First Quarter Report: The 25 best albums of the last three months
2016 hurt and we longed for it to end, forgetting that maybe 2017 could be just as bad.
As the news on our TVs and in our online feeds seems to reflect a world we sometimes do not recognize, we cling to music even tighter than before. The first three months of 2017 have floored us. Whether it is Butterz releasing t q d’s ukg, a dream team collaboration from Royal-T, DJ Q and Flava D, or Migos putting out their most impressive effort to date with Culture, there has hardly been a shortage of good new music at the beginning of the year.
Some of our favorite artists are even producing some of their best work, including Future who wowed us with his second album of the year, HNDRXX, and Kehlani, who’s shown us she’s way more than just a mixtape R&B artist. We’ve gotten sci-fi techno, moody prom king pop, Mount Eerie’s mourning glory and political post-punk to keep us sharp, too. Music may just be a salve, but right now it is such a satisfying one.
Chloe x Halle
The Two Of Us
Chloe x Halle may be the first artists signed to Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment, but the sisters hardly need her endorsement. Their music, including last year’s underrated Sugar Symphony, is an exercise in lush layering.
With The Two Of Us – a trackless 25-minute EP – the LA-based sisters have created non-stop variegated soul, a marker for what should be next in progressive R&B. But whether you’re boosted or bothered by Bey’s backing, it shouldn’t matter. Chloe x Halle’s music is so uniquely theirs, it speaks – or sings – for itself. CL
It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent
(Don’t Be Afraid)
Detroit veteran Eric Dulan, aka DJ Bone, has always been a peripheral figure in the techno underground, but his first album under the Differ-Ent alias shows that he’s just as worthy of attention as producers such as Carl Craig, Juan Atkins and Robert Hood.
Balancing taut drum loops with soaring, sci-fi chords, It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent combines the best of Detroit’s old and new schools, crafting a colorful, fluid collection of emotional bangers in the vein of Reel By Real and Model 500 that sound like they could have been made in the ‘90s. Timeless. SW
It’s fair to say Future’s had a bumpy ride since 2012’s outstanding Pluto. Its follow-up Honest was a mess, and while Future near clawed back the crown with a run of mixtapes that culminated with 2015’s acclaimed suite of bangers DS2, there was something missing. The lovelorn, vulnerable Future that crooned “I heard she keep her promises and never turn on you,” was lost in a haze of smoke, pills and lean.
That’s why HNDRXX is so damn special. It’s Future’s second album of the year and eclipses its predecessor, Future, in every way, reflecting on excess, regret and disappointment with a level of melancholy that’s impossible to fake. When he sings, through a haze of trumpet blasts, “I seen a so-called good girl turn on me,” it’s hard not to choke up. This is the Future we’d been waiting to hear. JT
You Should Be Here, Kehlani’s breakout 2015 mixtape, made it clear where the Oakland artist should be, professionally speaking: poised near the top of the contemporary R&B ladder. Getting there hasn’t been the smooth trip expected: in March last year, intense media scrutiny over her romantic life led to the singer being hospitalized following an alleged suicide attempt.
It’s proof of Kehlani’s strength of character that she came back at all, let alone so swiftly with one of most infectious and inspiring pop albums of the year so far. SweetSexySavage references TLC in title, and in spirit too: “Everything I do, I do it with a passion / If I gotta be a bitch, I’mma be a bad one,” she sings on ‘CRZY’, insisting that “I need you to respect it” over a deliriously ‘90s beat on ‘Distraction’. The result’s a listen that’s SweetSexySavage, yes – but a whole lot more on top. AH
One of our R&B-pop acts to watch in 2017 and a fixture on Kendrick Lamar’s recent ‘The Heart Part 4’, Texas singer Khalid has already impressed in the first few months of 2017. His debut American Teen proves pop can be evocative and boundary-free.
His descriptions of his formative years are relatable without using platitudes – and if anyone should know the mélange of high school experiences, it’s someone who was both an army brat and prom king. CL
Latasha Alcindor’s first full-length since 2014, B(LA)K is the perfect representation of her genre-skating style, blending poetry, R&B and rap with the ease of Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu.
