20 Albums of 2017
As I mentioned in my list of 20 Songs of 2017, music tends to provide me with the best framework for reflecting on the past year. I remember how certain collections or artists became part of my personal soundtrack for the events and seasons of the last 12 months. Albums hold a particular place in my heart - especially now, in the era of streaming services, when artists have less incentive to release a full album and when revenue is far more likely to come from single streams and touring. However, I am convinced that this shift in our music consumption is good for the album - artists have to work harder than ever to give us a reason to listen to the whole collection. I suppose this is partially why I decided to expand my lists to 20 (instead of 17 for 2017) this year.
One quick disclaimer: I am one person, and do not pretend this list is qualitatively the "best". These are simply the albums that I, first, made time for, and second, found myself continually returning to.
The following 20 albums may have a few tracks I would pull into playlists, but for the most part, the songs on this album are made even better by the context of their record. To allow you to listen to them, the album covers on the left side of the screen will act as links to a Spotify stream (when available). I do understand that an album takes the commitment of time, so for those of you who need further convincing, I have included 2 or 3 suggested song highlights to start with, and have compiled these song choices into a longer playlist on TIDAL, SPOTIFY, and GOOGLE PLAY. On with the list!
20. Drunk - Thundercat
This album wins the quirky award of the year. Thundercat has been quietly influencing some of the biggest hip hop and soul albums of the last 5 years, including (but not limited to) Kendrick Lamar's last three records, Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part 1 & 2, and Childish Gambino's Because the Internet. No big deal. Drunk is admittedly an eclectic album that I can only put on during a particular time, but when it's right, it's perfect. What other album can be an appropriate home for both Wiz Khalifa and Kenny Loggins, both Kendrick Lamar and Michael McDonald? The novelty alone is enough to give it a try, as well as this bizarre music video that features both 80's songsters.
Track Highlights: "Captain Stupido," "Them Changes," and "Show You the Way".
19. Fin - Syd
Syd is one busy creative. Many of us were introduced to her as OddFuture DJ and producer, Syd Tha Kid, or more recently as the front vocalist for The Internet. Now with her first full length solo album, she has proven that her talents and interests in music are ever expanding. Personally, I find her full of complexity - she holds herself with a striking blend of humility and confidence, hard work and effortlessness, awkwardness and sexuality, even masculine and feminine - and all of these pairs run deep through every track on Fin. I tend to be a big fan of explicitly queer music, and Syd delivers - not only does she unapologetically love and sing about women, she also takes a number of straight hip hop tropes and adopts them as her own, particularly when queering the "independent woman" song on "Got Her Own."
Track Highlights: "Body," "All About Me," and "Insecurities".
18. Mura Masa - Mura Masa
DJ/Producer Alex Crossan (aka Mura Masa) is the kind of eclectic DJ I've been waiting for. He has dabbled in every genre from punk to gospel, and while his debut self-titled album is varied, the common theme is solid, danceable beats. Another excellent DJ collaboration album came from Calvin Harris this year, but while Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 includes some huge tracks with even bigger superstar features (such as Pharrell, Katy Perry, and Frank Ocean) Mura Masa gives platform to slightly less mainstream favourites like Nao and Bonzai, with his most popular collaborators being Charlie XCX or A$AP Rocky. Anyway, it's a fantastic album that I initially played without any expectations of repeating, but it found its way on to regular rotation and now here we are, at the end of the year. I know that I'd be lying to myself if it wasn't on this list.
Track Highlights: "1 Night," and "What if I Go".
17. Stillness in Wonderland - Little Simz
During last March Madness when we voted for our favourite femcees, I was so excited to introduce some friends to Little Simz. England has been taking the hip hop world by storm with Grime rappers like Stormzy, Dave and J Hus, but my favourite is little Simbi, who manages to spit bars with a careful aggression, if that's even a thing. I like a lot of her singles (both from this album and earlier) but ultimately what I like about Stillness in Wonderland is her commitment to the extended metaphor of touring and stardom as a Lewis-Carroll-esque wonderland. It may also have helped to see her live at the beginning of the year (her energy is ridiculous and contagious), launching me into a lengthy season of never removing this record from my player (except to turn it over). The artwork is boss too, and you can even buy cool comics based on her persona from her website or shows.
