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#20. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile to the Surface

Andy Hull’s band has gone through some crazy musical swings. When Manchester Orechestra got rolling in the early-00’s, they were darlings, selling out dimly lit concert halls with Conor Oberst-levels of indie swagger. Then they went loud and nu-grunge with their next two albums. On this album, though, it seems Hull has finally found the happy medium between too big and not big enough. The songs here are grandiose without being cacophonous, which is a blessing. Unlike most other Manchester Orchestra albums, there are no singular smash hits lurking here. There’s nothing as instantly engrossing as “Shake it Off”, “Simple Math”, or “I Can Feel a Hot One”. However, it arguably is the best release to appreciate as an entire album. This album carries the torch of ’90s rock like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, able to float between grunge and orchestral and acoustic seamlessly. After nearly fifteen years, Andy Hull has solidly found his groove.

#19. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural

Priests, the band, is unhappy with you. They’re pissed off at you, imperialism, sales pitches, supermodels, cigarettes, the mere concept of “deserving” something, and so much more. Nobody is safe from their anger, and for us, we can be thankful for that. Nothing Feels Natural is an album sneering at modern America. And though it may be tempting to relate this content specifically to President Agent Orange’s rise to power, it’s worth noting that the themes being discussed here go back for decades. For Priests, this issues aren’t new. They didn’t start January 20th, 2017. On “Jj”, Priests talk about the overwhelming power of advertising and marketing in the modern world: “I thought I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds”. The whole album is unsettled and chaotic, meant to challenge the listener, both fans and enemies alike.

#18. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3

In continuing with the “angry protest album” theme, Run the Jewels made the decision to leak their album slightly early just after Trump’s election last year as a gift to the fans. And what a gift it was! Killer Mike and El-P capture the rage of the moment in an album that was written even before the election. This album is a manifesto for the resistance. The whole album plays like the soundtrack to the proletariat revolution. The duo isn’t exactly coy about their message. On the album’s closer, “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”, they are openly calling for a bloody revolution to fix the system. And underneath all the anger and rage exploding through their lyrics lies some of RTJ’s best production and beats to date; it’s not as bombastic and wild as RTJ2’s sounds, but is instead plodding and purposeful — sampling the sounds of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speeches and James Brown-style funk from the 70s. It sounds familiar, but also new, unhinged, and a tad scary — certainly a purposeful blend to speak to the themes of the album and today’s tumultuous times.

#17. Syd, Fin

Last year, Frank Ocean delivered his sophomore album (much to my delight) and it was an astounding study of black queerness in the R&B/hip-hop world. This year, Syd (also a former member of Odd Future) stepped up to the plate with an outstanding R&B debut album that praises and lifts up her queerness to the forefront — something that stands out simply by nature of the heterocentric and mostly male-dominated nature of the hip-hop and R&B landscape. It’s hard not to draw a comparison to Frank Ocean here, not just because of the Odd Future connection, but because the album is neo-soul, dreamy, and sensual. But Syd takes the framework of more traditional R&B tropes and adds in a twist of flair to deliver something special. For an LGBTQ+ person to make it in the R&B world, they have to take risks. The production certainly does that here, and it works. The sounds playing in the background here are subtle and could easily be the soundtrack to 2050: A Space Odyssey. In a year with so many angry protest albums, perhaps the most profound thing Syd does is to show that being proud and reveling in her sexuality is one of the most powerful form of protests possible today.

