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26 Best Albums of 2017 (so far)

Welcome to our Best of 2017 series, in which we explore the year’s best albums, songs and extended plays.

Lists are the click-bait blackhole of the internet world, especially best albums/songs lists. But they are just so damn fun. Some say 2017 has been a mixed bag, and if you only deal in the mainstream, then, yes, it’s been quite a shit show, generally speaking. When you dig a little further, music has been straight-up fire this year, from pop and rock to country, folk and soul. B-Sides & Badlands has compiled our 25 favorites over the past six months, and you can spin a Spotify playlist at the bottom, if you so desire.

Fellow writer Dylan Charles also contributes his favorites, as noted below.

Without further adieu, take a gander:

Allie X, COLLXTION II (buy)

Genre: Pop/Alternative

Label: Twin Music

Release Date: June 9, 2017

Allie X is one of the most complex characters in the struggling fable-book that is pop music. She’s often dark and brooding (“Paper Love,” “Lifted,” “Simon Says”) and drops in brighter and heightened senses of reality bolstered with ridiculously massive hooks. “Old Habits Die Hard” and the bubbly “That’s So Us,” juxtaposing the toxic and the light into a chewy, magnificent masterpiece, are two of the best songs this decade. But it is the piano-heavy bookend, “True Love is Violent,” her best composition to-date, that needles pitch-black sorrow with a striking vocal. Bow to me, she seems to smirk over eclectic, tinkling production and ruptured percussion. If we were numbering these, this would be my No. 1 for the year. Bookmark it.


 

 

Charlie Worsham, The Beginning of Things (buy)

Genre: Country

Label: Warner Bros.

Release Date: April 21, 2017

After surviving the bro-country bloodbath, Worsham produces an album of defiance and enlightenment where every note and lyric is painstakingly intentional. The growling stomp of “Please People Please,” the neo-romantic sway of “Old Time’s Sake” and the hook-heavy single “Cut Your Groove” are a few highlights. – Dylan Charles

 


Jena Irene Asciutto, Cold Fame (buy)

Genre: Pop/Alternative

Label: Original 1265 Recordings

Release Date: June 2, 2017

There are few vocalists who can stop listeners in their tracks. Asciutto is one of them. Combing influences like The Doors and Pink Floyd, she is utterly bewitching on songs like “Black Magic,” “Song for Myself,” “Innocence,” “Floating Down the River” and “Loneliness.” She cuts her heart open, letting the blood and her spirit to flow freely and openly. It is a remarkably cohesive, story-driven body of work, which you don’t often get in pop music–but the heavy, 14-track collection is not your typical pop record. There’s meat into which to chomp, making you think intensely about human existence and what it means to be truly alive. The cheeky “White Girl Wasted” and “I Want to Hang Out with You” are among her best, too.


 

 

John Mayer, The Search For Everything (buy)

Genre: Singer-songwriter

Label: Columbia

Release Date: April 14, 2017

The musical chameleon and unfortunate focus of gossip rags returns with an excellent set of offerings from every explored style of his catalog. Highlights, aside from chilled lead single “Love On The Weekend,” include the introspective anthem “In The Blood” and road-weary ditty “Roll It On Home.” – Dylan Charles

 

 


Carrie Elkin, The Penny Collector (buy)

Genre: Americana/folk

Label: Independent

Release Date: March 10, 2017

Her voice is slyly reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s, one of the most important singers of all time. The album’s roots began on a trip to her father’s funeral–when she found out she was pregnant. The circle of life, from anguish to hope and new beginnings, is the driver behind not only the stories she tells but how she approaches the phrasing and rhythm. “This is where my battle cries. This is where my father died, and this is how the falcon flies,” she opines on “New Mexico,” the backdrop of one of her most crucial moments. The somber tone sets the bar for a record which is as lonesome as it is uplifting. “Always on the Run,” “And Then the Birds Came” and “My Brother Said” are exquisite, moving and tearful matters of the heart.


 

Paramore, After Laughter (buy)

Genre: Pop/Rock

Label: May 12, 2017

Release Date: Fueled by Ramen

The once-ubiquitous emo-pop band deliver their most cohesive album yet, in shades of existential neon and ska-infused, 80s synth pop that doesn’t forget the guitars they came from. The lyrics throughout are their best efforts to-date, guiding listeners through falls into depression and sharp observations of society as a whole. Highlights include the pointed “Fake Happy” and the effervescently catchy single “Hard Times.” – Dylan Charles

 


Strange Familia, self-titled (buy)

Genre: Pop/Alternative

Label: Independent

Release Date: April 21, 2017

Salt Lake City’s Brecken Jones and Garret Williams weld together disco, Muse-style rock (“Love is a Terrace,” “Odes”), Flaming Lips-triggered pop (“Red Lipstick,” “Breathe,” “Sleep”) and the synthetics of CHVRCHES (“Love/Drugs”) with vast understanding and sharpness. They even toss in some Middle Eastern flair (on the tenderly ringing “Motel”) to great effect–while also reveling in their own dreamy, glowing tones. Their smooth vocals glue the record together, standing at 11 songs framed around breakups and breakdowns. “Love gets romanticized in pop culture, and I think that’s a result of its simplification,” said Williams of the album’s overarching threads, which slice apart varied fabrics into devastating shreds.


