Favourite Albums of 2017 – #5 to #1

Note: No song recommendations for each album here. Delve into each of the albums in their entirety – they’re worth it

#5. 4:44, Jay-Z

The barebones cover art of 4:44 is symbolic. Jay-Z strips down his grandeur, his mythical image, to share thoughts and emotions he admits to having kept buried himself. This album is perhaps Jay’s most “Shawn Carter” album – it’s confessional, introspective and contemplative all at once. Think the emotional wallop of Song Cry expanded to album-length. Jay’s rawest moments come when reflecting on his infidelity, apologizing to Beyonce with a vulnerability he’s never dared to show before. He reflects on his legacy, as a rapper, a businessman and a father honestly – rather than expanding his mythos, he deconstructs and examines it. It’s almost ironic then, that he’s at his most confident lyrically here that he’s been in a long time. He isn’t trying hard with his punchlines or technicality, but he deftly presents his troubles and victories with plenty of quotables along the way. The decision to pair with No I.D throughout the album clearly paid off too, with a sonic cohesiveness that many of his previous works lacked. 4:44, then, is grown-man rap, and one of Jay-Z’s best albums – and perhaps, the only true Shawn Carter album we have.

#4. A Crow Looked at Me, Mount Eerie

How does one talk about death – more specifically, the death of the dearly beloved? Artists across time and mediums have tried to translate the devastating finality of death into their creations, to varying degrees of success. Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum plays his hand by turning the all-encompassing grief of his wife, Geneviève Castrée’s death into “barely music,” as he puts it himself. Throughout the length of the album, it feels like Elverum is simply unraveling his knotted heart into words, with startlingly frank descriptions of the time before, around and after Castrée’s death. There is no convoluted attempt at philosophical musings or poeticisms, simply the reality of Elverum’s life let loose over sparse, intimate instrumentation. A Crow Looked at Me is a painful, utterly sad album – every listen nudges you to cry – but that’s what death is. There is no resolution; just a lingering image of his dead wife burned into Phil Elverum’s soul, and now, ours.

#3. Sleep Well Beast, The National

The National are the classical indie band, using traditional instruments to effect a certain maturity to their sound, while singing about the everyday lives of everyday people simply living and loving. What differentiates them, then, is that there is none of the pretentiousness attached to most bands in this niche. Sleep Now Beast is a gorgeous, glacial album that brings the heft that every new National record brings, musically and emotionally. Matt Berninger’s rich baritone wades through the swamp of life, and endures. That is the leitmotif of this album – endurance. The album rarely soars, rather seeking to persist. It does not vault over obstacles, so much as wear them down. The production is rousing, if not anthemic. It lays out a bed of sound that’s comfortably gentle enough to couch your tired heart, but acknowledges that resting alone is not enough to move through life. Sleep Now Beast is an important record – in the chaos of our world it, it implores one to take stock of what we have, and what we must not lose. And that is all it takes to live.

#2. DAMN., Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar is one the greatest MCs to ever grace the mic. End of. DAMN. is a meticulously crafted, stunningly written album that cements Kendrick as a musician who uses his skills not merely as a destination in itself, but as a vehicle to his message. This is his leanest, most accessible album, and it shows within every track itself. His rhymes are razor-sharp, condensing weighty ideas and philosophies into one-liners and tight metaphors, but equally adept at expansive, descriptive storytelling. Each song is a concept in itself, with appropriately moody production, delivering thought-provoking lyrics and quotables, often separated by a mere bar or two. He can go from the aggressive, barbed rapping of DNA. to the sensuality of LOVE. without ever compromising his lyrical dexterity. Kendrick is a purposeful, thoughtful rapper who can reel in the listener with deceptively simple ‘hooks’ and then confront them with the true depth of his music. This is best exemplified by album closer DUCKWORTH., one of Kendrick’s finest instances of storytelling, culminating in a disorienting, yet perfectly sensible twist that connects his music and his life in a utterly believable way. Saying he lives to make music, or that his music shapes his life would both be falsely reductive – for Kendrick Lamar, his music is his life. 