#16. The xx, I See You

Up until this point, The xx have played in the minimalist playground that brought them world recognition way back in 2009. Their most popular song still to this date is “Intro”, the first song on their album that features no lyrics at all and instead just exists as a slowly building sparse soundscape. Their sophomore album felt like more of the same. But here, with I See You, the group leans more into the build and the bombast. Granted, this is still no stadium anthem album, but it’s a noted step forward in the evolution of the band. For all their changes at growth, the auteur-like calling cards of the band are here. There’s still the seemingly confidential back-and-forth between Sim & Madley-Croft. There’s still the sparse backing basslines. But the empty space that existed in their sound before has been filled with brass sections and guitar riffs and crooning. And despite their slight lean into the poppy EDM-style production dominating the airwaves right now, the lyrics make it very clear that this isn’t about partying it up and forgetting your fears. “I Dare You” wears the skin of a love song while grappling mostly with self-inflicted insecurities and an inability to be vulnerable. In my favorite song of the album, “Say Something Loving”, the sonic arrangement and feeling of the song starts to dip into the pop music “seize this moment” trope before swinging back into a thoughtful pondering of alienation, fleeting highs, and fear. Really, the whole album tricks you into thinking it’s about something it’s not, and that’s a good thing. Mainstream albums that catch you by surprise and invite repeat listens to peel back the layers are few and far between.

#15. Thundercat, Drunk

This is probably the only album on this list to make me laugh out loud while listening, close my eyes and jam along, and also sit and look inward. On the first song of the album, Thundercat sings about how weird he feels while brushing his teeth, combing his hair, and masturbating (sprinkled with a cry of “Jesus, take the wheel”). In fact, Drunk is full of juvenile moments like fart noises, neckbeard rants, and meme-worthy references. He sings to his cat. He sings about drug trips. He makes Dragonball Z references while commenting on the police state. Despite this lean into the low brow, the album’s incredible musical arrangements and enlightened commentary elevate it to a different level. This is not Bloodhound Gang-style teenage humor, this is teenage dick jokes wearing a monocle and top hat.

#14. LCD Soundsystem, american dream

Back in 2011, I remember being so heartbroken I couldn’t make LCD Soundsystem’s farewell shows at Madison Square Garden. This is a band that soundtracked my entire college experience, and I had closed the door on that chapter of my life. When James Murphy announced a comeback album, I was conflicted. Part of me wanted more of that college brand indie feel back, but the other part of me hoped the music would grow and evolve in the 6 years just like I had. Gone are the dirty dive bar beats and high pitched squeals of adolescence hipsterism. On this album, LCD Soundsystem puts together an arrangement of songs about looking back at the past and wearing rose-tinted glasses, while being completely self aware of that fact. Whereas the first three albums of the band might’ve taken place during a bacchanal night of revelry, this one takes place the morning after. It contemplates what being “hip” even means. It celebrates and expresses condolences over the death of our heroes and the American Dream. What James Murphy has done is bold… it takes pot shots at his previous perspectives, admitting some of it was low hanging fruit. And in the process, he manages to prove this “comeback” album is more than just a money grab. He’s got decades more of time-appropriate content to deliver through this vehicle, and I’m in for the ride.

#13. Feist, Pleasure

It’s a shame Leslie Feist never gained fame for anything more than “that counting song from the Apple commercial”, because she’s a stellar songwriter. That’s on excellent display on her fifth album, Pleasure. She doesn’t concern herself with the bombast and overproduced trends many mid-2000s artists have found themselves embracing. Instead, she peels back the production a bit. The guitar is garage, the the basslines are lo-fi, and her voice crackles and pops with each line. This is, more than anything, an album showing self-restraint. Feist flirts with grandiose rock and roll from time to time, but always retreats from the edge, happy to live in the quiet space and subtle moments. It’s an album that feints at the big moments, but never feels like blue balls. Pleasure is a showcase of tender songwriting from an artist that could’ve been content just producing more Apple commercial music, but instead wants everyone to know she’s here for the long haul.

#12. SZA, Ctrl

On the opening track of the album, the themes are perfectly clear. A recording from SZA’s mother vulnerably explains that “my greatest fear [is] if I lost control or did not have control, things would just…be fatal”. A downtempo guitar riff slowly lifts into SZA’s confident vocals, claiming her womanhood and showing exactly why she’s in control. She knows what she wants and spends a good portion of the album giving ex-lovers the dragging they deserve. But this isn’t a Taylor Swift record, and SZA is so much more than failed relationships. It’s about owning her sexuality while lamenting the lack of intimate personal connections in her life. The album is remorseful but not apologetic: for SZA, mistakes are simply learning opportunities and she wouldn’t change the past. Earlier in the countdown, I compared Syd to Frank Ocean. But outside of the proud statement of queerness and obvious career connections, Ctrl feels more like the heir-apparent to the throne left vacant by last year’s Blond. The production embraces the sparse instrumentation and lets SZA’s voice take center stage. It takes an absurd level of confidence to release such a minimalist album as your debut and let your vocals take over, but SZA not only accomplishes it, but nails it.

