The Top 10 Albums of 2017

Honorable Mention: Lorde/ Melodrama

Lorde

You’re going to be seeing this at the top of a lot of year end lists this month, and as much as mainstream pop from young girls barely old enough to drink in the United States really isn’t my thing, it would be hard to deny that there isn’t a single weak moment on this very strong and impressive record, so I’d prefer to give credit where credit is due. There’s careful thought to arrangement on the anthemic break-up track “Green Light”, which starts with sparse, deep vocals before building into a chorus that truly shows off the singer’s vocal range, and the seamless transition from bittersweet melancholy to bouncy on “Hard Feelings/ Loveless” seems to indicate the emergence of an innovative artist wise beyond her years. Heartbreaking ballads like “Liability” and “Writer In The Dark” are highlights, while “Supercut” and “Perfect Places” deliver pure pop precision. And it doesn’t get any more fun than “Homemade Dynamite”, which starts and stops effortlessly before evolving into an impossibly catchy chorus. Awesome, right?

#10: Alex G/ Rocket

alex g

This sprawling and experimental record harnesses its power from a strong folk rock backbone but adds elements of jazz and lo-fi garage rock that keep it rich, exciting and in full display of many musical influences. Alex G has a particular penchant for the construction of melody, as evidenced by the accessible and catchy piano riffs on “Proud” and “Sportstar,” while boasting a higher pitched vocal sound and style that is a dead ringer for Elliott Smith. There’s fuzzy, discordant violin that create an almost Appalachian sound on “Powerful Man” and on the soaring duet ‘Bobby”, but songs like the raging, distorted “Brick” keep listeners on their toes and don’t allow for complacency, demonstrating the complex array of styles at hand here. Closer “Guilty” pulls it all together with its jazzy bass beat that picks up carefully arranged piano and trumpet riffs.

#9: Thundercat/ Drunk

drunk

Loosely concocted and at times silly over its 23 tracks (there’s a song about cats meowing for heaven’s sake, and another that rhymes “beat your meat” with “go to sleep”), you’d still be hard pressed to find another album that glides along so smoothly this year. Thundercat’s unique style creates a relaxed acid jazz groove on tracks like “Them Changes”, while a faster tempo combines with a submerged underwater lounge vibe on the thrilling “Tokyo.” Guest spots steal the show here, as Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald combine for a most unlikely collaboration on highlight “Show You The Way”, and Thundercat’s trademark falsetto holds its own in this company, while Kendrick Lamar steps in on the more subdued “Walk On By”.  Valentine’s Day revenge song “Friend Zone” sparkles with funk and comedic lyrical delivery that find the perfect balance….And the cat song is actually pretty damn good too.

#8: Fleet Foxes/ Crack Up

crack-up

The third full length following a six year hiatus took the folk rock outfit in a new, darker, more complex direction and marked a paradigm shift in style for the band. This reality was immediately evident upon the release of the nearly nine minute single “Third of May/ Ōdaigahara”, notable for lead singer Robin Pecknold’s strained falsetto through the chorus as the tune stops and starts effortlessly, constantly twisting and evolving. The lifted melody on “Fool’s Errand” is another highlight perhaps more reminiscent of the band’s earlier work, but not without its own innovations, constructed around an off-kilter time signature. There’s an argument to be made that this new direction lends itself to being almost too soft and stripped down, although tracks like the delicate “If You Need To Keep Time On Me” and desperate “On Another Ocean” are no less beautiful, while the hushed “I Could See Memphis” is easily the darkest song in the band’s catalog. There’s an element of patience and restraint that permeates through Crack-Up, and it’s evident from the start on opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar”, a three-song suite that plays more like an opus, immediately indicative of what is to follow. Whether one prefers the new Fleet Foxes or the old is of little consequence; it’s simply refreshing to see them in motion.

#7: Sampha/ Process

sampha

The debut record from the London vocalist who had previously made a name for himself as a highly sought after collaborator is a soulful and devastating reflection on the death of his mother to cancer. While he could have phoned in any number of guest appearances, Process instead consists of Sampha alone, and the result is a highly personal and often unsettling work. Stand out centerpiece “No One Knows Me Like The Piano” might be the year’s most gorgeous piano ballad, at once a sentimental autobiography and a moving tribute over its sparse frame. “Blood on Me” is an ominous banger that loops two eerie piano keys above Sampha’s cracking falsetto , while opener “Plastic” starts the album on a raw, panicked tone. The unique marriage of pure soul and electronic elements create a style all his own, demonstrated on tense, beat heavy songs like the hypnotic “Under” and anxiety-ridden “Kora Sings.” Elements of regret reveal themselves towards the album’s conclusion through softer, prettier tracks like “Tommy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses.” A journey laden with grief, power and discovery, Process was easily the year’s best debut.

