The Round-Up: The Best Albums of 2017, So Far…

Rating albums at the mid-point of the year, just to re-rate them in six months seems dumb, so I decided to go with an NBA Draft-style tier system to pick out a few of my favorites so far.

TIER 1: THE FAVORITE

_91353679_stormzy976_paStormzy
Gang Signs and Prayer
#Merky
The Londoner’s debut LP is an epic in every sense of the word. Gang Signs and Prayer very much feels like that special kind of debut that took an artist’s whole life to make. From the powerful opener “First Things First,” where Stormzy (né Michael Omari) unloads on topics like racial profiling, mental health, and respectability politics with a depth and maturity that belies his 23 years.

Like many others, I fell in love with his charismatic, highly quotable bangers like “Shut Up” and “Know Me From,” but I was floored by GSAP’s many reflective, emotional moments. Whether he’s toasting to his mother (‘Mumzy) on the touching “100 Bags” (my favorite track of the year), looking to the heavens (“Blinded by Your Grace”), or letting himself fall in love (“Velvet”), Omari knocks just about every kind of track out of the park. Unlike some of his more heralded peers (*cough* Chance *cough*), none of it feels forced or constructed; it’s simply a man pouring his heart out to the world.

He might be in his feelings a lot on this album, but don’t get it twisted, there’s still plenty of old school Stormzy here, in the form of delirious, fun grime tracks like “Cold,” “Big For Your Boots,” and “Mr Skeng.” They balance the record beautifully and highlight what a rare talent he is. If there’s gonna be a better album this year, I can’t wait to hear it.

Stream it on Spotify.

TIER 2: THE STRONG CONTENDERS

Mr MitchScreen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.33.01 PM
Devout
Planet Mu

The Londoner’s stunning debut LP is all about growth. First, there’s his growth as an artist. Devout is the sound of a production wizard stepping out from behind the safety of the boards and into the spotlight. His signature prog-grime production is all over this thing, but he supplements that with sharp songwriting, well-chosen guest vocalists, and for the first time ever, his own voice.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s about his personal growth. Mitch recently had his second child, and the disc is a love letter to his growing family. He begins the record by serenading his partner (“Do you remember when we made our love?”) and ends it waiting to meet his second son, Oscar. They are beautiful bookends to an album that is filled with stunning, deeply human moments.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.46.38 PMJulie Byrne
Not Even Happiness
Ba Da Bing
The rising folk singer’s second LP is a gorgeous travelogue, crafted by a weary nomad who is seeking a home that is right for her. She lays out the disc’s mission statement on the first song, singing, “To me, this city’s hell, but I know you call it home. I was made for the green, made to be alone.” From there, she explores this complex issue, wondering why she can’t settle anywhere and questioning whether she’d even really want to.

There are far more questions than answers, because, of course, there are no answers to the kinds of questions she asks. And by the time she gets to her stunning final song (which actually sounds kind of like Enya*), “I Live Now as a Singer,” she accepts her current situation and revels in the home that music can provide.

*This is a complement.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.42.57 PMVince Staples
Big Fish Theory
Def Jam
Still only a few years into his career, the Long Beach native is building one of the most versatile catalogs in hip-hop. His debut, Hell Can Wait, was a sharp, tight collection of updated G-funk, while his breakthrough Summertime ’06 was a sprawling double LP that often featured skeletal, claustrophobic beats.

For his third album, Staples zagged again, drawing inspiration from sweaty UK club nights. Leadoff track, “Crabs in a Bucket,” features house vocals, rave keys, and a two-step backbeat. “Alyssa Interlude” is a down-tempo number that almost sounds like Burial and Jamie Woon, while “BagBak” features a bassline that you’d expect to hear on a techno white label, rather than a rap record. The new sounds are well balanced by the classic West Coast swing of tracks like “Big Fish” and the magical, twinkling keys of “745.” As always, the disc is knitted together by Staples’ multifaceted flow, penetrating storytelling, and sharp social commentary, which allows him to explore new spaces without losing his roots.

Stream it on Spotify.

i-want-to-make-music-that-means-something-that-lifts-the-spirit-j-hus-talks-us-through-his-debut-common-sense-1493747911J Hus
Common Sense
Black Butter
It only took a few spins of the Londoner’s 2015 debut mixtape, The 15th Day, to realize that the kid was going to be special. Blessed with a crazy ear for melody and a razor sharp tongue, the disc featured a delicious blend of afrobeat, grime, American street rap, and just a teeny bit of pop to create a unique sound that was catchy enough for the club and mean enough for the road.

On Common Sense, Hus basically amped up of the elements that made its predecessor so great. The hooks are catchier (“Did You See,” “Good Time”), the bars cut deeper (“Who You Are,” “Claritin”), and Hus’ is better able to communicate his unique perspective — all the joy, sorrow, humor, and love — on his life in London.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.57.02 PMSevdaliza
Ison
Twisted Elegance

It may be because I live with an Iranian woman (hi boo!), but I have long been fascinated by the Tehran-born, Dutch-bred artist’s shapeshifting sound and unique point of view. On her early EPs, The Suspended Kid and Children of Silk, she beautifully touched on her complex identity and the duality of having roots in a country with traditional value systems but feeling at home in a modern, progressive world.

