Critics’ choice: The top five albums of 2017
1 Kendrick Lamar
Two years ago, Kendrick Lamar was crowned the king of hip-hop. This year, Kendrick secured his hold on the throne with an effort that “thumps, grooves, spits, and rips like nothing else in his already masterful catalog,” said Lake Schatz in ConsequenceOfSound.net. Proving he’s still evolving, “in a way few musicians do,” the 30-year-old wordsmith dropped the high-concept jazz-hop that had won him a 2016 Grammy. Instead, the beats here are as bare-bones as the one-word song titles, and as Lamar wrestles with mortality, racism, a conflicted faith, and a divided America, it’s his piercing self-awareness that “stokes the fire at DAMN.’s volcanic core.” He’s grappling with “questions of biblical significance,” but “the genius of the enterprise” is that he’s simultaneously serving up “some of the tightest hooks of his career,” said Craig Jenkins in NYMag.com. “An album about religion that bangs in the club,” DAMN. is a reminder that music about faith can be “more than just a shower of thanks and praises.”
Lorde’s second album captures the rush of young love with such precision that “even the most jaded among us will feel the flicker of butterfly wings in their guts as they listen,” said Nolan Feeney in Entertainment Weekly. The New Zealander was 17 when her single “Royals” blew up. Now 21, she’s matured to the point that she can make us feel true heartbreak in one line, then poke fun at her emotional fragility in the next. Melodrama’s 11 songs, all built atop “oddball” synth-pop beats, end up telling the story of a long night out, and as that story unfolds, it “reminds us what a privilege it is to feel anything as strongly and as messily as you did when you were young.” The album’s greatest achievement, said Will Hermes in Rolling Stone, is that it proved 21st-century pop can be at once “genuinely intimate” and huge on our speakers and headphones.
“One of the best things to happen in music in the past decade has been R&B’s grand sonic flowering,” said Clayton Purdom in AVClub.com. On her long-awaited debut album, the neo-soul singer-songwriter SZA consolidates and builds on those gains while proving to be a lyricist of “disarming honesty and clarity.” Singing about desire, insecurities, and the messiness of post-hookup politics, she coolly unspools “an endless string of sticky hooks”—and no false drama. “Pop music doesn’t get much more sumptuous—or purely enjoyable—than this.” SZA is sharing with listeners exactly what it’s like to be a black, creative, 20-something woman from northern New Jersey, said Raisa Bruner in Time.com. “Like all the best artists,” though, “her experience is so specific that it rises to the level of universality.”
4 St. Vincent
“If Masseduction had to be labeled with a genre, it’d be ‘terror pop,’” said Maeve McDermott in USAToday. On the fifth album she’s recorded as St.˛Vincent, 35-year-old Annie Clark executes her artistic mission “with all the warmth and precision of a razor blade,” splicing together fuzzed-out synth riffs, compressed guitar, and icy mezzo-soprano vocals to insist she’s a woman to be feared. The work completes her metamorphosis from indie-pop guitarist to “genre-transcending auteur” and “cements her status as David Bowie’s successor.” Listen closely, though, and Masseduction begins to sound like Clark’s “most naked work yet,” said Jill Krajewski in Vice.com. If she’s a drug-addled, sex-mad monster, it’s because she’s heartbroken—after a gossip-page affair with model Cara Delevingne. Masseduction is cold self-portraiture—“of a woman who fell—no, face-planted—to earth.”
5 Vince Staples
Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples’ second album proved to be “a profoundly unsettling good time,” said Rob Harvilla in TheRinger.com. The 24-year-old rapper’s “deceptively casual” observations “deconstruct everything from rap stardom to the prison-industrial complex” while the music “clatters and lurches and mesmerizes,” grabbing its beats from subgenres of rap and electronica as diverse as trance, house, hyphy, and grime. Over the sonic experimentation, Staples maintains a grim deadpan, said Josh Goller in SlantMagazine.com. But he moves with the shifting soundscape, creating “an album that’s perpetually changing shape—aggressive and urgent one moment, finessed and introspective the next.”
The 19 sources used to establish our music rankings include AVClub.com, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, NYMag.com, TheRinger.com, Rolling Stone, Time, USA Today, Vice.com, and The Washington Post.