50 Best Albums of 2017

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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Shabazz Palaces Live On KEXP 2014

Witness the most cosmic act in hip-hop, Shabazz Palaces, unleashing a hyperdrive tapestry live in the KEXP studio.

The whirlwind performance shuffles tracks from the best album of 2014, Lese Majesty, unfolding fresh aspects of their sound. There’s also a fine interview, discussing the recording process and what it feels to be making music that sounds like absolutely nothing else on earth.

These guys do not fuck around.

I dug this video from my drafts after listening to the groundbreaking album, Blowout Comb, from vocalist Ishmael Butler’s previous group, Digable Planets. In one of the most improbable second acts in music history, an early 90s underground rap hero emerged over a decade later with a new (at first mysteriously anonymous) project, breaking the few remaining rules of hip-hop like some young start up. With the group’s second album, they transcended all genre definitions, creating a sound as pure as it is unique.

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Shabazz Palaces have officially joined weird, pioneering heroes like Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, Aphex Twin, and John Coltrane in truly rarefied space.

Digable Planets – Blowout Comb: Best hip-hop album of the 90s?

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Inspired by a friend’s reminder, I cued up one of my favorite albums of all time: Blowout Comb, the underrated second and final release from Digable Planets. For those who aren’t familiar, they are jazz-inspired contemporaries of monumental groups A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul… but they go way¬†deeper.

This album is the real deal. Here’s the second to last song, a kind of manifesto:

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Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar‘s new album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is out by surprise a full week ahead of time. It’s for sale digitally and streaming in full on Spotify. Click play below. Right now.

I’m sick. I woke up today too ill to even go to work. But then this happened. I’m feeling a bit elevated right now.

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I don’t have anything too meaningful to say yet. Here’s a couple comments I made with friends during my first and only listen:

  • I don’t care about what anyone else has to say on the first day of an album like this, that’s going to have a lot of discussion flying around. I like to hear it “pure” as can be, I suppose. So uh, after 2 tracks I’ll just say that I’m really enjoying this, and the dark swirl of production tics is reminding me of D’Angelo’s latest (Best of 2014 album by the way), in a really positive way. Old and new sounds mixing for something vintage but not dated sounding, maybe?
  • Almost at the end. Loving the thick jazz sound. Not quite jazz-hop in that Digable Planets way, it does remind me of their masterpiece Blowout Comb in a very slight way… which is a good thing since that’s a top 10 album of the 90s for me.

There’s no need for a lot of discussion the moment something as important as this hits our collective ears. Just listen and absorb it. We’ll talk later.

Edit:

Second listen observations: thinking that this evokes the warm but gritty production of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, the sprawling, psychedelic structure of Shabazz PalacesLes Majesty, and the free jazz embrace of Flying LotusYou’re Dead. It’s no coincidence that all of these featured on my Best of 2014 list. I’m linking it again for emphasis – if you like this, there’s a lot of fun music streaming on that page. This album is hitting me with a deep and immediate connection.

The Best Music of 2014

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This is a list of seriously amazing music. The best albums released in 2014, no shit. You probably haven’t heard of some of these artists. That’s okay. That’s awesome, in fact. Most of it’s off the beaten path, and it’d be a shame if that’s the only reason you never heard it. My biggest pleasure with this blog is hearing from friends who discovered something that’s become absolutely essential in their lives. I treasure that feeling and only hope to spread it. Enrich your life. Be adventurous, try out some of the music streaming on this page! It’s free right now and you’re definitely not doing anything better!

Okay.

I know this is late in the sense that most people publish their lists before the year is done, but I couldn’t care less about being first in judging an entire year’s worth of beautiful music. I’d always rather be finished than first.

Every piece of music on this list deserves attention. You’ll probably love some and hate others, because that’s how taste works.

See the Best of 2014 Honorable Mention list for the greatest albums that didn’t quite make the final cut!

[Note: excepting the ABSOLUTE FAVORITES section, these albums are listed in the order I heard them.]

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Shabazz Palaces drop impossibly trippy new animated video for Forerunner Foray

With my Best of 2014 post coming up, it felt like great timing to notice Shabazz Palaces have dropped a fresh, wildly psychedelic animated video for the second track on Lese Majesty, one of last year’s best albums. Fellow Sub Pop artist Chad VanGaalen provides his unique style of surreal hand-drawn art, meshing with the song’s astral imagery in perfect fashion. Check it now.

Well look, we’ve got Magic Johnson riding a slice of pizza through hyperspace! There’s not much to say about this video; the bonkers imagery speaks for itself. It fits the impressionistic hip-hop sound playfully, perfectly.

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As for the music itself: there’s a reason Lese Majesty is one of the best albums of 2014. With a liquid, organic flow kinking to every philosophical whim of the duo, an end-to-end listen is more like twisting through a wormhole than anything resembling a straightforward rap album. There are a few brief flashes of familiar song structure, but they’re outliers on an album more closely resembling something from Oneohtrix Point Never, Flying Lotus, or Miles Davis at his spaciest.

If you enjoyed the brilliantly kaleidoscopic debut, Black Up (check my thoughts), you’re in for a weird surprise. This is Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire absolutely elevating their game, mutating an alrady impeccable sound into something more expansive and indefinable. I feel confident saying, prepare thyself for to deal with a miracle.

Edit: apparently the wrong video was showing; it’s been fixed.

Shabazz Palaces – #CAKE

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Shabazz Palaces‘ new album Lese Majesty has wormed its way to the very core of me. It’s glorious, it’s freewheeling psychedelia, it’s a complete deconstruction of hip-hop forms and one of the best albums this year. Since my purple “loser edition” showed up a couple weeks ago, I’ve played it more than any album in months; even more so on my headphones at work, through the Sub Pop stream and then Spotify, where it’s streaming for free in whole: Lese Majesty on Spotify.

If you haven’t jumped on this wavelength, please have some #CAKE.

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