“Wow!” you must be thinking, “A best albums of 2017 list! I thought they were all dead!” Well, surprise. It’s here. I actually started working on this in November, back when I was starry eyed and thought I could handle a top 50 albums list. But I was running into some issues – I thought about what to write about Alvvays’ Antisocialites for so long that a month went by without any progress. I ran into the same problem with Big Fish Theory and No Shape and Humanz and a dozen other albums I liked.
I asked myself why it was so hard to come up with 100 words about a few albums I enjoyed, and I realized that I just didn’t care! There were so many releases this year, it felt like I was treading water just trying to keep up. I really liked a lot – there are probably seventy or so that I came back to at least twice, which has to be a record for myself. But it turns out, just because I liked a record doesn’t mean it moved me, and that I had spread myself so thin among those records in my 35-75 slots that they just hadn’t made an impact on me.
So I trimmed the list down to 42.0 like I did for 2016, and then again to the current shape of 30 before I felt like I was writing about music I cared about and that actually meant something to me. I know there’s plenty of music that I’m sure I would love if I sat with it longer, but by god, it’s just not possible in our time to give everything that deserves your full attention your full attention.
So here are the 30 albums that really moved me in 2017. Unlike 2016, I feel like there wasn’t a clear “best” album of the year. My top seven could all be shuffled around depending on the day and I’d have no problem with it. I ultimately gave the number one spot to The Ooz, just because it was so unapologetically weird – I’ve never heard anything like it.
But really, I’m starting to question the honesty of rankings. I’m sticking with them out of the deep satisfaction I get from ordinal data, but just know that these are a snapshot of my thoughts on this music right now. It’ll change, and I’ll be embarrassed by this in the near future (I still carry a great shame for my failure to name To Pimp A Butterfly the best album of 2015).
Before the full ordered list, here are a few albums that I didn’t quite make the cut divided into categories that describe why they’re in this orderless soup.
I Think I’d Love This If I Gave It More Time:
- Jen Cloher – Jen Cloher
- Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
- Smino – blkswn
- Kelela – Take Me Apart
- Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm
- Thundercat – Drunk
- LCD Soundsystem – american dream
I Enjoy This But I Swear I Don’t Remember Anything About It As Soon As I Turn It Off
- Jay Som – Everybody Works
- Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet
- Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
- Alvvays – Antisocialites
- The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
U2 Lifetime Achievement Award For Discarding All Goodwill You Had Generated With Me
- Arcade Fire – Everything Now
- Gorillaz – Humanz
With the honorables out of the way, let us dig into the meat. Honestly, the timing here isn’t so bad. The Grammys hand out their awards in late January, do a shit job at ranking their limited pool of contenders, and they don’t even write any words about them. The Oscars aren’t even pretending to give a shit about when their rankings come out. Okay, here goes:
30. Aaron Abernathy – Dialogue
There’s a tragic sense of timelessness to Dialogue, in the sense of the music, which is a funky brand of soul, and in the sense of the narrative, which is concerned with the role and treatment of black people in America. Abernathy touches most of the bases early on “Children of the City”: white supremacy; racial profiling; “all lives matter”; underfunded schools; the prison system. Dialogue is straightforward – there are no extended metaphors or literary allusions to decode. But the core grievances of Dialogue don’t require flowery language to hit powerfully. On the emotionally gripping “Now a Days”, Abernathy sings, “Now a days / There is no guarantee I’ll make it home / Cause The value of my life is slim to none”. What more is there to say?
Check out “Daily Prayer”, “Children of the City”, “Am I Good Enough To Love?”, and “Now a Days”.
29. Future – HNDRXX
To be dropped into HNDRXX is to be dropped into an all-time intro track, “My Collection”. Over a slow trap beat layered with a perfectly haunting vocal sample, Future distills the essence of his catalogue with some instantly iconic bars.
“These codeine habits ain’t got nothin’ to do with my lil’ child.”
“All these cameras on, fuckin’ with my mood, wild / And these chains clinkin’ back and forth, they too loud.” (You can literally hear the chains he was wearing in the booth clinking.)
“Any time I got you, girl you my possession / Even if I hit you once, you part of my collection.”
That last line is a pretty disgusting sentiment, though in this context, in the most somber of environments where even his exorbitant chains are nuisances, it sounds like Future feels trapped by his own behavior. HNDRXX is also home to some of the sweetest (?) songs the guy has ever written about women, and he really sounds happy here – “Use Me” is an example of a title belying the true heart of the song. I won’t say he turns over a new leaf here, and I won’t say it’s better than DS2, but I will say HNDRXX is a clear evolution from one of the iconic artists of our time.
