December 22, 2017 | by NO RECESS! Staff
As the NO RECESS! staff honed in on our favorite albums of 2017, one thing was clear — the only thing that’s truly made any sense at all this year was music. Even though every day has felt like an endless, lifeforce-draining slog through a desolate political wasteland, new releases brought fresh insight, creative companionship, certainly much-needed fun, and for sure some all-out fury completely necessary to push us all through this cruel, odious chasm.
So, without further ado, here is our list of the best 50 albums, where you can find your fight again with Hurray for the Riff Raff, get whisky drunk with Sarah Shook, witness a ridiculously cool evolution of metal all over the place, dive deep into hip-hop and R&B’s continually expansive output, and discover fresh new outlets for punk, post rock, and psychedelia. And for what it’s worth, you’ll also notice Ty Segall and Waxahatchee have extremely similar album covers. Happy holidays! — Jocelyn Hoppa, Editor in Chief
50. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
No rock album in 2017 sounded like A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs' major-label debut. The synthesis here of ‘80s synth rock, Americana, and Los Angeles haze resulted in an epic that has a touch of the mystic. With every spin you're taken to a different world: decelerated, melancholy, iconoclastic. The sounds in Adam Granduciel's head are almost as foreign as those in Kevin Shields, and just as wonderful.
Best Moment: The transcendent, 11-minute “Thinking of a Place,” Granduciel's masterpiece, keeps a steady beat while the dreamlike guitar and harmonica dive deep and come up for plenty of air. — C.M. Crockford
49. Oh Sees, Orc (Castle Face)
Oh Sees’ (no more “Thee”) 19th studio album is another notch in their ever-evolving psych-garage rock output, as they weave absorbing psychedelic jams with frenetic, madcap proto-metal. When the band picks up off a wave of trippy, soft prog explorations they bounce back with wild, seering, restless licks and riffs. This record is simultaneously reckless and refined, and also a concept album linked to Dungeons and Dragons.
Best Moment: “Drowned Beast” is a heavy, weird one about the insatiable hunger of mankind. — Jocelyn Hoppa
48. The National, Sleep Well Beast (4AD)
On Sleep Well Beast, Matt Berninger's cathartic lyrics chronicle both the personal undercurrent of his own searching discontent and that of our collective human experience, with a focus on the challenges and intimacies of his marriage (the album was co-written in part by his wife, former New Yorker editor Carin Besser). It may be the National’s seventh showcase of brooding grandeur, but they’ve never done it like this.
Best Moment: "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" has everything you could want in a National track, and more: the rich instrumental layers this band is so adept at crafting, topped with jagged guitar solos. It's a testament to the fucked up times we live in, with astute, despairing lines like, "We said we'd only die of lonely secrets" and "We're in a different kind of thing now / All night you're talking to God." — Angela Zimmerman
47. SZA, Ctrl (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Musically assured as it is, SZA's proper debut LP Ctrl (after a string of successful EPs) is a low-key art-soul record unafraid to reveal its raw insecurity. On “Drew Barrymore,” Solána Rowe subverts a power ballad with lines like, “I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike / I'm sorry I don't shave my legs at night.” On the acoustic closer, she ruminates on being “20 something, all alone still / Not a phone in my name / Ain't got nothin', runnin' from love.” But with five Grammy noms and running, SZA has nothing to apologize for.
Best Moment: “Doves in the Wind” is a Kendrick Lamar-assisted swirl of boom bap and electric sex that could make Dan Savage blush. “I'm really tryna crack off that headboard / And bust it wide open for the right one” might be the tamest line in the song. — David MacFadden-Elliott
46. Haram, When You Have Won, You Have Lost (Toxic Tracks)
Taqwacore is given new power thanks to this Arabic-singing Yonkers punk band, putting forth a vital bashing that stands with Reagan Youth, Bad Brains, et al. As bold as it is brave and bruising (and liberating).
Best Moment: "Your President, Not a President" sort of sums up the whole year, doesn't it? — James Greene, Jr.
