Behold, North America’s least pretentious best albums list of 2017, chosen by Amplify’s Dave Brooks. In a year of rage and blistering bitterness, it’s no surprise that a big part of our 2017 picks have a decidedly pissed-off bent. Anger is an underlying current that seems to run through much of the media and political dialogue right now, and while it’s not a surprise that some artists are tapping into this powerful emotion, there are still plenty who treat their art as a means of escapism.
This year’s best albums picks — our fourth in a row (here is 2014, 2015 and 2016) — celebrate both the conscious and the distracted, the angry and joyous, the content and uncomfortable. This year’s picks have been shrunk to just ten albums, representing the music that was on heavy rotation here at Amplify Global HQ.
Disagree or think we missed something? Email [email protected] and share your thoughts.
10. Grace VanderWaal, Just the Beginning
I first saw Grace VanderWaal perform at this year’s Billboard Women in Music event in Los Angeles and I was blown away by this 13-year-old’s incredible talent and poise. Introduced to the world by winning Season 11 of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, VanderWaal is a singer-songwriter from Suffern, New York known for her wispy vocals and gentle ukulele-playing. Simon Cowell believes this fierce teen, who writes her own material, is the next Taylor Swift. This 12-song, debut full-length disc is a collection of songs that superbly displays all of her quirky, imperfectly joyful talents. While the album is certainly geared toward teens and a younger audience, VanderWaal’s raspy vocals are a delightful surprise for anyone who loves empowering lyrics and catchy sing-a-longs.
9. Margo Price, All American Made
This country singer brings a life of pain, hardship and addiction to her second album, which has drawn comparisons to female outlaw country legends like Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, and Loretta Lynn. As the story goes, Price began working on All American Made the day after the 2016 election, sampling classic American sounds like R&B, gospel and soul, and stirring them in with her tender-hearted twang. While Price is often celebrated for her earnest songwriting, it’s her provocative tracks that add a sense of urgency to her music. The album’s title track — the 12th and final song on the album — mulls over the threat of nuclear war while past presidential speeches crackle in the distance. Her message — we may live in frightening times now, but we’ve been through this before, and we’ve survived and gotten stronger. Everything should work out ok — we hope.
8. Miguel, War & Leisure
Leave it to Miguel to release the only political album of 2017 that’s also a freaky-deaky tribute to the bump and grind. War & Leisure is a record that could be played at a political rally or romantic rendezvous. Like his previous album Wildheart, War & Leisure is a sensual mix of hip-hop and neo-soul, with plenty of innuendo and sexual mysticism laid out over a purveying sense of psychedelia that is very easy on the ears. It’s also an album that shows impressive growth for the San Pedro, California, singer who finds a political voice on songs like “Now” which takes aim at America’s crackdown on migrant families and the criminalization of America’s undocumented workers. Songs like “Banana Clip” combine political and sexual anxiety into a 1970s-style soul jam, while “Sky Walkers” celebrates the things that help Miguel live his best life — surfing, weed and being surrounded by a beautiful (and profoundly diverse) collection of bodacious babes. War & Leisure is an album that captures the ethos of our era, combining fear, anger and injustice with a not-so-subtle reminder that we’re all still human beings and in order to keep our sanity, we still need to get freaky on the regular.
7. Turnpike Troubadours, A Long Way From Your Heart
I am always scratching my head wondering what it will take for Turnpike Troubadours to have their breakout moment. Sure, I appreciate the political leanings of guys like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, but I realize their left-leaning views aren’t for everyone. On their latest album A Long Way From Your Heart, Turnpike Troubadours avoid political discourse with a collection of incredible songs that celebrate the Texas and Oklahoma rural lifestyle, using immersive story-telling to tap into feelings of loneliness, family, friendship and most often despair. The first track, “The Housefire” is a sad homage to man who watched the house he built burn down in front of him, while the track “Tornado Warning” is a funny tune about luring a love interest to move away from the city, only to find oneself in the path of a deadly twister. Turnpike Troubadours consistently write authentic, multi-layered country songs that provide the blue state elites with a familiar and relatable look into the lives of our red state contemporaries. It’s music that celebrates understanding one another and finding similarities in our stories.
