We rank the fifty most outstanding records of the year.
American Teen was a proud debut for the 19-year-old Khalid that captured the glory and opportunity of youth as much as the pressure and anxiety. Its real triumph was more subtle: Khalid drilled down deep into an age-old topic for music and found something relatable and sonically nourishing - and he executed it to perfection. PB
Standout Track: "Young, Dumb and Broke"
Choice Lyric: "What's fun about commitment? / When we have our life to live / Yeah, we're just young dumb and broke / But we still got love to give..."
Drunk is Thundercat’s 23-song foray into experimental synthpop, funk, and jazz fusion fully showcases the artistry that had previously been on display on 2013's Apocalypse and 2011's The Golden Age of Apocalypse, as well as in previous collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, one of the diverse range of artists who feature on the album.
Whilst to many an album this long could seem never ending for all the wrong reasons, Thundercat rightly uses every song as a form of exploration into his musical influences, most clearly in “Show You The Way”, an ode to ‘yacht rock’ that features arguably two of the pioneers of this pseudo genre, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Thundercat also doesn’t stray away from topical issues such as police brutality in “Jameel’s Space Ride”; however, this is contrasted by his use of sound effects. Whilst the album may also seem to be disjointed at times, arguably this is the very nature of jazz and funk music, genres that are ever present throughout the album. JA
Standout Track: "Jameel's Space Ride"
Choice Lyric: "I want to fly away off into space and into the sun / With all those spirits and space space dust and aliens / Where we belong..."
On first listen, Not Even Happiness could strike you as quite a simple record. The musical arrangements are sparse, primarily comprised of finger picked guitar and strings to accompany Julie Byrne’s hauntingly gentle vocals. But its simplicity is deceptive. It demands and deserves concentration so you can listen past its apparent simplicity and delve into Byrne’s lyrical depth.
Byrne examines life and relationships through a prism of nature, evoking the wide-open spaces of the American midwest, the stars, prairies, beetles, and mountains. Not Even Happiness provides the listener with 32 minutes of pure escapism, transported away from the commute and the rush of real life, to somewhere calmer, and slower. It’s lyrically devastating but so beautiful that it’s almost welcome.
The album’s closer "I Live Now As A Singer" is up there with the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs of recent years. The music is even more stripped back than on the rest of the record, with Byrne mournfully confessing: “And yes I have broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was nowhere close to forgiving myself”. It’s a fitting close to an arresting, sensational album. RB
Standout Track: "I Live Now As A Singer"
Choice Lyric: "And yes I have broke down asking for forgiveness / When I was nowhere close to forgiving myself..."
According to Michelle Zauner, Soft Sounds From Another Planet is a failed "science fiction musical" concept album. Failure, or just a reimagining that worked? The Oregon native's second album might only draw upon a handful of its original ideas - take, for example, "Machinist's" story of a doomed human-robot romance - but there's plenty of intergalactic sounds in orbit. Dreampop weaves through "Road Head" while "Diving Woman" indulges in shoegaze squall and thrilling, wide-eyed atmos. There's purely instrumental expanse, too, with drone, guitar delay and gooey '80s synths on "Planetary Ambience".
But there's much more to it. The latter half of the record hears Zauner tap into the college rock climes of the Pacific Northwest. "Boyish"'s startling exploration of hapless love ("I can't get you off my mind / I can't get you off in general") is projected via a slovenly kind theatricality: a melancholy ballad dressed with languid guitars and tin-pot drums.
What ties this album of two halves together is Zauner's motifs of trauma, sex, and sexuality. The former is most devastatingly explored on "Till Death" with Zauner's howling cries of "PTSD / anxiety / genetic disease / Thanatophobia". Soft Sounds From Another Planet might not have turned out as planned, but its revision is superb. CK
Standout Track: "Diving Woman"
Choice Lyric: "I can't get you off my mind / I can't get you off in general..."
SweetSexySavage was a debut record full of confident sex jams Prince would be proud/jealous of, enhanced by Kehlani’s stunning vocal ability. As adept at playing pop as she is laying down those deep cut slow jams (much like her heroines TLC, to whom the album title pays subtle tribute to), SweetSexySavage is a triumph because Kehlani knows that to be self-confident doesn’t mean being super-serious or uptight.
On “Do U Dirty” she sings “I’m cold and yet life is colder / I could fuck you now and years later on you gon' be stuck, just reminiscing,” - tongue in cheek, yet dripping in no-nonsense attitude, it’s the essence SweetSexySavage distilled into a couple of killer lines. AH
Standout Track: "Do U Dirty"
Choice Lyric: "I could fuck you now and years later on you gon' be stuck, just reminiscing / It's the way I ride you, let you stay inside and / Yeah, I'ma fuck you like a vixen / There's something 'bout me..."
LIke its predecessor Ten Love Songs, Norwegian singer/songwriter and producer Susanne Sundfør’s Music For People In Trouble has a clear conceptual framework, and a similar commitment to unravelling its potential. It retains the dark heart of her previous album, but the mood is more introspective, at least on the surface. The arrangements are consistently sparse, with Sundfør’s clear, close-up voice joined by one or two instruments at a time: there’s a sense that Sundfør is alone; an often uncomfortable intimacy. CB
Standout Track: "Reincarnation"
Choice Lyric: "Oh, I'm a bad girl 'cause I turned the bad world / Into a crystal pearl..."
The best thing about Marika Hackman’s sophomore album is simple: it’s really fucking gay. Her intelligent songwriting and tongue-in-cheek lyrics may appeal to everyone, but there’s a real sense that her vivid storytelling allows a glimpse into an exclusive world to which most are not usually privy.
With an amped up sound courtesy of backing band The Big Moon, I’m Not Your Man introduces us to a Marika very different to the whispery folkster of her debut. Each boisterous single tracks a particular aspect of a new relationship’s fiery birth. Frank and explicit, there’s few metaphors here, and Hackman is clear that any discomfort is entirely your own problem.
That’s not to say that this is a record devoid of light and shade. The melancholic “Gina’s World” picks up momentum as it runs its bitter course, whilst “Round We Go” offers tersely downbeat vocals and yawning cello. We catch a glimpse of Hackman’s folky past in the echoing hopelessness of “I’d Rather Be With Them”, but her narrative focus still manages to keep us firmly in the present. PW
Standout Track: "Boyfriend"
Choice Lyric: "I held his girl in my hands (I know he doesn't mind) / She likes it 'cause they're softer than a man's (I like to moisturise)..."
Cigarettes After Sex did the impossible with their self-titled debut and created marquee ‘album of the year’ by blending sepia-tinged alt. country instrumentation with deeply personal, candid lyrics and producing a languorous, sleepy dreampop that evokes a whole host of sonic somnambulists from Mazzy Star to Mojave 3, The Velvet Underground to Spiritualized, Beach House and (crucially) Cocteau Twins.
Conceptually, the album straddles notions that are both hazily retro and strikingly contemporary, always seemingly treading a fine line between Tumblr-miserabilism and a Shakespearian sense of tragedy. The overarching themes are heartbreak, sex, lost love, and other youthful concerns. Lyrics like “So open your dress and show me your tits / On the swing set at the old playground,” (from “Sunsetz”) and “Watching the video that you sent me / The one where you’re showering with wet hair dripping,” (“Sweet”) typify the feel of the album - at once immediate, seductive, and youthful. It’s the language of modern love. RH
Standout Track: "Sunsetz"
Choice Lyric: “So open your dress and show me your tits / On the swing set at the old playground...”
Raphaelle Standell and Alexander Kerby wrote remotely on their second album as Blue Hawaii, communicating virtually to bring their ideas together which translates as a theme to their third release Tenderness.The record is formed as a narrative of the messaging Standell used to become both close and maintain distance with a lover. It's a welcome return after four years away. AH
Standout Track: "No One Likes You"
Choice Lyric: “I'll always need someone like you / To surround me with the sunshine that follows you...”