#11. Sampha, Process

When I first heard “Blood on Me”, I was fascinated. Sampha’s heavy breaths and raw emotion just felt so different from anything else on the market right now. The production called back Radiohead’s dualistic play between acoustic and electronic, just with a better singer at the helm. When I finally listened to Process, I was struck by that interplay. The album lives in the interplay between the future and the past, and for good reason. Sampha exists in a moment between times, able to just lay out his complicated and sometimes complex (and hard to understand) thoughts as they come. It is sometimes stream of consciousness and sometimes poetry, but never concerned with producing a hit single. It’s a deeply personal debut album, airing out all of Sampha’s anxiety, remorse, and grief. Plenty of songs feature different sounds and inspirations, but the feel and mood of the album is consistent throughout. After half a decade of anticipation, Sampha launches himself into the scene with a remarkable study on some of the icky dark emotions we are all too happy to ignore.

#10. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory

For years, Vince Staples has lived in the shadow of Kendrick Lamar. That’s not to say he hasn’t been around the block with plenty of features and acclaim. On Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples cements himself as a contender to the throne, and also shows why his collaborators make sense. Vince’s personal brand of nihilism and existential crises permeate the record, even as the lyrical content veers towards dealing with more concrete and tangible elements. On first listen, I sort of dismissed this. It was impressive, but it was sort of easy to pass off as another artist trying to be the new Kanye. On the MULTIPLE future listens I’ve given this album, Vince is more than a pretender, instead wanting to carve his own legacy. He embraces his black heritage and shows pride in it while also taking aim at the state of some niches of hip-hop, lamenting the state of (some parts) of the hip hop union. Vince is not just introspective and thoughtful, but he instead turns those vulnerable emotions into ammunition with which to take aim at the things he perceives to be problematic.

#9. Perfume Genius, No Shape

There is a moment in the first track of this album, “Otherside”, that caught me so by surprise I had to take my headphones off at work and collect myself. As the slow piano ballad plays and Mike Hadreas croons, there’s almost no hint of a build. And then, there’s an explosion. It’s such a joyous tone-setter for the album that I almost feel like a dick for not letting some of you experience it for yourself. No Shape is fucking joyous, infectious, and celebratory. I’ll admit, I’m biased, because seeing a queer artist create something so personal means something special to me (which is why you may notice a certain trend among my list to heavily feature LGBTQ artists). But it also bucks the trend, because so much of my list has focused on downbeat, introspective ruminations on anxiety and terror and the state of the world. Maybe that’s why Hadreas’s joy and punch has me so enraptured. Instead of anger and fear, he croons “everything is all right”. Is this escapism? Perhaps. But that warm feeling of love is hard to ignore, and despite my brain warning me not to fall for the happiness and optimism here, I can’t help but run towards it with arms wide open.

