Top 5 Albums of 2017
This is basically just a glorified experiment — I haven’t written about music seriously in well over a year, and this functioned as somewhat of a way to force myself to try it again. Despite not writing, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about music this year, these five especially, and felt maybe some of them were worthwhile in sharing. These are definitely a scattered and rushed collection of thoughts, but regardless some super cool albums that should be checked out.
so uhhhh yeah read if you into that
#5: bedwetter — vol 1: flick your tongue against your teeth and describe the present.
“all these fuckin’ years, I just don’t remember”
Travis Miller is no stranger to stark, disturbing content. After several early (largely ignored) stints in genres like black metal and noise, he gained notoriety with his half-parodic Memphis rap homage persona, Lil Ugly Mane. Pushing the already dark and murky sonic elements of the genre to the absolute brink of their extents, Ugly Mane tracks either came out hilariously listenable (“LOOKIN 4 THA SUCKIN”), as legitimate, raw bangers (“CUP FULLA BEETLEJUICE”), or sinister, avant-garde opuses (“UNEVEN COMPROMISE”). Travis took the latter style and ran with it on his 2015 project Oblivion Access, his planned final project under the LUM moniker. Though largely ignored or underrated by critics upon release, OA created something otherworldly with Travis’ bleak and cynical vision — no longer seemingly drowned in irony or imitation, he ditched the pitch-shifted vocals, derivative or quasi-experimental beats, and gratuitously vulgar lyrics for a Travis that had never sounded so simultaneously confident and insecure. Diving into mental illness, mortality, filth, social issues, critics, and fans, backdropped by a harsh, spacious, and unsettling array of instrumentals sounding unlike even other experimental or noise rap contemporaries (e.g. Death Grips, clipping., or BLACKIE), Oblivion Access seemed Travis’ ultimate sendoff.
Vol 1’s release came suddenly at the start of the year, with a brand new alias, sound, and supposed series. His bandcamp description of the project opens with “ I really thought today would be the start of something different” and the album itself with a distorted, chopped up sample of John 1:1. Initially, it all feels a bit melodramatic and edgy. Until the actual music starts.
“man wearing a helmet,” the second track but first actual song, has Travis at unprecedented levels of vulnerability, fear, and agony, not just for his own music’s standards, but for truly anything I’ve ever heard before period. Bedwetter raps from the perspective of a frightened young child in the midst of a kidnapping — perhaps young Travis himself, or a recurring nightmare of his, or even a metaphor for the clutches of his depression. Travis scrawls this uncompromisingly brutal and grotesque portrait in blood and Crayola, filled with “chafed legs, denim tears, piss, vomit” and narrating his further decent into his (and his parents’, as bedwetter also notes) personal hell in this “hidden jail.” The song climaxes with a chilling return to the present: “all this time passed, I’m scared that I’m there still” before the drums and foreboding piano melodies kick in, with Travis’ urgent and deeply pained refrain: “all these fuckin’ years, I just don’t remember.”
The album continues with further ventures into bedwetter’s corrupted psyche and personal agonies, via both bitterly candid verses and myriad instrumental interludes, venturing through experiments in electronica, sparse guitar riffs, demented samples, and unsettling ambience. Travis flashes forward to the present day with “stoop lights,” a meditation on a life in decline. Bars contemplating family rifts, alcoholism, and self-hatred flow over the closest thing to a modern trap beat Travis has ever worked with.
vol 1’s truest moments of doom and utter frustration come on the final rap track of the record, “haze of interference,” an apocalyptic instrumental teetering between dark heavy synths and hi-hats and low-tempo boom-bap drums with the specter of a repeated Jandek sample looming over all. The raps are beyond cynicism, beyond fear, beyond contemplation — it’s a screaming, utterly defeated polemic against the agonies mental illness have brought him his entire life. Beyond even this, biting self awareness and direct messages to the audience and his fanbase are slung toward the end — “You’re treated like a muse / Are you happy now, Travis?”
#4: Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked At Me
“Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?”
A Crow Looked At Me is an expression of pain. Similarly to vol 1, the album isn’t afraid to depict the deepest crevices of mental anguish and sorrow of the artist’s mind. Crow, however, isn’t about mental illness, or self-hatred, or self-destruction. Phil Elverum, the head and often sole member of his Mount Eerie project, makes it crystal clear: this album is about death. Death, unromanticized, and what it does to us. The inspiration behind this album is the well-publicized loss of his wife to cancer, leaving him not only a widower, but a single father with a young daughter.
