Emerald Recommends: The best albums of 2017
Let’s face it. Twenty-seventeen wasn’t a year of loss in the music world like 2016 was. Though Tomy Petty and other important artists passed away, 2017 was a different year for the music world. In some ways, artists began to pick up the pieces of 2016’s shattering losses and build something new. LCD Soundsystem reunited and released a new album, “American Dream.” Taylor Swift began her “Reputation” era. Hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar turned towards trap beats. Here are the Emerald’s top albums of 2017.
Nic Castillon’s picks:
5. “Big Fish Theory” by Vince Staples
Vince Staples’ sophomore release, “Big Fish Theory,” is dark, futuristic, and forward-thinking. With a noticeable influence taken from UK dance music, this is by far the grimiest record in the artist’s discography. The gritty production on songs like “Big Fish” and “Crabs in a Bucket” burst through the speakers, while Staples delivers his clever and introspective verses. “Put me in the MoMa when it’s over with,” he says — justifiably.
4. “American Dream” by LCD Soundsystem
A new album from LCD Soundsystem in 2017 could have gone horribly wrong. A cheap comeback — after an intense “final” performance in 2011 — could have easily tarnished the band’s much-deserved legacy. Frontman James Murphy, however, justified the band’s unlikely return with a mature album that is just as strong as his others. On “American Dream,” LCD Soundsystem, once again, makes it feel normal to cry on the dancefloor.
3. “Flower Boy” by Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator’s latest release is vibrant and soulful, a sound that perfectly matches the album’s bright, sunflower-filled artwork. The production on this record, which Tyler handled himself, is masterful. Warm keys and glistening strings fill the world of “Flower Boy,” and perfectly compliment the record’s carefully-selected vocal features. As always, Tyler’s rich persona shines through on tracks such as “911 / Mr. Lonely” — arguably the best single released in 2017.
2. “A Crow Looked At Me” by Mount Eerie
“Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art,” Phil Elverum sings on “Real Death,” the opening track of “A Crow Looked At Me.” The songs on this Mount Eerie album focus on the recent passing of Elverum’s wife to pancreatic cancer, and they are brutal. Elverum doesn’t attempt to make something beautiful out of his wife’s death. He simply tries to grapple with it, through a set of songs filled with stark honesty and realism. It’s hard to listen to, but it is incredibly moving.
1. “Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood” by Sun Kil Moon
“Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood” is essentially a middle-aged man rambling for over two hours, but it’s still the best album of 2017. Mark Kozelek’s eighth solo album as Sun Kil Moon seems to go on forever. The album’s tracks feature an incessant stream of digressive lyrics, many of them lasting about eight minutes or longer. Yet there is something entrancing about them as if they are all part of someone’s personal journal or travelogue. Throughout the album, Kozelek brilliantly navigates his way through absurd humor and touching moments, and manages to make everything, even the minutiae of everyday events, sound interesting. The long-winded vocals are also backed by pleasant instrumentals, featuring Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth-fame on percussion. It’s a lot to sit through, but Kozelek’s honest tributes to close friends and musings on Muhammad Ali make it well worth the time.
Honorable mentions: “Rocket” by Alex G, “DAMN.” by Kendrick Lamar, “Utopia” by Björk, “Thawing Dawn” by A. Savage, “Powerplant” by Girlpool, “This Old Dog” by Mac Demarco, “Mouth Moods” by Neil Cicierega
Sararosa Davies’ picks:
5. “Swear I’m Good At This” by Diet Cig
New York-state pop-punk duo Diet Cig had a big year. Alex Luciano and Noah Bowman’s released their debut full-length album “Swear I’m Good At This,” and then subsequently toured the United States. Bowman’s thrashing drums and Luciano’s wailing vocals perfectly matched 2017. As Luciano sings on the track, “Link in Bio”: I’m not being dramatic / I’ve just fucking had it / With the things that you say you think that I should be.” “Swear I’m Good At This” is an album for every proud hot mess from this year.
