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The Best Music of 2017 - According to Music Magazines

03-01-2018 | By Bartosz Pacula | Issue 96

Regular readers of High Fidelity remember, I hope, the texts from two and three years ago, which served (me and the editor-in-chief of HF, Wojciech Pacula) to present the best albums of mainstream music (read HERE). However, we did not write about the discs, that were the best music of 2017 "in our opinion", but about those that climbed the top positions of various charts summarizing 12 months in popular music. We used the best of charts published in such magazines as: Classic Rock, Mojo and Q. And although these are renown periodicals, we felt that our articles were somehow incomplete. Everything seemed fine, because we had—seemingly—a good collection of mainstream albums chosen by journalists writing for renown press titles.

For the past several months my knowledge about the mainstream in music has been growing faster and faster every day. Several factors contributed to this fact, among which one was a "discovery" of Tidal—of course, I knew about its existence earlier, but I did not really use it—and the other was my new job as music journalist for the RMF FM radio. Due to these new elements in my life, I now know more about this type of releases than ever before, constantly discovering new artists, getting to know the classics of pop, dance or rap—so the genres that are now on top—and last but not least—reaching for completely new means of communication in order to broaden and enrich my knowledge. In this way, I became a passionate reader of "Rolling Stone" and Billboard.

I particularly value the latter, which—as every fan of music that has been released since the second half of the twentieth century knows—runs the most prestigious chart of hits (or even several such lists actually) in the United States. The very appearance on the "Hot 100" or "Billboard 200"—respectively, the most popular songs and albums—can be treated as a great success, while achieving the top position in one of them is the most important achievements for any mainstream artists. And now with Billboard and the above mentioned Rolling Stone, which I hope I do not need to introduce, our game in High Fidelity is finally complete.

Its rules remain very similar. We have borrowed a certain number of the last year's best albums from each magazine: this year we decided to take top two, which we then auditioned and described, both in terms of music value—that's my job (BP)—and sound quality—that part was performed by Wojciech Pacuła (WP). If an album appeared on more than one list, we did not exchange it for any other—there would be too complicated and would require bending the rules. As a result, we ended up with seven titles. | BP

Below you will find a full list of albums that we included in this article:


Kendrick Lama, DAMN. 

SZA, Ctrl

Classic Rock

Queens of the Stone Age, Villains  

Black Country Communion, BCCIV


LCD Soundsystem, American Dream 

Nadia Reid, Preservation


Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. 

LCD Soundsystem, American Dream

Rolling Stone

Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

Lorde, Melodrama

It is not difficult to notice that the clear winner is Kendrick Lamar, who—by the way—on January 28th 2018 received five Grammy Awards. His album reach top two on three lists, from BillboardQ, and Rolling Stone, each time reaching the top position. Twice in the lists appeared the American Dream by LCD Soundsystem, that took the first place on the Mojo list, and the second on Q's, the rest of the albums appeared only once.

Before we move to the "clou" of this article, I would like to clarify a few methodological issues. We listened to these albums separately with Wojciech Pacuła, independently of each other. Each of us focused on his job, let me remind you one more time: BP—music, WP—sound, but taking into consideration all aspects of every album, treating them as an integral whole. We did not exchange any comments until the article was created to avoid influencing our opinions.

WP listened to all albums in the High Fidelity (more HERE) reference system, but the source of music was Tidal streamed using Lumin T1. It was important for us to listen to music as most people probably do around the world and the streaming services today seem the most popular source of music. We chose Tidal due to the fact that it offers recordings in at least CD quality (of the same technical specification).

I on the other hand, used a simpler set (which does not mean that it is simple!), which included: Samsung Galaxy A3 2017 and Tidal (source and media), Chord Electronics Mojo + Poly (headphone amplifier + DAC, and wireless communication with the phone) and AKG Y50 BT (headphones). The order of the presented albums, apart from the first and the rock package Queens of the Stone Age and Black Country Communion, is random. | BP


Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records. Source: TIDAL. Released: 14.04.2017


It is not without reason that I start the description of the best albums from the one by Kendrick Lamar. Not only, as I mentioned, did it appeared on the top of three charts of selected magazines, it is also definitely the best work of all that we will present here. Already the previous album of this talented rapper ("To Pimp a Butterfly", 2015) offered a decent dose of fantastic music. On DAMN. Lamar, however, does even more. With this album, the American, in my opinion, redefines the rap music, setting new directions for the development of the genre and being an inspiration for future generations of artists.

