12. “Beautiful Trauma” by Pink
I’m still not sure that going the Adult Contemporary route was the wisest move for Pink’s career as a whole, but I can’t deny this album’s gorgeous melodies and achingly beautiful vocals. Between that and its quiet, deep sense of sorrow, it just had to go on this list: there’s no denying the emotional power of songs like the anguished title track, the quietly heartbreaking “But We Lost It”, the haunting cry of catharsis “Where We Go”, or the wearily quixotic “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” (not to mention the hit single “What About Us?”, a dirge for an entire nation).
11. “Meaning of Life” by Kelly Clarkson
Freed from pretty much all her creative and professional fetters, Kelly Clarkson finally got to make the kind of music she wanted. And while her eventual response to this situation seemed to be reinventing herself as a talk show host, at least she made this scorching Pop-Soul masterpiece first. It’s not as conceptually ambitious as her last album, Piece by Piece, but this Aretha-esque style of music perfectly compliments her voice…indeed, it’s actually a more natural fit for her voice than the Pop-Rock music she spent most of her career singing.
10. “Flower Boy” by Tyler the Creator
This is the album where Tyler, who had up to that point been peddling a supbar copy of Eminem’s shock-rap style, surprised everyone by coming out as gay and reinventing himself as an honest and sensitive artist in the Alternative Hip-Hop/Conscious Rap vein, writing about his personal struggles and striking a chord in a multitude of people who have felt the same way. Ever since this album’s release, this former critical pariah has become a critic’s darling and the second most important purveyor of old-school lyric-driven Rap in the business, second only to Kendrick Lamar.
09. “Everybody” by Logic
I know many people will disagree with me, but I think Logic came out with a better album in 2017 than Kendrick Lamar did the same year. While Kendrick’s much-vaunted Damn was…let’s be honest…openly courting Pop success with simpler topics and lyrics and beats by the likes of Mike Will Made It, Logic was releasing his magnum opus, an elaborate Concept Album about the entire human condition, complete with an incredibly moving song reaching out to people who are contemplating suicide. In other words, this album basically has the same concept as Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, and while it may be nowhere near the level of that classic, just the fact that it attempts that level of ambition and still largely pulls it off is enough to get it on this list.
08. “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” by Halsey
This was a huge improvement over Halsey’s uneven first record, Badlands. It’s an ambitious concept album loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet filtered through the lens of Halsey’s own love life. Halsey still has a tendency to oversing in places, but the production problems that plagued Badlands are almost entirely fixed here. More to the point, this is when the world started to really notice that they had come upon the greatest Pop lyricist to debut since Taylor Swift a decade earlier, and Halsey’s ambitious poetry infuses the album’s dramatic concept with an amazing degree of depth and honesty.
07. “Tell Me You Love Me” by Demi Lovato
Every Demi Lovato album to this day has improved on the one before it, and this is no exception. This is an even more compelling blend of Pop and Soul music than Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life. It’s passionate, sexy, anguished, self-searching, and shows off Demi’s full-throated vocals to perfection. If all you’ve heard from this one is the hit single “Sorry Not Sorry”, this is one of those cases where a party song was used to advertise an album that is otherwise a gut-wrenching cry of pain.
06. “Divide” by Ed Sheeran
There’s a reason this was Sheeran’s most successful album. A collection of Celtic-flavored Soft Rock comparable to Sting’s legendary masterpiece Ten Summoner’s Tales, it’s probably the best work Sheeran’s ever done in one place. With gems like the soaring “Castle on the Hill”, the ravishing ballad “Perfect”, the wild Irish dance rhythms of “Galway Girl”, and the devastating sadness of “Happier”, “Supermarket Flowers”, and “Save Myself”, how could this not be on the list?
05. “17” by XXXTentacion
Plenty of people like to parrot the old line about genius coming alongside insanity, but when those geniuses actually act like crazy people, they want to disavow them on “moral” grounds. This album, a kind of musical suite without distinct individual songs, combines a mix of post-modern Blues moaning, gorgeous lyrical passages, and bursts of angry rapid-fire rapping to offer an ultra-focused, 22-minute glimpse into a deeply disturbed mind. I’m aware the late XXXTentacion is something of a controversial figure, but this might be the greatest Hook-Rap album ever made, and to refuse to acknowledge that fact would be a true crime.
04. “Funk Wav Bounces, Part One” by Calvin Harris
Calvin Harris had already utterly reinvented popular dance music once by the time this album was made, but here he proved that he could not only hold his own with the Funk-based sounds that had supplanted his own at the time, but he could put his own spin on it and do it better than the stars of that new genre. I’m amazed this album didn’t take the world by storm the way Harris’ earlier 18 Months had—the glowing and utterly unique Pop-Funk sound of singles like “Slide”, “Heatstroke” and “Feels” is every bit as good as anything on his earlier records.
03. “Melodrama” by Lorde
Lorde’s first album, 2013’s Pure Heroine, was a glorious masterpiece that redefined Pop music right up to the present day, and yet she still managed to top it with her follow-up release. This album is much more polished, and, on the surface, much more conventionally commercial than her debut, but underneath its ultra-slick production and catchy Pop hooks lies one of the most intensely enraged and downright venomous ‘break-up albums’ ever released. I don’t know who prompted this level of fury from her (I’m sure I could find out, but I try to stay out of the celebrity gossip side of the music business insofar as I’m able), but whoever he is, I’m betting he’s still smarting from her response.
02. “Reputation” by Taylor Swift
This was Taylor’s darkest and most confrontational album, released after a year of artificial scandals and media abuse, and it wound up winning the public back over to her side. Divided into a ‘dark’ side and a ‘light’ side, this album mixes radical departures from her usual sound like the terrifying “Look What You Made Me Do” and “I Did Something Bad” with more relatively typical (if outstandingly great) Taylor ballads such as “Delicate” and “New Year’s Day”. The result was an incredibly striking album that never lost its undertones of darkness, even on the most ebullient love songs like “Gorgeous”. Just the fact that it managed to turn her public image around after the year and a half that proceeded it says more about its brilliance than I could say in a hundred paragraphs of text.
01. “Rainbow” by Kesha
As others have pointed out, it would probably seem insensitive to say anything critical about this album, given that it was essentially the therapeutic emotional catharsis of an abuse victim. Fortunately, in this case that point is moot, because this album is empirically perfect anyway. It’s a perfectly balanced blend of heart-wrenching emotional moments like “Praying” and “Hymn”, defiantly joyous dance jams like “Let ‘Em Talk” and “Learn to Let Go”, and even moments of genuine (and hilarious) humor like “Hunt You Down” and “Godzilla” (not to mention the indescribably beautiful and tender title-song with its life-affirming message). The legendary Dolly Parton even guests on one track (singing a country standard that had been written for Parton by Kesha’s own mother)…but frankly, Parton has never released an album this good herself. In fact, this is not only easily the best album of 2017, it is very probably the single greatest album of the entire 2010s!