The 50 Best Albums Of 2017

We made it! Well, we mostly made it. The world could well end in the next 25 days. But we’ve made it through 11 months of this godless year, and for that, we deserve to congratulate each other. It’s been rough. Every morning, we’ve woken up to some new, terrible surprise: Another brazen violation of justice by the people in charge of our country, another indication of our government descending into irreparable chaos, another powerful man accused of sexual abuse, another beloved icon dead. If we didn’t have music to help us get through this, I don’t know what we would’ve done.

But we did have music. We had so much music, from so many different corners of the universe. We had sharp, observant R&B and hazy, chiming guitar-rock. We had bracing hardcore and thundering trap and emotionally devastating indie rock and primally soothing doom metal and playfully irreverent folk-rock. We had a number of beloved canonical artists returning, after years-long absences, with some of the best music of their careers. And we had the two albums at the top of this list, both of which are towering achievements that, at least for the members of your Stereogum staff, dominated the year.

Those of us lucky enough to work at this website vote on our favorite albums every year, assigning a finite number of points to an infinite number of albums. The two albums at the top of this list ended up within a few points of each other, and they ended up many, many points beyond every other album on our list. The artists who made those two albums don’t have a ton in common, but they’re both young, they’re both popular, and they’re both topping charts and festival bills. With artists like those two thriving, we are in good hands for the foreseeable future. Or, at least, we’re in good hands as music fans. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same thing in any other aspect of our lives. —Tom Breihan


50 Jay-Z – 4:44 (Roc Nation)

The Lemonade was sweet for a lot of people, but it was probably the most bittersweet for one Shawn Carter, and it seems to have left a hell of an aftertaste. Though this album is not solely a reaction to Lemonade just as Lemonade is about much more than Jay-Z, both we and Hov have Beyoncé to thank for its creation. Who knew Jay had this left in him? Especially after that “Lemonade is a popular drink, and it still is” business last year? 4:44 is not his best album, but it’s the most revelatory, timely, and astute of his entire catalogue. So thank you, Bey, for getting Jay to rap about something other than fine art and couture in this decade. —Collin Robinson

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49 Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)

The title of The Nashville Sound is bitterly facetious. It comes from a line in “White Man’s World,” a song about raising a baby daughter in a scary society: “Her mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they’re never gonna let her.” That line is an indictment of country-music status quo, and yet the country-music gatekeepers behind the CMA Awards still nominated The Nashville Sound for Album Of The Year. That’s Isbell: An outsider so sharp and gifted and observant that the insiders can’t help but pay attention. And The Nashville Sound, with its character sketches and laments and love songs, is a great place for you to start paying attention, too. —Tom
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48 Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge (Marci Enterprises)

Roc Marciano is a better writer than most of the Western canon heralded by high school American literature courses. Even “baby shoes” Hemingway never wrote anything as precise and evocative as “The whips ceiling-free, rip the brick up like cream of wheat.” Rosebudd’s Revenge, a showcase for Roc’s high-definition film-noir soundscapes, is filled to the brim with that sort of luxurious tinted-windows tough talk. Kanye West may write his curses in cursive, but Roc’s out here doing his in calligraphy — all immaculately crafted couplets delivered with the bravado of a head honcho. He’s both the poet and the pimp: a vivid storyteller, and an even more visceral shit talker. —Pranav Trewn

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47  Thundercat – Drunk (Brainfeeder)

This album is just so damn noodly that you wouldn’t think it had any other purpose than being an outlet for a man who expresses himself better through six strings than he does with his mouth. But as wandering and playful as Drunk is musically, it gets just as far-flung lyrically, and it makes for an endlessly engaging body of work. Just when you could get lost because he’s been going nuts on the bass for minutes at a time, Thundercat yanks you through the full gamut of hilariousness, darkness, melancholy, buoyancy, and seriousness that comprises everyday life. Stephen Bruner the songwriter and Thundercat the virtuoso are in lockstep on this album like they’ve never been before, and the result is wonderfully controlled chaos. —Collin

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46 Ted Leo – The Hanged Man (SuperEgo)

Back in July, we ran a powerful, in-depth profile on Ted Leo, who was then preparing for the self-release of his first proper album in seven years, The Hanged Man. In that forum, Leo wasn’t just candid; he talked at length about numerous issues he’d faced over his 47 years on this Earth, any one of which in isolation would have carried its own feature and been worthy of its own album. Collected in one place, Leo’s revelations felt like a deeply reflective immersion into a truly complex existence. The Hanged Man is every bit as conflicted and accomplished as its creator. It’s Leo’s most adventurous album, his most interesting album, and his most exciting album. He pulls from influences only hinted at in his earlier work, and he pulls it the fuck off. The big, catchy songs are the biggest, catchiest things he’s ever done; the sad songs are sadder than anything this side of Carrie & Lowell; the lyricism throughout is worthy of a MacArthur Fellowship. It all works. —Michael Nelson

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45 Guerilla Toss – GT Ultra (DFA)

If these really are the end times, Guerilla Toss intend to go down dancing. Kassie Carlson has always been part carnival barker and part mad prophet, but on GT Ultra, she welcomes the apocalypse by taking on a new role: frontwoman of an honest-to-god pop band. Of course, for G-Toss, “pop” is less Top 40 and more the sound of a neon balloon exploding, but still, the impenetrable noise-punk chaos has given way to rubbery grooves and sci-fi synths that pogo their way right into your skull. I can think of worse ways to go. —Peter Helman

