How do you put together a statement about 2017? Really and truly? For a year that oftentimes felt positively unbearable to get through, sometimes it only seems fitting to ask if everyone’s OK. Are you OK right now?? From an ongoing stream of overtly hateful public displays to a political order that’s become nearly impossible to believe in, 2017 mostly felt like a consistently brutal endurance test.
But if it’s any consolation, the music that came out this year did not, and, as always, helped soothe a hostile social climate, if only just a little.
Here are our favourite albums of the year—intentionally unranked and presented in alphabetical order—as selected by our staff and some of our favourite freelancers.
2018 has a lot to live up to. Here’s hoping the music holds strong, and that everything else looks up.
blackbear – Digital Druglord
I think 2017 was blackbear’s year. Having released two full-length albums, an EP, and a full-length collaboration with Mike Posner, not to mention numerous singles and writing and production credits, it feels like blackbear didn’t stop working all year. And he probably didn’t. It’s not hard to appreciate the work put into this record. The production is phenomenal, with crisp, clean beats, and carefully layered vocals. And like his Cashmere Noose EP, Digital Druglord deals with serious themes: relationships, depression, and drug abuse.
For me, one of the most important things in music is album arrangement—you can have an incredible record, but if the songs are arranged in the wrong way, that’ll drop it down a few pegs. Digital Druglord hits all the right notes when, starting with the soulful “hell is where i dreamt of u and woke up alone,” moving into emotional “moodz,” and ending on sexy “make daddy proud.” And with savage-as-hell “do re mi” and “wish u the best” rounding out the middle, Digital Druglord tells a story we all kind of want to be part of. – Sofie Mikhaylova
Brockhampton – Saturation II
As quickly as Brockhampton moved this year, dropping an impressive trilogy of albums in the second half of the year alone, the run of singles leading up to the release of Saturation II was exhilarating to watch. The boyband rap collective have an effortless chemistry that makes their music videos especially charismatic, and is buffered by masterful late summer anthems like “Gummy” and “Swamp.” Saturation II feels dynamic overall though, as the group highlight their diversities in sound, style, and subject matter. They have a knack for smooth production, intuitive lyricism, and pop melodicism that has catalyzed their swift rise to popularity and rightfully stoked anticipations for their future projects. – Cole Firth
Daniel Caesar – Freudian
Daniel Caesar’s Freudian is a soul-baring album fueled by love’s wild nuances: flaws between lovers, his own insecurities, passion between two people and the loss of it altogether. It’s R&B at its best, and Toronto at its finest. Caesar’s 10-track, independently-released, debut album is simultaneously rooted in his past, as he reckons with his partner’s gripes through gospel—a genre he has close connections to—while also laying the foundation for his future. I mean, he is nominated for two Grammys.
Freudian exceeds the expectations of a traditional R&B album. I say this with bias because he’s from Toronto and the album is 416-heavy (shoutout to Sean Leon, Matthew Burnett, Jordan Evans, BadBadNotGood and Jordon Manswell), but we also get to see love for what it truly is: some days it’s as breathtaking as “Get You,” and others it’s as complicated as “Loose.” Love isn’t easy, and Freudian is its soundtrack. – Sharine Taylor
Nelly Furtado –The Ride
As her first album in half a decade, The Ride is a courageous and fearless pop album that finds the common ground between pulling from the epicentre of contemporary alternative pop and something completely of her own design. While superstar producer John Congleton’s distinct penchant for warped and otherworldly sounds is impossible to ignore, it’s Furtado’s acrobatic ability to hopscotch from dark and stormy ballads to sparkling, affirmative anthems that truly takes centre stage.
