Well, 2017 has been a blast, hasn’t it? Whether you think it has been or not, it’s time to look at the year in music with its top albums listed and dissected by our music writers. Kicking off our series is Elliot Burr, taking us on a voyage from hip hop to hardcore to electro-pop. There’s plenty more aural voyages through to the year’s end – keep it here at The 730 Review.
10. Fail You Again – Can’t Swim
Kicking off 2017’s top albums is the ultimate DIY guide to building a band, courtesy of drummer-for-hire Chris LoPorto. A few years back, this Robin Hood of restrained punk pulled together a tag team of merry men and women to create Can’t Swim: a hybrid of contemporary whinge-fest emo and 00s indie rock to back up his new look man-and-a-guitar sensibilities. Gushing with sentiment, Fail You Again delivers again and again with an array of heartache-and-strife tales ranging from the plodding slow burners of ‘Quitting’ to the stadium rock, bone-crushing riff behemoths of ‘Friend’ or ‘Stranger’ – it’s a one-way winding mountain trail of perfectly concocted emotional rage and self-pity. LoPorto’s vocals themselves are the star of the show, encapsulating these varying feelings through their delivery, sometimes restrained, sometimes forcibly yelled to match the thick instrumentals which slowly brew in the background like the world’s most potent cup of weepy tea.
Given that Fail You Again is the band’s initial full-length offering to the world, as well as being released on the hugely consistent record label of the moment Pure Noise, the future looks ironically bright for the often pessimistic LoPorto and his cohort of garage-rock renegades, an album self produced by the band’s drummer Andy Rico. Yes indeed, the lyrical content does dip into self scrutiny, and musings on grief and missed opportunity, but such tracks as ‘One Shot’ unleash LoPorto’s unburgeoning committal to working through hardship, lyrics and vocals that pack a punch for the reflective listener. Given that the follow up B-sides to Fail You Again were also excellent, only falling slightly alongside its solid final tracklisting, Can’t Swim are the emo tinged punk band to watch for the future.
9. You’re Not You Anymore – Counterparts
As the singular best melodic hardcore act around on the scene (a strong opinion which I will forcibly repeat until proven otherwise), Canada’s Counterparts had a huge task ahead of them to produce an album even half as good as past albums The Current Will Carry Us, The Difference Between Hell and Home or Tragedy Will Find Us. Whilst many would go along the same tried and tested formula, Counterparts were not only affected by a fairly hefty shift in personnel (including main songwriter Jesse Doreen), but they have clearly opted for a more tight and cohesive effort this time around, a move which proved to be, well, devastatingly effective.
Much of the band’s previous appeal was their shifting (and misleadingly difficult) chordal patterns, sprawling riffs and flair-laden drum fills amongst the brick-and-mortar snare heavy hardcore beats. That’s not to say that these elements are missing here, however. Instead, the band has fit this trimmed selection of songs together like a thousand piece puzzle; intricate, yet with elements of traditional songwriting (think actual verses and choruses!) to craft a record under half an hour in length with no fat whatsoever. Fiery pit beatdown anthems like ‘Thieves’ (featuring some beautiful sucker punches courtesy of new drum man Kyle Brownlee) rumble and tumble alongside Adrian Lee and Blake Hardman’s high-string melodies and characteristically anger fuelled and self-deprecating lyricist Brendan Murphy is true to form, delivering his trademark wails of despair that will make hairs stand on end with each desperate line of hope or hopelessness, both in abundance. It’s another successful step in Counterparts’ constant rise to melodic hardcore heaven, and a treat for introspective headbangers everywhere.
8. Drunk – Thundercat
When a musician masters such a rhythmic staple as the bass guitar like past 4-string legends Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller etc., this blue moon occurrence is worth a mention, particularly when they create such a masterful representation of a ‘forgotten’ instrument in album form. That’s the case of Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, whose reputation precedes him as the mastermind behind such funky rap bangers as Kendrick Lamar‘s ‘These Walls’ from the now literary scholar acclaimed album To Pimp A Butterfly (which Bruner contributed to massively). Instead of reflections on social issues, Thundercat‘s lyrical content on Drunk hints to the album name itself. As if fucked out of his mind, lyrics about riding motorbikes through space, regretting watching Dragonball Z as a kid, meowing, masturbation and – of course – drinking (both out in the clubs or, tragically, alone) are all featured here. That may disgrace some listeners, but the questionable poetry acts as the perfect supplement to completely awe-inspiring bass licks. Bruner plays his instrument with such precision and control, even at times sounding like the most cohesive mess of finger-vomit imaginable (‘Uh Uh’), that it’s an absolute feast of funk slapping, classical runs of arpeggio madness, playful synths and exquisite production, mostly handled by Flying Lotus.
