For this edition of “Curators’ Choice,” we’re highlighting some of our favorite albums and songs of 2017. This isn’t a definitive best-of list; rather, these 18 recordings soundtracked our year in meaningful ways. They inspired us and challenged our expectations. They unearthed classic sounds by forgotten legends and forged entirely new musical paths. Above all, they attested to the diversity of talent and vision wielded by today’s leading music-makers. With this list, we celebrate these artists’ achievements and thank them for reminding us why we do what we do.
All hail Queen SZA. Ctrl is one of the most honest albums of 2017. When you’re listening and singing along, it’s almost as if you’re chatting with your girlfriends about some real-ass shit. Her vocals are everything, and the production is near perfect. I’ve been on #TeamSZA for a long time, and I’m beyond excited to see where she takes us.
2017 was exceptional for some of the biggest producers in hip-hop. Atlanta’s Metro Boomin and Zaytoven dropped full-lengths to critical acclaim. But Mike Will Made It was the mastermind who brought Big Sean, Young Thug, Lil Yachty, 21 Savage, YG, Migos, Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, Rae Sremmurd, Lil Wayne, Trouble, Problem, Chief Keef and Rihanna together on one record. He broke boundaries, made hits, turned heads and blew out speakers.
Purveyor of the trippy, leaned-out, double-cup vibe that’s been bumping from strip clubs to the radio, the founder of Ear Drummer Records has been putting in work all year producing non-stop hits and completing his debut album. Songs like “Perfect Pint” pour nicely over a sparse hi-hat and snare for a good 36 seconds before the bass drops. Swae Lee sets the vibe on the hook, Gucci gets comfortable with his newfound freedom and Kung Fu Kenny blesses the mic on one of the most unique posse cuts of the year. Before 21 Savage’s album made headlines, he was spitting verses in Mike’s studio for a collaboration with Migos, YG and his ladies on “Gucci on My.” And “Nothing is Promised” proves that Rihanna can hang outside her pop lane with ATL’s finest.
– J Boogie
Miguel is incredibly talented, but he’s also a likeable dude. When I saw him in Oakland earlier this month, he didn’t miss a note. His latest, War & Leisure, plays well from beginning to end, getting him the closest ever to realizing his full artistic potential. I’m excited to see where Miguel goes next, because the path is wide open.
2017 was a dark year. But within it blossomed an awakening of many to how our history shapes our present. Americana artist Jason Isbell put out one of my favorite albums of the year, and on it, this takedown of the biases baked into US politics and culture.
I had to wait 22 years for my favorite band to reunite and make my favorite record, but it was worth it. Slowdive’s story is nothing short of inspiring. Formed in Reading, England in 1989, they called it quits after the Britpop takeover of the late ’90s. But the seed they planted grew to influence everyone who ever played blissed-out, ethereal dream-pop with heavenly harmonies.
The band’s comeback album builds on a signature style of layered otherworldly guitar effects. But listen past the gossamer soundscapes and you’ll hear matured songwriting sensibilities and emotionally experienced lyrical narratives, a product of the band’s members staying musically active and prolific in other projects over the past two decades. My Bloody Valentine may have invented shoegazing, but Slowdive perfects it.
Annie Clark always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else. On Masseduction, she tackles social apathy, disconnection and personal loss with eyes wide open. Her self-professed “saddest” album to date layers hyper-intelligent lyrics, bone-dry vocals, aggressively mechanical electronics and antagonistic guitar lines in adventurous and sweeping arrangements. There is nowhere to hide on Masseduction, and the discomfort force upon the listener is only assuaged by her total unapologetic mastery of the medium. When you just want to crawl under the covers and make the world go away, St. Vincent reminds you that all your troubles will still be there when you wake up.
The road to independence can wind through some phenomenal places. Such is the case with Kings Kaleidoscope’s The Beauty Between, a genre-bending fusion of alternative rock, hip-hop, electronic music and orchestral textures delivered any way you’d like it: on vinyl, CD, cassette and, of course, digitally. An odd fit for the CCM’s core market — and I mean that as a sincere compliment — this one piqued my interest early and continues on repeat even now.
