When looking at the best albums of 2017, it was clear that we were blessed with an embarrassment of riches. In a world that is shifting under our feet faster than we can measure, music was something that we could constantly depend on delivering nothing short of excellence. Artists seemed to know this; this was a banner year for not only surprise returns, but the refinement of craft – even for those already sitting at the very top of their game.
Which is to say, Tyler, The Creator, Lorde, Vince Staples, Arca and Lil B all delivered what is easily the best work of their respective careers. Newcomers like Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert and BROCKHAMPTON turned in debut albums far weightier than they had any right to be. And masters like Kendrick Lamar, Future and JAY-Z unveiled full-lengths that only solidified their standing as unparalleled in their field.
These are the 25 Best Albums of 2017.
25. Aminé – ‘Good For You’
The sheer joy of “Caroline”, released a full year before the rest of Aminé’s debut album, suffused and briefly lit up 2016’s dark year; a moment of defiant joy, of grinning, infatuated pop. “Oh my god, that’s my baby,” was all it took to get us moving – jerky, happy, hopeful. 2016 went from bad to worse and 2017 hasn’t felt much better, but Good For You follows through on “Caroline”’s promise: an album heavy on joy, mixing pop and hip-hop with an expert touch. Aminé’s already distinctive flow and embrace of novelty and fun were a necessary component of the year. “I was down,” Aminé sings, and pauses: “Now I’m better!” Thanks to this album, we’re better too.
24. Syd – ‘Fin’
Is there a smoother voice in R&B than Syd? The former Odd Future member and The Internet frontwoman has completely come into her own with Fin. We don’t know which is more beyond the stratosphere – Syd’s vocal delivery or the insane production on every track – but we’re happy to never settle on an answer and just keep listening to these dozen incredible cuts. On Fin, Syd brings together Missy Elliott and Timbaland-esque moments with sounds that are both 2017 and timeless. It’s all simply sublime, and we can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.
23. The xx – ‘I See You’
Jamie xx pushed himself into bold new sonic territory with his astonishing solo debut In Colour, and despite employing his fellow xx’ers for work on that record, it remained to be seen how well the trio would function on their first album in half a decade. Fortunately, the result is that they still function exceedingly well. Where their first two albums were soulful introspections on lost love, I See You is a soulful introspection on lost love punctuated by radiant bursts of dancefloor joy, a dynamic element that adds some much-needed groove to their gravitas.
22. Future – ‘HNDRXX’
Future dropped the self-titled Future last winter and it was… fine. “Mask Off” is obviously cute, but the grand gesture of his latest full-length left us wanting more. Little did we know we only had to wait seven days for the follow-up. HNDRXX is an astonishing leap forward for Future, fully marrying his brand of woozy, leaned-up trap with pop sensibilities, making way for gloriously wrought anthems like “Incredible.” Dare we say he’s now… happy?
21. Stormzy – ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’
Stormzy has been a commanding figure of authority, grabbing the industry by the scruff of the neck and doing things on his terms. Gang Signs & Prayer, his debut album, was self-released on his own imprint, #Merky, managing to land the number 1 album spot and become the highest streamed UK album of all-time in the process. His influence and authority has been backed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who, like the rest of the UK, would also attest that Big Mike would be a much more decisive and popular Prime Minister.
Yet despite his now-international presence as a charismatic 6ft 5 inch, commanding people’s champ, it is the album’s candid content that really captured hearts. People love Stormzy because he reflects himself and his experiences so honestly. He broke stereotypes associated with grime artists, opening up about his own mental health and his relationship with God on tracks like “First Things First,” while inspiring the next generation of UK musicians with invigorating bangers like “Big for Your Boots.” Gang Signs & Prayer is a revolutionary album for the ages; an album that flipped the industry on it’s head with depth, dexterity and an incredibly empowering message throughout.
