Hip-Hop and Pop continued to top the charts in 2017. The year also saw strong debut albums from artists across the genres receive universal acclaim. Here’s our list of the Top 20 Albums of 2017.
20. Jay-Z – 4:44
Vulnerability is a quality you don’t expect from a hardened rapper, label owner and businessman who used to sell crack cocaine in his youth. Jay-Z subverts this image in 4:44, his most complex album till date. It is also his return to form after the mediocrity that was Magna Carta Holy Grail. Over the course of 36 minutes, he comes clean about his spat with Kanye West, lays bare his mother’s sexuality and confesses that he cheated on Beyonce on numerous occasions.
The songs are short but sharp and dense. ‘The Story of O.J.’ and ‘Bam’ ooze with swagger and showcase Jay-Z’s versatility and confidence, qualities which make him one of the East Coast’s greatest.
Jay-Z is from an era when rappers used to sell drugs. And now he has dropped a classic in an era of drug addled generation of rappers. The rap game has a come a long way since its gangster days but Jay-Z sits comfortably on the throne he established for himself.
Two albums in nine years doesn’t look good on one’s resume, does it? Even more so if you’re one of the largest band of the century, and headlined every continent except Antarctica. The path hasn’t been easy for the Killers who have battled touring fatigue, deaths, divorces, and creeping irrelevance. Coupled with the fact that they are living in different states and communication between them is far and few, it doesn’t make for an ideal situation whatsoever. Wonderful Wonderful is a snapshot of their struggles that they went through.
Brandon Flowers isn’t one to mince words and was at his peak during the Sam’s Town days, where he picked up fights with every band possible from Green Day, to Panic! At the Disco. He revisits and satirizes those days with the lead single ‘The Man’, possibly the most fun they have had with a song since ‘Joy Ride’. This kicks the door down to the band’s, and Brandon’s most intimate moments. The title track and ‘Rut’ outline his wife’s depression due to her PTSD, ‘Run For Cover’ provides perhaps their most political moment, ‘Tyson vs Douglas’ uses the fight as a metaphor to outline the fall of their heroes and ‘Some Kind of Love’ involves Flower’s kids to sing to their mother to not give up. Their strongest work in years and number ones in the US and UK charts may signify that they are not done just yet.
One of the most criminally underrated groups out there, Run The Jewels are as wacky yet influential as they come. Comprising of rappers Killer Mike and El-P, they have released two albums, each as ferocious as the other, while also releasing a remix album, replacing every instrument with *wait-for-it* cat sounds. A typical Run The Jewels album is half comic and half political with both rappers elevating each other, intuitively trading bars, and feeding off each other’s energies, to a background of heavy beats.
This album is no different. It becomes even more politically charged in the midst of the American elections. Clocking at around 54 minutes, it becomes their longest album, and none of the time is wasted on any fillers. ‘Legend Has It’ provides the most fun in the album, ‘Call Tickerton’ turns automated ticketing technology into a beacon for alien transmissions over a pulsating, tension-inducing beat, ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’ has that classic, filthy Danny Brown feature, while glossing over the theme of revolting against the business moguls that rule the world. ‘Thursday in The Danger Room’, features the jazz genius Kamasi Washington.
This is a well-timed and finely tuned album, providing rap music for the riots, while being their most varied album in terms of the beats, finding new ways to keep creating havoc.
Freudian was a revelation. The debut album by Daniel Caesar is some of the best, rich and smooth R&B you will listen to. I wouldn’t be erroneous to suggest that the album is rooted in gospel. It is pleasant to listen to the sound of R&B the 90s kids grew up listening to since it’s not the prototype of modern R&B. Comparisons with Frank Ocean and John Legend have been doing rounds, but perhaps it would be belittling the 22-year-old Caesar, who manages to hold a certain uniqueness in the sound of Freudian.
The instrumentals on the album are subtle. They’re funky and sensual, soothing and lazy with some steady and sharp bass grooves standing out. The fantastic opener of the album, ‘Get You’ featuring Kali Uchis, has been nominated for a Grammy and sets the vibe of the album. ‘Best Part’ featuring H.E.R is honeyed and mellow. What is fantastic is that Caesar has not shied away from taking risks. ‘Neu Roses’ begins with the idiosyncratic Bon Iver sound but transgresses into the R&B vibe. ‘Loose’ instrumentation is surreal before breaking into a lonely piano vocal passage.
