It’s safe to say none of us will be nostalgic for the first six months of 2017. Rarely has the national and global situation felt so unpredictable—but great music still comforts, empowers, distracts, and pleasures us, whatever the circumstances. Below, explore 50 of SPIN’s favorite albums of the year to date: Kendrick Lamar in bangers mode, Alice Coltrane’s long-lost spiritual documents, Paramore reunited, Dirty Projectors fragmented, Jlin breaking through, and Mac DeMarco all grown up. Some of these records were written to address the present moment; others were finished much earlier, but in our accelerated new reality, already demonstrate their lasting relevance. These are the 50 Best Albums of 2017 So Far.
The 50 Best Albums of 2017 So Far
50. Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman50. Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman
50. Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman
American Music Club leader Mark Eitzel’s latest elder-statesman-y solo album is docile and wise, in a beaten-down, gravelly cynical sort of way. It’s a perfect answer for your post-Leonard-Cohen blues, with a dollop of Greg Dulli sleaze in the husky vocal elocution, especially while he discusses the lapsed lovers whose “heart[s] spill like wine” or just “grow cruel” on you. Or the beatnik-ifed Scott Walker of the late ‘60s when he begins to tell a story (“An Angel’s Wing Brushed the Penny Slots”). Eitzel laughs at the grimmest moments: most notably, in the face of the boatman to the underworld on the album’s immediately indelible opener “The Last Ten Years.”
Throughout most of Hey Mr Ferryman, heavenly choirs or tremulous faux-strings overtake the slumped bar-band rhythm section to exalt his characters’ snide and indecisive pronouncements. Eitzel never has firm enough answers to justify this royal treatment–most of the time, his anti-heroes are past thinking there are any. All they can do is try to articulate the feelings that recur in their cloudy moments of midnight reflection—their urge to push endlessly for enlightenment that never clarifies itself, to find a love that sticks, to find a way out of the eternal “runaround.” –Winston Cook-Wilson
49. Harry Styles, Harry Styles49. Harry Styles, Harry Styles
49. Harry Styles, Harry Styles
Like many groups to come out of X Factor, One Direction were assembled from would-be solo artists; despite their harmonies, scripted lad camaraderie, and terrifying sales numbers, the band was always a holding pattern until the boys could return to their solo careers. Zayn Malik, after an acrimonious departure, took the traditional ex-boybander route: getting the best R&B beats money can buy, escaping the band’s pent-up songwriting to relive his past couple years of getting very laid, and being rewarded with radio airplay. Liam Payne, with a Migos collaborations in the works, is angling to join him. Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson have embarked upon the twin British traditions of becoming a busker with a budget and guesting on an EDM song.
And Harry Styles, as you may have heard, is attempting to be a rock star. Of course it sounds ridiculous; no matter what music they release, with what sugar content, everyone in One Direction may forever remain frozen in the public imagination as moppets with rumpled hair, bubblegum songs a large singularity of preteen fans. And yet someone’s got to manage it, or else we’d have no Beatles, no Michael, no anybody without a perfectly scuzzy, organic past. Every teen idol sounds ridiculous proclaiming their maturity, until they don’t.
Oddly enough, of the five One Directioners, Styles new solo output strays the least from the music the group actually made. So strong is the pejorative of being a boy band that the group progressed from power-pop takes on the Backstreet Boys to full-on, and often-great, Journey and The Who rips with hardly any ado; he was prepping for this moment, if not from the beginning, then at least since he took “Faithfully” to the desert in a leopard coat. But Styles, of course, would rather not be known for carrying on the One Direction sound. Where Zayn spent the months before his album telling the world he has sex, Harry’s run his own yearlong campaign insisting he has cred, culminating in enormous documentary profiles by Paul McCartney and Almost Famous’s Cameron Crowe. “I didn’t want to put out my first album and be like, ‘He’s tried to re-create the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties,” Styles told Crowe. “I wanted to do something that sounds like me.”
Read Katherine St. Asaph’s full review here.
48. J Hus, Common Sense48. J Hus, Common Sense
48. J Hus, Common Sense
Grime’s crossover success has not typically come on its own terms. Dizzee Rascal, for instance, was a mainstay on the British pop charts when he was making rap music, but didn’t clock number ones until he started making music with Calvin Harris and Armand Van Helden. Roll Deep, the OG grime crew, similarly only reached the top of the pops when they started making pretty enjoyable but very cheesy Eurohouse. This sort of selling out was not an ironclad rule—Wiley hit the top two with “Wearing My Rolex,” a dance song that stayed true to grime—but the path to pure pop stardom for British rappers was pretty clear. Lately, though, a new wave of grime MCs have broken the mold. Stormzy, who once hit the charts with a freestyle, landed a top 10 hit this year with the po-faced rap of “Big For Your Boots.”
