So, this is gonna be inconsistent with my top 5 tracks of the year, in that I really cannot decide on a numeric ranking for this list. I love a whole bunch of different kinds of music for a wide variety of reasons, and my full taste will definitely not be covered in this list. I thought a list of albums by genre (sorted alphabetically by artist name) I absolutely loved would be very suitable, and there will be honorable mention listings for works operating within similar genres (according both to my own ear and albumoftheyear.org sorting algorithms). Without any further ado, let’s get busy with this!
Baths — Romaplasm (Indietronica)
This is one of those records that people would immediately peg as one of the ones I would put on this list. I am not so secretly a fan of Will Wiesenfeld (and their side project Geotic), with Cerulean being one of my all-time favourite records. I am super fond of the glitch-hop influences on sidechain-heavy electronica exhibited on that record, and really loved the dark lyrical turn on Obsidian. With Romaplasm, Baths uses the worlds of fiction as escape from the harsh expectations of reality, and uses it to create their most lush, heartbreaking record yet.
Immediate standouts would even be the happier-sounding escapist anthem “Yeoman,” the steadfastness-even-in-extreme-pain maximalist electronic piece “Adam Copies” (which is personally my favourite off of the record), and the soul-crushing “Human Bog”. There are a lot of tracks on this record about queer identity, including the second lead single “Out”, but “Human Bog” remains one of the most accurate and depressing descriptors of being queer in a heteronormative-dominated sphere I have ever heard in music. Each repetition of the chorus descends into self-hatred more and more: “…queer in a way that works for you/works for them/has failed me…” with the added context of trying to figure out your own identity and realizing how much you are unwelcome, for whatever additional reasons, in spaces you feel as though you belong. This is one of the calmer cuts on Romaplasm, sonically, but leaves me in tears every single time I hear it.
What I love about this, though, is the colourful and lush arrangements that permeate the record in spite of the pain, aiding the escapist tendencies of a lot of the lyrics. “Adam Copies” is vibrant and maximalist, “I Form” is a gradual build into active and catchy glitchiness, “Superstructure” is magnificently beautiful. There is so much colour and vibrance that makes this ultimately very queer and very hard record easier to handle, as if a friend giving you a hug and letting you know that there is solidarity in pain.
Honorable mentions: Yaeji — EP2, Actress — AZD, Alice Glass — Alice Glass, LCD Soundsystem — American Dream, Sylvan Esso — What Now
Björk — Utopia (Art pop)
This was an excellent year for art pop as a genre. I had to actually trim down the honorable mentions for this, as I am keeping it to five. Please reach out to me if you want to know what I pruned from that honorable mentions list, because there was a lot of stellar, intriguing art pop that both crossed over into the mainstream and became indie mainstays throughout this year.
…however, you all saw this one coming, if you have been paying attention to my writing, Twitter presence, general way I live my life, etc. I am unashamedly a huge fan of Björk, and as I explained in my Top 5 Tracks list, this entire record was an exciting continuation in Björk’s emotional arc. After the crushing(ly beautiful) Vulnicura – which left Björk heartbroken and with a gaping emotional wound in her chest – she took her time to heal, and this is done in an exceedingly naturalistic-sounding way that sounds complimentary to that previous record. In place of strings are flutes, in place of foreboding and crushing ambiance are birdsong and swelling orchestrations tinged with hopefulness in spite of the minor keys prevalent throughout the record. This is an excellently naturalistic approach to becoming more vulnerable/dating in the digital age, a feeling that is natural in spite of filtering through digital means.
This record makes some lowkey brilliant statements even without factoring in its personal and memorable songwriting, which is a nice trend to see in Björk’s writing after her spending so long within the personification of the natural, sometimes at the expense of personal attachment. Utopia strikes a great balance of these elements, making it a rewarding repeated listen, and ultimately a work that lightens the heart.