20. Arca – ‘Arca’
In terms of the electronic avant-garde, Arca and Björk are the most iconic duo the genre has going for it. The Venezuelan auteur has lent the Icelandic icon an undeniable weight to her most recent albums, but on his self-titled Arca, we can se how her influence has rubbed right back. Unleashing – for the first time – his gorgeous, ultra-dramatic vocals on top of his nightmarish beats has made for a listening experience like no other this year.
19. Lil B – ‘Black Ken’
As Lil B himself ponders midway through the long-awaited Black Ken, how is it that a rapper can ascend to the heights of pop culture infamy without actually having that many dollars to his name? Perhaps it’s because, despite being one of the most prolific rappers of our time, he had yet to find the right project to fully support his visions. He has found it with Black Ken, the first time in his storied, very based career that he created a full-length more than worthy of his cult legacy.
18. J Hus – ‘Common Sense’
Just three years on from his very first foray into music, J Hus has created a complex, considered and captivating album in Common Sense – the best full-length to come out of the UK this year. His progression as a both a person and artist is audible in the sheer confidence that billows out of the debut LP. It’s an album that perfectly reflects modern London, beautifully weaving Afrobeat, Grime, Hip-Hop, UKG (and more) into his own wavey sonic palette, taken from all over the world.
Fittingly, it’s this unique skill of Hus’ that will no doubt see the enigmatic MC blow up on an international scale in due course. Common Sense‘s elixir of genres is carefully crafted by Hus’ right hand man, Jae5, and the natural chemistry heard between the pair’s beats and bars is one of the most endearing qualities of the project. This, coupled with Hustla’s acid-tongued British wit, delivered via knockout one-liners and charismatic couplets, makes for an album that “you can’t compare to any other,” as the man himself told us earlier this year.
17. LCD Soundsystem – ‘American Dream’
American Dream was essentially the Blade Runner: 2049 of the music world this year. It was a project that many believe should never have existed, serving only to undo the immaculate legacy its predecessor(s) left behind. Yet even the fans that dreaded its arrival knew they would be there on release day, waiting with bated breath and ready to rip it to shreds if it was anything less than stellar.
Which, of course, it wasn’t. Just like Blade Runner: 2049, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream is nothing short of an unlikely masterpiece, something that pretty much no one saw coming.
16. Drake – ‘More Life’
The most memeable man in the world still knows how to make a darn good album – sorry, mixtape. Bringing the sounds of the UK to the 6 and the rest of the world (although many have accused Drake of cultural appropriation), there’s no denying that this globally-influenced collection of tracks absolutely goes off.
From the requisite Drizzy romance of “Passionfruit” to the turn-up pan flute anthem “Portland,” Drake has absolutely found his stride. With a winning combination of innovative producers from around the world, go-hard bars full of puns, and collaborators as essential as the side dishes at Nando’s, with More Life, Drake proves yet again why he’s one of the greatest entertainers alive.
15. Fever Ray – ‘Plunge’
In a year chock-full of surprise releases, few were as satisfying to find upon opening our laptops as Fever Ray’s long overdue sophomore effort Plunge. It punctuated the enormous hole that Karin Dreijer had left in the world of electronic music since disbanding The Knife, her legacy project with her brother, in 2014. Now, eight years after the first Fever Ray record, she has roared back with one of the year’s most political, unabashedly kinky full-lengths of the year, one that finds her pushed to the very forefront of her music in a way that she has never been before, under either of her monikers. Few, for instance, would have ever imagined we would get to hear her say the phrase “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” with such maniacal glee.
14. BROCKHAMPTON – ‘SATURATION II’
I struggle to think of a group that’s ever come close to the year that BROCKHAMPTON has had. At the top of the year, they were a blip on the music radar – notable for their maestro, Kevin Abstract, whose 2016 album American Boyfriend was a point of interest. Now, the collective is prepping their third full-length of the year, following a treasure trove of arresting visuals and a cultural footprint that is wholly their own.
