So far, 2017 has brought us three discs of classic-minded Bob Dylan and a ‘playlist’ of Drake at his most global; Kendrick Lamar going back to basics and Holy Holy shooting to the future; the assured debut of Harry Styles and the return of Roger Waters.
Kendrick Lamar, ‘Damn’
We Say: Seemingly exhausted with the burden of constantly pushing hip-hop forward into concept operas, electric Miles explosions and Flying Lotus electronic burbles, Damn. seemingly takes a classicist route to rap music. If To Pimp a Butterfly was the best rap album in 2015, Damn.is the platonic ideal of the best rap album of 1995, a dazzling display of showy rhyme skills, consciousness-raising political screeds, self-examination and bass-crazy-kicking. Kendrick has many talents – pop star, avant-garde poet, lyrical gymnast, storyteller. But here he explores what we traditionally know as a “rapper” more than on any of his albums to date. The rhymes on songs like “DNA,” “Element,” “Feel,” “Humble” and “XXX” come fast, furious and almost purist in nature. In an era where “bars” seems almost old-fashioned in the age of Drake’s polyglot tunesmithery, Young Thug’s Silly-Putty syllable stretching and Future’s expressionist robo-croak, Lamar builds a bridge to the past.
Drake, ‘More Life’
We Say: Drake calls his superb new More Life a “playlist,” not an album or even a mixtape, yet that might be why it sounds so expressive, so emotional, so quintessentially Drakean. When you get right down to it, Aubrey Graham is a playlist – a true pop visionary who’s always a fan at heart, an omnivore with a raging appetite for his next favorite sound. More Life is his finest longform collection in years, cheerfully indulgent at 22 tracks and 82 minutes, a masterful tour of all the grooves in his head, from U.K. grime (“No Long Talk”) to Caribbean dancehall (“Blem”) to South African house (“Get It Together”) to Earth, Wind & Fire (“Glow”).
We Say: Now 20, Lorde signals a new order straightaway, with lonely piano chords where Pure Heroine’s pure electronic palette was. They open the single “Green Light,” a barbed message to an ex who the singer can’t quite shake. The song grows into a stomping electro-acoustic thrill ride, its swarming, processed vocal chant “I want it!” recalling another precocious, hyperliterate, synth-loving auteur singer-songwriter – Kate Bush, who insisted “I want it all!” back in 1982 on “Suspended in Gaffa.” Give Lorde credit for wanting it all too – the massive vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade.
Harry Styles, ‘Harry Styles’
We Say: [O]n his superb solo debut, the One Direction heartthrob claims his turf as a true rock & roll prince, a sunshine superman, a cosmic dancer in touch with his introspective acoustic side as well as his glam flash. He avoids the celebrity-guest debutante ball he could have thrown himself – instead, he goes for a intimately emotional Seventies soft-rock vibe. No club-hopping or bottles popping – it’s the after-hours balladry of a 23-year-old star wondering why he spends so much time in lonely hotel rooms staring at his phone. Harry digs so deep into classic California mellow gold, you might suspect his enigmatic new tattoos that say “Jackson” and “Arlo” refer to Browne and Guthrie.
Bob Dylan, ‘Triplicate’
We Say: Bob Dylan’s third foray into songs previously recorded by Frank Sinatra isn’t only the largest set of new recordings he’s ever released (three CDs, 30 songs), it’s also majestic in its own right. Dylan moves through this area – the region of Sinatra, and also of standards songwriters like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein – as if it’s territory for him to chart and command.
Ed Sheeran: ‘÷’
We Say: On ÷, his first album since 2014’s X, Sheeran doubles down on the blend of hip-hop bravado and everyday-bloke songwriting that helped him break out at the turn of the decade.The first chart-topper from ÷, the feather-light “Shape of You,” might have hinted at a different direction; it’s a beat-heavy, body-focused track that Sheeran used as a Grammy showcase for his impressive collection of loop pedals. But for the most part, ÷ puts Sheeran and his guitar centre stage.
Halsey, ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’
We Say: Halsey shows off all her wild musical ambitions on Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, a bold second album that consolidates all the strengths of her 2015 debut Badlands. It’s her sprawling science-fiction breakup tale, indulging her taste for wide-screen melodrama – she begins the album by reciting the prologue from Romeo and Juliet, introducing a tale of star-crossed lovers trying to break free from the fatal loins of their families. (Halsey even has a line from Romeo and Juliet inked on her arm: “These violent delights have violent ends.”) But of course, in her hands, it turns into the story of a restless young pop star who jets around the world, leaving shattered hearts in her wake, yet still can’t find true love, admitting, “I have spent too many nights on dirty bathroom floors.”
