Without any further ado, allow @Okayplayer to salute these bastion creations of dope audio sound and excellent execution as the Best Albums of 2017.
The sound, fury, angst, and revolution of music was woven in tightly into politics and current events this year thanks to the ascent of our oranged-face invader. Beginning on Jan. 20, the “largest” inauguration in presidential history (right) and the resistance that came out as a result of it (what’s up, Ginny and the Women’s March) fueled countless songs and albums that celebrated defiance, love, peace and tolerance in a major way.
Full-length projects from the A-listers of the culture also adorned our playlists and headphones, as Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Future (twice) made a run at the title for “Album of the Year”. Meanwhile, veterans, namely Jay-Z dropped a confessional of an album that proved there is a lane for adulting-type rap and hip-hop in a world where “turn up” and “mumble rap” dominate the charts.
This year also marked major label debuts from Lil Yachty, Lil Pump, and Lil Uzi Vert, who all had different levels of success and acclaim with their projects. On top of the mountain, however, was the one, the only, Cardi B. With flair and a dynamite personality, the belleza from the Bronx made history, overtaking Lauryn Hill on Billboard, and has been nominated for a couple of Grammy Awards. Not bad for someone who people thought was only going to be an Instagram star.
In their own way, today’s music star had a shot in the chamber for this current administration, while not ignoring the need to create hits for the masses. Before we turn the calendar’s page to 2018 (and another hellish 365 of dotard-level insanity from Trump) — the team here @Okayplayer broke bread and debated the “Best Albums Of 2017”.
Before we go into our selections from the tumultuous year, please give props to these honorable mentions and if you don’t agree, please debate us on social media.
Honorable Mention: 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Love Trap | Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom | Freddie Gibbs – You Only Live 2wice | Thundercat – Drunk | Khalid – American Teen
15. Syd – Fin
Although Syd described her debut album as “not that deep” prior to its release, that still doesn’t take away from how enjoyable of a listen Fin is. There’s a slow sensuality to the 16-track album that allows Syd to showcase her talents as a solo artist, picking from the ’90s R&B singers who came before her (particularly Aaliyah) but adding her own contemporary touch.
Take, for example, the brooding and moody “Body,” with Syd’s voice going back and forth between croons and whispers, all delivered with a staccato punch that makes each and every word said absolutely memorable. Sure, at times the album dwindles in momentum, but overall Fin does a good job of showing what Syd is capable of on her own. —@ElijahCWatson
14. Wiki – No Mountains In Manhattan
“YERRRRRR!” It’s fitting that Wiki starts off No Mountains In Manhattan with this New York City battle cry, considering the album is an ode to the city streets that raised him. Throughout the album’s 16 tracks the former Ratking rapper takes listeners on a journey across the city, each destination providing some insight into the artist’s life and how New York functions in it.
There’s the lively and upbeat “Chinatown Swing”; the reflective and somber “Pandora’s Box”; and, of course, the late night underground party that is “Pretty Bull.” He even finds himself rapping alongside New York OG Ghostface Killah on “Made For This.” No Mountains follows in the lineage of other great New York rap albums in that the city plays such a pivotal role to the narrative, the bodegas, Chinatown restaurants, parks, and subways all contributing to Wiki’s story.
Get a brown bag of that Olde English and let out a hearty “YERRRRRR” for the boy. —@ElijahCWatson
13. King Krule — The OOZ
Could there be a deeper, darker, more transcendent blue than that of King Krule’s? The follow-up to his largely instrumental late-2015 project A Good Place To Drown speaks to the dread of a generation and the need to build sanctuaries in spaces, sentimental and emotional, that are safe, but also challenging.
The 23-year-old’s jazz-punk-dom is full-force on The Ooz, an ethereal excavation of his soulful shoegazing and post-genre aptitude. Through mountains of reverb and off-kilter arrangements that border on wickedly spastic, the artist occasionally known as Archy Marshall stitches sounds and rhythms in a manner that is difficult to categorize, yet too easy to fall under the spell of. The hypnotic bop of “Dum Surfer,” the relentless slap of “Biscuit Town,” the cerebral chill of “Czech One.” All glow with Krule’s cool charisma and guttural croon.