6. Taylor Swift, Reputation
There is no better pop songwriter than the anointed queen of 2017 Taylor Swift, and her latest album Reputation does not disappoint, with a strong starting line of club bangers and dance hits that are fun, catchy and infectious. Yes, I’m a bit uncouth about Ms. Swift’s inability to get past her petty indifferences and, personally, I think it’s time to, I don’t know, maybe get over it, but it’s clear that conflict drives this young starlet and as she explains on the album’s second track, “I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me.” Hmmmmmm. Not sure about that Tay Tay, but after selling 2 million albums through traditional retail this year (without streaming or bundling), Taylor is still number one in the pop game.
5. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
What’s lost in the many positive reviews of Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 opus is an acknowledgment of the eeriness that permeates much of DAMN. The album can speed up and slow down on an instant, taking listeners from a blasting rap beat to a quiet, slowly moving mumble over a stripped down drum beat and melody. DAMN. doesn’t spend as much as time as Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly trying to push hip-hop forward, but instead takes a seemingly classicist route to rap music. With his dazzling display of showy rhyme skills, consciousness-raising political screeds, self-examination and bass-crazy-kicking, Kendrick displays his many talents. He explores the idea of being a rapper with both fast and furious rhymes on songs like “DNA,” “Element,” “Feel,” “Humble” and “XXX” while tangling listeners into a complex web of self-reflection that leaves them with more questions than answers. In a year where thoughtless opium anthems like Post Malone’s “Rockstar” dominate the streaming charts, DAMN. is a reminder of the power and depth still percolating in rap music.
4. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
Oh Josh Homme, how you piss me off in this moment of consequential self-importance. The Queens of Stone Age’s new album Villains is an incredibly powerful undercurrent of creepy sexualization, cultish devotion and necessary ultra-violence, all beautifully produced by Mark Ronson in nine wonderfully connected tracks that celebrate our darker inner demons with the absolute BEST guitar riffs of 2017. So WHY THE FUCK did you screw it up by kicking that photographer in the head at KROQ’s Almost Acoustic Christmas? I. Just. Can’t. Right Now. This album is everything QOTSA — hate sex, vanity and slow, painfully excruciating collective misery brought on by two decades of don’t-give-a-fiuck shit-grinning — all things I love and now have lost after Homme’s dumb, drunken psycho rampage. To think what could have been Josh. So close. Yet so far.
3. SZA, Ctrl
On her debut album, SZA wins by not being afraid to doubt herself in half-insecure, half-cocky songs like “Drew Barrymore” and “Supermodel.” A musical and lyrical omnivore with the complexity to match her candor, SZA rises in the male-dominated world of hip-hop through honesty and self-reflection while avoiding the boisterous claims that make the genre a bit tired. With Ctrl, SZA proves that the cult following that ballooned with the release of her 2014 mixtape, Z, was not some flash in the pan, but a deserved offering of admiration from her growing fan base and dedicated followers.
2. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Nashville Sound
Once you’re in a legendary band like Drive-By Truckers, it’s hard to establish a career with a backing band that can live up to fan standards, but amazingly Jason Isbell gets pretty close on to his new album Nashville Sound with his backing house band The 400 unit. Isbell is an incredibly gifted songwriter and much of the strength of his album comes from his power story-telling, often that of a white man who has pride in his Southern heritage while also feeling compelled to apologize for it’s painful legacy. Isbell’s best songs are those of his suffering and that ability shines on songs like “Anxiety” and “Tupelo,” a beautiful dystopia of pain, regret and sobriety performed with his incredible wife Amanda Shires. Isbell is not the best known musician on this list, but for those who know music and appreciate solid songwriting chops, few have the credibility or intellect of Isbell.
1. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3
Killer Mike and El-P’s surprise third album dropped just days before Trump’s inauguration and its anger-turned-consciousness tone, coupled with rapid-fire lyrical assassinations and unrelenting beat structure make this album essential listening material for the bubbling resistance movement. While both Killer Mike and El-P can weave strong rhetorical structures with unrelenting songwriting shops and clever double, triple and sometimes quadruple entendres, it’s the bands ability to strip down hip-hop back to its most basic art form that has won back fans looking for a return to brutally honest and filthly-indulgent rap music. And the timing could not be better — Killer Mike and El-P, 2020 baby!