Alright here goes. This list took a long time to make and I’m still not sure whether it’s complete. Top 5 was too difficult so here are my ten favorite albums of 2017.
10. Amine – Good For You
There’s undoubtedly some filler on here, but a whole lot less than you’d expect. I went into this not knowing much about Amine, but generally curious about what the XXL Freshman class this year sounded like. I was surprised and delighted by the maturity, catchiness, and strong songwriting all over this album. There are infectious pop gems like “Wedding Crashers” and “Spice Girl,” alongside more laid back, introspective mediations like “Sunday” and “Turf.” At his best — on songs like ”Beach Boy” and “Hero” here — Amine sounds like a mix between Li’l Wayne and Frank Ocean. Definitely a step above most of his other classmates.
9. Kamaiyah – Before I Wake
I did say MOST of his other classmates; the only other freshman who impressed me this year impressed THE HELL out of me. Before I Wake was self-released, and came by surprise after Kamaiyah spent the whole year fighting with her label to release her debut project. I was afraid that she lost her window at success — A Good Night in the Ghetto was an amazing debut tape, but dropped almost two years ago at this point — but Before I Wake proved me wrong. It’s not just defiant and empowering, it’s effortlessly listenable. Check out “Side (Bet)” and “Me Against Myself” for throwback Cali rap that somehow still sounds brand new.
8. Alvvays – Antisocialites
This is an album I’ve been waiting for ever since I saw Molly Rankin and co. opening for Belle and Sebastian and fell in love with their heartfelt lo-fi sound. They amp up the dream pop on this project — a sound that has been everywhere in 2017 — but they don’t sound like they’re trend-jumping. On the contrary, it’s more like the rest of the indie pop scene has decided to adopt a sound Alvvays has already mastered. Rankin’s gorgeous, plainspoken voice has to fight through more distortion here than on the band’s debut, but that just adds to the album’s general feeling of aimlessness and heartbreak. Check out “Dreams Tonite” and “Forget About Life” for a blast of 21st century melancholy pop.
7. Smino & Monte Booker – Blkswn
I first heard Smino on “Shadowman,” the impossibly good last song on Noname’s 2016 mixtape Telefone. I was intrigued by his sing-songy flow and even more interested when I started to listen to his collaborations with Chicago Producer Monte Booker, one of the most forward-thinking beatmakers of the Midwestern hip-hop boom we’ve been seeing the last few years. Booker and Smino are a match made in heaven, and every song on here is bouncy and unpredictable. It’s a long project so some filler is unavoidable, but the highs are frequent and make up some of the year’s warmest, most melodic rap. Lead single “Anita” and sleeper hits like “Edgar Allen Poe’d Up” are smoky, soulful, and will stay in your head for the rest of the year.
6. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
I’ve always enjoyed Open Mike Eagle’s peculiar take on hip-hop, but I had generally thought of it as comedy music — technically brilliant, but hard to take seriously. Brick Body Kids proves that Mike is just as capable of spinning charming, quiet coming of age stories and angry social justice rants as he is cracking a joke. On this record, Mike tries to give a voice to the weird kids like himself — “ghetto superheroes” growing up in America’s public housing projects, who refuse to “fit in your description.” The album is emotional, heartbreaking, and hilarious, at its core a tribute to the torn down Robert Taylor Homes where he spent much of his childhood. “Brick Body Complex” and “Daydreaming in the Projects” are highlights.
5. Jana Rush – Pariah
I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of good-as-hell dance music this year, but when it came time to pick one for this list Jana Rush kept coming back into my mind. The story of Rush’s personal journey towards this “debut” is incredible; she has been DJing since she was 11, took a lengthy hiatus to explore a career as an engineer and a firefighter, and has triumphantly returned to Chicago’s blooming footwork scene in the last few years. Jlin’s Black Origami may be the footwork album getting most of the critical attention this year, but Pariah is superior in every way. It is confident, masterful, and bursting with creativity on every track. The whole album is worth multiple listens, but check out “Beat Maze” and “Old Skool” for a hint of the wild gamut on display here.
4. Brockhampton – Saturation III
Imagine if the Wu-Tang Clan had been millennials, rapping about their feelings instead of murdering people who disrespected them — and sometimes doing both. I went back and forth about including this one just because of how recently it dropped. But after the fifth day in a row listening to the album the whole way through, I couldn’t deny the magic of America’s greatest boy band. The first two Saturations were Brockhampton showing they knew how to make rap fun again, but the third one shows how much they have all grown as artists and refined their sound. The production is relentlessly fun, going back and forth between anarchic noise and buttery smooth. The writing is razor sharp from all parties involved. My favorite member is Ameer Vann, but the whole band is so in sync with each other that witnessing them on a track together is far more satisfying than any solo effort could be. “BLEACH” and “ALASKA” are must-listens.
3. Jay-Z & No ID – 4:44
In a year when high profile hip-hop artists tried to push the genre to its limits, a couple of living legends showed us just how powerful the classic sound can still be. At this point in his career, Jay didn’t have to make an album this vulnerable, risky, and fearless. But he chose artistry over glitz, spitting rambling brilliance over 10 perfect tracks. No ID’s production takes familiar samples and treats them like members of an orchestra, resulting in some of the most tender and honest songs in either artists’ extensive catalogues. It’s a shame that so few get to hear this project because of Jay’s loyalty to Tidal, but fortunately it’s also streaming on Apple Music. If you can, check out his nostalgic waxings on “Marcy Me” and his defiant bravado on “Smile.” The third verse on the latter song is the finest of the year. “This was meant to be a haiku,” he says, “but my story’s too wide to fit inside a line or two.”
2. Jon Bap – Yesterday’s Homily
There’s some trap on here. There’s some funk on here. There’s jazz, soul, and even a few moments that, if you squint, could be lumped with contemporary R&B (think more D’Angelo than R. Kelly, though.) What there is no shortage of is the often baffling, always brilliant vision of Jon Bap. Tracks start and stop on a dime, bombarding listeners with noises and drum patterns that seem designed more to perplex than to entertain, and before you know it the whole thing is over. But after two or three listens — okay, maybe six or seven — a picture starts to emerge that is so unique, so ingenious, that you can’t look away. Start out with “Queen Chimera, Part 1” for the closest this album comes to an access point, and then just lose yourself in the most progressive album of 2017. We’ll still be scratching our heads in thirty years, I can guarantee it.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN
To be perfectly honest, enough has been said about this fucking album on enough lists like this. But that’s the thing about Kendrick: no matter how pervasive the hype, all I have to do is look over the tracklist to this album to remember how deserved it is. If To Pimp a Butterfly was a question mark, DAMN is a defiant exclamation from the greatest rapper alive. It contains not only his best bangers (“HUMBLE,” “ELEMENT,” and “DNA”) and his smoothest crossovers (“LOVE” and “LOYALTY”) but also just some of his best writing period — I can’t think of many rap songs better than “FEAR” in the last five years. It feels pointless to list highlights, because everything on this album is a classic. Do yourself a favor. Listen to it again.