You probably remember 2016 as the year of the Event Album, a seemingly endless stream of huge artists unleashing monolithic statements — often from out of nowhere, and usually while you were still trying to digest the album dropped by a different megastar just weeks earlier. It was overwhelming enough to make us wonder if this was what every year was going to be like as a music fan: eleven months of hopping from major release to major release, with one month at the end to scramble to sort through it all.
Well, 2017 was much more merciful on us. There were event albums, sure, but fewer without warning — to the point where one of the few legitimately big surprises was literally titled Without Warning (and still announced the day before) — and not so many that seemed to stop the world on its axis, the way releases from Kanye, Beyonce, Rihanna and more did in ’16. But that was fine: It just meant that we had more of a chance to search for personal favorites, and more time to spend with those we found. Not like the stars totally let us down, either — from commercial breakthroughs to solo bows to artistic rebirths to however the hell we’re referring to More Life these days, our best and brightest certainly still made an impact, just without sucking up all the oxygen in the pop universe around them.
Between the records that announced their presence with authority to the ones we’re still trying to get to come out of their shell, here are the Billboard staff’s 50 favorite albums of 2017.
50. Kelly Clarkson, Meaning of Life
With some break-up albums, listeners have to read lyrics like tea leaves to deduce their backstory. But on Kelly Clarkson’s lushly soulful Meaning of Life — her first album under a new contract with Atlantic Records, following a lengthy and unhappy tenure at RCA — the writing’s on the wall: not all breakups are bad, and freedom feels damn good. (The gal who sang “Since U Been Gone,” canon on the subject, should certainly know.) With both her ceiling-shattering voice and delightfully unfiltered spirit unleashed, Clarkson embraces her Aretha moment without ever losing herself. Turns out that while angsty pop-rocker Kelly was fun, “Whole Lotta Woman” Kelly — who belts her way through an extended metaphor likening herself to a full Southern meal (“Pot full of grits/ I’m hotter than your mama’s supper, boy”) — is the flat out life of the party. — REBECCA MILZOFF
49. 21 Savage, Offset & Metro Boomin, Without Warning
From the moment the drop introduces 21 Savage’s verse on album opener “Ghostface Killers,” this trio on the cutting edge of hip-hop’s trap-youth movement was completely locked in. Over the past several years, Metro Boomin has proved himself to be an increasingly diverse producer, able to slide in and out of a variety of styles, but at his core he’s a painter of horrorscapes, specializing in sparse atmospheres that are equally effective heralding anguished Future hooks or the imminent arrival of Freddy Krueger. It’s fitting, then, that he would group the dead-eyed Savage and ominously dexterous Offset, two of the more vividly bleak storytellers around, to annotate his chilling illustrations; the result is incisive in its execution. — DAN RYS
48. Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life
Lana del Rey’s fourth album, Lust for Life, was a breath of fresh air amidst the collective chaos and confusion of 2017. The album ingeniously integrates classic pop-rock beats with trap rhythms that surround Del Rey’s vocals with melodic sensuality. More than a nostalgic play, Lust for Life is a journal of explorations about love and life, a narrative of realism where hope peeps through the curtains of overwhelming lyrical emotion. Del Rey cleverly sets her curiosity on the loose with a multifarious, both in terms of generation and style, guest list: The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, Stevie Nicks, Sean Lennon and Playboi Carti, giving this tale one of the year’s richest supporting casts. — PAMELA BUSTIOS
47. Big K.R.I.T., 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time
After being frozen out by his former label Def Jam, Big K.R.I.T. clawed his way to liberation in 2016. The veteran Mississippi MC sought refuge in the studio and doled out a masterful comeback with the independently released 4Eva Is A Mighty Long Time. His ambitious double album dishes out trunk-rattling anthems like “Big Bank” and “Subenstein (My Sub IV)” and self-reflective records including “Get Away” and “Drinking Sessions,” making K.R.I.T.’s third album a must-grab for hip-hop purists. — CARL LAMARRE
46. Jay Som, Everybody Works
An indie-pop breakthrough that feels like the first step on a long, winding road: Melina Duterte, the Oakland singer-songwriter behind Jay Som, exudes charisma and utilizes the type of storytelling that can help project her intimate vocals on a wide screen — assisted, of course, by some of the year’s most aqueous, spellbinding guitar work. Everybody Works not only sparkles, but suggests a songwriter with a lot to say, and many more engrossing projects ahead of her. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
45. King Krule, The OOZ
“I seem to sink lower” are the first words Archy Marshall sings on The OOZ, his second full-length as King Krule. The listener plunges into the muck of the 19-track project alongside Marshall, swimming through lo-fi punk, dub, lounge-lizard jazz—emphasis on lizard. There’s something primal and low to the ground about Marshall’s sound; even at its most artful, his language still feels scooped directly from his darkest 23-year-old dreams (“I got more moons wrapped around my head and Jupiter knows/ Whilst you orbit with some stupider hoes”). But Marshall is brilliant at sequencing, and the gentle conclusion, in particular the brightly strummed closing track “La Lune,” leaves you feeling quiet and calm — like you’ve only just now realized that, after all this time underwater, gravity no longer applies. You’re submerged, but you’re weightless, too. — ROSS SCARANO
