My Top 50 Albums of 2017

In 2017, I spent more time making music and less time listening to music than I have in most other years, but sitting down and checking out some new releases still felt nourishing and exciting and, at times, frustrating. But I think of this as a year where very few of my favorite artists disappointed, that most of the people I was really counting on for a good record delivered it, while others that weren't on my mind at all surprised me. Here's a Spotify playlist with a favorite track from each of these albums, it's not entirely finished as of this writing but will probably be by the time you read this. 

1. Tove Lo - Blue Lips (Lady Wood Phase II)
My album of the year only came out a month ago, and it's the sequel to an album I found so unremarkable that it didn't even make this list last year. But from the first time I heard Tove Lo sing "I'm fully charged, nipples are hard, ready to go" over a melody played on a pitch-shifted sample dog barking on "Disco Tits," I knew this record was going to be something special. At any given time over the last few years, Tove Lo has fought to stand out of a pack of young European singers climbing the U.S. charts, and it was mainly her Tesfayesque penchant for dark odes to sex, drugs, and depression that separated Tove Lo from the Bebe Rexhas and Zara Larssons. On two songs on Blue Lips, "9th of October" and "ShiverinGold," Tove Lo sings some opening lines about her usual subject matter and then shrugs off the "cliches." But it's the twitchy, cavernous production that lends the whole record an off kilter ambiance that matches Tove Lo's oddly seductive voice and brooding, debauched songs and surprisingly affecting moments of plainspoken vulnerability. 

2. Rapsody - Laila's Wisdom
Roc Nation kind of functions as rap's most low-energy prestige label, where Jay-Z and J. Cole put up binumbers and everyone else would kill for half of Memphis Bleek's late '90s buzz. 2017 had their busiest release schedule to date, but their 5 albums included two Will Smith offspring and Vic Mensa's anticlimactic bid for stardom. Amongst it all, Rapsody dropped my favorite album with the lowest profile, full of lush soulful tracks that Rapsody's smirking wit consistently keeps from floating off into ethereal prog rap. 

3. Future HNDRXX
In the half decade since songs like "Turn Off The Lights" and "Loveeeeeee Song" made Future into trap's unlikely king of ballads, I held out hope that he'd eventually return to that sound and do a whole R&B-tinged project. And as he released one hard-edged mixtape after another, I began to lose hope, especially in February when he released FUTURE. But a week later, he shocked the world with backtoback albums, and HNDRXX was the one I'd been waiting for. The album is bookended by two of the most emotionally destructive songs in a career full of relationship dysfunction, "My Collection" and "Sorry," but in between he just packs in jam after jam, with unexpected textures like the sampled Guy harmonies on "Damage." 

4. Aimee Mann - Mental Illness
Mental illness, diagnosed or otherwise, is such a pervasive subtext of popular music and the lives of many the people who make it, that Mental Illness feels a little risky as an album title. But bluntly confronting what others might talk around has always been a strength of Aimee Mann's songwriting, and "Stuck In The Past" and "Patient Zero" feel like they're prodding at the topic in a smart, sincere way. And this album's melodies have stuck with me more than anything she's done since Bachelor No. 2, although I now suspect I should've been paying her output closer attention in those years between

5. Priests  - Nothing Feels Natural
Many years ago, I interviewed Mike Watt before a show in Washington, D.C., and he said something that's always stuck with me about the symbolic power of playing punk rock in the nation's capitol: "The old 9:30 used to be right by the White House, D. Boon's favorite gig...He thought from there, when we did our spiels and hollered our points of view, that they could hear us, it was the closest we were ever gonna get to the eye at the top of the pyramid." I thought of those words on January 20th, when I worked with a news crew that was covering one of the darkest days in U.S. history, and then took the Metro to the Black Cat to see Priests, D.C. punk's current brightest light, play songs from the righteous full-length debut they'd release a week later. Nothing Feels Natural is in some ways the archetypal midcareer punk album, where the tempos start to vary more and the instrumentation drifts away from guitar/bass/drums, and not every song is as pointedly political as "Pink White House," but it still feels like the perfect record to mark this awful year that I'll remember for the rest of my life. 

