The end of the year is creeping near, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the avid music enjoyers of And The Valley Shook to join forces and share their year-end lists for their Albums of The Year as well as a few novelty categories.
Albums of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Margo Price | All American Made; Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit | The Nashville Sound; Kendrick Lamar | DAMN.; dvsn | Morning After; Queens of the Stone Age | Villains
That’s right, Kendrick Lamar’s fourth full-length album did not make my list, making this the first list without a Kdot release in the top 10 since 2013, when I started making year-end lists (I gave untitled. unmastered. the 10 spot in last year’s list). That’s not to say that I didn’t like the album, because I did. But as it happens, I liked 12 albums this year better.
That’s not the only artist I was expecting to be higher. A year after they won Album of the Year from me, dvsn came out with Morning After which was good, but felt more and more like a B-side collection from SEPT. 5th with a few exceptions.
But the HM’s aren’t all bad. QotSA proved they still have it in 2017 when I was fully expecting them to start the washing out process, and we got two great country albums from Jason Isbell and Margo Price.
As a whole, 2017 was a deeper music year than 2016 and I know this because I felt much worse about the albums that I feel just missed the cusp of top 10 distinction.
10: Joey Bada$$ | ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
Out of all the artists that I would have predicted to drop the best politically-charged rap album (and possibly best politically-charged overall album) in 2017, Joey Bada$$ would not be very high up the list. But out of seemingly nowhere, Joey Bada$$ grew up right before our eyes and gave us an emotionally wrought album that comes directly from the heart.
ALL-AMERIKKAN BADA$$ opens on these emotional notes, most notably on TEMPTATION. The emotional first half of the album takes a detour for DEVASTATED, where Joey talks about his pre-fame concerns that rapping will not work out for him, but gets back on track with Y U DON’T LOVE ME? (MISS AMERIKKA).
But after that, the album takes a turn. There is a four count, then a hard piano riff and boom-bap takes over to start ROCKABYE BABY. There are no more synths, no more room for soft emotions. Bada$$’ New York roots over and he teams up with ScHoolboy Q to provide us with the first banger of the album while maintaining the political theme. Both artists reflect upon their place in society, not only as black men but as black rappers.
ROCKABYE BABY bleeds into RING THE ALARM, probably the coldest flow you’re likely to hear all year. Almost as if he needs to have one ignorant banger to avoid the label of “conscious rapper”, Bada$$ teams up with Meechy Darko, NYCk Caution, and Kirk Knight to issue a quick reminder to the rap game of what he’s capable of before slipping back into the important topics of inequality.
The album closes with AMERIKKAN IDOL, a winding six-minute denouncement of the American government for their neglect of the black community, coming to a head with Joey echoing Nas:
I'm out for dead presidents to represent me
Because I've never known a live one that represents me
9: The War On Drugs | A Deeper Understanding
I’m going to be honest, a lot of The War On Drug’s music just blends together to me. I know a surprisingly few songs by actual name.
But that’s a good thing. It’s hard for me to denote the differences between songs while listening through an album because they do all kind of have the same sound to them, but also because they’re so easy to lose yourself in. The War On Drugs’ 2014 Lost In The Dream perfected upon this, and A Deeper Understanding was no different. Each song is layered like an onion throughout, yet it combines to form an airy atmosphere that makes you want to put on a pair of headphones, turn out all the lights, lay down in bed, and just soak everything in.
The 11-minute long Thinking Of A Place is a great microcosm of the album, a winding ballad that looks like a daunting listen when you look at it on the tracklist, but is far too short once you invest in the song and let it come to you. If there is one standout, distinctly memorable moment it’s the screaming guitars on top of the kaleidoscope synths at the base of Holding On.
It’s shoegaze, it’s Americana, it’s folk rock, it’s too much to take in with one listen on your commute to work or school. The Bob Dylan vocal comparisons will always be there for Adam Granduciel, but I personally don’t think that is a death sentence and it honestly, it’s the perfect voice for The War On Drugs’ sound.
Out of everything in this list, this is the one album I had to put the most amount of time in to get a deeper understanding of (hey, that’s the name of the album!). But it was so worth it.