Even amongst Thundercat‘s somehow blended random bursts of musical genius and more-than-crazy way with words are some of the year’s most inspired collaborations, notably Kenny Loggins and the oh so delectably deep tones of Michael McDonald on lead single ‘Show You the Way’, and even Wiz Khalifa holds his own against such heavyweights as Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell. It’s perhaps 2017’s most accessibly experimental record. Even after repeated listens, it’s still hard to tell if this present day bass master was inebriated throughout the whole writing and recording process or not. Who cares? “It’s ya boy: Thundercat.”
7. Emperor of Sand – Mastodon
Although Mastodon‘s 2017 EP Cold Dark Place indeed lends itself to a podium place on any Top of the Year selection, it is sadly not an album. That being said, it immediately followed the Atlanta based metallers most noteworthy full length record since 2009’s hypnotically beautiful prog-reinvigorator Crack the Skye. Many metal purists harking back to Mastodon‘s heavier, ‘sea beasts, trolls and cyclops in adventures across harsh land and ocean landscapes!’ efforts (which on paper sounds ridiculous, but Moby Dick-inspired Leviathan is a modern day classic, deservedly) are not so enamoured by Mastodon‘s more radio friendly efforts from the 2010s.
Indeed, detuned poppy hits remain here on Emperor of Sand; ‘Show Yourself’ is a phenomenally catchy single to die for, in fact buried amongst a whole swathe of brutally brilliant choruses which just about caters for the devil horned contingent of their fanbase as well as the casual newcomer of a listener. How Mastodon juggle their idiosyncratic hammer-on and pull-off metal riffs and concept album lyricism (this effort particularly focusing on a journey towards death, affected by real stories from each of the band’s members) with such accessibility is testament to how versatile this band is. Not quite growing out of their hardcore roots (‘Scorpion Breath’), they still particularly shine when vocal takes from each member- Brann Dailor, Brent Hinds, Troy Sanders and Bill Kelliher – all in turn craft a tapestry of brilliance in verses (‘Precious Stones’) and choruses (‘Ancient Kingdom’) alike. This is a mammoth effort of a melodically-backed existential journey through the desert, capped with my personal favourite closer of the year, ‘Jaguar God’, demonstrating every single aspect of Mastodon‘s gorgeous power; a synecdoche, if you will, of their 2017 effort which easily challenges even their most revered past records.
6. Humanz – Gorillaz
Here’s the most grossly neglected renaissance of the year: the hotly anticipated but quickly shafted Humanz. I must say, I’m a huge proponent of Damon Albarn. Despite not being Blur‘s greatest fan ever, Gorillaz is a band that I have grown up with and loved, and not just offering nostalgic pleasure, repeated hearings of the ‘Albarn and Friends’ pet project makes you respect the artist’s multitude of instrumental talents. Good ol’ Damon has returned with visual art renegade Jamie Hewlett after a subdued feud (thank goodness) with Humanz – Gorillaz‘s darkest amalgam of synth-pop, electronic disco, hip-hop and soul since 2005’s Demon Days, and it’s a triumphant (and prophetic) return from Albarn and his hand-picked featured musicians, vaguely speculating the unsettling then-future world with Donald Trump as President.
Ranging from the funky bopper of ‘Strobelite’, to the computer glitch laden shadowy electro effort ‘Submission’ and the balladic slow-paced beauty of ‘Busted and Blue’ (akin to Plastic Beach‘s highlight ‘Broken’), the genre hopping abilities of Albarn and the on-point casting of his collaborators is awe-inspiring. Returning once again with De La Soul, teaming up with vastly different contemporary rappers Vince Staples and Danny Brown, chart-topping Rag’n’Bone Man, Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine, and even Grace Jones (who recorded hours of vocal takes for the obscure and unsettling ‘Charger’), Humanz hits every correct note, even in its more-than-worthy bonus tracks. A fine wine of an album like all of Gorillaz‘ discography (excluding The Fall…), this comeback cements Albarn as a visionary musician continuing to explore genre-defying avenues who is sadly underrated and – considering his list of high profile mates – he must be a laugh down the pub. Plus, the artwork is as fucking excellent as it always has been. Gorillaz: never leave us again, please.
5. Godfather – Wiley
“Yo, my name’s Wiley, I’m grimy, I’m too shiesty, you won’t get beside me. / You won’t get by or go past me, don’t put it past me, / Blud, you will never outlast me.”
