by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Top 10 Albums of 2017 (So Far)

August 4, 2017

It’s way too late to call this a “halftime” feature (we were busy watching a whole lot of asian movies), so let’s just call it an end-of-summer(-ish) survey of some of 2017’s best albums. We polled our staff and came up with a typically eclectic list, which includes an often maligned “pop star,” an Australian singer predominantly associated with country music, a Houston-bred songwriting lifer, and John Mayer. Unexpectedly, and due in part to a lack of consensus, few if any of the usual best-of-2017 suspects are here. So enjoy a smattering of albums at least some of us could agree on.

DragonflyBreaking down the two discs of Kasey Chambers’s Dragonfly, one-third could justly be called the best folk/Americana album of the year while the other two roughly constitute a really good blues-rock album and country-pop EP, respectively. There’s no one concept dictating the sprawl, far as I can tell—except that Dragonfly represents one long flex for Chambers. She recorded disc one with her countryman, legendary Australian rocker Paul Kelly, while number two re-teams her with regular producer, and brother, Nash Chambers. Neither disc allows any one genre to take precedence, which makes for a show of performative versatility. Chambers relishes the outlet Paul’s rock outfit affords her on the snarling “Ain’t No Little Girl.” But she also wills her accompaniment to a hush on the same disc’s simmering story-song, “Jonestown.” And while an Ed Sheeran-featuring single from disc two (“Satellite”) almost suggests pop crossover potential, the track immediately following it (“No Ordinary Man”) plays like the deepest of Southern gothic hymnals. So Dragonfly does what basically every Kasey Chambers album has—prove the mettle of a multi-faceted talent—but with a larger canvas than ever. Sam C. Mac

CrowellNo stranger to the art of autobiography, award-winning memoirist Rodney Crowell sifts through the fragments of his life for Close Ties. Confessional songwriting is nothing new, yet there’s something startling about how ably Crowell mines familiar, based-on-a-true-story tropes. Witness “It Ain’t Over Yet” and its disarmingly candid approach to messing things up with the woman of his dreams (“I got caught up making a name for myself,” he offers), which leads to the appearance of ex-wife Rosanne Cash as the voice of forgiveness, resolution, and moving on. Regret is a recurring theme, but Close Ties never feels dour; it’s not written from a place of self-loathing, but rather from the vantage of hard-won wisdom. The songs are appropriately weathered, from the gutter poetry of “East Houston Blues”—Crowell’s own version of Brighton Rock indiscretion—to the pain sown into the seams of “Forgive Me Annabelle,” a song that manages to feel delicate and granite-hard at the same time. Crowell waxed nostalgic on his two recent duet albums with Emmylou Harris, but this one’s something different: A clear-eyed reckoning with the ever-present past, and the sharpest of his albums to date. Josh Hurst

Lust for LifeBy this point it should be obvious that Lana Del Rey makes for a perplexing pop star; her facade is one of haunted inscrutability and her sound suggest apathy, especially for the radio. With Lust for Life, Lana continues a commitment to being her own compass, thematically pivoting away from her introspective tendencies and addressing broader ideas of identity in the current cultural moment. Sonically, she pushes her already exploratory sensibilities further, each track distinct in style yet nestled in cohesively, as part of an expansive vision. Navigating from mid-century rock to folk to rap, Lana reliably indulges in bold production choices throughout Lust for Life. And then, on the album’s penultimate song, “Change,” she offers a stripped-down stunner: The piano-led track contemplates Lana’s past and future as an artist, representing a brief return to her stream-of-consciousness emotional exorcisms. In placing an intimate piece on an album of bigger, external concerns, Lana demonstrates her maturation into a thoughtful, and affecting, pop star. Luke Gorham

TriplicateWhat immediately sets Triplicate apart from either of the two (very good) Bob Dylan standards albums that preceded it is a sense of completeness. OK, a three-disc album feeling complete—would it really be accused of leaving much out? But listen close and find a strategy to the excess. Each disc begins in a jaunt, flexing the muscle of a full band, all swaggering energy and… well, one Tony Pastor title puts it rather bluntly: braggin’. Thirty-odd minutes later, we get a different Dylan, a man reflective and a bit diminished. The set’s immediate influence is of course Sinatra, who recorded many of the songs, in some cases the definitive versions. But Triplicate can feel even older (Dylan is, after all, recording these at a more advanced age than Sinatra ever did). It’s a work that reflects a lifetime, or rather a trinity of them; an album that’s kin to pre-popular music, its song-cycle united by theme and structure. SCM

Freedom HighwayOn her previous set, 2015’s glorious Tomorrow Is My Turn, Rhiannon Giddens pulled off the uncommon feat of using an album of covers to establish her own unique voice as a recording artist. The fearlessness she displays on her politically-charged follow-up, Freedom Highway, reaffirms that Giddens is among the most vital artists in contemporary music; she refuses to play along with the damaging conventions of “respectability politics” when confronting thorny matters of race relations. The set opens with a harrowing first-person narrative of a slave girl who bore the child of rape by her owner, and she focuses on the humanity of victims of police violence in the incendiary “Better Get It Right the First Time.” That her original compositions fully hold their own in the company of the sorrowful “The Angels Laid Him Away” and the title track, a standard of the Civil Rights Movement, is testament to Giddens’s insight and empathy. Jonathan Keefe

