BrooklynVegan’s Top 50 Albums of 2017
Here on BrooklynVegan, we've run down the best 2017 albums by indie and underground legends, overlooked 2017 albums, and the best metal of 2017, we now present you with our staff-wide top 50 albums of 2017.
Like our coverage throughout the year does, our list spans indie rock to hip hop, R&B to metal, pop and punk too. With so much good music released this year, it wasn't easy to narrow it down, but we managed to figure out a list of 50 albums that stuck with us most throughout this terrible year. (Technically 54, as we included multiple 2017 releases by some of the artists. And for even more, there are some honorable mentions by individual writers at the bottom of the list.)
We also feel that it would be dishonest not to mention the exclusion of Brand New’s Science Fiction from this list. When the album — their first in eight years — came out, we said it "exceeded its insane expectations." We went on to praise the band and that album specifically in a few more articles, and would have considered it one of our favorites of the year. But in light of frontman Jesse Lacey being accused of sexual misconduct, we feel it is inappropriate to include the album on our list. Rather than further rewarding an alleged sexual predator, we would like to take the time to reward the bravery of the many victims of sexual assault and harassment who came forth to tell their stories this year. We hope to one day live in a world where this type of abuse of power no longer exists.
Read on for our 50 favorite albums of 2017...
Alex Lahey first grabbed our attention with her debut EP B-Grade University, an astoundingly sharp release that made us call her one of the best new rock acts of 2016. With her debut album I Love You Like A Brother, Alex continues her trajectory of crafting addictive, witty rock songs bursting with melody. Each of the record’s ten tracks fly by pretty fast (none run over the 5-minute mark), and they’re all filled with anthemic, instantaneously-catchy hooks. She also has a knack for a good "whoa-oh!", like at the end of "Awkward Exchange,” which still gives me chills every time. Lyrically, there’s lots to enjoy on here as well. Throughout the album, Alex thoroughly examines her stress and indecision when it comes to love; on "Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Alex’s downtrodden expressions of regret and bitterness about an old flame strongly contrast with a sunny, repetitive instrumental backdrop, and "Let’s Call It A Day” describes her anticipation of the inevitable end of a failing relationship. Although the album’s lyrics certainly paint a less-than-rosy picture of heartbreak and anxiety, Alex’s ability to deliver one sugary hook after the next evokes emotions similar to her expression on the cover - grinning from ear to ear. [Jeremy Nifras]
As the record’s cover and title suggest, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ is Joey Bada$$’ grand political statement. On his second studio album, Joey tackles the very important topics of racism, police brutality, and related social issues in Trump’s America. He calls out Trump by name on album highlight "Land of the Free,” declaring he’s "not equipped to take this country over,” and on "Y U Don’t Love Me,” Joey desperately asks America why black men are treated with hostility on a daily basis. Sonically, Joey sheds a lot of the '90s boom-bap nostalgia utilized on past projects, in favor of a much more lavish, modern sound. The results are wonderful, and considering the message he’s pushing forward, there’s no better time for Joey to sound so fresh. [J.N.]
Cherry Glazerr have come a long way since releasing Haxel Princess just three years ago, when the band were still in high school. Clementine Creevy was already a talented songwriter and guitarist but revamping the band's lineup with a talented rhythm section and keyboardist/singer Sasami Ashworth paid off leaps and bounds. Creevy's voice is capable of both ethereal coos and impassioned wails and the music here is really attuned to those strengths. Confident, snotty, and crammed with hooks, Apocalipstick is a hell of a lot of fun. [Bill Pearis]
When Big K.R.I.T. broke through with the still-excellent K.R.I.T. Wuz Here and Return of 4Eva mixtapes, he was still on the same playing field as guys like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, and Action Bronson, all of whom he appeared on the now-classic "1 Train" posse cut with, and all of whom have either surpassed him in fame, critical acclaim, or both. K.R.I.T. signed to Def Jam, and followed those breakout mixtapes with two so/so proper albums, Live from the Underground and Cadillactica, which failed to make much of an impact and eventually K.R.I.T. split from the label last year. Now with full creative control once again, he returned with the double album 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time, and it's easily the best thing he's done since those mixtapes. It might even be better. Each disc has its own distinct sound. The first disc is closest to his classic sound, with K.R.I.T. spitting fire over classic Dirty South beats and bringing in heroes like UGK, T.I., and members of the Dungeon Family, while the second disc channels real-deal gospel and soul. The album's been compared to Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly and it's easy to see why. Both are lengthy albums that have each rapper combining the rap history of their hometown region with a genuine homage to older styles of black music. K.R.I.T. may still lack the fame of his onetime collaborator, but 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time proves that they're more on par artistically than they may have seemed. [Andrew Sacher]
Not only did 2017 give us the first Feist album in six years, it also gave us the first Broken Social Scene album in seven and Hug of Thunder is the most Feist has contributed to a BSS album in quite some time. But while Feist made her darkest and most challenging album yet this year, BSS made their most accessible. After an intro track, BSS fully kick into gear with the absurdly catchy "Halfway Home," and they stay on that level for the entirety of the album. Hug of Thunder may not have the same cultural impact as You Forgot It In People and Broken Social Scene, but it's got the appeal of those albums' most memorable songs with all the fat trimmed. In some ways, it's the best album to start with if you've never heard the band. Their more classic albums take a bit of time to grow on you and reveal their charms after repeated listens, but Hug of Thunder is gut-punch after gut-punch. Nearly every song could've been the single -- all you have to do is click play anywhere on the album and you should be instantly hooked. [A.S.]
"I'm sick of these sycophants that want make their idols proud, I want my hero to hear me and shit his pants," Your Old Droog raps on Packs highlight "Rapman," which could really be heard as a mission statement for his whole career. Droog was hit with so many Nas comparisons since day one, that some people suspected he was Nas under a secret moniker. There's no denying that Droog sounds like Nas and like '90s New York rap in general, but he doesn't just want to pay homage to the classics, he wants to surpass them. And he really is proving to be good enough. You won't be thinking of what other albums Packs sounds like once Droog hooks you in with his above-average knack for wordplay and storytelling. He can have you on the edge of your seat with a song like the gripping album opener "G.K.A.C." ("gotta kill a cop"), where he tells a story of a police chase with an almost cinematic quality. He can also dish out tongue-twisting shit-talk like the "Grandma's Hips" couplet "Y'all cats sedentary on the road to dead and buried / Practically souvenirs, haven't made a move in years" before going out with the mic-dropping "Now give me a dap or a five, Old Droog the greatest rapper alive." His skill level is nearly undeniable, but Packs is more than just a showcase of Droog's talent. It's genuinely fun to listen to again and again, and that's not something any ol' Nas imitator can pull off. [A.S.]
Having gained notoriety for her associations with Daniel Avery and Jenny Hval (who sings on this album), Welsh producer Kelly Lee Owens established herself as one of electronic music’s new creative forces with a series of singles and EPs in 2015 and 2016. She followed through on that promise with her mesmerizing debut album. Showing a deep knowledge of dance music’s past, KLO pours elements of techno, house, trip hop, ambient, and more -- not to mention her own voice -- into her own ethereal, hypnotic style. While previous singles "Lucid,” "CBM” and "Arthur” all make appearances here, the new tracks that surround them (especially "Throwing Lines,” and "Bird”) are just as good. [B.P.]