Check out “My Collection”, “Use Me”, “Fresh Air”, and “Neva Missa Lost”.
28. Sylvan Esso – What Now
It sounds like sugar, but Sylvan Esso’s What Now is powered by a deeply cynical core. The insanely bouncy “Radio” sounds like it should dominate radio in a slightly more fair universe. Context clues suggest singer Amelia Meath should be singing something about wanting your body or something, but the second verse opens with her sneering, “Don’t you look good sucking American dick? / You’re so surprised they like you”. Each electro-pop song subverts a stereotype so subtly you might not realize the singer of the love song you’re bobbing your head to sees that love as an unexpected teather – she planned on a young death, “Maybe in a fire or crash off a ravine”. What Now is heavy, but there’s enough syrup to shoot it down pain free.
Check out “Sound”, “The Glow”, “Die Young”, and “Radio”.
27. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
“Sing it like a church song / Written when the shit wasn’t going right,” murmurs Open Mike Eagle in a pillowy soft voice on “Hymnal”. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is muffled and cushioned on the edges, atypical for even an “alternative” hip hop album. The album is Eagle’s autobiography filtered through the lens of the architecture of his youth, Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes projects. “Daydreaming in the Projects”, the jewel of the album, is a beautiful ode to “ghetto children around the world.” When on the song he coolly raps, “I rhyme for survival so the art is a bonus,” it’s surprising. You can imagine RZA or Prodigy spitting the line with venom – that it’s stated so flatly here feels revelatory.
Don’t let the tone fool you though – Brick Body is warm and nostalgic, but ultimately tragic. When on album closer “My Auntie’s Building”, Eagle retells the story of those Robert Taylor Homes being destroyed, there’s no softening the pain: “They blew up my auntie’s building / Put out her great grandchildren / Who else in America / Deserves to have that feeling?”
Check out “Happy Wasteland Day”, “Daydreaming in the Projects”, “Brick Body Complex”, and “My Auntie’s Building”.
26. Injury Reserve – Drive It Like It’s Stolen
Dim, claustrophobic, and sweaty, Drive It Like It’s Stolen is a 23-minute cannonball. Less experimental hip hop than underground hip hop with a twist, Drive It sees Injury Reserve take more risk with its production than its storytelling. The stuttering filters of “91 Cadillac DeVille” and the bleak sputtering of “Colors” are more exciting to me than bars like “Rockin’ and I’m rollin’ / Drive it like it’s stolen” (he said the name!), but there’s still plenty of fun wordplay to grab the ear here. Drive It might just be a brief diversion from the next destination for Injury Reserve, but it’s worth checking out.
Check out “See You Sweat”, “Colors”, and “Chin up (Outro)”.
25. Mount Kimbie – Love What Survives
English duo Mount Kimbie are electronic artists, and Love What Survives is an electronic album, but it feels as analog and tactile as anything I enjoyed in 2017. On “Blue Train Lines”, Mount Kimbie do something King Krule’s A New Place to Drown couldn’t in providing Archy Marshall the perfectly frantic environment to balance his malaise, and the end result is a perfect tempest in a teacup.
Even the instrumental songs that don’t feature an A-lister like King Krule or James Blake (wow, those songs are good, too) pulsate with personality – “Audition” is urgent and hopeful and funky and a million other shades of exuberance that couldn’t be put into words. Love What Survives is lovingly crafted, and a joy from cover to cover.
Check out “Blue Train Lines”, “We Go Home Together”, “T.A.M.E.D.”, and “How We Got By”.
24. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
A genre-spanning kaleidoscope of ideas, (Sandy) Alex G’s Rocket fills the sonic spectrum while maintaining a clear and distinct voice. While folk is the underlying foundation here, there are forays into industrial noise, jazz, and rap. A key collaborator on Frank Ocean’s seminal Blonde, Alex G chooses to bury the lede in compounding melodies and rhythms. Once your ears adjust to their gently chaotic surroundings, and you key in on the casually devastating songwriting, you see what Ocean saw in the artist.
Check out “Proud”, “County”, “Judge”, and “Rocket”.
23. IDK – IWASVERYBAD
I hate being that guy, but… IDK got slept on. His debut, IWASVERYBAD, is as compelling as hip hop origin stories came in 2017. In the vein of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, IWASVERYBAD is a coming-of-age story where the main character comes from a good home, but can’t seem to stay on the straight and narrow: “‘I was supposed to be a doctor or somethin’ / Honor roll like my auntie and cousins / But instead, I was a robber or somethin’”.
