Black Squirrel Radio’s Best Albums of 2017

Written by on January 10, 2018

2017, despite being a generally horrible year for the world at large, was absolutely stacked with outstanding music. It saw audacious, boundary-pushing releases from exciting new artists, as well as landmark records from industry veterans. Culling such a fantastic year of albums into a cohesive list of the ten best releases was no easy task, but these releases represent the best and most impactful music 2017 had to offer.


Honorable Mention: Bjork – Utopia

Björk picks up from where she left off in her 2015 release, “Vulnicura,” with “Utopia.” After the end of her relationship with her child’s father Matthew Barney, and “Vulnicura;” she decided to take a happier turn with this record. “Utopia” draws you into another planet, it seems, with out-of-this galaxy flutes and beautiful string arrangements pieced together by the Icelandic powerhouse herself. She also collaborates with up and coming producer and singer Arca. Along with stellar production, Björk has paired the album with a striking cover by Jesse Kanda who has previously worked with FKA twigs and Arca. “Utopia” may not have made the top ten on our list but it is surely worth an honorable mention with its experimental production and peaceful vocals. – Tabor Oliver


10: LCD Soundsystem – “American Dream”

The return of LCD Soundsystem came at a sort of crossroads in indie music. One of the eminent torchbearers of the 2000s indie boom, James Murphy’s transcendental dance-punk experiment arrived in 2017 to a scene that sprang up in the wake of their successes and the successes of their contemporaries a decade prior. And while other past stalwarts, like Arcade Fire and the National, released records this year, none of them had the pivotal self-awareness and requisite emotional maturity of “American Dream.” Tracks like “Tonite” and “Call the Police” show that the band hasn’t lost a beat, while Murphy’s legendarily sardonic songwriting takes on a world-weary acrid bite that represents the final transformation into dance music elder statesman. LCD Soundsystem has been losing their edge since their first single, and the endlessly danceable, unassumingly cool tracks on “American Dream” are imbued with the same feeling; that this could be a hell of a last hurrah. – Conor Battles


9: Ariel Pink – “Dedicated to Bobby Jameson”

A fascinating time capsule mishmash of modern lo-fi cassette culture, anthemic and airy 1980s synthpop and Gary Wilson weirdness, “Dedicated to Bobby Jameson” finds Ariel Pink at his most restrained, and his most intimate. Agelessness is a palpable feeling throughout the album – named after a forgotten ‘60s pop singer, sonically inspired by the glorious synthy schmaltz of the ‘80s, yet the lyrics contain sly nods to Tinder dates gone wrong, the disarming mania of religious fervor, and even an entire song from the perspective of a legendarily bloodthirsty pirate. Ariel Pink has spent over a decade defying classification and shying away from any attempts at coming across like an ordinary, approachable songwriter, but there are moments of tremendous empathy on “Bobby Jameson” that represent the closest listeners have ever gotten to a peek behind the neon haze. – Conor Battles


8: St. Vincent – “MASSEDUCTION”

“MASSEDUCTION” is St. Vincent’s most pop album yet, but with a twist unique to Annie Clark. St. Vincent is often compared to David Bowie for good reason; with each album cycle she seems to reinvent herself and her music. “MASSEDUCTION” turns a funhouse mirror on pop music, warping the genre and exaggerating its absurdities. Clark doesn’t sacrifice passion or feeling for artistic vison, using emotional songs like “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” “New York” and “Smoking Section” to balance the deconstructed pop of the songs like “Los Ageless” and “Pills,” creating an excellent and compelling balance that pulls the album together. – Erik Svensson


7:  Japanese Breakfast – “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”

Japanese Breakfast’s sophomore release caught us off guard this year. A collection of relatively chill shoegaze songs with a bit of pop flair, the album echos somewhere between the melancholic and the outer reaches of space. Beautiful and versatile, the album flows between electronic to full rock band set to acoustic, adding to a wonderful 37-minute menagerie of songs. – Miles Purdy


