The Best Albums of 2017
From (SZ)A to (JAY-)Z, behold the finest records of the year.
25. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
For the seventh Queens of the Stone Age LP, mastermind Joshua Homme enlisted the help of U.K. hitmaker Mark Ronson (Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga). And while at first blush it’s a shocking pairing — the hard-rock stalwart and the dude who made “Uptown Funk”? — musically, it’s electric. With addicting grooves and disco flourishes, Villains is the desert-rock outift’s finest work of the 2000s. —Madison Vain
24. Kip Moore, Slowheart
The Georgia-bred singer and songwriter struggled to find a home for his killer 2015 LP, Wild Ones — both on country radio and in customers’ libraries. So for his third outing, Slowheart, he simply stopped trying so dang hard. Instead, Moore took a few months off to travel and let the new music develop naturally. The result? 13 heartland-rock tracks that make up the most thrilling set of his career. —M.V.
23. Four Tet, New Energy
For nearly two decades, Kieran Hebden has constructed alluring, forward-thinking electronic music. His ninth full-length is also his best in years, containing nearly an hour of lush instrumentals that seamlessly flow from one to the next. Hebden’s greatest talent remains his knack for letting things grow: Dancefloor workouts (“SW9 9SL,” “Planet”) and serene meditations (“Two Thousand and Seventeen,” “Lush”) blossom organically. —Eric Renner Brown
22. Miguel, War & Leisure
Social decay has never sounded so sexy. The charismatic 32-year-old is as sensual as ever on his lush fourth album, which continues his inspired fusion of genres ranging from R&B to rock to electronic music. But there’s a deeper political undercurrent that makes War & Leisure his best work yet. Cuts like “Now” and “Come Through and Chill,” featuring J. Cole, tap directly into hot-button issues, including Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The best moment is more abstract: On the spare “City of Angels,” Miguel spins a tale about enduring a cataclysmic event with a lover in his hometown. —E.R.B.
21. Kelly Clarkson, Meaning of Life
The original American Idol staked her career on singles so massive and towering they practically bump into the International Space Station whenever they come on. But 15 years into a business that hasn’t always been kind to her, she released the strongest start-to-finish album of her career — and made it clear that she has so much more to give. Yes, it’s the soul album she’s wanted to make since she was a teenager. But it’s also the truest showcase of the warmth, charm, and humor that made us fall in love with her in the first place. —Nolan Feeney
20. Jay Som, Everybody Works
Indie-rock isn’t the genre it once was, but dig deep and gems abound. In 2017, the best example might’ve been Melina Duterte’s second album as Jay Som. The 23-year-old Bay Area native’s collection of exquisitely crafted tunes fall somewhere between Carly Rae Jepsen and Built to Spill, dabbling in riffy squall (“1 Billion Dogs”) and synth-pop (“Baybee”) alike. Duterte’s gifted songwriting unites her stylistic breadth; on the astounding title track, she loads a world of emotion into three-and-a-half minutes. —E.R.B.
19. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
How best to respond to the world’s fractured state of affairs? With an equally sprawling, overloaded album. At 74 minutes, Father John Misty’s third LP shouldn’t work — and cuts like the interminable, 13-minute strummer “Leaving LA” don’t, really — but the singer-songwriter born Josh Tillman keeps the project afloat with acerbic lyrics, orchestral folk-rock arrangements, and a seemingly endless arsenal of melodies. The doomsaying title track and “Ballad of the Dying Man,” about the woes of tech addiction, are darkly impressive, but Tillman leavens his pessimism with hilarity: His twisted lullabies (“The Memo”) and apocalyptic how-to guides (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”) make the world’s end sound oddly appealing. —E.R.B.
18. Charli XCX, Number 1 Angel
When life handed her lemons — her third studio album, once slated for this past spring, still hasn’t seen the light of day and may not anytime soon — the British songwriter didn’t make lemonade. Instead, she made a vodka Red Bull, quietly hit the studio with bizzaro-pop wizards like SOPHIE and A.G. Cook, and churned out the ballsiest party record of the year. If this is the caliber of songs she cranks out when she’s killing time, her next LP will be something to behold. But with another star-studded mixtape on the way, bringing her total of new tunes this year to almost two-dozen, who even needs a proper “studio album” anyway? —N.F.
17. Jessie Ware, Glasshouse
Not since Bey and Jay woke up confused on their kitchen floor has music been such a compelling advertisement for marriage. And even set against a backdrop of cranky fights and sleepless nights courtesy of newborn, Ware makes the ins and outs of monogamy sound downright magical on her third record. Just listen to “Alone,” a sumptuous piano ballad about getting it on that makes the well-worn idea of finding “the one” sound like a true revelation, a blessing of the highest order. —N.F.
