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The 50 Best Albums Of 2017

A selection of NPR Music's best 50 albums of 2017. (Clockwise from upper left) <em>Far from Over </em>by Vijay Iyer, <em>Plunge </em>by Fever Ray, <em>Everybody Works</em> by Jay Som, <em>Aromanticism</em> by Moses Sumney, <em>Luv Is Rage 2</em> by Lil Uzi Vert and <em>4:44 </em>by Jay-Z.MoreCloseclosemore
A selection of NPR Music's best 50 albums of 2017. (Clockwise from upper left) Far from Over by Vijay Iyer, Plunge by Fever Ray, Everybody Works by Jay Som, Aromanticism by Moses Sumney, Luv Is Rage 2 by Lil Uzi Vert and 4:44 by Jay-Z.

30. Ron Miles
I Am a Man

The cornet, as Ron Miles plays it, is an instrument of warm color and rounded projection. There's no hint of stridency in his tone, and not much slash in his attack. But it would be a gross underestimation to file him away as an easy listen, or someone who'd trade urgency for beauty. Miles has been making his own albums for 30 years, and I Am a Man is his finest yet, building on a profoundly intuitive rapport with guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Brian Blade. What deepens the picture is a conceptual tie-in: Miles was inspired here not only by the civil rights slogan that lends the album its title, but also by a related artwork, Glenn Ligon's turn-of-the-century diptych Condition Report. And along with Blade and Frisell, the album features pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan, impeccable team players who also happen to be brilliant individualists. Miles' songs, combining melodic grace and sturdy logic, give the band room to move — and gorgeous material to explore, especially on a heart-stopping entreaty like "Is There Room In Your Heart For A Man Like Me?" --Nate Chinen (WBGO)

Listen to I Am a Man


29. Open Mike Eagle
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

The politics of place — and the wide-scale displacement of black bodies from urban spaces — might not seem like a canvas ripe for one of the most imaginative albums of the year. But that's exactly what L.A.-based indie emcee/musician Open Mike Eagle delivered with Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Rather than an awkward attempt at clunky conscious rap, he erects a poetic monument to the humanity that formerly called one of the nation's notorious housing projects home. Demolished a decade ago, the 28 high-rises of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes housed 11,000 people — including Open Mike Eagle, via extended family who lived there during his childhood — before its controversial demise. The Project Blowed alum, best known for his dark-witted humor, created a visionary concept album in which he personifies the disappearing buildings through eyes of childlike vengeance that convey the beauty and pain of a community systematically overlooked and undermined. He sing-raps his way through a stark 12-song score as spellbinding as the ongoing saga of erasure that frames debate around the demographic overhaul of cities across America. With Brick Body Kids, Open Mike Eagle challenges socioeconomic stereotypes by planting a talking epitaph in the ground where living, breathing communities once stood. --Rodney Carmichael

Listen to Brick Body Kids Still Daydream


28. Torres
Three Futures

The progression Mackenzie Scott has undertaken over the last few years has been remarkable to witness. As the creative force behind Torres, Scott's musical craft has blossomed and grown more confrontational with each album, which has also resulted in an assured, harrowing stage presence where piercing stares erupt into a glorious ferocity that renders an audience rattled and awestruck. With Three Futures, Torres morphs again, this time coalescing around seething art-pop; it swirls with transfixing sounds like serrated guitars and burbling synths which bolster Scott's soaring voice and sinister growls. Three Futures' confessional songs confront a desire for balance — between love and lust, pleasure and impulsive obsession, emotional connection and spirituality — as she documents her struggles to control her own mind and body from the brooding demons that lurk in the darkened shadows of her subconscious. Yet as Scott cloaks her heartbroken wounds by embodying an array of personas representing her potential life paths — as she does in the album's title track — she exudes a steely confidence in her own skin. As both a woman, and an artist with a singular vision, Three Futures makes it clear that she knows who she wants to be. --Mike Katzif

Listen to Three Futures


27. Fever Ray
Plunge

We last heard from Karin Dreijer in her partnership with her brother Olof as The Knife, a chapter she supposedly closed after 2013's Shaking The Habitual and the revelatory tour that followed. But where The Knife screamed outward with challenging electronic music, it's with her solo entity Fever Ray where Dreijer has self-reflected with oblique intimacy. "Destroy nuclear / Destroy boring": Never has a couplet been so emblematic of Dreijer's raison d'être, smashing both political power and personal repression in an industrial-pop puft of electronics. Eight years after Fever Ray's self-titled debut, written largely around new motherhood, Plunge is a joyous exploration of the sexual self — you could almost think of it as a companion to Björk's "Tinder album" Utopia, here indulging kink and queer pleasures with giddy curiosity. It's an indefinable pop record that plays with taste, licking up psycho-glowstick production and you-know-what-else, its climax reached with Fever Ray's most outrageously fun single to date, "To The Moon And Back." But even (and especially) at its most explicit, love is the throbbing vein throughout Plunge. --Lars Gotrich