8: St. Vincent | MASSEDUCTION
Much like The War On Drugs, I was excited and a little concerned with how St. Vincent would follow up her 2015 self-titled album which was pretty much universally praised. Excited to be getting a new St. Vincent album, but a little worried a regression to the mean would occur.
Nope, instead she pulled the mean even higher with MASSEDUCTION. The album starts off with five tracks building on each other past the snappy, near-parody and jingle-like Pills that ends with a Pink Floyd-esque address to the audience members, inviting them forward like a pastor does to a congregation for communion.
The build rolls on with the titular track, an ode to sexual independence and acceptance. Masseduction continues the build to Los Ageless, the standout track of the album. The main single from the album, it features some of my favorite songwriting of the year, especially in the chorus where Annie Clark utilizes an antanaclasis to perfection:
How can anybody have you?
How can anybody have you and lose you?
How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds, too?
By the time we get to the downtrodden and dour Happy Birthday, Johnny (possibly a narrative expansion on the Prince Johnny from St. Vincent’s self-titled album), MASSEDUCTION has given us a complete cycle of tempos and subject matter. And that’s only in the first half of the album. There’s still the (unconfirmed) comment on Annie’s relationship with Cara Delevingne in Savior and the ballad of New York.
The rest of the album fails to reach as high as the first half did, but that’s like saying an Eric Walker’s freshman year wasn’t as good as Aaron Nola’s: it’s true, but that doesn’t mean it was bad by any means.
I was content with getting a good St. Vincent album. Annie Clark was not.
7: LCD Soundsystem | American Dream
LCD Soundsystem broke up weeks after my first exposure to them, and during my first deep dive into their catalog I was hit with the realization that I would never get to see them perform live.
Well, they re-united and I still haven’t seen them live, but that’s because their reunion tour mostly consisted of festivals, but festivals tend to be expensive and I just got out of the brokest point in my life.
However, they did give us a brand-new album early in the fall. Despite the seven-year gap between albums, James Murphy and gang did not miss a beat with the new album. In fact, American Dream might be the most LCD Soundsystem album ever.
There is a plethora of songs about the band themselves and the music industry (change yr mind, how do you sleep, tonite), because it wouldn’t be an LCD Soundsystem album without that vital element. Of course, because it was an album released in 2017, there are also political themes (other voices & call the police).
But there are more songs about relationships than we’re used to getting on a LCD Soundsystem release, namely the beautiful titular track that centered around the morning after a one-night stand and the desire for more out of life than the repetition of the same steps over and over that lead to a emotionless sexual encounter.
Of course, this is James Murphy and this is LCD Soundsystem, so the six-minute (relative) slow burner is followed by emotion haircut, a banger of a song about…an emotional haircut, paired with a buzzer sample to really drive to point home.
The album closes out with black screen, a somber tribute from Murphy to his friend, mentor, and idol David Bowie. Murphy has sung about regret before (also literally two tracks earlier in the tracklist), but on black screen it’s especially painful because Murphy feels like he didn’t make the most of his time with Bowie before his death and you can tell it haunts him. Often Murphy’s songwriting is dry and witty, and we confuse it for being honest. Here he proves to us the two are not the same things. On black screen you can really tell James is dumping his heart over the course of 13 minutes. Yes, 13 minutes. It is still an LCD Soundsystem song after all. The song closes out the album with some painful lyrics where Murphy mourns Bowie in a fitting tribute to his legacy:
Been watching images
From the station
Earth one from satellites
Feels slow at seventeen thousand miles an hour
You could be anywhere
On the black screen
6: Aminé | Good For You
There has been a lot of criticism thrown at the freshman rappers of the last three years or so, the main one being that they’re so interchangeable. Young Thug songs could be virtually the same with Lil Uzi Vert on them, and 21 Savage songs could just as easily be Kodak Yellow songs. Hell, when Desiigner’s Panda was sampled on Kanye’s (Father Stretch My Hands) Pt. 2, most people outside the hip hop head community thought it was a Future feature.
There is no replacement for Aminé. He is the opposite of the airy trap that has taken over rap by storm. He’s peppy, fun, and infectious to the core. There is nothing on his debut Good For You that can be re-packaged as another rapper. Maybe Chance The Rapper if I had to pick a rapper that comes close.
