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King KrulePhotography Frank Lebon

The 20 best albums of 2017

From King Krule’s hazy return to Fever Ray’s celebration of queer desire, here are the albums that defined the past 12 months

Our favourite albums of the past 12 months vary in both form and content. There’s rap, there’s pop, there’s R&B, there’s club music; there’s stuff that defies categorisation. There’s music that’s defiant. There’s music that’s deeply personal. There’s music that’s strange and innovative and experimental. There’s music that makes a Statement with a capital ‘S’. There's music that’s both utterly serious yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it’s all made by musicians who have a singular outlook and talent, and who are all pushing culture forward in a year that seemed dominated by forces hell-bent on pushing it back. Here are our 20 best albums of 2017.

20. CORBIN – MOURN

When Corbin Smidzik first emerged, aged just 15 years old, as Spooky Black in 2013, his part-ironic, part-earnest take on R&B and rap saw him crowned an American equivalent to Scandinavian rapper Yung Lean. But just as Lean has since evolved from a teenage internet curiosity into an artist creating uniquely icy, emotional music, so too has Corbin come into his own. Debut album Mourn demonstrates the Minnesota artist’s gift for pained songwriting, reimagining the darker end of post-punk through the lens of 80s R&B production (courtesy of longtime collaborators D33J and Shlohmo). It’s relentlessly bleak, with an apocalyptic narrative inspired by the sort of end-of-days mentality occupying large, forgotten swathes of the USA, but Corbin’s guttural screams offer catharsis and, at times, even hope – no matter how distant. (Selim Bulut)

19. WEDNESDAY CAMPANELLA – SUPERMAN

Experimental electronic trio Wednesday Campanella deliver quirky dancefloor euphoria on Superman, an unexpectedly playful collection of dance-pop that toggles between ambient, jazzy vibes, nu-disco grooves, and throbbing, at times sinister deep house beats. While the album stretches across a vast spectrum of electronica, lead singer KOM_I provides the record with its enchanting sonic throughline: her zephyrous, elastic voice. Artfully produced and, at times, delightfully weird, the Japanese group avoids taking itself too seriously with songs titled after mythical, famous and folkloric figures (“Kamehameha the Great”, “Chaplin”) and tracks featuring tongue-in-cheek, nonsensical lyrics (“Ikkyu-san”). Basically, if Alice were going to a nightclub in Wonderland, the DJ would probably spin this record into the wee hours. (Erica Russell)

18. ERRORSMITH – SUPERLATIVE FATIGUE

Erik Wiegand’s roots are in Berlin’s club scene, with a career that dates back to the 1990s – but Superlative Fatigue, the producer’s first album as Errorsmith for 13 years, draws less from the techno associated with local institutions like Berghain and more from vibrant international dance music like UK funky, Jamaican dancehall, and Angolan-Portuguese batida. Wiegand himself is a tech geek – he produced the album using Razor, a software synthesiser that he built himself – but he eschews the chin-stroking tendencies that often come with that territory in favour of something bright, colourful, and most of all fun. In the often dour and self-serious world of techno, Superlative Fatigue felt like a ray of sunshine. (Selim Bulut)

17. KEHLANI – SWEETSEXYSAVAGE

An album we waited increasingly less patiently for last year landed like a Cali summer storm in January 2017. Kehlani pushed through a lot of personal shit and pigeonholing to produce a self-assured stunner with SWEETSEXYSAVAGE. The album title is a reference to TLC’s seminal Crazysexycool, and the record oozes with elements of Aaliyah, Missy, and Brandy. “Undercover” has those bubbly breakdowns, while “Advice” is the vulnerable, twinkling ballad about saving oneself. Nevertheless, Kehlani Parrish is inventive and fresh, crafting bangers that sound somehow then, distinctly now and the exciting next. “Get Like” is smiley, slick and vibey, and “Too Much” encapsulates her infectious fearlessness. (Anna Cafolla)

16. MABEL – IVY TO ROSES

“Finders Keepers” was the spark that set off Mabel’s meteoric rise this year; a slowburner, an undeniable earworm with big syncopated beats, and an angelic voice sweetly setting a relationship’s ground rules: “It don’t need to be no deeper, it’s finders keepers.” Across her mixtape Ivy to Roses, Mabel stingingly sings of her own autonomy, evading painful relationship cycles and telling people to back the hell off when she wants them to. It’s self-assured, and loads of fun. “Ivy” is a powerful, celestial ballad, and “Begging” is a ruthless, danceable demand for the respect she deserves. Thinking back to the sun-dappled “Thinking of You” and stunning “Know Me Better”, Ivy to Roses is where Mabel has blossomed. (Anna Cafolla)

