50 Best Albums of 2017 So Far – Rolling Stone
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50 Best Albums of 2017 So Far

Including Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, Ed Sheeran, Drake, Harry Styles, Roger Waters and more

So far, 2017 has brought us three discs of classic-minded Bob Dylan and a ‘playlist’ of Drake at his most global; Kendrick Lamar going back to basics and Jlin shooting to the future; the assured debut of Harry Styles and the return of Roger Waters. 

Here’s the best of the year’s first five months and change.

Kendrick Lamar: ‘Damn.’

Kendrick Lamar: ‘Damn.’

Kendrick Lamar, ‘Damn’

We Say: Seemingly exhausted with the burden of constantly pushing hip-hop forward into concept operas, electric Miles explosions and Flying Lotus electronic burbles, Damn. seemingly takes a classicist route to rap music. If To Pimp a Butterfly was the best rap album in 2015, Damn.is the platonic ideal of the best rap album of 1995, a dazzling display of showy rhyme skills, consciousness-raising political screeds, self-examination and bass-crazy-kicking. Kendrick has many talents – pop star, avant-garde poet, lyrical gymnast, storyteller. But here he explores what we traditionally know as a “rapper” more than on any of his albums to date. The rhymes on songs like “DNA,” “Element,” “Feel,” “Humble” and “XXX” come fast, furious and almost purist in nature. In an era where “bars” seems almost old-fashioned in the age of Drake’s polyglot tunesmithery, Young Thug’s Silly-Putty syllable stretching and Future’s expressionist robo-croak, Lamar builds a bridge to the past.

Drake: ‘More Life’

Drake: ‘More Life’

Drake, ‘More Life’

We Say: Drake calls his superb new More Life a “playlist,” not an album or even a mixtape, yet that might be why it sounds so expressive, so emotional, so quintessentially Drakean. When you get right down to it, Aubrey Graham is a playlist – a true pop visionary who’s always a fan at heart, an omnivore with a raging appetite for his next favorite sound. More Life is his finest longform collection in years, cheerfully indulgent at 22 tracks and 82 minutes, a masterful tour of all the grooves in his head, from U.K. grime (“No Long Talk”) to Caribbean dancehall (“Blem”) to South African house (“Get It Together”) to Earth, Wind & Fire (“Glow”). 

Lorde, 'Melodrama'

Lorde, 'Melodrama'

Lorde, ‘Melodrama’

We Say: Now 20, Lorde signals a new order straightaway, with lonely piano chords where Pure Heroine’s pure electronic palette was. They open the single “Green Light,” a barbed message to an ex who the singer can’t quite shake. The song grows into a stomping electro-acoustic thrill ride, its swarming, processed vocal chant “I want it!” recalling another precocious, hyperliterate, synth-loving auteur singer-songwriter – Kate Bush, who insisted “I want it all!” back in 1982 on “Suspended in Gaffa.” Give Lorde credit for wanting it all too – the massive vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade.

Harry Styles: ‘Harry Styles’

Harry Styles: ‘Harry Styles’

Harry Styles, ‘Harry Styles’

We Say: [O]n his superb solo debut, the One Direction heartthrob claims his turf as a true rock & roll prince, a sunshine superman, a cosmic dancer in touch with his introspective acoustic side as well as his glam flash. He avoids the celebrity-guest debutante ball he could have thrown himself – instead, he goes for a intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe. No club-hopping or bottles popping – it’s the after-hours balladry of a 23-year-old star wondering why he spends so much time in lonely hotel rooms staring at his phone. Harry digs so deep into classic California mellow gold, you might suspect his enigmatic new tattoos that say “Jackson” and “Arlo” refer to Browne and Guthrie.

Bob Dylan: ‘Triplicate’

Bob Dylan: ‘Triplicate’

Bob Dylan, ‘Triplicate’

We Say: Bob Dylan’s third foray into songs previously recorded by Frank Sinatra isn’t only the largest set of new recordings he’s ever released (three CDs, 30 songs), it’s also majestic in its own right. Dylan moves through this area – the region of Sinatra, and also of standards songwriters like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein – as if it’s territory for him to chart and command. 

Ed Sheeran: ‘Divide’

Ed Sheeran: ‘Divide’

Ed Sheeran: ‘÷’

We Say: On ÷, his first album since 2014’s X, Sheeran doubles down on the blend of hip-hop bravado and everyday-bloke songwriting that helped him break out at the turn of the decade.The first chart-topper from ÷, the feather-light “Shape of You,” might have hinted at a different direction; it’s a beat-heavy, body-focused track that Sheeran used as a Grammy showcase for his impressive collection of loop pedals. But for the most part, ÷ puts Sheeran and his guitar center stage. 

