I love Fridays, and not just because it marks the end of the work week or because with it comes the promise of a relaxing and/or thrilling weekend. Fridays also signify the release of new music, and could you believe we’ve already had 26 Fridays so far this year, each with its own exciting batch of new albums to dig into. Below you will find two separate Top 5 lists from Jake and I (Michael), containing what we believe are the best of the best in music releases this year (so far). As an added bonus, we’ve each featured three honorable mentions below alongside the lists, and have also created a 30-song playlist over on the Jet Fuel Jukebox, highlighting our favorite tracks from the year as well. And as always, feel free to check out our two previous Best Of lists from 2016 and 2015.
Jake: 2017 has been one of the most exhilarating years in music. While there may be garbage plaguing radios across the country, many music fans, such as myself, have been able to discover a lot of gems over these past 6 months. We’ve seen many artists make a return from long hiatuses to deliver what many would consider their best bodies of work, while other artists new to the scene have been able to generate interest in their talents. Making this list was so hard; I could’ve honestly changed my order so that any of my choices landed at #1, but Michael gave me a deadline that I had to follow. BUT, I think I got it…maybe.
Michael: Similar to my mid-year list last time ‘round, much of my Top 5 this year is made up of artists I’d either had no knowledge even existed coming into 2017, or artists I knew about but hadn’t ever really given a real shot listening to. Discovering new artists you love is one of the greatest feelings you can experience as a fan of music. There are plenty of albums I was looking forward to this year from plenty of artists I’ve enjoyed for years that have already come and gone, and there’s more to come later this year from old standbys of mine. But the most exciting prospect is discovering even more artists I’ll love in the future. My hope with this post is that from my list I can introduce you to some new artists you’ll enjoy as I already have this year.
Much love to our honorable mentions, but now it’s time to move onto the lists that matter the most. Jake and I will present our respective top five lists in order, starting with number five and moving down to number one, beginning with Jake’s number five, then my number five, then Jake’s number four, and so on and so forth.
Without further ado, Jake and I present to you our favorite five albums of 2017 thus far:
Jake’s #5 Album: Harry Styles – Harry Styles
With all prior 1D pretenses aside, Harry Styles truly found his calling. It’d be easy to compare his effort to those of his former bandmates, but that’s not what the singer would like. On his debut album, Styles sets it clear from the start that he is far more than a pretty boy with a guitar — he is a full fledged rockstar. The sweeping piano hooks of pre-album single “Sign of the Times” allowed the singer to display his vulnerability to the world, something not truly shown in 1D. “Woman,” a midtempo singalong number, allows Styles to flex his solo chops, demanding attention from the start. As the album continues, it’s clear that the singer was always destined for stardom — it was just a matter of time.
Michael’s #5 Album: Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples’ second full-length LP, Big Fish Theory, is for sure one of the most interesting hip-hop records you’ll hear this year, and quite a turn from his previous efforts. I’ve only recently become a fan of Staples through an insistent friend’s recommendation and a stellar feature on a Gorillaz track from earlier this year. And while I’d enjoyed much of his output up to this point, my biggest gripe with Staples’ first record, Summertime 06, lied in its overbearing length at two discs, 20 tracks, and an hour of music. While it has incredible moments, it’s a bloated record overall. It’s also fairly straightforward rap music, although that’s not necessarily a negative. With Big Fish Theory, though, Staples comes off as a whole new artist and a brave leader for where the genre could be heading. Here he mixes futuristic, EDM-influenced beats with smart, contemporary lyrics over 12 tracks/36 minutes. Perhaps its more experimental aspects will turn some listeners off, but it only made the record that much more enjoyable for me.
Jake’s #4 Album: Dua Lipa – Dua Lipa
What happens when you mix pop sensibility with a dash of alternative, mixed with hip-hop roots? You get Dua Lipa’s eponymous debut album Dua Lipa. With a series of push backs plaguing the album before its eventual June release, it was unclear as to whether or not the 21-year-old singer would ever put out a complete body of work. Once the album was finally released, though, it was clear the newcomer was more than capable of crafting a cohesive body of work. “Be The One,” arguably her biggest single to date, is pure pop perfection, with album highlights “Genesis,” the sassy “Blow Your Mind (Mwah),” and the tender “Thinkin’ Bout You” adding credibility to the Albanian singer’s capabilities.
