The 50 Best Albums of 2017

In a year of upheaval and distraction, these were the artists we needed to hear.

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The 50 Best Albums of 2017

By anyone’s account, 2017 has been an exhausting year—a stretch of time that, thanks to unending upheaval and the barrage of often bad news, has felt about three times as long as normal. The effects of that are bleeding into every aspect of our lives, including our interest in pop culture. So much has been thrown at us over the past 12 months that it’s harder than ever for music fans to point to one artist or album that stands above all others or dominates the discourse. Even all the chatter and buzz that accompanied big-ticket releases like Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Jay Z’s 4:44 sparked and disappeared with the intensity of a meteor burning up in the atmosphere.

That was certainly reflected in the ballots our music writers submitted for this year’s list of the 50 Best Albums. After all the votes were counted, we took a step back and realized how our listening habits had dovetailed with the social conversations happening around us. It’s a list dominated by an array of female voices, from the agit-punk of Sheer Mag and Melkbelly to the R&B visions of SZA and the late Sharon Jones, to the wonderfully unclassifiable sounds of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Nai Palm. And some of the strongest statements this year came from people of color—not just stars like Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike, but newcomers like British crooner Sampha and Jasmyn Burke of Weaves—with frankness and intimacy to expose the strains being felt by the people in their communities. At a time when we may feel worn down by the reactionary reversal of social and cultural progress, when we wince at every news alert that blinks on to our smartphone screens, these are the artists we need to hear, the ones who urge us to keep moving forward and inspire our minds and bodies with the simple art of a song.

50. JD McPherson: Undivided Heart & Soul
On his third album, JD McPherson leans harder on the first syllable of “rockabilly.” The retro-sounding tracks, most of which feature prominent walking-bass lines courtesy of Jimmy Sutton, are among the highlights. Single “Lucky Penny” (which doesn’t hide its Dan Auerbach influence), jittery “Bloodhound Rock” and “Under the Spell of the City Lights” (featuring another notable co-writer, Aaron Lee Tasjan) all harken back to retro rocking songs in both McPherson’s own catalogue and American music as a whole. While Undivided Heart & Soul explores both the past and the future of roots music, McPherson shines brightest when he blends both influences to stay rooted in the present. —Hilary Saunders

49. Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer: Not Dark Yet
Shelby Lynne and her younger sister, Allison Moorer, have released a slew of solo records between them since the late 1980s, but Not Dark Yet marks their first joint effort. In one sense, it’s not surprising the siblings didn’t collaborate sooner: DNA aside, they’re not too similar. Boasting a resume that includes a duet with Tony Joe White and a set of Dusty Springfield covers, the more unconventional and eclectic Lynne takes a scruffier, funkier approach than her sister. At first listen, Moorer’s country-pop blend seems less distinctive, but her best efforts pack a serious emotional punch. Featuring nine covers and one devastating original, this lovely LP spotlights their tangy harmonies, with Lynne and Moorer evoking ancient traditions of family music-making. —Jon Young

48. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Soul of a Woman
Though Soul of a Woman was never intended to be a posthumous release for the mighty Sharon Jones, it stands as both a fitting epilogue for an unlikely career and a comprehensive farewell to a multifaceted star who burned unbelievably bright. Courageously recorded with her beloved Dap-Kings between treatments for the pancreatic cancer she succumbed to last year, the album offers up a piece of everything that made Jones a powerhouse to the very end. The album’s first side represents her carnivorous live performances—the stomping, sweating, unrelenting force of the stage presence that often got her called the “female James Brown.” The second side slows things down, exploring Jones’s ability to grind out pure emotion. —Madison Desler

Read: The Transformative Sharon Jones

47. Julien Baker: Turn Out the Lights
Julien Baker’s debut album, 2015’s Sprained Ankle, was a bolt of lightning from out of nowhere, zapped down from heaven directly into a bottle bobbing in a vast and lonely ocean. Turn Out the Lights snuck up on no one. That’s a tricky place to be, but the Memphis singer-songwriter handled it with grace, never overreaching. Intimacy wasn’t sacrificed to make way for chilly distance or flamboyance. Instead, it was replaced by a brighter, more muscular beauty. This is most evident on the album’s first single, “Appointments,” which finds Baker unfurling a tale of sadness and hope atop guitars that sparkle and pulse like a dramatic post-rock band, not an indie-folk artist. —Ben Salmon

