Best Albums of 2017
30. Eternity, In Your Arms — Creeper
Eternity, In Your Arms is the debut album from Creeper, a punk rock band from Southampton. It’s a concept album about James Scythe, a fictional paranormal investigator that is missing. A mix between horror punk, pop punk, and a bit of glam rock, Creeper examines themes of anger, confusion, escape, and heartache. It’s aimed at those who feel isolated and want to escape their troubles, even if only for a while. “If you could see the wreck I am these days, you’d have new reasons to stay away. Just hold my hand for a little while. Misery never goes out of style” they sing on “Misery”. Throughout the first half of the album, there is a sense of despair but by the second half, hope emerges in the form of “I Choose To Live.”
This album feels indebted to its influences from Alkaline Trio, AFI, Misfits and even David Bowie and My Chemical Romance. But at the same time, Creeper’s innovative style drives the album to be continually rewarding and interesting to listen to. The grandeur, anthemic choruses, and flourishes make it sound stylistically unique. There’s enough creativity at its seams to feel imaginative without being unoriginal. Moreover, their best skill is at pacing which is done masterfully throughout the album. Switching from the speeds of punk rock to the anthemic stadium rock songs to the slow, softer ballads is no easy task but Creeper do it well without damaging the album’s context. Their vision is executed with ease and the songs soar along together as a result.
Favorite Songs: Misery, Black Rain, I Choose To Live
29. A Deeper Understanding — The War On Drugs
“A Deeper Understanding” is the fourth studio album from the band “The War On Drugs.” Immediately after listening, you can tell that grandeur and buildups are the name of the game. The mixing, done by Shawn Everett, is pristine. The guitars are sweeping, the bass is driving, the synths are rich, the drums are clear, and the vocals have a ring of grit to them. The combination results in a beautiful precision of sound: everything is layered to perfection as the sound closes in on the listener.
There is ambition on full display throughout the record. Clearly borrowing the grandiose influences from 80s heartland rock and Americana music, The War On Drugs also seek to push the envelope in broadening that sound. They manage to still sound distinct and pace the album with grace. Though most songs are long-winded, ample room is provided between the seams of every song to keep listeners interested and engaged. On “A Deeper Understanding”, The War On Drugs do what they do best and manage to give new life to an old sound. It’s bigger, it’s grander, and its vision is executed with absolute precision.
Favorite Songs: Up All Night, Holding On, Pain
28. Sleep Well Beast — The National
“Sleep Well Beast” is the seventh album by The National and it’s usually at this point or long before that your sound is worn out (unless you’re Kanye or Led Zeppelin I guess). Artists struggle to keep their music unique or get complacent in making the same music over and over again. The National choose to come out of their comfort zone with “Sleep Well Beast” while retaining the essence of their sound.
The songs place more emphasis on piano and electronic sounds, while their guitars sound sharper than ever. The drums are subtle yet resounding. Frontman Matt Berninger’s lyrics are sincere and powerful. Melancholy, longing, and uncertainty are spread across the album revealing vulnerability. “It’s nobody’s fault. No guilty party. We just got nothing. Nothing left to say”, he sings on “Guilty Party”. It’s not groundbreaking or a 360 turn in their sound by any means but it is always compelling without feeling shallow. The National succeeds in extending their creativity without losing out on their core sound. They take a step back and become more subtle in both their lyrics and sound but never become complacent.
Favorite Songs: The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness, Day I Die, Dark Side of the Gym
27. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music — 2 Chainz
Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is a showcase of 2 Chainz at the top of his game. For years, he has been renowned as the king of features, full of wit and humor but has always seemed to miss in making an album that displayed his skill in an interesting way. But he spent the past year or so honing in on his skill with mixtapes such as “Collegrove” with Lil Wayne, “Daniel Son; Necklace Don”, and “Hibachi For Lunch.” All that’s left is to focus that into a studio album.
Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is the first album where 2 Chainz seems completely comfortable with himself and the environment of the sound around him. One of 2 Chainz’ biggest strengths is his charisma. He can make anybody believe anything he says and even the most absurd lines sound reasonable because it’s 2 Chainz. There’s plenty of funny lines spread over this album like “4 AM, I’m just gettin’ started/For my birthday I threw me a surprise party” and “My side chick got pregnant by her main dude and I’m offended” which are probably only hard because 2 Chainz is the one saying them.
Unlike his contemporaries in trap, 2 Chainz places an emphasis on his vocals with a focus on rhythm instead of melodies. He bounces on each track’s production with catchy hooks and raps punchline after punchline. His cadence perfectly sets up each bar. There are plenty of features that makes things interesting but no matter the song, 2 Chainz is always the clear star. There is a laser focus and presence from 2 Chainz on this album that only he could pull off. 2 Chainz is nearly 40 but strangely enough, sounds like he just hit his stride with this album. The future looks bright with every song that he continues to release. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music shows off a master at work and 2 Chainz is an exclamation point in hip hop that you can no longer ignore.
