Today I’m officially kicking off our ‘Best of 2017’ series with my honorable mentions of the year! There was so much great music to take in for 2017. To put things in perspective, I still have a list of at least a dozen projects I haven’t gotten to yet. Regardless, I have so many favorite albums that came out, it’s made it quite difficult to narrow it down to one final list.
Each album here, not only did I enjoy quite a lot, but I felt had a unique quality or something significant surrounding it that made me certain I had to mention it in some way, shape or form. Some of these projects may very well end up being one of my favorites of the year as time goes on, but nevertheless I’m excited to share with you about them now. Without further a due, here are my honorable mentions for 2017.
Lorde – Melodrama
Lorde quickly became an international pop star after her breakout debut album in 2013, but her newest release Melodrama sees her taking significant strides in artistry, songwriting and maturity in general, while still cashing in on a catchy and contemporary sound. This record probably would have been higher on my list had I listened to it sooner in the year. Her lyrics are admirably introspective; whether it’s the loneliness that accompanies her young fame or her experiences of balancing stardom and love, she brings a nice balance of emotive party songs and cute songwriter tracks.
It’s great to see a prominent young pop artist return from a hugely successful debut with such vengeance and awareness as to where they are in the current music landscape, and to do so without completely selling out to the mainstream is also worth a nod. In the end, this album is just the perfect combination of juvenile sadness and beauty. “Homemade Dynamite” is as dynamic as its title suggests and “Liability” is one of the more memorable ballads of the summer. Lorde’s voice is the glue that holds these songs together, girly but seductive enough that it brings you back again and again.
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1 & 2
Chris Stapleton has had one of the most successful years out of any pop musician in 2017, thanks to a pair of stellar albums that blended country with roots rock and smothered it with soul and southern flavor. It was only right to include both as honorable mentions given how solid each project was. The first record, From A Room: Volume 1 was one of my favorite albums of the year at the time of its release. Although my excitement for it eventually calmed down, there’s still a bunch of great cuts to take from it (see “Them Stems” and especially “Second One To Know”).
Volume 2 proved to be a delight as well and is still receiving some solid plays in my phone as the year comes to a close. So far “Friendship” has been a favorite track of mine, a cut that leans on Stapleton’s more sentimental side – something I would like to see him explore deeper in the future. “Millionaire” mimics the smooth tune “Broken Halos” from Volume 1, while “Hard Livin'” and “Tryin’ To Untangle My Mind” stand on their own as great solo tracks, offering some tough guitar instrumentation and witty songwriting. Stapleton’s nimble guitar playing deserves as much recognition as his passionate vocal performances, but both are part of what makes him a country powerhouse.
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
Julie Byrne is a New York singer-songwriter coming off the release of her widely acclaimed second studio album Not Even Happiness. Her songs can be best described as beautiful folk ballads that flirt with dreamy slowcore. This album in particular has an ambient, folky atmosphere takes on a whole life of its own. It’s an extremely quiet listen, somewhat of a slow burner I would say. Byrne’s acoustic guitar playing is quite romantic and easy to enjoy, but its her use of silence that propels this record into being the beauty that it is. The ambience that’s present in each song allows you to sink yourself into the music and just sulk in its airiness.
This album isn’t necessarily something I would listen to every day, and there are a few tracks that lack the emotion and depth that you want from such a slow singer-songwriter record. With that said, its brevity really helps makes it a delightful listen. In its best instances, this record encompasses the surreal feelings that are found in life’s most intimate moments. “Natural Blue” has a graceful feel to it and is Byrne at her most melodic. Its the song that’s most easy to gravitate to and the one that made me revisit the record as a whole. The closer “I Live Now as a Singer” is also the perfect cap, a subtle but intense farewell. The touches of violin and other orchestral instrumentation are also a great compliment to Byrne’s soft voice, making Not Even Happiness an ideal album to listen to when you need to slow your pace, pause, and reflect.
