Best of 17: My Favorite Albums of 2017

p03dj18p10. Sevdaliza
“Ison”
Twisted Elegance
One of the most intimate, sonically unique records of the year, the Tehran-born singer/songwriter pours so much into “Ison” that early listens are almost overwhelming. That said, the more time you spend with it, the more it will give you. Over a stirring collection of slow-mo, genre-hopping soundscapes, Sevdaliza (né Sevda Alizadeh) digs deep into love, loss, isolation, and disconnection from your roots from a perspective that you rarely hear in pop music. A totally vital voice.

Start With: “Hero” / “Bluecid”

1507297825245-SHOT_01_KYOCERA-017_PW2_14009. Kelela
“Take Me Apart”
Warp
A modern alchemist, Kelela Mizanekristos’ long-awaited Warp debut is the next logical step in her quest to meld avant-garde dance music with streamlined R&B. Though “Take Me Apart” doesn’t feel quite as fresh as her first two projects — mostly because I’m just more familiar with her now — it remains a step forward. The hooks have more teeth, the arrangements are lusher, and somehow, even her ever-pristine voice sounds stronger. It may not be my favorite album of her career, but it’s her most important one. The sky’s the limit from here.

Start With: “LMK” / “Waitin”

Arca-Desafio-2017-vid-billboard-15488. Arca
Arca
XL
Perhaps the most unique album I heard this year, the Venezuela-born, London-based artist’s third LP features touches of everything from opera to Mexican rancheras to the progressive dance music that he made his name with. The 28 year-old claimed that by Björk inspired him to sing for the first time, and with a voice this expressive, it’s a marvel that he waited this long. The way his voice quivers and warbles adds intense gravitas to anything it touches and cements him as so much more than just a producer.

Start With: “Anoche” / “Desafío”

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 7.09.10 PM7. Julie Byrne
Not Even Happiness
Ba Da Bing!
There’s always been a nomadic quality about Julie Byrne’s music. She’s spent most of her adult life drifting from place to place, and her breakthrough second LP is a gorgeous journal of her long search for a place to call home. And though her restless, independent spirit is on full display throughout the disc, gorgeous love songs like “Sleepwalker,” “Sea as it Glides,” and “All the Land Glimmered” show that she’s not alone anymore. And that she’s found a home… not in a place, but in another.

Start With: “I Live Now As a Singer” / “Natural Blue”

mr-mitch-by_piotr-niepsuj_600_36. Mr Mitch
Devout
Planet Mu
Over the last few years, Mr. Mitch (né Miles Mitchell) has done so much more than make great music. He basically invented an entire new genre — a soft, emotional flipside to instrumental grime’s hard-edged war dubs.

“Devout” digs even deeper into that sound, pulling pop-oriented songwriting into his signature style. Though songs like “Honor Oak” and “Black Tide” mirror his ambient early work, they’re balanced by structured vocal tracks like “VPN,” “Fate,” “Pleasure,” and “Priority,” which is basically a direct, laid-back grime tune. Best of all, Mitch lets the listener into his life like never before, bringing us on his new journey as a father, partner, and more than anything, an artist.

Start With: “VPN” (f/ Palmistry) / “Our Love”

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 7.11.14 PM5. Jens Lekman
Life Will See You Now
Secretly Canadian
Nobody in modern music tells a better story than Jens Lekman, and his fourth studio album is chock full of engaging, human tales. The disc is well-balanced between big moments — a friend’s cancer in “Evening Prayer” and a pre-marriage breakdown in “Wedding in Finistére — and everyday occurrences — a tiff at dinner from “Our First Fight” or a spate of self-doubt in “Postcard #17.”

Best of all, he’s relentlessly reflective, always looking for insight that he can glean from the different people, situations, and places that he’s encountered in his colorful life. 9 times out of 10, I’m able to apply that insight to my own life, which is why he’s so special to me.

