Charli XCX's Number 1 Angel was more like an album than a mixtape. It was a pristine, polished piece of pop that pushed the envelope forward while still delivering accessible bops that could've had their time on radio if given the chance. Her collaborators, from Cupcakke to Uffie, showed us exactly where she sees herself right now and where she wants to go.
Lover is a sonic journey. One that explores all the revolves around being a lover including loss, sex, empowerment, addiction and power. The first track gives the album’s mission statement saying, “Being a lover is not about sexuality, it’s about love. At its base everything is about love.” From there we hear heels as if Maple is walking towards the stage to take control. And she does with the tempting Sticks & Horses which beautifully explores the juxtaposition between lust and control. From theme-defining interludes to effortless mixes, Lover is a beautifully pieced together project that’s so cohesive you’d swear that Maple had had more than just one album to define her musical identity. Read the full review here.
When you look back on SweetSexySavage in hindsight it’s hard not to be affected by it if you’ve been around since the mixtapes. She sounds like she’s grown up and is genuinely looking towards the positive while still acknowledging that sometimes things get shit. “Take my own advice,” she sings on Advice, a timely reminder to block out the negative side of the internet and those negative forces closest to her. At only 21 years-old she’s done a lot of growing and experienced a lot. As such, you’re going to struggle to find a debut album that’s this passionate, multi-dimensional and honest. Read the full review here.
Sure, Masseduction is a pop album but not the kind you’re used to. It’s a wild, inventive, detouring album that deals with power and seduction. It’s full of furious beats (Sugarboy), reverb-soaked guitar (Fear The Future) and haunting, almost comical choruses (Pills). Unlike most pop records, the most accessible moments melodically are far from mundane. Ballads New York and Happy Birthday, Johnny give us her most personal and direct moments yet. Read the full review here.
While BROCKHMAPTON's soundscapes and vision may not exactly sound and look like they’re aimed for the mainstream, mastermind Kevin Abstract isn’t interested in being obscure. “When you mention Bieber, Lorde, One Direction: I want to be on that list,” he told The Guardian. Listening to SATURATION II, it’s not hard to imagine them having the same trajectory as a rap group like Outkast. In fact, the mainstream would be far better off including a group with as much energy as Brockhampton. Read the full feature here.
Before 2017, Future was beginning to produce quantity over quality. But, despite releasing two solo albums this year, he struck gold with HNDRXX. HNDRXX saw him retu to the melodic, more emotional stylings of Pluto and as a result he may have delivered us his best project since Pluto. His rap-heavy brother FUTURE was also great, but this one forced him to trade in more than run-of-the-mill trap and produced some of his most memorable work.
Unlike her previous records, this one has Kesha’s handprints over every inch of it. It feels like her thoughts made it from her head to the album without filtering and that’s the most fulfilling thing about it. Kesha has a naturally optimistic mind and a wicked sense of humour. That’s best delivered with this country aesthetic that ties the record together. Read the full review here.
Charli XCX flipped the popstar script in 2017 and instead of releasing her long-awaited third album, she dropped two mixtapes, placing an emphasis on collaboration. Pop 2 came in the dying moments of 2017 and provided a manifesto for what pop could look like in the future. With guests from Carly Rae Jepsen to Mykki Blanco, it’s a communal record that envisions the future of pop as a sugary but unpolished world. At times Pop2 is euphoric (Unlock It) and at other times it’s lonely and sad (Lucky). It’s the party and the hangover meeting in one record.
This is for anyone in their 20s who is figuring out how to have a career, embrace their individuality and be a good friend, brother, sister, girlfriend, boyfriend, son and daughter. Process is all about accepting that sometimes you’re going to be selfish, anxious and out of touch but also moving forward. It’s such a poignant and expressive time stamp of where Sampha is in his life right now that we can only hope we get to keep growing with him because while we all may experience similar emotions, few of us can express it as vividly as him. Read the full review here.
After Laughter is the most pop and most miserable record they’ve ever made and strangely, it’s a total triumph. Frontwoman Hayley Williams has plenty of space to breathe, allowing us to hear her enticing vocals more than ever and the instrumentals are buoyant and charismatic. Paramore grew up as an emo band and while they’ve shed that skin instrumentally, lyrically this is Paramore’s darkest album. Read the full review here.
Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE was so successful because it introduced us to Ocean as a person rather than a famous person. It was intimate, honest and autobiographical, acknowledging where he’d come from and remaining wary of the future. Stormzy’s GSAP succeeds in the same way. Sure, sonically it’s different but like Frank, he never gets too big for his boots. He wants to be the best, but he’s not going to do that by telling people, he’s going to do it by showing. GSAP shows that he’s on the right path. It’s not a grime record, it’s a Stormzy record and one that does an incredible job of showing us that the MC is an emotional, complex person with ambition.
Before Flower Boy, Tyler The Creator was a better creative than he was a musician. He had the vision but had never made anything great. Flower Boy finally turns the vision into sound. It's the most mature he's ever been, slowing things down and day-dreaming through thoughts that include sexuality and loneliness. The sounscape is sun-drenched and led by an MC who has never been more capable. It also helps that he's got impeccable taste when it comes to picking collaborators.
A$AP Rocky, The Weeknd, Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon all join in at various points on Lust For Life but this is Lana’s show. Over all 16 songs she’s at peak Lana – dramatic, mysterious, magical and hopeful. You could once criticise her grandeur for being insincere but here when she asks, “Is it the end of America?” you believe her. The mournful singer who felt like an actress in the Obama era is suddenly exactly what we need during a Trump presidency. Read the full review here.