Furtado tries on a bunch of genres looking for her fit. She tests her signature drawl submerged under an ocean of delay, or wrapped in disjointed, galactic synths. On The Ride, her misgivings are clear and carefully founded; her personal triumphs are celebratory, defiant and firm. But more than anything, she demands to be seen and heard, settling for nothing less. While the album had a hard time finding a home—too weird for radio, too far removed from the transience of the blogosphere–The Ride accomplishes something far more important: It’s an acute look at an artist grinding her feet into her own experimental prowess, and you can’t help cheering her on the whole way. – Melissa Vincent
Liam Gallagher – As You Were
After promising awesomeness in a promotional campaign that included delightfully snarky banter on Twitter and, of course, jabs at brother Noel, Liam Gallagher delivered it on his solo debut, As You Were—named after his signature social media sign-off. From roaring riffs on “Wall of Glass” to climbing acoustic strums on “I Never Wanna Be Like You,” and with that trademark snarl throughout, As You Were succinctly illustrates everything that artistically characterizes the former Oasis frontman: fantastic singer, charismatic personality, lover of the Beatles (“‘Cause happiness is still a warm gun,” he warbles on “Chinatown,” referencing the Fab Four’s song), and proponent of rock and roll.
Sonically, As You Were is at once riffy, loud, and gentle (ballad and highlight “For What It’s Worth,” too, serves as a wide-reaching apology to anyone Gallagher’s wronged). In fact, it’s in those softer moments on tracks like “Never Wanna Be Like You” and“Paper Crown” where Gallagher may pack the biggest punch, showing that, whether brazen or contemplative, he is truly a rock and roll star. He can belt out a tune and administer it with attitude to match. It’s what he does best — in case anyone forgot. And As You Were is exactly that: a swaggering collection of great tunes. – Yasmine Shemesh
Gang Of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
Gang of Youths debut album, Prisoners, was about frontman Dave Le’aupepe’s life—his wife’s cancer diagnosis, their divorce, and his suicide attempt. Its follow-up, Go Farther In Lightness, is about his next chapter, and the time it takes to get there. The album’s 75 minutes are filled with brilliant wordplay and stark actualizations.
Yeah, you’re getting well over an hour of strong writing and subsequent mini-breakdowns; stars like “Le Symbolique” slowly knock you out. and “Keep Me In The Open” gives off seriously Postal Service vibes, storytelling and all. This is music that makes you want to feel better, but forgives you if you don’t yet. –Kathryn Kyte
Gas – Narkopop
Narkopop is etched in my DNA. According to iTunes, I’ve listened to this album in full 208 times; some tracks, well over 250. Since Narkopop appeared in my life, it has become a part of it, no different than breathing, sleeping, or dreaming. I hear it sometimes while walking around the city, echoing off the skyscrapers. When I developed tinnitus earlier this year, I was terrified. I didn’t know if I could deal with it. The knowledge that it may never go away made me feel helplessness I haven’t felt in a long time. When Narkopop arrived, it may have almost literally saved my life. Its menacing majesty was engulfing enough for my mind to latch on to, distracting from the ringing, while the soothing soundscapes helped me drift away. I could finally sleep again.
Narkopop was the only relief 2017 allowed me. I’m listening to it now. I’ll listen to it again when I go to bed. It is my album of the year, and my medicine. – Phil Maye
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
It’s fair to say that Kendrick Lamar was due for a let down after continuously blasting it out of the park since the start of the decade. Yet, he found a way to further entrench himself as the undisputed King of Rap with DAMN. by going back to doing what does best. While To Pimp A Butterfly and its sister EP, untitled.unmastered, saw Kendrick transcending hip-hop (why tho?), weaving his intricate flows over lush instrumentation, on DAMN., Kendrick opted to strip things down and take a more classic hip-hop approach: grab a bunch of dope beats from the best producers he could find and get to work. It’s not a step back, by any means; Kendrick’s ideas and concepts have always been his secret weapon, and they take centre stage on this one. On a record about duality, he effortlessly strikes a balance between thought provoking and hit making. – Chayne Japal
LeiKeli47 –Wash & Set
From Remy Ma’s deliciously entertaining “Shether” to Cardi B’s historic Billboard chart-topper, “Bodak Yellow,” 2017 has been a banner year for women in hip-hop. And although you might have missed it, LeiKeli47’s Wash & Set is the crown jewel of this year’s efforts. Confident, well-paced and ferociously feminine, the Brooklyn spitfire’s LP strikes a perfect balance between skilled rhyming, punchy hooks and timeless, polished production. Reminiscent of Missy Elliott but with a style all her own, the elusive emcee shines on standouts like “Money,” “Attitude” and “Don’t Do It,” mastering an effortless delivery that’s unmatched by her peers.
