2017 has indeed been quite a rollercoaster thus far, but it’s also been remarkably generous to us in terms of music. We’ve heard no shortage of remarkable, transcendent, intricate, gorgeous, and even hilarious work from both familiar friends and new up-and-comers. Here are fifteen of my personal favorites from among the bounteous array of record releases in the past few months. May the remainder of the year be just as kind to us, and may we all also be a little kinder to one other – God knows we need it in such turbulent times as these.
Here it is – my top 15 of 2017 (so far):
(Sandy) Alex G
Meet the new Alex Giannascoli, same as the new Alex Giannascoli. The prolific Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter has made a name for himself – a name that now just happens to have a “Sandy” affixed to it – by crafting his own unique, eccentric world using the simple trappings of lo-fi recording. Rocket, the follow-up to his major-label debut Beach Music, sees him continuing trends from that record while at the same time branching out from his indie-folk/rock roots into the less comfortable territories of lounge-floor jazz (“County”), hardcore noise-punk (“Brick”), and country (the frothy banjo-and-fiddle stomp of “Bobby”). The ramshackle compositions, combined with Giannascoli’s heartfelt, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics, make for a novel, charming effort that rewards indelibly on further listens – an ideal showcase for the 24-year-old’s versatility and ingenuity as a musician.
Epitaph / Anti-
The Malian outfit, now nearing its fortieth year of existence, presents on Elwan some of their angriest, most electric music yet. Jagged, electrical Saharan blues riffs slither hypnotically over rattling, argumentative percussion and throngs of backing vocalists as founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s weary, trance-like voice laments the political and social unrest he has witnessed firsthand. “Love these days is like a mirage,” he intones on “Arhegh ad annàgh.” “It gets fainter the closer you get.” The lyrics are mournful and the music often caustic, but it never ceases to be a thing of profound power and beauty to hear these many seemingly disparate elements – which here also include contributions from Western musicians like Alain Johannes, Mark Lanegan and Kurt Vile – join together in an immaculately arranged tapestry of sound. It’s appropriate considering the band’s beginnings as a collective of grassroots rebels, joining together in the hopes that one day the peoples of the world might live in peace.
Not Even Happiness
Ba Da Bing! / Basin Rock
“Ambient folk” is a rather trendy and obnoxious-sounding descriptor, but there’s really no other way to describe Julie Byrne’s lovely, lilting arrangements. The Buffalo, NY native blends the understated style of Nick Drake and early Joni Mitchell with the aesthetic of Brian Eno’s pioneering ’70s work, channeling both into an inimitable universe of her own design. On Not Even Happiness, we hear little else other than quietly strummed guitar, bits of wispy synthesizer and Byrne’s ethereal voice – the voice of a peaceful yet restless wanderer, seeking meaning and permanence in her fleeting life and finding it through her connection with nature and with those she loves. Hers is an earthy, gorgeous world of immaculate serenity, a powerful refuge from the solid walls of noise that wedge their way into our brains daily and vie for our attention. Once you’ve settled into that world, the look of beatific bliss spread across Byrne’s face on the album cover may very well be your own.
The Mountain Goats
John Darnielle is arguably the greatest musical raconteur of the 21st century. His characters are vibrant and vividly realized, and each of his records reads less like an album than like a collection of short stories. What makes his songwriting truly unique, however, is his unparalleled knack for drawing lyrical beauty from the seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life. For the magnificent Goths – his sixteenth studio effort and his first without guitars – Darnielle draws inspiration from his youth, growing up listening to Siouxsee and the Banshees and the Cure on KROQ-FM and seeking out the company of society’s loners and outcasts. While the songs themselves are far more indie-folk than Gothic, his lyrics evoke masterfully the pain, angst, and melancholia of goth culture’s adherents – and the ever-present specter of death that fuels their black fire. From the doomy opener “Rain in Soho” to the heart-rending ballad “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” (that’s the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy, kids) to “Abandoned Flesh” (an elegy for the long-forgotten Gene Loves Jezebel), Darnielle lets his narratives-within-a-narrative flow beautifully, his crackling, energetic vocals giving voice to the voiceless. Goths is an album about death, about life, and about the triumphs and tragedies in between – the kind of record that could only come from a mind as introspective and brilliant as Darnielle’s.
