What a glorious year for music – as opposed to, well, a few other things. In a rancid year, these albums were something to celebrate, music worth passing along and making noise about. These were my 20 favorites – too many greats to cut it down to a mere top 10. Musically, they’re all over the map: pop thrills, rock & roll animals, hip-hop ragers, soul survivors. But these albums kept me connected to the world, kept me excited for tomorrow, kept me feeling fascination, kept me moving on up.
Music, the bright spot in this medieval colonoscopy of a year. All the albums below are relics of joy that got felt and passions that got expressed in 2017, but nobody made those emotions ring out as loud as Kendrick. His masterwork feels both intensely private and brashly public, as K-Dot broods over sex, money, murder, family, all the bad blood in his DNA and America’s. Damn. is his most anomalously linear album, not to mention his hardest, not to mention his funniest, as in “Humble” when the piano goes boom and the ass meets the stretch marks. To my ears, it’s his best. At least until the next one.
This is the fifth straight time I’ve gone into a new Swift album thinking “I hope she makes the exact same record she made last time” and the fifth time I’ve come away thinking “I’m glad she wasn’t taking advice from nimrods like me.” Here she brings the same level of obsessive detail to mundane adult romance she used to bring to maple latte crushes, without losing her fundamental weirdness, which she’s stuck with (fortunately). I love how she spends most of the album trying to act jaded and chill, then finally gives up and jumps back into Old Tay hard enough to snap an ankle. I love how the long-buried Southern Accent Tay suddenly runs back to the phone for that one crazed “until I switched to the otherrrr side! To the otherrrr si-yi-yide!” I love how she says “therein.” I even love how the one ghastly fiasco is the big statement she probably worked hardest on. Let’s face it, all the Taylors want the mic all the damn time, and Reputation makes me grateful to have them all.
What a revelation to see Styles live the same week as Paul McCartney – a tutorial on the connection between joy and brilliance. So is this album. The songs are built to last, standing up to months of ridiculously heavy listening. The only rock star who can come on like Macca and Mick at the same time. The only rock star who could earn all six minutes of “Sign of the Times.” The only rock star using his hard-won artistic freedom to craft the kind of hilariously anti-commercial old-school personal statement where every song counts, making big guitar moves everybody else this year was too timid to try. The only rock star who thinks cigarettes in New York are “cheap.” The only rock star.
My new life coach SZA is right about everything, and her spirit-in-the-dark soliloquies on Ctrl really open up the sluices – why would she ever want to be a “Normal Girl,” much less a “Supermodel,” when all any of us want is to be SZA? “Drew Barrymore” gets me feeling some kind of way, while the Eighties synth-pop detour “Prom” gets me feeling every kind of way. And when she testifies about vaginal metaphysics in “Doves in the Wind,” she makes even Kendrick sound a little flustered in her presence.
An electro confessional, as Lorde whispers her secrets and the city sings them back to her. As someone who didn’t get anything at all about Lorde’s debut, the title of which I respectfully decline to type, I didn’t see Melodrama coming until “Green Light” clobbered me, with that disco-gospel piano broadcasting the boom-boom-boom in her heart. Lorde isn’t coy about flaunting how new she is to the adulthood thing. (Ordering different drinks at the same bar is … not so unusual, honestly.) But the “I want it, I want it” rush that pervades the album is the excitement of a girl who just noticed the entire world under her feet is a light-up dance floor.
Boston guitar poet Ellen Kempner has her own flair for jagged melodies – mostly about the perils of turning 23. Especially “Feeling Fruit,” where she forces herself out to the grocery store after a lost month of post-heartbreak hibernation and frozen dinners. It’s the most resonant song you’ll ever hear about fondling oranges and melons in the produce aisle.
These Detroit punk boys are on a creative roll, and their strangely slept-on fourth album is their toughest yet, all guitar turmoil and bizarro noir humor. Joe Casey sings like a floor muttering at another floor – as Kendrick might say, he’s been diagnosed with real douchebag conditions. Yet he sounds so doomy in “Corpses in Regalia,” you’re grateful when the guitar drowns him out. Best line: “Call me Heraclitus the Obscure/Constantly weeping because the river doesn’t move/It doesn’t flow.”
In the years I’ve been a Katie Crutchfield fan, I always thought there was something intrinsically melancholy about her indie-pop tunes, but damn, the joy in this music, not a moment of it forced, the way “I went out in the storm and I’m never turning back” dissolves into falsetto oooos and delirious guitar frills. From “Silver” to “8-Ball,” her melodic finesse glistens like never before. (If you play this album back to back with Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage, you really hear how much Lindsey Buckingham has seeped into her guitar, and Lindsey never did anyone’s guitar anything but good.) The clincher: “Sparks Fly,” with a vocal assist from her twin sister Alison Crutchfield, whose Tourist in This Town is on the same level.