Maybe the album is three songs too long, especially near the end, but the album is such a fun listen throughout that it’s hard to find bad songs. Listening to Caroline means that you’ll be singing the hook all week. The hook to Spice Girls, where he flawlessly namedrops each Spice Girl when building his perfect girl, is a month sentence. And the hook to Heebiejeebies with Kehlani? Like Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner always being angry, I’m always playing that in my head. Especially the bit about Khaleesi.
There is an Offset feature that was a round peg shoved into a square hole, and after that point there is a dip in the album, but the first half of the album leading up to that point is some of the most undeniably fun rap music I’ve ever heard. The popping synths on Slide is such an antithesis of the current rap landscape. Yet that and Nelly’s singing (not rapping) feature on Yellow are club-stoppers wherever you go, no different than the hook Mask Off or XO Tour Llif3.
5: Lorde | Melodrama
Lorde’s sophomore album Melodrama does not exist without her debut, Pure Heroine. Nor does it exist without her meteoric rise to fame behind the overnight sensation of Royals. Maybe if her debut was met with great critical praise but little commercial success there would be a second album and it very likely would have been good, but it wouldn’t be Melodrama.
Pure Heroine was released when she was 17, which is a notoriously hard age to be in the spotlight. Yet we didn’t hear much of her in the four years between albums. We know now that’s because she was trying to balance living out her youthful years in a somewhat normal manner and being a star, two things that don’t work together.
This comes to a head on Liability, a ballad where Lorde painfully states that her status and constant impulsive energy is attractive to suitors at first but at a certain point it becomes hurtful to others. It’s brutally honest and yet defiant, as she states that one day people will all grow tire of her and then she’ll just have herself.
That theme bleeds though into every track, be it the single of Green Light and its driving piano lead; Sober, the spiritual prelude to Liability, and Sober II (Melodrama). She takes the meta template of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space and improves upon it (not that it’s a hard task to do) with Writer In The Dark.
But there’s also the battle she faces with having a relationship that fail because of reasons having to do with Ella, not Lorde. There’s the combo of Hard Feelings/Loveless, a statement on our generation’s unique way of expressing love and how rarely they show it and Supercut where Lorde reflects on the tendency to only remember the good parts of a relationship while delivering a soul-searing vocal performance. The Louvre delivers one of my favorite titular lines all year while saying a relationship may grow old but it’s still worthy of being hung in a museum:
But we’re the greatest,
They’ll hang us in the Louvre.
Down the back, but who cares, still the Louvre.
The album ends on Perfect Places, a single that I didn’t care much for but loved in the context of the album. Here Lorde sings about the vices that people her age use to escape the harsh realities of the real world: drugs, alcohol, and sex. But at the end she comes back around, wise with age (compared to when she was 17). She now realizes that using these things to take you somewhere imaginary and where you think is where you should be is pointless because at this stage in their life, they should be nowhere but in the moment.
5: K.Flay | Every Where Is Some Where
It’s hard to accurately describe what K.Flay is. Usually I just start with “21 Pilots but a solo female, and also good instead of bad”, but that’s not exactly it. Her music is a weird fusion of punk, rap, and lo-fi pop and she doesn’t exactly have a voice like Haley Williams or even Emily Haines to give her an edge.
But she takes those spare parts and makes something magical out of it.
Her sophomore album (only technically, her debut was only seven tracks and didn’t receive a large audience) was a little juvenile despite her age, at times cursing for the sake or cursing and dwelling on subject matter I feel only connects with people half her age at the time, and only as a fantasy escape where they envision what they will do with their pending “freedom” from their parents.
But by the time the Crush Me EP came out, K.Flay had matured while giving us the same type of songs. That EP held the single Blood In The Cut and it’s distinctive bass riff, which is more inescapable than you probably think. The EP sold me on K.Flay, and the album that followed it blew me out the water.
The track list has your standard emo bangers, like Blood In The Cut, a desperate cry for something to feel, even if it’s something negative and painful. She then inverts those feelings on Champagne, where she states that she’s looking for something to make her feel nothing while rapping with a flow that puts damn near every hip hop artist in the Top 40 absolute shame. You can probably guess what the metaphor in High Enough is, but that doesn’t damper the quality of the song any.
Oh, and K. Flay also took a stab at the Blank Space/Writer In The Dark trend in music and put her spin on it with You Felt Right.