Honorable mentions: Zola Jesus — Okovi, St. Vincent — MASSEDUCTION, Arca — Arca, Fever Ray — Plunge, Perfume Genius — No Shape
Brockhampton — SATURATION / SATURATION II / SATURATION III (Hip-hop)
This was a pretty solid year for hip-hop in terms of the sheer number of good albums that came out, even within subsects that I rarely listen to (check out the honorable mentions on this one, seriously; your favourite kind of hip-hop had a good record this year whether you know it or not!). The biggest surprise to me was the inception and ultimate dissolution of hip-hop collective (or “boy band” as they called it) Brockhampton. An incredibly varied collective in terms of style, each MC complimenting each other perfectly and suitable for the often eerie or reflective production. I would be lying if I didn’t say that Kevin Abstract stood out as one of the most prominent voices of the group, however, and ultimately why I was sold on the Brockhampton collective: outright openly queer lyricism and excellent wordplay set a high standard, and ultimately cemented these three records in 2017 as my favourite hip-hop record of the year.
Releasing three records in one year is already a testament to the group’s work effort, but maintaining such high quality and consistency among all three releases while still making each one feel like it justifiably stands on its own is impressive. “GOLD” off of the first SATURATION is very confident, with each rapper delivering an effortless coolness. SATURATION II’s “Queer” utilizes the multitude of definitions in terms of queerness and creates an OutKast-esque vibe. “STAINS” outright comments on the criticism they have received by the time SATURATION III rolled around, saying that they are releasing three records commenting on the same exact material. Each one of these records is, in fact, extremely similar to the others. They often juxtaposes slower, more Frank Ocean-esque self-deprecation ballads with beat-driven firespitting and bangers. Usually topics of trying to better oneself, live life according to who they truly are, and queerness are tackled within these bars. But the consistency in excellent production and lines (where the execution of even clunker lines skirts by unnoticed due to effortless coolness) allows all of the same on these records to feel welcome in the hip-hop scene.
Honorable mentions: Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory, Milo — Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!, Stormzy — Gang Signs & Prayer, Open Mike Eagle — Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Tyler the Creator — Flower Boy
Girlpool — Powerplant (Indie pop)
This is one of the three records in this top 10 that I was hyped up for even before release (the other two being Baths and Björk). Girlpool’s previous LP, When the World was Big, was my first time experiencing them and there was something magnetic to their approach to songwriting. With their songs being relatively simple and featuring just guitar, bass, and their vocals, usually with two to three chords per song, the monotony was meant to draw attention to the lyricism. The earnestness in the performance and dedication to this style of songwriting helped sell a very introspective but ultimately positive outlook, and made me very curious as to how they would sound with a full band.
The result is this band turning into an absolute necessity listen as opposed to a curiosity. Girlpool have upped the volume and expanded their sound, and their songwriting has adjusted without compromising their unique voice. Excellent production highlights the expanded dynamic range, but the entire project still feels DIY and poppy. Their lyrics still shine as champions here, feeling simultaneously intimate, haunting, and even funny. It’s all casual, like hanging out with a good friend and waffling between real talk and jokes about that real talk. It’s a triumph of a sophomore record, and keeps me excited for their future.
Honorable mentions: Japanese Breakfast — Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Alvvays — Anti-Socialites, Shamir — Revelations, The Magnetic Fields — 50 Song Memoir, Adult Mom — Soft Spots
Iglooghost — Neo Wax Bloom (UK bass/other electronic genres)
The variety of genres and subgenres and microgenres in electronic music could keep us here all day, so I thought I would just list a bunch of stuff in the honorable mentions from various other genres that would qualify under the general “electronic” umbrella. This year’s victor is a UK bass record that has taken over as one of those albums I just kept playing on repeat during the year, which no, I will not shut up about.
Neo Wax Bloom, upon introducing it to a friend, likened it to splattering paint against a pure white canvas, with some of that negative space still peeking through. I would be inclined to agree, as Iglooghost has thrown a wide variety of textures at the listener all at once, but upon further inspection, these inclusion of these busy elements is absolutely balanced. Between the bass tone, squealing sax, chopped/repitched rap vocal samples, elastic synths, punchy percussion, etc. it all initially feels like everything would get buried. It becomes balanced in a way that rewards a listener for pinpointing how this collage of textures all operates together and makes its exclusion of parts truly matter in the overall composition.
A record as fun to analyze as it is fun to listen to, the controlled chaos of Iglooghost will be one I look forward to hearing more from in the future.
