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Photo courtesy: Zak Kaczmarek

There’s no other way of putting it. 2017 has been a disastrous year.

Music is often seen as an escape, but it’s difficult to free and rid yourself of negativity, especially when there’s a new development each day highlighting something truly awful.

Anguish aside, the year has seen several artists release brilliant pieces of work, and while it’s reasonable for many to look forward to the new year, it would be unfair not to recognize these individuals for their momentous achievements.

Here are my favorite albums of 2017:

20. Baby Driver, (Music from the Motion Picture)

If the start of this list isn’t a good indicator of how garbage 2017 was, let me remind you that Baby Driver starred Kevin Spacey in a supporting role. I could have omitted this choice from my selection entirely, but after much consideration, chose to keep it.

I usually check out soundtracks from movies that I enjoy, and Baby Driver’s was, by far, my favorite. It’s the only one to crack this list. From the Beach Boys to Queen, this two-part track list has it all including an awesome collaboration from Run the Jewels, Big Boi and Danger Mouse.

19. Humanz, Gorillaz

Die-hard fans probably don’t consider this to be the Gorillaz’ best work, but Humanz is a solid album from top-to-bottom, with an impressive number of features from Danny Brown, Pusha T, and Vince Staples, among others.

It’s inconsistent, and some tracks are forgettable, but considering it’s their first album in seven years, there is a lot to like here. I’m still of the opinion that Plastic Beach (2010) is their best album, but Humanz has its moments, and it’s grown on me considerably.

18. Process, Sampha

After lurking in the shadows for years as a feature artist, Sampha’s highly anticipated debut album Process didn’t disappoint.

The 29-year-old is most recognized for his work alongside Kanye West, SBTRKT and more recently with Drake (he’s credited as a producer on Nothing Was the Same (2013), and was featured on Drake’s song 4422 from his playlist More Life (2017). With Process, Sampha proves he can more than handle life on his own. It’s a beautiful, but short album that is worth your time.

17. Beautiful Thugger Girls, Young Thug

Outside of his questionable and lackluster collaboration with Future (Super Slimey), for the most part, Young Thug did well in 2017.

I consider Jeffery (2016) to be his best work to date, but Young Thug deserves credit for putting together an underrated mixtape in Beautiful Thugger Girls, which features one of my favorite songs of 2017 in “Relationship”. Here’s to looking ahead to what the talented artist has in store for 2018, as long as he stays away from half-hearted collaborations.

16. Villains, Queens of the Stone Age

I don’t like the word “boogie”, but for some reason, it’s the first one that came to mind when I listened to Villains. You can boogie down to this collection of songs, and that’s not something you can say for every Queens of the Stone Age album. That’s why I like it so much.

Front man Josh Homme is a known scumbag, and his latest act of kicking an innocent, female photographer at a concert was particularly troubling. That aside, QOTSA are one of the most consistently fluent rock bands out there, and thanks to the help of producer Mark Ronson, the group makes it work with Villains — another solid installment to follow up Like Clockwork (2013) and Era Vulgaris (2007).

15. Run the Jewels 3, Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels, a rap duo consisting of EI-P and Killer Mike, are fucking awesome. There’s no better way to describe them, as almost everything they touch turns into gold, including RTJ III.

The relentless approach to their third self-titled album is much of the same, but it’s still a step forward for the heralded duo. I favor RTJ II, but Run the Jewels, as a whole, have yet to release a below-average piece of work. Without letting feature artists take over their product (Danny Brown and Kamasi Washington are the only notables) Run the Jewels continue to prove they’re out for rap domination, and could very well conquer it as a group.

14. Fin, Syd

Known for her contributions at the center of the Internet, Syd — the former Odd Future member — released her debut solo album this year, proving that she should be on everyone’s radar.

If you aren’t familiar with Syd’s work, check out the Internet. Together, they have released three albums, all to critical acclaim, with separate features from Tyler, The Creator, Vic Mensa, and Mac Miller, among many. Their latest, Ego Death (2015), was nominated at the 58th Grammy Awards.

On her own, Syd is confident, eloquent and direct. If Fin is any indication, the 25-year-old will continue be a main fixture in the R&B game, whether it’s on her own or with her group.

13. Saturation II, Brockhampton

I initially had Saturation II much lower on this list, but I decided to listen to it for the third time the other day. I love it even more now, which led to a higher grade.

