My kitchen and den-turned-makeshift-office overflow with albums and CDs this time each year during what’s become an arduous one-man task of sorting through a couple hundred records purchased in the past year, playing a majority of them once or twice more – on my kitchen CD player or den turntable -- then determining which make the cut and how they line up in my annual Top 50.
Same rules as always: No genre limitations, no restrictions other than an album must be available on vinyl or CD, and boxed sets, live albums and reissues aren’t eligible (though I must say, terrific Prince, Radiohead, Gillian Welch and R.E.M. expanded and remastered reissues this year tempted me to bend that rule). Oh, and the album had to be released in physical form during 2017, but not before. That came into play with Run the Jewels 3, which was digitally released last Christmas Eve but not physically released until Jan. 13.
Along those same lines, I had Sarah Shook & the Disarmers' "Sidelong" high on my list, then discovered that while Bloodshot Records picked it up and gave it a national release this year including first time on vinyl -- that's when I bought it, this past summer -- the CD actually came out as an independent release in 2015. I had no idea and had already done my list and posted it before I stumbled upon that fact while looking for a song link to share from the album. So that's the only reason you don't see it here. (FYI, it was one of the very best albums that I heard this year; North Carolinian Shook and her band are terrific.)
Obviously, any best-albums list is highly subjective; one of the things that makes music so essential and wonderful is how it makes us feel, and that’s a personal thing having nothing to do with widespread appeal, number of units sold or critical reviews. So this is nothing more than one man’s list of the best albums that came out in 2017.
Did I miss some great albums? No doubt. Can’t hear them all, and I’d go broke trying to buy more.
Also, I buy what I want to hear or what I’ve heard or read about in other places that seems like it’d be up my alley. So, while I also buy tons of old used vinyl – my obsessions are 1960s and ‘70s country, blues and soul – my new-album purchases mostly lean toward Americana, “alternative” rock (whatever that is these days), country music that you don’t hear on country radio, retro-sounding soul/R&B and provocative hip-hop -- I’m admittedly quite the snob in the latter category and tend only to like rap artists with a political or otherwise compelling message. I also buy some metal, jazz and reggae.
And my top 50 list reflects my leanings.
So let’s get to it. This time it was a little easier for me to pick my No. 1 than in some recent years, when I thought multiple albums were worthy of the top distinction and picking one over the other might have come down to how I felt that day. Not this time. I’ve known since the April day when I first played Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” that it was the best I'd heard this year to that point and that it would take a remarkable album to unseat it.
The ones that came closest to Kendrick were the aforementioned Run The Jewels album; my man Jason Isbell’s “The Nashville Sound,” which was the third consecutive highly acclaimed release from a guy I consider one of the two best current songwriters under age 60 (the other is James McMurtry); Atlanta-based band Algiers' second heavy, timely album, and Brand New’s “Science Fiction,” the first album in eight years by the Long Island band and supposedly their swan song. If it was, to say they went out on a high note would be a vast understatement.
But like I said, one album towered above all others this year for me, and it was by the 5-foot-6 outrageously talented rapper and songwriter from Compton. I’m not one to throw around that “musical genius” label without restraint, but one could argue it applies to Kendrick Lamar, who reigns over current hip-hop artists and has taken the genre to another level by releasing four epic albums in a six-year span including three legit masterpieces – “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City: in 2012, “To Pimp A Butterfly” in 2015 and now this one. Damn, indeed.
Kendrick lost me just a little on his 2016 album “untitled unmastered,” which I thought was very good but not as superb as his previous two. But on this year’s “DAMN.” -- there's a period in the title -- he comes across as not just the brightest guy in the room, but also the boldest, most entertaining and most innovative.
For me, the hip-hop bar was set awfully high in the 1980s when Public Enemy changed the game with its first couple of vital, relentless, thought-provoking albums. I listened to others like Schooly D, Eric B. & Rakim, Run-DMC, Boogie Down Productions, Beastie Boys and Nas up through the 1990s. But after the Beasties and Tribe Called Quest shut it down, and Biggie and Tupac were shot down, and Wu-Tang Clan and Nas slowed down, my hip-hop purchases became less frequent.
But in Kendrick, here's a 30-year-old who has picked up where the legendary rappers left off. He’s that good.
Like Chuck D and Nas, he’s artistic and political, profane and profound, thoughtful and fierce. On "DAMN.", Kendrick is hard but also a little humble. And he shows again that he's the best in the rap game and among the best there's ever been.
DOB’s Top 50 Albums of 2017
Best of the rest:
Beck “Colors”; Brother Ali “All the Beauty in this Whole Life”; Mark Eitzel “Hey Mr. Ferryman”; Grizzly Bear “Painted Ruins”; Curtis Harding “Face Your Fear”; Ray Wylie Hubbard “Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can”; Vijay Iyer Sextet “Far From Over”; Jay Som “Everybody Works”; King Krule “The OOZ”; LCD Soundsystem “American Dream”; Laura Marling “Semper Femina”; Migos “Culture”; Zephania Ohora “This Highway”; Angaleena Presley “Wrangled”; Margo Price “All American Made”; Priests “Nothing Feels Natural”; Queens of the Stone Age “Villains”; Jesse Royal “Lily of Da Valley”; Strand of Oaks “Hard Love”; Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives "Way Out West"; Tinariwen “Elwan”