No less than eight of our top 10 albums of 2017 were made by black artists or women. In a year that saw the rise of the alt-right and the floodgates opening in Hollywood for sexual harassment and assault claims, that matters. Because while it’s been hard to define 2017 as anything but the first year of the Trump presidency, the last 12 months have brought a surge of progressivism and social awareness—and the volatile political climate has made those expressions of awareness more raw and visceral.
Björk turned her pastoral-sounding Utopia into a subtweet against abusive men, Vince Staples strived to push his boom-bap rap further into territories of experimental electronica, and Kendrick Lamar backed off the heady, groove-heavy sound of his Tipping Point opus To Pimp a Butterfly for the balled-fist immediacy, and musical accessibility, of Damn. Kendrick also collaborated with U2, for his album and for theirs, a gesture that represented the kind of genre border crossing that was commonplace in a year backdropped by Trump’s repeated efforts to wall us off from the rest of the world.
These shifting genre and cultural dynamics didn’t play to everyone’s strengths: Country superstar Brad Paisley, whose 2009 album American Saturday Night improbably captured the optimism of the early Obama era better than any other recording of the time, fumbled his latest opportunity to address the present political moment, instead carping about “selfies” and the shame of regretting sex the morning after on Love and War. Other artists, like the embattled Kanye West, seemed to recognize that this wasn’t their moment, and sat out the year almost entirely.
The best albums of 2017, meanwhile, were made by artists ready to lay the groundwork for a counter-cultural movement, a push back against our political quagmire, forged in collaboration, experimentation, internationalism, and polemical intent. And it obviously helped when the people making that art were in the position to feel the affects of the oppression that the Trump years threaten. We all benefit by listening to them. Sam C. Mac
Nelly Furtado, The Ride
Nelly Furtado’s refusal to play to type makes her something of a pop maverick—impossible to pin down but also improbably distinct. The singer-songwriter has always been a bit of a shape-shifter, adapting to her sonic surroundings, whether they be the chirp-hop sound collages of early collaborators Gerald Eaton and Brian West, the Bhangra beats of Timbaland, or the smooth indie-R&B stylings of Blood Orange. Furtado’s sixth album, The Ride, opens with a cold splash of water to the face, the aptly titled “Cold Hard Truth” announcing a new musical approach, courtesy of St. Vincent producer John Congleton, whose plodding beats, guttural guitar tones, and funky low-end provide a refreshing counterpoint to Furtado’s signature adenoidal sound and sonorous pop hooks. “Don’t say you know me, just cue the band,” Furtado quips on “Tap Dancing,” and fittingly, The Ride feels a lot like the debut of a new rising star. Sal Cinquemani
Harriet Brown, Contact
Few artists have been as successful at channeling Prince’s ineffable weirdness as Harriet Brown. From the pitch-shifted rap on the “Intro” to the slippery synth solo at the end of “Cryptid,” Brown’s debut album, Contact, is both erotic and deeply eccentric—a unique stylistic pairing that’s been in tragically short supply since Prince’s death last April. But Brown is no mere impersonator. He rearranges his patchwork of ’80s and ’90s R&B influences to stitch together a sound of his own, as esoteric as it is soulful. “Sometimes I feel like I’m an alien on your planet,” Brown sings on “ESP,” his falsetto bending almost comically around the last word so that he sounds—and, on the album cover, looks—like he’s telling the truth. Fortunately for him, this kind of starman funk is exactly what Earth has been missing. Zachary Hoskins
Higher Brothers, Black Cab
There’s evidence to suggest that the growing popularity of Sean Miyashiro’s 88rising media company is slowly supplanting the K-Pop wave of the early 2010s as the face of Asian popular music in the West. The company’s YouTube channel has become a promotional machine for Japanese-Australian R&B singer Joji and Korean-American house DJ Yaeji. But the main focus of 88rising has been the legitimization of Asian hip-hop, in particular Indonesian trap nerd Brian Imanuel (a.k.a. Rich Chigga) and Chinese rap group Higher Brothers. Their debut, Black Cab, is loaded with universally accessible beats and flows, but the lyrics engage with specifics of Chinese culture. Opener “WeChat” is named after a social media alternative to Facebook and Twitter (both banned in China), while “Made in China” boastfully flips a derogatory phrase—and still pokes fun at unbound nationalism. But it’s the massive, squelching bass and charismatic hook of “Wudidong” (literally “bottomless hole”), a gleefully nihilistic ode to consumerism (“Nikes, Adidas are my offerings to the bottomless hole”), that aligns Higher Brothers with a certain strain of irresistible, maximalist rap. Mac
Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn Hitchcock turns out to be a perfect title for the singer-songwriter’s 21st solo album, not because it offers any kind of comprehensive summary of his oeuvre: His 40-year career has been far too weird and eclectic for a single 35-minute album to accomplish that. Rather, it’s because it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe in which this was Hitchcock’s first solo album following the demise of his seminal post-punk band the Soft Boys in the early 1980s. Credit goes to producer Brendan Benson, himself a brilliant power-pop impresario, who cold-called Hitchcock and convinced him to return to the Soft Boys’s straight-ahead, guitar-heavy, psychedelia-tinged style. Hitchcock responded to the challenge by ditching acoustic guitars almost completely and writing some of his hookiest songs in years, from the Revolver-evoking “Autumn Sunglasses” to razor-sharp guitarical blasts like “Time Coast” and “Virginia Woolf.” Wily as ever, the Englishman nods to both his newly adopted home of Nashville and his mercurial persona with the infectious honky-tonk sendup “I Pray When I’m Drunk.” Jeremy Winograd
Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
Alynda Lee Segarra was already well-versed in the folk tradition defined by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In preparation for The Navigator, her sixth album with Hurray for the Riff Raff, she decided to seek out a much broader understanding of what folk music means, in particular exploring her Puerto Rican heritage, traveling both to the economically troubled island and the Bronx, where she grew up. The result of her journey is a concept album about a crusader against cultural erasure and gentrification. Named Navita, her story is told as much through boldly eclectic musical touchstones as it is through narrative. The concept of Americana toughened by an urban sensibility defines ramshackle highlights like the infectiously zippy “Living in the City” and the woozy singalong “Life to Save.” They clearly draw from the tradition of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Lou Reed, in the process highlighting a connection between Navita and the downtrodden street-rat characters that often populate those artists’ songs. But Segarra’s uncompromising incorporation of Latin rhythms into songs like “Rican Beach” and “Finale” underscores her message—the rallying power of folk music transcends cultural barriers—even more profoundly. Winograd