Few could’ve predicted Calvin Harris transformation from EDM giant to funk master but it was one of 2017’s most successful transformations. It could’ve come off as gimmicky, ditching EDM as dance music’s biggest cash grab culture begins to fade but Funk Wav Bounces has an undeniable authenticity mostly thanks to a carefully curated set of artists. Frank Ocean is on top form on the slippery Slide, Young Thug embraces disco on Heatstroke and Kehlani bleeds soul on Faking It. Every artist is at the top of their game and, despite the breadth of talent, Harris manages to bind it together with a genius level of cohesiveness. Where other albums that roped in a huge amount of guests (DJ Khaled’s Grateful for one) were overshadowed by those involved, Funk Wav Bounces owes its success to its head creator Harris.
The xx’s friendship has always been one of the most important elements of the group but yet somehow their music has always sounded isolated. As if they’ve opened the blinds, I See You sounded like they were embracing that friendship sonically and opening up their world. It starts with the blaring horns of Dangerous and uses a chopped up Hall & Oates sample for its most euphoric moment On Hold. I See You graduated The xx from moody teens to adult musicians not scared of letting a little light in. There are still solitary, sad moments like Performance but there’s a sense that when Romy is out there in her feelings, the other two are waiting by the wings ready for a warm embrace. I See You is a beautiful, warm record that celebrates friendship, no matter how dire things may get.
Vince Staples controls his own narrative on Big Fish Theory and while you may have thought you had him pegged on Summertime ’06 he’s swiftly changed directions on this album. Given how little unreleased music he has in his vault you get the feeling he sees what he wants and he makes it with little waste. Big Fish Theory is an immaculate vision. It’s a powerful, carefully crafted and experimental project that subtly conjures images of the personal and the powerful. Read the full review here.
Where Kelela's previous project created grooves through icy, industrial beats Take Me Apart extends itself more. She draws out notes over lush electronic arrangements with beats that are more rounded than ever before. She takes her time more and as such this is a record that softly draws you in and holds you in her hypnotic words. It’s hard to imagine her presenting something as warm and personal as Better or as cosmic as Jupiter on previous projects. On the latter she sings, “There’s a lot going on, let it out”. It acts as a mantra for the walls-down lyrical direction of the album. Take Me Apart is a personal and creative triumph by a steady creator. She’s taken her time both with the creation and delivery and given something that’s as forward-thinking as it is personally present. Read the full review here.
Before DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s place at the top of the rap pyramid was pretty secure but there was something he was yet to achieve - a huge single. Unlike its predecessor To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. eyes commercial success without losing any of the social or political awareness that had made him one of the greats. And from day one of DAMN.’s campaign it took over the charts. Humble, with its rattling, war cry of a beat, topped the charts and the album followed. Where Butterfly looked outwards, DAMN. looks inwards. The expected Trump references are kept to a minimum as Lamar looks at his own life, from love to religion, something which is subsequently affected by the political and social climate. We never would have got a song as straightforward as Love on any other Lamar records but at the same time, there are moment like the final minute of DNA where he’s never sounded so fierce. Good Kid M.A.A.D. City gave us Lamar’s autobiography, Butterfly delivered his thoughts on what surrounds him while DAMN. asks internal questions of why. And maybe that’s what we should all be doing to make sense of what’s going on in this world right now.
Sure, we can say Melodrama is a record of teenage emotion but that would be underselling it. There’s something everyone can take from Melodrama. Embrace every emotion, chase the high but accept the low and know that your search for perfect places is fun but endless. This record is a masterpiece. It takes in every detail (the weather, the setting, the feeling) and translate it with unfiltered emotional honesty. It has an intimacy that puts you close to the author but a perspective that makes wider realisations about being a young woman, and a human being. Bowie was right. Lorde is the future of music. Read the full review here.
2017 brought with it plenty of great R&B but nothing resonated as strongly as SZA’s debut album CTRL. Her previous work established her as somewhat of a cult figure but the aesthetic outweighed her personality, voice and lyrics, something she fixed with CTRL. This is SZA realising her potential and opening up, both lyrically and vocally. From the raw production to the absence of an obvious radio hit, it’s a flawed record but that’s what makes CTRL so human. Where R&B’s giants like The Weeknd and Khalid are delivering up records combed to perfection, SZA gave us a work that felt as if it was spilt straight from her head into the mic. She faces her insecurities (Drew Barrymore), loves too hard (Supermodel) and attempts to figure out what your 20 somethings is all about (20 Somethings). Best of all she flips the script on infidelity, something that male rap stars have been gloating about unnoticed for decades while women are shamed for it. We’ve got to a point in music where we’re all just looking to cut the bullshit. Maybe it’s a reaction to years of carving out the perfect social media depiction. There are musicians still serving up that glossy euphoria but it’s barely believable. SZA doesn’t pretend to know where she’s going but her honest depiction of right now is so acute.
And here are the honourable mentions:
THE KITE STRING TANGLE - The Kite String Tangle
ALEX LAHEY - I Love You Like A Brother
BROCKHAMPTON - Saturation III
GOLDLINK - At What Cost
J HUS - Common Sense
TOVE LO - Blue Lips
JESSIE WARE - Glasshouse
CUB SPORT - Bats
JOEY BADA$$ - ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADASS
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