The 50 Best Albums of 2017

In a year of upheaval and distraction, these were the artists we needed to hear.

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40. Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up
After Fleet Foxes’ rustic self-titled debut took off unexpectedly in 2008, frontman and creative force Robin Pecknold poured himself into its excellent follow-up, 2011’s Helplessness Blues. Then he moved to Portland and dropped out of public life, seemingly willing to check out for good. Thank the heavens he didn’t. Crack-Up is at once sumptuous and ambitious, a serpentine journey from the center of harmony-drenched folk-pop out to the edge of Pecknold’s brain and back. It is lovely, strange and generous, and ultimately a very welcome return for the Seattle band. Crack-Up sounds like a band that has become perfectly comfortable with its wanderlust. The evidence comes early, as opening track “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” is three songs in one, evolving from yawning anti-tune to orchestral gallop to a collage of cozy vocal ooohs, sloshing water and found sounds.—Ben Salmon

Read: Fleet Foxes: Two Opposite Ideas

39. Bedouine: Bedouine
Bedouine sounds like a hot summer afternoon, where nothing moves in the drowsy stillness but the beads of condensation sliding down a tall glass of something iced. Azniv Korkejian’s voice is a confiding murmur, and she sings in languorous tones accompanied by simple guitar or piano arrangements augmented by elegant strings and muted horns. It’s an uncommonly subtle collection, with a classic sensibility that evokes singer-songwriters of the 1960s and ’70s. Writing topically without being heavy-handed, Korkejian addresses the ongoing destruction in her native Syria, especially in Aleppo. For example, “Summer Cold,” a foreboding tune with stabs of noir-ish guitar, was “a reaction to learning that weapons provided by America were finding their way into the hands of terrorists.” —Eric R. Danton

Read: Bedouine: The Best of What’s Next

38. Spoon: Hot Thoughts
Nine albums in, Spoon might have finally cracked the code. Hot Thoughts succeeds first and foremost as a disarmingly subtle way of taking a meaningful evolutionary step as a band. Even a quick listen reveals that the Austin vets have taken their sonic palette to its most adventurous conclusion. It’s not the first time they’ve been willing to bathe their sound in synthesizers or other electronic treatments (witness “New York Kiss,” or “Was It You”), but it’s the first time they’ve let some of the elegant sonic spaces truly overtake the record. In many ways Hot Thoughts feels like a tribute to David Bowie, who personified the elusive bridge between the conflicting pop, punk, art and party impulses that the Gen-Xers have always struggled to find. It is crisp, arch and flowing, proving Spoon to be among Bowie’s most astute heirs in spirit. —Jeff Leven

Read: Ranking All Nine Spoon Albums

37. Japanese Breakfast: Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Michelle Zauner, sole creator of the indiepop project Japanese Breakfast, made 2016’s Psychopomp amid the death of her mother from cancer, a catastrophic event that can easily send anyone down an unfamiliar path. For Zauner, it meant an ongoing search for solace in loss. Soft Sounds From Another Planet continues that journey. It’s a somber, starry lullaby that results in periods of fitful sleep marked by struggles with fading love and death’s vague mystery. But there’s something comforting about the record too, with its interlocking muted chords, muffled drums, and sudden shocks of electric guitar that add sharp slices of lightning. Soft Sounds is full of pretty interludes of ambient noise mixed with shoegaze and electropop touches. —Emily Reily

Read: Paste Interview with Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner

36. Melkbelly: Nothing Valley
This is the fun part, when a promising band seems to emerge fully formed, from out of nowhere, with a great debut album. Melkbelly are an affably disruptive Chicago comprising singer-guitarist Miranda Winters, guitarist Bart Winters (her husband), bassist Liam Winters (his brother) and drummer James Wetzel. Cramming what should be an unworkable heap of concepts and sounds into a deliciously volatile 35 minutes, Nothing Valley is a bracing blend of scraping noise and tender melody, not unlike the recipe used by Speedy Ortiz. Appropriately, it’s issued on the Carpark Records imprint Wax Nine, supervised by Speedy boss Sadie Dupuis. Nothing Valley captures the exciting details of the guitars and drums, yet leaves Winters’s voice just fuzzy enough to induce uncertainty. —Jon Young

