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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.

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.

Father John Misty: ‘Pure Comedy’

Father John Misty: ‘Pure Comedy’

Father John Misty, ‘Pure Comedy’

We Say: As many of us navigate between headline-driven panic attacks and insomniac socialmedia tantrums, Pure Comedy distills terabytes-worth of doomsaying Facebook rants into a 75-minute comic-existential opus that functions like a despair inoculation. The humor is strictly gallows, even when it seems quipped. … What makes this more than glib is a golden-era songwriting craft evidently shaped by [Josh] Tillman’s tenure with Fleet Foxes, and his unsparing self-examination.

Fleet Foxes, 'Crack-Up'

Fleet Foxes, 'Crack-Up'

Fleet Foxes, ‘Crack-Up’

We Say: The folk-rock band’s long-awaited latest sort of feels like Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield collage-dream opus “Broken Arrow” if it lasted a whole album. Their sound is still rooted in the lush, beardly harmonies and sky-bound strumming that made their first two LPs coffee-shop staples. But they’ve upped their prog ambitions – tracks wash together, song titles abound with opaque punctuation, and the sweeping melodies often wander into moody places, away from the safety of the campfire.

Dirty Projectors: ‘Dirty Projectors’

Dirty Projectors: ‘Dirty Projectors’

Dirty Projectors, ‘Dirty Projectors’

We Say: The DPs’ self-titled seventh LP is filled with freaky cyber-crooning, outrageous beats, startling sample flips and tasty guitar heroics; think 808s & Heartbreak: The Next Generation. To be sure, it’s a breakup record – presumably involving [leader David] Longstreth’s relationship with ex-Projector Amber Coffman. The sense of separation is palpable. Once defined by talented female singers (Coffman foremost), the band is down to one lonely dude crooning into a digital hall of mirrors. “Now I’m listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway, riding fast,” Longstreth reflects on “Up in Hudson,” envisioning an ex “out in Echo Park blasting Tupac, drinkin’ a fifth for my ass.”

Mastodon, Emperor of Sand

Mastodon, Emperor of Sand

Mastodon, ‘Emperor of Sand’

We Say: [A] lofty concept piece about a man wandering a desert with a curse over his head set to swirling, frenetic guitars and gut-rumbling drums. The LP is their most ambitious outing since 2009’s proggy Crack the Skye – following two relatively pared-down LPs – and at its best (the radio-ready pop-rocker “Show Yourself,” the triumphal outro of “Ancient Kingdom,” the Zappa-inspired synthesizer-and-bells duet midway through “Clandestiny”) it’s a glorious metal miasma.

SZA, ‘Ctrl’

The first major-label full-length from Top Dog Entertainment’s SZA (you may remember her from Rihanna’s “Consideration” and collaborations with Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock) is full of hiccuping beats and glitched-out synths. The presence at its center projects immense strength even (and perhaps especially) when she’s expressing self-doubt, as on the sun-dappled “Drew Barrymore.” SZA has a strong, clear alto that fuels the fire of songs like the stuttering move-along command “Broken Clocks,” the filthy and feisty lady-power manifesto “Doves in the Wind” and the vitriolic kiss-off “Supermodel.” It’s no surprise that she more than holds her own amidst big-name guests like Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott. Power can come from radical honesty, too. 

Valerie June, The Order of Time

Valerie June, The Order of Time

Valerie June, ‘The Order of Time’

We Say: Her second LP is louder and more confident than her beguiling debut, steeped deep in electric blues and old-time folk, gilded in country twang and gospel yearning, with a hypnotically gnomish voice that suggests a brawnier Joanna Newsom. Near-perfect front to back, its politics are subtle and sly, mostly implicit and matter-of-fact, transmitted through sketches of lovers and other strugglers. The emblematic song is “Got Soul,” which June croons over Stax/Volt horns, banjo and bluegrass fiddle, celebrating cultural intersection as it’s lived, and defining America’s sustaining greatness in the process. 

Japandroids: ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’

Japandroids: ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’

Japandroids, ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’

We Say: Even when they were screaming Vancouver scrappers recording songs like “Darkness at the Edge of Gastown,” you knew there was a classic rock act at the punk heart of Japandroids. On their third LP, that band is out of the closet. “It got me all fired up, to go far away/And make some ears ring from the sound of my singing, baby!” hollers Brian King on the title track. The song’s about a kid leaving behind his small-ass town for big-ass dreams, and when the voices harmonize on the “whoa-oh!”s, thick with top-shelf reverb, you hear every cheeseball Eighties pop-metal chorus chant in history distilled and vindicated. It’s awesome.