More interestingly, though, is Stormzy’s frequent collaborator J Hus, who broke the grime/pop binary with his own top 10 single “Did You See,” which nicks the tones (if not exactly the rhythms) of African pop music. J Hus, who is of Gambian descent, expands this new ground on his debut album Common Sense, which finds room for plenty of Afrobeats-influenced production (“Good Time”), but also garage (“Plottin”) and beats that sound like G-Unit (“Common Sense”). You wouldn’t call it a pop album exactly, but it does what great pop albums do: synthesize a lifetime of influences into a full-length that feels exceedingly now, in the process announcing the presence of a unique new voice. – Jordan Sargent
47. Gas, Narkopop47. Gas, Narkopop
47. Gas, Narkopop
Ambient and house music are just different kinds of eternity, and eternity never goes out of style. That’s one reason why Gas sounds as fresh on Narkopopas it did seventeen years ago. Another is the honed skill of minimal-techno polymath Wolfgang Voigt, the Kompakt cofounder who hasn’t exactly been gathering dust alongside his most influential alias. In four seminal ambient house albums as Gas, released between 1996 and 2000 and reissued last year in the covetable Box, Voigt infused the essentially mechanical concepts of The Orb, The KLF, and Aphex Twin with his own pneumatic naturalism, famously inspired by acid trips in ancient German woods. The resultant sound is dense yet vaporous, a liquified forest or a fume given form. Overlapping loops tessellate like canopied leaves, always the same and always changing, while a cardiac kick drum traces the only straight line through edgeless ecosystems.
But there’s a third reason Narkopop doesn’t feel dated: it briskly picks up the less static, more composed gestures that emerged at the end of the original tetralogy, on the effervescent Pop. Instead of a characteristic rustle and thump,Narkopop opens with a massive deconstructed chord, glowering like an alien sunrise. In fact, we don’t hear any textbook Gas until track seven, where wind-infused harmonic material patiently subdivides a shamanic bass drum. A couple of the drone bagatelles, though masterfully realized, break Gas’s signature hypnosis and could be mistaken for any number of Kompakt artists rather than being unmistakably his. But at best, Narkopop faithfully upgrades Gas’s murky fundamentals to HD.
Read Brian Howe’s full review here.
46. Ho99o9, United States of Horror46. Ho99o9, United States of Horror
46. Ho99o9, United States of Horror
While it isn’t a definitive artistic statement, United States of Horror is a singular enough debut album to prove this Ho99o9 thing could work. The project finds the New Jerseyan-bred duo switching their focus from nihilistic thrills to brusque, violent assaults against oppressive men in power. Although Ho99o9’s attempts at anarchic subversion have translated better visually, most of the tracks land with blood-curdling effect—like the knives-out power chords of “Street Power.” – Brian Josephs
Read Brian Josephs’ feature profile on Ho99o9 here.
45. Ryuichi Sakamoto, async45. Ryuichi Sakamoto, async
45. Ryuichi Sakamoto, async
async is venerated Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s first effort in eight years, and offers experiments for any variety of Sakomoto fan. For devotees of his more recent work, there’s a demonstration of his prodigious gifts as an orchestrator—in this case, with making a unmanipulated string section sound like a printer malfunctioning (“async”). There are moments of almost-uncomfortable, John-Cage-ian fragility (the triangle chorale of “tri”), then multilingual vocal sound collages over breathy gusts of synth orchestra (“fullmoon”) or the up-close sound of what sounds like someone padding across a bed of leaves on a forest floor (“walker”). Almost every track here in a mini-concerto for an acoustic soloist and an electronically-realized backing band: usually, heaven-and-hellscapes rendered by layered synths. async is a rollercoaster of stylistic eclecticness and contradictory impulses: everything that makes Sakamoto’s career intriguing, cinematic, and impossible to boil down in microcosm. –Winston Cook-Wilson
44. (Sandy) Alex G, Rocket44. (Sandy) Alex G, Rocket
44. (Sandy) Alex G, Rocket
After a rising profile thanks in part to last year’s Frank Ocean collaboration (as well as a strange, rather unexplained name change this April), many wondered if Alex Giannascoli would finally betray his bedroom roots. As theories intensified surrounding the not-so-subtle country and Appalachian influences on singles “Bobby” and “Proud,” things got even stranger with the introduction of AutoTune and experimental hip-hop on tracks “Sportstar” and “Brick.” But when it finally dropped, Rocket proved an almost instant addition to all the weirder moments of the 24-year-old songwriter’s knotty and prolific back catalog. What it lacks in aesthetic consistency, the album makes up for in feel-good throwback—both of his own material directly (“Judge,” “Powerful Man”), and in the effortless influence gleaned from Sparklehorse, Elliott Smith, and others within the album’s immensely diverse 14 tracks. For all its experimental weight (and the absent explanation thereof), Rocket felt like a firm continuation of form for an artist that, even as the acclaim grows, still knows when he’s got something right. – Rob Arcand
Read our feature on (Sandy) Alex G here.
