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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30. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith left her home on Orcas Island to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, then shuttered her folk band after discovering and becoming enamored with the Buchla 100, an early synthesizer developed by electronic music pioneer Don Buchla. Experimenting with the instrument’s array of beats, tones and effects, she found her way to a unique sound she has inhabited ever since. Smith is one of a small number of prominent musicians who use a Buchla creation as her primary instrument. The Kid is like being dropped into the middle of a bizarrely beautiful sound-world and enveloped by the warmth and wonder of one woman’s relationship with a machine named Buchla. “An Intention” pairs her lush robot harmonies with a bed of music that seems to rise and fall like it’s wheezing. And “A Kid” collapses into a pit of knocks and sproings before ascending into Smith’s liveliest vocal performance to date. —Ben Salmon

29. Nai Palm: Needle Paw
Fans of Hiatus Kaiyote, the future-soul quartet that burst out of Australia following their cacophonous debut album, Tawk Tomahawk, in 2012, may be in for a shock when they hear the solo debut by the group’s frontwoman, Nai Palm (aka Naomi Saalfield). Although her incredible artistry and emotional gravity are ever-present, much of Needle Paw strips away the lush instrumentation found on Hiatus Kaiyote records in favor of just a guitar, a voice, and some light accents here and there. The shift is especially noticeable because several of the songs are reworked versions of earlier Hiatus tunes, such as the ethereal “Atari” and the slinking “Molasses.” Saalfield loops and layers her elastic voice into swirling clouds of soul, and she shows off her facility for interpreting and updating classic sounds with a powerful cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland).” —Claire Greising

28: The xx: I See You
By all accounts, the third album by The xx was a make or break point for the band. After two acclaimed and brilliant albums of electronically-fueled downer pop, producer Jamie XX, bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim and guitarist/vocalist Romy Croft were unsure how to continue or, at times, even if they should. But through a healthy amount of trial and error, the trio emerged with their strongest statement yet. The beats and production are bold, multicolored affairs informed as much by grime and hip-hop as by minimalist pop and soul. And the emotions brought forth by Croft and Sim through their individual vocal turns are wrenching and true. The xx sees us, but those glances only served up reflections of their own emotional peaks and valleys. —Robert Ham

27. Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness
Julie Byrne is from New York City. And Seattle. And Chicago. And Buffalo. And probably other places, too. Either she has moved around a lot, or she’s from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Her second widely distributed album, Not Even Happiness, makes a strong case for the latter. Built mostly out of expertly fingerpicked guitar and Byrne’s entrancing alto, the nine mystic folk songs wander the physical world: passing clouds and restless stargazing, hellish cities and endless roads, blue skies, bright moons and quiet back porches. Along the way, Byrne uses earthly concerns as a backdrop for explorations of love, loneliness, fear, forgiveness, spirituality and the eternal search for life’s center. With a quiver full of memorable melodies and reverb that stretches to the horizon, this album is at once engaging, enigmatic and irresistible. “I have dragged my lives across the country,” she sings on “I Live Now as a Singer,” the luminous final track, “and wondered if travel led me anywhere.” That’s for Byrne to decide, of course. But Not Even Happiness is a beautiful and rewarding journey. —Ben Salmon

Read: Behind the Scenes With Julie Byrne & Johanna Warren in Portland

26. This Is the Kit: Moonshine Freeze
Kate Stables is usually the only person in This Is the Kit’s press photos, yet her fourth album, the beautiful Moonshine Freeze, is a communal affair. The ensemble cast of collaborators she’s gathered for her fourth album allows her to employ new arrangements and access deeper emotions. With legendary producer John Parish (PJ Harvey, Perfume Genius) and The National’s Aaron Dessner (who produced TITK’s previous album, Bashed Out) offering their support, Moonshine Freeze is the peak of an uphill path Stables has traced since her earliest recordings. She is the ghost haunting the propulsive rhythm of “Hotter Colder,” and her softly spine-rattling coo on “Empty No Teeth” enlivens its often gory imagery. Her singing on “Two Pence Piece” ensures its soft violence punches into the ears, and most boldly, on “Riddled With Ticks,” the way she hovers repeatedly over the phrase “will fight you” before it becomes “will lose” is jarring. —Max Freedman