44. Thundercat, Drunk
The artistic multihyphenate — singer, producer, instrumentalist — born Stephen Bruner has spent the past decade dotting liner credits of acclaimed projects from Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus. As a solo artist, now three albums deep with this year’s funk-splattered Drunk, the falsetto’d crooner takes listeners to the wood-panel, shag-carpet basement of his mind, cultivating a record of velvet-lined grooves, strutting bass lines and manifestos about getting put in the friend zone. It makes sense that Drunk sounds like the broadband 2017 descendant of yacht rock purveyors Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins — who even show up to christen their successor with guest verses on centerpiece “Show You the Way.” — STEVEN J. HOROWITZ
43. Dua Lipa, Dua Lipa
One hit single does not a superstar make. While international breakthrough “New Rules” continues its scaling of the Billboard Hot 100, it’s the consistently high caliber of English singer-songwriter Dua Lipa’s self-titled debut — a minefield of potential smashes — that establishes her as one of pop’s most promising prospects. From the carefree kiss-off “IDGAF” to the smoky, Miguel-assisted “Lost In Your Light,” the 22-year-old Londoner has set a high bar — one we’re eager to see her vault over in the future. — PATRICK CROWLEY
42. Cashmere Cat, 9
Norwegian producer/DJ Cashmere Cat has developed a sound so specifically his — cherubic synths, funhouse vocal samples, a proclivity for restrained percussion — that it’s secured him standout placements on LPs from Charli XCX, Britney Spears and Kanye West. It explains why he was able to corral such strong features from megastars The Weeknd, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande for his full-length debut 9, and also how he still manages to eclipse them all: Throughout the set, he treats his esteemed guests like accessories, dropping them out at key moments to leave space for his fantasy instrumentals to gleam and shimmer. — S.J.H.
41. MUNA, About U
Fresh out of USC’s fledgling pop music program emerged MUNA, a synth-rock trio whose spellbinding debut album, full of queer empowerment anthems and progressive battle cries of love and loss, arrived early in a year where we badly needed all of the above. The exuberant “I Know a Place” — their all-inclusive, come-dance-the-night-away single — already feels like a mission statement, their signature song. And in portraying the heartache all sorts of people experience (MUNA purposely avoid gendered pronouns), luminous slow-burners “Winterbreak” and “Everything” poignantly capture feelings still lingering behind closed doors, long after the club closes. — CHRIS PAYNE
40. Demi Lovato, Tell Me You Love Me
Fans already knew Demi Lovato was confident, but she added an entirely new dimension to the word with the absolutely undeniable Tell Me You Love Me. Some might argue that Lovato’s fearless vocal gusto has become a little too in-your-face, but that’s exactly what Lovato’s fans have been waiting for: a record that combines her unabashedly raw lyrics – whether scandalous (“Just tell me when you’re ready/ And Imma paint your body with my lips” from “Concentrate”) or heart-rending (“I’m sorry for honesty/ I could not bear to lie to you” from “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore”) – with her even fiercer octave-scaling. Demi got something she’d been waiting for, too: a “dream collab” with Lil Wayne on “Lonely,” though even the rap icon can’t outshine Demi on her most spotlight-commanding album yet. — TAYLOR WEATHERBY
39. Romeo Santos, Golden
In the three years it took for Romeo Santos to follow up 2014’s phenomenally successful Formula, Vol. 2, the Latin charts veered from being dominated by his contemporary brand of bachata to being overrun with reggaeton. No matter: Third solo album Golden is replete with fusions, including one urban-leaning track, “Bella y Sensual,” featuring Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee. But overall, the album is vintage Romeo in its sophisticated, often jazzy chord and tempo changes, adapted to bachata’s trademark guitar and guiro backbone. The lyrics, always Santos’ forte, continue to tread the fine line between sensuality and sexuality; “El amigo,” featuring Santos’ hero Julio Iglesias, is an ode to the penis — the kind of thing only Santos could pull off. — LEILA COBO
38. Charly Bliss, Guppy
Three years passed between the release of Charly Bliss’s 2014 EP, Soft Serve, and the band’s debut album, Guppy. That’s nearly the length of high school, which is exactly what the band’s music may remind you of — particularly if you started in the mid-’90s and loved Veruca Salt. In that gap, the band tightened up the spaces in its songs and beefed up the scuzzy melodic lines to make Guppy, a no-filler album of 10 concise, joyous pop-punk blasts. There’s an obvious youthful exuberance to Charly Bliss — partly due to lead singer-songwriter Eva Hendricks’s spunky, eternally preteen voice. But the immediacy of the music serves as a reminder that no matter how far your awkward-stage years are in the rearview, you’re never too old to revel in power chords and emotional confusion. — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
37. Thomas Rhett, Life Changes
After his top 40-crashing love song “Die A Happy Man” opened the doors for the country crooner beyond his genre, he took full advantage of his newfound crossover appeal with his third album. While the singer-songwriter was hardly afraid to push musical boundaries before, Life Changes bounds across American pop history, incorporating doo-wop (“Sweetheart”), R&B slow jams (“Kiss Me Like a Stranger”) and even EDM bass drops (“Leave Right Now”) into 14 relatable tales about, well, life’s changes. And that diversity was rewarded: In September, Life Changes made the Thomas Rhett the first country artist of 2017 to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. — T.W.
36. Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom
With co-signs from JAY-Z, 9th Wonder and Busta Rhymes — who called Laila’s Wisdom “the best album I’ve heard not only from a female MC but in hip-hop period” — North Carolina rapper Rapsody trounced the competition on her sophomore album with her scintillating wordplay. First, she flexed her ACC cred on the Kendrick Lamar-assisted song “Power” (“Carolina home boy, you know we keep a Stackhouse”) before hosing down her detractors on the swaggering banger “Sassy” (“See these pretty wings, I maxed well”). Last month, the rapper got the mainstream recognition she deserved when the Recording Academy awarded Laila’s Wisdom with two Grammy nominations, including best rap album and best rap song for “Sassy.” — C.L.
35. Julia Michaels, Nervous System EP
The landscape of successful pop songwriters-turned-performers is one strewn with dreams dashed and ruled over by, well, Sia. So when Julia Michaels, the prodigy who co-penned hits for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld and many more, stepped behind the mic, the stakes looked rather high — until she opened her mouth. From the first bars of “Issues,” the breakout first single of her tightly-constructed Nervous System EP, Michaels made her artistic identity clear with her beautifully textured, ultra-expressive voice: a millennial woman who embraces the messiness of her life and displays an alluring comfort with her own sexuality. And “Issues” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Michaels’ emotional range: Whether she’s wailing through the crunchy “Uh Huh” like a Lilith Fair vet or oozing regret in “Worst in Me,” she manages to blend singer-songwriter genuineness with inventive pop melodies. — R.M.
34. Mura Masa, Mura Masa
There was no need to stress over your Friday night playlist in 2017 — Mura Masa had you covered. The Grammy-nominated first offering from Guernsey-born beat-slayer Alex Crossan is a 45-minute dance party that spins everything from woozy trap (“All Around the World”) to plush marimba (“1 Night”), with high-profile attendees like Charli XCX, Desiigner and A$AP Rocky all boogieing in their tuxes and ball gowns. Dance world, take note: At 21, the prolific Crossan is poised to become one of the genre’s leading influencers, and his first album’s balancing act of collaborators proves he’s got both the talent and the Rolodex to get himself there. – TATIANA CIRISANO
33. Syd, Fin
Odd Future DJ-turned-after-hours chronicler Syd brings a certain dreaminess to everything she touches. That’s largely due to the fact that her voice is the aural equivalent of bedroom eyes, but it’s also because she wraps her vocals in slinky, underworld R&B that keeps you warm at night. These were always the dominating sounds on her three full-length projects with her hip-hop soul group The Internet, but on her solo debut, Fin, you get an entire album of Syd’s vibes. “Know” is a playful temptation that makes cheating sound like harmless fun, but she reminds you of her loyalty — to herself and her people — on “All About Me.” And then there’s “Body,” which is just, well, hot (“I can hear your body when I / Pull your hair, what’s my name”). Sex might sell, but it’s the all-out sensuality in Syd’s delivery that makes Fin worth the investment. — C.W.
32. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
The ironic thing about the Japandroids third album’s title is that on the surface, the freedom-rock duo would seem further from life’s blood-pumping central organs than ever: After two albums of now-or-never urgency and calloused-fingers commitment, Brian King and David Prowse finally seem content to burn a little slower and let their view extend a little longer. But just because they don’t sound like they’re warring against imminent oblivion doesn’t mean they aren’t still fighting the good fight — they’re just the rare punks who realized they didn’t actually hope they died before they got old. Near to the Wild Heart of Life captures Japandroids upon the realization that their travels North East South West don’t mean much if they don’t have a home to come back to, and the set bleeds gratitude at the realization that they, in fact, do. When you have true love and a free life of free will, the road goes on forever anyway. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
31. Daniel Caesar, Freudian
Canadian Daniel Caesar’s sacred-versus-secular balancing act recalls the creative fervor of another soul soldier, Marvin Gaye. Belying his 22 years, the independent artist delivers a nuanced, mature and illuminating portrait of love and heartbreak. Between Freudian’s organic fusion of R&B/traditional gospel and Caesar’s naked lyrical honesty, you hear (and feel) the surprise, joy and angst that love entails, as on the ethereal “Get You” (featuring Kali Uchis) and the introspective ballad “Blessed.” It’s no wonder that Caesar’s mellow music and hot-buttered vocals have won fans as legendary as Stevie Wonder — and netted first-time Grammy nods for best R&B album and best R&B performance. — GAIL MITCHELL
30. P!nk, Beautiful Trauma
With P!nk’s seventh album, Beautiful Trauma, gone is the scrappy, neon-haired rebel without a cause we met in 2000; in her place, a tenacious warrior of a mo-ther-fu-cking woman. On standout power ballads “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” and “For Now,” a world-weary P!nk smartly makes a play for the Adult Contemporary crowd. But fret not, P!nk’s sick sense of humor is still in tact on the action-packed, Antonoff-produced title track: “We were on fire/ I slashed your tires/ It’s like we burned so bright we burned out.” — P.C.
29. Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy
Hip-hop outsider and Odd Future co-founder Tyler, the Creator has spent four albums expressing himself through the guise of various overblown personas, but on his fifth album Flower Boy, it appears that the real deal has finally arrived. With wide-ranging production work that sounds like the culmination of Tyler’s past forays into jazz, funk, and grunge, Flower Boy proves his abilities have officially caught up to his vision. He channels his outlandish tendencies into a seamless set filled with his most thoughtful, confessional bars — on topics like depression, loneliness, even his sexual orientation — and deftly selected features from versatile budding talents like Rex Orange County and Anna of the North. Its debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 was notable for the 1,000-unit gap that separated it from Lana Del Ray’s Lust For Life at the top of the chart, but more importantly, Flower Boy signifies Tyler’s development as an artist has reached full bloom. — BRYAN KRESS
28. Halsey, hopeless fountain kingdom
Halsey’s sophomore album is an all-inclusive dissection of doomed love, made to sound slightly less hopeless with its dive into dark pop production. Opening with a reading from Romeo and Juliet on “Prologue” (yes, she goes there), Halsey sets the stage for one-act dramas of crumbling relationships (the questioning “100 Letters” and Lauren Jauregui feature “Strangers”) and unapologetic admissions of indecision and imperfection (the burning ballad “Sorry” and Hot 100-bounding standout “Bad At Love”). For a year when mental health in music took a front seat, the way Halsey highlights her romantic history through her own inner turmoil acts as a comforting nod. Her kingdom has an open-door policy, and with nothing to hide, she was free to deliver one of the year’s most mold-breaking pop albums. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
27. Perfume Genius, No Shape
Shimmering, sad chamber pop is a well-worn subgenre, so you can be forgiven for assuming that there’s not much left to do with it in 2017. Enter No Shape, the fourth album from art-pop purveyor Perfume Genius. Blake Mills’ deft production gives the introspective songs a shapeless, open-spaced aural clarity that gives every celeste, tabla and synth room to flourish. From the quietly explosive “Slip Away” to the mesmerizing “Wreath” to the dreamy, drifting “Alan,” No Shape sounds like it was recorded in a world where Oberon and Titania rule, not Trump. — JOE LYNCH
26. Ed Sheeran, ÷ (Divide)
Ed Sheeran took 2017 by storm right out of the gate with two top 10 hit singles from his third record, including the year’s most-streamed track on Spotify, the inescapably catchy “Shape Of You.” Impressive numbers aside, Sheeran’s double-Platinum-certified third album was quintessentially Ed, continuing his effortless one-man show with impressive guitar, singing and, yes, rap skills. But this time, Sheeran brings more diversity than we’ve ever heard from the ginger-haired Englishman before, as he acknowledges his Irish roots (“Nancy Mulligan” and “Galway Girl”), and throws in unexpected African and Spanish flair (“Bibia Be Ye Ye” and “Barcelona,” respectively) — without forgetting to craft a “Thinking Out Loud” sequel worthy of a Beyonce remix in the waltzing ballad “Perfect.” He may not have an album of the year Grammy nod to show for it, but who needs the Recording Academy when you already have the whole world? — T.W.
25. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural
“Contained chaos” is a rock cliche, but it’s one of the first terms that comes to mind for Priests’ roaring first album, a project that is decisively punk yet ornately arranged with every surf-rock riff, drum roll, bass stab and shriek. The latter is usually coming from Katie Alice Greer, a frontwoman with a keen understanding of soul; Nothing Feels Natural sounds beautifully lived-in thanks to the guttural emotion behind each of her sneers. — J. Lipshutz
24. Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
One of the year’s most assured R&B records came from a breakout star fairly new to the genre. Kehlani, the 22-year-old, Oakland-born, tat-covered chanteuse assembled some of the finest songs the style has seen in recent memory with SweetSexySavage, a title that pays homage to TLC’s 1994 masterwork CrazySexyCool. But it’s in title alone that the hat-tip extends: Her major-label studio debut is crisp and contemporary, its tracks energized and deliciously hook-driven, largely courtesy of production masterminds Pop & Oak. It’s the singer-songwriter’s forthright approach to these songs that elevates them — she’s at once reflective and ostentatious, lamenting her own romantic missteps on album jewel “Advice” and then warning suitors of her brazen unpredictability on “CRZY.” The former gives it depth, but it’s the latter that keeps it fresh with each listen. — S.J.H.
23. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
On LCD Soundsystem’s first studio album in seven years, James Murphy proves that he’s still the most aware, and self-aware, artist in alt-rock. Even the trenchant Father John Misty was blown away by the Grammy-nominated “Tonight,” which sees Murphy surgically skewering the Kardashian generation (“These bullying children of the fabulous/ Raffling off limited edition shoes”), then turning the scalpel on himself, “a hobbled veteran of the disc-shop inquisition.” It’s the same impostor-versus-impostor wit — paired with an insistent disco hook — that made LCD’s previous singles sui generis gems. In some ways, American Dream transcends the band’s pre-hiatus LPs because on “how do you sleep?”, “black screen” and the title track, Murphy sheds his protective irony to confront some thorny adult stuff: betrayal, mortality, losing his edge (for real this time), and losing a disturbing number of his musical heroes: Alan Vega, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed and, most of all, mentor David Bowie. To use a phrase of Cohen’s, American Dream is a perfect offering to the spirit of the Thin White Duke and evidence of Murphy’s continued artistic vitality as a no-longer-young American. — FRANK DIGIACOMO
22. Chris Stapleton, From A Room, Vol. 1
Chris Stapleton is a fiery presence on From A Room: Vol. 1, his first of two nine-song albums in 2017. He ignites on eager opener “Broken Halos,” goes bat-out-of-hell with the raging “Second One to Know,” and simmers as part of plaintive acoustic ballad “Either Way,” which features a soaring chorus that plainly illustrates why no man in country music even comes close to him on a vocal level. He’s not the only one in the Room at the top of his game, either; few producers in country or any other genre can match the hot streak that Dave Cobb (two Stapleton albums, Jason Isbell and Colter Wall in 2017 alone) is currently blazing through. — KEVIN RUTHERFORD
21. Drake, More Life
If More Life was any indication, Drake could release an album (err, “playlist”) every year for an eternity and fans will still flock to it. His tenth release in nine years (and seventh straight No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart) saw all 22 of its tracks hit the Billboard Hot 100 — two additional hits brought his one-week total to a record-breaking 24 simultaneous chart entries. But More Life earns its spot as one of the top blockbusters of the year on the strength of its breezy warm-weather sounds (evident on “Get It Together,” “Madiba Riddim,” and the sublime fan-demanded single “Passionfruit”), and the fresh faces from overseas that Drake brings to the forefront (Sampha, Jorja Smith and Giggs, to name a few). Wasn’t just the newcomers that Aubrey invited on his globe-trotting yacht party either — he even brings out Kanye West for a rare feature in “Glow,” Yeezy’s only Hot 100 hit of 2017. — XANDER ZELLNER
20. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
The War on Drugs’ fourth full-length album – and like few rock rock LPs in 2017, it is a true album – plays like a shimmery sativa dream in which the legends of classic rock (Dylan, Springsteen, Petty, Zevon and even Tweedy) emerge from the mist and coalesce into something new and achingly beautiful. Frontman and songwriter Adam Granduciel’s influences are clearly recognizable in the swirl of acoustic and electric guitar, synth, harmonica and tape effects that make A Deeper Understanding a logical, more introspective and arguably superior successor to the band’s 2014 breakthrough, Lost in the Dream. But instead of aping his heroes, Granduciel has seamlessly synthesized their signature sounds with his own, expanding the frontiers of 21st century rock n’ roll in the process. — F.D.
19. Residente, Residente
A musician takes a DNA test and records an album based on the results. Sounds like the premise of a movie, and Residente is indeed an album and film project. The first solo venture by René Pérez, formerly one half of Puerto Rican Latin rap duo Calle 13, sees Residente take a literal journey to his origins (including Ghana, Siberia, Burkina Faso and China), where contributions from local artists — from Ossetian drums to Chinese opera — ensure that “each sound, each word” has a reason to be there. It could be obnoxious if it wasn’t so deliciously addictive and subversive. The self-titled album explores the horrors of war in tracks like “Guerra” and dreamy love in the beautiful “Desencuentro,” while Residente continues to marry infectious hooks with the best rhymes in Latin urban music. — L.C.
18. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples isn’t one to hold his tongue. The Long Beach rapper has released a project every year since 2014’s Hell Can Wait EP, each with whip-smart critiques of the racism and gang violence that rocked his own upbringing. But on Big Fish Theory — his second album proper — Staples looks forward, dissecting the trappings of his own celebrity (“glass shoes ain’t made to walk,” he admits on “745”) and the prejudiced society surrounding it (quipping “Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started” on “BagBak”). All this is delivered through bass-bloated, house-leaning soundscapes that see Staples breach Detroit techno, so much so that the rapper says he deserves a Grammy for electronic album of the year. Keep at it, Vince — we’re listening, and learning. — T.C.
17. Future, HNDRXX
If the self-titled album that arrived the week before was more along the lines of “mixtape Future” — harder, darker, more aggressive — then this set, featuring collaborations with top 40 fixtures Rihanna (“Selfish”) and The Weeknd (“Comin Out Strong”), showed off a more experimental and yet more accessible Future. The soaring melodies of “Incredible,” “Fresh Air” and “Keep Quiet” feel like steps towards arena status, while songs like “Lookin Exotic” and “Neva Missa Lost” are extravagant and brooding in turn. The one-two punch of the penultimate “Solo” and finale “Sorry” are among Future’s most emotionally-revealing and introspective, showing bold-as-love Future to be one of his strongest incarnations yet. — D.R.
