music / Columns

The Album Of The Year 2017 (#20-1): Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, More

December 7, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter
Kendrick Lamar

The moment has arrived. Over a hundred albums have bitten the dust and now it’s time to reveal the absolute cream of the crop, so let’s not delay a second longer.

The Catch Up: Honorable Mentions Part One (#100-81) – Part Two (#80-61) – Part Three (#60-41) – Part Four (#40-21)

[Disclaimer: As always, I’m only one man, I have not heard every record released in 2017, so if your favorite isn’t included, I may not have heard it, but please feel free to share you personal picks in the comments below]

20. Nightmare Logic by Power Trip

Genre: Metal

The 411: “Power Trip are supplying big, bruising and incredible addictive music; sure, it might be demonic and vicious in its extremes, but in an earlier era a thirty minute slice of joyous metal this good would have been shoved down the world’s throats. Today, unfortunately, Power Trip remain hidden in their niche. Don’t let the artwork scare you off, go out and listen to this 30-minute slice of bold, brutal and absolutely brilliant thrash right now.”

The Critics Say: “Despite taking almost four years to arrive, Nightmare Logic couldn’t have come at a better time. 2017 is likely to produce some of the angriest music since Vietnam, and Power Trip are the perfect act to lead an army head-long into battle.” The Line Of Best Fit

Metascore: 82%

19. Fin by Syd

Genre: R&B

The 411: “Syd, like her fellow Odd Future outsider Frank Ocean, has come for the crown and there’s little Tyler, Earl or anyone else can do to stop her. Fin is a ferociously self assured record. Syd is silky as she muddies and mutilates traditional R&B beats and – in a genre where women often play the simpering sexpot – Syd stands as a ruthless authoritarian. Her R&B is sexy, yes, but because she remains resolutely in control. The arrangements supply plenty of softness and subtlety, allowing Syd to assume the role of the consummate lover-woman, running game and striding across these endlessly seductive soundscapes. Remarkably, the tender moments prove equally effective on an album so consummately produced its hard to imagine any record rivalling it for pure audio pleasure.”

The Critics Say: “In short, Fin is a mature, if slightly restrained debut. Unfortunately, there’s not quite enough here to get a true sense of where Syd’s long-term artistic vision will take her. Nonetheless, what Fin does, it does incredibly well – and with confidence.” The 405

Metascore: 79%

18. No Shape by Perfume Genius

Genre: Art Pop

The 411: “In Perfume Genius’s world, even the most glorious of summer days is haunted by a lingering storm cloud. The downpour never actually arrives, but it’s enough to make No Shape a wonderfully uncomfortable listen: a big beaming smile faces the world, while a nervous droplet of sweat rolls down the forehead.”

The Critics Say: “Perfume Genius’ magic lies in transforming struggle into folklore, mythologizing a daily endurance against patriarchal bullshit. These are vital hymns to unite and strengthen.” The Skinny

Metascore: 84%

17. The Weather Station by The Weather Station

Genre: Folk

The 411: Tara Lindeman’s voice is as harrowingly tender as ever on The Weatherstation’s fourth LP. The trouble has always been how to pair such an evocative voice to music that can equal the richness of its timbre and the imagination of Tara’s lyric-sheet. On this eponymous effort the band succeed with sensational ease. The sonics are heavy, exuding a tangible weight and rusty reality to rival an eye for lyrical detail that sits between Springsteen and Young without imitating either.

The Critics Say: “No one else is writing true-life songs with such a command of nuance and ellipsis, with such generosity of unguarded emotion and careful economy of means, like Sam Shepard writing haiku.” Uncut 

Metascore: 83%

16. Brutalism by IDLES
Genre:
Rock

The 411: Sometimes the best punk music isn’t made by the artists who can scream the loudest or play the fastest, but by those that can most wholeheartedly convince the listener that they’ve been bent to breaking point. Brutalism is the sound of grinding teeth, Joe Talbot is practically foaming at the mouth, but he doesn’t quite explode, this album is held on the very verge of coming apart at the seams. Strangely, this unhinged tension helps IDLES read British society the riot act better than any explosive diatribe ever could.

