Whether the year was kind to you or not, it’s hard to deny that 2017 was historic. Together, we navigated the uncharted waters of populist politics, watched the moon eclipse the sun and endured so much tragedy that it’s difficult to process it all, looking back.
Over the past 12 months, music mirrored the ceaseless change that the world spit at us: Kendrick Lamar shed his lush jazz arrangements for skeletal trap, shifting his focus from the political sphere to the self. Loss led singer-songwriter Phil Elverum to do the same, spawning a record that was so personal that it proved tough to listen to. The increasing popularity of Bandcamp as a streaming platform encouraged moody millennials to trade in their diaries for 4-track recorders and acoustic guitars, broadcasting their ideas and insecurities to anyone who’d listen.
Some people said that a Trump president would make punk music popular again: instead it revived the singer-songwriter subgenre. For better or for worse, 2017 was the year of the individual. Here are just some of the albums that best celebrated the self.
So I was takin a walk the other day…
Kendrick Lamar- DAMN.
Everything surrounding DAMN. felt like an event. It started with “The Heart Pt. 4” dropping on March 23, and from that moment to Easter Sunday the rap internet lost its mind. “HUMBLE.” touched down on March 30, making “sit down, be humble” the catchphrase of the spring and summer. DAMN. finally released on April 14 (after we had our shit together a week prior), but not even that was enough. The album effectively came with a “make your own tinfoil hat” and we fooled ourselves into thinking NATION. would be dropping on the Lord’s day. DAMN. was music’s wildest ride in 2017.
The record starts with “BLOOD.,” the haunting tale of our hero, Kung Fu Kenny, meeting his demise. A segment from Fox News follows, and from that moment on Lamar’s album runs off the tracks with so much skill and swagger that not even Bono could ruin the moment.
On To Pimp A Butterfly and untitled. unmastered., Lamar flexed over Thundercat instrumentals and created a “Black Lives Matter” anthem. On DAMN., Lamar rapped over actual hip-hop beats from Atlanta super-producer Mike Will Made It. It was a welcome return and one needed in the year 2017.
DAMN. came loaded with party playlist mainstays like “HUMBLE.” and “DNA.” while still showcasing Lamar’s knack for storytelling with “DUCKWORTH.” DAMN. isn’t the year’s most fun record (s/o to A$AP Ferg), or the smartest record (s/o to Björk), or the most lyrical (s/o to Mount Eerie). But, DAMN. did everything well and came with material for both old-heads and Lil Pump enthusiasts alike.
DAMN. is Kendrick Lamar, one of the world’s top rappers, nearing his prime and delivering what feels like a roundup of his talents. Everything surrounding Damn felt important, it was the most hyped album of the year and Lamar came through.
-Cole Grecco (*our incoming news editor, Sam Rosenstiel, also named this his top album).
A$AP Ferg- Still Striving
Anyone going into Still Striving hoping for something groundbreaking or important is going to be disappointed. A$AP Ferg doesn’t preach, doesn’t inspire, doesn’t change the game. He makes songs to get hype and drink responsibly to.
From the first track, Still Striving doesn’t hold back. “Trap and A Dream” employs the greatest intro rapper of all time, Meek Mill, to prepare the listener for what’s coming for the next 49 minutes. Each song is more fun and rambunctious than the next. “What Do You Want” stands as the sole weak song on the project, but even Nav’s robotic flow has a rare charm to it in the record’s context.
Still Striving became my go-to album this year. Not sure what to listen to? Still Striving. Going for a run? Still Striving. Feeling down and sad? Still Striving. Fed up with the grind of retail? STILL STRIVING.
I think there’s something to be said for that. I’ve always been impartial to the A$AP Mob guys. Rocky has the purest voice in rap music and even some of the smaller A$APers work their niche well (no one can ride those dusty New York beats like A$AP Nast). Ferg is no different, ever since “Shabba” and “Work REMIX” he’s had this uncanny ability to make the perfect baseball walk-up tracks.
In a year when the Mob released an album together, it’s nice to see Ferg stand out with his own record. In a lot of ways, Still Striving feels like the culmination of everything we’ve seen from the Harlem rapper. It’s fun, it’s catchy, and it’s wild. Ferg even grabbed his first solo hit with “Plain Jane.”
And while solo Ferg is the highlight of the album, the features are nice additions. Cam’Ron trades bars with Ferg on “Rubber Band Man” showcasing a special brand of New York chemistry. “East Coast (Remix)” stands out as one of, if not the best posse cut of 2017.
Still Striving is fun and that’s really all there is to it. No other album captured the pure joy of New York rap music like Ferg’s latest.