OVO Sound / Young Money / Cash Money / Republic
Last year’s charming but lackluster Views found Drizzy at a creative crossroads, but fortunately for us, it seems he picked the road less traveled. On the sprawling, lush “playlist” More Life, he adds dancehall, Afrobeat, and grime to his ever-expanding musical palate. He’s in top lyrical form throughout, unleashing an abundance of sometimes playful, often earnest ruminations on love, success, and the thinning line between his friends and his enemies. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Drake gets by here with a lot of help from his friends, including Young Thug, Giggs, Skepta, Sampha, Quavo, Kanye West, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jorja Smith, 2 Chainz, and a walloping 31 credited producers. This seemingly endless string of cohorts adds another layer of vibrancy and excitement to More Life but never steals the spotlight from the man whose name it bears. Love him or loathe him, Mr. Graham is liable to stay with us for quite some time yet.
Thanks to the immense popularity of dreamy outfits like Beach House and Chromatics, shoegaze is perhaps more en vogue now than ever before. So it’s only natural that genre titans Slowdive would follow the lead of contemporaries My Bloody Valentine and make a triumphant comeback this year following a two-decades-plus hiatus. And as was true for 2013’s m b v, Slowdive proves that its namesake band hasn’t lost a single step in the 22 years since their last record. The lush ambient atmospherics, ringing guitars and hushed vocals of Souvlaki and Pygmalion are still very much present throughout. At the same time, we witness the band continuing to expand the dimensions of its sound through the Gothic post-punk of “Star Roving,” the hazy, disarmingly simplistic “Sugar for the Pill,” and the slow burn and fade of “Falling Ashes.” Equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking, Slowdive marks one of the most spectacular comebacks in recent memory – and perfect proof of just why the Thames Valley quartet mattered in the first place.
Royal Mountain / Sinderlyn
“Kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high”: This is the mantra that informs the woozily funky lo-fi R&B of Peter Sagar. On Fresh Air, his third LP as Homeshake, the veteran Mac DeMarco sideman crafts a succession of enticingly slick, lethargic dreamscapes as the backdrop for his subtle explorations of the fleeting highs and lingering lows of modern love. Armed with whispery, wobbly guitars; buzzing, thumping bass; and a voice that expertly treads the line between soulful release and quiet restraint (and between earnestness and kitschy throwback), he unspools scintillating melodies one after the other. Some of the album’s best moments come along in its middle stretch, when Sagar shifts into complete D’Angelo-esque soul-workout mode on tracks like “TV Volume” and “Getting Down Pt. II.” Fresh Air is an endearing and often lovely little opus that provides an ideal soundtrack for – well, just read the first sentence again.
p h a r a o h
Every single review I’ve read of Jansport J’s freewheeling, vibrant mini-hip-hopera (my own included) has drawn connections between him and another, more legendary J. These comparisons, of course, are not without merit, as Justin Williams’ work certainly owes plenty to the seminal Donuts. But let’s look past all that for a minute and consider the remarkable ingenuity and singular vision it takes to make a record like p h a r a o h. J’s funky, heartfelt and surprisingly fluid collection of song nuggets seeks to redefine the instrumental hip-hop album itself and explores the cratedigging genre’s potential for storytelling – in this case, our story takes the form of a ride on the L-train through NYC, an opportunity to breathe in the life and personality of the city. Old school boom-bap rides comfortably alongside psychedelic keys and analog synths, with an abundance of soul samples and vocal harmonies scattered throughout. J’s dynamic use of the human voice on tracks like “Peace, Pt. I” and “12” make p h a r a o h the warmest, most organic aural experience of its kind we’ve heard in a while. Just sit back, press play, and let it take you away.
