Best Albums of 2017 (50-26)

Part 1 of 2
By    December 18, 2017

dre snoop

Honorable Mention: T.Y.E – 32 [POW Recordings]

t.y.e

2017 was a great year for Texas rap. Fat Tony presented a realistic portrait of his childhood neighborhood with Macgregor Park, while Dallas staples The Outfit, TX found a larger audience with the release of their first POW record, Fuel City. This is just barely scratching the surface from the Lone Star brigade, but the best debut to emerge from this increasingly dense field of artists came from T.Y.E—real name Tyler Harris—whose 32 pays homage to the neighborhood that shaped him, nearly broke him, and eventually turned him into the hyper-talented songwriter we’re introduced to on his first LP.

Blending his operatic roots with a southern style flow equally indebted to Texas legends and the new school come up in Atlanta, T.Y.E’s debut is a wholly unique affair, shedding light on his battles with anxiety, addiction, and depression—both vulnerable in his refreshing honesty and confident in his ability to fight back against the daily struggle of his bipolar disorder.

“Everyone Loves Me,” the album’s first track, does a stellar job at crystallizing these dual aspects, displaying both a chest-puffing confidence and an eye on the rearview, knowing the demons that haunt us only grow stronger as we try to move past them. Over a looped vocal sample performed by Ty himself, he raps, “So now you love me/ All of a sudden you love me/ Expect me to believe you love me/ Used to put everything above me/ Now all of a sudden you love me.” T.Y.E turns the song title on its head, piercing and prodding at our need for accolades and how success is too often deemed by everyone but you. Harris focuses these themes over the course of the album’s ten tracks (album closer “La La Land” is one of the strongest songs of the year, rap or otherwise), painting a portrait of an artist constantly growing into his own body of work. On 32, Harris eventually realizes that his canvas is just beginning to take shape; and that’s the way it should be. — WILL SCHUBE

Honorable Mention: Kent Loon – Stay Low [POW Recordings] 

kent loon

Kent Loon’s Stay Low sounds like the kind of dizzying peyote trip that ends in with a month-long stint in the clink and a face tattoo you don’t remember getting. With nearly every song orbiting around debauchery of some form or another, this record is a wild fever dream through Loon’s warped, 21-year-old imagination. If Stay Low doesn’t sound like something a 21-year-old would write in 2017, given his age and the fact that he hails from a region overshadowed by the likes of XXXTentacion and Kodak Black, well, that’s because Loon’s hardly typical. A Columbian who was rushed to America under the threat of kidnapping and extortion as a child, Loon brings to his music an unwavering authenticity to his vision. In the inimitable Chester Watson, Loon picked the perfect madman for his mad fever dream of an album. — JUSTIN CARROLL-ALLAN

Honorable Mention: Natia – 10k Hours [POW Recordings] 

10k hours

I first discovered Natia through his music video for “The Wrong Way Part II,” in which the Los Angeles rapper warbles in a dirty kitchen, gesticulating like a madman with a cigarette in one hand while clutching onto a bottle of Tito’s for dear life in the other, his eyes as wide as dinner plates. It was at some point between the part where he raps, “Every music that came before me was stupid” with Shakespearean flair and the shot of an empty PBR can resting casually inside of a Timberland that I understood that Natia was a genius.

His POW Recordings-released album 10k Hours is rich with that same sleazy charm and warped smoothness, steeped in hazy retro-funk and more inventive, laugh-out-loud-funny lines than there were parts of the “Wrong Way Part II” video that made me consider texting Jeff asking if Natia needed an intervention. But then he answered the question for me on “Blood on the Hypeman” with, “Passion of the Weiss found me, now I’m here/ So talk to me normal and don’t make it weird.” After all, making it weird is Natia’s job, and he’s incredible at it. — DREW MILLARD

Honorable Mention: Gabe ‘Nandez – Plaques [POW Recordings] 

Right around the time dusty Timberland boots became visual shorthand for alphabetized Papoose punchlines, an oversold narrative took root among rap cognoscenti like yourself regarding the stagnancy of New York rap. Yet 2017 was a thrilling year given the slew of young, hyperaware New Yorkers—Wiki, A$AP Twelvyy, the Doppelgangaz, even Joey Bada$$—comfortable picking, choosing, and subverting their favorite parts of the city’s hip hop lineage without trying to put an entire metropolis on their backs.