The Critics Say: “IDLES are truly vicious, frontman Joe Talbot’s fiery vocal delivery as authentic as any of the original punks who railed against the establishment back in the genre’s heyday, but one trick ponies they are most certainly not.” Gods In The TV

Metascore: 82%

15. CTRL by SZA

Genre: R&B

The 411: Having excitedly endorsed SZA’s debut EP in 2012, I genuinely thought I’d backed a horse that would never approach the starting gate, let alone the finish line. Sitting back now, in 2017, listening to CTRL, SZA’s long awaited debut, I’m staggered – not at the length of the wait – but at how effortlessly this album blows away her prior work and any-and-all expectation. The St. Louis singer has forged an album that is both seductive and incisive. The wonderful blossoming water color quality of her early productions is still in place, but the songwriting is so much sharper now: whether it’s a classic soul single (“Drew Barrymore”), an entreaty on identity (“Normal Girl”) or a bleak confessional number (“Supermodel”).

The Critics Say: “SZA altered her direction in front of a world waiting on her words by discarding the guarded metaphors to evoke and examine darker realities, and ‘CTRL’ is all the better for it. It is a product that sets a new standard, raising the bar for herself and for other artists young and old.” GIGsoup
Metascore: 83%

14. Party by Aldous Harding

Genre: Folk

The 411: “Party is ornate, without feeling prissy or posed: freeing the music to flow and dance in the chilly night air. Party is a captivating listen that feels haunting, but without a cobweb insight. This might just be the most important pseudo-gothic release in decade or more. The age of stuffed crows and obsidian death masks is, mercifully, at an end.”

The Critics Say: “Shifting moods and voices effortlessly, Harding is an often technically astonishing performer, and Party is a work of quiet power. An inviting, captivating darkness.” MusicOMH

Metascore: 80%

13. All American Made by Margo Price

Genre: Country

The 411: Well, I called this one right. For a second there I thought I’d jumped the gun and got far too excited by “Hands Of Time” and declared Margo Price country’s next big thing, but American Made confirms the quality of her debut was no fluke and expands her sound in surprising ways. First of all, forget severity, American Made is veritable hootenanny that puts the fiddle and the rockabilly guitar to good use, and Margo shows that she has plenty of charisma to go with the heart-breaking stillness of her croon. Best of all, she might engage is sepia toned reminisces at times, but she has a fierce eye for the modern political landscape and isn’t afraid to pick some fights the Nashville orthodoxy might not approve of.

The Critics Say: “With a little more time and money to burn, Price and co. spiced up the nervy and raw sound of Midwestwith the addition of a string section on some tunes, some gospel-like backing vocals when needed, and a little ProTools augmentation to create the collage of presidential speeches that floats in and around the title track.” Consequence Of Sound

Metascore: 80%

12. MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent

Genre: Art Pop

The 411: Never has an album title proved so infuriating, but put the Mass Education/Mass Seduction mindfuck to one side and you’ll be free to enjoy the most joyously lightweight album in Annie Clark’s critically acclaimed back catalogue. Arcade Fire attempted to grapple with the hollow, surface-obsessed absurdity of modern life on Everything Now, but where their depth was subsumed by clumpsy satire, St. Vincent is careful to write brilliant pop songs with haunting depth or, at the very least, great laughs and oodles of virtuosity. Better still, the fake plastic smile that is plastered across this album’s face, quickly reveals its fissures allowing a deeper personal sorrow to slip through the cracks – exposing a confused and heartbroken women trying to make her way in a gleaming society, dosing itself with cheap titillation and pricey cosmetics to merely make it through the day. 

