Music

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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10. Sampha: Process
If anyone could’ve padded their sales/streaming numbers by packing a hotly anticipated debut with big-name guests, it’s Sampha, best known for his previous supporting work with Drake, Beyonce, Kanye West, Solange and Frank Ocean, among others. But on his first full-length album, the British artist called in no favors and focused on his singular sound and vision. The results are glorious. Process is a study in contrasts: between Sampha’s understated voice and his outsized melodic gifts; between his laid-back vibe and skittering beats; between forward-thinking production and a young man’s old soul. But most of all, Process is a 10-track tug-of-war pitting Sampha’s vivid, likable modern R&B against his inescapable feelings of anxiety, sadness, worry and uncertainty, whether driven by a romantic relationship or his mother’s ill health. “You shake me and tell me that I’m OK,” he sings in “Blood On Me,” a sleek fever dream. “But I swear they smell the blood on me. I hear them coming for me.” Process is the sound of a talented, successful guy simply trying to keep it together in an uneasy world. —Ben Salmon

9. Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked at Me
Over his prolific 20-year career, Phil Elverum has written lots of songs about mortality, probably second only to the number of songs he has written about nature. A Crow Looked at Me marks the first time he has written about death, and there is no album quite like it. Following the passing of his wife, visual artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, Elverum took a couple months to grieve and then sat down in the room where she died and recorded the 11 songs that make up his eighth release as Mount Eerie. Song by song, line by line, he speaks directly to Castrée and into her absence (“Real Death,” “Toothbrush / Trash”). The results are as engrossing as they are emotionally devastating. More than words, what sticks with you are the images. Unlike other Mount Eerie albums, this one features very little tape hiss atmosphere or extra ambient texture, allowing you to hear every word Elverum says with clarity. But the music is not simple sonic wallpaper. The beats rise and fall, sounding eerily like a respirator. The instruments—all provided by Elverum—often enter and fade at unpredictable intervals, with tiny details buried in the mix. The music feels as unsettled and in-the-moment as the stories he is telling. —Matt Fink

Read: When Words Fail: Phil Elverum Navigates Life After Death

8. LCD Soundsystem: American Dream
Post-hiatus records tend to be mediocre attempts to rejuvenate the enthusiasm of the past. Fans probably applied this to James Murphy’s band, wondering how American Dream, the first LCD Soundsystem record in seven years, could live up to 2007’s Sound of Silver or 2010’s This Is Happening. Thankfully, American Dreamis a beautiful work of art about aging, regret and an arduous search for meaning, an expansive record that explores a variety of sounds and themes, but it never feels confused or lost. As Murphy’s vocals dreamily weave their way into the intro of opening track “Oh Baby,” you immediately know that this is a different LCD Soundsystem. The frantic energy of hits such as “Get Innocuous!” and “Movement” is gone, but not necessarily missing. Sonically, American Dream is more spacious than its predecessors. This dreamscape suits a record that’s aware of beauty in life, but invariably realizes that what it once thought was beautiful is merely an empty void. —Grant Sharples

Read: Is It Really Rock ‘n’ Roll Without Guitars? Yes, It Is.

7. Alvvays: Antisocialites
On Antisocialites, Alvvays haven’t lost their knack for writing concise indie pop songs that rival the best of Camera Obscura or Belle & Sebastian. By adding a warm synth sheen for their sophomore release, the Toronto-based quintet manage to make their jangly guitars seem even lusher. They’ve achieved what every band strives for on a sophomore album but most fail to do—namely, strike the middle ground between making the same record twice, and wanting to evolve and change their sound. By tweaking their songwriting ever so slightly, Alvvays one-up their 2014 breakthrough record. “Plimsoll Punks” plays like a fuller, more tightly wound “Next of Kin;” “Dreams Tonite” is a supercharged, groovier take on “Ones Who Love You.” Molly Rankin & co. have dissected every minute detail from their debut and figured out how to truly improve upon each part, one by one. Those small flourishes—a more pronounced synth line here, an unexpected key change there—don’t distract from what makes Alvvays great; they’ve only made the overall sound better. —Steven Edelstone

6. Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love
On their full-length debut, the Philly rock quintet Sheer Mag flex less and strut more than on their previous EP releases. Guitarist Kyle Seely’s wellspring of riffs and licks, which sound like they were unearthed from a late-’70s time capsule but somehow never got old, meld classic-rock, proto-punk and hard-soul sounds in inventive and addictive ways. Tina Halladay’s vocals are imbued with a combination of tenderness and tough talk that doesn’t come along often. She uses her voice skillfully, pushing it to its straining point on populist jams like “Rank & File,” but scaling back the astringency when love and longing are the subjects at hand. Some of the guitar sounds, as on “Pure Desire” and “Need to Feel Your Love,” are more influenced by funk, soul and disco than rock, snapping and moving like Seely’s got a few Chic records in his collection. “Just Can’t Get Enough” spills over with guitar and vocal melodies that shimmer and soar. “Milk & Honey” jangles at a relatively leisurely pace, while “Until You Find the One” reveals Sheer Mag’s underused twangy streak. —Ben Salmon