Listen to Plunge


26. Lee Ann Womack
The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone

Lee Ann Womack had already signaled a shift in agenda with 2014's The Way I'm Livin'; on that album, she stripped away the sweetening agents of contemporary country-pop production, no longer beholden to the aesthetic demands of serving a commercial radio format. But the exhilarating implications of her freedom didn't become clear until The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone. She told me in an interview this year that she'd set out to recapture what she considered to be the emotional core of contemporary country music: its capacity for conveying melancholy in the most grounded of ways. And she achieved that and more in these 14 tracks, giving voice to relational and existential crises with an eloquence that never comes off as intellectualized. Womack was more involved in songwriting than on any other album to date, but she does her most profound communicating outside of the lyrics, scaling the precipice of desperation during the roiling country-blues number "All The Trouble" with an octave leap; leaving the bruises beneath temporary happiness partly visible in the blue-note-bending of "End Of The End Of The World" and utterly transforming the done-to-death tragic country standard "Long Black Veil" with soft, capricious phrasing, her notes sinking in slow, sorrowful arcs. Her husband, Frank Liddell, handled the production, and the players he assembled, despite their experience in the Nashville studio system, delivered uninhibited performances, some of which feel wild-eyed and down-home, others delicately embroidered with countrypolitan sophistication. It's a work bound for the country canon. --Jewly Hight

Listen to The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone


25. La Santa Cecilia
Amar Y Vivir

From playing in the plazas and streets of Los Angeles to winning Grammy awards, La Santa Cecilia tells stories through its sonic embodiment of being ni de aqui, ni de alla (not from here, nor there). The group's music is often at the crux of a conversation about migration, borders and transnational identity. Amar Y Vivir is La Santa Cecilia's loving and humble tribute to some of the greatest traditional ballads that inspired generations of Latin American artists. Covering 12 classic rancheras, boleros, R&B and rock songs, the band ditched the studio to record in the cantinas, plazas and theaters of Mexico City. For La Santa Cecilia, these covers are more than just classics — they are the backbone of their inspiration. Their selection ranges from covering Juan Gabriel's lovely and harrowing "Amor Eterno" to Cafe Tacvba's "Ingrata" with Mon Laferte. Lead singer La Marisoul also serenades classics like "Leña De Pirul," originally by Tomás Mendez, in a raspy and deep style full with heartbreak, and Smoky Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me," carried by a slow norteño-style accordion. Amar Y Vivir whispers and roars in the same breath; La Marisoul's range bears a hint of longing and nostalgia. For just a moment, these odes make room for the past and the present to listen to each other, bringing the viejita and the joven — the old and the young — into the same realm. --Jessica Diaz-Hurtado

Listen to Amar Y Vivir


24. The National
Sleep Well Beast

The strained siren of faint strings that opens Sleep Well Beast feels like the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, like rubbing blurry eyes to try to make sense of the wreck around you. What follows is a sonic companion for every stage of grief, in a way that feels musically and lyrically more weighty, raw, confusing and mortally risky than anything we have heard from The National before. "Day I Die" is denial: "I don't need you. Besides I barely even see you anymore." "Turtleneck" is anger — on top of bleeding guitars, lead singer Matt Berninger's vocal cords threaten to rip out of their cavities: "This is so embarrassing. Ah, we're pissing fits." "Empire Line" is bargaining — as strings and synthesizers negotiate with drum pads, Berninger begs, "Can't you find a way? You are in this, too." By "I'll Still Destroy You," depression has set in: "I have no positions, no point of view or vision." And by the final song, the album's title track, acceptance echoes into a trance: "I'll still destroy you someday, sleep well, beast. You as well, beast." All that's left to do, as Matt Berninger often does in concert, is to hurl an empty cup forward into the abyss — a toast of sorts to coming through the end of an album, or maybe the end of a year. --Talia Schlanger (World Cafe)

