Critics and music-lovers tend to look back on the year in review and profess that it was a great year regardless of how much good music was actually released. It’s an annoying trend, but it’s also because if you know where to look, good music is always waiting to be discovered. There was something for everyone to love in 2017, from grandiose protest albums to Rock n’ Roll rejuvenations, from Rap masterclasses to straight-up Pop catchiness, it was all here. And while nobody can listen to every album every year (least of all me), this list is a snapshot of my year as a music lover. I probably listened to more albums in 2017 than I have in any prior year, thanks largely to my daily hour+ roundtrip commute among other driving requirements my job requires, and these 20 are the best LPs I heard all year.
HM. OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017 – Radiohead
Though I list OKNOTOK, the re-release of Radiohead’s brilliant 1997 landmark release OK Computer, as an honorable mention, that isn’t to say it isn’t as good as anything else on the list; I just couldn’t quite include it on the proper list in good conscience as the vast majority of its material was previously released. But in addition to the three excellent new songs that kick off OKNOTOK’s second disc (“I Promise,” “Man of War,” and “Lift”), the b-sides and rarities alone that make up the bonus disc could stand comfortably among the best albums of the year. OKNOTOK is a must-listen for even the most casual Radiohead fan, and really any music fan in general, therefore its mention before we get into the meat of this list is necessary.
20. All American Made – Margo Price
I had never heard of Margo Price before All American Made, but I was pleasantly surprised by her tongue-in-cheek reaction to the blind leap of faith off of insanity cliff that Conservative America has recently undertaken. A Nashville artist through and through, she shies away from being called out as a feminist icon on “Don’t Say it” but when you’re a female Country artist with album centerpieces called “Pay Gap” and “Wild Women,” there’s really no way around it.
19. Hot Thoughts – Spoon
Spoon has been releasing deceptively excellent oddball Pop for years and Hot Thoughts is no exception. Featuring more electro-beats than you can shake a disco stick at, earworms like “I Ain’t the One,” “Can I Sit Next to You” and “Hot Thoughts” have been lodged firmly in my head all year long. It only takes one listen to get hooked.
18. MASSEDUCTION – St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s fifth studio LP served as my introduction to the sexiest 35-year-old pop star in the world today, and I was pleasantly surprised by the record’s versatility. Not everything hits (“Savior” and “Fear the Future,” are two weak moments), but overall MASSEDUCTION is a strong record buoyed by its sister tracks “New York” and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” which find St. Vincent at her most understated and heartfelt.
17. Hitchhiker – Neil Young
I’ve heard a lot of different music from Neil Young including Power Punk anthems, somber plugged-in benedictions, and epic 15-minute+ marathons, but Hitchhiker finds the 72-year-old singer/songwriter at his most stripped down and bare. If the 10 songs sound vintage and homogenous, that’s because they were recorded all in one night back in the ‘70s yet strangely never saw release in their original form until this year. Better late than never. Thankfully, most of the songs are timeless, including “Give Me Strength” which hits like a brick no matter what decade it was recorded in and “Campaigner” which, while decidedly outdated (the chorus constantly name-drops Richard Nixon as the evilest example, a small fry for today’s morally depraved standards) retains its clout in an era where “politician” is often just another word for “corrupt elite.”
16. Sleep Well Beast – The National
While I’ve been a low-key fan of The National ever since I first heard “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (fun fact: I first read about it in my first issue of Rolling Stone magazine back in April 2010 which found The Black Eyed Peas on the cover), I had never actually listened to one of their albums all the way through until Sleep Well Beast. While it isn’t going to bring in anybody who has already decided Matt Berninger’s understated baritone isn’t for them, for fans, it’s a creative peak. “Guilty Party” has already surpassed “Bloodbuzz Ohio” as my favorite National song ever and “I’ll Still Destroy You” is right there with them.
15. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
One of the great art pieces of the year, Pure Comedy is actually a remorseless takedown of the human condition in the age of runaway political corruption and post-intellectualism. Father John himself is like a depressed, angry Elton John with a pen doubling as a sword of righteous justice pointed directly at humanity, and by proxy, himself. While there are lighter instances like “Birdie” and “Smoochie,” by far the album’s most gripping moments are when Misty lets the venom flow on the title track, “Total Entertainment Forever” and “The Memo.”
14. Lotta Sea Lice – Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile
From the outset, you’ll quickly find that you can’t go into an album with these two oddballs and expect to find any gratification from the songwriting. Instead, Lotta Sea Lice’s great moments are in the musicality between Barnett and Vile, two of today’s greatest indie guitarists. With only nine tracks from beginning to end, Lotta Sea Lice’s strength is in its conciseness and the oddly soothing chemistry.
13. Everything Now – Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire may have disappointed hardcore fans with its synth-pop direction (the title track plays like an updated “Dancing Queen” with its twinkling backing piano and upbeat tempo), but unlike many I still came away satisfied. Granted, “Infinite Content” is no masterpiece and the album does kind of peter out by the end, but the title track and “Creature Comfort” are right there with the best that Arcade Fire has ever released.
12. Melodrama – Lorde
While Lorde’s second LP is far from the dense pop masterpiece that all of the music critics desperate for young readership and mainstream acceptance seem to have convinced themselves that it is, Melodrama is a perfectly balanced pop record lacking any noticeable low points from an artist that refuses to conform to the boundaries of her genre or her age group.
11. Out in the Storm – Waxahatchee
While Rock n’ Roll is indeed a dying breed, there are a select number of artists who continue to pump blood to its withering heart. Katie Crutchfield and her band Waxahatchee is one of those artists. There isn’t an inch of fat on Waxahatchee’s fourth studio LP and its aptly chosen lead single “Silver” may just be the best pure Rock song of the year.
10. reputation – Taylor Swift
I had my reservations from the first time I heard “Look What You Made Me Do” on the night of its release, and each subsequent single Swift released did little to excite me for her sixth LP, but that’s because she deftly chose to hold back her greatest work for the album itself. When she’s on, no pop star is better and “Getaway Car” and “Delicate” are among some of Swift’s best work to date.
9. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
DAMN. is undoubtedly the 2017 record I listened to the most. Like all of Kendrick’s previous releases, it lent itself to that kind of repeated listening and each time, I come away with the same conclusion: it’s a fantastic LP dragged down just a bit by a few head-scratching inclusions. While much of the album is great, and some selections (“LUST.”, “LOVE.”, “XXX.”, “GOD.”, “FEEL.”) are among his best work ever, I can’t help but wonder why K-Dot felt the need to drag Rihanna into the studio for “LOYALTY.” or record the spacey, thoughtless “YAH.” What can I say? The dude is a mysterious man. But even with the occasional early album dip in quality, it would be hard to call DAMN. anything less than the most intriguing album of the year.
8. The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
While Country music is often the first stop for old school Rock n’ Roll fans on their “modern music sucks” tour, the truth is there is an evolution going on over in Nashville that is resulting in some fantastic roots-based Rock music without the redneck conservatism the genre is infamous for but also lacking the irritating posturing and bitching of which most modern “Rock bands” are guilty. Jason Isbell, and The Nashville Sound, is a great example of this trend. No fan of Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan should go another day without hearing “Tupelo” before expressing discontent with all of what today’s musical landscape has to offer. You just need to know where to look.
7. On a Distant Shore – Leon Russell
Sometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong age. While this list and my Burnes’ Turns playlist on Spotify proves that I spend a good deal of time listening to modern music, the truth remains that many of my favorite songs and albums are of an age long past. Leon Russell’s posthumous goodbye is a love letter to that era of glorious ‘70s Rock n’ Roll, the kind of feel-good album that stands not only as one of my favorites of the year but really one of my favorites ever. If somebody asked me what I’m looking for in a great record, I’d have a hard time giving them a better example than On a Distant Shore. If nothing else, I’ll make an interesting old man one day.
