After 2015’s release of To Pimp a Butterfly, you may have asked yourself ‘Why would Kendrick Lamar need to release anything ever again?’, ‘Can anything be this good?’ or ‘Why even try?’ And the resounding answer is ‘Yes, here’s Damn.’ It goes without saying that Kendrick Lamar didn’t owe the universe anything in 2017—actually, Kendrick may not anything to the universe ever again, but he defied logic once again, and Damn is a one amongst a cast of classics and monumental releases. And in classic Kendrick form (as if he didn’t do this already), Damn contains his most expansive and ranging works to-date while maintaining the classic Kendrick and hip-hop sound all together. With gracing touches from producers Dr. Dre, Greg Kurstin, BadBadNotGood, and The Alchemist accompanied by samples ranging from Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z to Rick James and James Brown, Damn is neither shy on the cast of characters nor leaves a stone unturned (did someone say featuring U2?). Quick suggestion: don’t start to ask yourself if he will be able to match or beat Damn, because there’s a very high likelihood that will happen. In fact, chances are he’s already well on his way on that road. All we can do is sit and wait. And enjoy Damn, because it was masterfully dubbed. Damn.
For a group of demonic missionaries (after all, their name is the The Black Angels), they sure know how to conjure the inner-psychedelic savage out of every listener. Eerie and haunting while shaking the bad juju off from a horrid trance, Alex Maas and the Austin, Texas troupe lay down all of the tarot cards and voodoo bone casts on Death Song to remind you that the devil comes in kaleidoscopic shapes and forms. And as their follow up to 2014’s Clear Lake Forest, Death Song stretches their lifelong dedication to the garage psych-rock of the Velvet Underground (see their 1967 release on The Velvet Underground & Nico, “The Black Angel’s Death Song”…) and much of the psychedelia to come out of the 60’s and 70’s. But what’s truly different about Death Song from past releases like 2010’s groundbreaking Phosphene Dream is it’s ability to charm their conjured demon into a groovy boogie. The impending apocalyptic doom is still looming like a dark cloud, but songs like “I Dreamt” and “Medicine” get the devils feet tapping and hips shaking as if it’s the last chance before that dark cloud takes over (after all, the record is dubbed Death Song…). And while certainly more cheekier than before and never short on cynicism, Death Song drives with an upbeat lifeblood faster and further than ever before, while still including that sinister synth squeal from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” to shine a light on how dark the lifeblood truly is.
As the release that separates itself from the pack of brewing angst and lost loves, Elbow’s release in Little Fictions makes ground on the integrity it’s predecessors sought. A concoction of intertwining rhythms, melodies, and moving instrumentals, Little Fictions displays individual talent within the confines of a group setting. And where heartache bent for musicianship on previous releases, newfound love makes way for years of creative and raw exertion that spans from the microphone and guitar parts to the clinging percussions and backing string ensembles. As undeniably one of the most diverse and expansive releases for the group, and quite possibly for the year, Little Fictions sits as the sweet reminder that great things comes with time.
To say the least, 2017 was a big year for King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, if not the year. Yes, it’s an understated question: how did they do it? Take the sheer nature of the band as the indicator. Imagine a seven-headed psychedelic Australian devil borne out of Jim Morrison’s peyote desert trip—diabolical to the core, but the most kaleidoscopic excursion on record. From their jazz-infused and pun-intended collaborative effort with Mild High Club on Sketches of Brunswick East to their more all-inclusive approach on Flying Microtonal Banana, Murder of the Universe, and Polygondwanaland, the creative juices were working overtime in 2017. It’s fair enough to say the juices were working plenty while coming up with the album names alone, and they only do the releases justice for what’s in between the vinyl groves. Five full-length releases later (and possibly counting), and 2017 is undeniably looking like one for the annals for King Gizzard. It’s almost an anthology that belongs all together on a shelf in chronological order: “2017, The Year of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard”. It’s a year that will go down in history in classic King Gizzard fashion.