The album’s mood of the omnipresent numbness of loss and grief strikes the listener immediately, with Phil declaring “death is real / someone’s there and then they’re not.” “Real Death” is somewhat of a thesis statement of the entire album. He deconstructs nearly every sad indie song that’s ever existed, including ones he’s famously made himself — death and grief is real, it’s painful, and it’s not reconcilable by art. When a loved one dies, “all poetry is dumb,” “all fails.” With a career so defined by making sad songs striking the hearts of his fans — any hipster that cried to The Glow Pt. 2 after a breakup, stand up — this is a brutally honest message to send.
Few albums dare go into as blunt and personal territory as Crow visits. Every track functions as a non-linear narrative of Phil’s life, both pre- and post-death, meandering through different locations, sensory details, and thoughts. Phil hits on the fixation of the mundane in the wake of a loss, the little things he clings to. “Going through your things with the fan blowing and the sound of helicopters and the smell of smoke.” “Today our daughter asks me if mama swims.” “You had cancer and you were killed.” When your loved ones are gone, symbolism and eloquence are bullshit.
#3: Tyler, the Creator — Flower Boy
“I wrote a song about you, I want your opinion”
This Tyler is the Tyler everyone knew he was capable of becoming, but had yet to bloom (there’s that motif again) into. It was never a question of his talent or creativity — take his unique, pastel music videos, overarching conceptual stories of his early albums, or the instrumental diversity of Cherry Bomb for evidence. But nothing ever seemed to exactly click together. Wolf felt awkwardly stuck between edgy, shock humor Tyler and vulnerable, confessional Tyler. Cherry Bomb had laudable experimental elements and a knack for gorgeous melodies, yet felt overall more like a complete sonic disaster. And I could never really escape the fact that so many of his verses just felt outright obnoxious, and not in some endearing or hip-hop class clown way.
On Flower Boy, everything came together perfectly.
Elements and influences that originally felt awkwardly placed now blended seamlessly. Tyler lets his controversial humor and introspective, emotional side coexist without feeling contradictory. Flows are tighter than ever, singing improved (though still pretty objectively poor), and instrumentals grander. It’s far and away his most confident, melancholy, and catchy collection of tracks to date.
Lead singles “911/Mr. Lonely” and “Who Dat Boy” best exemplify the two sides this album teeters between. The former, lush or funky trips into Tyler’s inner loneliness, sadness, or insecurities, like “Boredom” and “See You Again” and the latter as wonky, self-aware bangers like “I Ain’t Got Time!” and “Droppin’ Seeds,” with the rest falling in between, existing in this world of indecisive melancholia. He explores these feelings of insecurity and loneliness through recurring specifics throughout, including awkward crushes and sex, nostalgia, his fixation on cars, and the massively discussed lyrics of him coming out as gay.
Regardless of lyrical content, the album is utterly stunning in his melodic and instrumental qualities. The strides Tyler have made since Bastard in the beat-making department are nothing short of amazing. His signature sinister minimalist synth-beats have grown into immense pop ballads, smooth, jazz and funk-tinged beats, filthy, creative bangers, and sweeping orchestral arrangements backdropping.
Tyler’s diverse of array of influences and feelings have at last come together as he’s always intended for them to, culminating into by far his most honest, beautiful work to date.
#2: N.E.R.D — NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES
“S E R O T O N I N O V E R L O A D”
Okay really, why the hell isn’t this album the most popular thing in the country/world/universe right now? This album doesn’t deserve formality in review, it’s entirely beyond that. Nothing in God knows how long has just made me want to dance like a damn fool like this record has.
It’s hard to box this album in as anything, really. It’s an eclectic, innovative bag of pop, hip-hop, electronic, dance, funk, reggae, and rock — jumping from one section and/or style to the next sporadically — never sacrificing experimentation for enjoyability or vice versa, and just oozing with pure, unabashed fun. The feature list is absolutely stacked too, with big name stars like Kendrick, Future, Andre 3000, and Rihanna, with absolutely none of them phoning it in.