Michael’s #4 Album: Paramore – After Laughter
If you ask me, After Laughter is the only Paramore album that really matters. I’ve enjoyed singles here and there from the alternative band since their heyday with songs like “Misery Business” and “Crushcrushcrush,” but I was never a huge fan of their bigger library of music. After Laughter is an exception, and boy is it a wonderful exception at that. Paramore has slowly crept away from the Fueled By Ramen standard of heavy guitar-laden pop-punk for a couple of years now, notably with their 2013 self-titled LP.
But with After Laughter, they almost sound like an entirely different band, trading in their patented guitar leads for synthesizers and a heavily 80s-influenced aesthetic. It works. From the bouncy pop found in “Rose-Colored Boy” and “Told You So” to the dramatic ballads “26” and album closer “Tell Me How,” After Laughter presents nothing but stellar tracks led by incredible vocal and lyric work from Hayley Williams (to no one’s surprise). It may not be what die-hard Paramore fans expect or even want, but it’s what we’ve got, and I for one hope we’re treated to more like this in the future.
Jake’s #3 Album: Paramore – After Laughter
Long gone are the days of 2007, where bands signed to Fueled By Ramen dominated MySpace user profiles. One in specific named Paramore, with a crimson-haired, energetic lead singer, started to garner attention with their pop-punk staple album Riot! Flash forward to 2017, where the color in lead singer Hayley Williams’ hair has diminished, alongside the band’s blissful ignorance. After Laughter is not only the product of Zac Farro, but also the struggle of dealing with the aftermath of a legal battle with former member Jeremy Davis and the complexity of mental health issues.
Kicking off with the funky, new-wave “Hard Times,” the album proves to be a welcome change for the band. The songs here, including single “Told You So” and the mellow “Forgiveness,” truly show Paramore at their finest, contrasting the negativity in the lyrics with bright, shiny positive instrumentation. I could try and point out a flaw in the album; however, I truly believe that After Laughter is the band’s most solid effort to date, and will likely be keeping the groove going for months to come.
Michael’s #3 Album: Joey Bada$$ – ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
Like Vince Staples, Joey Bada$$ is another rapper I’d been loosely aware of but hadn’t really listened to until just earlier this year. And just like Staples, I found Bada$$’ debut from 2015 to be a good record steeped in throwback-style production, but not much more. However, it worked as a great starting point from which the Brooklyn-based rapper could grow; case in point, his 2017 magnum opus ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$. Here, Joey takes a much more punctual stance with his raps, serving up tracks centered on current-day American politics and the trials and tribulations facing African-Americans in the land of the free. It’s no To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s damn good anyways.
Jake’s #2 Album: Katy Perry – Witness
“If I lost it all today, would you stay?” Katy Perry asks this on the opening title track to her fourth studio album, Witness. With the release of the album, I think it’s safe to say that no other artist has had a year like Katy Perry has. After the release of PRISM, Perry’s 2013 album, the superstar was able to reach career heights, performing at the 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show and impressively garnering two #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. With such a triumphant album, the rocky road leading to Witness makes things far more confusing.
“Chained to the Rhythm,” the album’s lead single, showed a promising start to the record and Perry’s self-proclaimed “purposeful pop.” As time went on, though, things got messier, notably with second single “Bon Appetit,” which featured homophobic rap trio Migos, a stark contrast for the “woke” singer. Then came the Nicki Minaj featuring “Swish Swish” (which is honestly a banger), the late-to-the-party response to her Taylor Swift feud. On top of this, Perry appeared to be in the middle of an identity crisis during the album’s promo cycle, including a four-day Big Brother-esque livestream of her every move. With all of this occurring, it’s a shock just how cohesive and mature the album turned out to be. Songs, such as the title track, the Purity Ring-produced “Miss You More,” and the vibe-inducing “Tsunami” make for an interesting shift in sound for the popstar. Whether or not you’re a fan of her public antics, anyone can agree: we are witnessing the growth of a musician.
