The Best 20 Albums of 2017

I almost – ALMOST! – forgot about this. I remembered I hadn’t written a thing at about half 6 and have rushed through it, before I get ready to go out and end this year on a high, at a house party with a selection of my favourite people. Special shout out to the albums I thought had potential but didn’t spend enough time with to fully get into like Kelela – Take Me Apart, Paramore – After Laughter, Niall Horan – Flicker, Giggs – Wamp 2 Dem and Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues, and the ones that very narrowly missed out on the cut, like Rex Orange County – Apricot Princess, Kehlani – SweetSexySavage, Miguel – War & Leisure and Drake – More Life. Thank you for reading all my New Music Friday reviews this year, thank you for reading this, thank you for any shares, likes, mentions, thank you for letting me know I’m not just talking into a void – I like an audience that talks back. There’s more to come next year. Have an amazing end to 2017, and even better beginning to 2018. Peace.

This chaotic debut from anti-popstar Rat Boy is over-long but high on cynical rage, snark and mayhem. The easy going vibes of love-I-lost single ‘Laidback’ initially snagged my interest in Rat Boy, and this is a bit of a hashtag LADS choice from me, but the eclectic sounds and observational lyrics remind me of a boy Lily Allen, though I’m not sure that’s what anyone involved in the project was going for.

The weight of expectation, and the spectre of a precociously excellent debut record, meant this album got a much more lukewarm reception than it deserved in hindsight. Over-thought, second-guess A&R is at play but it’s only because Zara is such a star that these songs are disappointing. Out of context of the artist, this is a glossy collection of on-trend pop and a respectable first step onto the international stage.

Their most cohesive, well-realised, record yet – as a quartet, Fifth Harmony leaned harder into R&B and smooth vocals, creating a 10-track capsule collection of premium-grade basic bops. There are no “singles” on this album, but there’s no filler either. I maintain that ‘Bridges’ just needs a dramatic, ballad-y rework and a performance on a primetime TV show to become the join-the-resistance! anthem the world needs.

2017 will go down on record as the year that I finally – finally! – became a Lana fan. The bewitching magic of Lust For Life is how glamorous it makes decay look and feel. The America of this album is ruinous, but glorified in nostalgia for what could have been and hope for what might come. It’s the lushest sounding pipe-dream of the year.

2017 will also go down on record as the year that I finally – finally! – became a Lorde fan. An album almost Jepsen-esque in the way the critical accolades and the commercial success don’t match up, in this case I think the critics were wrong. A solid 8/10 listen, one incredible 10/10 (‘Liability’) highlight, but suffering from the fact this sound has been done before, better, by other artists. Too much Antonoff, not enough Lorde, but still worth a spin every couple of months.

15. HALSEY – hopeless fountain kingdom
The irritating stylised title, that opening monologue and the sheer Halsey-ness of it all had me surprising myself with how much this album affected me on first listen. Hollowing to listen to as a whole, needling to pick apart and repeat favourites (‘Alone’, ‘Eyes Closed’, ‘Walls Could Talk’ are mine), this dark synth-pop dystopia feels far more cinematic and saturated in melodrama than other records might self-proclaim. Can’t not mention ‘Strangers’, featuring Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, a ground-breaker and an absolute tune to boot.

A banner year for Demetria, one where she comfortably found her place in the pop pantheon – serving up frothy, flirtatious pop confections with a thick layer of self-deprecating realism icing and a dollop of R&B on the side. No one asked for her to come through and expose us all with songs like ‘Daddy Issues’ and ‘Crybaby’, or the title track, ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ but she did anyway and I think we’re all grateful. Six albums in, and still only 25-years old, this is her most honest and relatable work yet. That Grammy she was desperate for no longer seems like a ridiculous goal.

DJ Khaled record always sound like mixtapes – like the old-school, assortment cassettes, not the new thing where people release an album they don’t really believe will be successful – and that’s because they essentially are just compilations. Grateful is the mixtape the perfect man makes for you, where every song is sequenced to perfection, uplifts your mood, and makes you feel special. A who’s who of the finest talents in music and a little more party facing than last year’s Major Key, this record never fails to get me going.

