60. White Hills – Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)
White Hills epic ’80s callback
Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they’re aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From “Overlord’s” dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to “Attack Mode”, which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band’s mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you’ll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band’s unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. – Morgan Y. Evans
Please don’t adblock PopMatters.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers. We can’t survive without your support.
59. Everything Everything – A Fever Dream (RCA)
Everything Everything is a band of impossible ambition, apparent from even the name. Merely everything is not enough for this prog-pop quartet and frankly, the world may not be ready to oblige. “I want this planet, and I want it now / to beat like an anvil ’til the poison’s out” begins “Desire”, one of the album’s early gut-punches. If these were times of hope and prosperity, maybe egos this size would be celebrated. But we’ve made that mistake before. Hovering in our minds is the expectation that we must repent for generations of excess with modesty, conservation, quiet introspection.
A Fever Dream embodies none of this. It reeks of English imperialism and mulish masculinity. It’s bombastic beyond belief, and it’s exactly what we need.
Everything Everything’s fourth record is its most personal and urgent yet. The lyrics seem to be a document for primary songwriter Jonathan Higgs’ psychological condition, and it’s a troubling one, to say the least. He wears his insecurities like armor, and his pride gleams like Excalibur. Enshrouding his big plans for this world gone mad are doubt and defeatism and a predisposition for hedonism. It’s the battle of Jonathan vs. the world, but also of the world vs. the world, and of Jonathan vs. Jonathan. For us sons and daughters of the microprocessor, a mere trip to the grocer’s forces us to contend with the unruly exponential growth of this absurdist empire—our neighborhoods and international networks, ids and egos are in constant need of rewiring
That concluding track of
A Fever Dream rides out with the mantra: “Never tell me that we can’t go further.” The title of this track is “White Whale”—that impossible desire perpetually just out of reach. Whether for peace on earth or a little peace of mind, the struggle to satisfy it can lead only to insanity or death. But Everything Everything would never strive for anything less. – A. Noah Harrison
58. Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)
Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and other times you don’t realize it until it returns. Following an eight-year hiatus since
Other Truths, Do Make Say Think’s previous album, Stubborn Persistent Illusions is the boldest, most arresting progression of songs that the Toronto unit have crafted since Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn in 2003. Among the swells and cries of their heavier-hearted Constellation label mates such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Silver Mt. Zion permutations, Do Make Say Think always set themselves apart by keeping spry and limber. The band was, and remains, a kind of compact jazz orchestra in rock band’s clothing. Not a moment is wasted even in the record’s tranquil stretches. This is fitting for an album whose concept comes from something as deep yet fleeting as an “image in a Buddhist poem about working with a wild mind.” – Ian King
57. The Dream Syndicate –
How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-)
Thirty years on from their last studio album, 1988’s
Ghost Stories, Steve Wynn has reconvened the Dream Syndicate to release what is arguably the band’s best record ever. Yes, Days of Wine & Roses will always remain a touchstone for longtime fans, its surprises still fresh after decades, but How Did I Find Myself Here? distills every lesson Wynn had learned over a long and adventurous career into a coherent eight-song set that finds his band confident and playful in equal measure, amped up and in sync. Here, Wynn is joined by longtime drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton and, as he has since the Dream Syndicate’s 2012 reformation as a touring unit, Jason Victor (Wynn’s longtime partner in Miracle 3) has replaced Paul Cutler on guitar. Further, Kendra Smith’s surprising and welcome return on album closer “Kendra’s Dream” evaporates time to connect past and future in a perfect psychedelic drift. It all adds up to a triumphant and fitting capstone for the legendary band.
56. Lee Ann Womack – The Lonely, the Lonesome, & the Gone (ATO)
Lee Ann Womack recorded
The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone in Houston, not far from the small town where she grew up. The album is rich with a mythical Texas in the best possible ways. Womack sings with a twang and gets sentimentally soppy or wickedly mean as the songs suggest. She goes to the extremes one would expect of a Lone Star musician. It may not be the biggest state geographically, but Texans have always done things bigger. Like her fellow state-mate George Jones, whose gospel “Take the Devil Out of Me” she covers, she’s pure country, meaning she probably won’t be played on country radio these days. Womack wrote half of the songs here, and redoes classic material associated with Patsy Cline, Lefty Frizzell, and Johnny Cash. She covers them with a style that shows her respect for past masters and still manages to make their songs her own. – Steve Horowitz
55. Charly Bliss – Guppy (Barsuk)
On the first track of
Charly Bliss‘ debut album Guppy, the pop-rock band, led by potent vocalist Eva Hendricks, makes a bold declaration of self. On “Percolator”, Hendricks defines her artistic self and if that definition includes some uncertainty and some conflict, so much the better as Hendricks’s confidence bursts forth in accepting all those elements. The rest of the album, a joyous bash of guitars and energy, pounds through related but non-repetitive territory. Hendricks takes on relationships, abuse, and harassment (and more), vocalizing complex feelings and ideas that need to be heard. She shifts quickly from anger to humor to questioning without breaking stride. The band and its sound of eating candy in the garage delivers catchy melodies and bright sounds that matches the sense of seeking and realization throughout the album. Guppy looks for sense in a demanding world while retaining a strong center, keeping a strong self-assurance in the face of various challenges. – Justin Cober-Lake
54. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy (Columbia)
After baiting the media with controversial, derogatory statements for years, the fact that
Flower Boy was hyped as the album where Tyler, the Creator came out of the closet was, for some, reason enough to dig into it, to give him a second chance, to reassess his past statements or, you know, dismiss him all over again. Yet despite lines about “kissing white boys since 2004”, the crux of Flower Boy isn’t Tyler revealing his sexuality so much as he’s revealing his loneliness. This is a profoundly sad album, where the immaculate production hits all of your brain’s pleasure centers at once while distracting you from how isolated he feels. Happiness is always elusive, which is why he pulls out every trick he can to prevent us from seeing the real human beneath, from stacking the tracks with guest spots to releasing the worst song as the lead single. Yet the more time you spend with it, the more you wan to keep coming back to the emotional world he’s constructed for himself. You’ll share in his loneliness, too. – Evan Sawdey
53. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life (Interscope)
The image of physically scaling the Hollywood sign’s “H” encapsulates Lana Del Rey’s ethos in that celebrity is not some abstract pinnacle one reaches but one that needs to be experienced in person. Chasing the rush of fame drove the impeccable
Born to Die and, five years later, the feeling of having achieved it is evoked by the smoldering warmth of Lust for Life. Still, the disarray of the world broke through even to pop’s foremost escapist, but she addresses it and her well-earned status with cryptic optimism; “Is it the end of an era? / … / No, it’s only the beginning.” What Lust for Life teaches is that one can – and, possibly, should – stay as vigilant towards the affairs that affect us all while also indulging in the selfish, beautiful act of seeking love. – Brian Duricy
52. Paramore – After Laughter (Fueled by Ramen)
Many bands know what a Herculean undertaking reinventing their sound is. This year, nobody did it better than former pop-punkers Paramore. Four years since their last release, Hayley Williams and co. released
After Laughter, which fuses sleek elements of ’80s new wave, funk, and synthpop while keeping their emotional foundations intact. The most important ingredient to Paramore’s success is the return of founding member Zac Farro, whose musical direction in side project HalfNoise point to the influence he had on crafting the new Paramore. Although ten years removed from their breakout, Riot!, they’re still “in the business of misery” with songs like “Fake Happy” and hit single “Hard Times”. But if the misery business means more of these grooving bass lines and tropical marimbas and guitar riffs, sign me up. – Chris Thiessen
51. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket (Domino)
Alex Giannascoli refines his paradoxical impulses on
Rocket. On his eighth full-length overall, and second for Domino, he crafts a beautifully strange brew of haunting folk with a narrative that’s oddly indistinct. He’s learned to work within the constraints of an album, a format that he treated with some flippancy during his Bandcamp years, though he still finds any excuse to circumvent the format as he draws upon a patchwork of ideas. Giannascoli finds his muse in longtime collaborator, and partner, Molly Germer, an accomplished violinist who adds whim and character to his otherwise sparse arrangements. From yearning country ballad “Bobby” — their voices entwined and harmonized to their lush, string-led compositions — to the gliding melancholy of “Powerful Man”, they provide a touching ode to traditional folk that comes across as some alien take on a Smithsonian Folkways recording. And yet Rocket is so much more, taking on a surfeit of modern and antiquated music styles set against a backdrop of bucolic terrain. But even at its most eccentric, Giannascoli has accomplished a winsome collection of handcrafted songs that leave a lasting impression. – Juan Edgardo Rodriguez
50. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet (Dead Oceans)
For her second album as Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner turned away from the inner pain and turmoil that characterized her 2016’s
Psychopomp and looked to the stars.
