music / Columns

The Best Albums Of 2017 (So Far): March

July 5, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter

March saw the major labels start to make their mark with some the year’s most commercially successful releases to date, but could they live up to hype or were the Sheerans and Drakes of this world beginning to take their audience for granted?

Well there’s only one way to find out as 411 tackles the biggest as well as the best albums released in March, but before that there’s still time to get up to speed on what went down in January and February respectively.

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.

Ed Sheeran – ÷

Genre: Pop

The 411: Standing alone with just his guitar and a selection of repeater pedals Ed Sheeran conquered Glastonbury Festival. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, he is, by many measures, the world’s biggest male popstar and yet, for all his ubiquity, Sheeran is rarely the subject of much critical analysis. He is ignored, tolerated, sporadically praised and occasionally criticised, but rarely does he inspire the kind of invective normally due to any kind of unavoidable global phenomenon. Perhaps it’s because Ed Sheeran, the person, is imminently ignorable: a nice fellow with some inoffensive arena filling hits and a great smile. He might display a touch of Taylor Swiftian brutality – he’s clearly taking note of his enemies (The NME and his exes) behind that cheery exterior – but none of Swift’s spikiness emerges in his music. ÷ is relentlessly uplifting. Even when Ed questions the morality of the record industry or narrates his personal struggles in one of his distinctly dubious raps, there’s a veneer of safety that proves impossible to shake. This certainly makes for a mundane listen, but if he’s going to remain safely in the middle of the road, Ed at least remembered to pack an endless supply of craftily addictive melodies and sporadically stonking hooks. Almost every track on this record could be released as a single from the magnificent “Shape Of You” to the abysmal “Galway Girl”. His break up stories do spark a little interest, but Sheeran flitters between funny one-liners and grossly patronizing critiques in way that leads the good to counteract the bad (and vice versa). Rather appropriately, it’s a wash: a never-ending wedding disco with the weirdly universal warmth of a charity single. Make no mistake, ÷ is bulldozingly effective, it’s just not particularly exciting. [6.0]

Creeper – Eternity, In Your Arms

Genre: Rock

The 411: Creeper have kept the world waiting for their debut album for three long years and, what else can we say, all is forgiven. Eternity, In Your Arms is an absolute riot from start to finish. This is ambitious and joyously theatrical rock music that wails, thrashes and struts in a way that will satisfy in dingy sweatboxes and cavernous arenas alike. Creeper’s sounds might be standing on a foundation laid by Alkaline Trio, but it’s hard to call a band indebted when they are making music so rich in charisma and preposterous bigness. Eternity, In Your Arms plays like a comic book: real life episodes crystalized and made immortal in grotesquely exaggerated and heroic form. The music bristles and plunges giving Creeper the illusion of thundering anarchy even as they exude a sharp sense of pop control. Learning the lessons of My Chemical Romance and Panic At The Disco! the sextet know how to knowingly overwrite a one liner, dropping the instrumentation to ensure these ludicrously ornate lyrics gain iconic status. The trick has worked wonders for both The Horrors and White Lies in the indie context and they are just as effective when delivered atop arrangements more readily inspired by The Misfits, Meatloaf, Power-pop or AFI. Ultimately, Eternity, In Your Arms is an album that understands that great rock music requires dirt under its fingernails, but also a great big dollop of spectacle and pomposity. Creeper have their feet on the ground and their head in the storm clouds. [9.0]

Drake – More Life

Genre: Rap

The 411: Views left 411 asking what happened to Drake’s “energy” and More Life does little to answer that question. Instead, the “playlist” manages to reinforce what we already knew while doing little to answer the lingering questions that shroud Drake’s creative future. The firebrand who recorded If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and master of tossed of bombast who brazenly cried What A Time To Be Alive remains absent on a low key collection that, in a good light, seductively lurches and, when viewed less favorably, piteously dwells. Still, if the bristling and buoyant Drake is in hibernation, the impresario of dancefloor R&B vibes is alive and kicking. The tropical lilt he debuted on Views blossoms on More Life as the rapper embraces house beats and adopts a blissed out Balearic sensibility. “Passion Fruit” and “Get It Together” instantly rank among Drake’s finest creations and there are plenty of hidden gems to be uncovered on this lengthy collection. Troublingly, More Life is permeated by the eerie feeling that Drake’s all star collaborators are outshining Toronto’s favorite son as his po-faced solipsism continues to fall flat in Views’ wake. [7.0]

Depeche Mode – Spirit

Genre: Pop/Rock

The 411: “Come on people/You’re letting me down”, whether you’re rooting the revolution or not, chances are one of the many seismic votes in the last two years has left you feeling that way. In fact, the brilliance of Depeche Mode Spirit is that it manages to function as a brazenly political rejoinder from a veteran band that somehow works as a universal stadium sized statement. “You’ve been pissed on, for too long/you’re rights abused, you’re views refused” plays uniquely well to right or left, whether you’re fearing for your job in the rust-belt or recovering from Terrorist attacks in modern Manchester. The violent jolt of a band so famous for intimate exploration exploding into geo-politics is quite something to behold, but in many respects Spirit is a typical Depeche Mode (clumsily lyricism and all). The hooks are stadium sized and the post-industrial electro-pop atmospherics are familiar, but their well-rehearsed nature does little to blunt their impact (“Poison Heart” and “So Much Love”). The jolt of impetus provided by the band’s assault on trickle down economics, digital idiocy and angry electorates makes this Depeche Mode’s most essential and energized release in eons, but at its core Spirit reflects a band with an absolute mastery of their underlying aesthetic. [8.0]

