Best Music of 2017 (So Far)

Musically speaking, the first half of 2017 has seen several pre-existing conditions continue. Unusually, the most popular genres of music — pop and hip-hop/R&B — are also seeing the most innovation; dance music has retreated deeper into its pop and purist camps; and while rock has continued to infiltrate country’s sound, traditional rock music remains on life support, with its self-appointed savior Dave Grohl gearing up for yet another sermon to the converted (in the form of a new album, “Concrete and Gold,” due in September with months of touring to follow).

But it also feels like change is on the horizon. Several would-be blockbusters — Drake’s “More Life,” Katy Perry’s “Witness,” the Chainsmokers’ “Memories… Do Not Open” — arrived in a flurry of self-important bluster and instant ubiquity and debuts at No. 1, but feel more like branding exercises than any reflection of culture or society or even any mood beyond a self-congratulatory one. Yet also debuting at No. 1 were ex-One Direction dreamboat Harry Styles, with a refreshing outlier of a solo debut that joyfully and defiantly doesn’t fit into any genre; Migos, bringing the deep-bottomed, meme-centric sound of Atlanta into the mainstream; Bryson Tiller’s polyglot fusion of R&B and hip-hop; and Lorde’s sonic reality show about being a 20-year-old superstar.

At a time when everyone from Perry to LCD Soundsystem to Jay Z (er, as of last week apparently it’s Jay-Z again) is shouting and showboating in an effort to be heard over the din — via marketing, social media, or strategic stunts like high-profile hyphen revivals — to us, the subtler approaches of the Kendricks and SZAs and Styles are the ones actually cutting through it. — Jem Aswad

Father John Misty — “Pure Comedy” (Sub Pop)
Around the release of this grandiose, gratuitous, and great album, Father John Misty (aka Josh Tillman) shaved off his impressive beard, leaving behind just a cheesy mustache that looked straight out of a ’70s buddy movie. And in a way it was the perfect symbol for his post-ironic music, which is usually mesmerizing and preposterous at the same time, an elaborate joke that’s still a beautiful collection of songs. That song sounds like Elton John, and this one like John Lennon and the other like Nilsson? That arrangement is straight out of a Jimmy Webb or Lee Hazlewood album? He knows, and he knows a lot of you know, and you can take the elaborate, often-exhausting subtext and play along — or ignore it and just appreciate his classic songwriting and warm, crisp voice. — JA

Kendrick Lamar — “DAMN.” (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope)
Kendrick Lamar has always had the potential to become the defining hip-hop figure of his generation — but for a while, the only question was whether he wanted to. After the unqualified triumph of 2012’s “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City,” Lamar seemed more interested in testing the limits of his abilities than refining them, spending his cultural capital on the sometimes brilliant, sometimes exhausting experiments of “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “untitled unmastered.” But on this year’s “DAMN.,” he returned from the wilderness to claim his throne, and it’s hard to imagine who could challenge him. From the gale-force intensity of opener “DNA” to the elegance of “Love” and the unflinching self-examination of “Fear,” this is a hip-hop album of truly uncommon range, depth, and precision. Rarely has a record’s title functioned so perfectly as its own one-word review: DAMN. All caps. Period. — Andrew Barker

Lorde — “Melodrama” (Lava Music/Republic)
Lorde sounded spookily wisened in the blockbuster debut album she released when she was 16, standing outside the fray of pop life and looking in with a slightly scolding tone. But on “Melodrama,” the 20-year-old acts her age by jumping into the world of relationships and fully owning all the mixed feelings of breakups and makeup romances. And while the album lives up to its winking title well enough, it’s also surprisingly full of fun, as new producer/co-writer Jack Antonoff helps her transcend the first album’s hermetically sealed electro beats for something richer, like an artsier version of pal Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It’s the great weird-pop album 2017 desperately needed. — Chris Willman

Migos — “Culture” (Quality Control Music/300 Entertainment/Atlantic)
Migos don’t always have that much to say, but it’s mesmerizing to hear them say it. After years as barely-below-the-radar favorites, the Atlanta trio emerged as legitimate stars with January’s “Culture,” boosted by the inescapable No. 1 single “Bad and Boujee.” Originators of one of the most distinctive — and oft-imitated — rap styles of the last decade, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff attack the microphone like boxers, with staccato lyrical jabs erupting into devastating mini-flurries of triplet wordplay that carry their own internal rhythmic logic. The beats — particularly on “T-Shirt” and “Big on Big” — are the best the group has yet rhymed over, but Migos is the rare modern hip-hop act that would be just as engaging rapping a cappella. — AB

