The Best Albums of 2017
With new songs, videos, and albums often dropping in the middle of the night, the music landscape of 2017 is constantly mutating. Established artists like Drake continue to seek ways to surprise the mainstream, while smaller, emerging acts have turned to apps like YouNow and live.ly to collect coins in the virtual tip jar.
The range of options can be overwhelming. So why wait until the end of the year to recommend the music that's worth your time? Like our ever-growing movie list and TV list, this frequently updated ranking will help you keep track of the albums you 100% can't afford to miss, ranging from the pop blockbusters to the underrated gems. The ways we interact with music may be transforming, but a solid recommendation remains as valuable as ever. (And if you need more to stream, check out The Best Albums of 2016.)
40. Steve Lacy, Steve Lacy's Demo
Release date: February 24
Record label: Three Quarter
Why it's great: In the year of the playlist, when artists like Drake and Chris Brown appear to be stacking their projects with songs to juice their streaming stats, it's refreshing to see an artist over-indulge on brevity. That's what Steve Lacy, the 19-year-old guitarist and producer from R&B shape-shifters The Internet, did with his unassuming EP-like coyly titled collection, Steve Lacy's Demo. These songs, like the wistful slow-jam "Dark Red" and the rollicking psych detour "Haterlovin," were often noted for being mostly produced on an iPhone, but they aren't sketches or half-ideas. Instead, the tracks feel like a more intimate continuation of the tangential song-writing approach Frank Ocean has explored in recent years on projects like Blonde and Endless. Like Ocean, Lacy is smart enough to know bigger isn't always better.
39. Young Thug, Beautiful Thugger Girls
Release date: June 16
Why it's great:Beautiful Thugger Girls isn't quite the cowboy-hat-tipping, square-dance-starting country album that some fans hoped it would be, which is fine. Attempting to put an artist like Young Thug in a creative box is pointless -- ask his former label president Lyor Cohen -- and classifying these wildly experimental songs, which sound like R&B campfire jams, is a fool's errand. Like Future's deeply romantic HNDRXX, this is an album where an Atlanta rapper sings about love, sex, and fidelity, but here you still get crude absurdist punchlines like "I got your bitch in a backpack" and "Pussy never not wet/Never got you upset." Like most Young Thug projects, there's some filler here, but the brilliant-to-forgettable ratio is higher than it's been since 2016's Barter 6. For fans of adventurous music of any genre, it's essential listening.
38. Taylor Swift, Reputation
Release date: November 10
Record label: Big Machine Records
Why it's great: The concept of "reputation" feels quaint, like something from a 19th-century novel. More than most celebrity figures, Taylor Swift is likely aware that attempting to control one's personal narrative in the modern media environment is a futile gesture, and yet, here we are: Reputation, the country-turned-pop singer's sixth album, arrived with enough tabloid controversy and promotional clatter to fit whatever preconceived notions you'd prescribed to the project. That's fine because the best songs -- like the noir kiss-off "Getaway Car" or the mumblecore snapshot "New Year's Day" -- both play with those expectations and upend them. It turns out Swift isn't concerned with setting the record straight. She's too busy plotting her next move.
37. Kesha, Rainbow
Release date: August 11
Why it's great:Rainbow arrives nearly five years after the release of 2012's Warrior, a dizzying glitter-bomb of a record. The time between that album and this more subdued collection of songs was mostly spent in a prolonged legal battle with Kesha's producer -- and alleged abuser -- Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, but the one-time "Tik Tok" singer has also developed as a songwriter in that time. The punk-ish rockabilly of a track like "Boogie Feet," one of two songs featuring the Eagles of Death Metal, is an inventive twist on her party animal persona, while country detours like "Hunt You Down" and "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle to You)," a duet with Dolly Parton, hit you in the gut. Some of the stylistic gambles don't pay off -- the title track produced by Ben Folds is a treacly dud -- but Kesha's risk-taking instincts and playful vocal performances help redeem the occasional creative missteps. Clearly, the conflict with Dr. Luke and the accompanying #FreeKesha campaign informs the lyrics on the record: "You brought the flames and you put me through hell," she sings on the lead single "Praying." But this Rainbow holds a range of colors.
36. Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger in the Alps
Release date: September 14
Record label:Dead Oceans
Why it's great: That title, a sly allusion to a line from the bowdlerized cable TV version of The Big Lebowski, should be a tip-off that this isn't your average folk-indebted indie rock record. Not by a longshot. Phoebe Bridgers, a Los Angeles based 23-year-old with a gift for writing simultaneously wry and devastating lyrics, is crafty in a way that encourages contemplation. Like Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek or John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, she pens lines packed with hyper-specific cultural references ("Singing 'Ace of Spades' when Lemmy died") and blunt emotional confessions ("Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time"). The plain-spoken poetry of dark, ruminative songs like "Funeral" or "Killer" are enlivened by a musical nimbleness throughout the record that encourages close-listening. Bridgers is always searching, questioning, and untangling new threads of thought. She's a detective investigating her own impulses. The Dude would approve.
35. Perfume Genius, No Shape
Release date: May 5
Why it's great: There's a generosity that powers the music of Mike Hadreas. Even when exploring the depths of despair, like he did on his beautiful debut Learning, he uses the flexibility of his voice to find pockets of joy amidst the struggles of his characters. His fourth record No Shape, which draws on a tradition of ethereal melodrama found in the best work of David Bowie, Kate Bush, and Prince, is as elegant as it is anthemic. Songs in the more pop-inflected first half like "Slip Away" and "Wreath" give away to sparse ballads like "Die 4 You" and the fog-drenched "Run Me Through," but each genre experiment is tied together by that voice, which creates a sense of intimacy and emotional continuity to the journey. You'll follow him anywhere.
34. The xx, I See You
Release date: January 13
Record label: Young Turks
Why it's great: If you found The xx's first two records chilly, cerebral, and removed, but grooved to the eclectic haunted-club aesthetic of Jamie xx's In Colour, one of the best albums of 2015, then this might be The xx you're looking for. It's not that they've radically changed their sound -- hushed vocals, pitter-patter beats, and electro-pop minimalism remain their go-to moves -- but they've tweaked it in ways that make the anthems more inviting, ambitious, and danceable. For years, the spacey English group was pegged as the come-down band you nod along to at the end of a long outdoor festival, but on tracks like the sensual "Lips," the torch song "Brave for You," and the dance-noir standout "On Hold," they've created music you want to throw your whole body into.
33. Girlpool, Powerplant
Release date: May 12
Why it's great: Powerplant is only 28 minutes long. That's shorter than many of the records on this list and also shorter than many sitcom episodes on Netflix. I say this not to single out Girlpool for their lack of musical girth, but to make a case for carving out time away from the constant chatter of your social media feed to listen to this intimate rock record. The LA band's previous record, 2015's Before the World Was Big, only used guitar, bass, and the voices of members Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, but this time they've added drums (and some grunge-y feedback) to the mix. It's a slight expansion of the group's aesthetic -- like a splotch of color appearing in B&W film -- that pays off in surprising, meaningful ways.
32. Migos, Culture
Release date: January 27
Why it's great: With 2015's Yung Rich Nation, a junk-sculpture pile-up of hot Atlanta rap trends, ad-libs, and old-fashioned braggadocio, Migos attempted to channel the freewheeling energy of their mixtapes, live shows, and videos into a major-label debut. Parts of it worked -- "Highway 85" remains an essential hip-hop travelogue -- but the group struggled, amidst legal drama, to make the type of definitive statement fans knew was possible. While Culture, a 13-track record that rode the viral momentum of hit "Bad and Boujee" to the top of the Billboard album chart, doesn't sound that much different than their best tapes, it has an indefatigable exuberance that makes it feel like an event. Just listen to the stomping, brick-throwing "Deadz" with 2 Chainz. This is the sound of a trio driven not by Golden Globe shout-outs, magazine covers, and memes, but by their steadfast belief in each other.
31. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural
Release date: January 27
Record label: Sister Polygon Records
Why it's great: The title is so appropriate: What feels "natural" anymore? For their eagerly anticipated debut full-length, these DC punks take on the excesses of capitalism and a culture of complacency with a combination of No Wave chaos, kraut-inspired drones, and tuneful bar-rock sloganeering. A song like "JJ" ricochets off a minimal drum beat, a Dick Dale-like riff, and lines about cigarettes before exploding in a piano-driven attack on just about everything. "I wrote a bunch of songs for you," sings Katie Alice Greer. "But you never knew and you never deserved them." It ends with her chanting "what a stupid concept" over and over. These songs can't be owned; they can only be experienced.
