10 Of The Best Albums Of 2017 So Far, According To A Bunch Of Music Nerds
It's time to play catch-up.
Last week, Music Junkee marked the halfway point of 2017 by rounding up the best tracks of the year so far. Today, we’re turning our attention to albums — because six months in, there’s already plenty of them to catch up on.
To recap the best releases so far this year — from pop to rap, R&B, folk rock and electronic-tinged soul — we asked a cast of Junkee writers to make the case for their favourite albums of 2017 so far. While the big hitters are definitely among their picks, there’s a few records here that might have slipped under your radar — so get stuck in.
Sampha – Process
Up until this year, 28-year-old Londoner Sampha was best known as as a supporting player.
After interning at XL Recordings, the singer first turned heads as SBTRKT’s velvet-voiced right-hand man. His memorable collaborations with U.K. cult favourites Lil Silvia and Jessie Ware then led to high-profile team-ups with Solange, Frank Ocean and Drake. (Sampha’s standalone track ‘4422’ is one of the best moments on Drake’s More Life.)
2017 saw Sampha take his deserved place at centre stage with Process. Led by the rousing single ‘Blood On Me’, this a remarkably confident album from a naturally understated artist. Despite its dark subject matter (the songwriting is coloured by the death of Sampha’s parents), Process is lit up with invigorating life.
It also shows off the full breadth of his vocals, which can be hushed and intimate or surging and insistent. Sampha’s also an assured producer, knowing when to strip back or amp up the electronics to match his emotion. Process is a sincere album for cynical times.
Paramore – After Laughter
Ten years removed from their game-changing RIOT! LP, misery is still Paramore’s business — despite what After Laughter’s shiny, sunnier exterior may have you believing.
The album’s production sheen and boppy arrangements are all but red herrings for some of Hayley Williams’ most direct and honest lyrics to date — which makes the album all the more fascinating, not to mention more rewarding once you arrive at its emotional core. Purists may have denied the band their place at the table in the past, so it’s only fitting that After Laughter sees Paramore promptly knocking the fucker over.
Drake – More Life
A record that blends Caribbean beats with South African dancehall, features a rework of J-Lo’s ‘If You Had My Love’ and throws in a cheeky rap verse from UK grime artist Giggs about Batman and Cersei Lannister shouldn’t make sense… but it does.
The production on Drake’s More Life, helmed by OVO co-founder 40, is superb and despite the disparate influences, there’s a cohesive mood across the album. Drake sounds more confident than ever, even when rocking he’s rocking a Jamaican accent. Content wise it’s classic Drizzy: vulnerable and melancholy as he opens up about his feuds and heartaches.
It’s been a stellar year for hip-hop releases — but I have a feeling that when we look back on 2017, More Life will stand out as an album that shaped the industry, by demolishing the lines between rap, R&B and pop and leaving behind a trail of entirely new, and incredibly good, musical genres.
HAIM – Something To Tell You
No other band blends genres and styles as flawlessly as HAIM — the result of growing up on a musical diet as rich in Sheryl Crow and Fleetwood Mac as it was Destiny’s Child and TLC. In many ways, the Haim sisters are the ultimate Gen Y band: they’re not focused on knocking down genre walls, because those walls never existed for them in the first place.
Second album Something To Tell You doesn’t depart wildly from their debut Days Are Gone, instead they’ve stuck stubbornly to their guns in pursuit of perfection — and they damn near come close. Indelible pop hooks belie the fact these songs are some of the most rhythmically complex and sophisticated in the game.
Apart from this, they’ve also given us one of the best breakups albums in recent memory — STTY traverses every messy feeling from regret and anger (‘Want You Back’, ‘Right Now’) to that moment when you find redemption (‘Found It In Silence’).
Syd – Fin
Back when Sydney ‘Syd’ Bennett was the touring DJ and engineer for firebrand hip-hop crew Odd Future, she feared their live shows. “I used to get the worst anxiety,” she told The Fader last year. “I taught myself that shit right before I did it.” Then, as a member of LA-based R&B collective The Internet, Syd confronted a new set of anxieties around singing live. (It’s fitting the group’s Grammy-nominated 2015 album was titled Ego Death.)