Kasey Chambers, Dragonfly (buy)

Genre: Americana

Label: Warner Bros./Sugar Hill

Release Date: January 20, 2017

Double albums are monstrous and unforgiving. They can easily succumb to filler poisoning, leaving too much schlocky, subpar moments embedded between the exceptional. But Chambers’ mighty, 20-song LP is stalwart and husky, top-to-bottom. Her voice is feathery but colored with cracks and other fault lines: she is perfectly imperfect. With such songs as the smokey-eyed “Ain’t No Little Girl,” the Carter Family-esque “Golden Rails,” “If I Died,” “This is Gonna Be a Long Year” and the Foy Vance-assisted “Romeo & Juliet” to her name, the record is Chambers’ opus, griddled with pain and loss. Gravelly guitars and hearty traditional spirit mark one of the most important records of 2017.


 

Katy Perry, Witness (buy)

Genre: Pop

Record Label: Capitol

Release Date: June 9, 2017

She might not have produced the kind of political pop that most were expecting, but Perry nonetheless delivers an excellent record of reflections on sexual, emotional and social empowerment. Of the non-singles, gems range from the ambient goodbye of “Miss You More” to the anguished hook of “Save As Draft,” to the sassy electronic beats of “Hey Hey Hey.” She is stylistically at her most cohesive here, fully embracing underground EDM sub-genres before others can get ahead of the curve. – Dylan Charles

 


ZZ Ward, The Storm (buy)

Genre: Pop/Rock/Soul

Label: Hollywood Records

Release Date: June 30, 2017

Her voice is one of pop’s best-kept secrets right now. She’s fearless, and everything about her is mysterious, intense and unexpected. She doesn’t walk down a narrow stylistic path–she’s equal parts rocker, soul singer, pop chanteuse and country darling. If she did ever want to “go country,” this record is far more country than what plays on the radio, that’s for sure: “Let It Burn” and “Bag of Bones” sit on the Lindi Ortega-meets-Merle Haggard way of life. From songs like the devilish “Ghost” opener to such barn-burners as “The Storm,” “Help Me Mama” and “Hold On,” she ignites her heart and soul, pouring out every shade of emotion with ragged wisdom. Then, songs like “If  U Stayed,” see her pull back for magically restrained performances.


 

Little Big Town, The Breaker (buy)

Genre: Country

Label: Capitol Nashville

Release Date: February 24, 2017

With one intriguing swerve after another, Little Big Town surprise once again with a collection of sun-drenched, easygoing and thoughtful tunes more evocative of the 70’s California coast than Music Row. “We Went To The Beach” is a homing point for the record, while their previous radio single “Happy People” preaches free love, peace and acceptance. – Dylan Charles

 

 


The Magnettes, Ugly Youth (buy)

Genre: Pop/Alternative

Label: Digsin

Release Date: June 30, 2017

Twisted lullabies of feminism clang against DIY production, often jarring but crisp and seducing. Made up of Rebecka Digervall and Sanna Kalla, the pair look the patriarchy in the eyes and spit in its face. From “Sad Girls Club,” “So Bad” and “Cheer,” they redefine beauty, tearing away the glossy, photoshopped pages of global society and tradition–to embrace every outcast from all walks of life. “Why does beautiful have to be the standard? Why can’t anything that is not totally perfect be cool? We have no regrets,” they avow. “I don’t want pretty, I want ugly,” they wail on “Ugly,” one key track splashed with finger-snaps and dirty synths. “Pajala State of Mind” and “Bones” are two other essentials, glittery and raucous and escapist.


 

Sunny Sweeney, Trophy (buy)

Genre: Country

Label: Aunt Daddy Records

Release Date: March 10, 2017

The sassy Texan is back with yet another collection of tightly-written country confessionals set in both the bar and the bedroom. The fire-spitting title track is quite the treat, but her crowning glory is the yearning “Bottle By My Bed,” on the frustration that comes with infertility. – Dylan Charles

 

 


Khalid, American Teen (buy)

Genre: Urban contemporary

Label: Right Hand Music Group/RCA Records

Release Date: March 3, 2017

No album captures the allure and nostalgia of youth and reckless quite as well as Khalid’s debut full-length. He relies heavily on his butter-smooth vocal, which makes for an impassioned and polished storyline, with a sandy timbre appearing on such tracks as “Coaster.” “My youth is the foundation of me,” he croons on the title track and opener, embodying the entire album’s full thematic stretches–experiences filtered through his age, naive but honest. His exuberant hooks, found on songs like “Young Dumb & Broke” and funky club anthem “8TEEN,” are invigorating. Vibes on “Hopeless” and “Another Sad Love Song” prove he is much more than a pop provocateur. He has real guts.