Marshall may be one of music’s youngest benders of barriers, but there’s vision and means beyond this spry, gangly frame. And whichever trajectory music takes next, you can be sure to find him somewhere along the frontlines. —@ZoGotSoul
12. Brent Faiyaz – Sonder Son
You might know Brent Faiyaz best as the vocalist from GoldLink’s wildly popular, “Crew” song, which earned a Grammy nod. But as one-third of the group, Sonder, Brent approaches his solo effort with a relatable perspective and a different sound than what you may be used to. Sonder Son serves as an origin story of sorts, as Brent frames himself as a young man coming-of-age. It was an interesting thing to hear, particularly from an R&B artist, which no one really dives into the roots of their own story (at least not in this generation).
Songs such as “Gang Over Luv” and “Home” paint the picture of an artist who is introspective enough to recall the peaks and valleys that he went through to get to this point. You’re right next to him as he acting out in high school, cutting class without money and only doing it for the fleeting feeling of freedom. Hearing him sing of his past and emoting between maturity, naiveté and innocence is relatable to anyone who has ever been that age. Sonder Son is for any soul who has been young, dumb and full of… curiosity. With warm fullness, rich vocals and textures — Brett Faiyaz has a long and healthy future ahead of him. —@KevitoClark
11. Smino – blkswn
With a chicken box in hand, Smino came into the @OkaySpace like a conquering hero. Poised, charismatic, down-to-Earth and not on that Hollywood s**t, Smino blessed us with a great OKP Live that you should see before reading this any further. In addition to that, the St. Louis flyer gave us an originally soulful album that would crease your waves better than any durag could. Smino takes the listener on an adventure in his hood, going on adventures that only those who know life like Smino can relate to. Forever grateful for songs such as “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up,” “Silk Pillows,” and “Anita” (to name a few) because it made me feel like I was back home, acting a fool, trying to get these outfits off in the hallway so the girls can see what I’m wearing.
Smino will surprise you if you haven’t heard blkswn as his talents aren’t just for having luxurious hair. As an artist who wants to make an impact without the trappings of fame, Smino entrusts the listener that he is only growing and with that comes the excitement of seeing him go through these life changes. Smino was truly thankful for the opportunity to come in and build with us, as we were with him because blkswn proved that his originality is going to become Herculean next time we hear him. —@KevitoClark
10. Kelela – Take Me Apart
Taking four years to craft her debut album Take Me Apart, Kelela explores the complexities of falling in and out of love throughout the project’s 14 tracks. There’s a narrative to the album as the R&B singer confronts the inevitable phases one experiences following a breakup: the renewed feeling of independence that is album opener “Frontline”; the poignant acceptance of realizing a relationship is over in “Enough”; and the confident and empowering post-relationship fling of “LMK.”
Accompanied by atmospheric and elegantly sparse production from Area and Jam City, Kelela’s brand of electronic R&B is sleek and smooth with a touch of pop sensibility, which makes her vulnerability that much more powerful and resonant throughout Take Me Apart. Overall, Kelela provides a very raw and real display of the dissolution of love while highlighting the power that can come from it. —@ElijahCWatson
9. Sampha – Process
Grief and self-discovery are at the core of Sampha‘s debut album Process and the way the artist articulates those themes both lyrically and sonically make it such a compelling listen. Brooding and hauntingly melodic, the production’s electronic leanings add a certain coldness to Sampha’s catharsis. But there’s a poignant beauty throughout the album’s 10 songs, with the singer-songwriter articulating tragedy in a way that is simultaneously gorgeous.
