One could argue that, like editing, music criticism isn’t a job; it’s a sickness. How many people do you know who, with very little prompting, will go on for several minutes or paragraphs or longer about an artist or album? Relatedly, as you may have heard, music critics take lists really seriously — especially year-end Top 10s, with which their identities seem inextricably intertwined (and I’m writing about this in the third person, even though I’ve been making lists like this since high school). Variety Music already wrote about our Top 20 albums of the year — and all three of our main critics submitted personal Top 10s. But for some (okay, for one of us), that just wasn’t enough. See below …
Kendrick Lamar, “Damn.”
Nick Hakim, “Green Twins”
Waxahatchee, “Out in the Storm”
Hundred Waters, “Communicating”
Ibibio Sound Machine, “Uyai”
Bryson Tiller, “True to Self”
Kelela, “Take Me Apart”
BONUS: ARCHIVAL RELEASES
Isaac Hayes, “The Spirit of Memphis 1962-76”
Neil Young, “Hitchhiker”
Rolling Stones “On Air (BBC Sessions 1963-65)”
David Bowie, “A New Career in a New Town (1977-80)”
Prince and the Revolution, “Purple Rain (Deluxe Expanded Edition)”
1. Kendrick Lamar, “Damn”
2. Perfume Genius, “No Shape”
3. SZA, “Ctrl”
4. Jay-Z, “4:44”
5. Waxahatchee, “Out in the Storm”
6. Run the Jewels, “Run the Jewels 3”
7. Vince Staples, “Big Fish Theory”
8. Thundercat, “Drunk”
9. Lana Del Rey, “Lust for Life”
10. Kamasi Washington, “Harmony of Difference”
Taylor Swift, “Reputation”
In recent years, Swift has faced a tough choice — whether to continue being a lyrically dynamic singer/songwriter in the classic, confessional sense, or whether to ditch all that diarism for the very different demands of rhythm-based, production-driven top 40. But then, it’s probably been about 10 years since anyone told Taylor Swift she can’t have it all. So, on “Reputation,” she does, making a record that somehow feels like an intimate kitchen-table conversation and a night at the club, simultaneously. The days of teardrops on her guitar are gone — not just because there are virtually no guitars, but hardly any teardrops, either, on an album where she’s mostly X-ed out writing about exes. She’s toughened up by the backlashes, softened up by the love of a new guy, and putting both into songs that feel peculiarly detailed and weirdly universal.
Aimee Mann, “Mental Illness”
Her Grammy nomination for best folk album has puzzled a few folks, but you can kinda see where the Recording Academy was going with this: Mann did drop the drums, leaving voices and acoustic instruments to carry, even if the string section that embellishes nearly every track isn’t so folksy. Easy labels aside, Mann has honed things down to baroque pop at its most beautiful and cerebral, each song presenting a separate psychological puzzle box that it’s sheer privilege to unlock.
The New Pornographers, “Whiteout Conditions”
What do you get if you throw the Pixies, the Mamas and the Papas, and some classic synth-rock in a blender? Something like the mixture of nervous energy and pure pop bliss that is the New Pornographers, whose blending of Carl Newman’s and Neko Case’s lead vocals makes the case for supergroups still being an underrated concept. If there’s an undertone of doom to much of the album, their b.p.m. and unceasing melodic invention invite you to dance and whistle past the graveyard .
Jack Antonoff had an impressive year — he co-produced part or all of four albums on this list. When it comes to Swift, Pink, and St. Vincent, you suspect they would have been fine with or without him. Lorde was in a more pivotal spot, needing to remove the hermetic seal after a debut album that’d put her impressively on the map as a teen but felt too insular for her own good. The lyrics on her sophomore effort have Lorde busting out of her own precocious head to join the party, and the vastly more dynamic music manages that, too: She got the green light to be effusive in her eccentricity.
Chris Stapleton, “From A Room, Volume 1”
Stapleton may end up claiming the three biggest selling country albums of the year, between the enduring appeal of “Traveller” and the sophomore effort that he split into two parts in 2017, “From A Room Vols. 1-2.” There’s a reason Stapleton is a one-man monopolist at the top of that chart: He’s proficient as both a Southern-blues-rock howler and the kind of acoustic picker who can pull off a ballad like “Broken Halos,” a suitable-for-any-mass-tragedy tearjerker for which 2017 unfortunately found way too much need.
St. Vincent, “Masseduction”
Annie, you are very okay. Not that we should necessarily vouch for that strictly from the lyrics, which have Annie Clark grappling with friends’ addiction issues and backing off from her own perch at the edge of a depressed abyss. But when the music has this much auteurist-rock confidence and newfound pop sheen, you end up feeling she’ll be the last one standing.
Mavis Staples, “If All I Was Was Black”
Producer Jeff Tweedy wrote the soul legend an entire album’s worth of topically allusive material that means to evoke the Staple Singers’ civil rights-era roots. It hits those racially and socially aware notes without a hint of preachiness. There’s no didacticism, just delight, in Staples’ and Tweedy’s minimalist funk-rock.
