by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Top 15 Albums of 2017

December 23, 2017

The best songs and albums released over the last 12 months found a way to subvert a hopeless political reality, to move and inspire us by striving for change. A Chinese rap group broke through to an international audience; a singer-songwriter sincerely mounted a mournful reflection on the death of a loved one; and there were plentiful, powerful depictions of womanhood. So let’s just cross our fingers and hope for more light in the darkness in 2018. I mean, it can’t get much worse…right? Paul Attard

Perfume_Genius15. On his first two albums as Perfume Genius, Mike Hadreas distilled memories of trauma and feelings of abjection into starkly intimate, hushed ballads. With 2014’s Too Bright, Hadreas incorporated the complex structures of art-rock, as well as ’70s glam’s snarl, and came up with “Queen,” an anthem of defiance through existence. In the early moments of No Shape, on the hymn-like opener “Otherside,” Hadreas’s music explodes into chamber-pop ecstasy like never before, immediately setting the tone for a record that is preoccupied not with excavating the past or exorcising the demons within, but with the present, everyday realities of life and love — but at the same time grappling with the heightened trials of illness and dysphoria. Throughout No Shape, Hadreas projects visions of power and liberation from his innermost self in all directions, singing songs of hope rooted in despair — and tender confessions of love that speak to desires of self-annihilation. While the lyrics of No Shape do not explicitly address political issues, this is an album that is at its very core political. It’s also deeply spiritual, in that it closes with what in 2017 sounds like a prayer song. Hadreas sings a gentle ode to his partner and collaborator, Alan Wyffels: “You need me/Rest easy/I’m here/How weird.” Alex Engquist

async14. Composer, pop innovator, and pioneering synth wizard Ryuichi Sakamoto’s first solo album in eight years seems not so far removed from his more recent collaborations with Alva Noto, at first glance. But on the masterful async, Sakamoto’s arrangement of organic and electronic sounds and textures reaches beyond the ambient into a place of mystery, perception, and contemplation. Sakamoto was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014, and the specter of mortality casts a somber tone over the prettier melodies here, while elsewhere field recordings of feet trampling over leaves provide a subtle testament to his continuing journey through life in spite of his sickness. Voices of collaborators both living and dead (Paul Bowles, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Sylvian) pass through with words about death and rebirth, and disruptions of rhythmic chaos and electronic interference emerge without warning and subside almost as quickly. But this album remains gentle and inviting, so much so that I’ve come to think of it less as an album and more as a space for meditation — though it is also too intricate to be relegated to the background. With async (a “soundtrack for an Andrei Tarkovsky film that does not exist”) Sakamoto has sculpted in sound something like his own personal place of reflection, and what a privilege it is to inhabit. AE

higherbrothers13. There’s evidence to suggest that the growing popularity of Sean Miyashiro’s 88rising media company is slowly supplanting the K-Pop wave of the early 2010s as the face of Asian popular music in the West. The company’s YouTube channel has become a promotional machine for Japanese-Australian R&B singer Joji and Korean-American house DJ Yaeji. But the main focus of 88rising has been the legitimization of Asian hip-hop, in particular Indonesian trap nerd Brian Imanuel (a.k.a. Rich Chigga) and Chinese rap group Higher Brothers. The latter’s debut, Black Cab, is loaded with universally accessible beats and flows, but the lyrics engage with specifics of Chinese culture. Opener “WeChat” is named after a social media alternative to Facebook and Twitter (both banned in China), while “Made in China” boastfully flips a derogatory phrase—and still pokes fun at unbound nationalism. But it’s the massive, squelching bass and charismatic hook of “Wudidong” (literally “bottomless hole”), a gleefully nihilistic ode to consumerism (“Nikes, Adidas are my offerings to the bottomless hole”), that aligns Higher Brothers with a certain strain of irresistible, maximalist rap. Sam C. Mac

