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50 Best Albums of 2017

Taylor Swift clapped back, Kendrick Lamar got personal, Lorde threw a high-concept party and more

Music was full of fury, confusion and resistance in our first post-election year. Albums came with titles like American Dream (LCD Soundsystem), American Teen (Khalid) and All American Made (Margo Price). And indeed, artists did get explicitly political, from Randy Newman to Jason Isbell to Jay-Z. But music in 2017 was also about a more slippery sense of self, as genre lines fall away and artists searched for identity and purpose in weird times. Some of the year’s best classic rock came from pop stars like Kesha and Harry Styles; some of the year’s most acclaimed pop statements came via glossier sounds from alterna-rock icons like Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear. SZA melded emo self-evaluation with the sounds of modern R&B, Chris Stapleton joined classic soul to contemporary country, Jlin added experimental cutting-edge textures to Chicago dance music, Valerie June explored decades of American music and Drake pulled sounds and collaborators from all across the world. Here’s the best of a tumultuous year.

Grizzly Bear, 'Painted Ruins'
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Grizzly Bear, ‘Painted Ruins’

A decade or so ago, Grizzly Bear helped define the new wave of psychedelic-leaning folk-rock on 2006’s Yellow House and 2009’s Veckatimest. Enough time has passed for that sound to begin creeping back into fashion – which makes it all the more impressive that Grizzly Bear swung hard in another direction entirely on their first album since 2012. Painted Ruins is an audacious pivot to synth-pop, using the band’s most direct hooks ever (“Mourning Sound,” “Losing All Sense”) to address break-ups and the end of the world. It’s also spiced with plenty of jazzy weirdness, particularly on the delightfully Steely waltz “Glass Hillside.” Fully charged and ready to break new ground, this is the kind of post-hiatus comeback most band’s fans only dream of. S.V.L.

39. Japanese Breakfast, 'Soft Sounds From Another Planet'
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Japanese Breakfast, ‘Soft Sounds From Another Planet’

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner has always been the kind of indie songwriter who takes on the big stuff – for her last album, she wrote a collection of downbeat grief confessions and gave it the witty title Psychopomp. But on Soft Sounds, her music has opened up with a grandeur worthy of her lyrical concerns – it’s an expansively trippy album saturated in science fiction and 1980s shoegaze sounds. It all comes together in “Diving Woman,” a six-minute synth-drone flight, as she meditates on underwater isolation. And in “Boyish,” she talks tough about a useless relationship, sneering: “I can’t get you off my mind/I can’t get you off in general.” R.S.

Residente, 'Residente'
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Residente, ‘Residente’

Whatever Calle 13 fans expected of their conscious rap hero Residente, it probably wasn’t this self-titled debut. Residente is a statement of global solidarity, co-starring a madcap assortment of collaborators from 10 different parts of the world, to which the Puerto Rican icon traced back his DNA from a saliva test. Each song is its own new genre, assembled from regional sounds: The Latin Grammy-winning “Somos Anormales” draws hip-hop from Central Asian Tuvan throat singing; featuring French it-girl SoKo, “Desencuentro” is a transatlantic chanson. “I wasn’t trying to make a world-music album, but you know,” Residente told Rolling Stone. “The radio right now, I’m in shock, everyone sounds the same. It’s like junk food. You need to eat better, otherwise [you’re] going to die a slow, cultural death.” S.E.

Liam Gallagher, 'As You Were'
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Liam Gallagher, ‘As You Were’ and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, ‘Who Built the Moon?’

The Gallagher brothers waited until nearly the exact same moment to make their best music in ages, releasing great albums within weeks of each other. It’s almost as if they’re locked in some sort of competitive sibling rivalry or something. Neither wandered much from the Oasis template, matching Brit-pop charge with sunburst Beatles melodies. Eight years down the road from Oasis’ messy split, there are moments of grown-up honesty: “In my defense all my intentions were good,” Liam sings on As You Were‘s hilariously titled “For What It’s Worth.” Noel’s version of same was the angsty old-timer’s warning “Be Careful What You Wish For.” But the pleasure here came during sweet, swaggering anthems like Liam’s “Wall of Glass” and Noel’s “Holy Mountain,” knock-outs rich with the smell of 1995. J.D.

36. Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie, 'Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie'
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Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, ‘Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie’

With Mick Fleetwood and John McVie serving as rhythm section, all that keeps this album from being a Fleetwood Mac reunion is the absence of Stevie Nicks. (She’d toyed with joining in, but opted to tour solo instead.) Buckingham and McVie make a revelatory pairing – their sound here doesn’t depart from the band’s style so much as it accentuates certain aspects. Listening in is like viewing a familiar landscape viewed from a different angle, and the production tinkering of Mitchell Froom, who adds unexpected percussive details to the mix, contributes to the novelty. Whether getting funky on “Too Far Gone” or blissing out on “Red Sun,” the duo showcases the effortlessness of pop/rock veterans doing what they do best. K.H.