15. LAUREL HALO – DUST

Music critics are big on the idea of ‘deconstructed pop’, but Laurel Halo’s hyperreal oeuvre to date is more like something in the process of becoming than something coming undone, a sui-generis hybrid sound rearing up out of the cosmic slop. Perhaps inspired by her work around humanoid popstar Hatsune Miku, Halo brings her own queasy vocals back to the fore on Dust, her third and most ecstatic album to date. “Moontalk”’s pan-Atlantic pop is as exuberant as it is patently absurd, while “Jelly” finds footwork come under the producer’s uncanny lens – though its lovely, free-range melodies sound more like Arthur Russell than anything else. And the stellar, dubwise “Do U Ever Happen” feels like an old-fashioned ballad trying to get born into another dimension. Thank God Laurel Halo got born into ours. (Alex Denney)

14. J HUS – COMMON SENSE

Big batty gyal, good evening / I can see that your chicken needs seasoning” is the best chat up line of 2017. Taken from J Hus’s “Friendly”, it’s cheeky, it’s a little off colour, and it should disgust you – but it’s funny, much like the rest of Common Sense. “Did You See” is the song you heard while walking down high streets all summer while the lyricism of “Bouf Daddy” shows that he’s aware of his status in the scene. J Hus is able to flip from the old school, G-funk-tinged intro to grizzly vocals over a grime beat before mellowing out to dance inducing African beats and dancehall inspired melodies, creating an album that infuses so many aspects of black British life and cementing himself as a key player in UK music. (Kemi Alemoru)

13. ST. VINCENT – MASSEDUCTION

Beneath the vinyl-slick, candy pop veneer, unzipping go-go boots, and galactic latex bodysuits, Annie Clark contemplates a sense of self, loss and radical life changes on MASSEDUCTION. Her fifth studio album as St. Vincent soars from the surreal to a paint-chipped reality, bunny-hopping from BDSM to tentative courtship. Moments of bombastic ecstasy play out on the unsettlingly cheerful hook of “Pills” and in the wicked, powerful guitar shredding in “Los Ageless”. The funky “Savior” is sexy and sharp in depicting how we change ourselves for lovers, and “New York” captures a haunting vulnerability. “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me,” she affirms. During the album promo run, Clark released a series of satirical Instagram videos with Sleater Kinney and Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein: “Insert light banter here”, read its subtitles, as she was probed awkwardly about performing in heels and other mundane, sexist shit. It asserted St. Vincent’s overarching mission to do things exactly how she wants them. With MASSEDUCTION, it’s a biting record that leaves rings of neon-red lipstick. (Anna Cafolla)

12. SAMPHA – PROCESS

When discussing Sampha, it’s become customary to reel off a rollcall of A-list collaborators – Kanye, Solange, Frank Ocean, Drake – as evidence of his prodigious gifts as a performer and producer. But the beauty of Process, the south London songwriter’s debut nearly a decade in the making, is that it needs no such fanfare. A beautifully crafted meditation on family and grief (Sampha’s beloved mum, Binty, died during its making), the record features precisely zero guest turns, and its centrepiece, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, is a bare-bones ballad featuring Sampha at home with only his memories for company. That song alone was enough to restore your faith in humanity as 2017 hurtled into the abyss, but Sampha sprinkled highlights throughout, from the nerve-jangling “Blood on Me”, which sounded like Seal having a panic attack, to darkly swooning Kanye co-write “Timmy’s Prayer”, all handled with the kind of grace and understatement his name’s become synonymous with. Pop music for introverts, and all the richer for it. (Alex Denney)

11. PERFUME GENIUS – NO SHAPE

Little about the first tentative piano sketches Mike Hadreas released as Perfume Genius foreshadowed the sweeping, baroque grandeur of the artist’s fourth album No Shape. In many ways, 2017 saw Hadreas come into his own. His songs grew lush, populated not just with piano and synths but with strings and distorted guitars. On stage, he eased into a confident strut, performing his new batch of songs with all the gusto they deserve. “Slip Away” and “Just Like Love” sound like a beckoning into a new, sparkling queer paradise, while raw closer “Alan” concludes the album on an exhausted and grateful note. Throughout the album, Hadreas offers the most generous lyrics and vocals he’s ever committed to record, finding a new vein of glee to frost his longstanding emotional quandaries. (Sasha Geffen)

