Welcome to our Best of 2017 series, in which we explore the year’s best albums, songs and extended plays.
Mainstream music often breeds stagnation ⎯⎯ milquetoast productions chasing trends, lyrics drained of personal stakes or raw intimacy and narratives buckling from sheer exhaustion. But 2017 saw a seismic shift. The past 12 months precipitated some of the most insightful reflections on life, loss, heartache, anxiety, politics and religion, and death. Musicians peeled back the layers of the human condition in impactful ways, exposing their own hurt and vulnerability as a way to spark change within us, the willing listener, who underwent our very own transformative conditions and reemerged on the other side a stronger, thicker-skinned individual. From pop and hip-hop to folk, Americana and alternative rock, there were no reservations for many in dishing out personal truths through expansive production styles, synth-based compositions, unnerving and profound songwriting and fearless vocal attacks. The best illustration of all these components comes in the form of the allegedly dying art form, the full-length album. But despite what misguided, ill-informed prognosticators say, albums are thriving more than ever, so when curating our picks for 30 Best Albums of 2017, well, we had the work cut out for us.
Below, behold a selection of records we just couldn’t get enough of this year.
Label: Blue Slate Records
Release Date: September 1, 2017
Lugging out forgotten memoirs of a fictional town’s most tormented, the singer ⎯⎯ who has notched an impressive string of cuts for Luke Bryan (“You Don’t Know Jack”), Lee Ann Womack (“Last Call”) and Alan Jackson (“Monday Morning Church”) ⎯⎯ sketches a charcoal drawing of any town U.S.A. “Whiskey town, a town just like any other, I suppose,” songwriter John Scott Sherrill (Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Patty Loveless) recites on “Intro,” grounding the framework of the sweeping, 14-track concept album. Enderlin rarely shows mercy, often burning you up with raw emotion and truth. [Read the full review]
Label: Sonnet Sound/Bella Union
Release Date: September 8, 2017
Sundfør discards her electronica past in favor of luscious, grounded compositions. Configured from her world travels and equally-affirming inner transformation, the daring, airy 10-track set handles themes of loss, transition and revolution fearlessly. Her voice is brittle and moving on such evocative cuts as “Good Luck Bad Luck” (accompanied by ghoulish organ), “Undercover,” “Bedtime Story,” “The Golden Age” and the John Grant-assisted “Mountaineers,” a searing and tremendous closer. “Emptiness is the place where things start to grow. Most of the universe is empty. So, I’m not afraid of that anymore,” she described of her glob trotting, which then poured over into her robust songwriting.
Release Date: October 27, 2017
In her first post-RCA studio record, Clarkson sheds the bubblegum shimmer for grown-ass woman anthems about love and heartache. It is the soul-pop album she was always destined to make. Blending in fierce R&B and sweeping gospel punches, she is devastatingly gorgeous on such sweltering standouts as lead single “Love So Soft,” “Heat,” “Medicine” and “I Don’t Think About You,” which is reportedly about her RCA days that kept her under lock and key, creatively. The powerhouse has never sounded so volatile and wistful, unpacking every delicate nuance and acrobatic trick, but never feeling frivolous, only sensible and strategic. The sexy slink of “Cruel” and “Go High,” inspired by former First Lady Michelle Obama’s famous speech, are equally as delightful.
Label: Silent Phenomena
Release Date: July 7, 2017
“I know nobody likes having their world view shaken up, but it’s more important to challenge now than ever. Art has always been and is the most effective and harmless way to do that,” the alt-rock band spoke back in June about their debut long-player, which is trussed up with dirty synths, electric shockwaves of ominous guitar and piano and tightly-wound pop-bent harmonies. The trio galavant across chilling soundscapes, unraveling the complexities and fears of the human race, urging you to seek deeper meaning in every seemingly-trivial moment. Silky opener “Mysteries,” fuzzy-headed “Timeless Eye,” “Crystal Beach” and “Empty Suitcases” are their most important, designed to crawl under your skin and get you calling upon a higher understanding.
Label: New West
Release Date: August 25, 2017
In the aftermath of a breakup, she sought out her own demons, slaying them for the final time and hiding away from the world and it’s savagery ⎯⎯ to not only clean up the bloody, broken shards but to unearth who she was to become. It wasn’t another person who pulled her back from the edge, either. “Of all the things you can count on in life, music has saved my soul, and I think it’s saved a lot of people’s souls. Not to be morose about it, but if it weren’t for that, I don’t think I’d be here,” she said. Hence, her third studio album and first for New West Records was born and bred out of that misery and exhibits all her scars and open wounds, unmercifully, and darts through every stage of heartbreak. [Read the full review]
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 crusty, 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.