There are bangers, again, in the vein of songs like “Backseat Freestyle” or “Money Trees” – songs rapped almost as caricature, knowingly. But while IWASVERYBAD might seem like a cheap redux of Good Kid, and IDK does owe a debt to the album, IDK imbues his storytelling with a deep sense of love and tenderness, emotions that can’t be imitated. Well produced and sonically diverse, IWASVERYBAD deserves quite a few second looks.
Check out “Windows Up”, “Birds & The Bees”, “No Shoes On The Rug, Leave Them At The Door”, and “Black Sheep, White Dove”.
22. Sampha – Process
Sampha’s highly anticipated debut is a weird little gem. He kicks off Process with a deeply intimate song , “Plastic 100°C”, which is concerned with a mysterious medical diagnosis. But, it’s nothing if not sonically gentle and tender, almost like an adult lullaby. Sampha’s voice sounds naturally conversational, which gives the proceedings a sense of being stripped down and bare. Even songs like the powerhouse “Blood on Me” are squarely focused on Sampha’s voice and lyrics. There’s something disarming about the genuine fear Sampha radiates on Process, almost like you should feel guilty hearing someone parade their flaws so loudly. By the end of the album, though, you realize Process is healing through catharsis, and that realization imbues “What Shouldn’t I Be?” with enough positive energy to cover the rest.
Check out “Plastic 100°C”, “Blood On Me”, “Reverse Faults”, and “What Shouldn’t I Be?”.
21. Drake – More Life
After last year’s drab (but still bumpable) Views failed to live up to its immense hype, Drake seemed keen on skirting the expectations he had set for himself. An album would invariably be measured against Take Care, and a mixtape would be compared to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Instead Drake broke the “In Case Of Emergency” glass, slammed the dancehall button hard, and created a fun, um, “playlist”. And when thinking about the general grimness of Views, IYRTITL, and Nothing Was The Same, More Life is a welcome reset. Drake sells the grime tracks as well as possible, the downtempo songs like “4422” and “Nothings Into Somethings” are predictably good, and the fun songs are really fun. The stakes are low, the returns are nice, and the direction of Drake’s next LP is hazier than ever.
Check out “Passionfruit”, “Madiba Riddim”, “KMT”, and “Ice Melts”.
20. Migos – Culture
The biggest pop album of the year belonged to Migos. Roll that sentence up in a bottle, cast it into the seas of time, and let the 2013 version of yourself read it. If you wait for past-you to write their own message, send it the opposite way in the sea of time, and you open it, you’ll read “Fuck you.”
Migos are bona fide rockstars. It may seem like a million years ago now, but “Bad and Boujee” blew up this year and this meme is from this year. Now, as the year draws to a close, Culture is still an ace in the sleeve of any DJ, professional or amateur. Put on “Bad and Boujee”, “T-Shirt”, or “Slippery”, and watch people lose their minds. From the release of “Bad and Boujee” in October 2016, to this month’s “MotorSport” with Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, to the impending release of Culture 2 in January 2018, Migos’ dominant 2017 bled onto the edges of 2016 and 2018. While the rockstars dominated the landscape with Culture, even that juggernaut couldn’t contain the trio.
Check out “T-Shirt”, “Bad and Boujee”, “Get Right Witcha”, and “Slippery”.
19. Echelon the Seeker – Echelon the Seeker
Echelon the Seeker’s self-titled concept EP is a low-budget indie release, and it shows at times. The singing on the album isn’t grade-A, and the production isn’t as full as could be. But the songwriting on Echelon is undeniably great. Influenced heavily by 80s rock, electropop, synthwave, and hip-hop, each song on Echelon feels like its own-mini album: an exhibition in how to make a coked-out Van Halen guitar solo sound cool thirty years later, or how to make tinny synth arpeggios belong in a hip hop-rock song (trust me, it sounds infinitely better than it looks on paper). Echelon is a blueprint on how to make instruments that would sound corny in isolation sound fresh in conjunction, a test-run that somehow ends up standing on its own merits. If you like huge, unapologetic choruses, off-kilter sonic idioms, or projects that make a bunch of old ingredients sound revolutionary, Echelon will scratch an itch you didn’t know you had.
Check out “future”, “vesuvius”, “lord ajima”, and “tyranny”.
18. Daniel Caesar – Freudian
Here’s what I said about Freudian in 2017: “Freudian, the full-length debut from Toronto’s Daniel Caesar, has a certain old-school sensibility. The production is relatively muted, favoring pianos, lowkey rhythm guitars, and simple synthesizers, diverging from the slurry moodiness that defines the hip-hop and R&B that has characterized the Toronto scene (see: Drake, dvsn, Jazz Cartier). While there are elements of modern R&B, there’s nothing here that would play in a club, or at a pregame before a club. Freudian is warm, analog, like an old record coming through vintage speakers.” All I would add to that is that I think these songs are aging well and will continue to do so – earnest, full-throated R&B doesn’t go out of style.
