Tumultuous times yield great art. And 2017 proved the rule. Artists in a wide variety of genres have taken the inspiration of recent turmoil and turned it into music that often shines a light on serious issues or that focuses on the unexpected moments of peace and joy.
Here’s a look at the albums that did it best this year:
30. Jay Som, ‘Everybody Works’ (Polyvinyl)
For her official debut, Melina Duterte shows that her do-it-herself, quirky bedroom-pop is ready for the world to hear, whether she’s singing about the bus or “1 Billion Dogs.”
29. Paramore, ‘After Laughter’ (Fueled By Ramen/Atlantic)
Hayley Williams shows us how to stay upbeat in the face of adversity, using spiky ’80s pop to fuel “Hard Times” and good-time funk for “Fake Happy.” Most importantly, it all works.
28. The Movielife, ‘Cities in Search of a Heart’ (Rise)
“Ghosts in the Photographs” shows the catchier end of the collaboration, though there is still plenty of guitar roar. “You’re the Cure” is on the rougher end, with Caruana sounding like he’s ready to lead another charge into the mosh pit, something “Ski Mask” also manages well.
27. Flaming Lips, ‘Oczy Mlody’ (Warner Bros.)
Who knew you could combine prog rock, hip-hop, EDM and tales of unicorns and wizards so effectively? Apparently, Wayne Coyne.
26. Kesha, ‘Rainbow’ (Kemosabe/RCA)
Kesha, seen in 2016 in Manhattan, shows just how much she has grown with a “hymn for the hymnless,” an anthem where she celebrates her imperfections as part of her strength.
25. Declan McKenna, ‘What Do You Think About the Car?’ (Columbia)
Some are already calling McKenna a postmillennial Bob Dylan because his songwriting captures the interests and intensity of teenage life. That may be a lot to hang on him, but his stunning debut shows McKenna is up to the challenge.
24. U2, “Songs of Experience” (Interscope)
“Songs of Experience” feels joyous and energetic, even as Bono frets an awful lot about death in his lyrics.
23. Sam Smith, “The Thrill of It All” (Capitol)
For “The Thrill of It All,” the musical backdrop is far lusher than it was on his debut, though Smith’s voice is still distinctive enough and powerful enough to command the spotlight in every song.
22. Taylor Swift, “Reputation” (Big Machine)
“Reputation” isn’t really about what strangers think about her on social media. It’s about what she thinks of herself and what she wants those closest to her to think.
21. Queens of the Stone Age, “Villains” (Matador)
When the band wants to be straightforward, like in the single “The Way You Used to Do,” it piles one ZZ Top Texas boogie guitar line on top of another to irresistible effect, while Homme delivers an arch, anthem-worthy vocal. The punishing pace of “Head Like a Haunted House” is like one cool guitar riff running to the next until everyone is exhausted.
20. Prophets of Rage, “Prophets of Rage” (Fantasy)
What makes “Prophets of Rage” so powerful is the way each song has multiple layers that all make the song stronger, like fingers closing into a raised fist.
19. Foo Fighters, “Concrete and Gold” (Roswell/RCA)
For the Foos’ ninth album, there are no gimmicks. They aren’t needed… It is part of the band’s lasting charm that it can stretch and twist into different rock styles and still maintain its own distinctive style.
18. Valerie June, ‘The Order of Time’ (Concord)
June sings about pain and surviving it so convincingly that when she finally lets loose on the triumphant “Got Soul,” it sounds almost miraculous.
17. Bob Dylan, ‘Triplicate’ (Columbia)
The Nobel Prize winner for literature chooses his phrasing brilliantly in these 30 songs drawn from the Great American Songbook, memorializing them with elegant arrangements and his poignant delivery.
16. Rhiannon Giddens, ‘Freedom Highway’ (Nonesuch)
Giddens gives the tales of the oppressed a contemporary context that is both admirable and gut-wrenching, starting with Song of the Year candidate “Better Get It Right the First Time.”
