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Cristina Interiano | The Observer

1. Kendrick Lamar — “DAMN.” 

By Owen Lane

Since April, a thought has been haunting the minds of many music fans: “When, if ever, will an album come along that can dethrone ‘DAMN.’?” Its existence impacted the way all following music releases have been received. Such is the incredible power of Kendrick Lamar at only 30 years old. 2017 has been a glorious time of humbling for those who have long been dominant, so it feels a bit wrong to award the distinction of best album to an artist as dominant as Kendrick Lamar. In fact, it seems literally incredible that one person could produce so much great art, but as the final track on “DAMN.” suggests, Kendrick’s very existence may be destiny. His backstory is Biblical, so let’s “Salute the truth, when the prophet say.”

2. Lorde — “Melodrama” 

By Matt Munhall

Lorde regards house parties with an almost spiritual reverence. On her second album, the Kiwi pop star turns her “holy sick divine nights” of reckless behavior into an epic of young adulthood. “Melodrama” is ostensibly a breakup album, but like the best breakup albums, it’s really about self-discovery. “Lights are on and they’ve gone home, but who am I?” she wonders in the aftermath of a swingin’ party. “Melodrama” is a masterwork of pop songcraft, rendering the range of emotions that accompany first heartbreak in intensely vivid detail — from the intimate ballad “Liability,” where she wonders if she’s a little too much for everyone, to the euphoric “Supercut,” where she plays back the relationship in her head. That the album ends with a question left unanswered — “What the f— are perfect places anyway?” — suggests Lorde is only getting started as an artist.

3. Perfume Genius — “No Shape” 

By Adam Ramos

There wasn’t much in the news this year to celebrate. That’s why Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas chose to celebrate love. Not love in the general sense, but rather in the feeling of gazing into the eyes of a lover in cozy bed on a cold morning and thinking, “You need me / Rest easy / I’m here,” or so Hadreas sings on the closing track “Alan” — a song dedicated to his longtime partner — off his gorgeous record “No Shape.” The album swells with these moments of teeming passion, resigning to both exuberance and vulnerability with the help of today’s most sophisticated production techniques. Hadreas commands an army of interesting instruments and provocative arrangements, with his vocals working as a captivating guide to the astounding soundscape. There might not be much to love about 2017, but at least we can have the feeling, if only for a moment.

4. SZA — “Ctrl” 

By Maggie Walsh

“My greatest fear? That if I lost control or did not have control, things would be … fatal.” Solana Imani Rowe, better known as SZA, opens her first full-length record, “Ctrl,” with her mother’s voice saying these relatable words over a crackling phone line. The album remains faithful to its opening musings as Ms. Twenty-Something’s stunning vocals serenade listeners with stories of relationships, insecurities and wasted time, all through the lens of control, or lack thereof. Although “Ctrl” may revolve around her perceived powerlessness, with features from artists like Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, spectacular production and five Grammy nominations, it’s clear in 2017 that SZA has become a decisive leader in the music scene.

5. LCD Soundsystem — “american dream” 

By John Wilson

In a year where seemingly every big name in late 2000s indie rock released a new album, LCD Soundsystem certainly made the case for most ignominious return. When the dust settled, “american dream” emerged as an ambitious return to form — befitting to front man James Murphy’s outsized personality. The jaded resentment of early LCD albums gives way to the musings of an older, wearier sounding Murphy trying to grapple with how much the world around him has changed. References to recently deceased artists David Bowie and Alan Vega explain Murphy’s difficulty to grapple with his own mortality and to justify his role in rock culture. LCD Soundsystem is still trying to make dance music for the cool kids, but for the first time, they’re now acknowledging the dancing will someday have to come to an end.