Lots of records, including at least a few others on this list, were directly inspired by the last 18 months or so, specifically the 2016 U.S. election. Few, however, were such deep dives into the abyss as the fourth album from Detroit’s Protomartyr. While not a concept album, the band here explore "the unknowable nature of truth, and the existential dread that often accompanies that unknowing.” The group decamped to Los Angeles to record this one, and the location didn’t seem to shed any sunshine whatsoever onto the proceedings. Guitarist Greg Ahee, bassist Scott Davidson, and drummer Alex Leonard match frontman Joe Casey’s bleak pronouncements with some of Protomartyr’s darkest, heaviest (best) music yet. Don’t let it get you down, though: it’s more a call to arms than a resignation of defeat, with Casey’s sardonic wit as its best defense. [B.P.]
Being a longtime Bjork fan can sometimes feel like a full time hobby, but it's never stopped being a rewarding, relevant and truly "indie" experience. Bjork is constantly gifting long term fans with new music, new sounds, and emotional journeys based on her own not-so-private life. She's always pushing the envelope, in how the music is made, how we get to experience it, and even how we can buy it ("Björk will also be the first artist to use cryptocurrency in a meaningful way, making her album available to pre-order and buy with Bitcoin (BTC), Audiocoin (ADC), Litecoin (LTC) and Dashcoin (DASH) - all now valid currency in her online store," read this album's press release). She brings us technical innovation, beautiful videos, creative live shows, amazing collaborators, a steady stream of remixes, box sets and other merch to splurge on, DJ sets, activism, and much more -- all without ever selling out. On 2017's Utopia we also get flutes! The mainstream knows about Bjork but never accepted her (they can tell you about her swan dress though). She has no lack of fans (or Grammy nominations), but Bjork will always be an "alternative", and that's just how we like it. All these things --- but especially her powerful, well executed music and unforgettable voice -- are why Bjork is just as exciting to a new fan as she is to those who remember The Sugarcubes. Utopia won't yield any hits like her more danceable albums of the '90s, but the record should have no problem gaining Bjork new fans, in no small part thanks to forward thinking producer Arca, whose own experimental 2017 album is also on many year end lists. As we touch on in our initial review of Utopia, 2015's Vulnicura (also featuring Arca) was a bit more difficult thanks in part to the devastating subject matter. Utopia, meanwhile, is a joyous, beautiful, happy album full of hope that was brought to us in a year when we really needed it. Put on headphones and lose yourself in this magical album that continues to reveal itself on every new listen. [Dave]
When Odd Future made their mark at the beginning of this decade as a raucous, no-fucks-given rap collective, who knew they'd also produce two of today's finest R&B singers? There's of course the ever-popular Frank Ocean, but also Syd, who was a producer and DJ for the collective before making her mark as a lead vocalist with neo-soul group The Internet and finally releasing a solo album this year. Fin isn't like Odd Future's dark, filthy rap or like The Internet's warm soul. It's a cold, metallic sounding album that's cut from a similar cloth as Rihanna's ANTI and Beyonce's self-titled, but with an "indie" side that should appeal to anyone who fancies themselves too cool for Bey and RiRi. It's proof not only that Syd has no trouble branching out from her previous projects stylistically, but also that she arguably shines even brighter as a solo artist than with a group. [A.S.]
The further away we get from Grizzly Bear's culturally dominant 2009 single "Two Weeks," the clearer it becomes that there's no band around like Grizzly Bear. The songs on Painted Ruins don't pop out at you like "Two Weeks," but while "Two Weeks" spawned countless imitators, I don't think anyone could copy this album. This is the kind of album you can only make when the same four people have been playing with each other for over a decade. It's so distinctly the work of Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen, Chris Taylor, and Christopher Bear, with all of their various instruments and voices interacting with each other as if each sound is coming from one super-being rather than four different people. When Chris Taylor takes lead vocals for the first time in the band's career on "Systole," it still sounds so uniquely like Grizzly Bear that it's surprising to think he's never done it before. Throughout the album, their vocal harmonies are still so rich and so expertly arranged, the musicianship is still complex without being showy, and they keep refining their off-kilter approach to songwriting that's catchy but never predictable. Painted Ruins may not have been culturally dominant in 2017, but it still sounded better than a lot of stuff that was. [A.S.]
New Zealander Nadia Reid writes songs like a folk musician, but only a couple songs on her brilliant sophomore album Preservation really qualify has folk music ("Hanson St. Pt. 2 [A River]" and "Reach My Destination"). She has a delicate, often somber delivery like a folk singer, and she pronounces her words carefully and clearly like one too. But Preservation is a rock album, and though it feels intimate, it sounds pretty fucking huge. Songs like "The Arrow and the Aim," "Richard," "I Come Home to You," "Right on Time," and "The Way It Goes" find the perfect middle ground between stadium-sized ambition and the right amount of restraint. Nadia's words drill their way into your brain, and her melodies and arrangements are uplifting even when the songs are about tough, sensitive topics. When Nadia does strip things down, she's just as effective as when she's delivering the bigger sounding songs. A song like the opening title track has nothing but Nadia's voice, her clean electric guitar, and an atmosphere floating in the background, yet it's one of the most gripping songs on the record. While Nadia has been around for a bit overseas, she's just starting to get her footing in the States, having only played her first shows here this month. Hopefully she continues to catch on, because songs like these are too good to stay hidden. [A.S.]
It shouldn't be a surprise that Paramore have become the one band of all the mid-2000s Fueled by Ramen pop punk bands that critics favor these days. Over the past few years, they've continued to associate with critically adored artists like Tegan & Sara, CHVRCHES, Charli XCX, Metric, Best Coast, Julien Baker and Local Natives, and unlike the latest albums by their FBR peers, After Laughter is the kind of album that critics like. It's not pop punk at all; instead, it pulls from many of the same '80s pop rock and new wave influences that tend to show up on acclaimed modern-day albums (like Fleetwood Mac, whose "Everywhere" Paramore have been covering on tour all year). But After Laughter doesn't just succeed because it sounds stylistically built more for Coachella than Warped Tour; there's a real depth to these songs that should resonate no matter what festivals you like to attend. On the surface, it's a collection of euphoric pop bangers, but closer listens reveal how depressing the songs really are. Singing about serious, sad topics over happy-sounding music can result in serious longevity when it's done effectively, and Paramore have done it. Scenes and subgenres aside, this might just be the best songwriting of Paramore's career so far. [A.S.]
Time and time again, a songwriter comes along with such a knack for somber, bare-bones folk music that they knock you off your feet with nothing but a guitar and their voice. From '60s cult legends like Vashti Bunyan to talented contemporary artists like Jessica Pratt, this sound truly never goes out of style and keeps producing more brilliant songwriters. One of the latest is Julie Byrne, whose sophomore album (and Ba Da Bing debut) Not Even Happiness was one of the finest 2017 albums of that ilk. Her words are delivered softly and slowly, but each one leaves a major impact. Her singing and guitar playing sounds so delicate, and the songs are embellished by a flute here or a violin there, adding a lot to the overall beauty of Not Even Happiness. Everything might seem simple on the surface, but it's clear that this is an album that required a lot of careful attention to make. [A.S.]
