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The Most Underrated Albums of 2017

From Travis Meadows to Tove Lo, some lovely music that deserves more attention

By one way of looking at it (mine), this person made the best record of 2017, and these nine artists filled out the Top 10. It's tough enough finding time to luxuriate in your own favorite albums of the year, let alone someone else's. But spare a thought for these outliers—a few critical darlings, a few emerging too late to make many year-end lists, and all of them stretching the boundaries of country, R&B, dance pop, emo, and the like. Let’s run down a few wildly underrated 2017 albums you might’ve missed.

Travis Meadows, First Cigarette

Here is the way 50-something Nashville folk-country singer Travis Meadows describes himself: “An orphan who turned into a preacher. A preacher who turned into a songwriter. A songwriter that turned into a drunk. A drunk that is learning to be a human being.” He’s a “your favorite artist’s favorite artist” craftsman in the Chris Stapleton mode; the cover of his breakout album has the elegantly grizzled-badass vibe of a Southern Tom Waits. The songs follow suit, sung in a honeyed 10-packs-a-day growl, hailing the redemptive powers of Bruce Springsteen and abject failure and the way “bitter roads turn into highways.” His best chorus sums up both the triumph and the tragedy here: “I’m doin’ alright for a guy like me.” All the bridges he’s burned just keep him warm.

Miguel, War & Leisure

No song released this decade sounds better on the radio than Miguel’s “Adorn,” a simple and propulsive 2012 ballad that marked him as worthy of mildly psychedelic soul’s glorious past and emblematic of its even more glorious future. Since then he has only grown thornier, and purple-hazier: Early December’s War & Leisure suggests he’s gunning for his own There’s a Riot Goin’ On, or at least his own Electric Circus. A slight pivot toward wokeness aside, he’s still at his best on overheated boudoir jams like “Wolf” (that’s him) and “Harem” (that’s you). But his burgeoning love for all things dense and psychedelic helps him reach for a higher power, or maybe just become a higher power himself. “You make me feel like a god,” he moans on “Anointed,” and the fact he sounds a little silly doesn’t make him wrong.

Rainer Maria, S/T

Somehow, a reformed emo band made the best Led Zeppelin LP of 2017. When Rainer Maria first emerged from mid-’90s Wisconsin, their songs felt like hyperliterate lovers’ quarrels, deeply bruising and impossibly delicate. But they reinvent themselves as a titanium-strength power trio on their first record in 11 years, with a Brontosaurus stomp that casts delicacy aside entirely. Hearing bassist Caithlin De Marrais and guitarist Kaia Fischer screaming, “Slam shut! / the doors!” in unison is as thrilling as it is terrifying, and De Marrais in particular has evolved into a flamethrowing lead singer capable of burning down full throwback Ozzfest and Warped Tour lineups in a single breath. “You just want to eat my heart out,” goes one of her angrier and more ecstatic moments. “I might let you.”

Tee Grizzley & Lil Durk, Bloodas

What I want out of a collaborative rap album—which were all the rage this year, from Future–Young Thug to Fabolous-Jadakiss to Metro Boomin’s various exploits—is a sense that the paired-off stars in question are in the same headspace, if not necessarily the same room. I want them to be good friends, in other words. “WhatYo City Like,” an early highlight from this ominous and bombastic summit between Chicago striver Lil Durk and Detroit upstart Tee Grizzley, is a fine example, a nonchalantly tremendous feast of grouchy rapport. It’s just two ravenous street rappers comparing gritty hometowns and criminal histories, and offering courtesies if one decides to visit the other’s turf, with “I’ma put choppers around you” serving as the height of hospitality. Elsewhere, they both worry over the phrase “I know some killers that want me dead,” Durk with a lightly AutoTuned moan, Grizzley in an exasperated bark. Their buddy-comedy chemistry fuels something more tragic, or at least a whole lot darker.