Tove Lo is an abrasive bucket of filth and exactly the kind of popstar we need. Blue Lips is another romp through Tove’s most hot-blooded scenes and starkly vulnerable interludes – darker than 2016’s Lady Wood, less chart-oriented than 2015’s Queen Of The Clouds, but a seamless continuation of both. A pop idol for grown ups, there is so much to recognise in Blue Lips and far more to learn from it. A perfect slice of pulsing dance-pop from one of the best pop songwriters out.

Faith is a central theme on Stormzy’s debut – faith in God, yes, but also faith in his own rise to the top, faith in the hope that he is paving the way for others, faith in love and in solidarity and in community. Contemplation is sprinkled through the stompers – Stormzy is at his best when he’s fired up, but no less effective when he pulls it back to let the message rather than his verve shine. The undisputed man of the year, my interest in this record began to wane at the tail end of the year, but ‘4PM In London’, a blistering freestyle dropped outside of the album campaign, has me ready for what’s to come.

Ten tracks, streamlined, all killer – the future of the album as I see it, and not the continued bloated gamification of the streaming system that seems inevitable. Calvin Harris has released 15-track albums since the beginning of his career, but none of those albums were what you would call capital G “good”, merely vessels for one or two very big hits and some padding. The equivalent of getting a shoebox sized Amazon delivery in a crate stuffed with bubblewrap. Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is his best work – a start-to-finish, no skipping, listen with an elite list of collaborators – the first time he’s been more Mark Ronson than David Guetta. One of two definitive “sound of summer” albums released this year.

I listened to this album coming back into London on the train yesterday and bumped it up this list at the last minute from #12 to #9. It’s just a fucking vibe, quite frankly. The easy afrobeat grooves both rev and relax simultaneously, loosening up every muscle for dancing and having a good ass time. From absolute bangers ‘Bouff Daddy’ and ‘Plottin’, to ‘Friendly’ and ‘Closed Doors’ via the more measured ‘Spirit’ and of course the indomitable ‘Did You See’, there are so many standout tracks on Common Sense it sounds almost like a Greatest Hits.

I didn’t speak on this album when it was released, because the legal situation with Kesha is still so dicey and it’s hard to rectify the fact that this record is so great with the idea that Dr. Luke may be profiting off it somehow. I gave up trying to figure out what the situation was around November, and just gave in to the music. Kesha has always – always – been a canny songwriter with an ear for a good hook, but to detractors her musicality was diminished by her outrageous “party girl” persona. The foundation for the type of songs that made it onto Rainbow are there in the dusty records of Kesha’s history – she is such a prolific songwriter that I once downloaded a 119 track long bundle of demos circa her debut album – but you don’t have to be a Kesha scholar to hear the influences she has always mentioned on tracks like ‘Bastards’ or ‘Boots’, and you don’t have to pretend like her first two albums don’t bear songs just like ‘Woman’ or ‘Godzilla’ under a thick veneer of clattering, radio friendly production. Rainbow is not an album where Kesha proved her worth as an artist, because she has always been worthy, but it the album where she did so on her own terms, and under the most demoralising of circumstances. Any woman could have broken, and any artist could have never found their stride again – and no one would have faulted them for it. That Kesha didn’t is testimony to her spirit and a credit to the strength of her talent – hers, and hers alone.

St. Vincent went from indie-darling to gloss-pop in the blink of an eye, and with seemingly no period of readjustment since Masseduction is a flawless set of sharp, sexy, sometimes melancholic pop melodies wrapped in clever production you would never know Jack Antonoff was capable of given the recycled Taylor Swift churn every other artist that worked with him got this year. My first introduction to St. Vincent was her 2014 self-titled, which was more “accessible” than her previous work (a venture further back into her discography left me cold) but still a bit of an oddity I had to be in the mood for. Masseduction demands to be listened to whatever state I’m in.

A late entry, but a great entry. Brockhampton ran an admirable marathon of my attention this year and made a mad dash sprint for the finish with their third and final album of 2017. In truth, any record in the Saturation trilogy could have made this list, but the sheer bigness of III made it the winner for me. I talked at length on how ‘Boogie’ was my song of the year, and the essence of that single stretches across 12 tracks (and 3 interludes) to create an exciting, innovative musical world worth living in. The perfect headphones on/world off record, and truly a body of work that lives up to its title, since everything seems so much more full colour when I’m listening to it.