35. Diet Cig: Swear I’m Good at This
It feels like Diet Cig have been around far too long for Swear I’m Good at This to be their debut album. The New York-based duo released their five-song Over Easy EP more than two years ago. Frontwoman/punk sprite Alex Luciano’s earnest teen angst and the EP’s undoctored, authentic sound caught critics’ ears, and the band’s rollicking live show helped them build a sizable fanbase. Then something wonderful happened: Luciano grew up. Swear I’m Good at This is the now-21-year-old’s coming-of-age story, and it’s an engaging one, full of awkward moments, breaking hearts, insecurity and a discovery of power. She is variously angry, melancholic, infatuated, frustrated and wide-eyed. And it shows the most effectively when drummer Noah Bowman lays off the kit and, over quiet guitar chords, Luciano belts out a simple, anthemic line. —Zach Blumenfeld

Read: Diet Cig: The Best of What’s Next

34. St. Vincent: MASSEDUCTION
Many long-time St. Vincent fans would say that each of her albums, upon its release, has felt like her best yet. As expected, then, MASSEDUCTION’s explosions of the futuristic guitar pop that she mastered on 2014’s St. Vincent are gratifying, strange and addicting. What’s unexpected are the ways Annie Clark keeps her music compelling this go-round. She has long been known as a formidable guitarist—she can shred when she wants to, but she tends to relegate her prowess to crunch-smashed riffs that growl like a motorcycle engine. MASSEDUCTION is the first St. Vincent album to push her guitars to the side, favoring flashy drum machines and roaring synth patterns. Clark will likely never abandon the guitar entirely, but these days she seems more content to use it as texture rather than foundation. —Max Freedman

33. Penguin Café: The Imperfect Sea
While Arthur Jeffes has been continuing the work of his father Simon’s Penguin Café Orchestra for the past decade, it hasn’t been until this year that this project—known now simply as Penguin Café—has graced the world with a major release (the contemporary ensemble’s first two LPs were self-issued). Thanks to the efforts of British label Erased Tapes, longtime fans and new listeners can now fully appreciate how well the younger Jeffes has captured the austere wonder of his father’s initial work—a blending of minimalist classical, airy European jazz and ambient—and expanded upon it with care and delicate modern touches. The Imperfect Sea flows by like the gentle path of a creek as it tumbles through a lush forest. The movement is repetitive and steady with cyclical melodies rolling calmly through each song, but allows for small tributaries of sound like the riveting drones of “Rescue” and the flourishing piano lines of “Now Nothing (Rock Music).” —Robert Ham

32. Ty Segall: Ty Segall
The prolific California shredder offers no overarching concepts, themes or consistent styles on his self-titled album. Instead, the nine songs distill his many talents into his most concise album in years. Opener “Break a Guitar” is a ripping statement of purpose, the kind of bombs-away rock ‘n’ roll fans can always depend on Segall to unleash, regardless of which genre he’s tinkering with. The album’s secret weapon comes in the not-so-subtle touch of ordained punk saint Steve Albini, whose crisp, low-end touch forces the crushers to flatten and the gentler songs to ring bell clear. While Albini allows the crunching tenacity of “The Only One” and combustible licks of “Freedom” to truly pummel, it’s the openhearted lead single “Orange Color Queen” that really steals the show. Ty Segall provides a neatly packaged summary for why the singer is a modern rock ‘n’ roll treasure. —Reed Strength

31. Laura Marling: Semper Femina
Still only 27, British singer-guitarist Laura Marling has maintained the early pace of her favorite singer-songwriters—Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell—producing a new album every two years while becoming a more ambitious writer and arranger with every release. Following 2015’s Short Movie, a transitional album where she switched to electric guitar and sharpened her observational skills, Marling teamed up with producer Blake Mills (Jim James, Alabama Shakes, John Legend) in Los Angeles with the intent of crafting a lusher, more varied set of songs. The pairing works, adding soulful bounce to her occasionally brittle hooks and orchestral heft to her simpler arrangements. Semper Femina represents a new type of writing about women. Political without being polemical, Marling filters her narrative sketches through a personal lens that neither over-idealizes nor under-romanticizes her subjects. —Matt Fink

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