45. The Replacements, For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 (Rhino Entertainment)
Bringing their special, drunken brand of Minneapolis charm to Hoboken’s famed Maxwell’s club, the Replacements mad-dashed their way through their catalogue’s hot spots on this live double before jettisoning Bob Stinson for good. His leads not only steal the show, but do so on every damn song, just months before he’d be ousted for good and the ‘Mats would never be the same. As it stands, there is something for everyone here, from the trainwreck cover of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” to the full-band version of “Answering Machine.” This time, it’s not just the shit that hits the fans.
Best Moment: The poor chump yelling for “Color Me Impressed” in between songs multiple times throughout the night even though it was the second song of the set. Paul Westerberg: “I think we may’ve tried it once.” — Andrew K. Lau
44. Perfume Genius, No Shape (Matador)
Mike Hadreas’ newest triumph is this soundtrack to the liberation of love and body. Songs like “Slip Away” and “Alan” are strange, rousing alien pop filled with unexpected textures and patterns. A deeply moving work so good that I’m not sure how he can top it. But he will.
Best Moment: The opening track is a wonder, but then there’s the enormous outpouring of sound, feeling, and power on the chorus of “Otherside,” with harpsichord shimmering like a first kiss. — C.M. Crockford
43. Khalid, American Teen (Sony)
Atmospheric R&B anthems for the Xanax Generation, courtesy of a teenage newcomer with as heavy a case of nice-guy syndrome as Drake (but a better knack for memorable choruses). Plus, this time he may actually be a nice guy.
Best Moment: Along with the hit singles “Location” and “Young Dumb & Broke,” there’s also “8Teen,” in which Khalid delivers the sage advice, “Let’s do all the stupid shit that young kids do.” — Melody Danielle Rice
42. This Is the Kit, Moonshine Freeze (Rough Trade)
This Is the Kit use horns, synth, banjos, guitars, percussion, bass, and more to back Kater Stables' Maddy Prior-esque vocal delivery of a set of songs containing many elements of children's games and stories. However, defying the cacophony that description implies, John Parish's super dry and close production allows Stables' multi-instrumental arrangements the space to breathe and lends them a deceptive simplicity. What appears to be simple isn't quite as simple as it first appeared, and children's songs instead become mantras that prepare us adults for the consequences to our actions.
Best Moment: The spell-like effect of the title track's vocal repetition over the bass groove and mystical synth right before the horns come in. — Heather Batson
41. Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm (Merge)
Katie Crutchfield's fourth studio album is satisfyingly anthemic in all the best singalong ways, as well as reflective and intimate in all the best holed-up-in-your-basement ways. Out in the Storm achieves the most satiating of musical hybrids, with themes and lyrics that you can wallow in but also feel galvanized by. Crutchfield makes you feel empowered, and understood, and self-assured enough to weather the storm.
Best Moment: The twangy, strumming rock of "8 Ball" showcases the songwriting prowess of Crutchfield through a metaphorical journey that leaves you feeling quietly triumphant by its closing verse: "I'm your diversion, I am the wind blowing down your tree / It's plain, I lit the groundwork up in flames / We watch the smoke rise / You wanna name my weakness / You wanna be the rain." — Angela Zimmerman
40. The Afghan Whigs, In Spades (Sub Pop)
Reunions hardly ever work out this well (okay, Dinosaur Jr notwithstanding). Somehow the Afghan Whigs build on their legacy with fresh, vital material instead of retreading old tracks down into the ground. In Spades is just as hardcore, gritty, and beautiful as anything the band has ever done, and Dulli’s lyrical delivery is still a gift worth cherishing.
Best Moment: “Toy Automatic” is a stunner and navigates space the Whigs’ sound has not previously spanned. Thirty years down the road, the Whigs still choose dare. — Jocelyn Hoppa
39. Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian)
In 2017, Jens Lekman finally released a full album worthy of his best songs. There’s more genre-bending on Life Will See You Now than with previous releases, as seen on the tropical “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” and the disco “How We Met, the Long Version,” while his storytelling is tighter than ever. “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” may be the greatest song ever written about the sense of smell and its connection with memory, and on “Evening Prayer,” he grapples with how to feel when a friend he’s lost touch with gets cancer.
