2017 wasn't a great year for a lot of things, but music is one exception. Even as Onion headlines and current events begin to blur together, artists are stepping up and writing some of the best music we've heard in a few years. On this list you'll find a mixture of genres and different approaches to music, from the lyrically profound to the musically experimental to the just plain fun. I hope you'll give each one a chance!
(A quick note on methodology: I've broken down the list into groups of 10, with the top 10 likely to be subdivided further. A total of 134 albums were considered for this list, meaning I listened to each of them at least twice through. Most (including all of the ones in the top 50) I listened to an average of 10 or more times. The full list of albums considered will be included in the final post.)
Honorable Mention: Mt. Eerie - A Crow Looked At Me
This may not have been one of my 50 favorite albums, but it deserves a mention on any 2017 list for its sheer artistic merit. Think of this album like the Requiem for a Dream of albums – something you definitely need to make sure you hear, but not something you’ll emotionally be able to handle listening to on a regular basis. A Crow Looked At Me was written mere months after Phil Elverum (a.k.a Mt. Eerie) lost his wife to cancer, and the raw pain of her absence is felt throughout, even in mundane activities like taking out the trash. Unlike Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, this isn’t an album about processing grief and eventual healing, it’s a primal cry of anguish and loss and he has no use for trying to find meaning in any of it. (“All poetry is dumb/When I walk into the room where you were/And look into the emptiness instead/…/It’s dumb/And I don’t want to learn anything from this/I love you”).
50. The Maine - Lovely Little Lonely
Don’t worry, I already checked the date on the album – it really is from 2017, not 2007. But you’d be justified in thinking Lovely Little Lonely to be a lost classic from the height of the pop-punk era with its youthful mix of angst and hope, energy and ennui. Maybe this one’s a nostalgia pick (one of the tracks is even called “Lost in Nostalgia”), but if you can write a solid rock album and make your listeners feel 16 again, you’re doing something right.
Also listen to: "Don't Come Down", "Black Butterflies and Déjà Vu"
49. Lights - Skin & Earth
Belying its organic-sounding title, Skin & Earth is one of 2017’s most shimmery electro-pop albums, full of driving dance beats and anthemic choruses. What it lacks in pretense, it more than makes up for in memorable hooks and powerful vocals. If the hipsters want to dispute its inclusion, they can find me over here, dancing to “Kicks”.
Also listen to: "Until the Light", "New Fears"
48. Shannon Lay - Living Water
There’s a simplicity and brevity to the songs on Living Water that only increases their impact. Only 3 of the 14 tracks hit the 3 minute mark; the rest are compact reflections on leaving home (“Caterpillar”), minimalism (“Always Room”), and fantasy (“Orange Tree” and “Search For Gold”) backed by a single finger-picked guitar.
Also listen to: "Always Room", "Caterpillar"
47. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Who Built The Moon?
The famous feud between brothers/former Oasis bandmates Liam and Noel Gallagher has somewhat overshadowed their successful solo careers. Noel’s third album as the frontman of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is ambitious, experimental, and a little psychedelic, and it’s also his best since his Oasis days.
Also listen to: "She Taught Me How To Fly", "Black & White Sunshine"
46. Penny & Sparrow - Wendigo
Indie-folk duo Penny & Sparrow’s 5th album grapples with the things in our lives we’d rather not face – our potential for cruelty, the loss of innocence, and the inescapability of time. It’s an album of seeking and questioning, but in the end it admits these questions are rarely to be answered in this life (“Saying ‘I don’t know’, there’s no shame in it/Or I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost”).
Also listen to: "Javert", "Smitten, Pt 2"
45. Shout Out Louds - Ease My Mind
This album’s sunny atmosphere is a nice antidote to some of the heavier entries on this list. On Ease My Mind, Shout Out Louds take equal parts Phoenix, Real Estate, and Family of the Year, shake them vigorously, and pour out a cocktail of pure indie joy.
Also listen to: "Jumbo Jet", "Souvenirs"
44. Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness
Not Even Happiness is an album about trying to build a sense of “home” after a long time traveling, wandering – content with the world but not with herself (“I crossed the country and I carried no key/Couldn’t I look up at the stars from anywhere?/And sometimes I did, I felt ancient/But still I sought peace and it never came to me”). The open road and its freedom are recalled fondly throughout, but Byrne finds a new sense of belonging in love (“And I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude/But I long for you now/Even when you just leave the room”).
Also listen to: "Natural Blue", "Follow My Voice"
43. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid
The best electronic artists are frequently those who manage to create something organic and profound out of all the layers of production and synthesized effects. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is known for her use of the rare Buchla 100 synthesizer, but she doesn’t hide behind it – instead her voice blends into the instrument and becomes another layer in the rich texture.
Also listen to: "To Follow and Lead", "To Feel Your Best"
42. Greta Van Fleet - From The Fires
Even more than with The Maine’s pop-punk throwback, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 1970s-era Led Zeppelin time-traveled to 2017 to release a new album when listening to Greta Van Fleet. The band makes no attempt to disguise its influences, but what From the Fires lacks in originality it makes up for in execution. Frontman Josh Kiszka channels Robert Plant’s energy and raw howl, and “Safari Song” proves there is still plenty of room for crunchy riffs and electrifying solos in 2017. For all those who mourn the death of rock ‘n’ roll, Greta Van Fleet would like a word with you.
Also listen to: "Edge of Darkness", "Black Smoke Rising"
41. Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow
There’s an optimism that permeates the folk-rock of Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest effort, underscored by the Gospel-tinged “Jenny of the Roses”, the playful strumming on “Jaw”, and bouncing brass of “Domino (Time Will Tell)”, that occasionally belies its weighty themes (“So you say you want it harder/Like more than you can take/And I know you want to suffer/I’ve been to that place”). Amid these catchy folk tunes, he explores darkness, displacement, and above all, the need to bring a little more love into the world. Closing the album is the topical “When the Wall Comes Down” that reminds us “It was built by man and you can tear it down”.
Also listen to: "Domino (Time Will Tell)", "Gulfport You've Been On My Mind"