Soft Sounds from Another Planet looks ever upward, both as a sign of hope and as a means of keeping ones’ self going. Zauner’s all-encompassing take on pop has grown to an even greater degree, to the point where a girl-group tribute like “Boyish” can stand alongside the day-glo electronica of “Machinist”, and it never feels incongruous. All the while, Zauner’s lyrics are still very much bound to Earth, covering everything from awkward sexual encounters to anxiety and dysmorphia. In that sense, Soft Sounds is more of a continuation in their work than a sharp turn in a different direction, but everything about it is so grand and expansive that one can’t help but look at it as something different entirely. Rarely has promise been so fully and brilliantly fulfilled. – Kevin Korber
Please don’t adblock PopMatters.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers. We can’t survive without your support.
49. Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Sidelong (Bloodshot)
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers’ hard living, pro-LGBTQ brand of authentic outlaw country is about as pure as it gets these days. It’s far and away my favorite album of the year of any genre. A punk and whiskey-informed but non-hipster diminished real country effort, the collection is jam packed with warm sounds for cold nights and yarns that will pull you in and make you sing, cry, and relate even if you have a cynic’s heart of stone. You’d likely expect a lot of unflinching storytelling from a group that cites Hank Williams Sr. and Sex Pistols as their main influences on their Facebook page, but when Sarah warbles that she “…can’t decide which one of us will be the nail in this here coffin”, you will be right there in the bar with her reliving every regretful choice or leap of three drinks in faith you ever took. “Dwight Yoakum” has all the ache required and then some, while “Fuck Up” and “Make It Up to Mama” act as angels and devils on the shoulder of potential greatness. Don’t beat yourself up, Sarah Shook. You already are friggin’ amazing. –
Morgan Y. Evans
48. Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai (Merge)
Uyai bursts out of the speakers with exuberance. The rare musical talent that is Ibibio Sound Machine is all about the infectious dancehall grooves. Witness standouts like opener “Give Me a Reason” and “The Pot Is on the Fire”, harmonious fusions of Afrobeat and classic ’80s synths, while downtempo tracks like “One That Lights Up” and “Sunray” contain irresistibly funky beats. “Joy” brims with an understated chanting beneath shuffling breakbeats. “Guide You” takes us back to disco’s primordial days, yet the inclusion of call-and-response (both in the vocals and the synths versus horns) brings a fresh sound to the genre. Lead singer Eno Williams, drawing heavily from her African heritage, keeps things in check with a voice that sometimes rouses us to dance and other times uses repetition to help us sink in deeper. “Uyai” translates to “beauty” in the Ibibio language, and in under an hour, the Sound Machine has given us a great example worthy of the word. – Tristan Kneschke
47. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains (Matador)
On the cerebral yet accessible
Villains, the band doesn’t indulge in gratuitous solos or extended jams. Instead, consistent variation keeps the songs dynamic; no copy-and-paste songwriting here. The unlikely addition of producer Mark Ronson further stirs the pot, lending a funkier sensibility to the hard rock outfit on their seventh outing. Arrangements are built upon swaggering opening vamps or morphed into entirely new segments as on “The Evil Has Landed”. Frontman Josh Homme’s songwriting abilities are poured into the propulsive seven-minute “Un-Reborn Again” and atmospheric closer “Villains of Circumstance”, among the most enjoyable journeys on the release. Villains also contains raucous rockers like “Head Like a Haunted House” and the aggressive “Domesticated Animals” that provide a link to the band’s earlier material. If iPod commercials still existed, single “The Way You Used to Do” would be an obvious contender. On Villains, the boys make it look easy. – Tristan Kneschke
46. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
For the introverts out there, Moses Sumney has heard your plea. “We have more than enough
Sea Change and Blood on the Tracks records for breakups and almost as many albums documenting someone’s new-found love — but where’s my album?” After two EPs, the Los Angeles-residing singer/songwriter released Aromanticism, a debut album that virtually guarantees it will not be confused with any other artist in your collection. Sumney’s lyrics skillfully juxtapose symbols of strength with things that are anything but, especially in songs like “Plastic”, where he repeatedly confesses “My wings are made of plastic.” In the straightforward “Make Out in My Car”, Sumney states that he’s not trying to bed someone, instead, he’s fine just sticking to making out in his car. With Aromanticism, aloneness can be both a crutch and something sacred. In Sumney’s case, like the genre-less album itself, solitude can be a reason for celebration. – Sean McCarthy
45. Foxygen – Hang (Jagjaguwar)
It’s easy to find comfort and familiarity in popular music and that’s particularly true of rock bands. Most evoke a small handful of artists or temperaments familiar to anyone versed in a canon that begins with the Beatles and ends with Nirvana and that’s usually the way we engage with them. (See: any review of a War on Drugs album.)