Label: Blaster Records
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Lopez lines his pockets with throwback grooves and tumbling bass of the slick Yoakam kind, adorned with his own penetrating swagger and love-torn anecdotes only the West Virginia Hills could impart. “Step right up, baby, don’t be shy / I want to dance with you till the break of light,” the singer boasts merrily on “Don’t Wanna Say Goodnight,” a perky rockabilly number. “This old road, we both know, it’s going to carry me away / Oh, this old road, we both know, it’s going to bring me back some day.” From the reflective opener “All the Time,” painted with piano and Ruthie Collins on backing vocals, and the gentle throb of “Silver Line” to “Say Goodbye” and “1972,” he scours the heart for the most painful, the most bittersweet and the most alarmingly simple stories to tell. [Read the full review]
Label: Life Slash Dreams
Release Date: July 7, 2017
Black peels his skin back to expose an unsettling, bitter nerve. His second long-player, following 2009’s UN, is riddled with hip-hop swerves (“Space Invaders,””Ur the 1”), delicate, searing melodies (“Wash Away,” “Farewell,” “Plastic Heart”) and bizarre, staggering production (“So,” “Headphones,” “We Drift On”). From delightful, albeit unlikely, features including Imogen Heap and Kelis, Black’s ambition is unmistakable, an intoxicating tight-rope balancing act between high-powered commercial appeal and raw artistic edge. His resolve is matched only by his tight, calculated vocal choices, which are sometimes dazzling and other times harrowing.
Release Date: September 15, 2017
The trio ⎯⎯ made up of instrumentalists and vocalists Zach Williams, Kanene Donehey Pipkin and Brian Elmquist, who wield gospel-writhing harmonies only ever matched by their playful melodies ⎯⎯ weave an even more personal, intricate and harrowing set. Walk Into a Storm is toasted along the edges with their built-in gutsiness and seems to rise up in delicate tragedy from a foundation they’ve so masterfully plotted. Such moments as “Deeper in the Water,” a superb, back-breaking opener worthy of Patty Griffin, “May You Be Well” and “Feather” feel like retreads: but their smart vocal work, overlaid onto aching production choices (thanks to industry hit-man Dave Cobb), is just as heart-breaking as on their first rodeo. [Read the full review]
Release Date: August 11, 2017
Kesha has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, clawed her way back to the surface and bravely recounted her sojourn across 14 musically-adventurous tracks. Her pop-punk roots are still glowing, rainbow-like from her skull (as you’ll find on such rock bangers as “Let ‘Em Talk” and the bodacious “Woman”), but she extends her palette with doses of country [the Dolly Parton-featuring “Old Flames (Don’t Hold a Candle to You),” “Boots,” “Hunt You Down”) and incisive singer-songwriter (“Bastards,” “Rainbow”). She also offers up a witty John Prine-worthy ditty called “Godzilla,” which’ll make you chuckle and then feel all warm ‘n fuzzy inside. Kesha is a force to be reckoned with.
Label: Flying Island Entertainment
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Sebastian employs various theatrical tricks on her new record ⎯⎯ “I wanted it to sound sort of like a Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack with a little bit of sweetness to it, as well,” she described ⎯⎯ and as vital as singer-songwriters Jason Isbell, Christian Lopez and Kasey Chambers play to the heartstrings of Americana and fringe country music, Sebastian exerts even more formidable influence and style. The album is littered with smoky vignettes of heartbreak, romance, adventure and solemn confessions. “Fade to black…” she whispers on opening number “Once Upon a Time,” the parched and dusty guitar-laden piece settling on the ground. The somber, brooding tone set, Sebastian unpacks a fiercely-personal collection. [Read the full review]
Label: Pupsnake Records
Release Date: July 7, 2017
“These waves come up out of nowhere and they’ll just wash you away,” the Nashville pop singer/songwriter once reflected on sneaker waves, a term used to describe “an unanticipated coastal wave that is much greater in force and height than the waves that precede it.” She then carries that powerful sentiment into her third studio album. “I felt like that was a metaphor for death,” she stressed, a somber tone which needles its way into many of the set’s most gutting and crucial recordings. Tristen has a way of submerging you in the darkness flooding her soul ⎯⎯ and that’s what makes her one of the most important pop players coming out of Music City. [Read the full review]
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.
Release Date: June 2, 2017
Her heart flutters with the crunchy neon glow of a grungy dive bar on the Lower East Side ⎯⎯ magnetic, quixotic and strangely stimulating, much like The Quagmire in Black Mirror’s “San Junipero.” Dua Lipa’s self-titled debut coils its tentacles around matters of heartbreak and independence, fraught with burly R&B-contorted club-pop. When she’s not defining “New Rules” for a breakup, she’s yearning never to leave the “Garden” of Eden or reveling in a relationship’s bitter sting (“Genesis”). She never gives a fuck either, borrowing that mantra from pop veteran P!nk, by whom she is most influenced. Her brazenfaced attitude serves her well across 12 tracks, from thumb-biting on “IDGAF” to the rhythmic banger “Begging.” She’s not all mischievous rabble-rouser, though. She’s just as deft when she pulls back, as she does exquisitely on standouts “Homesick” and “No Goodbyes.”
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 visceral moments. The solemn timbre 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 splendid, moving and tearful revelations of the heart.