Read: For Sheer Mag, Balancing Protest and Play in 2017 Is a Tricky Business

5. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice
In a year fraught with emotional intensity and existential drama, the lighthearted Lotta Sea Lice, the collaborative album by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, was a welcome change of pace. Rooted in the artists’ mutual admiration, the album finds the Aussie Barnett and American Vile celebrating one another in ways that highlight increasingly revealed common ground. What began as an idea for a split single evolved into a full-length, and that evolution is on full display. The duo’s piecemeal approach to recording—two recording sessions over almost 15 months—is heard in the final product, and what the album lacks in structural consistency it repays in undeniable chemistry. Lotta Sea Lice finds Barnett and Vile making it up as they go to vital results. The album’s meandering low-stakes approach projects the artists’ comfort with and confidence in each other, illuminates their process and hints at greater possibilities. Opening track “Over Everything” highlights the recurring motifs of the album: the insular world of the artist, where it overshadows the wider world and where those worlds overlap. —Ian Thomas

Read: Catching Up With: Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett

4. Run the Jewels: RTJ3
Killer Mike and El-P become full-fledged juggernauts on their third album as Run the Jewels, never compromising, never obstructed. “Militant Michael might go psycho / On any ally or arrival,” Mike warns on “Talk to Me.” “We talk too loud, won’t remain in our places,” El-P snarls on “Everybody Stay Calm.” Run the Jewels have always been fearless, but here they are frank, the threats too real to risk ambiguity. There is zero shade on this album. Instead, there are direct confrontations and call-outs: Don Lemon and cops get their just desserts on “Thieves;” Donald Trump and All Lives Matter get suplexed on “Talk to Me;” reckless retweeters get splayed on “A Report to the Shareholders: Kill Your Masters;” land-grabbing developers in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood get blasted on “Don’t Get Captured.” RTJ3 isn’t just a reaction to the shitshow that was 2016; it’s a line-itemized receipt. The beats are just as abrasive. Usual suspects Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby provide co-production throughout, contributing to some of the most nuclear compositions of El-P’s career. Familiar elements abound—droning synths, cosmic bass, corrosive keys, glitchy sequencing—but the sum total is pure uranium. —Stephen F. Kearse

Read: Run the Jewels: ‘Run the Jewels 3’ Review

3. Father John Misty: Pure Comedy
Much has been made of the marriage of Josh Tillman’s conventionally beautiful voice and accessible instrumentation with his nihilistic and irony-soaked lyricism. Here is proof that the relationship is working, and getting better with age. The title track serves not just as an entryway into those larger themes but a summary statement of all that’s to come. The cards are on the table and his worldview is explained with a voice as delicate as his observations are harsh. His mockery of birth, death, religion, consumerism and politics is matched with delicate piano-chord progressions pining for a solution to all those problems. Tillman’s main source of dissatisfaction seems centered around the idea of humanity’s insatiable desire for importance. This takes the form of organized religion (“When the God of Love Returns, There’ll Be Hell to Pay”) and politics (“Two Wildly Different Perspectives”) and…everything else. Ultimately, beautiful music and community-in-communication—the two things Pure Comedy gives us—are what make our meaningless lives worth living. There’s still something awe-inspiring about this “speck on a speck on a speck” existence of ours. —Mack Hayden

Read: The World According to Father John Misty

2. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
DAMN. isn’t the personal journey that 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly was, and it doesn’t try to be. DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar dead and Kendrick Lamar alive. It is Kendrick Lamar condemned and Kendrick Lamar redeemed. It is a meditation—or rather, a series of meditations—of his technical and emotional capabilities. Those meditations, on subjects explicitly named in songs like “PRIDE.” “LUST.” and “FEAR.” are bound together as an examination of his own existence: his past, his present, his future, his disciples, his worshippers, his enemies and his worldview. When Butterfly came out, Lamar was coronated hip-hop’s king and savior. Here he embraces the image, turning himself into messiah and martyr. He finds himself crucified on the very first track—his desire to do good, his outstretched hand to the blind of the world, turned upon him and used to undo him. On “DNA.,” he’s “Yeshua’s new weapon,” born of Immaculate Conception and eager to lead his people. But Kendrick Lamar is not Jesus. He can’t help being human, and like the best among us, he is capable of, and often beholden to, a dark part of the mind. In highlighting the struggles inherent in his morality, he forces his listeners to consider their own. —Carter Shelter

Read: Ranking Every Kendrick Lamar Music Video

1. Jay Som: Everybody Works
Melina Duterte begins her sophomore album with a hushed, distorted couplet: “I like the way your lipstick stains / the corner of my smile.” It’s memorable, sweet and original bedroom pop, intimate but carefully orchestrated. The guitar tones play with pitch even more than current lo-fi kings Mac DeMarco or Kurt Vile, or much like Duterte’s first instrument, the trumpet, whose imprecise notes can make a piece of music feel more human in our digital world. The vocals are buried and dreamy, surrounded at times by discordant guitars, especially on songs like “1 Billion Dogs.” Moments of crunchy noise-rock make the clean pop hooks of songs like “One More Time, Please” stand out even more. Duterte plays all the instruments on Everybody Works, including some of the coolest psychedelic guitar solos recorded this decade, sometimes hidden within layers of jazzy, fuzzy counter-melody. It’s both informal and intricate, carefully constructed then filtered through crappy speakers, like listening to Sun Kil Moon or Sufjan Stevens through a cell phone with someone you love on the other end. The result feels personal and vulnerable and, above all, beautiful. And it’s our favorite album of 2017. —Josh Jackson

Read: Jay Som: The Best of What’s Next

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