To cap off the great year that was, I’m happy to present my top 15 albums of 2017.
#15 Roger Waters – Is This the Life We Really Want?
The lure of a new album from legendary Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters creates itself. There’s still a number of renown musicians of his class and era still releasing music, but how seriously are we to take these guys as active artists, considering some of them are over 70 years old? That was my biggest reservation heading into Is This the Life We Really Want?, which led me to keep somewhat low expectations. Those were scrapped, however, as soon as I heard the lead single for this album, “Deja Vu”. It’s a true embodiment of Waters and his frustrations, with Roger going as far as saying how he would have done things differently if he were God.
This captivating song is quite the intro to the album. I might even say it sets the bar a little high, but what follows is an admirable record full of Waters’ best solo material in years. The record stays true to the art-rock roots of its creator, and as one could assume, its impeccably produced. There are many instances that leave you thinking these songs were leftovers to an old Floyd album reinterpreted for modern times, especially “Picture That” and “Smell the Roses”. But here, Waters also maintains a veteran presence that we haven’t seen before from him. He still has the cadence of the rock magician that we all know he is, and he remains more socially aware than the vast majority of musicians. This album is an enjoyable listen that should be received well by Floyd fans, but also the rock community in general.
#14 Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman
Continuing the trend of stellar ‘farewell’ albums, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings came together and created a remarkable record to bid goodbye to their late, beloved lead singer and carry on her legacy. Soul of Woman, the modern soul group’s eighth effort, is a culmination of the elements that make soul music so great; it is wealthy in funk, rhythm, love stories and musical moments that will tug on your heart strings until you submit to groovin’. Right off the bat, on the opening track “Matter of Time”, Sharon hits the listener with an “Oh yeah!” that echoes deep into the heart. It’s a song of triumph, a great reminder that in times of turmoil, there is always strength to persevere.
Sharon Jones’ passing after a long battle with breast cancer makes this album all the more sentimental. On moments like “Come and Be a Winner”, it feels as if she is singing to much more than a single lover, perhaps even to the rest of the world, especially when she calls “because you got me” over the repeated refrain of the song title. It’s these small vocal gestures that stick with me the most. Simple, but powerful. This album is a fitting tribute to the life of Sharon Jones as a performer and as a woman, and just as much, it is a masterwork of musicianship and an essential piece to the modern soul revival of the 2000s.
#13 SZA – Ctrl
The most definitive R&B album of the year comes courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment singer and songstress SZA. Her long awaited full length debut Ctrl finally saw an official release at the beginning of summer and its impact has been felt heavily across the music community. The sexy Travis Scott collaboration “Love Galore” quickly became a smash hit, going platinum in a relatively short amount of time. It’s turned into one of TDE’s most signature mainstream hits, up there with “Man of the Year” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. Even then, SZA brings much more to the table than top-40 tendencies.
The fact that a bedroom jam like “The Weekend” was instantly covered by hundreds of aspiring singers on their Youtube pages, as well as some popular artists too, attests to how solid of an album this is. It meets the demands of fans who listen to R&B for smooth vocal improvisations and chill beats, and the crowd who’s interested in deep lyrics about the ups and downs of love. She opens up on “Drew Barrymore” about her own insecurities within relationships, a theme that represents the album at large. The concept of being the side-chick is one SZA tangles herself in relentlessly; it is a role that she struggles with at times, but mostly embraces and sings about compellingly. The end result is fantastically performed songs about love and the pain that comes with trying to control it. Hopefully we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg for her future.
#12 Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
I’m bending the rules a little bit for this entry. Though Run the Jewels 3 was technically released last December (after everyone came out with their best of 2016 list), the album was released physically this January. I gave it some spins when it dropped around Christmas time last year, but realistically, I didn’t get to truly appreciate and take in the album until this year anyways, so in my eyes it qualifies. Now on their third go-around as the Run the Jewels duo, rap veterans Killer Mike and El-P are still running in stride. Despite being in their mid 40s, they have given each of their careers a solid surge with each installment of the RTJ series, becoming one of hip-hop’s most essential acts out right now.