30. King Krule, The Ooz
Release date: October 13
Why it's great: The lounge lizard was ripe for reinvention. While artists like Tom Waits and John Lurie floated through the 1980s -- recording jazzy albums, appearing in Jim Jarmusch movies, and wearing difficult-to-pull-off hats -- the archetype stalled out in the new millennium. Twenty-three-year-old Archy Marshall, an English songwriter with red hair and a taste for Supreme shirts who (sometimes) records under the name King Krule, doesn't immediately scan as a candidate to bring it back, but his new album The Ooz, a follow-up to 2013's 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, is a dazzling, reverb-soaked act of futuristic lizard-dom. Over 19 tracks, Marshall mixes no wave, trip-hop, R&B, and even a sample of the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia theme to create music that slithers into your brain. Have a drink. Stay a while.
29. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
Release date: June 23
Record label:Def Jam
Why it's great: On his full-length major label debut Summertime '06, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples provided a panoramic view of his memories. It was sweeping and revelatory, the type of sure-footed, confident hip-hop album that's hard to follow-up almost by design. By comparison, Big Fish Theory, his new LP after last year's Prima Donna EP, feels like it was recorded under a microscope. The production from an eclectic mix of musicians like Zack Sekoff, Sophie, and Flume alternates between club-ready maximalism and spaced-out minimalism. Fittingly, Staples, a sharp and funny quote-machine in interviews, has pared down his lyrics to incisive koans of wisdom. "All my life I want waves at my front door," he raps on "745." "No green grass, no porch/I just want seashores." It feels within his grasp.
28. Slowdive, Slowdive
Release date: May 5
Record label:Dead Oceans
Why it's great: This has been a strong year for indie rock bands releasing mid-to-late career records: The New Pornographers, the Afghan Whigs, Guided by Voices, Los Campesinos, and Grandaddy have all released quietly impressive albums that probably deserve spots on this list. But the one I keep circling back to is the new self-titled comeback record from Slowdive, the English shoegaze group behind the gauzy '90s classic Souvlaki. Like the new My Bloody Valentine record from 2013, this isn't a case of a band deviating too hard from its core sound or peddling cheap nostalgia. Instead, for their first collection of new music in 22 years, the group delivers a careful refinement of their minimalist swoon-pop aesthetic: songs like "Star Roving," "Sugar for the Pill," and the absolutely crushing "Go Get It" find beauty in pockets of darkness, shining a light forward and never looking back.
27. Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Release date: May 5/December 1
Record label:Mercury Nashville
Why it's great: Chris Stapleton's previous album, 2015's Grammy-winning Traveler, was the rare country break-through that appealed to the genre's many skeptics. But don't hold that against the bearded Nashville singer-songwriter: He's just doing the work, man. Even the title of his follow-up -- From A Room Vol. 1 and the sequel From a Room: Vol. 2 -- suggests the self-conscious humility of a craftsman determined to strip away any signs of showiness or displays of pomposity. Unlike last year's Sturgill Simpson record, which brilliantly toyed with the mischievous singer's reputation as a rule-breaker, this is an old-school affair with songs like "Second One to Know" and "Either Way" wowing you with their precision, emotional depth, and attention to detail. Stapleton resembles Tom Petty in his quiet, humble pursuit of greatness. If From A Room: Vol. 1 and the slightly heavier From a Room: Vol. 2 feel a little like watching a master architect build a pair of birdhouses, that's OK -- it's a really perfect birdhouse.
26. Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love
Release date: July 14
Record label:Wilsuns Rc
Why it's great: The gruff demands of Sheer Mag's debut, full-length album are spelled out in the joyfully blunt track titles: "Meet Me in the Street," "Expect the Bayonet," "Turn it Up," and, "Suffer Me." But the Philadelphia rock group, which earned a reputation for mixing left-leaning politics with Cheap Trick-style hooks over a trilogy of stellar EPs, is less abrasive than their blunt lyrics and foreboding album cover might suggest. Need to Feel Your Love is a fun, jittery record that finds equal emotional resonance in missed connections and protest signs. Lovelorn tracks like "Just Can't Get Enough" or the almost Chic-like "Pure Desire" are ideal showcases for singer Tina Halladay's infectious swagger.
