In a year where I could not gather enough strength to do this one project, I finally asked for help. A few of my most respected music-loving peers were kind enough to share their favorite sounds from 2017 and I am eternally grateful.
I usually have a big intro here, but since this post shares the opinions of many different people of different backgrounds, I did not want to wrongly represent them. You can read my intended intro HERE on your next visit to the toilet. In that piece, I try miserably to synthesize chaos, so it’ll fit right into a porcelain palace of flushing echoes.
Now let us see what these newbies had to say.
Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer – Bach Trios
By Emily T.
When I found out that Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Edgar Meyer (double bass) and Chris Thile (mandolin) were teaming up to record Bach Trios, I was ecstatic. These three distinct musicians have found tremendous success separately. Together, they bring a new taste to the table for Johann Sebastian Bach fans to digest.
I first heard these three play together on the original, mind-blowing Goat Rodeo Sessions album they recorded with the addition of Stuart Duncan (violin). They have a history of showcasing the ability to tell a story through classical music stylings. And Bach is surely a classic.
Typically, Bach is styled with a violin in place of the traditional harpsicord, so swapping this instrumentation with Thile’s mandolin already gives this album an edge. The mandolin strumming gives each musical phrase more clean completions with fewer run-on, mushy soprano “vocals” that you would often hear with a violin or harpsicord. Ma’s steady bow on the cello immerses you into every ebb and flow of the music. Meyer’s double bass provides the perfect foundation this trio needs for a fuller sound.
The album was recorded in a barn, giving the instruments a slight echo. Not enough to overpower, but enough to make you feel as though you’re sitting front and center. My husband and I had the privilege of seeing the show at the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts earlier this year, so I can definitively say that hearing the recording is immaculately similar to experiencing the album start to finish in the very room where Ma, Meyer and Thile are playing. I still get chills remembering that experience.
Minimally, Bach Trios provides great background noise for any task requiring a lot of focus. For me, the album provides an escape to a simpler time with a fresh, more modern classical take.
- Reading a book in your living room on a rainy day
- Sitting in your office when you have a strict deadline
- Resting by an active fireplace on a cold fall evening
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (First Entry)
(Editor’s Note: Kendrick appears twice on this list; he must be talented or something. I anticipated this, but each author brought their unique perspectives and are each great in their own right. Enjoy.)
By Morghan F.
Full disclosure, I bought one album in 2017, and it was Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.
I went whole hog with it – bought it without a single listen. A dicey move for an artist’s fourth studio album. The dreaded fourth album curse. Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak and Drake’s Views fell victim. Would Kendrick’s?
Totaling 14 tracks and clocking in at 55 minutes, DAMN. is a weighty album to unpack, though believed to be the most radio friendly. Through a loose narrative, Lamar preaches equal parts tears, grit and luck for American survival through a twisting, introspective critique of his personal vs. public life, juxtaposed to America’s recent dealings with inner demons of racism and self image.
The album wrestles with oppression vs. influence and what this means for Lamar and America. This is not a new concept for a “rap album” but Lamar’s lyrical prowess punctuates our polarizing times with a punch. He drops weight where we can handle it and smooths the staccatos with floating-down-the-river beats whilst rapping “Fox News want to use my name for percentage.” This is classic Kendrick, and it always feels good to talk through the issues with him. Equal parts weighty and carefree. Who do you want him to be?
On “DNA.,” Between the Geraldo Rivera Fox News samples and the heavy beat twists, Lamar battles American values and perceptions as much as he battles himself (and any other MF looking at him). He morphs into “Kung Fu Kenny,” – a level up, if you will. Spitting out rhyme after rhyme until you wonder if he’s taken a breath. Lyrics so repetitious and tight you’ll find yourself repeating them for months on end. In the supermarket. Waiting at a red light. “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”
A little past the two minute mark, Lamar scorches the earth with a level of rapping that makes one wonder what qualified as “rap” prior. There’s even a rocket launch countdown sample to let you know we’re ready for take off. So hard-hitting. So ballsy. The beat takes a sinister half step lower for emphasis. Untouchable Kendrick. Hammer Kendrick. Dumbfounded me. The track ends with my eyes bugging. Total “soldier DNA.”
As Lamar says, “And I’m gon’ shine like I’m supposed to” and shine he does on DAMN. Whoever is listening, and maybe Lamar is telling himself, take no prisoners. This is him. This is us. And this is now.
Like Neo in The Matrix, “This how it is when you’re in the Matrix/Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’ what you sow,” we are actively creating our reality, and I’m happy Kendrick is molding a corner of it, if not bending the world around him.
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
By Raymond V.
When I first heard The War on Drugs’ “Holding On” on a Dutch radio station, I truly thought I had stumbled upon a Bryan Adams resurrection. “Is Bryan Adams back with an amazing song?!” In this day and age, it does not take much to find out who sings what, but for some reason it took me several weeks to discover that The War on Drugs had caught my attention.