This album should be considered in two ways. First, as a phenomenal collection of fantastic songs. There are a lot of these here. The first single promoting the album, "Humble" (released on 30/03/2017), from the very beginning attacks with great-written, powerful lyrics ("sit down, lil 'bitch, be humble") and strong, expressive music. In turn, the song "Loyalty" (by the way these two brought the artist the Grammy Awards!) recorded in cooperation with Rihanna hits slightly lighter, almost intimate tones. The situation on "DAMN." changes constantly, but the music does not lose its vitality, energy and ingenuity.

However, there is a second sphere that we have to look at when listening to the fourth studio album by Lamar. I mean treating this album as an integral, coherent whole. Only then will DAMN. revealed to us all its powerful message, being an extremely strong and at the same time balanced voice of the representative of Afro-American culture. We should add to this phenomenal music videos (for the above-mentioned tracks you can find them: HERE and HERE), and we will get something that can not be called just an album, but a musical EXPERIENCE, rightfully praised. BP


DAMN. was released on April 14th 2017 by Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath Entertainment, and Interscope Records. It was recorded in multiple studios: Henson Recording Studios (previously A&M Studios, Hollywood), Windmark Studios (Santa Monica), No Excuses Studio (Santa Monica), and Jungle City Studios (New York). For this reason many people handled its production and they are named for each track. The executive producers were Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith—chief of Top Dawg Entertainment—Soundwave, DJ Dahi, Michael Len Williams II (Mike Will Made It), and Ricci Riera, industry's crème de la crème.

The album was released on two CD versions: a regular one and a second "Collector's Edition" with a changed cover; both digital versions are offered by streaming services. There is also a double LP album version available—in classic as well as red version—and part of the edition is autographed by the artist. Tidal streams 16/44.1 FLAC files.

An interesting fact... there is also an unofficial version on a cassette tape. WP


Although the album starts with a delicate, lyrical "BLOOD.", it immediately returns to "Kendrick style" in "DNA.". It's a dense, massive bit with very low bass. The latter is highly-compressed, but has a high level, so there is a good chance that it will overdrive most planar headphones, and will create problems for some amplifiers without high enough current efficiency.

It's not very clean, highly compressed sound where the most important element is the pulse. One can notice, however, a certain feature that binds everything over this basic layer—it's space. I understand it as a "projection" because there is no real space here. The album is made widely, deeply, with many moments in when out-of-phase sounds play important role—to hear this, one should listen, for example, to "PRIDE."

Although the sound quality is not particularly good it is a really good production. Dense, coherent, powerful. WP

Sound quality: 6/10


DFA Records/Columbia Records. Source: TIDAL. Released: 1.10.2017


Although the latest LCD Soundsystem's album did not steal my heart the way the DAMN. did, it's hard for me to negatively grade the fourth studio album of the American group. This is a musically surprising proposition, that efficiently combines seemingly incompatible genres, such as dance, rock or synth-pop. And yet, the artists managed to propose an album not only interesting, but simply good. There is a space here for lighter, almost hit tracks, as well as for compositions of a slightly heavier character. The whole is at the same time consistent and very enjoyable, hence the time spent with this album passes very quickly.

It seems to me, however, that despite its unquestionable advantages, the American Dream is an album that one can enjoy only a few times. After a while, all these patents that have delighted us at first stop doing that, and the music slowly but surely becomes boring and ... tiring. Perhaps one of the reasons is the total length of almost 70 minutes of music (seriously, would it be to much trouble to cut out a few minutes?!), and perhaps the formula proposed by LCD Soundsystem is not so interesting, coherent and deep as it might seem at first? However, you should give this album a chance and even if only for a moment let yourself sink into this unusual mix, where art rock mixes with dance music, and mainstream pop fuses with what specialists call post-punk. BP


The fourth LCD Soundsystem's album American Dream was released on September the 1st 2017 by DFA and Columbia. It was produced by James Jeremiah Murphy, an American musician, DJ, singer, music writer, and producer, who has worked with LCD Soundsystem before since 2002.

