These are the 20 best albums of the year.
10. The xx
I See You
The third album from the xx is also their most adventurous yet. I See You marks a natural deviation from the crystalline arrangements of their first two releases, hewing closer to the expansive soundscapes of Jamie xx’s solo material without losing the trio’s essential, icy brand of pathos. The woeful strain in Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s complementary vocal stylings is still here, but they’ve been transplanted from the glacial minimalism of their self-titled debut to warmer environs, housed in lush instrumentals bathed in a broader spectrum of colors. The result is a minor reinvention that gives new legs to an outfit whose days might have previously been numbered.
The lead single, “On Hold,” with its audacious Hall & Oates sample, bounces and writhes with unexpected verve. It’s the bright nostalgia of the ‘80s extrapolated from memories and used as a backing track for confronting a love that’s long since lost its technicolor sheen. That cross-section between artifice and brave self-expression is at play in Croft’s “Performance,” with its thrumming bass and pained cooing. But it might be the Alessi-Brothers-sampling “Say Something Loving” that marks the LP’s finest moment, a touching snapshot of a relationship in crisis, but not yet lost. The restraint holding back a mountain of feeling seeping through in bright moments of bombast, the perfect distillation of this evolved sound. – Dominic Griffin
9. King Krule
Archy Marshall might be the best songwriter to encapsulate the world in 2017. The dreary, dank, post-apocalyptic hellscapes described on The Ooz aren’t meant to be documenting anything, yet they feel more true-to-life than anything in modern pop today. The world of The Ooz is one of grit and grime, one where petty thieves aspire to be footballing legends (“Biscuit Town”) and where one-night stands are recounted in an alcohol-fueled haze (“Dum Surfer”). These are Marshall’s people: the small-time criminals and louts of the lower class, people who get by more than they actually live. It’d be one thing to gawk at this world from a distance, but Marshall is right there in the muck with them.
It’s not just the lyrics and characters that make up The Ooz, though. Musically, it’s a languid album that moves at the pace of slime. Marshall’s finely-picked jazz guitar licks create a sense of perpetual unease, as if one has stepped into the sort of seedy, dimly-lit east London bar where Marshall likely sets some of these songs. Saxophones blare in and out, yet some songs feature Marshall alone singing into a tape recorder. Idiosyncratic and delightfully strange, The Ooz is the sort of album that rarely comes around these days. That it’s also really fucking good is just a bonus. – Kevin Korber
8. Jens Lekman
Life Will See You Now
Coming on like Jonathan Richman with a slight accent, unassuming Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman has always found the humor and music in such mundane circumstances as missing a train or going to the emergency room. Where his production once subsisted on samples and simple indie-rock guitar, background singers and almost lush arrangements haven’t overwhelmed his modest gifts.
On the slickest album of his career, he wonders, like the Mormons on opening track, “To Know Your Mission,” “What are we here for?” Clearly, he is here to share his music and lyrical wit in a generous love for everybody. A good storyteller and a good listener, he shows tenderness to a cancer survivor, tells his story to someone whose perfume reminds him of lost love and patiently listens to a wedding guest’s disillusionment. Each of these short stories in miniature seem to tackle a crossroads, and each is sold through the usual ebullient hooks, tempered by gospel singers that echo the Four Tops the way “Black Cab” echoed the Left Banke. Lekman finds a natural collaborator on “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” in Tracey Thorn, whose husky timbre makes you realize that he’s carrying on in the tradition of Everything But the Girl if it had never gone techno. He makes the intersection of life and music seem effortless. In an age of irony, his earnestness is a catchy balm. – Pat Padua
7. St. Vincent
No one released a body of music more assured and polished than Annie Clark in 2017. St. Vincent’s latest, Masseduction, is an inspired objet d’art, with crystal-clear production and larger-than-life sonics, but fueled by the rough edges of personal idiosyncrasy. Somehow, Clark has composed a big and bold set of songs that is more pop and more confectionary than anything else on Billboard, while also maintaining the authorial through-line of her previous releases. No one else is getting Prince and Bowie comparisons chucked at them with such reckless abandon right now, and it’s for very good reason.
Only on a St. Vincent album could the bone-raw torch song “Happy Birthday, Johnny” be so comfortably buttressed by the science-fiction pop noise of “Los Ageless” and the psychosexual art rocker “Savior.” Frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff is all over the record, but sugary-enough-to-rot-your-teeth “Pills” features production from Kendrick Lamar’s right-hand man, Sounwave, in a sweet bit of eclecticism. But it’s Clark’s undeniable versatility that astonishes above all. As outsized and hi-def as the title track is, with its thesis refrain “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” there’s still room for heart-piercing balladry like “New York,” one of the most understated, well-written tunes of the year. What can’t she do? – Dominic Griffin
SZA takes a second to get her groove on Ctrl. A lonesome guitar pines away behind her; she says a couple lines, setting the scene of “Supermodel.” Then, an astonishing line: “Let me tell you a secret/ I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy.” The revelation is blunt enough to be funny by itself. But “let me tell you a secret”? It’s so unnecessary, so petty. It’s a pure pop gesture—the line would hit half as hard without it.
Ctrl is a wickedly funny R&B record that’s not afraid to blindside you with poignancy. The St. Louis singer, born Solána Rowe, loves wry turns of phrase; the “nobody/no body” pun on “Garden (Say It Like Dat)” is a killer. Then she’ll say something so comically blunt you’re liable to spit your drink out, like the aforementioned homeboy line. Or she’ll encapsulate entire worlds in a few well-placed words: “Do it ’til it hurts less;” “Why is it so hard to accept the party’s over?”
Musically, the album sounds robust and conservative at first—certainly not as tactile as FKA twigs or Kelela, and more restrained than even Rihanna’s biggest hits. But it sneaks up on you. You notice little things, like the harmonium buried deep in “Drew Barrymore” or the way reliable texture-rapper Travis Scott locks in with an eerie organ drone on “Love Galore.” Ctrl was inescapable this year, whether at parties or blasting out of cars and windows, and it improves with ubiquity. This is such a confident debut that it feels definitive. Even scarier is that SZA’s just getting started. – Daniel Bromfield