These are the 20 best albums of the year.
Lorde sounded wise beyond her years when she released her debut album at 16, but on Melodrama, released this summer when the New Zealander was 20 years old, she finishes her teenage years elegantly, and fittingly. Melodrama is simultaneously a party and a breakup concept record, as the singer sonically demonstrates that both a rager and a relationship can dissolve as intensely as the force of its initial spark. Lorde’s brooding vocals and aware-yet-angsty lyricism combined with Jack Antonoff’s poptimistic production allows for a rare example of party-anthem pop that still feels intimate, honest and confidential. “She thinks you love the beach, you’re such a damn liar,” she bitterly snarls on “Green Light,” the album’s first single, but then admits in the chorus, “Oh, I wish I could get my things and just let go.”
Melodrama takes its listeners on Lorde’s navigation through heartbreak and nearing the finish line of her teens in various locations and situations. She paints one of pop music’s most romantic pictures of a car crash on “Homemade Dynamite;” is hung on a wall in “The Louvre” (“Down the back, but who cares—still the Louvre ”); questions how utopic a teen party can be on “Perfect Places;” tells a lover they will “rue the day” they kissed a “Writer in the Dark;” and finds herself “swaying alone, stroking her cheek” on “Liability.” Perhaps much of this Grammy-nominated album is embodied in “Supercut,” as Lorde looks back on her “fluorescent” relationship and teenage years (“in your car, the radio up” and “in my head I do everything right,”) but she realizes that it’s a “supercut,” a quick snapshot of all the positive moments that overlook the warning signals, the sleepless nights, the suspicious gut feelings. Lorde is able to look at teenage recklessness and passion from both sides. She is informed enough to maintain a mature, reserved perspective, but unlike her musical equals who are sometimes twice her age, she’s still enduring the rush of youth firsthand. – Natalia Barr
19. Zola Jesus
Zola Jesus divided some fans with her more pop-influenced Taiga in 2014, but the dark Okovi has proven to be a welcome return to form, as well as an achingly existential endeavor. The thematic through-lines—namely, Nika Danilova addressing friends who attempted suicide—give the album an overall somber feeling, but that comes less from dour melancholy than from the impassioned support in her songs. In “Siphon,” that comes in the form of the chanted refrain, “Won’t let you bleed out/ Can’t let you bleed out.” And in “Wiseblood,” the idea of rough patches making you more resilient is expressed in the mantra, “If it doesn’t make you wiser/ Doesn’t make you stronger/ Doesn’t make you live a little bit/ What are you doing?”
Such fraught themes are delivered through trippy arrangements, with Danilova leaning on the industrial and favoring surprising electronica. But these intriguing arrangements come in brief bursts. Okovi as a whole revels in its sparseness. Its silence speaks volumes, more than even Danilova’s solemn vocals, and big, percussive moments are spread out for optimal effect. And only Danilova can combine the sawed strings on “Exhumed,” blippy synths on “Remains” and orchestral instrumental “Half Life” into a cohesive, truly affecting album. – Katherine Springer
Take Me Apart
Delivering on the promise of her critically acclaimed 2015 EP, Hallucinogen, Take Me Apart finds Kelela melding the past and the present to create a futuristic take on sultry R&B. While she calls on a handful of forward-thinking producers, including previous associate Jam City and Björk collaborator Arca, Kelela’s vision is uniquely her own as she takes on the ecstatic highs and devastating lows of romance.
Lead single, “LMK,” is full of rich melodies as she gently explains to a spontaneous fling, “Did you think you’re my ride home, baby?/ ‘Cause my girls are parked behind,” while “Blue Light” revels in a heavily distorted kick drum and buzzing synths. Even when the non-singles flash their pop teeth, there’s still an element of surprise: “Turn to Dust”’s driving pre-chorus is deliriously catchy, while Kelela’s voice is warped into reverberating strands floating around Kelsey Lu’s velvety cello whispers. “Never been so greedy with a lover/ Will you come around/ Before it’s too late?,” she woos over dramatic synth fades and a simple hand-clapped rhythm in “S.O.S.”
What makes Take Me Apart such a compelling listen is Kelela’s direct honesty—respect is not only something she expects, but rather deserves as a human. In a thoughtfully and truthfully written Resident Advisor op-ed, she makes no bones about the struggles that black women face: “Part of being a black woman is that your humanity is stripped from you on a daily basis… It’s wearing your heart on your sleeve, despite the fact that the world treats you like shit. It’s the tradition of disarming, of making people feel vulnerability over everything. Take Me Apart is an ode to all those things.” If 2017 was a reckoning, a boiling-over point, with America’s sexist and racist hierarchy, Kelela is unafraid to place herself on the frontline along with many other brave women. – Edward Dunbar
The Underside of Power
If anyone tells you there’s no good political music anymore, tell them to shut the hell up. Sheer Mag, Downtown Boys and Kendrick Lamar all have you covered on righteous fury, but no one roared the revolution into life in 2017 quite like Algiers. The Atlanta quartet is spearheaded by the preacher-gone-rebel yell of Franklin James Fisher. There is justice, rage and hope all churning inside those vocal cords, and he commands the sound with absolute precision.
And the music is just as moving, shifting from drone to post-punk to gospel. Vengeance is embedded into the sound. The voices of those crushed by predatory landlords and multinational corporations, stomped under the boot of power-mad cops, or sexually victimized by those in power—all of them rise up and possess Algiers. “But I see the light and I see the sea/ Despite the future crashing down and closing over me/ I got power over all my enemies,” Fisher hollers on “Cry of the Martyrs.”
One of the greatest threats to meaningful political change is apathy, the pervasive and damning sentiment that nothing can be changed—that any sign of hope is simply “corny” or “naive.” Even the language once so proudly taken up by previous catalysts can sound alarmist and ridiculous. But you can’t be fooled if you have Algiers screaming in your ear. – Nathan Stevens
16. Perfume Genius
The heartrending vulnerability and desperation found in Mike Hadreas’s early work fades into the rearview in No Shape, his fourth album as Perfume Genius. Whereas 2014’s Too Bright found the Seattle-based singer-songwriter at his most confident and confrontational, pushing back against the lingering reverberations of the physical abuse he endured because of his queerness and subsequent addiction that plagued his youth, No Shape finds him transcending those bleaker elements entirely and charting a new trajectory into something closer to bliss.
This fourth album still contains the tender, introspective moments that defined Hadreas’s earlier work, such as the sublime acoustic guitar ballad “Valley,” which points to effortless happiness as an elusive concept (“How long must we live right/ Before we don’t even have to try?”). But Hadreas juxtaposes gentler tracks with outright jubilance, as found on the lush crescendos and ecstatic surrender of “Slip Away” (“Take my hand/ Take my everything/ If we’ve only got a moment/ Give it to me now.”)
Throughout No Shape, Hadreas expresses wonder at the range of human devotion, from something as seemingly superficial as aesthetic admiration of expressive fashion sense in “Just Like Love” to his profoundly personal surprise at contented companionship in “Alan,” a tribute to his longtime partner. Though his evolving self-assuredness may translate to a less fragile artist than we’ve come to expect, the celebratory tone of No Shape doesn’t detract from its intimacy, instead serving as a personal testament to the redemptive power of love. – Josh Goller