05. SZA – CTRL
Show me a girl that didn’t find something to relate to on SZA’s Ctrl album and I’ll show you a girl that didn’t actually listen to anything on SZA’s Ctrl album. I have never felt more in my feelings than I have when I listen to ‘Supermodel’ or ‘Love Galore’ or ‘Normal Girl’. The kind of in my feelings I’m not even about to put on the timeline, and you know I like to overshare. The kind where I feel attacked truly and not just in mock horror. It’s just an exquisite record, an excruciatingly honest mediation on love in the time of now, being a late twenty-something woman and the struggle to conquer self-esteem. It’s also supremely inventive R&B that feels like its not just pushing needles, but breaking the meter.

We’ll talk more about the greatest rapper later, but for now let’s focus on the one who is my favourite. This is Tyler’s softest album yet, both sonically – very subdued, sometimes very pretty, always nostalgic and wistful – and also thematically – tackling loneliness, unrequited love, anxiety, confusion and – of course – sexuality. There are still vigorous moments – ‘Who Dat Boy?’ pops off, as does the delighful Deee-lite sampling ‘I Ain’t Got Time!’ – but mostly, and in stark contrast to the cacophony of 2015’s Cherry Bomb, Tyler is restrained and delicate. Gorgeously understated, at times heart-breakingly relatable, this is the most important album by an immensely talented artist. Every purchase and stream of Scum Fuck Flower Boy is a subliminal “suck ur mum” to the 52% No-Maj Prime Minister Theresa May who banned Tyler from the country in 2015 because she’s a racist slug.

The most bittersweet, eviscerating, cathartic record of the year by my favourite new band of the last five. I can’t believe that music so shiny and euphoric can send my mood into a tailspin, and yet so it is with About U. The “U” of the title, is someone we all recognise – someone we fucked it up with, someone who wasn’t compatible with our worst traits, someone who changed us but we got over them anyway… Nestled in-between the heartache and the rebuilding, jewel in the crown, ‘I Know A Place’ – a freedom anthem – is the best argument for “safe spaces” ever made, in a world where even the safe spaces have come under attack in the past 18-months. Sam Smith once argued that gender-neutral pronouns and careful ambiguity make music more palatable for straight audiences, but I disagree and so does this record. About U was made by queer women, for people at every intersection, and that is where it will resonate most, but these songs are universal and you have to be working very hard to close your mind to not connect with it.

When I interviewed Khalid at the beginning of this year (and I promise that’s the last time I’m gonna mention it!) this album was already out and already one of my favourites, though it hadn’t quite reached the world at large yet. As I write now, Khalid has exploded in a big way, winning the Best New Artist VMA, being nominated for a couple of Grammys, and scoring some proper hits (especially here in the UK). It was all written though, an absolute inevitability that Khalid would breakout. His debut album is masterful, wise beyond its years, and positive in a way you can almost believe in, even when every single news story you read crushes your spirit just that little bit more. Soaked in R&B, enlivened with synths, mostly easy-breezy but at times lachrymose, that deep, smooth and remarkably versatile vocal slides through every beat, slicing the teenage experience into easily digestible and extremely fulfilling bites. ‘8TEEN’ has been my standout ever since first listen, but the title track, Kylie Jenner-approved ‘Location’, ‘Saved’, ‘Winter’ and the currently charting ‘Young, Dumb & Broke’ deserve special mentions too. An exceptional debut.

Yeah, this was predictable wasn’t it? But look, you can’t argue with quality, and DAMN. is unarguably the best album of the year, what can I do? It’s furious, it’s precise, it’s intelligent, it’s fastidiously produced, it’s blood and it’s fire and it’s love and it’s ego and I have read so many thinkpieces and roundtables and reviews of this record over the year that I can’t write my own for fear I will just regurgitate someone else’s already (better) written thoughts. It’s the only album I’ve wanted to know inside out, immerse in, understand the craft behind it, the history and the meaning, watch all the videos (Kendrick is the only artist who I have watched every music video for this year)… There is nothing I can say that will convince you to listen to this album if you haven’t already, or that you won’t already have heard elsewhere if you’ve been on board. I wish I had a fresh take, but I don’t. I just know that when you’re dealing with greatness you should accept it into your life and give it the credit due. Kendrick is the greatest rapper alive, but also the most formidable artist of the year. Genuflect.

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