Blu & Exile – In the Beginning: Before the Heavens
As if I hadn’t written about Blu & Exile enough already. Their newly released collection of recordings from the Below the Heavens sessions isn’t just a glimpse of the magic they had going on back in the 2000s, it’s a full wave of soulful, old school tracks that capture the sound of the West Coast and that “rapping on a city park bench” vibe all in one scope. Appropriately titled In the Beginning: Before the Heavens, this project is full of what made the duo an underground sensation 10 years ago: conscious rhymes and head-nodding beats. Songs like “Constellations” and “Back to Basics” salute the ’80s and ’90s by using the formula that hip-hop built its name off of, one or two slick samples played on loop and a relentless flurry of ill lyricism.
“All These Ladies”, which was recorded in 2005, has an infectious instrumental and a sweet chorus from Dr. Oop and “Things We Say” is a sweet collab with a young and hungry Aloe Blacc. My favorite songs remain “You’re Gonna Die Someday” and especially “On the Radio”, which is truly a backpack rap anthem. Blu’s vocals on the chorus’ of these tracks are so heartfelt and catchy, a subtle reminder that he can sing decent too.
What makes these songs special, is that during the time they were recorded, rap music was being dominated by monstrous commercial releases, thanks to guys like Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West and even 50 Cent. Blu & Exile were a breath of fresh air, and even though these newly released songs were created for an album that is sort of a tribute to the old school, they still sound as refreshing today as they would have back in 2007. I really can’t say enough about these guys and their material. Before the Heavens is as great as one would imagine Blu & Exile b-sides could be.
Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time
Mississippi rap veteran Big K.R.I.T. elevated his game to an elite level for his most recent project 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time. When I mentioned this project in my last new music round up, I said I always saw KRIT as a decent rap artist who made decent music, but I had never been crazy about anything he has put out. For the most part, I still stand by that case, but this new album is easily the most profound body of work he has ever released. Southern pioneers like T.I., UGK and Outkast, many of which appear on this album, have always been a prevalent influence on KRIT’s music. The case is no different here, and KRIT seems more prideful than ever to rep the south with heart (see “Ride Wit Me”).
Stylistically speaking, 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time is a heavy dosage of trunk rattling beats, best captured in the booming bass of “Subenstein (My Sub IV)”. There’s certainly no shortage of bangers here, but KRIT takes a lot of songs in a more atmospheric direction as well. “Aux Cord” has a beautiful instrumental that is equally glitzy and gangster, with KRIT paying homage to a number of great African-American musicians in his verses. There plenty of wonderful guest appearances that enhance the record as well, like Lloyd (yes, Lloyd!) on “1999” and Joi on “Miss Georgia Fornia”. The visceral energy of the opening cut “Big K.R.I.T.” sums up what I think this record means for KRIT: he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and in the current rap landscape, you can count on him to do his thing as well as anybody else can.
The Shorelines – Somewhere In Time
One of my favorite debuts this year belongs to Santa Barbara psych-rock band The Shorelines. Somewhere In Time is an impressive mix of psychedelic rock and jazz fusion that pulls from a number of different styles, including space rock, traditional blues and much more. It’s a collection of songs that is both abstract and accessible, with the music usually finding itself in a dreamy pool of jangly electric guitar and reverb heavy refrains. Amidst the noise of tracks like “Somewhere In Time” and “Hurricane” you can still find loosely constructed melodies, adding to the overall feel of the project.
This record is a treat for fans of all psychedelic music. A lot of the lyrics convey solace, isolation and distance from one’s surroundings. More than anything, they are existential, looking at real time feelings through a foggy, hazy lens. Finding a solid new band is great, but what’s even more exciting is finding one with a sense of direction. With their first record under their belt and a strong creative drive, look for The Shorelines to make a splash sometime in the near future. Learn more about the band in my interview with members Maxton and Justin from earlier this year.
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Stay tuned for the next installment of the best music of 2017. Tomorrow features a guest review by Josh from The Fortnightly Playlist.