It’s easy for me to be swayed by swooping melodies, big productions and even bigger beats. A Deeper Understanding has none of that. It’s all about details, layers and understatement. It’s like I have heard it all before, but in the best possible way. This album is not about hits, nor does it has fillers. Every track has its place. I do now have a deeper understanding of the simple fact that I needed music that feels like a warm blanket, a nourishing meal and finding a long lost relative.
Clocking in at over an hour, A Deeper Understanding urges you to slow down and take a seat. There is no instant gratification here. The songs have the room to breathe, and there is time for some rather impressive heart-wrenching instrumentals.
“I’m moving through the dark
Of a long black night
Just moving with the moon
And the light it shines
And I’m thinking of a place
And it feels so very real
Just moving through the dark”
– “Thinking of a Place”
While there were a few other albums I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this year – Nothing But Thieves’ Broken Machine, and Beck’s Colors, for example – The War on Drugs’ effort made the biggest impact on me.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
By Brian S.
This year was a “reading year” in a lifetime that has been dominated by “music years,” but even in a 2017 that was filled with chaos and casual music listening (in a comparative sense) it was hard to stay away from New Music Fridays. Great album after great album dropped – sometimes all in the same day! From the fiery philosophies of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. to the devastating look at personal loss in Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me, you had a soundtrack for every facet of humanity. You had the evolution of artists like Vince Staples, creating new sonic textures and pushing his sound forward in Big Fish Theory, and the maturation of others like Tyler, the Creator refining his sound in Flower Boy.
But then, there was the chaos. Did I mention the chaos?
In a year of consistently great music, there sure was a lot of social and political turbulence. It was a year-long thing. The United States had nationwide protests in January, a president and administration entangled in collusion investigations in the coming months, opioid epidemics, mass shootings, sexual assaults and so many natural disasters on such a large scale that it’s hard to turn a blind eye to climate change and humanity’s role in unraveling the natural balance of our planet. We do this to ourselves, yet point the blame in every other direction. It’s so sad, that it’s almost funny.
The first single, and accompanying music video (above), from Father John Misty’s upcoming album dropped just a few short days after Donald Trump’s inauguration with the title Pure Comedy. I had followed Josh Tillman since his Fleet Foxes days, and immensely enjoyed his previous offering I Love You, Honeybear and realized that, like that album, which dropped on the perfect week (a few days shy of Valentine’s Day), his music was, again, arriving at an eerily well-timed moment.
“The comedy of man starts like this…” The video begins to display a mix of random phone video footage, news clips, videos of prescription pill productions, natural disasters, mysterious artwork (which was later revealed to be part of his album cover), and yes, Donald Trump’s inauguration perfectly set to the lyric “where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?” Eventually things explode in a brass and sax orchestration that punched me in the gut on first listen. It gave me chills. There was no present artistic commentary on the aftermath of one of the most contentious elections of our time, because it was all so new. Here was one of the first.
The subsequent singles dripped out in the coming months, and the coincidental political paring was just that – coincidental – but no less powerful in the context of what came next. Father John Misty crafted an hour-plus-long Indie State of the Union for humanity, and tackled a lot of subject matter with a bluntness that escapes a lot of equally great artists. While semi-controversial, the “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” wasn’t as much meant to stir the pot, but highlight the reduction of human intimacy in an age where everything is as easy as a button push away (but it is FJM, so there was a little pot stirring involved).
Then you have songs like “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” taking on the crisis of climate change from a human perspective and what it would mean to truly take the action necessary to reverse the effects that have been causing death and destruction on “this godless rock that refuses to die.” It challenged my own thinking and left me wondering how many people (myself included) are just talking the talk on combating climate change by urging the world to give up the lifestyles they know and love, but would ultimately “admit some degree of resentment for the sudden lack of convenience around here.”
Not to mention musically, you have tracks that stand up to some of the greats. “A Bigger Paper Bag” would not feel out of place on the albums of late-era Elliott Smith, and the stylings of Elton John permeate the tracklist. There are some misses that make the album harder to continuously listen to from front-to-back. “Leaving LA,” while more impactful if you haven’t heard it in a while, meanders along and bogs down a middle that had a string of greats back-to-back leading up to it (minus a small dip with “Birdie”), but still is not without its own thought-provoking moments.
With moments like these, how can it be justified that this is my “Album of the Year?” In re-watching the “Pure Comedy” music video in preparation for this review, I found the imagery more relevant now that the year has continued to progress and unfold (wild fires, prescription drugs, Donald Trump, TO CATCH A PREDATOR, FOR GOD’S SAKE).
Furthermore, many themes of the album take on a more significant light as certain stories continued to develop throughout the year. So, in listening to Pure Comedy for the umpteenth time this year, it’s hard to call it anything else but quintessentially 2017.
About Brian: A lifelong lover of music, an uncultivated writer of reviews. Past host of hit radio program “The Time Machine,” multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer, music history hobbyist.
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (Second Entry)
“Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. Are we gonna live or die?”– Blood
isn’t just telling stories, he is giving us a look at his personal narrative coupled with internal reflections. The album is full of contradictions: pride and humility, love and lust, fear and acceptance. Can you have one without the other? Do they go hand in hand? Which one are you giving into?
