music / Columns

The Best Albums Of 2017 (So Far): January

June 28, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter

My apologies, we made such a good start, firing out new reviews each and every weekday, but then my family’s troubles became terminal and the reviews abruptly halted. So now, to make up for their absence, it’s time for our annual mid year check in.

The core question remains the same: what have been the best records of the first six months of 2017? But, seeing as we’ve been review light lately, we also be asking: what did 411 make of some of biggest name release that we didn’t get time to review?

Let’s not waste time! We have a hell of a lot of catching up to do and, naturally, we start with January: a month notorious in the music industry as a time when artists rub their eyes, stretch and yawn as they awaken from the Christmas hibernation when Greatest Hits and holiday novelty songs rule the roust.

Not every important artist waited out the winter, some brave souls popped their head above the parapet, risking weaker sales and audience indifference, to deliver their art – and it’s those records we celebrate now.

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.

January

Run The Jewels – RTJ3

The 411: 2017 already feels like a victory lap for RTJ with Killer Mike and EL-P fresh from rocking a monstrous crowd at Glastonbury festival, which saw the rappers introduced by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition in the UK and current hero (however improbably) of the nation’s youth. Still, if they’re currently revelling in pageantry under the summer sun, back in January in they were in the studio stacking brutal bars atop one another. “My job is to fight for survival, that’s why all lives matter”, Killer Mike screams setting the tone for a fiercely political horror rap onslaught that brutalises the devil with “a bad toupee and a spray tan”, without abandoning either humor or optimism. EL-P’s production remains thrilling distinct: a nightmarish batasdardization of funk from an insular and distinctly white headspace that’s perfect for the duo’s pass the mic interplay. Despite the rise of Trump, RTJ3 is not a firebrand rebuttal; in truth it’s more of a party piece that revels in Mike’s technical prowess, EL-P’s laptop wizardry and the duo’s near symbiotic chemistry – or, as Killer Mike puts it, RTY say; “hello from The Little Shop Of Horrors”. [8.0] 

The xx – I See You

The 411: From the outside looking in, it must be stultifying for Jamie xx to retreat from his sun soaked, world hopping, electronic solo sound to the airlessly intimate spaces that his bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim occupy. However, much has changed in the half decade since Coexist’s release: the aforementioned Romy and Oliver might keep it coy, but with every passing year the duo have blossomed into strident frontmen. The sensuality that was hinted at, but repressed, on their debut has flourished with age as the trio stretch outwards without losing the insular synchronicity that made their music so unashamedly romantic in the first place. Jamie xx is free to fill space with shimmering amorphous sound that (yes) still echoes with cavernous aplomb, but is now imbued with warmth and delicate complexity. This embrace of the technicolored shades of dancefloor should not be seen as a rejection of the past, The xx remain frightening unguarded as they dwell on personal bereavement and substance dependency respectively. [8.5]

Migos – Culture

The 411: The Quavo flow has official taken over. In 2013 Migos appeared the epitome of a fleeting fad as the incendiary Versace was followed by the gimmicky cocaine banger “Hannah Montana”. The early hits carried such an air of shallowness and surface, that few noticed the wonderfully slurred rhymes that weaved and stuttered across the trio’s underappreciated early mixtapes. By the time their debut album, Yung Rich Nation, dropped Migos had become more consistent than ebullient. Culture is the long awaited merger of the extremes of the Migos sound: idiosyncratic chart friendly insanity and satisfying flows designed to keep heads bobbing as the syllables stack. The allstar selection of producers ensure that C U L T U R E is not only best and most incendiary sounding release in Migos catalogue, but one that serves a crystallised snapshot of post-trap rap in the 2010s. Like Justin Timberlake’s Future Sex/Love Songs, this album could sound strangely unanchored when our collective infatuation with alien trap subsidise, but it may also function as a immaculate time capsule that may make little or no sense to listeners a decade down the line. [7.5] 

AFI – AFI (The Blood Album)

The 411: The level of prognostication surrounding AFI is, frankly, farcical. Critics and fans spend so much time second guessing guitarist/songwriter Joe Puget and irrepressible frontman Davey Havok that it, at times, feels like the veteran band must be in the midst of a midlife crisis. This couldn’t be further from the truth and The Blood Album proves it: Havok and Puget are blithely getting on with the job at hand. The result is a slick and streamlined onslaught of hook driven rock that embraces smooth atmospherics (“Above The Bridge”), synth driven indie ennui (“Aurelia”) and frayed, groove given bombast (“White Offerings”). If there’s a criticism to be made of this pugnacious collection, it’s that AFI are perhaps moving too fast for their own good. Puget might not need to engage in tedious naval gazing about the band’s past, but he could spend a little time adding some flesh to The Blood Album’s very visible bones. There are simply too many tracks here that feel tossed off and underdeveloped despite their inherently catchy nature. [7.0]

