The Top 100 Albums of 2017
Here are the top 50-1 LPs of 2017, according to Crack Magazine.
Visit 2017.crackmagazine.net for more end of year coverage over the coming weeks.
After pretty much disappearing from the public eye, cult synth-pop hero John Maus returned after six years with a score of the sullen and the sublime. In Screen Memories, Maus toyed with ideas of his own mortality in the shadow of doomsday, his deadpan delivery and often inane lyrics on mundanity, political mockery and unrequited love laced with a dark humour. While it’s obvious there are themes of the world’s end threaded through the record, this darkness is greatly outweighed by striking moments of ethereal bliss along with the profound reflections of an isolated intellect. As the beloved John Maus stared down the eyes of society’s inevitable demise, or indeed his own emotional awakening, his music was more tragically captivating than ever before.
Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
Feed the Rats
It’s rare to digest music as bombastic as the turgid, irrational unsound of Newcastle five-piece Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. Feed The Rats is a maniacal babel of soul-sundering screams and tubular guitar fuzz. A total blunderbuss of cortex-toughening drone and Sabbathian psych. Thirty-five minutes of infernally boisterous avant-noise and brutal musicianship. Lead singer Matthew Baty’s exceptionally acrid roars on 15-minute opener Psychopomp is enough to shatter kneecaps as the group’s rhythm section spore out like a black infectious mould. A bone-breaking record.
Blackest Ever Black
In the murky gutter Blackest Ever Black inhabits there’s space for all kinds of frostbitten sounds, but no other artist this year has sounded quite like Pessimist. The Bristol-based producer has been orbiting the field of drum ’n’ bass since 2010, but as he’s developed as a producer, his style has broadened to encompass many different reference points. On this masterful debut album live drums collide with dread-filled reverb decays and half-step beats get reduced down to a deathly kick march. It’s a chilling listen in the finest tradition of gloomy British soundsystem music, and a potent demonstration of what can be done with the traditional structures of DnB.
Jana Rush is by no means a newcomer to the Chicago scene. In 1996 she had a release at the age of 15 via Dance Mania – the imprint that laid the foundations for ghetto house to later mutate into footwork – and cut her teeth alongside originators such as DJ Rashad, DJ Deeon and Gant Man before choosing a non-musical career. Having returned with 2016’s MPC 7635 EP under the pseudonym JA Ru, this year Jana Rush finally delivered her debut LP. With an emphasis on break-beat, cluttering polyrhythms with acute sampling techniques, Pariah encapsulates a refined-yet-complex formula that takes exhilarating rhythmic journeys. An outstanding contribution to another exciting year for footwork.
Over the years, Mike Cooper’s sound has evolved from British blues and folk to something suitably freer. Converging atonal improvisation with high-frequency radio transmissions, traditional gamelan and Hawaiian slack-key guitar, the 74-year-old’s 2017 album Raft is an exercise in total creative abandon. Its title connoted an artist knowingly lost at sea; loosely drifting from one conscious idea to the next. Sometimes jarringly off-kilter, Cooper’s woozy guitar inflections are matched by John Cage-esque clangs, abstract glitches and tropical birdsong. Yet this experimentation is nuzzled between moments of absolute ambience. The resplendently wayward Raft 37 – Las Balsas sweeps between exotic guitar twangs like a softly gushing undercurrent that drags you further towards sun-sunken vistas. While Raft may not be Mike Cooper’s most accessible work, it’s among his most colourful.
Question Everything, Inc. / Empire
Brockhampton broke through in 2017, and it seemed to be a timely amplification of refreshing voices in rap, with the unseasonably large Texas-formed, LA-based collective churning out anthemic tunes to capture the energy of youth. To be frank (and pardoning the pun), the comparisons to be drawn with Odd Future end at the configuration of the two groups. On Saturation II – which dropped within three months of its predecessor – the self-proclaimed boy band further carved themselves a unique corner of hip-hop, filled with vibrancy and melody while juggling powerful messages and tongue-in-cheek rap bravado. More playful than subversive on songs like GUMMY and SWEET, Brockhampton are sonically reminiscent of classic hip-hop in the veins of Timbaland and Missy’s absurdist era, merged with deeply purposeful rhetoric on occasion.
Existing in the spaces where the East meets West, Visible Cloaks’ second album Reassemblage expounded a utopic vision of the world. The Portland duo’s second album takes its inspiration from the futuristic sounds of Japanese artists like Haruomi Hosono and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto as well as the virtual soundscapes of American experimentalist Oneohtrix Point Never. Similar to early digital music and the 80s Japanese pop culture surrounding it, Visible Cloaks’ clean sounding noise could be likened to vaporwave. But, unlike that trend, which came to prominence through its surface-level parody of pop culture, Reassemblage merges synthetic tones with organic noises – strings and woodwind – to create a wholly timeless sound.
In interviews, New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding described feeling an odd confidence while recording Party, and the album’s stripped-back and jarring presentation certainly demonstrated a newfound swagger. Party contains some the most disarming vocal performances of the year, with Harding’s voice sometimes trembling through her teeth, sometimes becoming a harsh bark, but mostly holding a sweet, strong delivery for heartfelt mantras that cut vicious shapes. While Harding’s voice is so beautiful, so spectral, that it could belong to an otherworldly being, her lyrics always anchor to her flesh and blood self. An album of vocal mastery paired with songwriting magic.
