Yeah, we love movies, but like most cinephiles, we love lots of art forms. Moreover, we think it’s as imperative as ever to celebrate as many forms of entertainment and creativity as possible. We need to seek joy, catharsis, and beauty wherever we can find it and we need to document, shape, and contest the current cultural climate with every story and art form available to us.
So maybe it’s a bit out of turn for a movie site, but we still would like to share with you the best music albums we heard in 2017.
All the Beauty in This Whole Life – Brother Ali
Brother Ali’s sixth comprehensive studio release saw the Minnesota rapper produce some of his finest work since arriving on the scene in the early 2000s. How rare is it to find a rapper that blesses a beat with a positive message despite the darkness of the lyrics imbued within? In Uncle Usi Taught Me, Brother Ali raps about being detained at an airport due to his religious beliefs and social activism. Yet throughout these lyrics of profiling and political targeting, Brother Ali manages to encapsulate the beauty of his life – that he gets to travel the world, to hear applauses from people of different races – essentially demeaning the atrocities of the government against him. Featured in this album is the wickedly talented Amir Sulaiman, and it is through him that we are treated to the best song on the entire tracklist. “I knew that telling that truth is costly / no one alive can stop me /
I rolled that flag out on the ground and prostrated my body” – this remains one of Ali’s most potent lines and it arrives in Pen to Paper. He juxtaposes his pride in his religion – through prayer – with his love for the United States, despite how he has been mistreated and profiled in the past. It speaks to the rapper’s yearning for a peaceful future where Islam coexists in the U.S. without questions over the people. Ali’s theme of acceptance and understanding the beauty we’re surrounded by in life is a common thread through his music, but in this album it feels like he has hit a sweet spot; he is no longer preaching. He is talking to the masses. That’s the best Brother Ali one can hope for. – Christopher Aguiar
ALL AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ – JOEY BADA$$
“Joey has grown up like crazy” was the line that opened my initial review of this album back in April and it feels apt to repeat that here. This isn’t to say he’s never been a “conscious” rapper, but he’s almost always been held back by his youthful approach to lyricism. The glorifying of violence, the exploitation of women – these things have been ever-present in his discography, an obvious byproduct of the genre of music he operates in. But rather than continue down this path for the entirety of his career, like many rappers do, Joey was thrust onto a different path amidst the police brutality and racial profiling that is plaguing the U.S. Throughout this album, it’s clear that a transition is occurring before our eyes. We’re no longer listening to lyrics like this – “I’ll do your girl like this beat, straight fucking it up” – instead we’re treated to a mature Joey, one no longer interested in the glorification of anything. He’s actively using his platform to be a voice for the voiceless, a mouthpiece for the disenfranchised African-Americans. On Babylon, by far and away the most potent track on the album, Joey proceeds to say “Nowadays they hangin’ us by a different tree / Branches of the government, I can name all three / Judicial, legislative and executive / Lock your pops away, your moms, then next the kids” – this marks the shift in Joey’s vision and lyrics. A stern move away from the mundane lyricism that runs the genre amok and a giant step to making a difference. – Christopher Aguiar
Boo Boo – Toro y Moi
Do you like Stranger Things, R&B, and the tenuous warmth of induced nostalgia? Then Boo Boo is the album for you. Chaz Bundick’s most pop-forward album to date, Boo Boo doesn’t have a bad song on it. It plays like the cassette-recorded mixtape you always wished your 1990s dreamy bad boy secret crush had made for you… or maybe it’s just the perfect soundtrack to a teen rom-com with that specific plot detail. Either way, it’s a nice touch of much-needed escapist fun we needed this year. -Staley Sharples
DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album may be easier to jam to, but remains entrenched in Kendrick’s personal perspective, increasing fame, and willingness to experiment with his own sound and storytelling. While “Humble” became the most prominent single off the album, “ELEMENT.”, and “DUCKWORTH.” were also standouts on an album of standouts, with “DNA.” being my personal favorite. The album also saw him team-up with Rihanna and U2 for the respective tracks “LOYALTY.” and “XXX.” Every track on this album makes a statement, and as a concept album, it contains some of Kendrick’s finest work. -Richard Newby
A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs
If you told me that The War on Drugs’s A Deeper Understanding is like taking Bob Dylan and mixing it with The Grateful Dead, stirring in some Bruce Springsteen and sprinkling a dusting of early U2 on top and putting it into a blender, I’d tell you that you were both spot on and also completely wrong. The inability to truly classify or accurately pinpoint where and the influences of A Deeper Understanding come through is to frontman Adam Graunduciel’s great credit. It’s the best type of homage to something that came before it—it honors the past, invoking the emotions we remember by creating something new and beautiful. This is big rock music, an album filled with songs that build and build to memorable crescendos through meticulous craft—the guitar solos are impeccable, the drum fills are subtle and impactful, the piano and backing strings bring the mood along at the perfect times. A Deeper Understanding is simultaneously a great record to drive to and listen to alone in a quiet room. -Chris Celletti
The Far Field – Future Islands
I had the joy of seeing Future Islands live earlier this month and it was one of those crystallised, beautiful nights where I got to see a band at the height of their powers on a tour that they keep selling out and that they seem to be loving. I had a boogie, a little cry, a laugh, and I went home with the weight of the world slightly lightened on my shoulders. The album which kicked off this tour, The Far Field, is Future Islands’ fifth and most accomplished. Their last album, Singles brought them into the mainstream and The Far Field shows that they belong there and they have no intention of going anywhere else. It’s hard not to look at art in 2017 and not see that it as reacting to 2017. With The Far Field, Future Islands have crafted something beautiful and hopeful in a world in which all news seems to be bad news. It’s nice to have Sam T. Herrings’ gorgeous, pained, emotive voice in your ears singing about friendship, love, beauty, and also loneliness, heartbreak, loss, and how it isn’t the end of the world. This is also a very danceable album considering the above themes. William Cashion’s funky basslines and Gerrit Welmers’ spacey synth give the album a boppy feel so even if the song is about heartbreak you can still shake your ass to it and get over the breakup and back into the world. – Sean Fallon
Masseduction – St. Vincent
Masseduction offers a melancholic mix of pop principle, trademark melody, and a matured sense of distantly observed departure. As expected, St. Vincent operates as a vulnerable songwriter, an unparalleled vocalist, and a top notch craftsman on her latest album here, but her aesthetic is strangely pop infatuated, catchy and industrial in measures somewhat surprising relative to her inexhaustible former output. The mixture of personal confession with the feigned plasticity of generalized pop establishes a new layer of poetry for an artist who is constantly adjusting her boundaries. –David Shreve, Jr.