16. Kesha, Rainbow
A nation that loves a triumphal second act got the soundtrack for the #MeToo generation with Kesha Rose Sebert’s heart-exploding third album. After a prolonged, potentially career-killing battle with her one-time mentor/alleged tormentor, Kesha rose like a glitter-caked phoenix on this Grammy-nominated collection of inspirational pop and country anthems about empowerment, determination and a refusal to let the bastards get you down (“Bastards”). Before headlines exploded with endless tales of male misdeeds this fall, Kesha pre-loaded a 14-track playlist about refusing to sit idly by and accept what they say about you (or try to do to you). From the soaring, self-affirming anthem “Praying,” to raucous rockers (“Boogie Feet” feat. Eagles of Death Metal) and downright silly romantic parables (“Godzilla”), the formerly dollar-signed singer finally got a chance to show us all the colors of her rainbow, and they were beautiful. “Don’t let those losers take your magic, baby.” Yeah. — GIL KAUFMAN
15. Paramore, After Laughter
Who wants to waste their years being fake happy? 2013’s self-titled LP brought Warped Tour grads Paramore their biggest Hot 100 hit to date, but frontwoman Hayley Williams was often mired in the stress of an unstable lineup, which almost ended the group for good. Down one longtime member but up another, Paramore regrouped with the sparkling, self-assured After Laughter — a modern Talking Heads-meets-Tango in the Night masterstroke — just as much a love letter to their fans as it was to themselves. Williams and company ditched the more commercial-focused rollout of their previous LP, conquered their personal demons, and in turn, got to bask in the glory of their most cohesive album to date. Sure, we can only imagine an alternate universe where “Hard Times” is a bona fide top 40 smash — it topped out at No. 90 on the Hot 100 — but After Laughter remains a triumph. Thanks to the set’s limber grooves, heartbreaking lyrics, and ultra-relatable 20-something world-weariness, Paramore decisively proved there’s life after pop-punk. — C.P.
14. The xx, I See You
The long break from The xx prior to third album I See You is the best thing that could have happened to the group’s three members. While singer-guitarists Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft cleared their heads after an arduous promotional campaign behind 2012’s Coexist, producer Jamie Smith released an acclaimed solo project, a Technicolor dance album under the name Jamie xx. When the three reconvened, Smith had the confidence to introduce more upbeat tempos to the band’s sound, while Sim and Croft moved into a more mature phase of songwriting within their emotionally complex dialogues. Songs like “On Hold” and “Dangerous” add a sense of playfulness to an already successful formula: The xx are still built around the interplay between their male and female lead and the shuddering beats underneath them, but the writing is wiser, and the sonic palette is now unlimited. — J. Lipshutz
13. Lil Uzi Vert, Luv Is Rage 2
The ascension of any number of viral teenage sensations in hip-hop made 23-year-old Lil Uzi Vert something of an unlikely elder statesman of the SoundCloud set this year. Luckily, Luv Is Rage 2 showed that the Philly MC was up for the challenge of leading by example. The LP broadcast its maturity with the show-don’t-tell acuity of any decent writer, demonstrating Uzi’s growth through its impressive variety: He sounds as natural squawking abstractly over beats as nebulous as Playboi Carti’s (“Early 20 Rager”) as he does trading bars with Pharrell like a couple of bantering rat-packers (“Neon Guts”) or embracing his inner Nelly for a breakup song of end-of-summer-camp tenderness (“The Way Life Goes”). And while Uzi’s sense of gender relations don’t always rise above “She gave me head so I called her a nerd,” he also offers a sincere, empathetic “You know I respect her on that level” elsewhere, which basically makes him Man of the Year by 2017 recording artist standards. — A.U.
12. St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION
Like 2014’s St. Vincent before it, MASSEDUCTION finds alternative auteur Annie Clark leaning further into the worlds of synths and electronics to produce a deeply personal yet highly oblique album — think David Bowie circa Low (where you could tell it was confessional even when you didn’t quite understand what the hell he was saying). A number of the songs are career highlights: “Pills” is satirically catchy encapsulation of the opioid crisis era, “Sugarboy” is a gender-fluid banger that riffs on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and “New York” is wounded, tragic tribute to the city that’s reminiscent of Lou Reed during his rare sentimental moments. — J. Lynch
11. Kelela, Take Me Apart
From the ambitious, multi-part opener, “Frontline,” Kelela’s debut album Take Me Apart is an exercise in knowing what you want, when you want it. The 34-year-old singer-songwriter, newly signed to legendary electronic indie label Warp, is in control — emotionally, physically, sexually. The desire for control, how one wields it, how it’s lost — these are powerful tropes in R&B, especially from female artists. But Janet Jackson was just 19 when she recorded the most famous album on the subject; Kelela has a particularly grown quality when she sings “It ain’t that deep, either way,” scolding a doddering jumpoff on first single “LMK.” On the outstanding title track, she tells her partner to “take [her] apart,” and her voice shakes itself into multiple watery channels with nothing less than total confidence. “When you demand somebody take you apart, then you’re the boss,” she told The Fader earlier this year. Guess that makes us subordinates. — R.S.
10. Harry Styles, Harry Styles
If it wasn’t clear during his five-year tenure as a One Direction pop heartthrob, it is now: Harry Styles wants to be a rock star. Throughout his 10-track solo debut, Styles hides his arena-ruling inspirations in plain sight, and it works — from the echoes of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” in the tender “Sweet Creature” to the Bowie-esque grandeur of “Sign of the Times.” Of course, it’s Styles’ own self-revealing swagger that makes the album so electric, as the best moments are also his most confessional: waking up alone in a hotel room on “From the Dining Table” (“Played with myself, where were you?”), or growing apart from a lover on “Two Ghosts” (“We’re not who we used to be”). It’s worth wondering where Styles’ self-titled leaves his 1D-era teenage fanclub, most of whom were decades from being born when the artists he best evokes were at their peaks. But what’s more telling is that he isn’t looking for their approval: If rock stardom in 2017 means staying true to oneself above all — and letting the screaming fans follow as they may — Styles is headed in the right direction. — T.C.