A refrain from ‘My Direction’ which spits volumes. Godfather by name, Godfather by nature, and 2017 has proven that the early grime inventor Wiley himself has remained ahead of the game, producing a statement comeback album, which are seemingly the Dish of the Day/Year. It’s as simple as this: no other album this year has produced an absolute sledgehammer of a CHOOOOOOON after the other. Whilst grime’s resurgence over the past couple of years has been spearheaded by Thornton Heath’s Stormzy, Ex-Roll Deep and Boy Better Know member Skepta, the original lo-fi ‘Eski Beat’ and stanky synths courtesy of E3 resident Wiley are the pure essence of grime circa 2004, a sound which has been welcomed back and re-celebrated in the UK (and now overseas).
His Royal Grimeness’s Godfather is both an acclaimed move away from chart-seeking efforts (although, ‘Wearing My Rolex’ and ‘Cash In My Pocket‘ are still a couple of miles from shit and club classics to a certain generation), a reinvention if you will, but also seemingly the ‘last album Wiley will ever make’. We now know this not to be true, with the imminent release of its sequel in February 2018 (!), but if this truly was Wiley Kat’s departure, it’s a walkout of the grimiest calibre. ‘Can’t Go Wrong’, ‘Bang’, ‘Back With A Banger’ etc. (I could name any of the excellent 17-song tracklist) are tour de forces: immaculately catchy and well-produced, capped with such lyrical gems as the songsmith’s penchant for Skittles, the best way to dress for a night out, the comparably low standards of Dixie’s fried chicken to KFC – the list of London-life idiosyncracies and street slang usage goes on. Each featured verse or chorus from grime’s old and new faces contribute to an outstanding celebration of a genre and it’s main man. Get some huge speakers and crank this pure filth front to back. We’ll hear you next year, Godfather.
4. DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
“New shit! New Kung-Fu Kenny!” is a name-calling phrase which sparks huge interest, but not quite so much as the last-minute announcement of K.dot’s new full length DAMN. in April, which sent the hip hop world into a frenzy. Up to that point, and still continuing, Kendrick Lamar has done his utmost to prove that he’s one of the globe’s most visionary artistes, bringing provocative social injustices into mainstream music charts and delivering some of the rap world’s most intelligent verses, inspired collaborations and floor-filling beats as if it were the hip hop glory days of the 90s once more. Delivering singles ‘HUMBLE.’ and ‘DNA.’ was a move to display this very sentiment, but the entirety of DAMN. places it amongst the monumentally successful and thoroughly interesting past efforts good kid m.a.a.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. Yet, this time around, it’s an effort presenting a more retrospective Lamar as he assumes a ghostly narrator version of himself to look back on his fairly swift fame in recent years, yet retaining the all important role as a spokesperson for his genre, his city and his country, through all of his succinctly posed opinions.
It’s a fairly gloomy affair, with heavily saddened synthesisers and plodding drum beats to give way to Kung-Fu Kenny’s professing monologues (‘YAH.’ and ‘FEAR.’), but carrying elements of TPAB‘s soulful funk over and including downright future club classics (the aforementioned singles, featuring some of King Kendrick’s discography’s greatest – and more furious – flows and beats). Alongside these sit the more experimental Bono-featuring ‘XXX.’, hypnotic James Blake produced ‘ELEMENT.’ and the poppy yet subdued pop-laden hooks of ‘GOD.’ or ‘LOYALTY.‘, with an unbelievably welcome turn from Rihanna. This chillaxing foray through Kendrick’s current state and reflections on his past and future is another triumph from music’s most deservedly attention-grabbing preacher, whose artistic merit has never really been in question despite the hype.
3. The Dusk In Us – Converge
Massachusetts’ finest and most revered hardcore punk quartet Converge finally return to the full-length LP stage with their first effort since 2012’s mammoth blister-fest of passionate and artistically heavy shit that was All We Love We Leave Behind, not that that marked any change from the band’s phenomenally consistent past output. What more do they have to bring to an underground scene they helped to cement? As The Dusk In Us has proved, a lot, this being perhaps the most thought-through and straightforward record to date, leaning less on frantic rip-roaring violence (see back-to-back ‘Broken by Light’ and ‘Cannibals’, however) and serving up emotionally packed, slow burning tunes alongside tracks which seem so unlike Kurt Ballou’s more familiar formulas, but fit right in when the foursome’s cohesive and well matured sound takes hold.
Kicking off with the tearjerking opener ‘A Single Tear’, Jacob Bannon’s divisive bark feels more restrained (this album’s vocals being far more varied, especially the Mark Lanegan sounding crooning on ‘Thousands of Miles Between Us’) as he offers an ode to the birth of his child; both saddening and striking in its lyrical content and double-bass-drum-beating heaviness. The title track’s misleading calmness is evocative of Converge‘s variation on show, going at once from two minute chop-and-change barrages of beautiful noise (‘I Can Tell You All About Pain’) to the ‘RATM on meth’ track ‘Trigger’, with a spoken, then screamed refrain which at first seems so uncanny for a Converge record, but nestles in nicely. It’s almost impossible now for Ballou and co. to produce anything below incredible; they’re a band of such esteem and experience that everything just works, but bringing unheard of dishes to the typically brash Converge banquet, there’s some refreshments from the sprints, marathons, and moshpits, although these don’t all happen at once. Well, maybe sometimes. It’s Converge after all.
