Best Albums of 2017: #20 to #11
#50 to #41 /// #40 to #31 /// #30 to #21 /// #20 to #11 /// #10 to #1
20. SZA – CTRL
SZA, aka Solana Rowe, impresses throughout Ctrl – certainly one of the year’s best proper debuts – in its embrace of smooth R&B, hip-hop rhythms, and hook-y pop, making for a fun and consuming listen. “Drew Barrymore” features a sweeping hook, with dramatic vocals and a touch of strings enjoyably contrasting the perky, tropical verses. It’s wholly catchy while also packing emotional resonance. “Prom” – with its Beach House-esque beginning – establishes a hazy and lush soundscape, SZA’s vocals ascending with smooth precision over escalating synth pads and guitar trickles. It makes for a fantastic one-two punch early in the album, showing SZA as a songwriter with pop-radio charm though with amply more substance than most competition. Being preceded by “Doves in the Wind” – an soulful hip-hop slow-mover with Kendrick Lamar – helps, too. Beyond these, it’s a consistent and enjoyably listen, striking a proper balance between hook-forward convention and striking atmospheric-heavy creativity.
19. boy pablo – Roy Pablo
YouTube seemed particularly insistent on having me hear “Everytime” from boy pablo; the track constantly came up as an option to play next. Credit where credits due, as I’m particularly appreciative of the insistence after giving the band’s release – Roy Pablo – a listen. The six-track EP quickly shows a mellow vein of jangle-pop with a knack for very effective melodic transitions, shown well on the chorus of “Everytime”, as well as on highlights “Dance, Baby!” and ’90s alt-rock homage “Ready / Problems”. The act doesn’t break down any stylistic barriers here, though shows a very melodic vein of songwriting and pleasant stylistic aesthetic that makes them one of my favorite finds from the year.
18. Destroyer – ken
The October release date for ken felt apt, as – is the case with a lot of Dan Bejar’s work as Destroyer – the album’s had a generally autumnal feel, less jam-packed and busy than 2015’s Poison Season (2015: #34) with a synth-laden post-punk feel, ideal for falling leaves and grey skies. Speaking of, “Sky’s Grey” kicks off the album with a whirring anxiety, though eventually sprawling out into a lush vein of sophisti-pop where Bejar’s twangy vocals play brilliantly. From more rock-forward tracks like “In the Morning” to the more synth-led “A Light Travels Down the Catwalk”, the album stays within a cohesive atmosphere despite the rotating focus in instrumentation. This sounds like a Destroyer album, certainly, though with a more intimate and post-punk-leaning tilt than more recent Bejar releases.
17. Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir
A 50-song release that’s thematically consistent is a daunting undertaking for most artists, though for someone who has already crafted an acclaimed 69-song album, 69 Love Songs, perhaps not so much. Despite 19 less tracks, 50 Song Memoir is an even more ambitious turn, an autobiographical portrait of Stephin Merritt in its most enjoyable — snapshots and descriptions of everything from dear old pets to NYC life and yearning to be John Foxx from Ultravox. In nifty form, the stylistic trends throughout to the time at hand, ’80s-set tracks like “Foxx and I” pursuing a synth-laden post-punk sound present at the time. By the album’s completion, listeners have the feeling of traversed a fascinating and colorful life, memorable melodies and characters lingering in their thoughts. It’s a consuming listen in order, though certainly tracks like “’74 No”, “’68 Catt Called Dionysus”, and “’02 Be True to Your Bar” have ample standalone appeal.
16. The National – Sleep Well Beast
The National’s seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, proves to be one of the veteran band’s most eclectic albums in terms of atmosphere. Several songs are led by piano, while others feature electronic textures. Others, like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, make up an interesting fusion. “Walk It Back” features Matt Berninger’s husky vocals adorned over a buzzing synth bouncing and lush guitar trickles — leading into a gorgeously quaint chorus. Whereas Trouble Will Find Me (2013: #18) was fully cohesive, it sometimes resulted in an overly samey feeling, something that’s certainly not apparent here on Sleep Well Beast, perhaps The National’s most tonally diverse release yet. Per typical form for The National, the band’s ability to gradually expand patiently revealing songs continues to shine here, particularly on highlights like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and the gorgeously yearning “Dark Side of the Gym”, which touts a softly entrancing sound reminiscent of Springsteen or War on Drugs.