9. Sampha, Process
South London singer-songwriter Sampha Sisay’s debut album Process arrived in the first week of February, and it’s perhaps no wonder why three seasons later, it still cannot be detached from those frosty first few months of the year. With deeply personal lyrics delivered through Sisay’s fragile quiver, the 10-track set always gives the impression of stepping on ice that’s just on the brink of shattering. It’s a thrilling suspense that can be bone-chilling when Sampha is isolated to a sole instrumental accompaniment on the nostalgia-heavy “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” or liberating when he soars above a cacophonous squall of synths on “Incomplete Kisses.” Sampha had long established himself through collaborations with contemporary pop pillars like Drake, Solange, and Kanye West, but he makes his most enduring statement on Process by plunging into the bleakest depths of his mind and finding the beauty underneath. — B.K.
8. Migos, Culture
Coming into 2017, it was obvious that the Migos could make and deliver hits, but what the trio really lacked in its collective arsenal on the way to mainstream dominance was consistency. Luckily, Culture checked that box for them, paving the way for the Year of Migos that was to follow — wherein one, two or all three of them came to dominate the Hot 100 alongside the likes of Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, DJ Khaled and others. The first half, anchored by “Bad & Boujee,” “T-Shirt” (which has arguably the greatest music video of all time) and the Gucci Mane-featuring “Slippery,” is a nearly flawless balance of impossibly catchy hooks and engaging, memorable verses, with production that accents each MC’s platform equally. But that’s hardly to say the second half is weak at all; Zaytoven’s piano intro on “Big on Big,” the woozy hook on “What The Price,” the foreboding intro of “Deadz” and the bounce of “All Ass” are all fantastic. Culture‘s greatest achievement is simply turning Migos into a formidable, three-headed monster with distinct and beloved personalities rather than just “Quavo and the other two dudes.” The world is better off for it. — D.R.
7. Calvin Harris, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1
“Never let these n—as ride your wave,” Quavo cautioned on a Drake hook in March. Three months later, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 dropped as Calvin Harris’ blissful LP-length repudiation of that mentality, in which he invited all his most famous friends over to share the same electro-funk nostalgia trip to a pop era that may have only occurred in their collective subconscious. The effect of the ten-track set is like attending one of those swank ’70s Hollywood house parties from retro pseudo-noirs, too glamorous, star-studded and debaucherous to seem possible in real life. Holy shit, is that Snoop Dogg mixing screwdrivers at the bar? Frank Ocean, since when does he show up to these kinds of shindigs? And I could’ve sworn that was Ariana Grande we just passed in line for the bathroom. Man, we gotta come to Calvin’s place more often. — A.U.
6. Taylor Swift, Reputation
If lead singles were always accurate indicators of the album, then Taylor Swift’s Reputation should have been an exhausting record of cartoonish revenge-pop. But despite some light club-thumping outside of “Look What You Made Me Do,” the first taste from Swift’s sixth album, her dance-floor fury is mellowed by moments where Swift — and core producers Shellback, Jack Antonoff and Max Martin — plays it surprisingly cool. “Is it chill that you’re in my head?” she asks on “Delicate,” downplaying her anxieties until she releases them in controlled bursts on the bridge. “Only bought this dress so you could take it off,” she coos on the sparse and breathy “Dress,” as if casual seduction were always a part of her repertoire.
Swift still favors bombast, though: “Getaway Car” echoes the Bleachers-like melodrama of “Out of the Woods,” but this time, fittingly, it’s Swift at the wheel. “Put the money in the bag and I stole the keys/ That was the last time you ever saw me,” she sings, before peeling out. Reputation has its fair share of New Taylor, but there are enough instances of self-awareness, vulnerability, and genuine feeling hiding beneath any too-cool exterior to confirm that the Old Taylor is alive and well after all. — C.W.
5. Khalid, American Teen
Sure, the GPS-directed slow jam “Location” was an inventive and enjoyable surprise hit, but no one expected Texas teen Khalid to drop an instant classic in 2017 – debut albums aren’t supposed to be this fully realized, and lyrics from 8Teens who still live with their parents aren’t typically this smart. But American Teen is the mélange of ’60s soul, ’80s synth-pop and 2010s alt-R&B that America never knew it needed, and Khalid’s laconic delivery — like Frank Ocean and Bob Dylan before him — is the sign of a preternatural talent: Passionate but world-weary, lost but strangely self-assured, naïve but wise. Let’s hope the future’s foundation is in American teens like this. — J. Lynch
4. JAY-Z, 4:44
The self-proclaimed Michael Jordan of rap proved his jump shot was still automatic when he released his 13th solo album 4:44 in June. After being sacked by the media for his infidelity toward his superstar wife Beyoncè, JAY-Z eschewed his legendary bravado and mustered up the courage to voice his failures as a husband and father to the masses. “Kill JAY-Z” enabled the revered MC to shatter his pretentious ego, while the title track helped him sweep away the skeletons that haunted his much-publicized marriage. When Hov wasn’t roughing himself up, he saved a couple punches for his foes on “Bam,” and schooled hip-hop rookies on the do’s and don’t’s of the culture on “Moonlight” (“Y’all n—as still signin’ deals?”) His newly crowned opus was rewarded with eight Grammy nominations last month including his first for album of the year, proving that the hip-hop G.O.A.T. is still a title contender. — C.L.