Best Moment: The opener, where a Mormon missionary in Gothenburg, on the day of Princess Di’s death, helps young Jens himself discover his reason for being. — Melody Danielle Rice
38. Tera Melos, Trash Generator (Sargent House)
Tera Melos’ decade-plus career has been fascinating, from their roots as a big fish/small pond math rock band to their current iteration as some perverted combination of the Pixies, King Crimson, Converge, and Aphex Twin. Trash Generator is their catchiest record to date, a collection of quasi-pop tunes interrupted by avant-shredding that becomes infinitely weirder the closer it veers towards normality. Tera Melos was once defined by niches and clumsy descriptors requiring infinite hyphens. Trash Generator is another step towards simply becoming the planet’s most fearless rock band.
Best Moment: The devious chorus of “Men’s Shirt” and its subsequent pseudo-solo show that frontman Nick Reinhart’s ability to write a vocal hook is on par with his bionic guitar heroics. — Ryan Wasoba
37. Run the Jewels, RTJ3 (Run the Jewels, Inc.)
The third entry in a trilogy is not always a disappointment, as this napalm-rap duo prove. Brimming with fire, fury, and fun like no one else could provide in the past 365, Killer Mike and El-P’s rage is a renewable resource.
36. Sleaford Mods, English Tapas (Rough Trade)
In a calendar year where wretched politics have been all but completely unavoidable stateside, 2017's most cathartic musical statement may have ironically happened by way of England's nihilistic Sleaford Mods. Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn’s fusion of punk and hip-hop is at its gritty, minimalist best on English Tapas. But it’s the gleeful potshots they take at politicians, Brexit, and other aspects of British culture that make the Mods’ latest their most fun and effective outing yet.
Best Moment: Williamson calling out all the “pretentious little bastards on social medias” on “Just Like We Do.” — Ryan Bray
35. Various Artists, The Bob’s Burgers Music Album (Sub Pop)
Comedy music? Sure, but why listen to a double album of jokes about food and poop when the whole series is available to stream? Because these songs work as songs. Whether it’s Kevin Kline’s Mr. Fischoeder singing a tribute to booze or the National covering two Thanksgiving songs, there’s a lot more going on here than just humor, which is why The Bob’s Burgers Music Album has already become a road-trip essential in my car.
Best Moment: You know “Electric Love” (hopefully), but try “We Won the Talent Show,” where Sarah and Laura Silverman sing a riot grrrl parody with lyrics like, “My memory is my guitar / My friends are all my seven cars / I've done home runs with all my aunts / I've never had a menstrual cramp.” — Melody Danielle Rice
34. The New Year, Snow (Undertow)
Ex-Bedhead slowcore aficionados eventually morphed into the New Year and turned out some very intricate, introspective albums in the mid-2000s. After nine years, they returned in 2017 with Snow, a record akin to watching each individual flake fall, seeing all the beauty cover and quiet the world around you, yet knowing its accumulation is a heavy heap one must eventually dig out of.
Best Moment: “Myths” builds and builds in an instrumental swell, until over the four-minute mark when the words “There is no reason to celebrate” never fail to make a smile crack. — Jocelyn Hoppa
33. Girlpool, Powerplant (ANTI-)
It’s really quite empowering listening to two young women belt out angsty tunes together, never once feeling burdened by having to sound pretty and polished, just real. Meld the Breeders with the Shaggs, and you’d have something close to Girlpool. And if you think it sounds too sweet on the surface, dig further into what they’re saying, cause often it’s not… not at all.
Best Moment: Midway through the tuneful, 90-second “Corner Store” the song drops abruptly into momentarily contrasting post-rock guitar squalls, only to abruptly surface into that delightful dulcet once again. — Jocelyn Hoppa
32. Body Count, Bloodlust (Century Media)
Could anyone have guessed this year would yield a Body Count comeback album, and a Herculean one at that? Well, glancing at 2017's top headlines, maybe. Saints be praised that several decades of playing a cop on television have nowhere near eroded Ice T’s ability to think straight about the powers that be.
Best Moment: We still can't get over that Slayer medley. — James Greene, Jr.