Ison goes far, far deeper, and across its 16 songs, Sevdaliza (né: Sevda Alizadeh) crafts heartfelt tracks that touch on a variety of relatable topics in fresh, affecting ways. Even though she doesn’t really sound like any of them, her work belongs alongside iconoclasts like Bjork, FKA Twigs, Beth Gibbons, and Kelela. Just a huge talent.

Stream it on Spotify.

1161195Arca
Arca
XL
It only takes about 45 seconds of listening to realize that this isn’t your typical Arca album. For his third LP, Alejandro “Arca” Ghersi stepped far outside the confines of the experimental electro/IDM sound that he was known for, dug deep into his soul, and stepped to the mic for the first time. His haunting, dramatic vocal is the star of the show here — quivering, stretching, and aching over skeletal, orchestral soundscapes.

Standout tracks like “Anoche,” “Piel,” and “Sin Rumbo” are insane mixtures of ranchera music, gospel hymns, and operatic arias. These stunning ballads are balanced by his signature, swirling instrumentals (“Casteration,” “Urchin”), which give the disc an even more cinematic feel. Listeners who speak Spanish will be even more rewarded by the richness and depth of the lyrics, which match the beauty and heft of the voice that delivers them.

Stream it on Spotify.

TIER 3: THE FRINGE CONTENDERS

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.52.28 PMKendrick Lamar
DAMN.
Aftermath
Though not as sprawling or grandiose as the seminal, To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN. is another impressive, substantive statement from an artist who is used to making the extraordinary seem ordinary. At a tight 14 songs, DAMN. is meant to be lapped up in one go, but I keep finding myself on its impeccable b-side. It’s a near-perfect run, from the superlative duet with Rihanna (“Loyalty.”) to its dizzying closer “Duckworth,” which features a twist ending that would make Vince Gilligan drool with jealousy. It’s the rare album that will consistently reveal new elements of itself, months after first listen.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.24.54 PMMoStack
High Street Kid
MizerMillion
Every time I start to believe that UK rappers are starting to get the respect they deserve over here, something like High Street Kid happens. The Londoner has a fresh sound, a legitimate hit single in the UK, and the strongest debut album of the year, but can’t even get an American publication to review it. Frustrating as it is, it hasn’t slowed the young MC down at all, riding high on this excellent LP’s wave.

The disc is an airtight collection of breezy, melodic songs that are influenced by the music of Africa, the Caribbean, and the multi-cultural metropolis that he calls home. He’s the newest member of the incredible run of second-generation Londoners with African roots and the ears of the city on lock. If you’ve read this site before, names like MoStack, J Hus, Abra Cadabra, and Kojo Funds aren’t new to you. And if there’s any fairness in the world, they won’t be new to the rest for that much longer.

Stream it on Spotify.

Mount EerieScreen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.01.13 PM
A Crow Looked at Me
P.W. Elverum & Sun
“Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not. It’s not for singin’ about. It’s not for making into art” sings Phil Elverum in the first seconds of his ode to his late wife Geneviève. It’s a sobering statement that reminds us just how little the things we value (music, music websites, lists on music website, etc) matter in the face of cold, unforgiving fate.

That synopsis drives the disc’s unflinching nature. Directness takes precedence over prose and clarity over melody. Sure, it’s incredibly artful at times, but communication is the real goal here. Phil’s reminding us to value the shit out of the ones we love while we have them, because once we don’t, it becomes hard to value much of anything.

Stream it now on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.26.35 PMBedouine
Bedouine
Spacebomb
Azniv Korkejian’s low-key, gorgeous folk debut is one of the real hidden gems of the year. Her voice may be quiet, but the statement is anything but. Though her voice has some Joni to it, her music and aesthetic really harkens back to the British pastoral folk of people like Nick Drake and Tim Buckley. The record also has a real rambling, road feel to it, which is driven by her restless lyrics and rolling, dusty arrangements. It’s the kind of album that may not bowl you over at first but will grow on you with every single listen.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.06.30 PMFuture
HNDRXX / FUTURE
Freebandz
I don’t know how it happened so quickly, but all of a sudden early last year, it started to feel like Future really needed a hit record. As preposterous as it was considering he’d just ripped off a legendary streak of mixtapes and dropped two solid LPs in 2016, there was a vibe that his blazing streak might be starting to simmer a little.

Just like he did after Honest got a lukewarm response, the 33 year-old came out swinging, dropping back to back monster projects that let us know he wasn’t planning on going anywhere. Instead of taking them individually, I’ve tended to mash them together, making one fantastic collection that features him at its most melodic (“Incredible,” “Fresh Air,” “Use Me”) and muscular (“Poppin’ Tags,” “Mask Off,” “POA”). Still one of the driving forces in modern music.