Favorite Songs: 4AM, Trap Check, Blue Cheese
26. Near To The Wild Heart of Life — Japandroids
Japandroids have found themselves at a comfortable pace 3 studio albums in. Brian is no longer strumming and singing with intensity that threatens to pop every vein in his forehead. David doesn’t sound like his arms are going to fall off from drumming any second. What they trade for the fury from their punk influences are the more heavily pop-oriented arrangements. To accomplish this, they cleaned up the mixing drastically. The voices aren’t as gritty, the guitars are much more pristine and you can feel every drum beat clearly. Some argue that this takes away from the heart of the band but what it really does is extend what the pair absolutely excel at: their inevitable crescendo in every song. Every Japandroids song starts small and gets bigger and bigger but even as it is in danger of collapsing, they manage to take it higher until the epic climax.
The end result is roaring songs that make you want to shout every word. Their choruses are anthemic, the guitar is soaring, the drums are punchy and the small synthesizer additions make the sound even bigger than their other albums. The title track, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” and “North East South West” have two of the catchiest choruses released this year. “Arc of Bar” explores their new use of synthesizers but manage to keep the distinct sound that defines the pair. Throw in a whole bunch of “oh oh oh ohs” and a lot of “sha na na nas” and you have the best feel-good album this year. Near To The Wild Heart of Life may not be the end result you’re expecting but it manages to evolve the Japandroids’ sound and it sounds damn good while doing it.
Favorite Songs: Near To The Wild Heart of Life, North East South West, No Known Drink or Drug
25. who told you to think??!!?!?!?! — milo
milo is a rapper with a powerful dexterity in his rapping and wordplay that matches up nicely with heavily sample-based production. Throughout this album, milo floats through the abstract, lounge-jazz production with ease. At times, he’s rapping with fury as he stacks bars upon one another while at other times, his pace is slower than the beat as he lazily rolls from one bar to another.
What separates milo from his contemporaries in underground hip-hop is his skill in making his songs earworm-like in nature. The alliterations and multi-syllable rhymes don’t invite you to pause to dissect the passage, rather, you want to continually listen to the song over and over again. Part of this desire comes from how simple but infectious the beats are. They are full of charm and catchy sections that glitch together with his voice that slowly become addictive.
milo is unapologetically nerdy, sardonic, and cunning but it never falls to the danger of becoming cringey. “Impeccable memory/I’m Salazar Slytherin by the salad bar, giggling” isn’t a deep bar or particularly interesting one but milo’s cadence and delivery makes it engaging anyways. The real pull of this album lies in slowly unraveling the abstract ideals and philosophies in what milo has to say. It never grinds down to a bore and that stands out from a lot of his contemporaries in underground hip-hop.
Favorite Songs: Magician (Suture), Landscaping, Sorcerer
24. World Eater — Blanck Mass
World Eater is Ben Power’s aka Blanck Mass response to the past year filled with violence, frustration, and confusion. Power stated that the title was about how humans had an inner beast within, which when grouped together, prevents us from progressing towards good. The album is menacing as the cover art suggests: the world depicted in the album is apocalyptic and full of volatility.
Blanck Mass moves away from drone and noise in this album by constructing grid-like rhythms and synths throughout the album. There are melodies, sometimes obscured as a contrast to both the beautiful and ugly parts of our world. “Please” starts off as scattered, piano notes before slowly diving into a distorted wave of synths accompanied by chopped up vocals. “Silent Treatment” begins as a looped choir before combining together with drums and strings to create a terrifying orchestral performance. In every song, there is vague beauty distorted by the turbulent changes. It speaks to the nature of humans: we can both build and destroy. In this album, it is clear that destruction is the focal point but the question scattered in the lingering beauty is whether we are going to let it continue?
Favorite Songs: Silent Treatment, Rhesus Negative, John Doe’s Carnival of Error
23. Luv Is Rage 2 — Lil Uzi Vert
On the song “Two”, Lil Uzi Vert raps: “Cause you know I’m the one. Yes, I’m the one that really started all this. And you know I changed a lot of you n****s. In a matter of months, I raised a lot of you n****s”. And he’s not wrong. His distinct style in both music and fashion, ear for melody, and delivery/cadence are mimicked more and more as he gains prominence. “Luv Is Rage 2” recognizes all the highlights of Uzi’s skill and puts them on full display. Uzi thrives on chaos in his music: he shifts back and forth from drugs to heartbreak to flexing punctuated by his ad-libs, animated singing, and sharp rapping.
“Luv Is Rage 2” benefits from the poppy yet dark production as well. Don Cannon, Maaly Raw, Metro, TM88, Pharrell and more show up on the album’s production. The beats match Lil Uzi’s highly stylistic rapping style and also help him cover sections of songs that tend to float on. Even at the most formless and repetitive structures, there is enough going on to keep listeners occupied.
Now that he’s on the top, Uzi is searching for the recognition that he rightly deserves throughout “Luv Is Rage 2”. The diverse range of sonic palettes might threaten to mix too much and cause inconsistency but Uzi proves he is anything but as he shows off his skill in variance. Every song is interesting at different degrees and long-winded it may be, Uzi manages to keep us hooked throughout.
