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.
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