Björk – Utopia
In some ways, Utopia plays out like an endearing parody of Björk’s past decade of output, piling on the pan flutes, stretching its 10-minute compositions in to frayed bubblegum strands, and wallowing in its own futurist-but-also-naturalist aesthetic: she samples animal sounds in lieu of snare drums on “Body Memory”, for God’s sake.
The new effort is wildly pretentious and impenetrably academic, two usually undesirable traits that I’m weirdly always hoping for a Björk album to embody. Like Kanye West, who’s also collaborated with Utopia‘s co-producer Arca in recent endeavors, the Icelandic art-pop mainstay has the grandiose presence and creative drive to back up her musical hyperbole. And from the new record’s explosive blossoms of melody to its diary-entry lyrics that bridge the mundane and divine, it’s evident that Björk has cultivated what might be her most hyperbolic material to date.
Though blooming as slowly as “Stonemilker”, the string-swathed opener to Björk’s 2015 effort Vulnicura, Utopia‘s intro track “Arisen My Senses” produces a flower that’s exponentially more fragrant and abstract than its predecessor. When Björk’s not belting gale-force cries into the exosphere, she’s filling in the space below with the whispered germination of love. “Weaving a mixtape, with every crossfade,” she sneaks beneath her own synthesized chorus: the affection here is as seemingly world-changing (and unwieldy) as a teenage crush, carefully curated playlists sent as gifts and all.
The title track is the album’s most solid cut. Beginning with a lengthy instrumental section, its woodwinds and sampled insect sounds are spooky and humid as the alien landscape record’s visual accompaniments depict. Digital percussion clicks and shuffles to the speedy rhythm of Chicago’s footwork scene. Woozy orchestral arrangements approximate a trap melody, the twittering of “unseen birds never seen or heard before”.
Listening, you really feel as if you’re walking through a conservatory or an aquarium only to discover that you’re what’s behind the glass.
Stampeter – too many boys
too many boys is twenty ounces of sentimentality, left in the freezer so long that it pressurizes the air inside its bottle. The plastic warps, the cap pops, and you’re left with a sticky mess that smells like sucrose and growing pains.
Spanning seven tracks in just 19 minutes, Connecticut’s stampeter approach their fifth EP with an anthemic conviction that’d make their back catalogue of folksy twee pop tunes tremble in fear. Roomy and raw, the record’s an introspective take on the retro college-rock sound of 90’s acts like Blake Babies or The Lemonheads that ditches pretension for melodic WOOs that you can scream along to, station wagon windows rolled down.
“waters”, sandwiched right in the center of too many boys, is the album’s standout moment. It’s a love song about leeches and big city dreams that steadily shifts from its nervously strummed verse to a power-chord-driven chorus, unfurling infinitely in all directions, revealing the cataclysmic power held within. Stampeter stay true to their sloppy, slacker-rock aesthetic here, but unintentionally tap into a confidence that draws genre-transcending brilliance from just two chords. The way Luca Bartlomiejczyk’s sustained vowel sounds melt into Judge Russell’s slogging bassline: it sneaks up on you and warms your cynical soul. A Casio’s glassy hum mimes the melody, taking up residence in your psyche’s now-cozy confines.
From the slow heaves of “pullout couch” to the twangy vocal harmonies that close the woozy “paws”, this record is a flurry of knockout punches that perfects any genre it touches. too many boys is emo, grunge, folk, and ambient all at once, blurring the lines between each distinction: it’s the product of its own reality.
Mount Eerie–A Crow Looked at Me
A Crow Looked at Me begins abruptly. Sparse instrumentation backdrops Phil Elverum’s stripped down vocals: “Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not.”
It’s a meditation on his late wife Geneviève Castrée, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. She was also musician, a comic book artist and mother to their young child. In past albums Elverum felt unsure, pondering the intricacies of existence. Though previous albums Lost Wisdom and Dawn are both populated with hushed soundscapes, Elverum has never felt more straightforward or sure–death is both tangible and sacred, and he’s not trying to convince the listener of this, but rather, trying to come to grips with unimaginable loss.
He gestures to his grief, scattering evidence of absence in every track–be it a package Geneviève ordered before her death (a backpack for her daughter) in “Real Death” or “on a fridge in lifeless pictures” in “Ravens.” His mind is colonized with her memory, crumbling with time like artifacts: her singing in the stairwell, her squeaking chair and throwing away her old toothbrush in “Toothbrush/Trash.”
“You were looking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you.”
Crow is packed with cold spaces and slipping ground; Elverum’s isolated voice, like creaking floorboards and the fog of breath in winter, reminds us of the reality of life and its uncertainty.