Near To The Wild Heart of Life – Japandroids
Near To The Wild Heart of Life is the album that Canadian rock duo Japandroids had been building to; you just may not have noticed. They burst onto the rock scene with two records filled with mostly fast, hard-charging punk anthems; the two-piece DIY aesthetic bringing some extra grit and grime to the proceedings. But an undergirding of pathos was always there, and their latest album sees Japandroids lean directly into it. The record’s centerpiece is Arc of Bar, an exciting, meandering anthem that seemingly brings the dreamers and partiers of the band’s imagination together in one debaucherous—and confessional—place. There’s no question that the increased use of acoustics and slicker production sheen makes Near To The Wild Heart of Life a bit divisive among early Japandroids adopters, but by the time No Known Drink or Drug hits its apex, it’s difficult not to forget about everything else and get lost in a headbanging, fist pumping bliss. -Chris Celletti
Oczy Mlody – The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips fourteenth studio album proves that the band remains just as psychedelic and strange as ever, taking even more of a Pink Floyd approach with numerous tracks more invested in experimenting with sound than lyrics. How??, There Should Be Unicorns, Sunrise, and One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill are the album’s best tracks. The band also makes good use of their recent collaboration with Miley Cyrus for the song We a Family. While it’s not my favorite album from The Flaming Lips, I appreciate their willingness to bring something new to the table when so many bands with this many albums under their belts have settled for doing the same, old thing. -Richard Newby
Purgatory – Tyler Childers
Produced by country anti-hero and somewhat reluctant Nashville savior Sturgill Simpson, the breakthrough album of rising star Tyler Childers sees itself as the next logical step in the resurgence of authentic country music following the prominence of anti-CMT acts like Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Colter Wall. Childers’ voice is seasoned just enough, his twang cutting his lines at just the right angles, and his lyrics refreshingly self-honest enough for him to continue writing the blue collar American south and Appalachian regions’ musical history. Equal parts storyteller, heartbreaker, and outlaw, Childers speaks to the truer experience of the impoverished region without polishing the hardship or the drugs, making his an indispensable musical perspective this year. -David Shreve, Jr.
The Space Between – Majid Jordan
OVO duo Majid Jordan’s The Space Between offered up some of the most delectable pop-soaked R&B since Justin Bieber’s 2015 career comeback album, Purpose. Following Bieber’s album, it’s tough to make memorable content in this R&B-pop subgenre, but Majid Jordan push aside the obvious choices in favor of more genuine ones, specifically ones that suit their interweaving tenor voices. The midtempo tunes are where Majid Jordan really hit their stride; OG Heartthrob, Body Talk, What You Do To Me, and Phases satisfy the palettes of casual Top 40 listeners and old-school R&B fans alike. -Staley Sharples
War & Leisure – Miguel
Miguel’s vocal gymnastics on War & Leisure get more impressive with each replay; from the riffed harmonies on Banana Clip to the falsetto-led chorus of Told You So, he makes it clear that he’s a living legend. This album is to Miguel what Confessions was to Usher—War & Leisure ties together the earthy mysticism of Wildheart, the self-assured sensuality of Kaleidoscope Dream, and the superstar aura of All I Want Is You into a comprehensive and mature package. Whether he’s spinning you through the Spanglish groove Caramelo Duro or sending you off into the sunset with Now, Miguel’s firmly in charge of what happens next. -Staley Sharples
Wonderful Wonderful – The Killers
It’s been five years since the greatness of Battle Born and in that time Brandon Flowers continued his solo career and replenished his creative energy, which allowed the band to come back revived and able to take some unexpected risks with their melodies and lyrics for this new album. For me, The Killers have always defined a piece of modern Americana, and their songs are fable-like glimpses into the human spirit. Wonderful Wonderful continues that through-line while delivering pop-infused hits like “The Man” and Run for Cover and more personal-driven anthems like Rut, Tyson vs Douglas, The Calling (featuring Woody Harrelson) and the all-timer Have All the Songs Been Written?. If we have to wait another five years for The Killers to deliver this kind of quality again, it will be well worth the wait. – Richard Newby