The more of your life you spend consuming music, the more you realize an essential truth: the records deemed “the best” in any sort of ranking system — whether it be year-end lists or the Grammys — are not necessarily the ones you should be listening to.
Or not the only ones, rather. An as I said last year, the stuff everyone agrees on is a mere starting point. So while we brought you The Key’s top 15 albums of 2017 earlier this month, today we encourage you to dig deeper and further explore the spectrum of compelling music that was released this year. For this list, we highlight critics’ favorites from The Key’s staff of contributors; albums that topped individual lists but did not crack our overall top 15.
From the life-affirming punk rock of Amanda X to the eviscerating metal of Converge, the defiant electro rock of Fever Ray to the compellingly personal rap of Ruby Ibarra, our writers and photographers make their case for those albums: why they moved them, why they impressed them, why they loved them and why they’re important for you to listen to in 2017. Read (and listen) on for The Key’s roundup of 20 albums you should not overlook in 2017. –John Vettese
Amanda X – Giant – (Self Aware Records)
The most rewarding gift an album can give is to be a grower. I’ve been a fan of the band Amanda X since 2012’s Ruin the Moment and have marvelled at the trio’s musicianship and energy on stage. I liked Giant a lot when I first heard it. One day, my appreciation for the album went over the tipping point and I fell into a Giant rabbit hole, as it were, and refused to get out. I listened to the album about three to four times a day, sometimes on loop. I know every drum hit, key change, harmony, and if pressed could probably do a mean mouth guitar to Cat Park’s solo in the epic “Pitch Axis.”
I can’t point to the exact thing that makes me love this album so much. It may be Park’s skillful guitar playing, perhaps the back and forth vocals and harmonies between Park and bassist/co-vocalist and fellow songwriter Kat Bean, or how many of the songs on Giant go to unexpected places. Take “Casual Spit”; it starts out as a Kim Deal-inspired mellow rocker but by the end the band erupts and explodes just for a few seconds but long enough to make an impression.
There are also straightforward songs, such as the single that in an alternate universe would have been a hit: “Dear Marie.” The lyrics don’t give much in the way of plot and are mysterious. The line “I am late for work,” is repeated throughout but Bean wants to make sure Marie understands that whatever bad blood there was, she apologizes; it’s the most catchy song about about a hurried but heartfelt apology that has been written.
Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time – (BMG)
In 2012, Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T. stepped up to the plate and delivered his debut album, Live From The Underground, a project that critics viewed as a miss for the Def Jam freshman, compared to his critically acclaimed mixtapes such as Return of 4eva and 4eva n a Day. After strike one, K.R.I.T. returned to the plate in 2014 with his sophomore album Cadillactica which was viewed as a foul ball: enough to make contact but still room for improvement so he could stay in field. Three years, later after two album strikes and parting ways with Def Jam, Big K.R.I.T. returns to the plate with his third album, 4eva is A Mighty Long Time, a double LP that feels like the southern MC has finally hit one out of the park.
4eva is A Mighty Long Time is the album that Big K.R.I.T fans have waited for, because unlike his first two albums, it possess the same quality as the mixtapes that made him gain their attention. The release from Def Jam released the pressure of K.R.I.T. having a make an album that people could understand — he went back to making music that people could feel instead. The double album displays the duality of K.R.I.T., Big K.R.I.T. and his offstage name Justin Scott. With the assistance of southern hip hop royalty such as T.I., Mannie Fresh, Lloyd, UGK, Organized Noize, Sleepy Brown and CeeLo Green, the Big K.R.I.T. side shows a southern hip hop artist who is unapologetic and proud of his southern roots. The Justin Scott side is where K.R.I.T. gets personal. With the help of singers Joi and Philly’s own Jill Scott and Bilal, he adds soulful elements, live instrumentation from jazz musicians Robert Glasper, Keyon Harold, Kenneth Whalum and Burniss Earl Travis II. It’s filled with what the late Pimp C would call “country rap tunes” that allow K.R.I.T. to vent about the insecurities, depression and anxiety that Scott deals with in the shadows.
From the first track “Big K.R.I.T.” to the final track “Bury Me In Gold,” 4eva is A Mighty Long Time is Big K.R.I.T.’s Behind The Music that breaks down the rapper, shows the human Justin Scott and helps fans listeners discover how much they can relate to the Mississippi hometown hero. Sometimes the third time is indeed a charm.
The Big Moon – Love in the 4th Dimension – (Columbia)
In an era of social and political turbulence, an era where the most rallied-around sounds are frustrated art or escapist pop, what is one to do with a charismatic rock record filled with songs about love and its misadventures? Judging from the blank stares I get from 95% of my friends when I enthuse at length about London four-piece The Big Moon, a lot of us might answer that question “not a whole hell of a lot.” This band is fantastic, its debut LP has given me life in all sorts of ways this year, but it has barely made a dent in the stateside collective consciousness — and that’s unfortunate.