25. Spoon, Hot Thoughts
Release date: March 17
Why it's great: It's hard to pick a favorite Spoon record -- mine is probably Kill the Moonlight, but I can make a case for Girls Can Tell -- and that's because choosing the "best" means you're missing the point of Spoon. They don't do peaks and valleys; they skim above the surface. The band's latest, Hot Thoughts, is like their previous records in one important aspect: It is a very good Spoon record. What's different this time? There are some spacey digressions, but not much has changed. Again working with psych-for-the-stars producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT), the Texas foursome crafts simmering strut-rock anthems ("First Caress"), chilly ballads ("I Ain't the One"), and maniacally simple head-nodders ("Shotgun"). Again, another good Spoon record. What more do you want?
24. Mary J. Blige, Strength of a Woman
Release date: April 28
Why it's great: On her 13th full-length, Mary J. Blige sounds comfortable and confident. She should: After experimenting on 2014's excellent London Sessions, which found the R&B legend collaborating with UK artists like Sam Smith and Disclosure, she's returned to the gilded sounds that made her a star in the '90s with a few contemporary twists. "Thick of It" is the type of stirring soul jam about a challenging relationship fans crave -- Blige split from her husband and manager Kendu Isaacs last year -- but the Migos assisted "Glow Up," which also features Missy Elliott and the always excitable DJ Khaled, might be the record's high point. It's liberating to hear her glow so triumphantly.
23. Sampha, Process
Release date: February 3
Record label: Young Turks
Why it's great: "I just want to put the music out," the British songwriter Sampha told The Ringer in a profile tied to the release of his debut LP. "In terms of people connecting with me, hopefully it comes across that way." It's an odd but revealing quote: Unlike many of his peers, the 28-year-old singer isn't busting his ass to meet hit-seeking listeners in the middle. Many of the big-name collaborators he's worked with in recent years -- including Beyoncé, Drake, and Kanye West -- became superstars after a period of presenting themselves in a public way that established a clear persona fans could identify with. Sampha isn't especially mysterious, having spoken eloquently about how Process is informed by the grief he felt following the death of his mother from cancer. But the mercurial songs on this album, like the beautiful "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano" or the flirtatious "Incomplete Kisses," feel like they come from an unknowable source. Like in the work of Frank Ocean or James Blake, that poetic quality draws you in. Trust the Process.
22. Drake, More Life
Release date: March 18
Record label:OVO Sound
Why it's great: In November 2011, Drake released Take Care, a sprawling and self-parodic work of millennial angst. Though he's only become more popular, meme-able, and prolific since then, it remains his best album, the purest distillation of Drake-ness. More Life, a "playlist" the rapper released on a Saturday night, is the best Drake project since Take Care because it gives Aubrey Graham space to explore his obsessions. While the tough-guy paranoia of If You're Reading This It's Too Late remains, the icy musical claustrophobia of Views is mostly gone, replaced with a nimble commitment to teasing out disparate global influences. Songs like "Passionfruit," "Madiba Riddim," and "Blem" pulsate with real heat, while winning guest spots from artists like Sampha, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, and Kanye West make the long run-time feel earned. Sometimes more really is better.
21. Royal Thunder, Wick
Release date: April 7
Record label: Spinefarm Records
Why it's great: Royal Thunder moves with a lumbering gait. The Atlanta metal group's first record, 2013's swamp-rock opus CVI, packed a bluesy wallop that recalled the seemingly untouchable howl of Led Zeppelin. It was hard rock that wasn't afraid to, you know, rock. After 2015's slightly muddled follow-up Crooked Doors, the band re-focused its energies and delivered Wick, an album that puts the focus on their most striking feature: the ferocious vocals of front-woman Mlny Parsonz, who gives tracks like "Tied" and "Plans" a startling emotional resonance. This isn't classic rock as a dutiful academic exercise. It's deeply cathartic, personal music that just happens to make you feel like a Norse god riding into Valhalla when you blast it during your morning commute.
20. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
Release date: September 1
Why it's great: The announcement of the first new LCD Soundsystem record in seven years momentarily lead to a re-litigation of the group's farewell, which inspired a blow-out show at Madison Garden, a documentary about said show, and countless essays about the band's legacy. Was it obnoxious for the project's hyper-verbal frontman James Murphy to make a big deal about the band's break-up only to return less than a decade later? I don't think so, but others disagree! It's a question that fades away quickly once you actually hear the new album, wryly titled American Dream, for one simple reason: The songs are very, very good. Like on the previous three LCD records, Murphy's meticulous production means that each track, like the pleading "oh baby" or the sprawling "how do you sleep?," hits like a carefully plated dish served up by a weary master chef called out of retirement. If you can deal with the middle-aged malaise and occasionally too self-aware couplet, this lengthy record is a rewarding feast. You'll eat whatever this guy cooks up.