The Magnetic Fields
50 Song Memoir
Just because Stephin Merritt has passed the half-century mark doesn’t mean he’s stopped approaching his music like a gleeful, twinkly-eyed kid. Never one to back down from an ambitious creative writing exercise (see 69 Love Songs), Merritt chronicles the first five decades of his life over the course of 150 minutes and fifty tracks (labeled by year for your convenience). His Tin Pan Alley-by-way-of-Kraftwerk-meets-Jonathan Richman songwriting continues to sharpen with age, and 50 Song Memoir serves to remind us that he’s both a gifted raconteur and a masterful arranger. In his unmistakable baritone, he regales us with erudite tales of his first fumbling forays into the worlds of religion (which he ultimately rejects outright, much to his Ethics prof’s chagrin), love (which he’s not so great at), and music (from the terrible bands he formed as a kid to the first inklings of a career in electronica), stopping here and there to deliver withering jabs at his flighty beatnik mom’s good-for-nothing boyfriends. He and his bandmates descend upon a bevy of instruments ranging from fairground organ to ukulele to autoharp to any number of magnificently orchestrated synthesizers. It’s quirky to a fault, to be sure – but what’s always made the Magnetic Fields truly great is that beneath all the wry witticisms and idiosyncratic deadpannery, there’s always an unflappable sincerity – and it comes through strongest on Memoir when Merritt talks of the death of his friend Elliott Smith (“’07 In the Snow-White Cottages”) or his bouts of melancholia and suicidal thoughts (“’97 Eurodisco Trio”). Even “’15 Somebody’s Fetish,” ostensibly a cheeky ode to sexual kinks, eventually transforms into a touching meditation on finding a love of one’s own. It all amounts to an extraordinary celebration of the grand tragicomedy of life itself – and a wondrous, wacky, lovable glimpse into the mind and soul of one of the world’s greatest living tunesmiths.
Dirty Projectors is the kind of post-breakup album only Dave Longstreth could create. He splatters his canvas with brooding, glitchy soultronica, utterly deformed samples and spastic, warped vocal harmonies to mirror the alienated frenzy hopping around his brain. He experiments with the R&B side of his signature yelp on tracks like the slippery, chaotic “Death Spiral” and the devastatingly blunt “Winner Take Nothing,” while frothy, slow-burning opener “Keep Your Name” renders his voice all but unrecognizable as he ruminates on love’s labors lost (“I don’t know why you abandoned me/You were my soul and my partner”). His arrangements bluster and jolt in myriad unexpected directions, making for a delightfully strange and disorienting listening experience. It’s far and away the darkest release under the DP name, but at the same time Longstreth manages to let some glimmers of hope creep in, no matter how manic and twisted things get. He’s clearly having a rough time, but he’ll be okay as long as he keeps following the light.
The Journey Man
Two decades removed from his career-defining masterpiece Timeless, the UK drum-and-bass god proves he’s lost neither the ambition nor the perfectionist’s touch that made that album great. On The Journey Man, he continually unspools vast, vividly-colored song-movements stuffed with breakneck beats, mesmerizing touches of strings and piano, and jazzy, soulful vocals courtesy of collaborators such as Natalie Williams and José James. It’s sixteen tracks and nearly two hours of hypnotic, luxurious, intelligent, and scintillating music that would feel out of place neither at a rave nor a meditation session. The Journey Man is, indeed, a journey – but one more than worth the taking.
Interscope / Top Dawg
DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album in six years opens up with an understated spoken word bit from the Compton native atop soft, funky orchestration – sounds that would fit quite comfortably on his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Immediately after, we get an abrupt shift into the barebones riot act of “DNA.,” setting the pace for much of the album’s remainder and letting us know we’re in for an entirely different listening experience altogether. Skeletal, pseudo-trap beats buzz and snap in the background as Lamar – still easily the most gifted MC of his generation – unleashes some of the most direct, unadorned flows of his career on boldface-titled bangers like “HUMBLE.,” “FEAR.,” and “LOYALTY.” His unmistakable voice shifts effortlessly from a lethargic, understated drone to a frantic near-scream as he waxes philosophic about the experience of black America in 2017 and ponders his own place within its grand scheme. As with life itself, it’s tough to draw any definite conclusions from this colorful, jagged, complicated record at the outset, but piecing the puzzle together over subsequent listens is what makes the experience so exhilarating. Life, as our man Mr. Duckworth puts it on the track that bears his real surname, is indeed “one funny motherfucker.”
