Dextrous raps, sensual R&B and literate pop all rub shoulders in a “poll of polls” to find the top 10 albums of 2017.
The BBC looked at 30 of the “best of 2017” lists in music’s most influential publications – including the NME, Rolling Stone, Vice, Billboard and Q Magazine – to find the highest-ranked albums of the year.
Read about the Top 10, and what the critics had to say about each of them, below.
10) Kelela – Take Me Apart
Kelela Mizanekristos‘ ambition for her debut album was to discover “the place between Bjork, Sade, and Beyonce”.
It’s a goal she achieves – the shape-shifting R&B of Take Me Apart is both familiar and challenging, as the 34-year-old deconstructs the emotional mechanics of a break-up, from devastation through recrimination to the blossoming of a new love.
- “These are unanchored R&B songs for unmoored times, with Kelela’s alluring vocals holding fast, front and centre.” [The Guardian]
9) Sampha – Process
A sonically adventurous patchwork of analogue and digital soul, Process was written as London-born singer Sampha Sisay processed the grief from his mother’s death.
His anguish is palpable throughout – and nowhere is it more moving than on (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano, where he reminisces about the keyboard she taught him to play as a five year-old.
- “Process [is] an intimate epic of the worst minutes, hours, days, and years of Sampha Sisay’s life. But it’s also a story about the small moments of levity that allow one to endure what comes next.” [Vice]
8) Perfume Genius – No Shape
Tortured soul Mike Hadreas started his recording career as Perfume Genius in 2010, recording candid ballads about growing up gay, isolated, confused and bullied.
No Shape lets the light in. Full of lavish, rococo string arrangements and buoyant melodies, it finds the singer shedding his anxieties and settling down. “Did you notice, we sleep through the night?” he sings on Alan – a song dedicated to his lover, Alan Wyffels.
- “More than anything, No Shape is about the transformative, redemptive power of love.” [Stereogum]
7) Jay-Z – 4:44
In which Jay-Z did something no-one expected: He apologised.
A partial response to Beyonce’s rage on Lemonade, it finds the star as vulnerable and introspective, as he candidly confronts his infidelity.
Elsewhere, he dispenses financial advice and makes repeated calls on black American culture to do more to support black Americans. Clocking in at a brisk 36 minutes, it’s still his most complete, most satisfying album in years.
- “4:44 is Tony Soprano at his first couple of sessions with Dr. Melfi. He’s not totally sure why he’s here and is occasionally petty about it. Jay-Z acknowledges the pain he caused without entirely agreeing to own it.” [New York Times]
6) The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
After 2014’s Lost In A Dream became a surprise hit, Philadelphia’s War On Drugs were signed to Atlantic Records – but their first album for the label shows no signs of compromise.
The first single, Thinking Of A Place, stretches out over 11 minutes, with ambient synths and echo-drenched guitars drifting in and out of view like the lover who “vanished in the night” in Adam Granduciel’s lyrics. But as big as the songs get, there’s always a ear-catching detail or haunting melody to draw you in.
- “Granduciel’s music is such a sumptuous wallow we don’t mind moving forward by the inch.” [NME]
5) LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
We have David Bowie to thank for this one. LCD Soundsystem made an emphatic goodbye in 2011, but when frontman James Murphy played percussion on Bowie’s Blackstar, the musician persuaded him to do things that “make you uncomfortable”.
The result is American Dream, which steers the band’s itchy disco straight into the political turmoil of 2017. As Murphy sings on Call The Police: “The old guys are frightened / And frightening to behold.”
- “Not just older but wiser, too, with a new strain of wit and tenderness thrumming beneath their strobelit dreams.” [Entertainment Weekly]
4) St Vincent – Masseduction
“It’s an incredibly sad album,” St Vincent told the BBC of her fifth album, Masseduction. “Quite manic and painful.” It’s also her most accomplished – all seedy glamour, giddy highs and unsettling lows.
The centrepiece is New York, a subterranean ballad that’s either about her breakup with supermodel Cara Delevigne or the death of David Bowie (or neither or both).
St Vincent hired Taylor Swift’s producer Jack Antonoff to work on the album, but he never reduces her to a pop caricature – she’s by turns alluring, imperious, vulnerable, playful and, yes, incredibly sad.
- “The shattering work of a future pop star.” [Fact magazine]
3) Lorde – Melodrama
Lorde beat the second album curse with poetic lyrics and a flair for darkness. Melodrama depicts the messy, awkward business of growing up with an author’s eye for detail (“I overthink your punctuation use,” she tells her lover on The Louvre).
The music reflects the turbulence of her love life, soaring and plunging with gut-churning regularity – with the self-lacerating Liability the undoubted highlight.
- “At once immediate and layered, massive and minute, thoughtful and instinctual, Melodrama fully solidifies Lorde as the leading voice of pop.” [Consequence of Sound]
2) SZA – CTRL
Record company politics nearly derailed SZA‘s album – and the singer (otherwise known as Solana Rowe) briefly threatened to quit music altogether – but wiser heads prevailed, and CTRL finally saw the light of day in June.
Her debut is a frank and fascinating insight into the complexities of modern love; of how desire, competition, jealousy, sexual politics, social media and low self-esteem can derail a relationship.
The singer deliberately turned down the reverb and echo on her vocals, giving the album an intimate, confessional tone that’s made it a touchstone for fans and fellow musicians alike.
- “She may be one of a kind, but she’s speaking the truth of a whole generation.” [Time magazine]
1) Kendrick Lamar – Damn
Kendrick Lamar made a 180-degree turn from the progressive jazz funk of 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, to deliver this skeletal, powerful rap sermon.
The song titles, delivered ALL IN CAPS, reference the deadly sins Pride and Lust, as well as Lamar’s post-fame struggles with Loyalty and remaining Humble.
But it’s the weight and dexterity of his lyrics that set the album apart – examining America’s political turmoil through the prism of his own contradictions and failings.
- “This is the work of a future all-time great in full command of his powers. Damn, indeed.” [The Telegraph]