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Bob Dylan, ‘Triplicate’

Rock’s most influential songwriter hasn’t released an album of original compositions in five years. He’s focused instead on the Great American Songbook, in particular those pre-rock standards immortalized by Frank Sinatra. On his third album in this series, a sprawling yet intimate three-disc epic, Dylan doesn’t shy away from tunes as familiar as “As Time Goes By” and “Stormy Weather” – it’s almost as though he tackles the well-known tunes so you can hear how he’s Dylanized them. Backed by a small band (and the occasional horn section), he sings with care and nuance, looking back on past loves and losses with a tone of brooding regret that eventually ebbs into a kind of reluctant acceptance. When Dylan raggedly croons, “I find that I’m smiling gently as I near/September, the warm September of my years,” well, the Nobel Prize winner couldn’t have said it better himself. K.H.

34. Open Mike Eagle, 'Brick Body Kids Still Daydream'
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Open Mike Eagle, ‘Brick Body Kids Still Daydream’

Part journalist, part fiction writer, part diarist, Open Mike Eagle is in a league of his own with an easy, effortless flow. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream pays tribute to a housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes, which existed on Chicago’s South Side until it was demolished in 2007. While the building is itself an important part of the story, it is the tale of a kid and his wild imagination that reaches far past the concrete into the surreal. B.S.

Vijay Iyer Sextet, 'Far From Over' HS
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Vijay Iyer Sextet, ‘Far From Over’

Jazz keyboardist Vijay Iyer has been making great records for more than 15 years, but Far From Over still feels like an arrival. Here, Iyer – a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and a Harvard faculty member since 2014 – brings together a dream team of cutting-edge improvisers and turns them loose on a set of new pieces that combine proggy intricacy, elegant drama and breakneck rhythmic thrust. Saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim add fire, while cornetist and flugelhorn player Graham Haynes lends an element of simmering, electro-kissed cool. Meanwhile, drum virtuoso Tyshawn Sorey makes even the brainiest moments feel like fierce funk. Retro looks and sounds have dominated the jazz narrative in recent years; Far From Over is a reminder that the future’s where it’s at. H.S.

Robert Plant, 'Carry Fire'
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Robert Plant, ‘Carry Fire’

With a title that evokes primal discovery and heroic burden, Carry Fire finds Plant nuancing the mystic stomp of yore for darkening times. “New World…” is a wearily surging “Immigrant Song” for the age of xenophobic travel bans; “Bones of Saints” surges with “Going to California” promise, then becomes an anthem against mass shootings. The overall feel is at once ancient and new, cutting Led Zeppelin III‘s Maypole majesty with the Velvet Underground’s careful guitar violence (see the “All Tomorrow’s Parties”-tinged “Dance With You Tonight”), and the patient power of Plant’s golden-god-in-winter singing can be astonishing. More impressive is the way that, at 69, he remains youthfully committed to rock & roll rejuvenation. One fine example of that spirit: his duet with Chrissie Hynde on “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” remaking a Fifties gem recorded by Richie Valens and, later, the Beach Boys, into a slow-roll barn-dance Bacchanal, complete with a levee-breaking yowl. It proves that Plant’s athletic power, like his musical idealism, burns undiminished. J.D.

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Songhoy Blues, ‘Résistance’

Some of the year’s funkiest and hardest rocking music comes from this Hendrix-and-hip-hop-loving desert blues crew. As Mali, their home country, is torn apart by violence, young ragers Songhoy Blues respond as both a political band and a party band, playing hard dance grooves that decry racism (“One Colour”), respond to police violence or big-up their city’s afterhours scene (“Bamako”). They even get a fun assist from game passenger Iggy Pop, who sounds like David Byrne spieling for the Chili Peppers on “Sahara”: “There ain’t no condos, there ain’t no pizza/It’s a genuine culture, no Kentucky Fried Chicken.” C.W.

Chris Stapleton, 'From A Room: Volume 1'
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Chris Stapleton, ‘From A Room: Volume 1’

A collection of songs written 10 years ago, Stapleton’s eagerly awaited follow-up to 2015’s Traveller could have come across like some K-Tel Best of the Beard compilation. But the supremely talented singer doesn’t rest on old laurels. These performances crackle and pop with new energy, as Stapleton embraces the R&B, Southern rock and country components of his pedigree. On “Second One to Know,” he lets his voice run wild, setting up a wicked one-note guitar solo, and later dials it back on the hushed “Either Way.” It’s that kind of juxtaposition that makes Volume 1 (as well as the just-released Volume 2) an authentic snapshot. J.H.

