Written by: Andrew Kirkpatrick
The past few years have been exceptional for the genres of music I love most, and 2017 was no slouch.
Coming up with this list was tough, but I’ve finally whittled things down to my ten absolute favorite releases of the year, in order from least mindblowingly amazing to most mindblowingly amazing, as always.
Read on — and also be sure to check out the videos linked below the picks, as there are some stunning visuals to behold.
- Nai Palm – Needle Paw
I was slow to pick up on the hype surrounding Australian (!) R&B phenoms Hiatus Kaiyote and their breakout record, Choose Your Weapon. But as soon as I listened, I understood. The band provides a sort of ethereal, escapist R&B that registers as a distinctly un-American take on a quintessentially American style. A lot of that vibe is established by frontwoman Nai Palm, who strikes out with a stunning solo turn on Needle Paw. Her hypnotic voice (along with some overdubs) and incredibly distinctive guitar playing are all you’ll get through the majority of the album, but they’re also all you need. The wonderfully abstract lyrics paint a picture of love on an acid trip that’s good and bad at the same time, and the layered vocal delivery and nuanced guitar riffs transform what could’ve happily settled for being ear-grabbing into something downright transportative.
- Brutus – Burst
Burst doesn’t waste your time. There are no ebb-and-flow song structures here. They’d just bog things down. Belgian trio Brutus are locked in a constant sprint towards the next gargantuan hook and crescendoing riff. By blending the most ear-grabbing elements of punk, emo, post-rock, sludge, and black metal, Brutus have formed the most adrenaline-pumping and intoxicating record of the year.
- Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
My favorite thing about Harmony of Difference is the fact that it lives up to its name. LA saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington uses his latest EP to tackle a wide range of jazz subgenres, including swing, fusion, and spiritual jazz. But in an awe-inspiring move, he brings these seemingly disparate styles together, structuring the project so that each track serves as one piece of a seamless suite. It all culminates with the 13-minute epic, “Truth,” a rush of rousing choral vocals and brass that comes together beautifully. That this is only Washington’s second studio project is unbelievable. For the first time in what feels like forever, it seems as though we have a jazz great in the making.
- 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
I’m not going to pretend every record I enjoyed in 2017 was something deep and artistically challenging. Shit, there’ve been plenty of days where the last thing I wanted to listen to was something deep and artistically challenging. For those days, I had Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. It’s got big name guests, expensive sounding production, and song topics that never stray far from partying, bragging, and trapping. It’s pure, simple musical comfort food, but 2 Chainz’ unadorned flows, charismatic delivery, and witty lyrics keep things grounded in the realm of great hip-hop rather than Top 40 hell.
- Freddie Gibbs – You Only Live 2wice
Freddie Gibbs isn’t one for bullshit. The Indiana spitter’s lyrics are as blunt and honest as bars get. He spends most of You Only Live 2wice going for the throats of his detractors, reminiscing on former flames, and reflecting on a recent stint in prison — all without a shred of extravagance. His breathless and unrelentingly technical flows paint vivid pictures of his cutthroat worldview, and his avoidance of poeticism comes off as a deliberate strategy to ensure you know damn well what he’s gone through. Message received.
- Sampha – Process
Loss necessitates growth, and Sampha Sisay’s long-awaited debut album is an aching depiction of the struggle to occupy the empty spaces loved ones leave behind. The UK singer-songwriter has been through a lot — any article written about him would tell you as much. But as much as he deserves to, Sampha doesn’t spend Process wallowing in sorrow. As gut-wrenching as tracks like “Blood on Me” and “Timmy’s Prayer” are, there’s a heartpounding urgency to them. While Sampha openly expresses his pain, he expresses with an equal degree of honesty his desire to, on some level, move on. The album is heavy with the question of “what happens now?” but answers never fully reveal themselves. As the title implies, Process isn’t about grand realizations, but rather about moving forward bit by bit; in exploring that struggle, Sampha has provided a beautiful and lasting boon to anyone trying to come to terms with loss.