The final and personally defining track, “DUCKWORTH.” begins:
“It was always me vs. the world, Until I found out it’s me vs. me
Just remember, what happens on Earth stays on Earth! We gon’ put in in reverse”
This level of self-awareness seems obvious for most, but for some people who want to blame everyone but themselves – it’s their “aha” moment. Here Lamar goes back in time, telling us a true story about how he came to be or almost wasn’t. “DUCKWORTH.” is a story about how Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith had planned to rob a local KFC where Kendrick’s dad, Ducky, worked in. The story goes on to explain that because Ducky was generous when Top Dawg would go through the chicken store, Top let Ducky live. If Top would have robbed the store, it would have resulted in Ducky’s death, leaving Kendrick fatherless, most likely dying in a gunfight. Top Dawg would be in jail serving life, he would never have built his studio, started his label, Top Dawg Entertainment or sign Kendrick at just 15 years old.
“Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives
Once curse at a time
Reverse the manifest and good karma, and I’ll tell you why
You take two strangers and put ‘em in random predicaments
Give ‘em a soul so they can make their own choices and live with it”
The curse that Kendrick is referring to is damnation. We all have souls, we all make our decisions, influences be damned – we decide what path we go down, righteousness or evil. We all have to live with the decisions we make, but are we making the right ones?
DUCKWORTH. wasn’t just the defining track because of a true story but because it was the key to the second album.
Kendrick did release two albums on April 14. The first album, the forward version, is the Red album that feels like that path to enlightenment. We are humans, we make errors, fall to temptations and weaknesses sometimes but we can also rise and overcome our weaknesses towards a path of righteousness. The second album, the reverse version, is the Blue album, which ends in death. It is one in wickedness and ultimately fatal.
*KenFolk = Kendrick Lamar fans. It’s a play off the word “kinfolk,” meaning family or friends. When he used this in a tweet I fan girled as if he was personally texting me.
On Kendrick Lamar’s Instagram page, he deleted all of his posts before he uploaded his first post with the Red album cover. Later that same day he posted again, but this time just an image of the album track list. On his Spotify page his profile picture was changed from the Red album cover to Kendrick with a brick wall but this time it was blue. HE THOUGHT OF EVERYTHING!
About Leslie: KC transplant, self proclaimed music queen and live music enthusiast – when I’m not
Logic – Everybody
By me. No pressure.
True to it’s name, Everybody dutifully addresses race, mental health and humanity from a divine perspective. There’s something for everybody! If I was going to pick a single album this year for this list, it better check all the boxes:
- Mass appeal.
- High brow lyricism and composition.
- Social relevance.
- Existential concepts.
Logic has never been one to pick a side or take a stance, but the fragile conditions of iniquity and injustice compels him (and others such as myself) in no other direction. In the star-studded “America,” Logic’s message is to use, well, logic: “Don’t run from Trump, run against him.” We have the power to vote and we have the power to knock on the door of our representatives to speak our minds. Use that power, be heard and create change. Violent protests and spiteful words are just causing more fires that we can’t extinguish.
Logic, who is half black and half white (and whose white mother was, according to this album, racist), is uniquely equipped to discuss multiple sides of the race discussion we are somehow still having. Humans should be colonizing stars and having barbecues with Martians at this point. What are we doing still arguing about race and same sex marriage?
On “Take it Back” and “AfricAryaN,” he responds to the labeling he experienced from those assuming he didn’t know what the streets were like because of his skin color. So instead of moving past these topics, Logic always has to go back and explain his story. His main issue that it always comes back to race. Can’t we just be people?
And when he wasn’t discussing ubiquitous hot-button issues, Logic found the time to zero in on vile beasts hiding in the shadows in the form of mental health. You most likely heard “1-800-273-8255″ on the radio, which he wrote as a response to those who said his music saved their life. He wasn’t trying then, so what if he wrote a song that did try to save a life now? “Anziety” gets into his own struggles with anxiety. It’s refreshing to see a rapper grapple with his own vulnerabilities while landing on a positive message for all those fighting the same battles.
Logic does the near impossible on this album as he addresses very real and specific illnesses while still spanning his scope across time, race and even divinity (Neil deGrasse Tyson portrays God throughout the record). On top of that, Everybody casts a certain light that not only puts our generation perspective, but gives a hope to everything it touches. All people are different. Everyone is beautiful. Celebrate each others’ individualities while staying united.
In a time where I felt as voiceless as I ever have, I’m glad someone who has a different background could tell me that I’m beautiful.
I heard more music that represented me and my beliefs this year than any time I can remember. The likes of Foster the People, Portugal. The Man, and Nothing But Thieves – young men with the same pale skin, the same righteous values, delivered with the same amount of nuance and passion. All this with a dash of helplessness because we don’t know what to do to make things better from our end. We’re still figuring that out.
I might know where to start, and it starts up top. I don’t need representation, I need love. I need more voices like Logic from those with power. I need a reason to believe the future is headed in the right direction. And I don’t know if I’m speaking for myself alone or if I am but a symptom of America’s people: If you aren’t going to represent us, at least treat us with love and compassion.
And by us, I mean everybody.