31. Angaleena Presley, Wrangled (Thirty Tigers)
Compared to fellow Pistol Annies Ashley Monroe, whose voice often depends on the songs, and Miranda Lambert, whose voice can make almost any song, Holler Annie writes songs that are entirely molded to her own. Her attitude, and personality just fit the songs she sings, giving them a personalized feel even as they deal with such common themes as high school (“High School”) and her musical universe itself (“Country”). The latter tune is a bizarre call for less conservatism in country radio, complete with a verse from rapper Yelawolf, where he praises Sturgill Simpson. You can argue with that one, but you can’t accuse Presley of not practicing what she preaches.
Best Moment: The album cover of the year. — Melody Danielle Rice
30. Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights (Matador)
If 2015’s Sprained Ankle was one of the saddest records you’d heard in quite some time, Turn Out the Lights is this year’s loneliest. It’s more polished than her previous album, but that doesn’t deflate the power Julien Baker possesses when writing and belting out intimate autobiographical songs of solitude and longing.
Best Moment: “Happy to Be Here” and the lines “Because I miss it the way I miss nicotine / If it makes me feel better, how bad can it be? / Well, I heard there’s a fix for everything / Then why, then why, then why not me?” — Jocelyn Hoppa
29. Sheer Mag, Need to Feel Your Love (Wilsun RC)
The debut album from Philly’s five-piece Sheer Mag is one of hell of a classic rock totem, full of tight ‘70s riffage, metal-inspired dueling guitars, a punk ethos, and celebratory, fist-pumping grooves that would easily make Phil Lynott proud.
Best Moment: “Turn It Up” because, uh, that’s what this record makes one want to do. — Jocelyn Hoppa
28. Grails, Chalice Hymnal (Temporary Residence Ltd.)
Grails continually up the ante in the post-rock/instrumental-rock space, and Chalice Hymnal effortlessly elevates their own experimentation and diversity. It been six years since the band’s last release and with one listen it’s no wonder why. This is the most aurally transcendental record of 2017, the one unafraid to take its time, a truly beautiful counterpoint in a time where an ungodly amount of information whizzes through our heads at an alarming daily rate.
Best Moment: Ten-minute album closer “After the Funeral” is like a soundtrack to some mid-20th century Hollywood film about fateful Druid rituals. — Jocelyn Hoppa
27. Moses Sumney, Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)
“Fluid,” “meditative,” and “cleansing” are among the words that swirl in one’s head when listening to Moses Sumney's evocative, long-awaited debut album. It’s widely heralded for a reason, as a beacon of stark, wistful wondering shaped around the idea of being deterred by romantic attraction. And when the message is exquisitely delivered by a heavenly voice rooted in its own isolation, who needs romance?
Best Moment: In an album full of standouts, the soulful avant-chamber folk of “Indulge Me” encapsulates all the beauty, and wisdom that this vital, newish artist brings to his craft, his glassy, lonely vocals sighing, “All my old lovers have found others, I was lost in the rapture.” — Angela Zimmerman
26. Emperor X, Oversleepers International (Tiny Engines) Chad Matheny isn’t just a engineering geek; he lives the open-source life. Touring by bus because he’s legally blind, he knows the DIY struggle in and out and tells all, down to the €30,000 he had to scrap together on the road to have a sudden development of testicular cancer removed. His computerized folk-punk is the perfect roaring engine for these stories, which sometimes take literal inventory of our failing country: “Then I completed every blank left on my tax return” goes, yes, “€30,000.” But he shows no sign of quitting and neither does his record.
Best Moment: That initial burst of Matheny’s band charging in on the very first anthem, “Wasted on the Senate Floor,” complete with Gogol Bordello-style accordion breaks. — Dan Weiss
25. Ty Segall, Ty Segall (Drag City)
What we’ve come to know about Ty Segall has quite a bit to do with his range of styles, all couched in garage-rock, striping overdubs together to form a particular signature sound. For his second self-titled release he was backed by a full live band in the studio to let loose and play (Emmett Kelly, Mikal Cronin, Charles Moothart, and Ben Boye), and the result is an album that tours through all of his best influences (T. Rex, the Who, the Kinks) for nine succinctly psyched-out free-for-alls.