Favorite Songs: The Way Life Goes, Two®, XO Tour Llif3
22. Ctrl — SZA
“Ctrl” constantly pushes the boundaries of traditional RnB in creative ways. At times borrowing from indie rock, soul, and electronica, SZA is confessional throughout the album examining her personal experiences with love. There is an element of frankness and bluntness that pervades her lyrics in a refreshing way. It’s remarkable how well she captures the essence of mixed feelings in the fragility of love. Her distinct perspective paired with her singing and songwriting abilities form a surprisingly unique album.
Her lyrics are direct and searing: “Let me tell you a secret. I been secretly banging your homeboy. Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day?” she sings on “Supermodel”. At the same time, SZA has the maturity to recognize the consequences of her actions and the actions of others. She understands the complexities that are involved in relationships and that the pain that emerges as a result is worth it.
The production is full of both new and old sounds from RnB but fringes upon other genres as well. Woozy synths, looped drums, electronic piano, guitar riffs and more all spread throughout the album. SZA’s voice is full of echos giving the sense of intimacy. The album weaves through genres and narratives with ease as SZA gives wise insight into self-esteem, sexual freedom, and femininity.
Favorite Songs: The Weekend, Prom, Love Galore
21. Stranger — Yung Lean
The most compelling thing about Yung Lean is how his discography weaves together. “Stranger” feels like the most natural progression from his previous album “Warlord.” Where “Walord” is explores fame, drugs and paints a hellish landscape, “Stranger” explores the aftermath: isolation, melancholy, and loss. “Stranger” takes influences from gothic literature and horror novels and packs it loosely into the album. In some ways, Yung Lean still faults himself for what happened in Miami which led to the death of his mentor and manager Barron Machat. The themes on this album often explore his regret split between his longing to do better.
Yung Gud, Yung Sherman, and Whitearmor make masterful work of the production. The synths are icey, glistening, and glossy while retaining a dark undertone. Lean accompanies the production perfectly diving in and out in a hazy flow. He examines the duality of money, fame, drugs to the isolation and anguish they leave him in. Death is a recurring theme throughout the album as Lean reflects on how he almost died in Miami. What’s more, loss pervades his album as Lean deals with the aftermath of the death of Barron Machat.
The last two songs on the album in particular, explore isolation in the darkness. On “Agony”, Lean uses an Icelandic children’s choir and minimal piano to talk about his experiences back home when he was released from a psychiatric unit. He’s honest and open about how the psychosis affected him and the others around him. The album ends with “Yellowman”, a song filled with sickly marching percussion and slow chants. It combines the other-worldly elements from the album and showcases Lean’s struggle with mental illness. Anguish tatters this album in intricate ways and shows that the glory behind fame doesn’t come without a price.
Favorite Songs: Agony, Red Bottom Sky, Yellowman
20. HNDRXX — Future
Does Future ever miss? Released in back to back weeks, FUTURE and HNDRXX both hit number one on Billboard. As a result, the Atlanta rapper now has four back to back number one albums. While FUTURE was a return back to basics, HNDRXX saw Future delve into his vulnerabilities as he mixes drugs, emotional torture, apologies, and redemption. Combining trap, RnB, and pop, Future emerges healing from his wounds while creating a melodic soundscape.
This the most pop influenced record Future has done to date and it shows in his use of melodies and production. “Fresh Air” and “Incredible” have sun-warmed tropical sounds while Future croons about new flings. He sounds absolutely ethereal on “Use Me” and “Neva Missa Lost” as he glides over the backdrop of production. The chemistry between Future and Rihanna on “Selfish” is great as they both bounce back and forth on the choruses. HNDRXX finally explores Future as a man ready to escape the pain and find new happiness. Most of all, this album proves yet again that Future is capable of innovating and diversifying his sound.
Favorite Tracks: Fresh Air, Incredible, Selfish
19. Stranger In The Alps — Phoebe Bridgers
When we look at the pieces of “Stranger In The Alps”, there isn’t actually a whole lot of interesting things going on. The sound is your regular indie folk with a lot of gentle guitar strumming. The lyrics are about learning to move past heartbreak, loss and mortality. Bridgers’ voice is warm but not dazzling. But the beauty behind the album is when all the pieces slowly come together. There’s a certain feeling of familiarity that washes over you as you listen carefully. Her voice retains its warmth even during the most despondent lyrics. The sound never gets any more complex but fits the songs perfectly. The most interesting thing about “Stranger In The Alps” is how simple the parts appear but combined, they become something more.
The downtempo sound on each song only serves to accentuate her voice and the atmosphere she creates. As a result, even the questionable lyrics are easily brushed off as they fit into the frame so well. On “Demi Moore” she sings: “Take a dirty picture, babe. I can’t sleep and I miss your face”. Sending nudes isn’t exactly a melancholy task but the distinctiveness of her voice against the quiet backdrop convinces you anyways. “Motion Sickness” is the best song of the album as she sings: “ I have emotional motion sickness. Somebody roll the windows down. There are no words in the English language. I could scream to drown you out”. It features an upbeat sound and singalong chorus that works its way to getting stuck in your head.