#8. Brand New, Science Fiction

It wasn’t until writing this blurb that I realized there are three continual themes in my favorite albums this year: subtlety, restraint, and evolution. Brand New’s forever-awaited final album checks the boxes on all three, but it’s important to have a bit of context. Back in the early and mid 2000s, the emo/alt rock craze was at its fever pitch. The airwaves were ripe with imitators like Taking Back Sunday, Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, Say Anything, and Thrice. But Brand New stood as titans of the genre, always elevating the genre to something more. I’ll admit, I approached this genre with trepidation. Last year, I approached Brand New-contemporaries Modern Baseball with similar caution, but they ended up in the same spot in my countdown. My first real embrace of the genre was discovering Brand New’s albums through a lens of nostalgia in college, rocking out to their songs amidst 3AM late night hazy singalongs. I tagged along to see them live, but never went full fanatical. When my husband let me know their new album was out, I opened it up on Spotify with a bit of a sight and “here we go again”, because those angsty days seem so far behind me now. And then the album took hold, and holy shit… I was left speechless after my first listen. Jesse Lacey pays homage to the band’s roots while also showing they aren’t the same angsty twentysomethings they were in the past. We’ve grown, and so did they. Lacey borrows and steals, then improves. Brand New has never been an album content to be quiet for very long. But here, instead of diving headfirst into screaming like he does on “Sowing Season (Yeah)”, Lacey is content to let a song just stay quiet and brooding without the bombast. It’s a controlled burn instead of an explosion. It’s an album that recognizes its place in history and sends this important, genre-defining band out on a high note. It leaves you wanting more and wondering what else Lacey could’ve had under his sleeve, but in an appropriate manner, Brand New is content to fade out rather than go out in a blaze of glory.

#7. Khalid, American Teen

What does it mean to be an American teen? As much as I hate to let go of it… I honestly have no clue anymore. But Khalid puts it in such pure terms here, it’s hard to ignore: “Maybe the end is near/But I’ve been waiting all year/To get the hell up out of here/And throw away my fears”. Khalid incorporates moments about drunk Uber rides and subtweets, but instead of mocking those moments, he sings about them earnestly. “Let’s do all the stupid shit that young kids do” is not just a line in album standout “8TEEN”, but is also a warcry for the album. The dark times, the trouble, the fear… it all melts away in the face of teenage exuberance. Instead, he concerns himself with issues of missed connections and technological obstacles that teens today face. The most earnest love song on the album, “Location”, sees Khalid begging his lover to drop a pin on a map so he can get to where she is using an app. There are plenty of technological cautionary tales in today’s art and media. Perhaps Khalid has the right perspective, in that it’s just another change in communication, and the definition of what it means to be an “American Teen” has changed to something more.

#6. Sylvan Esso, What Now

I’m always a fan of a good meta-joke, and Sylvan Esso manage to produce one of my favorites here. On their biting blast of modern pop, “Radio”, they bite the modern pop music industry hand that feeds, scathing: “Slave to the radio, slave to the radio / Slave to the radio, Three point three oh”. The line is meant to chastize the market-tested “best time” for a song to run (following up with “Don’t you look good sucking American dick?”) but the track itself runs exactly three minutes and thirty seconds. Amelia Meath’s biting irony complements Nick Sanborn’s chameleon-like production all over the album. The production is relaxed and easygoing, but Meath’s lyrics underscore that pop-adjacent sound with words of anxiety and nervous feet shuffling. When they’re heartfelt and sweet, they’re still a bit darker than the average bear. “Die Young” is a sweet love song, except Meath laments how she was going to kill herself early, but thanks to a newfound love, she has to adjust her plans to accommodate a second person. No album this year was as tongue-in-cheek and rapturously bleak. This Durham native duo has set their mark on the electropop landscape, and we’re all the better for it.

#5. St. Vincent, Masseduction

You’d be forgiven for mistaking Masseduction for a pop album. It wraps itself in mainstream pop glitter, but like most other pop albums on this list, there’s something so much more beneath the surface. It has always been hard to separate pop music from pop music with a message, but St. Vincent has properly done it. Despite the expansive album, a couple themes present themselves constantly. The most obvious one is grappling with the prescription drug epidemic in the country. There’s no subtlety here on “Pills” as she hammers the point home: “Pills to wake/Pills to sleep/Pills, pills, pills every day of the week/Pills to walk/Pills to think/Pills, pills, pills for the family” she drones in a sing-song manner over distorted guitar. The theme pops back up later on “Young Lover”, where she tells her story of a lover who was found in a bathtub, OD’d on pills. But it’s not just a bland commentary on an obvious low hanging fruit… instead, she makes it personal. Someone didn’t just die to pills… she lost “the only motherfucker in the city” she really loved. It’s deceptively simple to craft an album that rails against modern ills, and deceptively difficult to craft an album that makes those easy targets personal. Here, St. Vincent manages to pull off that feat.