#6: Vince Staples/ The Big Fish Theory

vince staples

Sharp rhyme schemes and poignant social commentary remain a staple on this sophomore effort, but gone are the sweeping, melodic west coast beats and dark lounge grooves of his debut. In their place is a far more spacious album that utilizes repetitive percussion, big house beats and electronica influences. The result is a decidedly more club-ready collection of songs. Opener “Crabs In The Bucket” sounds as though it could be a Burial track with its trappy dubstep beats above ghostly undertones, while the propulsive tempo on “Love Can Be” conjures Azaelia Banks circa “212”. Hollow synths and clap drum percussion move through the upbeat party track “Big Fish”, which offers the most addictive hook here, and the chant-worthy “Yeah Right” showcases a guest appearance from none other than Kendrick Lamar behind its shot gun blast bass explosions. The album ends on an outstanding note, as the threatening “BagBak” calls out the government, the president, and the one percent behind up-tempo synths and a rolling bass line. Closer “Rain Come Down” is riddled with tension, featuring perhaps the deepest bass line on an album full of them, slowing the tempo down a bit with its off-kilter time signature and ambient chorus. Big Fish Theory is so accessible and immediate, a much easier album to get through in a single sitting than its double-sided predecessor Summertime ’05, and even if perhaps sacrificing some of the complexities of that album, such a dynamic shift in style indicates that Staples isn’t short on ideas and won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

#5: Run The Jewels/ RTJ 3

rtj3

Hip hop fans were treated to a surprise Christmas gift late last year when this album dropped out of nowhere on December 25th. Released in the weeks just following the shock of the election and preceding Trump’s inauguration, it perhaps perfectly captures the anger and resistance that would define the year ahead, all the while reminding us of the unparalleled flow combination that is Killer Mike and El-P. The duo are at their best on tracks like “Legend Has It”, where the rapid alternation of verses between the two escalates the brimming intensity and almost feels like a full scale rap-off. Guest spots add excitement from the incomparable Danny Brown on the dark and brooding “Hey Kids” as well as TV on the Radio lead singer Tunde Adebimpe on the foreboding “Thieves.” The punches keep coming with the hard beats on “Stay Gold”, “Don’t Get Captured” and “2100”, but the album truly finds its footing in its final third. The boastful “Panther Like A Panther” uses a rolling trip hop beat below its anthemic chorus (“I’m the shit bitch!”) and the hands down best rap lyric of the year (“I got banana dick/ Your bitch go ape shit if she hit it!”) The epic closer “A Report To The Shareholders” begins as a bittersweet jazz track before it shape shifts into an absolute bruiser, complete with transformer robot synths and the album’s most enduring and microcosmic battle cry of revolt, a familiar one for fans of Game Of Thrones, another epic in its own right- “Kill Your Masters.”

#4: Slowdive/ Slowdive

slowdive

In 2013, shoegaze kings My Bloody Valentine released their first record in 22 years, a self-titled work that left fans of the genre pleased to see how little swagger the band had lost in their step during their hiatus. Now, an identical 22 years after Pygmalion, Slowdive return with their self-titled record, easily the most melodic in their relatively small catalog. It seems we have uncovered the secret to a successful shoegaze comeback! Lush, cascading soundscapes abound here from start to finish. “Star Roving” is an absolute throwback to the dawn of the genre, with its soaring, distorted guitar arpeggios that reach heavenward. The amazing “Don’t Know Why”, aside from its ethereal beauty, is impressive for its innovation and inverse structure, beginning with a sped up time signature that collapses back onto itself into two distinctly slower layers before picking the tempo right back up again. The absolutely gorgeous chiming guitar line completes the sort of track that you never want to end. Conversely, the soft, gentle “Sugar For The Pill” is another huge highlight but is far more stripped down and delicate, benefiting from a restrained and isolated guitar riff that takes the band’s sound in a new direction entirely. “No Longer Making Time” alternates between its soothing verses and explosive distortion through its chorus in true shoegaze style from a structural standpoint, all the while showcasing an incredibly modern dual harmony, finishing just as it began, while closer “Falling Ashes” beckons Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” with its slow-burn build. If this is the last album we ever get from Slowdive, it is a fitting finale to a defining legacy, and was well worth the wait.

#3: LCD Soundsystem/ American Dream

LCD

James Murphy and his LCD Soundsystem project were one of the most important and exciting artists of the young century when they abruptly retired and played their “final” show at Madison Square Garden on April 2, 2011. Rumors of a reunion began to emerge in late 2015, much to the joy of music fans everywhere, and were confirmed the following year when the band began touring and working on new material again. Attentive minds expected them to emerge with a new sound, and so it is on American Dream, from the patiently building and warmly produced opener “Oh Baby” to the spare-framed closer “Black Screen.” There’s no “Dance Yrself Clean” here, and as a whole the songs on this album seem more melody-focused, darkly introspective and slow-burning than the dance-rock defined by its predecessors. This sonic shift is best demonstrated on tracks like “I Used To”, with its paranoid gliding guitar riff and ominous bass, and the savage takedown centerpiece “How Do You Sleep?”, which is an essay in build over its nine unsettling minutes, culminating into a full throttle dance beat that is well worth the wait. You’d be hard pressed to find a song this year that so fully encapsulates intense propulsion with soaring melody any better than “Call The Police”, which combines a ringing guitar riff with a proggy, spaced out bass line as Murphy’s vocals escalate into his trademark strained falsetto. It isn’t all unfamiliar however, as the title track is the band’s loveliest ballad since “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down,” while the bouncy, sunny “Tonite” probably comes closest to a crowd pleaser for those who have been LCD Soundsystem fans from the beginning, and “Emotional Haircut” delivers the same kind of raucous silliness established on prior songs like “Drunk Girls”. Wherever one stands on the heavier, more serious sound weaving its way in, it would be hard to not be happy to see the band in action again, evolving and expanding their musical horizons in a way that offers a new found variety.

