The 25 best albums of the last three months: July to September 2017
The 25 must-hear albums of the last three months.
Summer used to be when the music industry packed up its Bible-length, labyrinthine contracts, bloated expense accounts and ornate cocaine straws for a few weeks in pursuit of a well-earned break.
Now, with release dates and lead times about as important as having a CD drive on your laptop, it’s a different game entirely. Summer is no longer a sea of reissues, compilations and “filler” releases intended to plug a gap in the schedule – now it’s fair game, with AAA titles like Jay-Z’s 4:44 sitting alongside indie smashes like Ariel Pink’s Dedication to Bobby Jameson and Lil B’s seven-years-in-the-making Black Ken.
These are the 25 releases we’ve been most drawn to over the last three months, from slow-burning mumble rap and dusty dance hedonism to inverted pop collage and border-busting experimentation.
21 Savage has long been a punching bag for angry hip-hop truthers; he’s the mumble rap boogeyman, the rapper under the bed poised to terrify “real hip-hop” into submission. But something changed when Savage Mode dropped – opinion seemed to coalesce for a second in agreement that, at the very least, ‘X Bitch’ and ‘No Heart’ were unmistakable heaters.
Issa Album, on the other hand, was dismissed with a shrug swiftly on release, almost before listeners had given themselves enough time to absorb its collection of sparse, next-level beats and inward-looking rhymes. It’s unlikely to appease the braying crowd of haters, but with slithering, low-key bangers like ‘Bank Account’, ‘Money Convo’ and ‘Bad Business’, Issa Album shouldn’t be ignored. JT
Dedication to Bobby Jameson
Ariel Pink’s muse on his first release for Brooklyn’s Mexican Summer is a shadowy ‘60s figure called Bobby Jameson. Presumed dead until 2007, when a series of YouTube videos seemed to prove otherwise, Jameson, and the mythology of artistic failure that surrounds his story, is exactly the kind of long-forgotten Hollywood dream that makes Pink tick.
Dedicated To Bobby Jameson presents a weirdo-pop scrapbook of ideas that intentionally rips from The Vaselines’ ‘Son of a Gun’ (‘Bubblegum Dreams’) and The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ (‘Time To Live’), while flicking through a number of other styles, including goth-pop. However, despite this magpie-like approach, Ariel Pink’s agency stands tall throughout. He may have stepped back to let someone else take the stage, but Pink’s status as both an idiosyncratic and controversial outsider cannot be denied. ACW
What makes a great dance album? It’s a question that’s plagued the genre for decades; do you go all out and fill a record with dancefloor bonafides, or do you attempt to forge something with genuine narrative, maybe swerving the 4/4 altogether? Is putting a couple of ambient interludes really all that stands between a “real album” and a double-pack?
BICEP come correct by ignoring the rules altogether – sure, there are a couple of beatless moments (including the ‘Love On A Real Train’-esque ‘Drift’), but they’re neatly placed in-amongst a suite of sweaty, expertly-produced tracks that pull liberally from decades of spidery, hotly-contested subgenres. Trance, disco, progressive house, breaks, vintage techno, jungle and pretty much everything else is the bedrock of a record that sounds as genuine as it is listenable. JT
Spotify / Apple Music
Stuart Turner has been making music as Claude Speeed since 2011, but with Infinity Ultra, the now Berlin-based Scot seems to have found his voice. A set of tracks that Turner’s been collecting over the past six years, Infinity Ultra occupies the liminal zone between the club and the afterparty, inspired in part by what he described to FACT as the “rave sadness of Berlin”. Much like Konx-om-Pax and Lorenzo Senni, Turner uses bold, colorful trance riffs to trigger your serotonin, but balances them out with moments of Vangelis-inspired beauty and gritty power ambient to prevent any crushing comedowns. SW
Anthology Resource Vol. 1
The very first thing we hear before each episode of Twin Peaks: The Return is Dean Hurley’s eerie rising percussion – the billowing ‘Intro Cymbal Wind’ that opens Anthology Resource Vol. 1. It couches Angelo Badalmenti’s unmistakable theme in another layer of surrealism; that theme is, in 2017, almost kitschy nostalgia, so Dean Hurley’s sinister experiments serve to signal Lynch’s mischievous, complex direction. This is not the Twin Peaks we knew and loved – it’s old and new re-cast without time and space; Dean Hurley takes David Lynch’s cues and submerges them in a suffocating pool of garmonbozia. What year is this? JT
Deep house and reggaeton shouldn’t really work together, but on DJ Python’s Dulce Compaña, it’s a union made in dembow heaven. “I always wanted to take reggaeton rhythms and add a more meditative side to it,” explained the New York-based artist in his recent FACT Rated interview.
The album’s mellowed pace allows the tracks to flourish in their environment, creating a bittersweet, breakbeat-infused new age fantasia that veers from the hothouse soundscape of standout ‘Cual’ – all mesmeric kicks and dreamy synths – to the clattering ambient rave of ‘Todo Era Azul (Version Afuera)’, without ever shedding its dembow skin. ACW
Exile in the Outer Ring
EMA’s noise-pop hybrids have teetered between familiar and from-the-future since her 2011 debut. With Exile in the Outer Ring, she builds on the usual alienation and frustration spelled out in her music by exploring the dark themes of white nationalism and existential political dread currently playing out right before our eyes.
Her last project was the score for the social media nightmare of a teen horror flick #Horror which dug into mean girls and online bullying. It was the perfect precursor for Exile, which deals largely with identity and the terror that comes without acceptance (she cites Shane Meadows’ This Is England as an inspiration). But here’s how she puts it herself: “Don’t let your discontent or your patriotism be exploited. Don’t look down, look up.” CL
It’s over four years since Galcher Lustwerk burst into the collective consciousness with his Blowing Up The Workshop mix, using half-rapped spoken-word and weed-soaked instrumentals to flip deep house tropes upside down.
Dark Bliss doesn’t offer anything you wouldn’t expect from the Brooklynite’s debut album, but there’s a sense of polish on these tracks not present on his now-legendary first mixtape. “I’ll be damned if I don’t make it,” he sings on album highlight ‘I’m In The Coolest Driver’s High’. Whether this album will elevate Lustwerk to the next level commercially remains to be seen, but it at least secures his place as one of the most talented house music artists of the decade. SW
While Pariah is Chicago DJ and producer Jana Rush’s debut album, her first 12” dropped on Dance Mania back in 1996. At the time, she was billed as “The Youngest Female DJ” and certainly, back then her age and her sex made her an unusual presence in dance music, let alone in the Dance Mania stable. But Rush has little to prove at this stage, which makes Pariah all the more exciting.
It’s experimental but not labored, contemporary and urgent but not doomed to repeat the mistakes of countless other pretenders, young and old. The way Rush is able to weave in-and-out of ghetto house, soul, acid, footwork and jungle modes is as impressive as it is effortless – Pariah should be heralded as an example of how it’s done. JT
It’s been a long time since it’s felt like Jay-Z’s music was actually addressing his audience, not the legion of onlookers who know his name from Page Six, and 4:44 is a true return-to-form. Part financial how-to and part apology to the Beyhive, the album accomplishes so much in so little space – but that has always been Jay’s greatest gift: telling us everything in so few words.
4:44 isn’t just special because it’s where Jay-Z found a way to balance his age and wealth in his storytelling, it’s because he still has tricks we’d thought he’d lost. CL
(Don’t Be Afraid)
Karen Gwyer has gained a fearsome reputation for her killer live sets over the past few years, but Rembo is the first time she’s explored her techno side on record quite so explicitly. The rigid, Detroit-style drum patterns and high tempos (inspired in part by music she’d hear on the radio as a teenager in Michigan) act as rocket fuel for her effervescent synth backdrops, resulting in one of the year’s most euphoric techno records. SW
For her debut album Ariadna, Moscow-based artist Kedr Livanskiy, aka Yana Kedrina, pays tribute to the feminist interpretation of Ariadne as the hero in the Greek myth of the labyrinth and the Minotaur.
Sonically, Ariadna marks Livanskiy’s transition from digital to analog. Made using hardware synths including the Roland SH-101 and Juno 10, the singer and producer infuses dusty beats with lush swirls of shoegaze to weave a dreamworld of her very own that takes its inspiration from the Izhevsk sound of the ‘80s – a place sometimes referred to as “the capital of Russian electronic music.”
Sticking firmly within pop lines, from the glistening electro jewel of the title track to the ambient drift of ‘Sad One’, Ariadna is a record of lo-fi techno bangers, but one with a decidedly human pulse, centered around a “hero who experiences real feelings and emotions.” ACW
After bowing out in 2011 with the farewell to end all farewells at Madison Square Garden, LCD Soundsystem’s comeback album didn’t just have to be good – it had to be brilliant. Against the stacked odds of a band coming off a long hiatus trying to find its mojo again, American Dream is somehow the best album of LCD Soundsystem’s career, channeling Berlin-era Bowie and vintage Suicide into a collection songs united by their palpable anxiety about getting old. Thankfully for James Murphy and co, age and their newfound sense of perspective suits them. SW
There’s a good argument for Lil B being the most influential rapper of the last decade. And if you’re a fan, it might feel like you’ve been waiting for Black Ken for about that long. The album was announced an impressive seven years ago (someone should introduce the Based God to My Bloody Valentine), and remarkably, it doesn’t disappoint.
In fact, Black Ken is Lil B’s most coherent and enjoyable album since 2012’s acclaimed God’s Father and while it’s long at 27 (!) tracks, the Berkeley legend doesn’t waste time, rattling through a selection of sparkling, sleazy Bay funk and hyphy – even aping Keak Da Sneak’s flow on ‘Getting Hot’. There’s little of the hazy cloud rap that inspired a generation of young producers and rappers (including iLoveMakonnen, who shows up on ‘Global’), but Lil B’s already done that – now he’s on to the next one. JT
Matthewdavid launched his Mindflight project with a gargantuan double album last year, but the Leaving Records boss perfects his modern approach to new age over Ophiucus’s sprawling pair of tracks. With one track written for his daughter and another for friend and fellow modular synth explorer M Geddes Gengras, the album is meditative but never boring thanks to its constantly shifting and shimmering textures. Mindflight may have felt like a fun side-project, but after this it’s shaping up to be some of the veteran producer’s most notable work to date. MB
MHYSA’s Halcyon Veil release fantasii is a collage of pop and club fragments that poignantly communicates her politics. Haunting a cappella renditions of Beyoncé’s ‘Naughty Girl’ (‘TONIGHT’) and TLC’s ‘Red Light Special’ (‘Siren song’) are just as much a rumination on gender as they are tribute to those who have influenced her look and sound; her meditative deconstructed club cuts remind us that getting your life on the dancefloor isn’t just about partying, but about finding community. MHYSA self-describes as an “underground pop star for the cyber resistance” and there couldn’t be a better fighter on the front lines. CL
Moses Sumney has described the emotional influence of his debut full-length Aromanticism as an exploration in his place on the romantic spectrum: “It’s admitting that you still desperately crave affection, even if you’re not fully capable of returning it.”
This doesn’t mean he cannot communicate with passion. The futurist soul-folk hybrids on the album are sumptuous and although the instrumentation tends toward intimate, hefty songs like ‘Lonely World’ aren’t just album standouts, they’re extraordinary achievements of pushing the needle forward. CL
Amalie Bruun’s second proper album under the Myrkur moniker is tough to categorize. It’s lazy to call it black metal; Bruun uses familiar extreme Nordic tropes, but that isn’t the whole story. She also folds in Northern European folk music, operatic vocals, cinematic strings and the kind of soundscapes you’d more readily expect from a Biosphere record. Mareridt is tightly woven, ambitious and betrays the kind of focus you often only achieve after years of trying and failing. JT
Memories of Cindy
(Beats In Space)
Kai Hugo has been dishing vividly psychedelic techno for some time as Palmbomen II, but he’s never released a record as ambitious as Memories Of Cindy. The album was introduced throughout the year over four EPs and here they lock together like puzzle pieces to form a 90-minute epic of wandering acid house and bleary atmospheres.
It all flows with a wild dream logic, bridging everything from synth-pop bliss outs (‘Seventeen’), chintzy tropical jams (‘145’) and melancholy comedowns (‘Peter Accepts Death’) with sinewy ambient passages like ‘Wilco’s Funeral’ and ‘Cyber Tears’. Memories Of Cindy is a record you can truly lose yourself in. MB
Sacred Horror In Design
Sacred Horror in Design represents a three-way collaboration between Arash Bolouri on the santour (the Persian hammered dulcimer) Behrouz Pashaei on the setar and production from Hamburg-born, Iran-raised musician Ata Ebtekar, aka experimental electronic musician Sote.
Borne from CTM festival submission, the album explores the 2017 theme of ‘Fear Anger Love’ and with the focus on Ebtekar’s post-1979 Iranian childhood, maps his personal trajectory in an exploration of virtual border busting, which sees ancient and future collide with dramatic effect. On ‘Flux of Sorrow’, hypnotic fingerpicking dissolves into the synthetic sound of cyborgs crying, ‘Boghze Eshafan’ decays into grainy digital mulch, while ‘Plural’ explodes with thundering setar that almost heralds the apocalypse. Terrifying, harrowing, mystifying and comforting all at once. ACW
FACT Rated emeritus Sudan Archives released some of the most innovating new music of 2017. Her unconventional violin playing is inspired as much by traditional Sudanese fiddling as it is by pop, funk and R&B. And when she isn’t releasing party-starters like ‘Come Meh Way’, she is soothsaying with songs like album standout ‘Oatmeal’. Fusing the classic with the modern to make something wildly new makes her a perfect addition to the Stones Throw roster and one of our favorite new artists of the year. CL
The Outfit, TX
Dallas three-piece The Oufit, TX outdo themselves on Fuel City simply by following their own path. Last year’s Green Lights: Everythang Goin’ was a triumphant re-framing of The Outfit’s hazy Southern gothic style and Fuel City continues the journey, taking a pit-stop at the strip club before tailgating at the gas station and lining up for tacos. It’s music made to grease poles and rattle trunks – a tight selection of no-holds-bars bangers that go straight for the jugular. Burn your cowboy hat – this is the spirit of Dallas. JT
Tyler the Creator
On his pensive fourth studio album, Tyler the Creator sounds like he’s had all the time in the world in the two years since Cherry Bomb, dragging his innermost thoughts out into the open across songs that drift and glide with meditative melancholy.
Tyler picks at his psyche like a child picking the wings from flies: his sexuality is prized apart (“I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004”) as is the meaning of fame, finding the metaphorical mansion of success to be a spiritual void. “How many cars can I buy till I run out of drive? How much drive can I have till I run out of road?” he asks on opener ‘Foreword’. “How much road can they pave till I run out of land? How much land can there be until I run in the ocean?” On his best and proggiest album to date, Tyler doesn’t sound like he’ll ever run out of ideas. AH
Various Artists / Fractal Fantasy
Visceral Minds 2
A veritable State of the Union for the Fractal Fantasy imprint – and the wider world of innovative bass-heavy dance music – Visceral Minds 2 is an ambitious project that pays off at every twist and turn. The cast is truly mindblowing: Jlin, Swing Ting, L-Vis 1990, v1984, Murlo, Scratcha DVA, DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn and countless other names fill a compilation that’s anything but throwaway. Zora Jones and Sinjin Hawke approached Visceral Minds 2 with a grand plan and they execute it flawlessly. It’s not often I get to say that. JT
Experiencing The Deposit Of Faith
Yves Tumor makes sound collages with all the understatement and sadness of a long, weary sigh. Looping percussion, nature recordings and snatches of intimate conversation float through his new album Experiencing The Deposit Of Faith, which he quietly released before announcing his signing to Warp. The dusty percussion of ‘Conflict Of Interest’ or the Natural Snow Buildings-style folk of ‘E. Eternal’ often make it feel like leafing through a dusty photo album, while highlight ‘My Nose, My Lips, Your Head Shape’ achieves the same emotive power that made his contribution the high point of PAN’s recent ambient compilation.
It’s an album that opens countless creative directions for where Yves Tumor will go now that he’s on Warp — they haven’t had an artist that can navigate the past, the future and the space between like this since Broadcast. MB