We’ve finally arrived at the end of the Sacred Wall’s recap of the Best of 2017! It’s time to take a look at the final category, music. As a whole, 2017 was an impressive year for the field, giving us a variety of game-changing, lyrically complex albums from a variety of artists. Rap hasn’t been this great since the glory days of the West Coast, country has enjoyed a resurgence of talented artists, and the pop has become stronger than ever. The ultimate cross between the art of orchestral sound and poetic discourses, it’s time to turn my critical eyes and ears towards the Top Ten Albums of 2017.
As always, the following list is put together through careful study, based on my own tastes and the recommendations of my brother, a music major who has produced and performed his own music. However, despite his pleas or recommendations, the final selections are wholly my own. The rules are simple: I’m looking for the albums that are lyrically complex, musically pleasing, and aesthetically astounding. Soundtracks and compilations are considered ineligible unless they truly change the game, like Hamilton, Purple Rain, or last year’s Trolls. This year features a wide variety of artists and genres, including Skakira’s upbeat El Dorado, Lil Yachty’s decent follow-up Teenage Emotions, and Jay-Z’s Lemonade rebuttal 4:44. Michael Bolton added his own twist to musical classics with Songs of Cinema, and I considered breaking my rule for Baby Driver and The Greatest Showman. Taylor Swift’s Reputation…well, that objectively happened. And above all else, I came this close to including the later Lil Peep’s Come Over When You’re Sober, which wasn’t exactly an album I loved, but was undeniably good.
And before we reach the best albums of the year, let’s take a look at the Top Five Songs of the Year:
5. The Cure: Lady Gaga, after dominating the 2017 Super Bowl Halftime Show, wrote “The Cure,” an upbeat pop anthem about combatting negativity with love, be it on a micro-scale (bad vibes) or a macro (atrocities in the world). It’s the type of power ballad we’ve come to expect and love from her.
4. Green Light: Lorde’s break-up anthem is everything she’s done perfectly throughout her career – triumphant in the face of sadness, upbeat through naturalistic piano and drums, and truly electrifying
3. Cut To The Feeling: Carly Rae Jepsen continues her streak of being one of pop’s greatest performers with the true Song of the Summer (although Despacito was pretty good too), a pop anthem about cutting loose and embracing your passions and dreams
2. Bodak Yellow: Cardi B’s trap classic is the genre’s The Godfather. There is before, and there is after. It’s confident, triumphant, musically game-changing, and career-defining. It plays as a challenge to the haters, a resume of Cardi’s accomplishments, and a killer club track. Few songs this year were as truly defining.
1. Praying: Kesha’s return after a traumatic court case didn’t just define an album, or define a career; it defined a year. “Praying” not only proves that Kesha has always been our most underrated talent, it provided the oppressed women who came forward in 2017 to change politics, entertainment, and business an anthem of hope, change, forgiveness, and righteous fury. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s beautiful, and it’s the best song of 2017.
And now that we’ve looked at the best songs, let’s move on to the Big Kahuna Burger itself, the Top Ten Albums of 2017!
CTRL – SZA
SZA may be 2017’s biggest breakout artist, and CTRL is the coming out party that she deserved. CTRL, like all great albums, eschews the traditional genre norms. It is simultaneously an R&B album, a soul album, and a hip-hop album, allowing SZA to show the world how multi-faceted she is as an artist. Each song is a challenge to the norms of her genre, all while providing her an outlet for her Sade/Whitney style voice. “Doves In The Wind,” perhaps my favorite song on the album, calls out the sexist behavior of men, positing that Forrest Gump was the perfect man because he never pressured Jenny for sex and still treated her with respect (Kendrick Lamar, who will appear on this list multiple times, also appears as the voice of the sexist male. Similarly, “The Weekend” provides a unique perspective on love from the Other Woman, refusing to be shamed because the man has shortcomings. “Broken Clocks” is an anthem about being done with the bullsh*t and reclaiming your life from the powers that be. And in her most powerful, most acclaimed song on the album, “Drew Barrymore,” SZA details a woman’s psyche as she starts to realize she’s better than the emotionally manipulative man she’s with, but struggles with the fact that she still feels at fault and wants him back (named for Drew Barrymore because that’s the type of role she perfected during the nineties and early aughts). Throughout this journey, SZA is allowed to utilize her naturally powerful, naturally sultry voice, proving that she’s no gimmick – she has the voice to back up these lyrics. It’s a terrific breakthrough, and one that cements SZA as one of the best new artists out there right now.
9. The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell
People who have been around this site for a while, or know me personally know that I have a very mixed reaction to the country genre. While I love the classics for their storytelling ability, I’ve become disillusioned and irrationally angry with the genre in recent years, due to its abjuring of the boots-on-the-ground bitter realness of its predecessors in favor of clichés, amateur lyrics, and abhorrent nature. However, if hip-hop can return to its roots to create a new revolution of young artists, there’s no reason that country can’t do the same. Especially with the prominent rise of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, as evidenced by their newest album The Nashville Sound. The Nashville Sound is exactly the reason that country and folk music are so ingrained in our culture: using natural instruments to tell stories and thematic lessons about the artist’s lives. “If We Were Vampires” is an emotionally mature, heart-wrenchingly beautiful story about love and death as told through narrative devices and metaphors (the only way love can truly last forever would be “if we were vampires” – otherwise we’re going to die). Meanwhile, “White Man’s World” may be the first country song to address the painful undercurrent that exists in the genre – the sins of those who came before us, and the privilege that still exists today, amongst race and gender lines. Few lyrics are as potently powerful as “I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet/The highway runs through their burial grounds/Past the oceans of cotton.” The songs mostly utilize the genre’s naturalistic, honest instrumentals. However, it doesn’t just rest on its laurels and perform basic songs to slow acoustic guitars. “Cumberland Gap” is an electrifying blend of rock and country (while NOT resorting to rockabilly nonsense) to tell the story of economic strife and inherited pain in the Appalachian Mountains. The Nashville Sound is the wake-up call that the country genre needs, and hopefully it represents a positive trend going forward.
8. MASSEDUCTION – St. Vincent
St. Vincent is one of the greatest artists working right now, especially if you are someone who likes the best of the old and the best of the new. Stylistically, her music sounds like the middle of a three-way Venn diagram of David Bowie, David Byrne, and Kate Bush. However, she may have outdone herself with her electrifying new album, MASSEDUCTION. A new wave, ambient rock blend with strong electronic undercurrents, MASSEDUCTION plays as a mini-essay that Vincent has written based on whatever aspect of everyday life captured her attention at that particular time. This allows the entire album to provide satire and social commentary on a number of issues, from the attitudes of Los Angeles socialites and a pill-friendly culture to depression, love and death. The aforementioned “Los Ageless” is an upbeat piece of satiric commentary, using a techno beat to hide the brutality of its barbs in plain sight, while “Hang One Me” is a dreamy testament to self-destructive love. I adore the opening to “Masseduction,” which feels like a Bowie tribute in its declaration of the weird kinks of her sexuality (which becomes knowingly sillier and cleverer as it goes on). However, if I have a favorite off the album, it has to be “Pills,” which blends the sort of cutesy-pop song of the nineties, the musicality of Eminem (there’s an undercurrent that can be seen in “The Real Slim Shady”), and modern commentary on the current state of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s somehow ageless, modern, brutal, and a banger. These contradictions all seem impossibly incompatible, and yet St. Vincent manages to bring them all together into one masterful album.
7. American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
It’s rare that an album this great comes out after a band has been broken up for several years, but here we are: LCD Soundsystem’s american dream. James Murphy’s brainchild, american dream plays as the beautiful love child of Arcade Fire (a good band) and The Talking Heads (a great band). Each song has a dreamy, satiric look at a variety of weighty subjects, including depression, fear, and above all, the end of something, whether it’s love, friendship, or the days of your youth. The album utilizes aspects of new wave, punk, and synth to create a dreamscape of thematic material, and just as the cover implies, it ends up creating an auditory companion piece to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Each song has a different aesthetic that somehow adds up to a unique, creative whole. The opening “oh baby” mirrors Murphy’s work on Arcade Fire’s seminal Reflektor to contemplate a break-up with a former lover. Meanwhile, “blank screen” plays as a tribute to a late mentor and friend, intentionally written as a Bowie-esque dreamscape. However, my personal favorite is “other voices,” a pseudo-sequel to the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime,” which explores anxiety in the modern era and the way people refuse to communicate and interact with people of differing opinions. american dream is an all-American album, breaking down complex feelings and emotions with dreamy send-ups to the bands of old, and it uses its lyrics to explore the worlds of poetic artistry.
6. Dua Lipa – Dua Lipa
If there was one album perfectly designed for the radio this year, it’s Dua Lipa’s self-titled debut album. Mature beyond Lipa’s mere 22 years both lyrically and vocally, Dua Lipa is a triumphant experience in soulful, reflective genre-blending. It combines the upbeat dance synths with soulfulness of a young Amy Winehouse, Lyrically touching on the cornerstones of being a woman in her twenties: love, sex, and self-empowerment. Each song feels immediately relatable and refreshing, but never losing the edge that makes Dua Lipa unique. “Be The One” is about the importance of fighting for love in order to make it work. “Blow Your Mind (Mwah)” is about being proud of who you are, filtered through a sex-positive lens.” “Hotter Than Hell” tells the story of rising above a bad breakup by utilizing religious imagery and clever writing. “IDGAF,” true to its name, is a masterfully cathartic send-off of the obnoxious ex. And in the world’s favorite anthem, “New Rules” gives a triumphant, cheeky list of rules to girls who wish to escape out from under the powerful thumb of their ex. The music is sultry, intelligent, and mature, and yet is consistently delivered in the form of an electro-pop dance anthem. It takes real skill to deliver art through a popular medium, and it takes even more skill to do it well. Thankfully, Dua Lipa is a skilled artist, and Dua Lipa is a triumphant album.
