Music was full of fury, confusion and resistance in 2017. From Trump’s Kingdom, albums came with titles like American Dream (LCD Soundsystem), American Teen (Khalid) and All American Made (Margo Price). And indeed, U.S. artists did get explicitly political, from Randy Newman to Jason Isbell to Jay-Z. But music in 2017 was also about a more slippery sense of self, as genre lines fall away and artists searched for identity and purpose in weird times. Some of the year’s best classic rock came from pop stars like Gordi and Harry Styles; some of the year’s most acclaimed pop statements came via glossier sounds from alterna-rock icons like The War on Drugs, Queens of the Stone Age, St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear. Meanwhile, closer to home, Gang of Youths soared (and reached) new heights, Ecca Vandal melded punk angst with danceable electro, All Our Exes Live in Texas joined quintessential Aussie country with indie-folk and luscious choirs, Caiti Baker reimagined soul music with a distinctly personal touch, the Smith Street Band added slick R&B and abrasive noise to their punk revelry. Here’s the best of a tumultuous year.
By Matt Coyte, Will Hermes, Joe Levy, Jonny Nail, Rob Sheffield, Brittany Spanos, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Christopher R. Weingarten and Rod Yates.
50 — All Our Exes Live In Texas — When We Fall
Four accomplished singer-songwriters deliver honeyed harmonies over a mix of folk, Americana and pop. The result? The ARIA for Best Blues & Roots Album.
49 — Hurray for the Riff Raff — The Navigator
Alynda Lee Segarra’s sixth album veers between rustic Americana, jangling folk-rock, doo-wop and rollicking roots, a wild sonic stew as classic as it is vital.
48 — Holly Throsby — After a Time
The title was fitting, the album arriving six years after predecessor Team. A stunning duet with Mark Kozelek on “What Do You Say?” is but one of the album’s many blissful treasures.
47 — Caiti Baker — Zinc
Featuring samples of riffs her bluesman father recorded on his phone, the A.B. Original collaborator’s debut remakes soul music in her own image, meshing big band with R&B cool.
46 — Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings — Soul of a Woman
The final work from the gospel veteran is, at its heart, a joyous album that makes you feel lucky we got to share a planet with her voice for as long as we did.
45 — Aldous Harding — Party
The Kiwi singer-songwriter celebrates sparsity on her well-received second LP, with the gentle instrumentation giving equal space and variance to her stunningly haunting vocals.
44 — The New Pornographers — Whiteout Conditions
The latest from the best power-pop band of the past two decades is steeped in the hypnotic headrush repetition of Seventies Krautrock and synth swirls.
43 — Kasey Chambers — Dragonfly
The queen of Aussie country asserts her love of Americana on this career-defining record, owing as much to Ryan Adams and Steve Earle as she does to Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette.
42 — Beck — Colours
After the mellow gold sounds of his folk-rock Grammy magnet Morning Phase, Beck’s pivot into of-the-moment big-box pop locates the sublime in the music many love to hate.
41 — Julien Baker — Turn Out the Lights
The Tennessee singer follows her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, with a majestic, haunting album built around her fragile-yet-thunderous vocals and harrowing examination of self.
40 — Grizzly Bear — Painted Ruins
Grizzly Bear’s first album since 2012 is an audacious pivot to synth-pop, using the band’s most direct hooks ever to address break-ups and the end of the world, all spiced with plenty of jazzy weirdness. Fully charged and ready to break new ground, this is the kind of post-hiatus comeback most band’s fans only dream of.
39 — Japanese Breakfast — Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Michelle Zauner has always been the kind of songwriter who takes on the big stuff, but on Soft Sounds, her music has opened up with a grandeur worthy of her lyrical concerns. It’s an expansively trippy album saturated in science fiction and Eighties shoegaze.
38 — Gordi — Reservoir
Gordi’s polarising, guttural vocal delivery comes from deep within her small frame, making for one of the year’s most surprising and ambitious locally produced records. Resonating with both sadness and optimism, the songs on Reservoir established the country NSW artist as a definite player on the world stage.
37 — The Smith Street Band — More Scared of You Than You Are of Me
While on fourth go around the pub-punk quartet take their rowdy/calm colloquialism to worlds far beyond Footscray — sampling everything from pop to noise-rock — it’s the masterful lyrical prowess of frontman Wil Wagner that crashes us back down to Smith Street.
36 — Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie — Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie
Fleetwood Mac’s Buckingham and McVie make a revelatory pairing, yet their sound here doesn’t depart from the Mac’s style so much as it accentuates certain aspects, like a familiar landscape viewed from a different angle.
