There’s been so much to listen to (and write about) this year, and I’ve clearly been so overwhelmed by it all I’ve let album reviews fall by the wayside. For what it’s worth, as 2017 enters its final third, I’ve picked out ten albums that have been close companions across the past eight months. As always, this list is by no means exhaustive, and there’s plenty out there that I’ve not put my ears to just yet, but as a capsule for the right-here right-now, here are a handful of my favourites. More recommendations / disagreements encouraged!
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Pure Comedy was possibly my most-anticipated album of 2017 when the year began, and almost immediately it proved to split opinion among Father John Misty’s disciples. In retrospect, it seems obvious that a 75-minute opus rooted in plodding tempos and generally skeletal compositions from an infamously prickly provocateur should only settle for a love-or-hate response.
And yes, it’s pretty tough finding an adequate window in which to take in the numerous diatribes of Pure Comedy, but it adds up to a worthwhile experience. More so than the comparatively frenzied I Love You, Honeybear, the songs of Pure Comedy achieve greater power when heard as sections of the whole: each specific moral and biological calamity that is registered is joined by yet another, until the full grotesquerie of modern humanity is laid bare. And yet in many ways, Pure Comedy is bold not for its uncompromising finger-wagging, but for how genuine it sounds coming from Josh Tillman. The singer’s irony remains, but it sounds worn wafer-thin over time: the screaming laughter finally giving way to a screaming pain. Tillman is a prisoner to a lot of the same doubts and guilt as many of us, yet he articulates them with a striking acuity.
The Clincher: After all entreaties for reason and justice have shattered against the weight of a ruthless system, ‘So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain’ rolls in: a gorgeous swell that rises over and out of the chaos below.
“It occurs to him a little late in the game / We leave as clueless as we came.”
Future Islands – The Far Field
There have been better albums this year than The Far Field, and in full honesty, I felt pretty crestfallen during its first few spins. It’s an album on which Future Islands double down on their formula of pacesetting bass melodies and pillowy synths, and stick to it for forty-five glossy, though repetitious minutes. At first, I didn’t think it had the same punch as their previous two records, and individual songs don’t burst forth from the collection as they did on the magnificent Singles.
But after letting it settle for several months, and witnessing the group’s miraculous live abilities, The Far Field has won my heart. Beneath its surface pleasantness, it is an album of earnestly-felt melancholy, transmitted as Samuel T. Herring wrestles more closely with the demons that have clung to him down the years. With increasing intensity, he attempts to throw off or talk down the “shadows” that plague him: the various failures and guilt that he recognises in himself that consistently led him to re-evaluate his own character. These aren’t flailing anthems to rival ‘Seasons’ and its ilk, but the sincerity that charges every minute of The Far Field grows more apparent with each listen; those dependable instrumentations buttressing Herring’s lung-dredging cries. Sometimes a group’s flaws are why we hold them even closer to our hearts, and it is thus that even when The Far Field lulls, it still twinkles.
The Clincher: The pure perfection of ‘Shadows’, as Debbie Harry swoops in to soothe Herring’s hangdog howl. It’s a moment of hard-won catharsis that glows brighter for the frayed emotions that precede it.
“I’m no stronger than you and I’m scared.”
Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
There are some albums that vibrate with urgency, albums that you can just tell you’re going to fall in love with. This year, I’ve recognised that anticipatory crackle about a surprising number of new records, and they have predictably and comfortably slotted snugly into my personal favourites. Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness, on the other hand, steadily and stealthily wound its way to my heart, and now I may well cradle it more than anything else I’ve heard this year. Succinct and spare in its design, Not Even Happiness most closely resembles a travelogue; the sound of Byrne taking stock of her perpetual transience, travelling through spaces familiar and alien with her father’s guitar.
Yet this is so much more than a tour diary, and it’s her mild observations of the everyday sublime that linger and percolate: a cloud drifting over amber fields, the disproportionate ache felt when somebody leaves the room. It’s a supremely graceful exercise of vocalising the stray, ephemeral feelings that pass in and out of our days. Not Even Happiness is a special album, one which simultaneously slows down and blots out the rest of the world, holding me in a keenly private hold. Byrne doesn’t need to shout to catch your attention; she commands it thoroughly with the softest of whispers.
The Clincher: The album’s centrepiece ‘Natural Blue’ is simply breathtaking. With only the softest embellishments of strings and bass, Byrne’s voice conjures a vast sky, fields spanning forever in every direction. It’s a beautiful place to be.
“I’ve been called heartbreaker for doing justice to my own.”
