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.
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
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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. - John Burns
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