An interesting fact for audiophiles. Together with David and Stephen Dewaele of 2ManyDjs and engineer John Klett in 2012 he created a sound system called Despacio. The idea was a result of Dewaele and Murphy's brothers dissatisfaction in the evolution of DJ culture, which shifted the attention from music to DJs. Despacio was to draw the industry's attention to music and sound.

It was a set of amplifiers and stacked McIntosh loudspeakers, forming towers almost 3.5 m (11 ft) high, offering a total maximum power of 50,000 W and weighing 30,000 kg. It should not be a surprise if we add that it was exactly the same model of speakers as those used during Woodstock by Grateful Dead to create the Wall of Sound.

The album was released on a CD and on a two-disc LP. The Japanese CD edition includes the bonus track "Pulse (V1)", also available for download via band's Facebook. The vinyl version is available in two versions—as a regular album and as numbered "test pressing" edition; the latter was pressed in 100 copies and sent to radio stations and DJs. You can also find a limited version on a cassette tape. Tidal streams 16/44.1 FLAC files.

An interesting fact—in addition to the album Tidal offers also material from 12" maxi single "North American Scum" with the basic song and two remixes, including the "Onanistic Dub Mix" by James Murphy and Eric Broudek.


Like all previous albums from this list, also this one is highly compressed. In this case, however, it is a tool, not a hammer squashing dynamics, which can be heard, for example, through well-laid layers and strong, low bass—finally I could hear low bass, hallelujah! Changes in perspective were quite surprising, for example, its approximation in "Change Yr Mind", where there are have sounds coming directly from the speakers, as if there was no reverberation at all. It's a good, intelligent production, with only two annoying elements—compression and the emphasized upper midrange. The songs from the maxi-single are also very good. WP

Sound quality: 6-7/10


Matador Records. Source: TIDAL. Released: 25.08.2017


As the fans of Queens of the Stone Age like to emphasize—as all indications show: one of the last "real rock" bands still enjoying huge, unflagging popularity—every album of their favorite formation is an expedition into the unknown. The band's leader, Josh Homme, surprises every time, offering albums so different from each other, that in some cases they are connected only by the spirit of QotSA, present, without exception, on all albums. It is no different with "Villains", the seventh studio album in the Americans discography.

This is a really good album. There is space here for some really strong compositions ("Feet Do not Fail Me"), a decent single promoting the album ("The Way You Used to Do") and a generally pleasant, "rocking" atmosphere. Unfortunately – there isn't much more than that. Villains in terms of music is not even close to the best achievements of Josh and the band ("Rated R", "Songs for the Deaf", "... Like Clockwork"), remaining only a pleasant filler of time. Are the critics of rock critics right, heralding the imminent doom of the genre? BP


Villans was recorded during first three months of 2017. The recording was prepared by several producers, but the main sound director was Mark Rankin, who was also a co-producer. The mix was prepared by Alan Moulder and mastering by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen. Mark Ronson, known for production of the "Cold Shoulder" song from the Adele's 19 and the Amy Winehouse's Back to Black album, for which he received the Grammy Award in two categories was a co-producer with Rankin. Let us add that Rankin also has some significant achievements in his resume, as he worked as a sound engineer and music producer, among others, on Adele's 21 and Ceremonials by Florence and the Machine.

The album was released on a CD, also in Japan, and on a double LP, in which the last side being engraved with a standing figure from the cover. Part of the release includes art prints. An interesting fact—the analog version is available with two versions of the cover—"regular" and "indie". Tidal streams this album in 16/44.1 FLAC files.