Track Highlights: "Picture Perfect," "Doorways + Trust Issues," and "Poison Ivy".
16. Sleep Well Beast - The National
A beautiful album from an incredibly consistent and soothing band. Ironically I "slept" on this album for the first few months it existed, even though I have a history of enjoying Matt Berninger's vocal stylings as well as the whole band's general aesthetic, not to mention I had a decent number of friends ask me on a regular basis if I liked it. I had been preoccupied with a couple of other albums that caught me by surprise this fall. Anyway, I finally put it on while compiling this very list, and only a few songs in, I realized that it would likely need a spot. I'm actually happy that I didn't play this album during our shockingly temperate autumn, because The National's music is made for a cold winter. Sleep Well Beast is no exception, as it slowly marches on through with a weighty perseverance, but not without a lot of looking back and wondering how things could have been different. It sounds a bit like a temperate mid-life crisis, which is maybe a little too relatable for me at the moment. Some might say that The National deserves a spot on my list simply for being one of the few traditional(ish) white-guy-college-rock bands that I still spend time with. I might also say that.
Track Highlights: "Nobody Else Will Be There," "Day I Die," and "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness".
15. SweetSexySavage - Kehlani
This is not my favourite Kehlani album, but I guess I just like the L.A. singer that much. My biggest critique is that SweetSexySavage is 2 or 3 songs too long, but aside from a few filler tracks, the album is true to its title, and full of catchy, sweet, sexy melodies with moments of savage beast mode too. There is an honesty here that doesn't attempt to sugarcoat any of her experiences - she recognizes that she can be dramatic and messy, but also recognizes that this is what it means to be human. I would say my only disappointment is how much more hetero this record sounds than her earlier mixtapes, Cloud 19 or You Should Be Here, but then I remember that as a bisexual, this is her being true to herself and all her attractions and lovers. Kehlani brings her whole self to this record, and whether we can handle her is up to us as listeners.
Track Highlights: "Distraction," "Advice," and "Thank You".
14. Crawl Space - Tei Shi
Crawl Space is an beautifully honest representation and embodiment of Valerie Teicher's (aka Tei Shi's) fears, past and present. The title itself refers to the dark crawl space Teicher would force herself to spend time in as a child in an attempt to conquer her fears of the dark, enclosed place. Paired with the striking cover art where she is photographed with a tarantula on her face (nope, it's not photoshopped!), I think she gets her point across. This album is one of her greatest fears to face yet, and she does so with openness and strength. Along with her chill, dreamy R&B, she weaves old recordings of her 10-year-old self speaking into a tape-recorder about wanting to be like Britney Spears despite claiming to be a bad singer. Every aspect of this record draws me in and leaves me wanting more, although I'll admit that I think the first half of this album is stronger than the second, with the exception of the penultimate, "Your World".
Track Highlights: "Keep Running," and "Say You Do".
13. Melodrama - Lorde
Lorde's surprisingly brilliant sophomore album, Melodrama, kicks off with a song I was incredibly close to adding to my year-end songs list. "Green Light" sets the tone for the rest of the collection as one song that could easily be three. It is super catchy and poppy, and yet the structure does not sound like anything mainstream. It took me a few listens to be entirely convinced of it, and although I do find it brilliant, I like it best as an album opener and am far less likely to listen to it on its own. Every song on Melodrama has its place in this young person's roller-coaster exploration of life, and just when I might start to think about changing the music, the album is over. Am I alone in thinking that this album is so perfectly timed? Anyway, one of my favourite things about this album is that I never expected to like it at all, but Lorde has proven my own tastes wrong, and reminded us all that age ain't nothing but a number when it comes to great, creative songwriting.
Track Highlights: "Green Light," "Sober," and "Liability".