Such is the case with album standout “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” an ode to Sampha’s mother and a longing for his childhood home in Morden, London. Bare and sparse, with nothing but Sampha’s voice and a piano, the song is the manifestation of what Process is all about: a reflective piece of art that crafts beauty out of sadness. —@ElijahCWatson
8. Daniel Caesar – Freudian
Again, kudos to Jozen Cummings for proposing to his lady at Daniel Caesar’s show when he was in New York. That seems to be a thing. A good thing. Daniel makes it easy to be yourself, in your feelings and be real without looking like a herb because he, himself, is so cool. Freudian was already going to be a thing because “Get You,” which featured Kali Uchis, made a deep impact. But once you dig into the album—from start to finish—you learn that Daniel is committed to this inner faith that is strong, determined and unafraid to lay it all on the line. Whether it was championing the love of your life as the best thing in your life (“Best Part” ft. H.E.R.) or letting go of it for the betterment of yourself (“Loose”) — Daniel knows just what heartstrings to pull to keep you deep in love.
Not all of what’s on the album is “marriage proposal” music, as Daniel Caesar gives you a few grooves to bop too. Namely, “Neu Roses,” “Take Me Away” and “Transform” to be specific. In a season where we’ve outright questioned the motives of some of these “R&B” singers (we’re looking at you, Tory Lanez) — Daniel has reasserted our faith that good music is here to stay and won’t be going anywhere no time soon. Unless you’re into that sipping-lean-with-tears-in-your-eyes music, which by all means, you’re in your right to enjoy — but Freudian is a perfect record for those with genuine, real feelings. —@KevitoClark
7. Vince Staples — The Big Fish Theory
Two albums and a visual EP into his young career, Vince Staples may be known better, still, for the talking he does with his thumbs. Ahead of its release, Vince Staples (half) jokingly dubbed his sophomore album as “Afrofuturism” in a since-deleted tweet that contended for consideration in “the MoMa, not your Camry.” Six months with The Big Fish Theory and there are compelling cases to be made for each, respectively.
And while scholars far better qualified have and will argue the merits of hip-hop’s institutionalization ad nauseam, Staples and his jet-aged Big Fish Theory shouldn’t be subject to such rigid listening specs. Truth is, BFT, defies the conventions of the high-concept and museum-worthy and low-end-heavy-trunk-tested rap alike, a lightyear-long rave on the mothership with a glitch-and-gloom score from an unlikely union of electronic producers and longtime collaborator/former tour mate, Kilo Kish.
On his latest, Staples bursts through the Twittersphere and heads for the space between the stars, hope-in-hand, as he compels his listeners to dance through the dystopia. Beyond the hyperbole, one of rap’s greatest thinkers is behind some of its darkest, strangest, and farthest-reaching work. That Staples, razor-like as he is, can only sharpen still, should shake any rapper reaching for the throne. —@ZoGotSoul
6. Jay-Z – 4:44
Following the lackluster release that was Magna Carta Holy Grail fans were skeptical but still curious about what another Jay-Z album would sound like. But its successor, 4:44, ended up being a refreshing surprise for rap’s elder statesman, the album offered a vulnerability unlike anything Jay-Z has arguably ever released before. Throughout the album’s 10 tracks, we see him confront his many identities as a rapper, an entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a friend, and, at the core of all of them, a black man navigating his life in America.
Here, Jay-Z finds empowerment in his bareness, seeking redemption as he owns up to his personal wrongdoings. “You egged Solange on knowin’ all along / All you had to say, you was wrong / You almost went Eric Benét / Let the baddest girl in the world get away,” the rapper says on album opener “Kill Jay Z.” He then goes further into the infamous incident between him, Solange, and Beyoncé on the album’s title track, arguably the standout from the project. “‘You did that with who? / What good is a ménage à trots when you have a soulmate? / You risked that for blue?'” Jay-Z raps on the album’s track.
The tracks pack a punch with their honesty, and with No I.D.‘s smooth production providing the foundation for Jay-Z’s confessions — 4:44 was one of the most compelling rap albums of the year, with Jay-Z showing that he can still rap his ass off and be a compelling storyteller. —@ElijahCWatson
5. GoldLink – At What Cost
Once hip-hop grew outside of the South Bronx, influencing other MCs in distant regions to concoct their own style that is when the culture really became “the culture”. You wouldn’t know what riding on Twinkies were if you were not from the South. You definitely would know how to keep your Dickies creased if you weren’t from Los Angeles. Hell, how many people were feeling blessed when Miami bass and 808s crept into speakers outside of the 305? Suffice it to say, regionality helps to grow an artist and no one has made their city sound as exciting as GoldLink.
