By Eóin Donnelly
I will always be an album guy.
With the advent and rapid domination of quick-and-easy streaming playlists, many say the album format is dying, a prediction that I hope is based more on hyperbolic hysteria than any tangible trend. From poolside sips to getting between the sheets to the highly unlikely scenario that I will ever need a walkout tune, I make playlists for all moods and occasions like there’s no tomorrow, but there simply is no musical experience quite like a brilliant album listened to from start to finish. In 2017 many albums blessed my ears, so much so that the backlog of projects I am yet to dip my feet into could be almost as long. Time is art’s greatest enemy. The list you will find below is based on nothing more than my own subjective opinion and the replayability factor of each respective project. All debate is welcomed. With the exception of Jay-Z’s unavailable-on-Spotify 4:44, a playlist of all 50 albums can be listened to here. In the interests of brevity- not to mention my own social life- only the top 25 will be accompanied with a description.
Here we go…
50. Cunninlynguists- Rose Azura Njano
49. KAMI- Just Like The Movies
48. Goldlink- At What Cost
47. Lana del Rey- Lust for Life
46. Rex Orange County- Apricot Princess
45. Slowdive- Slowdive
44. Mura Masa- Mura Masa
43. Father John Misty- Pure Comedy
42. Alvvays- Antisocialites
41. Mac deMarco- This Old Dog
40. Sabrina Claudio- About Time
39. Milo- Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!?!
38. Smino- blkswn
37. FUTURE- HNDRXX
36. Electric Youth- Breathing
35. Chronixx- Chronology
34. Calvin Harris- Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1
33. Ty Dolla $ign- Beach House 3
32. Migos- Culture
31. Big Boi- BOOMIVERSE
30. MUNA- About U
29. Open Mike Eagle- Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
28. Brockhampton- Saturation
27. Drake- More Life
26. N.E.R.D.- No One Ever Really Dies
25. Charli XCX- Number 1 Angel
‘Time After Time’ is one of my favourite songs of the 80’s, the ultimate guilty pleasure. In the current pop landscape, nobody embodies the bratty, lascivious ebullience of Cyndi Lauper quite like Charli XCX. Poppy enough to reach the mainstream and just weird enough to be interesting, Charli XCX tries on a plethora of musical hats that more often than not flatter her increasingly adaptable, consistently exciting brand of pop. Sweet like candy floss and brashly confident, Charli XCX is a signpost for millennial women everywhere. More devil than angel, her energetic bubblegum pop is deceivingly innocent. With a cheerleader’s bombast and a goth teen’s attitude, Charli XCX adorns experimental productions with an accessible twist and shout that makes her a surefire candidate for every teenage girl’s party playlist.
24. Brent Faiyaz- Sonder Son
Some people think they were born in the wrong decade. I would imagine Brent Faiyaz would feel most at home in the 90’s. Like the simple satisfaction of beans on toast, a soothingly soft acoustic backdrop and a voice as rich as melted chocolate is a winning combination every time, but Faiyaz’s songwriting prowess- most particularly on ‘L.A.’- is what marks him as an RnB talent to watch.
23. J.I.D.- The Never Story
I’ve never wondered what a rapping samurai on helium sounds like, but at least now I have the answer. Regional hip-hop is not as important as it was. Everybody listens to everybody. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see Atlanta’s J.I.D begin his career on a totally different artistic trajectory than the plethora of Atlanta rappers that dominate radio airwaves. With some of the most infectiously vibrant vocals in the game- I’d recommend ‘EdEddnEddy’ for anyone that spent evenings after school watching Cartoon Network- and the bars to match, J Cole’s most talented protégé might just end up eclipsing him.
22. Vince Staples- Big Fish Theory
Enter Vince Staples next to Danny Brown in the list of hip-hop’s most daring weirdos. Determined not to be pigeonholed as just another battle-hardened West Coast spitter, Big Fish Theory’s clanging techno is another addition to the burgeoning argument that Vince Staples will be one of this generation’s leading auteurs in rap’s ever-expanding reach and influence.