Backed by the talented Kevin Abstract, Brockhampton — a group that was created as an internet boy band — have been very busy this year. Blink and you’ll miss their music, as they just released the third installment of the Saturation trilogy and already have a fourth studio album planned for 2018.

It’s all about going for it, and Brockhampton are for no lack of busting their collective asses. Saturation II is my favorite of the three, featuring an array of catchy tunes. They’re at their best when the group is aggressive and motivated, as evident here. Big things are in store for them.

12. American Teen, Khalid

You’ve heard of Khalid by now. The 19-year-old is, arguably, the best new artist of the year, depending on who you ask. While I might not go as far as that, Khalid’s debut album American Teen is a brilliant debut.

His track “Location” is the one you’ll hear about, but the focus should be more on what a full album has to offer. Often times, people will lose track of what an artist released if a single makes the Billboard top 100, but Khalid comes through with a number of intriguing songs. That’s what makes a successful final product. American Teen aside, Khalid made waves as a feature artist with Marshmello (“Silence”), Calvin Harris (“Rollin” featuring Future), and a terrific remix with Lorde (“Homemade Dynamite” featuring SZA and Post Malone).

11. Science Fiction, Brand New

If there was a comeback of the year award in music, Brand New would unanimously win. Science Fiction, their fifth and apparently final album as a group, is their first in eight years since Daisy (2009).

Front-man Jesse Lacey hinted that the band would break up in the new year, which only adds to the excitement for fans who were treated with a great send off. Science Fiction is arguably Brand New’s best album, which is saying a lot, especially if you ask their dedicated fan base. Few bands are able to return with such force, but that’s exactly what Lacey and Brand New did this year.

Much of the band’s success has been overshadowed by Lacey’s personal life. This year, he was one of many high profile celebrities to be accused by multiple women for sexual assault stemming from separate incidents in the 2000’s.

10. HNDRXX, Future

Future is behind three of my favorite songs of the year: I’m So Groovy (Future, 2017), the aforementioned “Relationship” with Young Thug, and “Selfish” (featuring Rihanna).

Few have had more of an impact in the music industry than Future. He released not one, but two commercially successful albums in 2017. HNDRXX, in my opinion, is better than his self-titled release earlier in the year.

It’s eye-opening mainly because Future, who is viewed as a hardcore rapper, opens up about heartache and his struggles. Emotional music is always better, and, despite everything he went through, Future’s brave approach works on many levels.

9. 4:44, JAY-Z

I’m not really a JAY Z fan, and even less so with him all but confirming he did in fact cheat on Beyonce. That aside, he finally made good music this year in the form of 4:44 (which, according to theorists, is the address of the building in which Beyonce’s sister, Solange, smacked the shit out of him in that dramatic elevator scene).

4:44 is his first album since the colossal failure that was Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013). JAY Z is apparently at his best when he’s coming to terms with all the shitty stuff he’s done in his life, all the while apologizing for being unfaithful. That led to him putting together his best album in years (who knew!) with a distinct tone and message, specifically about being a good father and a better husband. It’s almost as though he’s letting everyone in, which is always great when you’re a talented rapper. Whether you want to call it a “response” to Lemonade (2016), JAY Z’s 4:44 is, by far, his most reflective album.

8. Something to Tell You, HAIM

I am in love with HAIM. All of them. I am hopeful it will lead to the three sisters noticing me, in some fashion.

I’ve long preached HAIM to my friends, encouraging them to listen to what they have to offer. In short: all of it is awesome, and reminds me of a fun Fleetwood Mac. Their latest, Something to Tell You, is the three sisters at their best. I was already a fan of their debut album, the criminally underrated Days are Gone (2013). It’s no surprise, but I credit bands and artists who put out solid, back-to-back pieces of work, and that’s exactly what the HAIM sisters did.

7. A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs

Adam Granduciel, the man behind the War on Drugs, is a pure form of musical dexterity. I had their breakout album, Lost in the Dream (2014), as one of my favorites several years ago. A Deeper Understanding lives up to its name, as I consider it Granduciel’s best work to date.

From top to bottom, it’s a beautiful listen; a track list loaded with emotionally-moving songs. Pitchfork said it best in their respective review: It’s the War on Drugs’ most meticulous piece of work, and are spot on in comparing Grandcuciel’s sound to that of Bruce Springsteen. It will leave you wanting more, but that’s the beauty of the album.

6. Freudian, Daniel Caesar

Canadian-born artist Daniel Caesar is the best musician to come out of this side of the woods in years. Note that I said musician, something Drake and the Weeknd are not.