Run the Jewels 3 keeps building on the pillars that have been established on each of the two preceding albums. From start to finish, you get heavy hitting production and a flurry of in your face vocal performances. You can always count on a lot of energy from Killer Mike; when he feels strongly about something, he sounds like a rabid dog. Over the years though, he’s also mastered the art of using different tones and slower flows. He and El-P implement this technique quite a bit on RTJ 3, considering the album has prominent political tones. The duo addresses the faults of current American socio-political structures, also shedding light on the significance of black on black crime (“Thieves”).
Even with the serious subject matter, nearly every track still has that rich and ruthless feel that we’ve come to expect from Mike and El. We also finally got a Danny Brown verse on an El-P beat on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, which is something worth celebrating entirely on its own. This new set of bangers has me excited to see these guys again in concert, which if you haven’t done yet, I highly recommend. I will probably see you there.
#11 Joey Bada$$ – ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ is the sophomore album from Brooklyn MC Joey Bada$$. In the early goings of this album’s release, it seemed as if many people were turned off by the singing on this record simply for the fact that Joey was singing and not rapping. But technically and melodically speaking, Joey knocks a lot of these hooks out of the park. Tracks like “FOR MY PEOPLE” and “TEMPTATION” have a smooth vibe and are easily some of his most catchy songs to date. Even the overly poppy “DEVASTATED” is irresistible at times and it makes for an insanely hyped crowd at live shows.
“RING THE ALARM” has to be the best Beast Coast posse cut in recent memory thanks to awesome features by Meechy Darko, Kirk Knight and Nyck Caution, and even the J. Cole verse on “LEGENDARY” was a nice touch. The Chronixx collab on “BABYLON” is as satisfying as expected, but ScHoolboy Q steals the show on “ROCKABYE BABY”, a track that sounds like a modern version of Mobb Deep.
The beats on this project are not overly intricate or complex, but they’re comprised of some smooth jazz instrumentation and a lot of nicely composed melodies. I’ve found the biggest gripes with this album are strictly related to sound, which I can understand, but I think it’s hard to deny the energy Joey’s bringing on this project. He’s proven yet again that he’s as focused as anybody else is on building a legacy, achieving sustained success and continuing to craft thorough, digestable hip-hop albums. I can only hope that in time fans will come to appreciate this record as a bold, well put together statement recorded by a 21-year old kid still finding his voice.
#10 Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
It’s no question that Fleet Foxes are one of, if not the most necessary folk group of the last decade. Their second LP, Helplessness Blues, propelled them into being a staple in every indie head’s go to playlist in the 2010s. After a 6-year hiatus, the Seattle collective returned this summer with their most ambitious release yet, Crack-Up. The new LP remains rooted in the band’s most recognizable traits: blissful folk instrumentation and multi-layered harmonies that sound like they come straight from heaven. On the contrary, Crack-Up is not the breeze of a listening experience that the previous album was.
This album features the band’s most complex song arrangements to date, with far more of a progressive sound than we are accustomed to hearing from them. Often times the tempo and the melody changes two or even three times in a song, best exemplified on the dark and mystical opener, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint” and the epically composed “Third of May/Odaigahara”. Even with these dense, extended tracks, you still come away with a bounty of pretty and uplifting moments, especially “Fool’s Errand”.
It took repeated listens for me to grow comfortable with this album. With so many layers to each song, especially from a musical standpoint, it can feel somewhat abrasive when you tackle this record head on. The complexity isn’t just limited to the music either. Lead singer and primary songwriter Robin Pecknold has a knack for penning some wild imagery that allows the listener’s mind to dream and wade into unknown places. It can even seem intimidating, knowing how meticulously the recording must have been for some of of these tracks, but with patience, Crack-Up is as rewarding of a listen as any Fleet Foxes album yet. There’s a lot to unpack in each song, but the care and quality instilled in the band’s music makes the journey a unique and thought provoking experience.
#9 Milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!