Kesha’s Rainbow is the triumphant return of an artist finally in control of her own image and expression. Having dropped the dollar sign, it’s unsurprising that this record is less about chasing commercial success and more about making music for music’s sake.
Emotional comeback single “Praying” was the first instalment of Kesha’s new chapter; a rallying war cry decrying the alleged predatory actions of producer Dr. Luke. Whilst her following singles - foul-mouthed feminist anthem “Woman”, ode to the outsiders and oddballs “Hymn”, and the cathartic “Learn To Let Go” - continued in the pop vein, the album as a whole is a musically diverse cornucopia. The juicy bass of “Boots” comes closest to Kesha’s signature sleaziness, but there’s also the cartoonishly sweet “Godzilla” (written by Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert), the country twang of “Hunt You Down”, and “Boogie Feet”’s Rocky Horror glam.
Like most mainstream pop albums, Rainbow is a cut-and-paste collection of potential singles, rather than a cohesive full-length project. There is, however, an overarching message, summed up best in the spoken word segment of album closer “Spaceship”: “Nothing is real, love is everything, and I know nothing...” PW
Standout Track: "Praying"
Choice Lyric: "I'm nothing more than recycled stardust and borrowed energy / Born from a rock, spinning in the ether / I watch my life backwards and forwards and I feel free / Nothing is real, love is everything, and I know nothing..."
The Weather Station’s fourth album is a collection of meticulously arranged tracks that demonstrate singer/songwriter, Tamara Lindeman’s deft understanding of vocal blend, melody, and tonal cohesion. It is a wonderful work of confident poise, with storytelling front and centre.
Standout tracks include the delicate "You and I (On the Other Side)" and the album’s centrepiece, "Impossible". The latter opens with a deep, rootsy beat that introduces a feeling of soft muscularity, gradually weaving a musical patchwork that utilises flute, majestic backing vocals, and patient yet terse lyrical phrasing.
Generically, the album falls between Fleetwood Mac, Laura Marling, and Joni Mitchell in its melodic candour and emotional intelligence, and Lindeman’s key talent appears to be the deployment of storied, occasionally funny lyrics that arrive effortlessly and immaculately. JB
Standout Track: "Thirty"
Choice Lyric: "I wasn't close to my family / And my dad was raising a child in Nairobi / She was three now, he told me..."
Aromanticism: the unwillingness or inability to experience romantic love. Sounds pretty gloomy in the context of 2017, right? A repulsive man-child controls the superpower nation, nuclear war looms, Brexit divides, genocide persists, terrorism terrorises etc. etc., yet, somehow, Moses Sumney's pin-sharp dismantling of one of human race's unifiers has become an essential comfort. Though it may sit at odds with the Californian's incessant existential rhetoric, Aromanticism does provide answers. It makes loneliness feel okay. It makes isolation feel okay. It colours the black and white perception of romantic love being the missing piece through a shapeshifting collection of cosmic ambience, jazz, and soul - but also much more. Few people are making the type of genre-bending sounds like Moses Sumney and with such intriguing results.
"Lonely World" opens with waves of spasmodic bass and guitar that lace with Sumney's lofty falsetto. The crest then breaks, and a beautiful cacophony of choral chants and tumbling, whip-smart beats follows. "Casts a shadow on the shallow love it hurls," rings true as Sumney's "lonely" refrains circle into perpetuity.
On "Quarrel", Sumney professes he would give his life "just for the privilege to ignore" the pains of a relationship. Perhaps it's easier to not be in one at all. "Don't call it a lovers' quarrel," he insists, over a swirl of groaning strings and frilly harp arpeggios. There's beauty in this assertion and beauty throughout his remarkable debut: a strange kind of solace in a world of chaos. CK
Standout Track: "Lonely World"
Choice Lyric: "Am I vital, if my heart is idle? / Am I doomed?"
If Jumping The Shark exploited Alex Cameron's dismissive alter-ego, then Forced Witness felt like a man who finally found a sense of self awareness, getting a grip on his true potential as an artist hiding in the shadows for all these years. Cameron lets his vocal range soar on Forced Witness, where he not only expands his flat, baritone vocals, but the instrumentations that surround it, which grow increasingly ambitious and complex. The mystery of Alex Cameron continues to be unsolved, but after Forced Witness, his identity and place in the indie world seems to be much clearer, and at times, all the more impressive. TM
Standout Track: "Stranger's Kiss"
Choice Lyric: "I got shat on by an eagle, baby / Now I'm king of the neighborhood..."
Annie Clark’s fifth record as St. Vincent is a record that brings us sex, drugs, and rock and roll in unfettered and opulent excess. MASSEDUCTION contrasts an almost violent sexuality with Clark’s saccharine vocals, bending all you think you know in a fairground mirror of sensual guitars and grinding synths. Decline and decay exist here too; their horrifying pseudo-ecstasy a conclusion as natural as breathing.
From the questioning poise of understated opener “Hang On Me” to the climactic, yearning maximalism of “Los Ageless”, MASSEDUCTION is an album as multifaceted as St. Vincent herself; both obscuring and revealing in tantalising parallel. Piano-led ballads such as “New York” glow with uncharacteristically accessible warmth, balancing the brash, alien neon of “Pills” or the gender-bending anarchy of “Sugarboy”.
Throughout the duration of MASSEDUCTION our agile protagonist remains ten paces ahead at all times: within sight but always just out of reach. Whilst Clark scoffs at the notion that we might know her any better at this album’s close, final track “Smoking Section” is a hopeless, heartbreaking lament that feels as close to authenticity as we might ever hope to get. PW
Standout Track: "Los Ageless"
Choice Lyric: "I try to write you a love song / But it comes out a lament..."
Like all great records, Peasant is a work that improves with age. Six months on from its release, the album continues to yield surprises, its composition resonating in increasingly numerous, unexpected ways with each listen. That Dawson has managed to create an LP that chimes so keenly with our time, despite being built upon archaic sonic foundations and a lyrical narrative set in the pre-medieval kingdom of Bryneich, is a breathtaking feat of artistic vision.
Each of Peasant’s innumerable intricacies is perfectly considered and precisely micro-engineered to produce an enormously powerful whole, its songs functioning as interwoven tales of family, hardship, labour and, most consistently of all, hope. Its expressions of human emotions, fears and vulnerabilities are timeless, and Dawson’s wit, intellect, and ambition provide us with humane entry points from which to begin to navigate this dense, layered record.
Perhaps more so than any other album this year, Peasant represents an achievement of perfect balance, poised as it is between complexity and immediacy, modernity and the arcane, and desperation and hope. It’s a keeper. LC
Standout Track: "Ogre"
Choice Lyric: "When the sun is dying / The ebbing tide will soon reveal its secrets..."
Algiers shouldn’t work. This is a band who draw upon vastly different musical traditions, whose members live oceans apart from one another, who wear their moral convictions brazenly in an era of increasingly terrifying political polarisation. Yet, lo and behold, The Underside Of Power is one of this year’s most cohesive, irresistible albums. The development of their sound since they released their admirable but flawed self-titled debut is striking; the loose ends of their disparate pool of influences are tied up with such panache here that it’s easy to forget just how close to the wind of disjuncture they so often sail. On paper, gospel, post-punk, soul, techno, and noise music seem uncomfortable bedfellows, yet there’s no confusion here.
The Underside Of Power is chilling, often brutal, seldom comforting and frequently galvanising; its themes are desperate, but the product is exhilarating. Against considerable odds, Algiers have bestowed upon us an album that enflames the heart, stirs the intellect, and clenches the jaw, and we should thank them for it. LC
Standout Track: "The Underside Of Power"
Choice Lyric: "They took no time to unwind it all / Manufactured suggestion / Wag the dog and then drown him / How hate keeps passing on / This is how the hate keeps passing on..."