10. RINA SAWAYAMA – RINA

A not-so-“Ordinary Superstar” is born on Rina Sawayama’s glossy debut mini-album, RINA. The Tokyo-born, London-based independent singer-songwriter dips her toes into an eclectic pool of sonic inspiration (think late 90s Utada Hikaru-era R&B, early 00s Britney Spears electro-pop) to craft a collection of euphoric cyber-pop bangers and ballads about cultural identity, digital anxiety, and growing up in a tumultuous post-Y2K world. Songs like “Take Me As I Am” and “10-20-40” go all in on the millennium-era radio bubblegum attitude, while Sawayama bares her insecurities on slower, dreamier jams like album interlude “Through the Wire” and “Tunnel Vision”, a triumphant collaboration with Shamir. At once futuristic-fresh and deeply nostalgic, RINA marks one of the year's most exciting, super-charged pop efforts. (Erica Russell)

09. KING KRULE – THE OOZ

There’s a sense of doubt that hangs over The OOZ, Archy Marshall’s sprawling second album as King Krule. Its 19 songs are slow and meandering, often drifting into one another as if through a haze of smoke. Guitar twangs hang in the air and jazz chords dissolve into nothing, while some songs just stop mid-way through. It’s a languid and listless atmosphere that slowly builds up, occasionally exploding into an outpouring of raw energy (“Dum Surfer”, “Vidual”, “Half Man Half Shark”). But for all the sense of dislocation and paranoia, The OOZ can be darkly funny too. At 23 years old, Marshall is still young, but having been releasing music since he was a teenager his style is by this point totally singular. (Selim Bulut)

08. VINCE STAPLES – BIG FISH THEORY

It feels fitting that Big Fish Theory features a sample from The Temptations’ devastating “I Wish It Would Rain”. Typically subversive, Vince Staples never did give the specific meaning of his second album’s title, but the water imagery throughout is symbolic of so much: melancholy, cleansing, renewal, catharsis – in Trump’s first year, these felt especially necessary. While much attention is devoted to the album’s banging production (rightly so, given Flume, SOPHIE, GTA and more bringing an exquisite metallic vibe that channels UK garage and experimental electro), the North Long Beach rapper's bars are just as sublime. Staples’ artistry has long embraced defying expectations (anyone down for a refreshing Sprite?), but this album is not about trolling: instead, he tackles the introspective – fame, memory, women – along with the wider world of politics and blackness. Angry, thoughtful, powerful, and vital, at just 36 minutes this is a cogent and captivating achievement. (Tara Joshi)

07. BJÖRK – UTOPIA

After the saddest album of her career, Björk rebounded. Rather than continue swimming through the heartbreak that drenched 2015’s Vulnicura, she instead sought out new life from the ruins of her relationship with her longtime partner and the father of her child. Utopia teems with life, from the bird calls that punctuate its compositions to the flutes that mimic them to Björk’s indestructibly expressive voice. Joined again by producer Arca, who worked on Vulnicura, Björk pens a tribute to the absolute joy in life and the way it can take new shapes after being seemingly obliterated by heartbreak. There’s love in these wounds; the way Björk giggles while singing about “weaving a mixtape” for a new lover tells you all you need to know about where she’s found herself and how she’s planning to carry herself into the future, for which she has tremendous hope despite everything haunting the world as it is. (Sasha Geffen)

06. KELELA – TAKE ME APART

Like its title suggests, Take Me Apart is the kind of body of work that begs for deconstruction. Lush, hypnotic, and chilling (yet never cold), Kelela's debut studio album is an exploration of relational intimacy vis-à-vis introspection, set over a warm, textural future-R&B soundscape that oozes like honey. Her sticky-sweet soprano pools within every crevice of production as Kelela chronicles the death of one relationship, the birth of another and everything in between; a relatable emotional arc that plays out across 14 tracks addressing sex (“Blue Light”), communication (“LMK”) and conflict (“Onanon”). “It’s not a breakup, it’s just a breakdown / We’re spinning around,” she laments on the latter song, dizzy from the back-and-forth. Despite her uncertainty and mixed feelings, Kelela’s lyrical narrative never comes off as powerless: Take Me Apart is, at its core, the story of a woman in control of her own bliss. (Erica Russell)

