SZA sizzles and Jason Isbell drops his third-straight keeper
This list could have easily been three times as long, but here are the 10 albums I found myself revisiting most often in 2017.
1. SZA: Ctrl
In the past, the New Jersey-based R&B singer masked her voice behind ambient hollows of synthesizer. But on Ctrl, SZA stands defiantly front and center, sounding fully uninhibited both sonically (opener “Supermodel” is a minimalist wonder with SZA strutting at the fore) and in subject matter (it's hard to imagine the cutting, comic diss, “High key, your dick is weak, buddy,” surfacing on previous records). Throughout, she sings of desire and the various complications that often lock-step with the emotion. The music mirrors this push and pull, SZA navigating the off-balance R&B melodies with learned grace, sounding fully in “ctrl” even in those moments when her words suggest otherwise.
2. Julien Baker: Turn Out the Lights
On “Shadowboxing,” Julien Baker recalls singing in church, standing before the congregation and “screaming my fears into speakers/till I collapse or I burst/whichever comes first.” A similar approach serves the singer and songwriter well on Turn Out the Lights, an exposed nerve of an album where the Tennessee-born Baker bares her soul on a series of gorgeous, heart-swelling ballads that explore worlds both human (the shattered “Sour Breath”) and holy (“Televangelist,” a crisis of faith turned confessional piano ballad).
3. Margo Price: All American Made
On the deeply personal Midwest Farmer's Daughter, from 2016, the Illinois-born, Nashville-based country singer detailed her own hardscrabble story. A year later, she's back and casting a wider glance, penning songs that explore gender inequity (“Pay Gap”), country music's female double standard (“Wild Women”) and, on the exquisite, album-closing title track, the good, bad and the ugly of the American dream. “I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night,” Price sings. Based on everything that falls before it, one wonders how he could.
4. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound
The title of Jason Isbell's latest could be described as aspirational, the Alabama-born singer and songwriter — who recently campaigned for Democratic Senator-elect Doug Jones — staking his claim on Nashville's Music Row, which has been historically unkind to country outsiders. It's a sense of hope that permeates even as Isbell dissects white privilege (“White Man's World”), working-class anxieties (“Cumberland Gap”) and life's impermanence (first-rate tearjerker “If We Were Vampires”). And what is it that keeps Isbell pushing forward amid the chaos? “Maybe it's the fire in my little girl's eyes,” the new father offers on one song, which is as good a reason as any.
5. Hurray for the Riff Raff: The Navigator
On Hurray for the Riff Raff's sixth album, Alynda Lee Segarra, who was born and raised in the Puerto Rican Bronx, inhabits the lives of various outsiders: the gentrified, the overlooked and the exiled. “Now all the politicians they just squawk their mouths,” she offers amid the Cuban rhythms of “Rican Beach.” “Said we'll build a wall to keep them out.” Fittingly, Riff Raff's music is virtually borderless, blending soul, bomba, salsa, doo-wop, gospel and more, and Segarra doesn't hesitate to lob words like would-be Molotov cocktails over any perceived barrier. “I just wanna prove my worth on the planet Earth and be something!” she declares. Mission accomplished.
6. Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory
The Long Beach rapper takes a strobe-lit club detour, drawing on U.K. garage, Detroit techno and Chicago house for this beat-heavy album that finds him sounding an alarm. “How I'm supposed to have a good time when death and destruction all I see?” he offers on “Party People.” And if it feels, at times, like Staples is allowing the party to overtake (his vocals are noticeably lower in the mix throughout), this notion is blown away as he lowers his shoulder into “BagBak,” a fierce, ferocious declaration that stands among the best tracks recorded in 2017.
7. EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring
Before Barack Obama was president, when he was just a “skinny kid with a funny name,” he rallied support with a speech drawing on the similarities between those who live in red and blue states. On Erika M. Anderson's third solo album, the musician throws herself into those blurred, untamed purple realms, turning out sonic buzz saws about the angry white men feeding the alt-right (“Aryan Nation”) and the women fueling the #metoo movement who are no longer content to go along with the program (“33 Nihilistic and Female”).
8. Moses Sumney: Aromanticism
The debut effort from the Los Angeles-based musician is an audacious statement built on intimate moments, Sumney rendering his folk, jazz and soul influences on a series of songs that explore solitude, heartache and self-preservation. “If my heart is idle am I doomed?” he asks in a quivering falsetto on the droning “Doomed,” his voice falling away before landing on an answer.
9. Juana Molina: Halo
Argentinian singer Juana Molina's seventh album is a mysterious, masterful work that takes its sonic cues from the folk legend of the “luz mala” — the “evil light,” or Halo, that hovers where bones are buried. The folk- and electro-steeped tracks are ambient, often mirroring passing specters, and throughout Molina sings in Spanish, English and, on a trio of songs, a looped, wordless sigh, as if channeling unseen spirits.
10. Bell Witch: Mirror Reaper
The Seattle-based doom collective's first album following the death of drummer and vocalist Adrian Guerra is a bleak, depressive masterwork comprised of weighty dirges (make that “dirge,” singular, seeing as the entire album unfolds like a single unbroken track) that move as patiently as a massive warship sinking slowly to the ocean floor. If you, like many, considered 2017 a miserable year, here's the most fitting soundtrack for it.