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Don’t play chicken with Kendrick Lamar. Where To Pimp a Butterfly was hurled like a grenade, DAMN. drops the pin and holds tight for as long as it dares. It’s a frenzy, an album that skirts self-destruction in its pursuit of greater auctoritas. A friend described DAMN. as a “mood album” to Butterfly’s “statement album”, and without putting too fine a point on things, that comment carries a lot of truth for me. To Pimp a Butterfly felt like a definitive cap to Lamar’s ascension: the oh-shit-how-do-we-follow-this? gauntlet that set an impossibly high bar for rappers and songwriters in all corners. On DAMN., Lamar turns further inward, resulting in music of greater complexity while its focus becomes more abstract.
Lamar is self-aware enough to recognise he’s at the top of his game, and he welcomes all daps, slays all who dare to rival him, and savours the ludicrous honours he has earned even while satirising them with venom. Simultaneously, he registers the fragility of his position and the web of cracks that could rupture beneath him at any moment, continuing to contest his own personal history and that of the United States. DAMN. is outright volatile in Lamar’s refusal to meet expectations, the songs rumbling on with unpredictable jags into distortion and smoothness, Lamar choosing to embrace risks instead of more-of-the-same, no matter how rewarding the latter would doubtlessly prove. There’s plenty to unpack and plenty of ways to read into DAMN., but there’s no one way to dissect a masterpiece, and Lamar’s aware of that just as much as we are.
The Clincher: ‘Duckworth’. Listen to it as the last track, or flip DAMN. on its head and take it as the opener. Whichever way, it’s a thunderbolt of storytelling and a haunting glimpse into the headspace of rap’s undisputed king.
“My left stroke just went viral / Right stroke put li’l baby in a spiral.”
Lorde – Melodrama
I have a lot of time for Pure Heroine. True, the notorious hype bubble could easily have burst its chances for survival, and some of the cuts could have done with further fine-tuning before the album’s over-eager release. Even so, it’s a steely debut, and has proven to have a solid shelf-life since its arrival in 2013. I’ve since been waiting for Melodrama to confirm Lorde’s savviness as a wunderkind of modern pop music: after skyrocketing to the forefront of left-field pop several years ago, would she fall or fly in the face of success’ long-term demands?
Happily, Melodrama is pulled off with aplomb, expanding on the promise of Pure Heroine while contracting its scope. The wry commentaries on teenage ennui and societal expectations are mostly gone (echoed most noticeably on the doomy crackle of ‘Homemade Dynamite’): instead we have confident assertions of embracing oneself, whether triggered by romantic cataclysm or the pains of growing up in public. Rather than disappear down the rabbit-hole of celebrity self-obsession, Lorde has kept her poise and delivered a healthy clutch of songs that are simultaneously catchy and queasy: the euphoria of youth’s final blazing bound up with angry swipes at the darker symptoms of an upwards rush to stardom. Melodrama isn’t a masterpiece, but considering her brittle MO, Lorde never promised us one, and credit to her for going her own way.
The Clincher: On ‘Homemade Dynamite’, Lorde unites her archetypal penchant for kiss-off sarcasm with the bubbling disquiet that characterises much of Melodrama. Complete with explosions (of a sort).
“What the fuck are perfect places anyway?”
Perfume Genius – No Shape
Seventy seconds into Perfume Genius’ fourth album, Mike Hadreas yanks the velvety rug from under our feet and goes for broke on a colossal, shimmering wall of sound that’s equal parts heavenly rapture and shit-your-pants provocation. It’s one of the most arresting opening gambits of the year so far, and it perfectly tees up No Shape: a record that squirms away from easy categorisation as it embarks on a series of dalliances with styles from all over the spectrum. There are majestic hymnals soaked in strings, thunderous tirades of justified rage, and strutting showcases that both strike and soothe the listener, each offering in dialogue with Hadreas’ personal and artistic past.
The kicker is that they’re all pulled off so dazzlingly, the chemistry of the album’s sequencing generating sparks as each song collides with the next. Holding it all together is Hadreas, whose delivery has never sounded so open-chested, his dramatic range swooping from forlorn lows to stratospheric highs at the drop of a hat. No Shape is a treasure chest brimming with magic, and the temptation to dive in again and again only grows stronger with each new listen.
The Clincher: It has to be ‘Otherside’, in how it mainlines the naked beauty of Hadreas’ previous projects, before the coin flips and the titanic confidence of No Shape bursts forth in red-eyed defiance.
“I’m here / How weird.”
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
El-P and Killer Mike saved Christmas after a particularly shitty 2016: Run the Jewels 3 was the miracle that landed in the world’s stockings at the end of a year which severely tested our faith in all that is good and pure. But given RTJ3 made its official bow in January, I’m counting it among the class of 2017. And that sucks for the other artists in contention, because it’s hard to imagine finding a more compulsively listenable record than this any day soon.