The genius behind “Stranger In The Alps” is that it seems almost boring with how little things seem to stand out at first. But as you progress deeper into the album, you start to realize how all of the pieces are interconnected with one another. What stands out is its ability to fit everything together seamlessly in a captivating way. That’s pretty impressive to pull off in a debut album.
Favorite Songs: Motion Sickness, Smoke Signals, Georgia
18. Masseduction — St. Vincent
“Masseduction” is the fifth album from St. Vincent and it is a remarkable one that explores a descent into chaos until control is lost. Masseduction is governed by themes of power, sex, drugs, sadness, and death. Against a backdrop of futuristic techno-pop courtesy of Jack Antonoff, St. Vincent gives an urgent performance examining the high life and the dangers at its edges.
The tracks pulse with constant rhythm as she goes from regret to hedonism. Even the songs themselves move from theme to theme as they contrast one another masterfully. On “Los Ageless”, the wild explosiveness is in the driving, repetitive chorus: “How can anybody have you? How can anybody have you and lose you? How can anybody have you and lose you? And not lose their minds, too?” This is a stark contrast to the subtle, sweeter “New York” where St. Vincent sings: “New York isn’t New York, Without you, love” with tenderness. Every song is equally compelling in their own right and beyond this, the album defies explanation. Just listen to it.
Favorite Songs: New York, Sugarboy, Hang On Me
17. Playboi Carti — Playboi Carti
Playboi Carti’s self titled mixtape showcases his ability to make captivating songs with as little as possible. The Atlanta rapper dips in and out of his songs with a few bars, some ad-libs here and there, and then a guest feature or two. There’s something hypnotizing about Carti’s charisma as he smashes words together to the point where raps begin to sound like ad-libs themselves. Carti’s strength is using both the positive and negative spaces of a song to command attention throughout. It gives the illusion of simplicity: it’s so laid-back and repetitive that each song gets to the verge of becoming mind-numbing. Yet as Carti bounces from ad-lib to ad-lib, from bar to bar, his pauses and breaths help create a space for his words to move into. Each word fades into the production with ease as he shifts from idea to idea.
Of course, this is a two part task: if the production is not equally or more interesting than the vocals, then listeners get bored as the words fade. Thankfully, producer Pi’erre Bourne makes sure that doesn’t happen. The beats drape Carti’s voice perfectly with accents in between his words, airy in nature as they float along with the vocals. Every beat is infectious and compelling so that even when Carti disappears briefly, we remain interested.
Critics were quick to dismiss this tape as a glorified beat tape or that Carti is mind-numbing or that his personality is what carries his performance. Yet they all seem to miss the important balance that Carti manages to strike throughout this tape. It’s not just mindless fun, there’s a clear understanding of how the melodies work and how to float along with the instrumentation. Carti makes it seem effortless as he glides from song to song but be honest: if any other rapper made this exact album, would it be anywhere as fun?
Favorite Songs: Magnolia, wokeuplikethis*, Location
16. The Dusk In Us — Converge
Converge are absolute masters in capturing emotion in a raw yet elegant way. “The Dusk In Us” shows off Converge’s ability to innovate, mature, and improve all while remaining distinctly themselves. The savagery and ferocity evident from their old albums are still on full display even if the lyrics and instrumentation have gotten more inspired and sophisticated.
As the years have gone on, Converge have honed their talent in building sprawling songs that build and climax in crescendos throughout. The result washes over listeners as the lyrics about coping with death and emotional isolation unravel. Vocalist Jacob Bannon mixes together clean singing and spoken word sections with his screaming. The guitars rise with frenzy as the songs advance while the drums hit hard with purpose.
On the title track, Bannon sings: “Dear frightened little boy, it’s time to rise above all of their noise. Ghosts are merely shadows, you are flesh and bone. The grudge does not have regrets when there is no past to forget. Our denial it speaks in tongues, there’s monsters among us.” Throughout the album, Converge gives us a choice: give in to the darkness in all of us or make the choice to be better. This should hit a note in us, today more than ever. Emotionally resonant, ambitious but very much Converge, “The Dusk In Us” shows why they’re still ahead of their contemporaries.
Favorite Songs: Arkhipov Calm, The Dusk In Us, Cannibals
15. Flower Boy — Tyler, The Creator
For years, Tyler, the Creator has kept up with an image of not giving a fuck. And as many people know, myself included, that facade is just a projection of insecurities. On Flower Boy, Tyler drops the act and exposes himself to vulnerability. He is riddled with anxiety, doubt, and loneliness. But he doesn’t just grow emotionally: he is better at rapping, producing, and singing now. Alternatively titled, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, Tyler examines both sides of the duality inside of him. The Scum Fuck part is the aggressive, braggadocio side of Tyler that shows up on some songs like “Who Dat Boy”. The Flower Boy side, however, is the most interesting one, as Tyler creates sincere, softer songs about vulnerability like “Garden Shed” and “See You Again”.
