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.


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

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