#4. N.E.R.D., No_One Ever Really Dies

“The truth will set you free, but first it’ll piss you off.” The mantra of N.E.R.D.’s new album shows their protest roots from the outset. Then they pass the mic to Rihanna, Gucci Mane, Future, Kendrick, Andre 3000, MIA, and even fucking Ed Sheeran. The videos feature footage of riots and confederate statues and policy brutality. After seven years, Pharrell is tired of writing songs about being happy, so he brings N.E.R.D. back to get angry as hell. And it’s URGENT. “Don’t Don’t Do It” was inspired by the shooting of Keith Scott in North Carolina: “They tell you pull over/Tell you get out the car/Don’t do it, don’t don’t do it” the song pleads. Seemingly funky arrangements abruptly transition into darker, angrier beats (and in some cases, a searing feature from Kendrick Lamar). Pharrell lays his best traps here. You’ll be off the couch dancing your ass off well before you tune into the lyrics and realize those funky basslines are scoring the soundtrack of police brutality. “Hate! Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, my friends/Hate! I tried to tell y’all about this dude” he yells (referencing Trump). Nobody is safe from Pharrell’s frustrations, and it works.

#3. Aldous Harding, Party

Spoiler alert: this is not a party. At least, not in your traditional sense. Aldous Harding paints the picture of a party that isn’t jovial, and is instead sad. It’s not quite a pity party, but it’s close. “Imagining My Man” is a haunting ballad pointing out the scary thoughts that come along with being madly in love: “You have this dream, apparently I’m not done/I leave and it’s dreadful/If you get there/Be honest, respectful”. On “Horizon”, a duet between Harding and Perfume Genius, Harding weeps over the piano as she laments the hard reality of ending a relationship. Her “mouth is wet” as she presents two options to her lover: the princess, or the horizon. It’s an astoundingly powerful meditation on doing what’s best for you versus doing what’s better for the relationship. There’s some humor to be found in “What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming”, where Aldous thinks she sees an angel while she’s high and flirts with clever wordplay. And yet, there’s a deep sadness beneath it all, grappling with the fragility of reality and the dangers of drug addiction. It’s hard not to find yourself crushed by tears with this album. And yet, it finds a sacred place that few albums find where you are crying and sobbing and yet having your own sort of party.

#2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

It feels pretentious to even pretend like I can add something to the commentary on this album. Kendrick Lamar is a fucking storyteller who knows how to masterfully pull punches and trip you up when you think you’re comfortable. Most of the country heard “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” this year when they were all over the airwaves. But Kendrick Lamar isn’t just content to rap as Kendrick Lamar. On “FEAR.” he embodies his mother, screaming at Kendrick to stay on the straight and narrow. On “DNA.”, he flip flops perspective nonstop, even leading to him grabbing Don Cheadle in the video to argue the other perspective that he’s arguing with himself. And when the king of the rap throne is on his game, he’s still not scared to show vulnerability and bring bits of his personal life into it. On “DUCKWORTH.”, Kendrick raps from the perspective of growing up without a father and how much it impacted his life. The album isn’t single-minded, either. On “ELEMENT.” Kendrick wears the scars of battle: “Last LP I tried to lift the black artists/But it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.” Ever since Good Kid, M.A.A.D City dropped in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has approached each new album with a blank slate. He’s an artist not only evolving, but continuing to wrap his vulnerabilities and strengths together to create something stammeringly compelling. DAMN. is Kendrick shattering the formula yet again, looking back and taking a classicist approach to hip-hop as a way to tell the story his (and hip hop’s) journey to the present, pondering on what happens next.

#1. Lorde, Melodrama

This blurb works better as a walkthrough of the album. 