The production is gorgeous and while clearly borrowing the influence of the Neptunes, still remains a distinct sound. The breezy, spring sound is cheerful as Tyler sings and raps about coming to terms with his identity in adulthood. The features from Lil Wayne, Jaden Smith, Frank Ocean, Estelle, Kali Uchis and more all contribute beautifully. Of particular note, the contrast between Tyler and Estelle on “Garden Shed” is wonderful as Estelle prods Tyler to come out of his cocoon. Flower Boy is clearly Tyler’s best album to date as he opens up with his insecurities. It’s ambitious in both sound and concept and Tyler executes it perfectly. Maybe it’s time we truly met Tyler, The Creator.
Favorite Songs: See You Again, Garden Shed, Boredom
14. Slowdive — Slowdive
Slowdive returns in 2017 after a 22 year break with an album that showcases a majestic return to form. There’s a lot of familiarity, creativity, and most of all, a direction that points to future exploration. There’s something that Slowdive does that just makes them stand out from other shoegaze bands. The intricacies in every component of their sound: the pulsating bassline, the thick guitars distorted by the pedals, the light but driving percussion, and airy vocals all blur together into an ethereal soundscape.
The 22 years have also brought experience from different forms of music the band members have played with since then. The result is a true summation of their accomplishments both inside this band and outside of it. “Sugar For The Pill” is a conventional pop-sounding song through its harmonies and quiet crescendos but it retains all the complexities we want. “No Longer Making Time” explodes on the chorus and swells with a gorgeous riff.
Slowdive have successfully proved that they haven’t lost their spark in their reunion. Not only that, but they have also managed to mature their sound in an innovative way to keep things fresh. It retains everything that made them special in the first place but have also pushed their creativity into something distinctly new. There’s only one way to go from here and that’s forward.
Favorite Songs: Star Roving, No Longer Making Time, Falling Ashes
13. Arca — Arca
There’s something about Arca’s music that is so deeply chaotic and unsettling that it sends shivers down your spine, but the mystique continues to draw you in. On Arca, each song dissolves down to a slow, uneasy churn as Arca’s vocals hum and moan their way through. Arca’s vocals are a focus on this album as it is so close that you can hear all the imperfections: coughs, breaths, and all. Alien synths, oozing keys, acidic bass, and distortion all rumble in the background as he densely layers the production.
They lyrics are emotional when translated which only offers an even deeper sense of haunting. “Anoche yo lloré / De felicidad, qué extraño me sentí” — “Last night I cried / Of happiness, how strange I felt,” he sings on “Anoche”. There’s something distinct among the swirl of sounds. It almost sounds like he’s reaching out for something but he doesn’t seem to know what. Altogether, this causes the album to sound distinctly human, whereas his previous work has sounded more robotic and buried under his soundscapes. The melodies stay with you for a bit once the album ends floating in and out of your ears which again, is a different approach for Arca. It successfully captures the raw emotion and unease of Arca while retaining his signature layered soundscapes and complexities. Intimacy graces this album as Arca exposes himself to vulnerabilities and attempts to find balance within. The result is a daring deviation from his old sound in a captivating, new experience for listeners.
Favorite Songs: Anoche, Desafío, Reverie
12. Culture — Migos
The Migos have had a massive 2017. After dropping Culture in January, it debuted number 1 on Billboard and was platinum by July. Quavo was on every hit song of the year working with artists from Liam Payne to Major Lazer to Drake to Camila Cabello. Offset had some of the best verses this year from “Patek Water” with Future/Young Thug, “Met Gala” with Gucci Mane and “Ric Flair Drip” from his tape with 21 Savage. And yeah a few Twitter memes and a shoutout from Donald Glover at the Golden Globes certainly helped the Migos go number 1, but in reality, this has been a long time coming. The Migos have had a massive influence on culture since they broke into the mainstream with “Versace” back in 2013. With “Versace”, the Migos revived the triplet flow and modernized it for the mainstream. They brought the dab to prominence. Even their song about chips went viral. The Migos aren’t just defining culture, they are the culture.
Culture is the Migos’ tightest project by a large margin. Every song is filled out with Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff tossing verses between one another about their victories in both the rap game and the drug game. Even the empty spaces are filled out nicely with their mixture of ad-libs. The production from Metro Boomin, Zaytoven, Murda Beatz, and more vary the sounds, but the Migos are always at the forefront making sure their formula is still there. The result is a record that has many distinct sounds, ranging from Zaytoven keys on “Big On Big” to the string section on “Deadz”, but it feels entirely cohesive. They encapsulate the appeal of the Atlanta sound while retaining a mainstream appeal. They might not be better than the Beatles yet but this is a hell of a start.
Favorite Songs: T-Shirt, Deadz, Kelly Price
11. Aromanticism — Moses Sumney
“Aromanticism” is the debut album from Moses Sumney and it explores the concept of lovelessness: in a world so obsessed and structured around the desire and need for love, what does it mean to be impervious to love? Sumney’s voice is airy and fragile as he embraces the idea of loneliness and isolation. Yet even if he is full of woe, there is a breathtaking amount of warmth that surrounds his voice as he glides across songs.
On “Doomed” Sumney wonders “Am I vital. If my heart is idle? Am I doomed?” He delivers a raw, intense performance of pessimism. His voice is layered densely as it drifts along the production in a falsetto. The production is every bit as elegant, cosmic, and atmospheric as Sumney’s voice demands as it surrounds his singing in a dream-like mist. Featuring instrumentation from Tosin Abasi, Thundercat, Ludwig Göransson, and more, the production swirls together accompanying Sumney’s extraordinary voice.
