Best Music 2017. From debuts, SZA to long-awaited follow-ups, Lorde, and “OG’s” reclaiming the throne, Jay-Z; this year’s critically acclaimed music was also tremendously commercially successful. Expand your music appreciation by listening to albums outside of your traditional genre(s). Any of these spectacular selections will have you too singing praise!
4:44 might be Jay-Z’s 13th solo full length, but in many ways, it is an album of firsts: It’s the first time he cut a whole album with a single producer — respect soulful sample wizardry from Chicago’s No ID — and, at lean 10 songs across 36 minutes, it’s the shortest entry in a catalog packed with hour-long opuses. More importantly, 4:44 is the first close look at the inner workings of Jay’s famously secretive marriage to Beyoncé, from their clandestine courtship to his infidelity to her hard-won forgiveness, and a rare admission of frailty and imperfection from a hustler rap superpower.
DAMN. is, in short, the struggle of a man of faith to understand why tragedy and misfortune still happen to good people. The genius of Kendrick Lamar is his ability to frame questions of faith inside music that seems built just to rattle big speakers. A smart rapper knows his audience. There are people who will jam out to the beats and flows and never question the words. There are philosophers who will comb the lyrics and suss out the biblical references. DAMN. is striking both as big-ticket rap music and as a theological crisis, the kind of record that grabs you at ground level and keeps revealing layers every time you come back.
Melodrama captures the gale-force emotion of being in love with someone you’re cosmically not meant to end up with, the struggle to tell the body that it should not want what it wants. Lorde writes songs about remembering bygone moments, but they’re deeper than the dull, nostalgic missives of acts like the Chainsmokers. She is revisiting experiences she never intends to experience again, documenting places where she, or a lover, behaved in a way neither should have allowed. She is bettering herself. The beats bang, but the ballads prove it’s the feelings underneath that are really moving us.
SZA makes it plain she’s not one to toy with less than a minute into “Supermodel,” the first song on her major-label debut. “Let me tell you a secret,” she billows over a gently strummed guitar, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy. Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day?” From there, she cycles through a full deck of relationship woes: feeling undervalued, feeling insecure, feeling like having a romp with someone who’s already taken. The music sprawls out from gauzy R&B into strains of trap and folk, guided throughout by SZA’s syrupy vocals and painstaking, self-effacing search for companionship.
The xx is a band of contrasts, from the stark black and white of their debut album cover, to the interplay between Oliver Sims’s and Romy Madley Croft’s moody, murmured vocals, to the trio’s proclivities for both sweeping guitar rock and sultry dance grooves. That said, I See You is The xx’s most seamless blend of the elements that make them what they are—a band destined to leave an unmistakable imprint on the indie-pop landscape. Ace beatmaker Jamie xx, launched into well-deserved solo stardom by his own In Colour, creates gorgeous atmospheric textures that elevate Sims and Croft without overwhelming them. The result is a deep and enchanting album that is just as likely to soundtrack a party as it is a daydream.
Part grime-experiment, part-trop house rendezvous, Drake explored a “playlist” with his expansive, blissfully voyeuristic More Life. On this 22-song project, we see many of Drake’s sides: the piña colada-sipping partier shines on “Passionfruit,” the nostalgic heartbreak kid emerges on “Teenage Fever” and the boastful jetsetter traps on “Gyalchester.” A variety of friends – old and new, local and global – shine with solo interludes and features, including Giggs, Skepta, Young Thug, Partynextdoor, Sampha, Jorja Smith, and even Kanye West, who made one of his very few musical appearances on the sweet, simple standout “Glow.”