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44 Jlin – Black Origami (Planet Mu)

Listening to Black Origami is a borderline spiritual experience. The Gary, Indiana-based producer known as Jlin conjures worlds with her deconstructed dance music. It’s a wonder that something this intensely finessed breathes with such an overwhelming sense of fluidity and life. These tracks are spontaneously but exactingly constructed front-to-back, and Jlin’s technique is apparent in every snapping ricochet. Her sonic baseline is a rhythmic tap tap tap that veers off script wildly and often, which allows her music to be entrancing but also visceral. When she unexpectedly doubles back around, you can feel it in your bones. —James Rettig

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43 Zola Jesus – Okovi (Sacred Bones)

Zola Jesus’ Okovi was forged from a depressive episode, the kind that forces you to reckon with your small place in this great, big universe and wonder whether or not your presence in it is needed. On the towering single “Siphon,” Nika Roza Danilova wills a friend lost to suicide back to life, while “Remains” untangles the moments after someone dies over a skittering backbeat. That beat is impossibly heavy, as is all of the production on Okovi, and Danilova’s voice barrels forth with an unparalleled strength that dominates your brainspace and makes it near-impossible to do anything other than listen. —Gabriela Tully Claymore

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42 Hundredth – Rare (Hopeless)

In the months following the June 2015 release of Hundredth’s third full-length, Free, the Myrtle Beach, SC melodic hardcore band parted ways with lead guitarist Blake Hardman. Soon afterward, Hardman got picked up by Hundredth tourmates Counterparts, who’d recently lost their own longtime lead guitarist (and primary songwriter) Jesse Doreen. Generally, that sort of intra-scene personnel-juggling precedes periods of artistic stasis and/or diminishing returns. Somehow, though, these particular swaps resulted in both bands destroying old barriers and hitting astonishing new altitudes. On their fourth LP, Rare, Hundredth reinvented their sound, engaging with softer textures and spacier influences. The final product is a front-to-back ass-kicker in the style of ’90s metal-derived shoegaze bands like Catherine Wheel or Swervedriver. The guitars are roaring. The hooks are hammering. The melodies are luscious. And the sky is the limit. —Michael

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41 Oddisee – The Iceberg (Mello Music Group)

Oddisee is so shamefully slept-on at this point that he should be signed to Simmons, Sealy, or Serta. The Iceberg addresses the political with the same deft balance of force and grace that Solange did on A Seat At The Table — except with the punchiest of drums and irresistible go-go swing. There is plenty of bite in lines like “How you gonna make us great/ When we were never really that amazing?” and “I make more than my sister/’Cause I was born as a mister,” but Oddisee has a way of making you feel them without leaving teeth marks. The artists that deserve the tallest soapboxes rarely get them, but the PG County MC made the most out of the highest platform he’s had so far. —Collin

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40 Feist – Pleasure (Interscope)

Leslie Feist’s fifth album is a lesson in restraint. A decade after launching into the popular consciousness with The Reminder, the Canadian songwriter went back to basics, tapping into her folk roots to make what is perhaps her most powerful and cohesive work to date. Pleasure is constructed around the spaces between words, a desire for simplicity in the face of an increasingly noisy world. It’s a respite that’s sturdily centered. For every soul-searching song like “Lost Dreams” or “Baby Be Simple,” there’s an outward-facing countercurrent. “Pleasure,” “Any Party,” and “Century” are the kind of songs that play out the push-and-pull between engaging with the world and being shut off inside of yourself, a battle that’s as taxing as it is revelatory. —James

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39 Heaven In Her Arms – White Halo (Daymare / Translation Loss)

Japan’s Heaven In Her Arms copped their name from a song off Converge’s 2001 classic Jane Doe. It’s a fitting tribute and an apt reference point. But on the astonishing White Halo, HIHA primarily recall countrymen Envy, whose own sound provided a blueprint for iconic American post-metal screamers like Deafheaven. Tonally, White Halo basically shifts between two gears: hauntingly beautiful and ragingly torrential. But these guys do so much with both those extremes that the resulting work often feels like something entirely new. It’s magical and hypnotic and weirdly amorphous. Listening to the album can feel like being captured in an especially weird and vivid dream: You never quite know where you are, or where you were just a moment ago, or where you’re going. But you’re there. And you don’t want to leave. —Michael

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38 The Weather Station – The Weather Station (Paradise Of Bachelors)

Self-titled albums usually denote something: an introduction, a culmination, a new self-realization a few years in. For Tamara Lindeman, The Weather Station marks an evolution into the fullest-sounding version of the project yet, with string arrangements and rock elements fleshing out the sparse folk of past outings. Much of The Weather Station traces distance — geographic and emotional and temporal — as memories and experiences pile up. But the album doesn’t dwell. It’s Lindeman’s most urgent music yet, acknowledging the weight of time but resolving to storm ahead immediately after that acknowledgement. As she calmly closes “Thirty,” the album’s highlight and mission statement: “That was a year, now here/ Now here is another one.” —Ryan Leas

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37 Paramore – After Laughter (Fueled By Ramen)

