In 2017 I discovered an array of interesting artists and recordings, many of them from the past. Generally, I wasn’t as engaged with new releases, though it was a strong year for popular music. Here is a short list of the most striking and enjoyable new albums I encountered this year:
Jay-Z, 4: 44 (Roc Nation/UMG)
Celebrity love rat Jay-Z returned in June following a period of extended banality with 4: 44, his strongest release in years. Backed by a gorgeous (if somewhat obvious) sample-bed by Chicago stalwart No ID, Jay was more willing than ever to let the facade slip on his thirteenth studio album. My favourite is the somewhat maudlin bonus cut ‘MaNyfaCedGod’ featuring a beautiful hook by James Blake.
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
Philadelphia indie-auteur and studio obsessive Adam Granduciel’s latest record was his most meticulous and assured, channelling classic rock touchstones like Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Dylan, while achieving some of the cleanest production you’ll likely ever hear on record.
Miguel, War + Leisure (Bystorm Entertainment/RCA)
The slinkiness of Miguel’s futuristic R&B records transcends his often-obnoxious sexual posturing (the exception being the classic modern love-song ‘Adorn’). I haven’t had time to fully digest War + Leisure, but it already feels like his most relaxed and complete project. ‘Pineapple Skies’ is the ‘Sexual Healing’ remake we never thought we needed.
Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference (Brainfeeder)
The critical consensus seems to be that Washington’s A Harmony of Difference is inferior to the jazz bandleader’s breakthrough 2015 three-disc set The Epic. While the highpoints of that album were sublime, in my opinion its choral droning and noodling generally overstayed their welcome. At a lean 25 minutes, Harmony of Difference, originally composed as the soundtrack to short film shown at the Whitney Biennial, is equally appealing while much less of a slog.
Haim, Something to Tell You (Polydor)
Reviews of this band of LA sisters’ highly-anticipated sophomore record were mixed—some critics accusing it of being wan and overproduced in contrast to their fresh debut. For me, the album’s subtle compositions, joyfulness, retro flourishes and summery harmonies were an untrammelled pleasure.
Michael Kiwanuka, Love and Hate
This criminally under-appreciated British singer-songwriter is probably best known for composing the theme song to the HBO series Big Little Lies. Hopefully this anonymity soon changes, because Kiwanuka’s second studio album has it all: muscular song writing, elaborate but unfussy production and emotional honesty.
Fazerdaze, Morningside (Flying Nun)
Kiwi Amelia Murray’s full-length debut Morningside is named for the Auckland neighbourhood where she recorded it in her bedroom. Murray has been attracting rightful attention overseas for this gorgeous low-fi pop album, anchored by her rhythmic guitar playing and lovely voice.
Cyhi the Prynce, No Dope on Sundays (Good Music/Sony)
Kanye West associate Cyhi the Prince has taken nearly a decade to release his debut album, but its worth the wait. As its title suggests, No Dope on Sundays blends gangsterism and religious confessions. Executive produced by West, it flirts with soul samples and boom-bap nostalgia while always sounding up-to-date.