"I’m like a shipping tycoon, full of promise and cum." Baxter Dury sounds gloriously sleazy on "Miami," the opening cut on his fifth and best album, Prince of Tears. The song sets the tone for what's to come: vivid character studies of weak men and beautiful losers, voiced with Baxter’s marble-mouthed East London accent and set to minimal new wave rock, informed by reggae and ska and sweetened with a gorgeous string section. His longtime accomplice, Madeline Hart, provides counterpoint vocals that tie the whole thing together. There are cameos too (Rose Elinor Dougall, Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson) but this is Baxter’s show and he basks in its spotlight as he invites others to drink up the LP’s louche charm. [B.P.]
Archy Marshall described the title of his sprawling, 70-minute double album as a window into the inner "gunk” of the subconscious. On The Ooz, Marshall takes you through the smoky, damp streets of his native South London, and lays out his inner psyche completely bare, which makes for a revelatory and immersive auditory experience. The tracks here are far moodier this time around, and Marshall’s lyrics are just as strange and potent as ever. The record’s abundant lyrical references to oceans, as well as sinking and drowning, reflect the album’s overall themes of misdirection and hopelessness. Its blend of sonic experimentation is similar to the sounds on 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, but it dives deeper into these influences, such as trip hop ("Biscuit Town”, "Dum Surfer”), cool jazz ("Sublunary”), dark ambient jangle pop ("Lonely Blue”), and driving post punk ("Emergency Blimp”). On The Ooz, Marshall has perfected a sound that’s all his own, which entails a universe of dark mystery and grit, dipped in cigarette ash. [J.N.]
After becoming one of the biggest breakout country singers around thanks to his 2015 debut Traveller, Chris Stapleton seemingly made the intentional choice of moving away from the spotlight with his two 2017 albums. For people who aren't crazy about today's pop country, that's a very good thing. He made both of them with the same producer he made Traveller with (crossover country's go-to guy, Dave Cobb), but there's more of a scrappy, anything-goes feel to these than the more polished Traveller. There's three cover songs between the two albums, and the originals feel less about hit-making and more about Chris getting together with his band and playing whatever type of music comes to mind. The guitars are recorded in a way where it sounds like you're sitting in the same room as the amps, and listening to these albums kind of does feel like sitting on a band practice or writing session. At any given moment, Chris and his band could be trying on hard rock, folk music, traditional country, soul, blues, or something else entirely, and they succeed at all of it. The most widely-appealing song is probably Volume 1 opener "Broken Halos" (which did in fact chart pretty high and also got nominated for a Grammy), but my favorite is Volume 2's "Scarecrow In The Garden," which might just be the finest Neil Young-style folk song of 2017. [A.S.]
In today's relentlessly forward-thinking pop music landscape, Lana Del Rey's pointed, slow-moving nostalgia is a welcome, idiosyncratic presence. With each album she's honed her willfully low-key, almost cartoonishly melancholic sound, and Lust For Life is her strongest collection of songs yet. It's the first record she's made that's incorporated modern hip hop sounds in a convincing, organic way, without sacrificing any of her specific, carefully cultivated aesthetic or songwriting logic. "Love," "13 Beaches," "Coachella" and "Heroin" are some of the highest highs, which not only languish in Lana's chosen mood but also pack in such a wealth of hooks, and so many memorable turns of phrase. It's one of the denser mainstream pop albums you're likely to find. And the centerpiece Stevie Nicks duet is almost too good to be true, crystallizing Lana's grab-bag, rockist pop sensibility in such perfectly defined terms. It already feels like a career highlight. [Rob Sperry-Fromm]
"All our celebrities keep dying," Michelle Zauner sings on "Til Death," "while the cruel men continue to win." Reckoning with the remains of a difficult year, Michelle sounds plaintive but determined, backed by twinkling keyboards. Later in the song, horns come in, and layers of harmonies cradle her vocals. Soft Sounds From Another Planet is full of tender moments like this one, mostly rendered in plush, reverby dream pop, but there are surprises too: some autotune here, a little lap steel there. Michelle's voice is clear and ringing throughout, touching on subjects from falling in love with a robot to surviving trauma. "Boyish" is an album highlight with its tongue in cheek chorus of, "I can't get you off my mind, I can't get you off in general," while "Road Head" is "sort of about that really ugly moment when you try to do something sexually wild to save a relationship” (says Michelle). It's not until "This House" that we reach Soft Sounds' simply-strummed heart, though. With lyrics as vivid as they are simple, Michelle describes a house of women, "playing guitar, cooking breakfast; sharing trauma, doing dishes." She concludes, "I guess I owe it to the timing of companions I survived the year at all," humbled again in the face of the passage of a year and all it entailed. [Amanda Hatfield]
Having been together for four years, DC band Priests really came into their own with the fiery, nuanced and supremely confident Nothing Feels Natural. The four-piece pull from the same wide variety of punk and post punk influences they always have, but really made them their own this time out. Everyone's essential: Guitarist G.L. Jaguar is an inventive player who rarely just strums, preferring skeletal parts that work in tandem with Taylor Mulitz’s basslines and Daniele Daniele’s propulsive drumming. Katie Alice Greer, meanwhile, really shines with previously unheard facets of her voice. She’s always been a great shouter, but more subtle songs like "Leila 20,” "Suck” and Nothing Feels Natural’s killer title track are the ones that really stick with you. They remain as fiercely political as ever, here with their best delivery system yet. [B.P.]
The term "genre-defying" gets thrown around a lot but Yaeji truly deserves it. Over the course of two EPs in 2017, Kathy Yaeji Lee brought together hip hop, dance music, dream pop, R&B, and plenty of the in between. She raps, sings, and does spoken word, bouncing back and forth between English and Korean (Yaeji is of Korean descent, and though she was born in Queens, she did live part of her life in Korea), and her skills as a vocalist are matched by her skills as a producer. The beats on Yaeji's EPs are atmospheric and minimal, built to be equally effective in your headphones or on the dancefloor. EP1 is a little more club-ready while EP2 shows off Yaeji as an increasingly good songwriter. "Feelings Change," "Drink I'm Sippin On," and "After That" prove Yaeji is quickly becoming able to compete with some of this year's more established electro-R&B voices like Sampha and Kelela, while her cover of Drake's "Passionfruit" proves she's a great interpreter too. The original is one of 2017's best songs, and Yaeji's take on it toys with the song just enough to make it nearly as appealing as Drake's. [A.S.]
Rest is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s fifth album but her first as primary lyricist. (Jarvis Cocker, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, Beck, her father Serge Gainsbourg and others wrote for her previous albums.) In this role she jumps straight into the tough stuff: "Lying Next to You” is about the death of her father; while "Kate” and "Les Oxailles” deal with the death of her half-sister Kate Barry who died in 2013. On "I’m A Lie” she faces the crippling shyness that has plagued her her whole life, and "Dans Vos Airs” peers into her own future. This is all often juxtaposed against sweeping French Touch disco (courtesy of album producer SebastiAn, as well as Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo on the title track) and the kind of chanson/exotica her father might’ve made today. (Paul McCartney, Owen Pallett and Rob Moose help out too.) Even if you don’t understand a word of French, the vulnerability in her voice, not to mention the beat, is universal. [B.P.]
