These are the 20 best albums of the year.
If we hadn’t already moved past our persistent wariness of bands being “in it for the money” when they reunited, Slowdive would have put an end to it permanently. Anyone who saw their initial run of reunion shows knows that, if Rachel Goswell and company were playing again to make a quick buck, it would only make capitalism more justifiable. They came back hungry to make music again, and it came through in their mesmerizing performances. The biggest question was: what would new Slowdive sound like?
This year’s self-titled album was released to reserved fanfare in late April, and it felt like the 22-year gap was all part of the plan. The ‘90s shoegaze pop tones of their landmark Souvlaki are all but discarded for dreamlike guitar-scapes that manage to redefine the band while sounding remarkably lived-in. The album’s clearest single, “Star Roving,” manages to hit some of those same emotional cues that made their previous work feel similarly comfortable, and it buries Neil Halstead’s voice as deep in the track as it can while still keeping it audible. Tricks like these shouldn’t work, but they’re a thrill when pulled off so well here.
This was a long, turbulent year for everyone. Slowdive, with cheap thrills replaced by artful songwriting and ethereal production coming out its ears, felt like it was an antidote to all of 2017’s chaos—or, to steal from the album itself, it was “Sugar for the Pill.” – Hollister Dixon
On his debut album, Summertime ‘06, Vince Staples focused on a particularly violent summer from his youth, one which many of his friends didn’t survive. His sophomore release, Big Fish Theory, deals with both the increased swagger and nagging twinges of guilt that come from transcending his hometown. Staples may continue to spit rapid-fire bars with a wry deadpan, but this album’s production shifts toward a heightened emphasis on robust electronic elements, whether that comes in the form of the dubstep-inflected “Crabs in a Bucket,” the propulsive electro-fury of “Homage” or the brawny, funk-infused beat of “745.”
Tapping a host of guest producers—including the likes of Sophie, Flume and Justin Vernon—Staples also worked with an army of co-writers, from Damon Albarn (“Love Can Be…”) to Kendrick Lamar, the latter of whom also memorably takes over vocal duties on the tail end of “Yeah Right.” And though Staples doesn’t focus as directly on systemic injustice and the effects it has on the kinds of communities he grew up in, the album is hardly apolitical, with “Bagbak” serving both as a rallying cry for more diversity in government (“We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in the Oval Office”) and a cri de cœur against the plutocratic leanings of the current administration (“Tell the one-percent to suck a dick, because we on now/ Tell the president to suck a dick, because we on now”). Hard to argue with that. – Josh Goller
3. Richard Dawson
Pagan folk, that narrow subgenre that digs into ancient history to erect dead worlds, has typically come from the experimental electronic field (think Coil, Shackleton, James Holden’s The Inheritors). Richard Dawson, however, has wed good and proper acoustic folk with this mutant form of pseudo-history. Dawson, already one of the premier, nigh-unclassifiable guitarists of his time, puts forward his greatest work yet, an album of songs set in the far reaches of the collapsed Roman Empire as the Dark Ages settle in. It’s a world of omnipresent dung, of death so commonplace as to be unnoticed by all but those closest to the newly deceased.
Dawson’s guitar playing, always so angular and unpredictable, filled with clanging, Beefheartian chords, perfectly fits the primitive survivalism espoused in lyrics about prostitutes, weavers and other workers attempting to get through this life without dying before 40. Yet despite the arcane material, Dawson’s inimitable style—dissonant yet soulful—produces surprisingly heartbreaking results, like a soldier preparing for a suicidal battle confessing “I am tired, I am afraid” or a beggar eulogizing his dead dog. Dawson makes it all sound like street reporting, bleak observations tinged with the horror of deadened emotion that unites even the most animated of the singer’s characters. Peasant is a technically and emotionally knotty triumph, the finest folk record in years and one that shows how bold and unexpected the genre can still be. – Jake Cole
2. LCD Soundsystem
Predictably, 2017 produced a lot of angry music. James Murphy, likely as dismayed as anyone about the current events and the passage of time, decided to talk about it. He did not, however, make an angry record whose expiration date is December 31, 2017. That’s too easy.
Instead, he made a Big Picture album, one of supreme disappointment and frustration. LCD Soundsystem’s comeback record, American Dream, lays Murphy’s saddest and funniest collection of lyrics over the band’s prettiest album to date. Laments on the loss of love, close friends and one’s own identity are paired with LOL witticism moments like, “And luck is always better than skill at things/ We’re flying blind/ Oh, good gracious/ I sound like my mom.” And these ruminations float in warm-bath compositions like “Oh Baby” and the title track. Even the rockin’ numbers have a gentleness to them that comes with age. You can dance to this entire record, but these songs opt for a slow burn over feverish intensity.
And Murphy sells it all with ever-impressive vocals. He begs, pleads, bemoans, complains, observes, scolds, croons, mourns, spits venom and howls into the void. In short, it’s his most versatile album as a vocalist. The result is an album struggling to make sense of today’s world, just like us. “I’m still trying to wake up,” a disillusioned Murphy repeats at the end of “I Used To.” Yeah, I think a lot of us are. – Steve Lampiris
1. Kendrick Lamar
There’s really no other way to say it: 2017 was an absolute shit year. Without rehashing what everyone already knows about the state of our society, culture and political system, there was really nothing redeeming about what this year had to offer. It’s fitting that, in such a down time in American society, year-end best-of lists are being topped by Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. In any other year, a Kendrick release would be a cause for celebration and critical plaudits (see: Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp a Butterfly). DAMN., while still an exceptional album and deserving of its place on such lists, is a near-perfect summation of the year in general. There was a time when people were constantly seeking out the next Dylan, somebody who could tap into the universal and personal in a way unlike any other, affecting countless listeners with words alone. Kendrick Lamar is the new Dylan.
DAMN. represents the sense of deflation felt by a large swath of the population in the wake of last year’s presidential election, the return (to the news, at least…) of gross civil rights violations and an often-overwhelming culture of hate, both online and in the real world. It’s all downright exhausting and Kendrick realizes this all too well. “We all woke up, tried to tune to the daily news/ Looking for confirmation, hoping the election wasn’t true/ All of us worried, all of us buried in our feelings deep/ None of us married to his proposals, make us feel cheap,” he sighs on “Lust,” the air having been entirely let out of the room. Realizing his existence within a society that has failed him time and again, he shifts his focus from the broader social issues of the past into something far more self-centric. In the wake of the political and societal nightmare from which there is currently no escape, the only solution seems to be a journey further inward, taking stock of what’s been and how we’ve ended up here. – John Paul