2017 was easily the most definitive year of my entire life. This year, I became a father. I got married. Everything changed, including the way I appreciated music.
It wasn’t my tastes; I didn’t suddenly drop my love for techno and weird jazz to become a dad rock connoisseur, despite in fact making a dad rock mixtape. No, it was a subtle shift in weight, a slight refocusing on what aspects most affect what I love about music. I’m still largely into the same genres and artists as before, but I now feel drawn to facets of sound and meaning that I shied away from before. I’m more interested in peeling back the meaning behind what I’m loving, searching for a thread to pull, an arc to follow. Slowly but surely, I recognized the colors emerging from the stories that built these pieces of art.
It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the behind-the-scenes or the history before becoming a dad; it’s simply that I now find myself automatically working recursively when I’m emotionally struck by something, running down the fibers of time that brought it to my attention, trying to work out a map for my own journey forward in this new life role. I’m living for more than myself finally, and although it feels vulnerable to have my heart living outside my body, it’s incredibly rewarding. I’ve felt more energized, more creative than I have in years. I made five new mixtapes between winters. I began running for the first time. I started writing fiction again. Oh and, along with my wife, I’ve been raising a child pretty successfully for half a year so far. Even more than ever before, I can’t wait to experience what happens next.
Speaking of my wife, that’s her in the header picture above. I thought the image of her, pregnant, hiking in the late winter sunset, encapsulated the way I felt about 2017. All that nervous possibility and raw beauty surrounding the long shadow down the path ahead, feeling real warmth after too many frozen months.
This year, like every year, was bursting full of new, exciting, brilliant music. It only takes some effort and desire to find it all. In another first, I barely read any music journalism, kept up with no major release schedules, and missed out on most of the hype 2017 had to offer. I have only the faintest ideas about what other people hold up as the best music of the year. To me, these 50 albums mattered more than anything else I heard all year, give or take a few. For a more comprehensive picture of the year, be sure to check out 50 more must-hear albums of 2017.
Let’s begin the countdown. These are the 50 best albums of 2017.
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50. Octo Octa – Where Are We Going?
Where Are We Going? is the perfect sequel to 2014’s Between Two Selves, with the biggest tonal shift seen in their respective covers. The prior cover shows the artist as a male, rendered in grainy black and white, holding a female mannequin torso, posed to invoke memories of David Bowie’s “Heroes” artwork. Now we see her in full color, evoking a cheekily sensual boudoir shot in stockings and a celestial dress. She looks free, happy, and maybe a little annoyed. The title is perfect for an artist who completed her male to female transition, made another acclaimed, hypnotic deep house album, and is wondering what’s next. Judging by the music here, more warmly propulsive, lovingly crafted dance tunes are coming.
Where Are We Going? is available on Bandcamp.
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49. Fabiano Do Nascimento – Tempo Dos Mestres
Heaven sounds like this Brazilian guitarist’s music. There’s a hushed reverence that seems to fill the empty space between filigreed notes on this delicately recorded album. This quietly thrilling, gently psychedelic album is supposedly inspired by the rainforest where Do Nascimento returns often for contemplation. I believe it.
Tempo Dos Mestres can be purchased from Now Again Records.
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48. Suso Saiz – Rainworks
Spanish electronic music pioneer Suso Saiz returned after a decade without recording on Music From Memory, a fitting place for the cyclical, minimalist decaying sounds on this soothing deluge of an album. The most important thing you need to know about Rainworks: the original idea for this music grew from a documentary that Saiz had watched, suggesting the possibility that water molecules could have their own memory. He was enamored with the “possibility of an eternal being, changing its cyclical condition from solid to gaseous state, traveling through and between the Earth and the Sky, as a witness and keeper of the true history of Earth and Mankind.”
The music sounds exactly like that.
Rainworks can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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47. Alessandro Cortini – Avanti
I’m just going to quote myself here: I feel like our mutual love of classic video games might have an effect on my perception of the overall tone here. The album hews deeply melancholic, but there’s an incessant propulsion to the whole affair. It’s constantly surging forward with an adventurous spirit, eyes on the horizon even during the rainy, slow parts. It’s a JRPG as a synth-driven post-orchestral audiobook.
Avanti can be purchased on Bleep.
• • •
46. Run The Jewels – RTJ3
While this third outing from el-p and Killer Mike does nothing new and maybe runs a little long, it’s still a blistering set of impeccably rendered, righteously angry, undeniably catchy rap tunes. Some of the songs here go toe to toe with anything on Run The Jewels 2, a best of 2014 album. Many of them stand up to the best hip-hop released in 2017. Oh yeah, the album was technically released a few days before the end of last year, but I’m just ignoring that.
RTJ3 was released free on the Run The Jewels website, where you can also buy it on CD or vinyl.
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45. Robert Hood – Paradygm Shift
Paradygm Shift is, true to its name, a hard swerve from the sprawling, funk-infused narrative of Hood’s last album, 2012’s Motor: Nighttime World 3. Where that set infused its vast running time with jazz-damaged atmospheres and dark electro workouts, the new album finds bliss in strict adherence to the structure and form of traditional hard-edged techno. In a way, it shows how much wiggle room can be carved out within strict genre boundaries.