Halsey, Halsey

Halsey, Halsey

Halsey, ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’

We Say: Halsey shows off all her wild musical ambitions on Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, a bold second album that consolidates all the strengths of her 2015 debut Badlands. It’s her sprawling science-fiction breakup tale, indulging her taste for wide-screen melodrama – she begins the album by reciting the prologue from Romeo and Juliet, introducing a tale of star-crossed lovers trying to break free from the fatal loins of their families. (Halsey even has a line from Romeo and Juliet inked on her arm: “These violent delights have violent ends.”) But of course, in her hands, it turns into the story of a restless young pop star who jets around the world, leaving shattered hearts in her wake, yet still can’t find true love, admitting, “I have spent too many nights on dirty bathroom floors.”

Sleater-Kinney: ‘Live In Paris’

Sleater-Kinney: ‘Live In Paris’

Future, ‘Hndrxx’

We Say: Hndrxx, his sixth album, arrives a week after his fifth, Future, an hour-plus collection of menacing thug raps that promptly shot to Number One on the Billboard charts upon release. Clearly, Future doesn’t need to sing urban pop love tunes for mass appeal anymore. Still, the warmth he displays on Hndrxx is striking. … A digital display of computerized delights from over a dozen producers, including Southside, K-Major and Jake One (the mattress-thumping bass drums on “Lookin Exotic”) and DJ Mustard (the Guy-inspired R&B thrust of “Damage”) underscores Hndrxx as a late-night erotic dream.

Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volume 1’

Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volume 1’

Chris Stapleton: ‘From a Room: Volume 1’

We Say: He may appear to be a thick-bearded Seventies outlaw-country throwback, but make no mistake: Chris Stapleton is a soul singer, with a preternaturally creaky voice that can turn wizened or brawny, full of pained howls and distended vowels. … Arrangements – for guitar, bass and drums, with touches of steel guitar and harmonica – are spare and lean. Songs smolder rather than blaze, amble instead of bolt, and generally keep the volume reined in. Even “Second One to Know,” a fierce rocker with rhythm guitar that attacks like John Henry’s hammer, still leaves space for Stapleton’s vocals to match it, blow for blow.

Ornette Coleman: ‘Celebrate Ornette’

Ornette Coleman: ‘Celebrate Ornette’

Ornette Coleman, ‘Celebrate Ornette’

We Say: [T]he jazz world gathered uptown to celebrate Coleman, who passed away on June 11th, 2015, at 85 of cardiac arrest. His memorial service, on June 20th at Riverside Church, was an epic procession of memories, praise and music including solo farewells from two veteran improvisers, pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. … Coleman’s service was filmed and recorded with care, and the music made that day is shared, in full, in an appropriately monumental release, Celebrate Ornette. Produced by [Coleman’s son] Denardo and issued by his label, Song X Records, the set – in a five-disc CD/DVD package and a deluxe box with those discs, four vinyl albums and an LP-size book – also contains a June 2014 tribute concert, also called “Celebrate Ornette,” staged at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn. That show included Coleman’s last public performance, in a night of homage to his iconic works and creative evolution by peers, sidemen and devotees. Among them: guitarists James Blood Ulmer, Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Nels Cline; saxophonists Henry Threadgill and John Zorn; the Patti Smith Group; and bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Run The Jewels: ‘Run The Jewels 3’

Run The Jewels: ‘Run The Jewels 3’

Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 3’

We Say: Run the Jewels 2 was the rare sequel that topped the original, as the skull-busting tag team of Atlanta street intellectual Killer Mike and Brooklyn indie-rap veteran El-P synchronized their punches with the aggro precision of a brilliantly choreographed superhero fight sequence. The third installment, which dropped digitally weeks ahead of schedule on Christmas Eve, thrums with similar urgency, but a lot’s changed since 2014. Mike spent the summer bro’ing down with Bernie Sanders, moonlighting as a CNN talking head, and his no-nonsense anti-racism is increasingly the language of black activism. Meanwhile, El-P’s cyberpunk-tinged premonitions of dystopia sound more like straight-up journalism every day.

Willie Nelson: ‘God’s Problem Child’

Willie Nelson: ‘God’s Problem Child’

Willie Nelson, ‘God’s Problem Child’

We Say: On his new album, the 83-year-old singer probes his own mortality and wrestles with death head-on for the first time on record. … Set to longtime producer Buddy Cannon’s sparse, elegant country arrangements, these songs are brimming with bleak prophecy and spiritual acceptance, as Nelson ponders his eternal home (“Little House on the Hill”), everlasting compassion (“True Love”), and his fallen comrade Merle Haggard (“He Won’t Ever Be Gone”).

