The 50 Best Albums of 2017 So Far
12. Phoenix, Ti Amo12. Phoenix, Ti Amo
12. Phoenix, Ti Amo
The summer is never as good as it should be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Enter Phoenix, whose new album Ti Amo is a breezy ode to the season best spent chasing something, whether it’s a late night or a love life. Recorded during a period of turmoil in their native France, Phoenix found a way to stay lively and starry-eyed when the world is closing in; the romantic, inclusive vibe of songs like “J-Boy” and “Fior di Latte” counteract the received wisdom that we have to get grimmer in grim times. A beautiful album like this might not turn back the tide on its own, but it’ll remind you of how the world should be. – Jeremy Gordon
(Phoenix’s ‘Ti Amo’ is out June 9, and we assure you it’s good. Read our June cover story on the band while you wait.)
11. Drake, More Life11. Drake, More Life
11. Drake, More Life
Pop music, at least its apex, is the province of the audacious, from Elvis twisting his hips, to Prince, Madonna, and Janet Jackson rearranging sexual norms, to Missy Elliott writing hooks consisting of gibberish and backwards vocals. The best pop stars do things we don’t expect because they are also things we can’t conceive. In this grand lineage, I submit a Drake album featuring a song titled “Madiba Riddim.”
I’m kind of kidding, but as Drake continues to cement himself as a generational star, it’s worth taking stock of the exact nature of his audacity as a pop musician, the divisiveness of which seems to track exponentially alongside his commercial success. That audacity, of course, is his abandonment of the American rap/R&B binary and embrace of the pan-global sounds of the black diaspora: grime, afrobeats, dancehall, and house music, at least so far. This voyage was charted in earnest on last year’s Views, which sported only three hits—“One Dance,” “Controlla,” and “Too Good”—that were each tethered to dancehall. In the case of “One Dance,” it was mostly a spiritual connection, but it was more direct with the other two, which respectively sported snippets of vocals from Beenie Man and Popcaan to go along with obvious aesthetic inspirations. On More Life, his new 22-track… whatever, Drake uses those three records as a launching point for a far superior follow-up that stands as the opus of the second phase of his career.
The divisiveness of Drake’s evolving discography stems from a question that may provide enough debate fodder for decades to come: Is he more omnivore or carnivore? Is he sampling the sounds of the world and returning to those that he likes best, or is he hunting prey and picking their bones clean? This question is complicated and speaks deeply to our times, hitting themes of appropriation, gentrification, and identity. It’s also a specific moral question within the strict context of the music industry, one which is impossible for outsiders to answer, though Drake has not yet been accused of pillaging by his collaborators or sample sources. Instead, the argument against Drake is the opposite—that he’s too close to the cultures that inspire him, a smothering and clownish presence who is less his own man and more of an actor playing dress-up with slang.
If all of that can be put aside, the question is also an artistic one. Is Drake good at it? Does his tourism actually result in music you want to listen to? This question is as divisive if not more than the other one, but More Life makes a strong argument for Drake being the best sort of pop star, one who uses his power as an incredibly famous musician to synthesize and codify the vast world around him into a consumable and replayable product that brings people together and pushes them apart in equal measures.
Read Jordan Sargent’s full review of ‘More Life’ here.
10. Mac DeMarco, This Old Dog10. Mac DeMarco, This Old Dog
10. Mac DeMarco, This Old Dog
By this time next month, one thousand publications will have run one thousand more articles reiterating what a chill, happy, generally gnarly dude Mac DeMarco is. Over the last few years, DeMarco’s success has been abetted by his loosey-goosey character and appetite for activity, strengths in an era where artists show less personality than ever, and where websites are always in need of material to fuel traffic. So Mac will cover Limp Bizkit in concert, eat hot wings on camera, get interviewed by his mom, troll his bandmates with a billboard–all of these experiences fun, engaging, and above all, consumable.
