The Ten: Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)
From political commentary to childhood storytelling, music in 2017 has seen just about everything
10. Goldlink — ‘At What Cost’ (Israel Perez)
I decided to go with Goldlink’s album At What Cost. This album came out of left field and it is my most unexpected pick for this year. Prior to discovering this album, I had never listened to any of Goldlink’s music before, now I find myself anxiously waiting for what he will produce next.
Goldlink is an extremely talented rapper with precision and clarity that can go toe to toe with the best rappers of our time. The one thing that stood out to me was the choice of the beats that he decides to rap over. Although there are a few tracks that use more mainstream sounding trap beats, most of his choices actually stray far from that. They sound a bit indie-influenced and created for an interesting combination that produces a very unique sounding album.
Although this album also has a few tracks that I feel could have been produced differently, the majority of it really works for me. I’m glad that he is trying to be creative and trying to find different beats to use, but sometimes even the best of rappers can’t make every type of beat work for them. However, I admire the bravery and boldness. It’s a struggle to find fresh Hip Hop, thankfully, Goldlink was able to provide that with this album.
9. Gorillaz — ‘Humanz’ (Jake Deven)
Humanz, much like Drake’s More Life, feels like a playlist. Each song acts as a self-contained world in which each guest artist brings their own style and mixes within the Gorillaz realm. Humanz is meant to take a look at an alternate world where Donald Trump somehow wins the election…now things are a bit awkward.
Across 20 tracks, including five interludes, Damon Albarn creates a beat-heavy soundtrack to Trump’s victory without any direct reference to the 45th president. Regardless of themes, the album can stand on its own without having a narrative on display, even though that has become a staple of the Gorillaz. Albarn wrote/co-wrote the songs and performs most of the music, but only the reflective “Busted and Blue” is him alone. It’s a midpoint oasis before more guests jump back on the album. However, there are songs like “Strobelite”, “Ascension”, and “Submission” that incorporate electronic sounds while still being a more interesting, varied listen. These tracks have a bit more energy and noticeable differences to them that make them enjoyable.
It’s also of note that these songs sound a lot better turned up, the bass sounds huge and makes the record more fun. It feels like a huge party with collaborators ranging from soul pioneers Ike Turner and Bobby Womack to rappers De La Soul, Snoop Dogg and D12.
8. Drake — ‘More Life’ (Jake Deven)
This is Drake’s return to form and basically what Views should have been. More Life is a lot more consistent and the top tracks are absolutely incredible. More Life saw a pretty good blend of rapping Drake, like we saw on IYRTITL, and singing Drake, like we saw on Take Care.
My one criticism: it could have been a better album if some of the filler dancehall tracks, like “Blem”, were cut due to their questionable style that felt more like a failed attempt at the genre. The rap songs on More Life are much better than the rap songs on Views. The song transitions might be overlooked, but I thought they were really well executed. The album flows nicely and gives you every type of Drake.
Overall, the upside of Drake randomly calling this a “playlist” is that he seems really dove head-first into experimenting with a bunch of styles. The lack of stylistic cohesion actually seems to have benefited the project. It feels like he genuinely enjoyed himself more on this one and made it more interesting. Hopefully, he’s gotten all of his crazy ideas out of his system and is ready to produce a more focused album on his next time around.
What I really want to see at this point is an album wholly produced by 40 with Drake and friends featuring. If OVO dropped a project like that it would be perfect.
7. Joey Bada$$ — ‘ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$’ (Christopher Zacherl)
As west coast rappers dominate the rap game, we can’t forget about the classic east coast rappers out there releasing good music. Joey Bada$$ is obviously one of those guys and he has returned with a heavy hitting album in ALL AMERIKKAN BADA$$. This album touches on real topics such as racism, the media, and Trump’s presidency, sending a powerful message with today’s political tensions.
Joey Bada$$ chose not to shy away from what is really important in our country. Forget all the hype about partying, drinking, doing drugs, AABA is a real album that should be listened to by everyone.
Besides the underlying message of this album, AABA did not sway away from the east coast themes that Pro Era rappers always come through with. Tracks like “BABYLON” and “LAND OF THE FREE” will have you reminiscing about Biggie and those old school east coast vibes that come with it.
6. Smino — ‘blkswn’ (Christopher Zacherl)
If you want to hear something new sonically, Blkswn is the way to go. There is no doubt that Smino provides new sounds that the rap game tends to lack like jazz, funk, and soul.
The unique voice of Smino perfectly blends with his funkily produced beats. You would have to be a complete hater if you told me that Blkswn is not different than most albums. This album is in another realm of existence.
Overall, Blkswn’s tone provides a happy and jazzy vibe. This album is a good pick to listen to on a summer road trip. It is a must listen.
5. Khalid — ‘American Teen’ (Israel Perez)
I have to go with El Paso’s very own Khalid. From the beginning, it seems like everything he does turns into musical gold. His popularity exploded when Kylie Jenner recorded a snapchat listening to his hit song “Location” in the background, but even before that his music was still demanding plenty of attention. Currently, he has 13 million monthly listeners on Spotify, which rivals most A-list celebrities.