Sampha — “Process” (Young Turks/XL)
After a pair of EPs and collaborations with Kanye West, Drake, and Solange, with his debut album Sampha delivers on all of the promise of his previous work and then some. The British-born son of Sierra Leonian parents, Sampha takes the baton from James Blake in defining the 21st century piano man with ambitious songwriting and arrangements that are organically fused with electronics and are yet still soulful — it’s soul music for and from digital natives. — JA

Chris Stapleton — “From A Room Volume 1” (Mercury Nashville)
Country music has been holding out for a hero, and boy, have we got one. The follow-up to Stapleton’s stellar 2-million-selling debut, “Traveller,” cements his status as everyone’s favorite old-soul upstart — 39 going on 84. On the first half of this sophomore album, he sounds like idol Willie Nelson, not just because he’s covering one of his old hits, or borrowing harmonica player Mickey Raphael, but because Stapleton nails that gentle outlaw lyricism. The second volume (due later this year) turns up the guitar and grit and emphasizes his bluesman side. Think of him as Willie with the pipes of a Paul Rodgers and hands of a Freddie King. — CW

Harry Styles — “Harry Styles” (Columbia)
At a time when streaming’s sudden supremacy has made musical genres increasingly meaningless, here comes 23-year-old former One Direction dreamboat Harry Styles with an album that gloriously, defiantly doesn’t fit in anywhere, except maybe on some Midwestern FM radio station 20 years before he was born. “Harry Styles” is that rare generation-spanning, forward-thinking retro album, one that nods to the past without garishly repeating it apart from an occasional self-aware wink. It’s loaded with acoustic guitars and has nary a trap beat, drop or apparently even an electronic drum: Think Amy Winehouse, Justin Timberlake, and of course Adele, although he doesn’t sound much like any of them apart from the Adelesque grandiosity of the lead single, “Sign of the Times.” It even feels like an old-school vinyl album: In an era when many long-players have 18 songs and hover around the 70-minute mark, this one’s got an even 10 tracks and clocks in at 40 minutes, without feeling skimpy. But whether or not the album and its sound make a lasting impression on young ears, Styles has made a bold and brave statement of intent that completely reinvents him as an artist — and leaves a wide-open road for whatever he might want to do next. — JA

SZA — “Ctrl” (Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA)
One could plausibly argue that “alt-R&B” came into its own as a genre with The Weeknd’s 2011 debut “House of Balloons,” which incorporated gloomy atmospherics and Siouxsie & the Banshees samples into the traditionally soulful and mainstream-leaning sound. In the past few years the genre has blossomed and morphed into any number of shapes — ranging from Frank Ocean and Solange to Bryson Tiller and Kehlani to outliers like James Blake and How to Dress Well — and the debut full-length from New Jersey-raised singer-songwriter SZA (Solána Rowe) is the latest and most exciting. Following a string of EPs and collaborations with Rihanna (“Consideration”), Schoolboy Q and the Nicki Minaj/Beyonce tag-team “Feeling Myself,” the singer’s long-percolating debut mixes futurist, mid-tempo beats with indelible melodies over its impressively consistent 14 tracks — cosigns and contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, James Fauntleroy and Isaiah Rashad add flavor but never distract from her distinctive and deft vocals and strikingly intimate wordplay. — JA

Sylvan Esso — “What Now” (Loma Vista)
After making a big stir in alternative circles with their lo-fi 2014 debut, this North Carolina-based electronic-pop duo has progressed as far with this, their second album, as most groups do in two or three. Powered by months of touring behind their first album, “What Now” finds the group stepping up with bigger and more refined hooks and production and a wide variety of songs that range from dance-pop to an almost acoustic lilt to a nearly a capella track. The group’s chemistry is sparked by the contrasts of multi-instrumentalist Nick Sanborn, a trained jazz musician, and completely untrained vocalist Amelia Meath, but their pop savvy is what makes the music — particularly “Radio,” a radio song about radio songs — so memorable. — JA

Tinariwen — “Elwan” (Anti/Epitaph)
Hailing from the war-torn Saharan region between Mali and Algeria, Tinariwen’s sound is a unique, guitar-driven fusion of North and West African musics with Western rock. While the group has existed since the late ‘70s, it first toured outside of its home region in 2001 and has since attracted many fans among indie rock musicians, and this latest outing features guest appearances from singer Mark Lanegan and guitarists Kurt Vile and Matt Sweeney, although none of them detract from the group’s circular, spidery riffs and haunting melodies, which are frequently punctuated with whoops and whistles. The recent violence in Mali forced the group to record this album at studios in southern Morocco and Joshua Tree, California, and while the lyrical themes are generally lost to anyone who doesn’t speak the Berber dialect Tamasheq, the yearning and sense of exile are palpable in every note. — JA

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