SATURATION II is the apex of their meteoric rise; it’s the moment where each personality of the group has started taking shape while their cohesion enters an effortless lock-step. It’s also a masterstroke of production; evoking early 2000s Timbaland and late 2000s M.I.A. yet sounding overwhelmingly of the here and now in its execution – let alone its button-pushing lyrical content. SATURATION II is the sound of (many) stars being born.
13. Charli XCX – ‘Number 1 Angel’
Charli XCX was on the fast track to pop stardom; one huge Iggy Azalea guest-spot and a top 10 hit written for a teen romance blockbuster all but guarantees eventual pop domination. And then something else happened – she turned away from all of that, allied herself with the rising PC Music crew and started making bizarre electro-pop in no way digestible for the mainstream. She became positioned as an anti-pop princess of sorts, reveling in the darker side of the party not often addressed on Top 40 radio.
Number 1 Angel is the first time that Charli has lived up to this role with music that supports it. The zany, juiced-up production works in service to her vision, lending tracks like “Roll With Me” and “Emotion” the bite, not just the bark. The peak of the tape is “Drugs,” the ultimate anthem for any party girl unashamed to choose drugs over fucks. In a time when hard partying seems the only valid escape from our wild reality, she has more than a few people who can relate.
12. Playboi Carti – ‘Playboi Carti’
Much and more has been written about Playboi Carti’s actual rap skills (or lack thereof). He has been given the moniker of ‘mumble rap,’ and teased for rasping out the word ‘yah’ a dozen times in a row in lieu of delivering an actual verse. But to hinge on these elements would be to miss the point; Playboi Carti, more than most other hip-hop artists this year, has a blinding commitment to creating a singular vibe.
His self-titled mixtape is just that – a 40-minute trip through a world like no other created this year. Lead single “Magnolia” exemplifies this, creating a closed loop of a track that foregoes melody in favor of crystallizing a single sound. The most innovative, endlessly-surprising production work of 2017 is all right here, all one has to do is dive in.
11. Lil Uzi Vert – ‘Luv Is Rage 2’
Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv is Rage 2 could have just been “XO Tour Llif3” 20 times in a row and it probably would have still made this list. Fortunately, much of Uzi’s debut studio album goes just as hard as the ubiquitous banger he’s best known for.
It’s hard to put into words just how much joy Lil Uzi Vert has brought me in the past twelve months, even outside of the music he makes – from his shimmying shoulders at the MTV VMAs to his heartwarming chats to kids on the bus while he eats a popsicle – but I must try, or at least attempt to explain why Luv is Rage 2 deserves a spot on this list. With collaborations ranging from alt-pop duo Oh Wonder to the chief vibe-bringer Pharrell Williams, Lil Uzi Vert effortlessly shows us why he’s the dark prince of rap, and why he absolutely needs to collaborate with Marilyn Manson.
10. Migos – ‘Culture’
The album cover of Culture is particularly telling of what one will find in the hour of music it conveys. Migos’ unstoppable full-length is ultimately a collagist approach to hip-hop and, yes, culture at large. A veritable army of producers worked on this record, coalescing into the surprisingly cohesive whole we have before us. The lyrical content of hip-hop’s preeminent trio is astoundingly broad in scope – rapping about frogs and pies in the same breath and somehow managing to rhyme ‘pocket’ with ‘Andy Milonakis.’ They do it for the culture, and over the course of a single year, the culture now does it right back to them.
9. Sampha – ‘Process’
No song was more heartbreaking in 2017 than “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” the centerpiece of Sampha’s long-awaited debut album Process. A surface level listen will reveal a heartfelt ballad to his instrument of choice, one that highlights his golden, honeyed voice more than any other. More time spent with the song will reveal it is not so much the piano that he confides in, but the time spent in his mother’s home, the piano merely a conduit for remembrance of his loved ones now gone.