Comprised of singer-guitarist Juliette Jackson, lead guitarist Soph Nathann, bassist Celia Archer and drummer Fern Ford, The Big Moon debuted last year with The Road, an impressive but all-too-short collection of catchy melodies and guitar-heavy hooks. This year’s Love In The 4th Dimension ups the ante considerably with big, bold, impossibly catchy songs that are at once nostalgic and very much of the now. For the old heads like myself who came up in the 90s Britpop era, there’s so much to love: the record evokes the swagger and cool of Sleeper and Blur, the fun and frenzy of Supergrass and Elastica. For the youth of the aughties blogrock days, you’ll pick up hints of The Long Blondes and The Libertines. And among their contemporaries, The Big Moon sounds solid in the mix alongside fellow exports such as Wolf Alice and Circa Waves.
But moreso than who and what they sound like – TL;DR: they sound awesome – is the songs themselves. From the ratty guitar chords that herald opening track “Sucker,” a paean to total and occasionally foolish devotion, 4th Dimension is a record full of hooks, hooks and more hooks. “Pull the Other One” is carried by Nathann’s earworm-y guitar lead and a commanding rhythm from Ford (that snare hit before the second verse kicks in), while Jackson mulls romantic reticence in a series of punchy verses: “When you got me roses I just couldn’t bear to see them, I had to hide them behind the settee. / I’ve washed my hair so many times that all the ends are splitting, there must be something wrong with me.” The chorus is a total joy when it hits, and even with the tight precision of the overall performance, some odd bits left in the mix for a feeling of extra authenticity: a bubbling vocal warmup on the pre-verse section, a dropped tambourine at the conclusion.
Other songs tap into a range of emotions: the saga of a messy hookup in “Cupid,” the self-doubt and vulnerability of “Formidable,” the weary ennui of “Bonfire” and the sleepless desire of “Zeds.” Jackson’s lyrics give a frank, honest look at the complications of finding love in the year 2017, and playing tremendously alongside her mates, does it with aplomb. Love In The 4th Dimension is neither a raging middle finger at society; nor is it a mindlessly effervescent celebration of not having to worry about society. It’s instead a middle ground between this year’s extremes, a nuanced, smart and sensitive set that you’d do well to seek out, regardless of whether it fit into the curatorial mindset of the American zeitgeist this year.
Blank Spell – Miasma – (World Gone Mad)
While some bands immediately record and release a full length record within months of forming, West Philadelphia’s Blank Spell played the long game. Although their first show was in May of 2014, it wasn’t until this past June that they finally put out Miasma, a ten track LP on the World Gone Mad label.
This is in many ways an absolutely perfect album, one that seamlessly blends the catchiness and energy of hardcore punk with the aesthetic – both visual and musical – of deathrock bands like 45 Grave or Sex Gang Children. There is also a heavy dose of more obscure Eastern European and South American punk in there, a result of the band being made up of music nerds who are very, very good musicians. In the three years period from the first show until Miasma was released, Blank Spell put out a couple tapes and a 7″, a very solid output for any band. But when something is that good – and this is really, really good – you want more.
Instead of going into the studio to record a LP, the band went on the road, doing some long tours that brought them across the country and to Mexico and Canada. They also have other bands and, I don’t know, I guess they have jobs and responsibilities and stuff. Most importantly, at least for this review, they have other bands: Jake is in cowpunk rockers Wild At Heart, Aaron plays in Haldol (check out their amazing new LP The Totalitarianism of Everyday Life!), and Cassidy is in a slew of bands including metal freaks Devil Master and Cape of Bats as well as S-21, who unfortunately broke up earlier this year.
While she sings and shreds on guitar in Blank Spell, Cassidy is also an excellent drummer and bassist. In addition to that, she’s an incredible illustrator, contributing cover and flyer art for both her own bands as well as others around the city. You can find her distinctive work on Instagram at @formlesshorror. Miasma is one of the best albums to come out of Philadelphia in years and was well worth the wait. Do yourself a favor and go down to your local record shop and pick it up. Or better yet, go see the band play live and get a copy from them. I’ll see you in the basement!
Cherry Glazerr – Apocalipstick – (Secretly Canadian)
Cherry Glazerr delivers a headstrong, self-aware album in Apocalipstick. Their second full-length release, the band solidifies their sound through distorted basslines, righteous guitar riffs, persnickety drumming and Clementine Creevy’s piercing vocals.