4. “We All Want The Same Things” by Craig Finn
The Hold Steady frontman, Craig Finn, released his third solo album this year — but it’s not at all a throwaway release. “We All Want The Same Things” chronicles loss, change and hope in Finn’s own geographically-oriented way. Even if the neighborhoods he mentions (“Tangletown”) are unfamiliar to listeners, the characters seem like old friends. With shimmering instrumentals, lots of piano and an innate sense of how stories are told, Finn does something wonderful with this album. Sometimes all we want is a good story, and this album offers up 10 of those.
3. “Jen Cloher” by Jen Cloher
Australian indie-rocker Jen Cloher has an astute eye for songwriting, just like her partner Courtney Barnett. But on her self-titled album, Cloher’s music resonates perfectly on its own. She has a keen eye for lyrical content— winding poetry through everyday moments. On “Sensory Memory,” buttering the edges of toast becomes a metaphor for unspoken changes in a relationship. Cloher reflects on power dynamics, singing like Patti Smith, in “Shoegazers”: Indie rock is full of privileged white kids / I know because I’m one of them / Who else has the luxury to gaze backwards?” With simple instrumentals — Cloher opened for Barnett and Kurt Vile this fall on just an acoustic guitar — her lyrics shine
2. “Capacity” by Big Thief
The way Adrianne Lenker sings — her soft voice tumbling out of her mouth, unspooling like thread — you’d think she would have trouble breathing. But “Capacity,” her band Big Thief’s second album, feels anything but short of breath. Instead, it’s a cathartic and slow-burning release that explores trauma, family and close friendship. On “Mythological Beauty,” Lenker details her young mother’s trials and tribulations. “There is a child inside you who’s trying to raise a child in me,” Lenker breathes over quiet guitar and piano. The band wrote most of these heavily emotional and mythical songs while recording their debut, 2016’s “Masterpiece,” but “Capacity” is nothing short of a masterpiece itself. The album is both dark and refreshing, just like the January rain Lenker sings about on stand-out track, “Mary.”
1. “Pure Comedy” by Father John Misty
No album captured 2017— in both political and personal ways — as well as Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy.” A sprawling take on pretentiousness, entertainment and humanity, “Pure Comedy” annoyed a lot of people when it came out. Misty (former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman) is a sometimes polarizing figure — he straddles the line between prophet and pretentious asshole. But ultimately, this polarization reflects today’s world well. And while he croons over Elton John-style piano, singing about how “our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips,” it’s hard not believe that he’s right. He’s right, even if we hate to admit it.
Honorable mentions: “Heartworms” by The Shins, “Sleep Well Beast” by The National, “11 Obscenely Optimistic songs for Ukulele: A Micro Folk Record for the 21st Century and Beyond” by Jeremy Messersmith
Dana Alston’s picks:
5. “What Now” by Sylvan Esso
Three years after their eponymous debut album, synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso delivered a sophomore effort full of sharp production and songwriting. Beyond evolving their sound — the idiosyncratic beats are enough to leave listeners’ heads spinning — vocalist Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn prove their worth as lyricists. Few albums are as beautifully contradictory, and “Die Young” remains one of the best and most mystifying songs of the year.
4. “Pure Comedy” by Father John Misty
Defending Josh Tillman is a pain at this point. The pretentious messiah of art-folk — he goes by his “Misty” moniker on stage — has made a career out of being “authentically bogus.” I can’t blame anyone for hating his disaffected persona with a passion. It’d be annoying to me if it weren’t so hilarious. Tillman walks the tightrope between obnoxious and honest with the grace of an Olympian. “Pure Comedy,” Tillman’s third album as Misty, is a sprawling, infuriating and a brilliant dive into humanity’s vices. It’s an ironic and scatterbrained piece of work. But while it loses the lush instrumentation from previous FJM albums, Tillman’s wit reaches new acidic heights.