RTJ3 is a smart, fast, ferocious beast of an album that sees the magical chemistry of El-P and Killer Mike reach heavenly levels of kush-clouded telepathy. Furiously charismatic, the duo weave around one another’s bars like excited terriers, as likely to square up to the villainous masters of western culture as they are to brag about their banana dicks (“your bitch go apeshit if she hit it”). As with RTJ2, this is an album of assured quality and consistency, yet where their sophomore is brash and squat in its brutality, RTJ3 is streamlined and a few shades less combustible. Yet Run the Jewels’ music still burns with intent and purpose, and their legendary status has found a new level of credence. Stay gold.
The Clincher: Even in a stellar run of bangers that have never been less than formidable, ‘Thursday in the Danger Room’ is unparalleled in its compassionate power. On an album of anger, unity, and rallying cries, ‘Thursday…’ finds both emcees paying tribute to friends lost to the world’s casual cruelty. What results is a flooring piece of work; the instrumentation glorious (aided by Kamasi Washington, no less), but truly, it’s the lyrics – and their gut-punching delivery – that elevates this to the status of masterpiece.
“Hell coming and we got about a mile / Until it’s over I remain hostile.”
Sampha – Process
After years of standing in the wings, bolstering the work of artists who have been accruing widespread recognition in the past decade, Sampha Sisay stepped into the light with Process, a record defined by its open fragility even when its beats rise to occasional cacophony. The subversion of stoicism may be a staple of music from any genre by now, but there’s still remarkable power to be found when the source is mined with integrity, rather than for bald manipulation.
In sound, Process grows from the ground up. Sampha creates shifting, layered soundscapes that build hypnotically, the likes of ‘Kora Sings’ and ‘Under’ composed of similar tissue as that of peers James Blake and SBTRKT, but Sampha’s heartfelt lyricism firmly sets his work apart. His tributes to his deceased mother, his half-remembered upbringing, and his own work and health threaten to be overwhelming in concept, but he articulates his emotional turbulence with care, the lumps in his throat genuine but not saccharine. Most of all, it’s his mother’s presence – registered through absence – that Process orbits, and it’s the sadness between holding on and letting go that magnifies the heart of the album and its author alike.
The Clincher: It’s been commonly identified as the core of his record, and for good reason. ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’ is a song to be treasured, lo-fi and immaculate all at once. Sampha’s tender vocal twinned with those fluttering keys conveys a private anguish that has finally cooled, but will never leave.
“You would show me I had something some people call a soul.”
Most artistic visionaries are so intimidating in nous and so intense in character that the notion of holding a normal conversation seems impossibly tricky. Can’t say I’d know how to share a few beers with Kate Bush. Conversely, it’s easy to imagine joining Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner for a few scoops: his music encompasses such a range of topics that even considering that the man creates music of such splendorous fusion, he’s the sort of guy who’s just as comfortable cracking fart jokes or writing paeans to his cat.
Drunk is Bruner’s most idiosyncratic project to date, its sprawling tracklist glued together with outstanding displays of saucer-eyed dexterity. Ideas spill out of it like marbles spinning away from a run. Rubbing up against the luxuriant funk throwbacks and technicolour soul, his lyrics convey his own recent struggles and grief, counterweighted by videogame humour and riffs on anime body horror. The overall effect is head-spinning, but the sprawling mess is hard to resist thanks to Bruner’s knack for a hip-swivelling groove. By pinballing from darkness to daftness and successfully doing justice to each, Drunk makes for a weird-ass trip. For God’s sake take it.
The Clincher: The weird, trippy vortex of ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’, when the very strange collides with the very serious.
“Thank God for technology ’cause where would we be if we couldn’t Tweet our thoughts?
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
Vince Staples has played a steady game since his first team-ups with Odd Future, and his gradual ascension both belies and is informed by his relative youth. With his unflinching gaze and disdain for bullshit in any form, Staples has no time to waste. The world’s creaking at the seams. There’s work to be done.
Staples hits hardest in his takedown of the poisonousness of imposed labels, and the ugly entitlement that can quickly grow out of them like mould. Big Fish Theory fittingly lands like a sucker-punch, its bloodied fists hidden inside its crisp, club-friendly production. Its sound is kinetic and instantaneous but also unsettling, and borderline hallucinatory at times. Amidst his compressed polemics, Staples welcomes a smart roster of guests who drift in and out of his swirling thoughts with ephemeral ghostliness. The voice of Amy Winehouse surfaces as a wrenching reminder of the mercilessness of the industry and the methodical victimisation of talent, which grounds Staples’ furious tirades against the crabs we’re surrounded by in this bucket. A fish can’t grow any bigger than the bowl it’s dropped into, or so we’ve been told. With his second album, Staples’ own trappings are already straining to hold him.
The Clincher: ‘Yeah, Right’, on which – with a little help from Kendrick Lamar – Staples holds a lighter to the inflammable braggadocio of his lifeblood, to raise something new from the ashes.