There is a fireside quality to the storytelling of Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief. Though there is comfort and warmth in the very human aspect of her tales, there is a chilling, peripheral darkness that always looms and encircles like a vignette. Capacity, the sophomore record from the Brooklyn-band, further refined this quality, and from the start is incredibly intimate, opening between the sheets of two lovers: “Matthew, please do not regret / With your silk in my hand and your heart in my sweat / As you’re lighting the end of my last cigarette / I will warm you...”.
Sexuality and physicality are at the heart of the record, which is apt given that it is these that connect us. In lead single “Mythological Beauty”, Lenker addresses the sacrifices made by her teenage mother - “You cut the flesh of your left thumb / Using your boyfriend’s knife / 17, you took his cum / And you gave birth to your first life...” - whilst the uncomfortably lucid “Watering” deals with an invasion: “He followed me home again / And his eyes were watering / His eyes were watering / Like a child...”.
Capacity is an exploration of the space between extremes, an attempt to find there a greater balance, acceptance and humanity, and in doing so deserves all of the adulation it has received. JB
Standout Track: "Mythological Beauty"
Choice Lyric: "There is a meeting in my thighs / Where in thunder and lightning, men are baptized / In their anger and fighting, their deceit and lies..."
Continuing her upward trajectory from Sprinter, genre-defying artist Torres (aka Mackenzie Scott) betters her previous success once again with Three Futures, her label debut for 4AD. The album sees Scott reunite with Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey), but instead of the alt. Americana of her debut or the wonky rage of her sophomore, we see Scott wander into disparate and amorphous styles somewhere between experimental pop, krautrock, and gothic electronica. It's an album that makes you pay much more attention to her ludicrous guitar chops, and one that delves into more abstract topics such as “ecstasy, desire, and indulgence”.
Three Futures is a bewitchingly cerebral listen that rewards fingers that tap repeat - but it's not an esoteric collection that hides away from clarity either. There's a warmth, a comfort, and a sensuality from the album: it's something that exists contentedly as a monument to the self... or more specifically the fleshy vehicle we all possess. As Torres quite succinctly states, Three Futures “is entirely about using the body that each of us has been given as a mechanism of joy.” LD
Standout Track: “Helen In The Woods”
Choice Lyric: "Threw her class ring to the voices in the trees / Warn the neighbours if you could / Tell 'em Helen's in the woods..."
It’s been three years since the release of Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut album; a record seemingly built by stripping dance music down to its bare bones and using them to construct something at once familiar and judderingly alien. An innovative, perfectly formed debut LP is a hard act to follow for any band, but What Now, this year’s full-length offering, does plenty more than avoid the sophomore album slump.
The record introduced itself with a triple threat of singles that showcased the breadth of the album’s more overtly electronic side - the pure, danceable euphoria of “Radio”, the robotic glitch-pop of “Kick Jump Twist”, and the glittering love song that is “Die Young”. Once fleshed out with album tracks, however, we see the duo playing with more traditional sounds and song structures than before. Standouts include the warmly inviting “The Glow”, the well-sprung beats of “Just Dancing”, and siren song “Signal”, the latter of which allows the talents of vocalist Amelia Meath to really shine. PW
Standout Track: “Die Young”
Choice Lyric: "I was gonna die young / Now I gotta wait for you, honey..."
The contemplative young Memphis songwriter Julien Baker's follow-up to her well-received 2015 debut Sprained Ankle was an album of sombre, occasionally self-lacerating detail. The soul-baring torment of “Everything To Help You Sleep” and woozy search for redemption chronicled in “Happy To Be Here” offered little in the way of any straightforward resolutions, but there were at least glimmers of fragile optimism here too (“Hurt Less”, “Claws in Your Back”). MT
Standout Track: “Everything To Help You Sleep”
Choice Lyric: "Maybe it's all gonna turn out all right / And I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is..."
In sound and in sentiment, The War On Drugs is a band that keeps on ticking. It must have been hard to know where to begin after 2014’s Lost In The Dream, the universally-lauded third record that put Adam Granduciel and his Philadelphia band on a different scale, particularly when the process of recording and finalising the album was notoriously arduous.
Still, it won them time and trust, and a signing to major label Atlantic. The first peep from their follow up A Deeper Understanding came in the form of the lustrous slow-burner “Thinking Of A Place”, back in April. This dreamy epic softly bathed away all problems for its 11-minute duration, a purging effect that would step up a gear for the rest of the record. Songs such as the explosive opener “Up All Night”, the melodically-entrancing “Pain” and the ecstatic “Holding On” are brimming with catharsis, and that’s just the first 15 minutes. That the production of the record can hit with so much clout whilst maintaining its swelling ambience throughout is a testament to Granduciel’s genius.
A Deeper Understanding highlights The War On Drugs’ own brand of motorik-Americana in full force. It’s a sound that has captured the feeling of running with no destination in sight, which as Granduciel maintains in “Nothing To Find”, is a feeling to place hope in: “There is always something bigger / Leaning on the other side, yeah...”. JB
Standout Track: "Thinking Of A Place"
Choice Lyric: "If I'm just living in the space between / The beauty and the pain It's the strangest thing..."
On form/a, the latest EP from Nandi Rose Plunkett’s Half Waif, you can reach out and touch the nebulous, shifting emotions which are exposed by the record’s writer.
Plunkett has spoken of wanting to “tear out [her] guts” and give titular form to the feelings which flow through us when in and out of relationships, and on the EP she does this time and again with an honesty that is often lacking in what’s ostensibly a synth pop record.
On “Severed Logic” Plunkett analyses mood as a pendulum and questions her thought process, singing “even awake, I dream of you leaving me...”. But then the whole EP feels like Half Waif weighing up the constant battle between head and heart; yet form/a never resorts to desperation or cries for help. In being open and honest, Plunkett finds a way through the fog of emotion to define a sense of her self which can exist in and outside of romantic relationships. On a record of such brevity, that’s quite an achievement. AH
Standout Track: "Severed Logic"
Choice Lyric: "Even awake, I dream of you leaving me..."
2017 has been the year for ambitious, conscientious albums, unafraid to engage with hefty ideas without neglecting the charms of the earthly and visceral.
Holiday Destination is one of the finest of these records, a collection of songs that beautifully articulate the emotional and social extremes that surround issues of identity, immigration, and political flux. Its moral core is plainly displayed from the outset, yet its weight is handled elegantly by Nadine Shah’s sensitive, dignified writing. Yet as eloquent as Shah‘s words are, it’s the sound of this thing that really drives her points home. The arrangements here are muscular, the melodies extraordinarily expressive, and her voice, striking as ever, is astonishing in its intensity. In lesser hands, the passion that motivates certain songs - “Mother Fighter”, for example, or the title track - might overspill into melodrama.
Not on this album. The dramatic tenor of Holiday Destination is not exaggerative of its subject matter, but reflective of genuine personal and political urgencies; its themes are intelligently expressed, supported by forceful, incisive songwriting. And, most importantly, it fucking rocks. LC
Standout Track: "Mother Fighter"
Choice Lyric: "Listen to me / These streets they are yours and they're mine / You're not staying with me / I can't promise all will be fine..."
Ever since the release of 2009’s Bastard, Tyler, The Creator has courted controversy. Some called him a prankster playing a malevolent character, others saw fit to ban him from countries due to his homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. Flower Boy, then, almost seems like a course correction; the clearest indication of who Tyler, The Creator is. Here, he blows the doors wide open to delve into loneliness, self-improvement, and reflection.
He’s older and wiser to his ways and, similarly, feels older and wiser in his music. Harsh beats for the most part are stripped away in favour of sonically rich slow jams. While elements of the prankster Tyler still shine through, it being an album of lush, colourful daydreams, this is a Tyler who wants to explain what made him the way he was. This is the maturation of a petulant teen to a modern man. CT
Standout Track: "Boredom"
Choice Lyric: "They say the loudest in the room is weak / That's what they assume, but I disagree. I say the loudest in the room / is prolly the loneliest one in the room (that's me)..."
