Depending on who you ask, the past year has felt more like two, or three, or seven. If 2017 was the year the previously unimaginable became reality on a near-daily basis, it should be no surprise that it also saw so many artists release their most challenging, anxious, transformative records yet. Others just provided welcome distraction from the many ongoing dumpster fires. In manifestos, confessionals, and pure escapist pop, the past year in music has been an impressive one, offering plenty of standouts.
10. The xx, I See You — The blaring horn intro that announced the xx’s third album said it all: famously perfectionist introverts were ready to open themselves up to a brighter and more energetic sound. Intense and intimate at the same time, I See You is also notable for bringing Romy Madley Croft’s vocals into the foreground, a welcome innovation that does much for the trio’s sound. (Full review.)
9. Jlin, Black Origami — Indiana producer Jlin’s high-concept sophomore album Black Origami is overwhelming in all the right ways. On first listen it is bewildering and chaotic, defying its listeners to understand it in linear terms. Jlin rushes from one concept to the next, mobilizing collaborators to lend distinct character to each of the 12 tracks. Dramatic, complex and endlessly surprising, Black Origami easily stands as the best electronic album of the year.
8. Fever Ray, Plunge — Karen Dreijer’s second album as Fever Ray is a masterclass in proud, in-your-face queercore, a defiant mission statement that brings together charged club beats and stripped down electronic elements. On Plunge, Dreijer paints herself strange and dangerous and a little bit damaged, an artist who faces a broken and often hostile world with anger and cynicism, but brashly refuses to be held still or silenced by any of it.
7. Lorde, Melodrama — Lorde could have gone on turning out frosty, world-weary singles for the rest of her career and done just fine for herself, but fortunately for us, she decided to have some fun. With help from Jack Antonoff, she brings a warm pop shimmer to Melodrama, and the result is a more ambitious, winkingly self-referential, and thoroughly enjoyable set of songs, hopefully a sign of things to come. (Full review.)
6. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. — Cerebral yet raw, accessible yet challenging, the cultural dominance and near-universal acclaim for DAMN. was overwhelming. Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics are heavy with spiritual and moral soul-searching and seamlessly bring together the personal and political. His fourth studio album is a steely-eyed, deeply personal work of its time and place, a career-defining, confrontational, prescient work that pulls absolutely no punches.