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The 50 Best Albums Of 2017

NPR Music's top five albums of the year. (Clockwise from upper left) <em>Process </em>by Sampha, <em>DAMN. </em>by Kendrick Lamar, <em>Melodrama </em>by Lorde, <em>Crtl </em>by SZA and <em>Capacity </em>by Big Thief.MoreCloseclosemore
NPR Music's top five albums of the year. (Clockwise from upper left) Process by Sampha, DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar, Melodrama by Lorde, Crtl by SZA and Capacity by Big Thief.

Consensus wasn't easy in 2017. Maybe that's because the news this year kept us on edge, our eyes and ears pointed in many directions. Maybe it's due to the growth of streaming as the dominant listening platform, one whose rules have not yet fully been written. Whatever the cause, with the exception of our No. 1 album, it felt like there were few pieces of music this year that captured our attention instantly and simultaneously. Instead, we spent our year tracking down new sounds that gave voice to our struggles and breakthroughs, our search for joy and our need for release. When it was time for our staff and member station partners to come together at the year's end, we found there was plenty to celebrate. Here is NPR Music's list of the best albums of 2017.


50. Paramore
After Laughter

In tumultuous times, escapism can often feel like the only viable option. Rather than confront what's at hand, we avoid, ignore or retreat. Its slick sound makes much of After Laughter appear to be such a pop circumvention. Even though the majority of its 12 tracks shimmer and sparkle, After Laughter isn't an avoidance of reality; rather, the record finds Hayley Williams, Taylor York and Zac Farro engaging with despair. They're just bathed in neon and glitter and an '80s inspired sound. From the skittering Afropop guitar of "Hard Times" to the twinkling marimba of "Pool" to the shouts on "Rose-Colored Boy," After Laughter leans on its luster while reckoning with reality, retaining the lyrical vulnerability of Paramore's past while refusing to succumb to the gravity of its subject matter. Cast against a technicolor background, Williams is honest about anxiety, imperfection, betrayal and depression. A study in contrasts, After Laughter doesn't run away; after all, its makers know the only way to make it through turmoil is with a little tenacity. --Lyndsey McKenna

Listen to After Laughter


49. Marc-André Hamelin
For Bunita Marcus (Feldman)

When pianist Marc-André Hamelin plays For Bunita Marcus in concert he doesn't really mind if people drift off for a momentary snooze. At 75 minutes and never rising above a whisper, Hamelin says (with a wide smile) Morton Feldman's composition is "going to be the most aggravating thing you've ever listened to; either that or the best migraine medicine you've ever had."

Before he died in 1987, Feldman's works expanded and grew quieter. In Hamelin's meticulous performance — allowing single notes to resound in vast, silent spaces — Feldman redefines how music moves through time. Hamelin dares to suggest, in the album's liner notes, that the volume should be turned down when listening to the piece. (Perhaps it's a tip of the hat to one of the composer's oft-quoted lines to musicians who played his music "too f****** fast and too f****** loud.") But I disagree. Turn For Bunita Marcus up loud so its strange beauty can totally surround you. --Tom Huizenga

Listen to an excerpt from For Bunita Marcus


48. Miguel Zenón
Típico

After a series of fascinating albums exploring his Puerto Rican identity through instrumental music, saxophonist Miguel Zenón looks within on this year's release Típico. But he's not looking within himself; instead he's turning his gaze to the inner workings of his long-time working quartet (Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums). This album is music made by four separate parts of the same musical mind, so attuned to nuance and emotion that it borders on the voyeuristic — like we shouldn't be privy to such an intimate conversation of appreciation, respect and plain old joy. This is Miguel Zenón's high-water mark with a band that is already one of the best out there. --Felix Contreras

