The War On Drugs (Photo: Shawn Brackbill), Kendrick Lamar (Photo: DAMN album art), and St. Vincent (Photo: Nedda Afsari). Graphic: Libby McGuire.

There was too much to listen to in 2017—not just albums, of which there were once again thousands, a barrage of releases from major-label veterans and SoundCloud up-and-comers alike, all vying for your attention. There was just too much of everything: a persistent, buzzing storm of push notifications and free-floating panic that often made it difficult for any signals to break through the noise, or to retain whatever fleeting pleasures they yielded. It’s a year that’s often felt like 10, and you’d be forgiven for struggling to remember what, exactly, happened last week, let alone in the last 12 months.

But the upside to chaos is that it’s equal opportunity. In a year that could have seen JAY-Z, U2, and Taylor Swift running the town in their UPS-branded trucks, or been overshadowed by prematurely nostalgic reveries from so many mid-’00s indie-rockers returning at once, most of the music The A.V. Club spent the past 12 months being excited about hailed from newer artists. And as befitting 2017, we couldn’t really agree on anything: The individual ballots submitted by our regular music reviewers were all strikingly different, representing a wide array of genre-spanning favorites and tastes. From there we assembled a final list based on total number of votes and album rankings, but even it—much like our mid-summer Best Albums Of 2o17 So Far list—is just a small sampling of all the great music that came out this year. Consider this a starting place on where to catch up, whenever you get a moment. And if you’re looking for even more recommendations, check back next week for our list of best albums that didn’t make the top 20.


20. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream

James Murphy rebooting his sardonic dance-rock band out of retirement jilted a lot of his most passionate fans, and as a result, American Dream feels unusually weighted with agonizing over that decision—in addition to Murphy’s usual fixation on what is and isn’t cool. (It’s an LCD Soundsystem record, after all.) Fortunately, no one does disco neurosis like Murphy, and there remains plenty of jaded joy to be found in the paranoid, psychiatrist’s couch grooves of “Other Voices,” “Change Yr Mind,” and “Emotional Haircut,” regardless of how invested you are in that narrative. Meanwhile, Murphy’s most intensely personal songs to date—the scorching, Tim Goldsworthy kiss-off “How Do You Sleep?” and the haunting Bowie eulogy “Black Screen”—burn with unusually candid intensity from a guy who normally prefers smirking, ironic detachment. All told, it’s a slow burn of an album that spins uncertainly around an unexpected new beginning for a guy who started his career already mourning its end. And it marks a welcome return—for however long it lasts. [Sean O’Neal]

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19. Iron Chic, You Can’t Stay Here

How anthemic can bleakness be, really? Turns out pretty anthemic. Iron Chic’s third album shapes personal issues and tragedy into punk-rock catharsis, carried by huge-sounding guitars and hooky melodies. Alternately resigned and defiant, You Can’t Stay Here recalls the best of Iron Chic’s melodic-punk forebears—Samiam is the most obvious comparison—but lacks a trace of nostalgia. This is the sound of a band powering through an extremely difficult time the only way it knows how, and that genuineness makes You Can’t Stay Here hit harder—and its cathartic moments more powerful. That makes for some odd sing-alongs, though, like on “Invisible Ink”: “We heard that life / Had something in store / But it’s coming up short / And we’re begging for more / Death’s sweet kiss / Was a bullet that missed us.” Iron Chic has emerged from its toughest time as a band with a defining artistic statement. [Kyle Ryan]

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18. The Horrors, V

With their fifth album, The Horrors delivered their best batch of songs to date, a further refinement of the formula—Simple Minds-esque new wave meets baggy Madchester meets shoegaze psychedelia—that the British group has been perfecting ever since 2011’s Skying officially shrugged off the group’s gothic, shriek-punk origins. These songs are also their biggest: There isn’t a moment on V that doesn’t sound tailored for arena stages (where the group’s lately been playing with Depeche Mode, an obvious influence on roiling industrial cuts like “Machine”), yet minus the pomposity that so many groups tend to affect at that level. It’s a perfect distillation of The Horrors’ slow and deliberate evolution over the years. It will be hard to top. [Sean O’Neal]

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17. Lorde, Melodrama

Lorde’s smoky contralto has always befit an aging chanteuse rather than the young woman behind the microphone. But on the brilliantly bittersweet Melodrama, it’s not just how the Kiwi star is singing, but what she’s singing about that projects a wisdom beyond her years. Lead single “Green Light” sits at the intersection of sad and stirring, an empowerment anthem about the inability to move on; it may be the most exuberant pop smash about a doomed relationship since “Hey Ya.” On wrenching ballads like “Liability,” Lorde wraps her big feelings about romance gone south in earworm hooks, delivered with minimalist production and offset by her own offbeat enunciation. Coming from the youngest old soul in pop, Melodrama is a triumph of contradiction: a dance-hall blockbuster that’s also an intimate breakup record, locating heartache and harsh truths in the reflective surface of the disco ball. [A.A. Dowd]