12. The Hamilton Mixtape - Various Artists
This choice feels like it breaks all kinds of rules, even though I am the one that makes the rules for these year-end lists. What it came down to for me was that throughout the month of January 2017, it would not be an exaggeration to say I listened to this record every day. Hamilton is already one of the few musical soundtracks I can listen to as an album, but the mixtape goes ahead and pop-ifies the already very listenable Lin-Manuel-Miranda-penned songs by giving them to big radio-friendly names to cover, which means it might as well be made for someone like me. Especially when they pull in soul and hip hop legends (like Queen Latifah and Jill Scott) alongside fresh voices (like Snow Tha Product and Andra Day) who absolutely deserve this kind of visibility and platform. I don't think this album needs the extra demos though. They feel like a departure next to these uber-polished pop songs, and instead of a reach to potential fans, they feel more like nuggets that belong in a special feature, or a deluxe version of the soundtrack. Anyway, even without the demos, this climbed up to my #12 spot for the year.
Track Highlights: "Wrote My Way Out," "Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)," "History has its Eyes on You," and "Dear Theodosia (reprise)".
11. Masseduction - St. Vincent
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clarke) will always be a musical risk taker, but I for one have never been fully turned off by her experiments. Clarke cleverly tells stories on this album about control and escape, and how these two concepts so intimately relate to one another. Focusing on what she can and cannot control is how she decides when and how she will escape her reality through sex, drugs, and stories. The wordplay in the titles alone plays with our expectations and invites us to think more deeply about what we're listening to. But Masseduction is not just an intellectual exercise; the music is fun when it's not quietly reflective (as it is on my favourite track, "New York"). Another regular theme I've grown to love from St. Vincent is her play with gender norms, as she does on "Sugarboy." The icing on the cake is the cover photo, which I like to think of as a response to the increased tabloid/celebrity interest in her love life - especially since 4 out of her previous 5 albums prominently feature her face in some way.
Track Highlights: "Pills," "Masseduction," and "New York".
10. Process - Sampha
Sampha managed to build up quite the anticipation for his debut album by finding his way on to a number of major albums of the previous couple of years. Whether we knew his name from Solange's 2016 masterpiece, A Seat at the Table, Kanye's Life of Pablo, or even Jessie Ware's 2011 debut, most of us were excited to see what this unique voice would do with his own creations. His voice - both audibly and lyrically - is what stands out here, as every song takes on a different thought laced with power and emotion. Process is exactly that - Sampha takes control of his own processes of grief, regret, and growing up, over a beautiful blend of R&B and electronica. The moment of the album for me is the stripped-down piano ballad, "No One Knows Me (Like the Piano)," which I included in my songs of the year as well. Once I finally got past listening to the one song, the rest of this album was definitely worth it - especially for anyone who finds themselves in the midst of their own process or transition.
Track Highlights: "Plastic 100°C," "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano," and "Timmy's Prayer".
9. Crack-Up - Fleet Foxes
I am pretty sure it will be impossible for the Fleet Foxes to ever make an album as pure and striking as their self-titled debut. They lost me on Helplessness Blues, and because I didn't know what to expect, I never went out of my way to listen to Crack-Up. However, my wife was drawn to this like a moth to a flame, so eventually I gave it a try. Crack-Up manages to capture the contemplative feelings of their first record without holding themselves hostage to one style. It opens on "I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seca/Thumbprint Scar," which sounds the most like a return to the harmonies and dynamics that had us falling in love with 2008's Fleet Foxes. Still, Crack-Up sounds a little more experimental, like they're no longer trying to prove anything to anyone. The record is both epic and relaxing - I can put it on in the background while doing something else, but it's also a lot of fun to pay attention to.
Track Highlights: "If You Need To, Keep Time on Me," and "Mearcstapa".
8. Freudian - Daniel Caesar
I was pretty excited this summer to share my first listen of Freudian with the Toronto friends who introduced me to this Toronto artist. There is something about Daniel Caesar that tempts me to describe him as "comfortable." I don't mean any shade by that, it's just that this entire record is so chill that I'm never too worried about what I'm doing or who else is listening to it - Freudian manages to blend into the atmosphere, regardless of its surroundings. I particularly love how Caesar explores the relationship between R&B and gospel, even remaking a Kirk Franklin tune into a romantic love song in "Hold Me Down." I especially can't get enough of his duets with featured artists, such as Kali Uchis (in "Get You"), H.E.R. (in "Best Part") and Toronto collaborator, Charlotte Day Wilson (in "Transform"). Syd also shows up on "Take Me Away," and it makes me so happy that he fills his linear notes with these incredible, up-and-coming women instead of headlining rappers who would probably just call in their verses anyway.