Listen to Sleep Well Beast


23. Sylvan Esso
What Now

After having found fame, love and respect on their debut, Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath looked to their second album by saying, "What now?" On it, Sanborn and Meath deal openly with the pressures that their first album brought on them — and that they, admittedly, brought on themselves. "Radio" is a stiff middle finger to commercial radio, a song that ironically became their most popular in the format. "Kick Jump Twist" deals with the grueling, never-ending tour and press cycle. At its most intimate moments, What Now is a love letter. The album cover features Meath jumping into Sanborn's arms, his wedding band shining in the sunlight. In "Die Young," we get possibly the darkest yet most romantic lines of the year with, "I was gonna die young, but now I gotta wait for you, hon." The album seems to be the proof of a partnership that triumphs over the world around them. What Now may have started as a question, but it ended as a statement. --Justin Barney (Radio Milwaukee)

Listen to What Now


22. Lil Uzi Vert
Luv Is Rage 2

It might be hard to believe young fans are feverishly screaming "All my friends are dead / Push me to the edge" at a rap concert in 2017. As an institution grounded in exuberant black male machismo, getting into your feelings, let alone openly contemplating suicide, has rarely been a part of hip-hop's script. And yet, rap's embrace of emo culture fully reared its colored-dread head with the release of Lil Uzi Vert's debut album Luv Is Rage 2. The Philadelphia rap-rocker's Marilyn Manson fandom, catchy cadence and ability to strike at the depths of drug-numbed heartache makes the album a moment for hip-hop's evolving fanbase. Uzi reincarnates all of the properties of the rock stars he's influenced by for a hip-hop audience: androgynous confidence, an awe-inspiring fashion sense and an eerie talent for tapping into his pain and bottling it into song. Much of Luv Is Rage 2 dwells on Uzi's breakup from girlfriend Brittany Byrd, a muse for his music thus far. (Byrd is referenced many times in his previous three projects, music videos and album art.) His platinum-selling "XO TOUR Llif3" deals with the crumbling, abysmal sting of losing her in a way that can incite a riot at a festival. On "The Way Life Goes," which got a remix from Nicki Minaj later in the year, Uzi employs an interpolation of Oh Wonder's "Landslide" and describes the loss as something of a storybook plot twist, a defense mechanism that allows the 23-year-old to temporarily shrug off the feeling.

When he's not working through the breakup, Uzi is reveling in his moments of fame. The Don Cannon-produced "Sauce It Up" is a guaranteed shoulder shimmy, and "Neon Guts," featuring and produced by Pharrell Williams, is an ode to Uzi's colorful, blinding jewelry and style. All considered, this official follow-up to the SoundCloud projects that first made Uzi a star proves he's more skilled artist than snot-nosed mumble-rapper, and will undoubtedly go down as a work that ushered in the emo-rap movement. Lil Uzi positions himself at the forefront of this wave, as he claims on "Two": "And you know I changed a lot of you n***** / In a matter of months I raised a lot of you n*****." That accelerated incubation period means the next wave is already on its way. --Sidney Madden

Listen to Luv Is Rage 2


21. Jay Som
Everybody Works

For all the talk about the death of the electric guitar, 2017 was actually a remarkable year for guitar rock, and the best of it came from relatively newer bands dominated by women: Partner, Charly Bliss, Vagabon, Waxahatchee, Diet Cig, Palehound, Chastity Belt, Girlpool and Bully are just some of the standouts in a crowded field. Another one, Jay Som's sophomore full-length, Everybody Works, belongs near the top of the pile. Melina Duterte, the band's sole permanent member, produced, recorded and played every instrument on the album, filling it with some of the year's most memorable hooks, gritty guitar noise and thoughtful reflections on coming of age. It's interesting to note that all of the bands listed here made rock records tinged with melancholy and plagued by self-doubt. Everybody Works embodies the sharpest of these sentiments, as Duterte attempts to reconcile her youthful hopes and dreams with the painful reality that "everybody works." On the title track, she notes that her parents aren't thrilled with the path she's chosen in life. But Jay Som's perfectly executed ode to the universal search for meaning — and joy — is proof she's on the right track. --Robin Hilton

Listen to Everybody Works


20. The War On Drugs
A Deeper Understanding

The War on Drugs' previous album, Lost In The Dream, was the band's most successful to date, earning universal critical praise and a legion of new fans. With that increase in profile, frontman and songwriter Adam Granduciel took his time in the writing and recording of a new record, and the resulting effort, A Deeper Understanding, is nothing short of masterful. It's a sprawling, meticulously crafted work created from a rich sonic palette that Granduciel taps into with tremendous skill and deftness. There's a familiar quality to The War on Drugs that I can't entirely put my finger on — it's as if the band's sound makes me nostalgic for experiences I haven't exactly had. What is clear is the lush and atmospheric nature of the music; The War on Drugs has honed its own "wall of sound" that draws you in, grabs hold and connects you to moments in time like few other artists can. --Russ Borris (WFUV)