15. Lorde – Melodrama
Following the breakthrough 2013’s Pure Heroine, the successful culmination of an artist with ample studio experience even at a young age, it’s expected that Lorde’s new album Melodrama is a step forward in terms of maturity. Sacrificing some of the immediate pop flair of “Tennis Court” or “Royals” with retrospective, piano-laden confessionals like “Liability”, Melodrama succeeds strongly in showcasing a talented singer/songwriter certainly capable of scaling the charts, though also content exploring various styles and lyrically-driven power. Certainly, there’s still ample pop-laden charm in tracks like “Sober” and the very perky “Green Light” – propelled by a clap-laden chorus of effervescence – though beyond the latter, many of these explore dark soundscapes that intrigue and captivate. Exploring further soundscapes with a more focused and convincing lyrical edge, Lorde’s Melodrama avoids the sophomore slump that many fast-risers are prone to. Clearly, Pure Heroine was just Lorde getting started.
14. Thundercat – Drunk
13. Sampha – Process
I was turned onto Sampha by his superb performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk, his stunning vocal presence working solely alongside keys without much in terms of effects — the strong, emotional power of his songwriting extremely apparent. The strongest debut album of 2017, Process showcases the work of the British singer/songwriter as hugely resonating, particularly intimate for any album – much more a debut. “Blood on Me” was a standout on the Tiny Desk show, elevated on the track by rhythmic and electronic infusions, a great display of Sampha’s strong songwriting as well as his embrace of more left-field stylistic directions and tonal shifts. His writing is good enough to induce captivation with no more than a piano, though throughout Process the wise production choices – like the budding glisten of arpeggio-laden “Reverse Faults” transitioning confidently into a hip-hop rhythmic pull – elevate already-strong songwriting to delectable heights.
12. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Embracing the Chicago footwork scene, emerging from the remnants of club and techno influence of the ’80s, Big Fish Theory is a stylistically confident entry from Vince Staples, who impresses yet again after the successful Summertime ’06 (2015: #17) and 2016’s Prima Donna EP. The intoxicating “Crabs in a Bucket” grabs from the get-go, a murky gem dripping with atmosphere through the thick rhythms and “oh!” house-leaning vocal sample. Twin Peaks vibes converge with Chicago footwork. The self-titled track brings a more standard vein of confident hip-hop, along with the glistening “745” and bulky “SAMO”, though the murky house beats also succeed throughout on standouts like “Party People” and “BagBak”. Dense in most capacities – stylistically and lyrically – without ever becoming an overbearing listen, Big Fish Theory is an extremely stellar showing and stylistic advancement from Vince Staples, my favorite from him yet.
11. Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson
Outsider artist Bobby Jameson made his initial mark in the ’60s as a pivotal part of Los Angeles’ psych-rock scene (listen here), retreating shortly thereafter due to mental health and substance abuse issues, before making a comeback in the late 2000s on YouTube and via a blog, before his passing in 2015. Ariel Pink’s ascent from an outsider artist vein into a more recognizable name, by indie standards, as his mode of production shifted from the bedroom makes Jameson an apt muse here. The album’s fondness for darker or unassuming verses into choruses of shine and effervescence – particularly evident on “Feels Like Heaven”, the self-titled track, and “Bubblegum Dreams” – never gets old, Pink’s knack for zany though effective lyrics meshing with infectious melodies as well as ever. Dedicated to Bobby Jameson incorporates sweet and hook-y pop (“Another Weekend”, “Feels Like Heaven”) with Zappa-minded creations (“Death Patrol”) for another successful and creatively stimulating showing from Ariel Pink.