Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2017

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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


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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

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