Anyone who’s found fleeting solace venting their frustrations through a perfectly crafted Facebook rant can probably relate to After Laughter. Lots of songwriters chronicle depression and disaffection, but few do it with the frankness and seething bile Hayley Williams brought to Paramore’s latest. Whether lashing out against unfounded optimism (“Rose-Colored Boy”), polite society’s false veneer of contentment (“Fake Happy”), or the futility of faith in heroes (“Idle Worship”), she spiked Paramore’s punchy pop-rock with shots of startling pessimism that would be tough to stomach if the music wasn’t so contagiously constructed. Once you adjust to the band’s retro makeover, the songs are uniformly spectacular — especially ballads “Forgiveness” and “26,” on which the pain driving the more aggressive tracks is laid bare and converted into something like beauty. —Chris DeVille

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36 Girlpool – Powerplant (Anti-)

It’s fair to worry that the raw quality of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s voices might get muddled with the addition of drums to Girlpool’s signature guitar-only sound. A full band isn’t necessarily the key to a great record, but in the case of the duo’s sophomore release Powerplant, a full band allows Girlpool to reach higher, deeper — even rawer — potential. Their eager and observational lyrics once again come alive with harmonies that stab you in the gut. With Girlpool you can be silly and serious at the same time. You can use jokes and poetic one-liners to express disenchantment and frustration with your surroundings. As time goes on and Tividad and Tucker enter their early 20s, they’ve become even more in-sync than before, if that was even possible. —Grace Birnstengel

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35 Lomelda – Thx (Double Double Whammy)

Lomelda’s Thx is an album worthy of a road trip, which is perhaps one of the most enduring compliments you can give to a collection of songs. Hannah Read navigates the feeling of being in-between with a dexterity that doesn’t rely on easy tropes, and the inner thoughts that creep into her lyrics during moments of stasis probably sound a lot like your own. In Read’s universe, small actions lead to big revelations delivered in a whispering half-yodel. Her utterances are quiet enough to creep into your conscience and give you a boost of strength when you need it most. —Gabriela

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34 Incendiary – Thousand Mile Stare (Closed Casket Activities)

Imagine Zack de la Rocha fronting Earth Crisis as produced by Kurt Ballou circa 2012 and you have a pretty good idea of Thousand Mile Stare, the third album from Long Island beatdown-hardcore crew Incendiary. They sound like the riot that erupts after the first Molotov cocktail shatters and the flames jump out of the bottle. I dunno if Incendiary are socialists, anarchists, or just fed-up motherfuckers, but their lyrics read like Jacobin polemics, shredding social media (“The Product Is You”), gun advocates (“Sell Your Cause”), racist idiocy peddled as cultural heritage (“Hanging From The Family Tree”), and just about every other jackboot pressing down on the throats of the 99%. There are too many great lines to pick one as a representative sample, but here’s a favorite (from “Fact Or Fiction”): “SUFFERING/ LEADS TO/ FRUSTRATION/ AND FEAR THROUGH/ MEDIA-ISSUED/ PANIC-STRICKEN WORLDVIEW.” Incendiary know the deal and they aren’t here for the bullshit. They’re here to burn it the fuck down. —Michael

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33 Migos – Culture (Quality Control / 300 / Atlantic)

Any decent blockbuster rap album has hits, and Culture came correct in that regard: “T-Shirt”? Tremendous. “Slippery”? Sublime. “Bad And Boujee”? Agreed on both counts! (Like, in a good way.) But ruling a radio landscape largely molded in their own image is not the only reason Culture was Migos’ crowning achievement. It also finally practiced what this triplet-spouting trio has always preached: Quality Control. Deep cuts on Atlanta trap releases can be disposable, but here they’re indispensable, be they bangers (“Get Right Witcha”), ballads (“Out Yo Way”), or zone-outs about eating molly like it’s rice (“Kelly Price”). And when they went symphonic on the thunderous “Deadz,” it just about killed me. —Chris

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32 The National – Sleep Well Beast (4AD)

Considering the National are a politically-outspoken band and Sleep Well Beast is their first album of the Trump years, it was easy to expect or yearn for a more scathing document of contemporary America this time around. Instead, Sleep Well Beast highlights the National’s penchant for magnifying insular conflicts into something a lot of us can relate to in that moment, a record detailing marital struggles and familial bonds during what feels like the end of the world. Defined by its experiments with claustrophobic and anxious electronics, Sleep Well Beast captures the experience of living through a time where every day is too insane, too shocking, too simultaneously numbing and infuriating. It’s the sound of a static, cloudy headspace surrounded by turmoil, with songs like “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Sleep Well Beast” simmering to muted catharses that, rather than offer resolution or release, can only leave you with the hope that, sometime in the future, something’s going to break. —Ryan

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31 Alvvays – Antisocialites (Polyvinyl)

Here we have 10 guitar-pop tunes so gorgeously conceived you’ll wonder if you’re dreaming. (You’ll also wonder if you’re dreaming because they made the album sound like you’re dreaming.) Alvvays LP2 improved upon their exceptional debut in every way, elevating both Molly Rankin’s poetic reflections on romantic tumult and the sparkling, shimmering backdrops through which they propel. Very few artists this year strung together a sequence as brilliant as “In Undertow,” “Dreams Tonite,” and “Plimsoll Punks”; this would be one of 2017’s best albums based on that opening trifecta alone. But don’t stop there. On Antisocialites, impeccable aching reverie awaits at every turn. —Chris

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30 Converge – The Dusk In Us (Epitaph)

