10. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
I have a special connection with Vince Staples’ music because my partner lives in Long Beach. The first time my partner drove me around Long Beach, I saw the city through the lens of the rappers that call it home and speak about the city through their music — mostly Snoop Dogg and Vince Staples. My girlfriend would remark, “That’s the Roscoe’s Snoop eats at.” “Hmm, I wonder where Vince ‘Real Artesian’ Staples eats. Maybe that vegan Thai place I really like.” As I spent more and more time in Long Beach, I started to actively seek out Vince Staples. When I’m at The Pike I’m peeking; whenever I drive near Ramona Park, I’m scouting for him. It started to become absurd. I can recall a back to school event at Cal State University Long Beach that was actually quite popping, but definitely not somewhere Staples would be. “Maybe he’ll make an appearance. They managed to get Drake a couple years ago. Man, when I went to CSUN we had fucking LMFAO.” Long Beach is as eclectic and grimy as the music of Big Fish Theory. You can walk ten minutes in one direction and hit the ocean, or walk ten minutes in the opposite direction and stumble into a crack house, much like how he can start the record with a jovial track like “Big Fish” while minutes later dive headfirst into the warped hooks-and-liquid-bassline-fever-dream “Love Can Be”.
I can’t help but think of the club scene in downtown Long Beach when I listen to Big Fish Theory. The tribal rhythms of “Yeah Right” and the self-explanatory “Party People” remind me of the shuffling of high heels and Jordans down Pine and Broadway, champagne and 40s, high-class clubs and equally exclusive dumpster spots. There’s even a corner 7-11 in the heart of downtown that always has equal amounts of homeless people and cops hanging out front. “I wonder if Vince ever got that new Cactus Cooler Slurpee there. Man, that shit is gross.” Influenced by Detroit house and underground UK electronic music, Big Fish Theory could easily fit into a club’s music roster, although the straight-edge Vince Staples might not fit too well into the lifestyle. There are intriguing contradictions to be found within Long Beach and Vince Staples, most notably an almost gleeful nihilism. Just like Big Fish Theory, Long Beach is friendly and inviting, as scary and confrontational as it may sometimes seem.
The more time I spend in Long Beach, the more connected I feel to Vince Staples’ work. He and his city are intertwined: “Learned it from the Dogg I’m from Long Beach / That’s the city where the skinny carry strong heat.” Vince Staples, like the city of Long Beach, has an illusion attached: not exactly hard, although he was in a gang in his youth. Rather, he is more interested in doing things the way he wants to do them: Staples is an authentic artist from an authentic city. And what he’s done with Big Fish Theory is a shocking accomplishment, sneaking underground UK electronic music and Detroit techno influences into a mainstream hip-hop album, while simultaneously sticking to his roots — more so than his idol Snoop, whose style and sound fit more with the general Southern California aesthetic. Vince Staples perfectly encapsulates his town, warts and all, and Big Fish Theory as an extension is the best hip-hop record of 2017. –Robert Lowe
9. Pain of Salvation – In the Passing Light of Day
Hands down, my favorite song from Pain of Salvation’s immense comeback album is “Full Throttle Tribe”. Not only because it stands as first among equals with respect to the rest of the tracklist, but also because it is a codified chronicle of the ordeal – emotional and physical – Daniel Gildenlöw went through post-release of the Road Salt album series.
See, shortly after the release of Road Salt Two, Pain of Salvation embarked on a European tour, whose last stop was in Thessaloniki, Greece. The Swedes have a huge following in the land of Gods, with fans travelling from all over the land to check them out. Although the Road Salt albums touted the band’s (then) newly-introduced vintage heavy rock style, the sound was massive, borderline modern/nu metal, a combo that may have hinted towards the Pain of Salvation’s current style. The concert was a huge success, but it left a bittersweet aftertaste, as Gildenlöw announced that longtime co-runners Johan Hallgren (guitars), and Fredrik Hermansson (keyboards) would leave the band after this tour. Suddenly, I had this latent notion that it would take overly long before we would hear from the band again…
… later, Gildenlöw’s health predicament came to strengthen what was at first just a gut feeling, to the point where the band could even cease to exist. Fortunately for everyone, the band and its main man persevered, but whenever I listen to “Full Throttle Tribe” and read the lyrics while at it, I always go through the complete carousel of previously described feelings, seemingly epitomizing the band name itself. –Voivod
8. Gang of Youths – Go Farther in Lightness
Gang of Youths exploded onto our collective radar in 2017. The Australian rockers seemingly came out of nowhere, boasting a brand of alternative music that recalls both the bustling rock-n-roll of Springsteen’s mid-1970s as well as the contemporary influence of stalwarts such as The National. Although Go Farther In Lightness wears its influences on its sleeve to an extent, there’s very little about the album that feels borrowed. Symphonic strings lift up Dave Le’aupepe’s most enlightened moments of soul-searching while successfully balancing what should be an impossible blend of inspirational grandeur and stark vulnerability. At no time does the listener get a chance to exhale either, as even momentous sways from all-out rockers like “Atlas Drowned” to tender, piano-driven ballads such as “Keep Me In The Open” will render one in awe, with mouth agape while trying to find the words for what has just transpired. It’s that kind of record, and if you ask me, we’ve been long overdue for a true rock classic of this caliber.