35 — Bob Dylan — Triplicate
On the third album in his Great American Songbook series, Dylan doesn’t shy away from tunes as familiar as “As Time Goes By”. Backed by a small band, he sings with care and nuance, looking back on past loves and losses with a tone of brooding regret that eventually ebbs into a kind of reluctant acceptance.
34 — Holy Holy — Paint
Continuing on from their stunning 2015 debut, this uniquely Australian-sounding indie rock duo refined their sprawling soundscapes without losing any of their epic quality, while tightening up their songwriting and injecting a distinctly danceable groove on songs like “That Message”. Paint sees a band at the top of their game.
33 — Dan Sultan — Killer
There’s no doubt that Dan Sultan has a formidable voice and can play guitar like a motherfucker, but on Killer, he also shows that he can deliver soulful hip-swinging grooves, injecting breakbeats and gospel touches into his reliably solid rock numbers. At once classic and modern-sounding, Killer is Sultan’s best record to date.
32 — Robert Plant — Carry Fire
With a title that evokes primal discovery and heroic burden, the overall feel of Carry Fire is at once ancient and new. Cutting Led Zeppelin III‘s Maypole majesty with the Velvet Underground’s careful guitar violence and the patient power of Plant’s golden-god-in-winter singing makes for an astonishing listen.
31 — Paul Kelly — Life Is Fine
After steadily releasing well-received records to his die-hard fans for decades, Paul Kelly pulled off a baffling feat, becoming relevant to a new generation of fans with an album full of dad-jokes and musings on becoming middle-aged. How? The answer lies in Life Is Fine‘s infectious optimism and humour.
30 — The xx — I See You
On their third full-length, the British trio decide to let some light in. From the parping horns of opener “Dangerous” through to the sampling of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” in first single “On Hold”, Jamie xx, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim expand their palette with chart-topping results.
29 — Jen Cloher — Jen Cloher
Unflinching square-ups of the Aussie dream and the local industry’s self-indulgence might be the immediate ear-grabbers, but they’re merely two steps on the miles of thematic terrain covered here, with everything from lovesick odes to an absent partner to a self-analysis of privilege blessed by the veteran songwriter’s pen.
28 — Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory
If Vince Staples’ album title suggested a life of fish-bowl containment and observation, his music outlined a break-out strategy, as the Cali rapper drew on house, electro and U.K. garage for a shifting set of thumpers. Big Fish Theory was a throwback to hip-hop’s heyday, when the only rules were for breaking.
27 — Drake — More Life
Part grime-experiment, part-trop house rendezvous, Drake explored a “playlist” with this blissfully voyeuristic 22-song project showing us many of the rapper’s sides: the piña colada-sipping partier shines on “Passionfruit”, the nostalgic heartbreak kid emerges on “Teenage Fever” and the boastful jetsetter traps on “Gyalchester”.
26 — Lana Del Rey — Lust For Life
“Part of the past, but now you’re the future,” Del Rey sings on Lust for Life‘s opening track, “Love”, as the bass hollows out a cavernous space that connects Phil Spector to Atlanta trap — Her fifth album drifts along on a sunset cloud so familiar and comforting, it’s easy to miss how focused and quietly audacious this music is.
25 — Paramore — After Laughter
The tension between Paramore’s high-intensity hooks and Hayley Williams’ withering lyrics explodes into fluorescent colours on After Laughter. Aiming toward pop’s most hypermanic ideals, it’s a mania resulting in despondent-yet-danceable jams, mirror-image synth-pop and heartbreakingly wise balladry.
24 — Valerie June — The Order of Time
Valerie June perfected her handsomely idiosyncratic brand of Americana on this second LP, steeped deep in electric blues and old-time folk, gilded in country twang and gospel yearning — even tapping into Tuareg styles to map African sounds from the old world (“If And”). Who knew musicology could feel so good?
23 — Nic Cester — Sugar Rush
Eight years after Jet’s last LP, their frontman returned with an album that is a rush as rich as its title suggests. Harnessing the power of his Italian backing band Calibro 35, Sugar Rush is a freewheeling journey through soul, psych, prog, funk and rock & roll, topped off by Cester’s inimitable vocals. A wondrous return.
22 — Sheer Mag — Need To Feel Your Love
Having mastered the short form on three airtight EPs in as many years, scrappy punks Sheer Mag finally scaled the album summit, with the same boombox fidelity, garage-metal shred quotient and heavy-duty soul-powered hooks (courtesy of mighty-voiced singer Tina Halladay) that made their prior releases so much fun.
21 — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound
On Isbell’s sixth studio album he elevates relationships, discussions about privilege and the art of songwriting itself to a higher plane, as well as addressing nationwide blue-collar hardships, from the trap of addiction to crushed dreams. Proof he’s a voice for all the people, not just the South.
20 — Jess Locke — Universe
There’s a whole galaxy beyond the bedroom, so it seems. Aided by full-band backing, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter stretches out from her lonesome confine where, despite an economical edit, her often-unsettlingly blunt lyrics prove equally as powerful over the more prominent pop-facing palette.
19 — Father John Misty — Pure Comedy
In which Josh Tillman updates the Seventies singer-songwriter tradition for our dystopian era: “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift” was the most quoted couplet, from the culture-indicting “Total Entertainment Forever”. But the most impressive writing is “Leaving L.A.”, a 13-minute Dylanesque antihero epic.
18 — St. Vincent — Masseduction
Annie Clark’s fifth LP is both her most pop-savvy set and her most personal. Jack Antonoff assists on production, but it’s Clark’s wit and a newfound warmth in her songcraft that make this record so impossible to shake. See the chilling-hilarious “Pills”, graced with Clark’s awesomely seizure-inducing guitar outburst.
17 — Harry Styles — Harry Styles
Styles didn’t follow his stellar run in One Direction with an album of glitzy radio pop. Instead, he staked his claim as a rock star, getting personal with a fantastic album of Seventies-style guitar grooves. He never sounds like he’s sweating to be taken seriously — or loses touch with the euphoria he brought to One Direction in the first place.
16 — Margo Price — All American Made
We knew Price was one of the sharpest songwriters in Nashville, but her second LP upped the ante. All American Made is a fierce protest album (see the feminist rallying cry “Pay Gap”); it’s also a reverent tribute to music’s past, featuring a tender duet with Willie Nelson. No other country act went nearly as deep this year.
15 — The War on Drugs — A Deeper Understanding
On Adam Granduciel’s fourth full-length under the War on Drugs banner he filters the drawled, Americana reflection with a synth-propelled urgency, in turn not only dialling up the hope of their heartland rock roots but also re-setting the course for the stadiums their future holds.
14 — Waxahatchee — Out in the Storm
No songwriter handles the curves and swerves of modern romance quite like Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield. Her band’s fourth album is like a punk-rock answer to Carole King’s Tapestry, as Alabama-raised Crutchfield talks shit about the menfolk but mostly dishes the dirt about her heart-on-fire self.
13 — Randy Newman — Dark Matter
Rock’s sharpest wit delivers the hilariously mordant LP our era deserves — playing the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vladimir Putin for laughs, then transitioning to heartbreaking miniatures like “Lost Without You”, in which a husband listens as his dying wife tells her kids to take care of him after she’s gone.
12 — JAY-Z — 4:44
The year’s best hip-hop confessional, delivered by a 47-year-old multimillionaire. Jay confronts his own failings as a husband (“4:44”) and an egocentric jerk (“Kill Jay Z”), but rhyming over No ID’s uncluttered beats, he hasn’t sounded this spry in ages, reminding us of his unique ability to casually convey vivid life truths.
11 — The National — Sleep Well Beast
The Brooklyn art-rockers cut their Cure-steeped gloom with dark humour, rich electronics and piercing guitars. Songs like “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” rage against our hellish cultural moment, not with sloganeering but by turning inward, taking stock of beauty and love, and gathering strength for what lies ahead.
10 — Sam Smith — The Thrill of It All
The fluid U.K. soul man’s second LP channels Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles alongside modern icons like Amy Winehouse and Adele. The standout is “HIM”, an uplifting tear-jerker about queer love and cultural intolerance that, in its understated, gospel-charged way, is an LGBTQ civil-rights anthem.
9 — Ecca Vandal — Ecca Vandal
After a well-received EP and what feels like years of standalone singles, Vandal’s first album was worth the wait. An intoxicating mix of punk, electro, pop and all points in between, Ecca Vandal is what happens when art triumphs over commerce and all notions of genre are punted out the door. An incendiary debut.
8 — Queens of the Stone Age — Villains
Twenty years into their run, Queens still get down like a black leather jacket zapped to life by Dr. Funkenstein himself. On 2017’s best hard-rock LP, producer Mark Ronson gives the band’s zany Zeppelin grooves an extra kick, but the red-hot rock & roll heart of Villains is pure QOTSA.