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 crooner 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.
Label: GetWrucke Productions
Release Date: January 13, 2017
Hemby, one of today’s most-employed Music Row songwriters, leaves slick, clamorous production on the cutting room floor. Employing an abundance of acoustic guitars and mellow percussion, she captures the lonesome, harsh moods of middle America, regaling stories of “Time Honored Tradition” and heartache and regret. Her compositions remain folksy and plain, and that’s the power of a Hemby record: echoes of the past are streaked in subtle polished brushes, both haunting and rich. Even when she utilizes a drum machine, as she does on “This Town Still Talks About You,” it’s airy, organic and honest. “Cairo, IL” and “Ferris Wheel” are her prized achievements, fragile trinkets of small-town living and an era barely surviving.
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 basking 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.
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Freeman, a troubadour out of Galax, Virginia, a southern establishment of roughly 7,000, gathers broken red-earth fragments into her hands, tenderly caressing and cobbling them into a threadbare mosaic, and then crafts them into a sparkling, refurbished landscape. The album reads as a tear-soaked love letter … and is the mark of a restless, troubled heart that peels back on honesty, lovelorn ecstasy and achingly raw hardship. Freeman, who embodies the Appalachian spirit down to her elongated aw-shucks twang, treads thoughtfully on weary feet and plants herself as one of today’s more exciting players, alongside folks like Sam Outlaw, Carrie Elkin, Lillie Mae, Kasey Chambers, Erin Enderlin and Jason Eady. [Read the full review]
Release Date: June 30, 2017
Twisted lullabies of feminism clang against DIY production, often jarring but crisp and seducing. Made up of Rebecka Digervall, Tomas Bäcklund Thuneström and Sanna Kalla, the outfit 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 muddy synths. “Pajala State of Mind” and “Bones” are two other essentials, glittery and raucous and escapist.
Label: Matador Records
Release Date: October 27, 2017
Sparse and cinematic, Baker comes fully into her own on her sophomore effort. Leaving her heart on the floor, her vocal tearing through the sky like a bolt of lightning, she is only ever accompanied by piano and guitar, which serve to heighten the scorching tension and sense of urgency. Her heartstrings have been pulled and snapped, weaving torrential sorrow into her delivery, often delicate, sometimes hardened. “My heart is gonna eat itself, I don’t need anybody’s help / It’s just me, the vacant and nobody else / At least that’s what I tell myself,” she whispers into the air on “Televangelist,” rooted in her continued explorations of mental illness and religion. Elsewhere, Baker’s heart drips profusely on “Shadowboxing,” “Everything That Helps You Sleep,” “Claws in Your Back” and “Hurt Less.”
Label: Right Hand Music Group/RCA Records
Release Date: March 3, 2017
No album captures the allure and nostalgia of youth and recklessness 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.
Release Date: June 2, 2017
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 storyline), the toxicity swirling inside her own mind (“Sorry”) and other themes of pain, addiction and abandon. “Heaven in Hiding,” “No or Never,” “Strangers” (with Lauren Jauregui) and “Alone” are wondrous. She is as daring as she’s ever been, and who knew she could live up to her stellar Badlands debut with such grit.
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.
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Ware can make you feel like the mountains are crumbling down around you. Her voice is achingly raw, slicing open the human skull to expose the most vulnerable and darkest of confessions. “I don’t want somebody else to call my name / No, I don’t want somebody else when you could just say / Say that you’re the one who’s taking me home,” she longs on “Alone,” a gutsy, finger-snapping slow-burn and the album’s delicious pinnacle. Ware delights heartily in letting the songs marinate and grow at their own pace, in lieu of pushing for grandiose statement pieces without an ounce of levity or clarity. “Hearts,” “Selfish Love,” the gutting acoustic ballad “Sam,” in which she wonders “what kind of mother will I be,” and “Love to Love” strike poignancy and ecstasy, highlighting Ware’s continued greatness.
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.
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.”
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 and 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.
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.
Label: Mercury Records
Release Date: May 5 & December 1, 2017
Like much of the alt-country scene, Stapleton’s work is a high-stakes gamble. The crushing vulnerability spewing from his pen is equal parts chilling, devastating and emotionally-triggering. And his mighty voice is that of a serpent slithering across the parched desert floor in search of his prey: when he strikes (and he does so vehemently) you can feel it in every inch of flesh and bone. Both halves of From a Room (released seven months apart) call to the outlaw movement of the ’60s and ’70s, when such pillars as Merle Haggard shattered the Nashville Sound. He is at his best when he’s blowing the roof off with such dynamite additions as “Broken Halos,” “Death Row,” “Scarecrow in the Garden” and “Drunkard’s Prayer.” [Read the full Vol. 1 review here]
Jason Scott’s Honorable Mentions: Nicole Atkins’ Goodnight Rhonda; Karen & the Sorrows’ The Narrow Place; Johnny Dango’s Recluse in Plain Sight, Caroline Spence’s Spades and Roses and Betsy’s self-titled debut album.