Check out “Get You”, Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song)”, “Blessed”, and “Transform”.
17. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
North Carolina’s Rapsody showcases a versatile, creative flow and a knack for storytelling on Laila’s Wisdom. There’s arguably no greater indicator of talent and authenticity in hip hop than getting Kendrick Lamar to drop a real guest verse, and he does so on “Power”, and still, Rapsody commands the gravity on the track.
Laila’s Wisdom is part of the lineage of hip hop that requires the listener to lock in on each and every bar lest one miss a word. Out of context, bars like “I got around guards, no carousel / When it got deep, I grew wings and parasailed,” may not seem revelatory, but when perfectly metered and surrounded by gold, Rapsody really seems to be flying.
And in terms of pure storytelling, Rapsody is already making an argument with songs like “Knock On My Door” and “Jesus Coming” that she belongs in the upper echelon of today’s artists. I won’t say it too loudly, lest the wrong Twitter users catch wind, but if you ask me, Rapsody snatched the “real shit, down-to-earth storyteller” role folks have been trying to give to guys like J. Cole and Logic. Don’t sleep.
Check out “Power”, “Sassy”, “Knock On My Door”, and “Jesus Coming”.
16. Brockhampton – Saturation trilogy
Self-described “boy band” Brockhampton emerged onto the scene not as a potential-laden shock group a la Odd Future circa 2008, but as a polished collective of young twenty-somethings. The first two entries in a planned trilogy, Saturation I and II are tonally consistent but sonically diverse, within the albums and across them. Alternating between trap rap and starry eyed pop rap, melodic hip hop hooks and alternative emo rock hooks, Weezer-style guitars with sub-shaking 808s, Brockhampton makes full use of a dozen-plus strong lineup across 33 songs. With songs covering young love, sexuality, addiction, and self-acceptance, there is true substance across the Saturations.
Finding an intense fan base online and at shows, it’s clear the group is creating something vital to teens and young adults. Leader Kevin Abstract is an obsessive creative, developing a deep mythology around the group through subtle but deliberate decisions, such as naming all Saturation songs four-letter words, and all Saturation II songs five-letter words (save the outros). While Saturation III, due out late December (note: I wrote this in November and can’t be bothered to update this), is supposed to be the group’s final studio album, color me skeptical. The group famously originally met online on a Kanye fan forum, so I’m sure they’re familiar with Kanye’s line on “Devil in a New Dress”: “Don’t leave while you’re hot, that’s how Mase screwed up”.
Check out “Fake”, “Face”, “Queer”, and “Tokyo”.
15. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
L.A.-based singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is a soft-spoken but sharp-tongued wraith across her excellent, intimate debut, Stranger in the Alps. The singer-songwriter label belies her ability to develop enveloping atmospheres with a limited instrument pool. She incorporates strings on album opener “Smoke Signals” and an extraterrestrial synthesizer on the chest-tightening “Demi Moore”, but her voice is always the star of the show. On the latter, Bridgers distinct voice (used in the literary sense) cuts through every layer when she sings, “I don’t wanna stoned anymore / I don’t wanna be alone anymore”.
“Motion Sickness” is maybe the best pure pop song I’ve heard this year. Its core concept is scathing, almost embarrassing to hear: “I faked it every time, but that’s alright / I can hardly feel anything / I hardly feel anything at all,” Bridgers sings. Still, it’s written with just enough humor to feel honest rather than melodramatic. For an album so heavy with grief, there is a lot of joy to be found in the details of Stranger in the Alps.
Check out “Motion Sickness”, “Demi Moore”, “Killer”, and “Georgia”.
14. Midland – On The Rocks
I made the easy decision to not write about the solid handful of country albums I really enjoyed this year, although I would love to. I just don’t have the history and vocabulary of country down pat well enough to try to write about it. I made one exception though, because I’ve played Midland’s On The Rocks cover to cover at least thirty times the last three months. Is it “real” country? I don’t know. Are these boys hopping on the “authentic” country revival train en route to a mountain of cash? I don’t know. Is this not just a pop album with a pair of pointy-toed boots? Again, I really don’t know. All I know is that the band emphatically states “This ain’t check cashin’ country” on “Check Cashin’ Country” (can’t argue with that) and that “Drinkin’ Problem” makes me want to shotgun a Lone Star in my Silverado and drive it to the moon.