19. Forest Swords, Compassion
Release date: May 5
Record label:Ninja Tune
Why it's great: Instrumental hip-hop albums don't come more ethereal than the latest collection from Forest Swords, the bewitching project of UK producer Matthew Barnes. The follow-up to 2013's Engravings, which deftly mixed Burial-like atmospherics with head-nodding beats, is even more adventurous in its pursuit of the strange, haunting, and otherworldly. Some of the experiments sound like whale calls, like on the mournful and brief "Sjurvival." On a track like "The Highest Flood," Barnes uses chopped-up choral vocals to create a cinematic vibe that's splits the difference between the maximalist film scores of Hans Zimmer and the minimal clatter of Trent Reznor. On "Raw Language" he mixes soulful singing with an unsettling string arrangement. Each song contains a mystery, waiting patiently to be unfolded.
18. EMA, Exile in the Outer Ring
Release date: August 25
Record label:City Slang
Why it's great: "I wanna destroy," repeats Erika M. Anderson on the third track of Exile in the Outer Ring, turning the phrase into an unnerving mantra. From the raw, feedback-drenched musings of 2011's Past Life Martyred Saints to the bracing, cyberpunk noise of 2014's The Future's Void, Anderson has been finding new ways to musically dramatize feelings of alienation both in the digital realm and IRL. There's always been a sense of dread in her work -- she wrote the score for last year's social media thriller #Horror -- and on Exile in the Outer Ring she does what great writers do: She makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Suburban hang-out sessions take on a sinister edge in "Receive Love," while "Fire Water Air LSD" turns a trip to the Sioux Empire Fair into a violent desert freak-out. It's an album that surveys destruction but still finds beauty in the outermost rings.
17. The Mountain Goats, Goths
Release date: May 19
Why it's great: Living your life online can encourage a specific type of cookie-cutter solipsism: Everyone is sad all the time and here's the perfect Addams Family GIF to capture your whole identity. A text like Goths, the sixteenth record from The Mountain Goats, looks back at an era where young people with weird taste, like the protagonist of "We Do it Different on the West Coast," had to seek out "pockets in Ohio" or read about local scenes from papers "back in England" to find the art that spoke to them. But John Darnielle, the songwriter and novelist who penned these songs, isn't interested in scolding Tumblr goths or impressing you with his record collection. He's using gothness not so much as a musical reference point -- the album is filled with piano and soft-rock horns -- but as a guiding thematic idea, similar to the way 2009's excellent Life of the World to Come plucked Bible verses to inspire sharp-edged character sketches. Non-goths are welcome.
16. Kelea, Take Me Apart
Release date: October 6
Why it's great: Kelea's songs often sound like they're collapsing and reassembling in real time. Like liquid metal from Terminator 2, the best tracks off her debut 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me bend, contort, and slide into tantalizing, unrecognizable shapes before snapping back into more conventional forms. Her first official full-length, Take Me Apart, which follows the stellar Hallucinogen EP from 2015, is a work of delicate, sensuous alchemy. Tracks like the Arca-produced "Enough," a brittle and melancholy electro-pop concoction, wrestle with the tricky emotional dynamics of a breakup, while "Truth or Dare," a spacey and minimal R&B number, finds the singer describing her desires and fantasies to a new romantic partner. "Nothing on, just music, music, music," she sings at one point. Records don't get more instructional than that.
15. Jason Isbell and the 400 Crew, The Nashville Sound
Release date: June 16
Why it's great: There's a blunt quality to Jason Isbell's songwriting that speaks to the political moment, but that shouldn't scare you away: This isn't the roots rock equivalent of some bozo chugging a micro-brew and dropping a "game theory" Twitter thread on your ass. Instead, Isbell writes small-scale, hardscrabble songs that also happen to tackle race, class, and increasingly polarized nature of American life. Tracks like "White Man's World" and "Hope the High Road" speak to these concerns with wit and vigor, while songs like "Anxiety," a lumbering barnburner about lying awake in terror, and "Chaos and Clothes," an acoustic ballad that chronicles his friendship with Ryan Adams, keep the album from feeling like a Slate article sent by your well-meaning brother-in-law. Isbell is smart enough to know the personal is political.
