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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20. Kevin Morby: City Music
Singing Saw, the debut solo album from L.A. singer-songwriter (and former Woods bassist) Kevin Morby, was one of the great “growers” of 2016. Dusky and unassuming, it revealed its considerable charms slowly but surely. Morby’s follow up, City Music, mines a similar aesthetic, though its songs in general seem to endear themselves more quickly. Where Singing Saw was inspired in part by Morby’s sleepy neighborhood in the hills northeast of L.A., City Music is about the metropolis: city life, city noise, city people, a city’s pace, and so on. Morby has said Singing Saw was Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, while City Music is Lou Reed and Patti Smith, and the comparison is clear in Morby’s speak-sing deadpan and bulging crescendos from brooding guitar-folk to driving rock. (The barreling “1234” makes a beeline for the Ramones.) City Music doesn’t hustle and bustle. But it won’t let you miss it, either. —Ben Salmon

Read: Kevin Morby Finds a Home Anywhere in the World

19. Sylvan Esso: What Now
Three years removed from their debut, the indie electropop duo of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn returned with a denser sound and a very different goal than the blissfully direct objective of “making people dance.” The band called What Now a representation of “the inevitable low that comes after every high.” Indeed, Meath and Sanborn dispense with many of the freeing and expansive sounds of their debut, opting to play instead with feelings of tightness, darkness and enclosure. Unlike the immediate sugar high of pretty much every track on Sylvan Esso, most of the melodies on What Now take a little while to unspool. The fuller, darker, and more chaotic sound is appropriate, grappling with and effectively communicating what happens after the party, when it’s time to come down. —Kayleigh Hughes

Read: Sylvan Esso Master Purposeful Pop

18. Waxahatchee: Out in the Storm
When Katie Crutchfield released her last record as Waxahatchee, 2015’s Ivy Tripp, she called the album a gas and her release before that, 2013’s Cerulean Salt, a solid. Her fourth full-length, Out in the Storm, may not symbolize a physical state of matter, but it reveals Crutchfield as a scientific element in her own right—explosive, volatile and uncontrollable. At moments where Crutchfield used to put herself down, like on Ivy Tripp’s “Less Than,” she now talks back, standing up for herself, even to herself. She allows herself to get angry or frustrated, such as on “Never Wrong,” the record’s purely rock ‘n’ roll opening track. And she indignantly removes herself from a noxious relationship and asserts her independence on tracks like “8 Ball” and “Brass Beam,” but later portrays the vulnerability and weakness that unavoidably merge with that withdrawal. —Natalia Barr

Read: Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield Gets Candid on Out in the Storm

17. Aimee Mann: Mental Illness
The songs on Mental Illness paint bleak, sparse pictures of characters pondering loneliness, mistakes and, in particular, their own lovability. The album chronicles the decay or outright termination of relationships of all stripes. But to dismiss Mental Illness, or Mann’s work more broadly, as merely a club of sad sacks is too glib. Rather, she writes musical snapshots, documenting the smallest details to convey rich inner worlds. By eschewing the lush instrumentation of some of her early solo work, Mann and producer Paul Bryan give the record an exceptionally spacious feel; most songs find her singing over a piano or single acoustic guitar, augmented occasionally by strings or subtle harmonies. The spare arrangements highlight Mann’s melodies—contemplative, longing, vulnerable—as well as her words—solitary, reflective, honest. —Craig Dorfman

Read: Aimee Mann on Mental Illness and ‘Embracing the Soft Side’

16. Slowdive: Slowdive
Slowdive’s brief and wondrous ‘90s run was like a pleasant dream: hazy textures, deep emotional heft that remained fuzzy around the edges and an end that came far too quickly. You knew you there was something special left behind in their wake, but it was fleeting and hard to piece together all the details. Slowdive, the band’s first album in 22 years, manages to absorb elements from Slowdive’s glory days without settling into mere retread. The lengthier, more expansive tracks are especially inspired. “Slomo” is a euphoric dream-pop workout with lyrics inspired by the Cornwall seaside, and it’s among the band’s best work. The twinkling piano arpeggios that anchor “Falling Ashes” bear a similarity to Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” from last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Maybe that’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s payback: Radiohead famously lifted the melting frequency effect at the end of “Karma Police” from Slowdive’s “Souvlaki Space Station.” It’s heartening to see Slowdive survive long enough to borrow from the bands that got rich off their influence. —Zach Schonfeld