Check out “Drinkin’ Problem”, “More Than A Fever”, “Check Cashin’ Country”, and “Nothin’ New Under The Neon”.
13. Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
A match made in songwriting heaven, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile produce exactly what one would hope they would – an album of cleverly written songs sung with quiet nuance. While almost half of the songs here are covers (including two from their own solo work), the two artists are just as good at curating well-written songs as they are at developing them. From the cover of (Barnett’s wife) Jen Cloher’s “Fear Is Like A Forest” to the cover of Belly’s “Untogether”, each song on Sea Lice carries a beautiful synergy, and you can feel the love the two have for an impeccably crafted song.
Check out “Fear Is Like a Forest”, “Continental Breakfast”, “On Script”, and “Untogether”.
12. Goldlink – At What Cost
The most lovingly crafted hip hop record to ever come out of Washington, DC, At What Cost pairs the tactility and rhythm of go-go with the sheen of modern hip hop production, with a little extra funk added in. That one of the years biggest records, “Crew”, could be slated alongside the go-go interlude, “Hands On Your Knees” is almost revelatory. Link has really upped his storytelling here, too. On the haunting “The Parable of the Rich Man”, he subtly subverts the trope of being protected by God to devastating effect. Every song on At What Cost has a few elements of pure love added, exemplified best by “Kokamoe Freestyle”. A pure rapping demo in the vein of Kendrick’s “Backstreet Freestyle”, “Kokamoe” is a) technically dazzling, b) an homage to the old D.C. bus-riding freestyle legend Kokamoe, and c) home to a soulfully sung outro. Style is what makes At What Cost tick, but love makes it hum.
Check out “Same Clothes As Yesterday”, “Herside Story”, “Crew”, and “Pray Everyday (Survivor’s Guilt)”.
11. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
When Phil Elverum sings the opening lines of A Crow Looked At Me, “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art,” it feels like the realest thing that’s ever been sung. Written after the death of Elverum’s wife, Crow stares unblinkingly at scenes where she should be. It’s painful to sit through, and awkward too, like you walked into the wrong house by mistake but Elverum sat you down anyway, put on a pot of coffee, and told you in detail about the shit he’s been dealing with.
You might find it hard to secure the right moment to try Crow. You can’t listen to this at the office, or you’ll start crying at your desk. You can’t listen to this home alone, or you’ll start weeping home alone. I found taking it on a walk with some headphones to be the best way to digest it. Crow is a battering ram and an ice pick and a hot iron and it hurts, but it’s also worth every second.
Check out “Real Death”, “Forest Fire”, “When I Take out the Garbage at Night”, and “Crow”.
10. Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life
Lana Del Rey seemed doomed to never escape the larger-than-life persona she created for herself. She felt too invested into her post-war pinup housewife character to move beyond charming but two-dimensional pastiches of America. On Lust For Life, though, she moves into the third-dimension by developing her brand of retro Americana into something recognizable in 2017. She exudes power on “In My Feelings” (Who’s doper than this bitch? / Who’s freer than me?), prays for future generations on “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind”, and sings one for America’s women on “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It”.
It’s also not insignificant that Lana’s version of Americana embraces hip hop (see: A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carti, Metro Boomin) – there’s nothing more quintessentially American right now than hip hop. Suddenly, finally, Lana’s vision feels fresh, urgent, and essential. With lacerating, haunting lines like, “There’s somethin’ in the water / I can taste it turnin’ sour / It’s bitter, I’m coughin’ / But now it’s in my blood”, ignore Lust at your own loss. Oh, and every song on Lust is better than anything else Lana has written.
Check out “In My Feelings”, “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It”, “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing”, and “Change”.
9. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Fleet Foxes has ventured into far more esoteric territory than you might expect if you were expecting sequels to “Helplessness Blues” or “Mykonos”. Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold said he wanted the transitions “to feel jarring, non-linear, like you were watching a movie that has been edited partially out of sequence,” and he delivers on that promise. You can hear it in the eight-minute odyssey of “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”, or in the triple split of “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar”. Crack-Up is opaque, dense in historical reference, like a book with ever-branching footnotes. Most importantly, though, the interplay of intimate and global storytelling is brilliant. There may not be a more majestically small song in 2017 than “I Should See Memphis” – Pecknold sings, “Pacing the basement / Like Cassius in Rome / Or in Kinshasa,” like there’s never been an act more imbued with historical significance than contemplation.
Check out “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”, “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me”, “Mearcstapa”, and “I Should See Memphis”.