When David Bowie passed away, one of the most surprising bits of information to come out of his death was that Bowie viewed relative newcomer Lorde as the “future of music”. So when she performed his tribute show at the Brits, it was sort of an eye-opener. (Aside: I’m still brought to tears by this tribute.) But when you view Bowie’s journey as a pop maverick and compare it to how the young New Zealander is navigating pop music, it makes total sense. After a minimalist introduction with Pure Heroine, Lorde delivered a stellar sophomoric album this year with Melodrama. I loved Lorde’s first album, and even I will admit, when I heard “Green Light”, I felt nervous. Was Lorde really going the route of so many pop artists, singing about vapid nights and empty hookups? Luckily, the full album arrived, and in retrospect, it made “Green Light” the perfect introduction to the album. It was the ultimate happysad dance song with its propped up production and generic breakup lyrics. When the album is taken into context, it becomes a mantra about cyclical failure and hope in relationships. And it’s also the worst song on the record, despite finding power in simplicity.

The album powers on. “Sober” begins with this frantic hyperventilation: “Night, midnight, lose my mind”. It is confused and uncertain. Lorde sings about the weekend full of pills and drugs and booze. The song praises the high, but contemplates the low: “But what will we do when we’re sober?” By the time she’s contemplating it again, she’s back to sucking on a lime and taking shots again. The story moves on from the broken relationship of “Green Light” and moves right on to the rebound phase. It’s triumphant! Horns and brass swell in the background. Ostensibly, this is a happy moment. And when “Homemade Dynamite” kicks in, the fragile relationship has entered its hoodies-and-hangovers phase. They’re lying to each other. Lorde’s voice swings from rough and raw to heavenly and angelic; the ups and downs of a new relationship. She contemplates the addiction and the negative repercussions.

“The Louvre” is the honeymoon phase. Ignoring the bad. Drinking up each other’s essence. Hearts beat fast. The relationship is a rush. It’s easy to idealize, even tongue-in-cheek: “We’re the greatest/They’ll hang us in the Louvre/Down the back/But who cares? Still the Louvre”. Lorde begins to grapple that the rush of the moment might be ignoring her flaws and insecurities. When the piano ballad “Liability” hits, her insecurities are on full display with poetry. She’s poisonous to others. She retreats into herself: “Guess I’ll go home/Into the arms of the girl that I love/the only love I haven’t screwed up”. Lorde is only lovable to herself. The piano twinges, “She’s a little much for me/She’s a liability”. She’s breaking. It’s over.

“Hard Feelings/Loveless” deals with the raw emotions following the split and her heartbreak. Lorde blames her generation as loveless, fucking with her lover’s head. Then she gets dramatic. The lights are on after the party. She lives in that moment of the gross fluorescent lights of the party, cleaning up the mess of the heartbreak. She gets angry. On “Writer in the Dark”, she sings: “Break the news, you’re walking out/To be a good man for someone else/Sorry I was never good like you”. Vengeance surfaces. She’s a writer, and she’s going to make him dread crossing her. But she’s still replaying the good moments in her head on “Supercut”, ignoring the bad, loving the good. The reprise of “Liability” features the same themes, but instead of lashing out, she’s looking inward. Something is wrong with her, not him. It’s poignant.

Finally, the album ends on “Perfect Places”. The song paints the picture of a party. Puking in the darkness, full of graceless displays. Dancing makes it all better. There are sounds of a gun cocking… one more negative moment, and she’ll blow her “brains out to the radio”. But in that moment, she and the people with her are in a perfect place. She doesn’t wanna be alone. She’s scared. The hurt of the relationship lingers. And then… the music cycles back into “Green Light”. She’s back in the car, partying in a vapid cycle, ignoring her relationship failures and looking for the next one.

If there’s a single most iconic image from an album in 2017, it’s Lorde describing the glory of going out in a drunken car crash. “I get your friend to drive but he can hardly see/We’ll end up painted on the road/Red and chrome, all the broken glass sparkling”. Similar to the rest of the album, Lorde enters a beautiful, tragic cycle of repeating the same behaviors that lead to her own sadness. A car wreck, romanticized.