25 Best Albums of 2017, part 1

25 Best Albums of 2017, part 1

Comebacks, Perfect Places and Falls From Grace

Every year in music’s a mixbag, with more genres and scenes melding into unique sounds, eccentric performers and inspiring craftsmanship. Spanning ethereal R&B, lapsed-gangsta rap and raucous pop-punk, here’s our first look at some of the best albums we heard this year.


25. Process by Sampha

There aren’t many vocalists who can seriously be referred to as heavenly, with all that the word implies. Sampha is one of the few, a man possessive of a register that elicits both warmth and despair, a voice so confoundingly unique that it inspires unanswerable questions and a roiling tide of emotions. He’s incredibly sentimental, in both delivery and content, but vulnerable enough to carry it off without seeming exploitative. On Process, this is true whether he’s singing of weary paranoia on the dusky “Blood On Me” or lamenting a spoiled romance on “Incomplete Kisses”. Ultimately, his fraught melodies serve as a reminder of the unfortunate precursor to being heaven-bound.


24. Semper Femina by Laura Marling

Laura Marling emerged onto the folk music scene in 2008 at the age of 18, insisting quietly that she’d never be a fool enough to fall for love. Since then, she’s released an album every two years exploring new avenues of herself while largely adhering to the same sound, that of an austere singer-songwriter for whom whimsy is anathema. Now, with Semper Femina (an excerpt from a Latin poem meaning “woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing”), she has turned her gaze more outwards than ever to enrich her own unknowable being. She alternates between a misty coo (“The Valley”), a country-tinged croon (“Wild Fire”) and, most often, her signature husky timbre, relishing her snatched observations and shrouded persona.


23. 4:44 by JAY-Z

I knew JAY-Z had another good album in him, I just didn’t know what it would take to bring it out. After Beyoncé’s Lemonade presented the sordid details of JAY’s infidelity, he responded with 4:44. In very atypical fashion for the braggadocios JAY, he acknowledge his indiscretions without proffering excuses or putting forward a different narrative. It’s the most human he’s sounded in a decade. What’s most remarkable about the release though – excluding the subject matter – is JAY’s reinvigorated approach to his craft, which makes 4:44 nothing if not a glorious fuckin’ comeback. Whether introspective (“Kill Jay Z”), brutally honest (“4:44”) or battle-ready (“Bam”), every version of Hova is honed for maximum effect. I’m not saying the affair was worth it… I just don’t know how else to finish that sentence.


22. Pageant by PWR BTTM

I have two things to say about PWR BTTM’s Pageant. One is that, days before the release of the album, lead singer Ben Hopkins was accused by a woman of two instances of sexual assault. Though Hopkins denied the accusations, PWR BTTM were dropped from their label and their music was removed from virtually every streaming platform. With that said, here’s the second thing: this is a good album. If that seems contradictory, I know; I already wrote about how conflicting it is earlier this year. In any case, I can tell you that the music on Pageant is bombastic and without pretension, sashaying giddily between glam metal riffs (“Silly“) and shrill wind instruments (“Won’t“). The lyrics are sometimes celebratory, sometimes maudlin; the yelpy singing is a hoot. Honestly, though, I get it if you’d rather give it a miss.


21. Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples

Vince Staples is now eight years into an impressive career in hip hop and if there’s one thing about him that’s remained consistent, it’s that he is not here to have a good time. Tracing back to his first feature on the Earl Sweatshirt track “epaR”, it’s been clear that Staples has no interest in making you comfortable or being relatable. If you wanna commiserate over heartbreak or betrayal, hit up some Drake; if you wanna listen to the inner-monologue of a young, disenfranchised black man who’s sick of seeing white people yelling the n-word at his show, Staples has got you. That aggression and directness may sound incompatible with enjoyable music, but Staples has enough tact to make it work. His breathless, desperate flow sounds as much at home on a strobe-lit anthem (“Party People”) as it does ricocheting off a beat that simply bangs the fuck out (“BagBak”).


20. This Old Dog by Mac DeMarco

Father John Misty is our detached philosopher, and Mark Kozelek is our grumpy elder statesman. Angel Olsen is our patient voice of reason, while Courtney Barnett’s our rambling flatmate who never pays rent but can still make us laugh. But what foggy corner does Mac DeMarco occupy in the current indie rock scene? Honestly, he seems best-suited to being everyone’s perennially unemployed younger brother, who always has a good hook-up but would rather watch you smoke and pull funny faces than imbibe anything himself. He mostly goofs around but then, occasionally, he’ll bust out something so accidentally insightful it’ll make him blush while you gape in awe. Such is the case on This Old Dog, an exploration of his most unassumingly warm tones, gentle apathy and surprising sentiments. Relatable as always, Mac’s scared of winding up like his dad (“My Old Man”), especially considering their rocky past (“Moonlight on the River”) yet, somehow, he manages to convince us and himself that love will win out in the end (“Still Beating”).