Five years after their last album, the most important hardcore band of the 21st century return, ready for battle. The Dusk In Us is an album shot through with anxiety, one that takes a necessarily apocalyptic view on what it’s like to raise kids in a world that appears to be falling apart. But it also projects a feverish, rabid strength, the band’s musicians once again becoming a mercilessly precise machine. Converge remain just as great at forbidding doom-grooves as they are at blenderized math-metal tantrums. And now they’ve found ways to blend those two approaches for maximum intensity. Wear a helmet for this one. —Tom
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29 Counterparts – You’re Not You Anymore (Pure Noise)

If I had to triangulate You’re Not You Anymore, the fifth album from Canadian melodic hardcore band Counterparts, I’d put the music on a map somewhere between Converge, At The Gates, and Jawbreaker. But Counterparts stand too tall to fall in the shadows of their forebears; YNYA resists reference points because it is a reference point. The album comprises 11 tracks that are done in under half an hour, but it has enough ideas for a hundred songs, and somehow, it all flows like a single perfect sentence. YNYA is elegant, expansive, wrenching, and ripping. The album’s fierce shifts and brutal slams rattle the dome like a head-on car crash; its sweet hooks rush the body like an Oxy rail. There are drum patterns and guitar leads that sound like dares — outrageous highlights-reel shit that sane people avoid for fear of either embarrassment or injury — but they’re locked so tight into the songs you don’t even clock them till the third spin. The low end has the texture of hot pitch being shoveled onto a cracked highway. The vocals sound like a metal bin full of broken glass being dragged through subway tunnels off the back bumper of a D train, express, from Bay Parkway to the Bronx. This is fire. —Michael

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28 Björk – Utopia (One Little Indian)

On Vulnicura, Björk bared the hole where her heart was ripped out for all the world to see. And now, nearly three years later, she’s using it to let some light in. Like the thaw after a particularly harsh winter, Utopia feels full of new life and new love, teeming with flute and harp and literal birdsong. Aided by Arca and his murky, anchorless beats, Björk imagines a radical feminist utopia free of inherited violence, where sending MP3s to a lover becomes an act of transcendent beauty. —Peter

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27 Allison Crutchfield – Tourist In This Town (Merge)

On her debut solo full-length, borne out of the breakup of her previous band and her relationship with its co-songwriter, Allison Crutchfield systematically analyzes the split like the loss of a loved one: replaying their last words, the words she would have said, the words she wouldn’t have. She expertly navigates heartbreak’s deepest contradictions, from revealing the truth of the lies she told herself to damning the one who once made her feel saved. Tourist In This Town is about revisiting the wreckage of a fire you helped fan, salvaging the ashes as nutrients for new soil — and as fertile ground for the most expertly crafted basement-pop we heard this year. —Pranav

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26 Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)

Kelela has a way of folding synth-soaked electro shimmer into pop like origami, transforming disparate sounds into something piercing, sensual, somber, contemplative, or any of the myriad sentiments she evokes. Take Me Apart is the most powerful union of those genres that she has offered up to this point in her career. Synth layers and sweeping ambience from Arca, the xx’s Romy Madley Croft, Kingdom, and Ariel Rechtshaid could bury a lesser artist, but Kelela bends their sounds to her will until they are the perfect complement for anything on the spectrum of paralyzing heartbreak to self-love and independence. This album can take you apart and put you back together again dozens of times if you let it. —Collin

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25 Pallbearer – Heartless (Profound Lore)

Pallbearer are nominally a heavy metal band, but with Heartless, they made an album too big for the confines of any one genre. Heartless draws influence from a vast library of giants — Pink Floyd, Neurosis, Neil Young, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, Santana, Mercyful Fate, and on and on and on — but it doesn’t translate or update those texts. It consumes them, ruminates on them, and finds inspiration in them, ultimately manifesting in a work of art worthy of placement in the same vaunted collection. Frontman Brett Campbell’s vocal performance evinces the flexibility, dexterity, power, confidence, and acumen of Mike Patton, but with none of Patton’s snideness or self-satisfaction. Campbell delivers every syllable with absolute sincerity, vulnerability, and commitment. Pallbearer fucked up when they named this one. Heartless is anything but. What they meant to say is: Peerless. —Michael

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24 Elder – Reflections Of A Floating World (Armageddon / Stickman)

It’s called Reflections Of A Floating World, but Elder’s latest makes you feel like you’re the one suspended in midair. The album evokes a topographic quality inherent in the best heavy, expansive, riff-driven rock music, that sense that you’re soaring over landscapes so awe-inspiring you can only gasp. This particular terrain is especially diverse; opening track “Sanctuary” alone moves through so many glorious phases in its 11-plus minutes that you’ll think you’re three or four songs deep by the time it wraps up. What a thrill when that moment arrives and you realize your adventure is only beginning. —Chris

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23 Jay Som – Everybody Works (Polyvinyl)

Everybody Works is a sparkling testament to self-sufficiency. Melina Duterte recorded her proper Jay Som debut entirely in her bedroom, and it blossoms and grooves and converses with itself in ways that music made in such an intimate setting typically doesn’t. Duterte plays the role of hard-wired rock star but never loses sight of the project’s origins in solitude and insularity. There’s an inherent power in going at it alone, and from the crowd-pleasing “The Bus Song” to more indulgent cuts like “One More Time, Please,” Everybody Works serves as a reminder that the best material always comes from within. —James

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22 Father John Misty – Pure Comedy (Sub Pop)