#2 The War On Drugs/ A Deeper Understanding

WOD

The follow-up to 2014’s fantastic Lost In The Dream features rich textures and electronic elements that result in a fuller, lusher and more intricate sound, all the while keeping the dynamics of Adam Granduciel’s guitar at the forefront. Upbeat opener “Up All Night” swells and expands beneath its warm piano riff, leading in to the elegant and vibrantly emoting “Pain”- (“Pull me close and let me hold you in/ Give me a deeper understanding of who I am”). But it’s songs like centerpiece “Nothing To Find” that truly separate this album from its contemporaries, elevating it an echelon higher than typical Americana or Springsteen revival rock. Steady, propulsive percussion reminiscent of the band’s best work (“An Ocean Between The Waves”) picks up an open-road guitar riff that glides along effortlessly. But as the song evolves in constant motion, it gains layers of complexity from shimmering synths, harmonica, a concise and well-timed lead guitar solo, and an electronic organ through its triumphant coda. In similar fashion, after a brilliant synthesizer twinkles through its introduction, glockenspiel chimes add texture, fullness and warmth to the stunning “Holding On”, complete with slide guitar solos and bouncy synths, all a backdrop for Granduciel’s Dylan-esque vocals. 11 minute epic “Thinking Of A Place” features a repeated acoustic guitar riff that is gorgeous in its simplicity and never gets old, an essay in song structure as it builds patiently and magnificently. The presence of slower tracks is notable here, as “Knocked Down” and “Clean Living” aren’t so much weak links but add diversity as they bring the tempo down a notch, but closer “You Don’t Have To Go” is a perfectly understated heartsick ballad. The subtlety and restraint with which Granduciel sings the lyric “into the light” as the song climaxes adds power and depth; a more indulgent songwriter may have taken the opportunity to wail and bloat in this moment, but Granduciel wisely lets the music shine through the vocals. It’s those examples of attention to detail- and they are numerous- that make A Deeper Understanding such a consistently thrilling listen, and the year’s most resonant rock album.

#1: Kendrick Lamar/ DAMN.

damn

It’s difficult to fully comprehend exactly how rapid the ascension has been for Kendrick Lamar, as the undisputed current king of the rap game has now released three albums in a five year span that all must be considered essential pieces of work for any genre. If good kid, m.A.A.d. City was his homage to Compton’s West Coast style and To Pimp A Butterfly communicated hostility and frustration towards society, consider DAMN. his offering to the masses. Easily his most accessible record to date, there is something here for everyone over its 14 broadly diverse tracks, and without a single weak moment among them. There’s far more attention being paid to melody here than ever before, as Rihanna guests on the synth-driven and radio-friendly hook of “LOYALTY.”, Zacari sings falsetto on the delicate and bluesy “LOVE.”, and even Bono adds vocals through the gorgeous chorus of the otherwise bruising highlight “XXX.” (The moment that the sirens stop and shift completely into jazzy bass in the latter is dazzling). The beats are still on point however, and it was impossible to get away from the addictive and engaging “DNA” in 2017, as the track shifts from its initial straightforward club beat into something much darker and more fascinating. As focused on his skin color as he seemed to be over the entirety of To Pimp A Butterfly, as the first proper track on the album, “DNA” seems to indicate lyrically that he has adapted a broader view of his persona. It’s refreshing to hear him deliver lines like “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA” without bringing race into it; Kendrick is the best rapper on the planet whether he is black, white or purple, and he seems like he knows it.

On standout track “HUMBLE.”, hip hop’s top dog has never sounded more bravado-laden as he raps with authority over a haunting, demonic organ beat. The smooth groove on the fascinating “FEAR” features Lamar rapping from the perspective of his mother raising him, conveying a sense of understanding and gratitude, but also demonstrating that we don’t all come from the same place, and that reality tends to have some bearing on how we all turn out. The tension isn’t completely abandoned on DAMN., not by a long shot, as Lamar raps breathlessly, seemingly overwhelmed by responsibility through the conclusion of “FEEL.”, while the unsettling “LUST.” begins to ponder the dangers of materialism in an introspective manner. It all culminates with the awesome closer “DUCKWORTH.” as Kendrick falls back upon perhaps his greatest ability, as a storyteller, recounting the story of his own rise behind a backdrop that starts, stops and changes tone with every stanza. It’s an exhilarating finale, and the perfect way to conclude an album composed of such a diverse array of sounds. There’s a new confidence on display here that makes the delivery of every line and the arrangement of every note seem so effortless, and all that his peers, listeners and rabid fans can do at this point is look on in awe and embrace the best rapper of his generation.

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