In a year when your favorite long-dormant musical act finally released new material after a multi-year hiatus, only a precious few releases -- from voices old and new -- were truly able to capture the pop culture zeitgeist. These are those albums.
5. Dan Auerbach - Waiting on a Song (Nonesuch)
After the bedroom-acoustic effort that was Dan Auerbach's first solo album outside of The Black Keys, few would've guessed that for a followup, our bearded hero would go full ELO? Yet summoning the spirit of Jeff Lynne was exactly what Waiting on a Song set out to do, lead single "Shine on Me" brilliantly playing like a track that should've been on Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 2. Elsewhere, the strings and horns that ride along during "Malibu Man" drench the surrounding song in a lovely hue of '70s AM gold, leaving the rest of the album perfectly fit for Starlord, Groot, and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy to sing along to. There's imitation and then there's inhabiting the spirit of your idols, and Waiting on a Song pulls off the latter category in spectacular fashion.
4. Niteshifters - Hard Disco (Delimusic)
People refer to modern record as disco-inspired all the time, but few really capture the essence, the opulence that made disco the movement that it was. For the London-based Niteshifters, they're absolutely tuned in to every horn stab, soaring string section, high-hat gallop, and diva histrionics that make disco what it is. For their sensational, shimmy-inducing debut, the band re-creates the Studio 54 sound without even a trace of irony, vocal cuts melding with instrumental takes and live band workouts boogieing next to keyboard driven affairs in equal measure. You can't achieve this level of kitsch without having a deep-seated love of the material you're trying to work with, and Hard Disco as big a mirrorball love letter as ever existed.
3. White Sea - Tropical Odds (Crepuscule)
Although she was a songwriting force on some of M83's most heralded albums, Morgan Kibby truly broke out into her own under the guise of White Sea with her 2014 debut In Cold Blood. The hooks were immediate and the lyrics weren't afraid to walk through walls and gut your fish. Initially conceived a series of singles before Kibby finally relented and put it out as an album, Tropical Odds is a moodier flipside of White Sea's mid-tempo sound, her stoned thoughts putting a gloriously overcast sky on her lyrics, her music, and her whole aesthetic. She confronts her fears regarding intimacy, the meaningless of life, and so much more -- but all of it is wrapped in memorable hooks, ascending synth lines, and her perfectly curated vocal takes that let the emotion breathe through without once overpowering the songs in question. It's an underappreciated gem that may very well articulate your own gloomy year perfectly. Pour yourself a glass of red wine: Morgan's here for you.
2. Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian)
It's not that I Know What Love Isn't, the 2012 release from everyone's favorite Swedish pop jester Jens Lekman, was a letdown so much as it was an acknowledgment that even with all of the genre jumping that Lekman puts all his quirky songs against, sometimes it's nice to sit back with a tight band and not worry about turning a new musical trick with every track. Life Will See You Now, his first new full-length in five years, dismisses Isn't's thesis entirely by positively exploding with color, his confidence beaming even more than before. Whether it be the breakdown in his spectacular single "What's That Perfume That You Wear?" or the quiet mandolin plucking on the sweet "How Can I Tell Him" or the sweet minimalist tell-off from his 2015 singles project "Postcard #17", there is no shortage of joys or surprises to be found on one of the most diverse and stunning pop events this side of Shugo Tokomaru record.
1. Kesha - Rainbow (RCA)
Following the too-public, drawn-out, heartbreaking legal battles that Kesha had with her former producer -- and the record contract clauses that prevented her from releasing any new music under her own terms -- the eventual comeback of a singer who shot to fame with ludicrously crunk numbers like "Tik Tok" could've taken most any form, and as the emotional, Ryan Lewis-produced single "Praying" showed us, Rainbow could've easily been a mournful, empowering record about overcoming some of life's most rendering challenges.
What a true shock it was to instead find that Rainbow contained a variety of moods as kaleidoscopic as its title, moving from celebratory to reflective to downright goofy, each song feeling like it belonged on a greatest hits compilation. There was no fiercer declaration of independence this year than the on the horn-driven "Woman", no charging punk-pop hybrid as relentlessly nonsensical as "Boogie Feet", and no off-the-cuff acoustic number as sly and sweet as "Godzilla". No other record in 2017 managed to balance pathos with pure fun as deftly and effortlessly as Rainbow, and by the time Dolly Parton shows up to cover an old standard of hers -- which Kesha's mom wrote back in the late '70s -- there is a sense of unity and warmth contained on that recording track that cannot be replicated with a budget ten times the size. One can't dismiss the narrative of redemption that lead Kesha to this moment, but Rainbow doesn't shy away from it either: it embraces it, plays with it, and turns it into what is unquestionably the best pop album of the year.