16. Future, HNDRXX
The prolific Atlanta trap star’s best and most successful song of 2017 didn’t even appear on this album: That’d be “Mask Off,” from his self-titled effort, released a week prior. But HNDRXX helped Future make history — he’s the first artist to ever notch back-to-back No. 1 debuts in successive weeks — and it’s his most cohesive, consistent work yet. Frequent producer Metro Boomin stops by for sleazy opener “My Collection,” but Future then ventures out sonically, trying out silky, domesticated soul (“Fresh Air”) and euphoric synth-pop (“Incredible”). Bonus: The Weeknd delivers an earworm of a hook on the woozy “Comin Out Strong” for his best guest spot since Lemonade. —E.R.B.
15. Perfume Genius, No Shape
Mike Hadreas’ Perfume Genius project bestowed the world the ultimate gift in 2014 with the line, “No family is safe when I sashay.” (Can you say #iconic?) But on his fourth LP, his gaze settles on his home life. No Shape is a technicolor ode to Hadreas’ partner and collaborator Alan Wyffels. It’s his most lavish production yet, with synths that twist and turn while bass lines collide and vocals take off. But just when it starts to seem like too much, the album melts into its ghostly second half, where he tries to reconcile the idea of everlasting love with the bleak reality that our physical forms will eventually wither. Together, it’s anxious and miserable and absolutely wonderful. —M.V.
14. Kesha, Rainbow
The journey to Kesha’s third full-length album was lengthy, troubled, and well-documented for the public. Until now, her career has been wrapped up with Dr. Luke, the producer she accused of sexual assault and abuse in a 2014 lawsuit. (He’s repeatedly denied the claims.) And while you might be inclined to think Rainbow, with its themes of overcoming adversity and a few not-so-subtle subtle jabs at an unnamed tormenter, is all about those struggles, you’d be dead wrong. Rainbow is about exactly one person: Kesha. And with raw, powerful vocals, rowdy guitars, and ultra-gooey hooks, what a victory that is. —M.V.
13. JAY-Z, 4:44
It turns out that all the hip-hop icon needed to jolt him for a years-long creative slump was Beyoncé sharing his marital infidelities with the entire world. 4:44 is Jay’s most realized record in more than a decade, a lean tour de force that tackles issues of race writ large (“The Story of O.J.,” “Moonlight”) but still gets deeply personal: The rapper atones to Beyoncé on the title track and invites his mom to discuss her coming out on “Smile.” And while the album’s scant on guests — just Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and Damian Marley — the voices of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, and more drift through the album thanks to producer No I.D.’s dusty soul instrumentals. —E.R.B.
12. Mac DeMarco, This Old Dog
“There’s a price tag hanging off of having all that fun,” the Canadian indie-rocker sings on “My Old Man,” the ennui-stricken opening cut from his third album. DeMarco’s only 27, but on This Old Dog he’s pivoted hard into quarter-life crisis mode: Gone are the cigarette odes from his 2012 debut, replaced by more of the ruminations about life and happiness that he first explored on 2014’s Salad Days. His songwriting is tighter than ever, like on “For the First Time” and “One More Love Song,” the best romantic tunes the well-known romantic has ever penned. This Old Dog is a subtle musical step forward, too: “Moonlight on the River” descends from wistful yacht-rock into a haze of psychedelic distortion. —E.R.B.
11. Kelela, Take Me Apart
Kelela doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing her musical aim. “I was [searching] for the place between Björk, Sade, and Beyoncé,” she told EW this year. She found it and more on Take Me Apart, her debut studio album, which soars thanks to a heady blend of R&B and electronica. After cutting ties with an old flame on the LP opener “Frontline,” we hear her heels clicking toward her car, the driver’s side slamming, and, eventually, her speeding off, dragging us into her world entirely. —M.V.
10. Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now
A new couple’s tender first fight. The silent friendship between two men who don’t know how to open up to each other. A guy who 3-D prints a model of his tumor… and gives it to a random waitress? The Swedish crooner is quite a simply a songwriter like no other, and on his joyous fourth album, he decks out his wildly specific, intimate yarns with bossa nova grooves, disco beats, and hip-hop samples — plus enough heart, suspense, and laughs to easily make this the finest rom-com you’ll encounter all year. —N.F.
9. Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
The bluesy powerhouse enjoyed a remarkable run when he released Traveller in 2015: The double-platinum set won a slew of awards, including two Grammys, and cemented him as the most commercially viable member of the alt-country scene. Though he’s long been one of Nashville’s favorite songwriters, Stapleton didn’t pen a single new tune for its follow-up. Instead, he looked to the vault and culled his finest drafts from the last decade, including the harrowing “Either Way” (Vol. 1) and the drunken lament “Drunkard’s Prayer” (Vol. 2), for two epic LPs this year. —M.V.
