The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2017

This is the music that moved us this year

As far as years go, 2017 was…complicated. And so it stands to reason that The Key’s annual go at determining the top 15 albums of the year — the records that resonated the most with us, the collections of songs that best captured the spirit of the past twelve months — was no straightforward affair.

In 2017, we thrilled to the reflective psych-rock sprawl of Philly’s The War on Drugs, a seasoned band delivering its most confident and refined artistic statement to date. We also heard the hushed introspection of Big Thief‘s sophomore album, which transformed trauma and pain into beautiful atmospheric folk. Artists looked deeply inward to discover raw personal truths, whether we’re talking about U.K. singer-songwriter Sampha, Philly newcomers Katie Ellen or hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, sounding more down to earth and honest than he has in years (decades?). They refused, as Lorde and (Sandy) Alex G did, to be confined by boxed-in preconceptions of their work, and pushed their chops into new territories, whether they be on album three (The Districts) or nine (Spoon).

A common thread was embracing vulnerability, practicing self-reflection and finding inner strength. That’s the story of albums by Waxahatchee and Harmony Woods, Cayetana and Kelela. It’s also an undercurrent to Kendrick Lamar‘s remarkable DAMN., which The Key’s contributors rallied around to vote it number one album of the year. Our John Morrison does a deep dive on the record, dissecting its nuanced pairing of hard-hitting hip-hop production with complex themes about fear and internal conflict, virtue and vice, weakness and wickedness and whether those traits make us flawed.

Last year, you’ll recall, was also a complicated year. It left many in artistic circles revving up to fight and affect change…and some, like Hurray for the Riff Raff, chased that impulse with thrilling results. But it seems that the records that stuck with us the most at year’s end are all saying, in one way or another, that before we go out to better the world, we need to look within and (to borrow a phrase from Adam Granduciel and co.) gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. – John Vettese Continue reading →


PHOTOS: Red Bull’s Three Days in Philly party with Syd, Noname, Girlpool and more

Syd | photo by Koof Ibi Umoren for WXPN

Easily one of the most well-curated musical gatherings of the fall, Red Bull’s Three Days In Philly brought an eclectic assortment of femme-forward sounds to Underground Arts and The Trocadero earlier this month.

On Thursday, October 12th, Los Angeles indie rock outfit Girlpool topped the bill at Underground Arts, with local dreamscapers The Dove and the Wolf and Queen of Jeans mixing in twinkling pop sounds with expansive rock jams. On night two, of of the leading lights of Chicago’s bustling hip-hop and poetry scene, Noname, headlined, alongside jazz-tinged Philly singer-songwriter Andrea Valle and the more folk-rock oriented Brianna Cash. Night three moved the party over to the main stage of The Trocadero, and the dynamic, impossible to pin down Syd – of The Internet and Odd Future — headlined the sold-out show, with support from Atlanta band St. Beauty and Chicago’s Ravyn Lenae.

See photos from the entire three-day festival below, care of photographer Koof Ibi Umoren of The Random Tea Sessions.
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PHOTOS: Shabazz Palaces and Porter Ray at Union Transfer

Shabazz Palaces | photo by Koof Ibi Umoren for WXPN

Speaking of artists with ambitious 2017 release schedules, Seattle hip-hop outfit Shabazz Palaces released two records this year via Sub Pop Records: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and its “monozygotic twin” Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. The group, comprised of Ishmael Butler (aka Butterfly of Digable Planets) and Tendai “Baba” Maraire, stopped by Union Transfer last Thursday night for a multimedia performance in support of the dual release. Continue reading →


PHOTOS: Christian Scott at World Cafe Live

Christian Scott | photo by Koof Ibi Umoren for WXPN

New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott is in the midst of releasing an ambitious trilogy of albums this year. After the spring’s introductory Ruler Rebel, he returned last month with Diaspora and plans to finish before year’s end with Emancipation Procrastination. His style incorporates modern trap and NOLA bounce with classic jazz approaches; as John Morrison put it in his interview a couple weeks ago, Scott is “reverse-engineering the past ten decades of American popular music, connecting it all back to the roots of the tree, jazz and the blues.” Continue reading →


Made In America: The Portraits

Marian Hill | photo by Ben Wong for WXPN |

When he wasn’t in the photo pit grabbing killer shots of J. Cole, Migos, Tommy Genesis and more, The Key’s photographer Ben Wong spent this Made In America festival backstage, linking up with artists for on-the-fly portrait sessions.