21. IDK- IWASVERYBAD
IWASVERYBAD is a cathartic rollercoaster of sound with two leading protagonists; Jay IDK’s black sheep and his mother, the white dove. Opening with a flurry of concerned phone calls from snooty schoolteachers, IWASVERYBAD covers familiar ground through the lens of a fraught mother-son relationship. You might not know how much someone means to you until they’re dead and gone.
20. Rapsody- Laila’s Wisdom
“I remember when you used to call me black and ugly. Isn’t it ironic? Now you all just want to love me.” Like much of her discography, black beauty is the central facet of Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom. Talented they may be, but there’s a reason why Cardi B & Nicki Minaj are household names and Rapsody is not. In honour of one of the best ‘real’ MC’s alive, I dedicate this 16-bar verse to Rapsody:
Rapturous applause for Rapsody’s raps, in awe
Of poetic prowess powered by perseverance without pause
If listening’s a contract, her verses are the clause
That bind you in perfect harmony unbroken by flaws
Jazz never dies, Laila’s Wisdom never lies
Street smarts are the reason why deep art survives
Stripped back layers of a black rhymesayer
Will illuminate the light inside the most grimiest of players
Blemishes are reality, perfection just a fallacy
Replenishing raps are the only air that I must breathe
Beauty’s an idea but confidence is a habit
Practiced in the shadow of those who think you shouldn’t have it
Beauty’s an idea but words are a game
Perfect bodies are a necessity to be a female with fame
Beauty’s an idea, to let it define you’s an awful shame
Rapsody’s the proof, at least now you know her name
Mixtape in your next Christmas stocking.
19. Joey Bada$$- ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
Fuck Donald Trump. ‘Land of the Free’ was released on the date of Trump’s inauguration as President and it remains one of the standout anti-Trump songs. Racism is still alive and Joey Bada$$ won’t let you forget it. He may be too young to remember the 90’s, but that hasn’t stopped Joey from making vintage boom-bap with a 21st century sheen. You can’t change the world until you change yourself.
18. Jamiroquai- Automaton
Life is full of strange, simple moments that nevertheless resonate in the consciousness and still produce a smile years later. For me, many of these memories are linked to songs, another facet of music’s unique magic. One such song is Jamiroquai’s ‘Little L.’ It was playing when I was in the taxi on the way to Belfast’s Europa bus stop as a first year student for my first weekend trip home. “You’re playing so hard to get, you’re making me sweat just to hold your attention” was blasting full volume with the windows down in the sunshine. The taxi driver must’ve been about 25 stone, just another of Belfast’s characters found in obscurity. For whatever reason, this feel-good, funky and slightly camp track would not be the kind I’d expect him to be pumping out the speakers. I’m used to taxi drivers listening to the latest drama at Stormont and ranting along. Jamiroquai was a welcome change. Only for that moment, I’d probably never have given Automaton a chance. I’m glad I did. You’d struggle to find a more fun album to listen to all year.
17. Daniel Caesar- Freudian
Daniel Caesar’s voice is the shot of coffee that makes early mornings seem more manageable. There’s a troubadour’s tenor and emotional candour to his delivery that lures you in over the most bare instrumentation. When I heard his cover of Kanye West’s ‘Street Lights’– one of my top five Kanye songs- I immediately marked him as a prospect to watch. Musical expressions of pure love can often sound like a trite and disingenuous ploy. That is simply not the case on Freudian. I believe every word Caesar sings: with a longing falsetto like that, how couldn’t you? Toronto is the RnB gift that keeps giving. I might just have to move there.
16. Aminé- Good For You
Elasticity and character is the double-headed dragon Aminé rode in on, his debut album Good For You breathing fire into souls damaged by the apocalyptic dread that seemed to taint everything 2017. Not giving a fuck is usually associated with a willingness to speak harsh truths, and it is true that this was a year for raconteurs and provocateurs to thrive in. Strife is their element. Aminé was a welcome antidote, proving that sometimes the most rebellious thing you can do is shut the fuck up and have a good time.