2017 saw a number of Hype Williams records emerge, but a press release for August’s Rainbow Edition LP claimed that Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt had left the project years ago, and that all Hype Williams releases following 2011’s One Nation were in fact fake, the work of “Bare Paigons”. Whether involved with Hype Williams or not, 2017 was a prolific year for Blunt. Via YouTube and MediaFire uploads, within a few weeks Blunt shared Babyfather’s Cypher mixtape, the debut release from his band Blue Iverson and Wahalla – an excellent collection of songs recorded with Joanne Robertson in 2014. Blue Iverson’s Hotep is a laid-back excursion into neo-soul that’s led by silky guitar licks, delicate Rhodes keys, synthesised (or sampled?) strings that bring to mind Blunt’s 2013 album The Redeemer, while the only vocals heard are performed by – if Discogs is correct – Oakland singer-songwriter Jennah Bell. Blunt is the UK’s most unpredictable artist, and due to its conventional warmth, Hotep is arguably his biggest curveball yet.
Sleaford Mods’ ascent to industry darlings was a bit of a worry. Jason Williamson mentioned his concern about struggling to write if success removed him from the agonising lifestyle that has fuelled the Sleaford Mods’ rage. But Williamson has always swiped at wider injustice, and there’s no shortage of modern evils and curiosities to poke and prod. English Tapas is supposedly their Brexit album (“all the oldies vote for death”) but it’s the other topics no-one else touches that really compel: the paranoid booze-cruise of Drayton-Manored, the pitfalls of the rave generation in their late forties on Messy Anywhere. Their sound has moved on too, with melodies and choruses embellishing the viscera, while Andrew Fearn’s typically sparse punk-rap beats allow some space and breath. As always Sleaford Mods present a Britain that you recognise. It’s not glamorous, nor does it necessarily make you feel good. But it’s the truth.
As mocked by Annie Clark herself, during the faux press conference trailing this album, much critical energy has been expended examining where St. Vincent’s manifold personas end and Clark’s begins. Having channelled “Judy Garland on barbiturates” for her 2011 album Strange Mercy, the Texan singer-songwriter seemed poised to play herself on 2014’s self-titled breakthrough, only to rapidly recast herself as “near-future cult leader” and deliver “a party record you could play at a funeral.” This fifth St. Vincent album was billed as Clark’s most transparent to date. It’s certainly her boldest. Accentuated by visual language rooted in leopard print, PVC and hot pink, Masseduction is thrillingly extrovert, and refreshingly brazen in its portrayal of sex and power. But for all its slippery surface bravado, Masseduction also offers a frank exploration of the tension between defiance and vulnerability, hedonism and self-destruction. And really, who cares whether Masseduction represents the “real” Annie Clark or not; it’s definitely her most convincing performance yet.
There’s always been something intangible about Wolfgang Voigt’s output as GAS. His dense productions have this romantic way of ascending, effervescing and then disappearing without any great friction or disturbance. Since the release of his 1995 debut EP under the GAS moniker, Voigt has seldom divorced himself from this marriage of unearthly ambient and techno. Following on from 2000’s Pop (widely regarded as the most accessible GAS record), aesthetically, Narkopop returned to the conceptual visuals of a coloured forestscape – a theme that remains constant throughout the GAS project. However, look closer and you unearth fragments of industrial architecture; suggesting a human or synthetic construction buried deep within Voigt’s woodlands. Whereas Pop was a bright and tranquillising listen that carried much of the producer’s so-called ‘underwater’ qualities, Narkopop returned to the heavier abstractions of Voigt’s early works. A balance between light and dark, melodic and atonal, symphonic and cacophonous, each perfectly aligned.
Shades and Monsters: FDM Classics
The genre FDM (‘flex dance music’) was born in Brooklyn. Paired with high-energy dance battles, the music jumps furiously from one style to another. Rafael Martin, aka Hitmakerchinx, has the right qualifications to pioneer this style – the LA-based producer was a backup dancer on Rihanna’s ANTI world tour, and flexed his muscles on the promo video for Andy Stott’s Butterflies. Shades & Monsters: FDM Classics was a 17 track collection of productions from 2010-17. Samples ranged from pitched-up Desi vocals (Black Dalia) to stadium rock drums (Different) and emo melody lines, all careering at 100 miles per hour. While Shades & Monsters was designed to go in tandem with performance, the record generated adrenaline as a listening experience, also providing tools worth their weight in gold for any discerning hip-hop DJ.
Gang Signs & Prayer
#Merky / Warner / ADA
“Who’s gonna stop me? You, him?” asked Stormzy on Big For Your Boots. The real question is, can anybody? This year Stormzy assumed his position at the top of the grime pyramid as if it was his all along — and his highly-anticipated debut album was the official confirmation of this. GSAP is as aggressive as it is tender; defined as much by its bravado as its personal reflection. Stormzy made no secret of his ambition to be the biggest and best artist in the UK, not just the best grime MC. He used GSAP to take shots at those who still doubt his pedigree in claiming the latter, as well as carefully chosen features and producer credits which struck a balance between underground grit and mainstream gloss — a balance that has eluded so many other grime albums of this ilk. The sound of an artist totally comfortable in his own skin, GSAP was a monumental moment for UK music. Now let’s see where Stormzy, and grime, go from here.
