Top 10 Albums of 2017

Come celebrate and commiserate the best albums of the year, from the National to K-Dot.

We’re all in this world together. That was the central message of music in 2017 – we’re all here, and we’re all trying. I, like many others, predicted 2017 to be a year full of protest music, but it really wasn’t. Two of the years’ best protest records came from Roger Waters and Randy Newman, two old white guys. This happened because, as two very wealthy, old, white men, they stand nothing to lose to a Fascist world that is rapidly decaying in real time. Meanwhile, charts are routinely dominated by people who are not old, white men, who cannot afford to take on the government and have instead focused inwards. What 2017 really delivered was a whole, whole bunch of phenomenal, dark, introspective records with artists forcing themselves to reckon their places in the world. But let’s step back and look at genres.

No one genre dominated the critical airwaves this year. There were plenty of noteworthy rap releases this year, from Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Big Sean, Vince Staples, to Future boldly releasing two albums in one week. Rap didn’t come for Trump like people expected (minus Eminem), but it still delivered. R&B had an absolutely amazing year for young artists, with SZA, Sampha, Kelela, Khalid, Jessie Ware and others releasing absolute powerhouse works. The indie revival of 2007 had its own revival this year, with Fleet Foxes, Feist, Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, Spoon and LCD Soundsystem all releasing new albums, many of which were better than noteworthy. Pop music had a balanced year, with misguided efforts from Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift nearly canceling out great albums by Lorde and Bjork (and the return of Kesha). Rock, as a whole, suffered. Foo Fighters somehow managed to pump out one of the best albums in their entire discography, but on the whole many bands took a year, and rock’s biggest marquee, U2, released a total bomb. Metal had a great year, with relative newcomers like Power Trip, Winds of Plague, and Code Orange releasing great albums along with great releases from stalwarts like Arch Enemy, Iced Earth and Cannibal Corpse. Also, a few classic rock acts threw their hats into the ring, with excellent new albums from Blondie, Roger Waters and Chuck Berry. While the music forecast of 2017 did not play out as predicted, it still provided a wealth of great new releases, far more than I can talk about here. If you’re one of those people who say that music sucks nowadays – pay attention to these lists.

But after looking at genres, I want to take another step back. I want to look at the big picture of 2017. No one really did well this year, overall. I mean – I got a great job and got a recent promotion – and still 2017 was a difficult year for me. We’re all struggling this year, in ways that we cannot explain to each other. For many of us (in America, if not worldwide – but I write from America), we’re living in a kind of country we have never known and always feared. I reiterate that we are all in this together, and almost no one that you know has an advantage right now. We can rise up, we can resist, we can persist. The America that we know and love will come back, I know it will. For now, we have to embrace what we are given. America is wonderful, and everyone reading is amazing, and I hope to all gods that it can stay that way. 2017 was the year we all struggled together. I hope you find some of the same empathy in music that I have.

So let’s get started.

#10. The National – “Sleep Well Beast”

(Photo credit: Amazon)

The National’s most immediately-likable album in years still finds ways to challenge the listener. Although tracks like singles “Day I Die” and “The System Only Dies in Total Darkness,” as well as pure amp-wrecker “Turtleneck” add a little more rock energy and level to the band’s format, there are still many somber, slower tracks to totally bring down the mood. There’s less repetition on this album, in both tempo and lyrics, which might explain why the album has a more accessible tone. This isn’t to shame their previous albums – each of their last four albums have been among the best albums of their respective years. But after a few years of quaking just under the public’s eye, this album might be the one they need to finally get the full commercial appreciation they deserve. It’s already picked up a Grammy nod for Best Alternative Album (a tight category that anyone could win), and is undoubtedly one of the alternative highlights of the year. Get sad! But also let loose and jam out!