Perhaps this omnipresence seems excessive. But the irony of this innately viral persona is the innately thoughtful quality of his music, which largely rejects the infuriating cliche of a happy, chill (and white, and straight) guy just having a good time without you being a bummer about it. DeMarco is not Magic!, insisting on a path of least resistance—along with your unquestioning consumption of the music, of course—in a complicated world. This Old Dog, his latest, is primarily concerned with aging and real-deal maturity, not necessarily the expected subject material from a man once filmed putting a drumstick up his asshole. But it’s always been that way: A song like “Rock and Roll Night Club” was a nice gag, but his calling cards were heart-on-sleeve, starry night ballads like “Ode to Viceroy” and “Still Together.”
The content comes with a slight change in sound: Gone is the rinky-dink, pealing electric guitar tone that colored his early records, replaced with an acoustic instrument, recorded as if he’s in the room with you. There’s also prolific use of a CR-78 drum machine set to cruise, the steady motorik rhythms pushing him toward a more reflective space. He sounds comfortable, lived-in. The turned-down mood is a natural extension of his theoretically “chill” ethos; if those earlier records were music for summer barbecues, this one is for the post-sunset denouement, when the party has withered away to the last few people, content to sit around the dying fire and talk about the serious things, probably while very drunk.
You get a feel for this vibe at the start of “This Old Dog,” which begins at an already languid tempo before immediately slowing down, his voice going resin-thick as he sings about appreciating the life he’s lived. If a 26-year-old referring to himself as an “old dog” seems precious, remember Neil Young was just 24—and so much more—when he dropped the heartbreaking “Old Man,” a song about imagining your whole life going by while feeling unsatisfied, a mood Mac is eager to avoid. He’s playing more with synthesizers, too, and dusky textures fog up songs like “On the Level” and the heartsick “For the First Time.” On the latter, he sings about reuniting with his girlfriend after a long absence, an optimistic flutter in his voice: “I’m not trying to forget her / Just understand how I’ll be feeling / On that day / It’s just like seeing her for the first time again.”
Read Jeremy Gordon’s full review here.
9. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator9. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
9. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator
Alynda Segarra’s beginnings—as a transient singer-songwriter hopping freight trains to New Orleans—feel like a scene from an America that hardly exists anymore. On The Navigator, the Hurray for the Riff Raff bandleader blends her vintage sensibility with a story both timeless and politically current: the loose, quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age of a Puerto Rican-American girl called Navi. Her smoky voice and exacting lyricism shine on the bittersweet “Hungry Ghost” and the haunted, bluesy protest song “Rican Beach”: “First they stole our language / Then they stole our names / Then they stole the things that brought us fame.” The Navigator wraps on “Pa’lante,” a three-part ballad of immigrant sorrow and pride that samples the Puerto Rican-born poet and activist Pedro Pietri. Segarra’s work has never dug deeper or come through with more conviction—and when she does fall back on familiar folk roots, her vulnerability only makes resilience more plain to see. –Anna Gaca
Read our as-told-to essay on music activism from Alynda Segarra here.
8. Kehlani, SweetSexySavage8. Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
8. Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
Kehlani Parrish is a 21-year-old singer from Oakland, though she is no stranger to the mechanics of the industry. She was courted by major labels, and recorded on one’s dime, before most fans knew who she was. She signed a deal prior to the spring 2015 release of her breakthrough mixtape, You Should Be Here, and long before it was nominated for a Grammy. (Streaming services don’t belie this narrative, advertising the record as self-released.) Last year, she collaborated with golden boys like Zayn and Charlie Puth, and was given a slot on the Suicide Squadsoundtrack, which immediately birthed “Gangsta,” her first charting hit, if an unrepresentative one.
This is a more old school form of artist development, and Kehlani’s new album SweetSexySavage (released last Friday), is indeed a blow for a different kind of time-honored sort of ethos, one where songs that feel animated by a voracious musicality lunge at you aggressively with hooks. This can be seen most readily in a few of the album’s pre-release singles, “Distraction” and “Undercover,” which move diligently from smooth verses to tension-building pre-choruses, to big, blooming hooks. The album’s stunner, “Piece of Mind,” features a chorus so immediately engaging that the song instantly feels like a standard.