#1. Melodrama, Lorde

Melodrama is an album that is very difficult to describe objectively – it is a distillation of millennial heartbreak and recuperation lifted to celestial heights by one of the finest pop stars of this generation. Lorde couches the travails of a 20-year old in love in luxuriant sound, turning the ephemeral cascade of emotions that we attempt to deal with through the processes of love into tangible, memorable lyrics. Her synthesia shapes the album, infusing the music with a nocturnal quality that nevertheless glimmers under rave lights. Amidst spilt drinks, clothes quickly shed and shattered hearts, Lorde finds reasons to stay defiant, pick up her pieces and cruise down the highway without a care in the world. It’s a message that resonates in the depths of the young soul, from where we have shut out the light. Even as we overthink our punctuation use, we find a way to love till our breathing stops. It would be foolish to not drown in Lorde’s delicately emotive voice, and reminisce about the foolishness, the joys and the resilience of young love. It’s a beautiful thing, and no one captures it quite as beautifully as Lorde does.

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Favourite Albums of 2017 – #5 to #1

Favourite Albums of 2017 – #10 to #6

#10. Nü Religion: Hyena, THEY.

The wave of alternative, trap-influenced R&B/melodic rap swept over music in the form of a few stars who molded the subgenre and brought it into the mainstream – The Weeknd and Bryson Tiller are a few names that come to mind. But they quickly shed their provocateur images for mainstream-friendly, sleek pop. This is where vocalist-producer duo THEY comes in – adding a layer of grit to the established tropes of the music by incorporating punk influences, gnarly instrumentation and sexy/snarling vocals.  The production, courtesy Dante Jones, strikes an exciting balance between delicate R&B, bass-heavy trap and guitar-driven rock, while vocalist Drew Jones floats over the beats flawlessly, confident and earnest in turns, with a gravelly tint to his voice complementing the soundscape, all brought together with flawless mixes. It makes sense, then, that THEY call their music Grunge&B. Nu Religion is an exciting, creatively inspired album that is extremely catchy and memorable – whether you’re riding down city streets or have your headphones blasting the music in your ears, this is an essentially 2017 record.

Listen to: Motley Crew, Say When, Dante’s Creek

#9. Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples

Vince Staples occupies a strange space that is quintessentially his – an ubertalented MC with scathing commentary on race, politics and society whose view of pop culture is decidedly millennial. Speaking on everything from love to celebrity culture to racial issues, Vince barrels through his incisive commentary with succinct, sharp lyricism. It makes sense that the beats he chooses share the chaos of the world he describes – glitchy electronica with a hip-hop bent that draws from 80s dance music just as much as it looks to Afrofuturism (as Vince has half-jokingly alluded to it). After the operatic Summertime ’06, Big Fish Theory is a disarmingly sleek 36 minutes of incredible music that hits you with the force of a tsunami and leaves you gasping underwater, but the whirlpool that Vince creates here makes you want to go under again as soon as you resurface.

Listen to: Love Can Be…, Party People, Rain Come Down

#8. Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker

This album broke my heart. And I am thankful for it. Trying to explain exactly why the meditations on depression, loneliness and crises of faith (in god, oneself and others) that comprise this album is so powerful, so achingly beautiful despite how bleak it might sound is pointless. All you should do is press play, and allow Julien Baker’s breathtaking voice reach into your ribcage and deliver her heartrending music straight to your waiting soul.

Listen to: Appointments (also one of the best music videos of the year), Sour Breath 

#7. Run The Jewels 3, Run the Jewels

I know, RTJ 3 technically came out in 2016. But it came out late enough in the year, and was fucking brilliant, so it deserves inclusion in this list. RTJ keep up their unmatched chemistry throughout the length of probably their most ‘polished’ album yet – Killer Mike and El-P trade bars with remarkable ease, all while providing the music for the revolution. Anthems that call for the destruction of ‘the masters,’ ruminative tracks that take stock of personal and social losses, and braggadocio that uses the disarray of the world as punchlines; they all ring in our ears with some of El-Producto’s best production and solid lyrical concepts. It’s tempting to give in to the misery of the world we live in (even the fierce MCs acknowledge the weight of what they see and experience on the brilliant 2100), but music like RTJ’s provide the much-needed kicks to our collective asses to actually go do something about this shit.

Listen to: 2100 feat. BOOTS, Hey Kids(Bumaye) feat. Danny Brown, A Report to Shareholders/Kill Your Masters

#6. 4Eva is a Mighty Long Time, Big K.R.I.T

Finally, finally. This is the studio album KRIT fans had been waiting for since 2010. 4eva is a Mighty Long Time is a double album that actually works, and KRIT brings his A-game to every aspect of this record. The first half shows off his Big KRIT persona, with the trunk-rattling Southern aggro-rap. He sounds his most confident here, claiming his place among the greats, brandishing lyrical weaponry using effortlessly paced flows. The beats bang, and you can feel his resentment at not being taken seriously all these years turned into seething purpose. This aggression is balanced on the second half, the Justin Scott side that deals with industry struggles and personal demons over soulful production. KRIT trades braggadocio for introspection, employing his underrated lyrical talents to paint a picture of a conflicted man dealing with the consequences of his artistry. The instrumentation reflects the jazzy rap stylings that have found their place in hip-hop. The balance is something few musicians can achieve – the album’s entire length has serious replay value, and for one its size, it never lets up or gets repetitive. 4eva is a Mighty Long Time indeed, but with this record, Big KRIT proves that he deserves to be remembered as such, as one of the finest MCs ever.

