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The Top Five Albums of 2017

1 Jan

2017 has been a good year for returning legends and young upstarts alike. On the former front, Jay-Z released his side of the story behind the infamous elevator fight in 2014, following albums by his wife and sister-in-law in 2016. Spoon released yet another great album, and indie darlings LCD Soundsystem came back from self-imposed retirement with a surprise album.

As for the upstarts: we got some amazing debut albums from buzzy artists like Moses Sumney and Sampha, but we were also graced with surprisingly strong follow-up records from Lorde and Vince Staples. And of course, there was Kendrick Lamar, who simultaneously fits both categories (and, really, all categories) with his third major-label full-length album.

Read on for our take on the top five albums of the year past.

5. The OOZ – King Krule

the ooz_king krule

According to King Krule (the stage name of 23-year-old Archy Marshall), the “ooz” mentioned in the album’s title is an homage to the various solids and liquids that ooze out of the human body – the primordial “creations” that we make and refine to fit into society. The vowel is lopped off at the end as a tip of the hat to the backwards-form of Marshall’s previous avatar, Zoo Kid.

If all of this seems strange and circuitous, then we’ve given you an apt welcome to the world of King Krule. The OOZ lies somewhere along the spectrum between jazz, punk and grunge, and Marshall’s brilliance lies in elevating this sonic kaleidoscope into a seamless new genre.

“Dum Surfer” opens like a menacing surf-rock song, crisp guitar bouying Marshall’s half-remembered boozy stories. About a third of the way through, the song segues into a skillful jazz guitar solo, complete with backing brass, but the beat never changes – it’s the same song. “Czech One” is a heart-breaking jazz-R&B song, complete with melancholic saxophone. Two songs later, “Vidual” is the hypothetical output of the Libertines penning a ska song.

Aside from his obvious musical aptitude, King Krule also happens to be a pretty good writer. Specifically, his allure lies in his ability to shuttle between precise anecdotes and profound reflection without losing the overall plot. For example, on album opener “Biscuit Town”, Marshall transitions from plaintive young-adult angst (“I seem to sink lower, gazing in the rays of the solar / In fact, we made a pact, but now I think it’s over”) to name-dropping Coca-Cola and Chelsea player Zola in the same verse. Somehow, this mishmash of story structures deepens your investment in Marshall’s emotions – with the effect that you are left feeling sorrier for him than deserved for what is essentially a yearning post-break-up tune.

The OOZ is a unique, woozy picture of Archy Marshall’s wide-eyed sadness. If there is a flaw, it’s that 19 tracks is a bit too long, but that’s just our opinion. File this one next to Mac DeMarco, early Nirvana, jazz classics, or pretty much anywhere else on your shelf – it’ll work.

Best tracks: “Dum Surfer”, “Biscuit Town”, “The Locomotive”

4. Big Fish Theory – Vince Staples

Vince-Staples-Big-Fish-Theory-Album-cover-art

In direct contrast to current radio-reigning rap stars, Vince Staples is not boujee at all. He does have a lot of new money, but he certainly isn’t wasting it on stupid shit. In fact (just like a great man once warned), more money brought Vince more problems, in the way of an inability to be happy despite achieving everything he’s ever wanted. Vince battles the ennui by making more music, which in turn brings more money and – you guessed it – more problems. It’s a vicious cycle, but happily for us, it results in great music from Vince Staples.

Don’t get us wrong – Big Fish Theory is no sob-fest. Vince Staples’ lyrics may speak of an inner tedium (“Human issues too strong for tissues”) but damn, can he lay a strong boast over a sick beat when he needs to. On “Big Fish”, Vince describes his bad-ass self-control over a club-ready trap beat – not only is he good at getting rich, but he is damn good at staying rich. On “Yeah Right”, Vince sneers at the priorities of today’s rap stars – money, women and then musical fame – all over a sludgy, sexy beat that could replace any one of these stars on the charts.

