The best albums of 2017 so far

From Richard Dawson’s medieval Britain to Pixx’s super-contemporary take on pop – plus sharp records by stars such as Kendrick Lamar and Drake – 2017 is already shaping up to be a great musical year

The Charlatans – Different Days

The band who brought southern soul to Britpop continued to keep their creative vision wide open, as psychedelic sunlight was poured into driving guitar pop not unlike MGMT or Tame Impala.

What we said: The Charlatans’ 13th album is grounded on the band’s own indestructible chemistry, Tim Burgess’s exquisitely happy-sad vocals and their ability to juggle melancholy and joy into exhilarating pop songs.

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Myra Davies – Sirens

The year’s best underground release so far, in which pieces by Canadian spoken-word artist Myra Davies are paired with pounding electronic backdrops from producers Gudrun Gut and Beate Bartel. The drolly observational Davies covers everything from retellings of Wagner to slices of life in Istanbul airport, and even a very funny takedown of John Cage.

Video: album trailer for Sirens by Myra Davies

Richard Dawson – Peasant

Dawson continues to prove he’s one of the UK’s most vivid songwriters, as he delves into Britain’s medieval past in tales of scientists, soldiers and violence in bathhouses. There’s a bit of eastern mysticism and American Primitive in the twanging guitars, blended with superb melodic invention as Dawson’s voice roams from keening falsetto into singsong speech.

What we said: An album that’s out there on its own, and not merely because it’s a song cycle set in the early middle ages that doesn’t make you want to curl up and die of embarrassment. Abstruse but weirdly accessible, recherche but pertinent, Peasant is quite an achievement.

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Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog

It may have few of the rollicking numbers that turn his live show into a beer-spattered melee, but DeMarco’s ruminative voice suits his ever more mournful take on soft rock, synthpop and acoustic ballads.

What we said: There’s undeniably a bid for respectability going on here – DeMarco once famously performed with a drumstick up his bum, which is a reputation that takes some shedding. But this melancholic approach – serious themes, stoned demeanour – seems a smart way to reposition himself.

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Drake – More Life

Loosening up … Drake. Photograph: David Wolff/Redferns

The patron saint of Instagram DMs loosened up again after the slightly staid Views album, using a “playlist” framework to showcase his diaspora-straddling take on R&B. Blem and Passionfruit nicely pre-empted summer, while Kanye West and Young Thug brought exceptional melodies to Glow and Ice Melts, and Giggs and Jorja Smith did the UK proud.

What we said: The project is closer towards old-school rap mixtapes, where unreleased tracks sat alongside potential singles and one-off tracks from crew hangers-on. Even if the album lacks the humour of the Views songs 9 or Child’s Play ... the breadth of styles recalls his 2012-2015 SoundCloud that found space for both Fetty Wap and James Blake remixes.

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Laurel Halo – Dust

The underground electronic producer has dabbled in everything from dub techno to synth jams in the past, but empties out her entire paintbox on this ambitious and brilliant record. These are songs from the very outer reaches of pop, loose but with a unique centre of gravity.

What we said: An album that brilliantly reimagines jazz songcraft for the 21st century … a triumph of impressionism, where the digital and organic coexist in a radically beautiful whole.

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Jlin – Black Origami

After her debut Dark Energy blew us away in 2015, the former steelworker from Gary, Indiana has created another stunningly off-kilter take on Chicago’s high-speed footwork style. Chants and eerie snatches of film dialogue ricochet around restless drum programming that invites seriously wonky dancing. Read Simon Reynolds’ interview with her here.

Kesha – Rainbow

Having spent the past couple of years hampered by her ongoing legal battle with producer Dr Luke, this summer saw Kesha emerge from music industry limbo with Rainbow, a collection of unpolished, intriguingly disparate songs that ricocheted between glam rock, indie-folk, funk and bombastic country with triumphant ease.

What we said: The suggestion Rainbow successfully posits is that the woman who lurked somewhere behind the Ke$ha image might be every bit as fierce and screw-you as her persona, and a substantially more eclectic and idiosyncratic musical force to boot.