Still, though her songwriting is out of step with many of her peers, SweetSexySavage, which was written and produced largely with industry veterans Pop & Oak, is a distinctly contemporary album that is in conversation with trendy, critically acclaimed R&B. “Keep On” has the liquid groove of a Kaytranada record, but with audibly played bass (you can distinctly hear the strings squeaking) that gives it a meaty bottom end. “Everything is Yours” is a gaping, rattling FKA Twigs-esque composition that briefly disguises itself as a sugary song in the vein of The-Dream, while “Too Much” schools a legion of Aaliyah imitators by writing a skilled homage to one of her pop smashes (“More Than a Woman”) instead of simply fetishizing her discography’s mind-bending minimalism.
Read Jordan Sargent’s full review here.
7. Jlin, Black Origami7. Jlin, Black Origami
7. Jlin, Black Origami
Jlin is more than footwork. During a recent set last week at Chicago’s Smart Bar, the Gary, Indiana-based producer drew a crowd from disparate music scenes in the city; local progressive club kids were joined by older house heads and techno DJs. It’s rare to find a musician whose work can connect with such a broad array of listeners, but the producer (born Jerrilyn Patton) has quietly gained an international following by defying the sometimes rigid expectations and parameters of the footwork genre in which she’s most often associated. Her music is weird and oftentimes uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s not even danceable, which works in contrast to footwork, a genre tied as much to a unique style of dance as it is to a particular sound. Patton is not creating for dance floors so much as she is for herself, and this creative drive comes across in her records and EPs that should appeal to listeners hungry for an experimentalist’s mind.
If earlier releases Dark Energy and Free Fall showcased a producer wrestling with overflowing ideas, Black Origami, Patton’s latest album, is a clear and refined next step. Patton intersperses pieces of other genres, including industrial, New Age, and world music, in her new collection of songs. She has also smoothed out the abrasive edges that overwhelmed her earlier releases, while allowing her aesthetic signatures—from glitchy vocal samples to unusual time signatures and rapid percussive syncopation—to coalesce into a singular voice. In Black Origami, one hears the future of progressive club music. It is bold, precise, cross-cultural and far more intelligent than waning genres both outside (like rock) and inside (think tech house or even traditional footwork) the dance music world.
6. Paramore, After Laughter6. Paramore, After Laughter
6. Paramore, After Laughter
Paramore are a new band—again. With their fifth line-up change in as many albums, they have lost bassist Jeremy Davis and restored founding drummer Zac Farro to their internal dynamic. The successive shift in sound is, fittingly, a rhythmic one. Guitars, synths, and drums all share the traits of percussion; together they feel like a series of incredulous blinks fluttering across the songs on After Laughter, their first record in four years. The steel drums that introduce the opening track and lead single “Hard Times” merge with an identical guitar line to form a pattern of pulsing, primary colors. It’s the band’s brightest, most animated album. The sound is crisp, every layer discernible, lacking the blurs and reverberations that constitute traditional rock production and instead drawing from the rhythmic separations that characterize ‘80s pop and freestyle.
As much as this approach could be credited to Farro, whose drums alternately prop the songs up at acute angles or melt into dense fills, much of the initial groundwork was laid by guitarist Taylor York on their previous, self-titled 2013 album, where he became one of the band’s primary songwriters. After founding guitarist Josh Farro departed in 2009, York’s songwriting revised Paramore as a pop-rock band more about texture than riffage. His guitar parts feel like fractions drawn from broader rock compositions, loose pieces for which there is no original puzzle. Consider the guitar line from that self-titled album’s hit single “Still Into You,” which climbs in perpendicular fits throughout the song. Its qualities are both percussive and vocal, so that singer Hayley Williams, instead of shouting over a flood of guitars, is responding to and weaving her way around the overlapping rhythms. What other bands would consider peripheral details and embellishments are central to York’s compositions.