6. St. Vincent — “MASSEDUCTION” 

By Hanna Kennedy

Annie Clark — often referred to as “the female Bowie” — is back with her fifth studio album as St. Vincent. “MASSEDUCTION” marks the artist’s decisive move into the world of mainstream pop — one she makes without losing her meticulously curated image and sound. Her transition is one made with such precision that it only ought to expand her listenership. She trades out her signature guitar for a synthesizer and pre-programmed beats to craft what turns out to be a deeply confessional album. On “MASSEDUCTION,” St. Vincent’s breathy vocals mourn lost loves and strike the listener as achingly personal. It’s an album built on vulnerability, built on fragility.

7. Mac Demarco — “This Old Dog” 

By Thomas Murphy

Those who know Mac Demarco, from his music or antics, know him as a sincere, laid-back and endearingly immature rocker. On “This Old Dog,” Demarco sheds some of his shenanigans and humor to concentrate on songwriting and production — his newfound focus pays off tremendously. Demarco’s lyrics have long had a “hopeless romantic” feel to them; in his fourth full length album, however, Demarco refines the lyrical poetry that has historically decorated his music to keep each song clean and concise. Simple, yet extremely effective, lines such as, “Long as my heart’s beating in my chest / This old dog ain’t about to forget,” chronicle Demarco’s newfound songwriting maturity and efficiency.

The efficiency of “This Old Dog” extends to its production as well. While Demarco’s previous work has been convoluted with distorted, electronic guitar, “This Old Dog” is dominated by acoustic guitar, synthesizers, bass and a drum machine — what he describes as his “acoustic album.” Demarco not only plays all the instruments himself, but also self-produced and mixed the record himself, resulting in his most well-produced and cohesive record to date. The cheerfully chill demeanor of “This Old Dog” is perfect for a day of sunny relaxation.

8. Tyler, The Creator — “Flower Boy”  

By Owen Lane

A year ago, very few people would have guessed that Tyler, The Creator could release an album that would compete with Kendrick Lamar’s in year-end rankings. “Flower Boy” was the glorious record that devout Tyler fans always knew was a possibility. Tyler and A$AP Rocky’s verses slither around each other on the booming party track “Who Dat Boy.” “911/Mr. Lonely” features Frank Ocean and Tyler, with The Creator going to work on one of the best beats he has ever made. Everything that Tyler had gotten right on previous albums came together in an album that was both disarmingly mature and endearingly playful. After hearing an album this good, the UK ought to lift their Tyler ban.

9. Vince Staples — “Big Fish Theory” 

By Brian Boylen

With “Big Fish Theory,” Vince Staples has proven himself to be one of the premier talents in hip-hop. On his debut album, “Summertime ’06,” Staples showed off his ability for piercing, yet catchy, lyrics as well as his ear for quality production. “Big Fish Theory” trades the dark, forlorn sound of his debut for upbeat, dance-y beats — but keeps his signature bleak lyrics. With beats from interesting producers such as Flume and SOPHIE and features from Kilo Kish, Kendrick Lamar and more, “Big Fish Theory” truly pushes the sound of hip-hop forward.

10. Alvvays — “Antisocialites”  

By Mike Donovan

When The Jesus and Mary Chain released their monolith “Psychocandy” in 1985, the indie rock world went up in airs. Noise, sweet noise, sugar-rushed listeners into frenetic fits. When they returned with the equally sugary (but substantially less noisy) “Darklands” in 1987, lovelorn indie rock hermits everywhere claimed ownership of the Glaswegian rebels.

It took three decades for the spark to reignite — in the image of Alvvays, an ’80s obsessed four piece from a remote corner of Newfoundland. Following the Jesus and Mary Chain blueprint, they debuted with collection of bubblegum fuzz (2015’s “Alvvays”) before leaning heavily into their pop sensibility on their sophomore effort, 2017’s “Antisocialites.”

Now, the city loners and the hopeless romantics have something contemporary to pipe through their oversized headphones — something hooky, glossy and undeniably cathartic. Their love won’t call, and a new one won’t be waiting around the next corner. But they can still sit “underneath this flickering light” and “forget about life” with Alvvays, which is better than nothing.

