Trying to avoid cliches in a year-end list article can be hard.
It’s tempting to start off by saying “with another year coming to a close …” or “2017 sure has been a great year in music.”
And as trite as these phrases can be, there’s a certain amount of truth to them.
2017 was a year filled with dramatic headlines on the national stage, and that drama carried over into some of the year’s best music. Not all artists wanted to focus on the world at large, though; many eschewed that in favor of deeply personal confessional pieces. Others, though, avoided the drama entirely, instead zeroing in on a single emotional theme.
But without further monologuing on my part, let’s look at the best records of the year, and what made them so great.
10. Kamasi Washington — “Harmony of Difference”
Back in 2015, Kamasi Washington became the true giant of modern jazz; after performing saxophone on Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he released his aptly named three-hour-long album “The Epic,” on which he blended the spiritual sound of John Coltrane with a giant band to create something almost mind-numbingly beautiful.
This year, Washington experimented with a sort of minimalism, at least by his standards. At only 31 minutes long, “Harmony of Difference” is far more tightly focused. The first half of the album is comprised of five short songs, each named after different aspects of the human experience.
Then, for the final, nearly 15-minute-long track, Washington combines elements of each of the five songs to create perhaps his most achingly beautiful piece.
This track is, appropriately enough, entitled “Truth,” making the whole album about showing how all the aspects of human life combine into what is true. It serves as one of the most fascinating concepts I’ve heard on an instrumental record, and it’s undoubtedly the year’s best jazz.
9. LCD Soundsystem — “american dream”
It’s somehow fitting for LCD Soundsystem’s least fun record to also be one of their best.
Still employing their trademark blend of rock, electronica and disco, many tracks on “american dream” are darker than we’re used to from LCD’s catalog. The record’s mood seems to suggest a darkening, a souring of the titular American dream.
Much of the record is made up of the band’s typical dance rock, but there’s also a sort of jittery, nervous energy on tracks like “call the police” and throughout. The album feels like the soundtrack to a party where the guests are waiting for bombs to drop, and it’s perfect for the country’s overall mood.
It’s dark; it’s brooding; it’s gorgeous. Pick this up if you want some electronic music that makes you groove but also makes you anxious.
8. Jay-Z — “4:44”
Struggling has always been a major theme of Jay-Z’s work. He’s struggled with the streets; he’s struggled with what it means to be a black man in America. But on “4:44,” he’s tackling something new: himself.
“4:44” is Jay-Z’s most confessional work, where he plainly grapples with how to be a good father, a good husband, a good person. Jay acknowledges the mistakes he’s made along the way, most notably acknowledging the infidelity his wife Beyoncé suggested on her 2016 record, “Lemonade.”
Jay’s stirring confessions are backed up by stunning, timeless production from No I.D., who produced the entire album. No I.D.’s production makes Jay sound somber and remorseful. “4:44” becomes one of the most heart-wrenching hip-hop albums of the year thanks to his work in the studio.
7. Slowdive — “Slowdive”
Comeback albums are almost never good. But somehow, Slowdive was able to overcome a 22-year-long gap in their career and release something more than deserving of fitting in with the rest of their catalog.
Slowdive is shoegaze music at its peak: The band makes dreamy, ethereal music that is somehow both warm and cold, like watching the snow fall from a room warmed by a fire.
And on their self-titled record, the group reaches its own peak. “Slowdive” is an incredible soundscape, a record with a real sense of space. I’ve gotten lost in this record more times than I can count this year.
6. SZA — “Ctrl”
I’ll admit, I was a bit cold in my initial review of this record from SZA.
I called SZA out for her conflicting lyrics, saying that on some songs she has a remarkably strong message, while on others she falls into the common stereotypes of women found on many hip-hop and R&B records.
But then I realized SZA doesn’t need to be anyone’s role model. Her music is for her, and humans are conflicted creatures. If her lyrics have conflicting messages, that’s fine, because she’s just speaking from her own experiences.
And her portrayal of those experiences is nothing short of beautiful. Her silky smooth voice flows perfectly over jazzy instrumentation, especially on tracks like “The Weekend” and “Go Gina,” the latter of which became one of my favorite songs of the year.
In my review of her record, I called SZA the female Frank Ocean, but now I’m saying she’s just SZA: an artist making beautifully sultry music that is entirely unique to her.
5. Lorde — “Melodrama”
Lorde’s second studio album is a stunning moment of growth for the young songstress. With her previous album, “Pure Heroine,” Lorde focused on rather standard yet emotional alternative music.
Yet on “Melodrama,” thanks to the influences of co-writer Jack Antonoff, Lorde crosses over into real pop music, but she’s doing it on her own terms.