Plaques is a dense, insular excursion of the eighth chamber, realms-n-reality variety; the instrumentals sound like they’re echoing through an elevator shaft, the drums rattle around your brain. ‘Nandez is an adept, evocative writer with bulletproof flow, yet the record’s magnetism is in its precarious balance: spare yet musical, blunted yet articulate, stark but not unwelcoming, sly and subtle, focused and unpredictable, intimate yet never melodramatic. Plaques is a quintessential headphones experience, a professional triumph with a reverent, sensible soul that’s not for hire. — Pete Tosiello

Honorable Mention: The Outfit, TX – Fuel City [POW Recordings]

fuel city

Once they’ve gotten three or four albums under their belt, few musical acts can resist taking a turn toward more serious aesthetic ambitions. And undeniably, our current political climate has encouraged plenty of loftily intentioned, painstakingly crafted statement records. For The Outfit, TX, who have always made arty riffs on Texas rap tropes and who got plenty of conceptual brooding done on 2015’s Down by the Trinity, the step up to a new level involves no self-congratulatory “experimentation” or moralizing flimflam. Instead, it’s all about making good-ass Dallas rap tunes.

There is, after all, no more visceral art than tearing up the club, and few poets have drummed up couplets as direct as “Told that bitch my bitch was crazy/ fuck around and cut that bitch.” On Fuel City, the group’s confidence and charm is greater than it’s ever been, whether in the technical virtuosity of JayHawk’s staccato delivery on “Outta Control” or the casual humor of Mel writing notes on his MacBook about fucking your girl on “Phone Line.” There are dashes of Auto-Tune, a dazzling guest turn from Atlanta’s Landstrip Chip, and sinister production in line with the gnarliest A-list trap stuff. TOTX built their reputation with music that sounded like unearthed gems from hip-hop’s mid-’90s regional heyday but felt modern. Fuel City sounds like right now but feels like one of those albums, the kind that make their own party, the kind that made you fall in love with rap music in the first place. — KYLE KRAMER

50. Young Nudy – Nudy Land [Paradise East Records] 

nudy land

What is Nudy Land? It’s seemingly located at the Texaco on Gresham Road in East Atlanta’s Zone 6. Its proprietor and namesake describes an absent father and a woman he finds disposable in the same breezy tone. AK-47s, shotguns, and pistols are de rigueur, but he wears them with a chuckle, like he’s his cousin 21 Savage but with higher serotonin levels. Its soundtrack, courtesy of producer Pierre Bourne, splits the difference between Sonny Digital and Chad Hugo, sometimes sucking all the air of the room (“Bermuda”) and other times cracking mortar with digital hammers (“Pussy”).

The staff is lean; Nudy and Bourne only call in two superstar guests who struggle to blend with Nudy’s cadence. The main stage is reserved for “Nutsack,” a performance whose content and construction exist in a Hobbesian state of nature, albeit one where Nudy can’t stop laughing. He pulls back the curtain on “Money Makin Mitch” and an unnatural strain enters his voice because he has to get paid. But the lapse into earthly concern is temporary. Twenty-four year old Young Nudy has inured himself to trauma, perhaps with medication, and Nudy Land invites you to share the euphoric, consequence-free experience. — EVAN NABAVIAN

49. Wifisfuneral – Boy Who Cried Wolf [Alamo/Interscope Records]

wifisfuneral

Being a South Florida teenage rapper with face tattoos might have become a bit trite, but Wifisfuneral has distinguished himself among his peers. Boy Who Cried Wolf is a mixtape about questions and the minimal answers one can find. More importantly though, it’s about pain and how to deal with it. The production, most of which is handled by Cris Dinero, is dreary and horrific, but uptempo. From song to song, Wifi questions the direction of his own life, and on “Wya?” directly questions the girl in his life. Half the songs come in well under three minutes, and while that’s on par for the “Soundcloud rap” canon, it’s not for lack of substance. In one succinct package we hear his lack of trust, struggles with addiction, and anxieties laid out in steaming confidence with a delivery that could only come from a 20-year-old who cites B.I.G.’s Ready To Die as a teacher. — ETHAN DAVENPORT

48. Midnight Satori – Rah Zen [DOMEOFDOOM]

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If you’re from LA, you regard people who preach about altered states of consciousness—drug-induced and not—with warranted skepticism. The city is rife with hack-faith healers and trust-fund-hippies slanging overpriced tinctures and crystals from high-rent-real-estate. Boston-based producer Rah Zen gets the rare out-of-towner pass and all manner of good faith. Midnight Satori, his debut on LA’s burgeoning beat scene label Dome of Doom, is an untainted quest to unlock the doors of perception.

