“Where words fail, music speaks.”
That aphorism, delivered by the Danish wordsmith Hans Christian Andersen, couldn’t have been more apt in 2017, a year that saw an admitted sexual predator become the new face of the nation—spray tan, dyed-blond hair, shiny dentures and all. Like cinema, music provided us a much-needed respite from the deluge of mass shootings, hurricanes, opioids, famous creeps, and emboldened neo-Nazis.
Sure, it wasn’t as good as last year, a banner one for music that blessed us with thrilling new works from Beyoncé, Kanye, Frank Ocean and Solange, but there were plenty of standout albums that nonetheless guided us across landscapes digital and physical, helping to drown out the noise.
10. Gucci Mane – Droptopwop
What a year for Gucci. The Atlanta-raised Godfather of Trap got married, released a bestselling autobiography, and dropped a flurry of albums and mixtapes. Droptopwop, a mixtape commemorating Gucci’s one-year anniversary of his prison release, was without question the best of the bunch thanks in no small part to Metro Boomin’s electrifying production, its pulsing beats coalescing with Gucci’s effortless flow. No song got more run this year on my iPhone than “Met Gala,” a banger boasting the ATL hip-hop trinity of Gucci, Offset and Metro.
9. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Though Adam Granduciel’s lyricism on this, the Philly rock band’s fourth studio album, fails to match that of its deliriously dark predecessor Lost in the Dream (our No. 4 of 2014), no other rock ‘n’ roll outfit manages to wear its influences on its sleeve while also pushing things in bold new directions. At a time when impressive rock acts are few and far between, their mellifluous brand of heartland Americana continues to soothe the soul.
8. Brand New – Science Fiction*
I’m genuinely torn about this album, hence the asterisk. It was supposed to be the Long Island alt-rockers’ swan song, their fifth and last studio LP—released eight years after the excellent Daisy—that evidenced just how far the fellas had come since their scrappy emo days; a monument to their experimentalism and creative evolution. It succeeded in that respect, packing a dozen songs exploding with feeling while tackling weighty topics like mental health and religious struggles. It was, after fourteen years, the band’s first No. 1 album. And then it all came crashing down.
7. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
It is long past time for us to recognize St. Vincent, the stage name for Annie Clark, as one of our preeminent musical artists; one who never ceases to confound with each successive release. Here, she’s crafted an earworm of a future-pop record, exploring themes of sex and sadness with aching sincerity. The production, courtesy of Clark and Jack Antonoff, swells and swirls, sending you in all matter of directions, but it’s her tender, delicate voice that makes these songs truly soar.
6. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Yes, it doesn’t possess the sharp introspection of good kid or the righteous anger of Butterfly, but on his fourth studio album the Compton rapper—aided by dazzling production from Mike WiLL Made-It, The Alchemist, and Top Dawg, among others—has managed to expertly mine the middle ground, serving as a bridge between the hammering trap of today and the stripped-down, rhyme-oriented hip-hop of yore. What a thrill and a privilege, witnessing one of the world’s finest MC’s cut loose.
5. Lorde – Melodrama
Just as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird transported viewers back to their not-so-halcyon high school days, so too did Lorde’s sophomore album, capturing the messy spiral of emotions that take teens and twentysomethings on paths scary and unknown. No album this year was packed with more hooks than this one, and no album was more in tune with what it feels like to be young, wild and free.
4. SZA - Ctrl
No album—or artist—this year managed to tackle sexual politics with such striking realism and emotional bluntness. Blending neo-soul, R&B, and indie rock, SZA created a record that reflects back on navigating the dating minefield of 2017, with its apps and DM-sliding. “Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one,” she croons on “Drew Barrymore”; “You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty, havin’ nobody, only you buddy,” she laments on “Garden (Say It Like That).” Honest, heartbreaking stuff.
3. Valerie June – The Order of Time
I’m ashamed to admit being a bit late to the Valerie June parade, having just heard of her this year. But my god, that voice. The writer Amelia Mason perfectly described it as “a reedy warble, touched by a Tennessean twang”—as gravelly and resilient as the roads that line her Memphis stomping grounds. June, who alternates between a guitar, banjo and ukulele, has blended blues, soul, gospel and folk into her own delicious musical stew. An album you can listen to for days on end.
2. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Similar to Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, a tribute to the musician’s late mother, this collection of songs helped singer-songwriter Phil Everum cope with the death of his wife, musician Geneviève Castrée, who passed away from cancer shortly after the birth of their first child. Unlike Carrie, however, Everum’s latest is foremost a patchwork of moods; the sound of a man broken by tragedy, grasping at meaning. A haunting, elegiac masterpiece.
1. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
At just 24 years of age, the Long Beach native has fast emerged as one of the most audacious, uncompromising voices in hip-hop, and finally, the production has caught up with his lyrical dexterity. On his second album, the MC raps about racism, politics, and sex over G-funk and electro beats, elucidating his dark, nihilistic worldview. “Prison system broken, racial war commotion / Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be voting,” he raps on “BagBak.” On “745,” he ponders the impossibility of love: “These lonely streets / Unpaved, unscathed / Morning dew’s giving you the coldest feet / Said that you was comin’ through after dark / To look at the stars and hardly speak / This thing called love real hard for me / This thing called love is a God to me / And we all just God’s property / So feel free to fulfill the prophecy.” When you place an album like this next to, say, DAMN., the answer is clear. All hail Prince Vince.