2017 was a frustrating, infuriating, and often heartbreaking year. From the politics to the abuses and scandals that trickled all the way down to our little music scene, it felt like every day had some scrap of bad news to serve up. It was a year where we really needed something to lean on and keep us resilient and resolute, and the artists featured on this list responded to that call of duty admirably.
The 25 records featured below are eclectic and far-reaching. Some are achingly personal reckonings with personal demons and mental illness. Others are scathing indictments of the political status quo. Some explore the cycle of getting older and losing your youth, while others revel in the excitement and confusion of being young. Some are pop records, while others are hip-hop or folk, country or post-hardcore, emo or classic-tinged rock ‘n’ roll. They are all distinctly different, but they all had at least one thing in common: for 30 or 40 or 50 minutes at a time, they all made 2017 feel a little more bearable.
So, without further ado, I give you Chorus.fm’s Top 25 Albums of 2017. In the words of one of the artists featured below, I hope you find something to love.
1. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
I have said, since the first time I heard Sprained Ankle, that Julien Baker’s music is about finding the littlest sliver of light throughout the darkest moments of your life. Whether found through the grace and forgiveness of God, or through a loved one, or just through your own sheer force of will, it’s the act of seeking out that light that is the subject of Baker’s hymnal odes to love and sorrow.
Baker’s second full-length album Turn Out the Lights, though, is also about the moments when there is no light to be found. “When I turn out the lights, there’s no one left, between myself and me,” she sings on the title track, reflecting on the isolation of recovery and confronting her most self-destructive parts. At times, it feels like the darkness can swallow you up and you can drown underneath it like a tidal wave; “The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” she sings on album highlight “Sour Breath.”
But you keep reaching for the light. You hope others can help pull you toward it, but you have to find it yourself. They can’t give you some of their light. “You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes, how I think almost all the time,” she sings on “Shadowboxing.”
“Lord, is there some way to make it stop?” she asks of the darkness on “Everything that Helps You Sleep.” But where she would have previously asked to be taken from this world (“Go Home”), on album closer “Claws in Your Back” she ends the album with a plea, “I change my mind, I wanted to stay.” Baker is ready for the fight. She’s ready to crawl her way toward the light, even as the demons dig their claws into her back. There’s no map to get there, but the act of going is enough.
Turn Out The Lights is the sound of one of the most important artists of a generation taking a confident step forward into a new phase of her already remarkable career. Baker is still just 22 years old. The phrase “the sky is the limit” gets tossed around a lot, but I don’t think that phrase lives up to the potential of Julien Baker’s extraordinary talent. In a year where we sometimes needed an escape from the horrors of life, Baker gave us comfort. I think I can speak for everyone when I say I can’t wait to see what she does next. [CI]
Key track: “Turn Out the Lights”
2. The Menzingers – After the Party
The “maybe we ain’t that young anymore” album is one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll rites of passage. Springsteen made one with Born to Run. The Killers made one with Sam’s Town. The Gaslight Anthem made one with American Slang. And The Menzingers made one here with After the Party. Coming-of-age albums are thrilling because of how they capture their creators reeling in the waves of a million different emotions and opportunities. But I’ve always been more drawn to the albums that come after—the ones that look back and say “those were the days.” On After the Party, The Menzingers cast one last wistful look in the rearview mirror before driving off into the sunset. “Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” asks the chorus of “Tellin’ Lies.” The album doesn’t serve up the answer—at least not right away.
Instead, After the Party is the sound of missing what’s gone. It’s the sound of looking at old pictures of you and your friends, from when you had a little more hair and a little less waistline, and journeying back to those moments. It’s the sound of remembering when you could stay out at the bars until closing (and thinking about how much you’d pay for it the next day if you tried to do that now). It’s the sound of old flames who seem like different people when you see them again after many years. It’s the sound of looking back fondly on things that shouldn’t seem appealing—like being broke as hell, sleeping on friends’ couches, and realizing your college degree is worth less than the paper it’s printed on—but still finding the romance there. Ultimately, it’s the sound of realizing how much time has passed since your glory days, but also how much life is still left to live.
