The 20 Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

Music Lists best of 2017 so far
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The 20 Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

This tumultuous year around the sun isn’t even halfway over, but there’s already been a ton of great new music to keep us going for another eight months. So much, in fact, that we’re ready to take stock.

Regardless of genre, the best albums released from January through April have seemed to reflect our current range of emotions in 2017—angry to ambivalent, bloated to bombastic, sentimental to sardonic. So from the highly anticipated to the surprise released, here are the 20 best albums of 2017 so far.

20. The Cairo Gang, Untouchable
A contemporary of fellow fuzz-punk contemporaries Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin, The Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly returns with a new project under his own moniker. There’s an unmistakable confidence in his voice, and it’s a primary focal point throughout this record. While the band’s 2015 LP Goes Missing utilized a nomadic recording process to help shape a record that sounded equally as mired in wanderlust, Untouchable revels in a generally lo-fi mix that sits well with its found-sound ambiance—another nod to Kelly’s nomadic muses. Overall, Kelly has raised the stakes on this album, fully embracing some of the more outwardly power-pop sensibilities he’d hinted at in previous records. —Ryan J. Prado

19. David Bazan, Care
Throughout the synth-soaked invitational of Care, David Bazan continues to masterfully represent and wrestle with his Walt Whitman-esque “I contain multitudes” creative arc. Between the breath-close vocal performances and a sparse sonic palette of uncluttered keyboards and minimalist drum loops, fans of Bazan’s solo and band (Pedro the Lion, Headphones) catalog will find continuing strands of familiarity carrying through—most notably from his equally intimate solo releases from last year (Blanco and the holiday compilation Dark Sacred Night) and the electronic pulse of Headphones’ 2005’s self-titled album. While those artistic echoes pop up here and there throughout Care, the album showcases its individual genius through the bitingly fresh nuances found in Bazan’s instrumental, melodic and lyrical approaches. —Will Hodge

18. Diet Cig, Swear I’m Good at This
Swear I’m Good at This is almost like 21-year-old Alex Luciano’s coming-of-age story. It’s an engaging one at that, full of awkward moments, breaking hearts, insecurity and a discovery of power. The album begins in her past, but quickly moves to New York City, where we spend most of the rest of the story, listening to Luciano try to find her way around her beautiful, chaotic life to the tune of ravaging punk jams. Another major strength on_Swear_ is Luciano’s singing, which has improved markedly since Diet Cig’s debut EP, Over Easy. She’s developed far more confidence, bringing her voice to the forefront and showcasing emotions beyond earnest teen angst and youthful rawness. —Zach Blumenfeld

17. Lady Lamb, Tender Warriors Club
Tender Warriors Club confirms Lady Lamb’s (aka Aly Spaltro) quiet emergence as one of her generation’s most gifted songwriters. She combines dense symbolism and metaphor with intimate autobiographical portraits, and each song comes packed with lyrics that refuse to leave your mind, some startling in their simplicity (“If I see you when I look in my own eyes / How could I ever despise myself again,”) and others that come out swinging with their poeticism (“loneliness she can be a whore / I take her to bed, I’m so sure she won’t be there in the morning”). While technically an EP (seven songs and 32 minutes), it feels more like a long-player, and it’s far more cohesive and essential than your average EP. Musically, Spaltro takes a stripped back, acoustic approach on this record that speaks to the intimacy of these songs. It’s not so much that her performances are left raw or exposed—in a way they’ve always been that—as much as they draw out a different side of Spaltro’s voice, one that made brief appearances on her last few records but arrive here in breathtaking form throughout. —Carter Shelter

16. Valerie June, The Order of Time
Through the first 11 of 12 songs, something seems different about Valerie June’s major-label debut, The Order of Time. It’s not something that’s easily noticeable, like the lyrics (which poignantly address the death of her father, her grief and how we keep living) or instrumentation (maintaining a foundation of banjo and acoustic guitar bases). Rather, June exudes a confidence that ebbs and flows in its pervasiveness—from the subtleties of the sparse, pedal steel-steeped opener “Long Lonely Road” to the electric, hand clap-laden single “Shake Down.” But by the closing tune, “Got Soul,” that previously indefinable, pervasive difference becomes clear: Valerie June refuses to be categorized by others. “I could sing you a country tune / Carry the name Sweet Valerie June,” she says in the first verse. “I could play you, play you the blues / to help carry the load while you’re playing your dues,” she sings scornfully in the second. “But I got soul,” she declares in each chorus, “Follow your soul, sweet soul.” It’s a motto and a mentality for herself and for anyone listening. —Hilary Saunders