It’s not difficult to spot Foxygen’s influences — Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Stephen Sondheim — but they’re beside the point on
Hang, because it’s one of a few rock albums whose ambition isn’t a matter of duration or narrative coherence, but rather, idea density. It produces sensations similar to watching a sly but well-trained acrobat, the feeling that the act could collapse with one, small misstep and the thrilling uncertainty that comes with not knowing whether the performer is heightening the perceived danger of his act or is simply impervious to it. In Foxygen, you sense a little bit of both — a desire to stack tones, traditions, and tempos so high they might topple and a willingness to bear that risk. The risk pays off on Hang, which transcends comfort, familiarity, and influence, and makes me wish more rock bands would try to do what Foxygen has achieved. – Mark Matousek
44. Alvvays – Antisocialites (Polyvinyl)
Indie pop is full of discontented dreamers but Alvvays are almost certainly among the least content and the most wistful. Lyrically, second album
Antisocialites embodies the modern mantra/meme (is there a difference?) “disappointed but not surprised”: it’s full of exasperated judgment, hard frustration, and solemn resignation, and it’s tipped with phrases like “There’s no turning back.” Musically, the album is a stoic monument to hope and yearning, flecked with soft synthesizers and chiming guitars, sitting at the precipice between dreamlike apathy and temperate energy without any clear separation between the two. It’s a winning combination in any year, but it’s particularly resonant in 2017, a year in which we’ve repeatedly been asked to suffer some fresh indignity every time we crawl back into the world. We’re all tired; Antisocialites is a fitting lullaby. – Colin Fitzgerald
43. Big Thief – Capacity (Saddle Creek)
Stories are in plentiful supply on
Capacity. Singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker is a committed lyricist, a nuanced narrator who enhances the listening experience as she conjures scenes of devastating pathos. But Capacity, the Brooklyn band’s second effort, wouldn’t be as affecting if not for their skilled musicianship. Big Thief’s bewitching folk rock is equal parts forceful and vulnerable, where supple guitar flourishes waver over rootsy arrangements with intricate sophistication. Lenker anchors the album with careful articulation, never letting their compositions stray too far from their folky, acoustic constitution. She alludes to these places she writes about as if inhabiting them, word for word and with keen detail, as each song requires a deeper level of engagement. It’s a wholly rewarding listen that seeks truth in its character sketches through tales that are direct and merciless. – Juan Edgardo Rodriguez
42. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (Mello Music Group)
Open Mike Eagle grew up in Chicago, spending his days with his aunt and cousins who lived in the Robert Taylor public housing projects. The last building in the projects was demolished in 2011 after a years-long, contentious battle;
it failed and fell, just like America’s failure to deal with low-income and impoverished people. With
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Open Mike Eagle weaves his signature dark comedy lyricism with sincere moments of nostalgia, frustration, and pain. He paints a nuanced picture of life in America’s semi-forgotten corners in a way that acknowledges the dark and the light. Mike and his producers successfully infuse the album with whimsical instrumentals, comic book vibes, and vibrant imagery that shows another side to the story of America’s rapid gentrification. This is the story of the people whose lives, whose identities, and whose bodies are so deeply connected to their destroyed homes. – Dan Kok
41. Syd – Fin (Columbia)
Born from Odd Future, the space/streets-bound R&B group the Internet has crafted their own compelling past+future vision over the last five or so years. In 2017 the Internet spawned three great solo records – one by Matt Martians, one by Steve Lacy (who also produced a track on Kendrick Lamar’s
DAMN) and Fin, the sly, abundant debut full-length from the group’s vocalist Syd. The title has a finality to it but more likely references Syd’s fin-like mohawk haircut. The aquatic allusion suits the music, sleek and subterranean, and the lyrics dwell on undercover pleasure. With whispery bravado, Syd sings about independence in all things, especially between the sheets. Embodying and redefining the construct of the strutting frontperson, she describes seducing the hearts and bodies of women – stealing them away from their lovers, be they men or women – while blazing her own trail musically and building a foundation for success on her own terms. – Dave Heaton
40. Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free (ATO)
The immediate impression you get upon hearing
Freedom Is Free, the latest album from L.A.’s Chicano Batman, is that of an old, battered, obscure album from 1972 that you found in your cool uncle’s vinyl collection. Or maybe it’s something you discover while aimlessly browsing a flea market. The music here has that kind of authenticity. The thing is, it’s brand new music. But it sounds like it wasn’t recorded within 100 miles of a laptop. Chicano Batman — a quartet consisting of Bardo Martinez (vocals, guitar, organ), Carlos Arevalo (guitar), Eduardo Arenas (bass, vocals) and Gabriel Villa (drums, percussion) — make music that seems hermetically sealed from another time, yet their politics and social commentary are as vital as ever in this day and age. – Chris Ingalls
39. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian)
French-kissing 15-year-olds. Mormon missionaries in Scandinavia. A Cambrian conga line. The cast of characters that makes up
Life Will See You Now, Jens Lekman’s finest album, are as eclectic as those cavorting around on Lekman’s breakthrough LP, Life Falls Over Kortadela. A stark contrast to 2012’s relatively muted I Know What Love Isn’t, Life Will See You Now opens with the bug-eyed optimism of “To Know Your Mission”, Lekman’s quirky take on a Broadway-style set piece that imbues the whole album with an infectious jubilation. The bouncy melody of album highlight “Wedding in Finistère”, the shimmering steel drums on “What’s that Perfume You Wear?”, and the string-accented disco of “How We Met (The Long Version)” culminate in an album that embraces life in all its unpredictability. Lekman hasn’t lost his ear for clever sampling: “Postcard #17” borrows a stunning chord progression from a Charles Mingus solo piano piece to an unforgettable effect. – Brice Ezell
38. Mount Kimbie – Love That Survives (Warp)
British electronic duo Mount Kimbie are a shining of example of what happens when the boundaries of a genre are torn down. Coming in at the tail end of the UK dubstep and rave explosion of the late ’00s, Mount Kimbie positioned themselves on the fringes of that scene — never quite fitting within its restrictive parameters and never willing to sacrifice musical vision for a fast buck.
They were not alone out there on the edge. Friend and collaborator James Blake was right there with them, showing the world that dubstep could mean more than murky synths and 140 beats per minute. Both acts would eventually step from the shadows and shake off the chains of dubstep, going on to create some of the UK scene’s most challenging and interesting records. Blake features again on this — Mount Kimbie’s third, and arguably best, album — his distinctive vocals providing a haunting exeunt on the piano-driven “How We Got By”.
It’s one of the albums many highlights, admittedly — as is the urgent and raucous “Blue Train Lines” featuring London sensation King Krule, who’s had a great year himself — but
Love What Survives is far more than a showcase of friends in high places. It feels like a document of optimism and beauty amid the the awkward and the dissolute. In many ways, it’s a letter from the heart of Britain in 2017 — fractured, divided, but still able surprise and delight when necessary.