What the hell are you supposed to do with all that time? Based on how reckless and raucous the good old days sound on this record, it’s tough imagine the next chapter being anything but grayscale malaise. Thank god for the title track, then, which finds the silver lining: “After the party, it’s me any you.” Life is never going to be as loud or as crowded with characters as it is when you’re young. But if you have the right person there with you when the noise subsides, maybe getting old doesn’t have to be so bad. [CM]
Key track: “Lookers”
3. Paramore – After Laughter
There’s been a lot of talk about the “neon era” of emo bands and how some have gone on to experience huge success while others, predictably, have crashed and burned. There is perhaps no better success story than Paramore, a band who, in spite of more drama than most bands could possibly endure, keep managing to push their sound in directions that are simultaneously more progressive and more accessible.
You wouldn’t expect the same band who wrote “Misery Business” to be releasing an album of 80s tinged pop-rock bangers, but that’s the beauty of After Laughter. This sound was hinted at a couple of times on 2013’s Paramore, but the band leans on it fully this time around. The risk pays off: After Laughter is by far Paramore’s most consistent record so far. Some have complained about the band going “full-pop,” but really the only answer to that criticism is “Where have you been?” This is a Grammy-nominated band with more hooks in their back catalog than most bands will ever write. Songs like “Rose-Colored Boy” and “Told You So” sound right at home in the Paramore canon. The guitars are still firmly present in the mix, while auxiliary percussion touches and other melodic elements push the album to the “next level” that so many bands fail to reach.
Of all the records that I’ve heard over the past year, this one, more than any other, has triggered emotional responses in me that I won’t soon forget. Hayley Williams’ lyrics are painfully honest, with the subjects of heartbreak and depression always unapologetically at the forefront. That’s the point, though: that it’s okay to wear those feelings on your sleeve. 2017 was seemingly an emotional roller coaster for everyone, and Paramore were kind enough to provide the perfect soundtrack. [AJ]
Key track: Fake Happy
4. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
In a year filled with some of my favorite musical moments, it was Phoebe Bridgers’s debut full-length that captured my heart in a way few albums can. Both heartbreakingly sad and soul-enrichingly cathartic, Stranger in the Alps is an album that pulls you a little deeper with each track. It haunts your thoughts and pairs annoying well with a stiff drink on a cold night. You’ll ruminate on past relationships, death, love found and lost, and experience an emotional journey that only the best music can guide you down. The melodies are infectious and affecting, at times sing-a-long catchy and yet undeniably devastating. It’s the kind of album I loved on my first listen and yet it’s the hundredth spin where I find something new, something I’d missed, and it breaks me all over again.
Bridgers’s vocals are exceptional. Strong, fluid, and in control of every note. This control pulls the listener through the songs, and when she feels on the edge of breaking, the listener does too. You’re hanging on each lyric. The stinging numbness of a perilous tightrope walk. Your ears and emotions on strings being manipulated by a master marionettist. The result is an immersive experience, the best kind of musical wizardry. It’s a stunning debut from one of the best new voices in music. [JT]
Key track: “Funeral”
5. Kendrick Lamar – Damn.
By almost all measures, Kendrick Lamar is on top of the world. 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a landmark piece of work that, in retrospect, feels like a warning as to how the socio-political climate would end up changing throughout the next two years. So when the biggest rockstar on the planet releases his opus at the ripe, young age of 28, where do they go next? DAMN. is an album committed to growth, both in subject matter and in execution. It manages not only to trim 25 minutes off its predecessor’s unwieldy 80-minute runtime, but also delivers leaner, radio-ready tracks without compromising its creator’s vision. Here, Lamar uses 2017’s political landscape to springboard through Fox News samples and verses about the feelings and the fear that come with being the voice of a generation.