The first lady of Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA acquired a cult following with her 2014 mixtape Z, a downtempo project rife with ambient beats and understated vocals—a pleasing combination for fans of artists like XXYYXX and Sky Ferreira. On her debut LP, SZA trades Z’s whispery vocals for a robust timbre steeped in jazz and soul, evoking Amy Winehouse and earlier predecessors like Billie Holiday. In keeping with jazz tradition, there’s an improvisatory quality to the way she sings throughout the album, unraveling structured pop hooks with stream-of-consciousness riffs and scat-like repetition. But in contrast to the self-seriousness that often comes with impressive vocal chops, CTRL is comically blunt: “Highkey, your dick is weak, buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute,” she croons on “Doves in the Wind.” It’s lines like these that make CTRL feel as intimate and fun as a slumber party with your best girlfriends. —Nastia Voynovskaya

24. Benjamin Booker: Witness
The most frequent criticism of New Orleans-based guitarist/songwriter Benjamin Booker’s new music is that it’s not what he did on his 2014 self-titled debut. They say he changed too quickly, too drastically. They miss the aimless rock ‘n’ roll. But on Witness, Booker’s music emerges as defiant, insightful and both intimately and communally self-actualizing. For the most part, Booker leaves behind the punk-inspired blues rock of his debut. Sequels to the snarling “Have You Seen My Son” and the quick-hitting “Violent Shiver” can be found bookending Witness on the opening “Right On You,” and less-than-two-minute closer “All Was Well.” For the most part, Booker trades the yelping for melodic musings, offering a soulful, fearless record that castigates racial and social injustices. It’s a reminder that our greatest chances for success happen when we grow and change together. —Hilary Saunders

23. The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding
With a title like A Deeper Understanding, it’s incumbent upon the listener to at least attempt to deduce some of the impetus for the writing and the playing, which The War on Drugs deliver masterfully, in trance-like croons that more or less run in neutral, even when Adam Granduciel allows his voice to soar on songs like “Holding On.” The band sounds best, though, when it puts the pedal to the floor on driving pop rockers like “Nothing to Find.” Even when they sound like some simulation of rock music, The War on Drugs have the capacity to explode in relentless, dialed parameters that touch on everything from A-ha to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Empire Burlesque-era Dylan. And perhaps that is A Deeper Understanding’s greatest asset: its ability to bridge seemingly disparate eras of sound under one weird parasol. —Ryan J. Prado

Read: The War on Drugs on Blooming Late and Finding a Deeper Understanding

22. The Oh Sees: Orc
Orc, The Oh Sees’ 19th release in 20 years, is an absolutely evil stunner from front to back, head to toes and everywhere in between, whipping up the same kind of radiant, strange awe that the band’s overdriven catalog has so generously perpetrated on album after wicked album. Orc is immediately manic, overdriven, and intense on roiling opener “The Static God,” forming a pounding fist of screeching guitars that gives way to a wordless chorus that pogos in stop-start guitar clangs, and continues to shapeshift and waggle in bizarre backroads of experimentation. Liberated somewhat from the jammy tendencies they explored on the likes of Castlemania and Floating Coffin, and venturing further into the loopy explorations of last year’s A Weird Exits, The Oh Sees opt to take cues from any twisted source they so desire, smashing it all into an approximation of a rollicking garage-rock basement party. —Ryan J. Prado

21. Priests: Nothing Feels Natural
It took a minute for Priests to materialize with a full-length debut. Together since 2011, the Washington, D.C. quartet spent their first few years releasing a handful of tapes and 7-inches prior to recording the EP Bodies and Control and Money and Power in 2014. But this particular full-length debut turns out to have been worth a minute. On Nothing Feels Natural, the band’s scattershot punk tantrums congeal into a more ambitious LP outfitted with deep post-punk grooves and anti-corporate screeds. It’s a weightier, more cerebral collection that succeeds without sacrificing the raw force of this group’s chemistry. If Priests have a signature sound, it is anchored by singer Katie Alice Greer’s deep, exacting wail. It’s a voice that lends itself to snarled critiques—of society, of shitty men, of consumerism. By chance or by design, Nothing Feels Natural is the first great punk album of the Trump presidency. —Zach Schonfeld

Read: Washington, D.C.’s Priests are Political, But Don’t Call Them ‘Riot Grrrl’

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