Nadia Reid, ‘Preservation’
We Say: her second LP is a compelling statement of defiance and empowerment. The acoustic guitar and other folk elements of Listen To Formation have mostly been jettisoned in favour of thicker, more adventurous arrangements that reach a fabulous peak on “Richard”, with its droney electric guitar and effortlessly emotional vocals.
The Smith Street Band, ‘More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me’
We Say: Same again? So it would seem, as on album four the Smith Street Band rely on their usual staple of stage-ready, pub-punk chant-alongs and constant applications of contrast – seemingly unscheduled shifts between quiet, nostalgic reflection, snippets of self-deprecation and boisterous, beer-spilling, crowd-leading crescendos.
We Say: It’s folk, see – but it’s a long, long way from (trad.) As a joke that’s pretty clever, but it’s the emotional immediacy of the experiment, with its plaintive pump organ and cathedral-load of classical guitarists and ravishing swells of strings, that defines another victory for this post-nu-everything trio from Leeds.
Run the Jewels, ‘Run the Jewels 3’
We Say: Run the Jewels 2 was the rare sequel that topped the original, as the skull-busting tag team of Atlanta street intellectual Killer Mike and Brooklyn indie-rap veteran El-P synchronized their punches with the aggro precision of a brilliantly choreographed superhero fight sequence. The third installment, which dropped digitally weeks ahead of schedule on Christmas Eve, thrums with similar urgency, but a lot’s changed since 2014. Mike spent the summer bro’ing down with Bernie Sanders, moonlighting as a CNN talking head, and his no-nonsense anti-racism is increasingly the language of black activism. Meanwhile, El-P’s cyberpunk-tinged premonitions of dystopia sound more like straight-up journalism every day.
Richard Dawson, ‘Peasant’
We Say: Peasant is a coruscating, occasionally unhinged masterpiece using a lyrical framework based on the Early Medieval kingdom of Bernicia.
Roger Waters, ‘Is This the Life We Really Want?’
We Say: “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains/Picture a leader with no fucking brains,” snarls Roger Waters near the start of his first proper rock LP in nearly 25 years, unsubtle as a hammer between the eyes. But the grim charm of this set, a 12-track dystopian concept LP that makes The Wall read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, is precisely his emeritus off-the-leash ranting, a fitting response to the stench and stupidity of our present moment.
Laura Marling, ‘Semper Femina’
We Say: Off-kilter deviations keep things interesting – the smoky, swaggering “Soothing” might be a Roisin Murphy offcut – and producer Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, Kid Rock and Lana Del Rey) provides an unobtrusive, swelling backdrop, from the sun-drenched strings of “The Valley” to the barely perceptible clip and plinking piano of “Next Time”.
Aldous Harding, ‘Party’
We Say: Party is a mesmerising follow-up to Harding’s 2014 debut. A less demonstrative heir to Kate Bush, Harding inhabits nine jaw-droppingly disparate vocal incarnations, delivering crystalline slivers of enigmatic, fragmentary poeticism amid delicate whorls of finger-picking and expressive piano.
Paramore, ‘After Laughter’
We Say: What “pop” can be in 2017 is open to question, and on After Laughter Paramore thankfully decides to junk large chunks of the concept as it’s currently practiced. (“I can’t imagine getting up there and playing a Max Martin song – at that point we might as well just stop,” guitarist Taylor York told The New York Times in April, shortly after the album was announced.) Instead, they embrace “pop” as a musical vibe, with a record that’s so sunshine-bright it gives off a glare at times, rooted in fleet basslines and beats made for open-road drives and solo bedroom dance parties. … But while the surfaces of After Laughter might glint, Hayley Williams’ lyrics evince a weariness that makes that brightness seem garishly empty.
Holy Holy, ‘Paint’
We Say: Paint sees the duo embellishing the at-times pastoral sonic landscape of their debut, incorporating vague R&B elements (“The Message”), strident pop-rock (the wonderfully catchy “Elevator” and “Amateurs”), progressive rock (“Send My Regards”) and pure Eighties soft-pop (“True Lovers”).
Holly Throsby, ‘After A Time’
We Say: The centrepiece is “What Do You Say?“, a day’s-end duet with Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) which draws the most contended sketch of domestic respect imaginable from words of few syllables, culminating in the repeated affirmation, “Yes. Yes.”
We Say: Pleasure, her first LP in six years, trades the sweater-wearing kitchen-jam vibe of her breakthrough The Reminder for a stark intimacy that can suggest Kate & Anna McGarrigle if they’d been big fans of the Young Marble Giants’ post-punk bedroom mumblings or PJ Harvey’s blues-wrath epistle To Bring You My Love. “It’s my pleasure and your pleasure,” Feist sings, her voice low, raw-nerved and right in your ear against dank, stressed-out guitar roil.
Father John Misty, ‘Pure Comedy’
We Say: As many of us navigate between headline-driven panic attacks and insomniac social-media tantrums, Pure Comedy distills terabytes-worth of doomsaying Facebook rants into a 75-minute comic-existential opus that functions like a despair inoculation. The humour is strictly gallows, even when it seems quipped. … What makes this more than glib is a golden-era songwriting craft evidently shaped by [Josh] Tillman’s tenure with Fleet Foxes, and his unsparing self-examination.
Fleet Foxes, ‘Crack-Up’
We Say: The folk-rock band’s long-awaited latest sort of feels like Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield collage-dream opus “Broken Arrow” if it lasted a whole album. Their sound is still rooted in the lush, beardly harmonies and sky-bound strumming that made their first two LPs coffee-shop staples. But they’ve upped their prog ambitions – tracks wash together, song titles abound with opaque punctuation, and the sweeping melodies often wander into moody places, away from the safety of the campfire.
Dirty Projectors, ‘Dirty Projectors’
We Say: The DPs’ self-titled seventh LP is filled with freaky cyber-crooning, outrageous beats, startling sample flips and tasty guitar heroics; think 808s & Heartbreak: The Next Generation. To be sure, it’s a breakup record – presumably involving [leader David] Longstreth’s relationship with ex-Projector Amber Coffman. The sense of separation is palpable. Once defined by talented female singers (Coffman foremost), the band is down to one lonely dude crooning into a digital hall of mirrors. “Now I’m listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway, riding fast,” Longstreth reflects on “Up in Hudson,” envisioning an ex “out in Echo Park blasting Tupac, drinkin’ a fifth for my ass.”
Mastodon, ‘Emperor of Sand’
We Say: [A] lofty concept piece about a man wandering a desert with a curse over his head set to swirling, frenetic guitars and gut-rumbling drums. The LP is their most ambitious outing since 2009’s proggy Crack the Skye – following two relatively pared-down LPs – and at its best (the radio-ready pop-rocker “Show Yourself,” the triumphal outro of “Ancient Kingdom,” the Zappa-inspired synthesiser-and-bells duet midway through “Clandestiny”) it’s a glorious metal miasma.
Polish Club, ‘Alright Already’
We Say: It actually takes a great deal of sonic know-how, songwriting nous and unwavering confidence to make the two-piece garage-rock thing work – and Polish Club have it all. Compelling chord changes elevate these short, punchy songs above mere racket, while a certain vulnerability in their articulate lyrics adds another layer of intrigue.
Kasey Chambers, ‘Dragonfly’
We Say: A towering songbook, wordy and resigned, Dragonfly is the opus of Australia’s foremost progenitor of, and innovator in, the country-roots fold. It’s the masterwork of a heart laid bare in song.
Japandroids, ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’
We Say: Even when they were screaming Vancouver scrappers recording songs like “Darkness at the Edge of Gastown,” you knew there was a classic rock act at the punk heart of Japandroids. On their third LP, that band is out of the closet. “It got me all fired up, to go far away/And make some ears ring from the sound of my singing, baby!” hollers Brian King on the title track. The song’s about a kid leaving behind his small-ass town for big-ass dreams, and when the voices harmonise on the “whoa-oh!”s, thick with top-shelf reverb, you hear every cheeseball Eighties pop-metal chorus chant in history distilled and vindicated. It’s awesome.
We Say: The breathy voice of London singer/songwriter Sampha Sisay, 27, is a remarkable instrument: indelibly evanescent, fragile yet powerful across his entire range. He’s hook man to pop’s most advanced megastars – see Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo,” Frank Ocean’s “Alabama,” Drake’s “Too Much” – but his debut LP proves him their peer.
We Say: Their songwriting – equal parts Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly and the Church mixed with a relatability that made Eddy Current Suppression Ring so vital – finds its range perfectly here, delivering an exasperated garage-punk wave as they name-check social ills like Donald Trump, racism, Australia Day, the credit crunch and coward punches.
Menzingers, ‘After the Party’
We Say: On their fifth album, Philadelphia punks the Menzingers are calling bullshit on society’s expectations of a traditional life path, pairing it with their boisterous brand of gritty, ballsy, blue-collar punk, which recalls everyone from Social Distortion to Polar Bear Club.
Toby Martin, ‘Songs from Northam Avenue’
We Say: [Martin’s] penchant for character studies and preternatural eye for detail make for nine entrancing, deeply evocative tales of suburbia and the singular lives that combine to shape it.