Freudian is feel-good, seductive, and with this debut, Daniel Caesar without a doubt, has put his name in one of the brightest talents to watch out for.
Kelela’s variety of R&B is strange. It makes you move your body, and at the same time, makes you introspect, makes you want to pick up your phone and text your ex.
Her debut album, Take Me Apart, is soaked with dreamy and textured atmospheres and Kelela’s potent and stimulating voice. What drives this album to the hall of genre’s greatest is Kelela’s intoxicatingly emotional songwriting.
‘Frontline’ can be easily mistaken for a breakup song, as Kelela herself admitted that the song is about when she left her ex. It is a song of discovering self-worth and liberation rather than moaning and dissing. Halfway through the album, Kelela is brimming with confidence in the sultry track ‘LMK’. She dictates the terms to her casual lover as she croons “It ain’t that deep, either way. No one’s tryna settle down. All you gotta do is let me know”.
Kelela’s R&B is refreshing and breaks the norms. And Take Me Apart is her march towards the genre’s hall of fame.
The first album in six years by the cartoon crew project of Albarn and Jamie Hewlett is similar to their previous four. This time around, the gloomy doomsday vibes of their latest album do not feel out of place in the post-truth era.
The album has 26 tracks which include 17 features and relies heavily on every featured artist to add their element in the world Gorillaz try to create. Gorillaz’ post-apocalyptic world, however, feels hazy and incohesive because of this. For example, ‘Ascension’ featuring Vince Staples preaching and racing through the doomsday sounds like it doesn’t belong in the world created in ‘Submission’ where Kelela complains about her lovers always leaving her.
The songs, in isolation, are good because Gorillaz are great at fine-tuning the instrumentation and telling a story through sounds.
Humanz is not as great as Plastic Beach, but it’s good enough to ride out a storm or an apocalypse.
A Crow Looked at Me is not sad music. It is grief documented when it is catalysed by a deep personal loss. A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum’s ninth album as Mount Eerie, is a stunning eulogy for his wife, Geneviève Castrée, who died of cancer.
The album is not an easy listen. Elverum’s manner of chronicling his wife’s life and death, as well his own thoughts following the loss, crushes the soul. The instrumentation is minimal and beautiful. The words feel like they are straight out of his diary and syllables are in a free fall but still fall into place.
‘Soria Maria’ is the most poignant song of the album. Phil beautifully summarises and reminisces his relationship with Geneviève, all 13 years of it, in the penultimate song of the album.
Every song in the album is studded with words that are pure, tactile and haunted by death. Listen to A Crow Looked at Me to reflect on life and death, loss and grief, and your relationship with a loved one.
Just like 1999’s 69 Love Songs, the Magnetic Fields have put together another conceptual epic in 50 Song Memoir. Detailing the events in the life of songwriter Stephin Merritt, one song for every year of his life (he began recording on his 50th birthday in 2015), the 50-songs long album is a journey.
Keeping conceptuality in mind, it is absolutely fantastic that an album like 50 Song Memoir exists at all. It is exactly what it claims to be, an audial autobiography. Two and a half hours is an intense commitment, but Merrit has filled it with enough intrigue to immerse the listener in his journey. Throughout, he reminds the world of his fantastic abilities as a songwriter. On ‘70: They’re Killing Children Over There’, Merritt sings about his experience at a Jefferson Airplane concert in which, talking about the Vietnam War, vocalist Grace Slick said to the crowd, “I know we’re not supposed to care, but they’re killing children over there”. On ‘81: How to play the Synthesizer’, Merritt details the many functions of a synth. It’s funny but like every other song, it ultimately makes a connection with the songwriter’s life and draws the listener further.
Sometime down the line, this record and the journey into the life of Merrit will certainly be recalled as a masterpiece.
There was a danger that the xx could become the Jamie xx sideshow, with his newfound solo success through his album ‘In Colour’, which succeeded a relatively underwhelming second album for the band ‘Coexist’. ‘I See You’ ends up being none of that, which see them rediscovering the pop hooks that made their debut so delectable while exploring new, often personal themes amidst a bevy of richer, fuller and more kaleidoscopic sounds than on their previous records.