Roger Waters, 'Is This the Life We Really Want'

Roger Waters, 'Is This the Life We Really Want'

Roger Waters, ‘Is This the Life We Really Want?’

We Say: “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains/Picture a leader with no fucking brains,” snarls Roger Waters near the start of his first proper rock LP in nearly 25 years, unsubtle as a hammer between the eyes. But the grim charm of this set, a 12-track dystopian concept LP that makes The Wall read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, is precisely his emeritus off-the-leash ranting, a fitting response to the stench and stupidity of our present moment.

Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie, 'Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie'

Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie, 'Lindsay Buckingham/Christine McVie'

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, ‘Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie’

We Say: Well, here’s an album nobody thought would happen – the first-ever collabo from Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. It’s full of surprises, considering we’ve all spent years already listening in on both their private worlds. But these two Fleetwood Mac legends have their own kinky chemistry. When McVie jumped back in the game for the Mac’s last tour, the songbird regained her hunger to write. And Buckingham remains one of the all-time great rock & roll crackpots, from his obsessively precise guitar to his seething vocals. They bring out something impressively nasty in each other, trading off songs in the mode of 1982’s Mirage – California sunshine on the surface, but with a heart of darkness.

Various Artists: ‘Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings

Various Artists: ‘Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings

Various Artists, ‘Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings’

We Say: Recorded live in July 2015, this concert LP gathers Jennings’ family and friends with all-star acolytes for the rarest of things: a tribute album that almost never flags, with performances that approach or match the originals. Jennings was both interpreter and writer, and when he claimed a song, he owned it. But the gender flips here are illuminating: Kacey Musgraves teases the pathos from “The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You),” from Waylon & Willie; Alison Krauss reprises her heavenly cover of “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” Jennings’ running buddies shine, among them Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, of course, and Kris Kristofferson, whose ravaged “I Do Believe” – Jennings’ masterpiece from their Highwaymen days – is a tear-jerker. 

Paramore: ‘After Laughter’

Paramore: ‘After Laughter’

Paramore, ‘After Laughter’

We Say: What “pop” can be in 2017 is open to question, and on After Laughter Paramore thankfully decides to junk large chunks of the concept as it’s currently practiced. (“I can’t imagine getting up there and playing a Max Martin song – at that point we might as well just stop,” guitarist Taylor York told The New York Times in April, shortly after the album was announced.) Instead, they embrace “pop” as a musical vibe, with a record that’s so sunshine-bright it gives off a glare at times, rooted in fleet basslines and beats made for open-road drives and solo bedroom dance parties. … But while the surfaces of After Laughter might glint, Hayley Williams’ lyrics evince a weariness that makes that brightness seem garishly empty.

Migos, Culture

Migos, Culture

Migos, ‘Culture’

We Say: Migos’ second LP doesn’t break from the Ramones-like consistency of the onslaught of mixtapes they’ve released during the past six years, or their official 2015 debut, Yung Rich Nation. The beats are booming, the flows still rattle off like Tommy Guns and there’s dreams about swimming in a pool full of cash. If Migos are indeed the new Beatles, Culture could be any of their pre–Rubber Soul albums: A taut, infectious, reliable, no-bullshit collection of 12 songs, almost all of which could be singles. 

Juanes, Mis Planes Son Amarte

Juanes, Mis Planes Son Amarte

Juanes, ‘Mis Planes Son Amarte’

Mis Planes Son Amarte – Juanes’ first studio release in three years and reportedly the first “visual album” by a Latin artist – rewards traditional immersion, taken in full. Made with the Puerto Rican director Kacho Lopez and starring Juanes as a love-struck archaeologist caught in a loop of astronaut flashbacks and earthly, emotional commitments, the hour-long live-action production (with an animated coda) is sleek, earnest and effective in the narrative staging of Juanes’ 12 new songs. It is the blues of loneliness with the funk of desire and tripping-rock vibrations in a stark deep-soul music – Juanes channeling the prime solo George Michael and Seventies records by Donny Hathaway while facing forward with self-assurance. 

Feist, Pleasure

Feist, Pleasure

Feist, ‘Pleasure’

We Say: Pleasure, her first LP in six years, trades the sweater-wearing kitchen-jam vibe of her breakthrough The Reminder for a stark intimacy that can suggest Kate & Anna McGarrigle if they’d been big fans of the Young Marble Giants’ post-punk bedroom mumblings or PJ Harvey’s blues-wrath epistle To Bring You My Love. “It’s my pleasure and your pleasure,” Feist sings, her voice low, raw-nerved and right in your ear against dank, stressed-out guitar roil.