43. Playboi Carti, Playboi Carti43. Playboi Carti, Playboi Carti
43. Playboi Carti, Playboi Carti
Atlanta’s least prolific street-rap lightning rod Playboy Carti is emblematic of everything self-appointed rap purists hate. He operates like he’s part of the backfiring, skittish loops that ground his songs, and his inevitable, long “woo, woo, woo” breaks are as crucial to mounting energy as his short, spasmodic verses, consisting almost entirely of things other rappers of his ilk and predecessors have already said. When he explodes into a fast flow to stake his claim as a post-Quavo stylist, it can only last briefly. His relatively reticent delivery is supported by a thick chorus of echoing, unintelligible ad-libs, creating an manufactured image of the crowded studios in which they were likely recorded. In terms of the major documents of Keef-and-Future-inspired “Soundcloud rap” of the past couple of years, there have been few full-length projects so expertly curated, overstuffed with skeletal beats with fake flutes and underwater orchestras that throb cleverly against the emphases of the 808s, brimming over with just the right amount of clutter and entropy. –Winston Cook-Wilson
42. Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now42. Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now
42. Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now
What is a Jens Lekman? It doesn’t come in any of the usual colors or shapes. It bristles with complicated angles and mechanisms. It’s hard to immediately say what it does, but it’s so appealingly packaged you want to buy it on sight. It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption made of tinsel and tulle, pinwheels and joy buzzers, duty-free perfume and lavender incense. It spits out isotopes of perfectly eccentric Jens-ness, a rare element that flusters forms, toys with tastes, blithely scrambles cultural registers. The more you describe it, the sketchier it sounds, and this is closely related to what makes it so great.
In a bespoke version of his native Sweden’s romantic-melancholic indie-pop, Lekman upholsters the requisite peppy guitars with glossy samples, pianos, and strings, power-clashing plush tones that distantly murmur of yacht rock and world music, exotica and adult contemporary. He’s a Scandinavian Carmen Sandiego dispatching from Gothenburg and Melbourne and Berlin, crooning well-rehearsed anecdotes in a tenor like expensive lotion. His knowing naïveté has shades of The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt and The Lucksmiths’ Tali White, but Jens sticks stubbornly in his own category, outlined by his flashing wit, droll charisma, and big world-wandering heart. It’s describable only by additive absurdity—here, he’s like an Afro-funk Paul Anka, there, a postmodern Paul Simon or Balearic beat Boz Scaggs.
Read Brian Howe’s full review here.
41. Michelle Branch, Hopeless Romantic41. Michelle Branch, Hopeless Romantic
41. Michelle Branch, Hopeless Romantic
Hopeless Romantic is about love, but it’s not a linear story. There are songs about the failed marriage and the new relationship, and it’s not always apparent which is which. One moment, Branch is blissfully falling; the next, she’s cruelly heartbroken. She crawls on hands and knees. She gets up and runs away. She drinks to forget her ex, and to bed her new lover. (The new Michelle Branch sings about sex sometimes, but never anything you couldn’t play around kids.) She writes like someone who knows she’s made mistakes in love, but she doesn’t waste time blaming herself.
At the heart of Hopeless Romantic is the title track. There’s nothing like it in Branch’s catalog—it’s barbiturate woozy, a true torch song. ”’Cause I’m a hopeless romantic / When I should run for my life,” she moans. “I know you’re gonna eat me alive.” She tries to talk sense into herself, then doubles back: “When will I ever learn? / But wait, I never listen.”
If the new album doesn’t sound like the old Michelle Branch, it’s partly because she’s almost abandoned the acoustic guitar that factored heavily into her early music. During her “dry spell,” as she calls it, Branch didn’t have a band. “I would get asked randomly to do a gig here and there, and it was always like, ‘Well, she doesn’t have a band right now, so she’ll go play acoustic,’” she says. “I’m so tired of playing these singer-songwriter shows with my acoustic guitar. I don’t want any of that referenced on the record, ’cause I don’t want it to feel that way.”
Read Anna Gaca’s full feature on Michelle Branch here.
40. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked At Me40. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked At Me
40. Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked At Me
After the passing of his wife Geneviève Castrée last July, Phil Elverum was crushed. Following a tortuous battle with pancreatic cancer—much of which was sadly forced into public via GoFundMe campaign to cover treatment—the Mount Eerie songwriter released a statement on her passing, one which included details of a new album he’d made to both commemorate their time together and finally turn the difficult memories into the beginnings of a path forward. “I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her,” he shared. “I want it known.”
