Across the Margin begins its rollout of the Best Albums of 2017 with albums 50 – 41…
Let’s face it, much like 2016, 2017 has been, in many ways, a son of a bitch. In a year where the country feels divided like never before, it would benefit us all if we leaned upon the ultimate of all unifiers. That thing that transcends creed, race, social status, and income: Music. Music has always had the remarkable power to not just unify, but to, in times of need, heal. To provide an escape from the madness, and also, in this current climate in the United States — act as the soundtrack of The Revolution! Once again, whittling down this year’s musical bounty to a choice fifty was challenging to say the least, but we are proud to present to you the albums which received the most play over here at Across the Margin in 2017. So, let’s get into it and drop the needle…
50. Sinkane – Life & Livin’ It
“If we illuminate ourselves / We’ll overcome / Find something to love / And love someone,” Sinkane (born Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab) sings on the terrifically inspiring “U’Huh,” the track that acts as the anchor to Life & Livin’ It, his sixth studio release. Sinkane initially caught our eye with his percussion work with bands such as Caribou, Of Montreal, and Yeasayer, and then went ahead and stole our hearts acting as the bandleader and musical director of the Atomic Bomb! Band, which plays the music of Nigerian funk legend William Onyeabor, a band which includes David Byrne, Money Mark, Damon Albarn, Dev Haynes (aka Blood Orange), and Alexis Taylor, amongst others. Forging off on his own, Sinkane’s solo work has been nothing short of phenomenal, culminating this year with Life & Livin’ It, a soulful and inspiring album which highlights his silky smooth vocals and dynamic beats, soundscapes which range throughout the album from disco, to bossa nova, to dub and beyond.
49. Beck – Colors
Beck’s latest release Colors doesn’t find him, once again, recreating himself or opening up his freakish talents into new genres and capabilities as he has done time and again. But rather, the multiple Grammy-award winning artist pieced together what can aptly be described as an exceptional and newfangled pop-rock album. Beck fans were left eagerly anticipating the album since 2015, when Beck unleashed a taste of the project with “Dreams,” a song that cries out for the employment of a disco ball, and then a year later with the release of “Wow,” a track which seems to pull from a myriad of Beck’s past albums such as Odelay, Midnight Vultures, and Guero. In mid-October, the complete project was finally revealed, and while Colors is as mainstream an album as the artist has ever crafted, Beck’s chart-topping ambitions do not manifest themselves as inhibiting, but rather as a liberating breath of fresh air and as fun and danceable as anything he has ever put out. Colors is an all-too-often underrated gem of a release, further bolstering Beck’s twelve album, twenty-five year remarkable career.
48. Raekwon – The Wild ((Written by Douglas Grant.))
“Yeah, back at it, right? / In rap mode again / Ill wild dimension where / We do this to the maximum skill level / That literature gotta light shit up / The Wild…The Wild right, the jungle with no rules.”
For better or for worse, hip-hop has evolved and taken a different shape over the last thirty years. You’ll often hear fans of the genre clamoring for artists and tracks from one of its golden ages, hence you have these same fans — young and old alike — demanding for ‘90s hip-hop whenever they yearn for beats and rhymes. Raekwon’s seventh studio album, The Wild, is a return to that urban grassroots sound that set the Chef apart, on par with his classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and its 2009 sequel, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2. There are guest MCs and R&B singers abounding on this album, including Cee Lo Green, Lil Wayne, and Andra Day, but no accompanying members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Perhaps this is Rae’s effort to firmly stand on his own feet, differentiating his path from those of the Wu MCs he’s rapped alongside since the beginning with 36 Chambers. And this differentiation is no indication that he’s gone his own separate way in the rap game, but in a musical climate where so many hip-hop artists are looking for ways to reinvent themselves, Raekwon has found a way to maintain a contemporary sound without depending too greatly on the musical characteristics that defined the generation that came before, a hip-hop era during which he thrived musically.
47. Arcade Fire – Everything Now
In mid August, we at Across the Margin were compelled to write an article defending what we believe was overly-harsh and unwarranted criticisms of Arcade Fire’s fifth studio album Everything Now. A third of a year later, we relish the opportunity to double down on our stance placing Everything Now where it rightfully belongs, amongst the best albums released in 2017. Everything Now is an album that lives in the moment, addressing the ills of modern day society, and even going so far as to examining how Arcade Fire themselves fit into society’s current conundrum. While deep and questioning, Everything Now is a album that rocks and hits hard (“Creature Comfort”!) and as we brazenly stated previously, “while the album’s detractors may not be on board with the idea of a socially conscious and appropriately despondent Arcade Fire, this is exactly the version of the band we all need right now.”
46. Barr Brothers – Queens of the Breakers
The Barr Brothers are a folk quartet founded in Montreal, Quebec consisting of Andrew and Brad Barr (of The Slip), Sarah Page and Andres Vial. Their third full-length album, Queens of the Breakers, is easily one of the most beautiful and affecting albums released of 2017. On the album’s opening track, “Defibrillation,” which features moving guest vocals from Lucius’ Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe, the band are found waxing poetically about life as “heartbreaking, soul-shaking, [and] overwhelming exhalation,” while the equally impressive “Song That I Heard” walks through a series of brilliantly crafted verses that examine love’s earliest moments and the ways in which life changes us as we traverse its bumpy roads. “You Would Have To Lose Your Mind” is laden with blissful meanderings, bundled tightly within an atmospheric haze that is all-embracing. Queens of the Breakers is flush with tracks upon tracks of fascinating introspection that reads like poetry laid without flaw upon gracefully composed soundscapes, and acts as proof that the Barr Brothers are a band that has come entirely into their own.