Honorable mentions: Jlin — Black Origami, Blanck Mass — World Eater, Pharmakon — Contact, Mhysa — fantasii, Sote — Sacred Horror in Design
Igorrr — Savage Sinusoid (Metal)
I can’t believe that I forgot to shortlist “Houmous” for my top 5 of the year, when it very much should’ve been on that list! My end-of-the-year Spotify list claims that it is the song I listened to the most this year, and I can’t say that I disagree with this assessment.
Anyway, Savage Sinusoid is an interesting experience of a record. It is multifaceted; proggy where it needs to be, brutal where it needs to be, noisy where it needs to be, silly at points. I think this might be my favourite so far out of Igorrr’s records, potentially because of recency bias but mostly because I find the experimentation (even when it does not pan out) to be utterly compelling and entertaining. This is true controlled sonic chaos, complete with elements of noise, symphonic metal, breakcore, prog, chiptune, roosters…it’s a hell of a ride. Igorrr have always been masters of controlled multi-identity chaos, and this is possibly the most accessible of theirs to date. It will still scare away nonbelievers in its sheer manic energy, but will entice those willing to give its experimentation a chance.
There truly isn’t much more you can say about an Igorrr record other than “listen to see if you will like it,” but Savage Sinusoid manages to have such an ear on melody compared to previous records that it feels like an attempt to be the most accessible record yet. It will still scare away those who do not typically approach avant-garde metal, but to those who love to dissect their chaos, this record will be very rewarding.
Honorable mentions: Converge — The Dusk in Us, The Body & Full Of Hell — Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light, Ex Eye — Ex Eye, Bell Witch — Mirror Reaper, Diablo Swing Orchestra — Pacifisticuffs
Julien Baker — Turn Out The Lights (Singer-songwriter)
This was my first experience with Julien Baker, as I had somehow missed out entirely on Sprained Ankle when it first came out. Immediately upon finishing this record up for the first time, I put the sparse Sprained Ankle on and listened to Turn Out The Lights again to get a better sense of Baker’s evolution. However, you could get a sense of her roots even just listening to this sophomore record: most of the arrangements have grand swells that have their primary basis in solo guitar and voice work, with minor bits of layering and vocal overdubs, with string and woodwind accoutrements added in on this record to give it a larger scale. Lyrically, you can also easily see the entire course of Baker’s evolution in this record: lines about defending depressive actions with saying that “[she’s] not always like this…”; or shutting people out as they try to help her with her depression (“I know you were trying to help//But you’re only making it worse…”) ; or her fights with addiction, or her struggles with suicidal thoughts and romantic rejection… the list goes on.
In a year of heartwrenching singer-songwriter records, Turn Out The Lights stands out as being extremely accessible for repeated listens in spite of how relatable and how hard-hitting her circumstances are for me as a listener (compared to two of the honorable mentions from Phoebe Bridgers and Mount Eerie, which I need distance from before I listen to them again due to how blunt and crushing their subject matters are). Despite being a record that candidly talks about depression, this is not a pity party: this is ultimately the continuation of an emotional arc that ends with Baker realizing that she wants to stay, that she does not wish to die (“Claws In Your Back” being my number one track from this year for a reason). It’s a life-affirming thesis statement that sticks with me, and shows that life can and will get better. It starts with the acknowledgement of wanting to stay alive in spite of everything.
Honorable mentions: Phoebe Bridgers — Stranger in the Alps, Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked At Me, Bedouine — Bedouine, The Mountain Goats — Goths, The Weather Station — The Weather Station
Lorde — Melodrama (Pop)
Despite everything, there were some pretty damn good pop releases this year. I would say, though, that this was definitely the year for art pop to shine rather than standard top-40 pop radio stuff. That’s not to say that there wasn’t great stuff – far from it! But the current tradition is holding true, that rap is becoming the new pop and a lot of radio pop tends to still be singles-focused and never adheres to a full album all that strongly. In spite of this, the biggest hits of the year tend to be from singer-songwriters embracing the poppier side of life, whether that would be Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift or – in the case of artists I actually like – Lorde.