14. Jay Som, Everybody Works
Release date: March 10
Why it's great: Here's an important fact to know about Jay Som's Everybody Works: There's a song called "1 Billion Dogs" on it. That's a great title, evocative and a little funny, but luckily the song is even better, a propulsive and rumbling kick to the shins that recalls the joyful, puppy-filled video for Weezer's "Undone -- The Sweater Song." The record, a breakthrough by 22-year-old songwriter and producer Melina Duterte, is defined by moments of exuberance, like the jangly sugar rush of "The Bus Song" or "Take It," and pockets of melancholia, like the subdued title track. Complex harmonies, ambiguous emotional tones, and frenzied genre homages are tied together by Duterte's brilliant guitar playing. It's the rare bedroom-pop project where everything works.
13. Miguel, War & Leisure
Release date: December 1
Why it's great: Everything is personal for Miguel. Even when he gets political, philosophical, or downright cosmic on War & Leisure, his slyly ambitious fourth record of agile R&B jams, the funk-loving singer keeps his lofty ideas grounded in a type of sweaty, romantic humanism. Whether he's channeling the Purple One himself on "Pineapple Skies," teaming up with rapper Travis Scott on "Sky Walker," or engaging in some Lenny Kravitz-like guitar heroics on "City of Angels," he never lets the album spin off its axis of tightly controlled, expertly assembled cool. When he goes for the big spiritual move towards the end of the record on "Anointed," a robotic bedroom track with a holy twist, you'll be ready to follow him through those pearly gates.
12. SZA, CTRL
Release date: June 9
Record label:Top Dawg
Why it's great: For a brief period, it looked like SZA's debut full-length could get lost in bureaucratic limbo. After threatening to quit music altogether and publicly battling with her label TDE, the Los Angeles home to Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, the 26-year-old artist went and released an album that feels ecstatically free of behind-the-scenes drama. "Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt," she sings on the stand-out track "Drew Barrymore," setting a mood of hazy contemplation. "Let's start the Narcos off at episode one." Whether she's firing up Netflix or confronting a cheating ex-lover, her voice sounds lush throughout, deftly darting through beats that mix '90s R&B elements, modern hip-hop production techniques, and psychedelic flourishes. CTRL isn't necessarily looking to make you dance. It's hoping to get your ass levitating.
11. Demi Lovato, Tell Me You Love Me
Release date: September 29
Why it's great: On the opening track to her 2015 record, Demi Lovato asked, "What's wrong with being confident?" The answer is, obviously, nothing. The former Camp Rock star exuded star power in her Disney days, but now, on her sixth full-length, that assurance you hear in her forceful voice is paired with clever songwriting, subtle production, and compelling themes that match her swagger. Tell Me You Love Me is a record of candid, direct confessionals delivered in adroit, mercurial pop and R&B packages. ("Don't know how to commit but I might want your kid," she sings on the ultra-frank "Daddy Issues.") Almost every song, like the thundering title track or "Ruin the Friendship," features a chorus where a loaded concept or phrase gets a thorough work-out. "Sorry Not Sorry," Lovato's biggest (and best) hit in years, might be the most precise example of this joyful triumphalism: She's not asking questions or making apologies anymore. That's what confidence sounds like.
10. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
Release date: August 25
Record label: Atlantic
Why it's great: Do you like Dire Straits? How about Tom Petty? A little "Night Moves" maybe? If any of these stir dormant emotions in you, lighting a fire in the muscle-car you call a heart, then you're going to enjoy A Deeper Understanding, the impeccably produced new collection of songs from The War on Drugs. Adam Granduciel, the group's long-haired frontman and a peer of fellow Philly rock god Kurt Vile, has become a genuine guitar hero to festival-goers wowed by the weary anthems off his 2014 record Lost in the Dream. The follow-up, which is the band's first effort for a major label, retains the melancholy potency of Lost but also leaves room for new detours, like the solo at the end of "Strangest Thing," which takes flight like a Frisbee tossed over a vast canyon. Chase it at your own peril.