46. Weaves: Wide Open
For their second album, Toronto art-rockers Weaves tightened up the formula of their debut, adding pop-informed melodies to their fuzzy guitars and barbed observations. The jangly perfection of “Walkaway” and acoustic inoffensiveness of “Grass” beautifully signal this new direction, while the T. Rex-infused, oddball glam of “Slicked”—imbued with a heavy dose of bubblegum-snapping attitude from vocalist and songwriter Jasmyn Burke—polishes up the best moments from their previous effort. Taking a spiritual cue from the socially-conscious but introspective approach of Bruce Springsteen, Burke and company have plenty of vitriol to counter the step or two toward the mainstream. “We are living in a time where misery is just a common circumstance,” she sings on “Scream,” a fiery collaboration with Tanya Tagaq that takes on everything from body-image to reproductive rights—the stick beat and freak-out grunts reminding us that Weaves can still get wonderfully weird. —Madison Desler

45. Wand: Plum
It’s hard to believe that the band who came flailing headlong out of the gate with Golem just two short years ago is the same band behind Plum, one of the most thoughtfully dynamic albums to come out in 2017. The creative arch of the Los Angeles band is rooted in the grime-y sonic sludge of the Ty Segall/Meatbodies/Mikal Cronin set. It would have been fine to have regarded Wand as yet another good band living under the punk-y parasol of the neo-psych-garage revolution. But Plum has separated them completely from the fray. Plum runs like a playlist of rock ‘n’ roll offshoots, with experimentations in Led Zep riffage and Spoon-like piano-rock only the tip of the iceberg. —Ryan J. Prado

44. Sallie Ford: Soul Sick
Portland’s Sallie Ford has continued her post-Sound Outside evolution, which began on 2014’s Slap Back, with an album of fiery garage rock that leans harder into the wit and attitude that has made the singer a perpetual festival favorite. Soul Sick is a thrilling assemblage of disparate styles, from the growling attitude and casual f-bomb on “Get Out” to the sweet, malt shop-appropriate crooning of “Unraveling.” Ford’s voice has always projected a startling power, but Soul Sick feels like a breakthrough on the composition side of the spectrum, creating a web of jangly garage guitars and soulful organ accompaniment that suit Ford’s growl better than any of her backing bands to date. Her cat eye glasses have never been worn with more confidence or mastery than they are right now —Jim Vorel

43. David Bazan: Care
Throughout the synth-soaked invitational of Care, David Bazan continues to masterfully represent and wrestle with his Walt Whitman-esque “I contain multitudes” creative arc. Between the breath-close vocal performances and a sparse sonic palette of uncluttered keyboards and minimalist drum loops, fans of Bazan’s other bands (Pedro the Lion, Headphones) and his solo work will find continuing strands of familiarity carrying through—most notably from his equally intimate solo releases from last year (Blanco and the holiday compilation Dark Sacred Night) and the electronic pulse of his 2005 Headphones album. While those artistic echoes pop up throughout Care, the album showcases its individual genius through the bitingly fresh nuances found in Bazan’s instrumental, melodic and lyrical approaches. —Will Hodge

42. Molly Burch: Please Be Mine
The Austin-based Molly Burch is a force to be reckoned with, albeit a subtle one. Her debut LP, Please Be Mine, was released in February and is not only one of the year’s best albums by a newcomer, but one of the best period. The record is heartfelt, intricate and unconditionally romantic. As a trained jazz singer, Burch’s vintage vocal stylings truly shine throughout the ten songs, particularly on the standout “Fool” and the title track, “Please Be Mine.” Burch’s songwriting and voice is wholly complemented by guitarist Dailey Toliver’s delicate instrumentation, creating a thoroughly-nuanced album perfect for these telling times when all we really need is a bit of love. —Annie Black

41. Omni: Multi-Task
Multi-Task couldn’t be a more perfect name for Omni’s sophomore LP and follow-up to 2016 debut Deluxe. It’s the musical and lyrical equivalent of everything happening at once. With newly sharp production and even jerkier guitars than before, guitarist (and former Deerhunter member) Frankie Broyles, bassist/vocalist Philip Frobos and drummer Doug Bleichner create hectic but contained collages of young, restless, lonely, and broke twentysomethings overextending their way through life. Of special note is how much anxiety Omni can impart with so few elements. “Date Night,” which chronicles the worries over an expensive romantic encounter, uses one guitar, bass, and a drum kit to successfully convey his mental state. “Tuxedo Blues” gets by on a pounding drum line and the album’s shrillest guitar work, Frobos’s bass again taking a backseat as he recounts a fairly eventful and stressful evening. —Max Freedman

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