It was a strange year for music. Though there were great albums for sure, there were hardly any genuine standouts that seemed to move everyone. I loved it. For the first time in a while, when I talked with people about their favorite records of the year, I got a different list from just about everyone. Arguing the merits of those conclusions were some of the most fun talks I had, and, unlike those toxic political conversations we’ve all found ourselves in recently, I found these discussions to be truly illuminating. In a year filled with turmoil, the music world, in addition to giving us some great albums, gave us something we could argue about without wanting to kill each other. That alone makes 2017 a worthwhile year for the album format.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar is the greatest rapper of his generation. He’s adored by fans, praised by critics, and revered by his peers. He released what is arguably the greatest debut-sophomore punch for a major label with Good Kid M.A.A.D CITY and To Pimp a Butterfly, and if you happened to catch him on his DAMN. world tour, you know he puts on the best concert in rap.
Even with all this goodness, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that I wanted less music from Lamar when his third major label studio release DAMN., was announced back in April. Let me explain. To Pimp a Butterfly, towering musical achievement that it is, occasionally feel bloated. With a runtime nearing 80 minutes, TPAB isn’t the easiest record to listen to casually. The subject matter, which ranges from poverty and institutionalization to crime and politics, doesn’t make for the ideal party material. It’s a thinking man’s rap record. Though you can throw it on as background music it is best appreciated when listened to on a nice pair of headphones in a comfy chair when you able to focus on every word, instrument, and sample. Instead of another headphones record, I wanted a more focused album. One with a slimmed-down runtime, a focus on singles, a lot of shit talking, and an overall sense of fun. Basically, I wanted Kendrick to make a pop record.
Cut to DAMN.‘s release and let’s run through that checklist, shall we? Shorter runtime (55 minutes, paltry compared to his first two records)? Check. Focus on singles (“DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” were the official songs of the NBA Playoffs, “LOVE.” finds Lamar dabbling in R&B, and “LOYALTY.” samples “24K Magic” for god’s sake)? Check. Constant shit talking. This line from “HUMBLE.” sums it up best: “Piss out your per diem, you just gotta hate ’em, funk/If I quit your BM, I still ride Mercedes, funk/If I quit this season, I still be the greatest, funk.” An overall sense of fun? Did I mention in samples “24K Magic?” The fact that he was able to do all this while still giving us socially conscious bangers like “XXX.” and “FEAR.” is all the more astounding.
DAMN. was the musical equivalent of Dunkirk, a thrilling, trimmed-down masterstroke from an already undisputedly great artist.
Joey Bada$$ – All American Bada$$
Joey Bada$$’s career reminds me a lot of watching a talented NBA prospect going from high school to the pros. He released a beloved mixtape in high school that showcased his obvious talent (the 1999 EP), followed that up with a strong showing in his lone undergrad season (Summer Knights EP) before making the jump to the big time and faltering a little under the weight of expectations (B4.Da.$$ [pronounced “Before Da Money”]). All American Bada$$ finds the rapper, whose real name is Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, putting it all together for the first time in his career.
The first half of the album is as strong as anything I’ve heard this year. The politically-charged title track flows seamlessly into “For My People” in which Scott reflects on the good fortune he’s had despite the circumstances surrounding his rough upbringing. That political feel extends to most of the album’s 12 tracks, however, at no point does the album ever feel preachy. The way Scott approaches the issues he has with society in a way that makes him feel like Kendrick Lamar-lite. He’s not telling us how to fix the fucked up world we live, he’s simply letting us know how he feels about it.
All American Bada$$ is a massive leap forward in quality for Scott, and just like a young NBA star, time is still on his side. At only 22 years old, he still has plenty of time to mature and become even greater.
Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love
Ever since the late ’90s magazines, websites, and blogs have been looking to anoint the next savior or savior or saviors of rock. For a few years now, much of that hyperbolic chatter has centered around Philly five-piece Sheer Mag. The group’s excellent trio of EPs excited writers across the web, and with good reason, the band’s mix of ’70s AM guitar lead licks, thunderous rhythms, and blistering punk vocals made for the perfect soundtrack to a rowdy summer Saturday. Equally as fun to listen to in your car with the top down (if you are lucky enough to have a car that does that) as it is at a backyard barbeque with a PBR in your hand.
So does the debut album from the Philly five-piece (I know I used it twice, but it’s some seriously fun alliteration) live up to the hype and save rock? In a word, no. No single record ever does. It’s still one of the year’s best and definitely worth picking up.
Need to Feel Your Love finds the band expanding on their hard rock roots. The album’s title track and “Pure Desire” offers flecks of disco, “Expect the Bayonet” mixes in a bit of indie jangle, and “Milk and Honey” finds frontwoman Tina Halladay scaling her harsh howl to a yearning wail. The band even kick off the last third of the album with the finger-picked ballad “Until You Find the One.”
Those ’70s rock roots still have a strong hold on everything the band does. Both “Turn It Up” and “Rank and File” would settle nicely next to any Thin Lizzy or Kiss songs on any hard rock playlist. All of this makes Need to Feel Your Love sound archaic by today’s standards, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Beach Fossils – Somersault
I stumbled upon the third album from Beach Fossils by accident. Funny considering I own their first two records on vinyl. However, after the release of 2013’s Clash the Truth, the band all but disappeared from the spotlight despite building a strong following with the indie blog crowd.
