Each week this year, we’ve happily listened to as much new music as possible to help ease a major burden of the modern listener — selecting the best new music from a seemingly infinite number of choices. In doing so, we have slowly assembled a list of the best albums of 2017. On our annual year-end list, you will find a living, breathing portrait of some of the most exciting sounds currently being made by both newcomers and long-established artists.
From famed bands reuniting to fresh faces breaking down barriers, 2017 has been a musical whirlwind that closely mirrors the fast-changing world. The best albums of 2017 exhibited new and interesting viewpoints that have often been forced to the background. Whether it’s the profoundly personal statements from a widower heard on Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, the compelling perspectives on love and loss from rising female-led bands like Alvvays and Jay Som, or the unique and intimate look inside the mind of the world’s most important rapper, Kendrick Lamar, these albums will challenge you as much as they entertain. In a world that seems to be increasingly drawing inwards, this new music is more vital than ever.
For your listening pleasure, here are our top 50 albums of 2017. Want to explore in more depth? Check out our full Spotify playlist. Interested in other music? Be sure to check out the best songs to work to, best songs about money, and best songs about friendship.
1. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
Where 2015’s blockbuster To Pimp A Butterfly was a broad-stroked, socially charged jazz-rap piece of art, Kendrick Lamar‘s fourth studio album is a significantly more intimate work. An introverted look into the mind of the man who many have declared the savior of modern hip-hop, DAMN. is a post-trap masterpiece that eschews 2015’s wall-of-sound approach, and instead embraces subtle stereo mixing and doubled vocals to clearly illustrate Lamar’s inner voice. It’s in this stripped-down setting that audiences are offered astonishingly honest glimpses into the mind of a true musical genius, with lyrics like, “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe/Look, I feel like I can’t sleep/Look, I feel heartless, often off this/Feelin’ of falling/Of fallin’ apart with darkest hours, lost it.” Each of the album’s 14 tracks is centered on a specific topic (loyalty, pride, lust, fear, etc.) and comes across as a self-reflective sermon. Together, they form a series of musical moments that stand in stark contrast to the hubris-filled jams that dominate today’s airwaves.
2. Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked At Me
“When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb,” sings songwriter Phil Elverum on the opening track of A Crow Looked At Me, a powerful set of eleven songs that were written immediately following the death of his wife, artist Geneviève Castrée. Where loss is often employed by songwriters as a hook to catch heart-heavy listeners at their lowest moments, A Crow Looked At Me instead makes death more haunting by painting it with plain, naked realism. This is a clear and honest album from the perspective of a man who has experienced tragic, inconsolable loss, a person for whom beautiful melodies and hopeful messages have lost all traction.
3. Perfume Genius — No Shape
Gorgeous production, superb songwriting, and a shocking musical depth abound on No Shape, the fourth studio album from Seattle songwriter Mike Hadreas. Those who miss the dramatic, complex pop music of late legend David Bowie will find many of the same musical cues inside this beautiful work of contemporary chamber pop, where balanced blends of world rhythms, guitars, and synthesizers are joined by a thick glue of lyrical self-investigation. In the single-driven pop universe, it’s becoming increasingly rare to find albums that are worth dedicated, front-to-back listening time, but in this case we must insist: Sit down and listen to its full 43 minutes without stopping. If you’re anything like us, you’ll find yourself doing it more than once.
4. Alvvays — Antisocialites
The award for Catchiest Album Of The Year easily goes to the sophomore release from Canadian indie-pop outfit Alvvays, whose all-killer, no-filler Antisocialites grabs your eardrums from every conceivable angle. Driving drumbeats, atmospheric guitars, and the crisp voice of frontwoman Molly Rankin serve as the stickiest elements of each song, forming irresistible ear candy that we found ourselves coming back to over and over again.
5. Jay Som — Everybody Works
Songwriter Melina Duterte plays every instrument on Everbody Works, a near-perfect work of bedroom pop that sounds as slowly and painstakingly assembled as it almost certainly was. Dreamy lyrics melt inside of slick drum grooves and subtle guitar work on an album that always feels warm and personal, even at it’s most blurry and lo-fi moments. When people tell you the golden age of American indie rock is over — or insist that musicians these days aren’t doing anything new or compelling — please put this on.
6. Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples may not be considered by the masses to be as much of a visionary as fellow Californian Kendrick Lamar, but critics have long compared the two rappers for their uncanny ability to find success while audibly swimming against hip-hop’s mainstream. Big Fish Theory, the rapper’s sophomore studio release, offers the same musical density listeners loved on Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, but substitutes Lamar’s jazz-influenced backing tracks for Detroit-influenced electronic music. Synth-driven collages pair well with Staples’ sparse and interesting lyrics throughout the album, creating a record that seems more suited to a hi-fi system than a car stereo, despite its street-fueled subject matter.
7. Sampha — Process
The pillowy voice of British singer Sampha has long played a supporting role inside the songs of some of the world’s biggest pop names (Drake, Kanye West, Solange, and Frank Ocean among them), but it was on this year’s debut solo album that we first got to know the singer more intimately. A creative and diverse blend of modern R&B material laden with live instrumentation, Process offers close-to-the-bone glimpses inside Sampha’s head from a wide variety of musical angles, be it groove-driven dance music or stripped-down ballads.
8. Slowdive — Slowdive
Bands that haven’t released new music in more than two decades rarely come back from the dead, and those that do rarely make anything worth listening to. Legendary shoegaze pioneers Slowdive buck that trend with their new self-titled release — their fourth album and first new material in 22 years. The record picks up exactly where the band left off, serving listeners some of the finest ethereal dream pop of the year. Atmospheric guitars, drums, and synthesizers are the centerpiece of this huge and dramatic album, a musical effort that pairs best with expansive outdoor landscapes.
9. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound
A blend of nostalgic country tones and astute observational songwriting, The Nashville Sound is lyrically and musically honest, a trait that has long been bleeding out of Tennessee’s famed music hub in favor of radio-friendly songs about trucks, girls, and cheap lager. Songwriter Jason Isbell‘s Nashville is still one concerned about more current and personal matters, as the album unfolds tunes about anxiety and racial inequality in between more classic subjects like love and loss. As refreshing and cathartic as it is relaxing, this is an album that reminds you that unique and progressive viewpoints abound, even in places you don’t expect to find them. In an era in which too many things are painted in black and white, that’s a powerful achievement.
10. Moses Sumney — Aromanticism
Despite layered strings, tiered vocal arrangements, and numerous tricks of modern production, Moses Sumney‘s Aromanticism comes across as a minimalistic electro-soul masterpiece, thanks largely to the crisp alto of the songwriter and a distinct lack of drum grooves. Sumney’s soulful voice is so encapsulating that you often forget about the backdrop, only to be awakened by elegant production choices like beautiful harp lines or shakers placed right on the edges of the soundstage. This is an album that feels lovingly assembled, a clean-edged soul record that thoroughly deserves as much attention as you can throw at it.