5. Rainbow – Kesha
You guys, I f*cking love Kesha. Not even ironically – while she was always portrayed in the media as the party girl (and “Tik Tok” truly was the party girl anthem), and was mocked for the studio’s decision to overload her vocals with autotune, she actually had a voice to back up her music, and her more soulful, down-to-earth songs have always been her best (see: “Hey Stephen”). When she disappeared in 2013, leaving behind a career and a documentary, people assumed it was because her “15 minutes of fame” were up. In reality, her career was halted because the man who had control of her career, who was in charge of releasing her music and managing her, was abusing her, physically, mentally, and sexually (because he is a massive f*ckwad, his name will not be reprinted here). When she tried to take him to court to escape a contract banning her from releasing music not produced by her abuser, the judge ruled against her, delivering a sexist diatribe blaming her for everything (other artists under his label have since implied and accused him of similar behavior, if not similar crimes). I give you all this background not to bum you out, but instead to make it clear how amazing an achievement Rainbow, her newest album, truly is. Like a phoenix, Kesha has risen from the ashes (having burned off the $ in her name, naturally) in order to release a powerful album about being who you are, standing up for your right to happiness, and most importantly, just having fun. The autotune is long gone, and we are blessed with Kesha’s real, naturally gifted voice. She draws on her experiences and her devout faithfulness to reclaim her voice and her being, but that’s not to say the fun part of her is gone. “Let ‘em Talk,” “Woman,” and “Boogie Feet” are as fun-loving and joyfully chaotic as her early works. However, it’s her slowed-down, serious music that is the most potent on the album. “Bastards” is a vulgarly acoustic self-esteem boost, but it has nothing on “Praying.” The anthem of the #MeToo Movement, “Praying” works on three levels: it works as an act of forgiveness towards the man who wronged her; it works as a condemnation of the man who wronged her (I’ll do my best, but only God will let you off for your actions, mother*cker); and it works as the most powerfully sung, powerfully written songs of the year. I know I’ve written more on this album than I likely will for any other album on this list, but I can’t help it: even if it isn’t the best album on this list, it is the most important – it’s a sign of triumph over adversity, of sticking it to those who doubted and wronged you, and in finding yourself after you’ve seen the face of darkness. Bravo, Kesha. Welcome back.
4. Culture – Migos
If “Bodak Yellow” is The Godfather of trap, Culture is the Citizen Kane. Alabama up-and-comers Migos have mastered and recreated the genre with their first professional album, a game-changing, form defining look at life in the Atlanta trap scene. What makes this album (and, to an extent, trap as a genre) so remarkable is the way it can take everything that I hate about the middle generation of hip hop – the dishonest glorification of wealth, misogyny, and self-destruction – and manages to present it in a new way, blending it with the honesty of the early nineties. When Migos raps about dealing and using drugs, spending money, and living the high life with the women who throw themselves at them, it isn’t meant in a truly spoiled way like the late aughts. Instead, it serves as an honest portrayal of what they experienced from themselves and from others on the streets of L.A. – in particular, the only way they can rise above their lot in life is rapping, dealing drugs, or both. It’s a triumphant story that demonstrates the reason that music like this exists: to bring people up from the lives they would have had to live without their talent. This can be seen in hits like “Culture,” “Kelly Price,” and above all, “Bad and Boujee.” “Bad and Boujee” is a remarkable accomplishment, satirizing the way that people from the lower classes act when they become “new money,” effectively falling into the trappings of the bourgeoisie, resembling the rich white pricks that they often railed against. And it did this while still remaining the banger of the year. The album itself is a monumental achievement, flowing like no other this year, and forcing each melody to change the game. Meanwhile, the lyrics are an amalgamation of carefully thought-out poetry and ad-libbed catchphrases (Skrrt Skrrt Skrrt, OFFSET!, Raindrops/drop tops, etc.) Culture is a genre-defining achievement, and considering their new album, Culture II, is already in contention for next year’s list, I think it’s safe to say that we will be hearing music this great from Migos for a long, long time.