Something to Tell YouHAIM’s Something to Tell You keeps the tempos fast, the percussion sounds hard, and the melodies memorable at worst, electrifying at best, for a solid thirty minutes and change. When was the last time a pop-rock album actually cleared that (admittedly low-seeming) bar? Move those golden minutes to the mid-to-late ‘70s and they could compete with the likes of the Pretenders’ debut, Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 self-titled, or even, maybe, Blondie’s Parallel Lines. But HAIM’s album came out in 2017, so instead they tack on an experimental Robo-Rostam R&B duet (“Walking Away”), a lead single that’s a touch too self-satisfied (“Right Now”), and a cavernous hymnal of a coda (“Night So Long”), all rather lovely but decidedly slower. No matter, the level of craft more than compensates for the quality drop-off: With an amount of help that I don’t want to overstate from producer-of-the-moment Ariel Rechtshaid, the Haim sisters come up with a sound that’s both immaculate and immediate, chockfull of vintage keyboard patches, slap bass, and Linn drum that’s all always applied in service of the songs. SCM

4_44Because hip-hop is a relatively recent movement in popular culture, it hasn’t yet had any artists who have made the shift in their perceived status from “star” to “icon” or “legend.” The Notorious B.I.G’s and Tupac’s lives both ended while they were still in their artistic and commercial primes, and NWA and Public Enemy had only brief periods of sustained commercial impact. With 4:44, JAY-Z stakes his claim, then, as hip-hop’s preeminent elder statesman. Jay confronts the more unseemly parts of his persona head-on (“Kill Jay-Z,” “Legacy”), addresses the schadenfreude that seems to accompany the downfalls of powerful black men (“The Story of O.J.”), and takes stock of exactly how far he’s come in his career (“Marcy Me,” “Family Feud”) with equal parts swagger and get-off-my-lawn grizzle. What makes 4:44 all the more powerful is that, thanks to ace production by No I.D., JAY-Z wrestles with legacy while storming into the next phase of his career. 4:44 sounds progressive and forward-thinking even as Jay’s looking back at where he’s been. JK

Life Will See You NowAfter his lovely but morose 2012 break-up album I Know What Love Isn’t, Swedish chamber-pop troubadour Jens Lekman returns with what might be his finest work yet. Life Will See You Now is, in typical Jens fashion, a finely wrought collection of story-songs delivered in a signature tone of aching earnestness cut with wry humor. Lekman turns the focus away from himself for much of the album, populating his narratives with memorable characters like the Mormon missionary whose chance encounter with a young Jens becomes a sort of origin story (“To Know Your Mission”) and the friend who makes a 3D-printed model of his tumor as a way to process the fear that proceeded its removal (“Evening Prayer”). The euphoric disco highs of Lekman’s 2007 breakthrough, Night Falls Over Kortedala, don’t quite materialize here, but there are welcome tinges of calypso rhythms and 80s sophisti-pop, and there are hooks for days. (See infectiously catchy highlight “Wedding in Finistére,” which spins sing-and-clap-along gold out of a soon-to-be-bride’s anxieties.) “In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear,” Lekman confides on the opening track, which is about the closest he’s come to a mission statement. In that sense, Life Will See You Now is a triumph of having it both ways: his ear has become more closely attuned to the lives of others, and his own voice has never sounded more clear. Alex Engquist

The Search for EverythingNo one’s asking you to accept John Mayer as the second coming of Stevie Ray Vaughn; the dude can shred, but that’s not what The Search for Everything is about. This one’s about unerringly tuneful soft rock—persuasively funky here, lived-in and rootsy there. It has better country-rock songs than either of Mayer’s country-rock albums, and it ends with a dead ringer for prime Randy Newman—no, really. And at least one song (“In the Blood”) is deeply moving to this writer, who’s either getting soft, or this album is just really good. Maybe it’s both. JH

Flower BoyHow much drive can I have until I run out of road?” asks Tyler, the Creator on the opening track of Flower Boy. To him, it’s a question of his relevancy and how much further he can “go” in the aftermath of Odd Future’s breakup, now that his shock-rapper tactics have lost their impact in the age of the draco-carrying MC. So what road does Tyler take? Apparently, one filled with gorgeously jazzy production and introspective laments. On “Boredom,” Tyler stresses how he’s getting “desperate as hell” to connect with someone; and the insecurities he feels on “911 / Mr. Lonely” lead to a confession that his wild antics might just be for the sake of garnering attention. Tyler ditches the annoying, abrasive sound of his previous albums (not to mention the marathon-worthy runtimes) and allows himself to be more vulnerable than other. His songs haven’t totally lost their bite either: “Who Dat Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time!” have an urgency that rivals OFWGKTA at their apex. The contrast between those and the heartache of a track like “See You Again” reveals new maturity for Tyler, an artist whose ambitions continue to grow past his former juvenile hijinks. Paul Attard