As might be expected, the first full year of the Trump presidency was culturally complicated. There was a decided uptick in political content across many genres, while much of the mainstream music scene retreated into irrelevance or very downbeat. It was a year of transition in Western culture, with the personality-driven pop of the first half of the decade dramatically burning out. Some of the biggest names in music delivered projects that were either miscalculated misfires like Eminem’s Revival, Katy Perry’s Witness or Taylor Swift’s Reputation, depressingly safe like many of the biggest radio hits, or simply depressing, but in a good way.
The success of singles like “Bad & Boujee” and “X0TourlLif3” ushered in a new era of relevance for downtempo and melancholic emo trap music, which took over the mainstream like never before in the coming years. Crossover hits arrived courtesy of Latin and tropical house music, songs like “Starving”, “Shape of You” and “Despacito”, which were as ubiquitous as they were eminently forgettable. Nearly everything of note in 2017 sounded ahead of, or behind the times.
Nonetheless, some artists still managed to make an impact. The closing days of 2016 delivered Run the Jewels 3 and fired the starting pistol on a new era of political engagement both within hip-hop and beyond. The year that followed saw releases like Joey Bada$$’s ALL-AMERIKKAN BADA$$, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Open Mike Eagle‘s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Vince Staples’s Big Fish Theory, N.E.R.D.’s No One Ever Really Dies, Logic’s Everybody and the aforementioned Revival, all attempt to deal with the new political normal, to varying degrees of success. The underwhelming releases of pop’s biggest names created a vacuum for some newer artists like Dua Lipa, JID, Cardi B and Lil Uzi Vert to establish themselves while established artists were able to reimagine themselves and make comebacks, in some cases delivering their best work yet, which we’ll be looking at on this list.
Other personal favourites that didn’t quite leave the impact to make the cut include Japanese noise rock artist Harunemuri’s Atom Heart Mother, RnB star SZA’s Ctrl, IDK’s conceptual and cinematic rap project IWASVERYBAD, Princess Nokia’s breakthrough album 1992 Deluxe, Sadistik’s phenomenal album Altars and the terrific team-up of 21 Savage, Offset and Metroboomin, Without Warning. For the sake of technical hair-splittery I’m also not going to include mixtapes, thereby sadly leaving Joyner Lucas’s fantastic and ambitious (508) 507 2209 and Murs’s underrated Captain California out in the cold. However, at least it spares you me praising Pop2 or Number1Angel any more than I have in past articles.
Mount Eerie—A Crow Looked at Me
Released 24 March 2017
Phil Elverum had been married to his wife Genevieve Castree for eleven years when, shortly after the birth of their daughter, she was diagnosed with cancer. She died a year later and Elverum channelled his grief into his music, under the Mount Eerie name. A Crow Looked at Me is the resulting folk album, a forty-minute lyrical exploration of death and grief, simply told through spartan instrumentation and recorded at home in the room where she died. To describe the album as moving would be a considerable understatement. It’s a devastatingly raw confrontation with grief and death, not as abstract concepts, but as realities he has been forced to stare down by the permanent absence of the most important person in his life.
Elverum’s inability to reconcile himself to his loss is explored in the lyrics, many of which are crushingly direct and relatable. Everyone has lost someone important to them and has someone they cannot imagine the pain it would be to lose, and remembering or imagining such a scenario is a frighteningly sobering experience, one that this album offers in as undiluted a form as artistically possible. There’s some poetic imagery laced throughout, as Elverum protests against the natural order and his fading memories of his beloved, but it’s the barest necessary to convey the raw emotion. It’s otherwise packed with tender and soul-shaking details, about their life together leading up to her death, and his life alone with their daughter afterwards.
The first four tracks are possibly the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, as Elverum’s pain-numbed vocals murmur descriptions of packing away her things, still receiving her mail in the post and going to scatter her ashes. Describing the vast intangibility of what he has lost, singing: “I poured out your ashes on [a chair on a hill], I guess so you can watch the sunset. But the truth is I don’t think of that dust as you. You are the sunset.”