As a painfully-pointed study of grief, Sampha tells us right from the record’s title how it functions. Dealing with loss is very much a process, one that can take an entire lifetime to finish, or not even finish. The point is not so much reaching an end, as taking value and making meaning in the process itself.
8. King Krule – ‘The OOZ’
The OOZ, Archy Marshall’s highly anticipated return as King Krule, picks up where his debut sensation 6 Feet Beneath the Moon left off, except the evolution in his sound, sentiment, and prodigy are undeniable.
The 19-track powerhouse feels more rounded than King Krule’s prior album, with enough tracks available to highlight the diverse genres that clearly influence the sunken cheeked artist. From jazz to punk, trip-hop, and dub, there are moments in the album where every musician gets a chance to shine, making this album sound less like Archy Marshall’s alter-ego and more like an Archy Marshall-helmed band.
7. JAY-Z – ‘4:44’
I, for one, did not think JAY-Z had it in him. A late career cash cow would have been all too easy for him – think Magna Carta Holy Grail Part 2: Grail Harder. But along comes 4:44, which is not only his best solo album since at least The Black Album, but an outlier in his entire catalogue. The man who built an empire on boasting was suddenly pious and self-deprecating, attempting to atone for his sins.
His sins, of course, being extra-marital. The pressure to respond to his wife’s damning tell-all Lemonade was real, and he delivered. The record’s title track is the most emotionally naked thing JAY has ever made, and that just scratches the surface. “Smile” finds the icon enlisting his mother for a guest spot in which she comes out of the closet, reckoning with their family’s history of trauma in real time, while “The Story of O.J.” dissects the trials of African-American success on the largest scale imaginable. Take note veteran artists, this is how you stage a comeback.
Listen to ‘4:44’ over on TIDAL.
6. Kelela – ‘Take Me Apart’
Few albums made as seismic an impact on 2017 as Kelela’s long awaited debut Take Me Apart, which appeared back in October on Warp Records. A swirling, echoing, left-field R&B record, it was carnal enough to get down in the club to and touching enough to force you to shed a tear.
It’s a gleaming testimony to Kelela’s talent that explored everything from sex and “the chase” to that hopeless feeling of falling out of love. While most artists seem satisfied finding their sound and sticking to it, Kelela is hellbent on reinventing herself; so much so she does it on her own album, reappearing from the recording booth a new woman on each track.
5. Tyler, The Creator – ‘Flower Boy’
Resorting to allusions of Tyler, The Creator ‘fully blossoming’ on an album called Flower Boy may seem cringeworthy, but they are entirely warranted. This is – beyond any doubt – the record that Tyler has been waiting to make his entire career. Rap’s most notoriously obtuse outsider has finally let us in, and the result is not simply his warmest offering to date, but his most profound.
Utilizing production that culls from his vast musical knowledge (from Stevie Wonder to Pharrell’s work with N.E.R.D and everything in between), Tyler delivers bars that demonstrate his utter maturation as an artist and a human. Gone is the skater-boy taunting the press with homophobic slurs and grotesque depictions of violence, instead we meet an incredibly lonely, isolated young man closed in by the pressures of society, be they from fame, power, sexuality or all three at once. For the first time ever, Tyler is a fully relatable human.
4. SZA – ‘Ctrl’
I said it before in our best tracks of 2k17 post, and I’ll say it again – what would the music universe look like this year if SZA never released Ctrl? At the beginning of 2017, this was a very real possibility, and now, by the end, it seems laughable. Homegirl is up for a whopping five Grammy awards and with one listen of her debut studio album, it’s easy to hear why.
Ctrl is exemplary of SZA’s ability to bring forth emotions that are incredibly specific to her, yet manage to address so many people – as if she’s their childhood friend. Although the album’s fourteen tracks can appeal to lovers of pop, R&B, rap, and electronic music alike, SZA sticks to her experimental and just plain wavy instincts – from the crackled drums of the Kendrick Lamar-featuring “Doves in the Wind” where she mentions pussy and Forrest Gump in the same breath, to the melancholic, new wave synths on “Prom.” With Ctrl, she firmly burrowed into so many of our souls, creating something simply spectacular that will be revisited for years to come.
