by: Michael Shields and Chris Thompson
Across the Margin takes stock of the status of music in 2017, stopping at the midway point to offer its picks for the best songs of the year (so far)…
Joey Bada$$ – “Rockabye Baby” featuring ScHoolboy Q
It was with eager anticipation that we awaited the follow up to Joey Bada$$’s excellent first studio album B4.DA.$$, and we are pleased to report that in our estimation, it was well worth the wait. While All-Amerikkkan Badass is thorough front to back, it was the thumping “Rockabye Baby” where our jaws dropped the lowest. Set upon a bass-heavy, gaping beat, “Rockabye Baby” features politically-enraged lyrics from Joey (“Time is running up / felt the burn in my gut / And if you got the guts, scream “Fuck Donald Trump” / We don’t give a fuck, never had one to give / never will forget, probably never will forgive / Uh, I guess that’s just how it is / And they still won’t let the Black man live”) and one of the best verses we have ever heard from ScHoolboy Q (since “Collard Greens”?). We can’t stop rocking this banger from one of the most talented rappers doing it today.
Listen to “Rockabye Baby”
The xx – “Say Something Loving”
It’s truly incredible, and satisfying, how perfectly the simplicity of The xx’s music captures your attention. “Say Something Loving,” one of a series of singles off their January 2017 album, I See You, functions as a welcome contrast to the downbeat instrumentation, sparse guitar, and softly sung lyrics of their previously acclaimed releases. There’s an inviting draw and power to the song’s chorus of “Say something loving,” especially when paired with the perfectly placed bangs and snaps of the electronic soundscape made up of drums and synths. The xx’s trademark back and forth between singers Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft is still present on “Say Something Loving,” but there’s a celebratory feel to the music that has felt absent in previous LP’s. It’s as if The xx have emerged from a years long submersion in the icy waters of their insecurities, and they are now ready to celebrate with us the new shimmering to their hearts.
Listen to “Say Something Loving”
LCD Soundsystem – “Call The Police”
The house band (essentially!) for Brooklyn’s latest “it” venue, Brooklyn Steel, LCD Soundsystem has been all the buzz as of late. Besides the five and seven night stands (and now ten more have been announced for December!) at the aforementioned Bowery Presents venue over the last few months, shows that sold out instantly, LCD Soundsystem played two new songs on Saturday Night Live back in May, “American Dreams” and “Call the Police,” songs from their upcoming album, American Dreams (September 1st). Of those two songs, “Call the Police” immediately stood out as a song that fits in aptly with LCD’s most danceable and pulse-pounding of hits, and that song is surely to become a mainstay in their robust live performances as the band hits the road this summer and fall in support of their new album.
Listen to “Call The Police”
Sylvan Esso – “Radio”
Sylvan Esso’s pulsating new album, What Now, is as beautiful as it is mesmeric, and undoubtedly impels one to shake their ass. Essentially a middle finger to pop music and radio in general, the immediately-captivating “Radio” describes the pressure Sylvan Esso’s lead singer and lyricist Amelia Meath faced while working on the album. “Most of the song is spent accusing myself of trying to become a successful musician when there are so many other important things to be doing other than sucking up to the man, trying to get America to think you are cool,” Meath explains in an interview with NPR. “Also — getting on mainstream radio is like trying to join a secret society, particularly if you are female. Stations have literally come back to us saying that they already have ‘a female vocal’ in their playlist.” Fortunately, Meath’s songwriting pains and conflicts with the music establishment manifested in one of the most spirited songs to be released this year.
Listen to “Radio”
Kevin Morby – “City Music”
It wasn’t long ago that the general sentiment was that prolific songwriter Conor Oberst was the heir-apparent to Bob Dylan, and with Oberst’s extensive catalogue of introspective albums, that still may be the case. But Kevin Morby (Woods, Babies) made us here at Across the Margin wonder with last year’s stunning album, Singing Saw, if that baton wasn’t metaphorically handed off too soon. Invoking singer/songwriters of the 60s such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Morby’s understated yet impactful approach to songwriting is as captivating as it is heartfelt, and on his just-released fourth album, City Music, he has infused a measure of urgency and energy into his craft. On the expansive title track, “City Music,” Morby takes the listener on a journey, and with a foundation of absolutely fluidic guitar and bass riffs, the song allows the listener an opportunity to get wholly lost in “Oh! That City Music!”