8. Lorde – Melodrama
Melodrama is really the perfect title for Lorde’s second album, and that’s not a bad thing. Lorde captures the wild emotional experience of the late teens-early twenties better than anyone else in pop. On the first verse of the massive “Perfect Places”, she sings “Every night, I live and die / Feel the party to my bones / Watch the wasters blow the speakers / Spill my guts beneath the outdoor light / It’s just another graceless night,” the most melodramatic and spot on way to describe that exact night every young adult has had too many times.
Each song is a theatrical production, from first act piano ballad “Liability” to the thematic reprisal of closer “Perfect Places”, and each song has surprising little hooks buried in the least expected spots – think the glassy chorus on “Writer In The Dark”, cushioned by a weird little amelodic prechorus. It doesn’t hurt that she feels perfectly in her lane – if I heard Taylor Swift sing, “Broadcast the boom, boom, boom, boom / And make ‘em all dance to it,” I might dislocate my arms trying to rip my headphones off. As an artist, Lorde seems entirely uninterested in whatever everyone else in pop is doing, and the result is the sweetest album of 2017.
Check out “The Louvre”, “Liability”, “Writer In The Dark”, and “Perfect Places”.
7. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
This snippet was the last I wrote. It’s hard to translate my thoughts on Pure Comedy into words. My impression when interacting with Comedy on a surface level is that it’s an overlong, preachy, insufferable mess. “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is far and away the least likeable FJM song of all time, one of the essential storytellers of the decade making the mind-numbingly paper-thin observation that both sides of our political divide bear some responsibility.
But, when I engage with it deeply and intentionally, I’m reminded the earnesty of Comedy is necessary in its review of ego, gluttony, and human cruelty. The thesis is spotlighted on the excellent gospel-infused “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”. Misty’s message to God, relating to humanities proclivity to enslave and incarcerate and hoard: “Oh, it’s just human, human nature / We’ve got these appetites to serve / You must not know the first thing about human beings / We’re the earth’s most soulful predator / Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored”.
Comedy is Misty’s piano album – that’s important for a few reasons. First, there isn’t much in the realm of snappy, up-tempo songs because Misty is not a piano player by nature – he just can’t play very quickly. Second, the anchor of the piano creates an excellent foundation for the Christian gospel elements that color most of Comedy. While there were plenty of those influences on earlier work like Fear Fun, that music was anchored by acoustic guitar, which ultimately filtered religion through a folksy psychedelic lens. Here, it’s pure, classic, and it feels more genuine and personal as a result.
Misty sees apocalypse in the near future across Comedy, and rather bluntly on “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”. It’s a dreamlike, alcohol-blurred bon voyage to his final days at the hedonistic party he calls life. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed though – Misty just sounds exhausted.
“The wine has all been emptied, the smoke has cleared / As people file back to the valley / On the last night of life’s party / These days the years thin till I can’t remember / Just what it feels like to be young forever”.
The snark and cynicism of the Father John Misty persona has always been overplayed by media. Yes, there’s always a veneer of sarcasm and flippancy, but Josh Tillman’s values were always clearly discernible. His work always circled back to the same idea: humans are deeply cruel, and the only shield from that cruelty is love between humans, a vague concept of God.
In an interview during the lead-up to the release of I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman said that Honeybear really developed after his wife told him to stop masking his messages with wit and to just sing them with honesty. Honeybear was more honest than Fear Fun, and the result was an impressionist romantic masterpiece. On Pure Comedy, the curtain is pulled back even further, and the result can be discomfiting. But, at its best, Comedy is pure, unfiltered truth.
Check out “Pure Comedy”, “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”, “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay”, and “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”.
6. Mac Demarco – This Old Dog
He may not look the part, but Mac Demarco proved himself to be a student of the heart on the wistful, bittersweet This Old Dog. Following a three album run that saw Demarco write increasingly tight pop songs at the expense of a certain intimate melancholia, This Old Dog is the perfect melding of those two elements. Perhaps no song encapsulates Demarco’s mastery of his unique brand of classically lovesick, mildly unsettling ballad than “One More Love Song”.
“One more love out to break your heart / Set it up just to watch it fall apart,” he croons over a lonely piano. On paper, it looks like chaff, but Demarco’s cadence, rhythm, and genuine emotion turn it into an unforgettable heartwrencher.
Yet, Demarco only creates his true masterpiece when he allows himself to stretch beyond the bounds of pop songwriting, turning the spotlight from pleasing chorus and onto himself, his vulnerabilities, his heart.
“It’s so strange, deciding how I feel about you / It ain’t like I ain’t used to going on without you,” he murmurs among the sparse liquidity of “Moonlight on the River”. Demarco’s banally traumatic relationship with his father has been referenced slyly before, but here, it dominates the entire song, creates the core thread of tension across the entire album, even.