Michael’s #2 Album: Syd – Fin
Odd Future alum and The Internet frontwoman Syd finally released her solo debut record this year, and it’s so much better than I think anyone could have ever imagined. This is easily the coolest and most confident music that 2017 has offered up so far, with Syd gracing us with the swagger and bravado you’d come to expect of a male rapper at the top of the game with tracks like “Shake Em Off” and “All About Me.” But as an interesting twist in a genre dominated by men, Syd is actually a gay woman. She holds her own both in terms of rapping and singing, often switching back and forth between tracks with ease, while the spacey, bumping production provides an enjoyable sonic space you can really chill within. If anything, just listen to “Know,” which is not only a standout on the album but one of the year’s absolute best tracks.
Jake’s #1 Album: Lorde – Melodrama
It’s been a long four years since the world has last heard from Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known by her stage name Lorde. With a mammoth debut album like Pure Heroine, one would have expected the then 16-year-old singer to have immediately followed the record up. Instead, Lorde took a brief hiatus from music to focus on herself, mending her heart after a tumultuous breakup. It wasn’t until the now 20-year-old singer linked up with pop producer Jack Antonoff (aka Bleachers) that Melodrama was created.
Filled with layered productions, gorgeous melodies, and truly emotional vocals, Melodrama is an album for the isolated, jaded victims of heartache. First single “Green Light” technically makes no sense. It’s angsty and hectic, with chord and tempo changes not typically seen in a pop single, which is probably the most accurate depiction for the album itself. The confidence seen in the woozy “Homemade Dynamite” compliments the anguish of “Liability,” which strips away all of the prior production, bringing Lorde’s lyrics to the foreground. As the album concludes with album highlight “Perfect Places,” it’s almost as if the four year wait for the record didn’t even happen…except it did — but it was entirely worth the wait.
Michael’s #1 Album: SZA – Ctrl
Another R&B/hip-hop debut following Syd’s Fin is the extremely anticipated Ctrl from Missouri-born, Jersey-raised R&B artist SZA (pronounced si-zah). Following multiple delays, a name change, and a couple-year old EP featuring the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper, the hype surrounding this record was so immense that it seemed as though it never could have reached its true potential. And yet here we are, with it atop my Top 5 list — fairly comfortably, too.
Countering Syd, SZA is much less comfortable with herself, trading swagger for cynicism, going as far as crooning about how she wishes she were a “normal girl” on the track…well, “Normal Girl.” Elsewhere, on “The Weekend,” she portrays herself as a side-chick desperately in love with a man who already has a woman. She assumes the role of his mistress who “keeps him satisfied” through the weekend, eagerly awaiting for the day that she can give her love “what he’s been missing on weekdays.”
While SZA’s killer voice carries the album atop some stunning production, another aspect that’s absolutely great comes from the addition of a few features she recruits across the 14 tracks. Kendrick Lamar raps alongside SZA for a song “dedicated to vaginas” on album standout “Doves in the Wind.” Likewise, on “Love Galore,” Travis Scott delivers a knockout performance, and that’s coming from someone who has no interest in the rapper. These two features play early on, but another worthwhile appearance awaits on the back-end of the album from Isaiah Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds.”
For this to be SZA’s debut commercial album is quite the achievement for the young singer, and I’d go as far as to say that Ctrl is required 2017 listening.
Jake: This year has no signs of slowing down, either. If you’re a pop fanatic like me, then there are a plethora of new releases coming, including albums from Kesha, HAIM, and Foster the People. But I always get excited with the discovery of an unanticipated new release, and with the way this year is going, I wouldn’t be surprised if my year-end list is completely different. Until next time!
Michael: I’m honestly exhausted by how much good music 2017 has bestowed upon us, but there’s still half a year to go! And everyone seems to be putting out new music this year! As for upcoming albums that have already been announced, there’s material coming from Foster The People, HAIM, Queens of the Stone Age, Everything Everything, and apparently BROCKHAMPTON already has a follow-up to their June release slated later this month. As for unannounced stuff, though, St. Vincent has been dropping hints all year (including a brand new, awesome single this past week), and I’m still holding out hope for a new Vampire Weekend album. No matter what, this has already been an incredible year for music and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
— Jake Johnson, Music Blogger
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor