pop music

Maura Johnston’s picks for best albums of 2017

Miguel in concert at TD Garden in 2016.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Miguel in concert at TD Garden in 2016.

Casey Dienel

“Imitation of a Woman to Love” Scituate-raised Casey Dienel’s first album under her own name since 2006 (she’d put out records as White Hinterland in the interim) is a rollicking examination of 21st-century femininity that shows off her buoyant voice, outside-the-lines songwriting, and stiletto-sharp wit. “Chill and Natural” backs Dienel’s plainly horrifying description of male-female relations in the RedTube era with zig-zagging synths; the postcard-from-the-edge “High Times” pairs Dienel’s wail with slashing string loops and a chugging beat. “Imitation” wriggles out of any expectations placed on it, and as 2017 dragged on its vibrancy only increased.


“War & Leisure” Since debuting in 2010, the ever-omnivorous Miguel has whirled through funk and soul and rock and any other type of music that tickles his fancy. His fourth album blends the political and the sensual in heady, gorgeous ways, with the pure pop pleasure of “Pineapple Skies” and the sweaty funk of “Caramelo Duro” balancing out the flinty guitar of “Come Through and Chill” and the dystopian heaviness of “City of Angels.”

Zola Jesus

“Okovi” A meditation on mourning on which the opera-trained Nika Danilova gets deeply personal, her towering alto taking on the notion of loss amidst redlining synths and harsh white noise, as well as the comforting sonics offered by hymns and nature. “Okovi” is intense and beautiful, sending an implicit message of hope even in its darkest moments.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard


“Murder of the Universe” Aussie psych-rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard promised to release five albums in 2017; at press time, they were at four, with each flaunting their dizzying musical breadth in varying ways. The band’s second release of the year, a frantic yet ornate three-chapter concept album about decay, death, and the fate of a world populated by nihilism-consumed beings, was 2017’s best in situ allegory. Pumped up by the group’s coordinated guitar assault and given a 21st-century chill by the clipped narration of Melbourne folkie Leah Senior, “Murder of the Universe” paired ferocious riffing with B-movie gross-outs in raucous, honest fashion.

Kendrick Lamar

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“DAMN.” The hip-hop heavyweight’s fourth album is dense yet blazing, with the MC turning inward as he questions his place in America, fires back at Fox News, drops hints about karmic justice, and spins his own origin story into superhero gold over beats that borrow from the old school while pushing into the future. His late-in-the-year re-release of the album with its tracklisting reversed only adds to its mythos and underscores the meticulous thought he gives to his art.


“4:44” Brooklyn’s hip-hop mogul takes stock of his life on his 13th album, which backs up nakedly confessional rhymes with top-shelf soul samples (including Stevie Wonder’s still-vital “Love’s In Need of Love Today”) and tightly wound beats. The title track, a snapback-in-hand apologia to Jay’s wife Beyoncé for his role in their marital troubles, made gossip-page headlines, but the rest of the album is a stunning flaws-and-all portrait of a man who’d previously seemed impenetrable.

Moses Sumney

“Aromanticism” Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Moses Sumney’s extended rumination on solitude shows how flying solo can be an energizing force; Sumney’s heaven-sent falsetto floats above fuzzed-out dreampop and slippery funk grooves; appropriately enough, his compositions’ fastidious arrangements are enhanced by slapping on a pair of world-canceling headphones.


“Future Politics” Canadian vocalist and producer Katie Stelmanis went back to the future for her third album, which rails against technologically imposed darkness with grandly constructed synthpop and resolute, yet staunchly hopeful lyrics. Stelmanis’s swooping soprano turns the percolating “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” into a net across the abyss.

Curtis Harding


“Face Your Fear” This Michigan-born singer’s hot buttered yowl sounds like it was teleported from a psychedelic shack, and on his second album he revels in that atmosphere on sumptuous soul tracks that touch on love, lust, and staying strong amidst the world’s more brutal headwinds.

Girl Ray

“Earl Grey” London teen trio Girl Ray possess a widescreen view of “pop” that includes Carole King’s “Tapestry” and single-song prog album sides as well as twee heroes like Heavenly and Camera Obscura. The result is a thrilling, curious debut rife with hooks and sugarspun melodies.



“A Hairshirt of Purpose” Pile’s status as Boston rock’s standard-bearers was cemented by the elliptical, yet unfaltering “A Hairshirt of Purpose,” a careening trip through post-hardcore, post-chamber-pop, and post-post-everything where meditative beauty rises out of knotty riffs and crushing percussion underlines leader Rick Maguire’s observations on loneliness.

Maura Johnston can be reached at