Milo is a word wizard, who over the past few years has steadily built up a solid case for being one of the best alternative hip-hop acts in the game. His latest effort Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! is another entourage of mysteries and mind fucks. The confusion of this album is best summed up by the repeated refrain on “Magician (Suture)”: “God bless the soul of whoever you think you are.” That’s only a small glimpse of the mindset Milo takes into this album. On “Take Advantage of the Naysayer” he goes as far as stating the working title for his autobiography is ‘I’m Probably Not the Rapper For You’. It’s a fair statement, but the more I listen to Milo, I think he has a smooth quality to his abstractness that the rest of his art-rap buddies lack.
Certainly, Milo is left-field, but he excels in all the qualities you want from a good hip-hop artist: thought provoking lyrics, creative wordplay and great beat selection. His taste in instrumentals is unique, but for the most part also very accessible, like on the swirling “Paging Mr. Bill Nunn”. This album grew on me quite a bit over the last few months, much of which I attribute to Milo’s chill flows and how easy this album is on the ears – even with all the wordiness. He truly is a poet making full use of all the toys on his playground.
#8 Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
Out of all the great hip-hop releases this year, I was most impressed by the Roc Nation debut of North Carolina rapper Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom. With the abundance of great performances on this project, it’s hard to pick favorites. “Nobody” is perhaps the smoothest collaboration, courtesy of Anderson .Paaak; “Black & Ugly” is equally soothing thanks to BJ the Chicago Kid and “U Used 2 Love Me” is a bouncy, jazz-tinged cut with Terrace Martin. Don’t make the mistake of thinking Rapsody isn’t the start of the show though. She goes bar for bar with Kendrick Lamar on “Power” and brings out all her swagger on “OooWee”.
The best quality about this album is how soulful it is. From the start of the opening vocal sample on the self-titled intro track, I get the chills in anticipation for the realness I know Rapsody is about to bring. I can’t help but shake my head at the people who are still sleeping on this album. With Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody is adding on the recent surge of hip-hop records rooted in historically black genres like funk, soul and jazz. This album is politically charged, socially aware, and on top of that, it’s full of great rapping and outstanding production from front to back. Rapsody is trending upward as much as any MC out right now and I see her as a force to be reckoned with.
#7 JAY-Z – 4:44
It makes perfect sense that one of the best rap albums this year came from, well, one of the best ‘New Yorkers’ to ever grab a mic. A Jay-Z and No I.D. collaboration that few suspected, 4:44 sees Brooklyn’s finest living MC rapping from a new perspective than his fans are accustomed to. It’s a much more personal look at the massive success that Jay has attained over his illustrious career. From openly confessing to cheating on his wife, to embracing the sexuality of his mother, to criticizing his own business decisions, these are takes that most never imagined coming from a man of his mogul status.
What exactly did it take? The opening lines of the title track say it all: “I apologize, often womanize/took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes”. This track is one of many moments where Jay-Z, for once, shows a previously unfamiliar sense of vulnerability (“Smile”). Jay’s analysis of success isn’t limited to its affect on those close to him either, he spends as much time self-reflecting on his wealth and how it has impacted his own attitude as he’s become a father and an older individual in general (“Kill Jay Z”).
The themes of 4:44 are what makes the album so intriguing, but the music is every bit as entertaining as every hip-hop head would hope. These are two of the game’s best doing some of their best work more than two decades into their career. That alone is worth a salute.
#6 Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
I’m not sure that we even needed a Kendrick Lamar album in 2017, but we got one – and the product that Kung Fu Kenny turned in is once again, one of the year’s best. His fourth studio album DAMN. is one of his most intriguing listens yet, one that I was highly anticipating following the release of the teaser single “The Heart Part 4”. At this point it’s hard to argue about where Kendrick stands in modern hip-hop. He’s certainly one of the most essential rappers of the last decade and DAMN. reassures that by every measure.