But by and large, the album is open and honest. It opens with Dreamers and Givers, two songs that reflect on the fact that we only get one shot at life (Dreamers) and her struggles with changing herself to make the most of her life (Giver). Those changes show up again in Mean It, the most emotionally open song K.Flay has made to date.
But what makes the album is the anthemic Slow March, where K.Flay walks up her journey with depression and the changes she made and continues to make as a person to become somebody new.
4: Sylvan Esso | What Now
What Now opens with a broken Korg being tuned by lead singer Amelia Meath’s unmistakable voice, instead of the machine tuning her voice. What starts out as static turns into just a voice, repeating the same verse about a song.
In more than ways than one, What Now is an album about Sylvan Esso’s place in the music industry following their breakout self-titled debut and H.S.K.T. This theme is apparent on Kick Jump Twist and Radio, a diss of the pop music industry that is ironically everything they want form SE: an upbeat three minutes and thirty seconds of catchy music and memorable vocal performances.
But Sylvan Esso don’t really need to drop pipe bombs to make great music. Just Dancing has a two-minute build to an infectious hook that gets you moving just before it cuts off for the breakdown. It eventually builds back up and explodes to over a minute of a repeated chorus, getting slightly more frantic each time it comes back around. It took about six listens for me to actually realize that the song is about Tinder culture and how you can your ideal self for one first date, but that’s it.
Die Young is the landmark of the album though, an absolute show-stopper that is so beautiful and heavy that it’s hard to get back into the album because you carry it with you from there. It’s Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn at their absolute best. For me, that moment is the gold standard in 2017.
2: Big K.R.I.T. | 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time
Big K.R.I.T.’s first album away from Def Jam opens with a track titled, well, Big K.R.I.T. But it’s not K.R.I.T. who welcomes us to the album, it’s Justin Scott, the man behind K.R.I.T. Scott delivers a half poetry half spoken word selection that serves as warning and apology to K.R.I.T. for the position that he put both of them in. Nearly halfway through the song, the beat starts to build with some cymbals crashing. Some high hats rattle in and Big K.R.I.T. comes out with fire-breathing verse that samples Kendrick Lamar’s flow on 1Train, one of the rare times when Kendrick Lamar didn’t have the best verse on a song because K.R.I.T. anchored it with one of the greatest verses in rap history.
“4eva Is A Mighty Long Time” is a fitting name for the album, because that’s how long it takes to sit through an hour and 25 minutes of rap. But there’s a good reason for the long run time. The album is split into two parts, one part for K.R.I.T., and another for Justin Scott.
After the verse in the intro track, K.R.I.T. drops Confetti and Big Bank, two songs that showcase both K.R.I.T.’s personable slow southern draw as well as a breakneck flow, doing both on Confetti. T.I. appears on Big Bank and shows that he can still drop bars in 2017 and at least match K.R.I.T.’s pace. K.R.I.T. pays homage to UGK with his slower throwed voice by sampling Pimp C’s Knockin Doorz Down (AKA Knackin Does Dine) and getting Bun B on Ride Wit Me.
But of course, they’re not all vapid bangers. Throughout the first half of the album, K.R.I.T. addresses his hiatus from the rap game and where it leaves him, especially after his departure from Def Jam. Okay, so he continues the streak of including a love song to he speakers with Subenstein (My Sub IV), but he makes up for it by making the bold choice of having Lloyd sample the hook to Back That Azz Up in 1999.
By itself, the first half of this album is probably good enough to crack my top 15 albums of the year, maybe sneaking into the top 10. But when combined with the second half, it becomes special. Big K.R.I.T. is subbed off for Justin Scott, who strips back the veneer of bravado and opens his heart. He starts off by addresses the Mixed Messages he presents in his career as a rapper before hitting us with the southern gospel through and through on Keep the devil Off, which is one of the most wholesome things in rap this year. On Miss Georgia Fornia (Miss[issippi] Georgia [Cali]Fornia]) Scott talks about how he feels he betrayed his Mississippi by moving to Atlanta and contemplated moving to Los Angeles.
I’m going to cut myself off here because I can do this for every song. But this album is worth the time investment it asks from you.