It is a "dirty" recording in the sense that it is to sound like a rough, garage rock. And indeed it is so, we get a wall of sound, with a really selective vocal drawn on it. Sometimes, as in "The Way You Used to Do", the soundstage is widening, by spreading the guitars extremely in the channels, but more often it's powerful, strong performance, where the agility, dirt and energy count. The sound of this album is heavily compressed and the both frequency range extremes are cut off. You could say that the sound is heavily based on midrange, with a slightly emphasized upper part. It is a pity to listen to—it could be a fantastic piece of music but instead it made me sleepy. WP

Sound quality: 5/10


Mascot Records. Source: TIDAL. Released: 22.10.2017


If this is to be any indication of present state and/or future of rock, we should mark the genre with "archive" label, place it in a musem and visit it from occasionally to reminisce its best moments. How else could one react to a band composed of rock grandpas (in terms of their mentality) like Glenn Hughes, Derek Sherinian or Jason Bonham (son of the legendary John Bonham of Led Zeppelin), playing music as generic and geriatric as it comes? Is it really the only choice today to compose rock music as a faint reflection of its long past glory?

BCCIV... that's the album responsible for my outburst—is the fourth studio work of the American supergroup Black Country Communion. Four stars are members of the band (hence the "super" prefix): the three above-mentioned guys and currently the most popular bluesman in the world—Joe Bonamassa. These gentlemen, despite other commitments (especially the latter has lot of them) meet from time to time and spit out identical sounding albums making all those whose musical development ended around 1980 very happy.

Same goes for their latest work, which in terms of emotion is as flat as a clean sheet of paper and equally interesting. To be honest I disliked this album so much that I started to doubt the sense of reading Classic Rock, where I read lots of praises about it. Why bother with music recorded like in the 1970s, when there is music... actually recorded in the 1970s? BP


Recording session of the BCCIV began on January 4th 2017 and lasted only seven days, which was characteristic of many of the best albums from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. It took place in EastWest Studios in Hollywood, and their producer was Kevin Shirley. Shirley, also known as The Caveman, was a producer and sound engineer responsible for the mix of many acclaimed artists such as: Journey, Iron Maiden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Joe Bonamassa, Dream Theater, HIM, Tyler Bryant, Mr. Big and Europe.

He prepared the mix in his own studio, The Cave in Sydney. After finishing work, Bonamassa described this time as: "a very, very special week", adding: "I think it's the best album we've done so far." The album was released on a CD and on a double LP. Part of the release was pressed on orange vinyl. Together with vinyl, we get a code to download the material in digital form. Tidal streams 16/44.1 FLAC files.


Same as the Villains by Queens of the Stone Age, also the BCCIV was conceived as an energetic rock album. And like the previous album, this one also fails as the sound was mercilessly compressed and the tonal balance is set too high. Guitars instead of being hard, energetic and bass instead of crumbling wall, sound like  wooden clogs on a floor, all those "rocking" elements of music are only gently marked. Even in "The Cove", a track starting from the low bass it is shallow, one can say—shameful. It a very, very bad sound, with even worse vocals, and the only positive elements are an interesting use of reverb and space. WP

Sound quality: 4-5/10

LORDE, Melodrama

Republic Records. Source: TIDAL. Released: 16.06.2017


This album for me was among the most-awaited ones last year due to the brilliant debut of young Lorde, an art-pop artist born in 1996 in New Zealand artist-art. Released on September 27th 2013 Pure Heroine—that's her debut—not only was one of the best albums of this period, but also one of the most interesting art-pop proposals in general. It was intriguing, emotional and engaging, it included both not so obvious hits ("Royals"), and unexpected trips towards vocal electronics (an outstanding "Bravado"). Unfortunately, along the way, something (I even know what exactly) broke down and the second studio album in the young singer's career is "only" good.

Don't get me wrong: the Melodrama is still a decent dose of well-tailored pop music with ambitions, but in no aspect can it compare it to the brilliant package known from "Pure Heroine". In theory, this album does everything "more" and "better", but—as you know—better is the enemy of the good. Lorde this time decided to explore topics such as loneliness and growing up, but it is lacking sincerity and novelty. What's more, in the pursuit of the mediocre general concept, Lorde lost her ability to write hits and only the "Sober II (Melodrama)" reminds us of the magnificence from her teenage years.