While it’s easy to recognize songs like “DNA.” and “FEEL.” as career highlights after a single listen, DAMN. is also an album that specializes in rewarding repeat listens, offering experimental beats and flows (“YAH.,” “PRIDE.”) that bend influences and open up new musical avenues for Lamar. At its heart, DAMN. is a hip-hop album with the ideals of a punk album and the features of a pop album. It is a testament to taking full control of your artistic vision and not staying in one place for too long. Most importantly, it solidifies King Kendrick’s throne in the current culture and proves that you never have to settle to entertain audiences with high-concept art. [AM]
Key track: “YAH”
6. Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface
If Cope was Manchester Orchestra at their loudest and most straightforward, A Black Mile to the Surface is the band at their, well, opposite. According to songwriter Andy Hull, the mantra for the album was “intensity without the volume,” and it certainly delivers. The songs are complex, layered, and introspective, drawing both from Hull’s new life territory as a father as well as his experience writing an a cappella soundtrack for the eccentric film Swiss Army Man. An overarching theme of the album is around what we leave behind when we die, as Hull sings on The Maze, “There is nothing I’ve got when I die that I keep,” and similarly on The Wolf, “There is nothing you’ve got when you die that you keep.” This theme finally culminates on the closing track, The Silence, where Hull sings “There is nothing you keep, there is only your reflection.” We don’t take anything with us when we die, so all we can do in this life is try to make things a little better for those we leave behind: our children, our reflections. [SS]
Key track: “The Silence”
7. Bleachers – Gone Now
Gone Now is the best pop record you’ll hear this year, and “Don’t Take the Money” is the best pop song you’ll hear this year. Already having dozens of pop hits under his belt, Jack Antonoff manages to eclipse the expertise demonstrated on Strange Desire with Gone Now, his sophomore effort as Bleachers. He experiments further on this record, using layering in ways most artists can’t accomplish on even a single chorus, let alone song after song on an entire record. The fact that two songs as catchy as “Hate That You Know Me” and “Don’t Take the Money” exist back-to-back is enough to give this record applause, but when you follow those tracks with the heartbreaking honesty of “Everybody Lost Somebody” and “All My Heroes,” the record becomes a modern masterpiece. The latter features Gone Now’s most contrite lyrics, as Antonoff somberly realizes, “All my heroes got tired/All the days, they got short.” The layered synth contrasts with his subdued vocals until the song builds as he concludes, “I’ll be something better yet.” This is just one of the many powerful moments on a record that stands as one of the year’s biggest musical accomplishments. [RG]
Key Track: “Don’t Take the Money”
8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Let’s face it, Jason Isbell’s got it pretty good. Even in a year when he didn’t craft his best album, he still managed to make one of the best records of 2017. The Nashville Sound is Isbell’s sixth studio album and his first with his backing band The 400 Unit (at least in terms of billing) since 2011’s Here We Rest. The band’s impact is immediate, as the sextet growls loudly on the full-throttled rocker “Cumberland Gap,” easily the band’s most energetic cut to date. But as much fun as “Cumberland Gap” is, Isbell and his band are at the best on the more pensive narratives. Nowhere is that more visible than on the bristling, rustic rumble of “White Man’s World.” In under four minutes, Isbell sings with a conviction and clarity that absolutely commands your attention and demands repeated listens. Armed with eight more songs that are equally stirring and you have what is without question one of the year’s best discs. [GR]
Key track: “White Man’s World”
9. Sorority Noise – You’re Not As ___ As You Think
Sorority Noise put on one of the best shows I saw in 2017, playing their latest record You’re Not As _____ As You Think for cathartic, powerful experience. The record documents Cam Boucher’s attempts to cope with the deaths of close friends the year prior, in honest and harrowing terms. From its opening line—a lament on his lack of sleep—the album is as personal and affecting as any other, as Boucher admits he’s “been feeling suicidal” and “daydream[ing] of the noose that took my friend Sean’s life.” Honesty has always been one of the draws of Sorority Noise’s music, but they’ve never put out a record as raw as this one.