Earlier this year though Dustin Payseur, the frontman and creative force behind the group, reappeared with a new record, a new label, and a new, but not too new, sound. I already touched on the album when I interviewed the band in September, but anyone looking for a sunny pop record to get them through the cold months ahead should definitely give this thing a listen. It’s the happiest surprise of the year.
King Krule – The OOZ
Archy Marshall’s music feels dark. By dark, I don’t mean evil or sinister or even scary. It reminds me of the night. Marshall and the characters he portrays in his songs have always existed in the London underworld. On Marshall’s second record, The OOZ, we can picture Marshall wandering the city’s dimly lit streets and alleyways, bumbling around its trashy bars, and hanging out in the apartment of his foreign muse. Not only does The OOZ give us the most complete picture of Marshall’s world, it also gives us the most complete picture of his psyche as well. We hear moments of pain, passion, tenderness, anger, and suspicion throughout the album, and Marshall draws from a number of influences to mimic that emotional range.
Listening to a record from Marshall has always been a bit like raiding your cool friend’s record collection and The OOZ is no exception. Nightclub jazz, guttural punk, ’50s style crooning, and meandering trip-hop are stitched together into a sonic map of Marshall’s world. Though Marshall draws inspiration from almost everywhere, the record’s sound is incredibly cohesive and completely his own. In a lot of respects, Marshall is like the Blob, he sucks in everything that he touches making for a bigger, badder, but ultimately more fun experience.
Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
In my review earlier this year, I equated the first song on Fleet Foxes masterful third album to “whizzing through a Hayao Miyazaki film on the back of some mythical beast.” Hyperbolic as that statement may be, I stand by it. Crack-Up simultaneously acts as a greatest hits for the band and an artistic step forward. It combines their trademark harmonized vocals, energized acoustic strums, and swells of gorgeous strings along with a new expansiveness that we have not seen from the band on previous efforts. It’s an excellent introduction to a band operating at the peak of their powers.
Liam Gallagher – As You Were
Formulaic, predictable, and boring. These are words that have been lobbed at Liam Gallagher since he and his brother Noel started performing as Oasis in the mid-’90s. They were also the very same words I would use to describe the younger Gallagher brother’s last project, Beady Eye.
Cut to 2017 and Liam finally has a solo album worthy of his name and his massive ego. On almost every track, Gallagher brings the same chest-pounding bravado that made those early Oasis records so powerful. His piss-and-vinegar delivery is back in full force and you can just picture him sauntering up to the microphone and belting these songs in front of a crowd of 100,000 people. It’s a pure throwback to Oasis his glory days, and it’s exactly the type of album Liam Gallagher should be making.
GAS – Narkopop
If you’re not familiar with GAS, and I assume there are more than a few of you, it’s the moniker under which German electronic composer Wolfgang Voigt creates music. Narkopop, Voight’s fifth album created under the pseudonym, finds the artist continuing his series of albums influenced by his LSD experiences exploring the Königsforst, a forest situated near his hometown in Cologne, Germany, during his youth. From the look of the cover, you’re probably thinking it was a bad trip.
Narkopop does have a dark undercurrent to it. The album’s colossal synths are often veiled in a thin mist of tape hiss. Dark organ-like tones occasionally bubble up from the depths of the record’s low end. The 4/4 drum, often a driving force in getting people on the dance floor, sounds reminiscent of a heartbeat of someone watching the Exorcist for the first time. Yet for all the unsettling sonic tricks the record employs, Voigt is still unable to disguise the fact that he has made a truly majestic record. Both “Narkopop 1” and “Narkopop 8” (yes, all the tracks are named in the most German way possible) sound like outtakes from Vangelis’ score to the original Blade Runner, the chords that anchor “Narkopop 3” are absolutely angelic, and the piano plinks during the middle third “Narkopop 6” give it an almost childlike sense of innocence. That dichotomy, however subtle, has helped Voight in crafting the year’s best ambient record.
Charly Bliss – Guppy
They rocked Omaha earlier in the year and their album continues to do so as we approach the New Year. The New York band’s surprisingly self-aware debut is chalked full of massive pop choruses, crunchy guitars, and cringe-worthy tales of what it’s like to be young, dumb and out of love. I know it’s not exactly the most new-age rock album you’re going to hear all year, and that’s part of the appeal. I’m not sure about you, but my record collection has a whole lot albums, especially debuts, that could be classified by those same characteristics: Weezer’s Blue Album, Guitar Romantic from the Exploding Hearts, or Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Guppy isn’t reinventing the wheel. It doesn’t have to, it’s great just the way it is.
The Horrors – V
The Horrors are a group that has always embraced change. On their fifth record, the group members are worlds away from the goth punks who released their debut album a decade ago. Instead, the band has opted for a slick new wave sound inspired by genre giants like Depeche Mode, who the band toured with earlier this year, and Gary Numan. This being the Horrors though, the approach isn’t that straightforward. There’s the industrial clang of opener “Hologram,” the spacey expanse of “Weighed Down,” and even acoustic indie pop on the first half of “Gathering.”
The album’s closing track is unlike anything the band has done in the past. It mixes those aforementioned influences with a heavy dose dance music and psychedelia to create something completely unique. Even though the song’s lyrics read more like a suicide note than a call to party, the combination of rushing synths and a dancefloor-ready beat are so euphoric you won’t pay them any mind.
Lorde – Melodrama
HAIM – Something to Tell You
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
Sampha – Process
The xx – I See You
Bing and Ruth – Dorsal
$hit & $hine – Total Shit!