When “Moonlight on the River” devolves into a psychedelic freakout breakdown, it feels right, like it’s the song Demarco has been waiting to write his whole life. The howls and echoes and harsh noise might be distressing at first, but upon repeated listens, I found it to be the most satisfying moment of the album. Suddenly, after years of excellent songs, a dose of catharsis.
Check out “One More Love Song”, “On the Level”, “Moonlight on the River”, and “Watching Him Fade Away”.
5. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
While he may still be generally associated with the shock rap of his early career work, Tyler, the Creator hasn’t been that version of himself for a while now. Wolf showcased Tyler’s interest, and latent potential, for incorporating alternative rock, soul, and jazz into his brand of hip hop. Following the jumbled misfire that was Cherry Bomb, the focused and essential Flower Boy represents the fruit of many years of labor to create a hip-pop opus.
Cover to cover, Flower Boy may be the most consistent hip hop release of the year. A clear sign of how Tyler’s writing and composition has evolved, the album’s two ostensible bangers, “Who Dat Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time!” are as strong as any hard cut in his catalogue and are still the album’s least interesting songs.
From the motion picture widescreen pop of “See You Again” to the allegorical and abstract classic hip hop cut “Pothole” to first-ballot alt hip hop hall of famer “Boredom”, Tyler hits the bullseye on every concept he aims for.
The most arresting song on the album, though, is the lush, Estelle-assisted “Garden Shed”. Never one to shy away from vulnerability, Tyler delves into his sexuality and his friendships with a level of nuance that would frankly be unbelievable to Bastard listeners years ago. Flower Boy is the album Tyler was born to make, and as a fan, it’s immensely satisfying to see that old potential fulfilled to the maximum.
Check out “See You Again”, “Garden Shed”, “911 / Mr. Lonely”, and “November”.
4. SZA – Ctrl
After a series of backbreaking delays, it’s a small miracle SZA’s debut album was even released, let alone the best R&B record of the year. While TDE may have had difficulty grooming an artist outside of the hip-hop sphere, they clearly can recognize talent in many forms. Warm and sensual, Ctrl is above all else honest. In the intro verse of the intro song, “Supermodel”, SZA sings, “Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy / Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day? / Why am I so easy to forget like that?”
She doesn’t hide her pettiness, her envy and hurt and isolation, nor does she apologize – her ugliness is on display for the world. That’s not a dig at her, either. Everyone is ugly, but most people aren’t brave enough to confront it. That level of radical honesty and openness, along with the most emotive new voice in R&B and immaculate production, make Ctrl a masterpiece of a debut that can stand alongside anything in the TDE catalog – yes, I know Kendrick is on TDE.
Check out “Supermodel”, “Love Galore”, “Go Gina”, and “Normal Girl”.
3. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar has created the most ambitious hip hop albums since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was a coming of age film on wax, To Pimp A Butterfly was an opus with its back turned squarely to White America, and even outtake collection untitled unmastered. felt like a mini-documentary shot in the recording studio. What avenue was to be explored with DAMN.? As it turns out, all of them.
Where Lamar’s past work is best understood through their core storylines, DAMN. is better as a platter, where you can take exactly what you need at the time. “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, and “HUMBLE.” were unabashed flexes, the kind Lamar hasn’t let himself make since his mixtape days. Feel good pop smash? Try “LOYALTY.” or “LOVE.” Something to smoke to? “YAH.” The storytelling ability that has made Lamar the premier artist of the decade? “XXX.”, “FEAR.”, and “DUCKWORTH.” join the hip hop pantheon.
Unquestionably Lamar’s most scattered project, DAMN. coagulates around Lamar’s immense stardom and power within the hip hop scene filtered through the lens of religion. What appears to be a random selection of emotions actually forms the baseline of the chief conflict of the album, which is essentially a thesis on irony and hypocrisy.
DAMN. isn’t Lamar’s best work, but considering the immense creative effort exerted on his current run, it’s ridiculous that DAMN. is still an instant classic. It’s beautiful to watch Kendrick just stomp around in his throne room, flipping tables and gorging himself and singing ballads and preening, and then, when the crowd begins to thin, listen to him tell the most incredible four-minute biography to be put on wax. Kings stay kings.
Check out “DNA.”, “XXX.”, “FEAR.”, and “DUCKWORTH.”
