Words About Music
With the beginning of July signifying the beginning of the second half of the year, officially, I am coming through with 20 of the year’s best, biggest, boldest albums so far. A lot of these albums are sure to pop up on my end-of-the-year 2017 list, and some of them I haven’t even gotten around to reviewing yet (don’t worry; I will). But, for better and worse, these are the albums that have impacted me positively in the most significant ways so far this year. There are some that came out in June that I haven’t fully processed so there’s a good chance it’ll pop up at the end of the year. And there are some albums that I sincerely love that just didn’t make the list because of how strong of a year it’s been so far. Regardless, I am happy with the list as is, and I will present it alphabetically so as not to lead anyone into a suspicion as to what my AOTY is going to be. And away we go!
BROCKHAMPTON — SATURATION
The so-called All American Boyband is a composite collective of supremely talented rappers, singers, and producers, spearheaded by (successful solo artist in his own right) Kevin Abstract. I won’t say too much more about this project because I do plan on reviewing it very soon, but rest assured that this BROCKHAMPTON album/mixtape thing is very high on my list this year and very much an album worth listening to. I’ve heard this group described as “Odd Future if led by Frank Ocean instead of Tyler, the Creator,” and I can’t help but agree with that description. That’s not to tie BROCKHAMPTON down, though, because what they do here is wholly unique and original, as well as catchy, emotional, passionate, and a hell of a lot of fun for its entire 50 minute runtime.
Neil Cicierega — Mouth Moods
If you’ve been browsing the internet a while, you’ve undoubtedly come across the warped work of Neil Cicierega, whether it’s his Animutations, his Potter Puppet Pals, or the endless stream of original music he’s put out under the Lemon Demon alias (including Newgrounds sensation “Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny.”) Neil has brought himself the most attention, though, for his recent foray into full-fledged Girl Talk-ian mashup albums, specifically 2014’s “Mouth Sounds” and its prequel “Mouth Silence.” Like those two projects, “Mouth Moods” brings together songs from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s which probably should never go together, adding other comedic embellishments and production quirks to give this album some serious replay value. And better yet, this album is funny literally every time I listen to it, whether it’s the lyric-changing on the Survivor/INXS mashup “Tiger” or the funky brilliance of “Smooth.” I could put this on anytime and it always puts me in a great mood, and I’m unashamed to call it one of 2017’s best records.
Dirty Projectors — Dirty Projectors
The new Dirty Projectors album was a “comeback” four and a half years in the making. After hitting their indie rock stride with their biggest album yet — 2012’s “Swing Lo Magellan” — the band seemed to fall apart, literally. As I wrote in my Amber Coffman review, her and Dave Longstreth split creatively (sort of) and romantically (definitely). This strained breakup sent Dave into some sort of death spiral, with him deciding to reboot the Dirty Projectors title to sell what is essentially a solo album. With collaborators like ex-Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton, alt-pop vocalist Solange, and English pop sensation Dawn Richard in the fold, Longstreth put together an obtuse-ass alt-R&B project that sounds like Justin Timberlake took a bunch of acid then hit “record.” I fucking love this album, though, recognizing that this record is definitely a love-it-or-hate-it affair. The production is out-of-this-world, the lyrics are just as strange and evocative as any Longstreth has ever written, and the vocal harmonies are on point as always. Say what you will about the dude, he knows how to put a song together, and he does a fantastic job on this project.
Father John Misty — Pure Comedy
Another somewhat controversial love-it-or-hate-it project this year came from headline-maker and music-dude J. Tillman, better known as Father John Misty. After putting out two highly acclaimed albums, 2012’s “Fear Fun” and 2015’s “I Love You, Honeybear,” Tillman returns with his longest, wordiest album ever. “Pure Comedy” is a postmodern comment on the human condition, sure, and it does express some political views I don’t fully subscribe to. However, the music and the instrumentation here is purely brilliant. Additionally, I do think that most of the time Tillman’s dark satirical edge comes through in a shining manner rather than it being the album’s glaring flaw. I love his comedic display of primitivism on the track “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” and the comment on online self-obsessiveness on the track “Ballad of the Dying Man.” It’s also a passionate, loving album with a tribute to his wife, an enviable bird, and love in general. I can see why some want nothing to do with this record, but I think it’s quite the masterpiece, perhaps even a step-up from “I Love You, Honeybear.”