- Alice Coltrane – World Spirituality Classics Vol. 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda
The past few years have seen the late Alice Coltrane finally get her just due. With the renewed interest in her gargantuan contributions to spiritual jazz comes World Spirituality Classics, a mindbending collection of gospel-influenced Hindu devotionals that went decades without a wide release. Now we can all hear it, and we should all feel lucky. This is music possessed of true generosity and compassion. You can hear it in Coltrane’s warm, enveloping synth and Wurlitzer playing. You can hear it in the powerful communal chants and percussion. Few artists have understood and put to wax so vividly the connections between the personal and the cosmic, and for that, any Alice Coltrane record must be studied and treasured.
- Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
Rapsody is a rare rapper whose gifts as a songwriter are equal to her formidable skills as an MC. Her latest record, Laila’s Wisdom, finds her constructing tracks with staggering thoughtfulness. Every beat shift, every guest contribution, and every skit feels carefully planned; even though the album contains a huge amount of variety — from love songs like “Knock On My Door” to towering collaborations like “Nobody,” to motivation music like “Ridin’” — there’s a precisely plotted sense of progression here that takes you seamlessly from the triumphant opener to the soul-crushing outro. The fact that Rapsody is a fantastic rapper has been known for a long time. The fact that she’s a rare artist who can marry variety and cohesion so wonderfully is news to me, but that makes Laila’s Wisdom one of the biggest and best revelations of the year.
- Jay-Z – 4:44
Jay-Z’s 4:44 brings his discography full circle. In one of rap music’s greatest strokes of genius, Hov used his 1996 debut to visualize the success that he’d quickly attain with uncanny accuracy. As with most debut rap records, most of Reasonable Doubt is spent expressing a desire to rise above dire circumstances to become rich, famous, and respected. The key difference in Jay’s approach is that he proceeded to realize his ambitions in the exact coolheaded and workmanlike way in which he laid them out.
And now, in similarly workmanlike and coolheaded fashion, Jay-Z goes back to the beginning. People have been wanting him to return to his Reasonable Doubt-era style for a long time now, and I think 4:44 is the closest we’ll get. If Reasonable Doubt is about success as defined by a young person on the outside looking in, then 4:44 is about reevaluating that definition as decades of experience have not only placed him inside the music industry’s power circle, but earned him a spot in the dead center.
Jay sounds wiser, more well-spoken, and simply more compassionate here than he ever has. He examines his triumphs and mistakes, but doesn’t bother with bragging or letting regret eat away at him. He’s too old for that. Instead he creates parables from his life experiences to act as advice for his audience — or in his own words, he’s “giving you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.” In breaking down topics ranging from creating generational wealth in black communities to his tumultuous relationship with Kanye West, Jay never fails to supply us with some sort of sage takeaway.
It’s so rare to see such a popular artist scrutinize himself and his choices so thoroughly, but Jay-Z seems less concerned about himself here than he is with his legacy. But this record full of ruminations on what he’ll leave behind to his family and to rap music are only destined to add to his legend.
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
In this, the first year of the Donald Trump era, we find ourselves steeped in internet-drunk cynicism and irony. Our culture has taken a turn for the insufferable, but Kendrick Lamar — ever able to make records hauntingly suited to the times — has the antidote with DAMN.
Hip-hop that’s moralistic often amounts to a bunch of holier-than-thou posturing that quickly becomes hard to stomach. But while Kendrick Lamar’s music contains definite ideas about right and wrong, a stark awareness of how frustratingly difficult it can be to be a truly good person is always present. Tracks like “PRIDE.,” “LUST.,” and “XXX.,” reflect on our collective tendencies towards egotism, complacency, and violence, and Kendrick is always sure to include himself in the narrative; he forces us to confront the darker sides of human nature while detailing his own struggles with his inner demons, or as he puts it: “What happens on Earth stays on Earth / And I can’t take these feelings with me so hopefully they disperse / Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax / Searchin’ for resolutions until somebody get back.”
DAMN. cuts through the bullshit and delivers something we’re in desperate need of right now: earnestness. The record’s fourteen tracks each contain a forthrightness and genuineness that deftly counterbalances the postmodern pessimism of the world around us, and it’s incredibly inspiring. This isn’t just emotionally fulfilling material. This is the type of music that straight up makes you want to strive for more and be a better person. There isn’t much more that music — or art of any kind — can hope to accomplish.