Nor, I should mention, have they ever put out an album as good as this one. The weight behind Boucher’s lyrics is emphasized by the urgency of the music behind them: the punk energy of “No Halo,” the post-hardcore edge of “A Portrait Of,” the shoegaze influence on “Second Letter from St. Sean”—and that’s just the first three tracks. Despite the content, it seems impossible not to sing along to songs like “No Halo” or “Where Are You?” It feels like that’s the point, because you feel less alone when you’re singing along. [ZD]
Key track: “No Halo”
10. Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2
In 2017, Chris Stapleton took country music by storm and made it look so easy. In addition to Traveller continuing to sell well, he released two albums this year. From A Room: Volume 1 instantly grabbed me because it didn’t feel exactly the same as Traveller did. Stapleton brought something new to the table with the new set of songs, and in December, From A Room: Volume 2 showed just how much solid music he had recorded during his sessions. It’s hard to believe that one person could have this kind of run in a span of a few years, but he’s done it. His songs might not be quite as radio friendly as other country artists, but they don’t need to be. They aren’t the country-pop or bro-country songs that radio prefers. Instead, Stapleton’s songs are full of substance. He’s written hit after hit for other artists, but it’s his personal songwriting style that shines in his own music. Both of his albums ooze with his personality—even the cover songs—and that auteur-like creativity is exactly what country music needs right now. No surprise that Chris Stapleton is easily one of my favorite “new” artists in country music these days. [DC]
Key track: “Scarecrow in the Garden”
11. Lorde – Melodrama
In the era of streaming, where streams of a single song can shoot a record to the top of the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, if there is an album that will save the LP as an art form, it is Lorde’s Melodrama. This charming, hedonistic thrill-ride of a record can and should only be experienced by letting the whole record wash over you at once, from the pulsating house piano of “Green Light” to the irresolute comedown of “Perfect Places.” Ella Yelich-O’Connor has described how she has sound-to-color synesthesia, and knowing this puts the album in perspective. Melodrama is an exhilarating kaleidoscopic view into O’Connor’s psyche, as she explores the headlong rush of falling for another person (“The Louvre”), the seeming impossibility of finding love in our generation (“Hard Feelings/Loveless”), and learning to love yourself despite your faults and insecurities (“Liability”).
The melodies are timeless. The production is exceedingly brilliant. Every detail has been so clearly thought out, but not once does Melodrama feel forced or like Lorde is trying too hard. It all just feels so effortlessly brilliant. This the sound of a pop opus. There may not be such things as perfect places, but maybe there are such things as perfect pop albums. [CI]
Key track: “Perfect Places”
12. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
In a 2017 interview with Beats 1, Vince Staples described his then-upcoming record as something that sounded like “2029.” He’s right. Big Fish Theory is indeed a futuristic-sounding album. But it’s also incredibly timely. The club-ready beats sound closer to British grime than the West Coast sound of Vince’s last record, Summertime ‘06, and the songs are layered with everything from the sounds of rain and thunder to the cacophony of police sirens.