In his music as in his public persona, Josh Tillman is jaded and self-obsessed and irony-drunk. His Pure Comedy is a 74-minute concept-album opus that tackles nothing less than the continuing absurdity of life on earth. Its centerpiece is a 13-minute acoustic ramble about deciding to move out of Los Angeles. All of this is insufferable. But, just like Tillman’s various PR stunts, it’s also trenchant and funny and almost impossibly well-realized. And it sounds great, digging deep into the buttery slickness of ‘70s soft-rock. After all, one can be insufferable and still be great. —Tom

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21 (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket (Domino)

(Sandy) Alex G has nailed down the art of simultaneously not caring at all and caring way more than the average musician. This is how the umpteenth release from the newly parenthetical singer-songwriter sounds — like one big improvised accident that was meticulously tinkered with. On Rocket, he steps past the Elliott Smith comparisons and into an unsuspected combination of beautiful Americana-evoking tunes often fit with strings (“Proud,” “Bobby,” “Powerful Man”) and left-field instrumentals that vary between hardcore freak-outs (“Brick”) and restless, wild fits (“Horse”). What some might find discombobulated is one cohesive vision in the mind of Alex Giannascoli. A guy-next-door songwriter so brilliant and special that Frank Ocean nabbed his talents for both Endless and Blonde, Giannascoli tells tales that aren’t always relatable and might only make sense to him, but still somehow feel like home. —Grace

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20 Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness (Ba Da Bing)

On her sophomore effort, Julie Byrne has managed to transform the images and experiences of a peripatetic lifestyle into something you can settle into. Her debut, Rooms With Walls And Windows, was what the title suggested — Byrne trying to find a sense of home on a wanderer’s path. It fits within the confines of space, something that was constantly shifting for her outside of music, and the sonics reflectively stayed rooted in folk. Conversely, Not Even Happiness takes exquisite snapshots of situations and sights on the road and intertwines them with sounds that are equally exploratory, gliding between folk and cinematic ambience with Byrne’s beautifully serene, even-keeled voice as the binder. This album is a gorgeous embodiment of the J.R.R. Tolkien line “Not all those who wander are lost.” —Collin

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19 Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)

In a world where we habitually define ourselves by the people around us and the relationships we inhabit, genre-bending singer-songwriter Moses Sumney constructs his identity in isolation on his long-time-coming debut album. Aromanticism explores how it feels to just be in your body (“You need a solid, but I’m made of liquid,” “My wings are made of plastic”) and really notice your own habits, behaviors, wants, and needs while sweeping in and out of supernatural loops and instrumentation that build on top of minimalism. The album is sad and dark; it’s whispers and falsetto. Sumney isn’t saying he’s aromantic — see “Make Out In My Car” — but he challenges the notion that romance is the foundation of self and existence: “Am I vital? If my heart is idle? Am I doomed?” —Grace

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18 Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Def Jam)

Inspired by Detroit techno, Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory is acerbic and dissonant and it makes you want to move. Unlike Staples’ breakout Summertime ’06, Big Fish Theory is not nearly as focused on lyrics, instead breeding a sense of urgency based on kinetic production and repeating aquarian themes. When Staples shares his stage, he does it with intention. On this album, we hear Kendrick Lamar fill in the blank spaces of a minimalist Sophie beat, while Ty Dolla $ign graces the hook on the epic closer “Rain Come Down.” References to rain and water abound; they’re a cleansing force, nature’s equivalent to a packed dancefloor. —Gabriela

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17 Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet (Dead Oceans)

Soft Sounds From Another Planet pulls from all the threads of Michelle Zauner’s past, reworking and fleshing out old tracks from her days in Philadelphia’s Little Big League and her earliest material as Japanese Breakfast, bringing them up to the speed of her vision now that she’s amassed the means to realize them. But even more exciting are the songs that represent the possible avenues of Japanese Breakfast’s future: the pop-art thump of “Machinist,” the refracting momentum of “12 Steps,” the full-bodied waltz of “Till Death.” Altogether they comprise a stunning mosaic of sounds that present every shade of Zauner’s refined, continually expanding craftsmanship. —Pranav

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16 Sorority Noise – You’re Not As _____ As You Think (Triple Crown)

Pop-punk has a comforting way of turning sad times into catchy songs. The thing about grief and depression — two major themes on Sorority Noise’s You’re Not As _____ As You Think — is that if you don’t take moments to poke fun and make light of those awfully heavy feelings, they’re going to completely bury you. And you’re already pretty buried. Cameron Boucher takes his witnessing of death and dying and relentlessly pumps out easily-digestible emo singalongs. This record is what you need when you want to feel heard and validated but maybe need a break from total doom and gloom. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear back-to-back anthemic choruses that normalize the tornado of complicated emotions around loss and traumatic experiences. —Grace

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15 Slowdive – Slowdive (Dead Oceans)

Slowdive’s fourth studio album had 22 years of expectations to clear but would have been just as monumental even without the context to classify the achievement. It’s composed of that same oceanic salve — a generous orbit that pulls back the anxiety of moving time, that makes time seem irrelevant at all — that smoothly transcends eras without calcifying and is presented here with a new urgency. Slowdive is like looking into the familiar sky and noticing more stars than you remembered from before: presenting new vistas to dive into, memorize the parts, learn how they fit together, and then still marvel at the fact they exist at all. —Pranav
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14 St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION (Loma Vista)