Inspired by Zen’s practice of lucid dreaming, Midnight Satori deftly balances clarity and abstraction. On tracks like “Nightworks,” he allows warm hiss to crawl between crisp, cavernous drums. Elsewhere, he slows and distorts vocal samples to Lynchian-like strangeness, making them both intriguing and unsettling. Throughout, he turns terrain charted by forebears like Teebs and Ras G (see “For Unity”) into new, winding, psychedelic sojourns. Ultimately, this is an album not just unafraid of the unknown but pulsing with the desire to go deeper. Put it on and skip the crystals. — MAX BELL

47. SZA – Ctrl [Top Dawg Entertainment]

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The rapper that’s defined and dominated the 2010s—that’s Drake, duh—built an entire discography around dating in the age of social media and swipes: the “u up” texts, the ghosting, the Instagram stalking. Naturally, it was all centered squarely in the male gaze, the male ego, and lots of fragile male feels. Behind all Drake’s sad-boy sensitivity, women were still essentially prizes, meant to be collected, possessed and then discarded when they broke “good girl” rules by daring to be Snapchatted in the club in something skimpy.

SZA’s debut, Ctrl, is the long overdue female take, on the Tinder era, on a decade (millennium?) spent celebrating fuckboy behavior. But it’s rawer, realer, and more painfully personal than anything Drake has done. “The Weekend” tries to make peace with sharing a man with other women, “knowing I’m desperate”; on key-the-car breakup missive “Supermodel,” SZA tells her real-life ex she’s been “secretly banging your homeboy” in response to him cheating on her on Valentine’s Day, asking “why am I so easy to forget?” “Normal Girl” even subtly interpolates a line of Drake’s “Controlla”—“You like it when I get aggressive”—but gendered double standards means the context is flipped entirely. SZA’s man may like such behavior in the bedroom, but it’s also why she isn’t “the type of girl you wanna take home to mama.”

By definition, vulnerability like this means pain. But SZA, as the album’s name suggests, finds the power in it. — ALEX GALE

46. Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy [Columbia Records]

flower boy

I’ve never been to California, but in my mind it’s green and there’s sand between your toes at all times and some guy who is not that good at guitar but can play three songs really well is following you around. With each Tyler, The Creator synth or pressing of a piano key on Flower Boy, that bright view of California gets reinforced. Here, Tyler expands on a sound first explored on Wolf, one that is extremely piano heavy and reliant on an occasional breezy California style acoustic guitar—Steve Lacy’s guitar appearance on “Glitter,” for example. Throughout, Tyler also shows an improved ability to compose, creating arrangements where guest artists get brief moments to shine (“Boredom”), something that definitely comes from his idolization of Kanye West.

It’s incredible that the same rapper who eight years ago made an album filled with lyrics penned to make you squirm also made Flower Boy. But Tyler is 26 years old and thankfully traded in the teenage angst to become a Neptunes obsessed student of music. And if nothing else, we get a chance to hear the Lil Wayne “Mula” ad-lib over a beat doing much more for West Coast jazz than Ryan Gosling. — ALPHONSE PIERRE

45. JAY Z – 4:44 [ROC Nation]

4-44

Luxury real estate may be killing New York, but that doesn’t make an invitation to step into a multimillion-dollar condo and turn on the stereo any less sweet. You may think it’s bougie, but it’s a lot of game for $9.99. We’re talking Fugees, Biggie, Slick Rick. Frank Ocean, Prince, and a few lines from Hamlet. No I.D. Especially No I.D. And of course Beyoncé. It has to involve Beyoncé—Lemonade, Becky with the good hair, Solange, the elevator, it’s all in there, the difficult stuff, all the way back to Un and the Kit Kat Klub if we’re going to really air this out, which we are because Nina Simone is therapy and this is too.

Rap has changed along with Myrtle Ave; fortunately Jay’s response is to chuckle at the skrrt-skrrting procession, to tackle the big questions of family and love and the system itself, to have fun reminding everyone why he’s a hall of famer. In the process, he also offers hip-hop a blueprint for aging gracefully. The county of Kings, as ever, remains fertile. — KYLE KRAMER

44. Beatking – Astroworld 2 [C3Entertainment]

astroworld

“I be in the club with Jordan slides on,” Houston rapper BeatKing told Say Cheese TV earlier this year. “I just performed at the Toyota Center in Jordan slides in front of 30,000 people cause I ain’t give a fuck.” To appreciate BeatKing and his music—a dizzyingly expansive catalog of Southern slappers, all club-ready—you have to understand his self-awareness. This is a rapper who, outside of Texas, might be best known for his ridiculous reaction freestyles to memes like “U Name It” and Kermit the Frog. BeatKing’s music gets played in Houston strip clubs, but his exaggeration of strip club tropes is undeniably tongue-in-cheek. The Club God’s latest release, Astroworld 2, is one of his best, a sprawling collection of punchline-laden trap and chopped gems.