Both warm and isolating at the same time, “Aromanticism” feels utterly complete. Sumney successfully transcribes difficult descriptions of emotions into wondrous songs with worlds devoid of love. The textures in the sound is unlike any other album. “Aromanticism” is a unique approach to a universal topic in songwriting and is remarkable in every way.
Favorite Songs: Plastic, Quarrel, Doomed
10. Async — Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto is a legend in pioneering pop and electronic music sounds as part of a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra. He’s won an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Grammy, and two Golden Globes as a film composer and is an actor as well. That’s why when his throat cancer emerged in 2014, it hit hard for both fans, and Sakamoto himself. As he returns with async after 8 years since his last solo album, it comes with a sense of mortality and humbleness. We should appreciate the little things in life and async sounds like a way to recognize that, and heal. The ever looming sense of death is captured through the use of organs, despondent piano, and sprawling synths that ring out into nothing.
At the same time however, humbleness is portrayed through the sounds of nature, through the warmth of synths, and the fragility of heavily reverbed sounds. Sakamoto seems to be collecting his life career together by echoing parts of previous sounds and albums. “stakra” sounds like his Yellow Magic Orchestra days through its continuous flow of synths, and “ubi” uses persistent pings kind of like some song on CHASM. There’s a universality in the sound: simple, elegant songs that can still be captivating. Music doesn’t always have to be complicated to be compelling: Sakamoto demonstrates beauty in simplicity.
Favorite Songs: ubi, solari, stakra
9. Reflections of a Floating World — Elder
On their fourth album, Elder take their music and scale it up with epic, sprawling soundscapes. While “Reflections of A Floating World” is rooted in a stoner metal/doom metal foundation, the influences and flourishes from prog, krautrock, and psychedelia make this album extremely interesting to listen to. With six songs spread over an hour, the album might seem long at first glance, but it’s surprising how well everything flows together. The themes and riffs are interconnected with one another but remain varied enough to feel layered.
Vocalist and guitarist Nicholas DiSalvo has clearly expanded his vocal range since their last album. On “The Falling Veil”, he sings “Running through the fields. Chasing down the ones you think you need. Throwing off the chains, cursing years in vain. Living in a myth, the boundaries of which lie in decay” in an almost soulful manner as his voice echoes throughout the instrumentation. The greatest skill that Elder have is playing off one another. Each of the three band members are in sync with each other at all times and never fragment in different directions. The sound is continuous and flows from song into song. There is no focus on the beginnings and ends of songs: only how they play into one another and are connected as a whole. The entire album is a journey: listen from front to back and allow Elder to take you away.
Favorite Songs: Sanctuary, The Falling Veil, Thousand Hands
8. Process — Sampha
Process is a deeply reflective album that documents Sampha’s process of grief and his navigation of inner turmoil and mortality. Coping with the heavy loss of the death of his mother in 2015, Sampha uses Process as a way to come to terms with that loss. On “No One Knows Me Like The Piano”, he outlines how music has always provided him with an outlet for his emotions and escape for difficult circumstances. What’s most impressive about Process is that it sounds nothing like Sampha’s contemporaries in RnB. He takes an entirely different approach to the arrangement of his sounds. For example, “Plastic 100°C” explores Sampha’s panic and fear when he discovers a lump in his throat but the instrumentation is characterized by a gentle harp. Upbeat tracks like “Kora Sings” are filled with tension and insecurities. “You’ve been with me, you’re my angel, please don’t you disappear,” he sings with a voice that wavers.
Process takes up a remarkable, sonically bold vision that explores the human condition. There is constant reflection of struggle, pain, fear, and regret. Vulnerability slowly leads to catharsis as Sampha comes to grips with his emotions. The soundscapes are varied but beautiful: “Under” utilizes a trap beat and “Reverse Faults” includes an insistent synth progression that underscores a sense of unease. It all comes together as a beautiful album of self-discovery that is underscored by creativity and daring experimentation of sounds.
Favorite Songs: No One Knows Me Like The Piano, Timmy’s Prayer, Kora Sings
7. DAMN — Kendrick Lamar
Can you imagine how difficult it would be to make an album after your previous two became arguably two of the best albums in the past decade? But Kendrick pulls it off very well on DAMN. Much more straightforward than Good Kidd Madd City or To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick proves he’s still at the top of his game.
Storytelling has always been Kendrick’s strongest point and DAMN is no exception. His voice does all of the heavy lifting as his voice punctuates the air on the 70s soul influenced production. His new thing is the use of repetition: he repeats sections or lines over and over to punctuate his ideas without ever feeling gimmicky. On “FEEL”, Kendrick lists off his range of feelings, particularly those that come as a result of his fame. “ I feel like a chip on my shoulders/I feel like I’m losin’ my focus/I feel like I’m losin’ my patience/I feel like my thoughts in the basement”.