2. SATURATION II – BROCKHAMPTON
The internet offers up whole new ball games for music, this year in particular marking the meaty statement pieces served up by the self-dubbed ‘Internet’s first boy band’ BROCKHAMPTON. A rag-tag collective of rappers, instrumentalists, producers, artists, directors and just about everything else having met through a Yeezy-loving online community, BROCKHAMPTON is headed up by the visionary Ian Simpson (aka Kevin Abstract), who essentially moved out with these newfound friends to cohabit and create in LA like a well-oiled musical factory enjoying a prolonged sleepover.
Hip-hop collectives are nothing out of the ordinary, but these dudes have not only managed to produce three studio albums in one year, but SATURATION and its even more consistent SATURATION II are modern rap albums of the highest calibre. Whilst the former does exceedingly well to introduce the band’s core performers (and producing the jaw-droppingly nasty and delectable ‘HEAT’), the latter is a collection of songs flawlessly linking all of BROCKHAMPTON‘s best abilities, despite the vast differences in style and personnel on offer. Matt Champion’s lackadaisical flow and chilled-out persona juxtaposes Ameer Vann’s aggressively frank discussions about ghetto life and Kevin Abstract’s challenging of open homosexuality in the world of hip hop. Elsewhere, Merlyn Wood (even on record) seems to run around and shout phrases including “DON’T CALL ME STUPID THAT AIN’T NO WAY MY NAME PRONOUNCED!” like the most likeable headless chicken, bringing a flurry of energy whilst Belfast-based bearface. is tasked with bringing guitar-laden R&B to proceedings (particularly wonderful in ‘SUNNY’ and ‘SUMMER’ at the album’s close) amongst various “Me llamo Roberto” Spanish skits, and ‘TEETH’ and ‘JESUS’, two unfortunately short intervals featuring a few of SATURATION II‘s best lyricism. The general beats and production value is absolutely brilliant, too.
Already announcing the “last studio album from BROCKHAMPTON” seemed like a cruel, playful prank from rap’s most exciting prospects, with their second in the ‘SATURATION series’ showing that they’ve taken no time to settle in and prove that too many cooks in the BROCKHAMPTON kitchen really don’t spoil the broth.
1. Heatwave – Trapped Under Ice
2017’s comeback of all comebacks arrived in the form of Baltimore’s much loved modern hardcore outfit Trapped Under Ice. The godfathers of a genre’s reinvention, having gone on indefinite hiatus, all continued to participate keenly in the DC area’s hardcore scene, but – hurrah, hurrah! – have now reformed and dropped their first record in 4 years: Heatwave. It is, in all honesty, absolute perfection for hardcore hardnuts, and just about the only 11-track album I know of clocking in at a mere 13 minutes – a runtime chock-full of unrelenting pace, Master of Ceremonies-style calls to action, danceable beatdowns, adrenaline, sweaty walls and bruised bodies, blood-strewn noses and even two somehow perfectly fitting sound bites of 50s doo-wop to give some 5 second respite before another heap of distorted moshable goodness.
Lead vocalist Justice Tripp, having headed up similarly phenomenal alternative rock/hardcore hybrid Angel Du$t, has never sounded better fronting “T…U…IIIIIIIII”, sounding less like a pissed-off teenager (never a bad thing) and more like an almost breathless and macho Dewey Finn, preaching the school of hard knocks and directing the listener’s aggression, knowing full well that they will most certainly be part of a TUI pit whenever they first get the chance. Tripp throws in all sorts of varied levels of vocal abilities in Heatwave‘s hasty runtime, and it really is impressive how this cavalcade of chordal riffery, thumping bass and snare/hi hat combos all fits into its tiny package. It’s essentially the world’s shortest rock opera, having ripped out any bullshit contextual storyline and brought the listener in as part of the chaotic cast.
It’s an absolute riot of a record providing non-stop fun (no matter how many repeated spins it gets) with the eponymous Heatwave evoking the flustered, sweaty puddle of a human being you become after a hardcore show, or that circle pit you created on the Tube listening to Trapped Under Ice in some sort of exceedingly dangerous silent disco. Just me? What can I say? “TUI ’til I die.”
Image: Pure Noise Records, Brainfeeder, Reprise Records, Parlophone, CTA Records, Top Dawg Entertainment, Epitaph Records, Question Everything, Inc., Pop Wig Records