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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.

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.

Sampha: ‘Process’

Sampha: ‘Process’

Sampha, ‘Process’

We Say: The breathy voice of London singer/songwriter Sampha Sisay, 27, is a remarkable instrument: indelibly evanescent, fragile yet powerful across his entire range. He’s hook man to pop’s most advanced megastars – see Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo,” Frank Ocean’s “Alabama,” Drake’s “Too Much” – but his debut LP proves him their peer.

Little Steven, ‘Soulfire’

We Say: Van Zandt is, for the first time in many years, focused on his lapsed solo career. … Thanks in part to his proximity to Springsteen and his habit of giving away some of his best songs to other artists (Southside Johnny, Gary U.S. Bonds and, recently, Darlene Love), Van Zandt is among the most underrated songwriters of the rock era. … Soulfire is Van Zandt’s first album since [1982’s] Men Without Women to embrace his signature style … where Stax-Volt horn-section blasts collide with power chords and Motown hooks.

Kehlani, SweetSexySavage

Kehlani, SweetSexySavage

Kehlani, ‘SweetSexySavage’

On SweetSexySavage, 22-year-old Kehlani leads the charge for gritty, brazen young women in pop. Much too fierce a personality to share the limelight – especially with her exes – she harnesses the range of a whole Nineties girl group in one voice. In “Crzy” she’s the worldly, smoky-voiced teen who runs the school; in “Not Used to It” she’s the embattled Madonna Ciccone of Oakland, awaiting a love that’s worth a sacrifice.

Jidenna, ‘The Chief’

We Say: “Once they think they figure it out with ‘Classic Man’ – no, brother,” he says. “That ain’t all of me! … That’s just me in a suit. I knew I had a width and a depth that was just waiting to go out.” … In February, he finally dropped The Chief. … Standouts range from the Nineties-style banger “Long Live the Chief” – which went is-that-really-the-“Classic Man”-dude? viral last year after Jidenna performed it on an episode of Netflix’s Luke Cage – to the Magic City–ready “The Let Out” (with Quavo of Migos), all the way to the gorgeous single “Bambi” (it’s Sam Cooke meets the Wailers with trap high-hats).

Spoon: ‘Hot Thoughts’

Spoon: ‘Hot Thoughts’

Spoon, ‘Hot Thoughts’

We Say: Nearly 25 years in, [Britt Daniel’s] group has made maybe their best record yet – a line that been repeated, accurately enough, with most every record they’ve made. With Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann on board, the set is as lushly trippy as it is rhythmically hyped, apropos a band named for a song by psychedelic Seventies beat scientists Can. 

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, ‘The Nashville Sound’

We Say: The Nashville Sound follows in the wake of Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough Southeastern and its 2015 follow-up Something More Than Free, albums that introduced the former Drive-By Truckers third-man to a larger audience with their tales of drunken demons and fresh beginnings. But after spending the last five years reckoning with past darkness, Isbell, 38, shifts his gaze outward. He pledges everlasting faith to his wife on the tearjerker “If We Were Vampires,” offers parental advice on the backyard bluegrass of “Something to Love,” and delivers an urgent warning to the white male demographic, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump, on “White Man’s World.” 

New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions

New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions

New Pornographers, ‘Whiteout Conditions’

New Pornographers leader Carl Newman has described their latest LP as “bubblegum Krautrock.” Indeed, the stacked melodies and swirly keyboards of the title track and “This Is the World of the Theater” can suggest ELO if they’d recorded an album under the influence of Neu! Or Can. Listen deep and you’ll realize you’re blissing out to songs about anxiety and Trump depression. But the power-pop grandeur they make in the face of darkness makes this not just a fun time, but an inspiring one too. 

Colter Wall, Colter Wall

Colter Wall, Colter Wall

Colter Wall, ‘Colter Wall’

It’s a boom time for inspired renegade country acts, but this twentysomething from Saskatchewan is something else. Namechecking Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9” and a laundry list of abusable substances in a boomy baritone pitched between Johnny Cash and a smoke-cured Kris Kristofferson, he unspools vivid story-songs about “loners and no-account stoners,” guided by little more than foot-stomp percussion and Travis-picked acoustic guitar. Producer Dave Cobb shows his mastery by mostly staying out of the path of this talented freight train.