The album showcases the duality of Kendrick again as it goes from the aggressive, attitude filled songs from the top to the intricate, complex songs on the bottom. The tribal chant of “DNA” is contrasted by Kendrick singing on “GOD”. The album closes with “DUCKWORTH”, a strange story about how Top Dawg (CEO of TDE) almost killed Kendrick’s dad before Kendrick was ever signed onto TDE. But down deeper, the song and ultimately, the album, is about the choices that we make and how we evolve based on our situations. And in the end, Kendrick examines his pride, humility, envy, doubt, fear, agony, and even love over the course of the album but it’s important to realize how much of it is in our hands.
Favorite Songs: DNA, LOYALTY, GOD
6. Turn Out The Lights — Julien Baker
“Turn Out The Lights” is Julien Baker’s second album and is a candid, personal portrait of pain. Baker is a harsh self-critic: she is full of self-doubt stemming from depression, and whatever glimmer of hope emerges becomes drowned out by anxiety. She lets out her voice with force on this album making sure her emotions are heard and the result cuts deep. Sometimes, her voice sounds weary and fragile but at the same time, remains steady throughout.
Backed by woodwinds, guitars, and piano, Baker documents her struggle with faith as well. She finds herself constantly asking God whether there is a way to fix her. On “Televangelist”, she wonders “Am I a masochist? Screaming televangelist. Clutching my crucifix. Of white noise and static” as she continually condemns herself to her fears. The album is about living with your failures and fears while learning how to move beyond them. On the last song of the album, “Claws In Your Back”, she sings: “ I think I can love
The sickness you made. Cause I take it all back, I change my mind. I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay.” A ray of hope emerges towards the end as she accepts her mental illness as something she can’t change. The album ends with a transformation: despite the flaws, she acknowledges that she can still heal.
Powerful and poignant, “Turn Out The Lights” speaks to a lot of people. Sometimes, all we want to do is scream at the world as even our daily tasks become impossible. Yet, learning to accept our fears can eventually lead us to accepting ourselves. Even if happiness is constantly moving away from us, the little victories we have make a difference. Maybe accepting our demons and understanding how to live them is how we move forward with resilience. Julien Baker slowly shows us the way on “Turn Out The Lights.”
Favorite Songs: Appointments, Claws In Your Back, Hurt Less
5. Melodrama — Lorde
Lorde’s second album once again masterfully captures the essence of the emotions of early 20s life. Melodrama is a concept album of sorts that revolves around a party and its aftermath. All of the emotional highs and lows are a clever way to represent relationships and the feeling of loneliness and solitude. For someone who’s only 21 herself, it’s surprising how much wisdom she is able to convey through her writing. Heartbreak, isolation, fragments of nights forgotten, fame are all explored with intense self-awareness. Melodrama is Lorde’s way of reflecting and finding herself amidst a sea of doubt.
While “Pure Heroine” was a way to capture the glory of our teenage years, Melodrama is about what comes next: adulthood and all the feelings that come with it. On “Green Light”, Lorde sings about her first heartbreak full of grief but also knowing deep down that her heart will heal. The post-breakup emotions continue on “Writer In The Dark” where she sings: “Break the news — you’re walking out. To be a good man for someone else. Sorry I was never good like you”. Lorde also reflects on her fame and how it seemed like she was a burden to others on “Liability.” “The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy. Til all of the tricks don’t work anymore. And then they are bored of me.”
The instrumentation is also fantastic as Jack Antonoff assists in the production. Everything sounds richer and more dynamic than “Pure Heroine”. The synths are glistening and the melodies are full as they head for a more grand sound. Lorde’s voice, a punchy low register, cuts through the background and soars during the falsettos and choruses. Melodrama is a beautiful contradiction: a constant party that also serves as a cathartic breakup album.
Favorite Songs: Liability, Writer In The Dark, Perfect Places
4. Big Fish Theory — Vince Staples
I’m convinced that Vince Staples can rap over anything at this point. Big Fish Theory is the second studio album from Vince Staples that features production inspired by Detroit techno, house, and other forms of electronic club music. Where his debut album, “Summertime 06”, was rough around the edges, cold in sound, and had dejected melodies, “Big Fish Theory” is filled with smooth, infectious dance bangers. The album is a natural progression from “Summertime 06” by expanding the horizons of its sound while retaining Vince Staples’ signature nihilistic lyrics.
He touches on politics, fame, racism, depression, and even relationships throughout the songs. He has an incredible delivery and always has precision in all of his raps. This allows him to become more streamlined to fit in with the new production. On 745 he raps “Eyes can’t hide your hate for me/Maybe you was made for the Maybelline/Spent so much tryna park the car/Barely got a tip for the maître d’”. On “Big Fish” he further showcases this efficiency with lines like “I was up late night balling/So far from my past misfortune/No sleepin’, late nights no eatin’/Gun squeezing, I’m a real Artesian”. Everything is densely packed into the 36 minutes of playtime allowing listeners to slowly unravel each of the lines.
His bleak lyrical prowess certainly reflects the state of the world in 2017. The production drives his rapping along and amid the shiny new sounds, Vince Staples still reflects on the darkness going on, both inside his world and outside of it. Vince Staples is acutely aware of his place and reach of his fame. He understands better than any other rapper how his influence plays out. Unconventional, experimental, and creative in every way, “Big Fish Theory” is a multilayered album that sounds unlike anything in hip hop right now.
