50 BEST ALBUMS OF 2017
A Saul Wright Production
It’s been a hell of a year. People always say “I’m so glad this year is over” as if the turning of a calendar page has some sort of reality-altering power but, of course, we know 2018 will be just as much of a shitshow as 2017. While the world is an absurd dying disaster on a macro-level, our lives can contain absurb beauty, love, fun and special little transcendental moments where we forget about our problems, anxieties or the world’s fate and just allow ourselves to be taken to another place for a moment or two.
Art can do that. Music, especially, can do that. It can let a little light into the dark days. It can crystalize a feeling or trap a moment in time. It’s something special and these days, we have more access to it than anyone ever has. So appreciate it. Support musicians. Go see shows. Buy tapes and bandcamp downloads and vinyl and give a buck to the guy playing in the street.
These are the albums that touched me this year. The ones that stuck around throughout the long months, the ones that knocked me over, made me bang my head and bite my lip or raise my eyebrows and the corners of my mouth. The ones that I put on repeat and the ones that make me drop everything and start dancing alone in my underwear. Some made me cry, a few made me laugh and every one connected with something inside me.
Click around. Find the bands you haven’t heard of. Sit down with a drink and explore. Give an album another shot. Give a genre a new chance. Leave a comment or drop me a note and tell me what you thought. I hope you discover something new here today.
Thanks, y’all. xoxoxo sw
50. Noam Pikelny – Universal Favorite
49. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
48. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
47. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
46. Geotic – Abysma
45. Natalia Lafourcade – Musas
44. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – On The Echoing Green
43. Ondatrópica – Baile Bucanero
42. John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
41. Jean-Michel Blais & CFCF – Cascades
40. Floating Points – Reflections – Mojave Desert
39. Angelo De Agustine – Swim Inside the Moon
38. Wharfer – Scenes of the Tourist
37. Talaboman – The Night Land
36. L.A. Takedown – II
35. Bask – Ramble Beyond
34. Six Organs of Admittance – Burning the Threshold
33. James Elkington – Wintres Woma
32. Bedouine – Bedouine
31. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
30. Ryan Adams – Prisoner
29. Woods – Love Is Love
28. Photay – Onism
27. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
26. Slow Dancer – In A Mood
25. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
24. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
23. Four Tet – New Energy
22. The National – Sleep Well Beast
21. Joan Shelley – Joan Shelley
20. Gaussian Curve – The Distance
19. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
18. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
17. Chuck Johnson – Balsams
16. Sylvan Esso – What Now
15. Jake Xerxes Fussell – What in the Natural World
14. Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love
13. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
12. SZA – Ctrl
11. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)
10. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet
Michelle Zauner, formerly of Philly indie rockers Little Big League, returns with her second full-length and it’s something special. There’s a sheen and polish to the album that stands in contrast to her previous lo-fi exploits but the album maintains a loose, freewheeling energy as it calmly wanders across the genre spectrum. Touching upon ambient interludes, shoegaze textures and straight-up electropop ditties, the album maintains a firm foundation in Zauner’s powerful voice and songwriting chops. This is an album as engaging and enjoyable as it is uncategorizable – and those are the best kind.
9. The Weather Station – The Weather Station
Joni seems to be the comparison most critics reach for with The Weather Station. It’s true – Toronto songwriter Tamara Lindeman and Joni Mitchell both share a high lilt, ease of pitch movement, verbose lyrics and tight mostly-acoustic backing bands. But the comparison quickly shows itself to be only superficial. Mostly, what they share are singular, uncompromising (and different) artistic visions and voices. Lindeman doesn’t hold back here, putting love and changing adulthood under a bright light. She often sings like there’s not enough time to say all she needs to say.
Lindeman has said she wanted to make a rock and roll record “but one that sounded how I wanted it to sound, which of course is nothing like rock and roll.” She succeeded in that. While the instruments are mostly acoustic and it is a goddamn pleasant listen, there is a rock and roll energy and excitement that runs like a current through the record, even in its quietest moments.
This album comes out on arguably the world’s greatest record label, Paradise of Bachelors, and features guitar work from one of my favorite guitarists, Nathan Salsburg (known for his work with Joan Shelley,) so this album is right in my wheelhouse. Still, it exceeded my expectations with it’s beauty, depth and grace.
