Ann Powers' Top 10 Underheard Albums Of 2017 : The Record Here's a list of 10 albums that deserve more year-end love than they're generally getting, a counter to an age where music has taken on an introspective function.
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Ann Powers' Top 10 Underheard Albums Of 2017

Princess Nokia's 1992 Deluxe was one of Ann Powers' favorite records this year. Alberto Vargas/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Alberto Vargas/Courtesy of the artist

Princess Nokia's 1992 Deluxe was one of Ann Powers' favorite records this year.

Alberto Vargas/Courtesy of the artist

I find myself in a strange position at the end of 2017: exactly where I was in 2016, but for seemingly opposite reasons. Last year I felt compelled to highlight releases that had flown slightly under others' radar, partly because of the remarkable critical consensus responding to the Knowles sisters' instant-masterpiece one-two punch, Lemonade and A Seat At The Table. This year, when it comes to music at least, the same feeling of urgency isn't pinging around the musical atmosphere.

2017 has produced clear critical favorites, which are my favorites, too: DAMN., which is Kendrick Lamar's further establishment of a one-man dynasty; CTRL, SZA's bid to be the queen of a very crowded generation of R&B innovators; and Melodrama, the banger-bookended Lorde album that kept poptimism alive for another year. But unlike Beyoncé's epic or Solange's manifesto, these poll-toppers don't encourage feelings of solidarity; they are introspective, vulnerable, radically subjective. Other consensus picks that would make my list, if I were to make a conventional Top 10 list, Sampha's Process or Moses Sumney's Aromanticism, are even more idiosyncratic. Others — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's The Nashville Sound, Margo Price's All American Made, Priests' Nothing Feels Natural, Perfume Genius' No Shape — speak strongly to communities of listeners who identify, in one way or another, as outsiders. They challenge the mainstream, but also the idea that we need a mainstream.

As Jacob Ganz pointed out in the introduction to NPR Music's collective 50 Best Albums list, for many people in these fast-changing and uncertain times, listening to music seems to have become more private. The atomizing effect — of what, social media? streaming playlists? headphones? the instinct to retreat in the face of potential apocalypse? — has left listeners isolated from each others' essential life soundtracks. Instead of getting in formation, we turned inward. Which is fine! One of recorded music's main functions is to help people process their experiences and recharge. "No one knows me like the piano in my mother's home," Sampha sang in the year's most beautiful ballad. No one knows you like the playlist on your favorite streaming service.

Playlists, however, are meant to be shared and expanded through crowdsourcing. The introspective mood of music in 2017 didn't necessarily encourage this. And as beleaguered-feeling music scribes have been noting since the Internet became a thing, the sheer number of releases feels so overwhelming that hunkering down with what obviously presents itself — the most widely promoted releases — just seems easier most of the time. And so we all miss things. I miss things. Every day. (Here are just five worthy albums I didn't absorb thoroughly enough to consider for this list: Sheer Mag's Need To Feel Your Love, Linda Perhacs' I'm A Harmony, Kehlani's Sweet Sexy Savage, Chris Janson's Everybody, and iLe's iLevitable.)

Acknowledging the impossibility of providing you, dear readers, with comprehensive guidance, I'm using this space to do what I did in the wake of Lemonade: highlight albums and songs that, I think, deserve more year-end love than they're generally getting. It's not because the world's greatest pop star and her gifted sibling are standing in the light. The light is so scattered now; I'm just flashing on byways where I was lucky enough to wander. Like any human being, I have my biases: This list contains a lot of singer-songwriter types, since that's where I live, literally (in Nashville) and in my heart. The selections below are listed in alphabetical order, and are just a beginning. Please let me know what unknown legends I've overlooked.

Ann Powers Top 10 Underheard Albums of 2017

Cover for Small Believer

Anna Tivel, 'Small Believer'

  • Song:

I don't know why I decided to give a listen to this Portland-based singer-songwriter's fourth album: Maybe the title intrigued me among the thousands that pop up in publicists' missives to my inbox every day. It only took four and a half minutes to know that I treasured this release. That's the length of "Alleyway," the "Cat Person" of folk songs — a perfectly drawn portrait of an initially inconsequential, life-altering, messed-up romance. The rest of Tivel's album repeatedly achieves this exquisite balance of the quotidian and the sublime with imagery that's deeply poetic without being fussy, in musical arrangements that form like intuition around Tivel's insights.