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16. Charly Bliss, Guppy

As a record, Guppy is superlative. As a debut, the first full-length from New York pop-rockers Charly Bliss, it sounds positively transcendent, marrying those tried-and-true, yet still difficult-to-wrangle adolescent emotions to fuzzed-out guitar riffs and sing-along melodies in a way that feels immediate and vital. Starting with a cooing “Come on baby, get me high / There’s always something new to buy,” singer Eva Hendricks calls out the readymade, disposable nature of this kind of music, yet she and her band imbue it with enough passion and artful songcraft to make it exhilarating all over again. There were more artistically ambitious records released in 2017, but almost none that are this much fun. [Alex McLevy]

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15. Björk, Utopia

With its radical idealism and unapologetic feminine energy, Utopia arrived in November as a much-needed detox from 2017’s political acrimony and endless sexual assault revelations. Björk and Venezuelan producer Arca answer the stark sadness of 2015’s Vulnicura with a verdant, future-baroque world of lilting flute melodies, exotic birdsong, and deconstructed EDM rhythms. It’s the rare album whose music matches the grand aspirations of its lyrics, with Björk venturing ever further off path into unconventional song structures and sonic experiments as she sings about trusting ourselves (and one another), breaking from our loops, and fighting for optimism in dark times, all unified by the animating force of love. While the Icelandic art-pop icon’s influence reverberates through some of this year’s foremost pop records—by Sampha, Kelela, and Arca himself, to name a few—Utopia reminds us that Björk, forever hungry to challenge what pop music can be, still has no equal. [Kelsey J. Waite]

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14. The National, Sleep Well Beast

The National has been slowly, sometimes imperceptibly fine-tuning its sound over the course of seven albums. A common jab is that all of the band’s records sound the same (or, worse yet, that they’re boring). Sleep Well Beast, on first listen, won’t change that, but first listens are never where The National’s albums do their strongest work. An hour-long odyssey into the darkness of our times, both political and personal, Sleep Well Beast is quietly, gorgeously insinuating, from the Leonard Cohen-esque “Nobody Else Will Be There” to the electronic thrum that drives the incredible title track. It’s music that, as usual, demands and rewards close attention. It’s well worth that effort. [Josh Modell]

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13. Bell Witch, Mirror Reaper

Any funeral doom band worth its mettle knows a thing or two about death, but few experience it on as personal a level as Bell Witch. The loss of ex-drummer and vocalist Adrian Guerra—who died in his sleep after leaving the Seattle two-piece in 2016—looms large over Mirror Reaper, both spiritually and audibly, as bassist-vocalist Dylan Desmond and new recruit Jesse Shreibman use some of Guerra’s discarded vocal tracks from 2015’s Four Phantoms sessions to create its most ambitious music to date. With lyrics exploring the space between life and death, the single, 83-minute-long song serves as a stand-in for the grieving process: It’s linear but with no definite end, often becoming so quiet it’s like it’s faded into the ether, only to have a crushing riff snap listeners back into reality. Like grief, it’s difficult and all-consuming, yet it finds transcendence by working through it all out of sheer necessity. [David Anthony]

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12. Sampha, Process

Sampha’s vocal bona fides were cemented ages ago on his many collaborations with artists like Jessie Ware, SBTRKT, and Drake, but his long-in-the-works solo debut finally gave this British singer-songwriter the space and material to show off just how special he is. Written and recorded while his mother battled cancer, Process is cocooned in the cold isolation of mourning and self-doubt reflected in its echoing, electronic compositions. But Sampha’s brilliantly emotive voice cuts through that detachment like rays of hopeful light pouring into his cloudy soundscapes. This is the sound of someone struggling, and often succeeding, to shrug off grief. And as heard on emotional single “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano,” it’s a moment of deep personal strife turned into an opportunity for intimate self-realization. It’s a stunningly personal and singular record. [Matt Gerardi]

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11. Pile, A Hairshirt Of Purpose

Pile is a rock band, but it plays its songs—even the most beautiful, heartbreaking ones—as if they were horror films, packed with jump-scares and cliffhangers. Songs swell, building to all-consuming washes, or running right up to the edge of a cliff to dangle there precariously. That type of uneasy adventurousness has always been part of Pile’s makeup, but A Hairshirt Of Purpose streamlines it, offering the most nuanced record of the band’s career while still working in moments of explosive, fiery rage. Tracks like “Fingers” or “Rope’s Length” may be built on simple chord progressions, but they’re manipulated in ways that feel excitingly alien, subverting post-hardcore’s standard loud-to-quiet tonal shifts. Hairshirt is both lovely and ugly, even when—especially when—it doesn’t make a lick of sense. [David Anthony]