Warm tones, hard beats, ceaseless rhythm. Relentless stuff. It’s techno for genre heads, sure, but still accessible in a way most deep-dive sets don’t bother with. The textures in particular bring an inviting surface at first glance, urging the listener further in. After a couple tracks, it’s impossible to see any way out; this is the kind of music designed for concentrated listening and nothing else, really. Casual background listens at low volume will not suffice.
Paradygm Shift can be purchased on vinyl directly from Dekmantel.
• • •
44. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Phil Elverum’s wife died of pancreatic cancer shortly after giving birth to the couple’s only child. This is his harrowing, direct account of what it’s like to have the most important person in your life suffer an agonizing death. This is what it’s like to live in a world suddenly alone. It is sad as fuck. It is incredibly real. It is hard to return to, once you’ve heard it. But you need to hear it at least once.
This isn’t the sound of a man making art out of heartache. This is heartache itself.
A Crow Looked at Me can be purchased on Bandcamp.
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43. Jlin – Black Geometry
Jlin crafts some the the most jagged, forceful, depth-charge beat music around. Her second album, Black Geometry, truly picks up some of the dynamic slack that’s been laying around since DJ Rashad died. This is unpredictable, dark-tinted music, owing as much to weirdo idm as it does to the footwork genre it’s ostensibly part of. There’s such a jackhammer force to some of these tunes that I don’t even listen as often as I think I should. But it’s worth it every time.
Black Origami can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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42. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
After seven years away, I really didn’t think James Murphy and company had it in them to make something relevant, much less genuinely exciting. But here we are. American Dream continues the funky, house-y motorik anthem path where they left off, nicely matured like a stout that’s been left to age in the basement. There’s more Bowie worship, more Daft Punk shuffle, more krautrock crescendo. It’s undeniably fun, even if it’s dad rock at this point.
American Dream is available on CD and vinyl from the DFA store.
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41. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid
I’ve been into Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith for a few years now, having enjoyed her playful, analog synth based psychedelia as one of the few truly, utterly unique voices in modern music. She sounds like herself and no one else, like a soundtrack to an imaginary Miranda July film about space and time and love and stuff. I took a while to actually give this one a chance, for some reason – likely still hung up on her majestic FRKWYS collaboration with Suzanne Ciani – but once I did, I realized my hesitation was pointless. The Kid is as beguiling and, possibly, even more repeatable than her previous works. Except for that collab. That one is god-tier.
The Kid is streaming and available for purchase on Bandcamp.
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40. S.A.M. – Dream State of a Bellmaker
Dream State of a Bellmaker feels like an old abandoned beach house, ringing with the ghosts of dub, deep techno, and ambient house music. It is terminally psychedelic, content to drift inward at times, march relentlessly forward at others. This is one of the most warmly realized takes on meditative dance music I’ve heard in years. It’s a shame that almost no one has heard it yet.
Dream State of a Bellmaker can be purchased on vinyl from Juno Records.
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39. Scott Gilmore – Subtle Vertigo
Exquisite balearic bliss from International Feel. This album upended my listening trajectory for the year, tearing me away from my winter techno blues and into the warm Mediterranean waters for a better, brighter feel on the commute to work, while writing, or just relaxing at the end of the day. Dreamy guitar tones, low-key hummable melodies, and glossy arpeggios galore: this is what daydeams wish they could be.
Subtle Vertigo can be purchased from Juno Records.
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38. SZA – Ctrl
Before 2017, I was completely unfamiliar with SZA, aka New Jersey artist Solána Imani Rowe. Her kaleidoscopic take on R&B took me completely by surprise, after hearing a random track on Spotify months ago. The album art caught my eye, naturally, with Rowe chilling before some deep forest shrine to outdated 1990s computer hardware. It signaled a mixture of electronics and naturalistic soul, which the album delivers in a delirious, psychedelic rush. This is confessional pop as dizzying beat tape, riding closer to the post-Dilla end of the hip-hop world than anywhere near the current radio trends. I’m not super well equipped to talk about this music. I wish I could better describe what a sumptuous, often sensual daydream Ctrl feels like, but instead I’ll just say try it out yourself. It’s one of the most delicately balanced R&B albums I’ve heard in a long time, never flagging in its energy, focus, and sense of fun.
Ctrl is streaming on Spotify and available to purchase pretty much everywhere, even Target.
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37. Lee Gamble – Mnestic Pressure
Lee Gamble makes music that feels like I imagine Autechre would be like these days, if they weren’t busy making 5 hour albums with tectonic plate drones and maelstroms of noise. It takes the base premise of techno and thoroughly dissects it, teasing out the weirdness inherent in each individual, closely examined aspect. The body-moving appeal remains, distorted and warped into undanceable shapes, while the alien sheen of the textures are blown up and evaporated, an uncanny valley of fog surrounding the arcane structures. On Mnestic Pressure, the London based producer forgoes the expansive sprawl of KOCH (itself a best of 2014 album), turning inward with a more claustrophic, clipped process that leaves the listener reeling after a series of dynamic shifts and abrupt cuts. Gamble is constantly breaking the expected flow of music that offers few footholds to begin with. It’s fascinating, subversive, and surprisingly repeatable music.