Read: After Two Decades Away, Slowdive Tiptoes Back to Center Stage

15. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: Sketches of Brunswick East
Coming in as their third release of yet another mind-bogglingly prolific year, Sketches Of Brunswick East saw the Australian psych-rockers trying on a few new hats—making for one of the more unique offerings in their ever-growing catalogue. Teaming up with the Steely Dan-influenced, Mac DeMarco-backing Alex Brettin and his band, Mild High Club, the result is a pastiche of effortlessly cool, funk and jazz-laced tracks—a second life for a tragically-unhip genre. Brettin’s influence is a calming one, evident in the jazzy shuffle and daydream flutes of the opening cut, and the funk-lite of “Countdown.” “Tezeta” mixes Afro-rhythms and Michael McDonald-smooth vocals, “Dusk To Dawn On Lygon Street” adds extra dimension with the sounds of passing conversations and car horns, and “The Book” throws in some Doors-organ and spacey guitars to put the rock back in rock-fusion. Inspired by the Melbourne neighborhood where King Giz make their music, the collective feel is that of a technicolor, metropolitan dream-state—a stoney walk around romanticized cities that only ever existed in songs played on 70s AM radio. —Madison Desler

Read: The Tripped-Out, Magnetic Horror of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard

14. White Reaper: The World’s Best American Band
The World’s Best American Band, this Kentucky group’s devilishly catchy second full-length, opens with the roar of an approving crowd. It is not a live album, and this sounds like a large audience packed into an amphitheater, the sort of venue White Reaper might be headlining in a more excellent world. The song that emerges is sheer self-affirming cock-rock (“Rally up and dress to kill / Lace your boots and crush your pills”), a motivational speech for greasy-haired dirtbags. On the album, White Reaper manage to distill all the strut and swagger of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” into a pithy, 10-song set. The production is a bit clearer and less sludgy than on 2015’s White Reaper Does It Again, and the songs mark the quartet’s most confident collection to date. Two of them (“The World’s Best American Band” and “Little Silver Cross”) even hurtle past the four-minute mark. —Zach Schonfeld

13. King Krule: The Ooz
Beginning with the clunky lounge-hop of “Biscuit Town,” Archy Marshall employs street-smart rhymes in a fiendish croon on The Ooz. The track, like much of the record, warbles a bit, like a melted vinyl record with the needle gliding across the valleyed grooves. Allusions to lovesick lows and drug-haze highs dominate the musical panorama here and give glimpses into the somewhat reclusive Marshall’s last four years beneath the moon. Partly due to Marshall’s incredibly low register, songs throughout The Ooz take on frightful undertones, as howls and shrieks are riddled atop meditative musical ambience, like a Lynchian fever dream. There is something unsettling around every corner—the title connoting an exfoliation of biological detritus, which this album sonically approximates over 19 toxic tracks. It’s not a record to absorb in desperate moments, but rather an artfully brooding, grime-y thing that stands as a terribly unique and nightmarish account of what it might sound like to spiral out of control. —Ryan J. Prado

12. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell   is often called one of the world’s best songwriters. That sort of expectation can be a challenge to live up to, but Isbell continues to sally forth, upping the ante in all aspects of his craft. The Nashville Sound, his first record with the 400 Unit since 2011’s Here We Rest, is triumphant in its topical resonance, but draws influence from the timelessness of lyrical curiosity. Whether delivering heart-wrenching lines on the crumbling of the American Dream, or the crumbling of a relationship, each is given an equal shake, and that makes his songs unreasonably powerful. “Last of My Kind” recalls the melodic cadence of The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” “Cumberland Gap” is the first song to showcase the 400 Unit’s riotous rock ‘n’ roll combustion. Isbell, maybe better than anyone else on the planet, can tap into the polarizing societal veins of the country’s manias and transform them into anthems for (hopefully) much better days ahead. —Ryan J. Prado

Read: Jason Isbell: Taking the Hard Road Never Gets Easier

11. New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions
The New Pornographers  have spent their career seesawing between two sides of their collective musical personality, contrasting straightforward peppy, poppy records (2001’s Mass Romantic, 2003’s Electric Version and 2014’s Technicolor Brill Bruisers) with less accessible and at times gratuitously weird LPs (2005’s Twin Cinema, 2007’s Challengers and 2010’s Together). Whiteout Conditions breaks the tie, unmistakably throwing its lot in with the former group. It’s a fitting introduction to spring, a blast of synthesizers and harmonies and aural smiles. While AC Newman’s knack for melodies is on full display here—every song invites head-bobbing or singing along—the album’s success stems at least as much from his penchant for experimenting with arrangement and structure. Verses flow into choruses with such little fanfare, it hardly seems fair to call them choruses. Instead, the songs come off as collages of uniformly important but musically distinct melodic lines. —Craig Dorfman

Read: AC Newman Talks Politics, Lineup Changes and Whiteout Conditions

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