While their first album, Haxel Princess, served to debut the group as a bold, young voice in a sea of indie rocksters, this rollicking 11-track display of rock’n roll ultimately puts forth the band’s musical capability as a trio. The beauty especially lies in their delivery of anthemic, scream-alongs like “Humble Pro” and “Told You I’d Be With The Guys”, then slapping you in the face with a heartbreaker like “Nuclear Bomb”, which ebbs and flows between heavy and light, growling guitars softened by Clem’s light, childlike vocals. You can’t help but toss (or at very least bob) your head to jams like “Lucid Dreams,” which despite its title is a fast-paced, synth-heavy stream-of-consciousness track that only builds in intensity as it goes.
Cherry Glazerr knocks it out of the park with their thoughtful pairing of synths and jamming guitar lines; Gut-wrenching riffs pepper the album, especially unforgettable ones in “Only Kid On The Block” and “Moon Dust.” Apocalipstick deals with issues of the everyday, like an inability to work a nine to five (“Trash People”) and dealing with today’s media saturation (“Instagratification”), but it’s delivered with such bite that the ideas feel fresh, revitalized with a sharp tongue and robust sound, giving them the power to spout angsty, snarling lyrics with a wise legitimacy. It’s with this ability that the band stands tall and unyielding, ripe with maturity.
In a world that is desperately seeking bold women to bark feelings into the void, Cherry Glazerr is there with Apocalipstick to bring punch and purpose to all.
Converge – The Dusk In Us – (Epitaph)
Converge has always specialized in working in a lot of genre defying magic in to a genre (metal) that can easily make musicians go stale. The Dusk In Us takes so many elements from other areas of rock – sludge, doom, even shoegaze and commercial alt-rock -and sprinkles them throughout in a way that elevates them far, far above their cookie cutter peers. They are musicians of the highest caliber, and their flexibility proves that.
Yes, Jacon Bannon is screaming, a lot, and I get that it’s not everyones cup of tea, but his voice is an extension of everything else they do, it is an instrument that elevates every area of this album. Kurt Ballou is one of the finest guitarists alive today, in any genre. Period. Nate Newton is the epitome of every metal band’s dream bassist, and Ben Koller plays the drums like Kenneth Brannaugh plays Shakespeare.
There is a moment on the title track — which has to be heard on full blast, obviously — where all of these elements come beautifully together. It’s a slow, lumbering song, in contrast to much of the rest of the albums speed race to the finish line. The sung lyrics start off almost as a chant “Dear frightened little boy, it’s time to rise above all of their noise” One of the big points of this album is that they have broadened their scope to worldwide emotions, as opposed to internal torture. Then, as soon as the comforting feelings of safety kick in, Bannon’s draconian wail comes barreling through, and gives way to crushing guitars, as it seems the whole band chimes in to yell “Dusk in us”
The album is the strongest piece of rock I heard all year. It’s an adventure to listen to again and again. This isn’t light reading on the subway music, it’ll require patience if you’re not used to the style, but everything in The Dusk In Us represents a step forward for musicians at the top of their game, and their hard work is definitely worth a listen.
Fever Ray – Plunge – (Rabid)
If there have been any worthwhile takeaways in this darkest of years, where it feels like the world continues to descend to new depths of madness, it is that love truly is all we have left. Leave it to The Knife’s Karin Dreijer to not only highlight that truth on her surprise sophomore solo effort, but weaponize it. Barely a month old, Plunge perfectly paraphrases everything wrong with 2017 halfway through with an instantly iconic line: “This country makes it hard to fuck.”
But fuck she does all the same. Whereas 2009’s Fever Ray suggested unease with domesticity and conforming to societal norms, this album depicts desire and even defiance. It suggests that in a world where hate seems to have trumped love, the most radical form of resistance is loving whoever and however you please.
Dreijer couches this queer-minded thesis in some of the most accessible and exciting music of her career. Lead single “To the Moon and Back” offers an echo of The Knife’s seminal Deep Cuts with its neon synth arpeggios, only to undercut any expectation of “Heartbeats” redundancy with a lyrical sucker punch worthy of Peaches, not to mention an amazingly NSFW music video. Elsewhere, Dreijer reminisces about a volatile, maybe masochistic affair over gorgeous strings on “Red Trails”, and she captures both the thrill and anxiety of app-assisted hookup culture in the Nídia co-produced “IDK About You”‘s schizophrenic skitter.
The end result of all of the above is an endlessly invigorating listen that nails what it’s like to feel alive and in love (or lust) in an era that encourages numbness to both. Or, as Karin says, “Every time we fuck we win.”
And every listen to Plunge feels like a victory lap.
Florist – If Blue Could Be Happiness – (Double Double Whammy)
Listening through Florist’s sophomore full-length album for the first time, I became visibly shaken at the visceral resonance of Emily Sprague’s soft-spoken, symbolic lyricism. Communicating through color and light, and likewise, the absence of both, on Florist’s If Blue Could Be Happiness, Sprague reflects on the relentlessness of existential anxiety, the loneliness of transitioning into adulthood, and the weepy nostalgia and romanticism of the past that distance from family, friends, and childhood invites.