Ryan Adams knows a thing or two about the art writing a breakup album. Heartbreaker, his flawless debut released in 2000, pitched him as one of America's greatest songwriters and 16 studio albums later, he's still writing and recording with passionate vigour and vitality.
Recorded during a period of intense creative freedom in New York versus his own Pax:Am studio in Los Angeles, Prisoner's 12 tracks offer a deeply personal listen and draw directly from a painful period of divorce from wife of six years Mandy Moore. However bleak the content, it's is far from a maudlin listen. Set against a backdrop of stadium-sized riffs and Springsteen-flecked heartland Americana, Prisoner could well be Adams' Blood On The Tracks - albeit shot through with starry eyed '80s FM rock 'n' roll. RT
Standout Track: "Prisoner"
Choice Lyric: "Clock don't know what your memories do / They're stacking up beside the bed / I count them every night inside my head..."
“Desire”, “Humility”, “Knowledge”, “Perspective”, “Integrity”, “Truth”. As tracklistings go this one doesn’t exactly scream fun, and it’s definitely true that there are lighter half-hours than this EP - but for a six-track primer on pretty much everything that 21st century jazz can do this is essential.
Yet for all its seriousness of intent the first half of Harmony Of Difference plays loose, eking out themes and evolving motifs and veering from sultry and lovelorn to frenetic and triumphal: “Desire” is slow kissing and firelight, “Humility” is inferno. But it’s all building to “Truth”, a 13-minute showcase of Washington’s vision and talent that ebbs and flows and tidal waves, small riffs and low-key percussion suddenly vying with swooning strings and choral song and manic, sweat-drenched saxophone. But for all its noise it’s the quiet moments that really get you here, the sudden calm inside the storm, brass notes ringing out plaintively, defiantly, like howls within the night. CC
Standout Track: "Truth"
Considering the adversity Songhoy Blues overcame - three of the Malian quartet's members had to flee when their hometowns in the northern parts of the country were taken over by Jihadist militias, imposing strict sharia law and banning music (amongst other things) - it's striking just how much joy pretty much every note of Résistance contains. Recorded in London, the album puts to use the new points of reference the band's picked up during the tireless international touring that followed the success of their debut Music In Exile.
There are still moments where Songhoy Blues' origins of playing covers of tunes by the late Malian music legend Ali Farka Toure show clearly. Starring a gloriously growly vocal cameo from Iggy Pop, the crackling guitars of "Sahara" sounds like desert-blues heroes Tinariwen after a huge pot of inhumanly strong coffee. The rootsy, uncharacteristically languid "Hometown" features a violin pitched halfway between the River Niger delta and Louisiana swampland.
Elsewhere, surprises abound. Opener "Voter" breaks into fat and fuzzy riffs slightly reminiscent of Queens Of The Stone Age (another outfit who've spent time in a desert). The rousing call for unity and positivity on the anthemic closer "One Colour" throws a children's choir in the mix. "Bamako" mixes traditional Malian melodies with synths and tight chicken-scratch funk guitars, whilst the almost uncontrollably high voltage energy of “Dabari” condenses Fela Kuti's loose-limbed, expansive Afrobeat grooves - inspired by classic James Brown - to three sizzling minutes. London grime MC Elf Kid fits in seamlessly within the bright horns of "Mali Nord".
Despite the eclectic genre hopping, all of Résistance ends up sounding unmistakably and thrillingly like Songhoy Blues. JO
Standout Track: "Sahara"
Maybe it’s the process of mixtape to EP to debut album that makes Take Me Apart sound so confident, or maybe it’s just that Kelela is so damn talented.
A record which forensically documents the emotional journey from breakup to new love, Take Me Apart is a sexual and lust-filled experience, but balances that with being intelligent and deeply touching. It also sounds incredible.
Featuring writing and production credits for Romy xx, Arca ,and Jam City, Take Me Apart has surface sheen and hidden depth meaning that after repeated listens to “LMK” and “Frontline” you can still appreciate the instant hit of timeless songwriting, yet be able to peel back another layer of sound or be hit by an undiscovered feeling.
A record that captures 21st century relationships like few others, Take Me Apart signals Kelela as a quite frankly frightening talent. AH
Standout Track: "LMK"
Choice Lyric: "Don't say you're in love baby / Until you learn to take me apart..."
Lotta Sea Lice is the unexpected-but-delightful combined work of slacker-rock wordsmith Courtney Barnett and lo-fi guitar man Kurt Vile. As evidenced on record, the pair are kindred spirits, whether rattling through sunny co-writes and covers, or turning a hand to revamping each other’s previous tunes. Vile’s take on “Outta The Woodwork” is softer and plumper than the original, whilst Barnett brings a heartfelt blues feel to “Peepin’ Tom”. In fact, Barnett regularly moves beyond her familiar conversational tones to deliver several hummable refrains.
The record showcases much of the same meandering musing on the mundane that we’ve come to expect from both artists, but their moving in tandem illuminates qualities previously unrevealed. “Continental Breakfast” serves up a sweetness more beguiling than either’s previous cynicism, much like the effortlessly thrown together harmonies abounding throughout the record. PW
Standout Track: "Continental Breakfast"
Choice Lyric: "I cherish my intercontinental friendships / Not much very big on enemies..."
The first thing to be said about 20-year-old Nashville, Tennessee resident Sophie Allison is that she’s an astonishing songwriter. Every great songwriter possesses the ability to articulate emotions and moments in time concisely and cathartically over the space of a few minutes. With Soccer Mommy's Collection, Allison names and nails the narratives of feeling.
An assemblage of eight songs from her past and present, including new songs and reworked bedroom demos initially released on Bandcamp, here they’re augmented with a full band. From the opening “Allison”, with its sun-kissed harmonies and Allison’s vocal front and centre, you’re drawn into a world that’s both familiar and new. Like the other songs here, it has a universality at its heart - hope, battles to be won and situations to be avoided.
What makes Collection so arresting is its storytelling, moving from the frustration of the unappreciative lover of “Out Worn” to revenge motif of “Inside Out” and the passing crushes of “Try.” Collection takes the incidental details, be that first loves, lost loves, anxiety, regret, and joy and articulates them into wonderfully relatable, catchy and, above all, universal stories. EN
Standout Track: "Allison"
Choice Lyric: “You made your love like a forest fire / I wanted someone to keep me warm...”
2017 has, without question, been MUNA’s year. The release of About U back in February - preceded by the band’s sole EP - saw the trio embark on their journey of world domination, culminating in a support slot for Harry Styles on his North American and European tour.
As MUNA, Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson make charged, unflinching, give-a-shit synthpop that reflects the political through the lens of the deeply personal. Much is made of the band’s queerness, most notably broadcast through anthemic singles “Loudspeaker” and “I Know A Place”
When the band brought “I Know A Place” to Jimmy Kimmel Live, the addition of newly penned anti-Trump lyrics didn’t feel contrived. After all, liberation forms the very bones of About U, an album to challenge the pop naysayers and prove that protest has every place amongst those euphoric synths. PW
Standout Track: "I Know A Place"
Choice Lyric: "Even if our skin or or Gods look different / I believe all human life is significant / I throw my arms open wide in resistance / He's not my leader even if he's my president..."
There was a sense of surprise around Fin, the debut solo record from Syd. Perhaps it was down to taking on production duties for Tyler, The Creator and the Odd Future crew in the early years of the collective, maybe down to being part of the The Internet… nothing was really preparing us for the honesty of solo Syd and Fin.
A record of sweet soul, R&B, and the occasional drift into frontin’ hip-hop, Fin revealed Syd as not just a singer with a gorgeous delivery, but a lyricist and songwriter unafraid of revealing a personality both open and pleasingly detached from her surroundings.
Fin gives us not only love songs written for a woman by a woman, but sex anthems revealing an artist finally comfortable to reveal their true self. Debut albums quite this assured are rare to come by, so we should celebrate Syd finding her true voice. AH
Standout Track: "Got Her Own"
Choice Lyric: "I'm loving your wings, girl / They're fly to me..."