#9. Bjork – “Utopia”

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was almost hoping I would poll this one out of my Top 10, because I don’t know how to talk about it. I mean, that’s the case with any Bjork album, but this one is no different. This album is a full sensory overload from start to finish, one that often includes noises of nature, especially birds. The album, aptly titled, places the listener in a world like no other album this year did. While Bjork’s last album, 2015’s “Vulnicura,” was a somber album full of justifiable heartbreak, as Bjork’s relationship with her longtime partner ended, this album is the bounce back. It’s tough to imagine Bjork in a relationship – texting her partner, laughing over dinner, the like; she has always presented herself as an ethereal, otherworldly being gracing us. And “Utopia,” despite the real-world influences, still sounds like it. The whole piece seems to embody the beauty of nature, and accepting the nature around us is often the first step in getting over a traumatic experience. She again teams up with Arca here, to full effect. Arca only recently started singing on his own music, and his expansion applies to the production, a huge, full effect. There are 13 credited flute players on this album, more than other musicians total. That should give some indication to the nature of this album – very pretty, very grounded in earthly tones, and yet very dense. I’m no Bjork expert, but damned if this isn’t one of the most intriguing, engaging, and sonically and physically depleting albums of the year. Much like the next album on this list – headphones are required. Is there anything Bjork can’t do?

#8. Slowdive – “Slowdive”

(Photo Credit: Slowdive)

The shoegaze revival is in full swing, but until “Slowdive” it was suffering a major problem – mediocrity. My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 reunion album “m b v” was great, but ultimately fell lost in the ether (I mean, they had to follow “Loveless”). The Jesus and Mary Chain released a downright bad album earlier this year, and Ride’s wasn’t anything to marvel over. But Slowdive remembered the biggest factor in shoegaze – patience. The songs on this album, their first in 21 years, are practically built around patience. The band lets the sound of their guitars engulf the listener completely and let it hang for minutes on end. And the thing that separates Slowdive from many other shoegaze bands – especially the recent rise of blackgaze bands – is the difficulty of the music. Many shoegaze bands offer extremely challenging, draining listens (high risk high reward, think “When You Sleep” or, uh, “Dream House”). But Slowdive are significantly more engaging, pleasant, even welcoming. The album’s standout track, “Star Roving,” is one of those rare songs that takes on different meanings in different moods. Personally, I discovered the song after a few mentally challenging days in the summer. The album is full of tracks that can bring you to conclusions you could never find on your own. It’s appropriate for practically every mood. The album has this effect of warming you in the dead of winter or being your companion during the nice summer days. Good shoegaze is often chalked up to the production, done here by Neil Halstead. It’s helpful as a producer when you’re also the frontman. Let this album into your life.

#7. SZA – “CTRL”

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of a few long-awaited debuts to finally drop this year, SZA’s “CTRL” feels like the sum of its best influences. SZA borrows the aesthetic of Solange and emotions of pre-boring Drake, diluting them and adding her own twist. The resulting album is arguably as good as each respective artists’ best work, if not better. A futuristic R&B album that’s equally toyful and emotional. Intense songs about cheating and relationship issues couple with warm tracks like “Drew Barrymore,” (and yes, the video does feature Drew Barrymore). SZA’s long-drawn struggle to record this album nearly made her quit music, but thankfully she persisted, and we got an amazing album documenting the highs and lows of everyday life, and the tumult SZA went through just to get this music out there. Christ, did you see her on SNL? Travis Scott, James Fauntleroy, Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar round out with delectable guest features, all culminating in a debut album that the music equivalent of finally cutting into a birthday cake at a party.

#6. St. Vincent – “MASSEDUCTION”(Photo credit: JamBase)

This was Annie Clark’s time to shine – her previous album, self-titled, was the major breakthrough she had deserved for a few years. It gave her a performance on an SNL season finale and won the Best Alternative Album Grammy (only the second female solo artist to win, behind the very first award to Sinead O’Connor*). The world expected her to go even bigger and even weirder, and she sure delivered. “MASSEDUCTION” hits the ground running with its vaguely uncomfortable cover art – a stark contrast to the grey tones on her last album. Everything about this album is different – shorter songs, less guitar, different topics, et al. Clark takes on celebrity culture all across this album, from the fakeness of neon lights to gleeful pill addictions to botox, all with wit, energy and a sprinkle of honest emotion. “St. Vincent” was settled in her four-piece band, with most tracks staying within the comforts of guitar-bass-drum-vocals alternative music**. This album stretches every boundary, from the low-key opener “Hang On Me” right into the hyper-aware and simply hyper “Pills.” This album is wild, fun, heartbreaking, and everything in between – it serves, intentionally or not, as the antidote we need for the numbness we feel in 2017. Side note – I recently saw St. Vincent again and I want to reiterate that she puts on the single best live show I’ve ever seen.