From the opening track “Real Death”, the album slowly retreats from the moment of passing, as the pain gradually recedes into something more background and less all-consuming, building to the final track “Crow”, where he describes a hiking trip with his daughter, both dreaming of the one they’ve lost. It’s a perfect ending to a perfect album and possibly the most visceral and honest artistic portrait of bereavement ever made.
Father John Misty—Pure Comedy
Released 7 April 2017
The third and most ambitious studio album released by folk musician Josh Tillman under the Father John Misty name, Pure Comedy continues the lustrous piano rock instrumentation and satirical songwriting of previous albums Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear. However, on this project, Tillman’s mental state and attitudes read as more dejected than ever, with more lyrical savagery, bleaker imagery, and longer, more involved song structures. The album itself is a heftier meal than the previous works but doesn’t come away feeling overwhelming or overstuffed. Tillman’s playful and sardonic presence, and the sombre yet comforting sonic palate, keep the listener grounded throughout all thirteen minutes of a song like “Leaving LA” or ten minutes of “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”.
There are some undeniably vicious lyrical moments on Pure Comedy, with Tillman sounding burned out and downhearted, but his poetry and grasp of imagery are as valuable of a stabilising keel as his sense of humour. Moments like his description of the pale horse of the apocalypse death descending on the Earth, only to pass judgement on the humans for leaving nothing for it to destroy, are both hilariously barbed and inherently tragic statements on both the human condition and modern environmental policies.
As the project’s name implies, religion is a favourite subject for Father John Misty, both in the aforementioned biblical imagery and as a target for satire, singing on the track “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”, “one side says y’all go to hell, the other says if I believed in God I’d send you there. Either way we’ve made some space in the hell that we create”. The track feels alternately like a shallow centrist’s lament in an era of partisanship, and a parody of facile “both sides are just as bad as each other” argumentation, drawing attention to the fundamental differences in the underlying ideologies.
Songs like “The Memo” also see him taking swipes at the cynicism of the artistic community and culture industry that commodifies art and suffering, a sweeping criticism in which he’s not shy about including himself, presented with a very rustic, powerful folk instrumental. The track “Total Entertainment Forever” presents a The Machine Stops style portrait of a dystopia devoted to escapism through technology with a faux upbeat sound to it and the song “Things It Would Be Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” has the dramatic sound of an uprising anthem, portraying the world after the uprising as less utopian and more post-apocalyptic. Through moments like these, the album maintains a dense and colourful sound and skilful blend of sincerity and irony throughout its thirteen tracks.
From the opening moments on the title track: “the comedy of man starts like this: our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips”, Pure Comedy is a hugely ambitious and grand exploration of far-reaching themes, through a perspective that feels uniquely personal. Tillman’s songwriting is as tense and assured as on the previous two Father John Misty projects, and when turned against a society that was darker than previously estimated, it’s a cynical and reflective mirror to both himself and modern society that he constructs, mournfully railing almost ironically against society, nature and himself.
Released 12 May 2017
On their 2013 self-titled record, celebrated pop-punk band Paramore teased a possible new direction, with the xylophone led new wave-styled track “Ain’t It Fun”. The song’s skilful blend of upbeat and chirpy presentation with ironic and dark lyrics about the rough awakening experienced by lead singer Hayley Williams when the group made it big, made the song a hit and set the template for their next album, After Laughter where the group went full synth-pop. The hard rock riffs were pulled back in favour of bells, keyboards and marimba rhythms, with the instrumentation supporting the pastel, humorous and kooky explorations of the same cynical and pessimistic themes.
The opening track “Hard Times” effectively fulfils the promise of “Ain’t It Fun”, not only in developing the sound into a more concise direction, but in the lyrics, delivering on the doomsaying of the earlier track. The following tracks, all coming with a twee faux uplifting disco flavour, play out the same push and pull between external optimism and internal pessimism, finding joy in having one’s own low expectations vindicated. “Rose Coloured Boy” sees Williams clapping back at an irritating eternal optimist and, “Told You So” of course rubbing it in his face when things go badly, as predicted. After Laughter also explores other themes such as the expectations placed on them by their audience on the track “Idle Worship”, possibly pre-empting the criticism that their new direction received from punk purists.