It’s difficult to put into words the sheer fearlessness and maximalism of Kinder Versions, the first album in English by Icelandic's Mammút. Released to little fanfare in July, the record is an unrestrained excavation of place and self, sharing musical DNA with prog or 70s hard rock, and conceptually recalling epic endeavour throughout history: from Norse mythology to contemporary science fiction.
Singer Katrína Mogensen - whose vocals often recall Björk at her most ecstatic - brings gravitas to even her most fantastical imaginings: lines as bombastic as “I want to see the sun collapse!/I want to see the stars decay!” from “The Moon Will Never Turn On Me” could be corny coming from a lesser voice, but Mogensen makes them convincing. Her lyrics and delivery always match the determination of the driving instrumentation: On the almost-title track “Kinder Version”, Mogensen speaks of “bringing all my stories back / erasing all the kinder versions of my past”, a final warning before she embarks on a journey to find and become her most visceral self. In “Bye Bye”, the body and the environment become one as a reaction to pain caused by an ambiguous relationship, as Mogensen describes how “The lake runs from my mouth/Falls down to my chest”.
Despite the well-worn reference points, Kinder Versions isn’t a comfortable listen – every song has five or six plot twists capable of prompting an almost physical reaction in the listener, like when programmed beats join the foray halfway through “What’s Your Secret?” Mammút emerge as a group who could do anything, go anywhere, with the conviction to carry through on every scrap of potential. CB
Standout Track: "We Tried Love"
Choice Lyric: "Spit it into my mouth so I won’t ever be able to speak again/Now the lake runs from my mouth"
Big Fish Theory saw Vince Staples craft an album that is entirely shaped by the fears, frustrations, pleasure, and pain of these modern times. There are plenty of quick nods to Vince’s revolutionary forebears threaded throughout (including an affectionate tribute to artist Jean Michel Basquiat on "Samo" and a brief “Ali Bomaye” shoutout to Muhammad Ali on "Rain Come Down"), but on this record it was clear that Staples wanted to make his own assertive artistic statement for these turbulent times, while also firmly establishing himself as one of the brash, singular voices that is going to be leading the music world into the chaotic, unpredictable future. ET
Standout Track: "Samo"
Choice Lyric: "Ain't a damn thing funny, but we laughin' to the bank / Never blow it on a chain, rather blow my fuckin' brain..."
Sampha Sisay's collaborative work with the likes of SBTRKT, Frank Ocean, Solange, Kanye West, and Drake threatened to keep him skirting the edges of the limelight. Then, in 2017, he released his debut record and won the Mercury Music Prize.
High profile vocal spots may have bolstered the Londoner's career but Process, like 2013's Dual EP, is something deeply personal. Through 10 tracks of jittering futurist soul, the Londoner bravely shares experiences of grief, anxiety, relationships, and identity. Sisay invites listeners to aptly process his complex journey with him or stay in their own lane, swerving unconsciously between the two in a dense fog of multifaceted textures.
Process is an album of generous, opposing forces. "Plastic 100°C" brings anxiety's physical manifestations to life ("Sleeping with my worries / I didn't really know what that lump was...") by mimicking jolts of nervousness with staccato kora strings. The equally panic-inducing "Blood On Me" harbours vicarious nightmares. But these agitations are soon dispelled by the calm of "(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano". Sisay finds relief in both the symbolic and physical permanence of the grand instrument left by his late parents. "You would show me I had something some people call a soul," he sings, thankful of his family and the very instrument his fingers laid upon.
Later on in the record we hear Sisay's vitriolic tongue lash at his flaws over a deluge of trap beats ("Reverse Faults") while the soothing, hypnotic "What Shouldn't I Be?" lulls listeners into a false sense of resolution. "I should visit my brother," he muses with a breathy falsetto at the end, "but I haven't been there in months / I've lost connection, signal...".
In reality, Sisay is understandably still grappling with those facets of grief, anxiety, relationships, and identity. Exploring the dichotomies they present with such musical and lyrical elegance is testament to his artistry. He can certainly go it alone. CK
Standout Track: "Blood On Me"
Choice Lyric: "Sophisticated bitter queen / You're the ghost in my machine..."
The second album from Joey Bada$$ is an ode to both his late friend and fellow Pro Era label founder Capital Steez, and the current ills plaguing his homeland. All Amerikkkan Bada$$ shows Bada$$ at his most direct about the Black experience in today’s America - specifically, Trump’s America. But, as the title suggests, instead of distancing himself from his birthplace, the New York rapper reasserts his right to The Land Of The Free, and from that comes the urgency which charges the record, a pressing need for action from the bottom up: “Can’t change the world ‘less we change ourselves / Die from the sicknesses if we don’t seek the health...”.
The record is comprised of two sides. The first half, which Bada$$ calls ’The Heroes Side’ is sonically lush, with sunny instrumentals that help inspire hope along with the generally positive and progressive angle which the rapper comes from. “Temptation” samples nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant’s powerful and impromptu speech at the Charlotte City Council last year over the record’s most soulful and addictive tune. Though this half feels a little saccharine at times (“Music is a form of expression / I’m a use mine just to teach you a lesson...") it’s met with qualification with the second, darker ‘Vindictive Villainous Side’, where the 22-year-old gets angry and lets loose. “Ring The Alarm” departs from his traditional, East Coast boom-bap sound and punches with a four-on-the floor beat, driving the song’s threatening tone deep.
Though criticism of the record focused on the lack of answers to the issues which he raises, All Amerikkkan Bada$$ doesn’t pretend to come from a position of superiority, but rather devotes itself entirely to pushing the search for the solution. As Bada$$ puts in the closing track “Amerikkkan Idol”, “Time to wake the fuck up and do our own research / And not form opinions based on just what we've heard / Ameri-k-k-k-a is force feeding you lies down your throats with a silver spoon /And eventually, we'll all be doomed / Real, real, real soon...”. JB
Standout Track: "Rockabye Baby"
Choice Lyric: "If you 'bout this revolution, please stand up / We ain't got no one to trust / Time is running up, feel the burn in my gut / And if you got the guts, scream, 'Fuck Donald Trump'..."
Brutalism is a crystallising moment for Bristol punks Idles, who until this point were a ramshackle crew toiling the toilet circuit. Now a full force of nature with arena slots (they supported Foo Fighters earlier this year) and a packed touring schedule across Europe, they've reached a rare and enviable point in their careers: and it all boils down to Brutalism.
Let's get away from the glaringly obvious thrashing and bashing and crashing that blurts from the speakers; yes, this is fucking loud, but these sounds aren't the key to the power of Brutalism. It's a vital work and piece of social commentary propelled by furore - but the boys don't deal in pointless nihilism. They don't deal in vague proclamations either. All of the rage and desperation and hollowness felt in fiery slugs like “Heel / Heal”, “Well Done”, or “Mother” has been blasted through a personal prism that makes it ring undeniably true. For all its worldly poignancy about the NHS, politics, class struggles, and modern urban life, it's an incredibly and intrinsically personal record that chronicles singer Joe Talbot's experience with the 21st century, and in particular the loss of his mother.
And yet: for all the volume, for all the grit, for all the bloody-eyed, vein-popping, spit-flying, unadulterated anger... it's not a depressing album either. Brutalism is earthy; it's stuck in the pit of everything that's happening, all the bad in the world, and it comes out with hope. The biggest takeaway from this album is positivity: there is hope we can change and that things will change. Brutalism is a very physical success for IDLES, a personal victory for Talbot, and a symbolic parallel to a 2017 apparently summed up by the 'youthquake'. LD
Standout Track: "1049 Gotho"
Choice Lyric: "My friend is so depressed / She wanted to have sex / I pissed in the kitchen sink / As she slowly undressed..."