8. Sylvan Esso, What Now
In 2017, it should go without saying that electronic music can have just as much as soul as any other kind of music — that writing and performing songs with synths and computers doesn’t make your work any less real or meaningful. But God forbid you missed the memo, let the second album from this North Carolina duo show you the light. It’s a brief but dazzling tour through what sounds like a Super Mario rave held on the dark side of Rainbow Road, though its real highlights are quiet stunners like “Song” and the genuinely jaw-dropping “Slack Jaw.” They’re tracks that prove, no matter what your band’s setup is, it doesn’t take much more than a voice as nimble and affecting as Amelia Meath’s to connect. –N.F.
7. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
The gifted 23-year-old MC joked on Twitter that his second album should compete with electronic artists at the Grammys — and it’s true that, with assists from the likes of Flume (“Yeah Right”) and Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn (“Love Can Be…”), the bracing set only needed 36 minutes to push hip-hop’s sonic boundaries more than any other 2017 release. As synths skronk and drums clatter, Staples glides above the din, with lyrical missives that urgently indict fame (“Party People”) and fortune (the one-percent challenging “BagBak”). –E.R.B.
6. LCD Soundsystem, american dream
Even the best bands can age more like bad milk than cabernet. Somehow though, New York’s dance-rock iconoclasts managed to avoid the curse of late-career stasis, returning from a half-decade hiatus as fresh and vital as they’d ever been — not just older but wiser, too, with a new strain of wit and tenderness thrumming beneath their strobelit dreams. —Leah Greenblatt
5. Margo Price, All American Made
“Don’t clear your throat if you ain’t got nothing to say,” the Illinois native threatens on her incendiary 2017 LP. That’s not a problem for Price who emerged as country’s critical darling last year with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, a delicate reckoning with her troubled past. On Made, which folds in rock, R&B, and even psychedelia, she widens her lyrical scope. Surveying the heartland, she tackles its sexism (“Pay Gap”) and cyclical poverty (“Heart of America”) movingly. And when Willie Nelson joins for “Learning to Lose,” listeners can’t help but feel a torch passing. —M.V.
4. St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION
A sleek piece of neon-pop machinery with a riot-girl heart, MASSEDUCTION felt like the fitting sonic vessel for a singularly disorienting year. Vincent, a.k.a. 35-year-old Annie Clark, still shreds on guitar; but even as her sound has become more pointedly polished, her brilliantly off-kilter songwriting illuminates the farthest corners of sex, technology, and modern dread. —L.G.
3. SZA, Ctrl
The wait for Solána Rowe’s debut LP has been long — it stretched across three years, three EPs, and one totally bonkers feature on Rihanna’s ANTI — but, as Ctrl proved, worth it. Throughout the album’s 14 tracks, the 28-year-old R&B adventurist unfurls compelling, stream-of-consciousness-style meditations on love (“Doves in the Wind”), heartache (“Broken Clocks”), self worth (“Drew Barrymore”), and even revenge sex (“Supermodel”). Not since Mary J. Blige’s 1994 opus My Life has the genre witnessed such a complete picture of young womanhood. —M.V.
2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Like the president who eventually praised it, Lamar’s jazzy 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly was an unflinching but optimistic force of hope. His knotty, conflicted follow-up is anything but: With tracks that address topics as lofty as America (“XXX.”) and the divine (“GOD.”), Lamar deploys his generational lyrical gift in a search for answers to 2017’s pervasive chaos. But while his dazzling verbal flows prove he’s still hip-hop’s best, Lamar enlisted proven chart-toppers Mike Will Made-It, Greg Kurstin, and Rihanna to also make DAMN. his most musically mainstream project yet. —E.R.B.
1. Lorde, Melodrama
The joke was that listening to Lorde was supposed to make you feel old. On 2013’s Pure Heroine, she examined the rituals of her fellow teens with a poeticism capable of convincing the legal-drinking set that they were underachieving slackers — not to mention a prodigious wisdom that inspired some truthers to half-jokingly search for a birth certificate. But that changed with Melodrama, an album that documents the rushes of young love with such precision, even the most jaded among us will feel the flicker of butterfly wings in their guts as they listen. (That’s why her hair is so big — it’s full of feelings!) The case for Lorde as her generation’s finest lyricist is easy to make here: What other pop star can name-drop pseudoephedrine in the middle of a verse about a post-breakup haze with the ease of a nursery rhyme? And basking in the glow of Jack Antonoff’s oddball synth-pop beats, every image and punchline hits like a cup of your alma mater’s jungle juice. Yet the 21-year-old’s real talent is the way her dispatches can exist at once in the middle of heartbreak and totally removed from it. She can warn of a doomed-to-fail fling on the horizon, then run toward it like a storm chaser, pulling you along for the ride. She can make fun of the way she hangs on a lover’s every text, then capture the breath-holding anxiety of the dreaded typing bubble in the same line. Growing up isn’t one big party, as this album — loosely based on the arc of a night out — makes clear. But as she cradles every tear, builds a shrine to every fragile connection, Lorde reminds us what a privilege it is to feel anything as strongly and as messily as you did when you were young. —N.F.