6. A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs
I wasn’t sold on Adam Granduciel’s fourth album with indie Rockers The War on Drugs until I heard “Strangest Thing,” featuring its Dylan-esque delivery and brilliant wall-of-sound production, and was absolutely blown away. Then, a few songs later, I was even further astonished by “In Chains” which surpassed even the remarkably high bar Granduciel had already established, completely changing not only this list but my outlook on modern music with one swift stroke. This is the ageless type of musician I’m constantly looking for in today’s musical landscape. To find him so unexpectedly was an assuaging breath of fresh air.
5. Capacity – Big Thief
It’s frankly a wonder that I didn’t completely miss Big Thief’s brilliant underground release Capacity, but every time I hear standouts like “Shark Smile,” “Mary” and “Black Diamond,” I’m thankful that I didn’t. At times startlingly haunting yet elsewhere alluringly beautiful, Capacity is an album that gets better with each subsequent listen. Pay attention to Adrianne Lenker’s whispery expressions; some of the greatest lyricism of the year is in those breathy vocals.
4. Songs of Experience – U2
U2 have had a bit of a hard time critically ever since they had the audacity to give the country one of 2014’s greatest albums for free, thus reviews for last month’s Songs of Experience are decidedly mixed. Pay the detractors no heed; Songs of Experience is without a doubt among 2017’s highest musical peaks. I would have to list half of the album to give you all of its standouts, but be sure not to miss “The Little Things That Give You Away,” one of U2’s most heartfelt moments on record, and “American Soul,” a rollicking political anthem that the band teased brilliantly months ago as a part of Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX.” Hearing that opening line of “It’s not a place/This country is to me a sound of drum and bass” in a new context after listening to it for months was among the most exhilarating musical moments for me all year.
3. american dream – LCD Soundsystem
I’m not sure what expectations I really had going into LCD Soundsystem’s fourth studio LP since their debut in 2005, but rest assured those expectations were easily outpaced by this excellent standout. Though it only contains 10 songs, american dream is a deceptively dense record with lengthy productions (the shortest song is five minutes long) that build to gigantic musical climaxes. This is best exemplified on the nine-minute “how do you sleep?” which starts with a stately image of James Murphy “standing on the shore facing east” before coming face-to-face a tidal wave of sound. But nothing tops the title track with its somber electro-riffage and meditative lyricism on our depressing state of existence in the modern United States. It’s the kind of thing you stay up listening to while staring at the ceiling late at night contemplating existence. In 2017, that was a lot of us.
2. Antisocialites – Alvvays
Short of the never-ending Guns N’ Roses reunion bearing new musical fruit, no release in 2017 could have gotten me as excited as this follow-up to Canada’s dreamiest pop band’s self-titled debut in 2014. And while it isn’t quite the five-star classic that the debut is, it still stands comfortably among the best releases of the year and further cements Alvvays as my favorite new band of the decade. From the first wall of sound “In Undertow” I was hooked instantly and that feeling of joy and captivation never let up until Molly Rankin’s final airy line in “Forget About Life.” All in all, there are only four records ever released that have every track within them in my 1700+ song Burnes’ Turns playlist on Spotify, but Alvvays is the only band with their entire discography included.
1. Is This the Life We Really Want? – Roger Waters
I haven’t seen this epic piece of post-Floyd brooding introspection listed anywhere on any list of the greatest albums of 2017 and that is a crime the likes of which I have never experienced in all my years of musical fandom. Not only is Roger Waters’ first solo release during my lifetime easily my pick for album of the year, it is a concerted takedown of the Trump administration and American hypocrisy that really should be a required listen for every American citizen concerned about the direction of our nation that even timidly professes themselves to be a fan of music. And this is coming from someone who was never a huge fan of Pink Floyd. From the opening humorous-yet-biting criticism of Christianity (“Deja Vu”), Is This the Life We Really Want? is an existential journey through the dark side of American imperialism and a sermon on the mount in the age of alternative facts proliferated by a president that couldn’t successfully manage a bank account or pass third grade English. It’s the dark, dire wake-up call that we desperately need, yet at its most beautiful, it remains a beacon of hope for the world we can make for ourselves, both cooperatively and personally, if we refuse to adhere to the lies, corruption and detritus that constantly surround us. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece, a poignant snapshot that will stand the test of time, one of the greatest albums ever made, and a brilliant piece of music that simply must be heard.