Listen to “City Music”
Raekwon – “Marvin” featuring Cee-Lo Green
Like his go-to Wu-counterpart, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon the Chef is tireless in his output. It is remarkable to think that two decades after the release of Wu-Tang Forever the Clan is still very much in the game, especially Raekwon whose efforts to infuse his boom-bap lyricism with new school beats and sentimentalities have paid off in spades with his latest release, The Wild. While there are many noteworthy tracks on Rae’s eighth studio album, the Chef’s ode to Marvin Gaye appropriately entitled “Marvin,” is entirely unforgettable. In the four minute tribute produced by Frank G., Raekwon shrewdly, and impactfully, expounds upon the soul-singer’s anguished life, and in doing so, displays the lyrical ability and hard-hitting delivery that has made the rapper one of hip-hop’s greatest all time emcees.
Listen to “Marvin”
Jason Isbell & the 400 – “Hope the High Road”
Let’s just get this out there in the open right off the bat: Jason Isbell is one of the best songwriters for our current times. His latest album, The Nashville Sound, a follow up to 2015s critically acclaimed Something More Than Free, is a risky mix of the old and new for the Americana singer, but “Hope the High Road” is the album’s shining gem. A powerful ballad as much as it is an instruction for how to live a better life, “Hope the High Road” is a song that’s as heavy on morals as it is on great goddamn guitar riffs. The songs lyrics encourage additional listens as you aim to search out the meaning in its heartfelt words. Overall, “Hope the High Road” functions as an inspiring, and uplifting, response to the political and cultural dumpster fires that we are still trying as a nation to put out.
Listen to “Hope the High Road”
Father John Misty – “Ballad of A Dying Man”
It is no secret to those who spend any time within Across the Margin’s pages that we are acutely smitten with Father John Misty’s brand of meditative and waggish lyricism. And true to form, we found his latest release, Pure Comedy, to be rife with additional offerings of his trademark thoughtful, fascinating and altogether scathing commentary on today’s society. No single track on “Pure Comedy,” however, affected us in the way “Ballad of a Dying Man” did, as the balance the song strikes between analytical and heart wrenching is entirely delicate and astounding. In the song Father John croons, “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath / But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss / And it occurs to him a little late in the game / We leave as clueless as we came,” cheekily reminding us that we are both a hopeless and chaotic species, all bound together in a fruitless search for meaning, while awaiting a similar, ultimate fate.
Listen to “Ballad of a Dying Man”
Kendrick Lamar – “Humble”
While it was “The Heart Part 4” that served as the official announcement to the release of Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album Damn (Kendrick Lamar finishes the song with the line, “Y’all got til April the 7th to get y’all shit together), it was the old school banger “Humble” that made clear that Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant new album had formally arrived. What would soon become Lamar’s highest-charting single as a lead artist, topping the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, the Mike Will Made It-produced “Humble” is a showcase for Kendrick Lamar’s shrewd lyricism and an overt reminder to his fellow emcee’s who exactly is currently holding the crown, and the level of mastery it will take to come at the king.
Listen to “Humble”
Spoon – “Pink Up”
Spoon’s consistency in terms of excellency in album output is extraordinary, and their latest album Hot Thoughts is just more verification of Spoon’s inimitable steadiness. While a touch out of character for Spoon, “Pink Up” possesses a synthy pulse and a looping piano line that is intoxicating and all-encompassing and Britt Daniels resounding, subdued vocals and the start-stop structure of the track, always patiently building, represents one of Spoon’s most interesting outputs in their stunning nineteen year career.