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10. Waxahatchee, Out In The Storm

After the release of 2015’s excellent Ivy Tripp, Katie Crutchfield, a.k.a. Waxahatchee, suggested her next album would revisit the quiet minimalism of her debut, American Weekend. What she produced instead was her loudest, angriest, and—most importantly—best album to date. Out In The Storm is a scathingly candid post-mortem of a bad relationship that isn’t the slog such a description might suggest. The album opens with the catchy, Superchunk-esque guitar rocker “Never Been Wrong” and keeps its hooks in for the nine following tracks. (Credit producer John Agnello for some of that, as his discography goes deep with some of the best guitar-rock bands of the past two decades.) This being Waxahatchee, Out In The Storm still offers plenty of quieter moments, like the slow burn of “Recite Remorse,” the acoustic “A Little More,” and somber album closer “Fade.” The album marks a high point for Crutchfield, who turned a soul-destroying time of her life into one of 2017’s best releases. [Kyle Ryan]

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9. Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples’ second full-length manages the impossible feat of feeling both powerfully relevant and about a decade ahead of its time. The avant Big Fish Theory is a frighteningly fleet 36 minutes of house- and Detroit techno-inspired rhythms, custom-built around the Long Beach rapper’s newly streamlined rhymes. It’s a bold departure from his excellent debut, Summertime ’06, yet he moves through its sleek, perpetually dusky skyline as if he’s lived there forever—as if we’ve ever heard anything like this before. His reflections on love, race, celebrity, and hip-hop culture live primarily on the dark side of that mirror, making Big Fish at times feel like a spiritual companion to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN (not incidentally, Lamar drops the only guest rap verse). And like that record, it can’t help but bang as hard as its toughest questions do, entrancing listeners with its club beats while at the same time asking, “How am I supposed to have a good time when death and destruction’s all I see?” [Kelsey J. Waite]

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8. Julien Baker, Turn Out The Lights

Julien Baker expands her palette of personal anguish on her second album, fleshing out the sounds but still rending her emotions in search of truth, or a great song, or maybe just some kind of release. New instrumental layers and the occasional glimmer of hope make Turn Out The Lights a slightly gentler listen than 2015’s fantastic Sprained Ankle, but at its bruised heart, it’s just as harrowing and beautiful in equal measure. The one-two punch of “Appointments” and the title track are so towering and resonant that they’re almost unfair to the rest of the album, but eventually a balance reveals itself: It’s even better than its predecessor at offering some respite before walking toward the edge again. Plenty has been made of Baker’s age—she’s 22—but what better time of life is there to access your own emotional fragility and lay it bare to the world? [Josh Modell]

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7. Fever Ray, Plunge

Eight years have passed since Fever Ray entered cryogenic sleep, and Plunge’s deliriously bright first single, “To The Moon And Back,” marked both a welcome return and a breath of fresh air for Karin Dreijer’s haunting synth-pop project. The album as a whole turned out to hold much darker, more intense pleasures, not unlike 2013’s Shaking The Habitual, the last album Dreijer released with brother Olof as The Knife. But Plunge anchors its relentless provocations in the most relatable of matters: desire, particularly the forbidden kind. The record’s danceable mania and confrontational spirit, summed up in the line “One hand in yours and one hand in a tight fist” (“A Part Of Us”), make it one of 2017’s most brazen, guaranteed to leave your heart racing and your lip bleeding. [Kelsey J. Waite]

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6. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural 

The title of Priests’ debut could double as an official slogan for the anxieties of 2017. The songs back it up, with lyrics that carry on the band’s smart, blunt attacks on consumerism and systemic oppression. But the sound is more difficult to pin down, morphing from song to song as it slides in and out of elements of post-punk, new wave, no wave, jazz, surf rock, and everything in between. The constant upheaval—fueled by Katie Alice Greer’s instant shifts between snarling and sweetness and G.L. Jaguar’s spiraling guitars—is the sonic equivalent of how it feels to be living in America right now, or as Priests would argue, at any time in recent memory: a mélange of anger, disbelief, alienation, and uncertainty. Nothing Feels Natural is a dazzling document of that emotional state. [Matt Gerardi]