tyler12. In a year where JAY-Z admitted his faults, Rick Ross lamented his idols failings, and Eminem became “woke,” the biggest surprise in the rap world still came from notorious provocateur Tyler, the Creator, who suddenly seemed to grow up and make the most sincere album of his career. Flower Boy decisively breaks from the delinquently homophobic lyrics that were in part Tyler’s calling card, instead mining the artist’s own insecurities with regard to fame, his sexuality, and the effort to find companionship. It’s an album that shifts effortlessly from tender ballads like “See You Again” (“I wonder if you look both ways when you cross my mind”) to more aggressive bangers like the bombastic “I Ain’t Got Time” (“The little shots that you threw, they ain’t hurt me/I ain’t fuck with you bitch ass in the first place”). It’s a journey of self-discovery that once felt out of reach. Tyler finally proves himself to be more than just a shock-jock. PA

thexx11. The xx don’t so much trade one distinct approach for another on their underrated third album, I See You, as they do reinterpret their preferred subject matter — the trials and obstacles of romantic communication — within an updated sonic template. This has always been a group of secretly hook-oriented pop smiths, but on xx and Coexist, that tendency was usually evidenced in low-key exchanges between male vocalist Oliver Sim and incandescent female vocalist Romy Madley Croft — or interplays between the simmering bass lines and nimble percussion and mixing of producer Jamie Smith. Here, the xx affect their typically sultry chamber pieces with starker emphases. Lead single “On Hold,” for instance, commemorates the disintegration of a relationship with the ever-mounting sound of a celebration, signifying a sense of acceptance being arrived at. When I saw the xx at Bonnaroo this summer, the songs from I See You were allowed to occupy the biggest stage of the whole fest, yet they lost none of the intimacy present in their lyrics. Before starting to play “Dangerous,” Sim dedicated the song to the single folks in the audience, an act that reframed this music as a kind of forum for reliving our worst and most transformative romantic moments, but in an expansive space. Charles Lyons-Burt

kendrick10. Settling into what feels like a new and fitting psychological intimacy, Kendrick Lamar‘s DAMN. finally marries a set of diverse sensibilities that had previously felt more distinctly disassociated. Here, Kendrick is both a mid-nineties hip-hop troubadour of the black inner city experience and a philosophizing subversive of gangsta-rap, thematically vacillating between the micro and macro considerations of these disparate characters, and articulating their relationship to the world. Sonically, as well, Lamar demonstrates a newfound balance: slotting the swagger of radio bangers like “Humble” alongside the unapologetically affecting falsetto vocals of “Love,” and the pared-down, lyrically-driven confessional onslaught that is album bookend “Duckworth.” This hopscotching approach to tone and texture could have felt like a calculated reinvention, but instead it seems organic. With each successive album, Kendrick’s evolution as an artist and his penchant for self-exploration are made so tangible as to open his process to the listener in a truly rarefied way. That he never loses his affinity for, or ability to handle, mantra-like one-liners or ear-worm productions remains a welcome digestif. Luke Gorham

jayz09. The most socially conscious album of the year comes from rap’s premier elder statesman, a formerly welcome guest at the White House who anticipated 2017’s most important trend: how the court of public opinion would overturn the cultural regression of the 2016 election by finally waking up to the realties of bigotry, misogyny, intolerance, and hate. But that’s only half the story, because JAY-Z’s 4:44 is also a response to fellow White House exile Beyoncé, whose 2016 album, Lemonade, publicly pilloried Jay for infidelity. The twinned purposes of a political and a personal manifesto lead to an outpouring of knowledge, whether it be the suggestion that the best way for successful black people to escape the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism is by investing in the future of their community, and their family, or the dedications to the women in Jay’s life, including his closeted mother, the wife he knows he wronged, and the daughter he’ll one day have to explain his actions to. The album ends with “Legacy,” delivering a universal message: The desire to see beyond the present troubles and plan for what comes next. SCM