6. Meek Mill - Wins & Losses
Meek Mill is one of my favorite rappers of the 2010s, but his first two albums, despite featuring some amazing songs, definitely felt like they lost some of the energy from his mixtapes and didn't entirely communicate his appeal to a larger audience. Wins & Losses sounds like he finally got the recipe right for what a major label Meek album should be. True to the title, the triumphant bangers and the heavy hearted midtempo tracks coexist in perfect balance. The mainstream rapper least likely to sing on a track suddenly developed a more melodic delivery on "1942 Flow" and "Save Me" (a great Meekend Music loosie that was appended to a deluxe rerelease of Wins & Losses)  that feels like a genuine creative breakthrough. And he raps over a beat from The Blueprint and actually does it justice. Free Meek. 

7. 2 Chainz - Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
Over the past decade,"trap music" has been abstracted and sanitized about as much as a genre named after dealing dope can be -- for a couple years there, European EDM producers thought what they were making was 'trap' because they didn't want to call it 'dubstep' anymore. So it feels a little 2 Chainz subtly made a statement with Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. He put the most grim, dilapidated-looking trap house on the cover, and painted it pink. Samples of mid-2000s 'first wave' trap -- T.I., Jeezy, OJ Da Juiceman -- are sprinkled throughout the album, and 2 Chainz, who turned 40 this year, is wise and reflective as often as he is irreverent and ignorant. 

8. Miguel - War & Leisure
Since I tend to publish my year-end lists on here in the last couple weeks of the year, I try to keep my ears open to December releases that all the publications with November deadlines couldn't wait for. And Miguel, one of the greatest vocalists of his generation, came through with another collection of adventurous and passionate soul music, one that balanced the hooks and experimentation a little more shrewdly and excitingly than 2015's hit-and-miss Wildheart

9. Robert Plant - Carry Fire
When Robert Plant released his latest solo album in October, the #1 song on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart was Greta Van Fleet's "Highway Tune," which features a 21-year-old kid from Michigan doing an eerily accurate impression of a young Robert Plant over a Zep-style rocker. It was a reminder that while there will always be musicians trying to recreate what Led Zeppelin did in the '70s, the band's frontman remains one of the more artistically restless classic rock icons still making music 40 years later. Carry Fire isn't entirely divorced from Plant's past -- its heavy-lidded majesty and lush acoustic textures often recall Led Zepplin III -but it also sounds like he's still discovering and taking inspiration from new music, and his gentle sexagenarian whisper on most of the album is a far cry from his trademark rock god wail. 

10. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - Polygondwanaland
The Australian septet King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard released 4 albums in 2017, and I just started to catch on to what they're doing a few months ago, so I haven't even heard all of them, but this is my favorite of the ones I heard, some really staggering musicianship on the several tracks where the time signature deviates from 4/4. 

11. All Them Witches - Sleeping Through The War
Nashville's psych rock quartet All Them Witches are another band I kinda stumbled across this year that I'm really glad I checked out, I needed a roaring rock record like this, alternating between long winded jams and more concise anthems. 

12. Carly Pearce - Every Little Thing
For the second year in a row, my favorite country album is a female singer's major label debut, produced beautifully by Michael Busbee, in demand after his 2016 work with Maren Morris. At a time when both women and ballads face an uphill battle on country radio, Carly Pearce pushed Every Little Thing's heartbreaking title track through, but her album excelled equally at sassy, sexy songs like "Hide The Wine." 

13. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
I might have preferred another album as iconoclastic as To Pimp A Butterfly, but Kendrick needed a blockbuster like DAMN. to cement his status as one of the greats. And the curveballs he threw on previous records allowed him to make a fairly weird, moody and verbose album like DAMN. actually seem like a concession to the pop charts, which is his real achievement. 

14. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory
Kendrick Lamar appeared on Vince Staples's second major label album, but Big Fish Theory feels like confirmation that Staples is not here to follow anyone else's footsteps to superstardom, and would rather have a string of Section 80 moments than swing for a good kid or a DAMN. The production on Big Fish Theory left a lot of people scratching their heads, but the brisk pace and short running time made it an enjoyably unpredictable ride for me. 