On songs like “Houston MF Texas” and “Smoking on da Dro 2017” BeatKing sounds like a lost member of Three 6 Mafia, his husky voice pairing perfectly with his nimble, in-the-pocket delivery. As always, BeatKing blurs the line between ironic appropriation and genuine evolution; the most compelling example is “Beautiful,” an airy stripper serenade that could go toe-to-toe with any HNDRXX ballad. Astroworld 2 is incredibly entertaining, and BeatKing might be Houston’s hardest rapper right now, Jordan slides and all.
MANO SUNDARESAN

43. Run the Jewels –  Run the Jewels 3 [Run the Jewels, Inc.]

rtj

The barrage of legislative betrayals and racist actions that defined Donald Trump’s first year in office remind me of what Naomi Klein argues in The Shock Doctrine (and Petyr Baelish posited in an episode of Game of Thrones): Crisis and misinformation always play into the hands of Trumpian demagogues, letting them seize on the chaos and manipulate it to their advantage.

Thankfully, Killer Mike and El-P are too smart to take the bait. Though they’ve both proved themselves masters of shit-talk and righteous rage, for their third Run the Jewels effort they lace their bracing calls to armed revolt with critical analysis, emotional reflection, and reminders that it’s the small things that keep us sane: “Make love, smoke kush, try to laugh hard and live long/ That’s the antidote.” It’s a powerful album full of haunting imagery and poignant messages about a country broken apart by injustice, and while it speaks to this current national doomsday scenario, Mike and El’s mind-meld powers are bound to stay inspiring long after Trump is out of office. — PETER HOLSLIN

42. Bedouine – Bedouine [Spacebomb]

edouine

Bedouine’s eponymous debut has been aptly deemed a “modern folk masterpiece.” On it, the artist (real name Azniv Korkejian) sounds at home, a notable feat considering her volatile upbringing: the 32-year-old was born in Aleppo to Armenian parents, spent 10 years on an Armenian compound in Saudi Arabia and, after winning the Green Card lottery, traversed American suburbias in Massachusetts and Texas. All this before settling in LA, a city whose hazy comfort she captures thoroughly on the baroque-folk, jazz-pop number “Back to You.” The song—an ode to the city itself—is one of many where Azniv’s arrestingly vivid songwriting is forefrontal: “Like a lamp in the light of day, drowning in summer rays/ I can hardly feel unrequited” she sings sweetly. Moments like these separate Bedouine from her influences.

Unlike Nick Drake’s often dark and ambiguous folklore, Anziv’s words offer forward-looking wonderment. As “Back To You” continues, she is found “dying to know what’s exciting” in a city where folks “talk in exclamation marks.” It’s a question reflective of someone still trying to adjust to a large metropolis they’ve only recently called home. For now though, Azniv seems most at ease with simply settling down, offering on the chorus, “I do a little/ Don’t need a lot/ I get with what I got.” — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE

41. TeeCee4800 –  Realness Over Millions 2 [Caroline Records]

realness

Never mind the comparisons to Eazy-E, the endless barrage of features from West Coast rap royalty, or his stake in Los Angeles’ rap renaissance. TeeCee4800 raps with one eye on the past. Focused on recalling his past transgressions through the lens of his new life, TeeCee’s Realness Over Millions 2 is a steady stream of vignettes that often find him sounding as if he misses life as a Crip, or at very least, the rush that comes from its most lucid moments.

Brief though it is, ROM2 spotlights TeeCee’s versatility as a storyteller and further solidifies his place in LA’s G-Funk revival. Whether he’s regaling us with his second installment of Home Invasion for Dummies (“How Many Liccs”) or getting stoned, eating Lo mein, and missing the dope game, TeeCee continues to be one to check for and a welcome voice at any function. — MICHAEL DUPAR

40. Manga Saint Hilaire x Lewi B – Outbursts from the Outskirts 

manga

Derision runs thick, contempt is contagious. Disdain courses through Manga Saint Hilare thicker than blood. The main artery, The Outburst00X series, pumps the anger through Outskirts. Five tracks—counting the intro—as many verses, and a spoken word outro by JGrrey (two r’s, if you’re nasty). They expand and pile up and collapse upon themselves as the album progresses. Manga uses only the ultimate installation to rabidly vent for a breathless three minutes, instead allotting the first four to serve as armchair confessionals for similarly under appreciated grime artists on some Ed Sheeran shit.

