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.
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.
Ultimately, 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. - Evan Sawdey
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.
Though genre-defying, 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