Alcindor’s Brooklyn stories are kissed with an affirming black self-love and she roots the compositions in the well-worn landscapes of Brooklyn past without relying on easy nostalgia. When she smokily coos over a beat that sounds like it could have been produced by RZA in his prime on ‘Innate Paranoia’, there’s no denying where she’s from or where she’s going. We can’t wait to hear more. JT
The West Against The People
The fourth album from Russia-born, Israel-raised, Berlin-based singer-songwriter Mariya Ocheretianskaya, aka Mary Ocher, engages with a complex tangle of ideas that include immigration, intersectionality and the fear of the unknown. In an accompanying essay of the same title, the multimedia artist lays out her theory on the West’s “hierarchy of discriminations” while railing against Europe’s increasing xenophobia.
The West Against The People was produced with Faust’s Hans-Joachim Irmler and is as sonically dense as it is politically potent. Songs roll through organ drone and monastic chanting, Iranian-flavoured surf guitar riffs, while taking in krautrock drums, cavernous post-punkisms and the minimal electronics of Ocher’s adopted homeland. Her putty-like voice plunges you into underwater dreamworlds and places you’ve never even heard of before. Karen O once said that Ocher gave her “the chills”. She’s not wrong. ACW
Atlanta’s very own fab three – Quavo, Offset and Takeoff – turn in their answer to Revolver with Culture, a veritable contemporary rap State of the Union.
The successes of ‘Bad And Boujee’ and ‘T-Shirt’ are almost false flags. Culture is the end result of years of ATL innovation, from T.I., Outkast and Gucci Mane to Future, Young Thug and 21 Savage. And the fact that traditionalists and purists still don’t get it is all too familiar – they didn’t like The Beatles, either. JT
(Beer On The Rug)
Boston-based producer Sae Heum Han makes a haunting impression on Dear God, an EP that shuffles creepy industrial atmospheres, primal techno and IDM glitches with expert sleight-of-hand. Setting careful trajectories over the entirety of his EP, mmph most immediately calls to mind sonic puzzle-makers like Oneohtrix Point Never and Arca. The delicate bridge of ‘Past Lives’ channels R + 7 with blurred whispers and zero-gravity synths, while the deceptively pretty closer ‘Blossom’ sounds like Arca’s molecular mutations unleashed on a Disney movie.
But in fact, Dear God can conjure a seemingly contradictory series of influences at any moment: nimble melodies indebted to PC Music, Jlin’s sinister romanticism and Nicolas Jaar’s ornate sense of space. It makes sense – Han’s a young producer, but he’s too talented to let that overwhelm his vision. MB
A Crow Looked At Me
(P. W. Elverum & Sun)
“Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art,” sings Phil Elverum on the opener to the most heartbreaking album you’ll hear all year. A Crow Looked At Me was written and recorded last autumn following the death of Elverum’s wife, musician Geneviève Castrée, who died from pancreatic cancer three months after celebrating her 35th birthday. A year-and-a-half prior to that, she had given birth to the couple’s first child.
Elverum’s open-letter tribute and his eighth album as Mount Eerie keeps Geneviève in the frame throughout, referencing her on nearly every song. It’s a beautiful, painstaking, tribute to his love that sees Elverum explore everything from bodies and biology to the devastating effect of his wife’s loss on their young daughter. Barely-there guitar provides just enough of a cushion for the grim absurdities of death and grief. A challenging and painful, but wholly essential, listen. ACW
Nathan Fake’s colorful, hyperkinetic charms have long burned out on Providence, a record that emerges weathered and tough after five quiet years. Fake retains his ever-changing virtuosity but now chooses to paint stormy atmospheres, emotional catharsis and anxious melodies. Providence still has euphoric powerhouses aplenty, but they’re more complex.
A lot of people may have been worried when Providence was announced. A producer so of his time faces a lot of challenges living up to a sound. Yet, like old label boss James Holden with 2013’s anxiously-awaited The Inheritors, Providence doesn’t just live up to earlier work, it surpasses it. MB
Gulu City Anthems
(Nyege Nyege Tapes)
You may not have heard of electro acholi, but Otim Alpha’s debut cassette on Nyege Nyege Tapes deserves to make the genre every bit as popular as South Africa’s Shangaan electro. Recorded over an 11-year period, it’s an infectious introduction to the style, an electronic reinterpretation of the Acholi region’s traditional ‘larakaraka’ wedding dances.
As with Shangaan electro, Alpha adopts head-spinning polyrhythms across Gulu City Anthems. However, it’s his personality that drives the whole thing, his joyous vocals putting you right in the middle of a Ugandan wedding celebration. Nyege Nyege Tapes only launched in January, but gems like this make it a label to watch very closely. SW
Nothing Feels Natural
DC post-punks Priests have forged a new frontier for themselves on their self-released debut full-length Nothing Feels Natural. For those familiar with lead singer (and Chain And The Gang member) Katie Alice Greer’s wail from the band’s previous EPs, Bodies And Control And Money And Power and Tape Two, her vocals here may come as a surprise.
But just because Greer is straight-up singing now doesn’t take away from the raw power of Priests’ politics. Nothing Feels Natural is a slap in the face of apathy and a comfort in such a treacherous time. CL
Somewhere, in some parallel universe, a version of Sampha’s long-awaited debut album exists in which a parade of A-listers return favors owed to the South London songwriter: a Solange duet here, a Drake verse there, a Kanye hook on one track, an uncredited Frank vocal on another.
But Process isn’t that record. It spends its runtime erasing any suspicion that Sampha’s cameos for those artists (and others) might have elevated him to a new life of sunshine and glamour. On ‘Blood On Me’, he’s chased through misty darkness by faceless figures in “grey hoodies” while the heartbreaking ‘No One Knows Me (Like The Piano)’ finds him in his mother’s home, following her death during the making of this record.
An album that could have been a starry confirmation of Sampha’s rise to the R&B elite instead stays close to home, delving into the faces and places of his journey so far. Process is all the better for it – an intensely personal triumph of ideas, bolstered by supreme production. AH
Starlito & Don Trip
Step Brothers Three
Two of the best rappers in the US right now, Don Trip and Starlito, don’t play by the rules. Both artists probably release too much and concern themselves with content, skill and aesthetic at a time when the emphasis is on breakout tracks with memorable hooks and flashy visuals. And there’s none of that on Step Brothers Three, despite its spoof-like cover.
Rather, the album is a set of doomed, painful tracks blessed by a backdrop of slithering, ominous beats. The two protagonists have never sound more at ease, trading bars in slow, measured tones about infidelity, police brutality, government corruption and whatever else they decide to tackle. It’s cerebral but never labored, honest but never soft around the edges – it’s essential listening. JT
Gang Signs & Prayer
It’s testament to Stormzy’s talent that hardly anyone saw what was coming on one of the most anticipated British albums of the year. Alright, Gang Signs & Prayer’s four uncompromising grime anthems (‘Cold’, ‘Big For Your Boots’, ‘Return Of The Rucksack’ and ‘Bad Boys’) might have been expected. But the rest of the South London rapper’s surprisingly soulful debut came pretty much out of the blue, showing sides to the MC born Michael Omari had hinted in interviews by namedropping Frank Ocean and Adele as influences on his expanding sound.
Two-parter ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ evolves from a soft Rhodes keyboard lullaby into full-blown religious fervour, ‘Velvet’ is Stormzy’s very own smoochy ‘Poetic Justice’, while ‘Cigarettes & Cush’ is peak R&G. Most debut albums by artists in Stormzy’s position reflect on a white-knuckle ride to the top, delivering more of the same kind of tracks that broke them. Gang Signs & Prayer is too busy looking forward to look back – Stormzy’s all about the next chapter. AH
Her Records boss, Suda – he’s chopped the “nim” off of his pseudonym – has made a project of ambitious club constructions in Hives. Whether he’s employing 808s or drafting from a drone palette, the album is one you feel in your bones – and that was the goal. CL
The Internet has always been one of the most interesting projects to come out of the Odd Future collective, but Syd’s solo debut Fin feels even stronger than the duo’s acclaimed Ego Death. “This is my descent into the depth I want the band to get to,” Syd told The FADER last year, and she has succeeded in crafting an album every bit as powerful as that statement suggests.