The second half of the album pulls back on the disco tempo occasionally and also sees the cynicism waver, “26” conceding that despite one’s own lack of hope, she doesn’t really want to take it away from anyone else. Nonetheless, the terrifically propulsive tunes continue, with a splendid assortment of hooks and melodies on tracks like “Forgiveness” and the Blondie styled “Grudges”.
The sound and direction of After Laughter is the perfect way to lift you up when you’re feeling low. The lyrics are tart enough to reach into your bad mood, and the compositions easily catchy enough to pull you out. It’s catchier and less hard-edged than any of their previous work, but doesn’t deserve to be regarded as a moment of artistic regression. Instead the group take to their distinctive new sound with unmistakable assurance and deliver a refreshing and articulate breath of new wave ironic cheer.
Released 9 June 2017
One of the most exciting new voices in hip hop arrived in spectacular fashion in 2017 with the release of Brockhampton’s Saturation trilogy, following up their All American Trash debut the previous year. Brockhampton formed as an online collective of more than a dozen artists whose styles combine to create a uniquely layered and playful sonic palate, with extensive vocal effects and eccentric performances blurring the lines between the artists and between genres of pop, hardcore hip hop and alternative rhythm and blues.
Despite the size of the group, self-styled as a ‘boy band’, key members such as Kevin Abstract, who provides most of the album’s phenomenally catchy choruses, Ameer Vaan (whose fraught departure the group explore on their best album to date Ginger) Merlyn Wood, Matt Champion and Dom McLennon all manage to leave distinctive authorial stamps on their moments in the spotlight, with the aggression of Vaan, the quirkiness of Wood and the playful soulfulness of Abstract, showcased earlier on his American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story project leaving individual moments that stand out in the eclectic tracklist. Tracks riding a lyrical theme like “STAR”, filled with movie star references, showcase the tremendous amount of chemistry among the group, showing how each of these rappers approaches their imagery and metaphor to express their personalities very differently.
Mixing fierce hardcore bangers like “HEAT” and “BUMP” with groovy jams like “GOLD” and “FAKE” and soulful autotuned ballads like “WASTE” and “SWIM”, Brockhampton takes to each of these styles with seamless assurance, each time providing weird and elastic production. This is another example of where, in retrospect, 2017 feels like such a transitional era in music, with the arrivals of new artists with new sounds that have been so predictive of the shape of mainstream music to come.
Living up to the title, the group followed up with two more terrific entries in the Saturation trilogy throughout 2017, and I was tempted to bend my own rules an include all three as a single entry, but since they were released separately, I decided to simply pick my favourite of the three, which is easily the first, containing many of the groups catchiest and more memorable moments.
Released 16 June 2017
Having broken through in 2013 with one of the most exciting and influential pop albums of the decade with Pure Heroine, New Zealand pop star Lorde oddly chose not to capitalise on her momentum, waiting four years before releasing a follow-up. Many inferred from this that she was going to be retreating into a more abstract and artful direction, with both the quiet, minimalist style of her music and the sharply critical lyrics suggesting an austerity and outsider’s resolve that placed her outside the mainstream despite her popularity.
However, her follow-up album Melodrama both fulfilled these expectations, while subverting them. The soundscapes were more lustrous and glamorous, particularly on the front end, opening with the stunning breakup anthem “Green Light”, restyling Lorde as a listener’s dream: a poppy dance diva with poetic and incisive lyrics and catchy and explosive but forward-thinking and artistic compositions.
Throughout the album’s eleven tracks, Lorde dissects the failure of a relationship, and as impeccably as Pure Heroine bottled the pains and joys of cynical adolescence, so Melodrama incisively captures the self-destructive and reflections of a moment of lost quarter-life clarity. The cooing multitracked whispers that marked her out and have gone on to inspire artists like Billie Eilish, return on the following track “Sober” and the crunchy, hauntingly euphoric “Homemade Dynamite”. “The Louvre” closes out the opening stretch with a playful and nostalgic moment of restorative spontaneity, still scorched by Lorde’s hard-edged and fragile imagery and malignancy before the album enters its second phase with the tragic and tender portrait of loneliness “Liability”.
