There exist no aesthetic principles by which one can objectively determine the worth of an album. While this philosophical claim may be met with resistance, it seems evident to this reviewer that music — like all art — inherently relies upon a subject. Whether a renowned critic or a casual listener, this subject offers valid opinions that ought to be respected (unless, y’know, they’re lauding praise upon unethical persons).
The following, dear reader, is a list of my favourite albums from this contemptible year. I have rated these releases based upon their perceived cultural, artistic, political, and technical merits; however, several astounding releases (such as SZA‘s immaculate ‘CTRL’) are absent as there is only so much energy one can expend upon engaging with music. Given this, I offer the following merely as cherished sounds from 2017:
Released via Luaka Bop, the label that re-introduced William Onyeabor to the world four years ago, ‘World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’ is a necessary record for 2017. While the eight tracks on this compilation were originally recorded and released privately between 1982 and 1995, the album’s release to the public earlier this year serves as both a musical artifact and a transcendental remedy for the manifold illnesses plaguing our home planet. Singing for the first time in her recorded catalog, Turiya guides listeners through peaceful soundscapes featuring cosmic synths and elegant strings. During a time of political upheaval and climactic uncertainty, Turiya‘s fusion of Detroit gospel music and Indian devotional chants encourages meaningful contemplation and inspires a flickering hope. Allowing listeners a glimpse into Turiya‘s soul, this release functions as a significant entry into her discography while provoking introspection in a manner few other records could in 2017.
9. Bedouine – Bedouine
The debut, self-titled LP from Syrian-born, American-based singer/songwriter Azniv Korkejian gently invites listeners on a cosmic, emotionally grounding romp through wistful folk tunes. While perhaps monotonous for some given is lack of rhythmic trajectory, the organic softness of the horn-and-string-inflected album allows listeners to explore a lush musical landscape at their leisure. Paraphrasing Korkejian on ‘Back to You,’ Bedouine does more than enough with relatively modest arrangements; strings frolic in the background while horns garnish bucolic soundscapes. Impressively, Korkejian achieves much diversity through this limited palette; ‘Solitary Daughter,’ a relatively upbeat tune rife with watery imagery, features a succulent refrain while follow-up track ‘Summer Cold’ is a dark, cinematic track evoking Southern Gothic influences. Elsewhere, ‘One of These Days’ is heavily steeped in American country while ‘Mind’s Eye’ verges on chamber pop. Ultimately, Bedouine is a supremely inviting album that, despite allowing for considerable growth, is simply a gem.
8. Laurel Halo – Dust
Featuring contributions from Julia Holter, Michael Salu, and Eli Keszler, Laurel Halo‘s ‘Dust’ is a challenging, experimental work that transports unsuspecting listeners into a multi-faceted, vibrant dreamworld. Engaging audiences with a collage of electronic impressionism, cosmic ambiance, and disorienting progressions, ‘Dust’ is ambitiously original. Lest the preceding description dissuade curious readers from approaching ‘Dust’, this reviewer ought to note that Halo entrances by eliciting varied moods. Standout track ‘Moontalk’ plays like an alternative dance track with its dial tone samples, disembodied giggles, and bubbly synths while ‘Nicht Ohne Risiko’ conjures images of an intergalactic, trans-dimensional jazz club frequented by abstract entities. Further emphasizing Halo‘s myriad influences, ‘Do U Ever Happen’ floats through a techo-dub atmosphere while the glitched-out industrial vibe on ‘Buh Bye’ leaves audiences transformed, their musical journey complete. While ‘Dust’ may be dismissed as mere noise by some, it offers one 2017’s most profound listening experiences.
7. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid
When one reads the track names from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith‘s ‘The Kid’, one encounters the following narrative: “I am a thought, an intention, a kid in the World. I am consumed in the World, but not of the World. I am learning to follow and lead, until I remember who I am, and why I am where I am. I am curious, I care. I will make room for you to feel your best.” This utterance, the over-arching concept behind ‘The Kid’, reflects the artistic zenith “folk-tronica” artist Smith has reached with her third full-length release in as many years. Drawing comparisons to Animal Collective and the aforementioned Laurel Halo, Smith presents the sublime work primarily through her Buchla 100 synthesizer. As with her previous releases, ‘The Kid’ does not readily embrace artifice to enchant audiences despite its inherently artificial medium; rather than being immediately understood as synthetic, the arrangements here suggest an extraterrestrial world on which “natural” instruments are responsible for such textures. Utterly joyful and soulfully ticklish, ‘The Kid’ reminds each of us that we are but children in the infinite expanse of the cosmos.