15. Paramore - After Laughter
Lots of people love to evoke the garish neon aesthetic of '80s new wave, but the playfully nostalgic homages to the era rarely capture the dark and anxious emotions that drove a lot of that music. So Paramore's 5th album perhaps unintentionally captures the spirit of its sonic inspirations well by tapping into all the very good reasons to be nervous and worn down right now. 

16. Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway
Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens has an incredible voice that it's easy to get lost in. But Freedom Highway mixes civil rights era covers like the title track to the 1965 Staple Singers album of the same name with originals that underline an unmistakable message about how 'topical' folk music might be a little more timeless than people might expect. 

17. Mary J. Blige - Strength Of A Woman
It's a cliche, and kind of a cruel one, to treat Mary J. Blige like a human moodring who gives us her most beautiful and affecting music when she's going through a personal crisis. But you can make of it what you will that her strongest and most resonant album in a decade or two was made during her messy divorce, and that much of the album comments pretty directly on it. But this is not just a bloodletting but a really smart, well sequenced album that shows Mary's full emotional range, with tracks 6 through 9 taking you down further and further into the depths of heartbreak and depression, until one of the most joyous songs Mary has ever sung, "Find The Love," comes bursting in. 

18. Ted Leo - The Hanged Man
From 2000 through 2010, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists were one of indie rock's most consistent purveyors of smart, spirited power pop. And then Ted Leo spent most of this decade laying relatively low, recovering from a series of personal setbacks, and working on this ambitious, cathartic album. The Hanged Man is less like Leo's best hooky, immediate albums like The Tyranny of Distance and Shake the Sheets and more like a combination of two of his less loved records, the ambitiously longwinded Living With the Living and the oddball lo-fi tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists. That is to say, it takes some time for this album to sink in, but it did, particularly with the help of an incredible show last month at the Ottobar where a sleep-deprived Ted Leo passionately sang nearly every song on the album. 

19. Dua Lipa - Dua Lipa
The artistic bar is low for pop singers who got their start covering popular songs on YouTube, but Dua Lipa rose to the occasion with an impressive debut album where she wrote almost every track and sings so impressively that she can hang with Miguel on the duet "Lost In Your Light." And in an album that's frontloaded with the attitude of tracks like "Hotter Than Hell," "Blow Your Mind (Mwah)," and "IDGAF," Dua Lipa impressed me most with its vulnerable moments and with production that seemed a bit less beholden to current trends than a lot of contemporaries. 

20. DJ Quik & Problem - Rosecrans
Last year's Rosecrans EP was such a fun, loose little record in the tradition of DJ Quik and Kurupt's Blaqkout that I'm glad that Quik and Problem kept the party going in the studio and invite some more west coast vets to expand it into a full length with a few new songs. 

21. Us And Us Only - Full Flower
A lot of the Baltimore music that ends up on my year-end lists the last few years have been people I'm friendly with or have played shows with or known to some degree, so you can take those entries with a grain of salt if you wish. But I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't recognize when peers like Us And Us Only make great records that get some well deserved recognition. Kinsey Matthews had an unusual voice and the first time I heard it, I almost thought it worked against the stately midtempo grandeur of a lot of the band's songs, but after a few years it's started to really make sense to me. And Full Flower, true to its name, sounds like a band that had been paying its dues and building a following with shows and EPs for years finally blossoming into what they'd been working towards. It was also, alongside an album I just finished, one of the last albums recorded at the Mobtown Studios building on Charles Street before it closed down, and I was glad that Us And Us Only got to make such a good record there. 

22. Jay-Z - 4:44
My rule of thumb, that every Jay-Z album made before 2004 is better than every Jay-Z album after, has not been disturbed by 4:44. I'm sorry, but no record where he raps off beat the entire time is ever gonna be as enjoyable for me to listen to as The Dynasty, and you can take your fetish for prestige rap and shove it. That said, it's a thrill to hear Jay and No I.D. get together and challenge each other to make something so much more personal and risky than Magna Carta Holy Grail

23. President Davo Forever
President Davo hasn't gotten as much attention on a national level as Creek Boyz or Tate Kobang, but he's one of the current champions of Baltimore street rap who has a  I think has his own uniquely melodic delivery and, I think a pretty high ceiling if he catches a hit. Some of his biggest tracks have been freestyles but this project has some really impressive original production, the opening title track in particular sounds fantastic. 