Angel Olsen keeps falling in love with the idea of love, and it’s not working out. Phases was a collection of demos and rarities culled from the past ten years of Olsen’s work. There were stunning moments to be discovered here as Olsen explores some of her favourite themes: loneliness, longing, and hard-earned realisations about love and life. Dripping guitars are overlaid with psychedelic reverb. Olsen’s voice quivers as she trips up and down scales, decrying failed former lovers and testing out new ones, and her front porch ruminations are overwhelmingly touching. Reaching the final song, Endless Road, it becomes clear that after pinning her hopes on one worthless would-be suitor after another, Olsen’s idea of love has been tamped down into a more realistic ambition: love for herself. “Every road will lead me home,” she sings, and by this point, it’s impossible not to follow her.
To Syria, With Love
To Syria, With Love makes a solid case for why Omar Souleyman has staying power. The core of his unique sound remains: a heady blend of frenzied keyboard runs and the Syrian artist’s instantly recognisable caterwauling. There’s two important switch-ups to the formula this time, though: Mad Decent studio money providing additional punch to the canned beats; and Souleyman making direct mention, for the first time, of the decimated homeland he had to flee, and the life he’s left behind. The intensity of his music remains dizzying, but the mood is mournful. The album keeps up a long winning streak as an unlikely dance star, but reveals humanity in a formerly inscrutable icon.
Love What Survives
We had almost lost faith in the Mount Kimbie project. Then they created this startling record. Jumping from dark moods to percussion-driven cheer, Love What Survives slides slyly away from any one genre and rolls out a dazzling host of features: King Krule’s snarled, savage verbosity, Micachu’s show-stealing track with its looping, androgynous plea, James Blake dipping low and soulful. But the real pleasure of the album is what unites it, like a warm thread bringing its disparate parts into a shining whole. The result is a coherent hum of pleasure, where different elements rise and fall from the beautiful gloom.
ISON is that odd thing: a deliberately sparse album which blooms into sounds that fill a room. Iranian Dutch artist Sevdaliza calls up a single note, a synth, a slow beat, one at a time before letting them fade; when she does let songs rise up into more detailed soundscapes, as in Hero’s driving bridge or Do You Feel Real’s dramatic strings, the result is almost overwhelming. The album’s air is one of total restraint, with deeper rhythms moving underneath, and Sevdaliza’s dexterous, masterful voice switching from jazz cadences to RnB heights to choral arpeggios. At times, ISON is an album that seems to hide itself away – but there are moments of shimmering pleasure and real joy to be found if you allow it, like quicksand, to drag you to its depths.
It was reasonable to assume that 2014’s Ghettoville was the last we’d hear from Darren Cunningham, aka Actress. While certainly brilliant, it was a dark, deathly record which moved with all the weight and pace of a funeral march. AZD was therefore a Lazarus moment for the producer’s sound, featuring music that bristled with vitality not found in his back catalogue. Opener NIMBUS bubbles like primordial soup, prior to evolving and taking flight on tracks like X22RME and RUNNER. Some typical Actress elements remained – the crunched up beats, the lo-fi samples – but it was the puzzling synth lines sitting on top of these that lend AZD such a bewitching quality. Speaking to Crack Magazine earlier this year, Cunningham declared the record “a sound vitamin that’s helped to clear my palette of Ghettoville.” If AZD’s the basis of a brand new palette, perhaps we can expect more life-affirming efforts in 2018.
As the former DJ and engineer of Odd Future and co-leader of The Internet, Syd’s debut solo album was always going to attract curiosity. While the media circled around the Odd Future controversy during the first half of the decade, Syd came across as notably laid-back and unconcerned about the limelight. But Fin is a successful presentation of the LA artist in her insecurities, her sexuality and her aspirations, allowing her compelling identity as a solo artist shine. In typically casual fashion, Syd described the project as an ‘in-between thing’. But to ignore the thrilling potential across Fin would have been an error on both her part and ours.
(Sandy) Alex G
It was quietly exciting to discover the music of Alex Giannascoli – now officially known as (Sandy) Alex G – when his breakthrough album DSU was released in 2014. The reference points were generally retro, but Giannascoli had what so many derivative indie acts lack: great songs. DSU was decorated with unpretentious experimental flourishes, but Rocket is by far Giannascoli’s most ambitious record to date. Maybe the 24-year-old had a confidence boost after playing guitar on Frank Ocean’s albums Endless and Blond[e]. Although Giannascoli and Ocean are rooted in disparate genres – indie rock and RnB, respectively – it’s interesting that they now share some common ground. Like Blond[e], Rocket evokes the casual beauty of summer memories, and great melodies emerge from interludes or get lost in the breeze. If DSU was the bedroom classic, then Rocket was where Alex Giannascoli came outside to enjoy his time under the sun.
Number 1 Angel
If the party doesn’t start ’til Ke$ha walks in, no one’s told Charli XCX yet. Not to be deterred by major label politics, the Top 40 daydreamer applied the winged eyeliner and flung out Number 1 Angel – a project featuring ten weekend warrior anthems to soundtrack nights under the glitter ball with a couple of Bacardi Breezers in the cooler. Number 1 Angel was peppered with bombastic PC Music production, framing Charli’s chart-friendly vocals with militant Jock Jam-isms. Elsewhere, a cast of collaborators ranging from rappers CupcakKe to Uffie, to Abra and MØ were welcome party favours, and everyone was invited. A stellar effort from a cherished rebel pop star. Bring on the next album.