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Steve Lacy – Demo

Steve Lacy
Sun-baked soul-pop … Steve Lacy Photograph: PR

Despite having only just graduated from high school, Steve Lacy has already been nominated for a Grammy for his production on the Internet’s album Ego Death, and made the backing for Pride by Kendrick Lamar (featured on Damn, listed below). His solo debut may only be 13 minutes long, but its sunbaked, lo-fi take on soul-pop – imagine a more ramshackle Miguel – suggests a very exciting future.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn

The world’s No 1 MC continues to blend earworms with exploratory flow, on a set where Lamar’s lens turns from himself to the world and back again throughout.

What we said: Whether Damn will have the same epochal impact as To Pimp a Butterfly remains to be seen, but either way it sounds like the work of a supremely confident artist at the top of his game.

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LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

In light of LCD’s fussed-over disbandment in 2011, some fans were sceptical – if not actively annoyed – about James Murphy and friends’ reunion. But the contents of American Dream more than outshone any hypocrisy on the part of its maker, thanks to hugely sophisticated songs that managed to be both uproariously funny and exquisitely sad.

What we said: Tonite and Call the Police are as good as anything they’ve done, while Oh, Baby miraculously manages to outshine their dazzling previous work.

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Lil Yachty – Teenage Emotions

Hip-hop purists can’t stand him for his DayGlo aesthetic and ill-disciplined metre, but more fool them – Lil Yachty’s tremendous debut album features everything from 80s boogie to ferocious trap and sad-boy balladry, in tracks that experimentally push the boundaries of rap.

What we said: This is an instinctively catchy and frequently startling record. Yachty draws on some clear influences – the arrhythmic streams of teen consciousness of Lil B and Soulja Boy, the radical, Auto-Tuned solipsism of Kanye West, the soapbox declarations of Young Thug – and carbonates them into brilliant outsider pop.

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Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Clear-eyed lyricism... Laura Marling
Clear-eyed lyricism... Laura Marling Photograph: Hollie Fernando

A reflection on femininity partly borne out of studies of muses, painters and psychoanalysts, this is a smart, beautifully produced album held up by surefooted rhythm, draped in gorgeous strings – and of course anchored by Marling’s clear-eyed lyricism.

What we said: Punchy and confident ... an album that’s as big on telling details as it is on big ideas.

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The National – Sleep Well Beast

Using the monotony of middle-age as its central theme, the Ohio outfit’s seventh album turned the dry and dispiriting minutiae of ageing into something evocative and naturalistic – presumably aided by the fact that lyricists Carin Besser and Matt Berninger (the band’s frontman) are a married couple. Soundtracked by soaring pop and antsy psych, there was brightness, too, amid the nuanced shades of grey.

What we said: It deals not in fury and vengeance, but passing moments of eye-rolling frustration and sighing ennui; not in cataclysmic, rupturing rows but grumbling discontent and odd spasms of self-flagellation.

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Paramore – After Laughter

The eternally feuding emo-punks carry on their decisive march into pure pop, with tight funk licks, soft-rock moods and Hayley Williams’s ever-instinctive attraction to chorus melodies.

What we said: The grooves they always possessed are brought to the forefront on this peppy, vibrant record ... 80s pop production and highlife rhythms lead Hayley Williams’s powerhouse vocals to unexpectedly fun heights.

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Perfume Genius – No Shape

The most robust album yet from Mike Hadreas, as echoing strings, distorted noise and his own voice – lilting with an elegant touch of vibrato – cohere around grand and somewhat gothic songwriting.

Perfume Genius
Somewhat gothic … Perfume Genius. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

What we said: The tunes are so uniformly fantastic that it’s easy to overlook the rich seam of strangeness that runs through the album’s sound ... a unique talent coming into full bloom.

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Pixx – The Age of Anxiety

2017 has seen more solo female pop stars than ever before, but Pixx cut through the noise with an authoritative, futurist LP that took in motorik guitars and PC Music-style gloss on the way to an electropop classic.

What we said: A riveting and refreshing debut, which balances weirdness with sweet and soothing electropop joy.

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Protomartyr – Relatives in Descent

Alluding to all manner of recent devastation – from Trump to the Flint water crisis – Relatives in Descent used lugubrious vocals and caustic guitars to brilliantly articulate dense dread and abiding indignation.

What we said: A slow-burn apocalypse of ennui and injustice crackles through the sensational fourth album from these Detroit post-punks.

