The consensus is in: 2017 was one of the worst years in recent memory. Creeping authoritarianism, erosion of civil liberties, mass shootings, natural disasters — what hasn’t been thrown our way this year? But more so, 2017 has been a year of reckoning, forcing us to confront inequalities and injustices that have been part of American society from the beginning.

Even as we were inundated with tragedy after tragedy, music reminded us of love, beauty, and laughter. It kept us going, demonstrating the human spirit’s infinite capacity for resilience. Below you’ll find a list (in no particular order) of mainstream and notable indie releases that made 2017 not just bearable, but joyous and exciting.

Contributors: Rae Alexandra, Jody Amable, Claudia Escobar, Ruth Gebreyesus, Sarah Hotchkiss, Gabe Meline, Montse Reyes, Adrian Spinelli, Nick Veronin, and Nastia Voynovskaya.

(Our separate list of the Top 10 Bay Area Albums of the Year is here.)

SZA, CTRL

Much in the way that Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story “Cat Person” tapped into a seldom-discussed side of dating for straight and bi women, SZA’s CTRL nails the ways we arm ourselves while yearning for connection in an app-driven, feelings-devoid world. On the bubbly R&B record, SZA has had it with insincere hookups who don’t merit her vulnerability or efforts. Instead of waiting for dudes to break her heart, she’s one step ahead. You’re over me just like that? No problem, I’m already fooling around with your friend (“Supermodel”). He has two sidechicks? It’s okay, girl, I’ll take him on the weekends, you can have Monday through Friday (“The Weekend”). In singing about her quest to be invincible against noncommittal guys, she lets us into the multitudes of ways women stretch ourselves to manage our own and others’ emotional needs. Her voice is gorgeous and heartfelt, and her lyrics are tongue-in-cheek with a devilish grin. — Nastia Voynovskaya

Chicano Batman, Freedom is Free

Chicano Batman, from East LA, has long endeared listeners with their seamless patchwork of Latin American sonic histories — but this year’s Freedom is Free stands out in their catalog as a vessel for emotional healing as well. In drawing from the lineage of funk, soul, and tropicalia — genres born of political strife, as a response and respite from inequity — the record becomes one of resilience. “The Taker Story” reminds us of that violence and exploitation — from the genocide of Native Americans to the displacement of communities of color — lie at the foundation of Western society. “La Jura” speaks to the epidemic of police violence affecting black and brown communities. The album is honest but hopeful, recalling the cyclic nature of history and lifting the power of community. — Montse Reyes

Migos, Culture

For every empty and compulsive use of the word “culture” this year, three young men from Lawrenceville, Georgia were actually doing the heavy lifting. Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff, known collectively as Migos, dropped Culture, their second studio album, this January. The infectious “Bad and Boujee” went on to be the crew’s first No. 1 single, spawning countless memes on its way to the top. And though the song is irresistible — with a Lil Uzi Vert feature that grows on you like an unusual nail polish color chosen in haste — “Call Casting” is an unexpected standout, with Takeoff’s witty bars, a church organ, and playful chirp ad-libs. Equally noteworthy is “Get Right Witcha” and its understated beat, which encouraged minimal and potent poesy from the Migos. Though the album is top-heavy with hits, Culture’s last track, “Out Yo Way,” ends the album on a meditative and grateful note. And with the reflection that the end of a year brings, how can you not be thankful for Migos and their impact on culture this year? From Culture to the royal engagement of Offset and Cardi B to their memorable BET Awards interview (“Do it look like I was left off ‘Bad and Boujee’?”), Migos put in overtime in 2017. — Ruth Gebreyesus

Moses Sumney, Aromanticism

Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism is an atmospheric, yearning album that sounds like it was beamed in from a distant planet. Throughout the vocal loop- and guitar-driven project, Sumney draws from smoky speakeasy jazz, freak folk strumming, and Winehousian R&B revival, but mostly, he lingers in some other, unnerving plane. Sometimes he approaches the tuneful sensibilities of American standards, but quickly swerves into sparkling, electronic sounds, taking listeners to some quiet, brooding galaxy. But all of Aromanticism’s world-building doesn’t detract from Sumney’s arresting vocals, which gives it the gravity that makes it such a parallel for these uneasy times. It’s an album that can never quite figure out where it wants to go, but in 2017, can anyone? Aromanticism is a sympathetic symphony for a nation groping at stability. — Jody Amable

Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

Lamar’s role as a cultural figure is unquestionable. In a time of frustration, hate, anger, and exhaustion, Lamar eschewed the expectation to deliver an explicitly political statement (“XXX” is the closest you’d get). Rather, he turned inward. The result is an unflinching confrontation with the interior. Lamar grapples with the big questions — faith, morality, love, and the pressure of fame. He unpacks the impact of systemic oppression in a personal way, contending with the burden placed on him to be a spokesperson for black America. And of course, there’s the joy of getting to hear Lamar rap. He is nimble with his voice, the album’s most stunning instrument, and creates a landscape of textures — even gesturing to Juvenile’s “Ha” by borrowing his signature clipped flow on “Element.” — MR

OCS, Memory of a Cut Off Head

In the streaming age, it can be difficult to truly hone in on a favorite album. Great new music is always just a click away. Fans of the San Francisco-bred, L.A.-based musician John Dwyer — the man behind Thee Oh Sees — have it especially hard. Dude dropped two great records this year alone. However, while Orc was certainly a blast, Dwyer’s second release of 2017 is more memorable. On Memory of a Cut Off Head, the psych-garage wizard reconnected with longtime collaborator Brigid Dawson, unplugged the amps, and turned in a quiet, compelling collection of mellow, meditative tunes. The album proves Dwyer is just as comfortable penning hushed freak folk and chamber pop arrangements as he is with cranking out “these go to eleven” acid freakouts. After a year that often has us wondering whether we were taking crazy pills, it was a welcome contribution. — Nick Veronin

Miguel, War & Leisure

Every song on this year’s War & Leisure satisfies a particular mood. In need of a post-apocalyptic apology? Miguel gives us “City of Angels.” Want a Spanish-language dance floor anthem? Aquí está “Caramelo Duro”! A sultry James Brown-esque likening of sexual urges to a werewolf’s transformation? “Wolf” fulfills those desires. And as if we needed further proof he knows exactly what we want, War & Leisure’s lead single “Sky Walker” came out right at the end of summer with a sweet “splish”: a lazy post-BBQ reminder to stay up just a little bit longer and “celebrate every day like a birthday.” — Sarah Hotchkiss

Kesha, Rainbow

In a year that started with the Woman’s March, ended with the toppling of high-profile sexual harassers, and inspired women all over the country to speak out about the wrongs done to them, the return of Kesha could not have been better timed. Rainbow was the perfect, cathartic soundtrack to national events; a soulful expulsion of pain and trauma, a joyful anthem about strength in the face of adversity, and above all else, a guidebook on how to find the light in even the darkest of places, written by an expert on the subject. Rainbow ultimately was one of the most inspiring albums of the year, Kesha’s unbreakable spirit woven into every track. “Rainbow” itself summed up her ethos perfectly: “Darling, our scars make us who we are.” — Rae Alexandra

Faye Webster, Faye Webster

Find me someone who predicted that the year’s best country album would be released by an indie hip-hop label and I’ll show you a liar. Thus is the case with Faye Webster’s nuanced self-titled sophomore album, out on the Atlanta-based, boundary-pushing rap label, Awful Records. The 19-year-old Webster weaves groovy love songs, twangy odes to her favorite baseball players, and emotionally-charged incantations of the highest order throughout the album’s lap steel-laden 10 tracks. She gracefully plays the role of Southern belle on “It’s Not a Sad Thing,” (“Well I wonder what he’s doing / And if he’s falling asleep / I wonder if the flight attendant’s prettier than me”) and paints stunning musical atmospheres, like on the carefully-calculated arrangement of the Rhodes keys- and lap steel-driven “I Know.” Webster is one of the most unique talents to emerge from the musical clutter of 2017 — her songs have a way of working their way into your head and rolling off your tongue in the most somber and comfortable moments alike. — Adrian Spinelli