The Critics Say: “As eyebrow-raisingly absurd as the current state of the world – and dissecting the darkest of melancholy in the same step – ‘MASSEDUCTION’ is a lesson in black humour. Along with the equally exceptional ‘St Vincent’ which came before it, this is the moment that St Vincent enters the fabled realm reserved for the greats.” DIY

Metascore: 85%

11. DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar

Genre: Rap

The 411: “Damn is a complex album, rich in social and psychological commentary, that proves less daunting than either Good Kid or To Pimp A Butterfly. The narratives are sharp and self-contained. The beats universally bang with a brazen commerciality that often disguises the complex sonic smears and moral malaise hidden beneath Damn’s back-to-basics surface. So long live King Kenny! He may have taken a load off and he may be visibly enjoying his privileged position, but don’t mistake Damn for a lightweight or bitter offering, this is cutting edge, accessibly rap music from an artist with hell of a lot left to say.”

The Critics Say: “It’s the first album in Kendrick Lamar’s discography where tracks can more readily be taken individually. And yet, given the talent of the artist in question, and the producers he’s pulled in, this one is no less ambitious and rewarding than some of his previous entries.” Pretty Much Amazing 

Metascore: 91%

10. Holiday Destination by Nadine Shah

Genre: Indie

The 411: And the award for not fucking around goes to…Nadine Shah! Just look at that album cover and title, Holiday Destination sits above the image of building torn to shreds by bombing. The album itself is fiercely political, but it’s never as brutal or obvious as that piece of black humor. Instead, Shah tongue is jutted out against a series of intricate and enticingly odd grooves. As she asks, “how we gonna sleep tonight?”, Shah feels like a halfway house between St. Vincent and PJ Harvey, picking holes in our apathy and illuminating the horrors of this world in jaunty and sedately haunting tones.

The Critics Say: “In harmonising an informed acumen with empathy and hope, Nadine Shah has released the most accomplished, accessible, and important protest album of the year.” The 405

Metascore: 81%

9. Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples

Genre: Rap

The 411: If I were 17-year-old in 2017, Vince Staples would be my favourite rapper. Yes, Kendrick Lamar exists and is mind meltingly brilliant, but Vince Staples has that perfect mix of mischief, political awareness, insanity as well as a chameleons attitude to change. It also helps that half the time Staples seems to be completely out of his mind and the rest of time he appears to be the smartest guy in the room. Big Fish Theory is packed full of delightful wordplay and it absolutely bangs in ways you wouldn’t have expected after hearing his debut. Best of all, Big Fish Theory sounds like a record made by a man who is actually enjoying himself, even if he is haunted by dark shadows.

The Critics Say: Big Fish Theory veers off the course set by its predecessor, bucking the sophomore slump by ditching the vast majority of his old collaborators and peers in favor of the sort of whole-cloth artistic reinvention generally associated with canonical greats like Kanye or Bowie. What’s even crazier is that he sticks the landing. It’s his second classic LP in a row.” A. V. Club

Metascore: 87%

8. A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie

Genre: Folk 

The 411: In a year in which I lost my father, this album stopped me in my tracks: not because these songs of death and life after a death mirrored my feelings, but because A Crow Looked At Me struck me as so authentic, honest and beautiful. Everyone experiences death differently and Mount Eerie gives life to his experience with these devastating precise sketches (“what about foxgloves, is that a flower you liked? I can’t remember, you did most of the remembering for me”). The brilliance of the music lies not in its beauty or its sorrow, but in the way Mount Eerie inhabits the gaps – the gaps in memory, meaning and future experience. No punches are pulled and nothing is asked or expected of the listener: sit with Mount Eerie a moment or leave him alone, life will invariable go on. 

The Critics Say: “And yet this collection of songs exists, released to the world as a declaration of love, and informing the listener about the circumstances of love and loss between Elverum and his late wife Geneviève Castrée Elverum and their baby daughter.” PopMatters 

Metascore: 90%

7. Music For People In Trouble by Susanne Sundfor

Genre: Art Pop

The 411: Music For People In Trouble is a wonderfully misleading album, it strikes a playful posture only to consumed by lingering shadows and pangs of self-doubt. This travelling record has a global scope and a rich, naturalistic palette that ends up enslaved by atmospherics more common in black or doom metal. Music For Modern People is a marvellous oddity, an airily elegiac introspective turn from an artist with a voice that could melt the polar ice cap. 