15. Weezer, “Pacific Daydream” (Crush/Atlantic)
The band’s skills and ambitions lead to an impressive set of California-dreaming songs… The Beach Boys influence is heavy here, especially in the gorgeous “QB Blitz,” where Rivers Cuomo laments not being one of the cool kids, before getting caught in a sweet “Pet Sounds” moment in the bridge.
14. Spoon, ‘Hot Thoughts’ (Matador)
Britt Daniel’s main “hot thought” is to foster personal connection, but it comes with a stylish, funky backdrop in “Tear It Down” and “Can I Sit Next to You” so cool it could be a James Bond soundtrack.
13. Diet Cig, ‘Swear I’m Good at This’ (Frenchkiss)
Singer-guitarist Alex Luciano is set to be one of 2017’s breakout stars, thanks to this delightfully straightforward female-driven manifesto set to catchy power pop that bounces between sweetly rocking and roaring.
12. The National, “Sleep Well Beast” (4AD)
Unlike The National’s recent albums, much of “Sleep Well Beast” is about expanding the band’s horizons, even while maintaining the core of its distinctive sound.
11. Arcade Fire, “Everything Now” (Columbia)
The beauty of “Everything Now” is that Arcade Fire creates the feeling of too many choices by offering an overwhelming number of great songs done in a dizzying number of good-time musical styles that can be enjoyed on their own.
10. Kelela, “Take Me Apart” (Warp)
The allure of Kelela is stunningly simple. Sure, Janet Jackson singing an album of Björk songs may sound like an impossible dream, but Kelela takes that concept to the next level.
9. Margo Price, “All American Made” (Third Man)
You can practically hear Margo Price blossom from country traditionalist to undeniable country superstar.
8. Afghan Whigs, ‘In Spades’ (Sub Pop)
Like a noir film come to life, “In Spades” masterfully moves from the soaring intensity of “Arabian Nights” to the epic, howling exit of “Into the Floor.”
7. Justin Townes Earle, ‘Kids in the Street’ (New West)
Earle offers an Americana thrill ride filled with classic country, blues, a bit of rock, plenty of humor and a whole lot of great storytelling, starting with the brilliant “Champagne Corolla.”
6. Kelly Clarkson, “The Meaning of Life” (Atlantic)
Clarkson has had finer singles, but “Meaning of Life” is the best album of her career, a chance to declare her ambitions and deliver on them time and time again for her most cohesive album yet.
5. Sorority Noise, ‘You’re Not As ___ You Think’ (Triple Crown)
The Hartford indie rockers, led by Cam Boucher, address death from multiple viewpoints, all told with heartbreakingly realistic touches, even if the often-rocking emo backdrop suggests otherwise.
4. Randy Newman, 'Dark Matter' (Nonesuch)
Comparing the nine songs here to the bulk of pop music today is like comparing LeBron James to the middle school kids playing hoops in the park. It’s stunning how much better these songs are than “regular” songs.
3. Lorde, “Melodrama” (Republic)
Lorde’s breakthrough “Royals” was stunning in its stark simplicity — portraying life in black and white. “Melodrama” is a burst of colorful layers, from the dance anthem “Green Light” to the ballad “Liability,” which somehow manages to sound lush and glam-rock though she’s backed only by a piano.
2. Jay-Z, “4:44” (Roc Nation)
Over his previous 12 albums, Jay has rarely been this vulnerable. On “4:44,” he shows how grateful he is for all that he has and how he plans to work hard to keep it… Jay is taking the tough road to staying on top — by being better than everybody else.
1. Kendrick Lamar, ‘DAMN.’ (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
On his fourth album, K.Dot sounds like a man backed into a corner who comes out swinging. His rhymes still fly fast – seemingly even faster than before, thanks to the spare arrangements – but always hit hard enough to do damage, even when he’s musing about loyalty with Rihanna or commanding, “Sit down. Be humble.”
Halfway through 2017, we can say a couple of things about the movies. One is that the major studios are making a lot of bad ones. The other is that they can make great ones when they try.