There's a belief that great art is always produced in times of political turmoil. Whether that's true or not, 2017 has been a banner year for music.
A number of high profile artists who hadn't put out music in years came back with a vengeance, while others pushed themselves out of their comfort zones and explored new sounds.
It might just be the rosy glow of a year drifting into the rearview, but the amount of pleasant surprises vastly outweighed the disappointments.
Last year this list was a breeze, the best albums of 2016 just seemed to be obvious. This year, however, was a different story. We had some lively debates about what should be included, but without further ado here are the Best Albums of 2017.
Bonobo – Migration
Released: 13 January
One of ambient electronica's foremost artists, Bonobo has become the master of atmospherics. His latest LP Migration, released in January, has the same melancholic hallmarks of a Jon Hopkins record (Hopkins co-wrote the album's opening track), but where the latter thumps a club's dance floor, the former remains loose and floaty, its biggest punch being the colossus Outlier. But in doing so we're swooped up into the clouds, caressed, and taken on a journey complete with soothing vocals from the likes of Rhye and Nick Murphy.
Loyle Carner – Yesterday's Gone
Released: 20 January
The standard approach to describing Ben Coyle-Larner (real name, though it now sounds like a joke) and his debut album, Yesterday’s Gone, has been: “his sound really isn’t grime, but he’s a young British rapper so must be grime, and I don’t know what else to write in this review other than ‘grime’ a few times, with a load of disclaimers.”
In reality, it’s a lot easier to call Yesterday’s Gone what it is: a creative, deeply thoughtful album, at home with itself and totally lacking in pretence, and yet full of bite and punch. In its emotionally open reflections on family, love and death, Yesterday's Gone is unique and universal; something actual proper grime doesn’t achieve all that often.
Sampha – Process
Released: 3 February
By 2016, the quiet rise of Sampha Sisay made him a background force on three of the year’s best albums: Frank Ocean’s Endless, Solange’s A Seat at the Table and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. In 2017, the London-born producer and singer stepped into the stage front spotlight, with his spectacular (and, eventually, Mercury prize-winning) debut album, Process. It’s meditative, vulnerable and forceful, and without sounding for a moment like it was made with commercial ambition in mind, Process has rightly ended the year in pretty much every top albums list going.
Syd – Fin
Released: 3 February
Looking at which members of Odd Future have gone on to become standout solo stars, it comes as no surprise to see Frank Ocean and Tyler, The Creator flying high. But the fact that former DJ and fairly unassuming figure Syd Tha Kid has become a bona fide pop-star in her own right is certainly more surprising.
Debut album Fin is by no means a boundary pusher, with obvious reverence for 90s RnB and dominant lyrical themes of sex, sensuality and financial success. But the softly spoken vocal delivery from the unlikely pop-star is delightfully bewitching, and when combined with the glossy production, the record is excelled beyond mere imitation of what has come before.
Jay Som – Everybody Works
Released: 10 March
‘Bedroom pop’ seems to be a genre that continually crops up when talking about the music of Melina Duterte (AKA Jay Som). Admittedly the term does capture the enticing intimacy of Everybody Works; a record that was, after all, entirely self-written, recorded and produced by the 23 year old. But it also arguably betrays how luscious and multilayered this record actually sounds.
Stylistically the album journeys across dreamy lo-fi, fuzzy garage rock and indie pop, while the musicality of the obviously incredibly talented creator is never overdone to the level of self-indulgence, nor left frustratingly under-explored. Across 10 tracks and 35 minutes, Jay Som leaves no room for filler, and the result is a piece of work that rises above any other of its kind this year.
Idles – Brutalism
Released: 10 March
Brutalism possibly wins the award for the most apt title of any album this year. No nonsense, no pretension, no delusions of grandeur. Ostensibly it is 'just' punk music, and it shares the self-effacing sense of humour and left-wing/grassroots politics that are pervasive in the genre’s well-documented evolution. But Idles remain honest and heartfelt throughout, never coming across derivative or contrived in the way so many others in the scene do. Few rock albums left such a lasting impression in 2017.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Released: 14 April
Though it may not be his best (or second best) album, DAMN. is a masterclass in how to evolve into a stadium-status superstar without forfeiting your credibility. No easy feat by any means, Kendrick softened up his sound on tracks like LOVE. and GOD., while maintaining his aggressive side on DNA. and HUMBLE.
The most cerebral rapper in the game, Compton's finest channels the anxiety of our times while confronting the perils of fame on his bleakest album yet. There can be no doubt anymore: there's Kendrick and then there's everyone else.
Gorillaz – Humanz
Released: 28 April
Seven years after their last, Gorillaz' fifth album is definitely their most party. And yet its overarching theme is somewhat dystopian - a take on today's political climate. But despite its message, it is delivered by a troupe of guests, including Vince Staples, Peven Everett, Popcaan and Grace Jones, coming together to make up an album that dabbles in hip-hop, disco and pop.
Feist – Pleasure
Released: 28 April
Canadian indie princess Leslie Feist finally came back to us this year, with her first album since 2011. Bursting onto the scene in 2007 with the help of an Apple ad, Feist has since spent her time shying away from the spotlight. On Pleasure, the singer-songwriter has clearly moved passed this cat and mouse game.
With a firmly take it or leave it attitude, she expertly weaves her way through glam rock, psychedelia, folk and beyond. Paring her sound down to the bare essentials, the power of her songwriting really shines through, carrying the album into one of the best surprises of the year.
Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
Released: 5 May
From a Canadian indie princess to a Canadian indie prince. Everyone's favourite musical goofball, Mac DeMarco, put out his third LP this year. While his trademark levity is still on display, this album puts a much more mature Mac on display. Tackling themes of family, ageing, and of course love, This Old Dog is his most cohesive artistic statement to date. Melding Paul Simon-esque songwriting with hazy synths and a lounge singer persona, Mac delves into adult contemporary cheesiness and somehow makes it sound great.
SZA – Ctrl
Released: 9 June
Looking at the year-end lists of various publications, there are a lot of artists and albums that we all would have expected to see near the top before 2017 even started. But SZA is surely the unexpected high-flyer, and deservedly so.
Vocally, Ctrl is beautiful, but where it really excels is its open and honest exploration of loneliness, inadequacy, self-worth and the ever-present difficulties in maintaining intimate relationships. With that comes an ownership of the creator’s flaws and past behaviour that could feasibly alienate some outsiders looking in. As it is, you go away from the album with a great deal of respect for a woman trying to establish her place in the wider world.
Lorde – Melodrama
Released: 16 June
2017 was a pretty unsatisfying year for pop music. Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift of course put up crazy numbers with their respective albums, but both were pretty underwhelming and weren't aided by their omnipresence. Four years after breaking through with her debut album Pure Heroine, the now 20 year old Lorde released her hotly anticipated sophomore album Melodrama in June.
The immensely personal record is an emotional rollercoaster, with crushing lows and soaring highs. Lorde's earnestness is captivating and utterly relatable, taking the listener back to their first heartbreak before building them back up again.
Fleet Foxes – Crack Up
Released: 16 June
After Fleet Foxes disappeared for a few years, no one had any idea what to expect. Would the band come back at all? If so, how would they deal with indie folk not being as popular as it was in their heyday? With Crack-Up, Robin Pecknold and co quieted all naysayers with their best album yet.
Foregoing the usual album as a collection of songs approach, each track flows into the next for a more orchestral suite feel. This cohesion, along with a more decomposed, avant garde approach to song structure makes the album a completely immersive experience.
Jay-Z - 4:44
Released: 30 June
Raise your hand if you thought Magna Carta Holy Grail marked the end of Jay-Z's importance as an artist. Ya, me too. Getting a bit caught up in synth grandiosity after his collaborative album with Kanye West in 2011, Jay-Z brought it back to the beginning on 4:44. Drops and braggadocio have been replaced with soul samples and self-reflection, to great effect.