15. Sheer Mag, Compilation
This Philly quintet’s debut LP—a remastered compilation of their three EPs to date—is a scuzzed-out hookfest with an entire kitchen’s worth of tasty ingredients plucked from the great rock bands of the ‘70s onward. Lead singer Tina Halladay stakes out center stage with a raucous wail that exudes just enough soul to avoid careening off the tracks. When Sheer Mag mixes in Kyle Seely’s riff-loving lead guitar and Ian Dykstra’s biscuit-tin drums, they come out with a danceable punk-boogie formula that recalls Australia’s Royal Headache or, for the older anglophiles in the room, Thin Lizzy. On standout track “Hard Lovin’,” Seely builds a nimble, blues-inflected guitar line beneath Halladay as she sings, “Little boy I can see in the dark / I can breathe underwater, gonna leave my mark / By the time you find out I’ll be down in the flames / I’m in every city you will know my name.” When she gets to your city, don’t miss her. —Matthew Oshinsky

14. Laura Marling, Semper Femina
Taking its title from a line in a Virgil poem about how women are “ever fickle and changeable,” Marling’s sixth full-length release represents a new type of writing about women. Political without being polemical, she filters her narrative sketches through a personal lens that neither over-idealizes nor under-romanticizes her subjects. Instead, the characters in Marling’s songs feel like real people—often restless, frequently viewed from afar and almost uniformly mysterious in their motivations. Despite all of her growth over the past decade—which has included adding a soulful bounce to her occasionally brittle hooks, as well as orchestral heft to her simpler arrangements— Marling remains at heart a folksinger who uses the foundational elements of songcraft to express abiding truths. And like any great folk singer, she has created an album of songs whose sounds and sentiments are much weightier than they appear on the surface. —Matt Fink

13. Ryan Adams, Prisoner
From his days fronting Whiskeytown to his current run of albums, Ryan Adams is often at his best writing sad-bastard breakup songs. In that vein, his latest LP, Prisoner could be considered a breakup album, again, as well. Digging beneath its sleek surface reveals a soul in anguish, wrestling with questions of love, loneliness and desire on an almost existential level. It’s visceral on “Shiver and Shake,” a tortured, self-flagellating remembrance of a lover who’s no longer there. The title track takes a more expansive view, though it’s not any more optimistic: If love is a prison, Adams wonders, what could freedom possibly look like? Still, it’s a beautiful sounding collection, as usual. —Eric R. Danton

12. Granddaddy, Last Place
Much will be made of the fact that Last Place is the first record of new material from Modesto fuzz-poppers Grandaddy since 2006’s Just Like the Fambly Cat, and for ostensibly good reasons. Everyone likes a reunion story, as least in the beginning. The most fans can hope for is a modicum of the magic through which the band drove its creative fancies. The focus ought to be on how satisfyingly true to the Grandaddy aesthetic Last Place sounds—full of experimental bents, meat-and-potatoes lo-fi and happy/sad vignettes—despite the decade-long absence. —Ryan J. Prado

11. Ty Segall, Ty Segall
On 2013’s Sleeper, the prolific Ty Segall turned off his amps to try his hand at an honest folk record. The next year’s Manipulator saw him summoning the ghosts of Bowie and Bolan as a glam-rock mystic. This time last year, Segall was donning a screaming baby mask during live shows to further heighten the disturbing and chaotic horror punk of Emotional Mugger. But perhaps as a welcome sign of clarity, this year’s Ty Segall features no such overarching concepts, themes or consistent styles. Instead, these nine songs (10 only if you count the untitled guitar belch at the end) distill his many talents into his most concise album in years. Along with Charles Moothart reprising his role behind the drumkit, Mikal Cronin returning on bass and Emmett Kelly on guitar, newcomer Ben Boye (Angel Olsen and Bonnie “Prince” Billy) contributes keys. But the album’s secret weapon comes in the not-so-subtle touch of ordained punk saint Steve Albini, who recorded and mixed the record in his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. This collection of monster riffage (“Break a Guitar”), country waltzes (“Talkin’”) and folk gems (“Orange Color Queen”) is neatly packaged summary of why Segall is a modern rock ‘n’ roll treasure. —Reed Strength

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