Need to Feel your Love
Sheer Mag wasted no time thrusting you into the fast-paced world of Need to Feel Your Love. Protest jam Meet Me in the Street opens with bold confidence, the fist-in-the-air energy of a rock ’n’ roll riff and lyrics inspired by the USA’s post-inauguration chaos, introducing a riotous spirit that permeates the whole album. While the music here is nostalgic, with guitar riffs bringing to mind the jukebox-friendly material of Thin Lizzy and The Clash’s London Calling era, Sheer Mag aren’t impersonating the rock canon. With Tina Halladay’s lyrics often taking centre stage, Sheer Mag have found their own original angle on the genre, creating a record that’s furiously, outwardly political, fuelled by conversations about social change. As a result of this combination, Need to Feel Your Love is an urgent, irresistible ode to the past, the present and – importantly – the future.
Nothing Feels Natural
“You want some new brutalism?” Katie Alice Greer demands on on the first song of Priests’ debut album, Nothing Feels Natural. “…new hope in the great unwashed? I have tasted maggots, I eat bugs!” she teases. This symbolism is typical of the Washington DC band’s delivery of their unique political agenda – on Appropriate they use gross-out tactics to point out the ever-widening wealth gap in the USA while the next song, Jj, pokes fun at scene posers by directing an eyeroll at those who think they’re the shit because they smoke the ‘right’ cigarettes. Whacked-out, danceable rhythms of all stripes feature throughout the record, but the tone of Nothing Feels Natural stayed firmly in fierce punk territory. With spit and sweat, Priests made one of the most exciting and inspiring listens of the year.
Roc Nation / UMG
As Shawn Carter has made clear before, he’s “a business, man”. So it was fitting that the financial relationship between Sprint, Carter and his streaming platform TIDAL birthed the instantaneously platinum 4:44, a million digital copies of which were delivered directly to the people via free download. 4:44 found Carter delivering messages of black empowerment through the lens of commerce, with seminar-quality lessons about credit, spending and generational wealth. At a time when the fate of lyricism appears to rest on the shoulders of middleweights, Carter managed to get a few licks in, landing body blows on both Kanye West and Eric Benet on Kill Jay Z, the first with defensive vigour, the second with self-deprecating simplicity. Indeed, the biggest target here is himself, laid bare on the confessional title track and Smile, where Carter refers to his mother coming out. These moments created emotional connections between artist and listener. And that’s something that sponsorship money can’t buy.
XL / True Panther Sound
When Archy Marshall emerged four years ago with the debut King Krule album 6 Feet Beneath The Moon, it was tempting to focus on Marshall’s age, the worldweary feel of lyrics he’d written aged 14 and younger, the snarling baritone tumbling from his skinny frame. But it was the totality of his world that made him so compelling. The Ooz saw Marshall return to the King Krule project with the esoteric wonder that made him such a singular voice in the first place. We know that Marshall struggled with this record, suffering with writer’s block, depression, insomnia and a lack of clarity about the album’s direction. But there is something captivating about the result. The Ooz is confessional, confrontational, soothing and abrasive; an invitation into the fluid creativity of one of the most compelling songwriters of his generation.
One Little Indian
On her ninth full-length, Björk presented her own vision of Utopia, sounding unlike any that has come before. Following 2015’s Vulnicura, a photorealistic portrait of the wake of heartbreak, Utopia is the dawn after the darkness; a document of existential rediscovery. Field recordings and playful woodwind compositions give the album a celestial lightness. The simplicity of new love at its purest is addressed with childlike wonder; the naivety of succumbing to perfection. And with a running time near 70 minutes and little care given for formalities of structure, this ranks among her most esoteric creations. In essence, though, Utopia is another triumph; lamenting a past self and celebrating the new with a potent message of hope over fear. In an age of pervasive pessimism, Utopia is a punchline.
Tyler, the Creator
“We didn’t get your message, either because you were not speaking or because of a bad connection,” goes the voicemail-style outro to Flower Boy’s penultimate track, Glitter. It’s a line which could sum up the way rapper/producer/entrepreneur Tyler, the Creator’s art has been received over the years. A renowned troll and provocateur with talent behind the controversy, it’s been difficult to know when to take the Ladera Heights skate rat seriously. Like the tangerine orange-splashed cover art, Flower Boy was the brightest Technicolor incarnation of Tyler we’ve ever seen. His production has often had an amateur feel, but this album, with all its noodly jazz piano chords, qualifies as sophisticated neo-soul. Despite what teenage boys might have you believe, Tyler’s appeal has never been in his use of controversy, it’s the multiple layers that keep us guessing, trying to get into his headspace. Flower Boy arrived in the age of wokeness and Tyler swapped antics for introspection, though still with the same button-pushing that hooked a whole generation of kids.
There was a point when IDLES seemed destined to burn out before ever getting a shot in the limelight. Formed around seven years ago, the Bristol punk band secured local notoriety with their intense live performances, but the rest of the world took little notice. Maybe the band lived too many miles away from the slick handshakes that stitch together what’s left of the UK’s London-centric music industry. Perhaps trend aware media publications were reluctant to champion high-octane riffs during what’s possibly been the driest era for guitar-based music in the history of popular culture. But once IDLES ceased to give a shit what anyone else thought about them, something clicked. Shedding a back catalogue in favour of an austere new sound, singer Joe Talbot dived headfirst into these songs – depicting raw grief, disgust and political fury and somehow tumbling out the other side in a state of sobriety and catharsis. It was intense, and it was ugly. But somehow, IDLES felt like the most heartfelt band of 2017. Why? Because Brutalism was a matter of life and death.
