Across the Margin concludes its rollout of the Best Albums of 2017 with The Top 10 Albums of 2017…
10. Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
Putting aside frontman Josh Hommes’ recent unimpressive antics at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas show in Los Angeles, Queens of the Stone Age put out an absolute barnburner of an album this past August with Villains. A surprisingly danceable album from the Palm Desert rock outfit, Villains is as fun of an album that was released this year and that is exactly the way Josh Homme wanted it. For to Josh, QOTSA is about rocking the fuck out and escaping your troubles. As he told NME following the release of the album, “Queens has always been like an ice-cream parlour or a video arcade. It’s safe from the bullshit of the day. I’m not interested in being topical in that way, yet at the same time it’s completely about now.” The fact that Mark Ronson was set to produce Villains sent a shiver of fear down hardcore QOTSA fans, but the pulsating rockability of songs like “Domesticated Animals,” “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” and “The Way You Used to Do” prove that this pairing worked perfectly. Remarkably, every song on Villains hits extremely hard, forging Villains as not only the album that QOTSA enthusiasts hoped 2013’s …Like Clockwork would be, but the album they have been waiting for since 2005’s remarkable Lullabies to Paralyze.
9. Jay Z – 4:44
Jay Z’s 4:44 is his thirteenth studio album and the one fans have been waiting for since the release of the hallowed Black Album back in 1991. Not to say that Jay Z’s releases between these two classics were forgettable, it’s just that like The Black Album, 4:44 is an instant classic, one that will surely help define Jay Z’s legacy. 4:44 is a deeply personal album, which is refreshing as it would stand to reason that someone who lives his life beneath a microscope would remain guarded. But it’s wholly apparent Jay Z had a great deal on his mind and much to share as he stepped into the studio, and he let it all out on the album, specifically on the title track, “4.44” (Jay Z apparently woke up at exactly 4:44 one morning with the lyrics to the song all lined up in his head). Hearing a star of Jay Z’s magnitude appear vulnerable somehow makes him more relatable, which conveys a heightened attachment to his music. And this is the trick played with 4:44, as when Jay Z welcomes the listener into his inner circle, it becomes all consuming and breathtaking. 4:44 is an album from a mature Jay Z. The father Jay Z. The son Jay Z. The husband who doesn’t always get it right Jay Z. The struggle with your former co-worker / producer Jay Z. And this maturity extends outside of the personal and into the political, where Jay Z offers insight and commentary on the the struggles of the black community on “Moonlight” and “The Story of O.J.” 4:44 is an astounding album that is as weighty as it is fun, as along with the depth lies a few low key bangers in “Caught Their Eye” with Frank Ocean on the hook, the reggaeton inspired “Bam” with Damian Marley, and the retrospective “Marcy Me” that invites you to take a trip with Jay Z back to the Brooklyn of his youth. 4:44 is poised to stand the test of time, and is undoubtedly one of the best albums, genre independent, released this year.
8. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Back in 2014, The War on Drugs’ third album, Lost in the Dream, was in constant play over at our Brooklyn offices. So infatuated were we with that latest offering from the Philadelphia-based indie rockers that we hands down honored it with our Best Album of 2014 award. Now, three years later, and what feels like a lifetime in between, what with the political, societal and environmental upheaval that has transpired in such a short amount of time, The War on Drugs have given its fans a purely-elemental come-down album in A Deeper Understanding. One part the medicine that you need to reorient your headspace after another day of information overload, and one part feeling like Tom Petty (Rest in Peace), Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Boss are all sitting on the couch with you as singer and songwriter Adam Granduciel channels his musical heroes across ten wondrous tracks, A Deeper Understanding is this year’s medicine for what ails you. With each successive album The War On Drugs have been refining their agreeable mid-80s rock sound, adding an upgrade here and there, while continually striving for what can only be assumed is musical perfection. There’s a focus on getting lost in the sound in A Deeper Understanding, as if the music is a portal to a realm where all that matters is the Here & Now, and The War On Drugs could care less if you wanted to hole up inside that special place for a while and just chill. While some may brand this as musical escapism, we here at Across the Margin are fine with engaging in fantasy. It’s been a rocky last few years, and we could all do with a little break.
7. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
While Vince Staples’ debut album Summertime ‘06 could be looked at as a coming of age story, his latest release, Big Fish Theory, tells the tale of an artist who has fully arrived. Vince kicks in the door with the opening track entitled “Crabs In A Bucket,” spitting “Battle with the white man day by day / Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play / They don’t ever want to see the black man eat / Nails in the black man’s hands and feet / Put him on a cross so we put him on a chain / Lying to me, sayin’ he don’t look like me,” proof positive of the level of lyricism that the twenty-four year old Long Beach, California rapper is capable of. Big Fish Theory, ultimately, tells the story of an artist living in a fishbowl for all to observe and judge, and the challenges that lie therein. The spotlight has made Vince a big fish in a small but ever observed pond, and as exhibited in “Party People” it has surely begun to affect the artist as he rhymes, “Please don’t look at me in my face / Everybody might see my pain / Off the rail, might off myself / Bored with life as I board this plane.” But while there is deep introspection found throughout Big Fish Theory, as well as scathing commentary on a rigged system (“Another story of a young black man / Tryna make it up out that jam, god damn”), what is most omnipresent is banger after banger of catchy ass tracks, maintaining the young artist as one of the best rappers in the game right now.
6. The National – Sleep Well Beast
With their seventh studio release, Sleep Well Beast, the National return true to form with a powerful offering of tracks that exhibit exactly why this band has blossomed into one of America’s most celebrated acts. Boasting the euphoric melancholy that is defining of frontman Matt Berninger’s lyrics, Sleep Well Beast is brimming with beautiful ballads like “Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Dark Side Of The Gym,” and “Carini At The Liquor Store” which highlight a brand of affectivity The National is only capable of. But there is something else at play, as the trick that Sleep Well Beast had up its sleeve upon its release this past September was the flawless integration of electronic instrumentation to bolster the National’s already captivating sound. In the standout “Guilty Party,” an electronic drumbeat guides the course, transitioning stunningly to analog drums soon after. The same trick is implored in “Empire Line” and “I’ll Still Destroy You,” where electronic and analog soundscapes bleed triumphantly into one. Lead guitarist Bryce Dessner took his seat belt off so to speak on Sleep Well Beast, unleashing several raucous solos throughout the album and overall exhibiting the skill that has many finally noticing that he is one of rock’s most capable axe men. All in all, everything The National has done so well in their storied career is present on Sleep Well Beat, plus a bevy of novel soundscapes and innovations which reveal that this talented band isn’t resting on its laurels whatsoever.
5. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
I know what you may be thinking: wasn’t Run the Jewels 3 released in 2016? Technically yes, but it seemed to reason that Run the Jewels 3 belonged on this countdown for two reasons. First, although it was digitally released on Christmas Eve in 2016, three weeks ahead of its scheduled release date, it wasn’t available physically until January 13, 2017. Secondly, and most importantly, RTJ3 was released soon after our countdown of the Best Albums of 2016 had concluded, and we’ll be damned if we do not give the appropriate love and praise due to Jaime and Mike’s latest masterpiece. Yes, Run the Jewels has done it again, and in their third release have dropped another gem of an album. And while RTJ3 is, in many ways, more of the same brazen woke battle rap spread thickly upon hard-hitting dystopian beats, the soundscapes on the album manifest themselves more dynamic and wonderfully abrasive than prior releases, and Mike and Jaime’s verses are more sharp and cock-sure than ever before. Consumed as both an album that is capable of inciting revolt and action, or to simply lean back to revel and marvel at the lyricism and production, RTJ3 is an offering without a misstep or lackluster track. Over the past four years Run the Jewels has provided a monumental shot to the arm of hip hop, proving to be not only one of the most consistent and remarkable acts within the genre, but in all of music. We can only hope in 2017, Run the Jewels 4 awaits. Fortunately the writing is already on the wall.
4. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCATION
St. Vincent (Annie Clark) is a national treasure, an artist that with every successive release welcomes you into a new wave, pop fantasy world that is decidedly her own. MASSEDUCATION finds Clark’s transformation into one of today’s most celebrated and innovative voices complete, and yet even with the spotlight brightly fixed upon her, she remains as fascinating and enigmatic as ever. In MASSEDUCATION Clark wrestles with lost love in a way that has an air of nostalgia too it, as if she wouldn’t trade away the pain for the tenderness of the experiences, as it meant to much to her. In “New York” she sings “I have lost a hero / I have lost a friend / But for you, darling / I’d do it all again,” an ode to her recently passed heroes such as Leonard Cohen, Prince, and David Bowie. It is lines like these that exemplify that yearning to hold on to that which sadly slips away as one traverses life, a sentiment that can also be found on “Hang On Me,” “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Smoking Section.” But MASSEDUCATION is surely not about just one thing, and St. Vincent has stated that it’s an album “all about sex, drugs, and sadness,” which hits the nail squarely on the head. MASSEDUCATION is acutely melodramatic, romantic, deeply sexual, heartbreaking, fun, and intensely personal in a way that lingers with you long after indulging. St. Vincent’s latest is an incredibly moving offering from one of the most fascinating and important voices in pop rock.