Lyrically, Big Fish Theory feels especially grounded in the now. Staples candidly discusses fame and its adverse effects on his mental health, along with racism and America’s current political hellscape. His fiercest denunciations come in the form of “BagBak” (featured in the awesome Black Panther trailer), in which he tells the audience to “clap your hands if the police ever profiled” them. The line at once accomplishes two things: it outrages you and it makes you want to dance. In that way, the song is like a microcosm of the whole album: an infectious and important encapsulation of the zeitgeist. [ZD]
Key track: “BagBak”
13. The Maine – Lovely Little Lonely
Something I find myself thinking about more and more as I get older is how much the music we connect with depends on timing. With my 26th birthday just a few weeks away, I currently find myself in that weird limbo between childhood and adulthood: too old to believe in fairy tales but too young to give up on dreaming just yet. That’s probably why The Maine’s Lovely Little Lonely is a record that has resonated with me since I first heard it, and why it was one of only a handful that I found myself returning to throughout the year. With its references to growing older, staying young, and getting lost in both reverie and nostalgia, Lovely Little Lonely is all about finding your way through uncertain times. It was a perfectly timed record for me, as well as for so many other fans who have grown up over the past decade with this band and are beginning to realize that they’re no longer 17. But that doesn’t mean that we have to grow up just yet, and as The Maine toasts in the album’s opening lines: “Here’s to now, and nothing else.” [BK]
Key track: “Don’t Come Down”
14. The National – Sleep Well Beast
The National have long been at the forefront of moody, middle-aged indie rock, but they’ve never made anything quite as dark or mature as their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast. Billed as an adult breakup record of sorts, the album finds frontman Matt Berninger recounting each and every detail, from the gut-wrenching to the mundane, that almost ended his marriage and his relationship with his bandmates. Luckily for Berninger, the story has a happy ending, and luckily for us, his decision to tell it candidly results in some of the band’s strongest work to date. This is also due to the fact that Sleep Well Beast takes more musical risks over the span of an hour than the band has in the past decade, presenting the same veteran colloquialisms formed around guitar solos (“The System Only Sleeps in Total Darkness”), Radiohead-inspired glitch-rock (“I’ll Still Destroy You”) and political foot-stompers (“Turtleneck”). For a band as widely celebrated as The National, Sleep Well Beast may not wind up a consensus favorite among fans, but it is a document of brutal honesty and successful late-career experimentation, as well as a perfect entry point for those interested in one of the most consistent outfits in indie-rock today. [AM]
Key track: “Dark Side of the Gym”
15. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Zombies on Broadway
Andrew McMahon is so dependable that people have started to take him for granted. Such was the case with Zombies on Broadway, an album that probably didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. Part of it was McMahon’s stubborn refusal to make a less-than-stellar record. The other part was release timing, since Zombies is a bulletproof summertime record that dropped on February 10th. Still, despite the early release and suboptimal seasonality, this album stuck with me all year, each song finding some way to worm its way into my consciousness. The first half is McMahon showing that he can hang with the big stars in terms of pop songs. With a bigger label push, “Fire Escape,” “So Close,” and “Don’t Speak for Me” would have been hits. It’s the second half of the record where McMahon really lets his artistry shine, though: the late night, street light memories of “Walking in My Sleep”; the Caribbean-flavored “Island Radio”; the big city romance of “Love and Great Buildings”; and “Birthday Song,” a stoic rumination on touring lifestyle that builds from a slow piano ballad to a big, epic conclusion. The album artwork repeatedly shows Andrew in astronaut garb, which is fitting since the climax of “Birthday Song” sounds like a shuttle blasting off into the stratosphere. After years of writing songs that reference spacemen, McMahon finally managed to make an album that makes you feel like one. [CM]
Key Track: “So Close”
16. Taylor Swift – Reputation
Taylor Swift is one of the most polarizing artists in modern music. Because of that fact, nobody was sure what to expect from Swift’s sixth studio effort, Reputation. November 2016 had come and and gone, breaking the every-two-years album release pattern Swift had maintained since the start of her career. Fans were left without a new LP to decipher and imprint on their hearts, but those who would have rather seen Swift disappear were (loudly) grateful for the break. Between Taylor’s well-documented dating escapades and the tiresome ongoing feud with Kimye West, it seemed like the world had burned out on the Swift star. And then there was Reputation. After “Look What You Made Me Do” was released, theories were rampant: here Taylor was, playing the victim; the record would be a concept album based on her previous personas; Taylor Swift forgot how to write a good song (or never knew how to in the first place). The takes were boiling hot and abundant. They were also almost entirely wrong.