Jason Eady, self-titled (buy)

Genre: Americana

Label: Old Guitar Records

Release Date: April 21, 2017

Touching upon George Jones, Keith Whitley and Alan Jackson, there is such ease with how Eady inhabits each song, earthy and resonant. “Where I’ve Been,” “40 years” and “Black Jesus” are his prime cuts–but every single track is rich, stark production choices characterize much of the work and plenty of steel and fiddle are used as the framework onto which to build and expand. There is enough space between his rough-hewn vocal and the arrangements to not overwhelm but to simply elevate the songs about love, loss, regret and the American spirit. “If I had three wishes, my first would be for a second chance to do all those little things I didn’t do,” he weeps on “No Genie in This Bottle.”



Justin Townes Earle, Kids In The Street (buy)

Genre: Americana

Label: New West Records

Release Date: May 26, 2017

Steve Earle’s equally-talented son releases the final in his trilogy of observations on imperfect family life, a mix of blues and rock ‘n’ roll jams, road trip sing-alongs and trad-country laments. “Maybe A Moment” screams highways and sunshine, while the acoustic ballad title track weaves nostalgia and pedal steel into perfection. – Dylan Charles

 

 


MUNA, About U (buy)

Genre: Pop/Alternative

Label: RCA

Release Date: February 7, 2017

Sticky melodies and sweltering vocals, the synth-pop trio bend society to their will, often shattering the glass ceiling–as they do valiantly on “I Know a Place,” which features a Jimmy Kimmel Live! performance in which they call out 45. From “Loudspeaker” and “Around U” to “Promise” and “Crying on the Bathroom Floor,” they don’t skimp on moody, flickering grooves and glitch-approved vibrations, soaked in sensitive songwriting. The debut studio album of Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson feels timely: with unshakable themes of acceptance, resilience, strength and solitude flavoring all 12 songs. “End of Desire” is an especially liberating piece of pop magic, too.

 


Kate Crash, To You, Never Again (buy)

Genre: Pop/Alternative

Label: Like Honey & Thunder

Release Date: June 16, 2017

“This is how we play the game,” the alt-rocker screams on the album’s fervent opener. Weaving flighty vocals, hazy guitar and rugged drums, the collection sees Crash sprawling in the mud: and in the process, she keeps the listener close to her chest–reflecting on her personal hells and triumphs. In “Not the Kind to Find Salvation,” she struggles to forgive herself and uncover redemption, and then slips between frenzied love (“Blacked Out the World”), restlessness of truth (“Michael”), abuse (“Goodbye Light”) and balancing in/sanity (“Keeps on Finding You”). She is “offering roses to the graves of misfortune, wandering the savage wastelands of memories,” she claims.  That is the haunting core of one of the most engaging DIY releases this year.


Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway (buy)

Genre: Americana

Label: Nonesuch

Release date: February 24, 2017

“You can take my blood but not my soul” is the linchpin of Giddens’ second solo album, anchored in country’s storied past of hiding the people of color and their wealth of contributions to the format’s integrity. From DeFord Bailey, first proper star of the Opry, to Leslie Riddle (A&R man to The Carter Family), African-American figures have been rubbed out, squashing any sign of recognition and honor. “Country music is a symbol of the white power structure,” said historian Don Cusic. Giddens deconstructs white-washed country through pointed sociopolitical, racial and economic history on such songs as “Julie,” “Birmingham Sunday,” “Come Love Come” and “At the Purchaser’s Option,” rekindling the blues/soul/country hybrid.


 

 

The Chainsmokers, Memories…Do Not Open (buy)

Genre: Pop/EDM

Label: Disruptor Records

Release Date: April 7, 2017

They might be the subject of (perhaps justified) criticism, but The Chainsmokers’ debut record is pop smash after pop smash, and their chronicling of specifically Millennial narratives make them stand out. Single “Paris” is the perfect angsty bop, while “Break Up Every Night” is equal parts snark and pulsing synths. – Dylan Charles

 

 


Nikki Lane, Highway Queen (buy)

Genre: Americana

Label: New West Records

Release Date: February 17, 2017

Lane barrels down the highway at a clean 100 mph, leaving her competition choked on dirt, wallowing in her rearview mirror. She steps confidently into the proverbial, wrangled boots of Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash without flinching and places her bets on dusty, saloon-style sparkle. “700,000 Rednecks” soars, while “Lay You Down” squeezes your heart dry and “Companion” waltzes across the barroom floor. Whether she lashes out at unruly gossip with a “Big Mouth” or soaks in “Muddy Waters,” she gives away her entire hand–and if you follow country at all, you’ll know how much that’s worth. Closer “Forever Last Forever” is also one of her finest, stunning and majestic. “My heart feels like it’s dying,” she cries.