As the album’s singles slowly revealed via dusty home videos flickering along the shoreside, death was real. We saw its aftermath in mail-order backpacks undelivered, in ashes let loose before sunsets, in the brutal inability to take out the upstairs bathroom garbage for fear of losing what memories were left. For fans of the project—as well as its earlier iteration the Microphones—the pain felt personal. Even if the final result was always more indebted to Knausgaard’s My Struggle than listeners seemed to realize, A Crow Looked At Me revealed some shaky new terrain for the songwriter with a clarity not heard since his K Records days over a decade ago. — Rob Arcand
39. Charly Bliss, Guppy39. Charly Bliss, Guppy
39. Charly Bliss, Guppy
Eva Hendricks has an unmistakeable voice, bright and acidic as a sack of Sour Patch Kids. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about Guppy, the debut album from Charly Bliss, but you’ll stick around to hear this Brooklyn-based indie pop quartet attack love, self-deprecation, and ‘90s alt-rock nostalgia with the kind of free-association energy usually reserved for pinball machines. “Am I the best / Or just the first person / To say yes?” Hendricks asks on “Glitter,” over a power-pop chug that, theoretically, ought to be too simple to still work this well. Guppy is sweet, but not tame—it’s music for yanking the loves-me-not petals on a daisy and stomping it under a pair of Docs. No number of repetitions really wears the charm off. –Anna Gaca
38. Forest Swords, Compassion38. Forest Swords, Compassion
38. Forest Swords, Compassion
Barnes began work on Engravings, Forest Swords’ acclaimed debut full-lengthfrom 2013, shortly after discovering dub via a CD box set compilation of classic tracks released on the Trojan label. He was an out-of-work graphic designer who’d released the first Forest Swords EP in 2011 as something of a lark, teaching himself to make beats and use digital audio software in his spare time after being laid off from his job at a magazine in the UK. “I was just amazed at how dub sounded,” he said, sitting on a Union Square park bench on the day after the NYC show. “What they did with studio techniques, using the studio as an instrument, using sound as a tool, using space as a tool, and using bass as a tool. And I thought it could be quite interesting to put that kind of spacious bass sound into what I’m doing.”
Barnes designs all of Forest Swords’ album artwork himself, a remnant of his previous professional life. (“My dad always makes a joke that all my fans are designers,” he says with a laugh. “If I can give back to the graphic design community, I’m more than happy.”) The Engravings cover looks like it belongs to an experimental metal band, and many of the songs within are shot through with a dissonance Barnes gleaned from childhood favorites like Deftones and Aphex Twin. There are no reggae upstrokes or toasting MCs, but tracks like “Irby Tremor” proudly identify Barnes as a disciple of Tubby, setting skewed orchestral samples and spaghetti-western guitar against slow and steady basslines that are unmistakably Jamaican.
On Compassion, Forest Swords’ newly released second album, the influence is a little harder to spot. The songs are longer, more circuitous, with an emphasis on drama and narrative that was mostly missing from the A-B structures of Barnes’ earlier material. After Engravings became a critical hit, he took a brief break from making albums, working instead on commissions to score multimedia works: a contemporary dance piece, a sci-fi film shot entirely on drones, and the video game Assassin’s Creed Rogue. Compassion reflects this newly expanded approach, built on a mix of sounds Barnes created electronically on his laptop and arrangements of live instruments. “Panic,” an early highlight, opens like a contemporary update on an Ennio Morricone score, rendering a tense martial atmosphere from rolling drums and processed singing. Soon, the sampled voice of soul singer Lou Johnson breaks through the mix with violent urgency: “I feel something’s wrong / The panic is on.” Barnes’s arrangement, together with a striking video featuring dancers whose faces are always obscured, suggests something more is at stake than the precarious romance of Johnson’s original.
Read Andy Cush’s feature on Forest Swords here.
37. Syd, Fin37. Syd, Fin
37. Syd, Fin
With The Internet, Syd sang pleasing neo-soul lullabies that mostly sounded good in ambience. Her debut solo record, though, is a different beast entirely, expanding her set of influences with songs that hang on memorable hooks. “Know” is a Timbaland homage that remembers he was a pop songwriter, not just a director of vibes. “Smile More” applies DJ Screw’s slow-drip to that well-worn neo-soul blueprint in a way that is adroitly languorous, while “Dollar Bills” flips that into a strip club song that doesn’t feel at all like a stretch. Best, though, is the one-minute interlude “Drown in It,” which does aquatic raunchiness as well as Ty Dolla $ign. — Jordan Sargent
36. Pissed Jeans, Why Love Now36. Pissed Jeans, Why Love Now
36. Pissed Jeans, Why Love Now
The world of heavy guitar music isn’t known for its sense of humor. You have your bearded metalheads, singing about wizards and spending Friday evenings perfecting the wrist control needed to cleanly execute their lightspeed guitar solos. You have your sloganeering hardcore punks, shouting in unison about the the importance of loyalty to your brothers and the harmful effects of beer and cigarettes. Against this dour backdrop, the Pennsylvania sludge and feedback mavens Pissed Jeans have distinguished themselves by being consistently funnier and more ferocious than their peers, channeling the bludgeoning force of classic Touch and Go and Amphetamine Reptile bands through a swagger and wit that is entirely their own. Why Love Now, the quartet’s fifth album, furthers the argument for Pissed Jeans as one of our era’s best punk bands.