There’s something comforting about watching one of your favorite bands grow up at the same time you do — if they can do it, so can you, right? The Maine are a product of the late-2000s pop punk scene, but they’re one of the rare few groups that managed to shed their neon V-necks and shake the straightened hair out of their eyes without alienating the fans that have been with them over the last 10 years. Lovely Little Lonely incorporates many sonic elements popular in 2017 — moody synths, ambient tones, textured feedback — while retaining the catchy melodies, poignant lyricism and driving vocals that have kept fans coming back since 2007. The album is both nostalgic and progressive: it evokes feelings of losing yourself in the moment and infinite possibility alongside the wistfulness of looking back on everything that has gotten you where you are. As John O’Callaghan sang in one of the band’s earliest songs, “growing up won’t bring us down.” Lovely Little Lonely proves them right. Here’s to another 10 years of the Maine.
It could be overwhelming to follow up a debut album named Masterpiece, but Big Thief is just the right musical collective for the job. The band’s sophomore album, discerningly bannered Capacity, exceeds all expectations. Despite only waiting seven months to begin recording Capacity, Big Thief brings a more evolved sound to this record. Lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s hauntingly beautiful voice, combined with über-emotional undertones and a simple but on-point drum beat, have been rocking me to my musical core all year. Let’s face it: 2017 has been a wild ride, and Capacity has been the perfect upbeat yet melancholic folk-rock record to get me through a totally shitty year. Not to be dramatic or anything (it’s kind of my thing), but this album is rad.
If anyone can develop a cohesive and intriguing soundscape that’s both nostalgic and cutting, it’s French dark electronic artist Danger. After releasing a series of EPs, Danger’s debut album, 太鼓, does not disappoint. He delivers an epic, cinematic world full of intense synths, poignant drums and his first vocal collaboration, with Tasha the Amazon.
The album begins with static and percussive bass. The next stop is “7:17,” a quintessential Danger track that will give first-time listeners a better glimpse into the complexities of his craft. A dark and circuitous atmosphere surrounds “11:03,” while the energy gradually increases in “22:41,” the center stage of this sonic performance. Just when you think you can fully anticipate Danger’s compositional style, Tasha the Amazon steps into “19:00” like a death-defying heroine, her lyrics and vocals ensnaring all.
Punjabi/Indian artist Pav Dharia really stood out from the pack this year with “Na Ja.” The song has a Middle Eastern feel to it, but retains a Punjabi flavor, making it something new yet authentic. It’s been remixed countless times and has become a bonafide dancefloor favorite.
– Ravinder Sandhu
Amar y Vivir charts a nostalgic path through Latin American music. Foregoing a traditional recording studio, the band opted to perform each track live to tape from various historical locations in Mexico City. The album is comprised of 12 boleros and rancheras, and features collaborations with Mon Laferte, Noel Schaijris and Eugenia Leon, among others. La Santa Cecilia have crafted a beautiful album that marries the traditional and modern to create one unique sound.
– Leticia Ramirez
I watched pop music’s envelope-pushing from a distance, turning more often to conventional artistry in 2017. Beacons of melody, most of them by singer-songwriters, guided me through a year of personal and global challenges. Returning to All I Ever See in You Is Me became something of a habit: I continued to find comfort in its easy elegance, relevance in its musings on family and relationships and solidarity in its messy introspection. Jillette Johnson has documented early adulthood with hard-won maturity and a poeticism that stings with irony. “If I were her, I’d be broken / If I were him, then I’d be more open,” she notes, chidingly, of her parents on the title track. “But as much as I believe I can see / All I ever see in them is me.”
Known by enthusiasts as one of the most captivating stage presences in soul music, Nashville-born Jackie Shane has remained largely unknown outside of Toronto, where her career briefly blossomed in the 1960s. Beyond her courtly presence and jaw-dropping vocal talent, Shane is a pioneer of transgender rights, born male but living her entire life as a woman when doing so seemed unthinkable. She headlined clubs while sporting full makeup, wigs and sequin tops. None of this stopped her from performing on television, or from scoring a number two hit on Toronto radio with a cover of acceptance anthem “Any Other Way.” The single drew interest from Motown and Atlantic Records, scored Shane an invitation to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and sparked talks with George Clinton about joining Parliament–Funkadelic.