45. The XX – I See You
Pop introverts The XX create the kind of music that makes one believe that sad songs can make us all feel connected. They are best known for writing soft, reticent songs, minimal in scope and filled with echoed guitar and ambient soundscapes. Coming off of two widely-acclaimed albums — 2009’s xx and 2012’s Coexist — and a four year span that saw band member Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx) put out a Grammy-nominated solo album entitled In Colors, The XX seemed prime to release another barnburner. 2017’s I See You failed to disappoint, with The XX capitalizing on the success of Smith’s solo efforts and using that energy to reinvigorate their songwriting. What resulted is an album that reimagines their characteristic sound, leaving the listener with a more wide-ranging, ample and energetic record then before. The introspection that made The XX famous is still there, but it’s mixed in with exotic samples, deeper production, layers of synths and lyrics that inspire the listener as much as they emote. Like the album’s very title, The XX’s latest offering images us all stripped bare of our hang-ups and facades, leaving behind the truest essence of our self. And it’s that essence that they attempt to sing to, getting at the heart of what makes us truly human.
44. Nick Hakim – Green Twins
Northwest D.C. native Nick Harim’s brand of soul music is as enigmatic as it is impassioned, and on his first full length release, Green Twins, he channels the gods of soul music — Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, D’Angelo, and Otis Redding — while amending his own modern approach to the genre. We, like many, came to know Hakim through one of his earliest releases entitled “Cold,” a song infused so deeply with the pain of heartbreak that we were taken back immediately, and now with Green Twins he has summoned more anguish and torment, but in the album lies beautiful moments of catharsis as well. Like in the sultry, yet dizzying, “Slowly,” a true throwback to the 60s, or the slow funk appeal for forgiveness that is “Roller Skate.” Green Twins is glued together by lush bass lines and atmospheric keys, and features excellent contributions from R&B singer NAIMA and the downtown NYC jazz group Onyx Collective (a collective of artists and musicians in NYC Founded By Isaiah Barr). Throughout the album, Hakim evokes the spirit and heart of gospel and soul music, and ultimately Green Twins is an honest, heartfelt album that displays in jaw-dropping clarity the vocal competence of a remarkably talented artist.
43. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Kamasi Washington is a jazz wunderkind. He is, before our very eyes, transforming the genre and offering the most compelling personality in it since Terence Blanchard. His 2015 debut The Epic was one of the more exciting jazz releases in two decades, breaking away from the soft jazz cellar that has corrupted the genre for a generation.The Epic was a living being as much as it was a record, harkening back to late-60s and early-70s Miles. To create a follow up that reached the same heights would be a trying task, and much like Miles followed up Bitches Brew with the more sparing and direct Jack Johnson, Kamasi’s Harmony of Difference strips down the musicianship and style of his earlier work to create a potent, blunt record that is less massive in scope yet just as beautiful, and just as vibrant. While many listeners may focus on the expansive “Truth” (the only time in the album when Kamasi fully unleashes his virtuosic abilities, making the track that much more powerful), other standouts include the romantic “Knowledge” and the funky, slow tempoed “Desire,” which highlights the emotional depths of Kamasi as an artist. The album may end up being a side note in Washington’s brilliant career, an EP meant as bridge between The Epic and a future magnum opus, but it also stands alone as a lyrical, sumptuous, and passionate work of art. ((Written by Jonathan Marcantoni.))
42. Beach Fossils – Somersault ((Written by Douglas Grant.))
The latest album from Brooklyn-based Beach Fossils is ambitious. With Somersault, it seems as if frontman Dustin Payseur aims to put forward something that stands apart not only from the band’s previous two albums, but also from their peers under the Captured Tracks label who’ve managed to distinguish themselves in recent years (Diiv, Mac DeMarco, Wild Nothing). The tracks on Somersault are both hopeful and wistful in nature, letting listeners know that the band is in a comfortable place, the risk-taking having already paid off. The guest stars who accompany some of the tracks, including Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell (“Tangerine”) and rapper and producer Cities Aviv (“Rise”), help to facilitate a sense of natural progression throughout the album, using the past for reflection before continuing along organic pathways of artistic exploration: “Try to think about the past / Second to none I’m trying to / Make sense of this / And feel the way I feel about you / But still see the past for what it was.” Somersault is versatile, with subtle genre-bending notes here and there that playfully interweave elements characteristic of symphony, jazz, hip-hop, punk, and ‘70s pop-rock. If Payseur is truly expanding on Beach Fossils’ eclectic vision, then Somersault is certainly a step in the right direction.
41. Julien Baker – Turn the Lights Out
It is truly unfathomable and nearly impossible for us at Across the Margin to get our head around the fact that singer/songwriter Julien Baker is only twenty two years old. The talent and grace she has displayed over the course of her brief but remarkable career is that of a seasoned veteran of the arts. While her debut album in 2015, Sprained Ankle, is excellent in its own right, her latest, Turn the Lights Out, is extraordinary. The arrangements on Turn the Lights Out are often sparse, putting the spotlight on Julien’s alluring voice, and on the affectivity of her raw, sophisticated lyricism that delves deeply into substance abuse, self-doubt, mental illness, and grappling with her faith. A gorgeous portrayal of pain and learning to love oneself and one’s sicknesses, Turn the Lights Out is devastating and uplifting simultaneously, and top to bottom, a remarkable album.