3. Lorde, Melodrama
There’s a moment on “The Louvre,” an early highlight of Lorde’s sophomore effort, where the bottom practically drops out of the song post-chorus, retreating to a hyper-quiet stream of synths that slowly builds with mounting blasts of bass like far-off thunder. Of course, this immediately follows a lyric in which Lorde declares that she’ll “make ‘em all dance” to what she’s broadcasting, a line that might normally signal a dizzying swirl of synth melodies or electronic drops to come, aimed at the back of a festival crowd or radio airwaves.
But Lorde is already an artist to fly in the face of convention. Melodrama, like 2013’s Pure Heroine before it, has no interest in joining the top 40 rat race; Lorde’s perfectly content with making it come to her vision of uncomfortably diaristic art pop, even if mainstream radio ends up turning up its nose. By now you’ve heard the story of Max Martin calling “Green Light” “incorrect songwriting,” but, much like that and “Louvre,” Melodrama is full of transcendent little moments and decisions that run-of-the-mill songwriters wouldn’t dream of making. Good thing, because we don’t need a Lorde who changes for or with her peers. Maybe she’s a liability, but she’s our liability, and she’ll never be too much for us. — K.R.
2. SZA, Ctrl
When it comes to blurting out her own truths, breakout R&B star and TDE signee SZA has everything but control — and that’s what makes her knockout debut the year’s most unashamedly relatable album. She fluctuates between songs rich in self-doubt (“I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth,” she sings on “Drew Barrymore”), and affirmations of a woman’s worth (asserting “Pussy is so undefeated, let’s amen to that” on “Doves In The Wind,” and bringing her world-conquering rapper labelmate to nod along in agreement). All the while, she chronicles her craving for love from herself and from others, as she questions, “Am I doing enough? Feel like I’m wasting my time” on “Prom,” and finds herself as falling into sidepiece behavior on “The Weekend.”
By closing track “20 Something,” she’s still not there yet: “Ain’t got nothin’, runnin’ from love… Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me.” But in highlighting her own insecurities and revealing her innermost thoughts, SZA found at least one kind of love, in the form of obsessive fandom and rapturous acclaim (her five Grammy nods make her the most-nominated female artist this year). In many ways, SZA comes across no different than any other post-teen who is trying to figure their own shit out, but she does so with the raw realness and admirable humor of a friend who says what you would only think, and who would never judge you at your worst — likely because she’s been there herself. Ctrl not only allowed SZA to embrace her faults, flaws and fierce spirit but also encouraged countless others to celebrate their own in solidarity. — L.H.
1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Less than 24 hours after DAMN.’s early April release, Kendrick stans concocted a resurrected Christ conspiracy theory about the album from the MacGyver-like materials of a Sounwave tweet, the album artwork, a Spotify photo, and DAMN.’s opening skit. This Reddit gospel foretold of a second project, possibly titled NATION (get it?), that would feature blue artwork (the Crips!) and drop Easter Sunday (“and on the third day, Kendrick Duckworth was raised”). It was highly representative of how forum culture super-processes pop culture (to say nothing of complex geopolitical situations). It was also nonsense.
At this moment in American history, we want to believe and trust in someone, especially someone who seems to apprehend the world on a different level. It’s unsurprising that this particular theory cast Kendrick Lamar as Jesus Christ — he’s currently starring in rap’s Greatest Story Ever Told, about the Compton MC who glimpsed ’Pac and Dre as a child and then grew up to be one of the best to ever do it. Like sports junkies, rap fans obsessively track wins and losses in the competitive quantifying of classic runs and G.O.A.T. rankings; since Kendrick began his work in earnest, with 2011’s Section.80, he hasn’t slipped in the standings.
And it is so satisfying to watch him exercise his power. Like when he tells punk-ass Geraldo Rivera “Fuck your life,” before launching into one of the most blistering verses of the year, on Mike WiLL Made-It’s spastically produced “DNA.” Or when he lands the very rare Bono guest verse for “XXX.,” a song about militarized police, Donald Trump, and the rigged deck that is America. Or when he shackles himself to a repetitive writing style on the claustrophobic “FEAR.” only to find greater emotional depth within those self-imposed constraints. Or when he unfolds the prelude to his autobiography, via the fateful intersection of the lives of his future boss and his soon-to-be father on “DUCKWORTH.”
Look, this man really raps “The shock value of my success put bolts in me.” It feels like luck to be alive while he’s doing this, even when American life feels like the result of bad luck — or, more accurately, karma. “Is America honest or do we bask in sin?” he asks late on the album. We all know the answer to that. But we also know that it is the unimpeachable truth that Kendrick Lamar recorded the greatest album of 2017. Now pass the gin. — R.S.