Track Highlights: "Get You," "Hold Me Down," and "We Find Love".
7. Flower Boy - Tyler, the Creator
I'm fairly certain that no one is more surprised than I am that this list includes Tyler, the Creator. Although I follow many OddFuture artists, I've never really understood Tyler: I've always found his pre-Flower Boy music too weird and vainly vulgar. So I'm not sure I'm the right person to write about his new album since I'm not a true fan, however this is a bandwagon I am unapologetically jumping on. He is still weird, and he hasn't changed his mischievous, growly vocal tone, yet there is a new softness to his delivery that has helped me see his charm. I keep hearing stories about how songs on this album were written for other people, and I wonder if he's the kind of songwriter who gives away all of his best stuff. Here, he keeps the gems for himself, and I doubt I'm the only fan he's made in the process.
Track Highlights: "Where This Flower Blooms," "See You Again," and "Boredom".
6. Ctrl - SZA
SZA's long-awaited debut album did not disappoint anyone I know. This was majorly SZA's year, releasing this well-received and reviewed R&B masterpiece the same year that she entered Billboard top 40 charts with her Maroon 5 collaboration, "What Lovers Do," which is also fire. Although that song is catchy af, it does not compare to this beautiful collection of songs by a deeply self-aware girl who artfully weaves her conflicting emotions of desperation and self-assurance into some super chill songs with tight productions. So many of these songs are anthems to women like herself - those who stand out because of their determination, emotions, or physical appearance - and when she closes the album with "20 Something," it feels like a dedication. She refuses to feel shame in her age or any other aspect of her life and person, and makes music that matches vulnerability with a beautiful self-respect that we don't always see from young artists. I'm super excited about what else SZA has in store for us, and hope it doesn't take quite as long as this one did.
Track Highlights: "Drew Barrymore," "The Weekend," and "20 Something".
5. Laila's Wisdom - Rapsody
What an epic album of tradition and progress, of memories and insights, of passion and wonder. As with many great rap albums, this is one in which I continue to catch new phrases or references every single listen through, even when I'm not always looking for them. Her rhymes are dripping with connection and wordplay that would make me unceasingly giddy if I weren't caught up with dancing it out. Here, Rapsody passes on the wisdom and values of her ancestors (Laila of the album title is her grandmother) - a whole history of black American women who hold their families up - and packages it in a spirit of resilience, confidence and joy as a kind of coaching encouragement to the whole community. I am tempted to describe this as nurturing hip hop. Still, she never loses the ability to knock you down if you deserve it, and she can pull out the cockiness with the best of the gangstas. I love Rapsody to bits, and this album is exactly what I've been waiting for. The whole thing culminates in one of the most powerful songs of the year, where she tells a different story of someone's death in each verse. Brace yourself for some serious feels. There's nowhere to go from there but back to the beginning of Laila's Wisdom. She earned those Grammy nominations, and hopefully many more to come.
Track Highlights: "Power," "Sassy," and "Jesus Coming".
4. Ash - Ibeyi
Ash is yet another brilliant sophomore album that rocked my world in 2017. Compared to Ibeyi's self-titled debut in 2015, Ash feels at once more focused and diverse. After successfully releasing music in Yoruba, French and English, they finally recorded their first song in Spanish, "Me Voy," and it is pure fire. One of the things that has impressed me about this twin duo since seeing them live is the sheer volume they can create between the two of them. On tour, they lack their backup vocals and horn section, but make up for it in effortless looping, sampling, layered percussion, and most of all, contagiously energetic chemistry and stage presence. Every song is written for a communal experience, often inviting us in with some repeated hook or chant. Somehow this is not lost on the LP either. They are backed up not only by family (their mother tours with them!), but also by features who are absolutely perfect collaborators - particularly Kamasi Washington playing tenor sax on "Deathless," and our all-time fave First Lady herself, Michelle Obama on "No Man is Big Enough for My Arms." I am about to list highlights, but I honestly don't know how to single out songs from such a seamless album. Whether they are recounting an experience with a racist cop ("Deathless") or singing a lullaby for their niece ("Valé"), their sounds are pure, engaging, and stunning.