Best Moment: The moment when Ty Segall decided to have Steve Albini produce his ninth solo album. — Jocelyn Hoppa
24. The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions (Concord) Let’s ditch that whole “supergroup” thing, it’s a crutch for a news peg that by album seven, indie-rock’s best power-pop generators no longer need. Also because Destroyer’s Dan Bejar is absent this time around, which means no theater-piece asides and all rock-sweet-rock, hammered out at numbing motorik tempos with a rhythm section like a metronome and all the beautiful aural sculpting over top. Except this time they’re singing through their collective rows of teeth, about packing a suitcase to exit Trump nation ASAP, about musicians being paid what they’re worth, about finding “a use for the profane.” If you want to hear what power-pop sounds like pissed, gather around their high-ticket attractions.
Best Moment: Neko Case’s self-assured “I only play for money, honey,” over the robotic, blown-out apparatus of the lead track. — Dan Weiss
23. Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom (Jamla/Roc Nation)
Rapsody's sophomore album includes fine work from several collaborators, including Kendrick Lamar, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Busta Rhymes, and of course the brilliant sampling and production 9th Wonder brought in — but what really makes this album both deep and full of heart are her razor-sharp perception, adroit wordplay, and undeniable charisma, all hers alone.
Best Moment: Her references to Maya Angelou, the Black Panthers, and Maxwell interspersed throughout the nonstop playful flow on “Sassy.” — Heather Batson
22. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon)
Anyone who’s seen Priests’ live show, particularly intense stage-conquering Katie Alice Greer, has been waiting for their songs to catch up to their spirited performances for a few years now. And Nothing Feels Natural hardly feels like it’s as far as they have to go. But what a rush to hear the articulation and focus of rage in its process, to hear Greer belt and shout and groan and shriek, while her band tightens so fiercely you fear they will snap. Punk has meant many different things for a while now, and here, once again, it conjures a swirl of unstable energy awaiting beautiful collapse, especially as Greer speaks herself breathless on the monologue “No Big Bang” while her backing musicians stab at one note until it bleeds.
Best Moment: When the aural surprise of plinking and booming piano steals the fast-paced show on “JJ” — Dan Weiss
21. JAY-Z: 4:44 (Roc Nation)
Jay follows Beyoncé’s lead with an unusually personal surprise album, creating what has been dubbed by many a Lemonade response record. He goes deeper than that, though. Where Queen Bey was mostly responding to a moment, a single bad event, 4:44 responds to a whole life’s worth of bad events. “Kill Jay Z” shows him grappling with his 1999 stabbing of Lance “Un” Rivera. The title track finds him apologizing for his treatment of women overall. And, yes, he does apologize to his wife, many times. He ought to thank her as well, since her burst of inspiration resulted in Sean Carter’s best release since The Black Album (am I allowed to say The Blueprint?). Thank No I.D., too.
Best moment: One perfectly intoned word from “The Story of O.J.”: “...okay.” — Melody Danielle Rice
20. Elder, Reflections of a Floating World (Armageddon Label)
For an album that sets off on six expansive, riff-heavy psych-rock opuses, Elder’s Reflections of a Floating World indeed feels effortless. The astonishing thing about this three-piece is how clear their imagination and intuition is when navigating these long explorations, especially as they blend multiple genres. One will find any combination of metal, prog, proto-math, krautrock, and doom crafted into well-honed jams, no matter how much sonic noodling there is or how spaced-out it gets.
Best Moment: “Sonntag” is a real departure point on this record, sounding more like Can than Hawkwind, and a hugely exciting hint for where Elder might go in the future. — Jocelyn Hoppa
19. Kehlani, SweetSexySavage (TSNMI/Atlantic)
The 22-year-old singer’s debut album was the most upbeat and ambitious R&B album in a year where the genre played it chill. Most of these numerous extra-sticky tunes could’ve been on the radio, especially the Destiny’s Child-channeling flamenco guitar and Akon interpolation on “Undercover,” or the stacked vocal builds of “Distraction,” or the requisitely emo ballad “Advice,” about how she doesn’t take her own. Recombinant pop is rarely this well-edited, and same for 19-track albums.
Best Moment: That whoosh of effervescence as “Distraction” launches itself with the question “Do-you-do-you-do-you want to be...” Well, do you punk? — Dan Weiss