- Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
Rapsody’s sophomore album is a namesake of the North Carolina rapper’s late grandmother. “There was just a quote [from her] that I grew up on,” she told Billboard last September. “It was, ‘Give me my flowers while I’m here, while I can still smell them.’” Adhering to Laila’s wisdom, Rapsody has earned her flowers with this project. Laila’s Wisdom balances immense thematic scope with scalpel-sharp storytelling, given further layers by the soul-infused instrumentals (almost all of which were provided by 9th Wonder). Though it begs to for comparisons to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City—another breakout sophomore album with emphases on narrative—Laila’s Wisdom feels wholly original in that Rapsody herself is such a fresh presence in the genre. With Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody etched her name into the annals of hip-hop as one of the great female emcees and one of the best rappers of our time.
- The National – Sleep Well Beast
The National sometimes gets a bad reputation as being “sad white guy music,” and perhaps, as a sad white guy, I’m not the best spokesperson against that view. That characterization is true in a very literal sense, but it undervalues just how focused and personal frontman Matt Berninger’s songwriting is. The National’s seventh studio album is largely about the relationship struggles between Berninger and his wife Carin Besser (with whom he co-wrote the album), emphasizing the relationship over the struggles. This is to say that Sleep Well Beast successfully fleshes out its central relationship; for every somber track like “Nobody Else Will Be There,” there’s one of warm affection like “Born to Beg.” Though its tracklist doesn’t adhere to any narrative structure, it delivers scattered fragments of plot. Piecing together those fragments gives us a fuller understanding of Berninger and Besser’s relationship, and the result is a story of great beauty and poignance.
- Alvvays – Antisocialites
Antisocialites is, to some degree, the antithesis of pop punk; instead, it’s something of a “punk pop” record, one with roots in dream pop but the internal furnace of a punk rocker. It fuses a twee pop youthfulness with the shimmer of dream pop, and laces the resulting musical fabric with stitches of sharp rock guitars. A track like “Dreams Tonite” is glossy and emotionally punchy in equal parts; following it, “Plimsoll Punks” picks up speed and energy, finding its edge without ever losing a sheen. As someone who finds little to enjoy in the traditional pop punk genre, Antisocialites is the kind of album that I want people to picture when thinking of the term “pop punk.” It’s a total reversal of the proportions of traditional pop punk—not so much a punk album with softened edges, but a lush piece of dream pop imbued with punk’s fiery spirit.
- Sampha – Process
If Sampha’s singing voice occasionally veers too close to a James Blake falsetto at various points over the course of the album, the mammoth chorus on lead single “Blood on Me” dispels any and all concerns that Sampha is an imitator. In ten tracks, the British R&B/electronic musician bares his soul across tender ballads (“(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”), synthetic ambience (“What Shouldn’t I Be?”) and energetic pop infused with the West African kora (“Kora Sings”). It’s a tremendously ambitious debut, and if Sampha’s scope of vision remains as wide as it is on Process, he’s got a successful career ahead of him.
- Algiers – The Underside of Power
Every aspect of The Underside of Power—vocalist Franklin James Fisher’s post-punk gospel howls, the Southern Gothic atmosphere and the emphasis on atonality—eschews convention in some form or another. These unusual elements collectively create a cold, dystopian soundscape atop which Fisher comments on the similarly dystopic elements of American culture. “The hand that brings the gavel down / Is the hand that ties the noose,” he belts on “Cleveland,” a direct indictment of the pattern of Black bodies at the feet of police officers. The Underside of Power is a protest album through and through, a call for revolution in a bleak Orwellian world. No album in 2017 had quite the fire, the ambition, or the adventurousness of The Underside of Power. A triumphant improvement over the band’s already stellar self-titled debut, The Underside of Power sets the bar high for Algiers, and I truly believe the band is more than up to that challenge.