15. Brockhampton- Saturation II
Ever wonder where all the boybands went? Look no further. The best of the Saturation trilogy, Brockhampton’s second album carried on from their signature riotous sound that their debut splashed onto the hip-hop scene just two months earlier. Innovation and charisma separates the 15-strong group from much of its contemporaries, with Belfast’s very own bearface. rounding off a rowdy tracklisting with some languid summer navel-gazing. BROCKHAMPTON have arrived and they’re going nowhere any time soon.
14. Oddisee- The Iceberg
Without doubt the most underrated entity in hip-hop. One of hip-hop’s purest spirits, Oddisee’s music is not the kind that will ever reach the masses, but rest assured he can rap his ass off and make the beats to match. ‘You Grew Up’ is a cruel twist of fate, a morality tale that could awaken sinners from their slumber. All in all, The Iceberg is one of the most impressive political albums to come out in Trump’s America, but if a giant oak tree falls with nobody around to hear does it even make a sound?
13. Brother Ali- All The Beauty In This Whole Life
It took hours of deliberation, but I can now say with certainty that Brother Ali is the best Albino Muslim rapper I’ve ever heard. Staying positive in moments of unparalleled political tension is an unheralded strength, yet it is achieved on All The Beauty In This Whole Life with aplomb. You don’t need drugs, bitches or money to be a great rapper. Charismatic and soulful, intellectually stimulating and politically valuable, this is an album that would do any American a lot of good to turn their radio off and listen to. Guaranteed to lift the spirits of anyone weighed down by the incessant negativity that typified 2017, the legally blind Brother Ali is a prominent example of the power of hip-hop to transform the most difficult situation into art through nothing but stubborn perseverance and the courage to tell the truth.
12. dvsn- Morning After
Purple hues and neon lights, sexy views and crazy nights.. for me that will always be a magic formula. And yes I made that rhyme up myself. Say it quietly, but Drake’s OVO protégés are beginning to make even better RnB than him. If you love Aaliyah, Usher and all things 90’s RnB, this is your album. Likely to send birth rates through the roof, dvsn’s music drips the sensuality of a lothario and oozes the class of a gentleman. Who could be bad to that?
11. Choker- Peak
When I discovered this album, Choker still only had 600 Twitter followers. So assured was I that he’d one day be a superstar, I almost bought the URL for http://www.choker.com. Another notion of mine I never bothered carrying out. Comparisons to Frank Ocean are inevitable, and I’m certainly glad that this still largely unknown artist is clearly more into Blonde– my favourite album of 2016- than Channel Orange. Shoegazey guitars and ethereal electronics provide the sonic palette painted by Choker’s wistful summer recollections. Sometimes you hear a song so otherworldly that you can’t explain what it even is… you just feel it knock the soul right out of your chest and you know everyone else will too. ‘Diorama’ is one such song, with a beat change so heavenly you’d swear Choker got it off Jesus’s USB pen. Abstract and forlorn throughout but only glorious in parts, Peak isn’t an amazing album because it all makes sense, but in trying so hard to the fog of such youthful confusion becomes much more enthralling. Big future ahead for this guy.
10. The xx- I See You
A shroud of mystery only intrigues if you believe it will ever be lifted. All hail Jamie xx, the mastermind behind the scenes of one of the few of today’s rock bands capable of punctuating mainstream pop culture. As impressive as their emergence was almost a decade ago, The xx sound has been echoed enough by themselves and the many they have influenced to be construed as stale. Luckily, between 2012’s Coexist and their best album yet, I See You, Jamie xx capitalised on the band’s hiatus to craft a solo album (In Colour) and expand his production chops. I See You is a natural and necessary evolution of The xx mystique. When I heard lead single ‘On Hold’, I knew The xx were going to deliver something special. Lagoons are blissful, but you can only languish there so long before you miss cannonballing into swimming pools. Catchier hooks and vibrant production characterise this much-needed musical shift from emo-pop to indie party. Long may it continue.