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Rest is an exquisitely nocturnal art-pop record about the haunting chill of grief. The record plunges the listener into distinctly cinematic tableaux that are by turns utterly engulfing and oddly bewildering - but always completely engrossing.
Much like her previous album, the Beck-produced IRM, which focused on the quintessentially Gallic topic - existential dread - this record deals with some Big Questions: how does one overcome grief, and how long must it last?
The icy soundscapes - aided and abetted here by SebastiAn and Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo - are built around a few hallowed touchstones. Much of the album evokes the gloomy, synthetic vibe of John Carpenter’s soundtracks ("Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses", "I’m A Lie"), the neon-lit widescreen synth-pop of Chromatics ("Kate") and the bubbling, plastic funk of Daft Punk ("Deadly Valentine", "Rest", and the Paul McCartney-penned "Songbird In A Cage").
Some outliers remain, and the album is better for it. "Les Crocodiles" combines industrial glam-stomp with swirling strings and a dry, solemn piano, while "Sylvia Says" rides a monolithic robo-Chic groove into the lower reaches of saturnine euphoria. The album is so stylistically poised and considered that I found myself questioning what terrible magic was happening in the studio that caused a moonlighting movie star to produce one of the finest art-pop albums since the halcyon days of the genre.
The events that inspired the poignancy and melancholy nature of the album have been covered extensively, and while context can be useful, it’s worth noting that the success of the album lies in its ability to transcend personal trauma and sooth universal ills. Like a midnight drive, the album invites you to brood and (if you must) ruminate on the Big Questions – but forces you to keep your eyes on the road, your hand upon the wheel. RH
Standout Track: "Sylvia Says"
Choice Lyric: "The rising sky up above / Always au rendez-vous / Somewhere I've been dreaming of / Over the rainbow too..."
Loyle Carner just seems like such a good lad. The kind of guy who’d happily pop round to your house for a few beers and a couple of games of FIFA on a Saturday night. He is, essentially, the antithesis of your regular blockbuster rappers. How many other rappers would happily leave a bit in where his mum calls him “you schmoo”?
And this is all part of his appeal. He’s an everyday guy from Croydon, worrying about late night text messages and trying to tackle with his ADHD. Yesterday’s Gone is our introduction to his world; a honest and soulful place where Carner puts into words thoughts and feelings that it can sometimes be so difficult to articulate. An accomplished poet, the words tumble around and out of Carner’s mouth in a way that makes you regret ever thinking spoken word was rubbish. There are moments here, particularly “Sun Of Jean”, which have the potential to emotionally reduce you to rubble. It’s powerful stuff handled oh-so-deftly by Carner.
Easygoing jazz beats are his accompaniment of choice, perfectly fitting with the humble-yet-impactful delivery Carner brings in this ode to family and the power that a nurturing environment can bring to creativity. There’s not an ounce of egotism here. Even when Carner is talking about supporting Nas, which elsewhere could be seen as a brag, it’s more a reflection on how he’s got to this moment. It’s a tender and reflective album, but one that’s never want for ambition. In essence, it’s a star truly rising. CT
Standout Track: "Damselfly"
Choice Lyric: "He turned the world upside down and we're richer for it / He was and is a complete joy / The world is his, that scribble of a boy..."
The aptly titled Melodrama sees a young woman finding direction in the overwhelming chaos of early adulthood. It’s at times hyperbolic - revelling in the excess and opulence of Jack Antonoff’s lavish production - but often understated, with wry lyrical observations couched in velvety metaphors.
Lead single “Green Light” introduced fans to a Lorde very different from the precocious teen behind electropop breakthrough “Royals”. At first seemingly scattergun, “Green Light” took several listens to win over its listeners. Over the weeks that followed, it set down roots, laying the foundations for a project that stands head and shoulders above the highest expectations.
Melodrama walks you through the amplified reality of twentysomething love and heartbreak, repainting every mundanity in vivid technicolour. “The Louvre”’s whispered asides build upon a warts-and-all picture of nonetheless intoxicating romance, translated to the dancefloor in the heady rush of “Supercut” and “Perfect Places”. On the flipside, “Liability” deals in loneliness set to understated piano.
There’s delightful weirdness here too: the gentle explosion in “Homemade Dynamite”; the “boom, boom, boom,” refrain of “The Louvre”; the incongruous Paul Simon sample of “Loveless”. In these idiosyncrasies, Lorde shakes off the mantle of the wunderkind. We see her as a real person; less a globally recognised superstar, more a girl with whom we might share a cigarette at a house party. Melodrama isolates Lorde from the sensationalist glamour of her fame and acclaim, instead overlaying her narratives on our own underwhelming lives. Perhaps there’s not a beauty in everything - that’s not her style - but there’s a violence, a darkness, a drama to which she helps us bear witness. PW
Standout Track: "The Louvre"
Choice Lyric: "Well, summer slipped us underneath her tongue / Our days and nights are perfumed with obsession..."
There are no good albums about being happy and contented. I’m sure that’s almost certainly the case which makes Perfume Genius’ No Shape as much of a surprise to the listener as it appears to be to Mike Hadreas, the actual person who made the record.
“Alan” (there are also previously no good songs called “Alan” - fact), the final track on Perfume Genius’ best and most magnificent album to date, finds Hadreas singing the lines “We’re here / How weird,” to his partner Alan Wyffels on the sudden realisation that as a gay man he is actually happy and contented in a long-term relationship when he’s always been conditioned to believe by popular culture that this is not an actual thing which happens to gay couples.
No Shape is a lush, ornate, sumptuous album which celebrates all aspects of relationships via an inward look. No longer concerned with bigots staring at him and his partner as on Too Bright’s “Queen”, no longer worried about their thoughts and feelings on what they do behind closed doors, Hadreas instead focuses his words and gazes on what he sees before him. From almost deifying Wyffels on “Slip Away” to the eroticism of “Die 4 U”, love, sex, and protest unite in the most spectacular of fashions.
Aided by Blake Mills’ all-or-nothing production, No Shape has muscle like no other Perfume Genius record and it marks Hadreas’ transition from shy piano balladeer to fully fledged, stage-owning pop star. AH
Standout Track: "Slip Away"
Choice Lyric: "You can even say a little prayer for me / Baby, I'm already walking in the light..."
Archy Marshall’s second album under his most well-known moniker drags you into an underworld, into a sludge which at various points flows tantalisingly close to jazz, hip-hop, punk, and '60s garage, but refuses to linger at any one genre. The Ooz is slippery, visceral, filthy, and at times, improbably delicate.
23-year-old Marshall’s vocals, much like his production, shift erratically between indecipherable slurs and mumbles to seething gasps of rage. Crisp jazz chords hang on the edge of dissonance and combine with sweaty, primitive drum loops. Amidst the haze and the grime, moments of wit stab through in King Krule’s lyricism, Marshall actually succeeds in rhyming ‘bipolar’, ‘Motorola’, and ‘Gianfranco Zola’ in the exemplary “Biscuit Town”.
In many ways, The Ooz soundtracks the drags of the urban existence, “The Locomotive” tells the bleak tale of a solitary train journey through the winter night. This record evokes the image of a steamed-up bus window on a dreary Tuesday, a tired commute home, and much of the album's importance must be drawn from this. Many of Marshall’s motifs seem to have been hatched in transit: "In the depths of traffic I was feeling like we'd crashed," he sings in “Dum Surfer”. The city is greeted with an ambivalence and confusion. “Bermondsey Bosom (Right)” is a soft, poetic offering to Marshall’s native London: “He sits in the Big Smoke and things of her / Me and you against this city of parasites... paradise.”
There is a vague paranoia which pervades The Ooz. Krule’s captivating voice continues to menace, but lacks the potency and violence of his debut. This record is more introspective, dark, considered. Amidst the myriad intelligent, unique arrangements, there is a brooding consideration of the gloominess of life in the modern city, an acceptance, and a light cast on the filth that is concealed by the chaos. DC
Standout Track: "Biscuit Town"
Choice Lyric: "He left the crime scene without the Motorola / Still had dreams of being Gianfranco Zola..."