The Sextones, Moonlight Vision (buy) right

Genre: Rock/Soul

Label: Independent

Release Date: April 7, 2017

Moonlight Vision isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill soul-influenced rock album. Packed with brassy horn sections (“Push on Through,” “Analog Girl”), smoldering melodies (“How Could I Have Known,” “Blame It on My Youth”) and driving atmosphere (“The End”), the quartet pay homage to such greats as Al Green and Stevie Wonder, also detailing their infatuation with R&B and soul music circa 1990. Frontman Mark Sexton, after whom the band is dubbed, is sprightly and earth-shaking, often laying his life on the line for the sake of unpacking the kind of raw intensity today’s generation typically lacks. They flood your heart with meaty and irresistible narratives; you can’t help but fall to the floor.


Lillie Mae, Forever and Then Some (buy)

Genre: Americana

Label: Third Man

Release Date: April 14, 2017

Her reedy voice isn’t for everyone, but if you like well-worn storytelling, there is plenty to explore and study on her long-awaited debut LP. Her path, one of vulnerability and keen musicality, has not been an easy one, but her triumphant bow pummels the brain and takes your emotions hostage. “Loaner,” the titular track and “Some Fine Day” are integral to understanding her past as much as her future, as one of country’s supreme songwriters and players. She has a fondness for haunting melodies, on standouts like “Wash Me Clean” and “Nearing Home,” guitar front-and-center with drums, steel and other instruments dancing playfully in the background–second fiddle (pun intended) to a rather coarse vocal.


 

Michelle Branch, Hopeless Romantic (buy)

Genre: Pop/Rock

Label: Universal Music

Release Date: April 7, 2017

The songstress forever associated with early-00s pop emerges from a long series of label misfires to unveil her collaboration with Patrick Carney, of The Black Keys. The punchy, atmospheric and somewhat 80s-inspired set gives Branch a sultry edge that suits her, from the dark groove of the title track to the fierce dressing down of “Best You Ever.” – Dylan Charles

 

 


 

Hey Violet, From the Outside (buy)

Genre: Pop/Rock

Label: Capitol

Release Date: June 16, 2017

Hey Violet, a no-fucks-given pop-punk outfit, are not for the faint of heart. Formerly known as Cherri Bomb, the group underwent a rather unexpected shakeup (losing a lead singer) and remerged in 2015. Through the span of nearly two years, they crafted their sound into a brash, eclectically-sculpted lineup of tracks, each one as defiant and contagious as the last. “Guys My Age,” “O.D.D.” and “Fuqboi” will undoubtedly become lodged between your ears, while “My Consequence,” “Like Lovers Do” and “Unholy” offer up some of their best, ghostliest and most severe storytelling capabilities. “You probably think I was psychotic, if you knew what I still got in my closet,” they recollect about a “Hoodie,” a volatile mix of regret and longing.


Halsey, hopeless fountain kingdom (buy)

Genre: Pop/Rock

Label: Capitol

Release Date: June 2, 2017

We nearly committed a grave mistake by not including Halsey’s romantic, tragic and beautiful sophomore album on this mid-year report.  In all fairness, our editor-in-chief is off his rocker these days–but Halsey, please forgive us. As one of pop’s best songwriters working today, she crafts a mystical tale about the past few years of her life, using Shakespeare’s deadly Romeo & Juliet as a blueprint. She modernizes the vantage points, of course, commenting on sex (“100 Letters,” “Bad at Love”), mourning (the “Good Mourning” interlude is a strange divider but a necessary one for the tale), the toxicity swirling inside her own mind (“Sorry”) and other themes of pain, addiction and recklessness. She is as daring as she’s ever been, and who knew she could live up to her stellar Badlands debut with such grit.


Charles Dylans’ Honorable Mentions: Chris Stapleton‘s From a Room: Vol. 1 (buy); Angaleena Presley‘s Wrangled (buy); Natalie Hemby‘s Puxico (buy); Mother Mother’s No Culture (buy); Liz Rose‘s Swimming Alone (buy); and Harry Styles‘ self-titled solo debut (buy).

Jason Scott’s Honorable MentionsJason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound (buy); Lola Coca’s The Only Child (buy); Alison KraussWindy City (buy), Mother Mother‘s No Culture (buy); and Sam Outlaw’s Tenderheart (buy).


Spin the accompanying playlist below:

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Jason Scott

<p>Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake–and she doesn’t like you very much.</p>