Reputation is not an album about vengeance. It’s not about playing the victim. It’s not even about claiming the snake throne, despite what Swift’s (in retrospect) incredibly shrewd first single and music video choice would imply. “Look What You Made Me Do” is a red herring. Out of fifteen tracks, there are only two (the also-polarizing “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” being the other) that seem to reference the feud that keeps on giving. Instead, Swift spends most of the album getting a crush (the subtle earworms on “Delicate” and “Gorgeous”), falling in lust (“So It Goes” and “Dress” are certified date-night-at-home slow jams), and then finally falling in love. Love here starts as an inferno, on“Don’t Blame Me,” and then settles by the end of the record into something softer, something stable, and something that could last with the contemplative “Call It What You Want”. The album ends with conclusive proof that the old Taylor is not actually dead, just different, with the Red-esque “New Years Day.”
All in all, the quiet irony and apparent self-awareness of Reputation is a major departure for Swift. There’s a quiet confidence in these that we’ve never heard from her before. In many respects, it feels like the most humanized and honest she has ever allowed herself to be, at least to our eyes and ears. Whether or not it was her intention, it seems like that’s what we really made her do. [AA]
Key track: “Getaway Car”
17. Kesha – Rainbow
Kesha’s third studio album, Rainbow, was released nearly five years after her previous effort, Warrior. The interim was consumed by a well-publicized and drawn-out legal battle with her former producer, Dr. Luke. Kesha alleged that their work together was earmarked by years of abuse and assault. Naturally, he told a different story. While the legal saga is not over, Kesha was finally permitted to release music without his influence in 2017. The result is breathtaking.
From start to finish, Rainbow is a story of redemption, healing, and finding the light after the storm. The album opens on a declaration: don’t let the bastards get you down. The pure joy on tracks like “Let ‘Em Talk,” “Woman,” and “Boogie Feet” is absolutely infectious, and her duet with Dolly Parton on the classic “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)” is the cover I never knew I needed. On Rainbow, Kesha has perfected the art of adding humor to both bliss and devastation. You cry with her on “Learn to Let Go,” “Rainbow,” and her stunningly poignant first single, “Praying.” The pure scope of emotion on Rainbow shows both her prowess as a writer and stands as proof that she is a vocalist and performer to be reckoned with. It also stands as a defiant challenge to any critic who says “pop music” with an air of derision.
Rainbow plays like a young woman’s triumphant return to the industry she was forced to step back from, and what is truly remarkable is the way Kesha hasn’t missed a step. On the contrary, she seems to have evolved as an artist immeasurably since we last heard from her. This is a silence-breaker who knows who she is and is not afraid to show anyone. It’s impossible to know now what kind of artist Kesha would be had the cards unfolded differently, or if she’d been releasing music during the years she was silenced. One thing is for sure, though: if Rainbow is any evidence of the artistry that the world has been missing while Kesha was fighting for her freedom, then we can only hope she’ll be inviting us to paint the world with her for years to come. [AA]
Key track: “Learn to Let Go”
18. Converge – The Dusk in Us
Twenty-plus years in the game and still no signs of slowing down, Converge viciously re-entered the metal and hardcore conversation in 2017. Five years removed from the colossal All We Love We Leave Behind, The Dusk In Us features Converge at their most nuanced yet sinister selves. Post-rock glaciers like the title track and “Thousands of Miles Between Us” continue to show Converge’s excellence at creating doom, while “Arkhipov Calm,” “Trigger,” and “Cannibals” hearken back to those early basement-dwelling years of the band’s career. But it’s when both world’s collide that Converge is at its very best as “A Single Tear” and “Reptilian” begin and end the record with some of the very best work of the band’s illustrious career. [DB]
Key track “A Single Tear”
19. Glassjaw – Material Control
It’s extremely rare for bands to take 15 years between full-lengths. It’s even rarer for a band to take that long and still be 1) relevant and 2) genre-defining. But that’s exactly what Glassjaw did with Material Control, the proper (and long-awaited) follow-up to 2002’s Worship & Tribute. After years of constant and infuriating false starts, the braintrust of vocalist Daryl Palumbo and Justin Beck hunkered down and created the band’s most cohesive and experimental piece of post-hardcore yet. Along with session drummer Billy Rymer (formerly of The Dillinger Escape Plan), Glassjaw unleashed their grooviest songs (“Citizen” and “Pompeii”), their heaviest songs (“Bibleland 6” and “Cut and Run”), and their weirdest songs (“Golgotha”) yet. At every extreme, Palumbo’s vocals flow seamlessly with Beck’s incredible guitar and bass work, creating music that is cohesive, potent, and well worth the wait. Hopefully this isn’t the end of Glassjaw’s reign, but if the Long Island legends say goodbye here, at least they went out with a masterpiece. [DB]
Key track: “Golgotha”
20. Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
2017 was a year of accountability, and 26-year-old Tyler Okonma has a lot to be held accountable for. As the past leader of Odd Future, a hip-hop collective defined by their arrogance as much as their potential, he freely incorporated misogynistic lyrics and homophobic slurs into his pre-2014 catalog. Now, in the same year that assault allegations against a member of queer-punk outfit PWR BTTM turned the community on its head, Tyler, the Creator gave us Flower Boy, an album that fails to exonerate him from his past actions, but succeeds in giving us a deeper look at what it means to be an LGBTQ+ person of color making music in a genre that has historically taken issue with that very same community.