Father John Misty
Josh Tillman has become something of a punching bag in the music journalism community, with the critiques running the gamut from “his facial hair is dumb” to “he’s an arrogant, smug, self-indulgent jackass who embodies everything despicable about white hipster culture.” What people seem to forget in their discussions of Tillman, however, is the music. The public’s varied opinions on the man don’t change the fact that he’s one of the greatest and most imaginative songwriters of his generation. The expansive, ambitious Pure Comedy could be used as fuel for either side of the Father John Misty debate, but still, it’s a damn fine record. Enlisting the aid of legendary arranger Gavin Bryars, Misty channels the majestic strings and prickled wit of Randy Newman and early Elton John in a series of scathing critiques on technology (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution”), liberal self-righteousness (“Ballad of the Dying Man”), and even the elite group of “L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/That sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant” of which he counts himself a member (the 13-minute centerpiece “Leaving L.A”). Tillman’s attempts to cement his status as a social satirist for the millennial age vary in their success (the troubling “both sides” rhetoric of “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” could double as a mission statement for centrist Democrats), but when the record fails, it does so nobly enough that it’s hard not to fall in love with it anyway. At its best, Pure Comedy is a sweeping, gorgeous and deeply affecting look at the absurd state of modern humanity, as well as a call for some positive change. As Tillman croons at the end of the title track: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”
The Far Field
The sublime theatricality of Baltimore’s Future Islands just keeps getting better with each record. The Far Field isn’t exactly a major shake-up of their signature New Wave-influenced sound, but what is different here is the trio’s ability to dig deep into the heart of their music, exuding levels of emotion and wide-eyed expression never thought possible. With help from the deft hand of producer John Congleton, the band delivers burst after burst of rapturous, euphoric sound. Sam Herring’s voice remains one of the most unique and inimitable in modern rock, and here he leaves no atom of himself unexposed, passionately bellowing about his hopes, his insecurities, his longing for connection with nature and with his fellow human beings. Bassist William Cashion and synth wizard Garrit Welmers, meanwhile, busily construct a lushly-orchestrated backdrop that intensifies and solidifies the drama of Herring’s vocal performance. Like Singles before it, The Far Field is an instant classic – a collection of perfectly-executed songs from people with a clear and distinctive passion not only for their craft, but for the human experience itself.
The gap between the last and the next of a beloved artist’s records is always interminable for its fans, be it a year or a decade. But this sentiment felt doubly true for fans of Fleet Foxes, whose fearless leader Robin Pecknold disbanded the group after 2011’s generation-defining Helplessness Blues and essentially disappeared for the next half-decade. (Okay, he actually attended classes at Columbia, but hey, same thing.) Happily for us, great works of art often come from periods of isolation, and such is the case with the Foxes’ breathtaking, ridiculously great Crack-Up. At the outset, it sounds like your basic, run-of-the-mill Fleet Foxes album – reliable Laurel Canyon-influenced folk with echo-chamber atmospherics and thundering drum beats – but listen closely, and the album reveals itself. The harmonies are tighter. The songs are more complex, cinematic, sweeping, panoramic in scope (especially on lengthier song-suites like “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” and “I Am All That I Need…”). Pecknold’s songwriting is clearer and more socially-conscious – he witnesses the protests following the murder of Alton Sterling on “Cassius -” and laments the proliferation of gender inequality on “- Naiads, Cassadies.” The group even gets self-referential when a sample of a school choir performing “White Winter Hymnal” pops up. Crack-Up is everything we could have hoped for from the Foxes’ reunification; they move forward as musicians while keeping one foot firmly rooted in the sound that made them one of the greatest musical acts of the new millennium. Welcome back, boys. Stay awhile now, won’t you?
Blanck Mass / World Eater (Sacred Bones)
Neil Cicierega / Mouth Moods (Self-released)
Foxygen / Hang (Jagjaguwar)
Steve Lacy / Steve Lacy’s Demo (EP) (Three Quarter)
Perfume Genius / No Shape (Matador)
Sampha / Process (Young Turks)
The Shins / Heartworms (Columbia / Aural Apothecary)
SZA / Ctrl (Top Dawg / RCA)
Temples / Volcano (Heavenly / Fat Possum)
The xx / I See You (Young Turks)