But what makes Wash & Set a delight beyond sheer sonic appeal is its brash and overt celebration of women. She encourages women to take up space, stand firmly in their self-assurance and uplift each other as they honour themselves. It’s a confidence boost for women from all walks of life. — A.Harmony
Lorde – Melodrama
Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor could’ve easily taken a straightforward road and delivered another Pure Heroine, complete with 11 more variations on “Royals,” but instead, she revealed a sincere, handmade and powerfully intimate record in Melodrama. Far from wallowing in it, Melodrama actually transcends its title, and makes the definitive case for the power of pop as catharsis in the process. Trying to pick a standout is impossible, even when you’re really trying: “Louvre,” “Green Light,” “Supercut,” “Perfect Places;” the assorted ex-lover kiss-offs that populate Melodrama radiate conviction, romance, longing, and most importantly, hooks. Lorde and co-producer Jack Antonoff prove that less is more with the relative piano-and-drums simplicity of a track like “Green Light” transmuted to an instant classic purely through its incredible arrangement.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Sober” is a masterclass in modern pop production, all staccato chords, digital brass and clipped vocal effects. These are the first two songs on the record, with 9 more sleek pop gems that follow. Melodrama is the most intense, mature and accomplished pop record of the year. – Jeremy Mersereau
Paramore – After Laughter
After Laughter was billed as the reinvention of Paramore. Like a rich man’s Carly Rae Jepson, they were “doing the 80s thing” now. Hayley Williams had stripped all of the pinks and blues out of her hair, and the album art looked like something out of Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing.” But while the music dances between jangly Talking Heads bops (“Told You So”) and school dance synths (“Grudges”), After Laughter‘s DNA is immediately familiar.
At its core, Paramore is Hayley Williams, whose underrated ear for melody might be the best in popular music, and whose voice—which could sing just about anything and give me goosebumps—has always run alongside vulnerable, anxiety-laced lyrics. Williams has said that the album’s title is in reference to the moment when you come “back to reality” after laughter; it was written during the first year of her marriage, and released two months before their divorce. Ultimately, Paramore’s sound has evolved, but so have the people behind it. After Laughter is less a reinvention than an evolution. This is Paramore at their purest. – Tyler Munro
Partner – In Search Of Lost Time
Partner’s debut record, a sprawling, stoned guitar-epic replete with phone call skits and decidedly casual banter from master shredders/front duo Josée Caron and Lucy Niles, is a rare work that’s marked with equal parts ambition and ambivalence. The 19-track album runs just 40 minutes, meaning that while Partner have a lot to say, they don’t need to use big book-learnin’ words to do it: packed in that time are songs about staying in sweatpants all day and eating frozen pizza, negotiating queerness in a high school locker room, and worrying that everyone knows you’re high. These plights are relayed over a mammoth, Weezer-ish bash of dueling guitars, but whereas Rivers Cuomo sang about heartbreak, the worst thing that befalls Partner is when one of them pisses their pants. It’s gross, goofy, and earnest, and it’s got more heart and grit than any other “guitar record” this year. – Luke Ottenhof
Sampha – Process
For years, British singer-producer Sampha’s scintillating falsetto and soul-driven electronic sound has peaked the interest of big names likes of Drake, Solange, and Frank Ocean, to name a few. On his long-awaited debut album, Process, the tender crooner delivers beautifully reflective ballads that help him unpack the grief of personal loss with a great deal of poise and resiliency. Throughout this introspective journey, he writes candidly about the pain that’s consumed him for ages.