Listen to “Pink Up”
Big Boi – “Kill Jill” featuring Killer Mike and Jeezy
Like the aforementioned Raekwon the Chef, we are stunned that we are still touting new releases by Big Boi. With his most recent drop, Boomiverse, Big Boi not only proves that his rapid-fire velvety flow is as sharp as ever, but also that he has so much more to offer. Employing the services of two of rap’s most prolific elder statesman, Killer Mike and Jeezy, Big Boi’s “Kill Jill” is viscous from top to bottom. The song finds Mike emphatically leading off, cracking jokes about his sexual conquests, Jeezy stepping in with terse verses “killing ‘em softly with [his] presence” and Big Boi closing the track down using it as an opportunity to announce his return as “The South got somethin’ to say.” “Kill Jill” is that aggressive head nodder of a song you need in your life.
Listen to “Kill Jill”
Mountain Goats – “Rains In Soho”
The album opener, “Rains In Soho,” on the Mountain Goats new album, Goths, is a triumphant, anthemic venture with as lush and full of a sound as we have heard from the John Darnielle fronted indie-folk group in many, many years. Imploring the help of members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus to lift the track to glorious heights, “Rains In Soho” depicts a London nightclub favored by goths in the 1980s, “A club where you’d like to go / You could meet someone who’s lost like you / Revel in the darkness like a pair of open graves / Fumble through the fog for a season or two.” While the song dwells in a dark and foreboding “batcave,” where you can easily lose track of time while “no one’s dancing,” “Rains In Soho” manifests itself as powerful and uplifting through Danielle’s piercing vocals and the verdant arrangement which propels the track.
Listen to “Rain in Soho”
Laura Marling – “Wild Fire”
If there is a more soothing and melodious track than Laura Marling’s “Wild Fire” released so far in 2017, we haven’t come upon it yet, and for now we doubt that one could exist. The English folk singer considers her new album, Semper Femina, “a kind of musical investigation into femininity” (The album title is sourced from the Virgil line “Varium et mutabile semper femina,” or “Woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.”). While soothing (interestingly enough the title of another standout track on the album!), “Wild Fire” hits hard with its introspective and relatable lyricism, with Marling wailing on the Blake Mills-produced track “Wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen / Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?” Although only twenty-seven, Marling has been a mainstay in the folk scene for over a decade, and with her lush voice sailing over seductive and shimmering arrangements on “Wild Fire,” she is poised to be one of folk’s shining stars for years to come.
Listen to “Wild Fire”
The War on Drugs – “Thinking of a Place”
There’s a sort of effortless and wonderous cool to the kind of music that The War on Drugs creates. Back in 2014, we gave The War On Drugs’ third studio album, Lost in the Dream, the highest of praise, gracing it with our Best Album of 2014 award. Now three years later, The War on Drugs are back with “Thinking of a Place,” a song that’s heavy on the reverb, warm with synths and slide guitars, and lush with singer Adam Granduciel’s calming vocals as he channels Bob Dylan in such a way that if you closed your eyes, you’d swear it was the Nobel Prize winner singing himself. “Thinking of a Place” is the kid of song one longs to unwind to after a hards days work, the hand of the one you love grasped warmly in your own, as you let your troubles float away on the undulating waves of a truly elementary jam.
Listen to “Thinking of a Place”
Vince Staples – “Big Fish”
Vince Staples “Big Fish” might come off as more of the same in terms of hip-hop braggadocio, with a hook that touts “I was up late night ballin’ / Countin’ up hundreds by the thousand,” but as with all things Staples, there is so much substance to the song once you start digging in. “Big Fish” isn’t so much a song boasting about Staple’s present day situation, but rather a waxing of nostalgic on all it took for him to get where he is, “swimming upstream” and taking the “smart route, never been marked out / Shoulda been dead broke, should been chalked out.” While Vince’s flow is as impressive as ever, it’s what he says on “Big Fish” and throughout his latest album, “Big Fish Theory,” that not only impresses us, but has us convinced that Staples is not only the truth now, but will most assuredly be one of the hip-hop’s most important voices for a long time to come.