Take Me Apart
Halfway through Kelela Mizanekristos’ long-awaited debut album comes the strikingly minimal Better. The track finds the LA-based RnB artist considering a break-up in visceral, simple terms: “Didn’t it make you better? Aren’t we better now?” she sings in that sweet, powerful voice like liquid silk, trying to justify the decision to end the relationship. It’s clear that Kelela knows how to make her vocals resonate with a sound palette which feels uniquely hers. And while there’s nothing as abrasive as the beats on her acclaimed 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, Take Me Apart retains her proclivity for the left-field, bubbling with 90s and 00s-style beats. The vision of Kelela’s earlier releases has been fully realised on Take Me Apart, albeit in a subtler, more nuanced, dreamlike way. In being loud in its vulnerability (and quietly radical for it), Take Me Apart is a powerful addition to the feminist, futurist RnB canon.
While pioneers of footwork have restlessly probed at the genre’s boundaries, Jlin has all but done away with them. When she burst out of nowhere in 2011 the Gary, Indiana artist sounded completely on her own. In 2016, she explained via Twitter: “I don’t consider myself a footwork artist. I started my roots in footwork, but it evolved into something else.” Black Origami, Jlin’s second full length, was mesmerising, mapping out further these wild evolutions in sound. A significant inspiration for Black Origami was Avril Stormy Unger. An Indian dancer who has performed with Jlin, the two have said that they share such a close understanding of each other’s rhythms that it scares them, and with Unger’s movement in mind, the music takes on new physical possibilities for the listener. Footwork has always been body music; dance music at its purest. Yet the avant-garde was never far away. With Black Origami, Jlin pushed both of these potentials to exhilarating extremes.
OVO / Cash Money / Republic
On More Life, Drake settled into his role as curator-in-chief – half rap superstar, half globetrotting pop A&R. Drake has always picked up musical codes and regional colloquialisms from the artists he admires. Though he never managed to do so with as much sophistication and maturity as he did here. On More Life, he invested in the sonic trademarks of his guests; he wasn’t window-shopping. Drake’s not fully outgrown the old him though, there is still a veritable feast of Aubrey-isms on show. Stories of drunk texting J-Lo, a song called Gyalchester and lyrics like “I play my part too, like a sequel” serve as friendly reminders of his goofy persona. A cynic could write off More Life’s ‘playlist’ categorisation as a defence mechanism – a way for Drake to secure commercial dominance without the pressure of an album. With these tracks though, it’s a fitting title for a truly digital, post-genre entity, where Drake convincingly positioned himself as an architect for a borderless age of pop music.
A Shadow In Time
2062 / Temporary Residence Limited
It’s been 15 years since William Basinski released Disintegration Loops, the mesmerising music which was created in the shadow of 9/11. Utilising sorrow as an almighty muse once again, with For David Robert Jones – the second of this release’s two lengthy tracks – Basinski presented a forlorn and hopelessly bittersweet eulogy for David Bowie, pulling you deep inside a world of shapeless memories accented by both beauty and decay. A Shadow In Time is glacial in its movement and austere in its beauty, with shimmering harmonies that moan and stretch until their own drowsy death. For David Robert Jones emerges from the murky depths of a bank of lost memories, provoking hazy visions of a life as seen through a rearview mirror. As much as there is light and a sense of being reborn, its gentle cascade also hints at a life turning to dust in the darkness. With restrained repetition, Basinski’s work reminds us that life is a series of perpetual cycles. For David Robert Jones, however, is the blanket over the inevitable end.
Black Butter / Epic
A sold out tour. Prestigious award nominations. Critical acclaim. Chart success. 2017 was the year J Hus – or Bouff Daddy to some – struck gold with his 17 track zeitgeist-capturing project Common Sense. The slickly-produced album is a cocktail blend of references from his home town of East London – the birthplace of grime – mixed in with his West African roots, UK road rap, bashment, hip-hop and more. Undoubtedly, the album has been credited with putting on ‘Afrowave’ at a mainstream level, and all the while Hus has executed everything with bag loads of swag. You should be envious.
Atlantic / HBK
Kehlani’s confidence was at the forefront of her 17 track album, as the 21-year-old navigated the boundaries between RnB, hip-hop and radio pop with a light-footed swagger. If 2016’s You Should Be Here mixtape was a love letter, SweetSexySavage was Kehlani’s declaration of intent. The hooks here were infectious, yet dedicated fans who allowed the melodies to soak in with were rewarded with the album’s sincerity and soulfulness. And as she opened up about love, lust, drugs and the hard-knocks of life, Kehlani proved herself to be the triple threat that the bold title promised.
300 / Atlantic
2016 saw a string of unremarkable Migos singles that went nowhere and appeared to portend the inevitable Quavo solo career. Then came Bad And Boujee, a quiet storm take on trap that optimised the Migos formula of choppy vocal rhythms and repetitive hooks, peaking atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US. The strongest Migos full length release to date, Culture made the most of this lucky career surge. Bangers like Call Casting and the Gucci Mane-featuring Slippery call back to the strongest material on their many mixtapes. Bridging the trap house and the strip club, All Ass sees Offset and Quavo make strides towards storytelling instead of the non-sequiturs and streams-of-consciousness they typically offer. The Zaytoven-produced Brown Paper Bag subtly coaxes atmospheric beauty out of Migos’ chosen subgenre of trap, while Deadz caters to its more maximalist, bombastic urges. No matter what happens with Migos in the future, Culture solidified their once-shaky stature in rap.
