Here’s a confession: compared to last year, 2017 didn’t seem like it would be such a strong year for music releases to me. 2016 brought us so many great albums, and unless my memory fails me, there weren’t that many big names that had announced they would be coming out with new material. Of course, however, my suspicions were wrong.
The process of narrowing down my favorite records into a top 10 was hard, which means that there was more than enough music that I came to love and revisit again and again. Personally, I listened to more albums than ever this year, and reflecting back, I have to say that overall 2017 was a surprisingly great time for singer-songwriter and electronic music fans in particular, and perhaps less so for pop and rock – with a few significant exceptions, as always.
10 Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
Many great albums are inspired by traumatic or painful experiences – it’s no surprise they often end up on critics’ year-end lists, as they tend to be emotionally potent and powerful as a result. But every so often, there comes an album that’s not about a specific event or a tangible problem but about mental illness in general; an album that’s not just depressing but about depression. Julien Baker is one of the few contemporary singer-songwriters whose songs can consistently capture these dark mental states, as she proved on her impressive debut ‘Sprained Ankle’. Her evocative lyrics and sweet, impassioned vocals backed by simple but effective instrumentals offer a unique perspective. After signing to Matador for her follow-up record, she has delivered another undeniably moving, earnest, and potentially cathartic record. It’s not just for those who have gone through such bleak moments in life, but also for those who know someone who has – which means that it is an album for everyone. There doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel here, but there’s enough hope to make one feel like they’re not alone. And as Baker sings, “it helps to make it hurt less.”
9 Björk – Utopia
A lot of people were disappointed by Björk’s latest album, so allow me to get this out of the way: yes, it may be one of her least structured, impressive, or memorable efforts as an artist, but it’s still one of the best albums of the year. The Icelandic singer-songwriter continues to be one of the most interesting, eccentric, and forward-thinking performers out there. And Utopia doesn’t feel like a diversion either: it’s a musically beautiful and rich sequel to 2015’s heartbreaking breakup album Vulnicura, the “paradise” to its “hell”, as she herself put it. Sometimes, healing is a process that is not as clear-cut as we would like to think of it, and this is what this album proves. It contains some of Björk’s most unfiltered and direct lyrics, as intimate as ever but not in a way we’ve heard before, while musically it sees her successfully collaborating once again with electronic producer Arca. The transcendental soundscapes here are filled with flutes and natural sounds – signaling Björk’s reconnection with nature, and perhaps, life. She called it her “Tinder record” – and at times she does sound more unashamedly in love than ever.
8 Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
2017 was the perfect year for Josh Tillman to flesh out his social commentary through the persona of Father John Misty, an aspect which had always been present but was never really the focus of his music. Pure Comedy, to me, is a concept album that captures the heated political climate of the year like no other, a record that should be remembered for providing a singular time-capsule of our society. Not that it doesn’t end up being timeless or universal: in fact, Tillman considers these issues by exploring the very nature of humanity itself. He approaches it with the necessary sense of humour and makes a satire out of chaos, greed, capitalism, and entertainment, while his passionate delivery and witty lyrics form the album’s own little imaginary world. Hidden behind the face of cynicism and playfulness is a romanticism not too unlike the one Tillman displayed on I Love You, Honeybear: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got,” he sings on the title track.
7 Feist – Pleasure
It’s not often that we get a singer-songwriter record that’s solid from start to finish – which is what makes Feist’s Pleasure stand out. The Canadian indie pop artist’s decision to strip things down for her fifth studio album proved hugely successful, allowing her to take things to a much more deeply intimate level. The result is her least accessible effort but also her most captivating at the same time. While this is a collection of songs expressing emotional highs and lows, musically there are only highs here and virtually no misses. The album’s raw, minimalist production fits the vulnerable and often poetic nature of the lyrics, which explore emotional extremes, such as pleasure or the lack thereof, in a personal and honest way. Yet by the end, you feel like you’ve listened to an album that’s not sad as much as it is triumphant, embracing the power of building yourself up.
6 Brockhampton – SATURATION II
Brockhampton’s dedication is more than just admirable. The 15-member self-proclaimed “boy band”, lead by Kevin Abstract, burst into the scene with the kind of force that one can find in their music. Immediately gaining attention and acclaim, the collective set out to release three albums within a year – and unlike other bands that have attempted to do the same, they’ve been consistently successful. The second in the trilogy proves why we need a group like Brockhampton – it’s refreshing, exciting, and effortlessly gratifying. Each individual member has a distinct personality, which makes it an even greater achievement that the album flows like no other, a testament to the group’s remarkable chemistry. But it goes beyond that: however enjoyable, SATURATION II manages to be provocative as well, tackling different subjects in a way that challenges hip-hop conventions.