The person to blame for this is—at least in my opinion—Jack Antonoff, one of the most important mainstream producers, who recently signed under the albums of such stars as Taylor Swift, Fifth Harmony and Sia. Harmful effects of his influence can be heard wherever it appeared. Music in Antonoff's mind is an indigestible pulp of pseudo-intellectual, quasi-inspired outpourings that are boring and simply meaningless. Fortunately, Lorde is such a gifted artist that she was still able to serve us a good, even album—it is a pity, however, that it did not equal her previous achievements. BP


The work on Melodrama was a multi-stop journey. In December 2013, Lorde announced that she began to write material for her second studio album. In June 2014, the material was to be "in the early stages of creation" and "completely different from the debut." In November of the same year, she announced on Facebook that she wanted to show "a new world" to listeners. The title of the album was revealed on March 2nd 2017, and the record appeared in stores on June 16th. The whole album was made over the period of eighteen months in collaboration with the producer and co-author of songs, Jack Antonoff.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there are several places named in the production description: home studio of Jack Antonoff (Brooklyn, New York), Electric Lady Studios and Jungle City Studios (New York). The leading sound engineer was Laura Sisk. John Hanes and Serban Ghenea are responsible for the mix, and Tom Coyne for the mastering. The were as many as ten people involved in the production of this album, and the whole process was supervised Lorde and Jack Antonoff.

The disc was released on CD and 180g LP. Long Play was pressed in two versions—on black and blue vinyl; the latter is available with six, two-way arts. Universal Music Group New Zealand adds a bonus card with an art print to the CD release, and in Japan the album is available with an additional song "Green Light (Chromeo Remix)". You can also buy a 12" x 12" lithograph with an amazing album cover additionally signed by the artist. This is definitely the best looking album on this list. Tidal streams 16/44.1 FLAC files.


Lorde's voice was recorded in a similar way as Nadia Reid's (I'll get back to that), although they have a completely different style. The point is that it is recorded from up close and heavily compressed. On the Melodrama, however, it is supported with additional processing, which makes it much more interesting. It is placed close to us, firmly anchored in the space between the speakers. One can hear sibilants, they are not smoothed over, so perhaps they can be too strong on relatively bright sounding systems. But the sound as a whole is strongly extended down, there is no lack of bass here. For example, listen to "Hard Feelings / Loveless" and you will hear a nice, low and rich bass with a soft character.

The sound is difficult to evaluate, because each track sounds a bit different. If, however, I was to try to generalize I'd say it's a good production with interesting arrangements and sound, which will sound well in large rooms. There is a spatial, multi-layered sound with great momentum. In a high-class system, it will sound good too, although not great. WP

Sound quality: 6/10

NADIA REID, Preservation

Basin Rock. Source: TIDAL. Released: 3.03.2017


I must admit that I can not understand the presence of this album on the second place on the Mojo's list. After a lot of consideration the only conclusion I could come up with was that it was an error in the system, an anomaly that should never had happened, and yet it did. The Preservation is as insincere album as they come. And in addition deadly boring. After listening to it, I began to long for geriatric gentlemen from Black Country Communion.

Nadia Reid's work was supposed to be (I think) something of an intimate journey to the artist's private world. So there we have a focal-sounding guitar, tearful vocal and not much more. Unfortunately, the whole thing appears to me not as a sincere work created from the need of the heart, but a well-thought-out product, artificially created for people who would like to suffer from depression, because it is "romantic". But, perhaps, I'm wrong and wrongly accuse this artist of the hideous practices of this type. There is a chance that she really believes in what she does, in her mission, in music. All the worse for her, because it's just mediocre music at best. BP


The Preservation by Nadia Reid was released on March the 3rd 2017, 18 months after her 2015 debut. The recordings were made in March 2016 in The Sitting Room in Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand. The recording, mixing and mastering engineer and record producer was Ben Edwards. The album was released on CD and 180g LP. Tidal streams 16/44.1 FLAC files.


