21. Jlin — Black Origami
A groundbreaking work of electronic music that blends Chicago’s footwork with more primitive Detroit-bred tones, Black Origami is as much a musical exploration as it is an artistic statement. Created by Indiana-based producer Jerrilynn Patton, the album offers a dizzying array of fast-paced rhythms alongside quick vocal samples, creating avant-garde soundscapes that are both physically jarring and head-boppingly clean — and sometimes inexplicably both. Because of its jagged musical edges, this album will be an acquired taste for many listeners, but it’s also the kind of distinctive musical expression that we expect to see emulated (perhaps with less drama) by big-name producers in the coming years.
22. Valley Queen — Destroyer EP
Fans of Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young will find something familiar and exciting in the music of LA-based Valley Queen, whose Destroyer EP offers the same piercing female vocals and warm rock style made iconic by the legendary rock-and-rollers. Elegant and introverted lyrics combine with clean and precise arrangements over the course of these five tracks, a debut release that serves as a near-perfect introduction to this young band.
23. Twain — Rare Feeling
There were perhaps no two more powerful opening singles this year than Solar Pilgrim and The Sorcerer, the first two songs on the latest album from New York folk band Twain. Sparse and delicate guitars pair with the soaring alto of songwriter Mt. Davidson on both, driving home dark and powerful lyrics about love and loss, and settling you in for a compelling journey through the mind of one of the folk world’s most important new voices. This is one to put on with the lights out, or to take with you to your favorite quiet place for careful consideration.
24. Braxton Cook — Somewhere In Between
Saxophonist/vocalist Braxton Cook blazes new ground on the aptly named Somewhere In Between, combining cutting-edge jazz compositions with the sounds of contemporary electronic artists like Flying Lotus and Thundercat, all while throwing in a dash of ’90s R&B for good measure. Shredding instrumental solos divide simple vocal choruses, with fat grooves acting as a glue to fuse everything together. Don’t let the gray hairs tell you jazz is dead; jazz is this.
25. (Sandy) Alex G — Rocket
Alex Giannascoli has long been revered by members of his own generation as among the best young songwriters alive, earning himself the admiration of acclaimed pop successes like Frank Ocean (who employed Giannascoli as a collaborator on last year’s smash success Blonde). On Rocket, listeners get the same stream-of-consciousness lyrics and clean instrumentation offered on previous releases, this time codified by more simple musical forms and better overall production. The sounds on the album are as diverse as its subject matter, ranging from gentle acoustic guitars and strings to remixed digital beats and distorted vocals.
26. Kevin Morby — City Music
Though it came shortly after last year’s excellent Singing Saw, the sophomore release from songwriter Kevin Morby is a fully formed effort that focuses on the hustle and bustle of modern city life. With a Dylan-like deadpan, Morby offers interesting observational lyrics, surrounded by a wall of sound that includes numerous synthesizer and percussion elements. The growth in Morby’s songwriting ability is palpable here, and sets the stage for a long, successful career — especially if he can keep up this pace.
27. Migos — Culture
Regardless of where you stand on modern trap music, Atlanta hip-hop icons Migos provided some of the most essential listening of the year with Culture, a slick work of Southern hip-hop with clean lyrics and expertly simple beatmaking. Densly rhythmic lyrics occupy the vast majority of the album’s 13 tracks, paired with Atlanta’s legendary drum sounds and floating synthesizer tones, making for an album that’s much more sophisticated than initially meets the ear.
28. Steve Lacy — Demo
It’s hard to believe when you hear the finished product, but the bulk of this album from 18-year-old Southern California producer Steve Lacy was produced on an iPhone. A series of bite-sized singles that blend soulful lyrics with groovy drum and bass lines, this 13-minute debut easily ranks as one of the most thoroughly unique releases of the year, and is made all the more impressive in that you can take it all in on a single coffee break.
29. The XX — I See You
Prior to the release of I See You, The XX were known for their subdued indie-pop arrangements, not effortlessly mixing in a proper Hall & Oates hook. That changed in 2017. Lyrically, the anguish and rampant disillusionment are still there. But the London trio’s R&B-laced core is now joined by four-to-the-floor beats, lush strings, and a steady pulse of dub, culminating in a patchwork of guitars and electronic flourishes that push and pull at all the right moments. We have producer-bandmate Jamie xx to thank for taking the band’s earlier sound, disassembling it, and sculpting the pieces back together into something far richer.
30. Mac Demarco — This Old Dog
Slacker rock hero Mac Demarco‘s latest album, This Old Dog, exhibits the same slow-paced song structures that fans have come to expect from the gap-toothed goofball, but this time they are wrapped up in a shinier overall package. Songs like My Old Man showcase a new penchant for digital drum and keyboard sounds, but still feature the same quirky lyrics and timeless grooves that originally drew listeners to Demarco as a bedroom artist. While it may not top our list, this album easily ranks among the most compelling of the year.