While music can and should be shared, finding beloved music is ultimately a personal experience based on personal feelings and history. Though I call this list “the best albums of the year,” I could just call it “the albums that have had the biggest impact on me.” That’s what the “best” music is supposed to do, and that’s why “best” can be so subjective. Writing a list like this, based on my experiences alone, means I leave off albums that made huge waves this year and are spectacular achievements (SZA’s Ctrl and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., just to name a couple). Yet, I can only speak from my personal experiences. When I look back on 2017, these are the records that stand out in my mind:
Lorde — Melodrama — June 16
Lorde’s highly acclaimed exposé into heartbreak is the only record on this list to be nominated for “Album of the Year” at the Grammys, and it has rightfully earned that distinction. After a nearly four-year hiatus following her successful debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde exploded back onto the scene with a collection of polished songs delving into feelings of solitude and grief. It also toys with the meaningless hookups and casual relationships that can follow a truly difficult break up, like the one Lorde suffered from before writing this album.
Critics have called Melodrama a concept album because the whole story arc centers around a house party and the way moods can fluctuate wildly in that environment. In “Supercut,” Lorde reminisces on her former relationship as “wild and fluorescent.” As Pitchfork pointed out, it’s a fitting description for a first love. I think it’s also a fitting description for Lorde’s artistry.
What I ultimately loved about this record, though, was the way Lorde portrays the experiences of a young woman through the eyes of one. Lorde is 21 years old. In Melodrama, she nevers tries to sound older, more mature or more established than that. She only conveys her personal story and her definition of transitioning from a teenager into a young adult. This honesty lends itself to a genuine musical achievement. On Grammys night, I will definitely be rooting for her.
The National — Sleep Well Beast — Sept. 8
I praised this album relentlessly when it was released for its masterfully crafted musical arrangements and its somber testaments to the struggles of maintaining long-lasting love. Months later, I still find those statements to ring true. The vulnerable tale of frontman Matt Berninger’s struggling marriage is as impressive as it is exposing.
The feelings explored here — self-doubt, pain, loneliness, guilt — are all things that can threaten our relationships with the people we love most. They’re also some of our most human traits. In Sleep Well Beast, The National understands this interplay like no other.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of The National is Berninger’s rich baritone croon. That voice provides the perfect narrative for such a deeply personal reflection inspired by what he views as his own failings. Sleep Well Beast is emotionally exhausting to listen to, but it’s too beautiful not to.
This marriage of refined, innovative musical arrangements and deeply emotional lyrics showcases everything I love about the alternative rock genre. For me, Sleep Well Beast is a true treasure that will be remembered long after 2017.
The War on Drugs — A Deeper Understanding — Aug. 25
The album’s beginning is laid back and humble, like something you’d play on a Saturday drive. The tone quickly crescendos into an strong blend of sound, and it quickly becomes clear this is the most sophisticated we’ve heard frontman Adam Granduciel be.
What started as a humble group of talented musicians offering their self-recorded EP of demos, Barrel of Batteries for free download in 2008, has transformed into an ambitious and confident act. Each album The War on Drugs releases is better than the last. The New Yorker even called them “rock’s next torchbearer.”
Granduciel’s soothing, raspy voice is definitely reminiscent of an era when rock ballads from Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen dominated. A Deeper Understanding brilliantly showcases the band’s talent for writing music that re-examines and refurbishes the best aspects of classic rock with a modern eye. As Pitchfork described, “It’s hard to think of a band with more obvious touchstones that also sounds so original.”
As a longtime fan of The War on Drugs, I found new things to love and enjoyed the album more with every listen. The lyrics are subtle and vague, allowing me to imagine new themes and meanings each time I hear them.
Father John Misty — Pure Comedy — April 7
On first listen, Pure Comedy clearly resembles a collection of Billy Joel or Elton John ballads. The musical arrangements are simple and eloquent. Misty’s pure voice sounds almost soft-spoken.
However, on subsequent listens, it becomes clear Pure Comedy is not just a reimagination of these classic styles. It has a distinctly modern feel, which can be heard best in the lyrics which provide blunt commentary on our society amid all the major social changes taking way. This is most clear in “Ballad of a Dying Man,” arguably one of the best songs of the year.
On this record, Misty is direct in describing what he sees as our shortcomings. The lyrics are cleverly insightful and thought provoking. No album on this list is more relevant to the current conversation than Pure Comedy. It’s like a time capsule. Years from now, we’ll be able to listen to it and remember 2017.
LCD Soundsystem — American Dream — Sept. 1
Another album that seems to be a response to current social upheavals is the blatantly titled American Dream. Psychedelic synth elements and a pulsing beat that draw to mind Talking Heads and David Bowie clearly remain frontman James Murphy’s favorite techniques.
However, this may be his most polished use of them. It’s certainly the most critically acclaimed. Ameircan Dream is the first LCD Soundsystem album to reach No. 1 in the U.S. Much of this could have to do with the spectacle leading up to the release. The album marked the official reunion of the band, which had broken up in 2011.
The album features many chilling moments, but its true climax is the song “American Dream.” The title alone is steeped in connotation. What does that even mean anymore? The band wants to know. Since LCD Soundsystem formed, Murphy has been known to focus his lyrics on disillusionment. It appears American Dream is concerned not just with the personal kind, but with the political kind. It’s a timely release.
Lana Del Rey — Lust For Life — July 21
Though Lana Del Rey’s fifth album hardly classifies as alternative, it was one of my favorite releases of the year. Plus, if Lorde’s Melodrama can be on this list so can Lust for Life. Del Rey’s fascination with pop culture and relics of Americana have always made her songs richly layered and steeped in meanings.
Her whole persona is a work of art. Each move she makes, each lyric, each costume, all seem to contribute to part of her larger narrative. What exactly that narrative is remains open for interpretation. With songs like “White Mustang” and “Coachella - Woodstock In My Mind,” she blatantly recalls the dreamy, sepia-toned pop culture of the past. She even features guest appearances from Stevie Nicks and Sean Lennon, clear allusions to another era.
Del Rey’s gift lies in her ability to bring these feelings to the listener without seeming aloof or naive. Del Rey is not stuck in the past, but rather she is as inspired by it as one should be. Eloquent and expressive, musically tight and compelling, Lust for Life has all the makings of a quiet gem. I predict it will age just as well as her debut Born to Die, and as Del Rey herself.
With Spotify, YouTube and SoundCloud, I find I’m constantly being inundated with new music. When I find something I truly love, it stands out, like these six albums will for years. They were the soundtrack to my 2017, and each made me look at the world around me a little differently. Isn’t that why we listen to music?
Edited by Claire Colby | firstname.lastname@example.org