“Adam, Eve, apple trees / Watch out for the snakes baby.”
Cambridge Corn Exchange (01/07/17)
Cards on the table, I’ve barely scratched the surface in discovering what modern musicians are capable of, but even so, it would take a monstrously detailed and impassioned argument to convince me that there’s a greater living frontman than Samuel T. Herring. And even if such a thesis was presented to me, I’d probably just counter with “yeah, but have you seen Future Islands live?” Because if you haven’t, then you’ll want to amend that as soon as possible. Listen (again) to the swelling, lung-dredging fervour that drives the likes of ‘Spirit’ and ‘Tin Man’. Now imagine the dials turned up even higher; the experience of witnessing such hurricanes of emotional outpouring in person. In the flesh, Herring is much more than a singer: he’s a force of nature, hellbent on reaching out to every single mind and body present in each audience. The man is a dragon.
Future Islands’ show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange (belatedly added to their exhaustive European tour, as the group made the hop from Belgium to Ireland) was surely a treat for all present, but for my sister and myself, it bordered on miraculous. Even given the group’s glowing reputation, we never expected the show to reach such magnificent heights. By the time the ecstatic ‘Ran’ rushed to a close, sweat was trickling from what looked to be every pore of Herring’s face. His forehead was gushing like a spring within the space of three songs, and in the space of two more, his whole shirt was sodden, moisture dripping from his elbows as he threw himself from one corner of the stage to another, his eyes never leaving the rapturous crowd.
Overwhelming perspiration is merely the most apparent symptom of just how much Herring pours into every single performance. Even his now-legendary display on the Late Show in 2014 doesn’t fully capture the extent of his animation onstage. The same fundamentals remained present and correct, but what was more palpable were the deep reserves of compassion and complexity powering those vocals and gestures. Herring pummelled his chest as if attempting to exorcise some great beast from his own lungs. His blazing eyes roved the crowd, locking and holding his gaze for prolonged intervals as he attempted to find a connection with as many individuals as possible. He flung himself onto the stage in belly-flops, leapt into high-kicks with remarkable elasticity, wrapped his mouth around his entire fist. He shrieked and yowled like a man possessed, looming and growling and towering over the audience, turning on a dime from manic to tender and back again, as starry-eyed synth-pop wept alongside him.
It was an incredible spectacle, yet charged with such great nuance and intense personal feeling that there’s no adequate way to do justice to his showmanship. It’s hard to fake such a reckoning of emotion and energy, especially considering that the length of the set stretched to a Herculean 100 minutes. And this isn’t to say that Herring’s bandmates were lacking in panache; William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and touring drummer Michael Lowry may have been much more outwardly stoic, but their taut, precise playing kept the show anchored and rich in melody. The sound was crystal-clear; to hear aching gems such as ‘A Dream of You and Me’ and the stunning ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ take flight was worth the price of admission. Welmers’ keys oscillated between pillowy and piercing as the urgency of the show dipped and peaked; Lowry hammered his kit with the recklessness of a John Bonham disciple, and Cashion’s melodic bass runs gave the night its backbone: the nucleus around which all else orbited. With over 1,000 shows in their wake, Future Islands are a well-oiled machine, able to leap from a simmer to full boil without breaking a sweat (with the obvious exception of one member).
Considering the sheer energy demanded of Herring for even a single song, it was revelatory that the pace of the evening never once flagged across twenty-four songs, democratically drawn from their whole catalogue. A chorus of hecklers repeatedly demanding ‘Beach Foam’ got their wish late in the game (“this is for all you motherfuckers who will not shut up” Herring growled, with a wink), and the scorchingly intimate ‘Little Dreamer’ capped the night with an atmosphere of hushed reverence. When the group finally left the stage – the frontman mopping his whole head with a towel that was surely well-past saturated – the venue still wouldn’t cool, fans pinballing around the hall, attempting to summon from within themselves guttural rasps to match those of Herring. The thrill held in the air like humidity; stepping out into the night was like returning from a different world, shaking ourselves out of a mesmeric funk.
My advice to everybody for whom it is feasible is to go and see Future Islands whenever the opportunity next arises. As pleasant as their recorded music can be, witnessing Herring’s ferocity – and sharing that experience in an audience of exultant fans – is utterly transporting. Don’t walk. Run.
Grease // Aladdin // Ran // A Dream of You and Me // Beauty of the Road // Time on Her Side // Walking Through That Door // Balance // Before the Bridge // Light House // Doves // North Star // A Song for Our Grandfathers // Through the Roses // Seasons (Waiting On You) // Cave // Inch of Dust // Long Flight // Tin Man // Spirit // Black Rose // Beach Foam // Vireo’s Eye // Little Dreamer