5 Perfume Genius – No Shape
It’s hard to follow up an album like Too Bright, Mike Hadreas’ massively acclaimed third album. He took bold risks, taking his sound to unexpected directions, experimenting with his voice and adopting a confrontational tone that sounded nothing like the vulnerable performer his audience had known him for. And yet ‘No Shape’ was in no way a disappointment: this time, Hadreas chose to look away from his homophobic haters, embracing instead the power of love and its ability to transcend the body. He still lays out his insecurities and internal struggles like few other artists have the strength to do, but the songs here are ultimately inspiring and hopeful, as Hadreas sounds ecstatic over some of the bigger, more “American” instrumentals. At the end of the day, No Shape is just as fearless as Too Bright. But when Hadreas movingly declares “I’m here, how weird” it sounds like he directs it less toward society and more to himself, a rare kind of confident self-reflection.
4 The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
A Deeper Understanding is one of the most evocative and immersive albums of the year. The follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed Lost in the Dream sees Adam Granduciel expand the band’s sound, and while it might lack the psychedelic haziness of their previous effort, it feels bigger, clearer and more triumphant, like when those searing guitars make their appearance. Despite the fact that it’s evidently a group effort, you can trace the personal journey that Granduciel goes through. On ‘Strangest Thing’, he wonders if he’s just “living in the space between the beauty and the pain”, and it’s a statement that perfectly sums up the album itself. Nobody can miss the obvious influences that haunt The War on Drugs’ sound, most noticeably Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, which only makes the fact that the band has a distinct and instantly recognizable sound an even greater achievement. It’s the right blend of nostalgia and personality – and it pulls you in effortlessly.
3 Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
It’s rare that one of your favorite albums of the year is one you hesitate to revisit multiple times – and yet, this almost certainly will be the case for anyone who’s had the courage to sit through Mount Eerie’s latest album. When the singer-songwriter’s painfully heartbreaking and equally brave album came out, it stirred controversy among critics about whether you can judge an album that’s so undeniably heavy. It tested not only the limits of what can be considered music – Phil Elverum himself called it ‘barely music’, but also its purpose, and whether it has to be enjoyable to be good. In retrospect, it is the latter question that carries more weight: and the fact is that months later it still carries the same impact as an album I’d listened to again and again, and in most cases even more so. ‘A Crow Looked At Me’ proves that art has a deeper meaning, a testament to its ability to offer an unparalleled mirror into one’s personal pain, and, possibly, to heal it just a little bit.
2 Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
How does Kendrick Lamar, one of the most politically conscious, important rappers alive respond to the Trump presidency and the current state of race relations in the US? By combining the best aspects of albums like ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ that are already considered classics, while at the same time embracing the current trends in hip-hop. ‘DAMN.’ is Kendrick Lamar’s most commercially-minded album, and as a result, one that found impressive success in the mainstream, therefore achieving what its bold album title implies was its intention: to be a statement that reaches as wide an audience as possible. And yet despite this approach, the album is as thought-provoking, lyrically dense, and thematically coherent as anything Kendrick Lamar has worked on. It’s also just as personal – and fittingly, perhaps even more so.
1 Lorde – Melodrama
No other pop artist captures young adulthood like Lorde. On 2013’s Pure Heroine, a fresh and inventive album that showcased her rare musical talent, she explored teen-pop themes that were common in the genre, yet her songwriting approach was as impressive as her lyrics were genuine. If Pure Heroine was about being a teenager, Melodrama is about how it feels growing up in our age. With the force of her expressive voice, Lorde sings about party culture, escapism, relationships, moving on, and as she puts it, generation L.O.V.E.L.E.S.S. Lorde tried to expand her sound and bring different styles together, and it paid off: it’s more ambitious, fully-realized, and coherent than her debut, but it’s just as urgent. And while it certainly isn’t the most experimental album that came out this year – which may discourage some diehard music fans from placing it high on their year-end lists – there is no album that moved me as much as it did. The reason it works is simple: unlike many contemporary pop records, Melodrama has an unmistakably true heart.