Best of 2017 so far...
As we pass the halfway point of 2017, now seems a great time to round up the strongest releases of the year so far. From Lorde's triumphant second LP Melodrama to Khalid's exceptional debut - via Slowdive's hugely-anticipated comeback record - these are the albums we’ve still got stuck on repeat.
The Top 10
- There aren’t many 16-year-olds capable of keeping it together whilst being scrutinized by the entire world, but then there aren’t many teenagers that David Bowie once deigned to describe as “the future of music” either. Ella Yelich-O’Connor remains a unique proposition on this, her superb second album. Co-produced by Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, Melodrama finds Lorde documenting an adolescence under the spotlight with striking maturity and candour, from wild nights (“Perfect Places”), lust (“Louvre”), heartbreak (“Green Light”) and revenge (“Writer In The Dark”), to self-acceptance, as expressed beautifully on “Liability”. Unquestionably one of the finest pop albums of 2017 so far.
- From Pitchfork and Pigeons and Planes, to Rolling Stone and Billboard, there was barely a ‘Best of the Year’ list that To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t top in 2015. If Kendrick Lamar was concerned about following what FACT Magazine have termed his “magnum opus”, he deliberately chose not to dwell on it, first releasing the acclaimed demos collection Untitled Unmastered in 2016, and now a fourth LP in which he switches gears entirely. Gone are the abrasive jazz influences that underscored the protest songs of TPAB, and in their place is a succession of loose and playful, predominantly sample-led grooves, rooted in 70s soul and psych. Damn might be more musically accessible, but it’s no less rewarding, and lyrically Compton’s finest sounds more unapologetically self-assured than ever. Indeed, as he explains on “Pride”, “I can’t fake humble just ‘cause yo’ ass is insecure.”
- As trailblazers of the early 90s shoegaze scene – alongside Chapterhouse, Ride and Swervedriver – Slowdive remain as revered by their legions of loyal fans today as they were reviled at the time by certain corners of the British music press. And with those same print magazines now either dead or dying an undignified death, the Reading-formed five-piece return with their first studio album in 22 years. Against all the odds, the results actually prove more than worth the wait. Combining the ambient textures of last LP Pygmalion and the dreamy pop hooks of their 1993 classic Souvlaki with a newfound energy, this self-titled effort is another career high, and one of the finest rock records of 2017 so far.
- Though tipped by the BBC, NME and Billboard back in 2014, Sampha Sisay has been in no hurry to capitalise on the hype, opting to embellish the work of stars like Kanye, Drake, Frank Ocean and Solange rather than seize the spotlight. Now, almost four years on from his last EP, the South London soul man finally steps out of the shadows to unveil his first full-length release. Process is all the stronger for its protracted gestation period, providing a perfect match of intimate songwriting and sensitive production, and showcasing the spellbinding power of Sampha’s emotive tones. Surely a strong contender for this year’s Mercury Prize.
- From the sparse fragility of his debut, to the pulsing, industrial sounds on 2014’s Too Bright, Mike Hadreas’ arrangements have become progressively bolder with each release. Even so, No Shape feels like the Seattle-based singer-songwriter’s least inhibited effort yet, ricocheting between the rococo trills of “Slip Away” and the swooning, Eastern-influenced strings of “Just Like Love”, and from the funk-inspired strut of “Go Ahead” to heart-wrenching piano balladry on “Alan”. And where previously Hadreas’ lyrics have largely lingered on past difficulties with depression, addiction and body dysmorphia, No Shape picks up the defiant tone of breakthrough single “Queen” to celebrate contentment, with genuinely moving results. A real tour de force.
- Glitchy and off-kilter, Indiana producer Jlin makes frenetic electronic music unlike anything you’ve heard before. Picking up where her highly acclaimed 2015 debut Dark Energy left off, Black Origami finds an artist in her element, playing with the conventions of Chicago’s footwork and juke house scenes, all while creating something a little more left-field and innovative. Songs like “Kyanite” whirr with innovative industrial theatricality, while “Calcination” is more minimalist and expansive, embellished with soothing angelic voices. Although there are occasional moments of melody, what is especially impressive is Jlin’s grasp of vivid, futuristic percussion and polyrhythm. All drum machines and distorted samples, this is an album of ambitious, odd, and quite beautiful sounds.
- The sixth album from New Orleans' Hurray For The Riff Raff sees Alynda Lee Segarra and friends referencing their previous roots-y, Americana sound, but with a new confidence and ambition. Indeed, Segarra seems to be channelling the poetic musings of Patti Smith here, and - though billed as a concept album about a Puerto Rican called Navita Milagros Negrón - The Navigator feels very much about Segarra’s own fascinating life journey, and the Hispanic-American condition overall. Marrying bluesy, yearning instrumentation, sharp lyrics, and a powerful sense of political fervor – especially on “Pa’lante” – this might be 2017’s strongest protest album so far.
- Famously touted as “the Beatles of this generation” by Donald Glover at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, Migos have quickly become the need-to-know rap group following the viral success of “Bad and Boujee”. On Culture, the US hip hop trio deliver a masterclass in swirling, dark trap beats with their trademark catchy, staccato delivery over the top. Lyrically the songs deal with classic bravado-fuelled hip hop tropes, and with features from DJ Khaled, Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, and a stand-out verse from 2 Chainz on “Deadz”, this is an album that perfectly encapsulates the genre in 2017.
- Khalid Robinson has been on our radar since the spring of 2016, when the classically-trained singer-songwriter dropped his debut single to rave reviews, ahead of his high school graduation. Fast-forward nine months and "Location" is still climbing the Billboard Hot 100, and the fiercely-talented 19-year-old from El Paso is hoping to capitalise on the exposure with this first full-length release. Listening to American Teen, you suspect that he stands a good chance of breakout success. Comprised of breezy, retro-leaning R&B, with minimalist production and sincere, soulful vocals, Khalid’s timeless compositions pack a real emotional punch.
- Katy Perry might have only recently coined the term “purposeful pop”, but MUNA have been practicing it ever since their inception, back in 2013. From LGBT safe space anthem “I Know A Place” and slut-shaming critique “So Special”, to their decision to keep all pronouns gender-neutral, the LA-based trio preach tolerance and empathy, fusing socially conscious messaging with irresistible synth-flecked melodies. Both in terms of unfiltered self-expression and water-tight pop songwriting, About U is a standout in the genre, and unquestionably one of the most engaging records of 2017 so far.