7 — Taylor Swift — Reputation
After laying low for months, Her Royal Swiftness made a spectacularly bold return with this glittering mansion of luxurious grudges, crystalline trap beats and excessive romantic thrills. It’s a pointed reminder to anyone who has doubted that she can bend the pop moment to her will whenever she feels like it.
6 — Khalid — American Teen
The year’s best new voice was a 19-year-old staking out fresh R&B territory: laid-back but charged with emotional struggle. Hits like “Young Dumb & Broke” were alive with possibilities — for instance, that an African-American kid who “wasn’t as masculine as other guys” could redefine what it meant to be an American teen.
5 — LCD Soundsystem — American Dream
James Murphy gathers his old gang of New York dance-punk virtuosos together for some truly festive paranoia — in the masterfully pissed-off American Dream, he can’t decide whether he’s making a party album for the end of the world or an apocalypse album for the end of the party. LCD Soundsystem meet the audience on equal terms — “You’ve lost your Internet, and we’ve lost our memory” — while Murphy rants about feeling like just another smug loser in a collapsing culture. Yet the music courses with the joy of communal celebration, from the cracked Detroit techno of “How Do You Sleep?” to the art-funk guitar squall of “Change Yr Mind”. And in “Black Screen”, Murphy gives David Bowie the kind of chilly farewell that Bowie would have appreciated.
4 — Nadia Reid — Preservation
“Have I stayed with you/Longer than I had to?” begins New Zealander Nadia Reid on her second album, her tender voice wracked with emotion, strength and conviction. From those opening seconds it’s clear Preservation will be no ordinary album. The follow-up to 2015’s Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs is a sonically more full-bodied effort than that debut, emerging from the wreckage of lost love with a fierce determination. Indeed, Preservation manages the feat of being fearsome and defiant without ever raising its pulse: witness the gently acoustic “Reach My Destination” as Reid intones, “There were two little words that I used… One was fuck, the other was you”. First single “The Arrow and the Aim” is a dream-rock standout on an LP full of highlights.
3 — Gang of Youths — Go Farther In Lightness
How to follow a debut album about cancer, which established your band as one of Australia’s most important? By crafting a near-80 minute opus split into three parts, each separated by grand orchestral interludes that take their titles from the psychoanalytic concepts of French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, that’s how. Frontman and songwriter David Le’aupepe has never been one to shy away from the grandiose, and so it is that Gangs’ second album wears its heart well and truly on its sleeve, moving from the widescreen Springsteen-esque storytelling of opener “Fear and Trembling” to the dense, string-laden ruminations of “Achilles Come Down” and the heartbreaking “Persevere”. It’s the ARIA Album of the Year for a reason.
2 — Lorde — Melodrama
On her 2013 debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde established herself as a budding pop mastermind. Now 21, she raises the bar on her second LP, giving the massive vistas of electronic music a sense of human-scale drama, with help from emo-pop production whiz Jack Antonoff. The invulnerable high school snark of her debut broadens into a wider emotional and sonic palette, with guitars and brass lacing through synthetic beats and dub effects. At its most ambitious, Melodrama can recall art-rock godmother Kate Bush (most prominently on the single “Green Light”). But its greatest achievement is making 21st-century pop feel as intimate as it is overpoweringly huge. The result is a record that should stand as a touchstone for pop hopefuls for years to come.
1 — Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
Rap’s most powerful voice at the absolute top of his game, with nothing left to prove but his staying power. Lamar’s 2015 watershed To Pimp a Butterfly was a brilliant hip-hop therapy session, exploding with quick-change flows, warped introspect and kaleidoscopic beats. The chart-topping DAMN. is his bare-knuckled MC blowout, just as potent but hitting with more immediate impact. He brushes off haters on “YAH.” (“Fox News wanna use my name for percentage”), then dives deeper, musing on family and referencing the Bible. On “FEEL.” he unloads his head over a trippy slow jam, going roughly 50 lines without break on one breathless stretch, a virtuoso synaptic display that’s dense without becoming impenetrable, thanks to Lamar’s feel for flow and hooks. The single “HUMBLE.” is a tour de force, packed with punchlines and double meanings, bragging with an authority few songwriters in any genre can muster. And on the fearless “FEAR.”, one of 2017’s deepest moments, he chronicles a lifetime of anxieties, among them his “fear of losin’ creativity”. But based on the evidence, he doesn’t have much to worry about.