Musically, Flower Boy is a warm, jazz-influenced affair that reflects the tones of its artwork, a reaction to the abrasive qualities of 2014’s Yeezus-esque Cherry Bomb. An accomplished piano player, Okonma jumps at the chance to accompany serious subject matter with even more piano pieces and rich guitar tones, tapping into current R&B favorites like Frank Ocean and Rex Orange County. Among hits about loneliness and alienation (“911/Mr. Lonely,” “Boredom”), Okonma addresses his sexuality a number of times, most notably on career highlight “Garden Shed.” All this to say, we should still hold Okonma accountable for his past actions, but we can also recognize the steps the young musician is taking to foster change, from the songs he’s deliberately omitted from recent setlists to the platform he’s provided to the predominantly queer Brockhampton at his very own festival. [AM]
Key track: “Boredom”
21. Natalie Hemby – Puxico
Natalie Hemby’s Puxico is a debut album perfect for summer nights and nostalgic walks around town. It’s also one of the best country records of 2017. From the longing for tradition and returning to roots audible on “Time Honored Tradition” to the trip down memory lane of “This Town Still Talks About You ” (about an old friend who left town), Hemby constantly creates a picturesque view of small town memories that you can’t help but relate to your own past. It’s an album that begs to be fully listened to, start to finish, with the windows down as the sun fades away on a summer night, or as you walk through your old neighborhood and reminisce, lost in thought. Hemby’s songs create a longing for simpler times, told in a unique storytelling fashion that only this brand of country folk music can convey. [RG]
Key track: “This Town Still Talks About You”
22. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
One of my fondest music memories of 2017 came in the early morning hours of Labor Day. I was in my car, driving from Detroit to Grand Rapids after one of U2’s Joshua Tree anniversary tour shows (another of my favorite music memories of the year). The adrenaline of the big rock show was wearing off and I was starting to get a little tired. My GPS telling me I wasn’t going to get home until about 2:15 a.m. wasn’t helping. Luckily, I had two things to keep me awake. The first was the lukewarm Mountain Dew in my cup holder, which wasn’t very good but at least put some caffeine in my bloodstream. The second was A Deeper Understanding, playing so loud that I felt like I was still in Ford Field listening to U2. If you don’t own a car, A Deeper Understanding probably sounds like a perfectly good guitar rock record. The guitar solos are magnificent (and numerous), to the point where I think just about anyone could at least appreciate this record. But I don’t think you can really get The War on Drugs—this album especially—until you climb into a car and play it full blast on a solitary road trip. As the only one on the highway, way too late at night, I heard these songs in a new light. The skittering synths of “Holding On”; the interstellar guitar melody on “Strangest Thing”; the long, desolate expanses of “Thinking of a Place”; the cathartic, harmonica-assisted crescendo of “You Don’t Have to Go.” These moments appealed to me from the first time I heard the album, but they sounded so much more epic that night in the car. No album made me feel more invincible in 2017. [CM]
Key Track: “Strangest Thing”
23. Dua Lipa – Dua Lipa
It was an admittedly down year for the world’s biggest pop superstars. Though both Katy Perry’s Witness and Taylor Swift’s Reputation sold well commercially, they were plagued by mixed critical reaction. Meanwhile, streaming services led other surefire successes to disappointing sales figures. One possible alternate explanation: all the best pop songs of the year were already scooped up by a British-via-Kosovo singer with a soulful, sultry voice named Dua Lipa. One of the most self-assured debut albums in recent memory, Dua Lipa is an instant windows-down summer drive soundtrack. There’s an effervescent energy to the entire operation here, whether it’s the shimmering bass of the Miguel duet “Lost in Your Light” or the insistent “Be the One.” It’s apparent Lipa wants to be the biggest pop star and by god she’s going to get there. It all comes down to this: Dua Lipa knows how powerful and unique her voice is, and she’s damn well going to show it off.