3. Lorde – ‘Melodrama’
Teenagerdom has been mythologized by so many people, in so many ways, so many times over, that there is surely nothing of any remote originality left to say about it. Wrong, thanks to Lorde. The freakishly-mature, 21-year-old New Zealander has pulled off a feat so rare it no longer seemed possible: creating an artifact of adolescence that is both ultra-personal and ultra-relatable, let alone one she created essentially in real time, admonishing truths of the universal teenage experience while she was still in the middle of it.
The devil is in the details, and it is the small moments of intricacy that make Melodrama work. It’s in Lorde admitting she might “overthink your punctuation use” in what might be the most immediately-accessible line about courtship in the age of social media yet written. It’s in the minutely-constructed production of tracks like “Sober” and “Supercut,” creating singular moments that indicate the boundless discovery she and producer Jack Antonoff made in the studio. It’s her hearing “brand new sounds in my mind,” and being good enough to share them with the rest of us.
2. Kendrick Lamar – ‘DAMN.’
It’s difficult to assess all the ways in which DAMN. is an utter stroke of genius, but a valuable exercise is to stack it against its predecessor, To Pimp a Butterfly. Where Butterfly is a colossal sprawl of form and style, DAMN. is compact beyond belief, tightly wound like a spring ready to snap. Where Butterfly is a richly-woven tapestry of the African-American experience writ large, DAMN. is a measured study of the self, Kendrick Lamar as an individual. Both are equal masterpieces of music, genre entirely irrelevant.
Even for a rapper as cerebral as Kendrick, the level of calm and clarity with which he analyzes himself at the eye of the storm is breathtaking. Ever a man of faith, Kendrick reckons with hard truths about his place at the heights of cultural power, balancing pomp with piety, greed with grace. That he can use such internal dialogue as a parallel to the drastic moral decay of society at large continues to speak measures about his talent that at times seems supernatural. Of course, it isn’t; Kendrick is a mortal man, a fact that he has never once lost sight of.
We had a bear of a time deciding if this should be the number one spot on this list. In the end, our pick for album of the year made us realize we were divided between two camps: the hip-hop classicists and the hip-hop futurists. Kendrick is the world’s foremost hip-hop classicist, as for the other…
1. Vince Staples – ‘Big Fish Theory’
“How I’m supposed to have a good time / When death and destruction’s all I see?” Vince Staples ponders in the latter half of his sophomore album Big Fish Theory. Few other lyrics spoke to the surreal experience of living through 2017 with such direct impact, and few other records released this year embodied the ideal of hitting the dancefloor as the most radical form of escape.
Because make no mistake, Big Fish Theory is a club record – needles to say, the best one of the year. Staples went from the minimal, industrial-tinged hip-hop of debut album Summertime ’06 to displaying a Kanye-like proclivity for assembling a small army in-studio to build his vision of an aquatic, post-apocalyptic rave. Which means that PC Music savant SOPHIE offered a beat over which Kendrick Lamar spits a guest verse, while elsewhere one will find the fingerprints of everyone from Detroit techno guru Jimmy Edgar to Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn to Flume to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Far from getting lost at sea, Staples’ role as ringmaster to such a circus of talent is effortless. This is his ship to steer, and he does so over bars that exemplify his acerbic point of view, delivered with more razor-sharp aplomb than ever before. For a second album, Big Fish Theory is stunning in its precise execution. No record cut deeper or spoke with more urgency this year, unequivocally making it the best album of 2017. All hail the big fish.
Be sure to check out our picks for the 50 Best Songs of 2017 right here.
- Contributors:Jake Boyer, Mikaella Clements, Jacob Davey, Bianca Giulione, Douglas Greenwood, Ana Velasco
- Cover Image:Theo Wargo / Getty Images