24. GoldLink - At What Cost
"Crew" was one of the best songs of the year, and GoldLink was just one of the 3 people that made it pop. But the rest of the album that spun off that single had a similar wealth of tightly coiled verses, easygoing hooks and luminous, subtly distinctive beats. Washington, D.C. is one of America's most musically rich and interesting cities, and At What Cost is one of its first rap albums with a national profile that captures the city's character so well. 

25. Shy Glizzy Quiet Storm
A year ago, when I wrote my 2016 list, I prased Shy Glizzy's Young Jefe 2 but lamented that it seemed like the mainstream spotlight had turned away from him even as he was reaching his peak as an MC. So I feel vindicated now to be able to say that Glizzy had the best year of his career in 2017, and in fact he had one of the best years of any rapper this year. Besides the "Crew" verse, he had the excellent The World Is Yours, his only release under the official name change to Young Jefe that predictably never took hold as "Crew" went around the world with the Glizzy name on it, and then a couple weeks released one of his most ambitious albums to date, Quiet Storm, to capitalize on all this momentum. 

26. Brent Faiyaz - Sonder Son
The third member of the "Crew" crew also had an album this year, and Baltimore native (now based in L.A.) Brent Faiyaz's silky voice holds up just as well over the course of a solo project. There's a really intimate, handmade quality to this record, where even skits that I might find tedious or disruptive to the flow of the songs kind of contribute to the ambiance that Faiyaz is cultivating. 

27. Midland - On The Rocks
Midland, a Texas trio that includes a TV actor and a director of videos for pop stars, brought a little old fashioned show business glitz to their traditionalist country that reminds me bit of Dwight Yoakam at his peak of stardom. And songs on their debut album like "Electric Rodeo" and "Nothin' New Under the Neon" revel in the rhinestone artifice of the music they play while tapping into the emotions that drive it. 

28. Sevyn Streeter - Girl Disrupted
8 years after the launch of her short-lived group RichGirl and 4 years after she kicked off her solo career, one of the most talented singers and writers in R&B finally got her aptly titled debut album out. It sounds like it was probably recorded over a long period -- ironically the trendiest stuff on here is the over '90s homages -- and in a year where SZA and Kehlani were R&B's big breakthrough stars, Sevyn probably seemed a little old-fashioned. But this record really has some beautiful songs and I was so happy to see her get her career off the ground without Chris Brown, who she was previously signed to. 

29. Microkingdom - Return to the Valley of the Jeep Beats
Return to the Valley of the Jeep Beats is not full of the kind of subwoofer-heavy bangers the title implies, but the Baltimore avant jazz trio Microkingdom seems to take inspiration from unlikely sources, and there's a certain alternate universe dance music vibe to their recent records that's really cool and unique. 

30. Nine Inch Nails - Add Violence EP
Many Nine Inch Nails records are big, immersive epics, but 1991's Broken EP was one of their best, and 2008's The Slip was the shortest and in my opinion the best of their later albums. So Trent Reznor's decision to break out the band's latest wave of new music into a trilogy of EPs was a nice change of pace, and the second one, Add Violence, had the right mix of anthems and longer experimental tracks like "The Background World." 

31. Demi Lovato - Tell Me You Love Me
My favorite Demi Lovato albums have always been the couple of guitar-driven records she made as a teen Disney star, but she's been a pretty consistent singles artist since then as she's climbed up the Top 40 ranks, and Tell Me You Love Me feels like the one that really presents her voice and public persona in a consistent and well thought out way. "Daddy Issues," "Sorry Not Sorry" and "Ruin The Friendship" are catchy, entertaining songs that have a sense of humor about Lovato's reputation, in a way that I imagine that other album called Reputation was trying to accomplish. 