Focusing on the nonnegotiable impermanence of life, the twenty-something Sprague imparts a wisdom far beyond her years. Avoiding pretentious, highly intellectualized philosophy spewings, Sprague is like an introverted common-(wo)man’s philosopher who seeks advice and understanding in life’s simplicities.
But this sage enlightenment is not a given inherent quality, it’s an earned understanding found after traversing a scary and awesome contemplative journey.
If Blue Could Be Happiness is a perfect sequential mapping of that journey, where we learn along the way that Sprague’s goal was not to rid herself of doubt and fear, but rather to find peace in it; in the end, realizing we’ve joined her in finding happiness living in the blue.
Friendship – Shock out of Season – (Ordinal)
“The water is pretty but unclear” sings frontman Dan Wiggins midway through “If You See My Beloved,” the opening track to the sophomore album from Philadelphia’s Friendship. It is soothing. It is relatable. And best of all, it is local.
From the start of the track one begins a story known as life. They also work in a few mentions of Philadelphia things, which is always nice to hear the local artists do. Shock out of Season displaying the band’s unique vocals and quiet arrangements, simple and folk-like on the surface but backed up by the soothing melodies of percussion and synths, constructing the layers to this melodic narrative . When properly listening to this album straight through, the songs flow from one to the other, like a journal of how to balance everyday life with the people around you.
There is an inscrutable calming sensation that comes with listening to Shock Out of Season. The lyrics and emotion keep you hooked all the through to the album’s ending, where Wriggins sings “Little duckling, leaving your mommas way” halfway through “Moment of Discovery,” a pensive conclusion to an album about the questyions running through our heads as we navigate our ways through life.
Ron Gallo – Heavy Meta – (Bloodshot)
Trading Americana roots music for garage rock and Philly for Nashville, Ron Gallo released his new band’s debut record Heavy Meta this past February, just a little over two years after skipping town to head south. It’s hard to miss all that irony there.
In fact, it’s hard to miss anywhere, when it comes to Gallo: he sort of beats you over the head with it with his music, and with his stagecraft too, including an intro to his live sets that verges on sketch comedy. That irony is sometimes heavy-handed, sure, but it’s never ham-handed, and even though Gallo will clearly go for the obvious pun or lyrical turn-of-phrase (or, while we’re at it, for starting yet another three-piece garage-punk band) he never ends up really risking or sacrificing any originality, or their ability to engage and incite. With his flair for rock-and-roll-theater yelps and his Subterranean Homesick hair, Gallo and his two compatriots — Joe Bisirri on bass, Dylan Sevey on drums — stomp, stutter and strut on Heavy Meta through 11 dynamic tracks that wage war on your speakers in just under 40 minutes.
Maybe Gallo went to Nashville to stand outside Third Man Records and rock in the street until Jack White agreed to take him in, because if this were 2001, people might be chattering on about how this record might just stand to “save rock and roll.” But in a year like 2017 that’s short on optimism and hype but still offers an abundance of overripe cynicism, you might more appropriately appreciate Heavy Meta for just what it really is: a fresh record that feels like a brand new dish made from old ingredients, and makes good on a long tradition of distorted electric guitar, sweaty garage spaces, and American-made reverb-laden rock-and-roll.
Ruby Ibarra – Circa91 – (Beatrocks Music)
Asian Americans like Ruby Ibarra and myself fought tooth-and-nail to make our own identities in a country that often only sees race in Black and White. Some of our peers internalized the Horatio Alger myth, attributing our successes to work ethics that they believe more-disenfranchised people of color don’t possess. Ibarra went in the opposite direction, learning to channel her experiences with familial and structural trauma into nimble and confessional rap music that celebrates allyship and nuanced identity. Her debut full-length album, Circa91, narrates a life of personal exploration with grace and wisdom.
The album’s 18 songs and skits, which incorporate passages in Ibarra’s native Tagalog, take clear influence from artists like Lauryn Hill in their confessional candor and rapid-fire wordplay. The title references the year when her family moved from the Philippines to the Bay Area, and the whole album reads like a memoir to her reconciliation of those identities. Tracks like “Broken Mirrors,” which recounts her father’s neglect and alcoholism, hold a harsh light to her most intimate struggles. Others like “Skies” send up the scripts America imposes upon people of color, holding them to false ideals that don’t actually protect them from racism. She navigates hurt and persevereance through a lens that celebrates allyship and self-understanding over bravado and internalized hate.
The album’s specific focus will resonate with Asian American listeners, who work everyday to cast off the toxic prejudices that unfortunately follow and pervade our communities. Circa91 is undoubtedly us, but it also sees every person who overcame internal and external darkness to achieve a better-realized self. Ibarra thus inherits hip-hop’s legacy of speaking to the disempowered, and makes her a firm part of its future.