‘Dangerous’, with an assortment of horns and bass lines, is them at their most accessible and unlike anything they have ever done before. Sampling is a new element introduced in their music, ranging from artists such as Alessi in ‘Say Something Loving’ to Trio Mediæval in the Carribean-tinged ‘Lips’. Themes range from alcoholism, personal fears, to the loss of loved ones. Romy and Oliver undergo something of a renaissance and sing with a renewed purpose and vigour.
Easily their most accessible album to date, rediscovering the chops that made the debut album such a success, yet rewarding longtime xx fans with enough change which result in an evolution which both organic and exciting.
The second full-length commercial album from the Long Beach, California rapper Vince Staples is a consistent effort with guest appearances from Kendrick Lamar, Damon Albarn, A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross and Justin Vernon.
Big Fish Theory boasts beats from an array of sources. Vince Staples goes a little groovier in this record though he doesn’t change his style. The soft interludes and the ethereal female vocals caught many by surprise, proving he has terrific potential for innovation. ‘Love Can Be’ is where Staples plays second fiddle to his instrumentals, which seem to have a lot more prominence in this record than his first full-length album Summertime ’06.
‘Big Fish’ has the sticky earworm hook along with ‘Yeah Right’, and ‘BagBak’. These are also the songs that Staple seemingly bosses the most. His beats are creative and very enjoyable. Since the rise of Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop has been hailed for its poetry and socio-political undertones. But hip-hop is also party music, and Vince Staples embraces that in this highly pleasant record.
19-year-old musical prodigy Khalid penned down tracks that came to define the mood of a generation through his dulcet, sultry and honest album American Teen. While the title presents itself as a social and political take especially in the arrangement of songs and albums released by other artists this year, most of American Teen is an easy drive through the evolving moods and relationships with technology, love, youth and oneself. Khalid’s musical inspirations range from Adele and Fleetwood Mac to Father John Misty. And his songs could arguably have made for ballads arranged for the voices of Adele and Sam Smith. Yet by introducing the journey of a boy who grew up in USA and Germany and started writing more songs to cope with the loneliness of being in a new place, he introduces listeners to himself as the self-aware, bold and inspiring icon of youth that he is ready to be. Tracks like ‘American Teen’, ‘Young Dumb and Broke’ and ‘Location’ capture the adolescent experience with innocent perfection. The album wades in as a sample to the current remaking of R&B, complete in its gentle reminders and nostalgic mood and graciously finding its spot in a community inhabited by the works of the Weeknd and Frank Ocean.
Khalid (kuh-leed”) Robinson might be singing the thoughts of a generation. But he does what he does because he wanted to make shit that would sound good in his car. He’s on his way.
For the most part of the decade, Sampha has been a collaborator, both as a vocalist and as a producer to many artists such as SBTRKT, Jessie Ware, Drake, Solange and others, all while releasing two EPs, which showed only a fleeting glimpse of his songwriting prowess. Process, his first full album feels like his coming out party, and is an ambitious statement, especially for a (relative) debutant.
His ambition can be heard from the get go, with the voice of Neil Armstrong crackling to start ‘Plastic 100°C’, then simmering into a wonderful blend of guitars and vulnerable vocals. The album refuses to be pigeonholed, providing equal parts dance music with ‘Blood On Me’ and ‘Kora Sings’ to piano driven ballads like ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ and ‘Take Me Inside’ with a healthy dose of classic RnB burners with enough production tricks to keep things fresh and exciting.
His songwriting remains strong throughout. This is an authoritative statement and an exciting debut.
22 years had passed since Slowdive released their last album, Pygmalion. Their comeback with this eponymous album, however, bridges the gap and even minimises it. It offers a fresh new sound, yet stays true to the quality of music they were rolling out back in the 90s. During this period, so much has been done in the dream-pop genre that being sceptical of this release was inevitable. But, they delivered and how.
A blend of freshness and familiarity is what makes this album one of the best albums of the year. They are experts at creating a trance-like state that is uniquely Slowdive with their guitar sets laden with haunting vocals. The whole album offers as much charm as it does warmth, while occasionally, as on ‘Go Get It’, steering into the post-rock path with escalating guitars.
