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.
The Pittsburgh hardcore-from-hell outfit delivers state-of-the-art heaviness with its third full-length LP, and its first for storied metal imprint Roadrunner. Befitting drummer/vocalist Jami Morgan’s well-documented love of Nine Inch Nails, Forever thrives on atmosphere as much as aggression. Merciless precision bludgeonings are still the focus – aptly, the band soundtracked the entrance of menacing wrestler Aleister Black at a recent WWE event – but the ominous ambient passages in tracks such as “The Mud” only heighten the album’s thick aura of dread. The most riveting moments belong to guitarist Reba Meyers, who provides eerie melodic vocal turns on “Bleeding in the Blur” and “Dream2” in between the other tracks’ beatdowns. H.S.
“I don’t wanna be king/I just wanna sing a love song,” declares Dave Grohl – a default mission statement from the eternal sideman-turned-frontman. It opens what might be his group’s most polished set, produced by pop guru Greg Kurstin, who sweetens the Foos’ hard rock hooks without de-fanging them. The paradigmatic “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” is latter-day Beatles with Queens of the Stone Age crunch; “Sunday Rain” even has Paul McCartney playing drums on it. From stadium dive bombers like “Run” and “La Dee Da” to the acoustic soul that opens “T-Shirt,” it’s classic rock from a punk who never stopped believing. W.H.
With this mighty, roots-minded debut LP, the 25-year-old from Spanish Town, Jamaica, has spearheaded a reggae revival that’s more than merely retro. Grounded in the post-Marley golden era – think Barrington Levy, Aswad, Gregory Isaacs and Yellowman, who Chronixx shouts out on “Likes” – the man brings Rasta-informed wisdom and conscious vibes into a new century, with vintage dub grooves (“Big Bad Sound”) and modern pop-R&B sonics (“I Can”) rocking the dancehall side-by-side. The most promising reggae ambassador in a generation, Chronixx is here just when the need for healing music has never been greater. W.H.
These Philly rock & roll revivalists haven’t lost any of their grit or oomph on album four, with Adam Weiner’s pumpin’ piano powering a solid take on Prince’s “Controversy” and boogieing them past the “Death and Destruction” the singer claims he sees everywhere. They adorn their stripped-down bar-band essentials with gnarly guitar licks and unexpected lyrical twists, even including a protest song of sorts called “What Size Shoe.” (“Ain’t this the United States?/I got something to say.”) Weiner’s tales of dive bar existence sound so lived-in he may even be telling the truth when he sings “All my friends got herpes in Montreal/All my friends don’t open their mouths at all.” OK, maybe not all his friends. K.H.
This is the final album Sharon Jones made before her death last fall, recorded with her longtime backing band, the Dap-Kings, in stolen moments between chemotherapy treatments. She was an irreplaceable talent, and her loss can’t help but change the way one hears the gospel show-stopper “Call on God,” the brass-driven workout “Sail On” and the tender farewell “Pass Me By.” At its heart, though, Soul of a Woman is a joyful album. It makes you feel lucky that we got to share a planet with her voice for as long as we did. S.V.L.
This 21st-century reimagining of Tracy Bonham’s spitfire 1996 debut The Burdens of Being Upright brings time and perspective to spirited alt-era anthems like the ruminative “One Hit Wonder” and the jittery “Navy Bean.” Singer-composer-violinist Bonham takes a loving approach to updating her younger self’s whip-smart songs, imbuing the radio-beloved letter to home “Mother Mother” with Trump-era weariness and transforming “The Real” into starlit fuzz-pop. Peers like Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly and Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley supply cameos that keep the atmosphere celebratory, even when the source material is wracked with angst. M.J.
The best power-pop band of the last 20 years has always specialized in making knotty ideas and rich abstractions churn with the hummable buzz of bubblegum gold. New Pornographers’ latest is steeped in the hypnotic headrush repetition of the Feelies and Seventies Krautrock, heavy on drum throb, Sensurround synth swirls and micro-managed glowing-fractal harmony elation – like Steve Reich co-producing an ELO record in 1979, or a vision of early New Wave if MTV had beamed forth from some collectivist art cooperative in the Canadian wilds. It would all be neon soup without the wonderful tune-mad songs, which mull states of depression and unease, post-Trump and otherwise, to come up with music that manages to confront real-life anxieties and transport you above the fallen world of theater itself. J.D.
This multimedia box set contains the last notes ever played in public by saxophone revolutionary Ornette Coleman, part of a 2014 tribute event in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. And what gorgeous notes they are, fragile lines that still drip with Coleman’s trademark sense of joy and yearning. But the star-studded, three-hour-plus set also acts as a musical family tree, charting the way Coleman’s liberation-music philosophy has played out across generations. We hear Flea funking away alongside Coleman’s drummer son Denardo on “Broadway Blues”; Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Nels Cline dueting on a spooky, feedback-laced version of 1962’s “Sadness”; and sax geniuses Branford Marsalis, David Murray, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane taking flight on Coleman’s signature dirge “Lonely Woman.” It’s a testament to Coleman’s genius that the whole set, including all of the Brooklyn show as well as cuts from Ornette’s wake, sounds like the avant-garde party of the century. H.S.
After the mellow gold sounds of his folk-rock Grammy magnet Morning Phase, Beck’s latest pivots into of-the-moment big-box pop music. It’s not parody – though the baked old-school flow on the trippy trap track “Wow” is laugh-out-loud funny. Instead, it does something tougher, locating the sublime in the music many love to hate, while connecting its truths to a broader pop history. “Dear Life” nods to both the Beatles and late virtuoso Elliott Smith, and the title track apparently jacked its flow from Melle Mel’s “White Lines.” And “Dreams” glistens like a John Chamberlain car wreck sculpture: chrome-plated funk with twisted, pitch-shifted vocals and Seventies stadium rock flourishes. It makes mass-market pop science feel positively artisanal. W.H.
The final album by Gregg Allman, who died in May, is a moving farewell statement à la twilight masterworks by Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. Yet while Southern Blood is rich with intimations of mortality, it’s easygoing, too, with a laid-back generosity that recalls Allman’s kindest Seventies work – see his warm take on Lowell George’s Southern-rock salvo “Willin’,” or versions of tender folk reckonings by his friends Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne. The most moving moment is the searching blues “My Only True Friend,” sung as a conversation with his brother Duane. “It feels like home is just around the bend,” he sings. It’s the elegiac sound of gracefully moving on. J.D.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.