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Cover for I Tell A Fly

Benjamin Clementine, 'I Tell A Fly'

  • Song:

This London-born piano auteur burst into prominence in 2015 as a prize-winning eccentric who looks like Grace Jones, sings like Nina Simone and throws attitude like Johnny Rotten. Success could have trimmed his wings; instead, he made those wings iridescent. I Tell A Fly is a song cycle about two actual flies roaming Europe in search of safety and love — an allegory for refugees and others who've been pushed to the margins, roaming the battlefields of Brexit. Clementine identifies as one of these outsiders, "an alien passing by, wishing everyone be." He boisterously blends the dancehall rock of early Bowie with beats and loops that recall Radiohead and Bjork in songs that feel like beautiful, challenging mazes: arcane maps guiding listeners through our new dystopia.

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Song
I Tell A Fly
Album
I Tell A Fly
Artist
Benjamin Clementine
Label
Virgin
Released
2017

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Cover for Don't Give Up On Love

Don Bryant, 'Don't Give Up On Love'

  • Song:

We have a lot to learn from our elders. Don Bryant, a stalwart member of the Memphis soul and gospel scenes known for his work with wife Ann Peebles and at Hi Records, offers his lessons with gentility and undiminished strength on his first secular album since 1969. Backed by the great soul preservationist band the Bo-Keys, Bryant revisits some historical touchstones, but focuses on new compositions that resound with power and unpretentious wisdom. You will get chills listening to "How Do I Get There?", a classic ballad bridging earth and heaven that resonates as much in these divided times as Golden Age gospel did in the civil rights era — when Bryant first found his voice.

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Cover for Exile in the Outer Ring

EMA, 'Exile In The Outer Ring'

  • Song:

Erika M. Anderson is the thinking woman's burnout, a devotee of feedback and fuzz who deploys those heavy metal elements within song cycles that build worlds full of nightmare and adventure. Her latest explores the uncharted territories where cities encroach upon what used to be called the wild: the circular suburbs that look the same everywhere, but which hold untold mysteries. Picking up the torch used by Sonic Youth to illuminate the most disturbing corners of the "normal" American psyche, EMA blends organic and synthesized sound to evoke that indeterminate physical space, a site where people also become liminal, caught within power structures that present them with no clear way of thriving. Occupying the archetype of the "dirtbag teenage boy" while maintaining her feminist perspective, EMA marks a new river's edge where a generation might perish forgotten, or hack into the system and eventually rule us all.

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Song
Exile in the Outer Ring
Album
Exile in the Outer Ring
Artist
EMA
Label
City Slang
Released
2017

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Cover for Trip

Jhene Aiko, 'Trip'

  • Song:

2017 was the year in which R&B's younger generation took to heart Stevie Wonder's directive to explore the music of the mind. From the juicy ambience of Moses Sumney's Aromanticism to the deep erotic blues of Syd, these artists walked through the door Frank Ocean and Drake opened earlier in the decade and revealed a mansion of the psyche with infinite rooms. None took this task to heart more intensely or creatively than Jhene Aiko, whose October surprise release chronicles her journey through grief and toward healing after the death of her brother, Miyagi, of cancer in 2012. Drug-soaked yet strikingly lucid at times, Trip not only expands the subject matter of R&B — it redefines psychedelia, making space within its hazy soundscapes for the voice and viewpoint of a woman of color. Aiko sings of romantic codependency, isolation and longing for oblivion, and conscious self-recovery in a song suite that keeps on giving insight — and pleasure, despite the pain expressed — the more a listener sinks into it.

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Cover for Trinity Lane

Lilly Hiatt, 'Trinity Lane'

  • Song:

"I'm 32, I feel 23, got no husband next to me," Lilly Hiatt wails with a trademark hiccup on "Records," a song about loving rock and roll so much that it feels like it loves you back, and a centerpiece on this searching, cathartic, full-on rock excursion. Hiatt writes with unrelenting honesty about trying to hang on to a love that's just not worth the imaginative effort, and then finding another way to be happy: alone, with friends, immersed in music and a bohemian life that becomes not just a stopgap but a real home. Like her famous dad John, whose loneliness she finds kindred in the tender ballad "Imposter," Hiatt knows that writing the perfect song will never really make up for life's wounding disappointments; like him, she finds a solution in being imperfect, pledging allegiance to the ragged glory of rock and roll. "I'll take lonely if it means free," she sings in "Records." Hell yes.