Mnestic Pressure is streaming and sold on CD & vinyl on Bandcamp.
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36. Dauwd – Theory of Colours
This is an album that kept coming up on the “radio” feature of Spotify, usually playing after deep house or techno albums. Every time I heard a track, I’d go to the album page to save it, only to realize I already did. It felt sublime in that basking-in-the-warm-summer-sun-laying-in-the-grass kind of way, gently pulsing along to whatever I was doing. But its appeal seemed vaporous, gone after I was done listening. Finally listening to these songs as a proper album, I was mesmerized by its spare sense of detail and warm tenor. It’s deep house, but textured like a hazy afternoon instead of a neon night. For a year so packed with stressful politics and social media overload, a shortcut to pastoral beat bliss was a welcome discovery, repeating in my car, at the office, late night in the computer screen glow.
Theory of Colours can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
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35. Joseph Shabason – Aytche
I was already intimately familiar with saxophonist and composer Joseph Shabason, thanks to his high-wire soloing that elevated Destroyer’s Kaputt, one of the best albums of 2011 and an all-time sophisti-pop favorite of mine. But where that guest spot showed a buoyant, melodic presence, his own solo debut reveals a completely different side of his work. Aytche is an often soothing, occasionally raucous take on weirdo fourth world jazz, a micro-genre birthed by trumpet player and composer Jon Hassell‘s experimental work with Brian Eno in the early 1980s. Like his forebear, Shabason has no interest in presenting his horn as a recognizable instrument. Here he uses a variety of effects pedals, ambient pads, and neon synths to evoke a nearly cyberpunk take on weirdo ambient jazz.
Aytche is available streaming and for purchase on Bandcamp.
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34. Euglossine – Sharp Time
Sharp Time sounds exactly like its cover art looks. It’s a microcosm of delicate, razor-edged sound pieces, set in motion like a lilliputian hologram of the entire solar system. It’s a revolving cast of rigid, fluid, and filigreed elements set into motion for as long as it can last. Each sharply rendered and discretely placed piece of this album hangs in balance over a fading gravity field, collapsing in playful, jazzy chaos as the album moves on, growing loose and airy as it unwinds. Despite its barely half hour length, the album covers a lot of weird territory, the bulk of which is established during second track Phenomenological Manifold, a fourteen minute juggernaut mining crystalline sophisto-pop, Vangelis synth anthems, and a bubbly take on kosmiche dream logic.
Sharp Time can be found on vinyl and digital through Bandcamp.
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33. Sampha – Process
I was already missing Frank Ocean when I stumbled upon Process, and I misguidedly thought this could fill the hole. Thankfully, I was utterly wrong and Sampha is so much more than a substitute for anyone else. With a powerful voice I find somewhere between Tracy Chapman and Anohni, he weaves concrete little narratives over soulful, lightly electronic productions that feel classical without feeling dated. If the overall effect could come from any year, the songs themselves are rooted in the concerns of the here and now of 2017. This is a set that I came back to again and again throughout the year, luxuriating in its warm soulfulness and contemplative yet energetic instrumentation.
Process can be purchased from The Young Turks.
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32. Mark Barrott – Music for Presence
Mark Barrott, head of one of my favorite labels, International Feel, makes gorgeous balearic music that I absolutely revel in. Surprising, huh? Despite having helped release many of my favorite albums, including best of 2016 release On Vacation by CFCF, he’s not someone I’ve ever written about before. Well here goes: his 16 minute Music For Presence 12″ is some of the most gorgeous, delicately crafted sound I’ve heard all year. These four songs feel like soundtracks to miniature spiritual epics, and accordingly, evoke some powerful imagery of their own.
Music For Presence can be purchased on vinyl from Juno Records.
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31. Kelela – Take Me Apart
Kelela’s deeply hallucinogenic take on R&B reminds me of nothing less than Björk in her 1990s heyday, stretching the boundaries of vocal pop toward ecstatic sculptures of pure sound. Her physicality merges with the shuffling electronic production, blending with subterranean bass, twinkling synths, infinite wordless choral clouds. It’s not exactly pop music – too dreamy, too effervescent for radio play – but instead finds a place somewhere adjacent to the main currents of soulful pop in 2017. To me, it’s a reflection of how, at their peak, Cocteau Twins blended heart pumping melodies into a layer cake of effervescent effects, distorted guitars, synths, and of course Liz Frazier’s angelic, otherworldly vocals. Take Me Apart is more grounded, more tangible than Heaven or Las Vegas, but it reaches for similarly torn space, caught between an imagined paradise and the needs of the flesh-and-blood person making it.