“Ravens” is the most abstract. He lingers on patchworks of memory–in 2015, outside as Geneviève was inside “probably aching, wanting not to die”– and releasing her ashes a year later on a beach surrounded by cedars and berries (where they had planned to move). It waxes poetic–ominous ravens “their black feathers tinted in the sunset” and reoccuring dreams of her.
“I will move with our daughter. We will ride over water, with your ghost underneath the boat. What was you is now burnt bones, and I cannot be at home.”
His constant strumming acts as a tide–it retreats, restless, and resurfaces, covered in brine and cold earth. In “Swims” he hesitates, not being able to scrub away the image of his wife dying in his arms. He speaks plainly: you can hear the room, the static, the shudder of his breath. He scratches to the surface, under a bed of ice, nails flecked in blood. The track delivers one of the most memorable stanzas in the album: “Today our daughter asked me if mama swims. I told her ‘Yes she does and that’s probably all she does now.’”
The 11-track album ends with “Crow,” an ode to his daughter and the life they must move toward in the absence of mother, and wife. They walk through the woods, a forest fire zone in sight. “Sweet kid,” he sings, the most hopeful he has sounded, “what is this world we are giving you?” She dreams of a crow, one-part omen and one-part reminder.
A rustle of feathers, a faint reminder of a pulse now gone. A glimpse of sliding life. Murmurs in a bedroom you once shared.
“And there she was.”
Crow is painful to listen to, but essential. No album in memory explores grief so literally and honestly: it took me months to listen to it fully, not wanting to feel so damn much. Elverum is an introspective artist who shares pain unguarded, more so he can come to grips with his own grief than for the listener to understand, but nonetheless grief has never felt more real to me in any medium.
Alvvays – Antisocialites
On their sophomore LP, Canadian dream rock outfit Alvvays refine their wall of sound into something that feels small and reflective. Antisocialites improves on the band’s formula and guides us through the broken bones of a breakup.
Antisocialites, like much of the five-piece’s self-titled debut, is steeped in a teen-dream narrative. 2014’s single “Archie, Marry Me” implored its mark to fall headlong in love, to forget the wedding and their share of student loans. That lover is conspicuously absent from their new collection of suburban pop, and Alvvays has grown all the stronger for it.
Like all memories of love and loss, it’s hard not to focus on where you went wrong. Jangling guitars meld with synth on “Dreams Tonite” as singer Molly Rankin laments, “if I saw you on the street, would I have you in my dreams tonight?” Opening track “In Undertow” similarly chants “there’s no turning back after what’s been said.”
The album weaves in and out of genre on tracks like “Plimsoll Punks,” a beachy-keen tune telling off someone that bums you out, and “Hey,” a frivolous garage-rock freakout.
But it’s the burnt-up strings and synth midway through “Not My Baby” that make bones ache. When the chord resolves, you can feel the synth crackle and fizz like a damp log on a dying fire. Why can’t all heartbreak feel this fizzy and fun?
– Sam Rosenstiel
Thundercat – Drunk
Thundercat – Drunk
“Nobody move, there’s blood on the floor / and I can’t find my heart.”
One of the most sampled works in R&B and hip-hop is The Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark,” a terribly moody song about cheating and being cheated on, about a man spending the night mourning the terminal prognosis of his relationship. In 2015, Stephen Bruner a.k.a. Thundercat layered an intriguing, bouncing bass riff over that iconic opening drum beat for “Them Changes,” the lead single on his latest LP Drunk.
This 22-track album explores the complexities of living, and “Them Changes” similarly deals with ideas of lost love. It isn’t long before that topic changes though, and the sonic presence with it. Bruner is clearly a faithful student of The Isley’s brand of funk and soul, but he adds a richness and a spunk with a groove that is at once familiar and new.
Bruner is known for his collaborations with Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, but Drunk feels even more like a team effort. A bass groove crawls across an 808 on “Walk on By,” creating a slow fusion groove for wordsmith Kendrick Lamar to spit on the lonely nature of unwritten wrongs (check Lamar’s appearance at the top of this list, Cole Grecco has great taste). Classic, loungey soul track “Show You The Way” affords Bruner’s falsetto time to croon over a wurly electric piano. His voice drops to a soothing baritone to introduce the vocal stylings of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins.
Thundercat’s great strength on Drunk is his willingness to mend the fabric of genre into a completely different garment. A patch of punk, a stitch of jazz, and all the while taking found sounds and creating an outfit that’s both a disco goon’s leisure suit and and an alien invader’s jockstrap. It’s goofy. It’s introspective. It works.
There is no inebriated stumbling on any inch of Drunk. The work is frightening but familiar, methodical and spontaneous. The great trick of Drunk is making the listener unable to pin it down to just one sound.