Ann Powers' Top 10 Underheard Albums Of 2017
I find myself in a strange position at the end of 2017: exactly where I was in 2016, but for seemingly opposite reasons. Last year I felt compelled to highlight releases that had flown slightly under others' radar, partly because of the remarkable critical consensus responding to the Knowles sisters' instant-masterpiece one-two punch, Lemonade and A Seat At The Table. This year, when it comes to music at least, the same feeling of urgency isn't pinging around the musical atmosphere.
2017 has produced clear critical favorites, which are my favorites, too: DAMN., which is Kendrick Lamar's further establishment of a one-man dynasty; CTRL, SZA's bid to be the queen of a very crowded generation of R&B innovators; and Melodrama, the banger-bookended Lorde album that kept poptimism alive for another year. But unlike Beyoncé's epic or Solange's manifesto, these poll-toppers don't encourage feelings of solidarity; they are introspective, vulnerable, radically subjective. Other consensus picks that would make my list, if I were to make a conventional Top 10 list, Sampha's Process or Moses Sumney's Aromanticism, are even more idiosyncratic. Others — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's The Nashville Sound, Margo Price's All American Made, Priests' Nothing Feels Natural, Perfume Genius' No Shape — speak strongly to communities of listeners who identify, in one way or another, as outsiders. They challenge the mainstream, but also the idea that we need a mainstream.
As Jacob Ganz pointed out in the introduction to NPR Music's collective 50 Best Albums list, for many people in these fast-changing and uncertain times, listening to music seems to have become more private. The atomizing effect — of what, social media? streaming playlists? headphones? the instinct to retreat in the face of potential apocalypse? — has left listeners isolated from each others' essential life soundtracks. Instead of getting in formation, we turned inward. Which is fine! One of recorded music's main functions is to help people process their experiences and recharge. "No one knows me like the piano in my mother's home," Sampha sang in the year's most beautiful ballad. No one knows you like the playlist on your favorite streaming service.
Playlists, however, are meant to be shared and expanded through crowdsourcing. The introspective mood of music in 2017 didn't necessarily encourage this. And as beleaguered-feeling music scribes have been noting since the Internet became a thing, the sheer number of releases feels so overwhelming that hunkering down with what obviously presents itself — the most widely promoted releases — just seems easier most of the time. And so we all miss things. I miss things. Every day. (Here are just five worthy albums I didn't absorb thoroughly enough to consider for this list: Sheer Mag's Need To Feel Your Love, Linda Perhacs' I'm A Harmony, Kehlani's Sweet Sexy Savage, Chris Janson's Everybody, and iLe's iLevitable.)
Acknowledging the impossibility of providing you, dear readers, with comprehensive guidance, I'm using this space to do what I did in the wake of Lemonade: highlight albums and songs that, I think, deserve more year-end love than they're generally getting. It's not because the world's greatest pop star and her gifted sibling are standing in the light. The light is so scattered now; I'm just flashing on byways where I was lucky enough to wander. Like any human being, I have my biases: This list contains a lot of singer-songwriter types, since that's where I live, literally (in Nashville) and in my heart. The selections below are listed in alphabetical order, and are just a beginning. Please let me know what unknown legends I've overlooked.
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