The 10 best albums of 2017

The personal was political this year, a theme reflected in NOW music critics' collaborative list of top releases


1. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. was one of the most talked-about albums of the year. We’re not referring to the amount of times it was discussed, but the way it was discussed. Everything from its lyrics to its album art to his collaborators’ tweets were analyzed and then over-analyzed. Reddit users particularly were working overtime to unearth its more obscure meanings. And for good reason. DAMN. is a complex look at Lamar’s interior life. He explores his emotions and experiences and wonders whether they’re signs of wickedness or weakness. He takes a moment to unpack Trump’s presidency and wonders whether his election shows signs of the same. Recently Lamar confirmed one theory: he intended the album to be played in reverse. With a new way to consume his fourth full-length, we imagine DAMN. will continue to be the subject of many people’s dissertations well into 2018. Chris Rattan

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2. Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun)

One of the year’s most affecting albums is also the hardest to listen to. Phil Elverum’s outpouring of grief at the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, was recorded in the room where she died, on instruments that belonged to her. Far from healing, it’s almost a statement against the idea that art can process overwhelming emotion. It’s sparse, unadorned and matter-of-fact about the depth of his sorrow, and you feel it with uncomfortable precision. Devastating. Richard Trapunski

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3. SZA: Ctrl (Top Dawg)

R&B singer/songwriter SZA isn’t afraid to get specific and the result is one of the year’s most thrilling albums. This is an artist who sings about feeling confused and insecure more confidently than anyone else right now. Ctrl is full of complex feelings, fun details and dazzling vocal performances. It’s about love and relationships, being single, playing the field and (sometimes gleefully) resisting long-ingrained social expectations around all of the above. Kevin Ritchie

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4. Kelela: Take Me Apart (Warp)

In the genre of dance-floor catharsis, Kelela’s Take Me Apart is this year’s essential album. Her expansive electro-R&B sonics command the body to move as assuredly as they invite the mind to rest. A perfect match for an album spinning a tale about the transition between two relationships – the need to be introspective balanced by the body’s desire to be free. CR

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5. Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory (Def Jam/Universal)

What does 2017 sound like? Long Beach rapper Vince Staples’s second album felt like a snapshot of American anxiety, pairing tactile club beats from the progressive end of UK garage with acerbic punchlines and dizzying flows. You can hear the erratic tempos pushing Staples into more creative, furious and vivid lyrical directions. But Big Fish Theory is not all nihilism – there’s plenty of melody and bounce. Here’s hoping more mainstream artists – hip-hop and pop – take cues from his adventurousness. KR

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6. Björk: Utopia (One Little Indian/Sony)

The future is feminist on the Icelandic auteur’s 10th studio album. Utopia builds on 2015’s breakup album Vulnicura with more comforting sounds – warm beats, birdsong and flutes – that both meld into and contrast against Björk’s personal and politically pointed lyrics. It’s a densely and impressively layered work that pulls thematic strands from the last 20 years of her career into music that manages to be both bewitching and urgent. KR

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7. Tyler, The Creator: Flower Boy (Columbia/Sony)

Flower Boy is the best driving album of the year and also one of the most beautiful. It’s like a less jarring and pleasantly vibey version of Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo – a roller coaster of overlapping emotional states (love, loneliness, aggression) that puts more emphasis on mood than flows and verses, though they also happen to be Tyler’s best. Frank Ocean, Estelle and Kali Uchis are among the voices that drift in and out of his daydreamy digressions. Thought the former Odd Future ringleader was all toxic masculinity? Flower Boy unpacks all that baggage. KR

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8. Jlin: Black Origami (Planet Mu)

Jerrilynn Patton thinks about rhythm like no one else, and Black Origami opens up new conceptual spaces. Each track is an intricate construction of strange surfaces and hidden seams, with internal circuitry that constantly dismantles and rearranges itself into new forms. And while it’s hard to think of another musical voice as singularly defined as JLIN’s in 2017, the outstanding collaborative tracks with William Basinski and Holly Herndon show that Patton can work hand-in-glove with other strong-minded musicians. Mark Streeter

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9. Partner: In Search Of Lost Time (You’ve Changed)

This Windsor-by-way-of-Sackville band has been casually queering alt- and arena-rock since they started playing shows a few years ago, but their long-awaited debut album is less about subversion than pure, riff-induced glee. If you grew up blaring AC/DC, Weezer or even Sum 41, it’ll make you giddy. It’s like the perfect lost Big Shiny Tunes-era CanRock album – so authentic it includes skits you’ll skip after the first listen. RT

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10. St. Vincent: Masseduction (Loma Vista/Universal)

Annie Clark collaborates with production wizard du jour Jack Antonoff for a smart, slyly subversive, sex-positive fifth album. Her guitar heroics are downplayed for industrial synth-pop and piano balladry, which expands her horizons yet again and emphasizes her Big Themes – this time personal ones like love, heartbreak, power and, most sharply, lust.  RT

Stay tuned for NOW’s top Toronto albums of the year, as well as our 2017 concerts roundup. More Year In Review 2017 coverage here.

music@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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