Listen to: Big KRIT, Big Bank, Mixed Messages, Drinking Sessions 

Favourite Albums of 2017 – #10 to #6

Favourite Albums of 2017 – #20 to #16

#20. American Teen, Khalid

Khalid is the breakout pop star of 2017. Capturing the millennial mood in a way few others in the mainstream have, Khalid effortlessly updates relics of romance and quarter life crises to the smartphone age. A large percentage of the songs live in a world shaped by the devices we hold in our hands – our source of joys, but a Pandora’s box just as often. Love and relationships are digitized, with their set of ups and downs. The top half of American Teen is an incredible run of pop anthems, while the second half ventures into upbeat R&B ballads – but the whole thing sounds like an album, an increasingly rare attribute.  Despite Khalid’s voice being the only one on the entire record, he holds his own better than some seasoned musicians, thanks to his earnest vocals and production that winks at classic R&B while consistently maintaining a richly modern sound. He comes of age through the run of the album, a self-assured debut that lays an exciting base for Khalid’s growth as a person, and artist.

Listen to: American Teen, Another Sad Love Song

#19. Rainbow, Kesha

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Kesha’s resurgence has been one of the greatest pop star transformations to witness in the last couple of years. A soaring, powerful record, Rainbow has an inspired Kesha shedding her Autotune-drenched party pop, instead placing her confident vocals front & center, her strife firmly behind her. She’s been vocally feminist in previous years, and that shows most evidently here. Her music here transforms the painful misogyny she’s faced over the years in the industry into boisterous, resilient pop music. She’s also retained her flamboyance, asserting that the Kesha we’re listening to now hasn’t lost the playful charm from when she first burst onto the scene. Rainbow thus has one of the most memorable pop stars of our time singing her heart out, and beautifully capturing ours in a way few others have.

Listen to: Woman, Praying

#18. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, 2 Chainz

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Yes, a 2 Chainz album is one of my favourites of the year. 2017 has been strange. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music isn’t just arguably Epps’ best album, it’s an all-round great album – Chainz exudes cool swagger throughout, deftly detailing the street life and the rap life through some of his sharpest punchlines. The production is as 2017 as it gets, mixing melodic trap with luxurious Southern textures. And it all sounds surprisingly grown- up, with a snarl that asserts that Chainz expects the respect accorded to a rap elderman. The tracklisting is meticulously executed, with a good mix of guests who complement Chainz perfectly. Pretty Girls… is an album that ought to make 2 Chainz disbelievers question their biases – he’s clearly spent time poring over the minutiae of this record, and presented a body of work that commands respect.

Listen to: 4AM, Sleep When U Die

#17. Everything Now, Arcade Fire

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Indie darlings Arcade Fire take their time making music – it lends a sweeping timelessness to their albums. It’s easy for an LP made as such to suffer from a sense of being lost, displaced in the context of the time it comes out. It’s a credit to Arcade Fire’s strength as a band, then, that they are able to create a world here that is untethered to a time, delivering their sound from a towering view, raised on pieces fit together over the years of their lives. The LP effuses neon retro in the layered, impeccably produced soundscape, and earnestly contemplates the world from the perspective of a generation that’s seen relentless change. Even when they tread preachy grounds, it’s hard to fault them for it – frontman Win Butler’s winsome singing makes you want to listen to what they have to say. As the record winds down, closing in a loop back to the opening track, it’s evident that Arcade Fire are aware that the idiosyncrasies of our lives are forever – but maybe, it’s not all bad.

Listen to: Everything_Now (continued) + Everything Now, Put Your Money on Me

#16. Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Japanese Breakfast

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Soft Sounds From Another Planet is an experience – the haze of sheogaze covers the album with cosmic dust, and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner seems to construct her images through the same haze. Her lyricism ties the eccentricities of everyday life to abstract metaphors that land with the precision of a blade, such as on, if you’ll forgive the pun, The Body is a Blade. Michelle’s voice shines clear through the expanse, delivering a musical experience that feels like floating through a dream of vignettes from distant points in our lives drifting towards you. There’s a word in Japanese, komorebi, that transliterates to “sunshine filtering through leaves.” Zauner’s music often feels that way, the sign through our mess that there’s a way out.