Daphni, Joli Mai

Dan Snaith swapped atmospheric, fuzzy synths from his chillwave outfit, Caribou, for hard-edged club beats as Daphni, his dance music alter-ego. His sophomore Daphni album, Joli Mai, builds fascinating rhythms from skeletal, four-on-the-floor beats, adding layers of vocal samples and live instruments for epic crescendos designed with the dancefloor in mind. There’s “Face to Face,” which scales up from a minimalist breakbeat with a bass line that sounds like the Clash; the whispery, falsetto “face to face” vocal sample transforms the bare-bones dance-punk tune into a disco odyssey. “Xing Tian” is a cacophony of bass drums, which forcefully ricochet off the barely-there synths, vocals, and tambourine, creating dimension and drama. Joli Mai has the power to put one — whether partying or studying — into a trance, but Snaith breaks its regimented rhythmic structures with playful textures and wonky effects that offer plenty of surprises throughout. — NV

Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator

For the last decade, Hurray for the Riff Raff has mostly stuck to the down-home, good-time songs that their Americana-leaning fanbase lives for. But on The Navigator, principal songwriter Alynda Segarra puts Americana’s long-established, rarely challenged conventions to the test. Following a central character, the album incorporates a variety of genre hallmarks — Caribbean rhythms, glitzy radio rock — throughout a series of vignettes about city living and the immigrant experience. By definition, it’s a concept album, but rather than writing a cloying collection of story-songs like a lot of modern-day rock operas (lookin’ at you, Green Day), Segarra keeps the cheesiness at bay by drawing from a deep well of honesty. The Navigator’s departure from HFTRR’s previous sound is, at first, a shock to the system. But after a few listens, it seems so obvious that the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants would write such a record under the Americana mantle. — JA

Kelela, Take Me Apart

Kelela is worth the wait. Her debut studio album, which follows her 2015 EP Hallucinogen and her 2013 breakthrough mixtape Cut 4 Me, took four years to complete. And Take Me Apart is evidence of that time. Entwining club beats with soulful R&B melodies, the album is an exhaustive and honest account of the dissolution and aftermath of relationships. Though the premise might sound emotionally laborious, Kelela is both the sea and the lighthouse on Take Me Apart, never asking her fans to go places she’s hasn’t dared to go herself. She sings of breaking points with self-assurance on the upbeat opener, “Frontline” and with weary resignation on “Enough” over Arca & co.’s ethereal and warped production. Kelela also covers desire — the restless sort (on “S.O.S.” she sings “When I’m full I take another / Never been so greedy with a lover”) and the urgent kind on the sexy, bass-heavy “Blue Light.” The quintessence of her sonic and lyrical triumph is “Bluff,” whose opening piano keys come down like a verdict before a screeching saccharine melody softens the blow. On the track, Kelela accepts the defeat of a relationship’s end but not without a final plea. Though “Bluff” lasts just over a minute long, in the space of an interlude, Kelela achieves a stunning vulnerability, a trademark of the gifted musician. — RG

Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

While Solange posted regularly about Sun Ra on Instagram and a new breed of Afrofuturism wove through the music of Moses Sumney and Thundercat, the true torch in 2017 was carried by Mitchell, an OG from Chicago who’s already released 20 albums. Mandorla Awakening II is full of the long, stretched-out improvisations and poetic recitations that one expects with spiritual jazz, but there’s a fire and intensity here that the young lions could only hope to conjure. — Gabe Meline

Sampha, Process

Grief never ends, really. When you’ve lost someone, reckoning with their absence can feel endless. It’s a process Sampha documents in his debut album, Process, an ode to his mother who died of cancer. Over intimate arrangements that display the co-producer’s R&B, gospel and electronic sensibilities, Sampha shows you that grief is unyielding. Sometimes it overwhelms, nearly suffocating you in a wave of panic (“Blood on Me,” “Reverse Faults”). Other days, you’re left guilty and desperate (“Plastic 100°C”). And some days, you’re just empty (“(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”). Often, it is all of the above. Sampha leaves us without any tidy platitudes about sorrow, just with the knowledge that the absence of your loved one follows you forever. — MR