Lorde’s dive into pop music maintains the emotional resonance of her earlier work, thanks to her introspective lyrics, where she often focuses on her shortcomings, her anxiety and her emotional failures.
There’s a beautiful darkness to her voice that permeates the often jaunty pop sections, especially on tracks like “Green Light” and “The Louvre.” “Melodrama” reveals that Lorde has a talent for simultaneously occupying two spaces (alternative yet pop, happy yet sad), firmly cementing herself as one of the most talented singer-songwriters in our generation.
4. BROCKHAMPTON — “SATURATION I – III”
Speaking of growth, it’s not often that we’re able to see so much growth from a group in one year.
Hip-hop collective (or, if you listen to them, “boy band”) BROCKHAMPTON released three albums this year in a span of six months. The first entry in the “SATURATION” trilogy, which released in early June, made its way onto my list of great albums you may have missed from the first half of the year.
But each of the subsequent releases was somehow better than the previous one, in spite of the fact that each album was created from the ground up between releases, rather than produced all at once and released in pieces.
BROCKHAMPTON brings such a unique breath of fresh air to modern hip-hop that each of their three releases deserves to be on this list.
Blending experimental hip-hop, hardcore hip-hop, pop rap and boy-band-style crooning, BROCKHAMPTON crams so much into an idiosyncratic style all their own.
With unique members who each have a different story to tell — Kevin Abstract talks about growing up as a gay man in Texas; Joba frankly battles with mental health issues; Ameer Vann wrestles with the morality of turning to selling drugs in a prior state of poverty — BROCKHAMPTON’s claim of being the “All-American boy band” feels more correct with each listen.
3. King Krule — “The OOZ”
Archy Marshall has always been a bit of a mystery, and that’s never been more true than on his third full-length release (but second under his King Krule stage name), “The OOZ.”
“The OOZ” is a mind-bending mix of folk, jazz, art rock, experimental hip-hop and sound art, and somehow Marshall is able to blend all of these sounds into something that feels natural.
Marshall’s voice is guttural, dark and haunting. He growls at the listener, begging his audience to understand his pain. And with some of the most fascinating sound mixing to be heard in 2017, Marshall feels unsettlingly present. Marshall is right there in front of you, and he won’t be ignored.
2. Tyler, The Creator — “Flower Boy”
Tyler, The Creator is an artist I’ve long just written off as nothing more than a humorous part of the hip-hop culture. Sure, he has always been a talented rapper, but his focus on a rather infantile brand of humor constantly served as a stumbling block, preventing him from making something truly meaningful.
But “Flower Boy” is such a major step forward in Tyler’s maturity that it is not only a great album in its own right, but also serves to recontextualize his previous work.
On “Flower Boy,” we see Tyler, The Creator at his most confessional. Tyler discusses his deep fears of loneliness, totally eschewing his immature jokes of the past. Much of “Flower Boy” focuses on Tyler’s relationship issues, with Tyler notably seeming to come out as gay on the track “Garden Shed,” hinting at his attraction toward males on other songs.
Tyler, who handles all of the production on “Flower Boy,” offers up some of his most interesting beats, taking influence liberally from hardcore hip-hop, jazz rap and pop rap.
“Flower Boy” sees Tyler coming a long way from his previous records. And, while it might not make some of the frankly unlistenable beats on his previous album, “Cherry Bomb,” or his formerly frequent use of homophobic slurs more palatable, it, at least, makes them easier to look past.
1. Kendrick Lamar — “DAMN.”
On “DAMN.,” Kendrick Lamar proves once and for all that he can do anything he wants.
He previously dabbled in the West Coast g-funk sound on “good kid, m.A.A.d city” before switching to a wholly unique jazz rap sound on “To Pimp a Butterfly” and its accompanying B-sides compilation “untitled. unmastered.”
But on “DAMN.,” Lamar decides he’s going to dabble in modern pop rap, and he ends up doing it better than anyone else.
“DAMN.” sees Lamar at his catchiest, crafting some of the best bangers of his career. While I never would have thought Kendrick Lamar would work with a producer like Mike WiLL Made-It after the experimental direction he took on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he does on tracks “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” Both tracks are simply remarkable examples of West Coast, gangsta-style hip-hop that Lamar has simply never done as well as he does here.
But Lamar gets introspective on “DAMN.” too, especially on tracks like “FEAR.” and “DUCKWORTH.,” where he examines his own fears of failure and how, if things had gone differently for him, he could’ve died in the street instead of becoming one of the world’s greatest emcees.
“DAMN.” has everything a classic hip-hop record needs: beats that bang, choruses that can be chanted along with, but above all else, some excellent storytelling. “DAMN.” has it all, and it’s because Kendrick Lamar can do it all.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.