After Annie Clark’s heightened profile in recent years, teaming up with Jack Antonoff for her new album initially scanned as a potential bid for the mainstream. But as far back as the sinister undertones and pristine arrangements of Clark’s earliest LPs, St. Vincent has often been a study in contrasts, and MASSEDUCTION may bear her most severe polarities. The album veers between lurid synthpop (“Sugarboy,” “Los Ageless”) and reflective balladry (“Hang On Me,” “Slow Disco”), between heartbreak and lust and regret and hedonism. Clark navigates it all masterfully, corralling a dizzying array of sounds and moods into the most cohesive and perhaps best St. Vincent album yet. —Ryan

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13 Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights (Matador)

Turn Out The Lights is very much a DIY affair, with Julien Baker producing and playing almost everything and, more importantly, plumbing her own darkest and most vulnerable moments for one of the most visceral, cathartic albums we’ve heard in a long time. She’s taken a huge leap in her songwriting and in the dynamics of her recording, and she’s kept the raw intimacy and the elegantly ragged voice that made her special in the first place. And she’s made an album that’ll make you cry harder than the first 10 minutes of Up. —Tom
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12 Fever Ray – Plunge (Mute / Rabid)

These are the first lines that the Knife’s Karin Dreijer sings on Plunge: “I wanna love you but you’re not making it easy/ I wanna love you but it’s not easy.” These are the last: “The final puzzle piece/ This little thing called love/ The missing thing called love/ A little thing called love.” In between, she pokes and prods at human sexuality and desire from every angle, disemboweling all normative conceptions of love with surgical precision. Her icy synthscapes and Scandinavian snarl still sound alien and sharp, but for the first time, they’re also startlingly human — whatever that means. —Peter

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11 Brockhampton – Saturation II (Empire)

The thrill of Brockhampton’s relentless rise this year was in watching the individual members rapidly progress in real-time, leveraging the free flow of ideas and energy that comes from working with your best friends and constantly trying to one-up each other — to say the coolest shit before the conversation moves on to another topic. Saturation II, the collective’s best album yet, has moments that sound like vintage Goodie Mob; others evoke the house-burning urgency of Odd Future without any of the dead weight. But they recall these artists less so by style than in the excitement of first hearing a talented cast of creative youngsters flex innate swagger and process it into trained skill. Brockhampton doesn’t feel like the past, but rather how we remember that past: happening all at once, right at this very second. —Pranav
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10 Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun)

“Death is real/ Someone’s there and then they’re not/ And it’s not for singing about/ It’s not for making into art.” Phil Elverum opens A Crow Looked At Me with these stark words, before he goes on to sing 11 songs about the realness of death, defying his own assertion that it’s “not for singing about.” This album was written in the months after Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, died of cancer, and her imprint on each song is inescapable. Elverum recorded A Crow Looked At Me in her room, using her instruments, and the result is a collection of songs that confront death with a deadpan honesty that lacks any sugary sentimentality. It’s a raw portrait of grief written for the living. —Gabriela

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LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (DFA)

There were always poignant, moving moments on LCD Soundsystem records. Yet those songs, like “Someone Great” and “I Can Change,” stood out because of their nakedness compared to James Murphy’s primary mode of jocular, sardonic cultural critique; they were amplified by the fact that they were moments where Murphy let the façade slip away. That’s what makes American Dream, the LCD Soundsystem record that was never supposed to happen, all the more stunning: The album is almost all earnestness. Murphy has returned an older, wiser person, a man who has lost some things along the way: friends, a hero and would-be father figure in David Bowie, and perhaps his direction during his band’s premature retirement. Sure, some of the songs on American Dream are still a ton of fun: The glossy pulsations of “Tonite” are a logical continuation of a few different versions of past LCD songs, “Call The Police” is a world-weary endorphin rush in the mold of “All My Friends.” And even the roiling, pissed-off “How Do You Sleep?” is unshakeable and infectious in its darkness. But that latter quality defines the record, with Murphy not just exhuming his band but committing to bringing it to new places. For some of us, songs this good would’ve been enough to justify LCD’s controversial resurrection. Yet Murphy imbues the new music with a weight that makes the convincing argument that he has a lot more to say, and that it won’t be in the tone we might’ve expected. —Ryan

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Waxahatchee – Out In The Storm (Merge)

Four albums deep into her Waxahatchee project, Katie Crutchfield knows exactly what she’s doing. Crutchfield has always written tough, vulnerable, emotive, intensely satisfying punk rock songs. Her gleaming twang and sharp eye for details show through whether she’s singing soul-baring acoustic exorcisms or fired-up rockers. And on Out In The Storm, she’s got a band of absolutely badass women backing her up and a legendary indie rock producer on the boards. Out In The Storm is a breakup album, but it never loses itself in depression. Instead, it charges forward, finding exhilaration and catharsis in its crunchy riff-stomps. Crutchfield is only getting better at what she does. It’s almost scary. —Tom

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Charly Bliss – Guppy (Barsuk)

Charly Bliss aren’t reinventing the wheel. They’re just making it more damn fun than a stupid wheel has any right to be, affixing a high-octane jetpack to it and letting it blast straight into your dopamine receptors. The wheel in question here is a punky, poppy strain of ’90s alt-rock that includes Weezer and Veruca Salt as stylistic touchstones, imbued with an urgent edge by Eva Grace Hendricks’ bubblegum rasp. And while the band around her sling sticky hooks, she uses that voice to relate messy tales of twentysomething ennui, sex and love and anxiety all wrapped up in one Guppy-shaped package. It goes down easy, but it messes with your insides. —Peter

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The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)

“Thinking Of A Place” was a feint. As the first preview of A Deeper Understanding, the song was, at first glance, a continuation of Lost In The Dream’s haziness. You could mistake what Adam Granduciel’s doing now as that same rambling, searching sound. A Deeper Understanding feels different, though. Granduciel has taken his idiosyncratic vision of the canon — a vision that takes highway songs and grainy ’70s rock and injects it with a contemporary psychedelia built on droning noises and towering synths — to a new expansiveness. He took all that major label money and crafted the densest, most ambitious War On Drugs record to date.