19. Melodrama by Lorde

This is what it sounds like when youth butts up against mortality. At only 21-years-old, Lorde is already something of a musical goliath, a force to be reckoned with in the landscape that intersects pop, indie, dance and tear-blotted diary entries. A lot of this is the result of her prodigious talent for transcribing the bruising clarity that comes with being an emotional adolescent. That’s because she’s young enough (in her songs, at least) to recognise that there are people in the world who envy her, but not quite old enough to fully grasp why yet. It’s not just because she’s so damn good at what she does; it’s because she’s done it quicker than most. In a way, it’s like she’s forestalled her own demise through sheer will. But, again, that’s pretty heavy for the end result, which is a sharp and deviously catchy record of pop audacity, that works for the party (“Homemade Dynamite”), the afterparty (“Sober”) and the solo comedown (“Liability”). And, true to form, it perfectly replicates a night of wasted youth: always over too soon.


18. After the Party by The Menzingers

God-fuckin’-damn, is this a fun album. I can’t attest to its originality, insight or longevity, but then I could say the same thing about a $28 bottle of whiskey, and I’ll still make a hell of a night out of it. The Menzingers – a pop-punk band raised on pub anthems – have found themselves battling that well-told gripe: “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” (with a handful of “Oh-oh-whoa-oh”s thrown in for the cheap seats). They offer no answers, only base reactions and the means to avoid having to think about the inevitable. Some are destructive (“Boy blue with the silver spoon, they found him dying in the living room” on “Boy Blue”), others reflective (“I was such a looker in the old days” on “Lookers”), and most deeply idealistic (“You said LA’s only two days if we drive straight” on “Midwestern States”). Every song features wailing chords, kinetic drums and a shout-along melody designed to make you want to punch either a wall or the air, depending what number drink you’re on. The feeling you’re left with is the point where the buzz tilts into the hangover, right as the barlights start to go out.


17. Fin by Syd

Syd never really had much need of the spotlight in the early days of the hip hop collective Odd Future. There were many more flamboyant and intriguing characters like Tyler, Earl and Frank for that sort of thing, and she always seemed more comfortable laying down the occasional cameo, singing screechy hooks or harmonies when required. But, as Fin has proven, there’s always value in wondering what the quietest person in the room has got to say for themselves. On an album largely comprising her signature production – oscillating from funhouse mirror synths to splashes of fluorescent, nightlife majesty – Syd lets loose on everyone in her vicinity who’s not contributing to her rapid ascent. She’s merciless yet totally buoyant, clearly enjoying her vantage too much to get bogged down in the lives of those she takes such pride in shittin’ on. “All About Me” is the simmering legacy track, full of good advice and levelheaded boasting directed nowhere in particular. Then there’s “Dollar Bills”, the bottle-poppin’, single-tossin’ jam that, by rights, should soundtrack the entrance to any room of anyone who’s worked hard enough to earn it. Even her intermissions are worth the buzz, with “No Complaints” and “Drown In It”, respectfully, highlighting her multifaceted appeal as both a late-night swerver and midnight crooner.


16. Soft Sounds From Another Planet by Japanese Breakfast

Poised between twangy sullenness and an infectious pomp, Japanese Breakfast – aka, Michelle Zauner – has made, with Soft Sounds From Another Planet, one of the most unexpected pleasures of 2017. It’s Zauner’s second album after last year’s Psychopomp, which focused on her mother’s death and the waywardness that had afflicted Zauner afterwards. In contrast, SFAP has a broader feel, even if it was originally slated to be a concept album about falling in love with an intergalactic robot. There’s still at least one holdover from that notion in the form of “Machinist“, the album’s strongest track on the basis of sheer enjoyability. Featuring a dizzying beat, gloriously self-serious lyrics and liberal dollops of AutoTune, it’s the most unique song on here, largely because it cedes the high-ground to electronic ambience over Zauner’s effortless guitar noodling. For anyone interested in the latter, though, there’s plenty to hold your attention. The album opens with an auditory one-two, starting with the windswept, winding desert drive of “Diving Woman“, followed by the lavish yet ghostly and unsettling “Road Head“. This is the calm, intoxicating dynamic that underscores the whole record: warm tones and inviting lyrics that wall in something unspoken, something spectral and undefinable that doesn’t mean any harm, just simply wants to be heard.

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