9. SZA- CTRL
The closing frames of the ‘Love Galore’ video should send shivers down the spine of every man. It’s such a cliché to refer to any strong and sexy female as empowering, but SZA wields her feminine agency like an axe that could sever the balls of any man who as much as stands in her way. With a voice this great, who could complain? The gauntlet is laid down early. On the first verse of the opening track (‘Supermodel’), SZA enacts revenge on her cheating boyfriend by “banging your homeboy.” Unapologetic female sexuality dominates the tracklisting, most spectacularly on ‘The Weekend’, but it is in the introspective, soulful tracks like ‘20 Something’ where SZA exemplifies a poet’s depth to go with the scorned woman’s wrath. When the careers of Beyoncé and Rihanna wind down, it is sure to be TDE’s scintillating songstress that carries on the mantle.
8. Khalid- American Teen
A soundtrack designed for summer roadtrips spent in chase and regrets. If John Hughes were still alive to make movies, this would be the soundtrack. As The Weeknd sang on ‘Reminder’, everybody’s “trying to sound like all my old shit.” And he was right. In that sense, Khalid is a refreshing antidote to the nihilism that envelops modern RnB, relying on melody and vocal range rather than the hip-hop flows employed by his contemporaries. Familiar though they may be, Khalid is clever in how he portrays the archetypal teenage struggle in any number of classic 80’s movies with the Information Age in mind. Uber rides have replaced joyrides, location co-ordinates have usurped walkie-talkies and marijuana rather than alcohol is the new youth’s baptism of fire. Profanity is not required: like a more joyful companion album to Lorde’s ultra-intelligent girl at the party, American Teen captivates with a promise of innocent adventure stolen away by painful memories.
7. Jay-Z- 4:44
I like 99 rappers but Jay-Z ain’t one. I’ll never tire of saying that. If he keeps putting out albums like this I’m going to have to change my mind. Being nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys is an achievement for any forty-something thirteen albums deep into his career. To do it in an ageist genre where even the finest wine eventually turns into vinegar- look no further than Eminem’s Revival– is another thing altogether. 4:44 may well go down as a landmark album for transitioning rap heavyweights, a confessional, mature and stripped-to-basics rumination on self by one of hip-hop’s most opulent forefathers. Giving the fans what they want is harder than it sounds, but here Jay-Z made conjuring artistic victory from personal vicissitude look easy. Shawn Carter’s adulterous guilt is exhumed with emotional rigour in this vintage-sounding coup de grace, and the embrace of his mother finding love with another woman (‘Smile’) casts an almost Presidential light on rap’s greatest entrepreneur. When your greatest mistakes are laid bare, the business advice is so much easier to digest.
6. Sampha- Process
The sound of bleeps and bloops is associated with all things artificial, mechanical and robotic, but they are also what you hear watching a loved one fade away in hospital. On Process, never has the electronic sounded so human. I’m not one for showing my emotions, but every year there’s one song that hits me so hard I can’t stop the tears flowing. In 2015 it was Kendrick Lamar’s harrowing ‘Institutionalized’ and last year it was Kanye West’s empowering ‘Ultralight Beam’. The consensus pick for saddest song of the year is Sampha’s ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’, a beautiful ballad in dedication to his deceased mother. Played at her funeral, it was the last song he played for her before she passed away. However, for me it was the closing track ‘What Shouldn’t I Be?’, a mesmeric portrait of a grief-ridden, downtrodden man alone and unsure of where to go next. The melody could be the backdrop of a Care Bears lullaby. “Who am I?” Everyone has asked themselves the question. The saddest part is when you can’t come up with an answer.