Below, check out an assortment of his shots — including Japanese BreakfastKodie Shane, a very Robert Smith-esque Beach Slang, a look at Queen of Jeans taking shelter from Friday’s rain and Kaskade embracing it, and much more. To dive deeper into Ben’s work, check out his website,, and give his Instagram a follow.
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10 artists you didn’t realize are playing Made In America this weekend

Rapsody | via The Source

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway will be teeming with music and meyhem this weekend when the annual Made In America festival kicks into gear Saturday at noon. There are some incredible big names on the bill – the brilliant Solange and the charismatic J. Cole; the emotive Sampha, whose record Process is one of 2017’s best; Philly-rooted pop sensations Marian Hill, who play the main stage on Saturday; and of course Jay-Z himself, returning to the festival stage to celebrate his latest outing 4:44.

But there’s been a modest amount of grumbling about the lineup this year, in no small part because the polarizing dance-pop outfit The Chainsmokers are a co-headliner on Sunday night. People are either “I passionately hate this band and all that they stand for” or “yay music, I listen to whatever’s on the radio!” — and for those in the former camp, once they saw The Chainsmokers’ name on the lineup, they stopped reading further. But as always, the Made in America undercard is reliably awesome, and the early-afternoon slots as well as the out-of-the-way spots (helloooooo Skate Stage) are packed with goodness.

Here are ten artists that you maybe didn’t realize are playing Made in America, but who you definitely should not miss. – John Vettese
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56 scenes from the 56th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival

Philadelphia Folk Festival | photo by Lisa Schaffer |

Music, art, creativity and community — this is the stuff that’s in the air at the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, from the mainstage headliners to the sidestage workshops to the famed Dulcimer Grove and the bustling campground scene. This year, the festival was packed with sounds and songs from big names Graham NashOld Crow Medicine Show, and Taj Mahal; local favorites Black Horse MotelLadybird, No Good Sister, and The End of America; and Helen Leicht’s annual XPN Local Showcase featuring Jesse Hale Moore, Greg Sover Band, and Vita and the Woolf.

And then, of course, there are the pick-up players at colorfully constructed campsites, the folks strumming acoustic guitars while lounging in hammocks, the budding artists making sketchbook illustrations and watercolors of the action. Philly photographer Lisa Schaffer has been a Folk Fest fixture for as long as we’ve known her, and this year she presents us with the sites she saw; 56 images for the 56th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival.  Continue reading →


#TBTXPN would like to ask you a question

TBTXPN: Question Songs

WXPN’s Throwback Thursday series, #TBTXPN, leaps into its latest installment, with a twist. All songs must be phrased in the form of a question. It’s like #TBTXPN Jeopardy!

From “Who Are You?” to “What Do You Want From Me?,” “When Will I See You Again?” to “Where Is My Mind?” and “Why Can’t I Be You?”, we’re asking all the big questions this week. Continue reading →


PHOTOS: Jamila Woods and TheMIND at Johnny Brenda’s

Jamila Woods | photo by Koof Ibi Umoren for WXPN

Chicago singer, songwriter and poet Jamila Woods took the stage to a sold-out Johnny Brenda’s crowd last Wednesday night. Woods was on tour in support of her acclaimed 2016 LP HEAVN, and brought with her fellow Chi-towners theMIND, a production and multiinstrumental duo. Philly’s DJ Aura spun in between sets, and you can check out scenes from the evening care of photographer Koof Ibi Umoren. Continue reading →


Behind the Scenes at #XPNFest 2017!

XPoNential Music Festival | photo by Joe Del Tufo |

The 2017 XPoNential Music Festival is under way, and in addition to great sets from Wilco, Spoon, Angel Olsen, Strand of Oaks, Drive-By Truckers and more, we’ll be bringing you behind the scenes coverage. Keep checking back here for an ongoing photo gallery of the fans at XPoNential and the people who make the festival happen. Continue reading →