DAMN. is less of a political or social statement than either of its predecessors, but it’s similar to the last two albums in that it’s still deeply personal. “FEAR.” and “DUCKWORTH.” are both rapped like mini-movies, the latter of which Kendrick is at the very top of his storytelling game. “FEEL.” is also a genuine cut that longtime fans can appreciate; there’s few things as satisfying as your favorite rapper spilling his guts out for four minutes straight.
The obvious “get” with this album is that, in terms of sound, it’s Kendrick’s most contemporary project yet. It’s achieved astronomical success on the mainstream and global level, and I can’t blame him for capitalizing on his current position in rap by coming through with this type of an album. There’s still songs here that stand out as pretty unique in his discography too. “PRIDE.” sounds like the Kendrick/Mac Demarco collaboration I never knew I needed. Kudos to Steve Lacy for the production on that one. DAMN. won’t hold up as the most unique Kendrick Lamar album but it will still stand as a great accomplishment for one of rap’s all time best.
#5 Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Father John Misty’s latest album is another that shot up my list in the second half of the year. At nearly an hour and 20 minutes long, Pure Comedy is one of the grander, more head turning releases of 2017. Between the thematic production and Father John Misty’s heady, condemnatory writing style, it’s loaded with layers of well-thought out music that deserves hours of reading into. Not only does Father John Misty present a lot of interesting and amusing song topics, he’s taking clear shots at the glaring flaws of mankind, including those of his own.
Interestingly, some of the shorter songs turn out to be the most melodic, thanks to the infectious horn section on “Total Entertainment Forever” and a dreamy guitar progression on the chorus of “Smoochie”. The longer tracks don’t feel too drawn out though, largely in part to some amazing piano rock compositions and also some slower cuts that put the spotlight on the already attention-grabbing lyrics. It says something that I enjoy every second of the 13-minute chamber folk ballad “Leaving LA”. Additionally, the outro on “Ballad of the Dying Man” is among the best musical moments of the year.
The tireless satire on this album doesn’t take away from how good the music is. If you love poetic songwriting with a witty, sarcastic edge and are frequently disgusted with the manners of our society, you’ll love this record. Or you’ll hate it. Pure Comedy is beautiful, controversial, and overly critical. It’s a near masterpiece.
#4 Charlotte Dos Santos – Cleo
The exhilaration that comes from a meaningful new discovery is a power that can fuel miles of inspiration and creativty, as well as grow curiosity and appreciation in the deepest manner. In regards to the latter, that’s how I felt when I first listened to Charlotte Dos Santos. If you haven’t heard of her yet, it is only a matter of time before you do, because her breakout EP Cleo is one of the more accomplished debuts in recent years. She’s a remarkable talent as a singer and equally so as a composer. Songs like “Take It Slow” and “It’s Over, Bobby” – the latter being a jazzy, latin inspired number and one of my favorite cuts from the record – display impressive attention to detail, both vocally and musically.
These qualities were only enhanced when I saw Charlotte in concert earlier this fall for her first ever show in Los Angeles. I was in awe of her presence, star struck by an artist who had only just released her first album. This experience made listening to her music all the more significant. The stretch of songs that make up the first half of Cleo are a perfect spell of wordly R&B, from the trancy reinterpretation of the medieval round “Summer Is Icumen In”, to the enchanting “Good Sign”, and ultimately the motivational title track, “Cleo”.
The record focuses on the trials and growth of ‘Cleo’, a character Charlotte portrays as a resemblance of herself. The concept revolves around finding love and also finding ones’ self, while Charlotte graces each instrumental with her angelic voice. The way she wades so effortlessly over the rich soul-jazz production makes it feel like she’s been around for a lifetime. Some people are born to make music. Dos Santos is right where she belongs.
#3 Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
Not many people have ever questioned the fact that Tyler, The Creator is a talented artist with a strong sense of vision, but before this year, many would say with confidence that he had yet to offer much creative output to music culture other than being a solid entertainer. That trait is worth something in itself, and it’s easy to appreciate Tyler’s enthusiasm for life. He’s never had a problem standing out, but he’s certainly never been keen to opening up. Enter Flower Boy. Tyler’s new album is his official coming out party, not only in a literal sense, but thematically.