While the music alone might have garnered Go Farther In Lightness a spot on this list, it’s the lyrics – and their overwhelming propensity for being related to – that elevate it to the top ten of the entire year. Le’aupepe is truly a magician here, welding together words in such a way that seems so fundamental and basic in premise that you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of them yourself. Perhaps it’s the conviction of the delivery when he belches out, “Now I’m terrified of loving ’cause I’m terrified of pain” that gives the words their extra weight – a virtue that isn’t lost even on the slower, more contemplative tracks such as “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane”, when we’re given introspection of a most devastating and illuminating kind: “All the things that I’ve run from / Are the things that completeness could come from.” Perhaps the most impressive moment of all comes on the closing track, when Le’aupepe spouts off, “Say yes to life!” in a frenzy of inspiration that is also a sure bet for goosebumps every damn time.
The question surrounding Go Farther In Lightness is less “Does it belong with the best albums of 2017?” and more “Is it the best album of 2017?” A case could easily be made for that latter proposition, as Gang of Youths deliver an emotionally gritty, sonically polished masterpiece. If it weren’t for some other stellar releases by artists with better name recognition, we might have been crowning this as our album of the year. Goddamn it… they-eeey deserve better than this. –Sowing
7. Lorde – Melodrama
“Every night, I live and die” begins the defiant yet defeated “Perfect Places”. It’s as good a place to crack open this album as any, despite being Melodrama‘s closing track; after all, this story plays out in endless cycles, where young attractive people go out at the same times to the same bars to make the same mistakes night after night. Nothing is really learned during Melodrama, which makes its repeated attempts at finding meaning even more heartbreaking. The search for self-worth outside of what you mean to other people, finding out who you are when you’re alone, which begins on “Sober” just to crash and burn with “Liability”. The suicidal ideation which briefly flickers across “Homemade Dynamite” like a casual idea, or the colouring in of a whole generation with broad, sardonic strokes on “Loveless”. Basically, this album allows little room for compromise, because it doesn’t need to – either you’re on board with Lorde’s breathless race to the next moment of feeling or your ticket gets revoked. That’s why this record ends with “Perfect Places”, which could just as easily have been the lead-off single: there’s no easy lesson to learn and no place to hide from ourselves, but we can sure as fuck make some noise before we leave the stage. –Rowan
6. Blood Cultures – Happy Birthday
It’s December 2017, and that means it’s the second year in which Album of the Year lists feature descriptors such as “fitting for our ______ times” or “the soundtrack to _____ year.” You can fill in the blank with any adjective you’d like — troubled, dark, or uncertain are especially popular.
One would be hard-pressed to phone in such a line for Blood Culture’s Happy Birthday. The secretive creator behind the album has crafted an album agnostic to any sort of “times”, existing as a pure collection of smooth and disarmingly joyous jams. “Moon”, for example, is sumptuous and delicate, while “Scenes from a Midnight Movie” feels tailor-made for a foggy late night drive. These songs are indifferent to good or bad times, analogous to nothing but an in-the-moment exuberance. –Eli K.
5. The Menzingers – After the Party
Before I get all pathetic and weep to you folks about how After the Party hits me hard, I should start out with a few thoughts about why this is such a great fucking record in the first place. We’re a decade or so in, and this band still manages to keep up their own, seemingly untouchable standard of melodic punk that is somehow both unassuming and anthemic. Outwardly, I really hate how much I personally identify with a record so profoundly focused on getting old — my reflex here being that I don’t set out to use punk as a means of processing my own anxiety (Bomb The Music Industry! in my 20s notwithstanding). Yet, in the wake of Rented World, here is a more nuanced, deliberate release that actually leaves me a warm, positive fuzziness when I listen to it… in large part because I, too, am trying to answer the question (you know exactly the fucking question by now).