vince_staples08. With his sophomore album Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples delivers a percussive onslaught of slightly off-kilter club production and a heady and self-reflective assessment of the rap industry and his place within it. Staples’s role remains welcomingly sobering and subversively intelligent; he lingers on personal melancholy and social injustice in the same breath as concerns of fame and wealth. “Our father art in heaven, as I pray for new McLarens / Pray the police don’t come blow me down ‘cause of my complexion.” Big Fish Theory has the familiarly manic, ratcheted beats of Summertime ’06, but here they’re punctuated by fuzzy, hip-hop ambience and nu-funk grooves — and Staples’s unparalleled skills as an emcee allow him to marry his flow to the production. Ultimately, perhaps the most exciting thing about Big Fish Theory is that, while it feels like a major accomplishment in its own right, its experimentalism seems to signal even more ambitious work to come. LG

four_tet07. Four Tet’s nimble sonic bliss continues to both thrill and soothe on New Energy, another installment of grand dance-ambience that, as promised by its title, finds the exceptional English electronic artist happily reinvigorated. Nearly twenty years into his illustrious career and today perhaps the preeminent figure in the indie electronica scene, Kieran Hebden remains commendably driven to explore the furthest reaches of his long familiar sound — and indeed across the album discovers moments radical and stirringly new. On the resplendent, aptly titled “Lush”, routine Four Tet plucking and percussion are galvanized by fresh momentum, to exhilarating effect; on record highlight “Daughter,” Hebden bends and warps a vocal melody into an ethereal malformed epic, at once beautiful, indecipherable, and true. The record’s constituent parts are largely the same as on albums previous, and Four Tet, here as ever, sounds like Four Tet. But what distinguishes New Energy, what hauls it aloft to near the crest of Hebden’s oeuvre, are the creative verve and ardour the artist brings unflaggingly to bear. Calum Marsh

fever_ray06. Karin Dreijer’s second album as Fever Ray cherrypicks the finest elements of her work, both as a solo artist and with the Knife (the name she records under with her brother), to distill something of a career retrospective, but aiming its accrued experience very directly at the dimpair of the Trump Era. Present in Plunge is the brooding, shuffling, nightmarish soundscape of Silent Shout and Fever Ray, as well as the frantic, propulsive synths and dance grooves of Deep Cuts and some parts of Shaking the Habitual — an abrasive album that registered skepticsm neoliberal politics even during the Obama presidency. Plunge showcases a paradoxical tone of enthused ambivalence: the first lyric we hear, “I wanna love you but you’re not making it easy,” offered a sentiment that echoes through the remaining 10 tracks, bolstered by Dreijer’s signature blunt, cutting barbs. The sound similarly cuts through the noise; the beats soar and perish with unstable ease like an irregular heartbeat, hungry for embrace but quickly downtrodden. Save for maybe Protomartyr’s Relatives in Descent, no 2017 album benter captured a combustible combination of dismay and anger — and the need afterward for ecstasy and release. CLB

mount_eerie05. The notion of art as a container that (advertently or not) comments on or reflects its own making is more prevalent in cinema discourse than music discussion, but Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is the rare example of a record that positions its own conception — and specifically, the hours and minutes spent creating it, the instruments used, and the room it was recorded in — as a principal subject. On only the second track (“Seaweed”) of this chronologically-recorded taxonomy of songwriter Phil Everum’s grieving process following his wife’s death from cancer, there’s a time stamp: “You have been dead eleven days.” Between this and the ninth track’s “three months and one day after you died,” Elverum’s shattering collection charts, in something like real-time, the molasses-paced rehabilitation of a mind consumed by disbelief and desolation. It’s a compendium complete with names and facts, stark details about declining health and cremation, and po-faced inventories of the songwriter’s immediate domestic surroundings: a bathroom garbage can filling up from neglect, packages of mail received too late, an open window in the boudoir of the deceased. Not for the faint of heart, to be sure, but one of the remarkable things about A Crow Looked at Me, beyond the fact that it exists at all against such odds, is that it’s a work of supreme technical and compositional confidence, with Elverum writing and producing entirely solo, departing from the dense atmospherics of recent Mount Eerie offerings, and honing his own elegant, intimately skeletal brand of Americana. Carson Lund