Stream HNDRXX and FUTURE on Spotify.

TIER 4: THE STRONG PLAYOFF TEAMS

fjmmainFather John Misty
Pure Comedy
Sub Pop
Way way way way too many words have been written about Father John Misty, his third album, and his marmite personality, so I’ll keep it brief. I initially struggled with the one-paced Pure Comedy, as it felt bloated and overwrought compared to its predecessor — the lovely wedding LP, I Love You Honeybear.

At first, I was stuck on the fact that were nowhere near enough ideas in here to satisfy its 74-minute runtime. But the more time I spent with it, the less I cared. Sure, it’s hard to tell which languid piano ballad is which (see: “Birdie,” “The Memo,” “Smoochie,” “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”). But my god, they are beautifully sung and well-written. And that’s got to count for something.

Stream it now on Spotify.

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.27.49 PMG Perico
All Blue
So Way Out
Though YG is still the king of LA rap, the South Central MC is easily the city’s biggest rising star. All Blue is the 28 year-old’s proper debut album, and it paints a vivid picture of Perico’s current life, which is buoyed by a promising, glamorous career but still fraught with peril. Behind every flex, there’s a warning. Before every party, there’s a precaution. And instead of focusing solely on what’s around him, he does a beautiful job on reporting on what’s going on inside — touching on the heavy emotional toll his surroundings have had on him. It’s all set to a glittering, bouncy West Coast soundtrack that keeps things ticking over and the wheels moving.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.30.22 PMMigos
Culture
Quality Control
Culture is one of those rare albums where commercial superstardom is driven by true, artistic originality. There are no imported pop stars, manufactured narratives (ahem, 4:44), or hired gun songwriters; there’s just three ridiculously creative and talented young artists, staying true to their sound and cooking up a sonic stew that only they can. It goes without saying, but the rapping on this thing is incredible. Each member has his own strengths and distinctive voices, but they are happy to interchange with each other, sacrificing their individual spotlight to bring the song to the next level. That interplay guarantees that no matter how much they are imitated (the most), the clones will always fall short.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.10.53 PMSZA
Ctrl
Top Dawg
The thing that sticks out most about the St. Louis vocalist’s proper debut is her bravery. Never one to sugarcoat her failings or insecurity, she goes deeper than many artists do, sharing her compelling story over a versatile smattering of neo soul arrangements. As the disc moves, it becomes clear that her strength comes from that vulnerability and the power that total honesty can deliver.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.18.14 PMRyuichi Sakamoto
async
KAB
Over the last few years, the legendary composer has enjoyed an incredible purple patch. The 65 year-old put out two incredible soundtracks last year (The Revenant and Nagasaki: Memories of My Son) and followed them up with his first solo effort since 2012. Unbound by the need to fit in with a film, Sakamoto is free to go where he pleases, and he pairs signature, contemplative numbers (“ubi,” “ZURE”) alongside peculiar, experimental tracks with unexpected instrumentation (“walker,” “async,” “tri”). The result is a fascinating, well-balanced LP that proves that even 40+ years into his career, Sakamoto is still breaking new ground.

Stream it on Spotify.

Chief-Keef-ig-firstChief Keef
Thot Breaker
Glo Gang
After teasing his “singing” record for more than two years, Keef finally dropped it early this summer. (You probably won’t) Believe me…. it was well worth the wait. The 21 year-old has long been underrated by the *listens to “Don’t Like” once* crowd, not getting the credit he deserves for being an innovator, explorer, and influencer (see: Soundcloud rap). On Thot Breaker, he is in full Jacques Cousteau mode, trying his hand at trop pop (“Can You Be My Friend”) and druggy R&B (“Drank Head”). He even tosses in a couple straightforward love ballads in for good measure. Like most of Keef’s recent projects, it’s a sensory feast and full of pure, unadulterated joy.

Stream it on Spotify.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 10.22.48 PMJacques Greene
Feel Infinite
LuckyMe
Full-length dance LPs are notoriously tough to craft, and the Canadian waited more than 7 years to finally drop his own. Unlike many producers, Greene keeps guests to a minimum — the only vocal feature is from long-time collaborator How to Dress Well — but that doesn’t mean the project lacks a voice. Green is a master at pulling maximum emotion out of vocal samples, whether he’s flipping a singer from the past (the legendary Mary Wells) or present (Tinashé). The result is a rare, R&B-influenced dance record that is cohesive but not repetitive.

Stream it on Spotify.

Others Receiving Votes: Lil Yachty: Teenage Emotions //Kollaps: Duprass // JLin: Black Origami // Sampha: Process // Nightlands: I Can Feel The Night Around Me // Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now // Ryan Adams: Prisoner // The XX: I See You // Young Thug: Beautiful Thugger Girls // Jean-Michel Blais x CFCF: Cascades

Posted on by TP1.COM in Featured, The Round-Up

Comments are closed.