Full review here.

(If you’re wondering where you’ve heard his music before, it’s probably “BagBak” on the soundtrack for the Black Panther trailers.)

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “BagBak”

3. Hot Thoughts – Spoon

Hot thoughts

There’s a certain consistency to Spoon. The beats are always crisp; the guitars alternate expertly between nervy energy and rock-star confidence; the lyrics are slightly peculiar, matched by Britt Daniels’ idiosyncrasies. That may sound like formulaic, but Spoon is anything but. The essence of the band remains constant – the Austin-y quirkiness especially – but Spoon is actually very adept at updating the rest of their sound with each subsequent album.

Hot Thoughts, the band’s ninth (!) album since their formation in the mid-90s, is no exception. Keeping with the times, the album gets an almost hip-hop treatment, most audible on the sly overconfidence of “Can I Sit Next to You”. Hot Thoughts also benefits from the guiding hand of Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann, resulting in the sonic dreamscapes on “Pink Up” and the free-jazz masterpiece of album closer “Us”.

The best tracks, though, are still the Spooniest ones. “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” is all big drums and Daniels confidence, and “Shotgun” could soundtrack a bar fight in your early 20s. It’s the kind of music that makes the Strokes seem frumpy.

Full review here.

Best tracks: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

2. Melodrama – Lorde

Melodrama

Lorde started working on her debut album, Pure Heroine, when she was a 13-year-old in small-town New Zealand. The album, which released a few months before her 17th birthday, was set in suburbia, with a close set of friends and nothing really to do, and it was so good because the songs reflected those circumstances so well.

Melodrama is very different, because Lorde herself is very different. In between the two albums, Lorde became extremely famous, originally through her break-out track “Royals” but later supported by a slew of well-received singles. She moved from New Zealand; she made new friends. Fortunately, Lorde’s skill at transcribing the moods and phases of her life into song have grown with her. Melodrama is the result of spending an already melodramatic period of life – late teens – under the auspice of immense fame.

Every song on the album is a standalone story; a slice of Lorde’s life, shuttling between New York and New Zealand and everywhere else in the middle. On the whole, Melodrama is a break-up album – in a very real sense, from her New Zealand boyfriend James Lowe, and in a deeper sense, from the starry-eyed naivety of her late-teens.

Melodrama is a near-perfect, infinitely enjoyable pop album, and you’re losing out on a real musical treat if you haven’t given it a full listen.

Full review here.

Best songs: “Homemade Dynamite”, “Sober”, “Perfect Places”

1. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick-Lamar-DAMN-album-cover-featured-827x620

As we speculated in May, it has basically become an assumption that a new Kendrick Lamar album will be the best album of the year. For the remaining seven months, we looked far and wide – from post-rock to punk-jazz, from hip-hop to pure pop – but nothing comes close.

Like its predecessors, DAMN. is a masterpiece because Kendrick Lamar is bigger than life. He is a born-again Christian, and genuinely believes that he has been put on this Earth with a greater purpose. His literally godlike self-confidence lets him do things that others simply cannot do. On “DNA.”, he explores black heritage from a blinding barrage of angles (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA”). Like many rap songs, “HUMBLE.” is boastful (“I blow cool from AC / Obama just paged me”); but by masterfully balancing the brags with too-real pictures of the very recent past, Kendrick keeps himself humble. “FEEL.” is a free-fall through Kendrick’s complex feelings on his newfound fame, delivered in a flow so fluid that the words almost become beats.

The hundreds of words in Kendrick’s verses are so full of wordplay, imagery and thematic elements that each song basically needs its own Cliffnotes. Kendrick Lamar is a masterful poet and storyteller who just happens to have the lucrative gift of making chart-topping hits. DAMN. is not even the best album of his career, but it’s still the best album of 2017.

Best songs: “HUMBLE.”, “ELEMENT.”, “DNA.”

 

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