Dear lovers –
Even though this post has the headline of “17 Best Albums of 2017,” I certainly didn’t listen to every single record released. Oh, lists. They are fun and great and can offer superb recs, but they’re always subjective little buggers. Love ’em or leave ’em, I suppose.
Without further ado and with literally zero anticipation, here were my personal faves of the year.
Thanks. Thanks for coming.
17. Weaves – Wide Open
This was the year of strong sophomore releases, and Weaves’ Wide Open fit that trend. The band’s catchy pop melodies complemented guitars that alternated from fuzzy to jangly and back again. For anyone accusing Weaves of stepping too close to the mainstream, just listen to “Scream,” an anarchic assault of sound that urges wronged women to “Scream your name.” Singer and songwriter Jasmyn Burke sings, “We are living in a time when misery is just common circumstance.” (Well, shit.) Weaves creates lively sounding hooks, but these jams hide a stern realness when you scratch below the surface.
16. Joywave – Content
The best thing about Joywave’s sophomore effort is how it zigs when you expect it to zag. While the band’s debut How Do You Feel Now? was an edgy, beat-heavy party ready for any dance floor, Content revels in discomfort and awkwardness. Gone are the samples, Disney and otherwise. In certain ways, it’s quieter, focused more on guitar and drum instrumentation than pulsating beats and the bravado of electronic sounds. Singer Daniel Armbruster explores his feelings of uncertainty and lack of connection to world around him (“I fill myself with doubt, I feel like I sold out, I feel like I am down, I’m down without a doubt.”). There’s still some dances to be danced, but Content is more interested in laying subtler grooves full of natural sounds and tones. Joywave could’ve easily explored electropop further or set its sights on radio jams, but instead, they infused their quirkiness with indie rock and explored a different side of themselves that we didn’t see coming. That’s exactly what bands should do.
15. Kelly Clarkson – Meaning of Life
Meaning of Life, the singer’s eighth album, is by far her best. Vocally, Clarkson is on fire, and the songs remain some of her career best. “Love So Soft” knows how to get down, “Didn’t I” and “Whole Lotta Woman” showcase that southern sass of hers we all love, and “Heat” and the title track are radio ready for world domination. After a career of fighting for control against suits like Clive Davis (BOOOO, HISSSS), Clarkson is finally on a new label, free from those who oppressed her. This is the first time she was able to hand-select her own writers and producers. But Clarkson’s a fighter. She learned to “Breakaway,” she preached the values of being “Stronger.” Over time, Clarkson heeded her own anthemic advice of keeping your head up, following your dreams, and remaining positive, even if some exec gaslights you in the press and buries your album (Oh, My December, I love you). With American Idol finally behind her, it’s satisfying to hear the soulful album Kelly always wanted to make. New label, new beginnings, new chapter for Kelly.
14. Beck – Colors
Beck is a chameleon, so it’s only apt that his thirteenth (!) album be titled Colors since he’s so damn good at changing them. Fresh off 2014’s folky Mellow Gold, Beck joined forces with pop producer extraordinaire Greg Kurstin to make an album that is both a big box pop record, but also an amalgam of the man’s entire career. “I’m So Free” and “Wow” are classic tracks that could’ve easily been placed on past albums, while “Dreams” and the title track are so Beck, yet so firmly ensconced in the modern day. Quite frankly, they’re two of the best pop songs of the year. Just because this isn’t his ultimate best doesn’t mean we should overlook it. Colors spent tons of time in my Spotify Recently Played list and it’s a solid entry to Beck’s growing discography and legacy.
13. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
The beginning of White Reaper’s second full-length is met with roaring applause, like the Kentucky outfit’s storming Budokan or something. Maybe if there’s any sort of justice in the world, they will one day. The band’s often been compared to Thin Lizzy and the like, confidence-forward rock ‘n roll that spills swag all over its modest 10 tracks. But maybe “modest” isn’t the right word…just look at the record’s title. (“We are the best. Just like Muhammad Ali was the greatest, you gotta say it out loud for people to believe it,” said guitarist/vocalist Tony Esposito. Cute.) The band is cocky, but also tongue-in-cheek. Their style and sound is retro, as if hair bands dropped the theatrics, hopped in Bill and Ted’s phone booth, and traveled forward to 2017. Part Lizzy, part glam, part garage revival. Sign. Me. Up.
12. Paramore – After Laughter
Paramore is the earworm that refuses to die. On After Laughter, singer Hayley Williams explores aspects of life that trouble most late-twenty-somethings approaching their 30’s: keeping your head up during “Hard Times,” the cold lows of being “Fake Happy,” the dangers of holding onto grudges and self-sabotaging. Release after release, Paramore consistently puts out albums that land on my Best Of lists. I wonder why I’m always surprised, as if I’m expecting them to cross that line of being too mainstream or poppy for my taste (even though I admittedly listen to an obscene amount of pop). But Paramore isn’t afraid of growing up and progressing, despite the fears that may confront them, the fears that confront us all as we grow. I guess I’ve been growing alongside them, and After Laughter is yet another example of why I just can’t get over them. Maybe I should stop trying to.
11. Sampha – Process
Best known for his work supporting Bey, Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Solange, it’s both a surprise and a relief that his debut album, Process, isn’t littered with guest spots (though he does share a writing credit with West on the track “Timmy’s Prayer.”) But the South London born Sampha doesn’t need the celebrity, his songwriting and silky voice say it all. Having learned to play the piano at his parents’ house at a young age and discovering production as a teen, he eventually met producer Kwes whose music showed him the way. The album is a 10-track collection of his deepest fears and inner-most feelings. On “Blood On Me,” he confronts a dreamscape that harbors some of his deepest fears. Having lost his mother to cancer, Sampha meditates on his sadness, anxieties, and uncertainty, as he comes to terms with the many changes facing his life, both in grief and success. I dare you to listen to “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” and not get choked up. His openness is both beautiful and remarkable.
10. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
While I definitely wish frontman Josh Homme kicked less photographers in the face this year, Villains is a hard album to ignore. The band’s last record, 2013’s …Like Clockwork, finally saw the band getting its mainstream due, for better or worse, and Villains is a logical next step. Produced by Mark Ronson, Homme and company added a little jive to their stoner rock this time around. Tracks like lead single “The Way You Used To Do” and opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” might put a little spring in your step or make you shuffle your feet, but don’t fret—it’s still a rager and one of the best rock albums of the year. “Domesticated Animals” follows suit with a groove like no other, while “Head Like A Haunted House” is classic, no frills Queens. Gimme.
9. Khalid – American Teen
When Khalid first dropped the bouncy “Location” on SoundCloud, the now-19-year-old just wanted to be prom king. He got the crown, yes, but it also scored him a major label deal with RCA. Four hundred and ten million streams later, the Georgia-born, military-bred teen is now the go-to expert on millennial struggles in a world inundated with screens and two-second attention spans. His debut album American Teen is full of synth-pop and soul that’s wise beyond his years, but it’s his textured voice that really speaks volumes. He sings about his mom smelling marijuana in his car on “8TEEN,” about living a life of good vibes while waiting to escape his youth on “American Teen,” about young love growing cold in “Winter.” Khalid delivers the voice of a true millennial—one who isn’t entitled, but rather, one who struggles to break free of his confines and dares to dream big. Regardless of your age, American Teen will remind you to stay open while never ignoring your own teenage dreams. It’s entirely possible to be an old soul with a young heart.
8. Betty Who – The Valley
Betty Who (né Jessica Newham) spent two painstaking years writing and recording her new record in the seclusion of the valley of Los Angeles. Working with producers Peter Thomas and Zak Waters (aka Pretty Sister), the record, just like everything else Who touches, bleeds emotion. It’s super relatable, which is quite the draw for her younger crowd of adoring fans, and a refreshing pop take that swims in its own sincerity. She’s her fans’ biggest cheerleader, pumping up listeners’ confidence with tracks like the singalong anthem “Beautiful” and “You Can Cry Tomorrow,” the synthy four-minute-long support system you never knew you needed. Listening to The Valley is like getting a pep-talk from one of your best friends, only this particular friend is one of pop’s most noteworthy up-and-comers.
7. DREAMCAR – DREAMCAR
With No Doubt on indefinite hiatus, Tony Kanal, Adrian Young and Tom Dumont kept on keepin’ on. The result: the 80’s-style, dreamy new wave that is DREAMCAR. Along with AFI’s Davey Havok, the foursome created a sound much different from any of their former projects. Think Depeche Mode meets The Cure with a splash of INXS. The album is strewn with tasty start-stop melodies, pulsating bass riffs, and flashy synths. Havok brings a presence that is both flamboyant and edgy, a total pro frontman encompassing the entire vibe of the project. It was an incredibly underrated record this year, and I hope not the last we hear from DREAMCAR.
6. Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love
There weren’t many songs this year that gave me the sheer joy that Sheer Mag’s “Expect the Bayonet” did (that lead guitar is SEX. I’m forever dancing like the Peanuts kid in the orange shirt. Come at me.). Their first full-length album saw them continuing their 70’s rock/punk blend they put forth so easily on three prior EPs. “Turn It Up” reminds me of what The Donnas accomplished with 2007’s “Bitchin”—its a riotous, straight down the middle tune that builds as it goes, calling for tons of whiskey and head banging. Singer Tina Halladay has perfected her growly rasp that accompanies their music like a nice cold Budweiser complements that shitty house shot. Every piece of this Philly quintet is boss, but its guitarist Kyle Seely’s riffs and licks that take Sheer Mag over the top. It’s a throwback sound that’s every bit as soul and disco as it is classic rock. Just check out the title track and that bass line of “Pure Desire” for proof.
5. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
All one needs to do is listen to DAMN.’s second track “DNA.” to understand why this album deserves to be on any and every Best Of list this year. (“I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”) Over the album’s 55 minutes, Lamar lets loose a series of ruminations in songs explicitly titled “PRIDE.” “LUST.” “GOD.” and more. He explores how these subjects tie into his own existence, from his past, present and future, to his status in hip-hop and views of the world. Lamar continues his dominance as rap’s most compelling storyteller. On “FEAR.” he recounts recurring threats from his mom and neighbors, his flow so tight you wonder when he gets a second to breathe. His rhymes are as furious as the rhythms are sprawling. Tracks like “HUMBLE.” showcase powerful, throbbing beats, but there’s also plenty of succulent harmonies and soul to devour (thanks in part to a few notable guests like Rihanna and Bono). DAMN. is a peek inside Lamar’s life, an honest snapshot of who he is, where he’s going, and how he reconciles his experiences. As music’s most relevant rapper, it’s also a foreshadowing of the legacy Lamar is sure to leave behind. I’m not sure if any other artist was this articulate in 2017.
4. Run the Jewels – RTJ3
Defiant. Angry. Combative. Run the Jewels don’t throw shade—they don’t have time for that shit. Instead, they’ll put you on blast directly and blow up your spot. On RTJ3, confrontations are second nature. From Trump to cops to tweeting trolls, the spotlight is on all sorts of bullshit and insanity in society, and Killer Mike and El-P just DGAF. (Did they ever?) The album’s beats are loud and abrasive, as in your face as the messages it delivers. The rappers hold a mirror up so we can face ourselves and the horrors of our surroundings, and the result is as urgent as ever. Three in a row and this duo is kickin’ it NBA Jam style: they’re on fire.
3. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
“You and me, we aren’t meant for this world,” sings Annie Clark softly on the opening track of MASSEDUCTION, her fifth studio album. She’s right, she wasn’t. Here’s what St. Vincent and Kendrick Lamar have in common: every time either one releases a new album, die-hard fans nerd out and claim its his/her best yet. We should feel lucky to have artists like that around today, ones who are fearless and fixated on advancing their artistic endeavors. MASSEDUCTION is a sweet cacophony of futuristic guitar pop that she perfected long ago but continues refreshing with each release. Her songs and riffs are the safer side of weird (she hasn’t gone full Ziggy Stardust yet), equally as satisfying as they are captivating. Clark is known to shred but here she favors drum machines and frenetic synths to set the stage for some of her most interesting work to date. But that’s OK—catch her on the road and her guitar won’t be much farther than an arm’s reach.
2. Charly Bliss – Guppy
The glittery bubblegrunge of Charly Bliss, a power-pop-punk hybrid from Brooklyn, rocked my world this year, literally and figuratively. For anyone still whining about the loss of Blue Album-age Weezer, Charly Bliss is here to make it all better. Guppy is light and sweet on the surface, but completely sour and snarky underneath. Singer Eva Hendricks is feisty af and that spastic energy leaps through your speakers. Whether waxing poetic about depression and anxiety, her ex’s new lady, or her own melodramas, the band never fails at producing harmonies and lyrics that bury deep inside your cranial cavities. The hooks, the hummable bits, and the hyper-activity are both raging and real. It’s a punchy album that’s all the pop sugar you crave with none of the withdrawals.
1. Lorde – Melodrama
It’s hard to find a sophomore album that’s as present and adept as Melodrama. Kiwi Ella Yelich-O’Connor is wise beyond her 20 years, offering a set of songs that’s mostly moody and sullen, with a few pop ditties serving as rays of sunshine bursting through the clouds. Produced alongside Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, the album serves as a loose concept album in the framework of a single house party and all the feels that follow. She explores themes of solitude, ending relationships, and moving on, all while fabricating funky beats that she can lend those weird Lorde dances to. “Sober” represents everything we want to hear in a Lorde song: confidence, slick wording, and bite-size wisdom that far surpasses her 20 years. The track starts with her singing, “Night, midnight, lose my mind” before a downplayed bongo beat kicks in. She croons: “But my hips have missed your hips, so let’s get to know the kicks / Will you sway with me? Go astray with me?” Yes, yes we goddamn will. It’s refreshing to see melancholic gloom infiltrate pop music, and even more invigorating to see a young artist stay true to herself instead of feeding the machine.