American Teen is a great album that includes all the love songs and catchy lines we all never knew we needed. It’s also filled with plenty of references to El Paso, which constantly reminds us that he has not forgotten where he began his career.
It’s hard to describe the style of music that he produces. It could be categorized as Soul or R&B but with its own unique character. His voice is also different from other musicians that make R&B and Hip Hop albums. Although some songs are rough around the edges, I really was impressed with the quality and maturity of his tracks. Most musicians his age fall into the trap of trying to make music that will appeal to the largest possible audience and is “radio friendly”.
Khalid has created something we can all enjoy, while at the same time staying original, and I can’t commend him enough for that.
4. Future — ‘HNDRXX’ (Christopher Zacherl)
HNDRXX provides a beautifully produced collection of dreamy tracks and bangers. For the majority of this album, Future showcases heartbreak and shares his softer side with his fans. This is the first time that I actually feel relatable with Future.
Despite his lyrics about “percocets” and codeine, everything else he raps about is in touch with reality. Opening up with the calm and fanciful “My Collection” Future proves that great albums do not need that epic introduction that most artists typically shoot for.
As you go through HNDRXX, you will probably find yourself being relaxed, pensive, or crying in your restroom. Tracks like the wonderfully produced “Use Me” or the emotional “Solo” have the potential to alter your emotions. I have never really associated Future with putting people “in their feels” until HNDRXX, and it’s truly a beautiful thing. Future can sing just as good as he can rap, and there’s no question to it (Shea Serrano would agree).
3. JMSN — ‘Whatever Makes U Happy’ (Jake Deven)
Whatever Makes U Happy is a follow-up album to JMSN’s It is released in 2016. In 2017, JMSN is continuing to prove that he is probably the most slept-on artist in the world.
As a producer and contributor, JMSN had a hand in the rapid ascension of Kendrick Lamar’s TDE Collective by contributing true rhythm and blues conventions to 2012’s seminal good kid m.A.A.d city. In many ways, on Whatever Makes U Happy, JMSN is a victim of his own success. JMSN has an undeniable talent and is capable of creating something transcendent. His purest talent is his ability to make incredibly listenable music. This may seem like an odd statement to make, but in an era of skip-able streaming albums, having an artist whose entire back catalog that is as good as JMSN’s keeps your finger off the ‘next’ button and that is an achievement.
The album gets off to a pretty funky start. “Drinkin’’ is a jazzy opener, establishing the motif of the record right from the beginning. JMSN always digs deep vocally but on this track he’s raw, exposed and honest, stretching his voice to its limits. Not a single track on this album is poorly produced, badly performed, or generally displeasing in any way.
For evidence, look no further than the groovy baseline and perfect self-backup on “Love Ain’t Enough”. JMSN’s entry comes through with some unique qualities. The next track, the arguably stronger, “Slide”, allows JMSN to show off his pipes without resorting to a genre specific falsetto. That’s no small feat and throughout the album, he seems content to stay within his considerable range. The following song, “Slowly” has JMSN shining on the keys in the traditional “baby-making music” arena.
If you have never listened to JMSN then Whatever Makes U Happy is as good as any album to dip your toe in the pool. But be prepared to swim back into his back catalog and stay in the pool until the sun goes down.
2. Sampha — ‘Process’ (Jake Deven)
From the music to the vocals to the lyrics, Process oozes emotion and Sampha comes across as a fully developed artist. Sampha has really improved his songwriting chops since his work with Drake and SBTRKT.
His production and his voice have always been stellar, but this album feels fully realized in every way, whereas Dual EP was rough around the edges. Although Sampha does have his own sound, this album gives off a Frank Ocean vibe.
“No One Knows Me Like the Piano” is one of the most emotionally gripping songs I’ve heard in a long time. It’s so raw and beautiful, and I applaud Sampha for being able to share something so personal with the world. There is so much going on in this album.
With so much depth from a lyrical and production standpoint, it’s hard at times to process it all at.
1. Kendrick Lamar, ‘DAMN’ (Christopher Zacherl)
DAMN. Where do I start? DAMN had to be ranked at number one, obviously. It is no question that Kendrick Lamar is king. Lamar is one of the most creative storytellers in the history of storytelling.
On Damn, Kendrick was able to include amazing features like Rihanna and U2, only proving his influential dominance in the music industry. Lamar provides bangers in tracks like “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” but also includes calmer, alleviating tunes like “LOVE.” and “LOYALTY.”.
Lamar did not forget to share tracks that solely depend on his storytelling talents like “FEAR.” where he talks about his rough childhood at the age of seven. At 17 years old he talks about being around violence and acknowledges the fact that he can die at any given time. Then at 27, he mentions his fear of losing it all; the fame, the money, and his creativeness. Every song is a stepping stone to Lamar’s masterful track “DUCKWORTH.” where he tells a mind-boggling story about his origin. The song ends with the same gunshot at the ends the album’s opening track,“BLOOD.” creating a full circle ending that has left Lamar’s listeners shook.
With Damn, Kendrick Lamar has to be in the discussion of the greatest rapper of all-time. Even though it seems too early to be putting him in the same discussion as Tupac and Biggie, he is on the right track.
Follow Lede in on Twitter.