Listen to: Machinist, Till Death 

 

Favourite Albums of 2017 – #20 to #16

Favourite Albums of 2017 – #25 to #21

Music in 2017 continues to soundtrack turbulent affairs in the world around us, as well as the spectrum of experiences and emotions in our own lives. It acts as our balm, a way to center our lives, a means to filter the haze of our environment through a tangible medium. What we choose to listen to, and that which buries itself in the depths of our craving psyche, possibly defines our times better than any other media that accompanies our days. In that vein, these are some of those albums that impressed themselves on the messy canvas of my year.

#25. War & Leisure, Miguel

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Miguel is perhaps the trust successor to the legacy of funk-infused, deeply sensual R&B that the legendary Prince pioneered. For Miguel, lust and love are the lenses through which he views the decidedly unerotic state of our world. The result is a rich, contemporary distillation of the aggression of war and the peace of leisure into the battlegrounds of our bodies and hearts. The man’s vocals find a sweet spot between seductive and soaring, an oasis of auditory pleasure in a dreary desert seemingly losing its grip on the joys of sexuality. Thankfully, Miguel makes it his mission on War & Leisure to remind us of that most raw desire of life.

Listen to: Sky Walker feat. Travis Scott, City of Angels

#24. Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear has making music for over 15 years, and they have assembled a veritable collection of musings on the seemingly pedestrian parts of our seemingly pedestrian lives. These thoughts are front and center on Painted Ruins, peeling back the mundane every-isms to reveal our bloodened lives. The words are painted on a canvas of familiar sounds, embellished by vibrant strokes that find the grooves in between the larger pieces, brightening the whole. This is an album that frontman Ed Droste has made a career of making – but every time, it works beautifully. “It’s chaos, but it works.”

Listen to: Morning SoundNeighbors

#23. No Dope on Sundays, CyHi the Prynce

This is the album I’ve waited on since CyHi the Prynce delivered one of the best verses on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on So Appalled. I’ve been waiting on this album since CyHi proved himself capable of crafting a cohesive, thoughtful body of work on Black Hystori Project. And he finally presents his debut album – and how. Over gritty, purposeful production, CyHi delivers street sermons that go deeper than the punchlines. Hell, even the punchlines often land a sharp thought unadulterated by forced cleverness. This is an MC who’s carefully honed to his craft to a level where he just needs to concentrate on laying his thoughts bare, and you’re listening. Whether he’s on the block or in the pews, with No Dope on Sundays, CyHi proves he isn’t going to be preaching to the choir.

Listen to: Dat Side feat. Kanye West, No Dope on Sundays feat. Pusha T

#22. All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, Joey Bada$$

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Honestly, I’ve typically been ambivalent about Joey Bada$$. 1999 was a grimey, lofi debut that nevertheless announced the arrival of a shockingly talented young rapper on the scene who harkened back to the glory days of New York hip-hop. But there’s only so much you can rap about rapping, trying to show off technical proficiency while skimping on musical quality, as was the case on later releases. But Joey has evolved into an artist on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, creating a thought-provoking examination of USA 2017, in the voice of a young man with the soul of an old head. His lyrical acrobats are just as impressive as ever, often outshining his previous skills, but they’re employed towards greater goals – storytelling, introspection and analysis of a harsh world. This is a focused project with enjoyable meanderings, establishing Joey as not just an MC, but a musician. It’s no wonder Cole gifted him that stellar verse on Legendary – it’s a recognition of maturity from an elder rapper who’s been through this journey himself.

Listen to: Land of the Free, Rockabye Baby feat. ScHoolboy Q

#21. Take Me Apart, Kelela

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I love the resurgence and evolution that R&B has undergone in the past half-decade. Kelela personifies of a brand of Afrofuturism that is bold and alluring, an inescapable vortex of electrifying music. The blend of crystalline vocals and spacey production is assured send chills through your very soul – it’s a transcendental experience. If Gambino looked to the stars from our planet on Awaken, My Love, Kelela effortlessly travels to the cosmos and creates music infused with the stars themselves. Close your eyes, and let her silken voice elevate you. Take Me Apart is beyond music.

Listen to: Blue Light, LMK

 

 

Favourite Albums of 2017 – #25 to #21