Outburts From The Outskirts is an album driven by reprehensible behavior, in action and ramification. Each stab of Manga’s staccato delivery is bent defensively, a deep seated aggression cultivated through years of fringe popularity as a tenured but overlooked Roll Deep member. Grime has never been cuddly, but this is downright corrosive. There are no dents in the armor, no moments of weakness. Lewi B’s production, a dark miasma that bleeds from Manga’s purple heart, is just prickly enough to rival the guest list. It’s dystopian and startling, and perfectly suited to backsplash Manga et al. In 2018, don’t expect them to call. They don’t do business with you no more. — THOMAS JOHNSON

39. RJ – MrLA [400 Summers]

mr la

RJ’s MrLA is an underdog’s victory tale cast under a South Central sunset. With assistance from 400 Summers label heads YG and DJ Mustard, MrLA works to continue the style and chemistry captured on definitive L.A. works like My Krazy Life or All Blue.

From the work of Mike Will, to that of Larry J & Swish, and of course Dijon himself, all of the production slaps. On “Blindfold,” Quavo steps out of the mink to reiterate (in slyly ‘proper’ grammar) that he won a Grammy. The effortlessness of “Henebeeto’s” party vibe can be partly attributed to its lifting of the synth line from “Gin & Juice,” but the verse from Schoolboy Q doesn’t hurt. The precision of phonetics in RJ’s rhymes on “Want Me Broke” is cause for admiration: “Fresh off the Fuck Trump Tour, slid a kilo, I done bit the bullet, bounced back and went in beast mode, fell up in a hard summer, almost damn near had a heatstroke.”

RJ’s uncut, streetwise persona shouldn’t lesson his impact as a charismatic, and at times, funny orator. On “Know How It Feel,” he says, “Throw ‘em like a Poké ball,” before rapping, “I’m Ferris Bueller when the cops get called.” It’s also quite clear from listening to MrLA that RJ doesn’t give two fucks about being fashion forward. He boasts about looks from the ’90s and $2,000 jeans with outdated jerseys. Paired with his streetwise demeanor, this downplay of his threads feels refreshingly balanced. — EVAN GABRIEL

38. Roc Marciano – Rosebudd’s Revenge [Marci Enterprises]

roc marci

Roc Marciano released Marcberg seven years ago and has since grown into a standard-bearer for a generation of indie rappers. You can hear his crimelord menace, exotic taste, and psychedelic take on dusty New York sounds on every other page of your favorite rap blog. On Rosebudd’s Revenge, Roc wears his legacy like a silk scarf. He puts imitators on notice in the first seconds (“The real shit is the real shit”) before a guitar riff courtesy of a producer named Mushroom Jesus announces an inimitable Roc Marciano track. Here, Roc gets ever more extravagant and weird, like on the prog rock cocaine opera “Burkina Faso” or on “Gunsense” which sounds like it was bleated out of an antediluvian keyboard. Rosebudd’s Revenge is a blaxploitation soundtrack suffused with violence and scorn from a rap magnate—his words. In fact, consider those bars:

The rap magnate, jacket’s made of snake.
The cash at a rapid pace like the way rabbits mate.
Crack the safe, that’s an accolade.
Relax and get face from Christina Applegate.

Roc is the rare rapper whose assonant internal rhymes are as impressive as his designer labels. Original hits like “Snow” now seem quaint in delivery, content, and form. He brags as if affronted by lesser artists and their shitty clothes. He mentions his Gucci loafers on two consecutive songs as if to underscore a broader, inarguable point: ‘You can’t do this like me.’ — EVAN NABAVIAN

37. Snoop Dogg – Neva Left [Empire / Doggy Style]

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Like 4:44, Neva Left is a hobby-horse project from a genius with no reason to stretch himself, sixteens jotted down during diaper changes and smoothie runs. But where Hov’s Tender Is the Night pastiche hinges on admissions of cheating on pop stars and how he wishes he’d bought more office buildings, Snoop’s fifteenth album is an homage to the sort of capital-H Hip-Hop he’s spent the last quarter-century transcending. Even if the title’s affirmation is true, after the arc spanning Ego Trippin’ through Snoop Lion through whichever game show he’s hosting this week, Neva Left plays like an offering to the rap heads who made it all possible.