Like most of their records, The National’s Sleep Well Beast is artfully solemn. In terms of innovation, this album does not offer anything new to the religious fan of the band, except for some new digital sounds. But to the religious fan, Berninger’s touching and magnified self-loathing will never get old and neither will the Dessner and Devendorf brothers’ work with the instruments. However, lyrically, there is a lot on offer. From the tragically depressing ‘Guilty Party’ (“You’re sleeping night and day, how’d you do it? Me, I am wide awake, feeling defeated.”) to the miserable feeling on ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ (“I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while, I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while”), the whole album will take you down a bottomless pit of sadness and you will love it.
After completing ten years of being active, The National’s seventh studio album takes you on a journey of chaos. What you might miss amid all the sombreness is that instead of romanticising sorrow, the album deals with the ideas of acceptance and forbearance. In a world where everything is changing at the speed of light, having a band that produces consistent and reassuring music is dangerously comfortable, but we are here for it.
Here’s to Jack Antonoff, the man who backed powerful, brutally honest albums by no less than 4 female megastars this year. Annie Clark aka St. Vincent claims that he played a vital role in helping her reveal her vulnerability on the album, a pattern apparent on his other works this year like Lorde’s Melodrama and Taylor Swift’s Reputation as well. The album begins with the powerhouse of a track ‘Hang On Me’, full of impressive synth notes and Clark’s emotional plea as she begs, “I know you hate my hysterics, I promise this time it’s different.” She goes from hauntingly visceral on the opening track to astonishingly cynical on the second one, ‘Pills’, where she opens herself up and invites one and all- the feelings, the wretched, the wasted and the scorned. She keeps switching moods on each song on the 13-track long album and each song is like listening to a brand new Annie Clark. The album switches gears as it goes from powerful to mellow on ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’. ‘Slow Disco’ serves this purpose very well.
On Masseduction, her fifth studio album, Clark lays bare a new side of herself and her music, a vulnerable yet confident side. This is what mood swings would sound like when made into unbelievably good music. The huge marketing campaign surrounding this record, another thing that Antonoff might have helped with, has completely transformed the rock star guitarist and has served as the trampoline for her to make the leap to mainstream music.
The title of ‘the best band in the world’ is well and truly up for grabs, with many of the old guard disappearing into obscurity and replacements yet to be found. The War on Drugs auditioned for the role in 2014 with Lost in the Dream, and have followed with a grandiose effort in the form of A Deeper Understanding.
Be it the 11-minute epic ‘Thinking of a Place’ that takes you on a Floyd-ian journey through the architecture of his imagination, or the sheer magnificence of guitars on ‘Strangest Thing’, Granduciel’s constant desire for perfection has led to the creation of a multi-layered delight with extensive and elaborate instrumentation, as each listen gives a further reason to go on and do the same all over again. The album is full of engrossing melodies, each one driving into the next with a definite sense of purpose, all the while taking the time to fully produce the effect intended.
To produce a world-class album is one thing, to follow it up with an even better one is quite another. This 66-minute masterpiece has put the band firmly in contention for the top spot and deservedly takes its place in this year’s top albums list.
Reunited and reborn, LCD Sound System inexplicably broke off in 2011 to return in 2017 with an album that stays classic and true to the post-punk, rock ‘n’ roll affections of James Murphy and his band, known for writing music about writing music. But his middle-aged ramblings aren’t isolated or jaded. They come from a place of recognising America as it is today and delivered in a language that LCD Sound System contributed through gripping dance-friendly numbers in the past. Yet American Dream echoes the sense of an ending – of friendships, relationships, life as an afterthought to the realization of growing up.
Tracks like ‘Oh Baby’ and ‘I Used To’ are 80s inspired, gradual steps into the heart of the album through the decades as rapper Nancy Whang wakes the listener up by adding “This is what’s happening and it’s freaking you out/I’ve heard it, heard it and it sounds like the Nineties”. ‘How do you sleep’, ‘Tonite’, ‘Call the police’ and ‘American Dream’ stir up the universality associated with growing up and unwelcome terrors deliberately accompanying the process.