In a moment of both sublime self-acceptance and heart-breaking resignation, Lorde envisions herself returning home after pushing away another partner with her overbearing affections. The gentle piano instrumental and raw vocals give the track a vulnerability and intimacy that’s the perfect complement to her reflections on the pattern of her life that she is resigned to repeating. The latter half of the album explores her feelings of spite and sadness in the wake of her desertion on tracks like “Hard Feelings/Loveless” and “Writer in the Dark”, where she warns her ex that now that he’s broken her heart, their relationship is fair game for her to expose artistically, and through these moments she gains the power she needs to move on.
Melodrama isn’t just about getting over a breakup, it is the act of getting over a breakup itself, in album form. It’s an expressive moment of both profound sadness and upward momentum, propelling the listener forward into the waiting starry night beyond this moment of despair. Although it didn’t receive the crossover success of her debut, with only one modest hit, Melodrama’s impeccable mixture of glamour and danger immediately earned it a more than justified reputation, not only as one of the best synth-pop albums of all time but also one of the greatest breakup albums ever made.
Released 30 June 2017
Many names on this list are those of artists who restyled themselves in order to stage later career comebacks, and no artist is that truer of than Jay-Z, whose album 4.44 has become shorthand for an out of touch artist delivering an unexpectedly personal and raw project. After his wife Beyoncé released her fantastic 2016 album Lemonade, dealing with her own feelings upon discovering his infidelity, Jay-Z needed to put across his side of the story and publicly atone, as he does in heart-breaking fashion on the title track. More than that though, 4.44 was a moment of maturation of Jay-Z, who had lost his mojo in recent years with his most recent projects like Magna Carta Holy Grail and Watch the Throne sounding increasingly stale. 4.44 was an opportunity for Jay-Z to explore his middle age and personal struggles, giving listeners every ounce of the depth, humility and perspective he had been lacking.
Jay-Z sheds his machismo and his armour from the start, with the self-flagellating opener “Kill Jay-Z” and tributes throughout to not only his wife, but to his mother and daughter on “Smile” and “Legacy”. The album also contains ruminations on his own cultural position, most notably on “The Story of O.J.”, where he stresses the importance to black Americans of generational wealth. The aesthetics of this track reach back through the 20th century with its eerie sample and unstable piano, as well as its animated music video’s Jim Crow era ragtime art style, all perfectly complementing the weight and weariness of Jay-Z’s delivery.
Much of the discourse surrounding 4.44 justly focuses on what a refreshing and endearing departure it was for Jay-Z, but it also needs to be impressed upon just how fantastic No I.D.’s production is on this album. The simple, vintage and tastefully soulful sound his beats provide is an impeccable soundscape for Jay-Z introspections on his life and choices. At a disciplined thirty six minutes, from its first track to its last, 4.44 is a poignant and direct message from a man who succeeded in playing the system but still came through it burdened with personal regrets and the classy and tasteful music creates the perfect atmosphere for it.
Tyler the Creator—Flower Boy
Released 21 July 2017
One unreservedly positive change of the last few years has been the increase in diversity and visibility of sexual minorities, and despite frequent and often justified accusations of chauvinism, hip hop has not been immune to this influence. 2017 was a particularly notable milestone in this regard, with artists like Brockhampton and Princess Nokia reaching their breakthroughs, but also one of rap’s most controversial and polarising figures, Tyler the Creator embracing his sexual identity publicly and artistically with the album Scum F–k Flower Boy, the title neatly and humorously articulating the duality and contrast between stereotypes of his identity and his previous public persona.
Much of the discourse surrounding the album on its release focused rather tastelessly on this tabloid revelation, perhaps understandably given the use of homophobic language on Tyler’s previous albums, but even returning to it a few years later, Flower Boy still stands as Tyler’s best record, despite the mainstream success of his soulful and conceptual follow up Igor.