1B: London Grammar | Truth Is A Beautiful Thing
If there is one negative I can say about London Grammar’s debut If You Wait, one thing to make up out of the blue to motivate my British children to transcend their music even higher, it’s that it leaned on Hannah Reid’s absurdly beautiful vocals a bit too much and didn’t compliment it with instrumentals as much as they could.
A PAINFUL four years later, guess what they did? Go ahead, guess.
It takes an hour and 19 minutes to sit through the deluxe version of Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, but it’s the only way to do it. I can’t go through the highlights of the track list, because it’s all yellow. It’s all amazing, all the way down. Hannah’s voice is front and center, as it should be with a voice that unmatched. But also through every song are instrumentals that have a life of their own. They even added synths to the guitar and drums London Grammar base for songs like Control, which only make the track even more mesmerizing.
Gun to my head, I’d say my favorite cut from the album is Non Believer, where Hannah’s voice and the lyrics intersect with Dot Major’s production and Daniel Rothman’s melodic guitars. It may be sacrilege to auto-tune Reid’s voice at the end if it wasn’t executed so flawlessly. The album also ends with a FANTASTIC live rendition of Bitter Sweet Symphony that has all but replaced the Verve’s original in my mind.
From the first time I heard this record, I was sure that Truth Is A Beautiful Thing will be the best album of 2017 in my mind, and nothing after it challenged it’s spot in my mind.
1A: Run The Jewels | Run The Jewels 3
*very wresting Twitter voice* LOL RTJ WINS.
But seriously Run The Jewels 3 deserves a place on the list. The Jewel Runners dropped RTJ3 out of the blue on Christmas Eve last year, after our list ran on the site. That’s the reason why we pushed this back past the holiday break, in case somebody else got any bright ideas. Nobody did.
But it put me in a bind. Run The Jewels 3 turned out to be the best album of 2016, but I can’t retroactively award them that title. It’s not like I missed the album, it just came close to the end of the year when we weren’t expecting it, As RTJ would do. But I have to recognize the genius somewhere, and it’s close enough to 2017 to put it in this list. It’s honestly better than everything on my list except for London Grammar. So I’ll cheat the system and award it to both!
Three albums, three Album of the Year wins from me.
Best New Artist
Honorable Mentions: Merci Raines, Cigarettes After Sex, Mothica
Not really a deep pool of actual contenders for best new in my eyes (an artist cannot be considered “best new” if they dropped an album in 2014. Sorry, LUV and SZA). So I guess by default, the artist with the highest debut comes home with the award.
But it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. Aminé gave us a unique and different sound in rap music, one that’s carefree and fun instead of dark and looming. There is always a ying to the yang, a sweet for the savory. This year, it was Aminé, and he did it exceptionally well. I’m very excited to see him grow as an artist.
Song of The Year
Honorable Mentions: Lorde | Liability; London Grammar | Non Believer; Migos | Bad and Boujee (Ft. Lil Uzi Vert); Kendrick Lamar | HUMBLE.; Foster The People | Loyal Like Sid & Nancy
Sylvan Esso | Die Young
God, I could talk about this song all day. Just like with Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, I knew this song was going to be my pick for Song of The Year and I was just waiting for the rest of the year to pass so I could properly confirm it. Liability and Non Believer came close, but it was Die Young all the way for me.
The song is built around a simple premise: the narrator was going to end her life, by accident or volition, and was dreaming of the ways she could do it until she met somebody who put those plans on hold. But the lyrics are ambiguous enough to where we don’t know if the affection from the narrator has been returned or even expressed. When she says
I was gonna die young
Now I gotta wait for you, honey
We don’t know if that’s a life-long bond made between the two or if she just has to wait for their reply or even for the other party to notice her.
This song is so tragically beautiful, so perfect in every way. Sanborn’s instrumentals match Meath’s hauting lyrics and tone so perfectly. The synths are booming and understated at the same time. They help lead the song to a natural buildup and just when we expect a soaring high note from Meath, the song cuts it back down to a low repetition of
I had it all planned out before you met me
I had a plan, you ruined it completely
That singular moment gets to me every single time and I don’t know if there will come a time when it doesn’t.
Artist of The Year
Honorable Mentions: LCD Soundsystem, Kendrick Lamar, Terror Jr.