5. Cigarettes After Sex- Cigarettes After Sex
When your band name is this cool, you better hope you have the music to match. It sure delivers, with a songwriting approach as depraved as it is lovelorn, as hedonistic as it is melancholic and as invested in ephemeral pleasure as it is longing for something more. If you’re a woman wanting to understand the psyche of the modern man, there’s not many better places to start. Like The xx meets The Weeknd’s House of Balloons, Cigarettes After Sex’s eponymous debut sounds like a sedative swallowed in Pleasure Town. Each sexual encounter is just another shameless night to be topped, each special connection just another disappointment waiting to be unmasked. If there’s been a funnier line all year than “well I know full well that you are the patron saint of sucking cock, señorita you’re a cheater, well so am I”, I haven’t heard it. Monogamous love in the millennial age may well be a myth, but the marriage between Greg Gonzalez’s dreamy vocals and the woozy guitars accompanying him is one I hope never to see divorced.
4. Lorde- Melodrama
Popstar is perhaps a misnomer for an artist who beats so feverishly to the sound of her own drum, but on Lorde’s second album she confirms that’s exactly what she is. For my money, Lorde is the most fascinating female artist on the planet, a songwriter accomplished well beyond her 21 years that makes pop music catered to and for her own idiosyncratic aesthetic rather than radio’s prevailing soup du jour. The perfectly-titled Melodrama’s oddly concocted document of adolescence exhilarates because of the alluringly mystical vocals Lorde embellishes the minimal beats with. It is lyrically compelling and sonically concise, an extension of Pure Heroine’s rebellion against shallow trends then en vogue. No longer content with critiquing the state of contemporary pop music and with the world’s gaze earned, Lorde reflects back with a brand-new pop recipe. “We’ll never be royals”, she sang on 2013’s breakout hit. How wrong was she. With the solitary female nod for Album of the Year, Lorde’s place as the new Queen of Pop is an argument I wouldn’t fancy the task of rebutting. Broadcast the boom-boom-boom, and make ‘em all dance to it.
3. Big K.R.I.T.- 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time
The first music article I ever wrote wondered aloud about whether Big K.R.I.T. would break his three year absence from music and deliver on his seismic potential. Like magic, just three months later he answered my call, delivering a double album that captured everything special about Southern hip-hop. It’s all there, from the gorgeous jazz, uplifting soul and rambunctious rhymes delivered over trunk-knocking beats. Oozing the coolness of Cadillacs and the modest relatability of Southern fried chicken, not even Colonel Sanders concocted recipes this finger lickin’ good. Taking more of a backseat on production this time round, Big K.R.I.T.’s songwriting entered a new stratosphere. Such is the magnitude of the task, rarely is the double album tried let alone executed, but in compartmentalising Big K.R.I.T. the rapper and Justin Scott the man to two separate discs, Mississippi’s finest MC delivered a dual concept LP for all moods and occasions. Whether it’s the smoke sesh (‘Layup’), the gym (‘Confetti’) or a troubled night alone with your conscience (‘Mixed Messages’), K.R.I.T. has the song you need. Big K.R.I.T. is a verbal marksman who aims straight for the heart. On his first album as an independent artist there’s scarcely a missed shot. Passion and insecurity sit front and centre on K.R.I.T.’s golden sleeves, a country man who knows deep inside of him is the talent to rule but cursed by geography lottery. I can certainly relate to that.