Now I know what you were thinking: this article isn’t long enough. So while I’m at it, here are some of my favorite hip-hop singles of 2017 (in no particular order):
Tee Grizzley – “First Day Out”
Tee Grizzley’s My Moment is one of the best hip-hop debuts of the year. It’s a triumph on multiple levels. For one, it’s the 23 year-old Detroit MC’s first project. It’s not his first official album, it’s not his first major label release — it’s the first body of work he’s ever put together. Second, it’s a singularly focused reflection on crime and punishment that’s as hard-hitting and razor sharp as rap records get. If you want a project that showcases a variety of topics and styles, you’re not going to get it. Grizzley is fresh out of two back-to-back jail bids for armed robbery, and understandably spends the record both celebrating the freedom he’s regained and worrying that it could all be taken from him again at any moment.
That shock at having made it through is beautifully realized on My Moment’s anthemic lead single, “First Day Out.” A grandiose beat from Detroit producer Helluva starts off small, with contemplative piano chords poignantly underscoring Grizzley’s downtrodden bars: “You ever been inside a federal courtroom? / N****, you ever went to trial and fought for your life? / Being broke did something to my spirit.” From there the beat and the aggression in Grizzley’s delivery build before exploding into a pull-no-punches banger driven by frenzied piano arpeggiation and a grimy synth lead. The bars here crank up the shit talk, though Grizzley never loses sight of the gravity of his experiences, ending his extended verse with “The feds tryna build a case I can’t move wrong / I went to trial back-to-back, bitch, I’m 2-0 / The state of Kentucky banned me from every jewelry store / I can’t even be in public with my hoodie on.”
Just like the beat, Grizzley’s lyrics are alternately crushing and tough-as-nails, and the street- and jail-honed matter-of-factness these bars are filtered through only make them more striking.
Sean Leon (feat. Daniel Caesar) – “Matthew in the Middle”
Sean Leon’s I Think You’ve Gone Mad (Or the Sins of the Father) is a hulking, unwieldy sprawl of an album (which, frankly, can be assumed just from reading that title) that inches towards greatness despite its many indulgences.
Among all the erratic twists, turns, and half-finished ideas that crash into each other on Leon’s opus is “Matthew in the Middle,” a pristine, fully formed track that favors immediacy over crypticism.
The song was initially released in early 2016 in a rough form. This year’s model smoothes out the edges with a more textured beat that provides the perfect accompaniment to Daniel Caesar’s dramatic vocals and Leon’s vivid storytelling.
This is easily the most underground track on this list, so I won’t give away too much about its subject matter. Sean Leon (who also helped produce the cut) demonstrates a masterful sense of pacing in detailing the diverging paths he and his brother took in life, letting the song slowly build for several minutes before unleashing a barrage of difficult revelations and, finally, letting things slow back down as we wrap our heads around what we just heard.
It’s brilliant stuff, the likes of which isn’t really even suited to written description. So if you haven’t already, hit play on the video above.
Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3”
This is 2017. The world has gone to shit. Whatever good times we have also have a darkness looming over them. “XO Tour Llif3” isn’t constructed the way typical crowd-pleasing hits are, but its simultaneously joyous and disquieting atmosphere have made it (thus far, anyway) the quintessential Millennial anthem of Trump’s America.
The whole track basically revolves around two already iconic bars: “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead.” Similar lyrics are standard fare in emo rock, but never has that brand of immature, showy angst found its way into hip-hop in such an impactful way. The despairing lyrics stand in contrast to Uzi’s energetic delivery and TM88’s monster of a beat. Seriously, this instrumental may be the year’s best, leveraging woozy synths, massive 808s, and even what sounds like a door creaking shut to create a dark, psychedelic dreamscape that fits Uzi’s bars like a glove.
I have to stress again that this track is a bonafide anthem. It’s 5x Platinum and its video has 128 million views on YouTube. When I saw Kendrick, Travis Scott, and D.R.A.M. in August, this track got the biggest reaction from the massive crowd when the DJ who opened the show used it to close out his set. It’s an incredibly simple track that somehow manages to accomplish so much; it’s catchy, it’s sad, it’s empowering, it’s introspective, it’s a banger, and so on.
Above all else, however, it’s cathartic. For anyone my age, the pain of having to endure such bleakness and cynicism just as the world opened up to us is something we have to learn to deal with, and this song provides a needed (if inherently slight) remedy.