Rapsody is far too skilled to continue to be as overlooked as she is. If DAMN. is one of your favorite albums of the year and you're not rocking with Laila's Wisdom too, maybe the man who made DAMN. can change your mind. Kendrick and Rapsody have collaborated a few times in the past, including on the instant-classic To Pimp A Butterfly and again on this album, Rapsody's first proper full-length since her 2012 debut. Like Kendrick, she learned to rap by following in the footsteps of the genre's greatest MCs, she takes on serious social and political issues with poise, and she has a knack for picking jazz, soul, and funk-inspired beats (which on this album are mostly made by her frequent collaborator 9th Wonder). She shouldn't need to be constantly compared to Kendrick though; she has her own vibe and that's clearer than ever on Laila's Wisdom, her best album yet. She has the kind of rich, lush production that fills the entire room as soon as you hit play, and she weaves through those beats with a type of poetic lyricism and unpredictable delivery that puts half the rappers on the radio to shame. She can be boastful yet vulnerable, introspective yet outward-looking. She can't be pigeonholed or easily summed up, and Laila's Wisdom requires serious patience. It clocks in at over an hour, and it's the kind of album that's best listened to when you dedicate yourself to hearing it front to back without distraction. It earns its long running time because Rapsody is the kind of rapper who makes every syllable count. [A.S.]
Before Kelela became a rising R&B star, she was a guest vocalist in the world of underground dance music (I first heard her on a Teengirl Fantasy song in 2012), and as her fame continues to grow, she's taking those underground electronic musicians with her. Take Me Apart, her proper debut album (following a buzzed about mixtape and EP), has production from revered beatmakers like Jam City, Bok Bok, Dubbel Dutch and Kingdom, as well as the increasingly popular Arca and more. It's not just one of the year's best R&B albums, but one of the best electronic albums too, and it certainly has more exposure than someone like Jam City tends to get. The strengths of both Kelela and her various collaborators are always on display. Kelela reminds us again and again that she can compete with any of the more mainstream crooners, and production-wise, nothing on the radio is even close. As much as Kelela deserves to be tearing up the charts (in a just world, "LMK" would be Top 40), you'll never find musical experimentation like this from the Max Martin-dominated hitmaking machines. There are genuinely weird sounds all over Take Me Apart, which is even more impressive when you consider how addictive it all is. [A.S.]
Process is an album in distress. Littered with references to broken glass, car crashes, melting plastic, and internal bleeding, Sampha's full length debut is a deeply felt search for solace in the face of pain. Over ten tracks, the London born singer and pianist -- most well known as a collaborator with artists like Drake, Kanye West, and SBTRKT -- makes a case for himself as one of the brightest voices in art pop. Sampha is an impressionist at heart, not so much dancing around his subjects as dancing through them. Process is built from the language of nightmares and memories in equal measure but never hides its aching heart. That heart is most exposed when Sampha sings of his mother who passed away in 2015. The blow this loss struck sends fractures throughout the rest of the album, as Sampha finds himself mistrustful of his lover, casting blame on others, and running in fear from unknown horror in his dreaming and waking life. Relief comes in the form of a return to home, both literally and spiritually. In addition to the modern electronic and R&B influenced sounds that decorate his songs, Sampha makes powerful use of the kora, a West African instrument, as well as the piano, the instrument that sparked his love of music at the age of three. In Sampha's hands the piano becomes avatar of Process's emotional arc. It is the reconciliation of the feelings of comfort and loss. Even burdened with painful memories, it offers a place for Sampha to return to and a platform for him to bare his soul to the world. [Ian Cory]
Boston heavy greats Converge came roaring back with their first album in five years, re-proving that they are essentially without equal in modern extreme music. Few bands in any genre can reliably deliver the goods like this. For 13 breathtaking songs, Converge showcase sharply honed, instrument-ripping, emotion-shattering songwriting on a starkly human scale. There are endless highlights here -- opening gauntlet "A Single Tear" is the kind of tonal roller-coaster that only a band this good can pull off, featuring one of the greatest vocal performances of Jacob Bannon's career. "Arkhipov Calm" showcases Kurt Ballou's riffing and Ben Koller's drumming at their jittery best, "Trigger" is a swaggering, thundering dip into Jesus Lizard territory, and "Thousands of Miles Between Us" is essentially their version of a power ballad, and a thrilling one at that. Like all of their albums, this is a wonderfully sequenced record, one that chews you up and spits you out in a different place. It's full of neck-snapping transitions that highlight the band's versatility and their ability to tell stories, and like any great Converge record, it conjures a broad range of feelings. [R.S.F.]
"I'm not a body/the body is but a shell," Moses Sumney croons at the beginning of "Don't Bother Calling." The rest of the album that follows serves as proof of that statement. Singing is, at its core, the act of manipulating air with the human body, but Sumney's multilayered falsetto seems to simply come from air itself. Each word flutters from him like leaves on the wind, lilting their way from note to note without ever touching the ground. While the singer's work has always floated, it was grounded by the crunchy, tactile sounds of intimate recording. Aromanticism captures that same closeness, but frees it from the material world. Sumney hovers in a fog of horns, strings, and lightly played electric bass. In this cloud, Sumney muses on feelings of detachment and disconnection, taking form in an emotionally distant mother, a lover unable to recognize the power imbalance in a relationship, and a child learning to bury their pain internally. In Aromanticism's final moments, Sumney crafts a flight dream out of his voice. In a cascade of guitars, Sumney leaves the earth and his physical form behind in a rapturous moment of freedom and in doing so gives us a glimpse of the heavens. [I.C.]
Former Drive-By Trucker and longtime solo artist Jason isbell saw a major boost in his career when he teamed up with producer Dave Cobb, ditched some of the members of his backing band The 400 Unit, and wrote two introspective, singer/songwriter-oriented albums: 2013's Southeastern and 2015's Something More Than Free. This time -- still with Dave Cobb in the producer's chair -- Isbell got the full 400 Unit back in tow and wrote an album that looks outward instead of inward. Rockers like the Dire Straits-y "Cumberland Gap" and the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"-esque "Anxiety" turn out to be as gripping as the more somber material that he earned his acclaim for, and the racism and sexism-battling lyricism of "White Man's World" and "Hope the High Road" hit harder than Isbell's last two LPs in Trump-era America. When he does get personal, as he does on "Anxiety," it still feels wide-reaching. The treatment of mental health has become as much a national concern as civil rights, and when a popular songwriter like Jason Isbell is able to relate to his fans that suffer from mental illness, it's no small form of validation. [A.S.]