Run The Jewels
So, you’re in a critically acclaimed rap duo that has claimed Album of the Year for two years in a row. The project you started just as just a fun rap experiment has grown into something bigger. You are a driving force in a small-time cultural phenomenon.
What do you do, where do you go from here? Do you embrace your fame grow into something larger than what you originally intended? Do you buck the praise and stick to your guns?
The answer to all of the above, as it turns out, is yes.
After the concerts and festival circuits that come after dropping two albums in two years, Killer Mike and El-P took off 2015. It was partly a move for both artists to recover, but it’s hard to imagine they weren’t thinking about Run The Jewels 3 for a large portion of that breather.
That break between albums could not come at a better time for the Jewel Runners, as the political climate, of which they were already critical of, exploded all around them. When Run The Jewels dropped the third self-titled album on Christmas Eve 2016, a collective breath of “finally” was breathed around the rap community. Finally, we get a rebuttal from the guerrillas of rap, something to stand behind in response to the election of what has so far been correctly predicted to be a disaster of a president.
Except we really didn’t. Run The Jewels released 2100 the day after the election, and that was only the clear response to the turmoil on the album. Not only that, it wasn’t even the confrontational song we were used to hearing from RTJ. If anything, it was assuring over anything else.
There were a few passing references here and there (more explicitly in El-P’s verse on DJ Shadow’s Nobody Speak) but for the better part of the return of Run The Jewels, it was business as usual. Which upon reflection is the most Jewel Runner way to respond: we’re not going to change our approach to anything in our life based on you.
Oh, and the album? It probably wasn’t as good throughout as Run The Jewels 2, but it was also longer and more emotionally open at the end. Don’t be mistaken, there were bangers throughout and possibly the most Run The Jewels song ever was released in the radioactive Panther Like A Panther. Run The Jewels refused to change their style, but added to their subject matter and the result was my album of the year.
And Run The Jewels only grew bigger because of it. Their reach and appeal grows more and more with each concert, festival headlined, commercial using one of El-P’s beats, music video released, and single made specifically for FIFA (that happened!).
So for not only releasing a third classic in a row but also for refusing to change for nobody but themselves, Run The Jewels are my Artist of The Year for 2017.
Cranky old guy time!
Instead of honorable mention, let’s just acknowledge a lot of bands put out really good records that if you already like the band, you would totally dig this year’s release. I’m not sure I’d call it their best album, but it’s definitely not that far off the pace, and it’s a good representation of the band’s sound. Veteran acts like Deer Tick, Cloud Nothings, the New Pornographers, Chris Stapleton, Spoon, Jason Isbell, Japanadroids, just to name a few. All had good records that kept delivering on the things that made you like ‘em in the first place, if you’re a fan. And you don’t need me to tell you it’s good.
I enjoyed them, but they didn’t surprise me. And I still like to be surprised.
Albums of The Year
10: Ted Leo | The Hanged Man
We didn’t really need the political rage of Ted Leo for most of the decade, and he had quietly moved into semi-retirement after near financial ruin and then his wife having a late term miscarriage in 2011. He emerges, seven years since his last album, just as ferocious as ever, even if he now lets as closer in to see his personal pain as well. “Moon Out of Phase” is literally about the Wednesday morning after Trump’s election, and coming to terms with our national ugliness with an unrelentingly bleak and ugly song in response. But it’s the personal moments which soar, like the devastating “Let’s Stay on the Moon,” built around his daughter’s death and verbalizing his broken heart’s true nihilistic desire, “Let’s stay on the moon and watch the earth go down” before pivoting in the song’s closing moments to a prayer of renewal.
9: Sløtface | Try Not to Freak Out
Norway normally exports stone-faced death metal acts to the US, not cheerful pop-punk outfits which drop references to Beyonce and “Hotline Bling.” They write fun, danceable tunes, but the lyrics come with a bit harder edge, complaining about how’s she’s filled her quota of singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars but more are born every year. But the standout track is “Magazine,” in which the band tackles the shallowness of the fashion industry and pushing the concept of the It Girl, while at the same time acknowledging that they indulge in the same traps. “Patty Smith would never put up with this shit” might be true, but it also acknowledges that maybe Patty Smith is an unreasonable standard for the rest of us.
