We’re an eyelash past the halfway point of the year. What better time to list the top five best albums of 2017 (so far)?
Queen is the most captivating band to ever exist. I saw a meme recently that poked fun of Trump’s lie that his inaugural attendance was bigger than Obama’s (what is the world coming to when this is an actual argument?). The meme shows an aerial view of crowds at different events so viewers (that’s you and I) can draw a conclusion based on obvious visual discrepancies. The first panel (top left) is Trump’s inauguration. The crowd looks scarce, at best. The next panel (top right) is Obama’s inauguration. This panel is filled with people—the only space unoccupied is taken up by trees and water. Then, the joke begins. The succession of panels under the actual inauguration pictures starts with a Pink Floyd concert, followed by a Queen concert (from occupied[Floyd] to insanely occupied[Queen]), both much more attended than either inauguration. Underneath these two pictures is a close-up of carpet compared to a picture of T.V. static. The meme serves as a jab at Trump, but also a jab at size-queens who care more about popularity than policies. What stood out to me was the depiction of the Queen concert. I don’t know if I have ever seen that many people in one place. So, I decided to YouTube Queen, Wembley Stadium, 1986. How anyone could perform not only well but spectacularly in front of 200,000 people is absolutely beyond me. I am not a Queen fan. I like them, but I’m not in like with them. Yet, I cannot deny how fucking powerful they were. You may feel the same regarding the following list. Fan of these artists or not, hopefully you will at least respect the power and passion behind their respective contributions to popular culture this half of 2017. Direct your hate mail to email@example.com, if you must. Here's what I think matters so far.
5. Vagabond-Infinite Worlds (March 2017)
Lætitia Tamko’s debut as Vagabond is just the fresh breath DIY indie rock needed. Of Cameroon descent, the New York native and multi-instrumentalist is a smile inducing, soul culling, force of 90’s indie rock nostalgia. In the opening track “Embers,” she sings with self-awareness and vulnerability “I’m just a small fish…you’re a shark that eats everything.” The rationale is profound, and the honesty is captivating. Yet, the humility seems unwarranted. She has much in store, and whomever or whatever she seems to concede to couldn’t hold a candle to her. She sings. She plays the guitar. She plays drums. In just 8 tracks, her imagination, her wit, and her ear for rhythm rings seemingly without effort. Freak folk meets punk rock meets Dinosaur Jr. (minus the solos) meets a sultry voice that I can’t fucking compare to anything I’ve ever heard. I look forward to hearing more from her.
4. Thundercat-Drunk (February 2017)
Whimsy and sincerity are typically mutually exclusive terms. Yet Thundercat, because of his phenomenal bass playing (he’s the best, best, best, better than Claypool, Flea, Lee, Jones, whoever/whatever [see above for where to direct hate mail]), seems to marry the two terms. He’s fucking silly. I usually have a hard time taking his lyrics seriously. He’s written multiple songs about his cat. But his soulful falsetto, his funk/jazz/fusion aesthetic, his bass playing (seriously better than anyone you could think of) and his clever manipulation of song structure is too real to ignore. He’s worked with a number of awesome brains (including Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar) and he has a seemingly boundless imagination when it comes to crafting a song. Drunk is his third LP, and though it never really deviates from what’s expected of a Thundercat album, he delivers a Thundercat album. Really, all he had to do to make this list was put something out.
3. Radiohead-OK Computer OKNOTOK (June 2017)
What could be said of Radiohead that hasn’t been said by Pitchfork, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound, or any other music site worth visiting? Radiohead is the perennial darling of music criticism. And for good reason. Their inclusion on this list can be relegated to a simple fact: Though this is a re-issue, if this album debuted this year, it would be the best album of the aughts and twenty-tens, hands down. It’s only rival would be Kid A. Challenges accepted.
This remastered re-issue, dubbed the quintessential purchase for Radiohead completest, has eleven bonus tracks, three of which were previously unreleased, all of which are better than the best effort of most bands within the genre (whatever the genre is [rock, sure but that barely scratches the surface]). Radiohead carved out their own genre, their own reality, and though it didn’t start with Ok Computer, it was certainly cemented by it.
2. Fleet Foxes-Crack-Up (June 2017)
It’s been six years since Fleet Foxes’ last album (Helplessness Blues). In the interim, chief songwriter and lead singer Robin Pecknold has earned an undergraduate degree at Columbia University, former Foxes’ drummer Josh Tillman has become a well-known solo artist under the moniker Father John Misty, and the freak-folk charms of yesteryear, though temporarily (and arguably) evoked by bands like Grizzly Bear, seemed far out of reach for those who longed for a unification with nature and hold a firm abhorrence of any footwear that doesn’t rhyme with firkendocks. Enter Crack-Up.
Fleet Foxes’ 3rd studio album is a progressive (that’s right, the prog rock dynamics are too prevalent to ignore) concept album inspired by an essay of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to Pecknold, Crack-Up is about the existence of two opposing thoughts or ideologies occupying equal space in the same brain. He calls it a dynamic of “I can’t go on/I must go on.” He communicates this trope through songs that within and without (that is, transitionally) flow like the sea—at once calm and then suddenly jarringly violent, yet living and breathing within the same parameters. Grammy or not for Pecknold, I should at least get a Pulitzer for trying to explain what’s happening with this record. In short, it’s a masterpiece.
1. Kendrick Lamar-DAMN. (April 2017)
Kendrick Lamar is a better rapper than you. I don’t care what your mom says. She’s a liar. Kendrick is a damn mutant. He especially shines considering the popularity of mumble-rap and all the garbage attempting to pass as hip-hop lately (sorry, not sorry Migos). If you aren’t on his frequency, bitch sit down.
K-Dot’s fourth studio album is near-perfect from start to finish. The same could be said of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. That album was so good I didn’t want him to come out with another. I figured he reached his peak. But damn, DAMN. Let’s start with his decision for a single word album title, followed by single word song titles. The record and every song within is a definitive statement. Yet each statement overflows with keen observations concerning identity, race, culture, politics, community, family, and love. Holistically, the album evokes Yeats’ “The Second Coming”—damnation loosed upon the earth because of a disconnect from God (in Yeats’ case this is brought about by war, in our case because of greed). Even best intentions get us killed. On the opening track, a skit, Kendrick is murdered by a blind woman he tries to help. On the second track, “DNA.,” Kendrick celebrates his heritage, inadvertently encouraging us to do the same. He raps that he “Was Yeshua’s new weapon.” Yeshua is Hebrew for Jesus, and Kendrick (especially since 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City) has always protrayed himself as a messenger for God. In this regard, the song seems to establish trust between Kendrick and the listener. God validates what’s about to be reported. And the Mike Will Made-It production (he’s also credited on the album’s first single “HUMBLE” and the U2 [that U2] featuring track “XXX”) is bonkers. By the time you get to the break where Kendrick says “I got-I got-I got-I got,” the funk will be in you (“King Kunta” nod).
The next track, “YAH.,” short for Yahweh (notice anything yet?), is produced by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith (along with 6 other tracks). “Top Dawg’s” role in Kendrick’s life as mentor and label chief is further explored on the album’s brilliant last track “DUCKWORTH.” On “YAH.,” over a track that is reminiscent of Eminem’s 1999 “Amityville,” Kendrick sing/raps “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me Black no mo’/ That word is only a color, it ain’t facts no mo.’” He says this after addressing Fox News talking head (and overall ridiculous human being) Geraldo Rivera’s harsh criticism of his 2015 BET Music Awards performance in which he stood on top of a cop car rapping “Alright,” a song that promotes hope amidst adversity. For the most part, “YAH.” is about circumventing personal or self-inflicted adversity, such as greed, envy, and lust. Back in 2011, Kendrick rapped, “So next time I talk about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history all in the same sentence, just know I meant it, and you felt it, cuz you too are searching for answers.” On “YAH.,” and throughout the album, Kendrick’s authentic honesty shines.
On “ELEMENT,” Kendrick asserts himself as your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper (or worst nightmare). The track is all about being the best M.C. He goes H.A.M., “I’m willing to die for this shit, nigga/ I’ll take you’re fucking life for this shit, nigga/ We ain’t goin’ back to broke, family sellin’ dope/ That’s why you maney-ass rap niggas better know.” His delivery (aside from being blessed with an ear for flow) carries a weight of sincerity hip-hop has not heard since Tupac. “HUMBLE,” the album’s first single, is another track about his status as the best. After dropping his third platinum album in five years, I can’t argue with his logic.
The Sounwave produced “FEEL.” seems to harken back to To Pimp a Butterfly’s unconventional jazz/funk tracks. The song settles into an almost bossa-nova groove as Kendrick reads an inventory of feelings, “I feel like I’m losin’ my patience/ I feel like my thoughts in the basement/ Feel like, I feel like you’re miseducated.”
Rihanna is a welcome addition to the album’s sixth track, “LOYALTY.” The song is about committing ourselves to the right (or wrong) people and institutions. Kendrick and Rihanna create a dialogue concerning what could convince someone of conviction to cheat or “slide.”
“PRIDE” returns more explicitly to the spiritual message of the album. Pride is going to be the death of us all. The music is evocative of The Roots at their most melancholy (see “Atonement” from 2005’s opus Game Theory). On “PRIDE.,” Kendrick addresses the struggle to not compromise spiritual peace for worldly desires. This struggle is especially severe when success in this world means access to a plethora of desires that could cause harm or (back to the theme) a disconnect from God. “HUMBLE.” comes after “PRIDE.,” though humility, in terms of track sequencing, is not the direct antithesis of pride (as noted above).
After “HUMBLE.,” Kendrick takes on “LUST.” “LUST.” seems to serve as a sister song to “PRIDE.” Note that both pertain to deadly sins. Again, Kendrick raps about success meaning access to anything the flesh desires. This idea recalls Lucy, the demon character from To Pimp a Butterfly, that offers money, houses, cars, and unlimited sex in exchange for Kendrick’s soul.
“LOVE.,” does in fact serve as the spiritual antidote to falling for “LUST.” On “LOVE.,” featuring Zacari, Kendrick pens an intimate, heartfelt letter to the love of his life. The music is airy and pleasant. You can almost see Kendrick smiling throughout the track.
“XXX.” continues the theme of disconnecting from God. This time, Kendrick ignores his spiritual leanings and encourages a friend to seek revenge for the death of his son. Later in the song, Kendrick muses on the bloodlust of America. He connects the deadly sins (lust, greed, envy) as the hallmark or agreed upon standard of the American body politic that ultimately leads to death and destruction. As mentioned above, the track features Ireland’s own U2. When I first heard of their involvement, I was extremely skeptical. But they enhance the song, musically and spiritually.
“FEAR.” tells a tale of woe from three different perspectives. The song begins with a voicemail from Carl Duckworth (Kendrick’s cousin who is mentioned briefly in “YAH.”). Carl quotes Deuteronomy 28:28, “The Lord shall smite thee with madness…”, entreating his family to remain faithful to the Lord, or be cursed (damned). In the first verse, a child (presumably Kendrick) is incessantly admonished by his mother in a sort of damned if you do/damned if you don’t scenario. She threatens him, “Seven years old, think you run this house by yourself? Nigga you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else.” The second verse finds a teenage Kendrick struggling to survive amidst the violence of the ghetto. He laments “I’ll prolly die…” followed by statements of everyday experience as a youth in the hood. “…[W]alking home from the candy house…because these colors are standing out…from witnesses leaving me false accused.” On the final verse Kendrick is 27, and his biggest fear is of losing it all after achieving unmitigated success as an artist. Like Biggie said, “Mo’ money, Mo’ problems.”
“GOD.” is the weakest track on the record. For an album that uses contradiction to expertly express a theme of the negative consequences accrued when separating from God, this track is a head-scratcher. Here, Kendrick relates the joy of his success to the happiness of God. He and producer Yung Exclusive carol, “This what God feel like. Laughing to the bank like Ah-ha!” My problem is this goes against the image of God Kendrick established throughout the album. How can a God who is against pride be boastful about monetary success? A song about God ultimately being responsible for success would have made more sense than success bringing one closer to God (or closer to understanding God). Since the next track is an absolute masterpiece, one bad apple out of fourteen red delicious’ does not a bad tree make.
The mysterious way in which God works and the relationship between Anthony “Top Dawg’ Tiffith and Kendrick Lamar’s father is the subject of the last track, “DUCKWORTH.” 9th Wonder’s production shines as he mixes two opposing samples into one gloriously layered song. And Kendrick devours the beat as he relates what has been confirmed by all parties involved a true story about a gangsta from Nickerson Garden Projects in Watts, L.A. named Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Anthony rose to the crest of the criminal game (made a million dollars by the age of twenty) but remained in the neighborhood. One evening, he decided to rob the local KFC, which seems illogical, but regardless of the logic behind the decision this wouldn’t be the first time Anthony and cohorts robbed the place. Kendrick recalls a robbery in ’84 that ended in a homicide. One of the KFC employees, a Chicago transplant named “Ducky,” was aware that his place of employment was a hot-spot for violence. “Ducky” had the forethought to consistently placate the known gangstas of the neighborhood, including Anthony. “Ducky” made sure to give them free food whenever they came by. Because of his generosity, Anthony decided to not rob the restaurant. “Ducky” just happens to be Kendrick Lamar Duckworth’s (his surname) father. And Anthony, as mentioned above, became a mentor for Kendrick, signing him to his first recording contract. This story, the way Kendrick delivers it, recalls all the great storytellers of hip-hop. See Slick Rick. See BDP. See Rakim. See EPMD. See Ice Cube. See Outkast. See Tupac. See Biggie. See Ghostface. See Eminem. Kendrick joins the greats with this track. And with this album overall, he solidifies himself as one of the greatest. If hip-hop had a Mt. Rushmore, we would need to break out the carving tools.
TL;DR: And that’s why I don’t use basil when cooking shell fish.
Kareem James writes awesome music reviews for VYNLYDEN when he isn't being an awesome father, husband, and teacher. Also writing helps him avoid dealing with the badminton set that still needs assembled.