Vijay Iyer – Far From Over – (ECM)
The title track of pianist Vijay Iyer’s latest is not, alas, a cover of the Frank Stallone anti-classic from the Staying Alive soundtrack (not wholly inconceivable from an artist who’s recorded jazz twists on songs by Heatwave, M.I.A., and Michael Jackson in the past). Iyer’s Far From Over does, however, echo the theme of persistence in the face of insurmountable odds triumphed by that ’80s anthem. In Iyer’s case, it’s the divisiveness and racial tensions of Trump’s America, not the dying disco era, that’s the issue to be confronted. From the pianist’s perspective, the first step to a political movement is physical movement, so the urgent momentum of this sextet session is intended to launch listeners off their couches and into the streets.
To achieve that mission, which follows in the activist jazz mentality of forebears from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane to the AACM, Iyer has assembled his most impressive ensemble to date. Like the bandleader himself, every member of the sextet – cornetist Graham Haynes, saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey – is not only a leader in their own right, but a leader with a distinctive and boundary-pushing vision of their own. That could conceivably lead to a clash of digressive styles, but in this case it corrals six individuals who each know intuitively how to shape and stretch music into its most inventive form. The result is a set of songs that’s compelling and vital, that thrives on navigating complex twists and turns while surging with taut grooves and knotty melodies.
In other words, just the soundtrack to get your brain in gear and your blood pumping as you raise your fist in resistance or simply block out reality under a pair of headphones.
Pissed Jeans – Why Love Now – (Sub Pop)
One of the year’s most feminist albums came from four men – some married, with kids, in their mid-30’s, working desk jobs – not exactly the picture of “woke” that we’re used to post-pu**y grab election. But that’s exactly what Why Love Now is. Woke AF.
One of the most important tracks on the record is, not coincidentally, a mocking, machismo poem penned and performed by author Lindsey Hunter called “I’m a Man.” In the story, the subject – a wimpy water delivery guy – makes unwelcome aggressive passes at the “office lady” until he’s the full-blown King Kong of masculinity and sexual prowess (at least, in his mind). A battleground drum beat heaves the story forward until you don’t know whether to laugh at lines like “I’m your boss / get me a cup of coffee / and dip your undies in it” or cry.
Never one to hide behind the puffed chest of punk rock masculinity (the album’s first single is literally called “The Bar is Low”), Pissed Jeans’ subject matter deals mostly with unsexy things, like health care and receding hairlines. The group’s heightened social consciousness allows them to paint a picture of a real life’s worth of dull days in a way that only they can – or maybe Bukowski could if he wasn’t such a chauvinistic asshole. As straight white men, they know what fellow straight white men have done to deserve the pokes and prods, and they serve ’em up in songs like “Cold Whip Cream” and “Not Even Married” in a way that still sounds dirty, metal and manly and only helps to baffle those who don’t understand and delight those who do.
One last thing: The extremely relevant concept of this album – equal parts an apology to all women everywhere, and lesson plan to less “woke” men – makes the term “concept album” feel really cheap. Don’t write this album off as another band capitalizing off of Feminism with a capital F. Pissed Jeans has more or less been spreading this message for years (see the 2014 reissue of their earliest EPs, Shallow + Throbbing Organ, featuring the song “Ashamed of My Cum?”). That they enlisted the help of two powerful female voices, Hunter and ’80s No Wave icon Lydia Lunch, who co-produced this record, only helps authenticate their stance.
Rapsody – Lalia’s Wisdom – (Def Jam)
By the time 34-year-old Rapper Marlanna Evans (aka Rapsody) signed with Roc Nation, she had already established herself as a gifted lyricist and a bright light in the hip hop landscape. The signing was mostly met with praise. One of indie rap’s rising stars aligning herself with a major company with all the sway and resources to break through the glass ceiling of underground hip hop. When news of the deal broke, noted hip hop blog DJBooth.net wondered aloud about what the future held for Rapsody in her new partnership with the Jay-Z helmed corporate juggernaut. “Could Rapsody be on the next Beyonce album? Is there a J. Cole collab on the horizon? And of course the big question, when’s Jay Z hopping on a remix?” Fast forward one year and the Rapsody/Roc Nation alliance has borne something far greater: Laila’s Wisdom an impassioned reflection on life, love and the wisdom of the ancestors.
The album begins with producer Nottz completely flipping and recontextualizing Aretha Franklin’s cover of the Nina Simone & Weldon Irvine’s classic “Young, Gifted & Black.” After a few bars of dexterous sample chopping, Rapsody enters with a barrage of, nimble, self-assured bars. Her warm southern drawl weaving through a rainstorm of wise insights and wild-eyed imagery. “Look don’t worry bout anything they told you. Remember what she said about winter and what the cold do. / Everything’s a season and some things you gotta go through. Believe me, I don’ seen it all, you’re young talking to the old you. / When haters come around look em down, tell em ‘we don’t owe you….'” The result is as dramatic and arresting an album intro as any you’ve likely heard all year.