8: B Boys | Energy
A post-punk New York act that obviously is deeply indebted to early hip hop as well, the B Boys sound like 1980s era Beastie Boys got obsessed with the Fall and Joy Division instead of 80s hardcore. The songs are forces of momentum like a tightly wound spring, only to stop on a dime and turn in another jagged direction. This is a band with the kind of swagger that comes from not giving a damn. But most importantly, it’s a post-punk band with a sense of humor, instead of another glowering shoegazer droning on about nothing at all. Nihilism has never been more fun.
7: Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings | Soul of a Woman
The Godmother of Soul passed away this year after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, but not before she gave the world one last blessing of her music. She didn’t record her first full-length record until 46, and then spent her last years making up for lost time, making herself into one of the cornerstones of the neosoul movement. Look, the “death album” has now become a thing in pop music, and will continue to be one as the classic rock generation dies out. Usually, it’s a depressing rumination on death and the impermanence of life itself, but here, Jones is full of life. She is running out of time, so instead of wallowing, she is in a hurry to drain the last bit of joy out of her too brief time on earth. This is an album made by a dying woman that has one message: treasure every moment of your life. Don’t forget to dance.
6: Priests | Nothing Feels Natural
Technically a debut album, Priests have actually been floating around the DC punk scene for some time, releasing a few EP’s distributed by Dischord Records. They went to record their debut in Olympia, only to trash the record after its completion and go back to the drawing board entirely. What they created instead is the most exciting punk record in years, sounding as if they emerged fully formed from Zeus’ head like Athena. They dabble in as many genres as they can, from the surf-rock of “JJ” to the straight away punk rock of “Pink White House” to the steel pedal guitar of “Leila 20”. They crash into jazz, R&B, funk, ad everywhere in between, remembering the ethos of punk rock as the joyful noise made when there are no rules and no limits to what you can do. But you have to engage, no more sitting on the sidelines for anyone. “But to people in sanctuaries all I can say is ‘You will not be saved’”
5: Diet Cig | Swear I’m Good at This
The twosome formed when a female guitarist interrupted a male drummer in the middle of a show for a lighter. It’s a meet cute that also points out the double standard of society, as the story is totally different if a boy interrupts a girl. Diet Cig leaves that sort of dichotomy hanging in the air, as it is a fiercely feminist band that also is trapped in its own insecurities. The duo combine on jangly pop songs that express that they simply don’t know how they fit in the world right now, and that’s okay. Not all of us can be cocksure as young adults, “I’m sick of being my own best friend/ Will You be there in the end?” Inadequacy has never been so catchy.
4: The Menzingers | After the Party
Let me get this straight, this is a band from a mid-Atlantic state full of fallen Catholic kids who grew out of the punk scene into a semi-drunken adulthood? How am I not real life friends with these guys? Philadelphia has been the hub of American rock n roll the past few years, but as the title of the record suggests, the Menzingers are headed for the exits, feeling like the party is about to wind down. It’s not a record about “Your Wild Years,” but what comes after and you start “Tellin’ Lies” about the old days. There’s a twinge of regret, but there’s also the acknowledgement that maybe a wasted youth isn’t so wasted after all. The key is they get the feel of those days gone by just right: “Bad Catholics, weren’t we darling?/ Always dipping out before communion started.”
3: Hurray for the Riff Raff | The Navigator
Alynda Segarra is a New York folk singer of Puerto Rican descent who at the age of 17, pulled a Woody Guthrie and hitch-hiked and train-hopped her way across the country to New Orleans. She expands the folk music tradition not just with the Nuyorican movement of her youth, but Americana, punk rock, gospel, even a little showtunes along the way. It all comes together in this remarkable album, which is like a folk/punk musical for one of the side characters of West Side Story, if she had gone on to join the Spiders From Mars. “Pa’lante” tries to revive the Nuyorican renaissance through sheer force of will, as the words of Pedro Petri are just as relevant today in this anti-immigrant era. She rejects the community of her youth only to find that she misses it when its gone, and tries to forge a new path forward which incorporates both the modern and the traditional. And goddamn, can she sing.
