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The 20 Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

Music Lists best of 2017 so far
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This tumultuous year around the sun isn’t even halfway over, but there’s already been a ton of great new music to keep us going for another eight months. So much, in fact, that we’re ready to take stock.

Regardless of genre, the best albums released from January through April have seemed to reflect our current range of emotions in 2017—angry to ambivalent, bloated to bombastic, sentimental to sardonic. So from the highly anticipated to the surprise released, here are the 20 best albums of 2017 so far.

20. The Cairo Gang, Untouchable
A contemporary of fellow fuzz-punk contemporaries Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin, The Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly returns with a new project under his own moniker. There’s an unmistakable confidence in his voice, and it’s a primary focal point throughout this record. While the band’s 2015 LP Goes Missing utilized a nomadic recording process to help shape a record that sounded equally as mired in wanderlust, Untouchable revels in a generally lo-fi mix that sits well with its found-sound ambiance—another nod to Kelly’s nomadic muses. Overall, Kelly has raised the stakes on this album, fully embracing some of the more outwardly power-pop sensibilities he’d hinted at in previous records. —Ryan J. Prado

19. David Bazan, Care
Throughout the synth-soaked invitational of Care, David Bazan continues to masterfully represent and wrestle with his Walt Whitman-esque “I contain multitudes” creative arc. Between the breath-close vocal performances and a sparse sonic palette of uncluttered keyboards and minimalist drum loops, fans of Bazan’s solo and band (Pedro the Lion, Headphones) catalog will find continuing strands of familiarity carrying through—most notably from his equally intimate solo releases from last year (Blanco and the holiday compilation Dark Sacred Night) and the electronic pulse of Headphones’ 2005’s self-titled album. While those artistic echoes pop up here and there throughout Care, the album showcases its individual genius through the bitingly fresh nuances found in Bazan’s instrumental, melodic and lyrical approaches. —Will Hodge

18. Diet Cig, Swear I’m Good at This
Swear I’m Good at This is almost like 21-year-old Alex Luciano’s coming-of-age story. It’s an engaging one at that, full of awkward moments, breaking hearts, insecurity and a discovery of power. The album begins in her past, but quickly moves to New York City, where we spend most of the rest of the story, listening to Luciano try to find her way around her beautiful, chaotic life to the tune of ravaging punk jams. Another major strength on_Swear_ is Luciano’s singing, which has improved markedly since Diet Cig’s debut EP, Over Easy. She’s developed far more confidence, bringing her voice to the forefront and showcasing emotions beyond earnest teen angst and youthful rawness. —Zach Blumenfeld

17. Lady Lamb, Tender Warriors Club
Tender Warriors Club confirms Lady Lamb’s (aka Aly Spaltro) quiet emergence as one of her generation’s most gifted songwriters. She combines dense symbolism and metaphor with intimate autobiographical portraits, and each song comes packed with lyrics that refuse to leave your mind, some startling in their simplicity (“If I see you when I look in my own eyes / How could I ever despise myself again,”) and others that come out swinging with their poeticism (“loneliness she can be a whore / I take her to bed, I’m so sure she won’t be there in the morning”). While technically an EP (seven songs and 32 minutes), it feels more like a long-player, and it’s far more cohesive and essential than your average EP. Musically, Spaltro takes a stripped back, acoustic approach on this record that speaks to the intimacy of these songs. It’s not so much that her performances are left raw or exposed—in a way they’ve always been that—as much as they draw out a different side of Spaltro’s voice, one that made brief appearances on her last few records but arrive here in breathtaking form throughout. —Carter Shelter

16. Valerie June, The Order of Time
Through the first 11 of 12 songs, something seems different about Valerie June’s major-label debut, The Order of Time. It’s not something that’s easily noticeable, like the lyrics (which poignantly address the death of her father, her grief and how we keep living) or instrumentation (maintaining a foundation of banjo and acoustic guitar bases). Rather, June exudes a confidence that ebbs and flows in its pervasiveness—from the subtleties of the sparse, pedal steel-steeped opener “Long Lonely Road” to the electric, hand clap-laden single “Shake Down.” But by the closing tune, “Got Soul,” that previously indefinable, pervasive difference becomes clear: Valerie June refuses to be categorized by others. “I could sing you a country tune / Carry the name Sweet Valerie June,” she says in the first verse. “I could play you, play you the blues / to help carry the load while you’re playing your dues,” she sings scornfully in the second. “But I got soul,” she declares in each chorus, “Follow your soul, sweet soul.” It’s a motto and a mentality for herself and for anyone listening. —Hilary Saunders