Start With: “How Can I Tell Him” / “Postcard #17”

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4. Ryuichi Sakamoto
async
Milan Records
When the legendary Japanese composer announced that he’d be diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer back in 2014, you couldn’t help but fear the worst. Though he’d been prolific in his over 40-year career, he’d always kept a low profile, so I assumed that he wouldn’t have let people know if the diagnosis weren’t serious. After taking a year away, the 65 year-old returned with a vengeance, crafting incredible soundtracks for “The Revenant” and “Nagasaki: Memories of My Son.”  

Impressive as those two projects were, they feel like appetizers compared to the gorgeous, rich tapestries of “async” — his first solo studio album in eight years. A master of sonic textures, Sakamoto pairs his signature, dulcet piano playing (“andata”) with rich, modern synths (“ZURE” “solari”) and noisy, unexpected instrumentation (“fullmoon” “async”). Though you’ll never suspect what’s coming next, it all flows beautifully together, like one of his film scores. Only this time, it feels like he’s scoring is his own.

Start With: “andata” / “ZURE”

mounteerie3. Mount Eerie
“A Crow Looked At Me”
P.W. Elverum & Sun
The first time I experienced loss, a friend gave me a book by C.S. Lewis called “A Grief Observed,” which is a diary that he published in the wake of his wife’s death. It is unpolished and all over the place. He’s sad, confused, angry, hopeful, grateful, and afraid, often all at once. I’ve returned to it each time death has visited my life, and Lewis’ decision to bravely share his struggle — especially in such an unfiltered manner — has been so valuable to myself and many others.

Phil Elverum’s crushing and beautiful farewell to his late wife Geneviève Castrée reminds me so much of that book. Written quickly in the wake of her passing, Elverum takes us deep into their experience and tells it like it is — with no answers, no hackneyed metaphors, and no great discoveries. Capturing countless little intimate moments, both with his wife and alone, he bravely chronicles an unimaginable loss that, unfortunately, we will all experience at some point in our lives. It’s the saddest possible story told in the most beautiful way, and I truly believe, like C.S. Lewis, Elverum’s bravery will benefit countless people in the years to come.

Start With: “Swims” / “Ravens”

The_Line_of_Best_Fit_Phoebe_Bridgers_portrait_by_Kirstie_Shanley_01__1290_8602. Phoebe Bridgers
“Stranger in the Alps”
Dead Oceans
No matter how promising the LA folk singer’s pre-release singles were (“Killer” and “Smoke Signals), they didn’t prepare me for her masterful debut album. “Stranger in the Alps” is the work of a true auteur, someone who makes a style of music you’ve heard before but in a manner that you haven’t.

Bridgers’ sound is spooky without being affected, confessional without histrionic, and sardonic without being a drag. She writes beautifully about the way our relationships color the way we see ourselves and the way even small interactions can have lasting effects on our psyche. In short, these 11 songs will tell you so much about the artist and probably quite a bit about yourself too.

Start With: “Funeral” / “Scott Street”

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 7.15.05 PM1. Stormzy
“Gang Signs & Prayer”
#Merky
It’s hard to say much about this album that I haven’t already written. Put it this way, “Gang Signs & Prayer” is just about a perfect album. It is consistent and versatile with an excellent balance between bangers (“Cold,” “Big For Your Boots” “Mr Skeng) and ballads (“100 Bags,” “Blinded By Your Grace,” “Cigarettes & Cush”). Stormzy is an incisive, brave writer (“First Things First,” “Lay Me Bare”), a visceral and powerful rapper, and an underrated singer. Most of all, there’s just so much heart on this thing. He’s got that rare quality where he can just reach through your speakers, grab you, and bring you into his reality.

I could go on, but if you’ve read me (or talked to me) recently, you’ve probably heard it before. Thanks for your continued support this year, and thanks to Stormzy for enriching my life over the past few.

Start With: “100 Bags” / “Cold”

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