“Power” (feat. Kendrick Lamar & Lance Skiiiwalker) opens with a dreamy intro that pulls from Bootsy Collins’ psychedelic Soul classics. Rapsody’s opening verse is characteristically dense and detailed, touching on everything: God, birth, death, sex, politics, art and magic:
“I want the power to be able to rap ’bout what I rap ’bout.
Black child, God, love and textiles.
Point, blank decimal
Steph Curry projectile
I saw the goal from 8 miles. With every stone you threw I picked it up and built a powerhouse…”
With the majority of its production crafted by 9th Wonder, the music on Laila’s Wisdom is rich, complex and soulful. The ever-shifting backdrops on tracks like “Nobody” (featuring a brilliant verse from Roots frontman Black Thought) and the ambitious “A Rollercoaster Jam Called Love” are a perfect fit for Rapsody’s busy cadences, melodic hooks, and insightful lyrics.
The album’s closer “Jesus Coming” is built around a drum loop, electric piano and vocal sample from Otis G. Johnson’s haunting lo-fi Gospel dirge “It’s Time to Go”. As Rapsody’s verses jump around between multiple perspectives (a mother whose child has been shot, a soldier returning from war etc.) the song pushes along hypnotically, feeling like it could collapse under the weight of its own tension and pain. A heartbreaking rumination on violence and mortality, “Jesus Coming” is a fitting end to a stellar hip hop album that ushers the listener on a trip through all the frightening and ecstatic nuances of the human condition with class, skill, and intelligence. Breaking through the ceiling with more depth, fire, and creative ambition than most would have expected, Laila’s Wisdom ensures Rapsody’s future as one of the genre’s most important voices.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – async — (Milan)
Like Kraftwerk’s German-born founders (Ralf Hutter, Florian Schneider), Italy’s Giorgio Moroder and France’s Jean-Marc Cerrone, Japanese composer and synth-sequencing avatar Ryuichi Sakamoto removed electronic music from its heretically sealed Anglo/American sweet spot and made it into world music. After creating, then disbanding, the danceable electro Beatles of Japan, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto went further, and followed his minimalist classic roots into Satie-like piano workouts, samba, sonic collage, and lustrous Oscar-winning soundtracks that clung to his indigenous root sounds with The Last Emperor. Throughout this catalog, Sakamoto produced a simmering, twittering, texturally driven ambience – warm and moist, so unlike say Brian Eno’s cool arousal – that on its own sounded a quiet but tangled sensuality, and when paired with other instrumentation or vocals (e.g. David Sylvian’s baritone longings) proved a sedate, meditative tonic.
The feelings/notions of the healing and the (a)rousing – the holistically medicinal and the gloriously tactile – are what give async its beauty, but its edge, especially when you consider that this was Sakamoto’s first solo album after an eight year battle with throat cancer. There is a vibe of mortality – murky mood shifts, descending chord clusters – that haunts async like Hamlet’s grand ghost. Yet, this fragility is frank and muscular, even guttural, as Sakamoto finds victory and vitality over that which silenced him.
If async ONLY sought to heal and be healed, it would still be one of 2017’s finest efforts. But Sakamoto dips into other odd courses of his career, touching upon the poetic narratives of Paul Bowles (taken from Sakamoto’s soundtrack for The Sheltering Sky), the high-pitched syn-flinches of his New Wave-y YMO youth, and a continuing fascination with all things Satie once utilized on his score for the film, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. So, there is a slight retrospective rejoinder to async that makes it cozy and familiar to those who adore Sakamoto. Yet, the warm ambient wind and subtly contagious melodicism of async – the sonic heart of his future-forward sense of healing – makes this album a gift for any ear, brain, heart and soul.
Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love – (Wilsuns Recording Company)
It wasn’t until Sheer Mag covered The Clash’s “Clampdown” with then-candidate-but-now-district-attorney-elect Larry Krasner over the summer at the Church did I figure it out. Politics! Sheer Mag has been singing about politics this entire time!
Ever since the band’s first EP, the band has learned to “record better,” according to a Guardian profile, and one of the results reaped in the process is that you can finally figure out the lyrics lead singer Tina Halladay has been singing. Until that point, you had to get by on the music alone, namely the superhuman guitar mastery of shredder-in-Chief Kyle Seely, whose uncanny riff-producing capabilities are second only to an inebriated Jimmy Page circa the early 70s.