6. Arca – Arca
Drawing upon Tonada, a Spanish and Hispanic folk style, Venezuelan-born producer Alejandro Ghersi (Arca) crafts a melancholic, overtly sexual portrait on his third, self-titled LP. Addressing queerness more directly than on any previous release, Ghersi confronts the immense pain he and others have experienced — and continue to experience — in a world that actively threatens such identities. Having featured collaborator Jesse Kanda‘s deformed, mutilated subjects on past album covers, Arca instead features a close-up view of a face; its gaze penetrating the viewer while keeping it at a distance.
Inspired by Björk to sing for the first time in his discography, audiences are finally able to engage with Ghersi‘s naked voice; moreover, that nearly each lyric was improvised further allows listeners to experience Ghersi at his most genuine. For an artist whose past offerings have unabashedly embraced abstract electronic arrangements, the encounter is almost overwhelming. This pain is both emotional and physical, but suggests both pleasure and immense growth as ‘Whip’ signifies a kinky, sadomasochistic turning point on the record. Following approximately eighty seconds of a cracking whip, ‘Desafío’ finds Ghersi‘s singing in a relatively ecstatic tone while a starry progression suggests resilience and, ultimately, triumph over the challenges stemming from one’s queer identity.
5. Sorority Noise – You’re Not As _____ As You Think
Dear listener, someday you, I, and everyone else out there in the world will die. This is a frightening, though inevitable, fact of life. (Well, we’ll see if cybernetics shake things up, but that’s besides the point.) If you are afraid, then that means you’re alive — you’re feeling something. With that being said, I introduce to you Sorority Noise‘s ‘You’re Not As ___ As You Think‘.
Emo outfit Sorority Noise‘s latest release is a major emotional bummer, but a damn good listen. Lyrically, the deals with loss, loss, and more loss; friends’ deaths — and the process of grappling with these events — constitute a central role while isolation, fear, and religious themes appear throughout the record. Sorority Noise doesn’t ease listeners into these heavy topics. Album opener ‘No Halo’ deals with being too overwhelmed to attend a funeral while followup track ‘A Portrait Of’ opens with vocalist/bassist Cameron Boucher admitting he deals with suicidal feelings before tearing into a climactic, emotionally-charged confessional during the song’s breakdown. Overall, each track here offers both excellent songwriting and intense emotional trauma. I would advise you not spend time with this record if you’re not sure you could handle it; however, if you do, I hope you enjoy it wholeheartedly. Someday, we’ll all be gone. Meditate on this, call your loved ones, and cherish the moment.
4. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
It’s Friday, 14 July. I’m on the Chicago “L,” making my way towards Union Park for the first day of Pitchfork’s annual music festival. I’m late. At that moment, as I’m listening to ‘Big Fish Theory’, Vince Staples is playing to a frenetic crowd. One of the festival goers is my friend Abdurrafey, who later informs me that Staples was fantastic. While the remaining weekend’s lineup was stacked, I may always regret missing out on one of hip-hop’s brightest young stars. Admittedly, having spent relatively little time with ‘Summertime ’06’ and ‘Prima Donna’, the extent of my knowledge of Staples once began and ended with ‘Ascension’, a track from Gorillaz ‘Humanz’. On that track, a standout on an otherwise underwhelming release, the California-based rapper claims the United States of America is “[w]here you can live your dreams as long as you don’t look like me.” A little less than two months later, Staples would continue his glorious, electro-rap-fueled assault on the World with ‘Big Fish Theory’.
Propulsive and shimmery, Staples’s sophomore album takes cues from Detroit-based techno, trap, and grime. Above the industrial productions, one finds Staples delivering verses with purpose, intention, and ferocity. On ‘BagBak’, Staples proclaims, “Prison system broken, racial war commotion / Until the President get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin’ / We need Tamikas and Shaniquas in that Oval Office / Obama ain’t enough for me, we only getting started / The next Bill Gates can be on Section 8 up in the projects / So ’til they love my dark skin
bitch I’m goin’ all in” before encouraging listeners to tell the One Percent, the Government, and the President “to suck a d**k because we on now.” It’s a provocative line — and rallying cry — from a sterling release that ought to be heeded.
3. Jlin – Black Origami
Incorporating multicultural elements into her work, Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton) looks beyond her Chicago roots in establishing a certain kinship between footwork and Indian music through chopped vocal samples and blistering drum lines throughout ‘Black Origami’. This astonishing blend is particularly evident on both ‘Holy Child’ and album closer ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, producing an immaculate exuberance within listeners. Elsewhere, ‘Nyakinyua Rise’, which alludes to the landless Nyakinyua Women Group, and ‘Hatshepsut’, the second historically confirmed female pharaoh, contribute to the LP’s ambitious global scope.
