What a year for music 2017 was. There was new Jay-Z, new Eminem, new Kendrick Lamar, and much, much more. Tons of staggering, masterful work came about this year, but it seems the ones that rose above greatness were the more vulnerable, confessional work.
Style, sound, and swagger are of course unremovable aspects that make music great, but artists challenged that notion this year, shedding their focus on style and instead directing their emotional potence to craft beautiful, visual stories about pain, struggling, self-worth, depression, and isolation.
Below are the 10 best albums of 2017:
10. Turn Out The Lights by Julien Baker
Tennessee songwriter-singer Julien Baker sang about death and depression in her phenomenal debut Sprained Ankle, a public document of mental illness and substance abuse, but with the tiniest hint of hope ingrained between the debris of self-loathing. In the titular "Turn Out the Lights" Baker sings, "There's a hole in the drywall still not fixed / I just haven't gotten around to it / And besides I'm starting to get used to the gaps." That tiny glimmer of hope in Sprained Ankle is now the one speaking in "Turn Out the Lights," packed with sharpened perspective and honesty.
9. Yesterday's Gone by Loyle Carner
A South London rapper, Loyle Carner's debut album is confessional, contemplative, and oozing with style. Note that style, here, is wholly integrated to substance — as much as Carner's LP is sonically diverse, it is also emotionally rich and almost cinematic in its storytelling. It is a masterful, yet also effortless work. Carner is the kind of artist who'd be exciting to see evolve.
8. A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs
Philadelphia-based rock band The War on Drugs sings about darkness again in its fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding. Not because the band is incapable of exploring other themes, but because it proves that darkness is so shapeless, undefined, and fluctuating, that there needs to be a deeper understanding of it. The album's cover features frontman Adam Granduciel alone, and he explains why in "Clean Living": "Sometimes I'll lay in the dark / Just to see if I can feel a spark."
7. How To Be a Human Being by Glass Animals
In How To Be a Human Being, Oxford-based English indie rock band Glass Animals sings about the eccentries of life, or how it is lived. While it isn't the most cohesive album Glass animals has released, it's by far the most emotionally potent. The album is raw, honest, and unapologetic about the many kinds of pain it talks about.
6. Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest
What is Let Them Eat Chaos? Is it a collection of spoken word poetry? Is it a sonic novel? Is it experimental fiction for your ears? Or is it an unabridged work documenting the immensity of humans, of earth, of the strange, painful ways people are alone? It's a staggering, genre-defying work of pure honesty and unrivaled creativity by visionary Kate Tempest, that's what it is — and we hope she makes more.
5. Melodrama by Lorde
Oh, Lorde. Sophomore albums are quite the pressure for artists, especially if their first outing was phenomenally received. Lorde's Pure Heroine had marked her as a smarter, more insightful artist than her contemporaries — she was essentially a teenager singing about "postcode envy" and never becoming "royals."
In Melodrama, Lorde's second full-length album, she delivers by maturing and looking inward. The socio-political commentary of Pure Heroine has been replaced by gut-punching personal reflection. Describing herself in the tremendously vulnerable "Liability," Lorde says, "The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy / 'Til all of the tricks don't work anymore."
Melodrama is Lorde putting all her emotions out in the open — no apologies, no shame, no guilt. "Megaphone to my chest / Broadcast the boom boom boom boom and make 'em all dance to it."
4. 4:44 by Jay-Z
If Beyoncé's Lemonade was a gut-wrenching, brutally honest confessional about infidelity and resilience over a marriage collapsing, Jay Z's 4:44 is an apology; a spellbinding masterstroke of lyrical storytelling that, among other things, acknowledges Beyoncé's story. In this album, Jay-Z makes no excuses, simply admitting his participation in his wife's suffering. In doing so, the rapper ventured into dark places that left him vulnerable, volunteering to corrode his own concepts of masculinity to create a more improved version of the word "man."
3. Masseduction by St. Vincent
Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, explores in Masseduction what it feels like to be female and to be gazed upon by a culture that looks down on females yet expects them to do be perfect, pristine, flawless. She's angry, relentless, and unforgiving. Yet this hostility is rooted in vulnerability, and because she's more open than ever before, she has less time to dilute her work in metaphors and roundabout lyrics, opting instead for straightforward, impressionistic lines like "The void is back and unblinking" in "Hang On Me," and "Everyone you love will all go away" in "Pills."
2. DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar does not need an introduction. He has taken hip-hop and rap, elevated it with innovative, stylistic, and experimental sonic directions, and continues not to be satisfied with what he's come up with. In DAMN., his fourth studio album, Lamar proves himself a consummate poet, rapper, prophet, and musician as he breaks all the rules and sets a new sound for his genre. It is both multifaceted and complex, yet relatable and anthemic — the kind of work that confronts content and form in equal measure.
1. Ctrl by SZA
Ctrl almost didn't happen. In October 2016, the singer tweeted that she had "actually quit" music altogether, and that her label, TDE, can release the album if it wanted to. The album was then released this June, to staggering acclaim. Whatever made SZA quit, she seems fine now; she's making Saturday Night Live appearances and just released a new music video for "The Weekend."
Ctrl is SZA struggling to come to terms with the fact that she needs to lose control, to let go of control — the illusion of control, actually. It's no accident that the album's name itself is truncated and abbreviated: Like the way SZA let go of the other letters, she has also let go of completeness, perfection, and grip. By doing so, she had set herself free.
Ctrl isn't just an album — it's an open, raw nerve. It's a triumphant experiment in letting go and being completely vulnerable. In it SZA copes with tarnished self-worth, not to mention the need to harvest validation from a lover. "I could be a supermodel if you believe / If you see it in me," she sings in "Supermodel."
Whereas SZA's last album, Z, was a hint of the singer's vulnerability, Ctrl is entirely made of it. Thus, she has created something timeless, contemplative, and unflinchingly honest — that will inevitably be discussed for many, many years in the future.