2017’s top ten albums, ranked
A good year, not a great year. That’s how I perceived the year in music for 2017. Each year I do my best to scan as much music as humanly possible. I’m what you might call an obsessive listener. My typical listening day starts around 8am when I get settled in to work. Headphones on. Spotify’s desktop app open. Only then does the day begin. The listening doesn’t end when I get home, either. My wife and I are always spinning vinyl, blasting the Sonos, and dishing about music. I’m a believer in the album as format to a fault. It’s our last transformative medium. It can be non-verbal without being static. It can be conceptual or pragmatic. It can be narrative or deconstructed. It can stamp the spatial-temporal world or exist seemingly completely outside of it. It can be anything. In other words, I listen to a metric fuck ton of albums. Ranking them is serious business. Since 2017 didn’t produce many “modern classics” (a term I use to classify any album that will live with me for the rest of my life), it was a tougher year than most to shake out a proper top 10. But here goes nothing.
1. Benjamin Booker – Witness
You likely won’t see this record at the top of any mainstream or independent music media year-end lists, but it was without question my favorite release of the year. It’s a sometimes dirty, sometimes groovy, sometimes spiritual listen that follows Booker as he searches for purpose as a 20-something black man in 2017 America. He does it by mixing distinctly traditional mediums of black storytelling – blues, soul, gospel – with distinctly modern production, tones, and even a slight punk flair. Witness sounds weirder than it listens, because at the heart of this record is Ben’s knack for song craft and the earnest questions he throws to the universe, and himself, about death, race, love, God, police brutality, and reflection.
Highlight track: “Witness”
2. SZA – CTRL
CTRL was one of those “buzz” albums that completely lived up to the hype and more. Twitter couldn’t stop talking about this record, and given SZA’s reputation as a behind-the-scenes writer for R&B goddesses like Beyoncé and Rihanna, I figured it was worth my full attention. I’m so glad I gave it such, because she demands so much of her listener. CTRL listens like a confessional and acts as a microscope on black female sexuality. SZA, unlike her contemporaries, isn’t afraid to explore the vulnerability and discomfort of sexuality. She rightfully claims her sexual power, but also realizes the struggle for control also involves episodes of powerlessness. Thematically, I’m still mining CTRL for SZA’s nuggets of wisdom and capsules of collapse, and though the neo-soul production and instrumentation blends beautifully with her unfailing pop instincts, it’s the content, not the hooks, that make SZA a special artist, and one of the most compelling songwriters in any genre to watch going forward. Also, her voice is as legit AF. Give this one several listens, you won’t be able to digest it fully on the first run.
Highlight track: “Love Galore”
3. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
Gallons of “ink” have been spilled writing about the genius of Kendrick Lamar, and I carry neither the expertise nor the credibility to properly contextualize DAMN in either Kendrick’s catalog, or hip-hop history. I’m just a hip-hop head and a Kendrick fan who knows what I like, and Kendrick delivered perhaps his most likeable and listenable album to date. DAMN leaves in the past the narrative, street-wise poetry of Good Kid, m.A.A.d city and the avant-garde political free form of To Pimp A Butterfly and refocuses on the singularity of hip-hop. What else is rap but an artist and a mic? It’s no coincidence that the album cover adorns only a glaring Kendrick, as if to say, “I don’t need gimmicks, I don’t need concepts, I just need a mic.” With that mic he executes a clinic in rap versatility – switching geographic styles, speeds, flow, and subject matter with ease. From the bludgeoning attack of “DNA,” to the heady philosophy of tracks like “PRIDE” and “FEAR,” Kendrick shows us why he’s still king, even when he’s not making grand cultural statements.
Highlight track – “DNA”
4. Jlin – Black Origami
If you’re not familiar with “footwork” and “juke” music, Jlin’s Black Origami might not make much sense to you (full disclosure: I wasn’t), and even if you are it still might not make much sense to you (full disclosure: it didn’t). But sometimes music can simply be about aural discovery, and that was this listen for me. Jlin is an intrepid producer who integrates polyrhythmic synthetic production and drum loops with organic snare and bass sounds similar to what you might hear in a high school drum line. Her use of panning and space in the mix (listen in headphones) gives you the feeling that you’re listening to the most psychedelic African drum circle known to man. I’ve never been blown away so much by an electronic album that’s virtually void of melody. Think about that: She was brave enough to make an album that doesn’t have melodies. You might not leave this listen with any one beat or song stuck in your head, but I promise Black Origami is unforgettable.