Love What Survives is a work that owes more to the collision of styles and ideas that is Broken Social Scene than it does to Benga and to grimy London dubstep clubs. It’s just the latest piece in an ever expanding body of evidence that suggests that Mount Kimbie are among the best in the biz right now. What’s still to come, we must wait and see. – John Burns
37. Thundercat – Drunk (Brainfeeder)
Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) released possibly the best sounding album of the year with
Drunk, mixing extraordinary clarity, musical dexterity and imagination. As a bassist, Bruner shines, as expected, but he also delights in paint-spattering the canvas with sonic surprises that richly rewards repeated listens (especially on a good pair of headphones). Drunk is whimsical and trippy, Bruner’s voice is sweet and soulful over an ever-shifting color palette that’s bolstered by a number of idiosyncratic guest appearances. We might have A-listers like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Pharrell Williams, Kamasi Washington and Wiz Khalifa, but Bruner brings in the likes of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins as well. Drunk is exactly that — drunk on sounds and infused with an irreverent humor. Constantly moving and always engaging, Drunk is like a spacey mixtape, a stoner’s odyssey through colorful dimensions that takes place solely in the listener’s head. – Chris Gerard
36. Mark Lanegan Band – Gargoyle (Heavenly)
On the surface, there’s not much in
Gargoyle that Mark Lanegan hasn’t done with his other nine albums. It still has his unmistakable grizzled growl that permeated works like Scraps at Midnight and Blues Funeral. It has the same flirtations of industrial and electronica like Bubblegum. On Gargoyle, all of these elements just found a way of coming together in a special way. The songwriting is just a smidge more menacing. The hooks are just a tad meatier. The choruses are just a bit more memorable. Gargoyle has the usual roster of Lanegan contributors, mainly Greg Dulli and Joshua Homme, but guest drummer Jack Irons also makes a huge impact with his percussion on tracks like “Beehive” and “Drunk on Destruction”. Sin, lust, and redemption remain the staples of Lanegan’s favorite topics. Still, there’s plenty of euphoria to be had. On “Beehive”, Lanegan sums up his latest triumph: “Lighting coming out of the speakers / Wanna hear that sound some more.” – Sean McCarthy
35. SZA – Ctrl (Top Dawg Entertainment)
The first couple of times you listen to
Ctrl, it feels like a little too much. It’s too personal, too raw, too sexual, too aggressive. It sits in a confessional space with Beyoncé’s last couple albums, but it’s less carefully curated, less constantly aware of its own image. The true test of whether you have the stomach for it comes early, however, when SZA grabs Kendrick Lamar for an ode to anatomy that repeats the word “pussy” until it loses all shock value. Once you’re past that — and to be sure, “Doves in the Wind” is a smart and well-constructed song — you’re in the door. Songs like “Drew Barrymore” and “The Weekend” allow for a pop slant, while the more difficult listening of tracks like “Garden (Say it Like Dat)” and “Broken Clocks” is never too far beneath the surface. Ctrl is a surprisingly catchy collection of songs that never backs down from confrontation, an album whose beats spend all their time in service to SZA’s words. It’s the sound of a fascinating new voice in R&B. – Mike Schiller
34. Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway (Nonesuch)
William Faulkner’s well-known observation that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” haunts
Freedom Highway, the second solo outing by Carolina Chocolate Drops’ frontwoman Rhiannon Giddens. The album’s 12 tracks, a mix of original compositions and covers, merge diverse African American styles (folk, blues, gospel, New Orleans jazz, R&B, hip-hop) and historical eras (from slavery to the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter) into a continuum of oppression, struggle, resilience and resistance. In “At the Purchaser’s Option” (the title comes from an 18th-century slave advertisement), an enslaved mother ponders the fate of her baby, born into bondage. “Julie”, a Civil War-era folk ballad featuring Gidden’s clawhammer banjo, recounts a plantation slave’s bitter showdown with her mistress as Union troops approach. “Freedom Sunday”, folksinger Richard Fariña’s devastating account of the murder of four black children in the 1963 bombing of an Alabama church, is rendered as a stately hymn, with organ, piano and gospel choir. “Better Get It Right the First Time”, R&B with a mid-song rap, tells of a “young man who was a good man” but “they shot you anyway”. The album concludes with a stirring remake of “Freedom Highway”, the Staple Singers’ Civil Rights anthem. The song’s most pointed line – “The whole wide world is wondering what’s wrong with the United States” – remains, sad to say, as pertinent today as in 1965. – George De Stefano
33. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (Run the Jewels, Inc.)
It’s stupid. It’s unconscionable. In fact, it’s downright unfair that you aren’t finding this album on a lot of other year-end wrap-up lists. The reason? ‘cos following the emotional trauma of a nation following the 2016 Presidential election, El-P and Killer Mike basically said “fuck it” and put out their third and most accessible album on 24 December, long after your favorite publications had tallied their totals. Becoming Pazz & Jop frontrunners, shockingly, appears to not be on the guys’ minds. In some universes, such a hasty release might make it seem like their latest effort is some sort of tossed-off affair, but
Run the Jewels 3 isn’t any ordinary damn album and the reason that we’re still talking about it even now is because throughout the course of the year, people have kept discovering, discussing, debating, and overanalyzing the punchlines, the confessions, and crowds being whipped up into a chant-along frenzy.
While their last album was a classic the second it dropped, the fearsome twosome may have one-upped even themselves here, dropping an album that blends social commentary with the highest joke-by-stanza ratio they’ve ever encountered, El-P — a true producing machine — finally feeling like he’s fully in sync with Killer Mike on a rhyme-for-rhyme basis. The result is a razor-sharp classic that’s at turns witty, emotional, confrontational, and gut-busting hilarious. The songs have grown on us, turned into hits, been featured in trailers for Marvel movies, and yet they don’t scream like sellouts: Run the Jewels are just as unflinching as they were when they first started. So whether you call this the best rap album of 2016 or 2017 is almost beside the point: it’s just one of the best rap albums of recent memory. Period. –
32. Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear (Anti-)
Curtis Harding may draw on the classics, but that doesn’t mean we’ve heard it all before. On
Face Your Fear, Harding takes cues from old-school soul and funk while keeping both feet marching ever forward with slick production and an electric touch. While centerpiece “Need Your Love” is one of the grooviest tracks of the fall, it’s the songs before and after it that show off Harding’s artistic depth and versatility. The album opens with the sweeping cinematic drama of “Wednesday Morning Atonement” before Harding reaches Mayfield-esque high notes of the ghostly title track. Fuzzy guitars paint “Go As You Are” with heavy psychedelia, and the vibraphone-heavy hook to “Till the End” lightens the mood, setting the scene for a tongue-in-cheek take on vintage Motown sounds. Several tracks later, ballad “As I Am” ends the album on a strong note that lets Harding’s clear voice stretch out over a memorable melody. Face Your Fear is proof positive that Curtis Harding not only has style, but knows how to use it to make a record that feels timeless even as a new release. – Adriane Pontecorvo
31. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid (Western Vinyl)
In recent years, there has been an uptick in musicians (Arca, Amnesia Scanner, 0PN, et al.) who attempt to alienate the voice from the body and reabsorb it into technology, articulating the estrangement of the post-internet self from its corporeal contract. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith does the opposite, welcoming technology in to an organic host. It’s tempting to see
The Kid, which has a song called “A Kid”, as an inverse optimistic telling of Kid A, but to do so would be to divorce the latter from its distinct setting.
The Kid is ambient in that it’s fully absorbed in analogue Buchla fauna, a mostly placid and lucidly rendered soundscape of harmonious alien neon hues occasionally broken up by orchestral intrusions by the Stargaze Ensemble or moment of Holly Herndon-esque digital fracturing. A professor of mine once described new age music as a genre of music with no tension, but this new-age-rooted recording with a weird pop heart is full of it. What it lacks is friction, the cynical, matured kind that makes the world of Kid A that we live in such an anxious distant shiver of the formative one we get to gaze into on The Kid.