Vince Staples, “Big Fish Theory”
This year, Kendrick Lamar streamlined his expansiveness to get back to rap basics, so it was up to others, like Staples, to go truly hog-wild in the studio. But what was really expansive was all the mixed emotions he was able to bring to the material — full of hubris one moment, deeply self-doubting the next. Even as he came more sharply into focus as a personality and star, he provided the most sonically sprawling, anything-goes hip-hop album of the year.
Randy Newman, “Dark Matter”
Getting back to his early-‘70s roots, Newman eschews anything that sounds like rock or Pixar. His first new album in almost a decade is a set of exquisitely orchestrated piano numbers that take on the oddest of subjects — Putin, the Kennedy family, creationism, competing bluesmen — and some not so odd at all, like old age, love, and loneliness. We’ve still got a subversive friend in him.
Moses Sumney, “Aromanticism”
Morrissey used to be the loneliest boy in the world, but at some point, having owned up to actually having had a relationship or two, he had to abdicate that title. Sumney is his R&B successor, still in that state of pre-romantic — or, as he puts it, aromantic — grace, looking upon the very idea of romantic love as an impossible platonic (or non-platonic) ideal. His falsetto and the edge around it represent longing in its purest, most gorgeous form.
Pink, “Beautiful Trauma”
Pink represents the perfect point of connectivity between the previous age of female superstars and the next one — she can belt with enough force to seem like a distant cousin of Celine’s, but the F-words that flow out of her mouth belong to a different generation’s divas. Her best album since 2006’s “I’m Not Dead” runs the gamut from a predictably and deliciously irreverent breakup duet with Eminem to lung-searing reconciliation ballads. There wasn’t a better single this year than “What About Us,” her goosebump-raising roar in the face of the Trumpocalypse.
Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, “Not Dark Yet”
An Everly Sisters for 2017. Great solo careers finally became conjoined as the siblings united on record for the first time in the service of new takes on rock and country catalog tracks by Cobain, Haggard, Isbell, and Dylan. In a year when harmony of any sort seemed harder to find than ever, their blend was sheer balm.
Like Vince Staples — albeit in a far more zeitgeist-conquering way — SZA came out on top by not being afraid to wonder how she might not measure up, in half-insecure, half-cocky songs like “Drew Barrymore” and “Supermodel.” She’s the model of what hip-hop needed and got out of a female star this year: a musical and lyrical omnivore with the complexity to match her candor.
Sam Smith, “The Thrill of It All”
Since Swift stopped making breakup songs this year, Smith redoubled his efforts to make every relationship song on his sophomore album sound as torturous as possible. He and his producers clearly studied the work of the great analog R&B masters to make a follow-up this instrumentally stripped-down, leaving room for lots of falsetto notes and no false ones.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound”
There was some ironic reclamation in the title of Isbell’s latest effort; “how we wish” might be the unspoken subtitle. “White Man’s World,” “Hope the High Road,” and “Anxiety” were anthems for anyone who guessed they just weren’t made for this world in 2017, as the king of Americana edged ever so slightly away from his great character-driven narratives and slightly more toward just wearing his heart completely out on his sleeve.
Most artists making their album debut get to express some joy before getting into the real depths on later records. But by the time Sampha made his first album, after being featured on recordings by Kanye, Drake, Solange, et al, he had a lot to process, including his mother’s decline and death. The result is as far removed from temporal concerns as R&B gets, yet elating.
Charlie Worsham, “The Beginning of Things”
If Stapleton had the year’s best traditional country album, Worsham had the year’s best major-label effort in the non-trad division, bringing in pop, rock, and funk… although he can do vintage Nashville as well as anybody, too. How is it that country this outrightly commercial doesn’t get on the radio?
Cécile McLorin Salvant, “Dreams & Daggers”
The most acclaimed new jazz singer in a generation sang a double-album’s worth of mostly familiar standards with enough of an eye toward issues of race and gender that it feels as up-to-the-moment as any hip-hop album.
Lee Ann Womack, “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone”
Smoking a verboten cigarette on the cover is a sign of just how enthusiastically Womack is leaving mainstream country behind to zero in on the starker stuff that heartbreak is made of.
Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
It’s very early Elton, reincarnated as 2017’s saddest and crankiest singer/essayist. If only every modern think-piece sounded like it was orchestrated by Paul Buckmaster. We may not want to sail on this ship of fools… but we could all do a lot worse for a tour guide.
And the year’s best singles:
“What About Us,” Pink
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” the National
“Ballad of the Dying Man,” Father John Misty
“Green Light,” Lorde
“Drew Barrymore,” SZA
“Pills,” St. Vincent
“Everything Now,” Arcade Fire
“High Ticket Attractions,” the New Pornographers
“Thoughts & Prayers,” Will Hoge
“Anxiety,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
“Blood on Me,” Sampha
“Still Feel Like Your Man,” John Mayer
“…Ready for It?,” Taylor Swift
“The Beginning of Things,” Charlie Worsham
“You’re the Best Thing About Me,” U2
“Want You Back,” Haim
“Too Good at Goodbyes,” Sam Smith
“No Stars,” Rebekah Del Rio