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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.

Code Orange, Forever

Code Orange, Forever

Code Orange, ‘Forever’

Pittsburgh quartet Code Orange play juddering, malevolent hardcore, shot through with dissonant groove and macho swagger, but they arrive at a unique sound via unsettling ambient interludes and shrewd doses of melody. Or, as Code Orange drummer/vocalist Jami Morgan told Rolling Stone last year: “When you feel settled in, I want it to just fuck you again.” Latest single and album highlight “Bleeding in the Blur,” sung by guitarist Reba Meyers, finds the band veering convincingly into hook-forward alt-metal and proving in the process that its shock tactics are anything but typical.

Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley, ‘Joan Shelley’

We Say: If Nick Drake and Sandy Denny had had a kid, she may have grown up to be Joan Shelley, a Kentucky folkie whose exquisitely hushed fourth album sounds like a collection of the world’s most downcast sea shanties. As guitars gently curl and coil around her, Shelley recalls romantic expectations and disappointments in terse, almost haiku-style verse (“I’ve seen the sun rise over you/Now I watch it setting down”), and only the slightest uptick in the beat signifies she’s in love. 

Jay Som, Everybody Works

Jay Som, Everybody Works

Jay Som, ‘Everybody Works’

Like Liz Phair by way of Brian Eno, 22-year-old Oakland songwriter Melina Duterte is the rare lo-fi rocker who prizes sonic pleasure as much as confessional immediacy. Her second album ranges from garage-rock to dream-pop to neon-Eighties art-cheese, awash in the newness of sound just as the Jay Som seems gobsmacked by the experience of creation itself: “Once I was very brave/I stepped on the stage/Took my breath away,” she sings on “(BedHead).” The highlight is “Bus Song,” which finds private world reinvention in the everyday, just as this music builds something gingerly majestic out of muted bedroom rumination.

Girlpool, Powerplant

Girlpool, Powerplant

Girlpool, ‘Powerplant’

This lo-fi punk duo’s 2015 full-length debut Before the World Was Big was a quietly raging treasure. Here, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad turn up the guitars without losing a shred of intimacy, nailing Johnny Marr jangle swirls on “Kiss and Burn” and shouting out an anthem on “123.” At the heart of their songs is a caustic wit that comes through in lines like “I faked global warming just to get next to you” or “I’ve had crumbs in a bag in my pocket all week.” And when their small, searching voices harmonize they make those line ring out like universal truths.    

Jlin, Black Origami

Jlin, Black Origami

Jlin, ‘Black Origami’

The most talked-about electronic album of the year is rooted in the decades-percolating rhythmic traditions of footwork ­– a high-octane, disorientingly polyrhythmic dance music beloved by Chicago kids who move in frenzied blurs. But the second album from Gary, Indiana producer Jlin explodes footwork’s textural palette, making a pointillist fricassee of horror movie tension, wheedling noise, thumb piano buzz, digital woodwinds and other sounds that live in the uncanny, Cronenberg-ian dream world between the real and the synthetic. Whereas most footwork relies on repeated samples of movie dialogue and rapper boasts, Jlin inhabits a mystery land of disembodied syllables, flecks of sound and the occasional trumpeting elephant.

Aimee Mann, Mental Illness

Aimee Mann, Mental Illness

Aimee Mann, ‘Mental Illness’

After a side project with activist-punk auteur Ted Leo that recalled her days as a bass-playing rock & roll bard with ‘Til Tuesday, Mann returns to one-woman singer-songcrafting in an unusually hushed mode. But while the arrangements, most for acoustic guitar and strings, favor the genteel, her poesy is brutal as ever, an exquisitely harmonized catalogue of human failings whose melodic sweetness here only magnifies the pathos. This LP doesn’t include her memorable 2016 song about Donald Trump’s mental illness. But that’s probably for the best; these characters, for all their shortcomings, are actually sympathetic, and the songs as timeless as any she’s written. 

Diet Cig: ‘Swear I’m Good At This’

Diet Cig: ‘Swear I’m Good At This’

Diet Cig, ‘Swear I’m Good at This’

We Say: The New York boy/girl duo specialize in lovesick fuzz-pop on their fantastic debut album Swear I’m Good at This. Guitar-toting firecracker Alex Luciano keeps tripping over her own reluctant sentimental streak in these sardonic modern-love vignettes – as she sings, “It’s hard to be punk while wearing a skirt.” Even when her melodies get sugary, Luciano never wusses out as she contemplates the anxieties of youth, the terror of adulthood and the ever-astonishing lameness of the male. 

Sleaford Mods: ‘English Tapas’

Sleaford Mods: ‘English Tapas’

Sleaford Mods, ‘English Tapas’

We Say: Sing-bark-rapping over post-punk groove loops, the Sleaford Mods are two forty-somethings who’ve watched their generation’s disenfranchisement for awhile – see trackmeister Andrew Fearn’s signature “STILL HATE THATCHER” T-shirt. They’re basically a Sex Pistols for the new corporatocracy. With a rapid-fire East Midlands brogue that’ll have most Yanks Googling every third line, Williamson hurls verses against beats like pint glasses against a pub wall, mirroring homeground redneck culture without apology or pandering – Nashville songwriters could learn plenty here. 

Charly Bliss, Guppy

Charly Bliss, Guppy

Charly Bliss, ‘Guppy’

How many young guitar bands have been doing the early-Nineties alt-rock thing lately? Too many to count. How many do it as well these guys? Not many. Sure, singer-guitarist Eva Hendricks’ helium-squeak voice can suggest Kim Deal by way of Elmo but her small, ragged pip merges perfectly well with the zippy Hole-Veruca Salt-That Dog guitar charge of songs like “Glitter,” “Ruby” and “Percolator.” Not since Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think… has anyone reimagined 120 Minutes-rock in their own image so efficiently.

Low Cut Connie, ‘Dirty Pictures (Part 1)’

We Say: The Connies traveled to Memphis to record at Ardent Studios, where the Replacements and Big Star made great records, and their mix of Seventies Stones (but dirtier), the New York Dolls (but tighter) and Jerry Lee Lewis (but Westerberg-ier) comes with an extra sense of bare-knuckled grit and sonic thwump to fight against the darkness. “Revolution Rock & Roll” is a slamming gospel-tinged get-woke anthem, while the strikingly spare piano ballad “Montreal” evokes Big Star’s “Thirteen” and Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and turns on the lines “I gave conjunctivitis to a girl in a bar/I gave conjunctivitis like a star.” 

Blanck Mass, ‘World Eater’

If Videodrome was a rock band? Benjamin Power of Fuck Buttons has established himself as a mutant techno power-drone sound-garbler adept at the same apocalyptic digital taffy-pulling as Oneohtrix Point Never, Arca and Ben Frost (if only to slightly less acclaim). His third and best LP as Blanck Mass adds brighter melody and harder beats to his hissing, engulfing cyber-scuzz, turning would-be noise workouts into Jane’s Addiction style arena-rattlers (“Rhesus Negative”), broken glam (“The Rat”) or alien trap-R&B (“Hive Mind”).

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