Succinctly, the album is musically thrilling. Trilled, skittering beats on the title song propel listeners headlong into multi-layered soundscapes while standout track ‘Never Created, Never Destroyed’ rightfully swaggers over subdued, yet delectable, bass. Only her sophomore release, ‘Black Origami’ represents an astonishing breakout release for Jlin; moreover, the record feels destined to represent an essential entry within the footwork genre while its long-term value lies in its potential to dissolve arbitrary genre restraints and lift similar artists to greater heights.
2. Destroyer – ken
When tasked with evaluating Destroyer‘s twelfth studio album, ‘ken’, it behooves one to question what one’s (subjective) musical judgement rests. While Dan Bejar‘s provocative work has intoxicated listeners with grandiose arrangements and esoteric lyricism for just over two decades, one ought not overlook a seemingly insignificant element: repetition. Whether in relation to another human consciousness, a tangible place, or a musical sequence, familiarity heavily informs our preferences; given this, one may examine how repetition works for Bejar on the synth-pop dream scene that is ‘ken’.
The lyrical repetition found throughout ‘ken’, which complements its naked musical approach, causes each track to feel alluring — even seductive — and readily approachable. During the third verse of ‘Sky’s Grey’, the initially electro-minimalist, opening piece that blossoms into a weightlessly flamboyant band effort, Bejar reaffirms his penchant for lyrical ecstasy with ”Come one, come all, dear young / revolutionary capitalists / The groom’s in the gutter / And the bride’s just pissed herself” before repeating “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist” with utter bravado. On the gothic, new wave floater ‘Rome’, Bejar croons the ostensibly rudimentary phrase “You do as Romans do” over a moderately funky guitar lick before synths, strings, and horns wash over listeners as though ‘ken’ were Destroyer‘s exploration of quasi-shoe gaze tunes.
Having described ‘ken’ as Destroyer‘s “most goth” record, Bejar continues to navigate music’s fluidity with profound success. By keeping Bejar‘s refreshing approach to his work in mind, and allowing ‘ken’ to serve as the backdrop for nascent memories, audiences may come to invite the album into their hearts. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to select a single Destroyer record as representing the project’s zenith given that each subsequent release merely refines the band’s multifaceted appeal. Regardless of one’s first-take evaluations of ‘ken’, repetition will inevitably draw listeners closer to this underrated gem.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
What does an artist do after producing two modern classics? For Kendrick Lamar, the response was simple: you release a third without batting a damn eyelash. When Lamar dropped ‘The Heart Part 4’ earlier this year, listeners were salivating about what the greatest living rapper would offer audiences after sharing his masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly. While some hoped we would receive something akin to ‘To Pimp a Butterfly 2’, it seems evident in retrospect that Lamar could only take a comparatively “restrained” approach.
Limiting the number of features and collaborators, Kendrick Lamar allows his voice to serve as the focal point of ‘DAMN.’ over the course of its fifty-two minutes. The productions are still gripping, but arguably assume a background role in a manner that the beats on ‘good kid m.A.A.d. City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ rarely did. Originally entitled ‘What Happens On Earth Stays On Earth’, ‘DAMN.’ finds Lamar poignantly touching upon post-election feelings (‘LUST.’), FOX News (‘BLOOD./’DNA.’/’YAH.’), and American politics (‘XXX.’) all while reinforcing a narrative of duality and chance. The cornerstone of ‘DAMN.’ is ‘FEAR.’, an approximately-eight-minute-long track featuring a voicemail from Lamar’s cousin Carl, who addresses Deuteronomy, while Lamar raps from three different perspectives. The first viewpoint belongs to Lamar‘s mother when the rapper was 7, then shifts to his own mindsets at 17 and 27 during the subsequent verses. Here, Lamar alludes to nearly every other track on ‘DAMN.’ while reflecting on his position within the context of hip-hop and broader society.
Ultimately, despite its seamless blend of political importance, moving introspection, and artistic brilliance, ‘DAMN’.’ will probably not be recognized at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards as 2017’s best album. Given that the event functions as a self-congratulatory of white mediocrity within the music industry, this would not be unexpected. Regardless of whatever awards ‘DAMN.’ does or does not win, it is critical that listeners truly spend time with and recognize ‘DAMN.’ as yet another essential release from the greatest living rapper among us.