Havok — Conformicide
Speaking of disagreeable politics, here’s the newest Havok album, “Conformicide.” This is the sort of somewhat-vague political album where pretty much anyone on the spectrum can interpret any of the songs to mean whatever they want them to mean. For me, I do think there are plenty of leftist politics to behold on this album, whether the Colorado band is criticizing our mainstream media for lying to us constantly, our government for blaming our problems on “the Other,” and the social dishonesty latent in politicians’ desire to obfuscate and deflect. Sure, maybe I’m projecting a bit here, but even if this album is the Megadeth-ian conspiracy theory nightmare that some seem to be declaring it, “Conformicide” has the best fucking riffs of 2017, no doubt. The production on here is super crisp, but it doesn’t take away the punch from the band’s complex and intricate bass, guitar, and drum interplay. Do the dudes in Havok have a high schooler’s obsession with George Orwell’s “1984”? Absolutely. Do they do that obsession justice with some extremely well-written, humorous, head-bangin-ass songs for the entire duration of this project? Abso-fucking-lutely. Hang ’em high!
Idles — Brutalism
UK punk upstarts Idles had me hooked from the second I first listened to their debut album, “Brutalism,” one of the most fiercely written punk records of the year. These guys expertly assume all the anger and wit of England’s angry anarchists and distill it into a catchy, brittle punk rock LP with flashes of mclusky. Despite the assertions of so many that the election of Donald Trump would “bring back American punk,” it’s the English bands which are consistently so keen, shrewd, and amazing. This is a funny album, but it’s also a very seriously bitter one. All punk fans should get their ears on this soon, on the off-chance you haven’t yet acquainted yourself with the music of Idles.
Joey Bada$$ — ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
“Three Ks, two As in AMERIKKKA.” Finally, the album I’ve been waiting for New York rapper Joey Bada$$ to make. After consistently impressing me on his “1999” mixtape and “B4.DA.$$” debut album, he’s put out his best project yet here with “ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$.” I wasn’t sure at first, because the album’s first half is fairly poppy and somewhat upbeat, but after several listens I can say I’m very happy with the end result here, even on the Travis Scott-esque “DEVASTATED.” Joey drops a series of excellent lyrics all over this project that directly attack the United States’ policies, specifically when it comes to its treatment of Black people over the past several centuries, whether it’s chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs, or continued police brutality and the lack of legitimate response. It’s a fiery album that calls on us to actually do something, and it’s anchored by fantastic songs and thought-provoking lyrics.
Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
“Damn” is right. After dropping his best album yet with 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and giving us the victory lap demo-set that was “untitled unmastered.,” the best rapper alive is back with yet another amazing set of indomitable hip-hop songs. This album is a message to wack rappers that he can do exactly what they do, write catchy pop rap hits, and do it a million times better. Whether it’s the album’s bombastic lead single, “HUMBLE.,” or the surprisingly amazing U2-featuring track “XXX.,” King Kendrick comes through with a masterpiece. It may not be as conceptual or blatantly political as his last few projects, but it’s still an album with a hell of a lot of replay value, and it thrills me to see that Kendrick will never stop keeping us guessing. My next question: Where the hell is “NATION”?
The Magnetic Fields — 50 Song Memoir
This one caught me off guard, especially considering I’ve never been the biggest fan of The Magnetic Fields. But goddamnit, Stephin Merritt really came through here. Yes, this album has 50 songs on it. Also yes, most of these songs are really fucking good. Merritt brings his usual sense of wit and humor to these songs, which are more autobiographical than what he normally writes. While I wish he went into more depth and made these songs even more personal, I think he brilliantly indicates his musical genius with these songs’ arrangements and lyrical genius with their wide array of emotions. As he takes us through numerous different sounds and styles (musique concrete, psych pop, disco, synth pop, baroque pop), I can’t help but be in awe of the fact that he actually makes a 150-minute album consistently interesting and unpredictable, with a lot of awesome songs spanning 50 years in the life of one of pop’s weirdest, most ambitious songwriters.
Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked at Me
Calling this one of my favorite albums of the year feels super wrong, because of the subject matter and context. Phil Elverum’s latest masterpiece was conceived in the wake of his wife’s death from cancer, leaving him a widower as well as a single father, looking after a toddler. The music on here is sparse, and Elverum’s labeling of the album as being “barely music” feels accurate. The lyrics are as dark and depressing as they get, because they bring us as close to experiencing the death of a loved one as one can go without actually losing one. It’s a harrowing experience, and it’s more difficult to listen to than any noise album I’ve ever heard. But, it’s also beautiful, and there’s nothing like it. In fact, I actually have zero complaints about this album and the way it sounds, with its intimate, quiet nature, and Elverum’s journey through his own emotions, coping mechanisms, and day-to-day dealings.
Oxbow — Thin Black Duke
Experimental rock band Oxbow has been pumping out records for over 20 years at this point, and their existence as completely escaped me until I came across this record this year. “Thin Black Duke” is actually the Bay Area group’s first album in 10 years, and it definitely sounds like one that took 10 years to make. Vocalist Eugene Robinson delivers the year’s greatest vocal performance on this record, sometimes hitting our ears with a sour whisper, other times hitting us with his dulcet tones. Oxbow comes off like a strange mix between Faith No More’s unpredictability, Pearl Jam’s reliability, Melvins’ heaviness, and the added instrumental embellishments of a Björk or Scott Walker record. This is a thrilling experience, and a super-underrated album at that.
Perfume Genius — No Shape
I don’t even know what genre to categorize Perfume Genius under anymore. After consistently wowing me on projects like 2012’s intimate “Put Your Back N 2 It” and 2014’s industrial “Too Bright,” Seattle’s Mike Hadreas is back to hit us with his weirdest, boldest move yet, “No Shape.” This album is made up of a swath of excellent, beautiful, catchy songs that hit you hard and leave you begging for more. This album is chock full of art pop bangers that don’t sound like anything that’s been done before, with its intense production and Hadreas’ unmistakable vocals. As always, Perfume Genius is an artist worth looking out for, and I can’t wait to see what sort of tricks he has up his sleeves for the next one.
Remo Drive — Greatest Hits
No, this isn’t actually a Greatest Hits compilation album, but it sure sounds like one. This debut from Minnesota-based pop punk trio Remo Drive is a fiercely catchy one, and one that I’ve been rocking pretty hard since it dropped in March. While it takes a special kind of emo band to really do it for me these days, Remo Drive hits all the right marks with this self-produced, slickly written album of great hooks, biting lyricism, and expertly composed songs.
Run the Jewels — Run the Jewels 3
Look, I know this album dropped on Christmas Day 2016. I’m aware. But, in my defense, I had already published my top albums of 2016 at that point, and “RTJ3” was supposed to drop in January. That said, I don’t need to fucking defend this shit, it’s Run the Goddamn Jewels. And while this album isn’t quite as hard as the band’s predecessor, “RTJ2,” it’s still a damn good threequel that features more of El-P’s dope flow and left-field production, Killer Mike’s sorta-radical lyrics, and the sea of excellent features from Danny Brown, Zach de la Rocha, Tunde Adebimpe, and more. But, honestly, I could have simply left this entire explanation section blank and still be greeted with just as many nods and “Damn right”s.
