth wonder of the world. The noted recluse finally released his amazing, long-awaited follow-up album Blonde last year, which featured the trippy, almost psychedelic opening track “Nikes.” Luckily for us, Ocean decided to post a video to his Tumblr of him rehearsing the track, with nothing but an electric piano to back him. His voice soars and swoons. There’s no auto-tune or studio trickery to improve it — it’s just there, bare and emotive, conveying the weariness inside of him with every note.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XT-FM0hj1NI
 

9. Alabama Shakes; Nas (PBS: American Epic Sessions)
PBS recently produced a series that explores music in the early 20th century, when folk and blues artists were being discovered by major labels. T Bone Burnett and Jack White used the only recording system still working from the 1920s to capture modern artists covering old blues standards, resulting in the “American Epic Sessions.” Alabama Shakes come in to play a bouncy, delightful rendition of “Killer Diller,” satisfyingly pleasing in its historical accuracy. Nas then does a fun hip-hop-style cover of “On the Road Again,” originally by the Memphis Jug Band in 1928. Watch the Alabama Shakes clip followed by the Nas clip (along with narration) below.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFHbfApw9kk&list=PLqpBLIvY2a6dnK8Zsr27aUQrhh-6ijyXt&index=1
 

8. Hurray for the Riff Raff: “Rican Beach” & “Pa’lante” (Live at SXSW)
The talent of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra cannot be overstated. She writes songs that are both musically engaging and lyrically powerful, and has a stellar bluesy voice. Segarra brings the heat on “Rican Beach,” a song dripping in sweat that tackles gentrification: “Well you can take my life, but don’t take my home.” She really brings it home on “Pa’lante,” which already sounds like a ’70s standard even though it just came out this year. Starting out as a somewhat slow piano ballad, it eventually builds steam until it hits you in the gut.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsEniAjwiGc&index=1&list=PLqpBLIvY2a6dOI_SW-YMbkmIOHw0S7Fkg
 

7. Spoon: “I Ain’t the One” (Live on KEXP)
Spoon stopped by the KEXP studios in Seattle to play “I Ain’t the One,” a cinematic, brooding, extremely cool song from their latest album. The track’s intensity lends itself to soundtracking some legendary slow-motion movie scene. Throughout the song, Britt Daniel motions to whoever controls the sound to make certain instruments louder or softer — at first, good-naturedly, but then you can sense his exasperation at not getting the sound levels just right. Even though the situation is clearly annoying him a little bit, he’s a great multitasker, because he still delivers his vocal performance with tenacity and passion.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlxu4__OIl0
 

6. Sampha (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
All of the clips on this list are amazing, but not all of them feature perfect singing. Even some of the best singers falter once or twice in a live setting. Sampha’s voice, however, is perfect. And not only is it perfect, but it’s unique. No one in the world sounds like Sampha. The singer-songwriter from south London comes to the NPR Music offices to enchant us with powerful songs from his latest album, with the spare and gorgeous “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” (a top 5 song of the year!) as the centerpiece.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnIu25lXXY8
 

5. Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, & Nico Muhly: “Mercury” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Sufjan Stevens has been on a tear ever since releasing the best album of 2015, what with the live album, the B-sides and outtakes album, and, most notably, his team-up with Bryce Dessner of the National, classical music composer Nico Muhly, and drummer James McAllister to record an album about the solar system called Planetarium. NPR Music recorded the Planetarium group playing “Mercury” at an NYC studio, and it is simply gorgeous. The four elements — piano, viola, electric guitar, and Sufjan’s ethereal voice — combine to form a full-sounding, picture-perfect blend of classical, folk, and post-rock that is glorious to behold.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YG8wLT8SFiw
 

4. Chance the Rapper: “How Great” & “All We Got” (Live at the Grammys)
Chance the Rapper’s star is rising fast, recently hosting SNL, appearing on Sesame Street, and playing at President Obama’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the end of last year (while Sasha mouthed every word). Back in February, Mr. The Rapper played at the Grammys and absolutely killed it. It takes a special ability to command attention from such a large audience, both in person and through the TV, but Chance succeeds with his intensity and earnest desire to reach out and uplift (not to mention, his incredible backup gospel choir).

I was able to find the performance divided into three parts on YouTube — below, you’ll find Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the four and a half minute performance. If you want to listen to the whole thing uninterrupted, here’s audio of it. I recommend watching it though for the full effect.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YZ5SeJh5kA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrnOAwTsE-w
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aglIJXvvLqo
 

3. Lorde (Live at Electric Lady Studios)
Lorde is one of the most interesting, compelling pop stars we have. She has an energy that is entirely captivating, making it hard to look away when she’s performing. Lorde recorded a series of intimate performances at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York — each of the six videos feature a stripped down version of a track from Lorde’s oustanding new album, Melodrama. All of the songs are presented in a unique way and they each sound incredible, enhanced by Lorde’s visible passion amid the candle light. My favorites are “Sober,” “Homemade Dynamite,” and “Supercut,” though they are all excellent. Watch a playlist of the videos below, starting with “Sober.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sExX9XmTtbQ&list=PL3crNDYIQO1DTIApRP_cFF5dpIg18whG8
 