Stripping back the shell of his public persona, it has been noted that this is less of a Jay-Z album than a Shawn Carter one, as he brings the listener into spaces that he has kept private over his 20+ year career.
Mura Masa – Mura Masa
Released: 14 July
The first album Alex Crossan (AKA Mura Masa) ever bought was Gorillaz' Demon Days. Itself a genreless, guest-focused piece of art, it's easy to see where Crossan got his inspiration from when listening to his self-titled debut.
Filled with appearances from the likes of Bonzai, NAO and Charli XCX, Mura Masa is all about joining the dots, bringing together genres that don't at first seem connected, much like London's own transport system: a reference that opens the album. The result is an LP bubbling with new ideas and an infectious energy.
Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
Released: 21 July
Amidst the seemingly endless speculation over Tyler’s sexuality that surrounded the release and some of the lyrical content on Flower Boy, it might have been easy to overlook just how superb this record really is. The one-time provocateur and gleeful controversialist builds on the self-introspection that has been present in his music since his very first mixtape Bastard, with emotional vulnerability, loneliness and boredom taking centre stage more than ever.
The music is jazzier yet more understated, the instrumentation more bold, the features unfailingly brilliant (including an unexpectedly great Lil Wayne contribution), and the whole feel of the album is more cohesive and ultimately satisfying than any of his previous efforts.
Bicep – Bicep
Released: 1 September
The risk of an esteemed DJ or producer trying their hand at a studio album is that you can end up with a piece of art that lacks fluency, direction and an undercurrent. So no wonder the intrigue (or anxiety) when Bicep announced their debut self-titled album.
But there was no need to doubt. Light, airy and fresh, Bicep is rich and varied, taking in sunrise house (Aura), trance (Orca) and even garage (Opal). And with each track clocking in at around four minutes, Bicep is robust and rounded, and as infectious as the duo's club sets.
Four Tet – New Energy
Released: 29 September
First things first. The ‘energy’ is not actually that huge a departure from what has come before from Kieran Hebden. But nonetheless this album is arguably his best since the phenomenal There Is Love in You back in 2010. In equal parts soaring and tranquil, the record can transition effortlessly between hypnotic harps and rolling kick drums, creating a dreamlike and otherworldly atmosphere in which to lose yourself completely.
King Krule – The Ooz
Released: 13 October
At the age of 23, Archy Marshall has already carved out an impressive path for himself in the music industry. From the early Zoo Kid singles to the present day, it has been hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes his music so captivating. And on his second album The OOZ – follow up to his 2013 debut – Marshall creates something that is suitably undefinable, but as engaging as ever.
With a unique blend of jazzy instrumentation, vocals that fluctuate between vitriolic punk-like delivery and meandering streams of consciousness, and a pervasive sense of malaise with the world he inhabits, Archy Marshall creates a mesmeric, messy and sometimes unsettling record that is unlike anything else out there.
James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits
Released: 3 November
Every now and then there's an album that shows you the potential of unbridled creativity. James Holden started his career at 19 as a musical prodigy. Now at 38, the British producer has assembled a live band and taken his sound in a more organic direction. Mixing various electronic and jazz genres, The Animal Spirits is a whirlwind of creative energy from start to finish. Meticulously assembled, no matter how many times you put the album on, you'll always find something new.
Rødhåd – Anxious
Released: 24 November
Berlin's techno dark lord Rødhåd is no stranger to marathon sets inside the main room of the city's legendary Berghain nightclub. So much so that his industrial style has become synonymous with the city, and he now headlines every underground club and festival that matters.
For his debut album, Anxious, Rødhåd brings all the elements that make his sets so compelling into the studio, offering up an LP that is in parts his typical deep, hypnotic techno, and in others cinematic and theatrical.