At What Cost took what was unique and true to GoldLink’s native D.C. — that go-go sound — and made everyone else outside feel right at home. All the players on this project are from or related to the Chocolate City MC in some form or fashion, which creates a link (no pun intended) that brings the listener in closer to who really represents the area. “Crew” became an unbelievable smash, even knocking Cardi B out the top slot and earned him a Grammy nod. Meanwhile, “Meditation,” produced by Kaytranada, was a bop that made house parties jump from coast-to-coast. Using his hometown pride to make everyone see the diamond in The District, GoldLink’s At What Cost is easily one of the year’s best projects anywhere. —@KevitoClark
4. N.E.R.D. — No_One Ever Really Dies
I didn’t go straight to fanboy freakout when the prospect of a new N.E.R.D. project flipped from years-long tease to imminent arrival. Their last two albums, while surely dotted with highlights, were widely scattered, lacking any sort of cohesion. Not categorically bad albums, but lacking the holiness of a full-length well before The Life of Pablo, Lemonade and Endless/blond(e)d arrived to completely deconstruct, and then rebuild, the grail.
Their latest is perhaps most comparable to the group’s sophomore album, Fly or Die. High-octane for those with low bandwidth, cathartic for the tightly-wound. Its Future Sex/Love Sounds song-split algorithm, not unlike the hidden FoD gems “Wonderful Place” and its finisher, “Chariot of Fire”. I like to think of No_One Ever Really Dies as the group’s attempt at a self-titled album. But isn’t it really just an overdue reintroduction? Like the family-famous uncle finally making cookout and affirming his notorious dinner table headlines. Only we’re old enough now to rationally demystify the legends, weed out the larger-than-life-ness of it all.
And still, with uncs worn by their respectively existential wars — Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, the quintessential squabble of kindred creatives per Lennon/McCartney, Becker/Fagan and Morrissey/Mar — their truths remain self-evident. N.E.R.D. is still at their best when relying on internal star-power, still struggling with the mid-section, though their bookending brilliance is undeniable.
The album’s singles — Rihanna’s rap revival on “Lemon” and the Future-fitted “1000” — baited us with the two-part formula, a transformative technique implemented with varying degrees of effect. On the latter, it bursts through the spastic electronic mold into a bright bolt of hyper-speed heat. Elsewhere, the pivot brings a warm, welcomed end to “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer,” a track that is most enjoyable as it dissipates. Save for the aforementioned, there isn’t a song that feels out-of-place. Just as the pucker of “Lemon” fades, “Deep Down Body Thrust,” reminds us of the sheer beauty in an authentic Neptunes progression: energetic and sedative at once.
“Voila” and “Don’t Don’t Do It” prove that even with an unrivaled guest list — Gucci Mane, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean amongst others — the hosts are as gracious as ever, hospitable beyond measure. On their latest, N.E.R.D. is no longer in search of their lane. They’ve found, freaked and finessed it into a propulsive new beast. —@ZoGotSoul
3. SZA – CTRL
We have been rooting for Solána Rowe for so long that to the naked eye her debut LP, CTRL, would seem like an overnight success. Alas, it is not. She has put in more than 10,000 hours in work, listed her complaints to us on Instagram, shared her frustrations on Twitter with us and put together a totally anti-ANTI that has made her the darling of the alt-R&B loving crowd.
Speaking of which, CTRL finds our 28-year-old inventive singer-songwriter doing what no one in her class could do: mix pop-sounding tracks with colorful and composed lyrical ability. Whether it was talking about the “sweetest place on Earth” with Kendrick Lamar on “Doves In The Wind,” or being happy as the sidepiece on “The Weekend” — SZA showed us just how compelling conversations on love, revenge sex and more can sound so, so good.