On Melodrama highlight "Supercut," Lorde sings, "because ours are the moments I play in the dark, we were wild and fluorescent, come home to my heart." Melodrama is full of vivid, memorable lines, but if I had to pick one to encapsulate the mood and vibe of the album, this would be it. From "Green Light," which starts with a sharp intake of breath and goes racing off, urged along with galloping keyboards, to a lurid night of post-breakup partying; to the widescreen, shimmering pop of "Perfect Places," Melodrama sounds vibrant and technicolor, bringing its vision of frenetic young adulthood to brilliant life. Aptly named to characterize the dramatic ups and downs of the late teens and early 20s, at certain points the manic energy crashes and Lorde finds herself, like on "Liability," alone and "crying in the taxi." The idea of feeling like you're "too much" for people is a familiar one and the song perfectly captures the sinking, melancholy feeling that accompanies it. Later on "Writer in the Dark," Lorde channels Kate Bush and sings lines like "I am my mother's child, I'll love you 'til my breathing stops, I'll love you 'til you call the cops on me" with passion that feels talismanic. Melodrama represents a huge step forward for Lorde from her debut Pure Heroine, and it’s exciting to wonder what direction she'll go in next. [A.H.]
It was a blindside move. We went from not even thinking about Karin Dreijer’s solo project, to learning she might be doing something new, to having the album in front of us all over the course of a week or so. Adding to the disorientation was that this thing we didn’t know was even coming was so good, so focused, so "jam”-packed, so badass, so very now. It’s as if Plunge was a force of its own that couldn’t be contained and released itself, physical product be damned. (CDs and LPs not till February.) The record’s title is an invitation to just dive in -- "the decision to fall is harder than the fall itself” Karin writes in a manifesto that accompanies the record -- be that love, standing up to injustice, whatever your heart tells you to do. Plunge is so confident that the leap doesn't seem quite as difficult. [B.P.]
Phil Elverum begins his eighth studio album as Mount Eerie with a simple statement, "death is real." Over the course of A Crow Looked at Me's 41 minutes, he goes on to chronicle, almost diary-like, the brutality of grief, its agonizing banality, returning figuratively and literally to that first statement. Written and recorded in the aftermath of the death of his wife, Geneviève Elverum, from pancreatic cancer, A Crow Looked at Me is a devastating tribute that at times feels too raw, too personal, to listen to. It's full of the small details that unbidden transform into poignant reminders of loss: getting rid of someone's clothes after they've died, emptying their trash for the last time, getting a package in the mail with their name on it. "I realized that these photographs we have of you are slowly replacing the subtle familiar memory of what it's like to know you're in the other room," Phil sings on "Toothbrush/Trash." It's true, the insidiousness with which death and time chip away at your memories, but rarely stated so plainly. Phil's daughter is the subject of some of the most heart-wrenching passages of all: things he's said to her, his struggle to keep going for her. A Crow Looked at Me is not an album I can stand to listen to lightly, or often, but it's definitely one of the most honest and moving depictions of grief that I've encountered. [A.H.]
It's increasingly clear that Conor Murphy is becoming one of the finest indie rock vocalists around. He's already shown off an impressive range and the ability to make strong connections with fans as frontman of Foxing, and this year he introduced the world to another side of him with Smidley. It's technically a solo project, but in the studio it was more like a supergroup, with Cam Boucher (Sorority Noise), Eric Slick (Dr Dog, Lithuania), Ben Walsh (Tigers Jaw), and producer Joe Reinhart (of Hop Along) aiding Conor in the making of the album. Compared to Foxing's post-rocky sound, Smidley tends to be more upbeat and a little more straightforward, closer in sound to mid-2000s indie rock. There may have been massive comebacks this year from Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade, but Smidley is the best debut album in that style that came out in 2017. Its more driving songs like "Hell," "No One Likes You," "Dead Retrievers," and "Fuck This" sound like they would've been instant hits in the blog-rock era. And anyone coming to Smidley looking for some of Foxing's more emotionally heavy side should be satisfied by the intimate acoustic songs "It Doesn't Tear Me Up" and "Milkshake," and the climactic album closer "Under the Table." The album unfortunately went a little overlooked this year, but it feels like it has lasting power. Here's to hoping it one day gets the recognition it deserves as a true gem of modern-day indie rock. [A.S.]
2017 has given us long-awaited comebacks from many giants of '00s indie. The majority of them picked up where the artist left off or took small steps forward, but no one else made the unexpected leap that Fleet Foxes made on their hiatus-ending album Crack-Up. It's an even greater refusal to repeat the accessibility of their self-titled 2008 debut than their 2011 sophomore album Helplessness Blues was, and it's the band's deepest dive yet into the complex genre of progressive folk. Fleet Foxes were already citing Roy Harper's 1971 prog-folk classic Stormcock as an influence in the Helplessness Blues era (and you can hear their first foray into prog-folk on that album's "The Shrine / An Argument"), but Crack-Up is by far the most they've ever immersed themselves in that type of music. Outside of "Fool's Errand," nothing on Crack-Up is even close to the white winter hymnals that made Fleet Foxes famous. They open the album with a multi-song suite, and Crack-Up's lead single is the nearly-nine-minute "Third of May / Ōdaigahara," which treks through orchestral prog, queasy psychedelia, and more. Horns and strings are more central to Fleet Foxes' sound than ever before, and while the long list of guest musicians surely helped out a lot, the core band members expanded their own skill sets too. Almost every member of the band played more atypical (for rock/folk) instruments in the studio than they had on any previous album. It's clear how strong frontman and core songwriter Robin Pecknold's vision was for this one, and how much patience and attention to detail the band and their collaborators must have had to get it all right. The Beach Boys were always mentioned as a reference points for Fleet Foxes' lush vocal harmonies, but more so than on the band's first two albums, Crack-Up shows that Robin has some of Brian Wilson's ambitious perfectionism in him too. [A.S.]
Nobody in their right mind would call The National a happy band, but somehow over a decade and a half into their career they've written their saddest album yet. Low-voiced and eternally-depressing frontman Matt Berninger co-wrote some of the lyrics with his wife Carin Besser, and they take on the struggles of failing marriages and relationships in a way that's at least somewhat autobiographical. "It's saving my marriage," Matt said of the seemingly-therapeutic songwriting process. Like every great National album, Sleep Well Beast is full of quotable lyrics to revel in on your darkest days, but it's more than "just another National album." In addition to being their saddest yet, it's also the biggest progression they've made musically in years. Bryan Devendorf remains an inventive drummer, but there's also a newfound focus on drum machines on Sleep Well Beast -- not to mention synths and other electronics too. The Dessner brothers still know how to create gorgeous walls of sound with their guitars, but they also loosen up and rip the kinds of riffs and solos that they did on their Grateful Dead tribute album. Matt screams on a song for the first time in years on "Turtleneck," a garage rocker that differs from even the most aggressive songs on Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and Alligator. The album has some of their loudest material and some of their softest, instant hits like "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" as well as growers like piano ballad "Carin at the Liquor Store," which might be Sleep Well Beast's strongest song. I've always considered their previous album, 2013's underrated Trouble Will Find Me, to be the album where The National had nothing left to prove. Sleep Well Beast suggests that maybe I'm wrong, maybe there's still more to be added to The National's legacy. [A.S.]
