Many years produce an album or two that scream year’s best album from the first listen. This was not that kind of year. In fact, there wasn’t a lot to separate any of the albums I ranked in the top five. There was, however, a good deal of depth to the albums of 2017, and limiting the honorable mention list to 10 albums was difficult.
Here’s how I see the best albums from the past year.
1) The Rural Alberta Advantage: “The Wild” — This Canadian band hits a new high water mark on their fourth album, “The Wild.” On stellar songs like “Bad Luck Again,” “Beacon Hill,” the group balances grittiness, a little twang and a healthy dose of pop melody, creating songs that immediately demand attention. “Brother” and “White Lights” show a more acoustic, folkier, but no less fervent, side to the band. The Rural Alberta Advantage may not be hip enough to make many top 10 lists, but I’ll take this album over Kendrick Lamar or Lorde any day.
2) J.D. McPherson – “Undivided Heart & Soul” — A couple of years ago, I ranked McPherson’s second album, “Let The Good Times Roll,” at the top of my year-end list. This follow-up effort is just as good. It’s a more original, harder rocking effort, with cool-grooving “Desperate Love” and the fuzzed out “Lucky Penny” leading the way. With any luck “Undivided Heart & Soul” should end McPherson’s days as one of rock’s best kept secrets.
3) U2: “Songs of Experience” — Some may consider “Songs of Experience” a sell-out album meant to recapture the mass audience U2 failed to reach with their adventurous previous three albums. Fair enough. But the new songs are well crafted and have enough lyrical substance that there’s no faulting their accessibility. Besides, wasn’t the ability U2 shows to blend depth, relatability and beauty on “Songs of Experience” among the same qualities that made “The Joshua Tree” a classic album 30 years ago?
4) Khalid: “American Teen” — Brian Wilson once called his ill-fated “Smile” album a teen-age symphony to God. “American Teen” might be an R&B symphony to today’s teens about living in today’s world. Here, Khalid confronts the rush of love, the crush of heartbreak, issues with parents and more. The kicker is Khalid knows how to write memorable vocal melodies and instrumental hooks. That’s reason enough to anticipate how good Khalid, 19, might become as he grows into adulthood.
5) Chris Stapleton: “From a Room Vol. 1”; “From a Room Vol. 2” — Apparently, many of the songs on this pair of albums date back a decade to Stapleton’s songwriting days. And it’s hard to see why gems like “Second One to Know” (a soul-tinged bit of Southern rock), “Broken Halos” (one of several earthy country gems on this album) and “Scarecrow in the Garden” (an easy-going country rocker) got passed over by other artists. But Stapleton, arguably today’s best country artist, makes these old songs sound new again.
6) Queens of the Stone Age: “Villains” — On the seventh album from this band, Josh Homme and crew continue to make some of the most distinctive and fresh hard rock music going, finding new variations in the band’s established sound. For instance, with its bouncy beat and a barrage of hooks, “The Way You Used To Do” is as catchy a heavy rock song as you’ll hear. There’s much more where that came from, making “Villains” almost criminally good.
7) St. Vincent: “Masseduction” — Plenty of artists attempt to incorporate the EDM/synthetic sounds common in top 40 pop today into their music, often with awkward results. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) gets things right here, employing electronic touches and beats that serve the songs and make “Masseduction,” and album that combines sharp songwriting with imaginative production.
8) Squeeze: “The Knowledge” — Back in action after an extended breakup, songwriters Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford show they can still muster pop brilliance, with several songs (“Patchouli,” “AE” and “Two Forks”) that will spur memories of such Squeeze gems as “Tempted,” “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” and “Some Fantastic Place.”
9) SZA: “Ctrl” — One of the most auspicious R&B albums of the year belonged to SZA. Songs like “The Weekend,” “Prom” and “Drew Barrymore” boast uncommonly striking silky melodies, while the hip-hop-ish rhythms of “Doves in the Wind,” “Go Gina” and “Love Galore” give “Ctrl” a good deal of edge and groove. Her first full-length effort, “Ctrl” is up for five Grammys, and the guess is this won’t be the only time she earns accolades.
10) Lorde: “Melodrama” — Lorde’s second album captures the chaotic, emotional swings of life being lived in the wake of a difficult breakup, all set to a synth-laden sound that’s both grand and intimate. One wishes the lyrics offered more insights into truths discovered or lessons learned from the breakup, but the visceral tales are entertaining and the music is engaging, with enough idiosyncrasies and edginess to keep it compelling.
Honorable mention: Vince Staples: “Big Fish Theory”; Kendrick Lamar: “DAMN:’ Robert Plant: “Carry Fire”; Sam Smith: “The Thrill of it All”; Big Head Todd & The Monsters: “New World Arisin’”; Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: “The Nashville Sound”; Beck: “Colors”; Margo Price: “All American Made”; The National: “Sleep Well Beast”; Brand New: “Science Fiction”