8. Lorde – Melodrama
This is the best pop album in years. You just might love it even if you’re not a so-called poptimist. This is undoubtedly a pop album, with Jack Antonoff’s now-ubiquitous hand-claps and piano style underlining the hooks – but Lorde doesn’t seem to be gunning for radio-play or thinking about the tween market in the least. She’s casually dropping f-bombs and, more interestingly, writing quirky lines and couplets that show she cares more about the song than any sort of Max-Martin-approved pop formula. Even though Antonoff worked on both, this album is operating on a completely different level than the prosaic monotony of Taylor Swift’s recent best-seller.
The album has hooks for days but more importantly, it’s just that – an album. Loosely written about the before, during and after of a house party, it hangs together conceptually like few pop albums from the last decade. It goes to dark places with Lorde singing about nights spent off her face and blowing her brains out to the radio. The world she describes is balanced between the dark and the light. It’s disheveled but fabulous. Dirty and shiny. It’s not a perfect place but what the fuck are perfect places anyway?
7. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
Light fingerpicked acoustic guitars… An airy, melancholy and kind voice wafting overhead… Gentle, orchestral flourishes occasionally painting the background… It’s a folk music formula as old as time. But when executed with such expertise, precision and intent combined with Julie Byrne’s exceptional songwriting, Not Even Happiness can be as moving and exciting as anything you’ll hear. Byrne doesn’t exactly innovate with her sound here, but these known qualities along with her confident and affecting voice (as both a singer and songwriter) help her to build a world on this album – a world you’ll keep coming back to.
6. Big Thief – Capacity
Pretty Things and Shark Smile, the first two songs on Capacity, serve as a perfect introduction to the album. An elegant fingerpicked acoustic guitar begins, borrowing more from classical guitar tradition than the American Primitive style that’s du jour today. Adrianne Lenker joins in with her special voice – half fragile emotion and half Berklee-trained confidence. Melodically, she takes as much from the jazz tradition as from the folk handbook. Even if you’re not familiar with Lenker’s intense life story, pathos and empathy drip from every syllable and it’s clear these songs have hidden depths to be explored. The immediacy, urgency and thoughtfulness of the emotions put forth are easy to hear in her weathered but controlled voice.
Pretty Things fades out after a quick three minutes and that lurking and rumbling unease, previously heard in the background between verses, returns as an electric guitar and drums come tumbling in. Over 40 seconds, they build to a cacophony to introduce Shark Smile, one of the catchiest indie pop songs of the year.
Throughout the album, Big Thief returns to these two pillars – calm, affecting, quiet moments, and tightly written earworms that revel a study of pop and rock as much as folk. The brief bubblings of ramshackle chaos don’t pop up as much but the intro to Shark Smile serves more as a statement of intent than one of things to come. It shows a band in complete control but with enough wisdom to know when to lose that control.
5. Susanne Sundfør – Music For People In Trouble
Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør’s Ten Love Songs was one of the best, and criminally-underrated albums of 2015. It served as somewhat of a commercial breakthrough for her and along with it came a small but fervent international fanbase eager to hear what she came out with next. For those fans that fell in love with Ten Love Songs’ electronic leanings and pop structures, Music For People In Trouble might come as a surprise. It is, however, by no means a letdown.
Sundfør bravely eschews those synth-pop and electronic tropes in favor of an acoustic singer-songwriter approach. She returns to her roots as a folk singer as the album principally features just piano, acoustic guitar and her stunning voice. This is not your typical strummy acoustic singer-songwriter record, though. For all the classic instrumentation, the album still feels fairly future-forward and experimental. The title track goes from electronic bleeps and buzzes to philosophical spoken-word monologues to a delicately picked, classical sounding acoustic guitar. Sundfør does whatever she wants and this album is equally weird and straightforward, experimental and traditional, smooth and abrasive.
Stripping away much of the excess works to her favor as it more clearly displays her two greatest strengths – intimate, direct songwriting and a stunning, powerful voice. Her voice is a powerhouse that brings to mind an Adele-type diva or someone getting shocked looks and a standing ovation on The Voice. But she never lowers herself to the base instincts of pop-songwriting and each song is written with care and love. Her melodies are as catchy and hook-filled as her lyrics are unambiguous, poetic and filled with pathos. This album will keep you coming back and every time, you’ll find something new to love.
4. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Jazz in 2017 is somethin’ else. What was once the hippest of the hip and the foundation of youth and party culture – the rock and roll of its time – has been relegated to dusty boxes in the corner of a dying record store, walled off with the classical CDs so you never have to accidently encounter it. Jazz is one of the nichest of niche markets and is used as a cultural punchline just as much as it is respected for its history.