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Song
Trinity Lane
Album
Trinity Lane
Artist
Lilly Hiatt
Label
New West Records
Released
2017

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Cover for Champion

Nora Jane Struthers, 'Champion'

  • Song:

This is an album about survival, cast in a warm, forgiving light. That's the brilliant trick Nora Jane Struthers has been working over the course of her underappreciated career. She and her Nashville-based band, the Party Line, concoct a blend of string band, country and classic rock that seems comfortably accessible at first, centered around transplanted Northeasterner Struthers' plain-speaking alto. But Struthers uses the sturdiness of her sound to take chances in her stories, and never more so than on this courageous album about the first year of her marriage to bandmate Joe Overton and their struggle to begin a family. The intimacy Struthers achieves in the album's gently linear narrative — unfolding from the hope of young settled love through self-doubt, communication breakdown, loneliness and, ultimately, acceptance — is remarkable. She speaks of women's truths rarely addressed in song without making any fuss at all about the courage doing so requires. "I've got grit," she declares in one anthem that's as powerful as anything Jason Isbell made this year. She sure does.

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Song
Champion
Album
Champion
Artist
Nora Jane Struthers
Released
2017

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Cover for 1992 Deluxe

Princess Nokia, '1992 Deluxe'

  • Song:

The only reason I can see for this official debut album from New York's most exciting young rapper not making more year-end lists is its "deluxe" status — it features eight remastered tracks from a 2016 mixtape, alongside as many new songs. But 1992 Deluxe stands as its own statement: an overflowing expression of Destiny Frasqueri's multifaceted identity as a queer, Latinx, Afro-indigenous, nerdy, skateboarding, gothic tomboy who loves her family and her block and her own self-confidence. Frasqueri has described Princess Nokia as only one character she plans to explore, and the musical framework she and her collaborators have created — connected in spirit to the bold eroticism of Peaches and the fun of electroclash groups like Brazil's Cansei de Ser Sexy — plays into her cartoonish side. But the details of Spanish Harlem home and street life that give her songs sabor show that Princess Nokia is no cartoon, even if she namechecks Bart Simpson. She's the future, coming at us like a Second Avenue subway train.

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Cover for Natural Conclusion

Rose Cousins, 'Natural Conclusion'

  • Song:

Sometimes a voice finds its best habitat. The Canadian singer-songwriter Rose Cousins has taken care to develop her vast, elegant alto, and over the course of four albums, it's become a remarkably flexible instrument, as fine in its shadings as the light just before sunrise. For Natural Conclusion, she paired with the producer Joe Henry, who places that remarkable voice in wide, minimalist frames — conventional rock settings, with bass, guitar and drums, but so subtly drawn that they almost seem like they're generated by Cousins' quiet energy. Some songs connect to gospel or soul, but only in the most delicate way: Resisting vibrato or overblown melisma, Cousins generates every note with humility and mindfulness. This ability to be calm makes her songs, about the end of a relationship and the inner reconstruction that follows, all the more majestic. This is contemplative music, but it never settles into the background; each song beguiles the listener to go all in, to accept the slow sweep of its arc. As she traces her own emotional evolution, Cousins finds a way to connect human heartbreak to the organic world. "O, the sky it fills with rain and empties over the fields," she sings in the final song, "Donoughmore." "My heart can do the same." Her voice convinces us of such possibilities.

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Song
Natural Conclusion
Album
Natural Conclusion
Artist
Rose Cousins
Label
Old Farm Pony Records
Released
2017

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Cover for Sneaker Waves

Tristen, 'Sneaker Waves'

  • Song:

There's something about a pop album bursting with great melodies and hooky arrangements that tickles the ear and won't leave your brain alone. When that kind of music comes from a home studio in East Nashville, produced by two beloved members of a music town's underground scene, it feels all the most miraculous. Tristen Gasparadek and her husband and creative partner, Buddy Hughen, made her third album Sneaker Waves in that kind of cozy atmosphere, and it beautifully balances the Plasticine and the homespun. Vintage keyboards or retro-modern guitar parts enhance Tristen's sometimes fantastical, often hilarious, always perceptive vignettes about complicated relationships, artistic ambition and the ever-present shadow of mortality. Like the Decemberists' Colin Meloy or her sometime collaborator Jenny Lewis, Tristen is a wit, but one with a serious heart. With her flutelike voice and sense of high style, she could be an ace formalist; instead, throughout Sneaker Waves, she explores the fissures in memory, the communication breakdowns and the cracks in the mirror that make up a normal, messy life, even for the shiniest, happiest people.

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Song
Sneaker Waves
Album
Sneaker Waves
Artist
Tristen
Label
Modern Outsider/Pupsnake
Released
2017

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