Listen to A Deeper Understanding


19. Ifriqiyya Electrique
Rûwâhîne

Being ridden by a spirit that you don't quite understand and definitely can't contain: That's both the inspiration behind this project and the feeling of hearing it. Ifriqiyya Electrique is one of the most viscerally affecting sonic explorations of recent years. The idea was to marry mesmerizing, highly rhythmic Sufi ritual music from southern Tunisia (music from the descendants of former Hausa slaves) — during performances devotees become possessed — with the grinding, industrial crunch of electric guitar, bass and dark, growling electronics, courtesy of Putan Club's François Cambuzat and Gianna Greco, all melded into a framework that swings wildly between Maghrebi traditional music, punk and free jazz. The result is a cinematic and epic evocation of all-too-human struggle, dust and sweat morphing into a strange and indefinable ecstasy. Ifriqiyya Electrique's mind-blowing multimedia live show is even better; it has yet to come to the U.S., but here's hoping that happens, and soon. --Anastasia Tsioulcas

Listen to Rûwâhîne


18. ÌFÉ
IIII+IIII

My only regret about this album is that I could hear it for the first time only once. I was literally stopped in my tracks when I first experienced these new worlds of sonic exploration based on West African Yoruba traditions. The musical vision of bandleader Otura Mun is coupled with his status as a babalawo, or high priest in the Yoruba religion we know as Santería, and it is manifested in his electronic sampling of traditional drums and percussion. Grooves, spirituality and a fantastic idea come together in an album I have not stopped listening to all year. --Felix Contreras

Listen to IIII+IIII


17. Vince Staples
Big Fish Theory

The headline on Big Fish Theory when it arrived in late June was that Vince Staples was chasing a new sound. For fans of Staples' debut, Summertime '06 — which positively hissed with atmosphere — or his more tightly-wound Prima Donna EP, his second full-length was full of surprises, but not just because it was built on electronics that swerve from warmly rounded dancefloor-ready beats to claustrophobia-inducing static. The most reliable thing about Staples' first few releases was that he came across as unwilling to ever hold his tongue, so it's just as jarring that he repeatedly retreats over the first half of Big Fish Theory, giving half a track over to a sample from an archival interview with Amy Winehouse and sharing chunks of "Big Fish" and "Love Can Be" with collaborators who sometimes sound like samples. This on an album that also includes songs with enough industrial oomph to soundtrack a Marvel trailer. What's he pulling away from? A colleague hypothesized that Big Fish Theory's main theme is love (a theory Staples called "fair"), and if that's true, it's almost certainly also about distance — geographical and emotional. Maybe this is just the work of an artist who knows he'll be misunderstood holding his audience — and maybe everybody else — at arm's length so he can have enough space to create. --Jacob Ganz

Listen to Big Fish Theory


16. Jlin
Black Origami

Few cultural relationships are more pored over than the one between the drum and the dance — the transformative bond and beating heart of a century's worth of pop revolutions, large and small. On Black Origami, the second album by the Gary, Ind. producer born Jerilynn Patton, this connection resurfaced in a new form: progressive, beat-heavy electronic music as contemporary ceremonial composition. It begins with industrial-strength sonics — specifically, the tautness and largesse of Jlin's minimally designed polyrhythms, accessing marching-band drum corps, Steve Reich's percussion arrangements and the Chicago juke trax she matured on, yet without a deep debt to any of them. This is how Black Origami's next-level drum-machine programming feeds a different kind of "dance music": less club-oriented populism, more work for experimental choreographers and serious practitioners. It is music not for uplift, but as signal of radical change, built on shifting rolls with no 4/4 rocksteady in sight. Black Origami's dark synths and samples, and its art-house contributors (William Basinski, Holly Herndon), add more layers of deep headiness. Yet, at their core, this album's cerebral qualities are there mostly to serve the body, the primary instrument in which the conversation between the drum and the dance ultimately manifests. --Piotr Orlov