The Critics Say: “Such militant introspection can sometimes be off-putting, but Music for People in Trouble is rooted in empathy, and even at its most cynical … the warmth of its core radiates outward.” Allmusic

Metascore: 84%

6. The Navigator by Hurray For The Riff Raff 

Genre: Indie

The 411: “Despite the inherent danger and depravation, The Navigator is an incredibly warm record. The playing proves impossibly loose and unencumbered; a perfect accompaniment for Segarra’s dusty strolling vocal. Even when she gets “lonely way down at the bottom of a well”, a distinct feeling of prideful recollection exudes: as if Segarra is telling these stories with, yes, a tear in her eye, but also a smile on her lips. The Navigator is a triumph, a reflection on the arduous journey that led the singer to forcefully discover and reclaim her ethnic identity, while coming to master her psychological demons and bodily wants.”

The Critics Say: “A major leap forward for an artist whose previous work now seems like a warm-up for the dizzying heights The Navigator strives for, and often achieves.” American Songwriter

Metascore: 81%

5. The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Genre: Country

The 411: The Nashville Sound might be a title pointed squarely at the glossy pop producers currently ruling music city, but it’s also a claim to a lineage of songcraft that Jason Isbell inhabits so poetically. This is not an exercise in nostalgia; these ten tracks are shot through with political awareness and blue-collar dignity stretched to breaking point. Whether he’s rocking or unwinding Isbell sees the bigger picture (coal miners thrown on the scrap heap and minorities who have been marginalised, or worse) without losing sight of intimacy (his writing has such a romantic, conversational quality, full of big dream and local, psychological tragedies).

The Critics Say: “Through matter-of-fact lyrical acuity, Isbell peels back layers of cultural abstraction to reveal the grit of the human experience on The Nashville Sound, and renders it much more inclusive than the title’s regional attribution might make it seem.” Paste

Metascore: 78%

4. Arca by Arca

Genre: Electronica

The 411: “Combining these spacious and uneasy beats with an idiosyncratic and ornate vocal seems like a no-brainer, what is staggering is that the creator of the former also happens to be the possessor of the later. This is a mesmerizing singular vision: all the better for being largely improvised by its creator. Arca is fluid, free-flowing, splendour in its natural form: a rare glimpse of something seldom seen, an experience to cherished, if not necessarily understood.” 

The Critics Say: “With its eerie silences, foreboding chords and hymnal chanting, Arca’s third record really does manage to erect a sonic cathedral around your ears.” The Guardians

Metascore; 84%

3. Exile In The Outer Ring by EMA

Genre: Indie

The 411: At times its hard to tell whether EMA is turning the screw, contorting herself around the drill bit or being ground into formless oblivion. This confusion is crucial to Exile In The Outer Ring, EMA’s response to the 2016 US Election. Rage and violence bubbles under the surface of an album that captures the desolation of those cities left behind by modernity and the dismay felt by so many in the wake of Trump’s election. “What are we hoping for?” is the crucial question, both a plea – where is the hope in this world – and a question – what did you honestly expect to happen when you chose this course of action? This is an album that lingers in the vacuum. Perfect for a world caught in the throws of uncertainty, stewing on broken promises and stumbling in the darkened graveyard of broken ideologies. Exile In The Outer Ring, horrifyingly, is the sound of 2017.

The Critics Say: “While EMA still swirls blasted riffs around her and slams us back with aftershock drums, this time she stands visibly before us, blueprints and implements of destruction in clear sight.” Drowned In Sound

Metascore: 80%

2. Melodrama by Lorde

Genre: Pop

The 411: Pure Heroine should have been an impossible act to follow. Lorde was the perfect teenage know-it-all, too clever by half, arriving with a perfectly realized sound and a disdain for the opinion of her elders. And yet here we are, while the rest of the world (including her friend Taylor Swift) is still imitating the poses struck on her debut, Lorde has cast off the shackles of her youth, exploding onto the dancefloor and embracing a vulnerability and neurosis that defies the invincibility of her teenage years. Melodrama is a headrush, that sees the Kiwi scrambling to outrun her demons, stumbling into fresh fucks on the dancefloors, clinging to the illusion of these perfect romances with imperfect partners, falling into despair and recovering in the arms of the only woman who’ll never leave her side.

