Humans love to compartmentalize. Putting things in categories, lists, and genres help us to understand the chaos of the world, freeing our minds up to search for and find the things we care about, whether that’s music, art, or our favorite foods. We see things through a filter of the preconceptions and ideas we have floating around our heads, and follow our nose where it leads.
It goes the same way with writing articles. One of music journalists’ favorite pastimes is making retrospective lists of the albums that shaped and defined the past year, summing up with all their music knowledge a list of the essential releases. Although this sort of piece will never be objective, it, in its defense, at least gives the listener an inside peek into the heads of people who live, breathe, and eat music. At the end of every calendar year, it’s hard to resist at least one more look back at where we’ve been, taking another peek at what music means to us and listening again to the sounds that pulled our heartstrings and stirred our spirit.
So, in keeping with tradition, I’ve put together my ten favorite albums from 2017, in order from ten to one. Although I’m sure I missed a few along the way, songs and records that I’ll discover somewhere down the line, this list is comprised of the albums that made me feel something, shaping and renewing my view of what music could be and what it could say about our ever-changing, brutal, and beautiful world.
- Peasant – Richard Dawson
This macabre album is like the most twisted of fairy tales. At times, when I was first listening to “Peasant,” I had to take breaks after every other song, so absorbed was I in the intense and violent imagery of the tracks. It was like having to pause a horror film to collect yourself before continuing. But, even with the dark undercurrent of the album, I always came back to Richard Dawson’s enchanting songs, which are oddly beautiful even as they twist and turn inside the anxiety and oppression of Dawson’s tales. On “Peasant,” the songwriter transports us into a frightening medieval world, a place where his rattling voice gives us meager comfort among the terrors and exhilaration of uncertainty, hope, and death.
- Process – Sampha
Sampha won a very deserving Polaris prize for this album, which, combining soul-baring songwriting with heart-pounding electronic flourishes, quickly emerged as a crossover R&B album that stood out among his peers. The UK singer, who was already known for providing vocals for Solange on her incredible 2016 album “A Seat at the Table,” uses his silky, expressive voice to tell tales of loss and suffering. Particularly heartbreaking is his song “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” which rests in the comfort of music even as life takes away the people he loves. Even through the anxiety and dread of life Sampha finds the tones and timbre of beauty shimmering through his music.
- Flower Boy – Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, The Creator bravely entered new territory on “Flower Boy,” an album that softens the rapper’s edge just a bit, but in exchange offers a fresh and incredibly endearing side of the artist. With synthetic textures and a groovy rhythm section behind him, Tyler emerges with playful raps and an enigmatic flow rarely matched in modern hip-hop. Songs like “Boredom” will get your head bobbing along with his existential woes, and the boyish charm he exudes on “See You Again” will make you smile. This is a record that’ll be played for a long time coming.
- Hallelujah Anyhow – Hiss Golden Messenger
The North Carolina Artist struck a golden vein on his 2017 album, which came quickly after 2016’s “Heart Like a Levee.” On “Hallelujah Anyhow,” MC Taylor finds a reason to sing and rejoice in the face of all the world’s troubles. On songs like the joyous “Jenny of the Roses” and the understated “Caledonia, My Love,” the singer celebrates the good parts of life, including the people and places that shaped him into the man he is today. Tapping into the rich musical traditions of the southern United States, he finds that music will always have the power to connect and enrich our lives, especially through troubled times.
- Not Even Happiness – Julie Byrne
I have a distinct memory of driving into Albuquerque, New Mexico at sunset as I listened to “Not Even Happiness” for the first time. Julie Byrne’s smoky voice emerged from the speakers and became part of that majestic scenery—dry, distant mountains shimmering in colors of pink, purple, and blue as castles of clouds rose high up in the sky. Her music, even listened to in the safety of your own home, is much like that scenery: expansive, restless, and painted with broad colors. Byrne really comes into her own on this album, the perfect companion piece for any lonely, wandering soul in a big, confusing world.
For further listening click here for a Spotify playlist featuring songs from these five albums. And keep your eyes peeled for Pt. 2 of this list, which will feature the top five albums of 2017.