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5. SZA, CTRL

One of the best things to happen in music in the past decade has been R&B’s grand sonic flowering, taking the futurism of Aaliyah and the musicality of D’Angelo as the groundwork for a whole galaxy of new musical ideas. And while SZA’s fraught and much-delayed debut CTRL evokes the ambient moodiness of early Drake, the synth-pop of True-era Solange, and the rangy pop instincts of Frank Ocean, it ultimately sounds like an album only she could have made. After hiding behind gauzy curtains of synthesizers on a string of mixtapes and EPs, she reveals herself here as a writer of disarming honesty and clarity, as comfortable shouting out Narcos, mom jeans, and Mad TV as she is detailing the messy politics of no-strings-attached hookups. Just as instinctive and memorable are her melodies, which evade the easy firepower of vocal acrobatics in favor of an endless string of sticky hooks, delivered with a low-key cool that connects her to her TDE label mates. Pop music doesn’t get much more sumptuous—or purely enjoyable—than this. [Clayton Purdom]

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4. Sylvan Esso, What Now

“I was gonna write a song for you,” Amelia Randall Meath announces in “Sound,” the spare opening to Sylvan Esso’s sophomore album. She does more than just that: What Now is a statement of purpose, a pop album that travels through all the emotions on the spectrum and delivers them in a package of hummable and (mostly) danceable anthems. There’s “Die Young,” the fierce love song that ebbs and flows like a river; the wry satire of “Radio,” a critique of contemporary pop that’s also a perfect distillation of it; the equally meta “Song,” which boasts one of the catchiest refrains of the year (“I’m the song that you can’t get out of your head”). Those three songs alone would make a brilliant EP, but here they’re just part of an elegantly constructed, masterful pop album, one that will be difficult to improve upon. “What now?” indeed. [Alex McLevy]

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3. The War On Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

Everything got bigger for The War On Drugs in 2017. If ever the “indie-rock” label fit these Philly daydreamers (their reverb-drenched anthems are as much ’70s FM as college radio), they’ve shed the qualifier to become one of America’s leading rock acts, period. It wasn’t just their fan base that grew this year: A Deeper Understanding feels built for big crowds, from the dreamy, 11-minute sprawl of “Thinking Of A Place” to genuine song-of-the-year candidate “Strangest Thing,” which builds and builds to multiple crescendos, slathering some stadium-sized riffs over its infectious hook, soaring synths, and frontman Adam Granduciel’s mythically romantic musings. The standouts would conquer the charts in a more guitar-dominated era, but as with any other Drugs release, the pleasures here are cumulative—this is a richly enveloping listen, front to melancholy back. As for the bugaboo of influence: A Deeper Understanding doesn’t dispel the Dylan and Springsteen comparisons The War On Drugs has been provoking since back when Kurt Vile was still with the band. In its open-hearted grandeur, it earns them. [A.A. Dowd]

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2. St. Vincent, Masseduction

Annie Clark’s fifth album as St. Vincent describes a descent into a hedonistic hellscape—one that’s fun until it isn’t. With producer Jack Antonoff, Clark crafts a futuristic pastiche of pop, rock, and electro, highlighted by the frantic robo-pop fantasy “Pills” and the grinding electro-industrial dance anthem “Sugarboy.” Lyrically, Masseduction is consumed by emotional and physical spirals and a loss of control: “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” Clark sings throughout the title track, before inverting the sentiment: “I hold you like a weapon / Mass destruction / I don’t turn off what turns me on.” The idea of recklessly giving into desire exemplifies Masseduction’s overarching theme: making bad decisions in the pursuit of decadence. Clark doesn’t cast judgment or aspersions on these actions, as the consequences of these moves aren’t always clear or negative; for example, the protagonist of “Slow Disco” is torn about whether cutting off a toxic relationship early is better than waiting it out. More than any album this year, Masseduction captures the agony and ecstasy of escapism as a coping mechanism—and how fluid the line between pleasure and pain really is. [Annie Zaleski]

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1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN

Those terse titles, the lo-fi leer of the cover, the jettisoning of astro-jazz in favor of lean, trunk-rattling beats: This is the epitome of a back-to-basics record—except, of course, that it isn’t. On his fourth proper album, Kung-Fu Kenny strips everything away, moving from the front lawn of the White House to the people and places around him. But even then, the antisocial extrovert can’t stay narrow. On “Feel,” a laundry list of petty midnight grievances runs over the margins, encompassing the emptiness of rap culture, the media, and the feel of living through a slow-burn apocalypse; “Lust” turns a moment of boiling sexual tension into a dream of a post-religious utopia, an orgasmic hallelujah Kendrick feels for all of us. What’s in Kendrick’s DNA is this very American multitude, this exact unwillingness to extricate his own needs and lusts and fears from the larger fabric of American culture. It’s a heart that beats out of its chest with compassion, rendered into rhymes and blasted out over Compton thump, Atlien funk, and New York boom-bap, one nation unified under his talent. No rapper of Kendrick’s stature has ever taken the responsibility so seriously, attempting to wrangle the messy threads of history, ambition, religion, hip-hop, and American political thought into emotional order. DAMN is a singular document of this self-consciousness, his most personal album and also his most universal. [Clayton Purdom]

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