The music on Jófríður Ákadóttir's solo debut as JFDR is as much about what’s not said as what is - the ending of a relationship and the absence that creates is conveyed through suggestion in spaces and silence.
The opening “White Sun”, with its line “An ocean wave is welcoming, yet it is carrying all of my sins and all of my troubles...”, sets the scene for the use of nature as a metaphor and the journey that Brazil embarks on. Over snatches of drums and synths Ákadóttir muses on the "weightlessness of the island's intense wonders", as atmospheric guitar notes, reminiscent of Vini Reilly’s playing in The Durutti Column, glide alongside the melody. Brazil’s closer, “Journey”, completes the tale of transition and the journey depicts an emotional shift, which sets up the denouement: “Waves will beat your fake sincerity; lash completely your spirit and body…”.
It's a record that grows with each listen - where the compositions are a form of musical ellipsis, as elements of the narrative are left unwritten. Yet as she sings in “Airborne”, “As we drift apart / As we fade away /There’s nothing to be scared of / Nothing to fear...”, it’s an ultimately an acceptance of breakup and heartache as stops on the road of experience.
The astonishingly prolific Ákadóttir has created a story that’s finished, but still lingers in the heart and the memory, just as Brazil does. EN
Standout Track: "White Sun"
Choice Lyric: "The sun is white and steadily bright in the land of tinder and ice in ardent silence..."
Kevin Morby moved out of his hometown, Kansas City, when he was 18. He then relocated to Brooklyn. That was early-'00s New York, a city in panic, MDMA and cocaine bouncing around the bars hosting lineups including LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was a loud and frantic time. With widened eyes, Morby got a job delivering food on his bike. He held that position for years, spending countless hours peddling up and down the city streets, Morby witnessed all sorts of events and characters throughout. So, what do you get when you have one of the 21st century’s finest songwriters record an album, years in the making, inspired by the things he’s seen in each city he’s traveled to and lived in? A potential masterpiece.
And that’s exactly City Music, is. Following his breakthrough studio album, Singing Saw - a vivid collection of psych-influenced folk-rock - Morby’s name was cemented as one of the city’s strongest musicians. Nearly a year later, Morby unearthed an album that may not be as focused and conceptually pleasing as Singing Saw - which is practically a desert acid-trip trimmed down to explosive folk songs - but an album showing off Morby’s diversity, not just as a singer - the usual Cohen and Dylan comparisons are still there - but as an artist.
Whether it’s Morby’s plosive ode to the Ramones on “1, 2, 3, 4”, or the melancholic, nearly muffled “Dry Your Eyes”, Morby shows all sides of his creative spectrum on City Music. The end result is stunning, a gorgeous mess of songs best played in any order of your liking. In many ways, Morby’s constant unraveling of albums is similar to that of Neil Young in his early-'70s heyday. Not because Morby’s music shares dozens of similarities to Young’s music - scratchy, imperfect guitar solos, endless styles of songwriting, or a knack for seven-minute songs, to name a few - but because of the sureness each record delivers. Morby is as confident as ever, ready to play what sounds good to him, not just the listener.
But perhaps Morby’s most impressive moment on City Music is the record's title track. The song showcases everything we love about Morby - his rolling basslines, his often-flawless guitar tones matched by chaotic solos - and the album proves Morby to be invincible. TM
Standout Track: "City Music"
Choice Lyric: "Now I'm walking hand in hand / With my self and with my sin / All alone on a crowded street / I never was someone you'd want to meet..."
A giant bucket hat adorns the stage, flanked by four silver Mercedes-Benz with confetti, pyrotechnics and lasers to boot. If you thought J Hus was going to do his first headline show in his hometown quietly, you had another thing coming. His headline Brixton show in November had been a long time coming, with J HUS having been roadblocked by the Metropolitan Police’s Form 696 like many other rappers and MCs in London. But, finally happening, it seemed like the perfect way to end his 2017.
This year is a year which saw his debut album land with an almighty crash and earn him a Mercury nomination - and it’s easy to see why. Common Sense is electric and never lets up across its 17 tracks. A mishmash of genres and sounds, it’s all the more richer for it. Working together with Jae5, J HUS has created an album that effortlessly flips from grime, to bashment, to afrobeat, to hip-hop in a heartbeat; at a time when the likes of Stormzy are on the lips of people far from the grime community, J HUS feels like he’s on the cusp of exploding in much the same way.
From the Roc-A-Fella sheen of the title track, to the unhinged “Clartin”, right through to the slow jam of “Fisherman” (which sounds like if Drake had a sense of humour), Common Sense is bursting with talent and, most importantly, massive hooks. Through it all, J HUS changes style along with the beats like a vocal chameleon, and no one look seems out of place. It’s an exciting album simply because it’s so unpredictable, like a grab bag of genres. Will we get a louche dancehall vibe or a fired up grime track next?
While it might feel on the surface like a post-Skepta and Stormzy going mainstream album, J HUS has marked himself out as his own man. Common Sense, ultimately, shows HUS as a man of talent and ambition, but also vulnerability, making himself known in the most exhilarating way possible. CT
Standout Track: "Did You See"
Choice Lyric: "Did you see what I done? / Came in a black Benz, left in a white one..."
Kelly Lee Owens' self-titled debut is one of the most original and inventive albums this year. Like every great record it tells a story, but here the narrative is conveyed in sound as much it is through the lyrics.
From the electronic balladry of opener “S.O.” to the adventure in sound of the closer “8”, Owens' songs glide across styles and moods that immerse the listener in a unique musical world. “S.O” is wonderfully romantic, evoking a feeling of being lovestruck and tremulous. Starting with a delicate cello line, Owens' singing eases its way into the song before alighting on the blissed-out refrain of “Did I know it could be so?” The vocal, instrumentation, and arrangement gracefully combine to create the atmosphere the track is looking for and always finds.
In keeping with her experiments in sound, Owens' voice is harnessed both as an instrument and as a conduit for words. On “8”, a hypnotic drone that clocks in at just under 10 minutes but doesn’t waste a second, the vocals create a sonic texture and atmosphere rather than providing discernible lyrics, a feat she repeats on “Arthur”, a homage to one of her heroes, Arthur Russell. Such is the distinctiveness of Owens' musical vision, even when her voice is completely absent, as on the instrumental “Bird” which mixes orchestral flourishes with a sonorous bassline, it sounds unmistakeably like her.
Yet when the words ring out, such as on “Anxi.”, a collaboration with Jenny Hval with its mantra of “This is the narrative of reality,” or “CBM” where she returns to the power of refrain with the line “The colours, the beauty, the motion,” they complement the feeling and sound of the music perfectly.
Reflecting on the connection between music and healing in an essay for Best Fit, Owens wrote “I construct sound, and also now more than ever deconstruct it to understand it. I discovered I had a strange relationship with frequencies, that on an EQ grid, I could 'see' them or 'feel' or know exactly where they would be.” It’s this musical intuition that thrills and beguiles about Kelly Lee Owens and shows how effortless she makes the art of creating immersive music sound. EN
Standout Track: "Anxi."
Choice Lyric: "Keeping it together, keeping it together, this is the narrative of reality..."
From the 10-foot-tall intimidation of opener “First Things First” to the frank introspection of closer “Lay Me Bare”, Stormzy’s debut album Gang Signs & Prayer is equal parts flex and reflection, mirroring the twin concerns of its title and showcasing the complexity of its maker’s talent. Running to 16 tracks, it never feels thin or stretched - the sheer breadth of hyperactive ideas on display means it is never a passive listen.