Tyler had experimented with more of a neo-soul direction on past projects such as the sprawling and conceptual Wolf and the raw and rowdy Cherry Bomb, before it overtook his rapping on Igor. Flower Boy though is the most even-handed and balanced combination of fuzzy sounds, with frayed and dishevelled beats tempered by lush, jazzy and soulful pianos, bleeping synth melodies and choruses from the likes of Rex Orange County and Frank Ocean.
As impeccably balanced as the record is, it contains some stunning highlights, including my favourite Tyler track “I Ain’t Got Time”, which magnificently flips a sample from Dee-Lite’s 90s retro disco classic “Groove is in the Heart”, turning it into a groovy trippy banger with fantastic lyrical chains from Tyler. Tyler’s sung duet with Kali Uchis on the wounded and sinister “See You Again” is beautifully tragic and bluesy, while the horrifying and demented “Who Dat Boy” features an unnervingly rising synth line, ominous beat, one of Tyler’s most animated performances and a seamless A$AP Rocky feature.
Flower Boy is an ambitious, soulful and tender exploration of Tyler’s feelings on his fame and success, pointedly dissected on the sombre and introspective tracks on the second half that dive into his depression and loneliness on “911/Mr. Lonely” and “November”. It marked a definitive transition into the more mature later phase of Tyler career as a respected artist and both a leading light of the neo-soul and alternative rap and R&B genres and a unique artist carving out his own wounded path through them all.
Released 11 August 2017
One of the most intensely discussed cultural events of 2017 was the rapid escalation of the MeToo movement. Following on from 2016’s women’s marches, 2017 saw an explosion of public discourse on the crimes and misconduct of men in powerful positions. Few artists were better poised to explore these themes than pop star Kesha, who entered 2017 off the back of a lengthy legal battle with her abusive former manager, who exerted control over every aspect of her life and public image, and is still making hits to this day. Finally in control of her own artistic direction, Rainbow is the album Kesha made partially in response to these events and came through with a propulsive, eclectic and vibrant collection of carefree, contagious country-pop.
Shedding only elements of the trashy image forced on her, Kesha continued to make music that was uplifting and joyous. Songs like “Woman” and “Hymn” are shamelessly direct and winsome feminist anthems full of quirk, personality and deliciously tacky bombast, all shouted harmonies, funky horn sections and heel stomping percussion. Tracks like “Boots” and the bouncy “Hunt You Down” fully embrace the rustic potency of the ride or die country ballad, even recruiting Dolly Parton to duet with her on “Old Flames”, where Kesha matches her sincere and brassy charm delectably.
The album’s centrepiece though is of course “Praying”, where Kesha publicly explores everything she has been through by delivering a scorching address directly to her manager. As her voice rises up above the yearning piano and sentimental strings, years of suffering fall away in a bone-breaking moment of emotional catharsis. Kesha’s vocal power surges through the track in an epic display of force and commitment as she puts the worst years of her life behind her and fearlessly asserts the command of her artistry and voice. It’s a musical baptism of fire and an astonishingly assured power anthem of survivorship.
Showcasing her vocal strengths not only in raw power but in dynamic expression and elasticity, and her versatility, finding her as at home over rawhide glam rock instrumentation as clubby EDM tunes, Kesha’s Rainbow was a jubilant and triumphantly restorative resurrection for Kesha as an artist and a woman, and also delivered some of the catchiest and most euphoric music of 2017.
Alex Cameron—Forced Witness
Released 8 September 2017
By a strange coincidence, two of the finalists for this list were both by Sydney-based pop rock male soloists, whose work constitutes a vivid interrogation of masculinity, as densely satirical as they are immediately catchy. As terrific as Kirin J. Callinan’s Bravado is, especially the title track, I went with Alex Cameron’s sophomore record Forced Witness for the list. A sweet, catchy and self-effacingly funny assortment of fantastic heartland synth rock and new wave, the tracks on Forced Witness are a richly layered, positive and empowering character portrait of a man consumed by sexual dysfunction, romantic yearning and eaten by cancers of internalised masculine insecurity.