Jlin, Black Origami

“I want to surprise me as much as I want to surprise you,” electronic musician Jerrilynn Patton told Pitchfork earlier this year during a field trip to her hometown of Gary, Indiana. “I love when I hit a person like a tornado. There is no easing. We just go straight in.” Her second full-length album feels like several dozen natural disasters occurring simultaneously, a thrilling percussive minefield where frigid drum machines, raucous marching bands, spectral choirs, and all manner of shakers and clickers and hand-buzzers and whatnot are shattered into tiny pieces and painstakingly reassembled. But there’s a thrilling warmth amid all this cold calamity—as dance music, it argues that stumbling around in euphoric confusion might be the purest form of dancing there is.

Tove Lo, Blue Lips (Lady Wood Phase II)

The world needs more NC-17-rated pop music, so let’s check in with fizzy Swedish hedonist Tove Lo, whose third album properly starts with a song called “Disco Tits” (there’s a quasi-Muppet in the video) and ends with a swoony song called “Hey You Got Drugs?” A crack songwriter and Max Martin protégé, she knows the “rules” of pure pop music—the precise structure, and what Lorde called the “melodic math”—and she delights in breaking them. Blue Lips (a play on “blue balls,” FYI) is both raunchy and cerebral, tightly controlled and bracingly feral, elemental and experimental. A typical chorus goes “Cold, cold, cold, cold hands over me / Fuck, fuck, fuck some sense into me”; a typical song evokes the flagrant after-party amorality of the Weeknd but with a sharper and more sensitive eye. Start with the killer earworm “She Don’t Know but She Knows” and maybe use incognito browsing to explore the rest.

Jay Som, Everybody Works

“Why don’t we take the bus? / You say you don’t like the smell / But I like the bus / I can be whoever I want to be.” Bay Area indie-pop singer-songwriter Melina Duterte has a way of making even the most mundane, everyday realism feel magical, like the way a small, exuberant chorus materializes to yell, “I like the bus!” right alongside her. From a blunt, fuzzy joybomb called “1 Billion Dogs” to a gauzy dream-pop swooner called “Baybee” to the noodly guitar-god mini-epic “One More Time, Please,” she calmly and quietly contains multitudes. And as a live proposition, her full band, a little funky and a little goofy, is the best-case scenario to stumble across at a random music festival, or in a random office.

Ty Dolla $ign, Beach House 3

“My bed lookin’ like OOH-OOH / Your bed lookin’ like NAW-NAW.” Ty Dolla $ign’s hyper-melodic cuddly-lothario act should’ve gotten old by now, but it turns out that the world really did need 20 more gorgeously lascivious R&B jams that start with lines like “I just text my main chick / Told her I ain’t comin’ home” and spin out pornographic metaphors like “Droptop in the Rain.” The guest list spans from fellow crooners (The-Dream, Jeremih) to licentious rappers (Lil Wayne, YG) to total outliers (Skrillex?), but Ty’s rapport with Future is unmatched: The hook-filled double whammy of “Don’t Judge Me” and “Don’t Sleep on Me” makes this a slightly sunnier companion piece to Hndrxx, with a hedonistic tropical vibe nicely undercut by your doting host’s ice-cold heart.

Carly Pearce, Every Little Thing

Make room in your life for another effervescent young pop star named Carly, this one a young Nashville-via-Kentucky country star recording for the Big Machine label, home to one Taylor Swift. Pearce broke through with the brokenhearted ballad “Every Little Thing,” but the best moments on her debut album deal with bad romance in a far more aggressive and wisely hostile way: “If my name was whiskey / Maybe you’d miss me.” “You’re just the boy who cries love.” “I ain't your old guitar / That you leave out in the back of your car / That you never play / But you say that you're gonna play.” As bubbly but biting pop-country goes, she’s right up there with the Kelsea Ballerinis and Maren Morrises of the world, and her most most romantic songs, from “Catch Fire” to “Dare Ya,” are about waiting for oblivious guys to take the hint. Don’t screw this up.

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