That’s not to say that
The Kid is puerile and naïve; take the ecumenical transcendentalism within the album’s breaking point, its final track “To Feel Your Best”. “I’m gonna wake up one day and you won’t exactly be there / Even though I know it’s all perspective,” Smith says in dour and hesitant acceptance of finality of consciousness. It’s rare to hear such reverence for the universal expressed in such a bold and experimental yet accessible form. This is lightning in a bottle. – Timothy Gabriele
30. Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator (ATO)
The Navigator marks an assured, impressive leap forward for singer-songwriter Alyndra Segarra as she both stretches out stylistically and refines her gifts for traditional songwriting. The new album is sonically a long way from the sweet-sounding fiddle, Hammond organ, and Leslie cabinet vibe that helped Segarra get both rustic and surfy on Hurray’s debut. The Navigator maintains plenty of modern folk elements but achieves a whole new fragrance—it’s urban, rhythmic, world-textured, and spiritual, adding dark swirls of vocal treatments and instrumentation that keep the record aurally freighted in a sort of gothic-gospel garden. The songs are uniformly stellar—melodically rich, politically urgent, deeply personal—a retelling of the Latin experience amid a widening gulf between the American dream and its harsher realities, prompting us at once to both reach for the bongos and to throw a defiant fist in the air. – Steve Leftridge
29. Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Matador)
Spoon has been one of the most consistent and dependable bands since their inception. That said, while their last few records have all been good, there was a degree of creation-by-numbers setting in. Acknowledging that, no one had any right to expect the band’s — or any groups’ — ninth album to be this stellar.
Hot Thoughts is the sound of a band reenergized and daring to push its own boundaries, rather than being content to settle in. All ten songs surge with the liberation, vivacity, and ground-staking swagger of a debut. While the Britt Daniel-led group has always dallied with experimentation, they fully embrace it here. Off-kilter time signatures, soundscapes, skittering bleeps and loops, synth lines, and digital textures abound. At the same time, the band retains its signature guitar tones and stomp-strutting percussion, with Daniel’s inimitable raspy howl reaching a peak. Enveloping it all is an intimate, otherworldly production.
There’s not a misstep in the set, each number driven by an immediacy that bleeds from one cut to the next. From the bone-rattling titular opener to the seductive and infectious “WhisperI’lllistentohearit”, from the clamorous hypnotism of “Pink Up” to the eerie “I Ain’t the One” and the frayed and desperate testament of “Tear It Down”,
Hot Thoughts is arguably Spoon’s strongest collection. And to end on a five-minute sound collage that’s evocative as it is mysterious? What better epitome of Spoon’s unique ability to be confident without being cocky. If it were ever in doubt, Hot Thoughts reasserts Spoon’s role as an indie rock pillar. – Cole Waterman
28. Valerie June – The Order of Time (Concord Music)
The Order of Time documents the relevance of contact with others in our lives, including solitude, loss, and rekindled confidence despite those emotionally-charged occurrences. Valerie June is a dynamic songwriter and phenomenal performer, and this is a tightly knit album full of carefully woven songs of reflection and rumination that explores time succinctly. In a culture marked by increasing solitude and dissolution, June’s lyrics take inspiration from family and loss, including everyday activities that push time forward, and easily impart the mystical qualities of time back on to individual experience. June’s craft and lyrical prose fuse those complicated realities into a record cognizant of its own relevance and it’s not shy about confronting how it affects its listeners. There are moments of upbeat hopefulness and downright sadness throughout The Order of Time, emphatically delivered beautifully by June alongside a musical arrangement highlighted by the organ as a moody representation of “the order of time”. – Richard Driver
27. King Krule – The OOZ (True Panther Sounds)
Archy Marshall’s (who uses the stage name King Krule, among others)
The OOZ is an album deeply characterized by polarity. Its jazzy, atmospheric tracks risk sending you into another world, only to be snapped back to reality by Marshall’s abrasive vocals and grimy lyrics on the following tracks. The effect is a push and pull between the otherworldly and the dreary world we occupy (as Marshall portrays it, at least), one haunted by drugs, desire, and desperation. The latter world tends to win out, but by the end of the album, the two atmospheres start to collide. Penultimate song, “Midnight 01 (Deep Sea Diver)” concludes with a melody so full of grandeur that you might actually think things are looking up for Marshall. The lyrics, however, convey nothing more than mere acceptance of reality, rather than hope for a better future. We’re lulled into thinking that’s good enough. – Chad Miller
26. Blanck Mass – World Eater (Sacred Bones)
With his second album, Blanck Mass—or, John Benjamin Power of Fuck Buttons—drags us deeper into the terrestrial fissure created by 2015’s
Dumb Flesh. The threshold of this World, titled “John Doe’s Carnival of Error”, well forecasts what lies ahead: a funhouse, yes, but fearsome one. As we enter his subterranean lair, our eyes adjust and we scan our surroundings: industrial systems with functions unknown, shifting holographic forms—a stark contrast to the damp, rocky enclosure. We never glimpse the man directly—he’s already vanished—and we’re left to his devices. Things hum and chug along, then rumble and screech violently, then settle once more. At points, are those…? They must be. Human voices, groaning and pleading in a language not too distant from our own. Souls trapped in the machinery, cast as friends and lovers, saints and sinners in this eternal production.
We sneer as their cries echo louder and clearer than before. Sheets of dirt and metallic dust rain down from above. We clench our fangs in a grimace, dig our claws into the floor and grip tight. It feels good to withstand this cascade. It only makes us stronger. At once, a sweet vaporous warmth overtakes us and we become drowsy, eyelids aflutter as if slipping into the strangest dream. But before this consciousness escapes us, a powerful chemical surges through our bodies and in formation, we gaze upward at a single point. Where there was once sheer blackness, a tiny crack now bares a spot of light: the full moon. It must be feasting time. The “Hive Mind” will carry us back to the surface to join our leader. We let out a droning, holy howl and ascend as a pack, aware now that we too are on the prowl. –
A. Noah Harrison
25. Idles – Brutalism (Balley)
Idles’ debut album
Brutalism encapsulated everything that punk should be. A catchment for the misfits, the angry and the hurt. The lyrics veer from tragi-comedy to profound social commentary in the space of a single line as frontman Joe Talbot takes a cleaver to British society and toys with the entrails. In a society confused and divided like never before, it asks the pertinent questions whether it be about the current Tory government, austerity and health care cuts or the more personal issues of mental health or the pressures of masculinity. It’s that rare album that makes you want to stand up and fight but also open up and talk — all with a healthy dose of typical British cynicism. Each urgent tirade drips with Talbot’s mordant wit coupled with a bracing revolutionary zeal, while behind the expected cavalcade of drums and the shellacking of bass and guitar are tightly written songs with hummable hooks. This is a punk album for the age we live in and few have articulated it better than Idles. – Paul Carr
24. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun)
Phil Elverum has asked the public, “please don’t come” to a practice show at which he would debut new songs at a small record store near his home. The original announcement for the show generated interest because it would be his first live performance since 2014 and also because Elverum’s wife Geneviève was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and died in 2016. Elverum had announced that these songs would detail her illness, death and the aftermath. Fans were curious and wanted to show support. The singer said, “please don’t come”, but that soon a larger audience could experience an album of these songs.
A Crow Looked at Me is that album. Gone is the general focus on nature’s “raw impermanence” that defined much of his earlier work. No longer were these songs an expression that he “briefly lived”.