This year saw Syd ace another self-confidence test with her debut album, Fin. Coming from the perspective of a gay woman, its slinky bedroom jams feel quietly subversive in a genre dominated by straight desires. They’re also expertly constructed and sung with seductive authority, from the swaggering ‘No Complaints’ to the aching ‘Smile More’.
Crucially, the album doesn’t lose steam (or steaminess) after a strong start, with ‘Over’ featuring Atlanta rapper 6LACK a late highlight.
JAY-Z – 4:44
4:44 is an exceptionally self-aware analysis of Sean Carter, the man and Jay-Z, the legend. So much more than just a Lemonade response and Tidal/Sprint marketing ploy, Hov confronts race, infidelity, family, success, and even his own mother’s sexuality across 36 crucial, fat free minutes.
Set to the remarkable tune of No I.D.’s accomplished production, he proves, at 47 years old, his erudite talent as a timelessly creative lyricist and masterful rapper. Demonstrating this kind of growth is not just a triumph for Jay-Z, but for the evolution and maturity of hip-hop as a whole.
SZA – Ctrl
We live in the age of the confident, inspiring popstar. Ariana Grande is a Dangerous Woman. Rihanna knows sex with her is “so amazing”. Taylor Swift battles corporations for the rights of musicians.
SZA is not like other pop stars. On her debut album Ctrl, she shows us a whole heap of emotions that are anything but inspiring. She is, at turns: mean, spiteful, jealous, vengeful, unapologetic, too apologetic, too self-conscious. She is painfully and brutally human. Sometimes she’s too aloof, but at others, such as on heartbreaking lead single ‘Drew Barrymore’, she’s too close for comfort, singing the things we’ve only ever dreamed of telling a lover: “I’m sorry I’m so clingy, I don’t mean to be a lot / Do you really wanna love me down like you say you do?”
This radical honesty that she presents is deeply liberating, SZA proving that sometimes losing control can be just as powerful as gaining it.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Ask Father John Misty why he chose to include a lyric about virtual reality sex with Taylor Swift on his new album, thus ensnaring himself in a mini-shitstorm of controversy, and his explanation is about what you’d expect: “Nothing else rhymes with Oculus Rift.”
Pure Comedy sees folk rock’s most self-aware star ditch the lovesongs of his last album in favour of a collection of musings on how the world will end. Global warming, capitalism, religion, humankind’s entertainment complex (see above) and periodic iron deficiency are all under the microscope here — depending on who you ask, it’s either genius or insufferable.
But among the sermons there’s a few disarming moments of introspection — like the 13-minute ‘Leaving LA’, in which Josh Tillman starts out deriding Los Angeles phonies and ends up sharing anecdotes about childhood traumas and his father’s dying words. I haven’t stopped listening all year.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
To Pimp a Butterfly saw Kendrick Lamar ascend from kid to King. Still, what’s a King to a God? DAMN. sees Lamar confessing to a higher power about struggles that have come his way in a post-Butterfly world. It’s an album with a daring conceptuality to it — more confronting and experimental than ever before. Its mythology was built up within 24 hours of release, with many expecting a follow-up to arrive immediately.
It didn’t matter – DAMN. is more than enough to wrap your head around, achieving more in its runtime than many artists do with an entire discography.
Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory
At the end of 2015, amidst an avalanche of accolades for his debut album Summertime ’06, Vince Staples was planning his escape. “You’re out of your goddamn mind if you think I’m going to be doing this music shit for more than two more years,” he said, seemingly burnt out with touring and hip-hop culture.
In Big Fish Theory, he’s found a better exit plan. Where Summertime ’06 was a claustrophobic, sprawling rap record, Big Fish Theory looks outward and shoots for the stars, with so much force that he’s pushed his sound beyond any of his peers.
House and techno have had a fraught track record with hip-hop, with plenty more misses than hits and few examples of them being balanced for the length of an album.
But on Big Fish Theory, Staples assembled a warchest of young producers on his same wavelength — adventurous creators deconstructing their own genres, and rebuilding them for the future amidst unprecedented access to ideas, influences and collaborators. Together, they’ve pushed both hip-hop and electronic music into new territory while crafting a record that’s lyrically and musically fabulous throughout.
At this point, a retirement at the end of the year seems incredibly unlikely. But even if Staples did, he’s left behind a roadmap for genre cross-pollination that’ll likely attract followers as pop music continues to progress.