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Editor's picks: The top albums of 2017

SZA performs in August. Her debut studio album ”Ctrl” was one of the most well-received releases of 2017.
SZA performs in August. Her debut studio album ”Ctrl” was one of the most well-received releases of 2017.

Last week, we at Recess released our choices for the best arts and culture of 2017. As a lifelong devotee of end-of-year lists, though, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go deeper into some of my favorite music from the year. In a year that saw releases from Arcade Fire, The National, LCD Soundsystem, Beck, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors and The War on Drugs, it wasn’t the veterans but the young, up-and-coming artists who made the biggest impact. A number of records on my list are debuts, and more still are sophomore efforts. Here, in a loose order, are just a few of the albums that stood out to me in 2017:

10. Aldous Harding - “Party”

One of the most recent signees to 4AD, Aldous Harding is one of the most compelling vocal talents in indie today. On her second album “Party,” released in May, Harding contorts her voice from song to song, moving between a murmured contralto and an exaggerated, Newsom-esque falsetto at will. Though these songs are simple, their spare arrangements of fingerpicked guitar and piano triads, combined with a mix that seems to place Harding’s vocals just inches away from the listener’s ear, make them something more special. Tracks like “Imagining My Man” and “Horizon” highlight Harding’s unique ability as a folk singer-songwriter.

9. Chuck Johnson - “Balsams”

At Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival in September, at a day party organized by WXDU and the Duke-alum-owned Three Lobed Recordings, Chuck Johnson’s pedal steel guitar set stood out among a lineup that also included indie legend Mac McCaughan. During a nearly unbroken half-hour set, Johnson barely moved or spoke to the audience, yet he commanded the stage. The material from “Balsams,” released in June, is the kind of ambient music that demands deep listening, with a scope that befits a film score. Each of the six tracks is unified in tone — layers of guitar weep over a humming bass line — but each moves like an arc, a journey within a journey.

8. Kendrick Lamar - “DAMN.”

This needs to stop. The collective overanalyzing, conspiracy-theorizing and reading between the lines that now greets every release from Kendrick Lamar reached a peak this past week when the rapper gave credence to one of the more absurd theories about his latest album “DAMN.” — and one that Lamar himself actively encouraged — by releasing a “collector’s edition” of all the tracks in backwards order. For those who would rather not shell out $12 for a CD that does no more than shuffle up a Spotify playlist, rest assured that the original order of “DAMN.” is just fine. In fact, it’s the one record by Lamar that should demand the least intellectual labor from the listener, with some of the rapper’s most radio-ready moments in “DNA.” and “LOVE.” and plenty of the bars that were lacking in 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The strongest moment, though, comes at the end courtesy of Durham’s (and, now, Duke’s) 9th Wonder, who supplies the beat for closer “DUCKWORTH.” Five years after “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” Kendrick Lamar is still at the top of his game. Now, if only his fans would let that be enough.

7. GAS - “Narkopop”

“Narkopop” sort of sounds like someone put “The Disintegration Loops” in a blender and added a four-on-the-floor kick on top of it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. GAS, the alias of German producer Wolfgang Voigt, is a veteran in the world of ambient electronic music, and “Narkopop” represented a comeback for him after 17 years of no releases under this particular project. Evoking the forest near his childhood town of Cologne that Voigt has cited as an influence, “Narkopop” moves with a menacing pulse, shadows of vocal and orchestral samples creeping along the periphery. It’s an equally suitable soundtrack for doing problem sets in the library or walking home alone in the dark.

6. Jesus Chris + The Beetles - “Trickle Down”

The second release from the Denton, Texas six-piece got on my radar when it popped up on the rotation at Duke’s radio station WXDU a few months back, and there’s hardly a dull moment in its 28 short minutes, which alternately emulate Minutemen and industrial punk, country and CAN. Most of the tracks, like highlight “Love Is Degrading,” bob unpredictably between time signatures, alternating tight moments of tension with noisy bursts of release, half sung and half howled by vocalist Robinson Marlin. “Trickle Down” is as campy as its band’s name suggests, but that doesn’t hide the fact that these guys are really talented — just watch their entry for the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, which probably doubles as the greatest music video of the year.

5. Lorde - “Melodrama”

I will admit that I didn’t come around on Lorde’s sophomore effort until relatively late in the year. With its squeaky-clean production and somewhat trite chord progression, the lead single “Green Light” didn’t seem to break much new ground when it was released in March, and the acclaim that followed seemed overblown. But as it happens, the best moments on “Melodrama” aren’t even on “Green Light”: they’re the heartbreaking piano ballad “Liability,” or the bubblegum outro of “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” or the scale-jumping chorus of “Writer in the Dark.” Producer Jack Antonoff has probably been given too much credit for this album; this is Lorde’s show alone, and her inside-out take on a night out — party music that’s equally appropriate for listening to alone in your bedroom — separates her from her contemporaries in a manner that’s reminiscent of Jamie xx’s “In Colour.” It’s hard to think of a recent major label pop album as thematically cohesive as this one.

4. Charly Bliss - “Guppy”

With its soaring hooks and walls of power chords, Charly Bliss seems like the product of a bygone era, inviting comparisons to Weezer, latter-day Lush and every other act in the ‘90s power pop revival. Certainly, it’s difficult to find a band like Charly Bliss in 2017, and that’s what makes “Guppy” so refreshing. It’s filled to the brink with melodies that are difficult to shake off, but the band also manages to push the constraints of their style, seemingly starting three different songs before settling on one on “Percolator” and riding a carousel in 6/4 time on the next track, “Westermarck.” Lead singer Eva Hendricks has a voice like taffy, shifting and bending over these tracks in uncanny ways. I estimate I went through “Guppy” five times in the span of 24 hours when it first came out. The experience of listening to this album can only be compared to a sugar rush.

3. (Sandy) Alex G - “Rocket”

The newly, somewhat awkwardly christened (Sandy) Alex G is a child of the Bandcamp era, finding success through a series of lo-fi releases on the music sharing website. With this year’s “Rocket,” Alex G goes well beyond those indie-bro origins, putting himself alongside fellow weirdo one-man-band-types like R. Stevie Moore and Ariel Pink. More than any of his previous releases, “Rocket” has its roots in Americana, from the banjo strums that begin “Poison Root” to “Bobby”’s fiddled riff. But it also dabbles in noisy rap-rock (“Brick”), Auto-Tune (“Sportstar”) and Red Room-style jazz (“County”). Alex G’s detractors may find his tendencies toward the goofy a bit superficial, but it’s hard not to feel something when listening to a song like “Bobby,” and his attention to detail on these tracks — he records nearly every instrument at home by himself — lends the record its dense, close-miked warmth. Above all, “Rocket” doesn’t claim to be anything more than it is: a thoroughly enjoyable indie pop record, probably the best of its kind this year.

2. SZA - “Ctrl”

The best album from Top Dawg Entertainment this year didn’t come from Kendrick Lamar. Solána Rowe, the sole singer on the L.A.-based hip hop label, released her debut studio album as SZA in June, and it quickly emerged as one of the most engaging R&B releases of the summer. As of last month she’s even been nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy,  a distinction that — even considering the award’s laughable history — is an ironic one, given that “Ctrl” follows a modestly successful series of mixtapes and faced numerous delays before this year. The result is an elliptical collection of vignettes whose granular detail and loose vocal delivery make for instantly singable lines, each seeming to blend into the next: I can’t tell you how many times the refrain “My man is her man, heard it’s her man, too” has been stuck like a loop in my head, only to be replaced by “Do-do you e-ven know I’m a-live?” — to say nothing of the earworm choruses of “Supermodel” and “Drew Barrymore.” 

But the record has the emotional depth to match its immediacy. SZA deals with the insecurities that come with modern romance, whether it’s sharing a boyfriend with another woman or wishing she was a “normal girl.” “Hope you never find out who I really am / ‘Cause you'll never love me,” she sings on “Garden (Say It Like Dat),” “But I believe you when you say it like that.”  SZA never plays the victim, though. Rather than let these moments of doubt slip into melodrama, she opts instead for humor, facing the turbulence of being 20-something with equal parts trepidation and optimism.

1. Priests - “Nothing Feels Natural”

It’s fitting that my favorite record of 2017 was also one of the first. It would be easy to pigeonhole Priests’ debut album as “protest music,” a label that, in the age of Trump, gets thrown around a lot in the case of bands like Priests and like-minded artists like Downtown Boys. But that label is a privileged one, ignoring the fact that Priests has been railing against the structures of capitalism and consumption since well into the Obama era, with 2014’s aptly titled EP “Bodies and Control and Money and Power.” (During the band’s March show at The Pinhook in Durham, vocalist Katie Alice Greer was quick to note, “We hate all presidents, but especially this one.”)  And the label of “political” belies the fact that this stuff is, at its core, downright danceable music.

Like SZA’s “Ctrl,” Priests’ “Nothing Feels Natural” took a while to come together. The band reportedly reached the verge of breaking up multiple times throughout its production, and numerous versions of the album’s songs were scrapped. In its final form, though, Priests sounds polished and mature, each of the four members pulling equal weight: Consider Greer’s vocal acrobatics on “Appropriate” (“YOU’RE ON ‘WHEEL OF FORTUNE!’”), or the interplay between guitarist GL Jaguar and bassist Taylor Mulitz on the surf jam “JJ,” or the way drummer Daniele Daniele makes every measure of “Nicki” seem to hang just slightly. The extended buildup to the record also allowed the D.C. quartet to expand its palette beyond the traditional punk rock setup, incorporating string interludes and (yup) saxophone into this perfect meld of melodic and nervy post-punk. In a year marked by strong debuts from young artists, there was no record so uniformly thrilling as “Nothing Feels Natural.” It’s angry, it’s topical, it’s anxious, but it’s focused and, above all, it’s fun.

Will Atkinson is a Trinity sophomore and the Recess editor.


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