11. Charly Bliss — “Guppy” 

By Matt Munhall

This New York, power pop four-piece is responsible for the year’s most exhilarating debut, a relentless 29-minute barrage of infectious hooks and fuzzy guitar riffs that would make Rivers Cuomo jealous. The band uses its effervescent ’90s alt-rock songs as vessels for terse one-liners, vulnerability and dark humor, as on “Percolator,” which finds frontwoman Eva Hendricks singing, “I cry all the time, I think that it’s cool / I’m in touch with my feelings!” “Guppy” is a paragon of what the critic Tom Ewing once called “the ‘Revolver’ blueprint for pop albums — every track good, every track a potential hit.”

12. BROCKHAMPTON — “SATURATION” & “SATURATION II”

By Ryan Israel

BROCKHAMPTON, the self proclaimed “World’s Greatest Boy Band,” dropped their debut studio album “SATURATION” in June and quickly followed it up two months later with “SATURATION II.” The 33 tracks on the two span a wide variety of genres and styles. Songs like “GUMMY” and “JELLO” are closer to rap, flirting with fast lyrics and catchy beats, while other singles like “TOKYO” and “FACE” feature a slower tempo and a poppy style. All the tracks, though, contain hard-hitting verses from the group’s leader, Kevin Abstract. On the track “JUNKY,” for example, he vulnerably raps about his sexuality, where as on “SWEET,” featured artist Joba intercedes and delivers verses that brilliantly tell the story of his lucky rise to musical success. BROCKHAMPTON isn’t done releasing music in 2017 yet, however. Fans can expect an addition to BROCKHAMPTON’s already extensive collection of inventive music videos and songs after they announced on Twitter that their third and final studio album of this year, “SATURATION III,” will be released on Dec. 15.

13. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — “Flying Microtonal Banana,” “Murder of the Universe,” “Sketches of Brunswick East,” “Polygondwanaland” 

By Brian Boylen

2017 has been the year of the “Gizz.” For a band hindered by its absurd name, King Gizzard has done an impressive job marketing itself this year. From the buzz around its initial plan to release five albums to the press about its free release of the album, “Polygondwanaland,” King Gizzard has been getting noticeable coverage from taste-making publications such as Pitchfork. This attention is well deserved. While some are better than others, all four albums released by King Gizzard this year are quality, varied productions worth a listen.

14. Mount Eerie — “A Crow Looked at Me” 

By Adam Ramos 

This year, Mount Eerie — the musical project of veteran singer/songwriter Phil Elverum — released “A Crow Looked at Me,” a real-time exploration of grief in the wake of Elverum’s wife passing after her harrowing battle with cancer. The devastatingly haunting work approaches death not as a distant concept but as an experienced reality. Elverum refrains from poetry and instead expresses his candid observations in a narrative fashion. He sings of rooms in his home he can no longer enter, mail that still comes for his late wife and the reality of raising his young daughter alone. The instrumentation, with its slow pace and minimalist style, carries somber and listless resonance, playing with the lyrics to create a transcendently moving masterpiece.

15. The War on Drugs — ”A Deeper Understanding” 

By Thomas Murphy

Almost 3 1/2 months after its release, “A Deeper Understanding” still gets better with each listen. The fifth album of “War On Drugs” is produced to perfection in every way, rambling through a desolate, lonely landscape as described by singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer Adam Granduciel. Granduciel invites listeners into his mind, which is better understood by the album’s swells of synth and guitar than its vague, unembellished lyrics. As the album’s title suggests, “A Deeper Understanding” is a magnification of the War on Drugs’ previous album, “Lost in the Dream.” Moving at a steadier, more focused pace than its predecessor, however, “A Deeper Understanding” speaks from a place of pain and yearning. “I want to love you but I get knocked down / I want to show you but I can’t break free / To be the one that I should dare to be,” Granduciel tells an unknown person in “Knocked Down.” While the destination of “A Deeper Understanding” is unclear, its prattling journey is filled with gorgeous sonic textures that just make me glad to be along for the ride.