Listen to Típico


47. Jaimie Branch
Fly or Die

A trumpeter with a sure command of her sound, stretching into the realm of extended technique, Jaimie Branch waited a while to make an album under her own name. Fly Or Die was worth the wait, arriving both as a fully formed statement and a bolt out of the blue. Branch's compositions feel like deliberative scraps, in the best way: She knows how to sketch a framework for her partners to fill. And she has excellent taste in collaborators, working mainly with a gang that shares roots in the underground Chicago scene: cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian, drummer Chad Taylor. This is music with an avant-garde jazz limbic system, but traits that otherwise reach into new music, post-rock and various other experimental areas. What holds everything together is the immediacy of Branch's playing, and her clarity of purpose. --Nate Chinen (WBGO)

Listen to Fly or Die


46. Mr. Mitch
Devout

A grime album about fatherhood and fame is the sort of conceit that could have gone wrong in any number of ways. Props then to Miles Mitchell, the South London DJ/producer who's spent the last five years moving the music into a softer (yet no less intense) space, for finding an exquisite balance between emotional and visceral. On his sophomore album, Devout, he addresses the birth of his second son, Oscar, and his own reaction to it. It's music full of trepidation and self-doubt, but also joy and quiet excitement, with a diverse array of voices (grime MC P Money, dancehall singer Palmistry, soul vocalist Denai Moore, among others) articulating the moment's confusion when Mitchell's own simply spoken words aren't enough. Devout's true secret weapons, though, are its beatless instrumentals, highly synthetic and deeply melodic miniatures bearing the DNA of software-composed lullabies and Erik Satie's "Gymnopédies," with just enough sub-bass and decontextualized post-rave synths to remind you of their producer's origins. It was some of the most unexpectedly touching and gorgeous music of the year. When he grows up, Oscar best be proud. --Piotr Orlov

Listen to Devout


45. Oumou Sangare
Mogoya

It's been nearly 30 years since Malian singer Oumou Sangare released her debut album. And she's always been deliberate as a recording artist: The long-awaited Mogoya is her first album in eight years, and only the fifth studio project in her entire career. On this album, the savvy Sangare has paired up with a team of younger French and Swedish producers to broaden and update her sound while still delivering the socially conscious lyrics that are her passion; here, she addresses topics from suicide to her country's political turmoil to the many African migrants who are struggling — and often dying — on their quests to find safe harbor in Europe. It's a pleasure to hear Sangare back in action. — Anastasia Tsioulcas

Listen to Mogoya


44. Priests
Nothing Feels Natural

Priests' debut album, Nothing Feels Natural, is a set of blisteringly smart rock songs, rooted in the loud guitar fury of punk but borrowing from the band's new-wave, experimental and jazz influences. On its previous EPs and 7-inch singles, the D.C. group has examined how forces like sexism, racism and gentrification impact interpersonal interactions, from the banal to the seismic; on Nothing Feels Natural, these interrogations are given a sharp, introspective edge. "Why do I always have to be the police to get you to shut up when I speak?" sings Katie Alice Greer on album closer "Suck," a biting commentary on gender and power cloaked in funk polyrhythms. The album makes a quietly radical statement by showing the political potential of such an inward turn, and does so with song structures and instrumental arrangements that reveal a band stretching its legs without sacrificing its inimitable sense of cohesion. For a year when conversations about power — from the results of electoral politics to the grip of existential dread — seemed unavoidable, Priests provided a blueprint for asking these questions of ourselves and each other. --Marissa Lorusso

Listen to Nothing Feels Natural


43. Danay Suarez
Palabras Manuales

We all knew Danay Suarez was something special — we being the folks who first heard her on those way cool Havana Cultura Sessions albums from a few years back and then on her follow-up, Polvo De La Humedad. Then this gem of an album was released in the spring with so little fanfare that I completely missed the announcement, but by the time I caught up I could hear it was the strongest showcase yet for Suarez's laid-back yet powerful vocal style. Her "Cubanidad" is evident on every track, but the glory of this record is how she interprets the island's rich musical heritage with the kind of songwriting and collaborating that expands our idea of Cuban music. --Felix Contreras

Listen to Palabras Manuales


42. Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet
Ladilikan

This is a refreshing and sweet collaboration between the intrepid Kronos Quartet and three master Malian musicians — singer Hawa Diabaté, balafon xylophone player Lassana Diabaté and ngoni lute player Mamadou Kouyaté, exploring repertoire that ranges from gorgeous arrangements of traditional Malian griot praise songs for the seven-piece ensemble to a sublime cover of an American gospel song associated with the legendary Mahalia Jackson: "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away." But along with possessing inherent beauty, Ladilikan holds another meaning as well. At a time when Malian musical traditions cultivated over many centuries — and today's actual musicians themselves — continue to face existential threat by fundamentalist Islamists, this album stands as a proclamation of music's power. --Anastasia Tsioulcas

Listen to Ladilikan


41. Waxahatchee
Out in the Storm

In 2012, Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield made her name with a debut album that contained a nervy mix of lacerating insight and raw, raggedly stripped-down acoustic arrangements. In the five years since, Waxahatchee has polished its sound to a gleaming, electrified shine. But on Out In The Storm, Crutchfield's words still tell bold, hard truths — in this case directed both outward and inward in the aftermath of a hard breakup. Out In The Storm isn't about the raw recriminations of broken love as much as its equally terrifying and promising aftermath. In the effervescent "Silver," that means embracing the risks inherent in re-entering the world: "I went out in the storm / And I'm never returning." With the help of a tight backing band — including her sister Allison, a solo force in her own right — Katie Crutchfield has made a career out of embracing and examining change. Out In The Storm is all the richer for her sonic and thematic adventurism. --Stephen Thompson

Listen to Out in the Storm


40. Midland
On The Rocks

Think of On The Rocks as a concept album about the life of the faceless bar band, that group hitting its marks in the background of every sawdust-floored bar in real life or road movie where some conflict — dancing or fighting or drunken revelation — plays out in the lights. Midland might not actually be those hard-living, empty-pocketed strummers with a shared dream and the chops to play any room in America if only they can rustle up the gas money, but they wear the part well. Over these 13 songs, the story is basically the same — a little heartbreak, a little too much whiskey, big dreams and small stages — with only the location of the bar and the distance from home changing. It's a potent bartender's dozen based on classically sturdy country tropes, songs for drinking and two-stepping and crying in your beer. The knock on this album is that Midland maybe plays a caricature of a real thing — country androids playing songs that have been written hundreds of times before. Knock all you want. Midland's gonna keep playing the hits until we figure out we should be focused on those guys with all the moves that nobody ever notices. --Jacob Ganz

Listen to On The Rocks


39. Tyler Childers
Purgatory

Purgatory, the July release from Tyler Childers, begins and ends with freedom. The redheaded songwriter is a good spokesman for the theme — he's pursued his own course since he began touring as a young man. The record was produced by fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson, who is similarly apart from and a part of the country tradition. Their partnership yielded 10 exceptional Americana songs that are arranged with unfussy precision and the occasional glimmer of Simpson's subversive ear. But the standout here is Childers' songwriting. He charts a course on the record from the freedom of abandon (vice-filled country like "I Swear (To God)") to the freedom of devotion (whether to music on "Universal Sound" or to a lover on the elegant "Lady May"). In either case, his voice carries a liberty in the loss of self: "But up till now, there ain't been nothing / That I couldn't leave behind," he sings to a new lover on "Feathered Indians." It's the turning point of the record — an ode to the grounding, orienting freedom of good love. But it's also in part a misstatement. This generously observed record speaks of a songwriter who leaves nothing behind: He carries it with him and gives it away in his songs. --Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey

Listen to Purgatory


38. Migos
C U L T U R E

By sheer magnitude, Migos may have set a new metric for cultural impact in 2017. Never mind the confluence of events that catapulted the suburban Atlanta trap trio (Quavo, Offset and Takeoff) into the pop stratosphere this year — from Donald Glover shouting out the undeniable club anthem "Bad and Boujee" at the Golden Globes to Offset popping the question to mutual come-up artist Cardi B in an arena full of 19,000 fans. Having created a sea change stateside with its ubiquitous Migos flow, the trio and its trademark triplets have echoed all the way to Asia and back courtesy of soundalike acts like China's Higher Brothers. But the hype would be all for naught if not for C U L T U R E, the aptly-titled studio album Migos released in January. It turned a group known for infectious singles, bridging hood cred with high fashion, into a platinum-selling album act as popular as it is polarizing. The hypnotic 808s and melodic Auto-Tuned hooks on songs like "What The Price" and "Kelly Price" might lull you into a safe place. But the percussive punch behind their delivery on songs such as "T-Shirt" and "Deadz" (feat. 2 Chainz) — with its gothic overture — will remind you why sex, drugs and excess is a universal affair. --Rodney Carmichael

Listen to C U L T U R E


37. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
The Kid

There are numerous creative and philosophical conversations that composer/singer-songwriter/synthesizer wizard Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's magnificent album The Kid wanders knowingly into, touching upon spirituality and technology, naturalism and process. It is among the rich comforts of this deeply quirky, regal album of Buddhist ambient-pop songs and post-classical, electronic compositions that its conscientiously designed layers of words and sounds continue to radiate previously unrecognized pleasures many listens in. But though there is not a single mention of current events or the ever-bludgeoning news-cycle among its 13 tracks, to me The Kid's greatest achievement is how the many important (dare I say, timeless) things it subtly references mirrors the chaotic pace of the society it came into — even making some sense and organizing this unbending velocity. This is what makes The Kid both a survival guide and a soundtrack, the pulse steady and measured whether its occasionally tribal drums are welcoming bodies to life, or its array of digitally processed choir of voices is signaling their final exodus. No piece of music I heard in 2017 was as hopeful of a next moment for the planet — an inference that, yes, we will survive this one. --Piotr Orlov

Listen to The Kid


36. Rapsody
Laila's Wisdom

While women in music are often whittled down to represent only one image, Rapsody unpacks the intricacies of modern black womanhood on her sophomore album, Laila's Wisdom. The title pays tribute to the rhymer's maternal grandmother and, like the wisdom she passed down, the music speaks to those who fight to be seen as multifaceted. The North Carolina MC puffs her chest on the album's title track, holds her head high on "Black & Ugly," bats her eyelashes during a flirtatious monologue on "Knock On My Door" and sheds exasperated tears on "Jesus Coming." The rapper's lispy tone never sounds rushed as she asserts these emotions, and her flow glides naturally over beats which sample Aretha Franklin and Goodie Mob (courtesy of 9th Wonder). Even with features from contemporaries who, by some accounts, are bigger power players in the industry (Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, Musiq Soulchild), it's obvious with every passing note and rhyme scheme that she reigns supreme over them all. An album propelled by the Roc Nation machine and blessed with finishing touches from her Jamla Records family, Laila's Wisdom is undoubtedly Rapsody's best project to date. --Sidney Madden

Listen to Laila's Wisdom


35. Thundercat
Drunk

I've seen Thundercat's hands effortlessly whiz around his wide 6-string bass neck, a show of incredible technique. But on Drunk, an understated virtuosity prevails, a striking affirmation of artistic maturity and playfulness. The record is a musical manga of 23 exceptional songs, each distinct yet purposefully connected. Its processed bass sounds natural and surprisingly real. In "Lava Lamp," a groovy lyrical hook with — count 'em — 11 "oohs" complements a rich harmony rooted in a driving pulse. Cylindrical arpeggiated chords in "Friend Zone" and a mesmerizing 5/4 meter in "Blackkk" reveal a musical command few jazz cats can master. Collaborators include Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell, Wiz Khalifa, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, but it's the details that stand out. You might recognize the Isley Brothers beat that starts the album's big hit "Them Changes," or linger over the huge, minute-plus fade out on "Inferno." He begins the album in a breathy falsetto, singing the lines, "Let's go hard, get drunk, and travel down a rabbit hole." Thundercat revealed to Red Bull Music Academy his thoughts on the album's drinking theme: "I felt like it was kind of interweaved in the music culture. And it's something that's never talked about." --Suraya Mohamed

Listen to Drunk


34. Joan Shelley
Joan Shelley

Joan Shelley is an album that puts the focus on this elegant Kentucky singer's voice, and that's where it should be. She's been compared to early Sandy Denny and Judy Collins and has a sound that's rich and seductive, dark and warm; it's never obscured here. Jeff Tweedy's simple but sonically full production uses acoustic and electric guitars, bass, minimal keyboards and subtle drums in a delicate reverb that deepens the work and makes it whole. The effect is Siren-like. And her songs, with their traditional echoes, are beautifully brief. You could compare this self-titled album to some atmospheric recordings of Tim Buckley and Fred Neil but with better fidelity. Since Shelley met Tweedy when they were guests on Mountain Stage, we feel a special connection to this beautiful album. It's her fifth release, but the perfect introduction to a talent who looks to be establishing herself for a long run. --Larry Groce (Mountain Stage)

Listen to Joan Shelley


33. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Moorland Elegies (Kõrvits)

In this stunning album, a rising star among Estonian composers, Tõnu Kõrvits, transforms the poetry of English novelist Emily Brontë into cinematically vivid postcards for choir and strings from the windswept moors of the 19th century. Like her novel Wuthering Heights, these nine poems are haunted by restless moonlit nights, lost lovers and coiled emotions. Kõrvits' musical palette is uncommonly wide, pushing the Grammy-winning Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir into luminous murmurs, swooping cries and swirling colors. His nuanced treatment of Tallinn Chamber Orchestra strings amounts to creating an entirely separate dramatic character. And at times it's hard to tell the string choirs from the real choristers. Anyone who thinks choral music is a fusty relic of the church needs to hear this album. --Tom Huizenga

Listen to Moorland Elegies


32. Alvvays
Antisocialites

Alvvays lead singer Molly Rankin relishes the opportunity to create dramatic storylines in her songs. "It's an escape thing for me," she said before a recent show in Portland, Ore. "If I were to focus on my life it would be boring. There would be a lot of walking through Toronto." The Canadian rock band had a breakout song in 2014 with the fist-pumping anthem "Archie, Marry Me" — which featured a playful, if unsentimental, Rankin begging for matrimonial commitment behind a wall of distorted guitars. With that in mind, the lyrical content of the band's sophomore record, Antisocialites, is a bit of a shock at first listen. Following what the band terms a "fantasy breakup arc," the new album chronicles the slow and painful death of a relationship through discord, resentment and indifference. There is no "Archie" here, but the record is possibly the most complete cover-to-cover listen of 2017, as the band seamlessly switches gears from dreamy pop to jangly rock and back again. So while the lyrics may be chock full of defeat, Antisocialites is anything but a disappointment. --Jerad Walker (OPB)

Listen to Antisocialites


31. Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked at Me

There's no single word to describe A Crow Looked At Me, an album written and recorded in the aftermath of the death of musician and comic-book artist Geneviève Castrée, the wife of Mount Eerie's principle member Phil Elverum and mother to their child. It just is. You could dissect how Elverum's plainspoken delivery and winding guitar work have almost become indistinguishable, sympathetic instruments carrying each other when one is lost. You could call Elverum brave for baring the extremity of grief in exacting detail, but then he'd tell you a joke that you're not so sure you're supposed to laugh at. You could describe the album's sorrow as beautiful, but question your morbid voyeurism and ultimately collapse under Elverum's wail. I haven't listened to A Crow Looked At Me since it was released in March — just revisiting the opening of "Real Death" this week wreaked emotional havoc — but I have carried the shattering experience of this record all year. Upon witnessing these songs performed solo in a church sanctuary in September, I realized what a rare gift Elverum has given us in this document of mourning: A Crow Looked At Me breaks you, mends and breaks again, but rebuilds other paths beyond. --Lars Gotrich

Listen to A Crow Looked at Me


Copyright NPR 2017.

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