Gucci Mane, Mr. Davis

If his bestseller The Autobiography of Gucci Mane was where Guwop bared it all, then his album Mr. Davis is its musical counterpart. On his second full-length release of 2017 (the first, Droptop Wop, is also excellent), Gucci reckons with past versions of himself, before he became “Multi Millionaire LaFlare” with the gorgeous wife, enormous mansion, and diamond-encrusted everything. These past versions of Gucci — fatherless child, hustler, drug addict — aren’t glamorous, but throughout Dr. Davis, Gucci doesn’t get overly sentimental or remorseful. Instead, he nobly accepts the hand he’s been dealt, realizing that the numerous obstacles he’s faced have only made him more resilient. The album provides no shortage of big-bass baller anthems (“I Get the Bag,” “Make Love,” “Tone It Down”), but “We Ride,” his ode to his love, Keyshia Ka’Oir Davis — and the work he’s put in to better himself and foster a healthy relationship — can make even the most stoic among us shed a thug tear. — NV

Kehlani, SweetSexySavage

Fresh off her You Should Be Here triumph, Oakland’s own melting-pot dynamo signed a major-label deal and delivered an R&B record that’s a little more formulaic than her homemade stuff, and a lot more slick. But Kehlani still has her heart firmly in her music, co-writing every song here with keen awareness of the human condition and singing them like her life depended on it. With subtle hooks and rewarding non-hits, and Kehlani’s don’t-give-a-damn approach, SweetSexySavage is a slow burner that grows on you. — GM

Bomba Estéreo, Ayo

Electronic duo Bomba Estéreo’s Ayo is like being at the beach in Colombia. Through colorful electronics and call-and-response, Spanish-language vocals, the Colombian two-piece creates a tropical, futuristic, Zen world full of colors, sensuality, and dancing. The lively “Internacionales” is a much-needed call for global unity — and feels like one huge party where everyone in the world is invited. — Claudia Escobar

Jay-Z, 4:44

I suppose, in an alternate universe where Beyoncé did not dictate all cultural discourse, that Jay-Z could have curved out of the Lemonade discussion altogether and released another album about business, blackness, and how great it is to be Jay-Z. Instead, he released an album about business, blackness, and how complicated it is to be Jay-Z. What made 4:44 work wasn’t just his frankness about infidelity; anyone in therapy will tell you that when they try to fix a problem, they discover a panoply of other related problems. That’s 4:44. In an unflinching, honest self-examination, Jay-Z is in rare form here. — GM

Calvin Harris, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1

Once known for mechanical EDM bangers, Calvin Harris created an unexpectedly soulful hip-hop and R&B smash with Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, an album that sounds like drinking a tequila sunrise on a tropical island at dawn. For this funky collection of four-on-the-floor and two-step tracks, Harris enlisted a cast of A-list collaborators (Young Thug, Katy Perry, Pharrell) and well-chosen newcomers (Kehlani, Khalid, Lil Yachty). The result is not a 2001 “What’s Going On”-esque hodgepodge of celebrity vocalists, but rather a collection of thoughtful, unlikely collaborations. Harris gets Young Thug to belt it out on “Heatstroke” and elicits an animated take from the typically deadpan Big Sean on “Feels,” both feel-good tracks that sound just as great at a family function as they do at a club. But the album’s crown jewel is “Slide,” featuring Frank Ocean and Migos — the first true pop anthem from Ocean since Channel Orange. — NV

Washed Out, Mister Mellow

Washed Out’s Ernest Greene emerged as one of the key players in the “chillwave” movement with his 2009 track “Feel It All Around.” Best remembered as the Portlandia theme song, it powered Greene into a deal with Sub Pop for his breakthrough LP, Within and Without in 2011. He became a touring sensation, but endured a lacking effort on 2013’s Paracosm that nearly faded him into the chill. Enter empresario Peanut Butter Wolf and his legendary Stones Throw label, who signed a re-energized Greene for his first release in four years, Mister Mellow, far and away the best Washed Out album to date. Gone is the shell of a sub-genre which quickly exhausted Greene’s output, and in its place is welcome experimentation, enthralling psychedelia, and a funky core that slides right into the Stones Throw catalog. Bonus points for the album’s trippy track-by-track visual companion, starring Greene and SNL’s Kyle Mooney. — AS

Our 20 Favorite Non-Local Albums of 2017 21 December,2017Nastia Voynovskaya

Author

Nastia Voynovskaya

Nastia Voynovskaya is a Russian-born, California-raised journalist and the music editor at KQED Arts. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, VICE, Paste Magazine, and SF MoMA Open Space. Previously, she served as music editor at East Bay Express and online editor at Hi-Fructose Magazine.

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