A Crow Looked at Me chronicles the days of his wife’s illness, her death, and their shared grief, and of Elverum and their baby daughter’s awareness of their lives forever changed by loss. The spare sound and direct lyrics share some qualities with earlier Mount Eerie songs, but Elverum’s mission has never been so substantial and specific. He revives his wife’s presence in song in order to document her experiences, and this is something he alone can do. These are songs that he would have every right to keep private but chose to share with the public. In doing so he memorializes her and contributes to the tradition of works of art that prepare us for the realities of what we become to ourselves after gazing upon death. – Thomas Britt
23. Margo Price – All American Made (Third Man)
The haunting title track to Margo Price’s second album
All American Made originated with her previous band Buffalo Clover before emerging after the election of 2016 with impassioned relevance. Price searches for renewal, optimism, and rejects those who question individual strengths or pushes for equality, ideas intensified by her own hard fought career as one of a handful of country musicians bucking trends in Nashville. All American Made articulates her importance outside country music, and the songs on the album are critical of the outlook of American life based on her own experiences (much like her strong debut). Songs like “Pay Gap” and “Cocaine Cowboys” document gender dynamics and identity politics, while “Loner”, “A Little Pain”, and “Learning to Lose” (a duet with Willie Nelson) harshly critique expectations and self-doubt in modern America. The album’s closing question, directed at Tom Petty, signifies Price’s own strength with All American Made: it’s up to her (and us) to answer “So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next? / That’s all American made.” – Richard Driver
22. Arca – Arca (XL)
A case can be made for Arca having the best album in 2017 of any musician. The production and co-writing work on Kelela’s
Take Me Apart and having a hand in virtually all of Björk’s Utopia — two albums highlighting indefinable and undeniable talents — would be enough for elite producers, but the addition of his unparalleled self-titled third album reveals the crown jewel. Arca took the audial seasickness of last year’s Entrañas and ran with the idea that it could be a pop album, too. The most obvious example is “Desafio”, a futuristic look at ’80s synthpop, but the orchestral “Saunter” and chillingly euphoric instrumental “Urchin” imagine a surrealist world in which this is what wedding playlists are made of. As a collaborator he’s indispensable, and when he’s front and center he’s vital, an artist not mining the depths of emotions so much as creating entirely new territory to be explored. – Brian Duricy
21. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Def Jam)
Hip-hop, like any genre, has a tendency toward groupthink. New ideas emerge on the fringes and a few of those ideas grab hold and shape everyone who comes into contact with them. Ten years ago, the idea of a rapper singing his hooks and verses was heretical. Now, everyone does it. Part of the reason genre labels are still useful in a post-streaming world is that most artists think in terms of genre.
But there are always a few who don’t, who seem to think in terms of sound. Kanye West is a good example of this and Vince Staples is another. But while the beauty of Kanye’s music is in the breadth of ideas it absorbs, Staples is remarkable for his concision. He always seems to know just what to say and how much of it needs to be said. On
Big Fish Theory, Staples doesn’t waste time and neither do his producers, whose beats are full of heavy bass and spare, abrasive tones that take inspiration from experimental electronic music as much as hip-hop. Most of the songs clock in at under three minutes and have an intense, almost monastic sense of intention, the kind that makes you sit up and listen. – Mark Matousek
20. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
With searing guitars, retro synths and big-time hooks, the War on Drugs’
A Deeper Understanding is a power record, a Major Statement in that mid-’80s, MTV-apex sort of way. Adam Granduciel, the ever-tinkering studio wunderkind, eclipses his previous career peak – 2014’s Lost in the Dream – by recalling a time when Dire Straits and Bruce Hornsby could splash into the monoculture. Put it this way: if it was 1986, A Deeper Understanding would produce six radio singles and at least three or four hits. From the jittery “Up All Night” to the understated “You Don’t Have to Go”, the record is a satisfying auditory experience with Granduciel agonizing over every sound. The knockout moments come in the album’s dense, pensive middle: “Strangest Thing” commands through sprawl and “In Chains” crackles like anxious fireworks. Meanwhile, “Thinking of a Place” has a simple, beautiful bridge that connects its lolling 11 minutes. As culture junkies in 2020 contemplate the previous ten years, one hopes A Deeper Understanding will earn a title coveted by any rock outfit in any era: decade-defining. – Michael Davis
19. Perfume Genius – No Shape (Matador)
There’s so much conflicted beauty within Perfume Genius’
No Shape. The music at times crackles with electricity, sometimes explodes into a firework of sound, sometimes evokes a classical concert hall or a massive cathedral. Indeed, the overall sound of the album in itself is a triumph, but it’s in Mike Hadreas’ lyrics and vocal delivery that the album truly shines. Hadreas approaches happiness, but it’s tinged with discomfort, an unsettled quality, the feeling that the box holding everything isn’t big enough. Hadreas sings beautifully about both the joy and the struggle that comes with self-acceptance; both the fear of the beyond and the surety that there is none; both the saving force of love and the inadequacy of it. It’s a passionate, poetic album that sticks with you long after the final, dissonant chords. – Dan Kok
18. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)
After a pair of mostly quiet, brilliant albums credited to Isbell alone,
The Nashville Sound found him officially working with his backing band in the studio for the first time since 2011’s Here We Rest. Isbell’s songwriting is as rock solid as ever but with the full band on board this record is more stylistically and dynamically diverse. The quiet and pretty acoustic opener “Last of My Kind” is followed by the chugging hard rocker “Cumberland Gap” with its roaring guitars and soaring chorus. Along the way Isbell makes time for both the quietly seething “White Man’s World”, where Isbell comes to grips with his privilege and his past, and for “Hope the High Road”, where he vents his frustration with America in 2017 while ultimately offering a positive message. The soft “enjoy the time we have together” sentiment of “If We Were Vampires” gives way to the blistering anger of “Anxiety”, where Isbell rages about the titular condition making it difficult for him to enjoy anything. The ten songs on the album are universally exceptional, regardless of style or mood, but these contrasts make each track hit even harder. – Chris Conaton
17. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy (Sub Pop)
While it’s perhaps a cliché to claim that an artist has created an album “for our times”, the singer/songwriter born Joshua Tillman did just that on his third album. Not only is
Pure Comedy a quantum leap in stylistic sophistication, it’s also perhaps the best and most lyrically direct social commentary album since the heady days of the Clash. In addition to songs targeting everything from the ubiquity of technology (“Total Entertainment Forever”) to human kindness and planetary conservation (“When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”), Tillman wraps the compositions into an intoxicating blend of major-seventh chords, sumptuous strings and elegant piano. It’s as if someone combined Elton John’s Madman Across the Water with Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys and gift-wrapped it for the 21st century. In short, Father John Misty created possibly the most lyrically vital and sonically rich album of his generation. – Chris Ingalls
16. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up (Nonesuch)
It’s been six years since the previous Fleet Foxes album (
Helplessness Blues) and the long-awaited follow-up is hardly the sound of a band going through the motions. In fact, the dense indie folk created by Robin Pecknold and company is back with an even knottier, more inscrutable collection of songs. Crack-Up takes some minor cues from classic progressive rock in terms of long-form song structure, but the thick layers of acoustic guitar, primitive percussive rolls and gorgeous, cavernous production ensure that nobody will mistake this for Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Pecknold’s voice absolutely soars over a variety of musical stylings ranging from quasi-Radiohead (“Cassius”) to soothing acoustic folk (“If You Need to, Keep Time on Me”). Crack-Up joins the ranks of albums like Homogenic, OK Computer and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – works by eclectic, established artists who decided to push boundaries even further and subsequently produced masterpieces. – Chris Ingalls
15. Iglooghost – Neō Wax Bloom (Brainfeeder)
Iglooghost’s first full-length album sounds like an ode to the joy of making music, even as it reportedly mentally exhausted its creator.
Neō Wax Bloom is a beat-heavy electronic production that owes much to classic releases from artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre but also sounds utterly of its time. Its construction is meticulous even as its execution is wild and rambunctious. That it’s an exhausting listen is to its credit, as producer Seamus Mallagh never gives the listener a second to breathe, shifting beats, adding and removing elements, and even pushing sampled vocals into the mix. First single “Bug Thief” is as characteristic as anything on the album, though perhaps the biggest surprise the album had in store once it released was that “Bug Thief” was positively conservative in its construction compared to songs like the skewered hip-hop of “White Gum” or the broken necks of “Göd Grid”. It may not be the most important album to be released this year, but there’s a good chance it’s the most exciting. – Mike Schiller
14. The National – Sleep Well Beast (4AD)
An indie rock song about a turtleneck? Sounds like a ClickHole headline moments away from being published. Yet not only does the National make that concept work on its seventh studio outing,
Sleep Well Beast, but it also makes it sound like such a song was meant to be written. “Turtleneck” is just one of many bursts of energy on Sleep Well Beast, which more than cements the National’s status as indie’s resident, baritoned sad-sacks. Sure, tracks like “Guilty Party” and “Walk it Back” indulge the band’s mumbly side, but “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Day I Die” feature some of the National’s strongest rock songwriting, due in considerable part to Aaron Dessner’s guitar solo on the former and Bryan Devendorf’s drums on the latter. In many ways, Sleep Well Beast is the album that should have followed what remains the National’s triumph to this day, 2007’s Boxer, but late isn’t just better than never in this case: with music this good, the waiting hardly feels like it never happened at all. – Brice Ezell
13. St Vincent – Masseduction (Loma Vista)
There’s a way in which everything is now absorbed into the pop matrix these days, our vernacular and prosaic observations filtered through the algorithims of what’s thrown at us. Annie Clark, always an awkward outlier layabout on the pop and indie fringes, thrust into minor paparazzi concern through a couple famous beaus, declares on the title track of
Masseduction “Oh what a bore to be so adored.” On her stunning LP, she’s aware and disturbed enough by power dynamics to recognize their toxicity yet “can’t turn off what turns me on”. What follows then is a superstar breakthrough that fills the freak royalty gaps left after the supernova implosion of the Bowie vessel, a pop album infectious enough to be anthemic and rich enough to leave you breathless and melancholy upon closer inspection of its meditations on addiction, overdose, loss, obsessive fetishization, et al. It’s a record that hides clues in Charles Mingus and Nick Cave album titles or Jenny Holzer slogans, framing singles around Love and Rockets riffs, and featuring callbacks to previous songs, but it’s never beholden to its referents and emerges from the speakers as a true original. It also rocks, without the baggage of irony or Y chromosome purity to make that a less enjoyable aspect of a bright and wide-eyed, synth-heavy, angular confection from the year 2017. – Timothy Gabriele
12. Slowdive – Slowdive (Dead Oceans)
Slowdive’s first album in 22 years accomplished a rare feat among reunion records: It moved out of the shadow of the band’s legacy without tarnishing it.
Slowdive was full of the soaring washes of sound and gorgeous arrangements the quintet were known for. But it was also the culmination of the members’ wealth of experiences in other projects over the intervening years. Bandleader Neil Halstead’s well-honed knack for songcraft and melody, along with a newly-robust rhythm section, made Slowdive the band’s most confident-sounding album to date. This was revisionist history done right, reversing the undeserved critical drubbing Slowdive got in the ’90s and taking a bold new step toward a bright, shimmering future. – John Bergstrom
11. Algiers – The Underside of Power (Matador)
The fire and fury of Algiers was initially a welcome respite from the aggressively apolitical nature of American punk and indie rock, genres which seem intent on becoming more insular and self-absorbed even as the world burns down around them. Now, after a year in which political and social chaos is sadly becoming normalized, an album like
The Underside of Power feels necessary for one’s sanity. Algiers’ mix of noise, punk and soul is as sharp as always, but the message feels more pointed and urgent here. Whereas they previously railed against why the status quo was what is was, Algiers now wonder aloud about what has to happen before we do something about it. They confront the horrors of 2017 America head-on with an intensity that can be uncomfortable at times. The Underside of Power is necessary listening, if you want to keep your sanity. – Kevin Korber
10. Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)
On just her second album, Jlin has proven that she’s a master of time. In her sonic structures the rhythmic backbone never ceases to amaze, taking on a multidimensional quality as the beats surround you. Tribal-esque notions, synth percussion, upbeat tempos and repetitive loops all contribute to an ever-expanding maximalist perspective.
Black Origami is a record that manages to encompass the essence of rhythm as it is understood through centuries of musical tradition to today’s reality, and re-configures it via a unifying process. Reflecting on the word “origami” in the title of this piece, it’s impossible not to find the common treats that the paper artform has to Jlin’s music, as she folds these concepts into a complex offering and moves them about. The result is a record that works at multiple dense layers that combine to appear as a futuristic treatise on the fascinating realm of rhythm and its capabilities. – Spyros Stasis
Please don’t adblock PopMatters.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers. We can’t survive without your support.
9. Four Tet – New Energy (Text)
Kieran Hebden’s, AKA Four Tet, musical approach seems to work increasingly outside of the mainstream, with new releases being dropped on a whim rather than according to any release strategy. As with previous release
Morning/Evening, New Energy took even his most ardent follower by surprise. Arriving with little fanfare, the album is easily one of his best and most enjoyable releases since 2010’s There Is Love in You. Four Tet has will lay his fingers upon your soul with the simplest of melodies, as on superb first single “Two Thousand and Seventeen”. Elsewhere, there are the recognisable Four Tet traits like the stretched female vocals on “Daughter”, the expansive synth washes of “You Are Loved”, and the fidgety keyboards of “Scientists”, but New Energy also finds him stretching his musical muscles. There’s the trancey “SW9 9SL”, the more ambient “Melodies” and the gorgeous “Lush”, with each layer precisely and cleanly arranged. Four Tet continues to march to the beat of his own drum and New Energy proves that it would be wise to keep up. – Paul Carr
8. Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)
To say that Kelela ‘burst onto the scene’ in 2017 is inaccurate. The D.C. native launched
Cut 4 Me in 2013, a mixtape which earned her deserved accolades from critics and peers alike, followed by the similarly well-received EP Hallucinogen in 2015. Hers is a career forged from years of experience,and influenced by dalliances with a variety of different musical styles and genres along the way
Perhaps her debut LP,
Take Me Apart, is the confluence of all of these styles and influences, or perhaps it’s something new entirely. This is as close as Kelela has come to a true masterpiece in her career thus far; a work of restrained genius, a record of robotic, space-age slickness, but one which retains heart and soul, at all times.