Highlight track - "Holy Child"
5. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Rock, understandably, is a dying art form. There’s just not much ground left to cover in rock sub-genres in its 60+ year existence, so now I mainly look for two things in my rock albums: They either need to be big, anthemic, almost cinematic journeys, or they need to be sexy, groovy, or grimey. A Deeper Understanding fits the former to a T. The War On Drugs have always been known for slow-burn songs with lengthy guitar solos and the heartland ethos of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan, but on this record they took it to soundtrack-level heights. Compared to their 2014 release, Lost In The Dream (a spectacular album), A Deeper Understanding has more of everything – more length, more synths, more layers, more choruses, more harmonies, more soundscapes, more detail. And in this case more is better. The production is wizardry, almost 3D. The songs are long, but memorable with distinct movements (an early knock on the band was an aimless tendency for songs to peter out), and finally Adam Granduciel’s voice balances out the emotional weight he usually relies on his instrumentation to carry. That evenhanded 1-2 punch makes for the year’s best rock record by a mile.
Highlight track: “Pain”
6. Moses Sumney – Aromantacism
Moses gets my pick for “artist to watch” going forward. Aromanticism, as the title would suggest, is an emotional foray into a struggle to connect to others, and it’s set to an ethereal, formless backdrop of post-rock. The songwriting here, though not traditional, is quite brilliant, but Moses’ incredible falsetto and captivating vocal dynamics steal the show.
Highlight track: “Quarrel”
7. A. Savage – Thawing Dawn
Andrew Savage from Parquet Courts departs off of last year’s brilliant release, Human Performance, and brings his laconic approach to this understated batch of alt-country, folk, and pedal steel-soaked songs. Savage’s characteristic turns of phrase and biting, perceptive wit showcase well in these genres. And, I’m a sucker for a back beat and steel swells. This record hit home for me right away. Indie rock doesn’t have many interesting figures on the ascending end of their careers, but Savage is one of them.
Highlight track: “Buffalo Calf Road”
8. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference EP
There’s no better bandleader or torch bearer for the adventurous spirit of jazz in the modern era than Kamasi Washington. On this EP he showcases his virtuosity on tenor sax with an amazing cast of players, and gives us a respectable follow up to his 2015 triple-LP (yes, triple) Epic. That album was my favorite record of 2015, but gone are the spacey, genre bending freak-outs, and instead Washington displays a tight, immaculately constructed set of pop-single-length songs that have consistent melodic centers and steady rhythmic motion. He’s a master in the making.
Highlight track: “Knowledge”
9. Daniel Romano – Modern Pressure
Daniel Romano has been somewhat of a musical chameleon throughout this decade, shedding personas and bandmates seemingly with every album. What started as an exploration of hardcore classic country, which he dubbed “Mosey” and eventually ventured into B-spaghetti western-like soundtrack music landed him somewhere near Modern Pressure. It’s an album that evokes the American rootsiness of late 60s Bob Dylan but is half as verbose and far more calculated. Modern Pressure is one of Romano’s most fun, whimsical listens, and it’s nice to see him return to form after a couple failed “experiment” releases in 2016.
Highlight track: “Modern Pressure”
10. Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
For this record, Mavis continues her late career resurgence and production partnership with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and it’s her most topical, political, and inspired release this decade. Both the title track and lead single “Build A Bridge” serve to give an optimistic voice to race relations and political unrest in America from a woman with Civil Rights era street cred. It’s a nice change of pace to have the generational wisdom, strength, and perseverance of a figure like Mavis making culturally relevant statements with the likes of bleaker voices like Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Solange, and Beyoncé. She still has a lot left in the tank. This album proves it.
Highlight track: “Build A Bridge”
header image: "benjamin booker," paul hudson / flickr