Just as vinyl sales continue to rise with the dominance of streaming services, the album’s gravity persists, even with artists like Drake seeking to match shifting technologies by releasing a body of work under the descriptor of “playlist.” From industry veterans whose careers continue their upward trajectory through time to a plethora of rookies releasing (some long-awaited) remarkable debuts, here are the 15 best albums of the year.
15. Brockhampton – Saturation II
If you looked at a photo of Brockhampton’s seemingly ever-growing roster, you would never call them a boy band. If you listened to any of Brockhampton’s song, you definitely wouldn’t call them a boy band. But here we are in 2017 readily accepting “the internet’s first boy band,” and the new set of rules—more-so lack thereof—that comes with the pop term dressed in DIY. All three installments of their Saturation trilogy are must-listens, but while I catches the group’s first strides and III is their emotional crossing of the finish line, Saturation II captures Kevin Abstract and co. at their sharpest.
14. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
On A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum refuses to turn his wife’s death into a grand statement for the observer to pore over (“When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb”). Instead, we are given the minute details of a man struggling to cope with the day-to-day details that are heartbreakingly heavied in the wake of permanent absence. It’s the kind of record that will make you examine every moment spent with the ones you love—from the odd faces they make while brushing their teeth to the small freckle on the side of their finger—with greater purpose.
13. Gabriel Garzón-Montano – Jardín
In an era where SoundCloud artists are maximizing their music to wall of sound proportions, Garzón-Montano dares to force listeners to embrace empty spaces. A student of the pop limbs of the ’60s and ’70s, Garzón-Montano’s debut is a daydream—something like the white-space limbo often seen in cartoons. Throughout Jardín, the percussion bounds like a particularly seductive curb you can’t help but tightrope on a sunlit afternoon, and Garzón-Montano’s everyman harmonies make every track an instant sing-along.
12. Thundercat – Drunk
How does an album that contains a track where its writer professes his burning desire to give up the human life for that of a feline, or another titled “Captain Stupido” that includes a fart sound in its closing seconds, win critical acclaim? While we could give all of the credit to Stephen Bruner’s, sobriquet Thundercat, bass perfection, there’s something to be said about lyrics presented in the voice of the people. We might dislike the acknowledgement of our more indelicate edges in such public fashion, but by the time Bruner is breaking down the “bullshit” of being in the friend zone we are reminded that being a little crazy can go a long way in helping cope with the pains of the everyday.
11. Bonobo – Migration
Even though he’s been releasing music since the turn of the millennium, its clear that Simon Green, aka Bonobo, is just now entering the most impressive chapter of his career from the opening of his sixth release, Migration. As the title track’s name suggests, Green has moved away from the downtempo days for a wider array of sounds, from classical piano to post-rock to Gnawa music. While many of his peers are likely to remain in the club, Bonobo is on a new path that will bring him into the home.
10. Anna Wise – The Feminine: Act II
May this be the last time we refer to Anna Wise as the artist featured on every Kendrick Lamar album since Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. While 2016’s Act I was more of a “sledgehammer,” Act II upholds the divine feminine through its more vague, nature-centric lyrics. Wise’s time spent with some of the best minds in hip-hop and the new class of jazz has clearly stuck with her, providing her with the proper mixers to her pop base to spread her message that is as vital now as it’s ever been.
9. Run The Jewels – RTJ3
There are three things that are clear with RTJ3: El-P is currently hip-hop’s best producer, Killer Mike and El-P are this generation’s greatest hip-hop duo, and their sample of Lyn Collins’s “Think (About It)” is the dopest since Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s. While RTJ2 saw their trademark gun and chain logo bloodied and bandaged, everything’s gold now. But gone is the chain, reminding listeners that all that matters resides within. And even when the duo is chanting their own initials, we shouldn’t mistake their growing confidence as anything less than a unified rallying call for their most revolutionary release yet.
8. Lorde – Melodrama
There was no “Royals” moment on Lorde’s sophomore release, and this is a very good thing. It’s easy to forget that Pure Heroine was mostly written while Lorde was only 16 years old, making the four-year gap between these two releases critical—the teenage years are hard enough to work through without being one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Amazingly, Lorde manages to sum up these turbulent years into one house party, where love bends to heartbreak bends to self-preservation, all guided by Jack Antonoff’s progressive pop hand that made Taylor Swift’s 1989 so great. The main difference is that Lorde does it all better.
7. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
There might not be that large of a gap between tracks like Summertime ’06’s “Norf Norf” and Big Fish Theory’s title track—Staples even reminds his day ones that he’s still a “Norf Norf soldier” on the latter—but tracks like “Love Can Be…,” “Yeah Right,” and “BagBak” sound more like an experimental outlier you might find on a dance record. Switching out legendary producer No I.D. for a crop of mostly unknown electronic producers (Zack Sekoff, Sophie, and Jimmy Edgar), Staples has forged a sound that reflects his expanding status as an artist without ever cutting costs on content. On BFT, Staples proves he’s the nihilistic rapper the internet age has needed, because, unlike most in his field, he’s got a point.
6. Kelela – Take Me Apart
Kelela doesn’t possess Rihanna’s unmistakable voice, or Beyoncé’s supernatural magnetism, but normal is the new sexy, and Take Me Apart is very sexy. But more important than its banging bass and Kelela’s smoky-but-bourgeois lower register is her honest acknowledgement of the different (stages of) relationships in her life, from “Let me know / It ain’t that deep, either way / No one’s tryna settle down” to “Don’t say you’re in love until you learn to take me apart.” Like Björk has done time and again, and the path peers like FKA Twigs are currently traveling, Kelela kneads out the edges of pop’s sound without ever straying too far or slipping into its center.
5. Sampha – Process
It’s been a long six years between Sampha’s breakout features on SBTRKT’s self-titled record and his own debut album, playing assistant on the way to the likes of Drake, Kanye West, and Solange. Thankfully, Process is without guests, giving us 40 uninterrupted minutes of his story. From his parents’ deaths by cancer and his own health scare, to losing touch with his physically disabled brother, much of Process is riddled with guilt and a feeling of lack of direction. However, just as every song is dictated by his vocals, Sampha can go from calling out to Houston for help to reminding himself that it’s never too late to find home, just as long as he too follows his own voice.
4. Daniel Caesar – Freudian
It started as a murmur just over three months ago, slowly inching from blog to blog. Daniel Caesar, this singer-songwriter out of Toronto, just dropped his debut album and it’s really something special. Then he was performing a new song with Chance The Rapper on The Late Show, now he’s nominated for two Grammys. It would be dangerous to simply categorize him as another addition to the modern roster of R&B acts; his soulful approach escapes the temporal restraints of his contemporaries. While it comes as no surprise that Caesar considers Frank Ocean among his top influencers, where much of Ocean’s Blonde felt like it was minimal for the sake of minimalism, Caesar’s Freudian strips away to give greater power in both absence and swelling.
3. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
Many, many thinkpieces have been written on Tinder’s promotion of a hookup-driven culture, and there are undoubtedly many more to come. But even more troubling than an unromantic era is an aromatic one—what about a society deplete of the desire to reciprocate feelings of love? Such is the subject of Moses Sumney’s debut, and ironically, its complex celestial composition is more likely to function as a supplier of impassioned air for couples than it is to oxidize relationships. Aromanticism takes some dedication; like nature reclaiming an abandoned building, Sumney’s tendrils make a paced climb, but once they are set you feel every coil pulsing around you. Harriet Gibsone of The Guardian said it best, “When music sounds this complete and absorbing, it’s a wonder we waste our lives chasing coexistence with sweaty, needy humans anyway.”
2. SZA – Ctrl
The female pop landscape is shifting. Taylor Swift’s Reputation was polarized from the moment her petulant “Look What You Made Me Do” dropped (and then swiftly dropped off the Hot 100 throne to a surging Cardi B), and Katy Perry’s Witness rollout was a real dumpster fire. In the mess of this ill-humor, insincerity, and pop maximalism, SZA excels by doing the exact opposite. She argues her whole value as a partner on “Doves in the Wind” by evoking Forrest Gump’s respect for Jenny, making sure to note that he was “never without pussy.” On opener “Supermodel,” SZA excitedly reveals in the first verse how she cheated on her ex-boyfriend who dumped her on Valentine’s Day for a trip to Vegas, but by the chorus her vengeful confidence collapses to her inability to rationalize the breakup and her sudden solitude. CTRL could be simply described as the year’s best R&B album, but the reality is this is the new face of pop.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
What else can be said about this record that hasn’t been already? With DAMN., Kendrick Lamar has settled any doubt that he is hip-hop’s greatest product in a generation, with only time ahead to register where he lands on the all-time list. DAMN. balances elements of his two previous releases while supplying new sounds, new flows, and his storytelling at its finest. Its very release spurred a second album theory that mixed the Easter story and the Matrix within hours of its release—it’s at this level that Kendrick now exists in his fans’ minds. From “DNA.” to “GOD.” would have been enough for this album to take the top spot on this list, but we also got “DUCKWORTH.” “Plot twist” is a descriptor rarely prescribed to an album, but Kendrick, like this origin story, is as rare an artist as it comes.