Favorite Songs: Big Fish, 745, Yeah Right
3. Take Me Apart — Kelela
Kelela’s debut is a lush, intricate, spacey album where her voice sinks into the sound rather than floating on top. The production makes use of various genres including jazz, soul, UK garage, electronica, and electro-RnB. Her lyrics are layered with complexities which reflect her subject matter: relationships. Breaking up and new love are not exactly novel topics, but they are filled with complications and difficulties in figuring things out. As her sound is layered upon complexities, so are the topics she explores. Together, they make a mesmerizing composition: an album that is a world of its own which requires many listens to unpack.
Kelela’s uses her voice in intimate whispers and coos. The result is a sexy sound that melts into the background production. Working with the lush, spacey sounds courtesy of Arca, Jam City, Kwes and more, Kelela joins in as her voice sinks into the misty reverb of each song. The synths are icy and the percussion is murmuring. Every song varies from the last: it shifts from sensual to frantic to relaxed to obsessive. It fits the narrative of impulsiveness surrounding the complications in relationships.
The ambition of Kelela matches up to her execution. The album never slows down to fatigue nor does it lose innovation. On “LMK”, the most ready-for-radio song, the sound is still dense with subtle longing and nostalgia behind the pounding tempo. On “Onanon”, Arca’s production tumbles forward with influences from UK Garage as Kelela drifts along with ethereal vocals. The depth and diversity in every song invites listeners back in over and over again. Kelela proves that her sound is one of the most creative and elaborate in RnB today.
Favorite Songs: LMK, Onanon, Frontline
2. A Crow Looked At Me — Mount Eerie
This album is the most emotionally draining and devastating album I’ve heard in a long time. That’s why I’ve listened to it sparingly over the course of the year and it took me the entire year to figure out its place on this list. Mount Eerie, the musical project from songwriter and producer Phil Elverum, lost his wife to cancer in 2015. We are exposed to the concept of death so much throughout the course of our lives through music, art, games, and movies that it almost becomes trivial. But real death isn’t heroic or powerful or symbolic. Real death is often so quick and so seemingly meaningless that we are left questioning why the world so quickly continues forward even though it feels like it shouldn’t.
Elverum questions this as he slogs through the album. The singing and instrumentation is all so minimal that it barely feels like music. The songs sound as if he’s merely saying statements or asking questions rather than singing. The bleakness of these hit hardest unexpectedly: “ What about foxgloves, Is that a flower you liked? I can’t remember, You did most of my remembering for me”. And then just like that, we move on. There aren’t pauses or moments of reflection: we simply go forward almost matter of factly. Even the mundane details make a huge impact. “I watched you die in this room, then I gave your clothes away. I’m sorry, I had to. And now I’ll move.”
Against this backdrop of utter isolation and sadness, there are slivers of hope. On the last song “Crow”, Elverum recalls hiking through the woods with his daughter when he saw a crow watching them and he was reminded of his wife. At the end, most of this album is about confronting death but it’s also about the small echos and reminders of the departed. Detachment and isolation overwhelm but only because we let it overcome our memories and love.
Poetic and haunting, this album is a difficult listen. But it is worth every minute you spend with it as a reminder that death is not total obliteration: there are always remnants and memories to keep us going. We don’t always know how to get through the worst times: sometimes all we can do is have hope.
Favorite Tracks: Real Death, Ravens, Crow
- The Ooz — King Krule
The Ooz is difficult to describe. It’s a swampy, murky swirl of bass lines mixed with gritty and uneven guitar strumming. Hints of luxurious jazz harmonies and shaky piano chords surface only to be quickly swallowed again. King Krule himself appears haphazardly: sometimes he’s at the center of the song drowning out everything else as he yells a line over and over again and other times, he simply disappears and lets the suffocating sound overwhelm. There’s no rules, no genres defining anything throughout the album. A deep sense of isolation reigns supreme and it is here that King Krule unravels through riddles.
“The blue cave, the deep dark unknown. Submerged forever soaked to the bone”, he mumbles slowly on “Lonely Blue”. More hints of torment are littered throughout “Logos” as he sings “ I caught my mum, she stumbles home
Through open ground, back to broken homes”. Beneath the nauseous sound that surrounds these lyrics, there is also a sense of beauty to it. The production has tightened since his “Six Feet Beneath the Moon” days and the mixing is pristine. The samples are fit in with ease ranging from recordings of foxes in the wild to even the theme of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Everything is then mashed together as a cross between lounge music and jazz punk and the end result is spectacular.
There’s a degree of ugliness in each song that threatens to consume everything else. But the lush, rich textures that King Krule manages to create within the songs keep them at bay. There’s a sweet spot where beauty begins to emerge among the wreck and it is here that King Krule demonstrates his creative ability. The Ooz is a masterpiece of Medusa-like proportions: deep beauty engulfed in a outer layer of poison and vileness.
Favorite Songs: Biscuit Town, Dum Surfer, Logos