There are reasons for this, of course, and they go beyond the cultural and historical. Jazz is infamously dense, confusing and often grating and dissonant to the point of being difficult to listen to – or on the flip side, it’s grossly smooth and saccharine – the type of stuff meant for the background of a suburban department store. However, I’ve been listening to more and more jazz in the last couple years and the rewards are profound. It’s a deep artform and one that rewards as much attention as you give it. Often the strangest and most difficult to get into albums are the most rewarding in the long run.
But this is not that sort of album. Harmony of Difference is so immediately gratifying that I truly believe even jazz-haters could love it. An instrumental essay and exercise in counterpoint (defined by Washington as “the art of balancing similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies,”) it repeats melodies throughout the disc with different instrumentation, styles and arrangements. And here’s the key point for why this is the best jazz album since, well, probably Washington’s last work, the aptly-titled The Epic… these melodies are catchy as fuck. These are the melodies that get stuck in your head days after your first listen.
So, Washington’s genius for composition, arrangement along with his technical virtuosity, a whip-tight band, and those gorgeous repeated earworm melodies add up to an album that shouldn’t be missed, even if jazz isn’t your thing.
3. Blanck Mass – World Eater
I‘m not so into the intense noise stuff. I’ve never been able to get into anything tagged ‘Industrial’ and even influential, hipster-approved acts like Throbbing Gristle are always more interesting on paper than actually enjoyable for me. However, I’ve always liked the manic-electro noise-rock of Fuck Buttons, especially on their classic 2009 album Tarot Sport so I was eager to hear this new album from Blanck Mass – the solo project of one half of Fuck Buttons – Benjamin John Power. I soon found out that Blanck Mass is more intense than the already way-intense Fuck Buttons.
After the haunted carnival atmospherics of the introductory track, the album dives into the electro-industrial deep end with the fierce and sharp Rhesus Negative. The break-neck double bass drums and chainsaw distortion serve as a warning of what’s to come. The vocals soon join in with indecipherable chants and later gut-wrenching screams. The first time I listened, I almost turned off the album right there. But my respect and appreciation of Fuck Buttons led me to believe that it would be worth it to forge on. By the end of the album, I was disoriented and not even sure how I felt but I reached right over and put the album on again. When I got through the album again, I thought it was a mixed bag with some greatness mixed in with some stuff that’s just not my style. By my fourth consecutive listen, I was transfixed and ready to declare World Eater THE soundtrack to the surreal dystopian nightmare that is 2017.
The anxiety of this epoch is acutely felt and untethered rage is bubbling under many moments on the album. A sort of techno-dystopian impressionist portrait of the modern age, World Eater is the type of album you could picture being used as a demonstration of just how crazy the music the kids these days listen to is. 30 years ago, this would’ve sounded like it was beamed from another planet in an incomprehensible language.
Today, when every single day is a reminder that we are rapidly killing our planet, our political systems are broken beyond repair, agreement on what is real is slipping away, many live in a selected manufactured reality and at least one country has elected a grotesque parody of a mentally-disabled soulless capitalist… this album feels like a welcome release. Like a scream into the void when it is needed most.
But, like life and 2017 itself, the album equally has moments of pure joy and ecstasy. This is a goddamn smorgasbord of sounds and styles. Practically the entire electronic music spectrum is covered during these 48 minutes but it always feels of a whole, the genre differences all just reflections of one prism. This isn’t an easy listen but it’s a rewarding and important one.
2. Slowdive – Slowdive
Comebacks aren’t supposed to be like this. Typically, bands return after decades as mere shadows of their former selves or, at best, create a couple solid but not revelatory albums, maybe do the festival circuit, and/or tour playing a classic album in entirety. What they almost never do is return with an album that rivals, or even surpasses, their masterpiece from so long ago.
With their long-awaited self-titled album, Slowdive does just that. They sound confident, tranquil and mature but, more surprisingly, they sound hungry. They sound like the last 22 years never happened.
If you’re not familiar with their previous 3 albums from early 90s, you need to check them out, especially 1993’s classic Souvlaki. You might wonder if my ears were biased, knowing this this was the long-awaited follow-up to a classic album, but the truth is I had never really heard much of them before. For whatever reason, they kinda slipped under my radar during my big shoegaze phase and since… so when this album came out, I was ready to just give it a cursory spin.
Reader, it was love at first listen. The gorgeous washes of shoegaze that inspired Beach House and the like are there with layers of echo, chorus and delay dripping all over the album. But it resists the classification as well and a lot of the album, I wouldn’t even really call shoegaze. Under that hazy mist is often a thrashing energy or a top-tapping sing-a-long. It’s a joyous and lovely listen that never gets bogged down in the muck like shoegaze sometimes can. After 7 perfectly-sequenced mellow rockers, they conclude with the pensive and piano-led minimal epic Falling Ashes. After a 2-minute build that takes it’s time and ebbs and flows like a great post-rock intro, the harmonized voices of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell come in. They are soon intoning “Thinking about love” over and over like a mantra, together and then apart ‘ beautiful, pensive, syncopated layers like so much of the album. Falling Ashes is a departure from the rest of the album but it might be a hint of where they go from here. Luckily, I don’t think it will be another 22 years.
1. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
I’m afraid I can’t say anything new about The War on Drugs. They’ve been thinkpiece’d and article’d and interviewed out the wazoo recently and with good reason – I’d argue they’re best rock band playing today. This year, they followed-up 2014’s absolute masterpiece and commercial breakthrough, Lost In The Dream, with another incredible album that equals and often goes beyond the heights reached by it’s predecessor.
With A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs sounds both more arena-ready and more comfortable sonically stretching out. The thrilling and powerful fist-in-the-air moments are there but so are the quiet and reflective moments. They threw down the gauntlet releasing the epic 11-minute Thinking Of A Place as the first single. It takes its time and lusciously swerves around the aural road while maintaining its drive and energy. The album as a whole delivers on the promise of that track with ten of the calmest jams that have ever made you so excited.
Probably almost everyone reading this has read about and listened to this album more times than they can count, so I’ll skip the broad praise for the stunning guitar tones and adventurous but restrained solos, for the catchy but vague and dreamlike lyrics/melodies, for the perfectionist production touches and the distinctive and fearless arrangements. I’ll skip the rock math and long comparisons to, like, a pedal-obsessed studio-rat Mark Knopfler shredding the major pentatonic over Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love or Tom Petty meets Don Henley in the yard of a Dead show.
All I’ll say is: this is timeless American Rock and Roll and if you’re into that kind of thing, you probably already fucking love this album.
Here are 50 albums I really enjoyed but didn’t get to spend enough time with or what have you… Spend some time exploring these. I promise it’ll be worth it.
- Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band – Dreaming in the Non-Dream
- Kevin Morby – City Music
- Destroyer – ken
- Bitchin Bajas – Bajas Fresh
- Björk – Utopia
- Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator
- Shannon Lay – Living Water
- Margo Price – All American Made
- Toby Hay – The Gathering
- Pallbearer – Heartless
- Wooden Wand – Clipper Ship
- Vermont – II
- John Andrews & The Yawns – Bad Posture
- Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow
- Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights
- Perfume Genius – No Shape
- UNKNOWN ME – Subtropics
- James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits
- Laura Marling – Semper Femina
- Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge – Mount Royal
- yadayn – Adem
- Sampha – Process
- TOPS – Sugar at the Gate
- Yumi Zouma – Willowbank
- Elkhorn – The Black River
- Power Trip – Nightmare Logic
- Charlie Fink – Cover My Tracks
- Anna St. Louis – First Songs
- Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid
- Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
- Alex Cameron – Forced Witness
- Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker – SpiderBeetleBee
- Bridget Kearney – Won’t Let You Down
- On Fillmore – Happiness of Living
- Andrew Combs – Canyons of My Mind
- Mac Demarco – This Old Dog
- Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse
- Arca – Arca
- Nicola Cruz – Cantos de Vision
- Cut Copy – Haiku From Zero
- Bibio – Phantom Brickworks
- Feist – Pleasure
- Ian Felice – In the Kingdom of Dreams
- Chaz Bundick Meets The Mattson 2 – Star Stuff
- Gun Outfit – Out of Range
- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
- Pantha Du-Prince – The Triad (Ambient Versions & Remixes)
- GAS – Narkopop
- Balmorhea – Clear Language
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers
For your convenience, here’s a big-ass playlist with all the 50 AOTY and 50 H.M.s (other than the few Spotify hold-outs.) Click that follow button and explore.
Those of you that made it this far, thanks for reading/listening today and everyday! Please reach out with any questions/requests/comments/concerns/songs/love letters! Thanks to everyone at Blocland, America’s Number One Teen/Music Blog for an incredible year.
LISTENTODELION Lists from the Past:
Discover More New Music with some dope-ass MIXES!