On After Laughter, York’s guitar work seems newly descended from Lindsey Buckingham, another guitarist who builds entire songs out of flourishes. He etches precise arabesques all over “Told You So” and “Forgiveness,” giving the songs an elusive, mercurial shape reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night. “Forgiveness” in particular is one of the band’s best songs, their gentlest and most buoyant kiss-off, floating somewhere above the resentment and sadness it conveys. “You want forgiveness,” Williams sings, York’s guitars encasing her voice in a kind of cosmic shimmer, “but I just can’t do it.” “Musically that’s the world I envision myself living in as a person,” Williams told Zane Lowe last month, describing After Laughter’s vivid soundworld. “It’s a fun one…and I feel like a lot of people want to feel like that.”
Read Jordan Sargent’s full review here.
5. Future, HNDRXX5. Future, HNDRXX
5. Future, HNDRXX
“Mask Off” is a bit of an unfortunate success. A cut off Future’s rustic self-titled album, the meme-inspiring anthem overshadowed HNDRXX—Future’s finest album. Arriving a week after his self-titled effort, HNDRXX is the most potent sampling of Future’s multifariousness. This thing sounds like the classic JoDeCi forgot to make, with Future the wounded Lothario (“My Collection”) and Future the haunted soul (the 7-minute album closer “Sorry”) dilating themselves with the coolness of melting ice. “Fresh Air,” the best song of the album, boasts a hook that exhales like a lavender-scented wind tunnel—it didn’t chart, but serves as a creative masterpiece nonetheless. –Brian Josephs
4. Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness4. Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness
4. Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness
Sometimes, simply pairing the right voice with the right reverb can create a song’s power. There have been endless notable examples since the effect came to prominence in 1950s pop music—at first, there were the evocative echo chambers of Johnnie Ray’s “Cry,” Elvis’ “That’s Alright (Mama),” and Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Over half-a-century later, indie-pop fans got the dreamy discographies of Beach House and Lana del Rey—and now, they have every song on NYC-dwelling singer/songwriter Julie Byrne’s plaintive sophomore album Not Even Happiness.
A frequent misconception is that any music that courts a “folk”-related designation is, by default, unadorned: a document of raw performance. In the indie-rock-adjacent world of “folk,” at least, that’s often a lie: The intimate quality of the recording is an aural illusion carefully created through ProTools treatment. Not Even Happiness is primarily a duet between solo voice and acoustic guitar, but it takes place beneath a canopy of mountainous, lovingly-shaped reverb. The effect blurs the sharper edges of the strings, winds, and synth blots that lurk low in the mix to build tension in Byrne’s couple-chord songs; it sometimes renders her lyrics, which read like fragments from journal entries pieced together at random, unintelligible.
But swept up by this sheen, Byrne’s voice–at turns as husky as Victoria LeGrand’s, as agile and lilting as Julia Holter’s–has a corporeally pleasing effect. (Listen on good headphones, and you may feel a warm, ASMR-like sensation creep across your scalp.) The beauty of the vocal texture often supersedes Byrne’s meditations on relationships just beginning or gently unraveling, and how alternately frustrating and invigorating any private search for cosmic meaning can be. At the cathartic moments when her lyrics do drift to the forefront, Byrne often descends to booming low notes, conjuring Leonard Cohen’s phrasing in both word and melody ”I traveled the country and I carried no key,” she solemnly declaims in the middle of “Sleepwalker,” the album’s highlight; later, on “All the Land Glimmered,” she dwells in her rich contralto range for most of the song, while discussing a search for the divine: “I was in my heart and I answered me.”
Read Winston Cook-Wilson’s full review of ‘Not Even Happiness’ here.
3. Thundercat, Drunk3. Thundercat, Drunk
3. Thundercat, Drunk
While his virtuoso bass work appears more subdued, Drunk stands as Thundercat’s first great solo album because of how he confidently places his perspective front and center. It helps that it’s actually compelling, too: A cat-owning nerd mining from deep sadness, Thundercat manages to express psychedelic ecstasy (“Let Me Show You” with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins), quotidian pleasures (“Beat your meat, go to sleep” are some of the album’s first lyrics), and grief catharsis (the soaring “Jethro”) with equal high fidelity. He’s not as much of an overwhelming personality as he is a distant cousin inviting you to this shamanic space. In Drunk, a work of hard-fought joy, this focuses proves to be refreshing, a reprieve from the world that rests outside of its 51-minute runtime. — Brian Josephs
Read our interview with Thundercat about ‘Drunk’ here.
2. Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda2. Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda
2. Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda
Listening to the music as an outsider to that community, you sometimes feel you’ve wandered into the ashram unbidden, a situation that might be discomfiting if it weren’t for the nearly overwhelming warmth and joy with which the performers perform their material. Luaka Bop clearly approached the question of releasing the compilation to an audience so divorced from its original context with careful consideration: The label worked with Coltrane’s children Ravi and Michelle and her longtime engineer Baker Bigsby to secure and remaster the original tapes, and the compilation’s liner notes include a lengthy interview with a musician and ashram resident alongside more purely musicological writing.
And frankly, the music inside World Spirituality Classics 1 deserves to be heard. The ashram tapes are the only known recordings on which Alice Coltrane used her singing voice, an instrument as restrained and plaintive as her harp and piano are wild and expressive. “Om Shanti,” the second track and the first to feature Coltrane the singer, is transfixing. Accompanied at first only by stand-up bass and her own organ, she sings a lilting bluesy tune, sounding almost amused at the beatific atmosphere she’s managed to conjure with just a few simple elements. Halfway through, the ashram singers join in wailing call-and-response, sounding like spirits beckoning Coltrane to join them in some nether realm. But the singer’s unflappable calm prevails: as the music around her becomes haunting and cavernous, her voice never rises above a conversational patter.
The compilation’s eight tracks run from between four and a half and eleven minutes in length, tending toward the longer end of that spectrum. Many of them are bifurcated in a manner similar to “Om Shanti.” One half might feature a vocal solo from Coltrane or another singer, the other hypnotically repetitious Vedic or gospel chanting. These chanting sections will be familiar to listeners ofRada-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, Coltrane’s 1975 album of devotional songs, but the addition of the compilation’s other most distinctive instrument gives them a new otherworldly glow. Coltrane frequently plays an Oberheim OB-8 synthesizer, a hefty piece of analog equipment that was state-of-the-art at the time. Her favorite mode of expression on the OB-8 is a huge, arcing glissando, sliding continuously from somewhere near the bottom of the keyboard’s range to somewhere near the top. These figures often loom behind the proceedings like futuristic monoliths. They recall Coltrane’s ability on the harp, like her husband’s on the soprano sax, to play shimmering arpeggiated lines so smoothly that the distinctions between pitches seem to break down entirely. Thanks to the electronic capabilities of the OB-8, they actually do.
Read Andy Cush’s full review here.
1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
1. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
The salvation of the New Testament is preceded by the judicious wrath of the Old—the stories of genocidal floods, generational curses, violent plagues, and God’s righteous judgment. Kendrick Lamar has never shied away from fire and brimstone, but he’s now particularly fixated. On his new album DAMN., he agonizes over losing his fortunes like a modern-day Job, and declares himself an Israelite, doomed to wander the earth. “We are a cursed people,” his cousin, Carl, intones before the album’s centerpiece “FEAR.,” citing the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy. It’s a foreboding subtext, but the pieces have fallen together. When Kendrick proclaimed on “The Heart Part 4” that something was coming on April 7, many expected a new album. Shortly before midnight, the country found out Donald Trump had ordered an airstrike on Syria, tempting a world war.
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick’s prior opus, was praised as The Album We Needed after visual evidence of anti-black violence became ubiquitous on our televisions and Twitter feeds. But Kendrick’s body and blood were washcloths to absolve too many listeners of American sin, regardless of how many admitted it. Two years later, his altruism and dedication to blindfolded communal uplift have thinned. “I tried to lift the black artists,” he raps on “ELEMENT.,” “but it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists.” Later on “XXX.,” a father of a recently slain son asks Kendrick for spiritual guidance only to hear him rebuke Christianity for violence: “Ain’t no Black power when your baby killed by a coward.” Even Bono appears on the hook as a tortured apparition—his yuppie humanitarianism has no place here.
Read Brian Josephs’ full review of ‘DAMN.’ here.