Thundercat’s boldest release found him at his most exposed. The third Thundercat LP deploys a bizarre and dark sense of humour, indulging in surreal fun while exploring the anxieties that bubble underneath everyday life. Drunk – which crams in 23 tracks – ricochets between moods, reflecting an intoxicated mind. Queue the shimmering cosmic melodies of A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II) or the smooth and psychedelic Show You The Way (featuring iconic soft rockers Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald). But as the album veers into its latter half, Thundercat’s basslines slog and stumble, sinking a little under the acquired gravity of being being lost, drunk and numb. Still, Thundercat is – just about – grinning. Drunk grabs you by the ankles and pulls you into the rabbit hole of Stephen Bruner’s mind – what a dizzying ride.
When Slowdive announced new material, we admittedly had our doubts. But this album – their first in 22 years – contained a vitality that, in places, leaves you breathless. This wasn’t down to any seismic change in their make-up. Rachel Goswell and Neil Halsted’s vocals still sit on top of the shimmering sounds, soft and sometimes understated, but with enough substance to add the extra layer of beauty. The guitars also soar with majestic effect. Opener Slomo sets the tone for the majority of the record, where sounds meld and move beneath a glossy riff, and obvious single Star Roving is a superb piece of exuberant, hands-in-the-air guitar pop. The blueprint which Slowdive helped to create in the 90s is fully adhered too, but it is magical to hear it deployed with joyful abandon.
No Shape is a kind album, which is not to say that it’s particularly nice. It’s kind in the way that kindness has to be understood in 2017: furious, passionate, jumping from wild claim to extravagant promise, trying its best to be good when everything around it seems bad. Hadreas slips from promising a young boy wearing a dress, “They’ll talk/ Give them every reason/ For child, you walk/ Just like love”, to sneering away his own haters: “If you need/ You can say a little prayer for me/ Baby I’m already walking in the light”. The album creaks with synths, perfectly plucked out strings and great sweeping crescendos, and Hadreas’ own shining, shimmering voice rising above it all. In a dark political atmosphere, surrounded by turmoil and danger, Perfume Genius brings his own decadent light.
In a blur of heavy-lidded projects like DJ Wey and Deejay Xanax, Brian Piñeyro was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that promised much and finally led to this stunning long player on Anthony Naples’ Proibito label. Piñeyro is vocal about the inspiration he draws from 90s reggaeton, and those crooked drums and crunchy samples are part of what gives his productions their charm, but it goes much deeper than that. Here, swooning, shimmering arpeggios and luscious pads position dembow rhythms amongst ambient and deep house tropes, making Dulce Compañia one of the most immersive album trips of the past 12 months.
DFA / Columbia
There was a palpable sense of relief when American Dream slipped into action. Following the break-up of all break-ups and the subsequent cynicism surrounding the hasty reunion, it appeared that LCD Soundsystem hadn’t fucked it. In fact, James Murphy and co had delivered an utterly compelling comeback album. From the dark introspection of how do you sleep? and change yr mind to the wild meandering of emotional haircut and other voices, each song told a distinct story, and in the process added to one of modern music’s most engaging soap operas. For fans worldwide, the fact the band approached this comeback with an open heart and their energy intact was one of 2017’s greatest musical victories.
Set in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bryneich, the concept behind Richard Dawson’s sixth solo album wasn’t the lightest to consume. Latticed with archaic delicacies and allegorical tales of a microcosmic medieval community, Peasant is vast in metaphorical scope. And yet, for all its depth, there is a restless energy to the Newcastle songwriter’s delivery which makes for exhilarating listening. With its amalgam of acoustic rattling, unhinged vocals and cluttering percussion, Peasants’ portmanteau-style fabling of wenches, weavers and wizardry is a dense world to lose yourself in.
World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda
After the death of her husband John Coltrane, in 1967, Alice Coltrane is said to have endured a period of trial. She lost weight, couldn’t sleep and succumbed to fevered hallucinations of speaking trees and astral planes, what she later described as the sounds of “a planetary ether” which knocked her unconscious. Her personal redemption as a Hindu swamini renamed Turiyasangitananda, and the music that emerged with it, remains a powerful testament to loss and transformation. World Spirituality Classics 1 was collected from tapes she recorded during the years 1982 and 1995, compositions she shared privately within her spiritual community in California. Here she imbued hope with tragedy, placing the synthesisers and organs of her jazz background alongside Vedic devotional songs of India and Nepal. Coltrane’s vocals often bear the weight of residual sadness – it is deep and noble, evidently drawn from earthly pain as much as it is celestial awakening. Ten years after her own untimely death, with World Spirituality Classics 1 Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda was still singing to the universe.
Mono No Aware
PAN’s masterstroke of a compilation pooled together a new school of experimental artists, tempering their harsher instincts and encouraging them to set loose drifting dopamine clouds of blissed-out ambient. Tracks like Flora Yin-Wong’s Lugere and Yves Tumor’s Limerence fell closer to the starchy, skygazing fretwork of The Durutti Column than any mechanised take on beatless music. Sky H1 and Pan Daijing turned in respective career bests. The chilly, distant ghost of ambient past was thawed and replaced with a tactile, emotional core. Textures hang, strings swoop, voices whisper, bodies quake, and throughout, Mono No Aware feels like a living, breathing thing.
Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
2017 felt like a strange year for Kendrick Lamar to look inward. As one of the most significant and eloquent political voices of his generation, some fans were waiting for a brutal, detailed dissection of the turbulent times we live in. But for the most part, Kendrick repositioned his gaze from the political to the personal and gave us DAMN. Nevertheless, this is still an extraordinarily powerful piece of work laced with themes of resilience, self-discovery faith and joy. From the expansive pop sensibilities of LOYALTY. and LOVE. to the Steve Lacy-assisted wooziness of PRIDE. and the hookless autobiographical storytelling of closer DUCKWORTH. – it’s Kendrick at his most musically agile. While To Pimp a Butterfly sprawled and stretched under the weight of the world, DAMN. went back to basics to exercise his rejuvenate his personal (and, therefore, political?) strength.
Where Are We Going?
“I’m actually happy with how I look and how I am in the world now,” said Maya Bouldry-Morrison earlier this year. “That gave me strength to put myself out more.” The release of Bouldry-Morrison’s fourth album, Where Are We Going?, marked both the end of a hiatus for the artist known as Octo Octa, and the beginning of her public life as a visible transgender artist. With nods to rave nostalgia and heartfelt downtempo arrangements, Where Are We Going? still warmly embraced Octo Octa’s signature melodic take on classicist dance music, and consequently feels like the natural descendant of the influence of one of Bouldry-Morrison’s heroes, DJ Sprinkles. A vital account of personal growth.
Top Dawg / RCA
When SZA announced the release of her debut studio album, no one knew quite what to expect. Her diverse back catalogue, which earned her a small-but-steady following, hinted towards various paths her sound could take. But when Ctrl finally arrived, the St. Louis born 27-year-old exceeded our wildest expectations.
Ctrl is an intimate project filled to the brim with messy and twisted anthems of love in all its forms. Arguably this year’s RnB breakthrough star, SZA provided an essential soundtrack for 2017 with tales of dysfunctionally functional polyamorous set-ups, the inevitable terror of ageing and the ever-growing Men Are Trash sentiments plaguing the discontented worldwide. Her raw and heartfelt vocals glide across the tracks sweetly while the lyrics pack a punch of sincerity. The candour with which she lays her cards on the table through songs like Supermodel, Normal Girl and The Weekend touched nerves beyond her core fans, in a time of political uncertainty and doublespeak.
The record took SZA from a relative mystery even to her supporters, into absolute and vulnerable visibility. The album’s sun-soaked sound palette is weaved together with acoustic guitar, bells, light psychedelic flourishes and classic boom-bap textures. Carefully curated rapper features from Travis Scott as well as Top Dawg label mates Kendrick Lamar and Isaiah Rashad take us on excursions in the album’s narrative, whilst leaving no doubt that SZA herself is the main attraction.
Somehow SZA was able to reinvigorate an audience – particularly an underappreciated black and female one – with fluctuating cadences, stellar vocals and relatable lyricism. Instead of forming a signature sound, she succeeded in creating a coherent world of her own truth. Ctrl is one of those records so intricately constructed that it could not lose a single song – it demands to be heard, skits and all, start to finish, in all its imperfect optimism.
Rabid / Mute
A full eight years had elapsed between the first Fever Ray album and the surprise drop of Plunge. An ice age in album cycles but maybe, just maybe, even longer in politics. It’s not that Karin Dreijer’s extensive playbook of transgressive tactics didn’t feel vital back in 2009, but in 2017, the stakes feel so much higher. Feminism and queer theory, the philosophical underpinning of so much of Dreijer’s work – both as Fever Ray and as one half of The Knife – is no longer the preserve of academia, but played out in wider spheres, on Twitter timelines, say, or public rest rooms.
“Oh, I’m done lookin’ / Now things can start happenin’,” she states in that uncanny intonation of hers on surprise single To the Moon and Back. The first Fever Ray album traced an interior world, hemmed in by domesticity and where sublime loneliness was encoded into obsessive details, a dishwasher tablet or a pot plant. Now, a seismic awakening has taken place, and visceral themes of desire, sex, shame and pain dominate; messy, kinky, and candid: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy,” she said, triumphant and utterly shocking. In the era of pussy hats and pussy grabs, the choice of words was telling.
As if to underscore the newfound physicality, the music has become more vibrant, raunchy: Fever Ray’s warped synth pop transposed to an anxious register. It thrums and rattles, eddies and swirls – synths sound like buzzsaws or sirens. Drawing on contributions from collaborators old (Peder Mannerfelt) and new (techno producer Paula Temple, Principe’s Nidia, Tunisian artist Deena Abdelwahed), the result is a diversity of styles reflecting a plurality of emotional states or identity in flux. But even at its most playful or conflicted, Plunge pulsates with a kind of abject lust. In 2017, this unstoppering of such a lust – and what an unstoppering it was – took on a political potency. “Every time we fuck we win” sings Dreijer on This Country, her elongated vowels twisting the knife in the heart of convention. This is queer desire, sharpened and weaponised. And while the Martin Falck-directed video for To the Moon and Back, in which Dreijer partakes in a piss-soaked BDSM tea party, part alt-drag, part blue-filtered horror flick, was profoundly subversive, perhaps the heart of the album can be distilled in one line in Part of Us: “One hand in yours and one hand in a tight fist.” Revelatory. Revolutionary.