3. The Horrors – V
V is the fifth full-length studio album from the British rock band The Horrors, and to us it sounds like an album The Cure, New Order, or Depeche Mode could have crafted in their zenith. Undoubtedly, The Horrors most effective and rocking album to date, V is a departure of sorts for a band that is constantly metamorphosing. On their first album, Strange House, The Horrors could easily be categorized as a gothic punk band, and soon after their sound pivoted into Krautrock and eventually into a species of shoegaze on their last album, 2009’s excellent Primary Colours. And now with V, The Horrors have adopted a flair for lusty, enduring choruses, grinding synths, and pop sensibilities. Notably this change in direction corresponds with the choice to work with Paul Epworth, a renowned producer who has worked with such heavy-hitters as U2, Florence and the Machine, and Coldplay, and this pairing seems to be a perfect match. But while V is most certainly a departure, we would rather look at it is an arrival, as with the stunning, familiar, and entirely captivating soundscapes found on V it could be assumed that this is the album The Horrors have been working on masterminding all along.
2. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
On April 2nd, 2011 at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden, LCD Soundsystem played their last official show. The epic performance lasted almost four hours and ended with a massive balloon drop as what seemed like the entirety of those in attendance joined the band in singing their Big Apple-ode “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.” It was an emotional experience for performers and fans alike and seemed like a fitting way to send off one of the best rock bands of the 2000s. After that things were quiet on the LCD Soundsystem home front for years, until December 2015, when a single entitled “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” was released and a buzz began to build that the band might be getting back together. Fast forward a couple more years and what started as a rumor has now fully blossomed into a reality, like a dance-punk caterpillar emerging from its psychedelic cocoon, a newly-minted butterfly fully embracing its change. American Dream, a new album from a reborn LCD Soundsystem, and as always fronted by the multi-talented, multi-instrumental and multi-dimensional sage James Murphy, is an album about endings, delivered with an intensity and fire that only LCD Soundsystem can proclaim. For fans nostalgic for the old, “pre-breakup LCD Soundsystem,” there’s songs aplenty on American Dream. But for those curious enough to wonder what a “post-breakup LCD Soundsystem” sounds like, there are several outliers that cast the band in an entirely new light (see “Oh Baby,” or “I Used To”). It’s these outliers that serve as the album’s most gratifying of moments, possibly even justifying the reunion of the band in the first place. It’s been said that the American Dream is truly dead, and if that’s correct then we’ll have to look to other places as a society for inspiration and opportunity. For those curious enough to give the album a listen, James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem have delivered a worthy surrogate for our forefathers ideals in American Dream (the album). And if the new sounds rippling off of American Dream are any indication of what a reinvigorated LCD Soundsystem is capable of, then all those years we endured them being broken up were well worth the wait.
1. Kendrick Lamar – Damn
This year Kendrick Lamar emphatically answered a question that has been on the tip of music enthusiasts tongues since 2015: How do you possibly follow up an album like To Pimp a Butterfly? Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was a unique concept album, weighty in its self-examination of the ills of fame, on U.S. race relations and the history of black music and slavery in America. It is an album that forces one to look inward, and to acknowledge one’s own self-worth and it demands that worth be validated by the powers that be. So what would come next from Kendrick? The answer to such poignant questions arrived in the form of Damn, an example of how powerful an album can be when its creator resides at the absolute peak of his capabilities — lyrically, spiritually, musically, and artistically.
Kendrick is a master storyteller, and across Damn, on songs like “Element” (a story of perseverance, of traversing life’s obstacles on the way to the top) and “Duckworth” (which examines the consequences of one’s actions), he cleverly crafts complex narratives that are as deep as they are fluidly spit. Damn is immortal. An album that will stand the test of time and live on forever as an example of how good a hip-hop album can truly be in the way that Nas’s Illmatic reigns supreme. The album features the track of the year in “Humble,” stunning production assists from producer Mike WiLL Made-It (“DNA,” “Humble,” “XXX”) and 9th Wonder (“Duckworth”), and an absolutely jaw-dropping display of lyrical talent by Lamar, who explores in his verses the depths of his personal struggles in the scheme of society’s ills. Recently fans have been affordd the opportunity to appreciate Damn as Kendrick’ believes it is best heard, with the tracks entirely reversed, something that is taking us a minute to get used to…but we are getting there.
It is remarkable to think about how quickly Kendrick Lamar’s name was thrown into the ring of contenders for the greatest rapper of all time, but it was and is deserving. The swarm of classic albums he has already dropped, paired with his prolific guest appearances on a multitude of other artists’ albums, as well as his introspective, weighty, and socially conscious approach to art, manifest Kendrick Lamar as an artist existing functioning on another plane entirely. The truth is, Kendrick Lamar is the real deal, and an all time great, and so is Damn…the best album released in 2017.