With his mask off, Future Hendrix stands revealed as a man who does way too many drugs and gets way too in his feelings on the strip-club floor. Who saw that coming? He gets “super astronomical” as he turns into Extravagant Hendrix and burns the midnight lamp. But he finds ATLien romance in “Neva Missa Lost” and “Lookin Exotic.” Best personal-growth goal: “I try my best to put my ego first.” Best boast: “I invented doors.”
Nobody’s written as many great rock & roll songs in this century as Craig Finn, mostly with the Hold Steady. (Who just dropped the superb “Entitlement Crew.”) Yet this solo album is his strongest since the Hold Steady’s 2008 Stay Positive, hard-scrabble tales of Midwestern losers, junkies, amateur crooks, dealers at the car wash, birds trapped in the airport, teenagers who cheer when you get sick on the bus. “God In Chicago” is the centerpiece, but “Be Honest” almost counts as a love song: “Our safe word is still ‘stop it’/And our style is self-involved/And I can’t guarantee I’ll pick up every time you call.”
Kelela goes for space-oddity avant-soul on her stunner of a debut – “Frontline” nails the blunted psychedelic vibe of Nineties R&B, when Aaliyah, Missy and Timbaland were bending their gold minds and TLC were taking the Southern route. She holds it all together, right down to the futuristic rapture of “Blue Light.”
In a year of extremes, Adult Mom’s Stephanie Knipe brought totally loving love songs and truly hateful hate songs, like a home-made lo-fi cassette version of the SZA album. Adult Mom shows off the acerbic wit that turned heads on tapes like Sometimes Bad Happens and Momentary Lapse of Happily. Nine songs in 26 minutes, peaking with “Same,” where Knipe strums a hate letter to somebody barely even worth the time it took to write the song.
The most emotionally undemanding album on this list – three Vancouver women bashing out scruffy surf-guitar tunes, an album you can spin all day, with an almost automatic “press play, feel lifted” effect. Every song makes me think “right, I love this one” when it comes on. The inexplicably poignant “Mars Attacks,” despite the joke title, might be the first song ever to build on the elegiac nuance of the mid-period B-52s circa Whammy, while “Lost Boys” is a mash note to the ultimate “vampire teenage boyfriend.”
The Pistol Annies cowgirl brings all her sardonic country realness, teaming up with guiding spirits like Wanda Jackson and Guy Clark (as well as her fellow Annies, Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert), yet belting wise-ass outlaw tunes that sound like nobody but her. “I thought I’d change the world with three chords and the truth I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs” – instead, she ends up with low-rent road tales like “Groundswell” and “Motel Bible.”
Indiana producer Jerilynn Patton goes full Aphex in her electronic house of mirrors, each track popping with surprises. Biggest kick: “Holy Child,” where Jlin chops a churched-up singer’s high note of praise into cowbell rattles and air-raid sirens.
Ten years ago in “All My Friends,” James Murphy yelped about rolling up at the rave looking like a dad, but as his Celtic soul brother Morrissey might put it, that joke isn’t funny anymore. The music on American Dream is full of utopian futures that didn’t come true – hey, remember when the world was going to be saved by acid house (“How Do You Sleep?”) or downtown loft-funk (“Change Yr Mind”) or smug Gen X irony (practically everything)? In “Emotional Haircut,” he says, “You’ve got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete/You’ve got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat.” I’ve got a couple more of those numbers than I did a year ago, but also more life-affirming moments; this album gave me a few of them.
The Long Beach gangsta makes his Detroit techno move. “Yeah Right” and “BagBak” warp his rage into such grabbingly weird and undeniable sonics, you have to figure (and hope) this is an album everybody will imitate to death next year.
Michelle Zauner goes for sci-fi New Wave, expanding the introspective tunes she wrote on last year’s Psychopomp into trips like the six-minute “Diving Woman,” where she vanishes under the sea to be alone with her scary self, or the shoegaze doo-wop of “Boyish.” “I can’t get you off my mind/I can’t get you off in general” – could that be 2017’s answer to Lit’s “You make me come/You make me complete/You make me completely miserable”? (Probably not.)
The North Atlanta trap trio hit new heights all year, showing up everywhere from Cardi B’s nails (mazel tov, Offset) to Liam Payne’s solo hit (stay strong, Quavo). “Bad and Boujee” and “Slippery” became signature jams, but Culture hits hardest in “T-shirt,” where they rewind from 2005 to 1995 to 1975 to remember what mama told them.
A year after Leonard Cohen signed off, Randy Newman seems to have drifted into his role as elder Jewish sage, yet another twist in their seemingly opposite yet weirdly linked careers. Like Cohen, Newman never sounded young – he was croaking “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” in the Summer of Love. So he revels in his voice as the old dirty bastard, even when he opens up for the grief of “Wandering Boy.” There’s something inspiring about all the sarcastic bile on Dark Matter – this rich Hollywood piano man finished these songs because he felt they were worth putting out into the world, which means he felt the world was worth the trouble. In 2017, that was a welcome reminder.