Lana Del Rey
Lust for Life
Polydor / Interscope
When Lust for Life’s cover appeared back in April, Lana Del Rey’s beauty pageant smile was a subtle but symbolic gesture, hinting that she may have overcome the storm of controversy, nihilism and shitty men that has plagued her since 2012.
Over the past few years, Lana hasn’t so much weathered that storm as stood in the eye of it. Following early criticism of her authenticity, Lana doubled down, releasing two records that took a swan dive into the luxurious darkness of her universe: Hollywood film scores dripping with drama; claustrophobic tales of tumultuous relationships.
Just as the smile suggested, Lust for Life presented a shift in mood. After years of glamorous destruction, Lana began to clean up the mess. Her storytelling explored rich new depths: insular tales of loneliness and fame, hopeless infatuation and doe-eyed adoration are painted through layers of symbolism – secluded beaches, rotting peaches and the sleek muscle of a White Mustang. Optimism sounds utterly fabulous on album bookends Love and Get Free, which trace a departure from the lyrical darkness she inhabited and toward some otherworldly place.
But, most strikingly, Lust for Life broke out of the solipsistic cocoon that is Lana Del Rey’s universe. Lana collaborated (a first) with artists like The Weeknd, ASAP Rocky, Playboi Carti to bring the contemporary cultural zeitgeist into the frame, while Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon helped take her retro glow to new dimensions. While generous lashings of American iconography remain (including nods to Woodstock, Charles Manson and the Hollywood Sign that only Lana could get away with), Lana’s relationship to it has changed. Her take on America in turmoil asks difficult questions on Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind, addresses anxiety-inducing shifts in global conflict on When the World was at War We Kept Dancing and secures solidarity with God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It.
These moments are certainly direct, but this is soft, affectionate protest music. It evokes emotion rather than demands revolution. Questions are asked but not answered. Hope is projected with an uncertainty we can all relate to on Change: “There’s a change gonna come, I don’t know where or when/ But whenever it does, we’ll be here for it”. The soft-hued paradise that Lana hints at is still just slightly out of reach, both for us and for herself. She strives for personal resolve across the album without ever quite getting there. In this way, Lust for Life is a complex, open-hearted, and human effort. A peep-hole look at a canonical artist so shrouded in illusion. The album in 2017 which saved our hearts from turning cold.
‘Quítame la piel de ayer.’
The first lyric we heard from Arca roughly translates from Spanish to English as “Take off my skin of yesterday”. Unveiled alongside the album’s announcement, and positioned as its opening track, Piel was the song that marked a significant new stage in Alejandro Ghersi’s artistic evolution. And at the time, it was a beautiful shock to hear his voice so clearly.
At this point in 2017 Arca is widely recognised as a charismatic presence among the avant-garde. But even before he strutted into the spotlight, with knee-high leather boots and a whip in hand, he’d already caused a ripple across contemporary music. His genreless, slippery instrumentals provided a much-needed burst of future shock during a time when conversations about electronic music were brimming with anxiety about a perceived lack of new ideas. Off the back of early releases, Ghersi was enlisted to work on Kanye West’s Yeezus and FKA twigs’ signature sound as well as the swirling soundscapes of Björk’s heartbreak epic Vulnicura. Arca’s studio albums Xen and Mutant – released in 2014 and 2015, respectively – saw him further explore rhythmic experimentation, textural intensity, and gender-subverting concepts. Now, Ghersi’s personality was in the limelight, and his star appeal had become clear. But in order to unlock the seminal work of art that was brewing inside him, there was still something he had to confront.
The key was his voice. As a teenager, Ghersi had achieved moderate commercial success in his native Venezuela making pop music as Nuuro, but he was left emotionally traumatised after feeling he’d let his voice “betray” him by using female pronouns in his romantic lyrics. Even after his sexual and artistic liberation years later while living in New York, Ghersi only felt confident using his voice when heavily distorted and washed up in his restless audio collages. But after being gently encouraged by Björk, Ghersi found his voice again, choosing to sing the largely improvised lyrics of Arca in Spanish. “[It’s] the language my parents fought in and they got divorced in,” he explained. “The ultimate theatre of emotion, when things fall apart, for me isn’t English.”
Having shed yesterday’s skin, on Arca Alejandro Ghersi finds himself emotionally naked. The album fluctuates between unrequited love and unsatiated lust, visceral pain and pleasure that’s both bodily and spiritual. On the delicate Anoche, Ghersi’s mournful falsetto pines for a prospective lover who seems to have appeared in a dream. The devastatingly pretty Coraje is Ghersi at his most vulnerable, while Desafío summons the anxiety and joy of establishing a deep connection with someone in a rave. The album’s theatrical centrepiece is Reverie, where Ghersi conjures up a tornado of twisting strings, exploding distorted bass and clattering percussion. It climaxes with a pained, operatic vocal performance that – when paired with Jesse Kanda’s uncompromising video – presents Ghersi as both the bullfighter and the wounded matador, finding himself of both sides of the power struggle to satisfy his cardinal desires. Experimental music often risks the reputation of being difficult or indulgent. But it would be tragic to write off Arca as too abstruse. Although this album chronicles a journey that is specific to Alejandro Ghersi, its narrative of a painful, messy transformation is universal. Arca is one of those rare records you can turn to in the peak of an emotional emergency, and it sounds like nothing that was released before it. Let’s embellish it with the classic status it deserves.