For the followup to her 2014 self titled album, New Zealander Aldous Harding signed to 4AD, worked with notable PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, and made fans of the likes of Lorde and Kevin Morby. Aldous’ spare songwriting is aided by her elastic voice, which can go from the kind of eerie baritone her label 4AD was once known for, to traditional folk singing, to high-pitched quirk that channels early Joanna Newsom. A lot of singers have been compared to Joanna over the years, but Aldous is a rare one who genuinely deserves it. Her songs are full of other interesting details as well, like the like the brief shouts of "hey!" and "yes!" in "Imagining My Man," where Perfume Genius makes a guest appearance (he lends vocals to album closer "Swell Does the Skull” as well) and the deliberate, minimal instrumentation throughout - the placement of a piano chord or drum beat feels meticulously placed. Party is definitely an album that, despite seeming simple, rewards repeat listens and careful attention. [A.H.]
Unlike another band on this list beginning with "L,” Land of Talk never officially broke up, instead just quietly ceasing operations in 2011. So it was the best kind of surprise when Elizabeth Powell decided to reactivate things in 2015. Their 2016 shows made us realize how much we’d missed them, and this year’s Life After Youth made us very happy they were back. The ease at which Powell makes everything sound may be the most impressive feat here. There are no "hey I’M BACK” moments trying to impress, just more of Powell’s great songs, guitar playing and welcoming vocal style. May we never take Land of Talk for granted again! [B.P.]
Vince Staples has been called an "anti-rapper", he has spoken about '90s rap being overrated in a way people actually respect, and he refuses to romanticize rap culture. He himself has insisted that Big Fish Theory should win the Grammy for Best Electronic Album rather than Best Rap Album. (It was in fact not nominated for any Grammys.) His resistance to conforming to rap norms is clear from listening to Big Fish Theory, and it's part of what makes it so exciting.
Big Fish Theory is the followup to his excellent 2015 debut Summertime '06, which is a fairly traditional rap album in comparison, and it does indeed feel more like an electronic album than a rap album. The beats come courtesy of such electronic musicians as SOPHIE, Flume, GTA and Jimmy Edgar, and there are a few songs that feature hardly any rapping or no rapping at all. It's no surprise that Vince feels no need to constantly reinforce the '90s as rap's best era; Big Fish Theory is truly futuristic rap music. Where Vince differs from, say, Lil Uzi Vert refusing to rap over a DJ Premier beat though, is that Vince can deliver on a level that competes with the greats of yesteryear. The only person who raps a proper verse on Big Fish Theory besides Vince is reigning king Kendrick Lamar, and Vince isn't overshadowed by him for a second. On songs like "Crabs In A Bucket," "745," "Homage," "SAMO," and "Party People," Vince offers up skillful delivery, imaginative rhyme schemes, and incisive lyricism over backdrops that are far from traditional hip hop beats. When he does get a little more traditional on "Big Fish" and "BagBak," he does it better than just about anyone else who tried this year. And the latter has proved to be one of the Trump era's finest protest songs. He prays "the police don't come blow me down 'cause of my complexion," he insists "we need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office / Obama ain't enough for me, we only getting started," and it all builds to the song's conclusion, a sentiment you may have wanted to scream from rooftops on 2017's worst days: "Tell the president to suck a dick." [A.S.]
The bodily realities of blood, sweat, and semen live in the songs on Capacity, Big Thief's second album; below the beauty of their gentle folk melodies and Adrianne Lenker's earnest voice are dirtier, uglier things, and their juxtaposition is startling. "There's a woman inside of me," she sings on "Pretty Things," "there's one inside of you, too. And she don't always do pretty things." The violence of a car crash, a physical assault, and a childhood accident, terrible and bloody, are explored in songs like "Shark Smile," "Watering," and "Mythological Beauty," all of which sound innocuous until you delve into their lyrics. These haunting tales, for all their details and weighty subject matter, remain lovely and listenable. Capacity's centerpiece, "Mary," is as sweet lyrically as it is musically. Adrianne's lilting voice intones stream of consciousness lyrics over organ and piano, in tribute to a childhood friend. [A.H.]
Brockhampton released 48 songs over the course of the three 2017 albums that make up the Saturation trilogy, and they continued to perfect their unique take on rap and R&B with each LP. Brockhampton have a few obvious influences and predecessors (they've been called "the new Odd Future" and they're clearly inspired by OF's sound), but what they're doing truly feels original. Every sound you hear on these albums was made by a member of Brockhampton, whether it's a beat, a sung hook, a rapped verse, or a guitar solo. Their videos have a distinct aesthetic too, and those clips are as essential to familiarizing yourself with Brockhampton as the albums are. They've used the internet to help establish a strong (and very young) fanbase, but this isn't what you'd call Soundcloud rap. Brockhampton don't really seem to fit in with any trend, and that's probably intentional. They're here to stir shit up.
They're raising their fingers to critics who failed to see in them what the kids at the sold-out shows saw. They're trolling audiences by announcing Saturation III as their "final studio album" just two weeks before announcing a fourth album for 2018. They're inherently underground but they love pop (they call themselves a "boy band"). They're silly but they mean business. They're rowdy like Odd Future were in the early days but without the rape jokes or homophobia. In fact, one of the very notable things about Brockhampton is that group leader Kevin Abstract raps about being openly gay, which is still out of the ordinary in rap music (Kevin touches on this on several songs but "Junky" is perhaps the deepest). They also tackle serious topics like racism, mental health, and the dark side of sex and drugs, while still finding time for something more lighthearted like the celebrity-worshipping Saturation I highlight "Star." Not all of the 48 songs they released this year are winners, but the highs far outweigh the lows. The members introduce their various personalities perfectly on Saturation I opener "Heat." They've got some of the most addictive hooks of the year with Saturation I's "Gold" and "Boys" and especially with Saturation II's "Jello." Romil Hemnani fully comes into his own as a producer on Saturation III with the funky "Boogie" and the head-nodding "Alaska" (the latter of which is one of several songs that show Ameer Vann emerging as Brockhampton's most traditionally skilled rapper). If the Saturation trilogy actually was the last we would hear of Brockhampton, their impact would still be unforgettable. Since it's thankfully not, let's hope 2018 only brings bigger and better things for this very exciting group. [A.S.]
Phoebe Bridgers caught the attention of Ryan Adams in 2015 with "Killer," a delicate ballad that references Jeffrey Dahmer and dying in a hospital. Since then she's made fans of Julien Baker, Hayley Williams of Paramore, Tigers Jaw, and Conor Oberst, and released her debut album, Stranger in the Alps (which includes a new and improved version of "Killer"). It's mostly a guitar and piano affair, fleshed out with strings from Rob Moose, so the focus falls largely on the thread of melancholy running through the lyrics. In her bruised, vulnerable voice, Phoebe narrates tales of heartbreak and death in the style of Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst, the latter of whom lends his voice to "Would You Rather" on this album. She shares Elliott's knack for sadly affecting turns of phrase that get stuck in your head and heart, and she brings her own sensitivity and attention to detail; her songs are littered with the detritus of misery, from unmade hotel beds to shower beers. She sings at a funeral and laments feeling sorry for herself when someone only a year older than herself, just a kid, has died. Phoebe's perspective, wise beyond her years, is part of what makes Stranger in the Alps is so memorable, and an essential addition to the canon of sad, beautiful music. The rest is the songs themselves, which invite repeat listens to hang onto their every word. [A.H.]