6. Kelela – “Take Me Apart”

For the fans who have been with Kelela since “Cut 4 Me” back in 2013, this year was one for the books. Kelela finally released her debut with “Take Me Apart.” The album magnifies the story of a breakup moment by moment in each song. She takes you through the “Fuck you” phase to the “’You up’ text” phase to the “Let me love you unconditionally!” phase in a new relationship. “Take Me Apart” finds its breath in its exhaustive list of producers from Bok Bok, Kingdom, Jam City, Ariel Rechtshaid, Arca and plenty of others. The time that went into all of these songs had to be insane – Kelela didn’t pussyfoot around, the wait was definitely worth it. – Tabor Oliver


5: Jay-Z – “4:44”

Jay Z talked to Dean Baquet of the New York Times Style Magazine about originally working on a joint album with Beyoncé before “Lemonade” dropped in 2016. He said that he and Beyoncé used their music as a joint therapy session and the two albums (“Lemonade” and “4:44″) came to fruition. This album is not just a response to “Lemonade” and marital problems though, it’s a stamp on black culture. Hov goes from talking about not letting your head get too big and staying grounded as a black person in ‘The Story of OJ’ then crosses over to ‘Smile’ where he tells the story of his mom coming out to him and acceptance of the LGBT community which has been a controversial topic within the black community. The album shows growth in Jay Z’s songwriting and takes you back to the “Reasonable Doubt” era. “4:44″ has left its mark on not only 2017, but black history as a piece of fine art. – Tabor Oliver


4: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Following the impossibly wide scope of “To Pimp a Butterfly’s” sociological exploration, Kendrick Lamar opted to look inward on DAMN. While there are a few moments of impactful social commentary throughout the record, DAMN. feels at times like Lamar’s public exorcism of his personal demons in the wake of widespread success. “DNA” deals with Lamar’s status as a leader of a community, a role model reluctant to be seen as one. “LOVE,” “LOYALTY,” and “LUST” tackle his struggles to live a quiet life while juggling superstardom. “HUMBLE” juxtaposes hip-hop braggadocio with a vital self-examination and reflection on the roots of a legend. While these heady topics dominate the album, it is a testament to Lamar’s talent that DAMN. also happens to contain some of the best pure rap radio hits in years. DAMN. has lost none of its relentless bombast in the 9 months since its release. At once intensely personal and oddly relatable, Kendrick Lamar the human is at last on equal footing with Kendrick Lamar the cultural icon. – Conor Battles


3: Mount Eerie – “A Crow Looked At Me”

“A Crow Looked At Me” is a record of naked devastation in the wake of a life-changing event. The latest album from Phil Elverum came in the wake of his wife, Geneviève Castrée’s death. The album beings with the words “death is real,” and Elverum spends its runtime contemplating the full scope of his life and the holes that have now appeared in it with her gone and him trying to take care of their daughter. It is an incredibly vulnerable and hard-to-witness work of art that is hard to return to, but impossible to forget. – Erik Svensson


2: King Krule – “The OOZ”

The Ooz cannot be labeled by a single musical quality. It defies categorization, of being placed into a nice genre box; it’s jazzy, it’s funky, it’s punky and it’s surfer-rockin’ overlayed with fat sax and viscous lyrics. King Krule’s latest release does these things and more. Overlayed by Archy Marshall’s deep drones and often frustrated lines, the album is a strange journey that I had no idea would become one of my favorite albums of the year. – Miles Purdy


1: SZA – “CTRL”

SZA’s incendiary, genre-bending debut deftly rips up the contemporary R&B playbook. Tired genre tropes give way to emotive, borderline experimental meditations on love, sex, self-worth, and a wide gamut of other topics, both intensely personal and wide-ranging in scope. “CTRL”’s heady sonic blend of neo-soul, hip-hop, electronic and mellow indie results in an album that sounds like nothing else in modern R&B, while SZA’s confessional songwriting and bold vocal delivery make “CTRL” feel like one of the most intimate ruminations on the nature of modern love in recent memory.  SZA commands a power and, no pun intended, control over her music that belies her rookie status. “I’ve had enough of shitty news,” she declares on “Broken Clocks,” a perfect summation of the manifold struggles that made 2017 so uniquely, unrelentingly hellish. In the face of so much shitty news, “CTRL” remains a groovy, thoughtful high water mark for what is possible within the scope of pop music in 2017. – Conor Battles


Want to see how this year’s list came about? Check out our second annual Album of the Year Deliberations Podcast, wherein we yell about our favorite albums until a list magically appears:


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