There are strong notes of late ‘90s-era Aaliyah and Janet Jackson throughout, especially on tracks like ‘Nothin’ To Somethin’ and standout track ‘Body’, but Fin is anything but a throwback. Even if the album’s title is the suggestion of an ending, the glossy neo-soul production and self-assured lyrics are the work of an artist looking towards the future. SW
t q d
Albums from club music supergroups are often a mixed bag (anyone remember Magnetic Man?), but t q d’s debut album UKG bucks the trend. The trio of Royal-T, DJ Q and Flava D have crafted a 10-track celebration of bassline, garage, grime and everything in between, capturing the energy of Fabric on a Friday night and the soundtrack of the late-night taxi ride home. Whether they’re making big room tracks like ‘Vibsing Ting’ or smoother numbers such as ‘Hold Me’, UKG is a stone-cold classic. SW
The aim of 8AM is to mimic post-rave delirium, or as they put it, “that headspace when you’ve seen the sun come up, but sleep is still way off.” And it works. The album shines with stilted euphoria – hopeful that anything, as long as it’s fun, is possible, but still rough around its woozy edges. CL
There’s a fine line between laughter and despair, and Stephen Bruner spends his latest album skating down that line, a bundle of comics in one hand and some classic yacht rock vinyl in the other.
“I just want to ride my bike through all the bullshit with the wind in my face,” he sings on the almost comically cheery ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’, but there’s a sinister twist: “I’m safe on my block, except for the cops / Will they attack? Would it be ‘cos I’m black?”
Drunk is funny and thrilling and dancey and fun, but it also plays out with the current sorry political climate as a looming background presence. You won’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe you’ll do both. AH
18½ Minute Gaps
Part of a new wave of Manchester producers that includes Workshop artist Willow, Turinn makes dank, gristly club music with more than a passing similarity to that of Modern Love labelmates Demdike Stare. Whether he’s mangling jungle on album opener ‘Ovum’ or taking on early dubstep on ‘ESO’, Turinn’s beats are just as satisfying as those of his older peers.
However, Turinn has enough of his own influences to make sure his music doesn’t fall into copycat territory. ‘1625’ is a lopsided deep house jam that sounds like it was sketched out on a knackered MPC, ‘18½ Minute Gaps’ takes the album into breakneck Detroit electro territory and ‘Ondine’ is a hardware techno jam with a sinister edge.
It’s easy to imagine Turinn’s future material going off in any of these directions. Whatever he does next, it’s sure to be impressive. SW
(Not Not Fun Records)
Winter is making its final death gasps, spring is here and there isn’t a better thaw soundtrack than this euphoric pocket warmer from Tokyo crew Unknown Me. Subtropics charts a globe-trotting journey where each track is inspired by a different city, each piece fitting into a sonic travelogue.
Swinging from balearic ambience to gorgeous dub techno spirals, the album flies to many dreamlike vistas, but never loses its sense of direction and drive. Regardless of the season, it’s a trip worth taking. MB
On their second album, Visible Cloaks deliver a symphony of liquid textures, glowing ambience and fractured sound design. Reassemblage marries technology and nature better than almost any record in recent memory because it explores both the chaos and meticulous design of each.
Complicated algorithms and randomized melodies grow like vines through nature samples and fluttering woodwinds, spawning countless reference points. But when a record brings to mind Ryuichi Sakamoto, Oneohtrix Point Never and the Donkey Kong Country water stages all at once, maybe it’s best to lay aside the comparisons. Reassemblage is a wonder all to itself. It’s a beginning. MB
Whether or not you believe that Godfather is Wiley’s final album, one thing’s for sure – if it is, the grime don has given himself an epic send-off with a fast, furious, 140bpm banger-packed ‘career-closer’ that stays faithful to his immutable sound.
Not that there isn’t room for others to shine. Wiley hands over production reins to Preditah, Swifta Beater and Rude Kid, while giving guest spots to Ice Kid, Chip, President T, P Money, Ghetts, Skepta and Scratchy. But Godfather is most resplendent with Wiley’s own goofy one-liners: “I stand out like one break light,” “Fresh out the oven like a Sunday roast,” “You’re plain, I’m the loaded nachos” are just a few examples of the perennially uncool dad lines that expose the east London MC’s squidgy centre. ‘Name Brand’ stands out as an album highlight – square waves bob above the bass as the unholy trinity of JME, Frisco and J2K step up to the mic – while ‘Back With A Banger’ certainly does what it says on the tin (insert: Ronseal advert). Here’s hoping for that Glastonbury performance. ACW