* – Bjork has 7 noms and 0 wins, Tori Amos 5, PJ Harvey 4, and Fiona Apple 2.

** – this sounds like a criticism. It’s not. “St. Vincent” is my all-time favorite album.

#5. Vince Staples – “Big Fish Theory”

(Photo credit: Consequence of Sound)

With two acclaimed EP’s and one acclaimed studio album in the bag, all Staples needed was one good full-length album to secure his place as one of the most riveting and irreplaceable young stars in rap. But he did more than that; he released one of the year’s best records. Don’t let the big beats of “Big Fish Theory” fool you – this is still Staples taking on rap from the inside. It’s one of the year’s most paranoid and self-aware albums, with Staples turning his sights outward from within, critiquing rap culture heavily without removing himself from that very mix. It’s a moody and heavy release, yet one that might get mistaken as club anthems by some of the more inept DJ’s. Take “Yeah Right,” one of the album’s best tracks. The song comes already bass-boosted and with a brilliant (if not short) K-Dot feature. But the lyrics about the unwarranted seriousness and importance that some rappers give themselves is equal parts critique and satire, not banger. Staples is at his very best when he is upfront about whatever is making him uncomfortable; on last year’s EP “Prima Donna,” it was himself – on “Big Fish Theory,” it’s everyone around him. Staples, who also guested on one of the very best songs of the year (check back Thursday!), completely cements himself as a force to be reckoned with. He may not be a chart-topping rapper, and he may not want to be, but he is every bit as influential as those that are.

#4. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 3”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Note: this album was surprise-released on Christmas Eve of last year (a merry fucking Christmas indeed!), but I made the decision to potentially include it as a 2017 album as the physical release remained in January.

The best pairing in rap (if not all of music) returned with an album that’s longer than their previous releases, and equally fruitful. “Run the Jewels 3” broke into the mainstream, an inevitable outcome for both Killer Mike and El-P, two 40+ year old rappers who have been poised for their moment to shine for waaaaay too long. The album is full of wild boasts and humorous one-liners that land hard (my personal favorite is El-P’s “I do push-ups nude on the edge of cliffs”), even more so than their first two releases. The album is more devoid of politics compared to their first two releases, but with beats so big and rhymes so infectious, it doesn’t even matter. Killer Mike spends an entire verse on “Call Ticketron” imagining himself in Amy Adams’ position in “Arrival.” And the album isn’t total irreverence – it can’t be with El-P involved. It’s just that personal boasts get mixed in along with social and political issues in a way that is surprisingly new to the duo. Their newfound fame has allowed for some flexing room, and the two legends use it to every single advantage. Well-landed guest spots from Danny Brown, Joi, Tunde Adebimpe, Kamasi Washington and – again – Zack de la Rocha boost the album into legendary status. RTJ3, motherfuckers.

#3. Mount Eerie – “A Crow Looked at Me”

(Photo Credit: Mount Eerie)

I nearly gave this the #1 position based purely on emotional factor and concept. The saddest album of the year is one that requires absolutely no effort. Mount Eerie, pseudonym of indie/folk/drone/experimental singer and musician Phil Elverum, lost his wife Geneviève Castrée to cancer shortly after she gave birth to the couple’s first child. This album, technically a concept album, sees Elverum enter, pass through, and leave the grieving process. The album was recorded by Elverum alone, in the room where his wife passed, using her instruments. That gut-punch alone solidifies a spot on this list. But it’s the way many of these songs play out – no choruses, lyrics sung directly to her, and abrupt endings – that make the listener wonder whether there’s master tapes full of in-house breakdowns around the final cuts. Other publications have said that this album isn’t music, and in a way it isn’t, it’s the thoughts of a man who can only process trauma by dictating them, set to guitar, because it’s what Elverum does. But at the same time, the album absolutely celebrates the music of life and death, from end to beginning, as Elverum still has his daughter’s whole life ahead of him. “It’s dumb / And I don’t wanna learn anything from this / I love you,” abruptly ends the opening track “Death is Real.” Whether Elverum learns anything or not is unclear, probably intentionally so. His intention was to lay every little thing out for us – and Geneviève – to see. And boy is it a lot. Get the tissues ready.