Take a song like “LMK” – one of the standouts from Kelela’s debut – a piece of music within which irresistibly soulful hooks swim and wriggle their way through pools of futuristic sounds. This is less a collision of styles, and more of an evolution — the next step, if you will. R&B is moving forward, and Kelela is leading the way. –
7. The XX – I See You (Young Turks)
And for the XX’s third trick, watch as they dazzle you with florescent lights, singalong melodies and undeniable hooks! But seriously,
I See You, Album No. 3 from the London trio, is easily the group’s most accessible thus far, continuing the upward trend of their releases with a fuller, more complete sound. Sure, they made their bones by living in the World of Minimalism, but as the band grows so does the excess and these ten songs spotlight a group that’s not afraid to expand beyond the skeletons for which they’re so brilliantly known.
Opener “Dangerous” cements that reality with its bright electronic horns and Ibiza-loving, rave-inducing percussion to which sitting still is an impossibility. Shoot. Even their signature spareness evolves from rainy English afternoons to sweaty Brazilian nights on songs like “A Violent Noise”, which adheres to the strobe-light-
ification of today’s pop music, and “Lips”, which is quite possibly the sexiest song the XX has produced, tropical groove and all. Plus, where else can you find such an infectious use of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” than the way this trio inventively weaves the 1981 hit into their “On Hold”? It’s a victory in vision.
It’s also a microcosm of why
I See You is so addictive. The XX have always known how to keep you hooked, yet here, they make it easier for your electro-pop-hating, jaded-music-fan uncle to grab onto it as well. ‘I’ll put on a show,” singer Romy Madley-Croft croons on the heartbreakingly beautiful “Performance”. With I See You, the lights have never been this intense, the future never brighter. That says something for a group that’s lived almost exclusively withing the glare of a spotlight. – Colin McGuire
6. Sampha – Process (Young Turks)
Somehow, Sampha is only 29-years-old. His album,
Process, is the work of someone with more knowledge, more experience, more pain than anyone his age should have to have lived. Every note he sings, he sings with purpose, which he must, because his songs aren’t afraid to take on race, mortality, and insecurity. It’s an album written in the wake of his mother’s death, which is dealt with in both metaphorical and literal fashion. Tracks like “Blood on Me” and “Under” showcase that he knows his way around a beat, and “Kora Sings” has the sort of energy that albums from artists in mourning can sometimes lack. That said, the album’s centerpiece is the quietly brilliant piano ballad “(Nobody Knows Me) Like the Piano”, an ode to his mother that has a tendency to linger in your head for days. With Process, Sampha has arrived. – Mike Schiller
5. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (DFA/Columbia)
It was hard to know what to expect when James Murphy announced the return of LCD Soundsystem and a new studio album for the first time in six years. The anticipation was a mix of hype and cynicism, as LCD Soundsystem had ostensibly been retired. Happily,
American Dream is a spectacular comeback that shatters even the most optimistic expectations. American Dream sounds like 2017 has felt: woozy and anxious but spaced-out and funky. The long, hypnotic rhythms are very Remain in Light but they also owe much to early ’90s club, and the work also borrows liberally from new wave and disco influences. Tight as hell throughout, American Dream is catchy and accessible but also bewildered and perplexed about life circa 2017 (which is understandable). Murphy rides that line many of us are trying to balance: giving a fuck about the craziness that surrounds us while trying to keep detached enough to retain sanity. – Chris Gerard
4. Zola Jesus – Okovi (Sacred Bones)
Nika Rosa Danilova has been flirting with greatness for the past decade, her unique blend of darkwave and Kate Bush-derived art pop established her as a burgeoning talent over the course of five albums. Her soaring, powerful alto voice lends great strength to her dark-toned arrangements and that combination of voice, instrumentation, and songwriting reaches a new peak on
Okovi, Danilova’s strongest work to date. Songs like “Soak”, “Witness”, and “Siphon” touch on dark themes, but a sense of empathy lurks beneath the seeming bleakness. Detecting a sense of humanity can be challenging with music that is this stark, but aided by sterling production and gorgeous string arrangements, not to mention a sensational vocal performance, Okovi‘s visceral power is undeniable. It’s ironic that on a record whose Latvian title translates as “shackles”, Zola Jesus sounds liberated. – Adrien Begrand
3. Fever Ray – The Plunge (Mute/Rabid)
Fever Ray’s first album in eight years boasts the same wealth of texture and melody that made her 2009 debut so enthralling, cementing her status as one of electronic music’s most consistently innovative and thrilling artists. Unlike its more stoic and esoteric predecessor,
Plunge is immediately physical, at once both amorous and confrontational. For perhaps the first time in her career, Karin Dreijer relies little on the demonic, pitch-shifted vocal effects that were her calling card, opting instead for subtler forms of distortion and noise. Amidst the shrieking synths and twisted sonic machinery, her unmistakable howl propels the music from within and she uses her vast expressive range to evoke lustful unrest. The album doubles as political music of the best sort, weaponizing queer sexuality and gender nonconformity against global authoritarianism and hegemony. When Plunge abruptly surfaced near the tail-end of 2017, it became abundantly clear that it was the record many of us had been needing all year. – Andrew Dorsett
2. Lorde – Melodrama (Republic)
Lorde’s 2013 debut
Pure Heroine occupied a unique spot in popular music at the time, a minimalist pop effort emerging like a vaccine against EDM’s waning rampage. Melodrama, however, represents the full realization of Pure Heroine‘s promise. In strokes as vibrant and lush as the album’s Van Gogh-esque cover, Lorde dissects and elevates the experiences of young people living in an increasingly bleak and uncertain era. Indeed, as a recently circulating meme astutely points out, rates of teen depression are higher than ever, yet their very real anxieties are routinely dismissed by those in power.
Opulent and ambitious though it may be, Lorde’s antidote to such societal ills avoids self-indulgence. These tracks pepper their wisdom with plenty of revelry and catharsis, treating the listener to everything from house-inspired anthems (“Green Light”) to vampiric seductions (“Homemade Dynamite”) and introspective reveries (“The Louvre”).
Melodrama is an aspirational statement on what pop music can be, among the finest contributions to the genre we’ve gotten this decade. – Andrew Dorsett
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Viewed from a certain angle, Kendrick Lamar clearly dominates hip-hop in 2017. Which means he dominates popular music. It’s partly due to his ubiquity – commercial success, a massive tour, key guest appearances for other hot artists (SZA, Thundercat, Future). But it’s also due to his artistic supremacy – DAMN takes all of Lamar’s strengths and encapsulaes them within a carefully composed exploration of the good/evil dynamic within us, individually and collectively. Continually merging autobiography, prophecy and social commentary – not to mention performing no-holds-barred rap skills showcases – DAMN tells its story in complex ways. It’s a multi-faceted tale at every step – the story of humankinds’ inner turmoil, of America’s brutal history (and present), of crises both spiritual and physical. Track by track it explores our notions of “FEAR”, “PRIDE”, “LUST”, “LOVE”, “GOD”, etc. in a way that feels like an outgrowth of our collective crises and anxieties and lends clarity to them while highlighting the inescapable conundrums. Lamar leans into every feeling, finding gratifying sounds and styles to enunciate them precisely. The depth that lies in the story of hip-hop itself is also fully present, from DJ Kid Capri serving as a one-man Greek chorus of sorts to the current-day talent of Mike WiLL Made-It, Rihanna, Sounwave, DJ Dahi and many others. Lamar’s work is an unstoppable force of tenderness and fire. – Dave Heaton