Lorde has cast herself as the tragi-majestic figure of the woman who dances alone. She may crash from one perfect place to the next, but she knows that, sooner or later, the rug will be pulled and she’ll be left to lick her wounds alone. So in this light, Melodrama captures the moment when her high heel breaks, her lovers lies are exposed and she finds herself hurtles towards the hard floor – but before she collides, as she careens downward, there is a moment of serenity: a chance to appreciate the raw rush of the moment when her hips first met his hips and they’d die to defend one another. This is Melodrama: true present tense pop music.

The Critics Say: “Just when you think you’re nearing the end of Lorde’s journey, her words pull you back in for another listen. It’s a puzzle that’ll keep you busy long after the party is over.” Entertainment Weekly

Metascore: 91%

1. American Dream by LCD Soundsystem 

Genre: Indie

The 411: LCD Soundsystem return from retirement with a sorrowful, droning, meandering and largely hitless new album. American Dream is not so much a collection of songs as a brutal realization that the listener slowly comes to terms with over the course of an hour. James Murphy has always confronted middle-aged reality: he introduced himself to the world by declaring that he was losing his edge, but American Dream is a different animal. The irony has been stripped away. This is a tragedy: a realization that an entire phase of life and a sense of self is gone forever. Friendships have been torn apart by distance, age and evolution. Attempts to relive the glory days on the dancefloor are forlorn. Doubly damning, not only do these nostalgic attempts to will the past into the present highlight just how much has changed, they also cast doubt on whether the original experiences were all that special to begin with.

Wisdom, it would seem, is it’s own curse. Nor does this weight of experience numb the ache or fill the romantic cavity in Murphy’s existence. He’s still a slave to Hollywood dreams of the one, true romance and the American Dream – to the point that he’s become a nihilist, cocooning himself away from hurt or disappointment: lovers names aren’t even worth knowing. It might sound like a nightmare, but that’s not the case, the world Murphy describes simply is. This is not a record that runs or whimpers, it simply plots the emotional milestones on the route from extended adolescence to grudging maturity. The resulting music is beautiful, like dancing with ghosts under the rosy glow of former glories to decaying echoes of youthful beauty.

Friendships illuminate the dark corners as LCD explore the distance between impeccable memories and the unanchored drift of modern life. The scariest realization (and the album’s grand redemptive moment) comes when the protagonist, having woken up in someone else’s bed, recovering from an acid trip, looks in the mirror, faces the sunlight and decides to depart the scene: “Find the place where you can be boring, where you won’t need to explain…at least instead of sleeping here you’d prefer your own bed/You just suck at self preservation versus someone else’s pain, so you feel drained”.

On a personal note, I can’t imagine how anyone in their 20s or younger would or could react to American Dream. This album speaks so specifically to such a certain time in life and of a distinct ache. LCD Soundsystem have captured (in sound) an anxiety and acceptance that everyone, sooner or later, must face. I was heartbroken when James Murphy announced that he was getting the band back together, expecting an act of legacy defaming self-harm. I was unequivocally wrong. In American Dream, LCD Soundsystem have created, if not their best album, then the one that by far and away means the most.

The Critics Say: “Thanks to their pored-over comeback, the allusions to Bowie and his game-changing contemporaries, and their own obviously healthy ego, an unavoidable question percolates through American Dream: are LCD Soundsystem also one of the greats? Tonite and Call the Police are as good as anything they’ve done, while Oh, Baby miraculously manages to outshine their dazzling previous work – even if not every track keeps up with this exhilarating pace. The only thing able to overshadow American Dream is LCD’s own formidable past, suggesting that, yes, in fact they are.” The Guardian

Metascore: 86%