16. Run The Jewels — “Run The Jewels 3”  

By Owen Lane

Okay, this album was technically not a 2017 release because Run The Jewels decided to play Santa Claus and release “RTJ 3” on Christmas Eve. Although their sound did not change on their third album, El-P and Killer Mike’s verses and production were both as strong as ever. The duo remained inflamed with the political fury of their previous album, while giving themselves more room for goofiness. “Call Ticketron” showcased some of the most inventive production and clever lyricism in modern rap. Tracks like “Legend Has It” are reminders that Run The Jewels’ most attractive attribute is how well its music communicates the rappers’ brotherly bond. El-P and Killer Mike are undeniably ecstatic about their casual side-project that has grown into a hip-hop phenomenon. Any RTJ fan could tell you that their excitement is contagious.

17. Slowdive — “Slowdive”

By Mike Donovan

There’s never been a better time to stare at your shoes. Our nation crumbles in the hands of an idiot, the entertainment industry squirms under the weight of its grotesque scandals and Kid Rock is making a serious bid for political office in Michigan. This environment makes the ordinary — even your decrepit pair of Converse — profoundly appealing.

Thankfully, Slowdive — whose 1993 record “Slouvaki” taught everyone precisely what it means to put their heads down and brains in the clouds — has returned to teach you the ways of the shoegaze. Refreshingly, Slowdive’s self-titled 2017 release isn’t a mere copy of the virtuosity of “Slouvaki,” but rather a completely original formulation of the shoegaze pathos, rendered to pick up the slack when napping isn’t an option and dreams elude you. 

Also, I think your shoe’s untied. I’d hate for you to trip and hurt yourself.  

18. Rostam — “Half-Light” 

By Charlie Kenney

Rostam’s debut album, “Half-Light,” is in many ways the album he always wanted to make but never could. The Vampire Weekend producer and multi-instrumentalist, who over the past few years has produced songs for Frank Ocean, Ra Ra Riot, Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen, puts out an album that is uniquely Rostam and explicitly not Vampire Weekend in “Half Light.” The album contains slower, over-produced tunes like “Half-Light,” wispy and transcendent songs that Ezra Koenig could never sing like “Rudy” and slowed-down folk tunes like “Sumer” and “Wood” that pay homage to Rostam Batmanglij’s Iranian heritage in their both expressly Persian sound and content. The album, in many ways, is a biography of Rostam’s musical and personal life. It’s a damn good and damn inventive biography to read.

19. Waxahatchee — “Out in the Storm” 

By Matt Munhall

“I went out in the storm and I’m never returning,” Katie Crutchfield sings defiantly on “Silver,” a propulsive highlight from her fourth LP as Waxahatchee. The downpour that she documents on “Out in the Storm” — which would sound perfectly at home on ’90s college radio — is the end of a volatile relationship and its effect on her sense of self. The power of Crutchfield’s songwriting comes from its emotional clarity, as on “8 Ball,” a song about owning your flaws: “When I fall, I will not be ashamed at all / You’ll see a failure / You wanna brand my losing streak / You wanna be the eight ball.”

20. GAS — “NARKOPOP”

By Adrian Mark Lore

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Quite a few hours’ worth, probably: body numbed to its own behavior but paralyzed, emancipating the mind from the limitations of the physical — Newton’s third law. And “NARKOPOP,” Wolfgang Voigt’s fifth record of deafening quietude, is stillness as perpetual motion: a cycle of positive feedback, each compounded beat echoing into shadows, shaping shadows darker on each revolution. If you listen carefully, the forest’s every feature phases in harmony with the rhythm: ripples in a pond, wolves’ call-and-response, the glow of the moon. Your heart, too, beats a little faster.

 

Honorable mentions

Migos — “Culture”
Sampha — “Process”
The National — “Sleep Well Beast”
Father John Misty — “Pure Comedy”
King Krule — “The Ooz”
Big Thief — “Capacity”
Priests — “Nothing Feels Natural”
Julien Baker — “Turn Out the Lights”
The XX — “I See You”

 

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