In fact, the most obvious way the members of Sheer Mag differentiate themselves from other punk bands is their unshyness about flaunting their skill with their instruments . The Seelys are the ones who get most of the credit for that. Kyle’s older brother Hart is essentially a lead bassist, a role not totally uncommon but nonetheless rare in rock and roll history (see John Entwistle, Lemmy Kilmister and Peter Hook). But what really took the band to the next level was its political edge, a duty primarily assumed by Halladay and rhythm guitarist Matt Palmer. It stands out especially on new tracks like “Meet Me in the Street,” “Expect the Bayonet” and “(Say Goodbye to) Sophie Scholl.” However, lovey-dovey pop songs like Need to Feel Your Love‘s “Milk and Honey,” “Can’t Get Enough” and the title track are proof that the snarling group of tattooed punk rockers aren’t just fighters; they’re pretty damn good lovers too. Just try not to piss them off.
Strand of Oaks – Hard Love – (Dead Oceans)
I got a chance to meet Tim Showalter of Strand Of Oaks when I covered Hard Love‘s record release event at Main Street Music back in February. Even though he was flocked by both friends and fans, we had a short conversation about early 2000’s punk band, The Exploding Hearts. The group released their appropriately titled first record Guitar Romantic just months before three of the members were tragically killed in a car accident. Showalter is known to talk about his favorite music, whether it be “singing Pumpkins in the mirror” or “talking Jane’s in a van full of fools.”
Showalter is also no stranger to tragedy. His last record, the critically acclaimed HEAL, was a response to fractures in his marriage and a struggle to put the pieces back together. Hard Love, on the other hand, feels like a companion piece or a sequel to HEAL. It’s a record about fighting through tragedy and overcoming it. On “Cry,” Showalter sings “We hope only for magic, we live only lies,” which acknowledges the pain, but this time fighting for something better. The record ends with “Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother,” which doesn’t involve actually doing acid, but it does recount his brother’s near-death experience.
This is not to say Hard Love is a bleak affair. Showalter said in interviews that he wanted to make a fun record that rocks too. Early singles “Radio Kids” and “Rest Of It” show the band at their loudest, cranking the dial to 11. There’s also the spaced-out psychedelia of “On The Hill” and the Beatles-esque “Salt Brothers.” However, he still underlies these rockers with the central theme that love IS hard. It’s the hardest thing we do and we have to keep fighting for it. Strand Of Oaks, as an idea, has always followed that mantra. With Hard Love, he’s putting his best foot forward.
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory – (Def Jam)
A fish can only move and grow within the confines of its tank. Similarly, society imposes limits, knowingly or not, on the behavior and beliefs of individuals and groups. Big Fish Theory is an album about those limits. On “Crabs in A Bucket,” a track calling to mind Summertime ’06‘s “Señorita,” Vince Staples juxtaposes his climb and his limits; he’s at the top floor, and knows it, but still finds hard limits in today’s racial politics. Staples touches on these limits and more, examining what is acceptable and expected of African Americans, crips, and rappers alike.
With nary a whale horn to be heard, Big Fish Theory is a sonically substantial departure from Vince Staples’ previous opuses. Most of the tracks on this record, many suited for both solo listening and club environments, are a far cry from the industrial dissonance of Summertime ’06. One exception, arguably the record’s most irreverent moment, is “Yeah Right,” which reunites the team of Staples, Kucka and Flume, and adds Key favorite Kendrick Lamar in a 3-minute long attack on every cliche endemic to hip hop.
What we find from America’s favorite Sprite promoter is a biting, sobering look at the life of a rapper of many identities; “I’m the man, ten toes in the street, I’m the blood on the leaves, I’m the nose on the Sphinx,” he ruminates on “Rain Come Down,” the album’s final track. Staples has worked hard though, and has reached the ceiling of the box that society has put him in; on his penultimate verse, he reminds everyone “I’m Lou’ Bourgeois on the beat, best bet, try not to compete.”
The album is sonically fascinating, incredibly witty, and is just as suited for quiet consumption as it is for clubs and cars. Enough waxing poetic; “don’t drown in the brown, just drown in the sound.”
Vita and the Woolf – Tunnels – (Believe)
In terms of is polished production level and the overall expansive scope of the album, Tunnels is a huge leap from Vita and the Woolf’s fantastic 2014 EP Fang Song. It seamlessly showcases the band’s dynamic genre-bending music through its emotionally-driven lyrics, exhilarating vocals and cinematic soundscape. Frontwoman Jennifer Pague’s powerful and soulful vocals are perfectly complimented by drummer Adam Shumski and guitarist Dane Galloway’s energetic instrumentation.
Album opener “Sun Drop” clearly sets the tone for Tunnels with its slow and gradual instrumental build, leading up to an explosive sound with Pague’s expressive delivery on top. She maintains a commanding presence throughout the album with her extraordinary vocals ranging from strong and powerful to delicate and subdued. Throughout Tunnels, Pague allows her voice to be uninhibited, although she maintains impeccable control. This is especially apparent in the song “Super Ranger,” where her remarkably wide vocal range is featured over a synth heavy and more poppy instrumental mix of complex harmonies and sparse melodies. Pague’s emotional delivery of the lyrics in “Mary” — an amped up and expanded version of the single previously heard on Fang Song — features beautiful harmonies, and evokes an intimate, yet powerful feeling throughout the lyrics. “Bury You” highlights Pague’s vocal abilities through her haunting and hypnotic cadence and impressive vocal manipulations.