Ty Dolla $ign (feat. Tory Lanez) – “Droptop in the Rain”
You can tell an artist is scraping the bottle of the barrel once they start basing their tracks around the age old fill-in-the-blank, “that pussy feels like _______” (see: half of Lil Wayne’s discography). As the number of “that pussy feels like _______” lines increases, the quality of a track necessarily decreases to an equal and opposite degree. Call that the TPFL theorem. This is a principle I’ve always found to be true until now.
LA’s Ty Dolla $ign doesn’t miss, and “Droptop in the Rain” is yet another entry into a library of material that effortlessly combines R&B sensuality and hip-hop immediacy. The lyrics are standard TPFL material, but the delivery is masterful. Dolla $ign kills it, jumping between his signature mid-range rasp and an incredibly distinctive falsetto as he creates an ebb and flow between the track’s restrained verses and its gargantuan chorus.
The underrated Tory Lanez also comes through with an incredibly ear grabbing verse that’s delivered at least two octaves above his normal range. The result falls somewhere on the classic R&B spectrum that has “that’s smooth as fuck” on one end and “should I call the cops?” on the other. It’s close enough to the former, however, that it’s still amazing.
Lee on the Beats and Hitmaka’s instrumental ties everything together, shifting from slow and ethereal to speaker-melting as needed.
If this year has you feeling cynical and jaded, just play this song and marvel at how Dolla’s gravelly voice, the 808s, and the bass unify during the track’s chorus. People made that, and thus there’s still hope for the world.
Young Thug – “Killed Before”
Young Thug is more hip-hop deconstructionist than ATL trapper. He may be influenced by Southern OGs like Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, but his music, in effect, has more in common with the likes of MF DOOM and Danny Brown in that it constantly pushes at the boundaries of what it means to be an MC. Shit, his first record of this year, Beautiful Thugger Girls, found him hellbent on rapping as little as possible. Put simply, Thug is constantly seeking out uncharted territory, and the fact that his explorations have come at the cost of mainstream acceptance and respect from purists doesn’t seem to phase him.
There’s no reference point for a track like “Killed Before” and that’s entirely intentional. Over nothing but a breezy guitar loop and a simple drum beat, Thugger croons some magnetically weird brag lines in a cracking, constantly trilling cadence. In terms of sheer ear-grabbing uniqueness, no other vocal performance I’ve heard this year is a match for what Thug pulls off here. His actual bars are equally great; though he does little more than flex, the ways in which he flaunts his wealth are pretty damn funny. My favorites are “Have you ever paid someone’s tuition? No / Do you own a store? No” and “Stackin’ hundreds up to God’s knees / I ain’t goin’ broke until 2070.”
When Thugger Thugger first blew up a few years ago, it seemed like it was all a fluke — like he was just stumbling upon weird lines, flows, and cadences by complete accident. As entertaining as that notion is, far more impressive is the now evident fact that his off-the-walls aesthetic is totally deliberate. Thug doesn’t make bizarro rap because he doesn’t know how to make anything else, he makes it because he has truly progressive ideas for what the genre can be. Hearing him continually push test the limits of the genre these last few years has made for some of the most consistently impressive and exciting musical experiments in recent memory.
Mike WiLL Made-it (feat. Gucci Mane, Kendrick Lamar & Rae Sremmurd) – “Perfect Pint”
“Perfect Pint” is my favorite song of this year across any genre. I’ve listened to it at least once a day every day since it came out back in late March. It has basically everything I could ask for in a rap single. Mike Will’s beat is understated but also kind of a banger; Kendrick and Gucci Mane’s verses are fantastic on their own but also play off each other incredibly well, with Guwop’s flow emphasizing upbeats while Kung Fu Kenny’s rhyme scheme is focused squarely on downbeats; Swae Lee’s hook is ethereal, majestic, and catchy as hell; Slim Jxmmi actually raps competently. It’s lyrical but accessible. Its production is seemingly simple but exceptionally detailed. It’s ostensibly about drugs but is inexplicably anchored by two straight edge MCs. It doesn’t make any sense, but it makes complete sense. It’s like the the music gods read my mind and delivered unto me the exact song I needed. Hip-hop doesn’t get any better.
Here’s to another excellent year for music.