Stormzy’s convincing flip between hard and soft is what gives the album its character, emotional clout and humour, and what makes it consistently surprising. Bolshy lead single “Big For Your Boots” is a (sometimes literal) kick in the face, embellished with shout-outs to Adele and advice to “Go home to your son / It's never too late to commit...”. Kehlani and Lily Allen-featuring slow jam “Cigarettes & Cush” is tender and seductive on the surface, but has undercurrents of fuckboy (“Yeah I double back on my words at times / But please don't start with that tone / ’Cause girl I love you,”) that open up the narrative possibilities - and prove that no matter how much he plays the bad boy, his inherent charm is infectious.
The album culminates with “Lay Me Bare”, a difficult listen that sees Stormzy address the effects of his depression (“Airplane mode on my phone sometimes / Sitting in my house with tears on my face / Can't answer the door to my bro sometimes,”) and a heartbreaking, rage-inducing encounter with his estranged father, who reacts to his son’s newfound fame by asking for money (“When you hear this I hope you feel ashamed...”). It’s unflinching in its honesty and deeply affecting for any listener, and the importance of a young black man talking openly about these subjects can’t be underestimated.
When Gang Signs soared to number one in the charts in March - the first pure grime album to do so - after a week-long social media campaign and a non-stop promotional schedule, it felt like a triumph of good in the midst of the horror of the year. The rest of 2017 felt like a victory lap for Stormzy, taking in sold-out shows across the world, a blistering appearance at Glastonbury, and a Mercury nomination. Earlier this month, he dropped the video for MNEK-featuring spiritual “Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2”: a moving, black and white, cast-of-thousands video filmed on a London housing estate, the poignancy of the setting and the sense of community only elevated in the wake of Grenfell. At the time of writing, it’s got an outsider chance of beating his collaborator Ed Sheeran to the Christmas number one spot; a fitting potential end to the year for 2017’s most vital British artist. I hope he does it. CB
Standout Track: "Lay Me Bare"
Choice Lyric: "Think they're bad 'cause of Narcos / Nah they're some Netflix bad boys..."
A strident statement on neurosis set against the challenges of modern relationships, SZA’s long awaited debut CTRL held its own, head and shoulders above everything else released so far 2017.
The record’s background is remarkably DIY in the best possible way - the now-27-year-old Solána Rowe used to lift beats from the web and lay down her own melodies and lines during stints as a bartender. That still doesn’t quite explain just where the hell the visionary centre of the record came from; the record is flush with pure and unfettered skill at all levels as CTRL cuts across the genres with supreme confidence. It's so rare to see such a thing on a debut - especially one with such a difficult gestation period (almost four years).
What stands front and centre are two things: the conviction and intelligence of SZA’s lyrics and her canny grasp of vocal melody. She reaches deep into the familiar, trawling across the many facets of love and sex that trip up romance all al levels. It’s accessible, relatable and honest. In fact I can’t recall another record that translates these themes in such a profound way. By working within the framework of pop music she leverages the familiar with nuance and impact. There’s anger about society’s expectations (“I’m sorry I'm not more attractive / I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike / I’m sorry I don't shave my legs at night…” she riffs on "Drew Barrymore") and grapples with the allure of a straightforweard existence: “I wanna be the type of girl you take home to your mama / The type of girl, I know your fellas would be proud of.” In one of the record’s most affecting moments, she cries,“Hope you never find out who I really am / ‘Cause you'll never love me, you'll never love me...”.
And then there’s SZA’s mom, bookending the record as the voice of both expectation and assurance. It's a move that's convincing without being cheap. From start to finish, it's nothing less than outstanding - CTRL was the late arrival of a very important artist. PB
Standout track: "Drew Barrymore"
Choice Lyric: "High key, your dick is weak, buddy / It's only replaced by a rubber substitute..." ("Doves In The Wind")
How do you follow To Pimp A Butterfly?
If you’re Kendrick Lamar, you don’t. The dense, political, unclassifiable, jazz-influenced To Pimp A Butterfly stands on its own as a document of America in 2015; a record about race in a post-Ferguson, post-Trayvon Martin world, about the frustrations of being a black man in the US despite having a black man (who Kendrick has on pager, no less) in the White House who is about to be replaced by someone a hell of a lot worse. Those frustrations aren’t about to just dissipate.
It’s almost a surprise, then, that DAMN. isn’t a document of Trump’s America. This is Lamar’s personal, internalised response to the world around him and how it turned a Tupac-idolising kid from Compton into the best rapper on the planet.
To focus in on K-Dot’s inner thoughts, DAMN. becomes a streamlined rap record light years away from its crowded predecessor. It doesn’t return Lamar to the blog rap of good kid, m.A.A.d city but transports him back to the mid ’90s: not quite sharing scenes with Tupac, more Mobb Deep meets The Roots. The lead-off single “Humble” finds Lamar putting his competitors and wannabe rivals in the shade while paying lip service to hip-hop cliches and some surface self-analysis. Alongside “XXX.” and “DNA.” they’re the album’s Mike WiLL-produced brutalist highlights, siren-led, repetitive (a trick learned from Pusha T, the former King) tracks which stand out from the true narrative storytelling around it.
Now that we have the reversed-tracklist version to confirm DAMN.’s circular nature (beginning and ending with gunshots) it only serves to make “DUCKWORTH.” the pivotal, almost heartbreaking moment. Autobiographical yet appearing to tell the story of a fictionalised and fatherless gang-bound Lamar making choices and constantly talking of loyalty (a word that appears across DAMN.), it highlights how our path isn’t predestined, isn’t locked-in from birth. Lamar could have been Duckworth, but - as he raps during “Fear” - “I guess I had some good luck.”
There but for the grace of God goes the greatest. AH
Standout Track: "DUCKWORTH."
Choice Lyric: "Life is one funny mothafucka / A true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta trust him..."
There’s a common trait in every aspect of society, but especially the wider music world, where women are expected to live up to stereotypes formed by the patriarchy. Phoebe Bridgers might sing like a country star of old but there’s nothing sugar-coated on her debut Stranger In The Alps: no diamond-studded politeness given before it's earned. “This song was produced by a man who wouldn’t work with me until he’d seen a photograph of my face. I guess he liked what he saw… the fucking asshole,” she announced during a show in Glasgow.
That plaintive sense of distaste and distrust runs throughout Stranger In The Alps. Though it’s delivered with a sense of balance which allows her poetic flourishes to sit side by side with this sobering realness, it is, in essence, a record about death as much as life. And it’s no act, either. “I do think about dying a lot,” she told Best Fit in an interview earlier this year: “I feel like a lot of my friends, especially artists, are consumed with this idea of the inevitability of death.”
While songs about death are relatively common, they’re often pitched as metaphors for relationships or other extraneous activities, but Bridgers’ candid vision allows something different altogether. Although a lot of the songs on Alps are strictly about dying, they’re handled with so much care that we’re still able to feel connected to them as listeners, as interested passengers journeying through her work. “It's not even death anxiety,” she told us, “it’s this obsession of how somebody could kill another person. ‘Chelsea’ is about Sid and Nancy… ’Killer’ is kind of about Dahmer and serial killers in general. That's mostly what it is.”
Ultimately the record holds a remarkable sadness, tracing various strands of death and quiet destruction to create a personal roadmap of sorrow; from 2016’s deluge of celebrity deaths, funerals of friends, and serial killers, to less tangible things such as feeling out of time and place, aimlessly navigating this thing we called life, alone and stoned. TJ
Standout Track: "Motion Sickness."
Choice Lyric: "I have emotional motion sickness / Somebody roll the windows down / There are no words in the English language / I could scream to drown you out..."
Writers: Abigail Hyland, Timmy Michalik, Daniel Jeakins, Jumi Akinfenwa, Rachel Bolland, Charlotte Krol, Paul Bridgewater, Andy Hannah, Pip Williams, Ross Horton, Erik Thompson, Jacob Brookman, John Platt, Larry Day, Luke Cartledge, Matt Tomiak, John Bell, Chris Taylor, Rich Thane, Christian Cottingham, Ed Nash, Janne Oinonen, Claire Biddles, Dan Carabine, and Tom Johnson