Honeys and King of Jeans, the band’s previous two albums, each opened with a shitkicking anthem; “Bathroom Laughter” and “False Jesii Part 2” are still the most reliable moshpit starters in their set. (Full disclosure: My band has played on the same bill as Pissed Jeans before.) Why Love Now, by contrast, begins with a lurch. “Waiting on My Horrible Warning” is both immediately recognizable as Pissed Jeans and unlike anything else in their catalog, riding a throbbing, nearly industrial groove for four minutes while frontman Matt Korvette subjects his voice to contortions that are even more grotesque than usual. Lyrically, the song is a spiritual sequel to “Goodbye (Hair),” the balding man’s lament from King of Jeans, except that now, instead of documenting the effects of time on his deteriorating looks, Korvette is staring further into the future, toward geriatric care facilities and the abyss that lies beyond. “I’m waiting to locate my terminal deficiency,” he sings. “Waiting to have my children come and visit me.”
35. Run the Jewels, RTJ335. Run the Jewels, RTJ3
35. Run the Jewels, RTJ3
“No struggle feels futile to the one who’s struggling,” musician Tunde Olaniran wrote in his 2015 sci-fi short story “Little Brown Mouse.” Describing a mouse drowning in a container slowly filling with water, Olaniran used the bleak sentiment to show how no amount of scurrying could stave off the animal’s death. Like the best science fiction, Olaniran’s writing presaged a fraught political reality unfolding in new, horrific ways with every day. Forget the protests and the so-called truth—the country will be in the hands of a man who believes nuclear threats are playthings.
Still, the fight goes on. Killer Mike and El-P, both of whom are in their 40s, are still working out the point of struggling when it feels like your head is under water. But their anxiety manifests itself in extraordinary ways: Since linking up for 2012’s R.A.P. Music, Run the Jewels—a miraculous late-career team-up—have risen as the greatest exemplars of righteous chaos since Ice Cube dapped up the Bomb Squad. Their sonic superheroism—they sound like barrel-chested Robin Hoods —and comic book imagery have given them a mythological sheen, but the duo have always grounded themselves via booming production, Mike’s sonorous presence, their willingness to fuck you up. The chest-beating bravado is never that far from mortality–they’ve rapped about friends who passed away from lung cancer, and made videos meditating on police brutality.
At the start of 2014’s RTJ2, a riled-up Killer Mike promised to “bang this bitch the fuck out.” At the beginning of “Down,” which opens up RTJ3, he broods as he looks backward—“I hope with the highest of hopes that I never have to go back to the trap / And my days of dealing with dope”—before El-P raps that he “came from feeling what a pure absence of hope can do.” The opening lines’ stark contrast illustrate a focal shift–where RTJ2 positioned pugilism as necessary protest, RTJ3 tests the limits of that worldview. Their sound is still thrilling, but it’s an album made by men who have watched lives crumble despite willful rebellion and are picking up the pieces to continue fighting, even as the cycle is doomed to repeat itself.
Read Brian Josephs’s full review here.
34. Allison Crutchfield, Tourist in This Town34. Allison Crutchfield, Tourist in This Town
34. Allison Crutchfield, Tourist in This Town
Allison Crutchfield’s first full-length album as a solo artist opens with a resigned and comforting sigh. It’s a prologue that sounds like an elegy: “When the light we once saw in each other flickers and fades,” she sings, “When the two of us become one in a completely different way.” A muted organ enters, then fades. Crutchfield’s voice rises up with brilliant finality: “Our love is unquestionable / Our love is here to die.” With that line, her intent is clear—her solo debut is about finding yourself alone.
Until now, Crutchfield was best known as part of a group—the band she co-fronted, Swearin’, and P.S. Eliot, her old band with twin sister Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee. Town is an autobiographical breakup record–it marks the end of Swearin’, as well the end of Crutchfield’s relationship with former bandmate Kyle Gilbride. When talking about the album, Crutchfield sounds sheepish admitting it: “It’s such a cliché,” she told Paste, “there’s just no getting around it.” Thankfully, Crutchfield is too observant and too self-possessed to fall into the kind of traps the more uncreatively heartbroken do. Though it runs just 33 minutes, Tourist in this Town feels like a road trip movie, a scrapbook of mixed emotions compiled from postcard-sized travel diary entries.