He raps over the “C.R.E.A.M.” loop and the “Check the Rhime” drums, rips a half-dozen sinister Battlecat tracks, and trades bars with KRS-One in full Blastmaster regalia. Standalone gems are scattered throughout—an off-kilter weed ode with Devin the Dude and Wiz Khalifa, a deliciously abrasive Kaytranada remix featuring BadBadNotGood—but the real pleasure is in the rapping itself, Snoop’s casual authority and the way his vocals float over the drums like scudding clouds. As rewarding as his latter-day catalog is, it’s been easy to overlook his greatest strength: that he’s one of the very best shit-talkers in the world. — PETE TOSIELLO

36. Lil B – Black Ken [BasedWorld Records]

black ken

If Lil B never existed, yet Black Ken made its way onto the earth courtesy of an anonymous Bay Area rapper/producer, it would still be a very good album, one that would probably have made its way onto this list, perhaps even at this same exact spot. But Lil B is Lil B, and every website that covers hip-hop should make Black Ken their number-one album of the year, both as an homage and a coronation. Though he wasn’t the first rapper to issue a seemingly endless stream of online mixtapes, he accelerated the form by treating songs like social media posts—no activity was too mundane to chronicle, no joke was too silly to follow to its logical conclusion, no emotion was too raw, and no experiment was too obviously doomed to at least try once. It is not an understatement to assert that he influenced an entire generation of rappers.

He put out an album this year; the album is Black Ken; it should be number one on everybody’s list because lots of other stuff on their lists wouldn’t exist without it. That’s the homage part. Now, here’s the coronation: Black Ken is really fucking good. Lil B produced the entire thing himself—a shock considering a lot of people didn’t even know he made beats—and on Black Ken he takes the work of classic Bay Area mainstays like Rick Rock and Ant Banks and adds in a dollop of electro that to my dumbass ears suggest he’s been listening to, like, Alexander Robotnick’s Ce N’est Q’un Début.

Black Ken is Lil B, but elevated: the silly stuff is sillier yet more listenable, his moments of profundity feel calculated instead of tossed-off, and his rapping throughout all is honed and focused. I know that this isn’t even the number-one album on this website, but the ultimate lesson of the BasedGod is that if you believe hard enough, anything—including rearranging very basic and obvious bits of reality—is possible. — DREW MILLARD

35. Maryan Saleh, Maurice Louca, & Tamer Abu Ghazeleh – Lekhfa [Mostakell]

Lekhfa

The underground music scene in Egypt has benefited enormously from these three critically-acclaimed artists, and on their debut studio effort they take their talents to a new level. Lekhfa finds Maryam Saleh, Maurice Louca, and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh adapting dystopian street poetry (written in Egyptian Arabic by Mido Zoheir) to a mesmerizing mix of oud and buzuq riffs, psychedelic mizmar synths, and maqsoom dance beats. The effect is something uncanny as they give voice to complex machinations of power and ineffable feelings of betrayal and depression, providing catharsis and release in the wake of personal crisis.

Though a lot of the Arabic music that gets written about in the US grabs headlines because it offers some kind of social commentary or plays into Americans’ limited notions of what Arabic music is all about, Saleh, Maurice Louca, and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh have no time for pandering or dumbing things down. Putting their ideas together, they’ve made a dark, glorious, emotionally layered album that helps blaze a way forward for alternative Arabic music. — PETER HOLSLIN

34. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music [Def Jam Recordings]

2 chainz

2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music is restrained in a way that’s unusual for the consistently irreverent Tity Boy, and beautiful in a way that he’s been building to for some time now. There’s a melancholy in these beats not found in the majority of his oeuvre. Pretty Girls features everything from Nicki Minaj taking a benign swipe at Remi Ma to a glowing endorsement from Farrakhan to a wailing guitar sample from the Russian band Vitamins, and it showcases 2 Chainz’s signature humor throughout. For proof, look no further than “Realize,” wherein 2 Chainz throws shade at “mumble rappers” in a way that’ll have you shrieking with laughter. Still, it’s the album’s somber tone that’ll stay with you after you’ve heard the warped wail of the saxophone on “4 AM”—a sound so sad not even the optimistic chanting of Travis Scott can’t shake you of the feeling that 2 Chainz is evolving here, becoming more nuanced at his advancing age. — JUSTIN CAROLL-ALLAN

33. Don Trip & Starlito – Step Brothers 3 [Grind Hard]

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Starlito and Don Trip go about the same task in different ways. While each of them has a certain sense of dead eyed realism, Trip is more likely to stack punchlines on top of one another en route to his narrative objective. He’s someone who would have sounded right at home on a SMACK DVD or a DJ Kay Slay mixtape (this is a compliment, I swear).