Lead single “Lemon” perfects dance-rap with its bouncy, impossible-to-not-dance-to beat, choppy samples, and a bonkers verse from Rihanna, not just singing but 100% spitting. Pharrell births sociopolitical synthpop on “Secret Life of Tigers,” candidly referencing heavy issues like immigration, abortion, and transgender bathrooms over a playful, groovy beat. N.E.R.D ascends to insane territory on “1000” with Future, sounding like a typical Pharrell beat cranked to 10, ascending to Jupiter and then a magical world of “rainbow angst,” smashing the hell out of the sampler throughout the entire ride. “Lightning Magic Fire Prayer,” a strange, similarly spacey seven-minute adventure could very well have been a leftover or inspired from Pharrell’s sessions with Daft Punk back in 2013 for the similarly fantastic Random Access Memories. Really no track on here sounds alike, or even sticks to the same sound throughout the entire track, amazingly.
At every corner there’s something that could seemingly go entirely wrong, and on paper this sounds like a complete mess. Multiple jarring beat switches in nearly every song yet they somehow sound natural? An old Retch soundbite is a recurring motif and manages to be hype as hell every time? A 44 year-old Pharrell pulls off the “ay, yuh” flow better than 98% of modern rappers over a weird, woozy instrumental about extrasensory energy?? Pharrell put Ed Sheeran on a smooth electro-reggae pop track and managed to make it sound not only bearable but actually really good?? Does anyone realize how improbable all of this is???? This entire album is nothing short of a damn miracle, either an optimistic, beautiful message from the future of pop music, or our modern trends pushed to their peak heights by a true master of the genre(s).
This album is beyond words. Just listen to it, dummies.
#1: Jay-Z — 4:44
“Not meant to cry and die alone in these mansions”
It admittedly feels a little weird putting this at number 1. In a year filled with an inspiring tide of brave victims speaking up about sexual misconduct, it feels weird to have an album that’s essentially a dude’s apology for cheating on his wife here. In a year with such a strong left-wing backlash to the Trump administration, it feels odd to have an album that’s so unabashedly capitalist here. In a year filled with all sorts of young new rappers popping up (both good and bad), it feels strange to have an album made by a 48 year-old man at the top. Regardless, this truly is the best album of 2017.
4:44 feels like the first time in Jay’s career he’s had something important to say. Of course I’m not implying that this is Jay’s first good album, or even his best, but it’s no secret that his best works tend to mostly dabble in wealth, fame, braggadocio, or mafia fantasies. It’s a work of unprecedented maturation in rap. Jay tackles issues of economics, race, family, acceptance, and regret with a sense of vulnerability and wisdom rarely, if ever, seen by vets of the genre. The album opens with a jarring siren warning the listener, before Shawn jumps right into “Kill Jay-Z / they’ll never love you, you’ll never be enough.” Within just five seconds, he’s already shown more raw emotion and honest reflection than he has in his entire career prior. A seemingly entirely new Jay has appeared out of nowhere, in the post-Lemonade world. In the first track alone he takes nearly every criticism thrown at him since Magna Carta Holy Grail head-on: his infidelity with Beyonce, his children, drug-dealing past, rifts in friendship with Kanye, hell, even the Solange elevator incident.
Continuing into further tracks, he dives deep into unfamiliar territory with complete prowess: “The Story of O.J.,” about racism and economic issues in his communities, “Smile,” a touching ode to his mother coming out as a lesbian and being yourself in general, “Marcy Me,” reminiscing about his younger days in Bed-Stuy, and the emotionally-charged title track, essentially a raw apology letter to his wife. Every area, every subject, he absolutely nails in confidence and clarity or stuns with brutally visceral emotion and honesty.
What truly elevates the album to pure excellence, though, are the beats. No I.D. absolutely shines on here, perfectly complimenting and enhancing any subject matter Jay speaks on. It’s qualities are somehow right in between feeling retro and completely fresh, with his brilliant drum patterns and inventive, divine sampling. Every track has some quality of beauty or urgency instrumentally, driven by his intricately chopped and arranged soul, reggae, and gospel samples.
4:44 is something truly special, and something that probably could’ve never existed five to ten years ago. In a genre sometimes so bogged down by its hypocrisy, sexism, and strict stoic masculinity, 4:44 shows that change can and is happening. Even larger-than-life rap figures, dominating Top 40 charts and Forbes lists with unparalleled swagger have regrets, vulnerabilities, complex thoughts; can love, cry, grow.