Long reverb vocals multiplied and arranged in different layers and between loudspeakers—these are the main determinants of this album. It might seem that the guitar and vocals should be easy to record, even if we add electric guitars, bass and percussion. It's obviously not true—Nadia Reid's voice is bright and there is no depth to it at all. It is created by applying several tracks, but this does not change the overall reception. This is a fairly bright recording, and it seems that the idea was to ethereally "lift up" the sound in the way that the Cocteau Twins band got us used to in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the sound is of equally poor quality. WP

Sound quality: 6-7/10

SZA, Ctrl

Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA Records. Source: TIDAL. Released: 9.06.2017


Ctrl (pronounced "control") is the artist's hiding behind SZA pseudonym (actually: Solána Imani Rowe) debut album. Although the artist has been active on the music scene for several years (to be precise: since 2012), only recently she became popular thanks to the "Ctrl", which focused the attention of music critics and R&B and (neo) soul fans. Reading several extremely positive reviews about this album, I imagined a complete work that could re-define the very basics of this type of music. Unfortunately, the reality is much less intriguing.

In theory, there is nothing missing in this album. There is a dense ambiance, black culture at its best and true emotions that only soul can provide. The Ctrl was not able though, to focus my attention for long. Over time, it began to appear to me as a shell—fabulously beautiful on the outside, but empty inside. The SZA admittedly does her best to keep listener's attention to the end of the album, and one can not refuse that she seems to be honest in what she does, but the whole—in my opinion—is missing something. Perhaps, a reason is a lack of a coherent vision of music (just take a look at the long list of producers who dipped their fingers in this album), which on one hand would like to be light, almost teenage-like, and on the other to present the hardships of real life?

I am surprised by the high position achieved in charts and all that noise about this artist happening in the year of release of the ingenious album by Kelel. Let me recommend it to you—give it a try in your free time—and not only for its intriguing (although I'm not sure if that's the right word here) cover. Just tap in "Take Me Apart" and find out how a modern R&B album can sound like. BP


The Ctrl album was released on June 9th 2017 by the Top Dawg Entertainment and RCA Records. Works on the SZA debut album started already in 2014 in the TDE Red Room studio in Carson, California, but they were finalized only three years later. As it reads in company's materials, it is an analog recording, in which to create different sounds some cables "were plugged in and out to achieve desired effect". What's more, decisions about every track were made by the artist at the time of recording and depended on her mood, time of day, and so on. The press described this process as a "freestyle method".

Over the course of three years, SZA recorded nearly two hundred songs. After entering the studio, she tried them all out with the producers, deciding on spot whether they are worth further experimenting and processing or not. During this work, the singer listened to songs occupying the top forty charts from many years, with emphasis on the 1940s and 1980s, and decided whether her songs had a similar mood, beat, and so on. An invaluable help in this slow process was offered by Rick Rubin, the legend of this industry, who had worked for such artists as the Beastie Boys, Adele, AC/DC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, and others. He helped to clear the songs of unnecessary ornamentation, long reverb, excessive production.

The album was released on a CD and on a double LP. A part of the Long Play edition was pressed on colorful, blue vinyl and translucent green one. Tidal streams 16/44.1 FLAC files.


Although the opening "Supermodel" track is based primarily on a quite highly set vocal placed in front of us, with the accompanying music circling around our head and moving between the speakers, already in "Love Galore" there is a low, strong beat. The bass goes deep and is very punctual. You can use it to check what starts to vibrate in our room when music plays. This is also the case in subsequent songs. The vocal is compressed and has a high accent setting, but it is not sharpened. It has been subjected to various treatments and often—as in "Go Gina"—can be heard moving around us. This is a classic production using samples and electronics that create required sound effect. High compression and lack of midrange and upper bass richness make the whole sound a bit monotonous. WP

Sound quality: 5/10


The summary will be short because there is not much to talk about. We both agree that we do not quite understand the direction in which the music promoted by labels is going, because among all these albums only those by Kendrick Lamar and LCD Soundsystem have a real musical value, especially the former. In terms of sound quality also all other albums are recorded poorly or very poorly, some even dramatically badly. Lord stands out with incredibly sophisticated design of the album cover, but that's its only advantage.

We hope, however, that we managed to present a cross-section of the music that is currently being written and talked about, and played in radio stations. And even if among all the hits—since we discussed only winners of 1st and 2nd places!—you will find just one album for yourself, it was worth it. But generally, it's hopeless! BP | WP

Text: Bartosz Pacuła (BP | Wojciech Pacuła (WP)

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