Days after a performance in December 1971, Shane slipped out of the city, telling nary a soul, seeming to disappear into the ether. Now, 46 years after she left show business in favor of a more private life with her beloved mother, Shane’s music has re-emerged. Any Other Way is the first artist-approved collection of her work, assembling all six of Shane’s 45s and every highlight from her legendary 1967 live sessions at the Toronto’s Sapphire Tavern, including three previously unreleased tracks. This collection represents a powerful monument to one of the most unique stories in popular music, that of a trans soul diva admired by audiences both gay and straight, black and white.
Having established himself as a unique voice in deep house, Project Pablo offers up Hope You’re Well, which finds the producer making club-ready tracks fit for larger rooms while pushing his sonic and melodic experimentation even farther. Italo-acid-techno hybrid “Is it Dry?” begins with driving percussion and pulsating synths that give way to heady melodic leads. Pablo seemingly composed much of this EP spontaneously, setting each track apart with vocal samples or short looped drum breaks. All four tracks clock in at or over six minutes in length, giving Pablo the space necessary to establish a mood before experimenting on top of it. Since this is his first release on Ninjatune subsidiary Technicolour, here’s hoping Hope You’re Well will reach a wider audience and that, with subsequent releases, Pablo’s distinctive style of dance floor experimentation will flourish.
While many of this year’s most celebrated achievements in metal spawned from death metal’s resurgence, one of 2017’s best metal releases is entirely devoid of blast beats, cookie monster vocals and grotesque imagery. I’m talking about the righteous return of the Obsessed, fronted by the doom underground’s own Lemmy-esque legend Scott “Wino” Weinrich. Of course, the man never really went away — he’s a lifer for sure, known for stints in Saint Vitus, Place of Skulls, the Hidden Hand and supergroup Shrinebuilder, among others — but he came back in a big way this year, turning in the first studio album bearing the Obsessed name in more than two decades, and only the fourth since Wino formed the band as a teenager in the late ’70s. While Wino may have aged like a fine, uh, wine, he still kicks like a bottle of moonshine, and the Obsessed is where he’s at his best.
Showcasing the continued power of Wino’s heartfelt, rough-edged vocals and classic, crunching guitar playing, Sacred lives up to the band’s past, delivering a mix of riotous, cranked-up frenzies like “Punk Crusher” and melodic groovers like the mid-album epic “Stranger Things” (it’s not about the Netflix series). Filled to the brim with glorious riffs, this is a timeless record destined to still be spun decades down the line by a generation of fans who might be kids now, years away from their last haircut and first tattoo.
S/2004S3 is the debut transmission from Alien-obsessed slam metal off-worlders 01101111011101100110111001101001. The band’s unpronounceable moniker is actually binary code for OVNI, which itself is an acronym (in Spanish, Italian and French) for UFO, and ties into 01101111011101100110111001101001’s obsession with all things extraterrestrial. Did I mention the group also claims to hail from Antarctica and Mars?
The record begins with what sounds like a spaceship computer booting up in a litany of buzzes and bloops. This initiation sequence reaches critical mass moments later as the record explodes in a head-spinning barrage of lumbering, downtuned riffage, blurry blasts of inhumanly ferocious drumming and guttural, demonic pig-squeal vokills. The whole of S/2004S3 supernovas after a mere nine and a half minutes, but depending on the length of a day on your home planet, these riffs might just unfurl into infinity.
An up-and-comer in the crowded LA standup scene, Fahim Anwar has cemented himself as a comic to watch with this special. His energetic performance and astute observations on millennial culture are a joy to listen to, and his take on being brown in America is fresh, hilarious and incredibly current. He’s already a master at blending the serious with the absurd, and his vast arsenal of voices stands even in an audio-only package. For endless laughs, check out “Tea with Honey,” “Seller’s Intuition” and “Old School Hip Hop.”