Melodrama is everything I look for in a pop record. The singles are catchy and slickly-produced while providing more emotional depth to its lyrics, and the tracks all work as an album cataloguing someone’s bitter breakup as they veer into early adulthood. Pure Heroine was an impressive debut record, but Melodrama feels even more like a breakthrough. While Jack Antonoff is all over the credits, this still feels uniquely like Lorde’s singular vision. There’s a lot to love here, from the sheer honesty in how angry someone’s actions with a new lover can make you (“Green Light”), the inherent depression in being by one’s lonesome when they have plenty of love to share (“Liability”), and even the comedy of the situation (“The Louvre”). Combine that with some genuine pop bangers that still fit into the character of the record (“Homemade Dynamite,” for instance) and you have an amazing pop experience that encourages one to think while losing themselves to dance.
Honorable mentions: Kesha — Rainbow, Paramore — After Laughter, Charli XCX — Pop2, Allie X — CollXtion II, HAIM — Something To Tell You
SZA — CTRL (R&B)
This year’s R&B pickings were all pretty high on the “good” scale, but the great records were absolutely fantastic. With R&B becoming more of a mainstay in pop as we see a shift in what kind of thoughtful and production-oriented pop music comes out, along with the continued dominance of rap (see the reemergence of rap at the top of the Billboard charts, for instance), we get more of a sense that what makes excellent R&B standout is more than just a smooth performance: it’s inventive and consistent production, excellent songwriting that blends the direct with the metaphorical (often within the same song), and it takes charge despite its slower tempos. SZA’s CTRL is an exemplary debut LP due to this, but focuses more on raw lyricism and opulent production to address romantic and sexual ideas within the current modern context.
So much of the record focuses on the dissolution of relationships, formation of new ones, and the emotions involved with being what’s dubbed “the side chick”. It handles it in ways that feel unique due to the inclusion of indie rock influences on the beats (opener “Supermodel” pairing a spacey guitar riff with lyrics admitting to fucking a cheater’s best friend while he was cheating on her works so well, for instance), and maintains its honesty while utilizing these influences (“Prom”, “Drew Barrymore”). After relistening to this record a number of times, I feel as though every song on this record could stand to be a top 40 single.
Yes, especially “Doves in the Wind”.
Honorable mentions: Kelela — Take Me Apart, Sampha — Process, Kehlani — SexySweetSavage, SOHN — Rennen, Jessie Ware — Glasshouse
Vagabon — Infinite Worlds (Indie rock)
One of the quicker full-length records this year, clocking in at just 8 tracks! It does not overstay its welcome while still leaving a strong impact. Lætitia Tamko’s debut LP tackles the ideas of community, home, and coexistence in such a compact space while being impressive indie rock filled with victorious-sounding anthems. Songs in both French and English fully convey their points without ever feeling like filler (even more synthy “Mal à L’aise” feels right at home in the track listing). Love lost is a common framing device on this record to address the ideas of communication, even if you do not necessarily see eye-to-eye or if your expectations are not reciprocated (“100 Years”, “Cold Apartment”). Tying all of these concepts into such a compact space would normally run the risk of feeling overstuffed and half-baked, but thanks to the way in which each theme complements surrounding themes, it feels like a cohesive, ambitious statement record.
Actually, I would like to take the time to tackle the sound of the record overall. It takes the sounds of anthemic indie rock and makes it feel a bit more grounded. The vocals, typically drenched in reverb in this genre, feel front and center, mostly engaged with a plate reverb to give it some form of depth. The quiet synth track uses the most production tricks, but even that is mostly limited to panning tricks. The sound is typical of indie rock, but darker tones tend to get more of the focus, even on anthemic opener “The Embers” and previously-mentioned “Cold Apartment”, which are not afraid to throw power to its more mid-low-range guitars. It’s very intentional mixing that helps deliver the intent of the music. If Vagabon’s next record can successfully capitalize on the strengths shown here, they are going to become a potential favourite act in the future.
Honorable mentions: Sacred Paws — Strike a Match, The World Is Beautiful And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die — Always Foreign, Grizzly Bear — Painted Ruins, Partner — In Search Of Lost Time, Makthaverskan — III
And that’s that! I have so many more records I want to talk about (especially given the fact that in the last six months of the year I listened to 250 records), but we can save that for future posts. What were some of your favourite records? Please let us know in the comments!
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