2. Tuxedo (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Live music is enticing when it either demonstrates skill, poignancy, fun, or some combination of the three. Tuxedo’s Tiny Desk Concert falls squarely in the “fun” category, though not without some obvious skill as well. Mayer Hawthorne (a D-Brad Music favorite) and Jake One, the duo that make up Tuxedo, assembled a mini-band to play their late-’70s/early-’80s-era funk and it’s extremely enjoyable. Of all the pleasing moments (including a button that goes “HO!” and the realization that a cassette is playing the drum beats), my favorite is during the chorus of “2nd Time Around,” when Hawthorne and backup singer Gavin Turek break out their simple but synchronized dance moves. It’s awesome to see them clearly having such a good time.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WyqHfJOj-I
 

1. HAIM: Valentine (Short Film, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
HAIM teams up with with the illustrious film director Paul Thomas Anderson — the brain behind some of my all-time favorite movies, including There Will Be Blood and this year’s Phantom Thread — to deliver a stunning portrait of a talented band at work. Anderson captures HAIM in the studio performing three songs off their recent sophomore album: “Right Now,” “Something to Tell You,” and “Nothing’s Wrong.” He uses very few shots, opting for long takes where the camera moves about the studio, training its lens on each member of the band in turns. But though Anderson should be commended for the way he captures the band, the three Haim sisters are the stars of the show. Their playing is impressively taut, their voices (especially that of lead singer Danielle Haim) are incredible, and their overall musical prowess is immediately apparent. Every drum hit, every guitar lick, every vocal line sounds crisp and fresh, authentic and vibrant.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc2x5aHCs6g

Best Albums of 2016

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With the gradual proliferation of streaming services and curated playlists, for a while it didn’t look likely that the “album” format would survive. Yet here we are, at a time where the biggest pop stars are releasing cohesive, fully developed ALBUMS, in capital letters. I will always have a soft spot for the album as a concept, whether contained on discs of vinyl or within links to Spotify pages. Smash hits lie alongside deep cuts to form one 30-70 minute statement reflecting the artist’s pain and joy, their view of the world, their quest to express the words in their head and the riffs in their gut. Here are my 25 favorite albums of 2016.

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Best Songs of 2016

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When life is terrible, music is always there as a buoy to hold you up or a companion to understand you. It can provide encouragement, escape, respite, validation, catharsis. And man, we needed it in 2016.

The year’s music, as it always does, took all shapes and sizes. We welcomed back the beloved (Radiohead, Bon Iver), became acquainted with genre-bending stars-in-the-making (Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada), and entrusted indie rock in the hands of promising young storytellers (Car Seat Headrest, Pinegrove). The very top of the rap food chain graced us with new tracks (Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar), as well as up-and-coming rappers coming to take their throne (Chance the Rapper, Joey Purp, Kamaiyah, YG, Rae Sremmurd). Knowles sisters dazzled (Beyoncé, Solange), pop stars sizzled (Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande), and recluses reemerged (Frank Ocean, The Avalanches). Rock is not dead, whether you want your proof in classic form (Whitney, Steve Gunn, Angel Olsen), pop form (Chairlift, Japanese Breakfast), or rip-roaring riff form (Sheer Mag, Bent Shapes). And iconic, legendary artists bid their last, brilliant farewells (David Bowie, A Tribe Called Quest). Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, these songs from 2016 will probably remind me of pain, but I think those feelings of pain will be accompanied by the good memories that filled the cracks this year.

D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2016: Spotify Playlist
D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2016: YouTube Playlist

I hope the songs on this list either made a lasting impact on you this year, or that they will in the coming year as you check them out. I love celebrating good music and sharing in that celebration, so please comment freely about songs you love (or don’t love) and let’s talk about it.

One thing of note: I’ve been doing these ‘Best Songs’ lists for 10 years now. My first installment was in 2006, when the top song went to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, a choice that I still stand by. So, happy 10th anniversary!

Also, for the second year in a row, my wife Taylor has provided some superb cover art. There are a lot of hidden gems relating to the year in music, so spend some time with it and check it out.

It’s always a constant struggle to keep these lists to 50, so here are 15 songs that barely missed the cut:

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Best Albums of 2015

When I was a freshman/sophomore in college, I insisted that my “best albums of the year” lists were unequivocally correct. Whichever top 25 albums I listed were, by all measures, the absolute “best” of the year, no questions asked. With a little perspective, I now know that that was completely ridiculous. The 25 albums represented here are the “best” to me, according to my limited world view. I try to keep that world view as open as possible so that all albums are welcome here. I also try to take into account an album’s importance, reach, and influence on a larger scale. But ultimately, these 25 albums are the ones I loved listening to the most. I immensely enjoyed them, and I hope you did/will too.

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Best Songs of 2015

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We were provided with an embarrassment of riches in 2015. Beloved artists returned with flawless albums (Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney), artists in their peak pushed the boundaries into completely new territory (Kendrick Lamar, Grimes, Tame Impala), and newcomers hearkened back to classics from days past (Leon Bridges, Natalie Prass, Tobias Jesso Jr.). This was my favorite year for music since 2012 — there were so many songs that would have qualified for this list if they had come out any other year, but the competition was just too much in 2015.

D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2015: Spotify Playlist
D-Brad’s Best Songs of 2015: YouTube Playlist

Also, special thanks to Taylor for the awesome cover art.

Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions that it killed me to exclude.

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