Even as the internet has made the region you're from less and less important to the music you make, New Yorkers have retained some pride for the music that comes from their city, especially when it comes to rap, which was born here. New York rappers tend to honor the hometown heroes that came before them, and there's a certain sound you expect from a New York rapper. As Brooklyn's Young M.A rapped in her "Kween" freestyle earlier this year, "This New York, we ain't supposed to do that mumble shit." New Yorkers are indeed loud and clear when they tell you their stories, but it's more than just that. New York is a melting pot with a boatload of diversity. You run into people of different races, genders, and sexual orientations on the street, in bars, on the subway, and almost everywhere else you go. The clash of cultures keeps New York weird, and Wiki -- the half Puerto Rican half Irish rapper that was born and raised in Manhattan -- captured all of this on No Mountains In Manhattan. He's got a hard-hitting delivery and sharp lyricism that owes some debt to the greats of the past, and a wacky tone to his voice that distinguishes himself from both his peers and his heroes. Throughout the album, he raps about everything from witnessing the beauty of New York City's skyscrapers, to celebrating the city's queer culture, to ordering sandwiches at a bodega. He puts NYC legends like Ghostface Killah next to talented newcomers like Your Old Droog, and all of them rise to the occasion. He has beats that echo the sounds you'll hear in Manhattan jazz clubs, and others that echo the booming bass blaring out of the cars that drive by your block. No Mountains In Manhattan is the most vivid snapshot of NYC set to music this year, and it cements Wiki as one of the greats in the city's long, ever-expanding lineage. [A.S.]
Mike Hadreas has come a long way from the starkly confessional, fragile enough to break songs of his 2010 debut, Learning. For his fourth album and followup to 2014's Too Bright, he worked with producer Blake Mills, and the result is his lushest, most sonically realized album yet. Album opener "Otherside" starts off with a simple piano melody and harmonized vocals before a rush of shimmering sound rises to carry the chorus away. The size and ambition of these sounds carries through the rest of the album, augmented further by string arrangements from Rob Moose. Where Too Bright explored sonic dissonance, No Shape sounds beautiful and widescreen cinematic - "Wreath" seems almost too pretty to be about Crohn's disease. "Choir," on the other hand, creates an unsettling, haunting mood that perfectly compliments the sleepless dread in its lyrics. A duet with Weyes Blood's Natalie Mering on "Sides" is another album highlight, and two gorgeous, tender love songs, "Braid" and "Alan," close it out. In a canon where gay love stories are often fraught and tortured, "Alan" is a reassuring beacon of stability and hope where nightmares don't last forever and you'll still wake up with your beloved beside you. [A.H.]
Following a big breakthrough with a weirder or darker album is something that will always have endless appeal amongst music nerds. From In Utero to Kid A to Yeezus, we love to see artists risk their mainstream status in order to focus on challenging art. Feist entered this conversation when she followed her 2007 iPod and Verizon commercial-serving The Reminder with 2011's much darker Metals. Six years later and Pleasure, her followup to Metals, is even further away from what the radio and big corporations are looking for. It's the rawest album she's ever made, even compared to her self-released 1999 debut. And Pleasure works so well because -- like Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, and Kanye West -- Leslie Feist can't help but write pop songs even when she's making art that's more alienating. Beneath the minimal arrangements, experimental song structures, and the rougher, more free-spirited delivery of Feist's singing and guitar playing is always an underlying pop song. Add some more studio shine to "I Wish I Didn't Miss You," "Lost Dreams," "Any Party," "A Man Is Not His Song," or "I'm Not Running Away" and you'd have music as catchy as anything on Let It Die or The Reminder, but Feist's songs arguably hit even harder with Pleasure's more unpolished approach. And then there's "Century," which features Pulp's Jarvis Cocker in creepy whispering mode and is one of the best songs Feist has ever written. By the time the pounding drums and repeated shouts of "cen-tur-y!" come in at the end, the song is mesmerizing as can be, as reinforced by the abrupt ending that never fails to jolt you back to reality. [A.S.]
Power Trip pull off a seemingly impossible task: they make backwards-looking music that doesn't feel retro. They pay unmistakeable homage to the crossover thrash that came before them, never really bothering to even so much as tweak their time-tested formulas. They're better than all the other contemporary thrash-apers because it somehow, magically, doesn't feel like they're aping anything. They're just doing the damn thing, and doing it about as well as it's ever been done. Nightmare Logic is back-to-front, no fuss, the straight dope. Just put on "Executioner's Tax (Swing of the Axe)" and try not to bang your fucking head. Better yet, catch them live, where they've become one of the most reliably awesome bands in heavy music, capable of making a crowd lose their mind like it's 1984 night after night. [R.S.F.]
For her followup to 2015's Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker picks up right where she left off - and that's a good thing. Turn Out the Lights begins with the opening of a door, footsteps, the jangle of keys dropped on a table. Then, a melancholy piano melody, soon joined by strings. The strings are courtesy of Camille Faulker, whose contributions to this album, along with those from Sorority Noise's Cam Boucher, represent the biggest sonic change from Sprained Ankle. Another notable change is in Julien's voice. She pushes it to greater heights than ever in songs like "Sour Breath," where the final repetition of "the harder I swim the faster I sink" is nearly screamed, and "Claws in Your Back," where the closing "I wanted to stay" soars. The real centerpiece of Turn Out the Lights, though, is the lyrics. One again, Julien plumbs the depths of depression, addiction, and struggles with faith. This time, though, she also approaches recovery, which comes with its own unique set of challenges. "I should just try not to miss any more appointments," she sings on "Appointments," before conceding, "maybe it's all gonna turn out all right and I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is." On "Happy to be Here," she addresses the discomfort of seeking help, singing about going to a clinic for a meeting: "I'm not fooled when you tell me that you're glad I came." More overwhelming still is the idea of reckoning with things you've done and the idea of a lover or higher power who could stay with you, even love you, in spite of them, as "Happy to be Here" continues, "grit my teeth and try to act deserving when I know there is nowhere I can hide from your humiliating grace." Julien often addresses specific experiences, but the catharsis her songs convey transcends them to become universal. That is perhaps her greatest strength as a songwriter, and what makes her work so powerful. [A.H.]
After making such a to-do about ending things in 2011, a lot of people seemed mad at James Murphy when he decided to un-retire LCD Soundsystem in 2016. American Dream, however, was worth coming back for. There’s the dance jams ("Other Voices”), anthems ("Call the Police”), and elegies ("Black Screen”) and the kind of snark-a-thons LCD patented ("Tonite,” "Emotional Haircut”). Bowie looms large, as does Eno, Joy Division, and all that other stuff he rattles off in "Losing My Edge,” but influence-sleeve-wearer Murphy still manages to find new sounds and things to say. Standout cut is the stunning, bile-fueled centerpiece kiss-off "How Do You Sleep?” that really wows; it starts as a dirge, slowly builds and then explodes into the groovy evil twin of "Dance Yrself Clean.” Nothing will ever top Sound of Silver but American Dream comes close. [B.P.]
If in 2011 you had said that Slowdive would get back together and not just play some shows but make a new album, and that the record would not just be "good for a comeback" but one of the year’s best, period, it would seem a little far-fetched. Yet here we are in 2017, 22 years after their previous LP, and Slowdive are back and better than ever, having delivered what is arguably their best LP yet. Having spent the last two decades making more straightforward singer-songwriter-y music, Neil Halstead, along with Rachel Goswell and the rest of the band, apply that melodic and emotional directness to the swirling guitars for which they’re known. Slowdive is both unlike anything the band have done before while being a record no one else could make. [B.P.]
