To read about what this year’s albums meant to 2017, see Rob Harvilla’s accompanying year-end essay.
10. Feist, Pleasure
The song is “Any Party.” The line is, “You planned meeting me on your way home / And I tried reaching you ON YOUR NEW FLIP PHONE!” Loop just that part, crank it up, leave it on repeat for several hours, and revel in one of the precious few unsullied pleasures 2017 had to offer. Sorry, Japandroids.
9. Charly Bliss, Guppy
This young Brooklyn band’s sugar-shock pop-punk is a guaranteed Instant Good Mood, channeling ’90s Buzz Bin anthemia at its hookiest and most exuberant. There is plenty of prickly romantic anxiety here—“Am I the best? / Or just the first person to say yes?”—and some gleeful malevolence, too. “I laughed when your dog died / It is cruel, but it’s true,” singer Eva Grace Hendricks coos, shortly before launching into yet another supernova chorus that fuses brattiness and vulnerability into something indestructible: “I'm four years above 16 / I bounced so high, I peed the trampoline / I’m too sad to be mean / I’m gonna end up working at Dairy Queen.” Not with that attitude.
8. Margo Price, All American Made
“A little pain never hurt anyone,” thunders Margo Price, a lethally sharp Nashville singer-songwriter who doesn’t have to cloak herself in pompous outlaw finery to prove that she’s both the best modern country music has to offer and the best of what modern country music hardly ever offers. There is bar-fight bluster and church-pew soul aplenty here, lighthearted tributes to “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Wild Women” alike, and killer one-liners (“Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me”) suitable for scrawling onto dive-bar bathroom walls. But the sharpest moments—the gently incendiary “Pay Gap” and the gorgeous Willie Nelson duet “Learning to Lose”—tackle big subjects, from economic anxiety to systemic inequality, in vivid, altogether human ways, with a righteous fury bubbling just below the placid surface.
7. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
“How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction is all I see?” When Pitchfork asked Long Beach rapper Vince Staples what that line from the sardonic “Party People” meant to him, it triggered a fantastically combative and Liam Gallagher–esque back and forth that swung from “Do you consider music to be art?” to “If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t ask the question” to “I won’t say I have no problem, but the surrounding elements of the environment and the world don’t bother me. I never think about stuff, honestly.” Big Fish Theory clatters and lurches and mesmerizes, its beats ranging from hyphy to house to trance to grime, and Staples’s deep and deceptively casual thoughts deconstructing everything from rap stardom to the prison-industrial complex. It’s a profoundly unsettling good time that gives you a lot of stuff to think about.
6. Kendrick Lamar, Damn.
At this point, who isn’t praying for Kendrick Lamar? As pure, dense staggering spectacle, this is the rap event of the year, an ocean of precise verbiage to float atop or drown in, from the off-kilter grandiosity of “Humble.” to the woozy licentiousness of “Lust.” There are no lengthy digressions to ignore, no track that doesn’t catch the light in a new way every time. (Spend some time with “Fear.,” wherein he runs through every conceivable iteration of his own death: “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges / Body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’ / Or maybe die from panic, or die from bein’ too lax / Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast.”) There isn’t a better rapper with a bigger audience, nor another artist in any genre so committed to The Album as a Profound Statement.
5. Jason Isbell, The Nashville Sound
“If We Were Vampires” has the most devastatingly romantic chorus of the year, and also the grimmest: “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever / Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / Maybe we’ll get 40 years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.” In the Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price tier of putative country saviors with a modest but still insufficient amount of industry support, Isbell has the sharpest, surest way with words, which means he can write a protest song that doesn’t condescend (“White Man’s World”), and a song about contented family life that precisely articulates the dread lurking just beneath that contentment (“Anxiety”). A John Prine for the social-media age who can croon when he wants to and snarl when he has to.
4. Spoon, Hot Thoughts
I will never be able to pick my favorite Spoon album, which is a huge compliment to all of them. Britt Daniel has been an indie-rock star for two decades now, long enough to dismiss the notion of “indie rock” entirely: “It seems middle-of-the-road to me,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Like people mean ‘junior-level rock & roll.’” Hot Thoughts, the band’s seventh straight excellent album of this century, does indeed feel like a huge leap upward and forward, the organic (all those shakers and tambourines and handclaps) fusing with the robotic (all those humid synths) to create a party where you can dance as suavely or as awkwardly as you like. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” is the one you want, swaggering and ramshackle, but with every piano note, every jagged guitar burst, every strutting drumbeat perfectly placed. It’s rock ’n’ roll with no qualifiers and no equal.
3. Alvvays, Antisocialites
“What’s left for you and me?” Molly Rankin moans, lovelorn and cutting, her voice bathed in comforting and irradiating reverb. “I ask that question rhetorically.” The second album from this Canadian indie-pop outfit has a deceptively sweet and weightless air, the guitars jangling, the synthesizers whizzing like science-fiction lasers, and Rankin’s voice sliding up to a piercing soprano when she gets particularly heartbroken, or particularly aggrieved. We’re walking every station of the Smiths-album cross here, indulging in a feast of exquisite melancholy (“I thought of going in the lake and swallowing / Thought that I had unplugged the phone until it rang”). Something this deliberately retro shouldn’t sound so immediate, so revelatory; something this bracingly sad shouldn’t sound so triumphant.
2. Lorde, Melodrama
I have not yet forgiven America for not making “Green Light” a massive, Song of the Summer–caliber hit; same deal with “Supercut,” actually. This was the best boldface-type pop album of 2017 by a huge margin, a defiantly awkward dance party for one, flaunting its eccentricities with so much intoxicating flair that the result feels universal. Melodrama is a quasi-concept album about being both famous and anonymous, about both wallowing in solitude and partying amid strangers, about reveling in your vulnerability and weaponizing your most intimate moments. “I whisper things / The city sings them back to you” is a bone-chilling way to describe the massive risks involved in getting romantically involved with a pop star, or a “Writer in the Dark,” or anyone, ever, at any time. This is the best-case-scenario depiction of the worst-case scenario.
1. Jay-Z, 4:44
Jay-Z is very, very, very, very sorry. And if that’s all he had to say on 4:44, we would’ve played through it one and a half times, canceled our Tidal subscriptions, and forgotten all about it. But his 13th studio album is a stranger, thornier, far more compelling beast—a volatile mixture of wounded therapy talk, brash investment advice, heartwarming family business, and reasonably entertaining get-off-my-lawn grousing. Also, yes, he apologizes at great length and intensity to his wife, one of the few humans on earth who can outshine him, who can render him an underdog, and who can help him seize upon the improbable-comeback narrative that makes this the most bizarrely engrossing album of the year. With producer No I.D.’s skeletal soul goading him on, Jay celebrates his mother, Gloria Carter, coming out. He plows grimly, and messily, into the thicket of racial stereotypes on “The Story of O.J.,” which packs more personality into one word—OK—than you’ll find in plenty of full-length rap albums from punks half his age. And he concedes throughout that he’s disappointed his family. It’s an open question whether he’s aware that output-wise, for the past decade or so, he’s also mostly disappointed his fans. But this record is different: more vulnerable than anyone would’ve expected, and better than anyone had any right to hope.