Another year has come and gone with its ups and downs, and in the case of 2017, there seemed to be more of the latter. Although music may not have saved the world in 2017, it still offered refuge and a much-needed diversion from the horrors of reality. In any case, here are the best albums that soundtracked our lives in 2017, presented in alphabetical, unranked order.
Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
One bright spot in 2017 was the breakthrough of Japanese Breakfast. Michelle Zauner’s idiosyncracies have been one of music’s best kept secret secrets for a while, and now the world is ready for conquest. Sophomore album Soft Sounds from Another Planet goes even further than the dream pop confessional laments of her debut Psychopomp. As Zauner mixes shoegaze, electronic flourishes, acoustic indie folk, autotune pop, saxophone solos and more, she tackles heavy subject matter such as road head and body dysmorphia with both brutal honesty and endearing experimentation. – Frank Mojica
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (all five albums)
King Gizzard are notorious for their prodigious output. While we love bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall who are equally notorious for frequent releases, jam bands, side projects and one-off lineups, King Gizzard flourished while keeping each release as exciting as it was unique. Sketches of Brunswick East was a collaborative affair with Mild High Club that pushed both bands onto a worldwide stage. Flying Microtonal Banana is perhaps the best album name of all time, and was a fairly straightforward release. Polygondwanaland was released entirely for free without copyright, with means of productions left up to fans, instructions and all provided. Murder of the Universe saw the entirety of space obliterated and reborn again in a grotesque and destructive punch. Gumboot Soup came out on the heels of New Year’s Eve, and gave us a refreshing look into all the great songs that would have been. King Gizzard slayed 2017, and we’re excited what they end up doing in the new year. – Phillip Gutgesell
King Krule – The Ooz
The Ooz is only King Krule’s second album, but if it’s any indication of what’s to come, we’re in for a real treat. The imagery, sound, style and passion pulsating beneath the sophomore release easily landed it on our top 10. Steeped in pink and blue hues and tones, The Ooz successfully navigates feelings of depression, anger, outrage, entitlement, lust and loss. A day in the life of King Krule’s universe is a nostalgic and violent trip into a beautifully sad and wonderful world, and for that, we are grateful. – Phillip Gutgesell
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
K-Dot is king. Is there really anything more to say than that? Kendrick Lamar has managed to put together a winning streak of releases that far outstrips anything we’ve seen in hip-hop, no, music in general, in years. The man dropped a b-sides comp that found its way to the top of year end lists, and not even two years after putting out a generation-defining LP (containing an anthemic single that became the basis for chants amid national protests) Lamar returns with arguably his magnum opus (so far): DAMN.
As blunt, direct, up-front and no-nonsense as To Pimp A Butterfly is dense, layered and maze-like, DAMN. is still no less thought-provoking as Lamar’s earlier releases. The difference is that this time around, he is economical about what’s on his mind. It’s clear throughout DAMN. that Lamar is still grappling with the anxieties and paradoxes that contextualize his fame and his lot in life, and though that concerns the material and cultural world he, you and I inhabit, the overarching conversation of DAMN. clearly centers on his long-standing crisis of faith and belief. “Who the fuck prayin’ for me?” asks Lamar, a damn near universally beloved figure in the often vindictive world of music whose reach is such that he regularly commands an arena-sized audience whenever he performs.
DAMN. is the work of a man who has found that fame offers little existential comfort and god-damn is that relatable. And in doing so, Lamar has honed his art down to the point that his most eloquent thoughts are now hand-in-hand with the best ear-prickling rhymes he has to offer. DAMN. is his Kid A, his The Queen Is Dead, his absolute peak.
Until his next album of course. – Lee Bedrouni
L.A. Witch – L.A. Witch
L.A. Witch personifies the current and local DIY scene of Los Angeles better than any other band. Having seen them perform live for years in grungy bars, house shows, SXSW showcases and homecoming tours after worldwide travels, the band finally released their much anticipated self titled. Vinyl pressings immediately sold out, interview requests were lined up for days, and the world couldn’t get enough of this tough as fuck trio of the most badass women we know. Switchblades, furry cats in death metal makeup, lowriders, and obvious homages to The Gun Club, L.A. Witch creates a captivating portrayal of California’s most iconic city, and does it in spades. The fact that this is only the band’s first album makes us very excited for the future. – Phillip Gutgesell
St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
The buildup to St. Vincent’s fifth studio album wasn’t without controversy. Fans debated whether Annie Clark was “going pop,” and if she was, is that necessarily a bad thing. Never one to disappoint, Clark defied expectations and raised the bar even higher yet again with MASSEDUCTION. With a chaotic mix of glam, electropop, psych and piano balladry, the Jack Antonoff-produced fifth album deftly uses and repurposes pop production tropes for a sound that is St. Vincent at her most experimental, yet most accessible. MASSEDUCTION s as full of contradictions and controversies as we, and presumably Clark herself, all are.
Underneath the sheen of futuristic pop lies Clark’s sharpest lyricism yet. Thanks to her lyrical prowess, the choruses on singles “Pills” and “Los Ageless” don’t merely stand out so much as demand to be shouted-along to with the most urgent of catharsis. From the unabashedly kinky “Savior” to the heart-wrenching devastation of “Smoking Section,” the shockingly personal yet universally relatable scripture of MASSEDUCTION is endlessly quotable and stuffed with lines that will tattoo the flesh of St. Vincent acolytes for decades to come. – Frank Mojica
SZA – CTRL
It always amazes me when long-gestating records manage to sound prescient and timely, such was the case of MBV’s self-titled follow up to Loveless back in 2013, and it’s not hard to see that being the case with CTRL. A record that carries both the narrative intrigue and self-mythologizing origins as any Lauryn Hill or Missy Elliott modern release, CTRL follows on the heels of soul-indebted hip-hop releases like Frank Ocean’s Blonde (especially on album opener “Supermodel”) Solange’s A Seat At The Table and Kendrick Lamar’s recent releases (“Doves In The Wind”, which features K-Dot, “Prom” and “Garden (Say it Like Dat)”).