Ten years after the release of her debut, Marry Me, St. Vincent has made her best album yet with MASSEDUCTION. It's a meticulously executed vision, from the art direction of the cover and videos, to the theater-like choreography of her live show, to the songs themselves, which are the most accomplished and human she's released yet. Singing about sex, drugs, lost love, and death, Annie Clark displays her technical prowess on guitar plenty, and also benefits from piano contributions from Doveman. Jack Antonoff's role as producer seemed like a weird choice to me until I heard how good the album sounds - everything punched up and vibrant, like the color palettes of the surreal, pop art inspired videos that have accompanied it. "Pills" starts as a spastic electro freak-out before shifting into a bridge with saxophone from Kamasi Washington, all the while sounding like nothing Annie has released before. Ballads "New York," "Happy Birthday," "Dancing With a Ghost," and "Slow Disco" make up the beating heart of MASSEDUCTION, while "Savior” flirts with funk until it winds down in snatches of spoken word over cries of "please." And on "Los Ageless," Annie delivers the album's most haunting lines: "how can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds, too?" Where her self-titled 2014 album could feel too polished at times, MASSEDUCTION strikes a neat balance between surface gloss and inner vulnerability. [A.H.]
SZA mentions shaving her legs twice on her debut studio album, Ctrl: in "Drew Barrymore” she sings, "I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike, I'm sorry I don't shave my legs at night," and in "Pretty Little Birds" the line goes, "I wanna be your golden goose, I wanna shave my legs for you." Though plenty opt to buck the trend (as they should!) shaved legs are still a common expectation of Western femininity; not complying might earn you strange looks on the beach. Still, you might meet someone you think are worth performing the ritual of hair removal for - someone you want to impress that much. The all too real and relatable truth of this duality is what drew me into SZA's songs. Her rich, soulful voice narrates the concerns of someone who says she wishes she was a "normal girl," but really is more normal than she thinks. Her lyrics are full of the kind of frank talk about love and sex that "nice girls" either aren't expected to have, or are expected to reserve for close friends and lovers. It’s delightful and refreshing to hear SZA sing lines like, “I was down for whatever and then some,” on “Broken Clocks,” or “that’s why I stayed with ya, the dick was too good,” on “Supermodel," or go back and forth with her TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar about the value of pussy on "Doves in the Wind."
Matching the most honest lyrics of her career is the wider vocal range that she discovered out of the necessity to sing louder as she performed at larger and larger venues. Compared to the airy vocals she used on her early, dream pop and R&B blending EPs and mixtapes, SZA is belting it on Ctrl. It's her most musically diverse release thus far as well. She's still mostly in the R&B realm, but she brings in indie rock electric guitars on "Supermodel" and "20 Something," offers bouncy electronic pop on "Prom," puts a rap twist on her singing on "Love Galore," and explores other various sounds across the album's 14 tracks. For all of the groundbreaking lyricism and musical exploration, Ctrl also succeeds for how endlessly catchy every single song is. When I saw her at a packed house in Brooklyn earlier this month, there wasn’t a word that the crowd didn’t sing along. [A.H.]
If you've been reading a bunch of year-end lists this year, you might be tired of seeing Kendrick in the #1 slot again and again. Especially after he topped our list and several others in 2015 and 2012 too. (BV didn't actually do a list in 2012, but if we did, there's a good chance Kendrick would've topped it.) Yes, it's predictable, and the urge to not pick an obvious, hugely popular #1 is a very real urge, but Kendrick Lamar topping these lists is predictable for a reason. It's only once in a while that a talent like this comes along, and it's worth treasuring any time it does. Kendrick is like a Michael Jordan or a Tom Brady; it doesn't really matter what team you root for, you gotta admit they're some of the best to ever play the game. Kendrick's hot streak of good kid. m.A.A.d city, To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN. comes out two decades after what people tend to recognize as hip hop's greatest era, and he can go bar for bar with any of the top MCs from that era. He's like rap's Nirvana in that he comes about 20 years after the definitive artists in his genre yet he'll be sharing space with his forebears on lists and countdowns for years to come. And he's like Radiohead circa OK Computer/Kid A in that he's in the midst of a run where anything he touches blows away the competition, and any arguments that suggest otherwise just feel contrarian. This might all sound like hyperbole, but the quality of DAMN. backs all of these claims up, and that's why it should be taken so seriously.
DAMN. follows To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar's most challenging and ambitious project, and its comparative simplicity is why some fans and critics have suggested it pales in comparison. It is indeed more simple, but suggesting that makes it automatically worse is sort of like suggesting the Ramones are automatically worse than Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Its simplicity served a purpose. In the time since To Pimp A Butterfly came out, the attention turned in a major way towards rappers who were kind of just making pop records. Once Kendrick's biggest rival, Drake now makes pop music more often than he makes rap music, and guys like Future and Migos are leading the critical and commercial conversation with music that has its merits but also veers more pop. And while Kendrick himself has no problem with "mumble rap" as a style of music, you get the sense that he made DAMN. as a way to remind everyone that he honors rap history and can do a fine job of putting his own spin on it. It's a raw, bare-bones album, just like stone cold classics like Straight Outta Compton, The Infamous and Illmatic are raw, bare-bones albums. All it needs is booming beats and Kendrick's mind-shattering rhymes to be as effective as the more lush-sounding To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city.
If it wasn't clear from the sound of DAMN. that Kendrick is out for blood, he takes a few chances to tell you. He takes shots at "wack artists" on "ELEMENT.," and though he never mentions who he's talking about, you get the sense that he's talking about nearly every rapper who isn't him. He dishes out just about every boast and every diss in the book on "DNA.," again suggesting that, whoever you are, you probably aren't as good as Kendrick Lamar. Hey, he can't fake humble just 'cause your ass is insecure.
But DAMN. isn't the best album of the year just because of the shit talk and the throwback production. Its true power is revealed after repeated listens prove that it's just as multifaceted as its two predecessors, even if it seems simpler on the surface. Songs like "FEAR." and "PRIDE." allow Kendrick to work in the rich-sounding production of the last two LPs, and lyrically the album is as dense as TPAB is musically. He examines his own very complicated relationship with religion and doesn't come to a simple conclusion; he looks at his place in the world as an artist, a lover, a family member, a friend; he mourns the current state of politics and the talking heads on Fox News who tell him his own anti-police brutality song is worse than racism; and he ends the album with one of the most gripping stories of his career. Closer "DUCKWORTH." goes into great detail about an incident when Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith could have potentially killed Kendrick's father, Ducky, years before starting TDE and signing Kendrick to his label. "If Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin' life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight," the song ends, before a gunshot rings out. It's the kind of stranger-than-fiction story that you might wonder why Kendrick waited this long to tell, but it makes sense that he did. If he put this on his debut album when he was still largely unknown, it might not have had the same impact. Now, when Kendrick asks "Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?", the question resonates because we accept the superlative he awards himself as gospel. [A.S.]