32. J. Roddy Walston & The Business - Destroyers Of The Soft Life
J. Roddy Walston and his band have changed their base of operation from Tennessee to Baltimore to Virginia over the last 15 years, but Destroyers Of The Soft Life feels like the first time they've really tried to reboot their sound and their songwriting. And it's interesting to hear Walston back away from his piano and some of his more tried and true tempos and getting a little more vulnerable in the lyrics. 

33. Harry Styles - Harry Styles
You can't really say that someone sabotaged their career by making a good album, but Harry Styles certainly made his solo debut with the confidence that he had the world's attention already and didn't need to pander to retain his One Direction fanbase. The degree to which Harry Styles is an artistic triumph has been a bit exaggerated by a music press that has always been too credulous about former teen stars making 'serious' 'adult' records and too skeptical about the music that made them famous -there are at least two One Direction albums that do dad rock better than Harry Styles. But it was still a beautifully sung and luxuriously unbothered record. 

34. Niall Horan - Flicker
Niall was one of those other members of One Direction who had to work a little harder to get in the spotlight as a solo artist, and his hit "Slow Hands" is my favorite single of 2017. His voice is thinner and he's more prone to dippy lyrics than his bandmate, but Flicker has varied and often surprising production, and Maren Morris lends some cred to his flirtations with country music on the great duet "Seeing Blind." 

35. Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales - Room 29
Jarvis Cocker has only made 5 albums in the 20 years since I realized that he's one of my favorite songwriters, so each one is an event. But Room 29 is certainly the most deliberately minor work of the bunch, a strange little song cycle about the Chateau Marmont where the only sounds you hear are piano and Cocker's hushed voice with an occasional swell of strings or rattle of tambourine. But there are few people who I can imagine making such a monochromatic and topically narrow album and filling it with such rich details. 

36. Lil Uzi Vert - Luv Is Rage 2
I've long been skeptical of the idea of 'emo rap' that mostly amounts to trap with nasal Tom DeLonge melodies and bad poetry and bad relationships. But Lil Uzi Vert makes the best possible argument for this dubious intersection of genres on his supposed-debut-album-that-is-a-sequel-to-his-major-label-retail-'mixtapes' on ballads like "How To Talk," "Dark Queen," and the sublime "The Way Life Goes" (presented here before the gratuitous Nicki Minaj remix). 

37. Aminé - Good For You
Careers don't necessarily last longer in rap these days, but true one hit wonders are increasingly rare, mainly because the industry is so desperate for new stars that everyone who gets a foot in the door usually has a successful follow-up or feature before the attention turns to someone else. But Portland's Aminé is a true one hit wonder; nothing he's done since "Caroline" broke through last year has gotten 1/10th as much attention. And that's a shame, because the album that followed the single was the best one I've heard by any of this year's XXL freshmen, with a weird squirrely beats and deadpan wit. 

38. Fifth Harmony - Fifth Harmony
Releasing a self-titled album in the middle of your career usually carries an implicit statement of 'this is the real us' or 'this is a new beginning,' especially if it immediately follows a lineup change. Paramore did this to great effect a few years ago, and Fifth Harmony follows suit with their third album, released just 8 months after Camila Cabello's sudden departure. At the moment, it appears that Cabello is the winner in this split based on commercial success, but based on music, I much prefer Fifth Harmony with Lauren Jauregui in the spotlight. 

39. SZA - Ctrl
SZA undeniably owned 2017 for a lot of people, and the singles certainly loomed large over my year. I wish I enjoyed the rest of Ctrl as much -- I tend to hit the skip button hard for "Supermodel" and "Drew Barrymore" when SZA's weird enunciations get to be too much -- but when it's good, it's fantastic

40. SiR Her Too EP
SZA's success gives me hope that Top Dawg Entertainment's newer R&B signing has similar commercial potential. Her Too is his third great release in as many years, but his first for TDE, and it makes a quietly confident case that he's ready for primetime even if all of its tracks sound a little too moody and nocturnal for radio. 

41. Big Walnuts Yonder - Big Walnuts Yonder
An album featuring Mike Watt and Nels Cline, with cover art by Raymond Pettibon, is the kind of thing that would have good odds of appearing on my best-of list in any year it's released. But Big Walnuts Yonder was a spirited addition to the lengthy discographies of everyone involved, and it turned me on to the talents of Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos, who sings some of the album's best stuff. 