3. “DAMN.” by Kendrick Lamar
Across his first three albums, Kendrick Lamar’s perspective and lyricism gradually expanded beyond his Compton upbringing and into the metaphysical. “To Pimp A Butterfly” was an artful meditation on the black experience in America, and “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” tracked Lamar’s youth in a home surrounded by violence and addiction. On “DAMN,” he looks inward. Gone are the funk and jazz stylings of “Butterfly;” instead, Lamar’s latest work is steeped in the sounds of trap and modern rap. Rihanna joins him on “LOYALTY,” and “HUMBLE” rides a beat from “Black Beatles” producer Mike.Will.Made.It. But even as his sound grows more radio-friendly, Lamar’s storytelling remains his unwavering strength. If “DAMN’s” breakneck braggadocio makes longtime listeners uneasy (it really shouldn’t), tracks like “DUCKWORTH” cancel all doubt in Lamar’s pure artistry. No other rapper can tell a story quite like K-Dot.
2. “Big Fish Theory” by Vince Staples
Vince Staples deals in cold doses of reality. The Long Beach native rose to fame on the back of his unblinking look at the gangs, drugs and the violence that controlled his hometown. Staples’ lyrical sharpness is matched only by his rebuke of sentimentality; he displays the darkness of his upbringing without a lens.
“Summertime ‘06” dealt in the sounds and textures of West Coast trap. It makes Staples’ latest project’s hard shift toward industrial EDM especially jarring. Listening to “Big Fish Theory” (Staples’ second LP) is an abrasive and overwhelming experience. Swirling drums, heavy synths and production from Flume (yes, Flume) all make appearances. Under it all, Staples raps about fame and “human issues too strong for tissues.” “745” is a bass heavy techno-romance, and “BagBak” presents an afrofuturistic call to protest. But “Yeah Right” is the album’s dissonant center. A bass-heavy assault wielding a Kendrick Lamar feature, the track is Staples’ best case for being rap’s best provocateur. No other artist pushed the genre as far as he did this year.
1. “Melodrama’ by Lorde
Lorde never wastes a word. The 21-year-old New Zealander already made her case for “lyrical prodigy” status on “Pure Heroine,” her acclaimed debut. But after a flurry of award wins and a curated soundtrack for “The Hunger Games” franchise, she all but disappeared from public view. Four years later, she delivered “Melodrama,” her masterful sophomore effort that cemented her claim to pop royalty.
The album is an expansion of Lorde’s world, delivered via pulsing ballads and bangers. Jack Antonoff — the album’s producer and secondary creative force — does a remarkable job keeping things fresh over 11 tracks. Chopped up samples and swirling drums push songs like “Sober” and “Hard Feelings” into unexpected territory. “The Louvre” captures the blissful moments of an early romance. “Liability,” one of the many highlights, envisions Lorde alone, abandoned by her youthful confidence. Lorde’s search for permanent youth is mournful, heartbreaking and honest. It’s only in the final moments, punctuated by doubt when she finally moves past her childhood. The journey there produces 2017’s most fascinating listen.
Zach Price’s picks:
“SATURATION” Trilogy by BROCKHAMPTON
Not very often is one of the biggest breakout artists of the year also one of the most prolific. But the rap collective, Brockhampton, delivered the “SATURATION” trilogy in 2017, providing their fans with 48 songs in the span of six months.This onslaught of releases could be seen as a means of achieving mainstream success through market pollution, but that wasn’t the case for the “SATURATION” trilogy. Logical and sensical, each of part of the trilogy is entertaining and coherent from beginning to end. And after establishing its style early and often, the group continued to get more creative and intricate as the records went on. The diversity of tracks is the group’s most impressive feat, though. From catchy radio-worthy, uptempo hits like “GUMMY” to raw, emotional ballads like “BUMP,” Brockhampton always covered its bases.
But if one lesson is to be learned from 2017, nothing good can last forever. Frontman Kevin Abstract announced that the third and final piece of the trilogy would be Brockhampton’s last release. While there are plenty of internet theorists who suggest otherwise, we shouldn’t argue with the final act of the group’s well-received, short-lived career. As the old saying goes: if you truly love something, you must set it free.
This post has been updated to show the correct number of Craig Finn’s solo albums. The original post misstated the number as two.