This is an opus worthy of comparison to Mary J. Blige, as we were witnessing the ascension of a creative whose openness and real talk have given us all a reason to pause and enjoy the sonic drawing of a woman coming into form. You’re doing yourself an extreme disservice if you haven’t heard CTRL by now. You should press play as soon as possible not only for your ear’s enjoyment, but for the culture. —@KevitoClark
2. Tyler, the Creator — Flower Boy
I tend to prefer to full title of Tyler, the Creator’s new album, Scum Fuck Flower Boy. Where previous albums depicted him as an irreverent shock-and-awe specialist (Goblin), a loving loner (Wolf) or an explosive eccentric (Cherry Bomb) — his latest presents a vibrant mind sans volatility, honed in on a place of pure, creative calm. Just a touch closer to that sweet spot. Love, lonerism and tactful seclusion central to a more transparent and tempered Tyler, still firing on all cylinders in various sectors of the industry a la Kanye and his personal hero/mentor, Pharrell.
The progression from calamitous, at times problematic, polyglot to refined and recalibrated romantic, is readily apparent. Flower Boy is not the work of a freshly-minted musician. Nor is it the-emerge-from-the-ashes-unrecognizable-of-a-former-self project its lead single may imply it to be. It is, however, a fluid, measured and matured piece. Not in a behavioral or even particularly emotional sense, but in the depth and completeness of a fittingly-cartoonish realm crafted.
On Flower Boy, Tyler finally digs his feet into the dirt of his new earth. The album doesn’t present the artist as any less complicated, only more open to revisiting, and ultimately conquering, painful romances of cult fame and identity; that he’s begun the work on himself and his craft, mastering a staggering selection of steps along the way. A great doer, indeed. The heavy-footed stomp of “Ain’t Got Time” and “Who Dat Boy,” the jazzy, precautionary flex of “Potholes,” the drop-dead gorgeous daydream of “Where This Flower Blooms,” the in-looking tenderness of “Garden Shed.” There are so many moments to blissfully float.
It’d be a fucking shame if the richness of this record were somehow overlooked or discounted because we refused to offer Tyler requisite consideration amongst his peers prior to this point. Flower Boy is a big, beautiful eureka moment, not only for Tyler as a producer and songwriter seeking balance in his craft but for his legion; no doubt in search of their own evenness after nearly a decade of thrashing alongside him. Here’s to a necessary and proper peace of mind. —@ZoGotSoul
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
A consensus in hip-hop is as rare as a progressive south of the Mason-Dixon. And it can’t be overlooked. Generational lines equally stratified and seemingly irreconcilable. But in the case of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, heads old and new seem to generally agree that the Compton rapper, is their champ, regardless of era affiliation. The Neo of this age-old binary, splitting the ones and zeroes with kung fu kicks and one-inch punches.
He’s met the hook-making requirements of millennial minds, lived up to his culturally-mandated duties as “Ambassador to Stubborn 40-Something Hip-Hop Heavy,” preserved the thoughtful serration of expert wordplay cherished by the seasoned listener. So it’s not that Lamar entered 2017 with anything to prove, but that didn’t keep the chip off his shoulder. Pigeonholed as “too conscious” for the radio dial and “too young” to hold the crown, Lamar approached this year with a great problem and a freshly-minted rivalry in The 6 God. From there, the missions is clear: present the Drake album Drake can’t make.
Cover-to-cover and back again, DAMN. is precisely that, cementing his perennial chart presence and punting the crown well out of reach like a schoolyard bully in one emotional 13-track rush. Between “FEAR.” and Lamar’s baffling namesake narrative as the album’s closer (and everything in-between) Compton’s king is self-anointed, self-cursing and, at times, a heretical hero. But a fucking hero nonetheless. DAMN. is K. Dot’s sharpest, most accessible work to date, and an album in every sense of the word. —@ZoGotSoul
What do you think of our ‘Best Albums of 2017’ list? Have selections of your own? Add them in the comments underneath. Want to debate our choices? Hit us up on Twitter!