Track Highlights: "Waves," "Transmission/Michaelion," and "When Will I Learn". Also all the songs I mentioned in the paragraph above... and whatever else I missed. Ha!
3. DAMN - Kendrick Lamar
If you've spent some time with other (more legit) year-end lists, you will have noticed that Kendrick's DAMN regularly takes the top spot. This is a completely understandable decision, and now is a great time to mention that my top 3 albums are so incredibly close in my mind/heart, their order might as well be interchangeable. This was easily my most anticipated album of 2017. Waiting for it to be released as possible singles were dropping individually was both exciting and nerve-racking: how on earth would he follow up his exceptional, game-changing 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly? This is how. Release a record that continues to explore Kendrick's internal processing of his own celebrity, music and place in the wider American community. It's the view from his mirror, and yet the rest of us are privileged to get a peek. DAMN sounds a little less funky than TPAB, but other than that, it's got the same vivid storytelling and revealing insights that we've come to expect from this G.O.A.T. contender.
Track Highlights: "D.N.A." "LOVE." and "GOD."
2. Turn Out the Lights - Julien Baker
Julien Baker is an absolute gem. I was made a quick fan when a friend shared her tiny desk concert, and in all her shy, awkward glory, she managed to sing words that spoke directly to my protestant-raised queer heart. Sometimes I'm amazed at the amount of wisdom, pain and talent that can fit into such a small, young human. If you let her, Julien Baker will knock you off your feet. Turn Out the Lights is her second LP, and manages to touch some of the deepest despair without ever completely losing hope as she plays with important tensions on this record. One regular theme that carries over from her first album, Sprained Ankle, is the articulation of faith. Baker weighs what she continues to hold on to against what she so desperately tries to let go of. She also lays all of herself on the table, including her insecurities and self-doubt, and works hard to love herself with as much honesty and strength as she can muster. This is an album that rips to my core, and as someone who spends a lot of time avoiding my feelings, I can only listen to this music in particular circumstances. Prepare yourself accordingly.
Track Highlights: "Appointments", "Televangelist," and "Hurt Less".
1. 4:44 - Jay-Z
This album, along with its companion music videos, is reason enough to subscribe to Tidal. We have caught brief moments of Jay's ability to write vulnerability into his rhymes before, but 4:44 is an entire collection born from a huge mistake which nearly caused him to lose everything important to him. But that still doesn't sum up 4:44. Jay also manages to provide some deep thought around the history of race in America and its ongoing influence in all of life. Tracks like "Family Feud" can be heard on ever-expanding dimensions: he's talking about the family unit, sure, but more importantly, the hip hop community, and the black American family, and Americans in general, and humanity as a whole, because we all need to find a way to live together. And yet none of his songs sound like a trivialized, cheesy, let's-all-get-along trope. He's hard and harsh and at times controversial. This is Jay-Z at his best, but ironically, some won't hear it because they gave up on him the minute Beyoncé dropped some anger on Lemonade.
I haven't even mentioned my favourite track on this record, which recently (read: finally) got a music video to accompany it. "Smile" not only samples the great Stevie Wonder (generally the samples and production on 4:44 are immaculate, thanks to No I.D.), but also features Jay's mother, Gloria. In fact, Jay-Z spends the first verse telling some of his mother's story of coming out as a lesbian, and of his acceptance, love and respect for her. The video focuses in on this story as well, and I'm feeling emotional just writing about it. You might want to get your free trial subscription to Tidal so you can check it out, along with his other videos, which do what the best of music videos do: expand the depth and meaning each song explores.
Track Highlights: "Smile," "Moonlight," and "Marcy Me".
And there you have it: another year of music gone by. Don't forget to let me know what I missed (but don't bother if it's someone whose name rhymes with Ted Shmeerman). Oh yes, and for those who don't know where to start, try the playlists I've made of these suggestions shuffled up a bit - it's available on TIDAL, SPOTIFY, and GOOGLE PLAY.
And cheers to 2018! Whatever joy and pain this new year brings, may it continue to inspire some deep and genius musical art to help guide us through it all.