Sleaford Mods — English Tapas
I’ve been deeply moved by the music of English duo Sleaford Mods since I first came across the group’s music in 2014. Vocalist Jason Williamson delivers snide, brilliant lyrics in his exaggerated Johnny-Rotten-meets-Mark-E-Smith intonation while instrumentalist Andrew Fearns brings post-punk bass guitar and minimalist kraut drums to the table. This formula, combined with an anarchist political edge, makes Sleaford Mods work. It worked on 2015’s fantastic “Key Markets,” and it works even better on the band’s latest album, “English Tapas,” a much more focused, funny, and bitter album. While this won’t be converting people who couldn’t care less about the band to begin with, it fills this fan with giddy glee and anarcho-punk spirituality.
Vince Staples “Big Fish Theory”
Another album I haven’t quite got around to reviewing yet, but I can’t stop listening to it. I’ve loved every project Vince has put out since 2014’s dazzling “Hell Can Wait” EP, and he kicks it up a notch with his second studio album here. As usual, Vince comes through with forward-thinking production, thoughtful bars that are simultaneously humorous and disturbing, and a set of short songs and conceptual interludes that bring together a full story. It’s half as long as the album that preceded it, but it’s three times as dense and experimental.
Sun Kil Moon — Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys of Blood
There are many who, understandably, want nothing to do with Mark Kozelek and his music. His stuff has especially gone sort-of down the rabbit hole as of late, with 2014’s sleeper hit “Benji” being followed by the long-winded, talkative “Universal Themes” in 2015 and his sludgy, loose first collaboration with Jesu in 2016. Kozelek has kept a prolific stream of releases coming since then, with his second Jesu collab also being one of my favorite albums of this year (but just barely missing this list). Even better than that, though, was “Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys of Blood,” an 130-minute masterpiece that is the direct followup to “Universal Themes.” While that album was decent, I feel like Mark really makes good on that album’s promises here, with his use of instruments he doesn’t normally use, the meta-commentary, the storytelling, even reading letters from fans. It’s a difficult, breathtaking slice of life that I personally enjoy very much, for its humor and personality and everything in between.
Various Artists — mono no aware
While compilation albums typically don’t do much for me due to their generally disjointed nature, 2017’s best electronic music album is just that. “Mono no aware” is a victory lap of sorts for experimental music label PAN, which I believe is based in Germany but features artists from the world over. Each artist gets one track on this 70-minute album, and for a compilation it has a superior flow. I love the way each artist plays off each other here, and I also love the wide array of musical styles brought. “Mono no aware” is a brilliant display of experimentation with texture, sample, and sound, and it brings unto us the year’s dreamiest, most melancholy ambient release.
Roger Waters — Is This the Life We Really Want?
This should be no surprise to anyone who read my recent review of this album, but it surely came as a surprise to me. I tend to be weary when an older legacy artist releases an album of new material, but Roger Waters isn’t your ordinary old legacy artist. He cares very deeply for the conceptuality and consistency of his music, and it makes him a captivating artist to listen to to this day. This is especially the case here, which sees the notoriously political artist taking on an activist role in singing about drone bombings, class disparity, and the farce that is bourgeois democracy. I love the hell out of this record, and I expect I’ll keep spinning its passionate, glorious goodness well past year’s end.
Xiu Xiu — Forget
Last, but certainly not least, is the newest album from noise pop group Xiu Xiu, led by vocalist/musician Jamie Stewart. These guys have been pumping out grotesqueries for nearly 20 years now, and the quality of their material has taken a significant up-surge on this one. While I certainly loved the band’s 2016 interpretation of the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack, “Forget” is Xiu Xiu’s best album of original material in years. It continues to give Xiu Xiu space to write songs that are catchy and disturbing while also technically and brilliantly produced. They find and use sounds that I will never be able to figure out how they’re created, and it’s easy to hear the band’s influence not only on themselves, but also on artists like Perfume Genius. With a riveting closing track to leave us salivating for another Xiu Xiu LP, it can’t be overstated how amazing the rest of this album is. The band played it straight, and it worked in their favor, as well as ours.
As always, stay tuned for more content, including upcoming album reviews from Marika Hackman, Richard Dawson, billy woods, Kirin J Callinan, BROCKHAMPTON, and many many more.