#2. Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

(Photo Credit: Aftermath Records and Top Dawg Entertainment)

Sporting the most direct album title this year (as well as one of the best album covers, losing only to Thundercat), Lamar’s return to this planet quickly turns from a welcoming return to a scorched-Earth battle. And what a one-sided battle it is. Lamar’s last full-length was the immediate-legend “To Pimp A Butterfly,” our pick for Best Album of 2015 (and most everyone else’s). That album saw Lamar transcend rap and even music into becoming a different kind of entertainer – dark, real, versatile, poet, rapper, addict, Christian, black, human, individual, group voice – he was everyone else as much as he was himself. Some admittedly valid criticisms of this album center on his grabbing of a role that wasn’t necessarily up for grabs – so he responded with a straightforward, dirty rap record based solely on his talent. Lamar wasn’t hiding behind any talent shields before, but he solidifies that here, letting his own flow, rhyme scheme and wit do justice. He even raps a story about the chance encounter his father had with his label owner many years prior. As with many K-Dot releases, guests are few – Rihanna shows up in a purely memorable track, Zacari drops in and, noticeably, there’s a song with U2. K-Dot got the good end of the deal, getting to sample a U2 song where he basically just shows up to the studio on their album. He also twice samples Geraldo Riviera, who specifically called him out for racism (?). Lamar didn’t necessarily need to prove his worthiness in pure rap, but he did anyways, and boy was it successful. As with his previous two full-lengths, he proves himself a force to be reckoned with, with a down to earth and brutal rap album that checks the one box his discography was missing. Lamar is the greatest rapper of his generation, and “DAMN.” proves it. Damn.

#1. Lorde – “Melodrama”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

It isn’t fair to call this the best pop album of the year, because it incorporates so many other elements that it rises well above pop into other-worldly interests. This year’s best album incorporates pop classics with alternative and even industrial into a listen that’s completely fulfilled and realized. Lorde, only 21, takes the cold and bold rejections that young folks often go through, and translates them to an international stage. This album is suburban ennui realized at its fullest. If her debut was from the voice of a teenager dreaming of luxury, then “Melodrama” is from that same person, eclipsing 20, realizing that life will never play out. Lorde is from New Zealand, but this album plays just as well in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. The album really explores the term “carefree,” the positives (of not caring what others think of you) and the negatives (messing up other people’s lives by interfering in their relationships), and it shows musically as well. Singles like “Green Light” and “Perfect Places” are straightforward pop jams, but the album dips into many different places, most noticeably on the double song “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” the former half of which jolts the listener into straight industrial, Einstürzende Neubauten performing on a highway style. I don’t think Lorde intended to release the album that encapsulates America’s inconsistent and despondent mood of 2017, but she did so in a way that offers more solace than we can find in each other, the news, or anything outside. I recommend giving this album multiple revisits, there is something for your every mood right now.

Runners-up: Fever Ray, “Plunge,” Jay-Z, “4:44,” Power Trip, “Nightmare Logic,” Sampha, “Process,” Fleet Foxes, “Crack-Up”

Hey! So you probably have disagreements about my list (I probably will too, tomorrow). Please feel free to leave a comment below telling me about how much you loved a certain album or how you think I should’ve included something (unless it was the Chainsmokers’ album – then don’t bother). This is all one man’s opinion, and if you think I missed something great this year, let me know! Also please be sure to check my personal blog at postgradmusicreviews.com where I will have my totally subjective list of favorite albums and songs up hopefully by year’s end. And check back here for our continuing coverage of the year’s best movies, shows and songs! See y’all next year!

One Response to Top 10 Albums of 2017

  1. […] it was amazing nonetheless. I won’t spend a lot of time running down the genres like I did in my albums post, so I will just say that this list was incredibly tough to narrow down and that many, many […]

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