Jay Som, 'Everybody Works'
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Jay Som, ‘Everybody Works’

Written, recorded and produced entirely in her D.I.Y. soundproofed bedroom, Melina Duterte’s sophomore LP sets a high bar for introverted pop. But for a product of hermetic genius, Everybody Works glows with warmth and goodwill for her fellow humans, most successfully during the swoon-worthy, lo-fi highlight “The Bus Song,” a lilting love note to a crush (and public transit). A jazzy undercurrent sprawls throughout tracks like “One More Time, Please” and “Baybee” – both slow jams for shoegazers, nestled in the intersection between Sade and Hope Sandoval. S.E.

Vince Staples, 'Big Fish Theory'
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Vince Staples, ‘Big Fish Theory’

If Vince Staples’ album title suggested a life of fish-bowl containment and observation, his music outlined a break-out strategy. The Long Beach rapper drew on house, electro and U.K. garage for a shifting set of thumpers more fitting for a festival dance tent than a Rap Caviar playlist. “Yeah Right” critiqued hip-hop’s material fixations from the inside out, with a verse from Kendrick Lamar to “twilight the zeitgeist” and production from EDM experimentalists Sophie and Flume. “SAMO” nodded at Jean-Michel Basquiat, while Staples flexed his cold-bloodedness, and Sophie demonstrated how trap could be an even more skeletal terror trip. Big Fish Theory was a throwback to hip-hop’s heyday, when the only rules were for breaking. J.L.

Drake, 'More Life'
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Drake, ‘More Life’

Part grime-experiment, part-trop house rendezvous, Drake explored a “playlist” with his expansive, blissfully voyeuristic More Life. On this 22-song project, we see many of Drake’s sides: the piña colada-sipping partier shines on “Passionfruit,” the nostalgic heartbreak kid emerges on “Teenage Fever” and the boastful jetsetter traps on “Gyalchester.” A variety of friends – old and new, local and global – shine with solo interludes and features, including Giggs, Skepta, Young Thug, Partynextdoor, Sampha, Jorja Smith, and even Kanye West, who made one of his very few musical appearances on the sweet, simple standout “Glow.” Following the gaudiness of last year’s Views and 2015’s back-to-back chart-topping mixtapes If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive, hearing Drake take a step back makes this project a no-frills victory lap. B.S.

Lana Del Rey, 'Lust for Life'
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Lana Del Rey, ‘Lust for Life’

“Part of the past, but now you’re the future,” Lana Del Rey sings on Lust for Life‘s opening track, “Love,” as the bass hollows out a cavernous space that connects Phil Spector to Atlanta trap. Del Rey’s fifth album drifts along on a sunset cloud so familiar and comforting, it’s easy to miss how focused and quietly audacious this music is. She shuffles mythic figures like she’s scrolling contacts in her phone. The lyrics invoke Iggy Pop, Patsy Cline, Brian Wilson and Led Zeppelin; the guests include the Weeknd, Stevie Nicks, A$AP Rocky and Sean Ono Lennon. Whatever she needs to invoke the weightlessness of life in our new not-normal, she takes. “Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” she intones in “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” “No, it’s only the beginning.” As true, and as terrifying, a thought as any song this year produced. J.L.

Paramore, 'After Laughter'
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Paramore, ‘After Laughter’

The tension between Paramore’s high-intensity hooks and withering lyrics explodes into fluorescent colors on After Laughter, which aims toward pop’s most hypermanic ideals while detailing inexorable drifts toward despair. The mania resulting from that split manifests in despondent-yet-danceable jams (“Hard Times”), mirror-image synth-pop (the acid-laced “Rose-Colored Boy”) and heartbreakingly wise balladry (the string-laden “26”), with highlife guitar tones and shimmering countermelodies adding to the overdriven atmosphere. Hayley Williams remains a powerful up-front presence, a belter who can croon as convincingly as she can yelp. Her vocal bravado almost makes you forget that After Laughter is an up-close chronicle of her weariness with the world. M.J.

Valerie June, 'The Order of Time'
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Valerie June, ‘The Order of Time’

Valerie June perfected her handsomely idiosyncratic brand of Americana on this second LP, steeped deep in electric blues and old-time folk, gilded in country twang and gospel yearning. The press-repeat standout is “Astral Plane,” with its woozy reverb and disarmingly tender, flying-on-the-ground vocals. “Shakedown” is an impressionist juke-joint party jam. But the headiest moments are “If And,” which taps into Tuareg styles to map African sounds from old world, to new, then ’round again; and “Got Soul,” a matter-of-fact re-braiding of Southern musical history with banjo, fiddle and Stax/Volt brass. Who knew musicology could feel so good? W.H.