A notable stand-out, the heart-wrenching single “(No One Loves You) Like The Piano,” takes us back to his late mother’s London home where a 3-year-old Sampha first fell in love with the instrument that would inform his musical future. These cherished moments help guide the album as he continues to showcase a much more vulnerable side of his songwriting and production. For a young man who’s now found the strength to face his past trauma head-on, Process is just as much a breakthrough for Sampha as it is a breakout album for the rest of the world. – Max Mohenu
SZA – Ctrl
In 2017, SZA graced the music world (and my Spotify) after the 2014 release of her EP, Z. It was worth the wait. As an artist, SZA is able to capture the insecurities of love and lust as it parallels to self-esteem to create validating, dynamic, and beautiful work of art. SZA doesn’t hold back, and takes her personal spin, stories, and references to a whole other level on Ctrl. Playing with multiple genres and Forrest Gump references, Ctrl obliterates expectations. Ctrl is a lasting album that grows as you listen—a truly impressive feat for a debut album. Insecurities and all, I’m happy to be SZA’s neighbour while she’s airing out her dirty laundry. – Ayla Shiblaq
Tyler, the Creator— Flower Boy
If you told me that Tyler, The Creator would make one of the most emotional albums of 2017, I’d laugh in your face. But it’s true. Flower Boy (full title: Scum Fuck Flower Boy) represents a surprising turning point in the arc of Tyler’s career; a goofball with a philosophical streak puts to track some of his most nuanced thoughts to date and produces his prettiest sounding work ever.
Lush string arrangements, spacey chord progressions, and drums that truly kick reverberate among the stickiest of hooks from Rex Orange Country, Kali Uchis, and others as Tyler navigates questions of sexuality, identity, and materialism. “Tell these black kids they can be who they are,” he raps, as Frank Ocean chirps and croons on “Where This Flower Blooms.” For Tyler, black and white, queer and straight, popular and outcast, the vulgar and the poetic: all of these layers can encompass a person at the exact same time. So why should it matter? Never has the gloom of a hallmark misfit figuring out who he is and what drives him—sometimes literally, in his sunset orange Lamborghini, as he navigates existential worry and youthful ennui in a search for connection—sounded so pure, joyous, and alive. — Daniel Goodman
Vulfpeck – Mr. Finish Line
It’s guaranteed that once two people find out that they both like Vulfpeck, they will instantly become friends. A band for the cool kids in a world where the cool kids are your hipster cousin from Northern Ontario and jazz band friends, Vulfpeck gave the much-needed gift of good vibes this November after a heated, stressful year. Before the album’s release, the band promoted two of the first tracks: “Birds of a Feather” and “Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh.” They showcased drumming on a pancake griddle, hectic vocals riffs, and a funky energy intimate enough for living room dance breaks. Mr. Finish Line (a.k.a. Vulfpeck and friends), features a different artist on each track, reminding you how this album should be enjoyed: with no inhibitions and surrounded by people you love and admire. – Rachel Evangeline Chiong
Yaeji – EP2
New York’s Kathy “Yaeji” Lee released two EPs this year; both are excellent, but it’s the second one that made her a star. EP2 is a mosaic; an artifact of a modern life that simultaneously comprehends both global movements and basement parties with your friends; over five tracks, Lee’s impeccable taste and singular voice draw together house, pop, and rap, introversion and extroversion, Korean and English, the hypnotic and the goofy, without ever showing the seams.
She’s a fantastically cool presence—“drink I’m sippin on” shudders like a Kelela or Abra track; a weightless cover of Drake’s “passionfruit” glides like liquid gold—who never feels imposing; these songs are more than a little bloody, with lyrics that allude to her everyday experiences—depression, bouts of confidence, missed opportunities, and being misunderstood—as a young artist, a New Yorker, and a member of the Asian American diaspora. Ultimately, the record feels like a much-needed embrace from a supportive, buoyant new voice. 2017 saw a shift towards a youthful group of ascendant artists; Yaeji shines among the brightest. – Stuart Oakes