Where Crutchfield’s last solo project, 2014’s Lean Into It EP, submerged her vocals in blurry synths, most of the songs on Town are spacious and crystal-clear—befitting an artist so sure of her vision that she decided how many tracks her album would have before she started writing it. “Mile Away” is both an electrified rumble and an incisive dismantling of someone else’s ego; “Charlie” is a sweet-and-sour love song edged with nostalgia and longing. The exception is “The Marriage,” a minute-long twee-punk shakedown that reprises the album’s opening lines with a renewed confidence. It’s reminiscent of Crutchfield’s old work with Swearin’, though she’s now accompanied by current boyfriend Sam Cook-Parrott of Radiator Hospital as she sings, “My love for you is unquestionable / My love is infinite.” If his appearance in the narrative feels unexpected, well, Crutchfield thought so, too: “I felt like, ‘I really shouldn’t be dating anybody right now,’ but I also feel like this [new] relationship feels big and important. It was a lot of back and forth in my brain.”
Read Anna Gaca’s full review here.
33. Migos, Culture33. Migos, Culture
33. Migos, Culture
When Atlanta’s Migos released “Versace” in 2013–and in the following year, in which the trio’s unmistakable triplet raps began to rule hip-hop on a global scale–it was hard to predict that their most commercially successful moment would come years later. At a glance, they had all the trappings of a flame destined to burn quickly and brightly, with their particular charm that could only endure via anthemic, in-the-moment repetition. By mid-2015, with post-“Versace” hits “Fight Night” and “Handsome & Wealthy” in the rearview, it seemed that Migos might have hit a wall. None of the songs on their delayed studio debut, Yung Rich Nation, broke the Hot 100, even as the group’s Takeoff rapped that the next thing they dropped would “have everybody screaming ‘pipe it up,’” on the album single of the same name.
But later that year came “Look at my Dab,” a song about their hometown dance craze that brought them back on the charts. Now, the trio has ascended to astronomical heights thanks to an even more potent meme, one that has more to do with their actual music. The ubiquitous, sticky first two lines of “Bad and Boujee” have provided fodder for infinite parodies over the past few months, as well as the standard dance videos. Today, as the group’s long-delayed second LP Culture materializes, “Boujee” is the No. 1 single in the United States. “Versace,” though unforgettable as the group’s breakout hit, peaked at No. 99.
Despite the twisted path the three Migos’ careers have followed, it would be easy to draw a connection between the two songs: When Offset raps “smoking on cookie in the…” and “cookin’ up dope in the…” on “Bad and Boujee,” he uses that same flow, the one which made the “Versace” chorus such a sensation. Then again, it’s also the pattern that grounds something like 90% of Migos songs. It’s fair to wonder what, exactly, “Bad and Boujee” has that “Pipe it Up” or “Handsome and Wealthy”—or even lesser-known tracks like “Pronto” and “Cocoon”—didn’t. Is the key to the song’s success really in the music, or is it thanks to the ravenous meme opportunists that pinpointed the natural comic timing in its first two lines, and ran with it from there?
Read Winston Cook-Wilson’s full review here.
32. Spoon, Hot Thoughts32. Spoon, Hot Thoughts
32. Spoon, Hot Thoughts
“Coconut milk, coconut water, you still like to tell me they’re the same–who am I to say?” Britt Daniel sings over disco-punk drums and a moiré pattern of overlapping studio effects on “First Caress,” the fourth song on Spoon’s kaleidoscopic ninth studio album Hot Thoughts. Delivered with the rakish assurance that Daniel brings to all of his material and punctuated with a couple of Elvis Presley uh-huhs for good measure, the line almost sounds like a taunt to the listener. Can you believe we’re getting away with this, it asks, singing about coconuts and still making it sound like rock’n’roll?
It’s the most memorable lyric on Hot Thoughts, if only by dint of its silliness. And according to Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, it almost didn’t make the record at all. “Jim at one point was just like, ‘Do not take that line out. You’re not gonna take that line out, right?’” Daniel explained in a delightful interview at Stereogum. “Because sometimes I hear a new demo,” Eno elaborated, “And a line’s different. So sometimes when I’m listening to a song I’ll be like, ‘Hey man, leave it. I love this line… DON’T change it.’”
Read Andy Cush’s full review here.
31. Real Estate, In Mind31. Real Estate, In Mind
31. Real Estate, In Mind
For nearly a decade, Real Estate have made music as blissful and unhurried as a cat lolling about in a sunbeam. Their endless reserves of tranquility have led to being labeled as a “chill” band, a disservice to the power of a calm state and the humbling moments where one takes a deep breath instead of capitulating to anxiety. Such a wandering, euphoric heart might bring be perceived as a lack of inspiration, but nevertheless they’ve stood their ground: “Our careless lifestyle / It was not so unwise.”