05. FEVER RAY – PLUNGE

Karin Dreijer’s second Fever Ray album feels more visceral and more vibrant than its predecessor. While there’s still the synth pop, uncanny electronic atmospheres, and vocal perversions of her self-titled 2009 debut, Plunge is driven by an erotic energy that’s hard to shake. “IDK About You” runs on a rhythm that feels positively primal, while “This Country”, with its bellowed line “This country makes it hard to fuck!”, is overt in a way that Dreijer hasn’t really been before. As one half of The Knife, Dreijer has previously attacked corrupt politicians and brought radical feminist ideas to her music, but it was often far more cerebral in execution. Plunge, on the other hand, feels as if it’s entirely for the body. (Selim Bulut)

04. LORDE – MELODRAMA

A fan recently put a vinyl copy of Melodrama up in the Louvre – because pop at its best is fucking art. Melodrama is wild and fluorescent, drawing comparisons to Edward Hopper paintings in its stunning depiction of loneliness and personal conflict. Across the record, Lorde details her own heartache and a euphoric journey to mastering her power, crafted into a technicolor production with contributions from Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff. “Perfect Places” and “Green Light” reach dizzying, gloriously youthful heights, and “Supercut” captures a cinematic nostalgia trip with driving, neon 80s rhythms. Darker, bittersweet moments like “The Louvre” and “Writer in the Dark” showcase masterful songwriting and a stunning way of contextualising complex emotions that is very distinctly Lorde. (Anna Cafolla)

03. TYLER, THE CREATOR – FLOWER BOY

Flower Boy is Tyler, the Creator’s fourth album and his best by some distance, a body of work that showcases all of his influences without being erratic, a record that oozes sincerity and warmth without ever threatening to becoming boring. For many musicians, it feels like they maybe did spend 2016 realising things as the prophets said we would, because 2017 has seen a wide variety of artists appear to confront inner truths. Flower Boy positions Tyler as an artist who has as much in common with Brian Wilson as he does Kanye West. “Boredom”, the track featuring Rex Orange County, is a beautiful Beach Boys-esque ballad, quickly followed by “I Ain’t Got Time”, a rap club banger. The skill of this record is that the leap between styles feel completely natural – a coherent summation of what’s in his head, a captivating welcome into his world and his outlook on it. He’s fun, sad, confused, fearless and flawed – like all your favourite friends. (Thomas Gorton)

02. SZA – CTRL

In a year that started out with the Women’s March and ended in an exhausting flurry of post-Weinstein #MeToo discussion, female strength and candour have necessarily been on the agenda – and it’s what made the dreamy debut from Solána Rowe feel especially timely and important. Her spacious slow-jams and sweet vocals are magnificent, but it’s her raw honesty that is particularly striking, whether she’s being someone’s weekend side-girl, worrying about not being “normal”, or very sincerely looking for love and romance. In a world that continues to police female bodies, SZA was out here worrying in such relatable terms about hers; but at the same time, she embraces herself, wryly singing about how dick is disposable while talking up the power of pussy. This is an empowering, comforting listen that speaks beautifully to modern truths of anxiety, loneliness, self-image – truths that are ultimately, gloriously met with not giving a fuck. (Tara Joshi)

01. ARCA – ARCA

“This whole process feels destructive. I’m an all-or-nothing person. I wanted to rip myself open just as an experiment, and if I didn’t like it then I would never do it again. I’m still there, I still don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, it might not interest me. Until I wedge some dynamite in my ribs and let that explode, I can’t really regrow.”

These are the words of Arca, speaking to Dazed in 2014, discussing the necessary steps he knew he needed to take in order to evolve. Three years later and he’s expanded beyond expectation with the release of Arca. The self-titled album sees him rip himself open with the revelation of his beautiful singing voice, with lyrics delivered in Spanish over his heavenly but hostile production. Arca marked a decisive move from soundscaper to siren, a record of explosive intimacy that feels like a significant moment in his transformation – a journey that has not felt like a series of rebirths or regenerations, but bursts of eruptive blossoms.

Beyond the record, Arca has elevated his vision with a new approach to performance, fearlessly treating the stage as his catwalk, where he contorts and struts in stilettos backed by Jesse Kanda’s beautiful, brutal visuals. Arca’s first live shows nervously poked at the idea of being a performer – now it radiates off him, in every facet of his work.

A lot of conversation around Arca this year has – with justice – focused on his collaboration with Björk and their work on Utopia, but 2017 has been a time where he has truly announced himself. The fact that Arca is self-titled, rather than using its original title Reverie, feels significant. It’s an album about chaos, love, and longing, a collection of songs that both represent the time we live in and act as an antidote to it. It’s been so rewarding to watch Arca flourish, to watch him become. This is our album of 2017. (Thomas Gorton)

Listen to a playlist of our top 20 albums on Spotify and Apple Music

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