Starlito’s music tackles the topics of depression and striving for success in a more direct manner. He’s the anchor for Trip’s gonzo wordplay, and he allows Trip’s infectious enthusiasm to creep into his own writing on their collaborative projects. There’s never any doubt that the album is essentially a good natured competition between two close friends.

While SB3 starts off with a series of relatively low-stakes songs that allow Trip and Lito to find their footing (I could listen to an entire project of them trying to impress each other with zero complaints), there is a masterful build to its chilling centerpiece, “Good Cop Bad Cop.” I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t heard, but Trip and Lito each assume the narrative perspective of a different police officer and weave a tragic tale worthy of a full-length novel. Step Brothers 3 would be a 2017 gem off sheer talent alone; that crowning achievement elevates it to another level entirely. — HAROLD BINGO

32. Mount Kimbie – Love What Survives [Warp]

kimbie

Mount Kimbie’s Love What Survives would be on this list if the album consisted of “Blue Train Lines” and ten other heaping pieces of trash. While the album’s ten non-“Blue Train Lines” tracks range from good to tremendous, the King Krule assisted single is so damn fantasrtic it’s hard to move past it and enjoy the rest of the record. The track poses a chicken/egg scenario in which it’s impossible to discern whether Kimbie’s concoction was built for King Krule, inspired by him, or the young British singer simply bent and melded the track to his aesthetic X-Men style. It’s impossible to separate the track’s process from its result. It sounds like Trainspotting on downers mixing a cocktail of Can and post-punk. Krule also contributed (twice) to the band’s 2013 release, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, but like that record’s predecessor, Crooks & Lovers, the music had a tendency to drown in its own search for perfect textures and tones.

On Love What Remains, the production duo turn these textures into songs, alternately gorgeous and grimy. It’s their most consistent affair, balanced in pursuit of an album rather than one-off experiments. Because of that, it’s their best yet; but then again, “Blue Train Lines” and ten hour-long Drake remixes would be at the top of my ballot. — WILL SCHUBE

31. milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! [Ruby Yacht]

milo

“It’s a burden to have to speak, but I would never let them tell it.” If not milo, then who? Likely no one, or at least not to his exacting standards. milo has spent his career carving out an identity—sonic, philosophical, commercial—that’s all his own, shedding the possibility of being mistaken for anyone else with each successive release. At times, his earlier work could lean a bit heavily on reference, assembling a self-portrait by way of invocation rather than introspection; on who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, however, the listener steps into a world fully of milo’s creation. Flows, beats, features—they feel tailor-made for the album, the work of many filtered through the lens of a single creative vision. For a moment, it even feels like the legendary Busdriver’s entire career has merely set the scene for his passing of the torch on album closer “Rapper.” The album ends and the illusion breaks, but for fifteen tracks it really was hard to remember other music. — CORRIGAN BLANCHFIELD

30. Serengeti – Jueles — Butterflies 

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It seems very possible to me that Jueles — Butterflies could have run wild on pop radio this year if it had materialized in a different manner, like by the hand of an already established chart star. But no, one of 2017’s most delicious, pleasure center-firing albums was forged by alternative Chicago rapper Serengeti (under his Kenny Dennis alter ego) and wife Jueles (played by Jade), who serves as chief vocalist in what’s billed as her “debut album.” If this web of monikers is confusing to you, don’t worry—hit the play button on this criminally underacknowledged piece and all the important questions will be answered.

Jueles – Butterflies is a candy-painted, neon-lit glamorama of sparkling throwback synthpop. The rhythmic drum machines, catchy keyboard loops, and ravishing melodies of “Tommy PI” and “Odouls” are the kind of tracks that rippled through MTV back when it existed as just a single network. There’s a touch of hip-hop’s electro origins to the dinky verses of “Places Places,” while “Butterflies” is an echoing big ballad that could turn Jessie Ware’s head. The sonic vignettes that sit between the principal tracks—a clip of the Perfect Strangers theme music, for example—just add to the playful atmosphere and retro coloring of a record you can’t help be dazzled by. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN

29. 21 Savage – Issa Album / Without Warning (with Offset & Metro Boomin) [Slaughter Gang / Epic Records / Sony Records]

21SavageAlbum Art

21 Savage is one of 2017’s MVPs. Constantly laying claim to his gang, his shooters sans Instagram accounts, and shouting out threats between sips of codeine, on Issa Album 21 explains his self-avowed viciousness as something born out of necessity, the baggage of someone so scarred by trauma that they’ve willed themselves into autopilot. That project debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, and its lead single, “Bank Account,” which he co-produced, reached the top 20 on the Hot 100.

It runs deeper than the numbers. There are moments, like the intro on “Thug Life,” that snap you back to Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph the kid, scrambling to hide crack in his grandmother’s sofa before family arrives on Sunday. Over the smooth sample of En Vogue’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” it’s a touching scene that gives color to his adolescence. He repeatedly revisits the death of his younger brother, Quantivayus, as well as the fatal shooting of his best friend on his 21st birthday. “When they killed my brother I had to go hard,” he admits on “Numb.”

21 Savage and Metro Boomin then teamed up with Offset for Without Warning, one of the year’s best surprise tapes. Production assists come from Metro, Zaytoven, DJ Mustard, Pi’erre Bourne, and Southside. Echoing its title, Without Warning is an assault of an album. It has that carefree air of a mixtape with an all-star lineup and without bloated features or dunk contests. Given the ubiquitousness of Migos and their flow, or Metro’s grasp on how fast people want to bounce in clubs and on Snapchat, it’s clear this is only a project that could have come out of Atlanta, further solidifying the Gate City of the South’s significance as rap’s Southern mecca. — EVAN GABRIEL

28. Tony Allen – The Source [Blue Note]

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Tony Allen could have settled for keeping alive the Afrobeat tradition he pioneered as drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s Africa ‘70 in their prime. But Allen, like all the best artists, lives to complicate.

Afrobeat is military precision. It’s battalions of horns kept in formation by a rhythm section so precise that even James Brown wouldn’t fine it.

Jazz is chaos, or at least the appearance of it. While Afrobeat is running suicides, jazz is smoking cloves behind the commissary.

Allen’s playing is inextricably linked to seminal jazz drummers like Max Roach and Tony Williams, but it wasn’t until this year’s shit-hot A Tribute To Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers EP that he went full hard bop.

Tony Allen’s debut LP on the venerable jazz label Blue Note finds him using the language of jazz to dismantle the sound he’s spent his life building. Sometimes the piano scrambles the horns. Other times the horns bloat and sag and drag down the rhythm section. And everywhere Allen’s drumming somehow simultaneously blows everything up and keeps it together. The Source is not a fusion. It’s a fight. At least 2017 had one productive argument. — JORDAN PEDERSEN

27. Molly Nilsson – Imaginations [Night School]

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The first thing that hits you on Molly Nilsson’s Imaginations is the atmosphere. Imaginations slinks through the same sort of uneasy nocturnal soundscapes that Grimes perfected on 2012’s synth-pop gem Visions—and it’s as immersive in its own way, more restrained but equally dynamic. Subsequent listens, though, reveal disparate styles beneath that steely surface. “Mona Lisa Smile” and “After Life” are anchored by a throbbing reggae creep; “Tender Surrender” is a hushed, fluttering tango; “Memory Foam” is bright sing-along pop with undercurrents of deep sadness; “Not Today Satan” improbably dims the lights for a bedroom jam worthy of Marvin Gaye.

“Satan” has very different themes in mind, though. “Don’t be sad but do get mad/ At all the small men who act so tall/ In the end they always fall,” she muses midway through, a sentiment that couldn’t feel more timely unless it straight-up name-dropped Matt Lauer. She pokes at this sort of darkness, but largely remains upbeat anyway. Imaginations is the rare record poised enough to confront the politics of the moment without walking away gloomy and a bit defeated. Instead, Nilsson weaponizes her optimism—staring down 2017’s demons head-on, assured enough to craft something both warm and refreshingly singular. — ALEX SWHEAR

26. Daymé Arocena – Cubafonía [Brownswood Recordings]

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If 2015’s Nueva Era and 2016’s One Takes EP were merely sketches from Daymé Arocena’s broad palette of influences, Cubafonía is that range fully realized. On her second full-length, the Havana-born artist perfects a nimble balance between her Afro-Cuban Santería roots and the jazz, soul, and pop undertones she’s hinted at on previous outputs. The result is a vigorous display of sonic calisthenics.

On the vibrant rumba “Maybe Tomorrow,” Daymé serenades and scats her way to a triumphant, Aretha-esque close. The track is a composed contrast to the mash of Cuban mambo and second line New Orleans jazz that forms lead single “Mambo Na’Mà”—here, Daymé’s voice steps back, simply complimenting the frenetic horns at the forefront. These are only two parts to what feels like a tour through the expansive world of Cuban rhythms, though Daymé is unafraid to break off script. The percussive vocal improvisation that colors the record shows an exceptional vocalist on autopilot, and offers likely the most honest takeaway from the project: It’s beautiful when a 24-year-old Cuban jazz phenom feels free to have fun. — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE