Following a year filled with societal turmoil and the loss of some of music’s finest performers, which was clearly reflected in the albums we chose last year, this year almost felt like a breath of fresh air. Not to say that protest songs and political statements were muted: they were abundant and as necessary as ever.
With all these beautiful aural works in mind and the goal of keeping this list concise (never an easy thing to do), you might find this list slanted toward an Indie Rock focus (clearly this author is biased…), though there’s a little bit of everything for everyone below – from unabashed pop-rock, to the best reviewed albums of the year.
Even better yet were the amazing live performances these artists put on this year, which have in essence become the life-blood of musicians today, for they can no longer survive on album, mp3, and subscription royalties alone. So, if you weren’t able to buy any of the below online, on vinyl, or even CD, it’s never to late to do so and be sure to keep an eye out for who’s touring this year so it can be experienced live, if you can.
And as always, we could’ve included another 10 albums on this list, though we tossed and turned until we determined these to be the strongest standouts. So, without further ado, here are the albums that gave us goosebumps, lifted the hairs on the backs of our necks, and made surviving 2017 just a little bit easier.
Listed in alphabetical order; all album titles link to Spotify.
Beck: Colors – Coming off arguably his most acclaimed album in Morning Phase, which won Grammys for Album of the Year and Best Rock Album, Hansen had already announced he had a more upbeat album in the works and the results were a bit shocking to even his most die-hard fans. A collection of bubbly, pop-rock, electronic tracks, it definitely sounds like he accomplished what he set out to do, “make something that was uplifting, had a lot of energy, and made you want to sing along.” Easily the most accessible album on this list, I was resistant to it’s charms at first, but it quickly became my closet favorite of the year. It kept my spirits up, honestly gave me the urge to dance and was a great change of pace from what I was otherwise spinning. Fun escapism at it’s best.
Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up – With 6 years passing since their previous album, Helplessness Blues, which saw frontman/songwriter Robin Pecknold stretching the bands’ legs into more experimental and orchestrated terrain, it’s clear that Crack-Up continues this trend. Their most complex and album oriented work yet, Pecknold’s powerful chamber-folk movements and ever soaring harmonies are a sonic delight you’ll find nowhere else. The album constantly shifts shapes and timbres, painting a visual soundscape flush with insightful lyricism, quiet ruminations, bombastic pop melodies and goosebump inducing moments like no other album I heard this year. It’s not an easy album to approach, yet it definitely rewards repeat listens, slowly opening up and revealing itself to those yearning for more.
Grizzly Bear: Painted Ruins – This gem of modern rock, along with the aforementioned Crack-Up, were those I listened to most this year, primarily because both transport the listener to a different place with their symphonic meanderings and vocal splendor. This one blew my mind on the first listen and seemed quite different from their previous releases, as this time around they sound even more lyrically invested and personal in their evocations. Where they remain consistent is in the movements of the songs themselves, as they still produce delightful chamber-pop, this time leaning more toward prog-folk, and a nice taste of yacht-rock in “Glass Hillside.” With a greater tendency toward keyboards one moment, ringing guitar reverb the next, plus distinct flourishes and unexpected peaks of sound, you can’t go wrong with this adventurous trip through the psyches of one of music’s best acts today.
Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. – To say Kendrick Lamar’s second successive highly acclaimed album received the best reviews this year would be a huge understatement. Receiving more than triple the amount of first place votes to the next runner-up (Lorde’s Melodrama), it’s clear that DAMN. is the critics’ choice for 2017. Much in line with his previous stunner, To Pimp A Butterfly, Lamar’s work infuses samples and spoken word interstitial tracks which combine to tell a broader story. Once again featuring stellar guest appearances, this time from U2’s Bono, Rihanna and Zacari, adding colors and textures to an overall production that’s more stark and pointed than the jazzier TPAB. In the end, it’s one thing to be a rapper with flow or be able to create a beautiful patchwork of samples and production, yet it’s quite another to be able to do both AND effectively evoke the emotion and political strife found in America today.
LCD Soundsystem: american dream – Six and a half years ago, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy supposedly said goodbye with his band’s final show at Madison Square Garden. But we’ve all heard this story before – it’s hard to keep a person in their prime from ultimately pursing the passions that propel their being. And such is the case for Murphy here, who returns with american dream, an album that stays the course by closely paralleling 2010’s stellar This Is Happening. Opening with the slow burning “oh baby,” alluding to his divorce around the same time as his band’s breakup, the LP goes on to careen through 70 minutes of trademark synth blips and basement party anthems, yet there are darker thematic elements at work here. Like the thrumming “i used to,” the balladry of “american dream,” and the futuristic “how do you sleep?” which are all enjoyably refreshing departures. While the album conjures what made This Is Happening so successful, Murphy finds new ground to cover, making this just as essential as it’s predecessor.
Lorde: Melodrama – The second full-length release from New Zealand’s talented 20 year-old Ella Yelich- O’Connor, Melodrama, just as it’s predecessor before it, Pure Heroine, is an impressive collection of emotional pop explorations. As a whole, the album revels heavily in the realm of New Wave beats and synths, yet it’s constantly punctuated by her trademark stop-start, break-beat stylings which truly propel her work. It’s this unique perspective, infusing her influences, yet applying her own unique approach that keeps the listener on their toes – simultaneously pleasing to the ear and rewarding repeat listens. What really stands our for me with this album is her ability to transmit the emotional resonance she wishes, breaking the mood with darker motifs, then returning to a distinctly different pop-sensibility, often times within the same track. Mesmerizing and rich, it’s a must listen.
The National: Sleep Well Beast – Retaining the distinctly mellow sounds and unique sonic explorations that have always set The National apart, Sleep Well Beast goes even further by punching things up a notch. I personally haven’t been keeping tabs on the band since the landmark Boxer because I just wasn’t attuned to their darker and muted delivery. This time around though there’s a more positive vibe throughout, specifically taking some harder edges with more tracks that truly rock. They’ve always been vested in an electronic sound, somber piano work, and warm vocal harmonies, which are definitely still here, yet there is more time spent escaping their usual slow-motion movements and instead kicking up the percussion, electric guitar, and a far more expressive palette overall. I wasn’t really a believer in their music until Sleep Well Beast awoke in me something that now runs through my veins.
Slowdive: Slowdive – To say that Slowdive’s eponymous release, their first in 22 years, is a front-runner for comeback album of the year would be putting things lightly. Still awash in the reverb laden sound that defined their early work, their newest is quite stunning, especially when considering the band only reformed 3 years ago to tour. Forerunners of the shoegaze movement of the 80’s and early 90’s, Slowdive’s dreampop sound is more than simply a welcome blast from the past, it seems even more necessary than ever. Their sound was made for the album format, unlike the way many consume music today via playlists, song by song and this is meant to be consumed all at once, on your headphones. I can’t think of another album this year that surprised me by the delightful calm it’s imbued with and I have a feeling I’ll be listening to it throughout 2018 as well.
St. Vincent: MASSEDUCTION – A shape shifting and always exploring songwriter is Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) who has once again taken a new turn in her career, this time in a decidedly pop fashion. Though to write this album off as merely “pop” would be shortsighted and unfair to what is actually quite a multifaceted piece of art. Take the seemly ebullient second track “Pills” which plays like one of those sped up sequences in a film where the characters are clearly on drugs, flying around a mile-a-minute. Yet a little over halfway through the track, the careening tempo slows into something more approximating a torch song. It’s a microcosm of the album which is mostly an uptempo affair, offering personal undertones in the lyricism, yet conjuring 80’s electronica, disco, glam rock, funk, buzzing guitars, etc. But then here and there, it slumps into another dimension of calm and cool, more in line with her previous work. It’s a bit bi-polar, but most of all it’s entrancing, fresh and real.
Thundercat: Drunk – Speaking of left field surprises this year, I can think of no better example than this amazingly kooky collection of jazz fusion, soul, funk, and more twists and turns than I thought imaginable. It’s all delivered by bassist and singer Stephen Bruner who delivers a beautiful falsetto which clearly flows nicely with his love for the 70’s sound that accompanies it. There is a refreshingly honest humor and comedic quality to his lyricism that’s unlike anything else you’ll hear. What really blew my mind on this release is the list of those who collaborated on the LP including Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, and Pharrell. His second single entitled “Show You The Way” features both McDonald and Loggins, in a dream paring, providing a gorgeous throwback to the days of disco slow jams and cocaine on the dance floor. I dare you to find a more fun and adventurous collection of retro jams this year.
Check out all the albums in one convenient playlist on Spotify: ACB’s Best of 2017
More albums we enjoyed this year:
Header image courtesy of Billboard.com