Zara Larsson – So Good

Genre: Pop

The 411: When 411 named “Lush Life” one of its best tracks of 2015 we had absolutely no idea the song would become absolutely unavoidable just six months later. Little did we know the industry had Zara Larsson pegged as the next big thing and were preparing to strap the young Swede to rocket of unending PR. Still, being featured on all the right artist’s albums and getting heavy rotation on taste making stations can only achieve so much, So Good had to deliver on its own terms. From the outset the album manages to exceed expectations while clumsily stumble into every potential pratfall. This dichotomy is best exemplified by two mid album offerings: the dire simultaneous grope for 90s nostalgia, 21st Century electronic gimmickry and female Bieber status “I Would Like” and the delicate, sensuous romancing of “TG4M”. So Good is never quite as bad as the former or as good as the latter again, but the rough dividing lines have been drawn. Zara Larsson feels like a star, but one who has been focused grouped into a series of pre-approved sounds that already feel a touch dated. You’d hope a 19-year-old starlet would showcase more of Lorde’s brash defiance and less anonymous pliancy, but even in this neutered form Larsson’s debut manages to live up to the hype. [6.5] 

Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator

Genre: Singer-Songwriter

The 411: The Navigator is the work of a roving singer-songwriter who has lived a life that Bob Dylan or Stevie Wonder could only imagine. Alynda Segarra picked up a lot on her runaway travels, hopping freight trains across the USA without losing sight of her Puerto Rican roots (which powerfully remerge on the majestic “Pa’lante”). Fittingly, The Navigator embraces the drift, charting a course through a host of sounds with Segarra serving as our tour guide to the paradoxical experience of undergoing extreme emotional isolation even as you throw yourself upon the world. “I am a hungry ghost/as I travel coast to coast”. Despite the inherent danger and depravation, The Navigator is an incredibly warm record. The playing proves impossibly loose and unencumbered; proving a perfect accompaniment for Segarra’s dusty strolling vocal. Even when she gets “lonely way down at the bottom of a well” a distinct feeling of prideful recollection exudes: as if Segarra is telling these stories with, yes, a tear in her eye, but also a smile on her lips. The Navigator is a triumph, a reflection on the arduous journey that led the singer to forcefully discover and reclaim her ethnic identity while coming to master her psychological demons and bodily wants. [9.5]

Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Genre: Singer-Songwriter

The 411: Laura Marling has been so good for so long that it’s easy to take the Hampshire singer-songwriter for granted. She certainly hasn’t been standing still, Semper Femina sees Marling stretching her wings in several new directions (often in the space of a single track). Album opener “Soothing” has a loose jazz bassline that creeps with apathetic seductiveness, vocals which swirl and drift with a dreaminess not common in Marling’s work and a tentative blend of sounds that embrace the void – making the distance between notes staggeringly potent. This blend of sounds couldn’t be further removed from the closer, “Nothing, Not Nearly”; a swooning slice of rootsy rock balladry that plunges and tip toes as Marling revels in the fleeting nature of both agony and ecstasy. It often feels like an insult to say that an artist is displaying “grown up songwriting” – as if it were a byword for boring – but it truly is the best way to describe an singer who can seemingly blend any sound or tempo into her aesthetic and who has a truly adult understanding of emotion. Marling avoids the peaks and valleys of impulsive reaction, but rather than taking the edge off her music, by understanding and exploring the tension between these extremes, she is making profound music that reveals more than any amount of visceral bellyaching ever could hope to. [8.0] 

Jay Som – Everybody Works

Genre: Indie

The 411: Oakland’s own Melina Duterte (the mastermind and multi-instrumentalist behind Jay Som) makes wonderfully slight and effortlessly dreamy music. 2012’s underappreciated Turn Into taught us that much, what Everybody Works does, by way of comparison, is to expand and sharpen her sound in every conceivable way. Jay Som remains dreamy, but the highs are more ethereal, the lows more eerie, more alien, while the middle ground – well, it proves impossibly pillowy. This is illusive music that would be comforting were it not underwritten by hesitation and lingering emotional misgivings. Melina threatens to sigh her way into oblivion on the wonkily oppressive “(Bedhead)”, but it is to the artist’s credit that, unlike so many of her bedroom pop peers, she continues to ease her way towards enduring pop hooks and sharply intimate verses. No amount of reverb or understatement can obscure the addictive charm of an album that promises that we’ll “sink for sure”. [8.0]

Further Listening: Raekwon – The Wild, Jesus + Mary Chain – Damage and Joy, Rick Ross – Rather You Than Me, Kelly Lee Owens (eponymous), Planning For Burial – Below The House