Spoon, ‘Hot Thoughts’
We Say: Nearly 25 years in, [Britt Daniel’s] group has made maybe their best record yet – a line that been repeated, accurately enough, with most every record they’ve made. With Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann on board, the set is as lushly trippy as it is rhythmically hyped, apropos a band named for a song by psychedelic Seventies beat scientists Can.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, ‘the Nashville Sound’
We Say: The Nashville Sound follows in the wake of Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough Southeastern and its 2015 follow-up Something More Than Free, albums that introduced the former Drive-By Truckers third-man to a larger audience with their tales of drunken demons and fresh beginnings. But after spending the last five years reckoning with past darkness, Isbell, 38, shifts his gaze outward. He pledges everlasting faith to his wife on the tearjerker “If We Were Vampires,” offers parental advice on the backyard bluegrass of “Something to Love,” and delivers an urgent warning to the white male demographic, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump, on “White Man’s World.”
New Pornographers, ‘Whiteout Conditions’
We Say: New Pornographers leader Carl Newman has described their latest LP as “bubblegum Krautrock.” Indeed, the stacked melodies and swirly keyboards of the title track and “This Is the World of the Theater” can suggest ELO if they’d recorded an album under the influence of Neu! Or Can. Listen deep and you’ll realise you’re blissing out to songs about anxiety and Trump depression. But the power-pop grandeur they make in the face of darkness makes this not just a fun time, but an inspiring one too.
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, ‘Neuk White Dehli All-Stars’
We Say: Suhail Yusuf Khan’s sarangi enriches the Celtic-tinged songs sung by James Yorkston (“Recruited Collier”), while Khan’s own singing is of dazzling timbre. Jon Thorne’s double bass lays sonorous foundations on a brave LP that is drenched in the soft spirit of friendship and playfulness.
We Say: On Mesmer Northlane offer a graphic meta-personal narrative couched in relentless machine-precise heaviness. Their full range is on display: dark electronic tinges offset sepulchral and soaring vocals and algorithmic riffage on “Savage”, the brazen thunder spiral of “Intuition” and the shimmeringly melodic “Fade” show impressive growth.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, ‘The Navigator’
We Say: “Now all the politicians/They just squawk their mouths/They say, ‘We’ll build a wall to keep them out” chants [Alynda] Segarra, a Bronx-bred Puerto Rican who doubles down on the ambition of her group’s debut and its feminist murder-ballad-answer-song “The Body Electric” with The Navigator – a coming-of-age concept LP about a young woman that suggests Patti Smith as a barrio poet. Its definition of folk tradition is broad. “Hungry Ghost” lays Jim Morrison love-as-funeral-pyre imagery against a bassline that might’ve wandered off the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds. “Rican Beach” recalls the cratedigger conga-funk of Seventies New York City legends the Ghetto Brothers. “Palante” invokes the rallying cry of the Young Lords – the Black Panthers’ Latinx analogues – in an anthem echoing the Band as much as the Fania All-Stars. This is proudly intersectional folk music.
All Our Exes Live in Texas, ‘When We Fall’
We Say: When We Fall is the vision of four singularly-accomplished singer-songwriters who, together, simply gel. Trading lead vocals, variously opening up and teasing out their honeyed four-part harmonies before weaving them into a silken, gauzy web once again, AOELIT eschew Carter Family country crackle and the rough-hewn folk shades of the McGarrigle Sisters in favour of more polished tones.
sleepmakeswaves, ‘Made of Breath Only’
We Say: Inspired by the beautiful but harsh landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctica – a metaphor of sorts for the personal turmoil experienced by various members over the past few years – Made of Breath Only is expansive and dynamic, crashing guitars and propulsive rhythms butting up alongside piano and electronics to craft a sonic soundscape you can lose yourself in.
Clowns, ‘Lucid Again’
We Say: Clowns’ third LP is an intricate document of the shape punk finally came in. Gleefully brutal riffs sit side-by-side with melodicism, patience, countless filthy prog-punk moments and insouciant throat-shredding.
At the Drive In, ‘in • ter a • li • a’
We Say: They’re older, more mature, and the razor-edge tension and philosophical weight that fuelled their original fire has hardened, giving the piercing, kaleidoscopic Omar Rodriguez-López riffs and Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s barked pronouncements a darker, more impenetrable edge.
Body Count, ‘Bloodlust’
We Say: Lyrically, Ice-T traverses a mix of at-times laughable fiction (the home invasion horror of “The Ski Mask Way”) and insightful social commentary (“No Lives Matter”) with typical bravado, but it’s the full-blooded production courtesy of Will Putney and the bone-crunching grooves of songs such as “This Is Why We Ride” that makes this a must-hear for headbangers.