2017 may in future be seen as the year that marked a major shift from the primacy of pop to the ascent of the new R&B and hip-hop superstars. Youth in particular reigned supreme; of our top ten albums of the year, eight are from artists who are 30 years old or younger, many on just their first or second bodies of work. But across the board, from intimately emotional pop (Lorde, Taylor Swift) to moody, atmospheric groups (LCD Soundsystem and The xx); from individuals standing for something beyond just their sounds (Kesha, Perfume Genius, Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar) to fresh faces stealing the spotlight (Khalid, SZA), it was easy to find something to love.
In honorable mentions, it’s worth noting that this year also brought a number of exceptional works by artists more weathered by music’s cycles: JAY-Z’s introspective 4:44, Kelly Clarkson‘s soulful exuberance on Meaning of Life, the pop-rock sensation of Divide from Ed Sheeran, the sly funk spirit of Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic and Demi Lovato‘s full-throated pop on Tell Me You Love Me. But the final selection represents a group of artists who are reaching forward, stepping outside of comfort zones and creating new pathways for music to follow.
10. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
LCD Soundsystem earned a cult following throughout the ‘00s thanks to their dry humor and lo-fi production — until band mastermind James Murphy announced the project’s retirement in 2011, even playing a hyped farewell show in New York. But the break didn’t stick: The group came back this year for a reunion record that’s both tongue-in-cheek and confessional, finding new space for sincere reflection. There’s sorrow, disdain and reckoning, like on the ‘80s-leaning synth pop of the sweet “Oh Baby” and meditative nine-minute chant of “How Do You Sleep?” (“You warned me about the cocaine,” he shakes his head, “then dove straight in.”) American Dream proves some acts are better together.
9. Taylor Swift, Reputation
A lot was at stake on Swift’s hotly-anticipated sixth studio album, which she suggested would be edgier than the superstar’s previous fare. But Reputation turned out to be surprisingly relatable: an investigation of what it means to be vulnerable in love, placed against the context of a scrutinizing public. The biggest pop bangers find Swift clapping back at detractors, as she’s done before, but she shines in quiet moments of introspection, providing a peek into the challenging world of an artist for whom fame is a double-edged sword. “Delicate” sees her at her most winningly anxious, while “New Year’s Day” is as haunting a ballad as she’s made, and throughout Reputation ties in many of radio’s current favorite sonic threads, from gospel-EDM to soft trap and ’80s layers. The result is a record that feels so intimate—even as it became the best-selling album of the year.
8. The xx, I See You
The xx is a British group known for coolly restrained alt-pop, and on I See You they explore musical territory that’s warmer and richer than before. Though their sound is as moody as ever, their voices are brought to the fore—as on the lovely “On Hold,” with its bright beat and ambiguous sentiment. There’s no act better equipped to chart the intersections of happiness and melancholy.
7. Kesha, Rainbow
As a late-aughts pop star, Kesha was the life of the party. But after a protracted legal battle with her producer Dr. Luke—who she accused of sexual assault and harassment—she’s returned as the fine songwriter she was all along, clear-eyed and playful. Lead single “Praying” is a wrenching paean to self-love; the sparkly “Spaceship” is a psychedelic journey through the universe; and rollicking rock jam “Woman” takes us back to those wild nights that she knows so well. This is her party now, and it’s great to be invited.
6. Harry Styles, Harry Styles
Harry Styles was the de-facto front man of One Direction, the boy band that launched him to stardom, and his self-titled solo debut proves that he is capable of standing alone. Inspired by glam-rock superstars like David Bowie and Queen, Harry Styles is vibrant, spunky and soulful. Styles pivots effortlessly from sweet balladry (“Meet Me in the Hallway”) to straightforward rock (“Kiwi”), succeeding at all of them. This album isn’t crowded with guest features, and it’s not on-trend; instead, it’s a swingingly retro sound that puts him in a lane all his own.
5. Lorde, Melodrama
Three years after her precocious debut and viral hit “Royals,” the dreamy New Zealander Lorde returned with a more grownup perspective on Melodrama, a textured and stirring document of self-exploration. At times lush and wild, at times confessional and contained, it maps a deeply felt journey to early adulthood, complete with growing pains and poignant lessons.
4. Khalid, American Teen
If anything sums up the youth culture of the year in sonic form, it’s Texan breakout singer Khalid. His sound is buoyant but relaxed alt-R&B, musing on the joys and pitfalls of first love, tech-fueled communication and dealing with parents. Hit single “Young Dumb & Broke” displays it best: “What’s fun about commitment when we have our life to live? / Yeah, we’re just young, dumb and broke, but we still got love to give.” On American Teen, Khalid proves himself thoughtful and self-aware beyond his years.
3. Perfume Genius, No Shape
Perfume Genius knows how to subvert expectations. The musical project of idiosyncratic Pacific Northwest musician Mike Hadreas has always been an indie favorite, but on No Shape, he moves past outright darkness, finding shiny melodies and pouring out feeling in his nimble falsetto. Hadreas explores queer identity and tests sonic boundaries with experimental compositions, but there’s more than just sadness here—there’s a lot of love, surprising and delicate.
2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
California rapper Lamar came through with the most scathing—and necessary—hip-hop of the year on the insistent, incisive DAMN. “Humble.,” the album’s biggest hit, is raw and repetitive, but that minimalism is what sets Lamar apart; he doesn’t need gimmicks to elevate the power of his art. With blistering social commentary and deep introspection, Lamar harnessed his remarkable energy into songs that struck a chord with his biggest audience yet, earning DAMN. double platinum status and top Grammy nods.
1. SZA, Ctrl
From relative obscurity, New Jersey artist SZA (pronounced like the cutting implement) rose to prominence with witty songs marked by gorgeously sparse R&B production and ironclad melodies; there’s a reason stars like collaborator Rihanna and labelmate Kendrick Lamar are fans. Her takes on hookup culture and the pursuit of an authentic life are vividly articulated, too. Like all the best artists, her experience is so specific that it rises to the level of universality: She may be one of a kind, but she’s speaking the truth of a whole generation.
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