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Sampha – Process

His debut album may have come years after his first tracks, as he paused to collaborate with everyone from Drake to both Knowles sisters, but it was worth the wait: a digital soul record given tremendous emotional power by his keenly hurt voice.

What we said: Nothing feels in thrall to current trends in R&B, either sonically or emotionally ... a weighty, powerful album with an identity entirely of its own.

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Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz

Dense, abstract sound... Shabazz Palaces
Dense, abstract sound … Shabazz Palaces Photograph: Hayley Young/The Guardian

In July, Seattle rap duo Shabazz Palaces released Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines, twin concept albums about an alien visitor to earth (“An observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary”). The narrative may have been impenetrable, but the records were surprisingly approachable, mixing gratifying experimentalism with sharp lyrics and woozy nostalgia.

What we said: The power comes from the way they spike their dense, abstract sound with moments of accessibility: a band broadening what they do without blunting their edge or losing their unique character.

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Sheer Mag - Need to Feel Your Love

Led by the exhilaratingly gravelly vocals of Tina Halladay, this Philadelphia quintet’s debut album was a parade of lo-fi garage that toyed effortlessly with a host of other genres. Alternating between quixotic love songs and right-on calls to arms, this is a record that twitches with energy and bittersweet emotion.

What we said: Sheer Mag give you everything – socially conscious, sexually confident rock’n’roll that nods to pub rock, punk, funk, blues and 80s indie – and make it even more than the sum of its parts.

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Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly – On Her Journey to the Sun

The year’s most impressive prog album blended Sjöblom’s soulful vocals with intricate and cosmically meandering guitar lines. But it crucially doesn’t go on a quest up inside itself, instead retaining a universal pop sensibility.

Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet – December Avenue

Aided by some gorgeously pensive piano motifs from David Virelles, Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko is given space to create a stunning series of improvisations, from energetic ferreting to dazed melancholia.

Tomasz Stańko
Energetic ferreting … Tomasz Stańko. Photograph: Andy Sheppard/Redferns via Getty Images

What we said: Nobody holds a single, long-blown trumpet note like the Polish pioneer Tomasz Stańko – a wearily exhaled, soberly ironic, yet oddly awestruck sound that is unique in jazz ... an exquisite exercise in haunting tone-poetry, occasionally pierced by urgent avant-swing.

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Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

One of rap’s most singular voices walks a wire across the mainstream and underground, pulling in big name guest stars (Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J) for idiosyncratic outsider pop, topped with his own wonderfully jaded flow.

What we said: Staples might not own everyone quite yet but Big Fish Theory suggests he’s well on the way.

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Syd – Fin

The one-time Odd Future DJ and bandleader of The Internet stepped out on her own for this sensual set, where she weaved breathy yet steely vocal lines through minimalist trap atmospheres.

What we said: As hinted at by the record sleeve’s oceanic shadows, Fin has depths that only become more apparent the longer you spend engulfed in them.

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Thundercat – Drunk

The virtuosic bassist created his best-loved album yet, recruiting everyone from soft rock legends Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald to rappers Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell Williams, for funk songs that zipped around the stars.

Video: Show You the Way by Thundercat

What we said: Takes you down a rabbit hole and turfs you out in his lopsided wonderland of funk, soul, hip-hop and soft rock... an eccentric, surreal and oddly hypnotic listen.

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Vijay Iyer Sextet – Far from Over

Adding saxophonists and a trumpeter to his usual trio, US jazz pianist Iyer delivered a masterclass in intoxicating improvisations and fragmented grooves.

What we said: An object lesson in music for the heart, the head and the feet, Far from Over often sounds like vivacious folk music or displaced blues.

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Wiley – The Godfather

After grime’s belated ascendance to global attention over the last couple of years, its enigmatic originator reminded everyone that he is still one of the best, deploying his pinpoint-accurate flow over everything from club bangers to soulful tales of woman trouble.

What we said: His demeanour on this blockbuster album is of a foreman nodding with satisfaction as he looks across a building site – if they’re not already guesting on it, Wiley is praising his fellow UK MCs almost every other bar.

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Selected by Rachel Aroesti, Lanre Bakare, Ben Beaumont-Thomas, John Fordham, Harriet Gibsone, Kate Hutchinson, Tim Jonze, Dom Lawson and Alexis Petridis.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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