3. Damn. – Kendrick Lamar
Look, it’s pretty safe to say that if there’s an album by Kendrick Lamar in any given year, it’s going to make the Top Three. While Damn. is decidedly different from Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Buttefly, it is no less a monumental achievement, blending together thematic storytelling, topical references, and personal experiences into an honest, powerful testimony. This isn’t just an album: it’s musical literature. The music is powerfully religious, powerfully relevant in nature, creating an entire world of symbolism and references to explain Kendrick’s worldview to the listener. And quite frankly, it is worth exploring: it’s a powerful story about trying to be a good person while he is demonized in the media and he sees crime and suffering all around him on the streets. As he confronts these terrors, horrors, and aggressions, he utilizes his faith and family as a driving force towards the positive change he desires. Like most great poetry, Lamar utilizes imagery, allusions, and parables to prove his point. Obviously, the album is musically intricate, providing layer upon layer of electric beats and sounds, allowing the album’s story to work in any order played – forwards, backwards, or chopped and screwed. However, it’s the stories, themes, and theatricality that go into each individual song that make the album masterful. HUMBLE is a true jam, DNA is a triumph, YAH a soulful reflection on faith and the Book of Deuteronomy, FEAR an examination of our anxiety at three different stages in life, and BLOOD is a lyrically, narratively intricate parable. DAMN. is a monumental achievement, one that transcends its art form and lasts as a reigning influence.
2. Melodrama – Lorde
Some things are worth waiting for. This is especially true with Melodrama, Lorde’s second album, for which we’ve waited four years. A loose concept album focused on a barrage of emotions at a house party after a bad breakup (a direction the album took after Lorde’s own experiences of heartbreak), the album is in stark contrast with her breakthrough: it’s somehow sadder, yet more hopeful; wiser, but more youthful. It’s almost like the talented singer/songwriter took the critiques about her to heart and found a way to combine her talents with a side of herself not previously explored. Her mature voice and lyrics give an added weight to her upbeat reflections on love and loss, almost like Joni Mitchell writing a Taylor Swift album. Her songs alternate between the heartbreak of a breakup, like the melancholically hopeful “Green Light” and the mournful “Liability,” and the hope for the future (or perhaps a positive reflection on the failed relationship) with “Homemade Dynamite” and “The Louvre.” Each song is laced with mature, reflective lyrics that satirize the behavior of young people (including Lorde herself) while also embracing these traits wholeheartedly – The Louvre in particular sounds like she’s arguing with herself over her behavior, what with her asides about overthinking punctuation and her dampening of expectations by correcting comparisons between their relationship to a painting in the famous museum as “one of the ones in the back.” However, the album ends up coming together in one deliberate conclusion with “Perfect Places,” which is about the pain of a breakup, the messy behavior of her contemporaries, and the overall imperfection of youth – which is completely natural and appropriate. As is usually the case, Lorde’s lyrics are complex and wise beyond her years, while her music is deceptively simple, depending predominantly on pianos and percussion, allowing her vocals to take center stage. Lorde’s ability to create an album about her own youthful energy that is entirely self-aware is a rarity in music, and yet that’s exactly what makes Melodrama one of the year’s best albums.
1. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
I didn’t really listen to Father John Misty prior to 2017. I knew of his work with the Fleet Foxes, and I knew of his sardonic nature and style from his cover of “Blank Space” as Lou Reed. I went into his third album, Pure Comedy, knowing only the basic conceit: the album would serve as an extended treatise on the current state of humanity and how this behavior will eventually create our downfall. Misty’s album is a brilliant emphasis of substance over style, creating a satiric cross between folk, rock, and lyrical storytelling. Truly no artist has had this level of mastery over intricate storytelling and grandiose musicality since Reed and Billy Joel were at their peak. Father John Misty’s playful nihilism graces the album with a variety of humorous diatribes and reflective life lessons, not unlike the Book of Ecclesiastes, which he quotes inside the fold. Take his first song on the album, “Pure Comedy,” by far the greatest accomplishment lyrically. The song, a piano-heavy mini-novella, traces the history of mankind through a series of sarcastic, bitter critiques, including the insanity of birth, the ridiculous origins of sexism, the way individuals started to abuse different religions for their own benefit, and so on. From there, the album doesn’t let up. “Total Entertainment Forever” provides a brilliant critique of the future of technology and pop culture, and how it will eventually ruin us (set to an acoustic guitar, the opening “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift” is one of the greatest jokes of all time). “Ballad of a Dying Man” serves as a critique of those who place brands over a life worth living, and perhaps of Misty’s own faux-intellectualism. “Two Wildly Different Perspectives is a brutal takedown of the similar horribleness of both political parties. And in his most ambitious piece, “Leaving L.A.” hides behind the façade of a commentary on L.A. Culture before giving way to a 13-minute introspective look at self-doubt and what it means to be an artist. Father John Misty’s album transcends genre and art form to create a literary masterpiece, making the artist over as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the modern era. He carries on in the footsteps of the greats by channeling his nihilism into creation, and in doing so, has made the best album of the year.
Well this concludes the Best of 2017! It’s been a blast sharing my thoughts with you, and here’s hoping that 2018 is just as brilliant! Cheers, all!