Listen to Black Origami


15. Danish String Quartet
Last Leaf

You don't have to be a Scandinavian musicologist to fall in love with Last Leaf, the Danish String Quartet's new album of Nordic folk songs and dances. The fact that the atmospheric "Drømte mig en drøm" (I Dreamed a Dream) is over 700 years old and the rollicking "Stædelil" is based on a Faroese medieval ballad later reworked by Beethoven is not as important as the fluency and grace that infuses these blithesome performances. In the quartet's eloquent, but not overworked, arrangements, you can hear the shuffling feet of dancers and wheezy bagpipes. "Æ Rømeser," from the Danish island of Fanø, mesmerizes, as the whirl of a polka meets a wistful melody. The band stays busy playing Brahms and Haydn — and even contemporary composers like Thomas Adès and Hans Abrahamsen, featured on a superb album released last year. But when it comes to the simple idea of a classical string quartet performing folk tunes, the Danish musicians have exceeded all expectations. --Tom Huizenga

Listen to Last Leaf


14. Moses Sumney
Aromanticism

Aromanticism is about a vibe — a warm, soulful, mysterious sound. It explores notions of longing and coexistence, and our modern construct of romance. Inspired by Plato and Aristophanes' account of the origin of humanity, rooted in the fear of loneliness and craving for affection, the album imagines the meaning of life in the absence of love. Moses Sumney told me that he made this record "about lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape." That "sonic dreamscape" was created over the past three years with horns, the bass of Thundercat and at the center of it all, that voice. He layers those voice tracks, up to 50 at once, and the choral effect is translucent, heart-rending and ethereal, with the backdrop of electronics adding to the harmony. The songs flow from one to another, while his economical use of words makes the 35 minutes of this journey concise and compelling. --Bob Boilen

Listen to Aromanticism


13. Rhiannon Giddens
Freedom Highway

Sometimes being American can feel so daunting. History runs toward us like a train barreling through the tunnel John Henry built with his murderous hammer, and we can't get out of the way. Rhiannon Giddens has made a life project of flipping the switch on that linear sense of history, as it applies both to music and to the communities who make it. Her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops was folk revisionism; her first solo album, 2015's tribute to African-American women Tomorrow Is My Turn, deeply artful canon-building. On Freedom Highway Giddens time-travels from antebellum New Orleans to the present day, touching upon spirituals and the blues, Cajun dance music and hip-hop. She revives the lost voices of women who were sold and women who waited for lovers who ran, of boys shot in the street and girls who died in church bombings. She speaks for all those sacrificed people without reducing them to victims, her mighty alto pouring energy into myths and real stories that have been dulled by too many official spins. She demands that listeners take a knee, but that they also dance — because dancing revives the deepest memories and shows us how to step in new directions, off the track and into a future unbound. --Ann Powers

Listen to Freedom Highway


12. Vijay Iyer
Far From Over

Vijay Iyer has cultivated a broad coalition of admirers with the streamlined complexities and chantlike resonances of his music, mainly through the sterling work of an acoustic piano trio. With Far From Over, he formally introduced a six-piece unit whose sound nods toward the jazz continuum even while opening up new options for texture and counterpoint. The band's front line — Graham Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn, Steve Lehman on alto saxophone, Mark Shim on tenor saxophone — handles abstract striations as well as post-bop maneuvers. (They're also essential in the honk-and-blare strategies that frame a piece like "Into Action.") And because rhythm is always the engine in Iyer's music, this album lives and dies by the tactile contingencies of his interplay with Stephan Crump's earthy bass playing and Tyshawn Sorey's whipsaw drumming. There's a political dimension here, too: "As the arc of history lurches forward and backward," Iyer observes in his liner notes, "the fact remains: local and global struggles for equality, justice, and basic human rights are far from over." With any luck, the album's title phrase also describes the road ahead for this superb sextet. --Nate Chinen (WBGO)

Listen to Far From Over


11. Jay-Z
4:44

It only took JAY-Z nearly losing the baddest Bey in the game — and their burgeoning family — to swap out his trademark hubris for some much-needed humility. The old Jay had to go, so the Brooklyn boy born Shawn Carter assassinated his ego. It served as the perfect intro to his thirteenth studio album, 4:44, the title of which happens to coincide with the hotel address where the infamous elevator incident with sis-in-law Solange took place. The women in Jay's life, daughter Blue included, certainly deserve credit for inspiring him to create one of the best albums of his career. In addition to addressing his infidelity on the title track, he cleared some old skeletons out of his misogynistic closet. With the sonic provocation of producer No I.D. — who provided a soul-searching sonic palette ripe with samples of women ranging from Nina Simone to Sister Nancy — Jay didn't stop there. He made way for his mother to embrace her true identity ("Smile"), plotted out black economic empowerment ("Family Feud") and parsed the tragic trajectory of race denial and wealth in America ("The Story of O.J."). Midlife crisis averted while leading the way for hip-hop to age gracefully — that's swag on a trillion. --Rodney Carmichael

Listen to 4:44

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