2. Jay-Z – 4:44
“Did you see the runt as the front-runner? / Leader of the pack, you see that in your youngins? / What ancestors did you summon to the summit? / To give me what I needed, what you need to take from ’em?” So asks Jay-Z of his father’s ghost on the most powerful and honest hip hop album of the year, 4:44.
4:44 has been called a Lemonade response album, which isn’t entirely incorrect. It’s really an opening of the Shawn Carter warchest of memories, feelings, and stories that have remained locked in a vault, too precious to be risked. That’s a stockpile that’s grown while he’s spent albums rattling off lists of artists and hollow boasts.
But since the infamous elevator incident, Jay has had more pressing issues to deal with.
“You had no father, you had the armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer / Die Jay Z, this ain’t back in the days / You don’t need an alibi, Jay Z / Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real / But you can’t heal what you never reveal”.
Jay-Z examines generational trauma without blinking. Jay-Z is concerned with the pain his father caused when he left his family, but he does so sympathetically, acknowledging the pain he must have suffered from too. And his concern about the ripple effects of his pain carry on to his wife and daughter.
Jay-Z is mournful, remorseful, apologetic, and contrite. But most beautifully, he is hopeful and celebratory. On “4:44”, he raps like a man who knows how close he was to utter bankruptcy, emotionally and morally. The boasts and the art take a backseat.
Cycles of pain are incredibly difficult to break, and 4:44 becomes a series of overlapping circles. As a new father, the importance of his ability to express love and break those cycles is not lost on him. His infidelity and reconciliation with Beyonce; his shooting of his brother; his stabbing of Un; his break with Kanye; the unstoppable ripples which will eventually rock those of his children. Jay leaves nothing unsaid – he doesn’t vindicate himself, but he does present the most complete picture of arguably the most legendary rapper of all time.
Check out “Kill Jay Z”, “The Story of O.J.”, “4:44”, and “Adnis”.
1. King Krule – The OOZ
Esoteric, manic, depressed, base. Those are a few words to describe the indescribable masterpiece that is The OOZ. In an interview with Pitchfork, Archy Marshall (the man behind King Krule) described the concepts of gunk and ooz:
“It’s all about the shit you do subconsciously,” Marshall goes on, “like the snot, the earwax, your spit, your jizz, your piss, your shit.” He pauses, forgetting something. “Your beard, your nails—all of that shit. You don’t ever think, Wow, I’m actually pushing all this stuff constantly—my brain’s creating all this gunk, this forcefield.”
Marshall, finding himself stuck creatively, decided to stop trying to push through the ooz and accept it instead. The result is one of the true pieces of auteurship in recent popular music memory: nothing about The OOZ asks to be understood. It simply is.
On the smoky jazz cut “Logos”, Marshall sings in impressions: “The soup was grey, intense charcoal / He molded clay at intervals / The lights would change, the same logo.” His voice booms through a slurry of instrumentation, and he feels omnipotent, the unseen narrator in a vividly surreal dream.
The power Marshall summons is wielded partly through his production efforts. Compared to his great debut, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, the production on The OOZ feels weaponized. Already an expert at creating enveloping soundscapes through hip-hop and indie rock production, The OOZ bears a unique sonic fingerprint. It’s spacey and echoing, yet dense. Vocals are pitched up to that of an average man, to unsettling and beautiful effect. Everything simply pops with energy. Coupled with his unmistakable voice, and that he is arguably the most shamelessly emotive singer in music today, and you have the recipe for a once-in-a-lifetime creation.
Ultimately, the impression that lingers after The OOZ has stopped spinning is one of Marshall’s psyche. The album is doused in stirring, global imagery: eyes, foreign language, the moon, the sea, the color blue. He is deeply dissatisfied, disgusted even, with himself and society at large. Doctors betray him on “Emergency Blimp”, his gums bleed on “A Slide In (New Drugs)”, he’s depressed across the whole thing – the listening experience can be brutal. But still, time and again, he finds hope in love.
“See I was raised to the moon / Just to hold a gaze with you / Across the other side / It won’t be long till you’re inside / Till you’re inside my heart,” Marshall sings on the gently wistful closer, “La Lune”. The key thread of The OOZ is the same as in life: the search for identity and meaning, a reason to live rather than a reason to not die. But as in life, that key thread can be buried beneath gunk, or ooz, and it can be painful to dig deep enough to grab hold of the thread once lost.
“Brave waves bathe the eye / Well I crave ways to dry,” lilts Marshall on “The Ooz”. If The OOZ doesn’t feel like pressure on all sides, timeless sadness and hope simultaneously, you haven’t dug deep enough.
Check out “Biscuit Town”, “Dum Surfer”, “Emergency Blimp”, “The Ooz”, and “La Lune”.