9. Little Big Town, The Breaker
Release date: February 24
Record label:Capitol Nashville
Why it's great: There's a song on The Breaker, the new album from long-running soft-rock country soothsayers Little Big Town, called "We Went to the Beach." Its chorus is: "We went to the beach." Eat your heart out, We Bought a Zoo. The track itself is simple and beautiful, the type of song that can get away with a line about "boogie boards" without sounding stupid as hell. That's Little Big Town's specialty: The group takes hackneyed concepts ("Free"), bumper-sticker platitudes ("Don't Die Young, Don't Die Old"), and, in one case, a Pearl Jam song title ("Better Man"), then turns them into soaring, widescreen, sun-speckled blockbusters. It's like Michael Bay directed a Fleetwood Mac album. Grab your boogie board.
8. Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Release date: January 27
Record label: Atlantic
Why it's great: Kehlani's path to R&B dominance has been a peculiar one: A former America's Got Talent contestant, the Oakland-born singer was a member of the group PopLyfe as a teenager before going solo. After releasing a pair of mixtapes, 2014's Cloud 19 and 2015's You Should Be Here, she established herself as an artist who can dabble in moody, SoundCloud-friendly atmospherics while still delivering the type of pro songcraft listeners crave. That adaptability serves her well here: A song like "CRZY" bounces with the defiant glee of The Dream, while "Do U Dirty" puts the cartoonish sex-talk of The Weeknd to shame. With its nod to TLC in the title, SweetSexySavage is a record designed to pay tribute to the past but also stake out new ground. Given the creatively fractured (and commercially turbulent) nature of R&B in 2017, it's impressive she created a record that's so unassumingly cohesive.
7. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Release date: January 27
Why it's great: It's understandable why people get defensive about riding too hard for Canada's reigning nice-boy rock stars Japandroids. Like their dude-centric American counterparts The Hold Steady, Titus Andronicus, and Beach Slang, these guys can be a bit much if you've never at least felt the urge to shotgun a beer on a deck while listening to an AC/DC record. While they've preserved the minimalist trappings of their two previous albums -- fuzzy guitars, pounding drums, sing-along choruses, monochromatic album covers -- the third record finds guitarist and lyricist Brian King getting a little more literary with his barstool poetry on songs like the epic "Arc of Bar." (Sample line: "Hustlers, whores, in rooms galore/A sinking city’s stink/An arc of bar, a flesh bazaar/Of diamonds, dust, and drink.") Again, if you're into rock myth-making and can stomach a little corniness, this stuff doesn't get much grander, more catchy, or exhilarating.
6. Future, HNDRXX
Release date: February 24
Why it's great: Earlier this year, the prolific Atlanta rapper Future released two albums in two weeks, each containing 17 tracks and over an hour of music. The first of the two, simply titled FUTURE, contained at least two classic tracks ("Draco" and "Mask Off"), but it mostly stuck to the style and subject matter he previously explored on EVOL, DS2, and his legendary mixtape run in 2014 and 2015. HNDRXX is not more of the same: Leaning into the R&B loverboy elements of his personality, the Honest rapper finds a new level of Styrofoam cup-inspired vulnerability. Tracks like "Incredible" and "Testify" find him in yoga-loving, island-hopping romantic mode, while the wounded "Turn on Me" and self-reflective "Sorry" reveal a Lothario in crisis. "Kidnapped your heart 'cause you gave it too easy," he raps on the final song, and by the end he's asking for forgiveness. It leaves you hollowed-out but yearning for the next chapter in the saga. Luckily, there won't be a long wait.
5. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me
Release date: March 24
Record label: P.W. Elverum & Sun
Why it's great: Phil Elverum, who first came to indie-prominence as the mind behind K Records favorite The Microphones, has spent the last 10 years creating harsh, rumbling soundscapes as Mount Eerie. But A Crow Looked At Me, which was recorded following the tragic death of his wife Geneviève Castrée, peels away the sonic experimentation in pursuit of plain-spoken truths. Like the work of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, who Elverum has cited as a reference point in interviews, the album shows an artist struggling to make sense of everyday experience and emotional pain. "Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about," he sings on "Emptiness Pt. 2." "Back before I knew my way around these hospitals." That tension between self-awareness and the urge to unleash a primal scream powers the album, allowing Elverum to craft a bleak work about death that's somehow still full of wonder.