Thematically not too far removed from Dorian Electra’s recent My Agenda, although presented with far more accessible and traditional aesthetics, Forced Witness is filled with potent snapshots of transformative sexuality, from the desperately awkward online chatroom encounters of “True Lies” and “studmuffin96”, to the bizarre stalker narrative of “Candy May”. Portraying porn addiction, paid-for sex, and one-night stands with elegance, humour and reverence typically reserved for deeper emotional connection, Cameron pulls tenderness and romance out of these vulnerable moments of shame and guilt, subversively and semi-ironically recontextualising them as valid experiences of release, escapism and intimacy.
Some of the best moments here present a Springsteen-like portrait of fleeting encounters between people fleeing lives of drudgery, like the stunning and glamorous anthem “Runnin’ Outta Luck” featuring Brandon Flowers, with its instantly catchy chorus “I’m a man on a mission, you’re a stripper out of luck, and we’re good in the back seat but we’re better up front.” This kind of narrative returns on the fantastic Angel Olsen duet “Stranger’s Kiss”, where the two protagonists find respite from their deadening lives with a night’s anonymous intimacy. The chemistry between Olsen and Cameron is intoxicating and fiercely endearing, sublimely paired with the song’s raw and cynical liberating energy and glittering pop rock instrumental.
Every one of these tracks has a groove and propulsive energy, paired with impeccable hooks and choruses, delivered in Cameron’s unvarnished, sweet and genuine voice. More than anything, these are just fantastically written songs, with tragicomic, sex-positive lyrics and unbreakable melodies, presented with a carefree jubilance and guileless sentimentality, the euphoric closing track “Politics of Love” shaking loose any fears of external or internal judgement, rejecting censure or bigotry with the power of a soaring chorus.
Big K.R.I.T.—4eva Is A Mighty Long Time
Released 27 October 2017
Releasing a self-produced, double-sided, eighty-five-minute long album, is going to be a sink or swim moment in almost any artist’s career. The year before, Mississippi rapper, singer and producer Big K.R.I.T. a.k.a Justin Scott, departed from Def Jam after disappointing his fans with the direction his music took under their stewardship. So with his follow up, K.R.I.T. had to prove not only he didn’t need the label, but that his fans still needed to be listening to him. With 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time, K.R.I.T. absolutely met the demands of the moment with an epic double album, mapping out the four corners of his domain within Southern Hip-Hop, and delivering the best hip-hop album of 2017.
Each beginning with a track named after a different side of his persona: “Big K.R.I.T.” and “Justin Scott”, the two sides to 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time have a very different feel to them. The track “Mixed Messages” acknowledges how inconsistent he might seem to a listener in regard to the messages of his music, but the phenomenal track “Drinking Sessions” offers something of a key to unlock the hidden cohesion of the project. On this track, K.R.I.T. asks: “everyone tryin’ to die young but who gonna talk about life?” That’s what unifies every moment on here, from the opening strip club anthems like “1999” and trunk knockers like “Subenstein (My Sub IV)”, which both explore and demonstrate K.R.I.T.’s domination of the rap game, to the introspective and personal slow jams and gospel tracks on the second half, they’re all suffused with a compelling vitality and passion.
Many rappers like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar have sought a way to reconcile the music legend lifestyle with their faith and aspirations of godliness, but for my money, 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time is a far more convincing exploration of these themes than, for example, those of Kendrick’s DAMN. Rather than merely ruminating on these ideas, K.R.I.T. comes through with a series of incisive and inspiring answers to the quandaries of god and fame, without sounding even the slightest bit trite or evangelical.
K.R.I.T. doesn’t produce on every track here himself, but he does handle the majority of the production, and every moment on the record is glamorous, glorious and soulful. Similar to an album like ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, for as varied and colourful as the tracklist here is, nothing about it feels even slightly incohesive or contradictory. Everything comes together to simultaneously embody everything that is Big K.R.I.T. and everything that is both old and new in Southern Hip-Hop, with fantastic features from Bun B and Pimp C, Ceelo Green, T.I., Bilal, Jill Scott and Joi, who features on the album’s defining expression of Southern pride “Miss Georgia Fornia”, a truly stunning moment that showcases K.R.I.T.’s incredible talents as rap’s biggest triple-threat.