After the Party‘s fun vein of shiny romantic pessimism works in the way that only a Menzingers album (or maybe an older Gaslight Anthem album) can. From the opening riff and first lyric of opener “Tellin’ Lies” (“Oh, yeah, oh yeah, everything is terrible!”) to the dreamy realization that concludes the album’s final track (“Only a fool would think living could be easy”), this album recounts a pensive thirty years — and the rumination required to discover that you just can’t distill that down to one feeling. The answer to the question is: nowhere. We’re going to still be here, wavering between angst and mania, because that is what we do — and that’s just fine tbh. –theacademy
4. Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile To The Surface
Manchester Orchestra’s A Black Mile to the Surface, the band’s fifth record, is… well, it’s a Manchester Orchestra album. That should clue you into a few things right off the bat: it’s going to be layered and it’s going to have some gloom. It’s going to have some gloom but it’ll be tempered by the promise of the light. Finding the light is going to require you to make some mistakes first, though. Crack a few eggs! The eggs are a metaphor (for like… mining gold and also family stuff… even their metaphors have layers!)
As we’ve come to expect from the band, A Black Mile to the Surface is extremely well-crafted. Say what you want about Cope (actually fucking fight me, Cope was good), but Manchester Orchestra have never put out an album that felt like they were phoning it in. This is a band that is always trying to say something, and frontman Andy Hull remains extremely well-spoken. Characterized by a rich, atmospheric production, the record mines the hollows of the human heart with a cinematic series of dynamic tracks (rising and falling as if plotted). “You believe him or you don’t,” the album concludes. I believe. –theacademy
3. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Were it up to me, DAMN. would be Album of the Year. To me, it is the Album of 2017. It is the moment that Kendrick Lamar became unburdened by experiments in soul, boom bap, and g-funk, and embraced his own character. His enemies became Geraldo Rivera, Big Sean, and Donald Trump. His music became jazzier, looser, harder, and more forceful than it had ever been. And for once, his flow showed no trace of influence, imitation, or reference, and could only be ascribed to his own name (a flow which coincidentally takes in about a dozen different cadences and rhyme schemes). By a considerable distance, DAMN. was Kendrick Lamar’s best album.
In claiming as much, I will likely annoy and perturb haters and fans alike. After all, Kendrick — and his devoted followers — inspire contrarianism so feverous you would think the hate to be ever so slightly hysterical or overemotional. But Lamar deserves every accolade, every award, and all of the good press that he has consistently received this year in praise of his efforts. Even if you ignore his features, which have blown up any number of fine songs to exceptional quality and status, his 2017 has essentially been our 2017. It’s only been with me for 8 months, but already, these songs feel ingrained in the cultural scenery. It’s all there; the way Kendrick carelessly mouths off about “not giving a fuck” on “Element”, or the hilariously flawed and infinitely quotable freestyle he delivers on “Humble”, or the schizophrenic marathon of unmatchable bars he belts through on the back half of “D.N.A.”. Though taste and preference are a consideration, there’s no denying that DAMN., moment for moment, might be the most culturally impactful and important album Kendrick has yet delivered.
And that’s not a footnote, or a sideline, or something that can just be said without being proven. “Alright” is still a powerful anthem for race politics: “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is still a calmer song than any for Kendrick to explain his mantra and attitudes. The albums those songs are taken from are however distinct in their tone, demeanour, and narrative; one about race, the other about Compton, both intrinsically linked though never meaningfully resolved. DAMN. resolves them and makes them Kendrick’s stories. DAMN. doesn’t sound like those albums, but it sounds exactly like those albums. This is his sound; the sound of Kendrick sizing up his rivals, and in between a myriad of flows, confidently assuring them that he does not give a fuck. –Arcade
2. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
The Assassination of Julius Caesar is an album everyone thought Ulver were capable of brilliantly pulling off for years now, but the band kept postponing it. They teased us multiple times the past couple decades, yet the pop sensibilities here are displayed in all their beauty. The ominous ’80s influences are the backbone of the LP; however, the layered sequencers are wrapped in Stian Westerus’ buzzing guitar solos, multiple soundscapes, and keyboard leads. Together, the instruments create a rich canvas for Kristoffer Rygg’s gorgeous voice to further embellish the music.
Rygg rarely pushed his vocal input to the forefront and I always thought it was a shame since the man has a lovely croon. I am glad he finally chose to truly take advantage of his strengths. Half of the record’s appeal comes from the vocal arrangements. The grooves are enhanced, especially on “Rolling Stone”, “Angelus Novus”, or “Transverberation”, and dozens of verses will remain stuck in your head for days. Meanwhile, the lyrics are intriguing to say the least, talking about many ancient events in Rome right beside contemporary ones (who thought we’d be hearing about Emperor Nero and Princess Diana in the same song?). This odd, yet interesting mix is weirdly characteristic of our society today, mirroring our morbid fascination with dark mystical events, serial killers, socialites, religious fanatics, and so on. The frontman’s observations seem abstract at first; still, they turn out to be true (“Tragedies repeat themselves in perfect circle”). This is a complex album masked by pop, and there was no other band more suitable than Ulver for all the correlations found here. There’s a lot to discover on what is arguably the Norwegian group’s most satisfying affair. –Raul Stanciu
1. The National – Sleep Well Beast
This is just kind of how it goes these days. No longer tethered to just the fervent outer circles of particular forums and their luxuriant, putrid stenches, we’ve lost the event albums: those galvanizing, unshakable shared masterpieces that we cling to for months and champion at year’s end. Not since 2010 when fucking The Tallest Man On Earth overtook some other album that was super popular that year have we really been, like, this is the shit. Now, we’ve got 50 shits. We’ve got them all, and I implore you to check out every album above this one to see just what really made us froth at the mouths and take charge to the comment sections and exalt with embarrassing abandon, this is why I love music.
Oh goodness, I don’t mean to insult The National. They’ve earned their spot fairly, and with Sleep Well Beast they’ve made the kind of late-career rock album that actually manages to retain the essence of their sound while pushing it into unfamiliar angles. Most of us like it, and for good reason. But we’ve come to a point where the top of the list is an interesting look into the drive-by overlaps, where the caravan pulls over and we take to the scenery and quickly, before darting back into our own roadster with our record collections, say, yes, this we can share.
Well, it doesn’t have to be more than that, does it? The way year end lists sometimes read like eulogies for ephemeral, Twitterable classics, cemented into discourse by sheer volume of exposition only to wither away in our digital libraries two weeks later, it’s almost a relief that a band like The National can still release quality music of this caliber some 15-plus years into their career. The pillars stand erect: Matt Berninger’s baritone on marriage, regret, alcohol; Bryan Devendorf’s expressive, invaluable drumming; the dark noir musical palette aided with intricate interplay between brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner and the other Devendorf (he’s Scott). It is all pulled off with a professionalism that belies, just as every album has since Boxer, the exaggerated frailty of its human core.
And yet, there’s something more here than was ever present before. The National have always been a band whose political underpinnings shade the themes that are otherwise obsessed with fragile masculinity and unbecoming desire, the way love is written about like a muscle that has to be exercised daily. A band that grew to prominence in Obama’s era must contend with, uh, this one, and there’s an embrace of the ballad that extends to Berninger’s plaintive expressions of marital semi-bliss, undercutting both the optimism and anthemic growth found on 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me. It is an album about going home and finding home is just as troubled as the street outside; respite becomes a challenge.
And what a beautiful challenge it is. A band that seemed to be edging dangerously close to self-parody introduces electronic elements and airier production in ways that confound the usual progression to their songs. These tricks turn Four Tet beats on opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” into the beautiful stunner of parading piano chords and layered vocals that give the album its thesis, a truncated little piece of abstract pleading that will mean different things to different people at different times in their lives: “Nobody else will be there.” It’s more than a little sad to say that The National are kind of like going home, but there’s comfort in the familiar, even as the familiar continues to grow right before our eyes. That’s just kind of how it goes these days. As we fall over ourselves to explicate the fresh, the truly tantalizing, here is a band that possesses the power to link a band of brothers who otherwise diverge in the woods. As the world implodes, as we find new voices to express our ideals, here is an album about just, like, figuring it out. Come home when you need to. We’ll be there. –plane
List of participating writers (alphabetical order): 204409, Arcade, Atari, AtomicWaste, Brostep, DaveyBoy, Gameofmetal, Greg., insomniac15, Jacquibim, JohnnyOnTheSpot, Jom, klap, macman76, manosg, plane, Rowan5215, SowingSeason, TalonsOfFire, theacademy, Trebor., Voivod, Willie, Xenophanes.