Throughout the album, there are references to Lou Reed and David Bowie, the band’s reunion call being echoed by the latter. Murphy’s idol Bowie brought in the musician as a contributor on Blackstar and the concluding minutes of American Dream are poignant and reportedly a tribute to Murphy’s friend and idol David Bowie. American Dream defies logic and rationality and is as real as can be in a world of post-truth and nostalgia.
Solána Imani Rowe a.k.a SZA’s brilliant debut commercial album, which features Kendrick Lamar, James Fauntleroy, and Isaiah Rashad, has been earning the singer plaudits, deservedly so.
At just 26 years of age, SZA has done a lot of different things. She’s been a gymnast, she’s worked with Beyoncé and Rihanna, modelled for Ivy Park and has now, after releasing her first mainstream album, has become a neo-soul superstar. Originally titled A, the debut album from SZA was meant to conclude a trilogy of self-titled releases following 2013’s S and 2014’s Z after she became the first woman to be signed by label TDA.
Ctrl is a modern, well produced and cohesive R&B album, unlike Z which didn’t really fit into the R&B genre and swirled more towards electronic (chillwave) with every song resting on keyboard tunes. At the same time, Ctrl tests the waters too with elements of indie rock, R&B and hip-hop, but it is that cohesion and flow throughout the record that makes the difference. The album opener ‘Supermodel’ is a bitter way to start an R&B record where she gives it back to an adulterous ex, but it instantly establishes the tone of the album – Ctrl is going to be all sorts of venting. She’s empowered in ‘Doves in the Wind’, assisted ably by Kendrick Lamar, and is fighting insecurities on ‘Drew Barrymore’
The dreamy soundscapes, refined and tasteful instrumentation, SZA’s songwriting, her concepts and her lyrics which are full of character, are factors make SZA stand out from her contemporaries. The album is experienced best as a whole.
Melodrama is the aftermath of the loss of love in particular, and feelings in general. With her all-over-the-place stage presence, Lorde is able to keep up the facade of a pop star but musically she is able to explore the realms even underground artists would not be capable of. On Melodrama, she reaches a level of artistic integrity that is inexplicably beyond her years, by integrating sounds, words and even colours in an aesthetically gratifying manner. This album is one step ahead of her teen angst filled debut, although she doesn’t abandon her persona entirely. With the quality of writing that she offers, she might just become the most lyrically advanced pop star we have. She doesn’t just sound like someone with heartache, but like someone who is emotionally aware of her condition and is resilient to letting herself break. She calls it melodrama, she knows she is charged erratic and she has channelled it perfectly to create something beautiful. After she has sung about ‘hard feelings’ and being a ‘liability’, on the seventh track, ‘Sober II’, she flips it around and goes, “we called it melodrama”, making it glaringly clear that this is not just teenage drama, but way more real than expected.
This is a very dark album veneered with bright colours and peppy singles. After listening to the whole album, you don’t get a better sense of who Lorde is, but it leaves you begging for answers and invites you for innumerable more listens so you can figure out the enigma. Observe closely and the heartache becomes frighteningly transparent, making this record one of the best musical expressions of art and angst to come out this year.
A 27-year old rapper nonchalantly dropped his fourth studio album in 2017, as if to assemble enough courage to listeners who were walking away from events that rendered the past year to be a historically tragic and hilarious sequence of errors. Kendrick Lamar’s last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, acquired a role as an anthem creating awareness and uniting forces in support of #blacklivesmatter. Damn. at the first listen doesn’t jump into political and worldly aggregates, and feels like an emotional journey into the thoughts of a talented storyteller. But the album digs deeper into the emotional rapture of “sippling bubbly, feeling lovely”.
In spreading the message of humility, a key theme underlying this album, Lamar battles through his contradictions as an artist while effortlessly contextualising events in America and treating election results as a humdrum locus of tension and anxiety that became part of the daily routine. Rihanna reiterates on the difficulties of seeking ‘Loyalty’ and the gifted Kid Capri reminds us “what happens on Earth stays on Earth” on ‘Duckworth’. U2 teams up with Lamar on ‘XXX’ towards enriching the religious and political undertones of the project but at the heart of it one hears Kendrick Lamar talking honestly to those listening, singing and swaying to his own works articulating his thoughts through synths, and rap from the 90s brought back with vigour and power.
He rules because he got “power, poison, pain and joy inside his DNA” but Damn. (pun intended) is he humble.