There is a lot to take in on A Deeper Understanding. Once you wade in, there’s the trick of the beat change in opener “Up All Night,” and there’s that crushing main riff of “Strangest Thing.” But there are also tinier and just as crucial revelations, like the twinkling guitar that propels “You Don’t Have To Go” into its conclusion or the climactic “Be My Baby” beat that happens just once in the twilight rush of “In Chains.” The highs might not be as immediately evident as past Drugs classics, but A Deeper Understanding is built on textural and songwriting decisions that expose Granduciel’s obsessive attention to detail. You can peer in and decipher it as if understanding the architecture of a lush dream. Or you can play it very loud and soak up the succession of bulletproof hooks. Either way, it’s clear that the curiosity of the War On Drugs’ success is solidifying into something more enduring: With A Deeper Understanding, Granduciel’s produced another masterpiece that is as timeless as it is out of time. —Ryan

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SZA – Ctrl (TDE / RCA)

SZA’s perpetually delayed, heavily anticipated debut album enters on a conversational snippet in which her mother describes her greatest fear — losing control — then transitions into a vengeful, stream-of-consciousness letter to a neglectful ex over sullen guitar strumming. SZA instantly makes herself vulnerable, laying out her insecurities through lyrics like “Leave me lonely for prettier women/ You know I need too much attention for shit like that” and “Wish I was comfortable just with myself/ But I need you, but I need you, but I need you.”

That opening track, “Supermodel,” works as a preview of and the foundation for the entire record: SZA giving herself permission to take up space with her grandiose bravado and her unfiltered lyrics, to tell frank stories on her own terms and navigate the messy world of love and sex in 2017, all sandwiched between pieces of strong-willed advice and insight from her mother and grandmother. On Ctrl, SZA bursts free — free to be herself, claiming her rightful spot as one of the most powerful voices in R&B and beyond, bop after bop putting “petty dudes” on blast and grappling with what it means to be “20 something, all alone still/ Not a thing in my name/ Ain’t got nothin’, runnin’ from love.” She unabashedly practices radical self-love, recognizing that it’s an uphill battle, but a battle worth fighting. —Grace

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4 Perfume Genius – No Shape (Matador)

“How long must we live right/ Before we don’t even have to try?” Mike Hadreas asks repeatedly on “Valley,” an empathetic song about facing addiction. There’s no answer. You always carry your past with you, all your mistakes and your imperfections and your demons, and you always have to try. You can never escape your own body, as he wishes on “Wreath.” What you can do is join it with another body. More than anything, No Shape is about the transformative, redemptive power of love, the idea that you can somehow transcend yourself, or maybe find yourself, by giving yourself over completely to someone else. Despite all the lingering doubts that never quite go away, that realization hits like the moment at the end of “Otherside,” glorious rococo excess with all the force of a confetti cannon. It sounds like freedom. —Peter

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Priests – Nothing Feels Natural  (Sister Polygon)

2017 has been exhausting, and it’s only going to get worse. Thankfully, Nothing Feels Natural has been there every step of the way. No other album this year has revitalized my spirit like this one. When all feels hopeless, Priests have the power to solidify what you already know, to give you the motivation to keep on fighting.

Nothing Feels Natural is incendiary and invigorating; it absorbs anger and confusion and spits it out in white-hot fire. It fiercely argues for the dismantling of the power structures that keep us restrained, and Katie Alice Greer writes about the personal and political with an accessible didacticism that’s as enlightening as it is fun. Her powerhouse voice hangs hooks on concepts — “Feels good to buy something you can’t afford,” “Consider the options of a binary,” “Please don’t make me be someone with no sympathy” — and she’s supported by one of today’s best and most distinctive bands. Not relegated to side status, each Priests member — drummer Daniele Daniele, bassist Taylor Mulitz, guitarist GL Jaguar — has a personality that comes through in the music, which wriggles and squawks and squabbles with itself. It’s punk by committee. Priests make revolution feel possible, with a lot of hard work, and Nothing Feels Natural is a powerful document of the internal and external battles that anyone existing within or without modern society must face every day. —James

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Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (TDE / Aftermath / Interscope)

Maybe it’s foolish to think too deeply about an album title, but you can be certain a wordsmith as exacting as Kendrick Lamar thinks long and hard about his. Take note that the self-consciously poetic writer behind such syntactical flights of fancy as good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp A Butterfly named his latest opus DAMN. Barring SHIT., FUCK., and BASTARDS., it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate response to 2017. I mean, damn: Things were pretty bad when Kendrick’s last album dropped, and they’ve only gotten worse.

Look at it from Kendrick’s perspective. Longtime rival Drake ruling rap indefinitely without even penning his own lyrics? Damn. Fox News poisoning half the country’s minds, including by willfully misinterpreting Kendrick’s own protest music? Damn. The United States replacing the first black president with a corrupt narcissist dotard cartoon villain, partially due to the covert influence of a hostile foreign government? Damn. Everything is upside down; nothing makes sense. No wonder this time when Kendrick approaches a homeless person on the street, instead of meeting Jesus, he gets shot.

Following the bracing document of breakdown and recovery that was Butterfly, the Best Rapper Alive responded to this world’s bullshit by getting his business in order and laying waste to his foes. DAMN. is an album worthy of its title: a simple, direct, concise expression that nonetheless contains multitudes. Mind you, those are all relative terms; this is not some 30-minute SoundCloud rap project. (Speaking of which, credit quasi-traditionalist Kendrick for dominating in a year when hip-hop is experiencing such a profound changing of the guard.) Rather, DAMN. wrangles its creator’s infinite complexity into accessible bangers on his own terms.

Despite their signature idiosyncrasies, the walloping “HUMBLE.,” the soothing “LOVE.,” and the casual flex “LOYALTY.” all made perfect sense at rap radio, and each of them rightly flourished there this year. The dusky “FEAR.” and daylight-bright “DUCKWORTH.” comprised the most compelling autobiography yet from one of our great sonic memoirists. “ELEMENT.” was ridiculously catchy shit talk. “YAH.” was obscenely smooth zoned-out bliss. “XXX.” was a four-minute saga unto itself. And on the visceral “DNA.,” Kendrick delivered a series of lyrical body blows capable of vaporizing any opponent, be that Drake, Geraldo, or Donald Trump himself. Upon surveying the whole of it, the only fitting response was to utter “damn” right back. —Chris

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Lorde – Melodrama (Republic / Lava)

Imagine surveying the aftermath of a terrible breakup and instead of crying into a pint of ice cream or binge-watching Netflix you conjure magic. Lorde’s Melodrama is a work of pure pop alchemy, a carefully-crafted collection of songs that speaks to a very particular, universal trauma: the first heartbreak. It is no coincidence that Ella Yelich-O’Connor released this album at the beginning of the summer, the time when cuffing season has thawed and couples maintained by loneliness and a lingering sense of despair are threatened by a heat that hints at new beginnings. Summer fuels reckless reinvention when you’re a teenager, and at 19 a freshly-dumped Lorde threw herself into humid nights, searching for the adult she hoped to become. She emerged an auteur with a refined point of view and an album that is distinctly her own.

Melodrama opens with a sneering curse. “Well those great whites, they have big teeth/ Hope they bite you/ Thought you said that you would always be in love,” Lorde sings, her voice quickening and pitching upward, near-hysterical. She ditches that bitterness by the time the “Green Light” chorus hits, replete with a house piano and exultant harmonies. The sweaty “Sober” and Tove Lo co-write “Homemade Dynamite” follow, both of which chronicle wasted evenings that inevitably lead to morose moments of self-reflection come morning. That dichotomous push-and-pull between bitterness and an unshakable will to move on underly all of the songs on Melodrama, culminating in the grand, autobiographical “Writer In The Dark.” On that song, Lorde summons the best Kate Bush impression the world has ever heard, teasing herself for her helpless romanticism as quickly as she damns a jealous ex for upending her worldview and making her feel small.

On Melodrama, insecurity fuels revelations, the kind that inevitably lead to titanic assertions of personhood. Lorde employs a series of distinctly feminine archetypes — the ecstatic romantic, the crazy ex-girlfriend, the hysterical female, the withdrawn sad girl, the daughter of a mother — without ever settling into one comfortable persona that best encompasses her market. There’s so much power in that, both as a young woman and as a young pop musician fated to be prepackaged a certain way. Lorde defies that fate, and it’s sort of laughable to imagine her sitting in a label meeting and listening to execs try to tell her what to do.

To make Melodrama she enlisted man of the hour Jack Antonoff, who is at his very best when he’s working with her. Together, they crafted an album that prioritizes an outpouring of anxieties and emotions that are relatable and supremely lifelike, upending the notion that pop music can’t possibly parallel the rawness of individual, lived experience. On the giddy “The Louvre,” Lorde agonizes over a budding romance, overthinking her lover’s “pu-punctuation use” in text messages. When the somber ballad “Liability” follows, Lorde doesn’t ask whether or not she will ever love again, but rather, whether or not she will ever love herself again now that she’s on her own. “I light all the candles/ Cut flowers for all my rooms/ I care for myself the way I used to care about you,” she later resolves.

A “melodrama” is, by definition, an exaggeration. It is a lively retelling of events designed to tug at your heartstrings and manipulate your emotions. But it is also a word often used to deny someone the fullness and complexity of their feelings. “Stop being so melodramatic” is something that most young women have been told at some point in their lives. Lorde reclaims the word and gives herself license to do exactly what she wanted to do: make an album that speaks to people her own age without pandering to them, one that accurately captures the toils of first love and young adulthood. The situations Lorde sings about on Melodrama aren’t grand moments of reckoning; they’re descriptions of everyday things people do made all the more epic when they’re done alongside someone they love. Like wandering the aisles of a grocery store or riding in a car with the radio turned all the way up. These are the sound stages of our lives, and the dramas we enact are dazzlingly cinematic when Lorde sings about them. She’s a self-possessed pop star becoming a generational icon on her own terms. —Gabriela

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Listen to selections from the top 49 albums in this Spotify playlist.

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