Though SZA might not invoke class consciousness or political thought on the level of her peers, she deftly avoids some of the dull vagueness of lesser modern R&B artists by firmly grounding her material in the nitty-gritty politics of relationships. This push and pull amid the ecstasy and magic with the frustrations and mundanities of love, sex, commitments and infidelities is no better characterized than on the album centerpiece, “The Weekend.” Boasting production on par with the best hip hop releases of the last decade, CTRL is definitely a key example of good things are well worth the (multi-year) wait. – Lee Bedrouni
Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
Tyler is brass, vulgar, offensive, juvenile, violent, aggressive, expressive, and now, profound as fuck. The lush and relaxing beats, deep lyrics and impeccable features on Flower Boy contributed to one of the most unexpected hits of the year. Certainly fans, and even entire countries, have been turned off by Tyler and Odd Future’s lyrics and beliefs, but Flower Boy represents a dramatic shift in attitude and maturity. Instead of hate, introspection and reflection. Instead of anger and violence, a coming out of sorts of a true self, a transformation.
Fans are still guessing if this is an ode to Tyler’s rumored/now confirmed(?) bisexuality, but whatever this album represents, it presented something truly beautiful in a world of pessimism and ugliness. When an album comes out that not only gets nominated for a Grammy for its brilliance, but makes us look at all an artist’s previous releases with new appreciation and clarity, you know it’s something special. – Phillip Gutgesell
Ty Segall – Ty Segall
Ty Segall has always been one of the most prolific musicians of our time. In 2017, we saw constant new releases, singles, side projects and jam bands, but interestingly enough, only one new album from the garage rock icon at the start of the year. The album was produced by the legendary Steve Albini (you should know who he is at this point) and was the second album titled simply Ty Segall, following his self-titled debut in 2008. Hinting at a renewed, strip down style or rebirth, the release was as refreshing as it was catchy. After debuting singles from his upcoming album Freedom’s Goblin, we can see a pattern emerging of January releases followed by a year of singles, b-sides, super groups and extensive touring. If Ty Segall was a hint of what’s to come, we’re digging the new release strategy.- Phillip Gutgesell
Vagabon – Infinite Worlds
There’s often a lot of talk about the future of rock music among fans, critics and randos on Twitter. Now that hip-hop, R&B and pop are generally understood to be ubiquitous in the critical and commercial realms of music, it generally seems like rock music has lost a lot the momentum and power it once had. But, really, the question of “Where did all the rock bands go?” is one about visibility more than presence: you just need to know where to look. With that said, I can think of no better example of what the future of rock music will be than Laetitia Tamko’s first full-length LP as Vagabon, Infinite Worlds.
A record featuring a smattering of musical displays ranging from Modest Mouse-inspired sway of “The Embers” to the Stereolab-meets-Laurel Halo electronic headspace of“Mal à L’aise”, to effervescent garage like “Minneapolis,” Infinite Worlds’ title is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to the possibilities it portends as a sample of the future of rock music. And that’s not to forget the unifying voice amid all of the different components on display here, Tamko’s piercingly clear, sincere voice, touching on all matters of personal loss, isolation, love on her journey from Cameroon to New York City and beyond. In the long view, it’s a miracle that a record like Infinite Worlds managed to be made in the first place, and I think it does more than enough to disavow any concerns that rock music is dead. – Lee Bedrouni
Honorable Mentions: Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
Mac DeMarco has been riding the world’s largest wave of hype, and he almost always delivers. With memorable, beautiful and silly live shows, there was immense anticipation for his next album. With 2017, we saw the release of This Old Dog, a more mature, emotional, and largely somber and contemplative affair. The album sees DeMarco looking back on his life and family. With his father in an ailing condition, the album takes on an incredibly personal meaning that throws the beloved indie rock goofball into James Taylor territory.
In interviews, DeMarco has said the release was an ode to his father, who wasn’t expected to live much longer. He’s also said that the album was for himself, as he laments growing older and seeing traits develop that he’s always despised. Either way, fans looked at these facts and pointed to a much more sensible and mellow musician, who wonderfully highlighted the struggles of changing times and aging family members.
Luckily, and perhaps ironically enough, DeMarco’s father, who has at times been described as “kind of a piece of shit,” made a miraculous recovery right after This Old Dog was released. Fans were thrilled, and DeMarco laughed, cussed, and presumably lit a cigarette and rode off into the sunset. Another day for this old dog to be sure. – Phillip Gutgesell
Slowdive – Slowdive
How often does a band go away for a generation, only to return better than ever? We can only dream, right? After all, we’ve grown so accustomed to disappointment that anything remarkable is seen as a triumph. Well, that all changed in 2017 thanks to Slowdive. The shoegaze legends returned for a reunion tour three years ago, but in 2017 Slowdive proved they had more in store than nostalgic bliss for their comeback.
Opener “Slomo” lives up to its namesake as it enthralls the listener to weightlessly drift on a cosmic aural voyage. Although the vibes only get dreamier from here, that’s not to say that the self-titled album is entirely a languid affair. Tracks such as “Everybody Knows” and “Don’t Know Why” propel towards the heavens with an understated urgency. The Slowdive sound is one often imitated, but never replicated, so how fortuitous that lead single “Star Roving” takes every revivalist act to school, as if to show them how it’s really done. Rather than harken back to either their experimental or more pop-oriented fare, Slowdive have revisited and reinvented the past while venturing towards the future. – Frank Monica
Photo of King Krule at Tropicalia Festival by James Sakert