Listen to “Big Fish”
Real Estate – “Darling”
If you are looking for the latest track that functions as a perfect distillation of the kind of music that Brooklyn-based Real Estate has been acclaimed for putting out, than “Darling,” off their newest album, In Mind, is it. There’s a guitar hook that can only be described as clear and refreshing, a bass line that vies for your attention, and a wall of superbly timed drumming and melodic keyboards that all come together to create a truly memorable indie rock track. Oh, and there’s a vocoder effect to lead singer Martin Courtney’s voice that fades in at times and is so subtle as to make you wonder if it’s really even there at all. “Darling” is more of the same tried-and-true Real Estate magic that made us fall in love with their soothing sound in the first place, and we are completely fine with that.
Listen to “Darling”
Slowdive – “Star Roving”
“Star Roving,” Slowdive’s first song released in twenty-two years (you read that right – twenty-two!!), most certainly harkens back to their earlier days when they were amongst the darlings of the shoegaze scene. But this is not to say that “Star Roving” doesn’t sound fresh and impassioned, as some of the ambience that consumed their prior releases has fizzled to a point where the tracks of their latest self-titled album pierce with a fresh intensity. True to form, Slowdive’s dreamlike spirit remains, and lead singer Rachel Goswell’s ethereal falsetto is as deeply affecting as ever. It’s remarkable to think that a band could return after over two decades and not need a moment to shake off any accumulated rust, but this is certainly the case with Slowdive’s Slowdive, and the track that we have on repeat over here, “Star Roving.”
Listen to “Star Roving”
Frank Ocean – “Chanel”
“Chanel” is the first solo track for Frank Ocean since the release of his 2016 studio album Blonde and his visual explorations on Endless. While its opening lyric “My guy pretty like a girl,” might be interpreted as a bold personal statement to some, how it unfolds within the scope of the song is anything but. There’s an enveloping contentment to the lyric, wrapped in the confines of “Chanel’s” soothing, piano-centered soundscapes that carry the song off into the heart of the truths that guide Frank Ocean’s ship. The song is rife with powerful presentations of Ocean’s self (“And I don’t like to fight ’til I’m fighting / Revenge in the air make my lungs sick”), evocatively sung Bridges (“It’s really you on my mind”), and an altogether dope, drum-filled Outro that unfolds in triplicate like nothing else we’ve heard so far in 2017 ( “I got new money / And it’s all cash / I got new bags / And they all collabs.”). Simply writing about “Chanel’s” enveloping three-and-a-half minutes doesn’t do the song justice, but take our word for it and give “Chanel” a listen, then come on over to the Ocean-side. We promise the water’s warm and inviting.
Listen to “Chanel”
alt-J – “3WW”
From their latest album Relaxer, alt-J brings us “3WW,” and a new, gentler direction to their characteristic sound. There’s a laid back relaxation to “3WW,” and the album’s name, Relaxer, is an apt moniker for the songs contained therein. “3WW” is as pleasantly surprising as waking up one day to find that your reality has exceeded your expectations, and that there’s a newfound lightness to your step. Drawing on the vocal prowess of Ellie Rowsell at times (of the band Wolf Alice), there’s a lyrical twisting and turning to the songs vocals, and an underlying symbiosis between the hollow, quasi-ambient percussion and softly unfurling piano. The alchemy that alt-J has forged on “3WW” functions as an intimate musical experience, as they have crafted a song that is as mysterious as it is inviting, and that pleasantly reminds us why we love alt-J so freaking much.
Listen to “3WW”
Mac DeMarco – “On the Level”
Mac DeMarco is somewhat of a goofball musician, but the synths on his latest track, “On the Level,” illustrate the kind of magic that can happen when the musician hangs up his guitars and surrenders to the electronic. The song unfolds so effortlessly that it practically becomes a part of you as you listen, merging with your oneness to soundtrack the daily routine and elevate the mundane to new heights. From Demarco’s new album, Old Dog, “On the Level” makes you want to move your shoulders left to right, wherever you are, and surrender to the groove and repetitious vibe, as the synths make smooth love to one another and go doodee-doodee-doodee, doodee-doodee-doodee...
Listen to “On the Level”