Songhoy Blues, Resistance

Songhoy Blues, Resistance

Songhoy Blues, ‘Résistance’

On their second LP, this fire-breathing Malian guitar band becomes a stylistic hall of mirrors. “Voter” detonates a West African strut with garage-rock combustion; “Hometown” is a fiddle-spiced hoedown; “Bamako” is Afro-funk with swarming William Onyeabor synths and charging Earth, Wind and Fire horns. The most startling moment, though, is in “Sahara,” a Tuareg-style desert blues in which Iggy Pop is suddenly growling about the emptiness of Western culture. “Listen, you can hear/The music of the spheres!” he insists, before stepping aside and letting the guitars shred. It’s raw power, indeed. 

Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator

Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator

Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘The Navigator’

We Say: “Now all the politicians/They just squawk their mouths/They say, ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out” chants [Alynda] Segarra, a Bronx-bred Puerto Rican who doubles down on the ambition of her group’s debut and its feminist murder-ballad-answer-song “The Body Electric” with The Navigator – a coming-of-age concept LP about a young woman that suggests Patti Smith as a barrio poet. Its definition of folk tradition is broad. “Hungry Ghost” lays Jim Morrison love-as-funeral-pyre imagery against a bassline that might’ve wandered off the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds. “Rican Beach” recalls the cratedigger conga-funk of Seventies New York City legends the Ghetto Brothers. “Palante” invokes the rallying cry of the Young Lords – the Black Panthers’ Latinx analogues – in an anthem echoing the Band as much as the Fania All-Stars. This is proudly intersectional folk music.

Residente, ‘Residente’

No longer the bad boy at the helm of Puerto Rican hip-hop group Calle 13, Residente goes it alone in his self-titled debut. The album was conceived after the rapper took a DNA test, revealing a genetic makeup that spanned 10 different countries. Artists from each of the 10 countries contribute to his vision of a borderless, global society – resulting in one eccentric sonic palette, featuring the talents of French alt-pop darling SoKo, Tuareg guitarist Bombino, Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and many others. 

Khalid, American Teen

Khalid, American Teen

Khalid, ‘American Teen’

The sound of the world opening up wide, one Uber ride and lovelorn text at a time. “I don’t want to fall in love off of subtweets,” Khalid sings in his breakthrough, “Location,” before begging for a personal connection to make the digital flesh. At 19, Khalid is one of the the most original voices in both R&B and pop, creating a late-night music full of warmth and flickering light. In songs like “Young Dumb and Broke” and “8Teen,” he skips trap fantasies to talk about living with your parents and the ups and downs of millennial romance, where every love and loss is stored on a phone for future reference.

Les Amazones Afrique, Republique Amazone

Les Amazones Afrique, Republique Amazone

Les Amazones d’Afrique, ‘République Amazone’

We Say: [A] West African supergroup whose République Amazone is deep ancient-to-the-future pop. Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou & Mariam) and Mamani Keita helped conceive the project in Bamako, recruiting countrywomen Kandia Kouyaté, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly and Mouneissa Tandina along with Gabon’s Pamela Badjogo, Benin-to-Brooklyn émigré Angelique Kidjo, and Lagos–to–Hamburg émigré Nneka. Intent on advancing gender equality in Africa and supporting the Panzi Foundation, which works with victims of sexual violence, the 10-woman crew hired Liam “Doctor L” Farrell, who imprinted Mbongwana Star’s fantastic 2015 debut with dub-distortion flavor à la Congolese beat pioneers (and Björk tourmates) Konono No. 1. He brings similar Congotronic sonics here: electro-kalimba, flanged talking-drum tones galloping around rapid-fire handclaps and hand-drum beats, plus layers of vocal processing and some ripping electric guitar. 

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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