4. Syd, Fin
Release date: February 3
Record label:Columbia Records
Why it's great: Syd doesn't mess around. The 24-year-old songwriter and producer is perhaps best known for her work as the frontperson for The Internet, an increasingly funk-indebted neo-soul group that scored a Grammy nomination for their 2015 record Ego Death. (You also might remember her as the gifted engineer behind Odd Future's dread-soaked sound.) Now she's back with Fin, a playful and sensual solo record that has a casual, unfussed-over veneer that belies the album's studied professionalism and radical power. Whether she's riding around your city in a spaceship ("No Complaints"), celebrating her squad ("All About Me"), or just watching you from across the dance floor ("Body"), Syd is doing it all in a way that commands your attention without ever insisting on it. When she sings about packing her bags on the album's crooning closer "Insecurities," you'll be the one shedding a tear as she walks away.
3. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN
Release date: April 14
Why it's great: On first listen, DAMN scans as an impressive display of Kendrick Lamar's virtuosity. Just listen to the muscular manner he changes up his flow on songs like "DNA," "ELEMENT," or "HUMBLE." Never forget: This 29 year old can rap like he's bench-pressing a solar system. After spending more time with these songs, the record feels like the inevitable "fame sucks" collection that some were expecting the defiant and political To Pimp a Butterfly to be, but Lamar can't make simple songs and he's not interested in shedding tears in a gold goblet. (Leave that to Drake.) Instead, he favors essayistic complexity over notebook reportage or straight-up memoir, piling religious and cosmic musings into verses that ping between heavy themes like trust, fate, and the perils of ego.
But, damn, what does it actually sound like? An interstellar collision between the old and the new. "Last LP I tried to lift the black artists," raps Lamar at one point. "But there's a difference between black artists and wack artists." It's a provocation: Though he's eased up on some of the jazzy flourishes, which perhaps peaked with last year's mercurial Untitled Unmastered, he's still working with LA contemporaries like Terrace Martin, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington. (And, yes, U2 too -- but even that song, the gun violence meditation "XXX," is excellent.) The difference is that DAMN feels even more focussed. More competitive. More Kendrick.
2. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
Release date: March 10
Why it's great: "Standing on the rooftops we're just yelling till the morning," sings Alynda Segarra towards the end of "Living in the City." "All surrounded by the visions of all who came before them." On The Navigator, Segarra's latest record under the Hurray for the Riff Raff banner, the musical ghosts of the past are always jostling for position, spilling their drinks and sharing moments of surprising intimacy aboard this confidently steered vessel. Folk, blues, salsa, gospel, doo-wop, and a touch of punk's defiant spirit guide the concept album's main character, a young New Yorker named Navita, as she darts through the narrow alleyways of American and Latin musical traditions. Though the record contains more than a whiff of musical theater -- "Nothing's Gonna Change that Girl" packs an emotional wallop and "Rican Beach" transports you with its righteous anger -- it's never encumbered by its ambitions. It's swift. It's daring. It's not afraid to wake the neighbors with its cathartic screams.
1. Lorde, Melodrama
Release date: June 16
Why it's great: Lorde's debut Pure Heroine, which came out when she was 17, was minimal at a time when pop felt especially broad. (It arrived the same year Miley Cyrus's Bangerz dominated the radio.) Now, after four years spent riding the subway and reviewing onion rings, the New Zealand pop singer has returned with an album produced by Jack Antonoff of Bleachers that feels studied in a good way, like a dream project labored over by a team of over-achieving students free from deadlines and homework. That exacting quality is amplified on the record's best song, the potent "Supercut," which finds Lorde playing the role of director, actress, and, most tellingly, editor in her own narrative. "These ribbons wrap me up," she sings, encapsulating the song's "film as memory" metaphor and the entire album's knotty appeal.
As you've probably heard by now, Melodrama is a break-up record, and its conceptual tightness -- it's structured as a night out that begins with the champagne pop of "Green Light" and ends with the sun rising on "Perfect Places" -- makes it easy to admire from afar. But the real pleasure comes from getting lost in the intricacies of the songwriting and pitter-patter perfectionism of the production. "The Louvre" entices, "Liability" wounds, and "Writer in the Dark" eviscerates. On the whole, Melodrama leaves you feeling, as Lorde describes a car crash at one point on the record, "painted on the road." It's a James Dean death trap bathed in blacklight and perfume. Try not to gawk.
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