42. Wishing Rock - Keep It Wrong EP
I'm friendly with the Wishing Rock folks -- I wrote the press bio for this record, play with Tim in the band Woodfir, and recently did some recording with Lizzy for my Western Blot project, which I realize makes it sound like every Baltimore band whose name starts with W knows each other. But I really enjoyed their debut EP and the other songs I heard at the one show I saw, I'm not sure what the future of the band is or if it's going forward with lineup changes, but it's 

43. Thee Lexington Arrows - Ride That Wave
Thee Lexington Arrows is another Baltimore band I'm friendly with -- I've collaborated with Kathleen and opened for them this year -- but I was a fan long before I met any of them. And their 4th album of doo wop garage rockabilly featured some great new songs as well as a killer new recording of one of their earliest songs, the live staple "Don't Come Around."

44. Prodigy - Hegelian Dialectic (The Book Of Revelation)
I've long thought that Prodigy's work outside Mobb Deep has been better than the group's post-'90s output, and as recently as 2013's Albert Einstein he's been making minor masterpieces. But I felt like one of the only people who was paying attention when he released Hegelian Dialectic (The Book Of Revelation) just 5 months before his death. And it was a really good record that added some interesting new wrinkles to his persona, with the godfather of hip hop paranoia dismantling his image ("everything is not Illuminati, everything not a evil plot") and gently mocking it ("we like blood cells movin' through the veins of a heart inside mother earth's body, and damn she thick -- you ever think about that ON WEED?")

45. Arto Lindsay - Cuidado Madame
Arto Lindsay is one of those names you can hear for decades in various underground music circles without ever actually hearing his music, so I will credit Chad Clark of Beauty Pill, who has covered Lindsay and toured with him this year, for encouraging my active interest in his work (a lot of it is unavailable on streaming services, so I'm working at getting a physical media collection of his older albums). Lindsay's musical legacy is at this unlikely intersection of no wave, tropicalia, and a host of electronic and singer-songwriter traditions, and it's like he lived this unique life that allowed him to organically fuse ideas and sounds that perhaps nobody else on earth would even think to. 

46. Future FUTURE
The gap between Future's two 2017 albums on this list doesn't truthfully reflect a particularly large gulf between the quality of the releases. It's more that HNDRXX is a unique and indispensable addition to his catalog, while FUTURE is a return to the same producers and styles that fueled about 5 other Future albums and mixtapes in the preceding 2 years alone. Nonetheless, "Poppin' Tags" and "POA" and "Draco" and "Mask Off" and "Flip" are pretty killer Future songs by any standard. 

47. Bishop Briggs - Bishop Briggs EP
Bishop Briggs had a song in a national TV spot before anyone heard of her, and an opening act slot on a Coldplay tour soon after her first single "River" started getting radio spins, which should give you an idea of just how big UMG is or was hoping she'd be. So the fact that they only quietly released a 6 song EP at a time when I thought she'd be getting a big album push makes me wonder if they didn't hit their commercial targets for her. But she's got a great voice and I like her broodingoth electro pop. 

48. Sabrina Claudio - About Time
Sabrina Claudio is far from the only Soundcloud Sade out there making ethereal dreampop R&B for millennials, but her latest project caught my ear a lot more than music in that vein usually does. 

49. Future Islands - The Far Field
The degree to which Future Islands became famous in 2014 still blows my mind. The other day I walked into a coffee shop that was playing "Seasons" and had to restrain myself from saying "hey, I know these guys!" like a dumbass. Their followup album was not a phenomenon on the same scale, but for a band this unique to reach that level, I think it's kind of a statement in and of itself for them to just stay who they are and keep refining their sound. And it was fun to hear them make a record with my longtime Baltimore drum god Mike Lowry on the beat. 

50. various artists - The Bob's Burgers Music Album
The Bob's Burgers Music Album was, according to Spotify, my most listened to album of 2017, thanks to the statistical quirk that one listen to an album with 112 brief tracks is going to count 11 times as much as an album with 10 songs. Still, I did enjoy finally having a collection of all the silly musical moments from the first 7 seasons from one of my favorite TV shows. 
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