Their new record, In Mind, is their longest yet, and their first without founding guitarist Matt Mondanile, who left the band amongst mysterious circumstances. Mondanile was the group’s flashiest musician, as we learned with each Ducktails release; the division of labor within a band can always be picked apart, but he seemed at least largely responsible for their roaming, rheumy guitar lines and jingle-jangle melodies. Within circles overly attuned to the shifts in indie rock personnel, the loss of all this might’ve been as devastating as, say, the absence of Amber Coffman’s voice in Dirty Projectors.
That makes it a little surprising how much the band managed to stay the course, both in sound and temperament. Those indelible guitar lines are still front and center, ably replicated by Martin Courtney and new guitarist Julian Lynch, with the remaining members—now a five-piece featuring contributing keyboardist Matt Kallman as a full-timer—making only the subtlest adjustment to their steadfast mission statement. These are songs about passing the days in satiated comfort, appreciating the surrounding nature, waiting for inspiration to reveal itself amidst a pattern of monotony, the idle pleasures of daydreaming.
Read Jeremy Gordon’s full review here.
30. Jacques Greene, Feel Infinite30. Jacques Greene, Feel Infinite
30. Jacques Greene, Feel Infinite
The word “producer,” in the context of dance music in 2017, usually brings to mind a solitary man or woman, cranking out tracks with a MIDI controller and a laptop full of softsynths. The Canadian musician Jacques Greene, who releases his excellent debut full-length Feel Infinite today after a string of EPs and singles, is a producer according to that definition, but also in a more old-fashioned sense of the term. Greene’s music, which draws from the pulse and enveloping warmth of house and the twitchy rhythms and infrared timbres of the UK hardcore continuum, is immaculately arranged: low-pass filters slowly open and close, arpeggios twirl into the forefront of the mix and then retreat, a scorched-sounding square wave disintegrates just as a snatch of sampled vocals emerges to take its place. Each element takes up just enough space to distinguish itself without muddling the others.
The music on Feel Infinite is the most stylish and best-sounding I’ve heard so far this year, with textures so rich you sometimes forget they’re composed entirely of synths and samples. Listening to it, you get the sense that if Greene were born a few decades earlier, he’d be a louche studio wizard, conducting a grand disco orchestra like Cerrone or Quincy Jones, rather than taking furtive stabs at electronic music with the rudimentary hardware available at the time. Beneath his meticulous productions, there’s a yearning for sweaty transcendence that will appeal to fans of Jamie xx, an artist with which Greene has more in common than an affinity for sunny percussive sounds. But while the In Colour producer often seeks to capture huge collective euphoria–“All Under One Roof Raving“–Greene’s music is more interested in the heat between two bodies, whether they’re circling each other on the dancefloor or groping in the back seat of an Uber on the way home.
Read Andy Cush’s feature on Jacques Greene here.
29. Sorority Noise, You're Not As ___ As You Think29. Sorority Noise, You’re Not As ___ As You Think
29. Sorority Noise, You're Not As ___ As You Think
Coming from a genre notorious for glorifying teenage angst and spite-ridden suicide, Sorority Noise really only found themselves when they stopped wishing they were dead. In 2015, the band evolved past whiny pop-punk provocation on Joy, Departed, where they added heavier chords, heart-wrenching lyrics, and just enough strings. But maturity comes with setbacks, and for frontman Cameron Boucher, the recent deaths of two friends—one to suicide, one to a heroin overdose—sent him spiraling into anxiety and depression. “It’s hard to tell someone how much you love them when they’re not around anymore,” he told the Fader. “These songs made it permanent for me.”
On new album You’re Not As _____ As You Think, the band behind the tortured, wry “Art School Wannabe” now meditates on that permanence, dramatizing the slow process of recovery. The album starts with Boucher spending sleepless nights struggling with the same “plaguing” issues that drove one friend to suicide. Too grief-stricken to attend the funeral, Boucher instead stays quiet, looking back at the homes of the departed to reflect on his own selfishness. “And I swore I saw you in there / I was looking at myself” he shouts, struggling to detach his own agonizing perspective from a narrative that isn’t really his.
Read Rob Arcand’s full review here.
28. Sampha, Process28. Sampha, Process
28. Sampha, Process
In prior interviews, Sampha Sisay made it clear that he was content with being a supporting player, a lane in which he proved himself reliable. Guest spots on songs like Drake’s “Too Much” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” were accentuated by the sanguine humanity in his British, lilting singing voice that hovers above silent prayer. His finite range managed to locate the endpoint of a boyish naivete, the moment where happiness is no longer a neutral state but a respite to be fought for.