masseduction04. An album that’s been dismissed in some circles as Top 40 pop music for people who don’t want to listen to actual Top 40 radio, MASSEDUCTION is perhaps St. Vincent‘s most accessible album from an aesthetic standpoint, but embracing the album hardly seems like a No True Poptimist exercise. Indeed, St. Vincent is as adept as any contemporary artist at mining the tension between her meticulous, thoughtful arrangements and the content of her lyrics. That her vocal performances here are the most intimate and vulnerable of her career only heightens the sense of urgency in a set of songs that explore a culture poised on the precipice of calamity. Considering thorny topics such as gender identity (“Sugarboy”), addiction (“Pills” and “Young Lover”), and general cultural rot (the withering “Los Ageless”), MASSEDUCTION plays out as a roll call for the disenfranchised as they hurtle toward a mass casualty event. Jonathan Keefe

lil_peep03. It’s difficult to divorce the music on Come Over When You’re Sober Part 1 from the death of its 21-year old author, Gustav Åhr, since it was the artist’s real-life suffering that lent a heightened emotional edge to the rap-rock mixture he helped popularize this year. “Everybody telling me life is short, but I wanna die” confesses Åhr, A.K.A. Lil Peep, on “Mr. Brightside,” one of many instances of a transparent vulnerability that worked in tandem with raw bluntness — usually either as a cry for help or an admission of coping mechanisms (“Sometimes life gets fucked up/That’s why we get fucked up”). While Åhr is dead, his legacy of radically blending the sonic landscapes of trap and emo lives on as a foundational work of an ever-evolving new genre. PA

lorde02. On her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde‘s attempts at detachment too often, instead, resulted in a tone of unchecked cynicism. While that perspective might have been familiar to those of us who recall the angst of our teenage years, it also made the album difficult to embrace fully at times. For her sophomore effort, Lorde refined her POV with an uncanny precision: There isn’t a turn-of-phrase on Melodrama that scans as an over-reach or a wild lashing-out. Whether she’s romanticizing the kind of reckless early death that can be turned into a generational cautionary tale or urban legend (“Homemade Dynamite,” which should have been one of the year’s biggest pop hits), or taking a more sardonic approach to immortality (“The Louvre”), Lorde’s lines cut like the sharpest of scalpels, and her bitterness and sarcasm never once feel unearned. That 2017 was a year in which facile cynicism sometimes came more easily than the type of reflection Lorde engages in on Melodrama could account for the album’s disappointing commercial performance. JK

HAIM01. Always the ideal vehicle for pain and exuberance, a three-minute pop song can dampen the effects of heartache just as it expands it; it can be both balm and widescreen canvas, which is exactly the balance HAIM strike on their second album, Something to Tell You. These sisters built massive buzz for the deftness with which they rearrange all the emotional signifiers of ‘70s soft rock and ‘80s pop, and their follow-up to Days Are Gone both streamlines and gnarls this approach: HAIM integrate their influences more seamlessly than ever while finding new room for weird production flourishes and peculiar effects, the kinds of details that emerge on third and fourth listens, once the initial melodic rush has sunken in. What HAIM have made here is a peerless pop album, one that uses nostalgia as a kind of timeless emotional vernacular; every song is so perfectly-sculpted, delivered with such ease and directness that it sounds like it could have/should have been a chart-topping single—to the extent that the whole album has the rhythm of a greatest hits anthology. Its momentum never flags, its hooks never fall flat, and its sisterly harmonies never fail to make the steely drums sound warmer, the ragged guitar solos sound like lovers’ laments, the very sad lyrics sound broadly universal and painfully specific. Josh Hurst

Top 10 Songs of the Year:

  1. Malibu” – Miley Cyrus

  2. XO Tour Llif3” – Lil Uzi Vert

  3. Praying” – Kesha

  4. The Story of O.J.” – Jay-Z

  5. Avoid (Feat. Wicca Phase Springs Eternal & Døves)” – Lil Peep

  6. Chanel” – Frank Ocean

  7. Love” – Lana del Rey

  8. Selfish (Feat. Rihanna)” – Future

  9. Sky Walker (Feat. Travis Scott)” – Miguel

  10. Turn Out the Lights” – Julien Baker