The show-stopper here, though, is the anthemic “New Rules,” a song which has a genuine shot to stand as one of the best pop songs of the 2010s. A tropical house beat and a breathy vocal delivery give way to one of the most iconic moments of 2017 music: the titular rules Dua Lipa lists to help get over that ex-lover she just can’t seem to shake. It’s euphoric, triumphant, and sums up everything that was good about 2017. [CI]
Key track: “New Rules”
24. King Krule – The Ooz
Archy Marshall is one of the most prolific and profound artists creating music today. With The Ooz, he has made his most immersive and genre-spanning body of work to date. It solidifies his voice as an important one for a generation wrought with anxiety and frustration. The opening line of the record informs this sentiment immediately, doused with the introspection that Marshall is known for nailing so well: “I seem to sink lower, gazing in the rays of the solar.” With his many aliases, from Zoo Kid to DJ JD Sports, Marshall has always managed to display his vast array of influences, both in individual projects and by colliding them with King Krule. He allows his vocals to be at the forefront of this project, but sets them beside is a masterful blend of sultry jazz, raucous punk rock, grand hip-hop and infectious indie. Each style complements the next, working into a seamless landscape of deep and enveloping sounds. The Ooz is full of beautifully poetic candor and vulnerability. Thematically, it’s all steered by a captain who has managed to get a grip on conveying the motions many of us go through every day: fear, depression, anxiety, uncertainty, love, and loneliness. Even if he hasn’t managed to overcome these trials himself, hearing Marshall articulate the intricacies involved in each is an unbeatable comfort on its own. [KH]
Key track: “Dum Surfer”
25. Silverstein – Dead Reflection
Silverstein’s consistency when it comes to their albums is something that is truly impressive. For a band that’s been going for 18 years and counting, they continue to create music that has a sound and style that fans of the band have come to love. Despite the familiarity that this genre has developed, the music doesn’t feel stale or rehashed. Their latest album, Dead Reflection, showcases the best Silverstein has to offer. The album opens up with heavy hitters like “Last Looks” and “Retrograde” and never lets up. Tracks such as “The Afterglow” and “Aquamarine” show the poppier/punk side of the spectrum, while closing track “Wake Up” feels like the perfect finale, building from softly-sung verses to a chorus where vocalist Shane Told screams“wake up” with raw emotion and self-reflection. There’s something for everyone on this album, and it’s definitely worth checking out in case you missed it. [EW]
Key track: “Secret’s Safe”
- [CI]: Craig Ismaili
- [CM]: Craig Manning
- [AJ]: Aj LaGambina
- [JT]: Jason Tate
- [AM]: Aaron Mook
- [SS]: Scott Surette
- [RG]: Ryan Gardner
- [GR]: Gregory Robson
- [ZD]: Zac Djamoos
- [DC]: Deanna Chapman
- [BK]: Becky Kovach
- [AA]: Anna Acosta
- [DB]: Drew Beringer
- [KH]: Kyle Huntington
- [EW]: Eric Wilson