2: Charly Bliss | Guppy
This was an awful year for just about everybody, and it was easy to get lost in anger and hatefulness. People seem to have permission right now to be their worst selves, and they are exploiting that pass for all its worth. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Guppy is simply a giant ball of cotton candy fun, virtually no strings attached. OK, “Ruby” is about her fainting disorder which sometimes resulted in her falling down public staircases, but really, we’re talking about a band who wrote a song about accidentally peeing on the trampoline. They also played a Halloween gig this year as Josey and the Pussycats, donning the outfits and even playing the songs from the movie instead of their own material. We don’t all need to take life so seriously right now.
1: Kendrick Lamar | DAMN.
1: Vince Staples | Big Fish Theory
OK, I’m cheating, but I honestly can’t separate the two. Right now, we have two MC’s working in their prime at their absolute peak abilities, trading blows. Really, when was the last time we had two guys peaking right at the same time? Biggie and Tupac? Kendrick Lamar is the undisputed king right now. He’s so big that he can toss off a bunch of unfinished B-sides last year and have it make many critics’ top ten list. That’s what he can do when he’s not even trying, imagine what happens when he tries to conquer the charts. Imagine no more. All 14 songs from the album charted on the Hot 100, which is some Beatles-level kind of shit. Kendrick Lamar declared himself the king of pop music this year, and his title is undisputed.
But I think as time goes on, we will look back on the rise of Vince Staples as well. Staples is already one of the best lyricists in any genre, but instead of relying on his natural abilities for his sophomore effort, he released the most ambitious and experimental record of the year. It’s no mystery why it’s not as popular as Lamar, Vince Staples doesn’t traffic in easy, but he pulls off maybe a more challenging work with less fanfare and certainly less braggadocio. He defers to Lamar, but he may be the one true king.
Best Record From 2016 I Didn’t Discover Until This Year
Bleached | Welcome to the Worms
Sometimes, you miss the boat. All-female punk band out of LA that can just rock the hell out. I’m sorry I missed on them the first time.
Best Time Capsule
The Replacements | Live From Maxwell’s 1986
One of the great tragedies of the great American rock band, the Replacements, is that the only surviving official recording of such a famously dynamic live band was of one of their worst shows. But that’s the ‘Mats. Always stepping up the ladder and missing the bottom rung. So here we have an aural document of a band at its absolute peak, killing it so definitively that Paul Westerberg periodically shouts “MURDER!” into the mic. Just months later, Bob Stinson would be kicked out of the band, beginning his final spiral into heroin abuse, and the major label debut would not catch on with a larger audience. They would miss their moment. But not at Maxwell’s. That was the last stand of one of the greatest American rock bands.
Best Compilation of Early Material
The Dirty Nil | Minimum R&B
They’ve moved on to greener pastures, but before sobering up and signing with a somewhat major label, the Dirty Nil is cleaning out their back catalog of hard to find EP’s. It’s a drunken mess of ferocious pop tunes played too loud and too fast. It is so so wonderful, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Canary in the Coal Mine
PWR BTTM | Pageant
A defiantly queercore band somehow was getting a major promotional push, so I checked out the early singles and they are transgressive, assaulting, and flat out terrific. This was a band that felt dangerous and then suddenly, the record got pulled from almost every streaming service as well as Amazon. The lead singer was accused of sexual assault and harassment, and as quickly as the hype began, it ended. The album is now difficult to find and their careers lay in tatters. What seemed like an example of how the media disproportionally punishes those from marginalized communities instead was the first shot across the bow for victims storming the streets against their former harassers. The record was great, though. But it’ll end up in the trash bin of history.
Honorable Mentions: dvsn | Morning After; Big K.R.I.T. | 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time; Brockhampton | SATURATION, SATURATION II, SATURATION III; Terror Jr. | Bop City 2: TerroRising, Bop 3: The Girl Who Cried Purple; The National | Sleep Well Beast
10: Vagabon | Infinite Worlds
9: Noga Erez | Off The Radar
8: Jay-Z | 4:44
7: Dirty Projectors | Dirty Projectors
6: The War On Drugs | A Deeper Understanding
5: LCD Soundsystem | American Dream
4: Lorde | Melodrama
3: Kendrick Lamar | DAMN.
2: Mount Eerie | A Crow Looked At Me
1: St. Vincent | MASSEDUCTION
In lieu of a write-up, Marq offers up a picture of his 2017 in vinyl: