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The Best Albums Of 2017 (So Far): February

July 1, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter

411’s look at the best and biggest releases of 2017 continues with February: a month the industry’s heavy hitters tend to avoid (preferring to release in Summer or September), but that has often been afforded more avant-garde acts the chance to grab the headlines with some critically acclaimed LPs. Now, before you dive in, don’t forget to check out the January edition!

Disclaimer: I’m one man who has had a horrible year, I don’t hear every record, if your favourite isn’t present, I probably haven’t heard it – feel free to argue its corner below the line. 

Sampha – Process

The 411: It felt like this day would never come. Sampha was the angelic voice lingering in the background as London’s avant-garde scene flourished in dubstep’s wake, but for the longest time it appeared that his soulful croon would never see center stage. Then, after an impossibly long wait, “Blood On Me” arrived in 2016 and sucked the air out of the room. In the blink on an eye, Sampha had not only caught up with his prodigious peers (Jessie Ware, SBTRKT, James Blake), but threatened to eclipse them. No one doubted that Sampha’s debut would be haunting, but given his track record of guest spots few knew exactly how Process would sound. Would he embrace cutting edge electronics, would he be chopped and screwed for the dancefloor or would he follow Drake’s lead and chase stardom? The answer is a resounding none of the above. Sampha might drift atop a selection of beautifully shattered and artfully discordant arrangements, but, at its core, Process is a straight soul record. One man ruminating on grief and tentatively processing an array of personal ordeals: the alien electronic soundscapes – in this setting – only add to his dislocation rather than marking him out as an auteur of the in-crowd. [8.0] 

Ryan Adams – Prisoner

The 411: Ryan Adams flirts with disaster by deciding to tackle the most crippling personal pain (his divorce from Mandy Moore) while experimenting with the booming, gloss rock sounds of the 80s. Rather than resulting in a car crash of insincerity, Prisoner stands tall as a howling monument; a reminder of when manly low-slung rocker stars used to stand atop stadium stages and cry “do you still love me babe?” There’s something fantastic about being reintroduced to a rock star who isn’t afraid to be ridiculous, but who is not being ironically idiotic or knowing uncool (this is an important differentiation). Adams never sounds disingenuous, he might appear pompous, but that only helps his cause: even as we relate to singer on Prisoner, we get a glimpse of the characteristics that may have driven his love away. Adams is willingly stepping into Springsteen’s shadow with this release, but the sound and solemnity he has found is the product of his own hard work (see his 2014’s eponymous release and Jenny Lewis’ The Voyager). Prisoner is Adams’ water-into-wine party trick: introspective ache has birthed sweeping grandeur. [8.0] 

Future – Hndrxx

The 411: Atlanta icon Future is never going to convert all his critics, but he might yet confound his most ardent supporters. Those who praised Dirty Sprite 2 to kingdom come, worshipped Future’s immaculate pop chops and the rapper’s ability to produce futuristic trap music. Hndrxx flips this vision of Future on his head, this isn’t the king of the clubs vibing his way to the top of the charts, this is sound on artist who want explore his id. Future is opening up and letting the world see the withered wizard behind the curtain. His failed relationship with Ciara has clearly taken its toll and the rapper is apologetic, coming to realization that neither his ego nor any array of hedonistic thrills will keep him warm at night (let alone sooth his psyche). To make matter worse, on the murkily majestic “Damage”, Future makes it clear that seeing his ex-move on only serves to twist the knife, rather than bringing closure. It’s not all doom and gloom however; Hndrxx is full of warmth and buoyancy as the green shoots of recovery begin to emerge. Were it not so sprawling, Hndrxx might be Future’s work best yet. [7.5]

The Menzingers – After The Party

The 411: Quarter-life-crisis punk has become a surprisingly crowded field in recent years, but The Menzingers are by far and away the most direct proponents of post-party malaise: “Where are we gonna go now our 20s are over?” Now most thirty year olds might answer: to better bars, with better music and no annoying adolescent behaviour, but for punk stalwarts The Menzingers the question is existential, but also ironic. The band are as tired and dismissive of the question as they are terrified by it. The result is a rollicking LP full of beefy riffs, effervescent buoyancy, the odd hint of 90s moodiness and big dollops of 80s cinematic optimism. The Menzingers present themselves as the band on the run: punching the air and headbanging their problems away. Now, it might be worth pointing out that solemnly promising to be there for one another isn’t actually a solution to problems of aging, but it is certainly uplifting. In many ways After The Party recalls The Gaslight Anthem in their pomp; a winsome romanticism radiates as the band reflect on their once heart-breaking good looks and the wild Polish-Irish girls they used to know. It might be hard to sallow – these sepia tones are describing memories less than a decade old – but it’s hard to deny the warmth and cheerful radiance of this record. [7.5]

Stormzy – Gang Signs And Prayer

The 411: “Stormzy hasn’t transcended grime on his hotly anticipated debut, nor has he rested on his laurels. Leaving a legion of hits behind him, the South London MC has embarked on an artistic journey to balance the brutality of the streets with the vulnerability within. It’s hard to deny his syllable slicing brilliance when Stromzy rocks a dark and unrepentant grime rhythm, but the Gang Signs And Prayers proves daring and dynamic when the rapper focuses on his own psychological struggle. Depressions, self-doubt, a loathing for his father and a love for his mother, lover and brother define an album that subtly questions the brainless bravado of gangland culture.” [Read The Full Review] [7.5]

Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now

The 411: Following hot on the heels of her brilliant collaboration with Sam Beam (Love Letter To Fire) and fresh from signing with Sub Pop comes Memories Are Now: a wonderfully arcane slice of contemporary folk. It might be sacrilegious to say it, but Sam Beam may have been holding her back, because the Hoop that appears here is explosive and energetically eccentric. Pride, terror and self-confidence exude from an album that feels delightfully improvised – even if could only have been the product of studious thought. Hoop coos that she wants to “take back control” from the computers that say no and she beautifully expresses this organic agency by tumbling from one mood to the next with wild abandon. Hoop is imbued with a natural nonchalance that disguises the serious misgivings about the modern world underlying her songwriting: she might be a labelled a Luddite were she not having so much fun. Her tone can wither as her accent hops between rootsy warmth and witchy, woodland malevolence without an eyelid being batted. “I’m living the dream, in the dream I’m buried alive”; Hoop’s darkest moments spring forth out of the ether, just when you think she’s lighting a charming campfire, the camera pans out to reveal a wild eyed woman setting Silicon Valley ablaze. [8.5] 

Syd – Fin

The 411: Back in Odd Future’s heyday there were plenty of articles raving about the individual talents hidden within the collective, but when the world was checking Tyler’s French, few paid attention to Syd The Kyd. She was more often noted for her sexuality and her tacit tolerance of her bandmates, than for her own DJing skills. My how the tables have turned. If The Internet (Syd and Matt Martians project) suggested she had been slept on as a soulful and creative force, then her solo debut, Fin, is a forceful statement of her sheer virtuosity. Syd, like her fellow Odd Future outsider Frank Ocean, has come for the crown and there’s little Tyler, Earl or anyone else can do to stop her. Fin is a ferociously self assured record. Syd is silky as she muddies and mutilates traditional R&B beats and – in a genre where women often play the simpering sexpot – Syd stands as a ruthless authoritarian. Her R&B is sexy, yes, but because she remains resolutely in control. The arrangements supply plenty of softness and subtlety, allowing Syd to assume the role of the consummate lover-woman, running game and striding across these endlessly seductive soundscapes. Remarkably, the tender moments prove equally effective on an album so consummately produced its hard to imagine any record rivalling it for pure audio pleasure. [9.0] 

Power Trip – Nightmare Logic

The 411: Metal may have splintered into such a myriad of infinitesimally precise hybrid subgenres that it has become impossible to follow for the even most ardent Reddit deep diver – let alone a mainstream fan – but at it’s core, however alienating, if the guitar work is wild and relentlessly rhythmic, then even the most feral sounds will find their audience. Power Trip are the perfect example: if you liked any of Metallica’s first four records, even one of the romping 80s rock records (how about a little Judas Priest?) or rebellious seething and strutting of say, Machinehead or Pantera – then you are going to love Nightmare Logic (and seriously, what metal fan doesn’t fall into at least one of those categories?). Power Trip are supplying big, bruising and incredible addictive music; sure, it might be demonic and vicious in its extremes, but in an earlier era a thirty minute slice of joyous metal this good would have been shoved down the world’s throats. Today, unfortunately, Power Trip remain hidden in their niche. Don’t let the artwork scare you off, go out and listen to this 30-minute slice of bold, brutal and absolutely brilliant metal right now. [9.0]

Maggie Rogers – Now That The Light Is Fading

The 411: Maryland songwriter Maggie Rogers promises a lot: an eye for beautiful understatement and an ear for a crafty pop hook. “Alaska”, which remains magnificent even after endless listens, sets the impossible template. This is wilderness pop, playing with the conventions of the indie outsider and the mainstream insider simultaneously, to create a heart-breaking piece of music that is, however paradoxically, true to both impulses. Unfortunately, Now That The Light Is Fading can’t repeat the same trick with any consistency. The balancing act proves far too fine, but Rogers does prove that she can adeptly brood (“Better”) and pump her fist (“On and Off”) equally well in isolation. The five tracks offered here display considerable potential (Rogers sonic palette is charming, but never passé). The question for the young songwriter is whether she will seek pop stardom or more low key artistry – reconciling her two diverging extremes is possible (“Alaska” is proof of that), but hoping to repeat that trick with any regularity may be her undoing. [7.0]

Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway

The 411: “You can take my blood, but not my soul”. Rhiannon Giddens lays her cards on the table from the outset. Slavery, childhood rape and enduring resilience: they are all present on album opener “At The Purchaser’s Option”, a beautiful sung introduction to an album about the history of racism in America. Giddens is a folk revivalist with a wonderful control of tone and a flair for devastating understatement. Those seeking the sounds of the future will find little to excite them on Freedom Highway – this record is rooted firmly in the past, but anyone seeking to understand the existential ache that informs the experience of black Americans to this very day may want to listen up. Giddens oozes soul as she assumes the role of the wise woman (“come round by my side and I’ll sing you a song”) with a hypnotic tongue telling tales of cruelty and loss. What’s amazing about this collection is not its horror, but its humanity: Freedom Highway is a resplendent record that sounds genuinely inspiring (if not uplifting); it’s only when you zero in on the lyrics that the true agony is revealed. Historical cowardice and barbarism may be the backdrop, but unerring spirit stands front on center on this stunning collection. [8.5]

Further Listening: Thundercat, Vagabon – Infinite Worlds, All Them Witches – Sleeping Throuhg The War –  Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors

article topics :

Future, Ryan Adams, Stormzy, David Hayter