15. Sheer Mag, Compilation
This Philly quintet’s debut LP—a remastered compilation of their three EPs to date—is a scuzzed-out hookfest with an entire kitchen’s worth of tasty ingredients plucked from the great rock bands of the ‘70s onward. Lead singer Tina Halladay stakes out center stage with a raucous wail that exudes just enough soul to avoid careening off the tracks. When Sheer Mag mixes in Kyle Seely’s riff-loving lead guitar and Ian Dykstra’s biscuit-tin drums, they come out with a danceable punk-boogie formula that recalls Australia’s Royal Headache or, for the older anglophiles in the room, Thin Lizzy. On standout track “Hard Lovin’,” Seely builds a nimble, blues-inflected guitar line beneath Halladay as she sings, “Little boy I can see in the dark / I can breathe underwater, gonna leave my mark / By the time you find out I’ll be down in the flames / I’m in every city you will know my name.” When she gets to your city, don’t miss her. —Matthew Oshinsky

14. Laura Marling, Semper Femina
Taking its title from a line in a Virgil poem about how women are “ever fickle and changeable,” Marling’s sixth full-length release represents a new type of writing about women. Political without being polemical, she filters her narrative sketches through a personal lens that neither over-idealizes nor under-romanticizes her subjects. Instead, the characters in Marling’s songs feel like real people—often restless, frequently viewed from afar and almost uniformly mysterious in their motivations. Despite all of her growth over the past decade—which has included adding a soulful bounce to her occasionally brittle hooks, as well as orchestral heft to her simpler arrangements— Marling remains at heart a folksinger who uses the foundational elements of songcraft to express abiding truths. And like any great folk singer, she has created an album of songs whose sounds and sentiments are much weightier than they appear on the surface. —Matt Fink

13. Ryan Adams, Prisoner
From his days fronting Whiskeytown to his current run of albums, Ryan Adams is often at his best writing sad-bastard breakup songs. In that vein, his latest LP, Prisoner could be considered a breakup album, again, as well. Digging beneath its sleek surface reveals a soul in anguish, wrestling with questions of love, loneliness and desire on an almost existential level. It’s visceral on “Shiver and Shake,” a tortured, self-flagellating remembrance of a lover who’s no longer there. The title track takes a more expansive view, though it’s not any more optimistic: If love is a prison, Adams wonders, what could freedom possibly look like? Still, it’s a beautiful sounding collection, as usual. —Eric R. Danton

12. Grandaddy, Last Place
Much will be made of the fact that Last Place is the first record of new material from Modesto fuzz-poppers Grandaddy since 2006’s Just Like the Fambly Cat, and for ostensibly good reasons. Everyone likes a reunion story, as least in the beginning. The most fans can hope for is a modicum of the magic through which the band drove its creative fancies. The focus ought to be on how satisfyingly true to the Grandaddy aesthetic Last Place sounds—full of experimental bents, meat-and-potatoes lo-fi and happy/sad vignettes—despite the decade-long absence. —Ryan J. Prado

11. Ty Segall, Ty Segall
On 2013’s Sleeper, the prolific Ty Segall turned off his amps to try his hand at an honest folk record. The next year’s Manipulator saw him summoning the ghosts of Bowie and Bolan as a glam-rock mystic. This time last year, Segall was donning a screaming baby mask during live shows to further heighten the disturbing and chaotic horror punk of Emotional Mugger. But perhaps as a welcome sign of clarity, this year’s Ty Segall features no such overarching concepts, themes or consistent styles. Instead, these nine songs (10 only if you count the untitled guitar belch at the end) distill his many talents into his most concise album in years. Along with Charles Moothart reprising his role behind the drumkit, Mikal Cronin returning on bass and Emmett Kelly on guitar, newcomer Ben Boye (Angel Olsen and Bonnie “Prince” Billy) contributes keys. But the album’s secret weapon comes in the not-so-subtle touch of ordained punk saint Steve Albini, who recorded and mixed the record in his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. This collection of monster riffage (“Break a Guitar”), country waltzes (“Talkin’”) and folk gems (“Orange Color Queen”) is neatly packaged summary of why Segall is a modern rock ‘n’ roll treasure. —Reed Strength

10. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked At Me
Over his prolific 20-year career, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum has written plenty of songs about mortality, probably second only to the number of songs he has written about nature. However, A Crow Looked at Me is the first time he has written about death, and there is no album in Mount Eerie’s catalogue like it. Following the passing of his wife, visual artist and musician Geneviève Castrée, Elverum took a couple months to grieve and then sat down in the room where she died and recorded the 11 songs that make up his eighth release as Mount Eerie. Song by song, line by line, he speaks directly to her and into her absence, as on the haunting opening track, “Death Is Real.” The results are as engrossing as they are devastating. More than words, what sticks with you are the images conveyed. Unlike other Mount Eerie albums, this one features very little tape hiss atmosphere or ambient texture, adding clarity to every word Elverum sings. But the music is not simple sonic wallpaper. The beats rise and fall, sounding eerily like a respirator. The instruments—all provided by Elverum—often enter and fade at unpredictable intervals, with tiny details buried in the mix. The melodies are often elliptical, tied to stanzas that seem loosely tethered to meter and rhyme, the number of words dictating their length. As with all of Elverum’s songs, these unfold by their own internal logic, with some abruptly changing tempo and others seeming to end in the middle of a verse. The music feels as unsettled and in-the-moment as the stories he is telling. —Matt Fink

9. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness
For the better part of four decades, ex-Til Tuesday singer Aimee Mann has been mapping the reach of the American pop song. Every three years or so, she releases an album’s worth of character sketches, laments, self-analysis, vignettes and musings, all branded by a kind of urgent hyper-literacy in which each syllable and every note carries outsize meaning. In that sense, Mental Illness, her ninth full-length, differs little from her other work. However, by eschewing the lush instrumentation of some of her early solo records, Mann and producer Paul Bryan give Mental Illness an exceptionally spacious feel that works to her advantage and highlights Mann’s melodies—contemplative, longing, vulnerable—as well as her words—solitary, reflective, honest. —Craig Dorfman

8. The xx, I See You
The xx  has always been a band of contrasts, from the stark black and white of their debut album cover, to the interplay between Oliver Sims’ and Romy Madley Croft’s moody, murmured vocals, to the trio’s proclivities for both sweeping guitar rock and sultry dancehall grooves. That said, I See You is The xx’s most seamless blend of the elements that make them what they are—a band destined to leave an unmistakable and permanent imprint on the indie-pop landscape. Ace beatmaker Jamie xx, launched into well-deserved solo stardom by his own In Colour, creates gorgeous atmospheric textures that elevate Sims and Croft without overwhelming them. The result is a deep and enchanting album that is just as likely to soundtrack a party (“Dangerous”) as it is a daydream (“Replica”), and is at its best when doing both at once (“Lips”). —Scott Russell

7. The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions
The New Pornographers  have spent their career seesawing between two sides of their collective musical personality, contrasting straightforward peppy, poppy records—Mass Romantic (2001), Electric Version (2003) and 2014’s Technicolor Brill Bruisers—with melodic, less accessible and at times gratuitously weird LPs (2005’s Twin Cinema, 2007’s Challengers and 2010’s Together). Whiteout Conditions breaks the tie, unmistakably throwing its lot in with the former group. It’s a fitting introduction to spring, a blast of synthesizers and harmony and aural smiles. In particular, AC Newman’s knack for melodies is on full display: Every song on Whiteout Conditions invites head-bobbing or singing along, and the album’s success stems at least as much from his penchant for experimenting with arrangement and structure. If 2014’s Brill Bruises was the return to more straightforward, listener-friendly power pop after the self-conscious eccentricity of the last three albums, Whiteout Conditions keeps that celebration going in style. —Craig Dorfman

6. Jay Som, Everybody Works
On Everybody Works, her first second album as Jay Som, Melina Duterte has successfully weaponized the awkward feelings that ride sidecar during the transition into adulthood. “Why don’t you take the bus / You say you don’t like the smell / But I like the bus / I can be whoever I want to be,” she sings on single “The Bus Song,” her voice rising from the aural equivalent of a shrug to a shout. With a sun-dappled sound that wanders from rock to pop, to shoegaze and grunge and back again, Duterte lays waste to the idea of genre as well, inhabiting each tonal shift that accompanies her confessions with a nonchalant sincerity. The result is tension and intimacy in equal parts. No one is comfortable in their own skin, and Duterte certainly makes it clear she doesn’t have it all figured out. But in Jay Som’s world, a bit of uncertainty is a beautiful thing. —Laura Studarus

5. Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 3
If Run The Jewels began its career with gleeful, sometimes joking “fuck you’s,” their third release as a duo levels up: The “fuck”s have become much louder and the “you”s incisively specific. Killer Mike and El-P become full-fledged juggernauts on this record, never compromising, never obstructed. There are direct confrontations and call-outs: Don Lemon and cops get their just desserts on “Thieves;” Donald Trump and All Lives Matter get suplexed on “Talk to Me;” reckless retweeters get splayed on “A Report to the Shareholders: Kill Your Masters;” land-grabbing developers in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood get blasted on “Don’t Get Captured.”
Released digitally at the end of 2016, RTJ3 served in some ways as a bookend to a fraught year. Yet it’s best used as a guide this year—as proven by its double LP physical release—and to the future. Run the Jewels was supposed to be as fleeting as a “fuck you,” but the duo has evolved by revealing that sentiment is eternal. RTJ3 sharpens that revelation and encases it in lustrous, dazzling gold. The crooks had the jewels all along. —Stephen F. Kearse

4. Spoon, Hot Thoughts
Spoon’s ninth album, Hot Thoughts, succeeds first and foremost as a disarmingly subtle way of taking a meaningful evolutionary step as a band. Even a quick listen reveals that the veteran Austin rockers have taken their sonic palette to its most adventurous conclusion. It’s not the first time they’ve been willing to bathe their sound in synthesizers or other electronic treatments (witness “New York Kiss,” or “Was It You”), but it is the first time they’ve let some of the elegant sonic spaces truly overtake the record. To arrive at such a worthwhile new vista roughly 24 years into their career is a pretty serious achievement, and all with no more overt fanfare than a humble presentation of one of their best offerings. —Jeff Leven

3. Future Islands, The Far Field
The Far Field, produced John Congleton (Angel Olsen, Spoon, The War on Drugs), is a solid continuation of what Future Islands have been selling for over a decade. The synth-punk monuments have excelled in crafting sweet-and-sour synth melodies bolstered by New Order-worthy bass lines beneath lead singer Samuel T. Herring’s chest-beating growl and unblinking blend of insight and earnestness. Since the Baltimore band’s 2008 commercial debut, Wave Like Home, Future Islands have honed and tweaked their production, making LPs cleaner and crisper as time and budget allowed, but they’ve never sacrificed the driving force behind what made them great to begin with. Such unwavering self-assurance will no doubt keep fans two-stepping back to The Far Field — and whatever lies beyond. —Rachel Brodsky

2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
DAMN. isn’t the personal journey that To Pimp a Butterfly was, and it doesn’t try to be. DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar dead and Kendrick Lamar alive. It is Kendrick Lamar condemned and Kendrick Lamar redeemed. It is a meditation—or rather, a series of meditations—of his technical and emotional capabilities. Those meditations, on subjects explicitly named in songs like “PRIDE.” “LUST.” and “FEAR.” are bound together as an examination of Lamar’s own existence—his past, his present, his future, his disciples, his worshippers, his enemies and his worldview. But while it’s unlikely that DAMN. will ever carry the immense weight that To Pimp a Butterfly did, it does prove that the millions of fans who have recognized in him an unstoppable creative force are not wrong. —Carter Shelter

1. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Josh Tillman’s third album as Father John Misty’s, Pure Comedy, lives up to its title. It’s a comedy in every sense of the word. Absurdity is the order of the day. There are jokes around every turn. The central joke being the perfectly dissonant balance of sincerity and sarcasm conveyed by music and lyrics alike. It makes sense that Father John Misty is a polarizing figure given how much his music is composed of polarities. That’s truer of this album than it is of even the very sardonic I Love You, Honeybear. Much has been made of the marriage of his conventionally beautiful voice and accessible instrumentation to his nihilistic and irony-soaked lyricism. This record is definitive proof that that relationship is working, lasting and getting better with age. —Mack Hayden

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