That isn’t a shot at either artist. Both are incredibly successful at what they do, but Caesar is different. Instead of making an album loaded with auto-tune and synthesizers, he includes slow and sexy beats, mixed with some piano playing. Freudian is one of the best records of the year, and by far, one of my favorite full-length collections in a long time. For those interested in features, Caesar has that covered, too, with appearances by Kali Uchis and the ultra-talented Syd, whom I already have on this list. This is coming from a die-hard Frank Ocean fan: Caesar genuinely reminds me of him, and that’s high praise. The 22-year-old is here to stay, and that’s fantastic news for everyone.

5. Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples

Vince Staples will say whatever he wants, regardless of the aftermath. That’s similar to his approach with Big Fish Theory. You’ll miss it if you aren’t prepared, and he likely doesn’t care about that, either.

It’s the most unique album of the year. Staples has a lot to say, and he gets through it quickly. He’s aiming to leave an impact, and it’s even more impressive since he accomplishes that with a powerful statement in such a short amount of time. He also uses an abundance of talented artists to help him, but even rappers like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Ty Dolla $ign don’t get much air time. He likes it better that way, and they’re all on board.

Simply put, it’s his masterpiece. The scary thing is that there is so much room to grow.

4. Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker

It was only this year that I discovered Julien Baker. Her debut album Sprained Ankle was well-received and praised by many. She followed that up with an equally impressive sophomore album Turn Out the Lights. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, this isn’t the music for you, but don’t ignore it for that reason alone.

Baker often dives into her own struggles, which results in powerful lyrics. With that comes formidable music at a very slow pace. She’s a brilliant artist who benefits from a somber voice. Baker is on her way to becoming harmonious superstar, if she isn’t one already.

3. Melodrama, Lorde

Lorde burst onto the scene with Pure Heroine (2013), an album that, for some reason, still feels under-appreciated. She took some time off leading up to 2017, as some forget she released that beautiful piece of work at the age of 17.

With Melodrama, Lorde shows she didn’t miss a step, and improved upon her already elite status. Incredibly, and much like her first release, she wrote this second album when she was 18. Melodrama focuses primarily on what it’s like to be a young woman struggling to find love while dealing with heartbreak. Few are capable of merging those emotions with such elegance, but not everyone is Lorde, after all. In short, Melodrama could have been my album of the year, and is considered to be just that by many.

2. CTRL, SZA

It’s hard to find words to describe SZA and her long-awaited debut album CTRL. It’s all but impossible to differentiate and rank her above Lorde — two similarly brave women who open up on their respective records.

To SZA’s credit, she took a freestyle approach in the studio while recording CTRL, and turned it into a masterful piece of work. The genre itself is hard to define, one of the many reasons this album is so beautiful. It’s predominantly R&B focused, with some indie mixed in as well as, touching on sexual freedom as well as betrayal. It’s also one of the few times you’ll find Kendrick Lamar at a low, as his part on “Doves in the Wind” is… interesting to say the least, with cringe-worthy lyrics. Few albums this year have left as big of an impact as CTRL.

1. DAMN, Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar is a master storyteller. He has a knack for using his platform to tell the world how he feels, what he’s experienced, and his thoughts on all of it. He’s more than proven it with Section. 80 (2011), Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012), To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and now, DAMN.

He makes a statement on each and every one of his albums. On Good Kid, he gauges everyone’s curiosity. On TPAB, he makes his voice heard. On Damn, an emotionally resonant album, he delivers and exposes his vulnerable side that not many expected to hear. He’s already mastered the art of storytelling, but continues to plug away with a bold approach by being repetitive and relentless. He lets you in, almost as if you were there throughout all of it, and raps about his past, present and future. He does so in a way many aspire to, but few are able to achieve.

For those reasons, DAMN is the album of the year. It’s also worth noting my song of the year is “Love (featuring Zacari)”, which you can listen to above. It’s by far an out-of-the-box choice, but I couldn’t justify placing anything ahead of Kendrick’s fourth full-length composition. SZA and Lorde made the choice a difficult one, but not many artists can match Kendrick. He stands alone.

Just missed the cut:

Flower Boy, Tyler the Creator

This Old Dog, Mac Demarco

I See You, The xx

I Think You’ve Gone Mad, Sean Leon

The Thrill of it All, Sam Smith

(Video courtesy: YouTube)

Journalist/Reporter. Current: @680News | Published work: @thescore, @CDNbaseball | Contact: lukecasaletto@gmail.com

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