He really seems to find his groove on this project, turning in his best performed album to date; ironically, he did it by peeling back and letting the world in on his feelings. Sonically, it’s a colorful adventure filled with luscious synthesizers, and an array of juicy guest performances from the likes of Rex Orange County, Frank Ocean, Kali Uchis and countless others. These rap-sung collaborations make for some of the best highlights (“See You Again”).
From the multi-layered instrumentals to the way Tyler manipulates his voice in different ways across each verse, this is a masterfully produced album. It has an extremely rich aesthetic, reaching kaleidoscope like vibes on songs like “Garden Shed” and “Boredom”. The beauty in this album, is that we got some of, if not, Tyler’s best bangers (“Who Dat Boy and “I Ain’t Got Time”) and his most insecure moments ever laid to record (“November”) in the same body of work. The title couldn’t me more fitting for an album that truly feels like it was cultivated and nurtured so carefully over the past two years, only to eventually blossom into this beautiful creation, birthed by bold hip-hop and neo-soul influences.
#2 Mac Demarco – This Old Dog
One of the most admired artists in indie rock, Mac Demarco picked the perfect time to come out his latest full length LP, This Old Dog. Released in the midst of May grays and simultaneously on the brink of summer, this record is a slow paced, acoustic odyssey through Mac’s world of endearing jangle pop and breezy love songs. His first record since moving from the east coast to LA, This Old Dog is a much more introspective kind of album than we’ve seen Mac do in the past. He’s still as charming and lovable as ever, but tracks like “My Old Man” and “This Old Dog” see him coming in from the angle of someone who has more experience under his belt.
This was exactly the album I could have hoped for from Mac. I didn’t need another 2. I already have an album like that. That’s still my favorite record of his, and for good reason, but This Old Dog reaches a new mark in songwriting depth without compromising Mac’s likable personality. This album has ended up being a time and place kind of listen for me, particularly because it’s about to be winter and I’m not finding myself driving around in the sun as much as I did when it came out. However, I’m sure when spring rolls back around and the days get longer, it will sit comfortably near the top of my ‘Recently Played’ column. “Still Beating” actually ended up being my most played song of 2017 on Spotify. I just couldn’t get enough of those smooth guitar licks, and I would be kidding myself if I put this record any lower on this list.
#1 Alex Cameron – Forced Witness
Alex Cameron knew exactly what he was doing when he made Forced Witness. On his second studio album, he repeatedly delivers hilarious takes on some of life’s weirdest realities. On paper, you would think his kind of comedy and sarcasm would be accompanied by some equally weird instrumentation. However, that is not the case. To their own credit, Cameron and his saxophonist instead crafted an album’s worth of the most infectious pop music one could have imagined. The music is so catchy it almost seems cliché. It has the feel of some vintage ‘80s pop-rock, with clean, dance inspired synth chords leading the way on a lot of songs. The sax is a great touch as well, and in adding a little bit of electric guitar, Cameron and his crew constructed the perfect base for him to lay down his vocal magic.
I’ve gone through a replay phase with nearly every song on this album, but there could not have been a better entry point for my soon-to-be Australian pop obsession than the opener, “Candy May”. This track leans on Cameron’s smoother side, but still gives you a full dosage of his hysterical songwriting capabilities. Even more so, it sets up maybe the two catchiest songs on the album, a dance rock anthem in “Country Figs” and “Runnin’ Outta Luck”. Cameron then trades poetic disses with Angel Olsen in the form of a broken relationship on the duet “Stranger’s Kiss”, one of the most clever and beautifully written songs of the year. These songs represent only a portion of the melodic genius that makes up this record, which further demonstrates just how easy it is to indulge in this album as a whole.
Forced Witness could be my album of the year for a number of reasons, but in the end it really boils down to how entertaining it is. Once it clicked there was no going back. There wasn’t another project this year that made me laugh as hard or sing as loud as this one, and that’s why it takes the cake. In a year loaded with solid releases, Alex Cameron gets credit for making the most memorable one.