Despite this naturally reserved quality, his debut album, Process, proves that a tempered wistfulness is ripe for lead material. Though the album title can be taken as a nod to the artistic process, the project concerns itself with the immeasurable distance between pain and acceptance of an end goal foisted upon you by the universe. Sampha’s mother, Binty Sisay, passed away from cancer in 2015, and his father was taken by the same cruelty in 1998. He’s also been dealing with a mysterious lump in his throat that’s remained undiagnosed by doctors (“Every time I swallow, I feel it,” he told Nylon).
Read Brian Josephs’s full review here.
27. Julia Holter, In the Same Room27. Julia Holter, In the Same Room
27. Julia Holter, In the Same Room
If you think about the lengthy tour cycles independent artists embark on these days–for either the love of doing so, or at least the love of breaking even–it’s hard to not imagine even the most diligent, happily nomadic acts becoming bored with some of the material they run through every night. However, it’s undoubtedly a puzzle to figure out ways to revise and revamp old songs without subverting the original spark that gave them power. For many artists, finding an inspired way to treat their compositions as fluid templates while still rendering a convincing version of The Song becomes a frequent creative exercise.
To pay tribute to artists attempting this exercise, Domino Records has launched Documents, a series of live-in-studio performances with little to no touch-ups, aiming at encapsulating the sound of a live band at a particular, slightly unstable point in time. Los Angeles singer-songwriter Julia Holter and her band were the first to formally accept the label’s challenge, and luckily, In The Same Room, her new Documents full-length, finds her quartet of choice at the peak of their working relationship. Their relationship toward the material seems both effortless and appealingly restless, as the band’s arrangements push and pull between fairly faithful, if slightly more agitated, renditions and radical reinterpretations of songs from three of her studio albums: Loud City Song, Tragedy, and Have You in My Wilderness. (Sorry, Ekstasis fans.) But what they all do, without fail, is to invest much of this material with a provocative energy that is discrete from Holter’s studio recordings. Ultimately, this energy results in In the Same Room being as crucial an entry into Holter’s still-unblemished catalogue as any of her proper LPs.
Read Winston Cook Wilson’s full review here.
26. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy26. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
26. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty, is something of a rarity—a bona fide indie rock star in an era where the relevance of what we call “indie rock” has largely diminished, whose mouthy interviews and louche affectations have won him as much attention as his actual music. Contemporary culture has produced no shortage of successful musicians, but not a lot of interesting ones, and Tillman has hipped himself to a game that rewards artists who seemingly go out of their way to not be boring.
Emerging from the agrarian dreamscape of Fleet Foxes, where he played drums, Tillman rocketed to notoriety following a majestic late show performance of “Bored in the USA.” Finally more than “the guy from Fleet Foxes with a solo record,” Tillman presented as an immediately charismatic hirsute lounge lizard, drolly pacing the stage like a Great Man with a lot on his mind. His breakthrough album, I Love You, Honeybear, paired lovey-dovey flutterings over his wife with cynical appraisals of human nature and homey, flowering instrumentation, as if Gram Parsons was conducting an orchestra. His lyrics could be a little abrasive, but the music was unavoidably seductive, and darker thoughts usually gave way toward optimistic views of how love could be enough to overcome the bullshit of modern life.
Read Jeremy Gordon’s full review here.
25. Actress, AZD25. Actress, AZD
25. Actress, AZD
AZD, Darren Jordan Cunningham’s fifth album of experimental club music under the Actress moniker, waits for about four minutes before introducing its first beat. That might not sound like a very long time, but it’s immensely satisfying when the hissing techno drums finally kick in halfway through second track “Untitled 7,” the album equivalent of a floor-filling transition in a DJ set. Rather than let the rolling rhythm carry him and his listeners toward oblivion for a while, Cunningham cuts the drums after just one minute, reducing “Untitled 7” back to the bouncy unaccompanied bassline that comprises its entire first half. After another minute, the throbbing kick drum returns to the mix, but just as it makes its re-entry, the song fades out and draws to a close.
Actress has built an entire career on beguiling and occasionally frustrating his listeners in this way. His first records arrived about a decade ago, just as the dubstep phenomenon was exploding into the global underground, and were lumped in with the genre mostly by virtue of timing, location (Cunningham is based in London and hails originally from Wolverhampton), and a shared nocturnal atmosphere. And while it’s true that Actress sometimes draws from the same murky Jamaican bass and 2-step twitch that animated dubstep, he’s just as likely to channel the rhythmic rigor of techno, the swing of Chicago house, the loping swagger of classic East Coast hip-hop, or the washy embrace of ambient music. Ultimately, Actress isn’t defined by allegiance to a particular genre, but Cunningham’s singular evocation of contemporary urban life: sometimes oppressive, others meditative, situated somewhere between the Hazyville of his debut and the Ghettoville of his moribund fourth album, filled with the churn of heavy machinery and thick clouds that look like natural fog one day and automobile exhaust the next.
Read Andy Cush’s full review here.