Wiley – The Godfather

The 411: Wiley may have missed his moment: with Grime riding high and his protégé Skepta reaping the globe straddling rewards, the rapper, who is genre’s Godfather and ultimately outsider simultaneously, had his album release abruptly cancelled by his label. The move no doubt cost Wiley a bucket load of cash, but The Godfather is no less potent a year down the line. The Eski-boy might be shouting out BBK these days, but he has no interest in chasing trends: he embraces modernity while using slang that would make teenagers cringe. Wiley follows the 6 In The Bloodclot Morning template by firing hard, but buoyant bars before dipping into his A-list rolodex to the let great and good of the grime world come and pay homage. Were Wiley showing signs of decline, The Godfather could have become an abhorrent industry circle jerk, but more often than not, he shows up his comparatively one dimensional peers. [7.5] 

Code Orange – Forever

The 411: The primal pounding percussion that introduces Forever to the world soon gives way to a gloriously down-tuned assault of neck snapping guitar work. It’s not big and it’s not clever, but it is ungodly satisfying, it is also the calm before the storm as Code Orange’s hardcore roots suddenly seethe to the surface for some rhythmic blood lust and letting respectively. What makes Forever and Code Orange stand out from a densely back crowd is the slamming richness of the grooves and the way they unexpectedly bolster the feral frenzied screams and brutal bluster of Forever at full speed. Simply put, Code Orange – though they are unlikely to admit it – are a hardcore/metalcore band with some serious dance instincts. In recent years, the mere mention of dance has almost certainly referred to some ungodly tedious and forced EDM crossover – fear not, Forever is a straight rock record, but one that’ll have you itching to move, just don’t be surprised if you find your self grooving like a marionette in the Pittsburgh band’s sway rather than careening into the nearest warm body (or, failing that, brick wall). [8.5] 

Austra – Future Politics

The 411: Austra PR team must be having fits, the Canadian fourpiece have become more insular lyrically, more eccentric vocally (replacing the bombast of old with a more anonymous smoothness) and discarding their pop chops in favor of more thoughtful explorations of rhythm and tone. The results are not bad in any way, shape or form, but they are oddly hard to sell. “Where’s the edge?” I hear the hipsters cry, while the club crowd wonder: “what happened to the rib cage rattling synths?” The answer is simple: Austra are making alienated music for our rudderless times. The beauty is readily apparently, Katie Stelmanis vocal is truly captivating, but direction and thrust is absent. Living in cities “full of people [we] don’t know” where the lurking spectre of debt can rip away our certainty, perhaps this is the hollow drifting sound of our tentative times. [7.5]

You Me At Six – Night People

The 411: Big, stonking, ballsy rock music, that’s what You Me At Six hope to deliver as they confidently evolve from spritely pop-punk rabble-rousers to the kind of act that can hold sold out arenas in the palm of their hands. They certainly have the sonics down. The guitars might be colorless, but they fill the void with the bigness and sheer depth of their bombast. Equally, Josh Franceschi has managed to find some grit as he embodies a range of classic influences that stretch from Tom Petty to INXS. The trouble is that the resulting music is so disappointingly vacant. YMAS strike the right poses and hold all the essential notes – they clearly understand the gestures that U2 and Springsteen struck before them – but they can’t conjure either lyrics that resonate or a vocal performance capable of ripping anyone asunder. They do manage some homely understatement, but “Take On The World” feels hopeless outmatched in world ruled by Ed Sheeran’s one man charm offensive. [5.5]

Julie Bryne – Not Even Happiness

The 411: It hardly feels fair to describe Not Even Happiness as an album, that’s far too contrived. No, this collection of softly structured skeletal folk songs feels entirely organic, more like an earthly entity than product. There’s plenty of scope to be found on this record, but the abiding image is that of Julie Bryne gently rocking in whicker chair or slowly traversing an endless American expanse by starlight, whispering these ditties with a quiet spontaneity. “Sleepwalker” captures the themes perfectly; this is a warm album swept along by currents rather than organised by impetuous impulses, but for all its ease there’s a nagging loneliness at its core. Bryne sighs and mutters lyrics with a breathy potency as the visceral feel of natural world tries to pull the singer out of her self-imposed seclusion. Walking, wandering, lost in herself, Julie Bryne escapes the intensity of the digital age by finding assurance in something more permanent and far more beautiful – so just lie back, let go and listen to those waves. [9.0]


Further Listening from January:

Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone (Rap), Micheal Chapman – 50 (Folk), Priests – Nothing Feels Natural (Rock), Dropkick Murphys – 11 Short Stories Of Pain And Glory (Punk)

article topics :

Migos, Run the Jewels, David Hayter