2. Tyler, The Creator- Flower Boy
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Tyler, The Creator rap. Pouring his soul out for nearly seven minutes on Goblin’s title track, it was one of those rare moments where my jaw was left on the floor by someone totally unfamiliar to my ears. Until this year, however, Tyler had never executed an album I loved from start to finish. It is unfortunate that the dominant conversation around Flower Boy was Tyler’s alleged coming out of the closet (‘Garden Shed’). Remarkable as this may be for a man once banned from the UK by Theresa May’s Home Secretary department for his homophobic lyrics, nevertheless Flower Boy is much too accomplished a creation to be restricted to one conversation. Flower Boy was the moment where hip-hop’s most unapologetically bizarre extrovert looked inward and found beauty. This wasn’t just my album of the summer, this album WAS my summer. Anxiety about the future, looking back on better times (‘November’) & missing friends who were dotted across the globe made party season a lot less enjoyable than customary. It was Tyler’s lyrics that got me through that tough time, in fact it was the chorus on ‘Boredom’ that inspired me to open this website: “Find some time, find some time to do something.”
The album lures you in with its sweetness and lush melodies, directly counterpointed by the sucker punch of vulnerability hiding beneath its gorgeous shell. Horticultural imagery is complimented by Tyler’s production, Earth tones in sound that calls to mind the ‘old Kanye.’ As far as MCing goes, Tyler is more Master of Conducting than Master of Ceremonies. However, on Flower Boy the sincerity of his vulnerable bars shines through, whereas before they only shimmered in the shadow of his controversial persona. Interplay between Tyler’s cold, distant lyrics and the warm, breezy beats accentuates the pain of a lonely life under California sunshine. In the end we have but one option: Enjoy Right Now, Today.
1. Kendrick Lamar- DAMN.
When you say you truly love something or someone, you don’t just say it and move on. You take it into your life, you let it guide you through every moment and influence your decisions. That is how I feel about Kendrick Lamar’s music. There comes a moment in every legendary rapper’s career where no doubt is left, where even detractors can only nod in agreement when you say those immortal words: “I am the king of the game.” It came for Eminem with the Marshall Mathers LP, for Kanye with Graduation, and hands down, DAMN. was the definitive album of 2017. Bible in hand, today’s most renowned lyrical locksmith raided the homes and radios of everyone. Who from any genre or era has ever straddled the underground and the mainstream, the cerebral and the visceral, the commercial and the conscious, the introspective and the direct as well as Kendrick Lamar? From the moment Kendrick declared himself as king of the rap game and told everyone to get their shit together for April 7th- I embarrassingly booked the day off work to be rewarded with nothing but a pre-order link- Kendrick had the world’s attention on tenterhooks. A far cry from the West Coast indebted bildungsroman good kid, m.A.A.d city & the sprawling, novelistic To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN. is another vivid picture that only the colourblind won’t perceive. It is an album that punches you straight in the face while tickling your brain, the inescapable fulcrum of the hip-hop zeitgeist that dominated popular culture in 2017. Thematically, DAMN. departed from the nuanced political commentary Kendrick made his name on, zooming in on the base desires and feelings of humanity via his own duality. His favourite word is discipline, and it shows. Love or lust, pride or humility, violence or pacificity, courage or fear- which will you choose? Opening salvo BLOOD was not a song but a parable, an eerie forewarning of the grisly consequences that karma can doom even our heroes to should they stray from the prophet’s path. Hit singles HUMBLE, DNA and LOYALTY are mere snapshots of a pious Gemini on the brink of sinful relapse. Closing song DUCKWORTH was an instant classic for hip-hop purists, a startlingly detailed tale of serendipity that crystallises an oft-repeated but even more frequently neglected fact: life is fragile. When the difference between dying just another anonymous, fatherless black youth and becoming the greatest rapper alive teeters on a box of KFC chicken, I can only conclude that Mrs Gump was wrong about those chocolates.
DAMN. emphasises the importance of the album more than any other in 2017. Some of the biggest smash singles of the year were Kendrick songs (‘HUMBLE’), but when listened to as a whole DAMN. is an altogether different experience. Like his idol 2Pac, the spectre of certain death haunts Kendrick (‘FEAR’). More than ever, Kendrick’s heavy shoulders are crumbling under the burden of spiritual leadership of a generation. His solution, though fraught with doubt, is simple: pray for me. What happens on Earth stays on Earth, what you do with your time is entirely yours.