The soundscape created by Shumski’s dynamic drumming and Galloway’s guitar stylings is incredibly rich and layered with Pague’s synth playing and electronic production. Shumski and Galloway continuously shift the music’s energy throughout the album, alternating from heavy dance beats to ethereal and haunting sounds, giving the album an gripping, dynamic pace. The various sonic moments that occur throughout the album paint an entrancing instrumental canvas for Pague’s captivating voice.
Other standout songs on this record include “Brett,” “Earth,” and album closer “Qiet.” Between its poetic lyrics, lush soundscape, roaring vocals and overall epic sound, Tunnels is a standout album of the year and a solid debut from one of Philadelphia’s best.
Jamila Woods – HEAVN – (LABEL)
The debut LP from Chicago’s Jamila Woods saves you the trouble of sneaking into your big sister’s room to read her diary. Your sis just did you a solid by leaving it right on your desk on top all the answers to Ms. Hilman’s history class homework and a map to your towns “secret swimming hole.” Poet, educator, musician, Jamila Woods provides an in depth study into the lives of young black woman, the truths she’s learned while coming of age, and the stories of black women that have survived hardships to still be under recognized and underrepresented.
The album’s nostalgic overtone comes from Woods’ love for the city she grew up in, Chicago, and her interpolation of the music she loved growing up. The latter, she admits, she uses as a songwriting tool. Many of the songs on the album feel immediately familiar. The title track “HEAVN” borrows a line from The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” — “Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick.” She uses these lyrics; infusing them with the multiple meanings heaven has to her. As an artist on the rise, she’s often tempted to run away and make the move to New York or Los Angles to “really” pursue music, but she sees Chicago as the city that made her who she is today and views leaving and almost abandoning her homeland. On the same track she uses The Cure lyrics once again, “They’re dancing in the deepest ocean,” as she alludes to “the flying African myth,” about the slaves that jumped overboard and made a life at the bottom of the ocean during the middle passage to avoid servitude in America.
The albums most popular track “Blk Girl Soldier” is a history lesson turned protest song, written after borrowing the first word of Erykah Badu’s “Soldier.” “Look at what they did to my sister, last century, last week,” she says, about the world historic abuse of black women’s bodies. The diligent listener will find references to Henrietta Lack, the woman whose body provided the HeLa gene which is still causing scientific breakthroughs today while her and her children died poor in Virginia, and Sarah Baartman, the African woman who was sold for her body as a freak show exhibit, dissected, and displayed until 1974. The chorus reminds us that Harriet Tubman not only carried a gun for protection against capture, but also to threaten runaways that tried to turn back, which would threaten the safety of those making progress. In the last verse, Jamila straight up name-drops her heroes (Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sojourner Truth, Assata Shakur) as freedom fighting mentors and expects you to do your own research.
The children’s clapping games “Miss Susie” and “Miss Mary Mack,” are the basis of “VRY BLK.” Woods uses the childish tone to slyly call out the police brutality against the children of the inner cities. She’s contrasted in tone in this track by Noname whose signature “Everything is everything” could be seen as a direct nod to lyrical queen Lauryn Hill. Woods says of Noname, “To me she’s like if my favorite poet legends were reincarnated in one rapper.”
“Lonely” flips the negative connotation of the word and celebrate the reflective power of being by yourself. “Don’t take from me my quiet… my tear…. my trials…. my fears.” She also quotes Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait” (popularized on the TV show Dawson’s Creek), and reminds us that it’s fine to feel bad — “I’m not OK, thanks for asking.” “Holy” echoes the message of self-love while also borrowing passages and imagery from the book of Matthew and the book Psalms. “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me. I’m not lonely, I’m alone, and I’m holy by my own!”
To round out the album, Jamila gives us an insider’s tour of her hometown with “LSD” and “Emerald Street.” She recruits the pied piper / future mayor of Chicago, Chance the Rapper, to spin a tale and turn a phrase about his city, Lake Shore Drive being the drug that they can’t get enough of. “I like water that don’t burn my eyes when they open. I won’t let you criticize my city like my skin, it’s so pretty, if you don’t like it, just leave it alone.”
Finally, in “In My Name,” Jamila spit a few verses that scream “Y’all can pronounce Schwarzenegger, but you still can’t get my name right?” The track ends with an interlude recited by a group of young African American women and girl from the Assata’s Daughters organization of Chicago, using the word of civil rights leader Assata Shakur:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
–Koof Ibi Umoren
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