Creating a masterpiece doesn’t happen overnight, over the course of a few months or weeks, or even through years of trial and toil. A full-fledged masterpiece, tried and true and withstanding the test of time is a feat that most artists dream of, but bouncing from masterpiece to masterpiece is something else entirely. And even for a hint in time, the bite-size minuscule that oftentimes encapsulates greatness, an artist can unleash a creative output to blend amongst relative significance. Colors is exactly that: a single note of greatness amongst an orchestra. But it’s a release that’s polar opposites from its bunkmates, which is as characteristically Beck as it gets.
Undoubtedly Beck’s most pop-fueled and energetic release to date, Colors pushes the limits that constitute a “strictly pop” record. It’s pop, no bones about it, but what if Beck put his own spin on the definition of the genre? From middle-of-the-road alternative and sprightly upbeat takes to classically damn good numbers, Beck set out with a clear mindset when approaching this record: conquer pop, and producer Greg Kurstin was right on par with him. Take the mammoth “Dreams” as a cue; from beginning to end, every drum beat, vocal part, and layered guitar shimmy-shake align in unison as if the song came to him in a vision (full disclosure, there’s a high likelihood it was). Accelerating like an pop-alternative(ish) standard and falling with a distorted breakdown, all cards are on the table with a song like “Dreams”, and it lands nowhere short of spectacular. Even more so on songs like “Up All Night”, “Colors”, and “No Distraction” does Beck and co. break out the full cast of sprightly-sounding characters. Panpipes and synths, bouncy and quick drum parts, guitar and piano licks intertwining, and even lyrics about late-night, carefree love flings, no stone goes unturned, and underneath is a pop macrocosm.
As if conquering the party-esque, mainstream-ish pop haunt wasn’t enough, Colors goes a step further and takes a tip from the history books. Fortunately for listeners both old and young, a pop record wouldn’t be such without channeling the inner Beatles, and “Dear Life” does so by drawing a line in the sand between contemporary and classical pop. A monumental song with catchy hooks, a driving piano melody, and harmonizing, effects-lathered guitar that’s strictly secluded to the chorus (see artist, Paul McCartney), “Dear Life” couldn’t be a more modern testament to recreating the blueprints of past demagogues. Amongst the many standout hits on the record, “Dear Life” exhibits an attention to detail with layering and composition on top of lyrics that speak of only one classification: perfectionism.
Right, wrong, or indifferent, when an artist of Beck’s caliber releases a record that’s drastically different from the preceding catalog, opinions arise and waves are made. Most artists either nestle into a comfort zone of “their sound” or branch out into others, and Beck has made it abundantly clear that he isn’t like “most artists”, if you didn’t know that already (the lyrics to his first major hit, “Loser” should be enough evidence). Look no further than his catalog for a clue as to why he would release such a pop-centric album. Historically, he’s bounced from genre to genre, which is perhaps his most reputable attribute, and pop was one he hasn’t extensively dived into (or at least dedicated an entire album to). Add producer Greg Kurstin behind the board, and you get one of the most noteworthy pop records of 2017, if not of the past decade or more. It’s the alter ego to his previous award-winning and acoustically mellow release, Morning Phase, and there’s a good chance his next release will be just as different.
The baddest duo in hip-hop know a thing or two about the inner workings of the world, both artistically and socially. They don’t mess with things that don’t need to be messed with, they don’t speak when things don’t need to be spoken, and they only shine a light when a light needs to be shone. And amidst times of such oppression and social strife (or bigotry?), it couldn’t be more symbolic to have a mouthpiece like Run The Jewels in the limelight of hip-hop and society. Creating great art is one thing, but socially significant and great art? That’s something else entirely, and it’s a mountain Run the Jewels has climbed time and time again (three times to be precise). And in classic RTJ fashion, enlisting a fantastic cast from Danny Brown and Danger Mouse to Matt Sweeney, Zach de la Rocha, and Boots adds the cherry on top to spotlighting social injustices and out-performing themselves again on Run The Jewels 3. As Killa Mike raps on “Talk to Me”, ‘my job is to fight for survival in spite of these all lives matter ass white folk…. I told ya suckers, I told you on RTJ1, then I told you again on RT2, and you still ain’t believe me, so here we go, RTJ3’.
Isn’t it tragically mundane to approach art with the same emotions and outlook time and time again? This piece fits here, put that there, and screw the lid on tight as if art is an assembly line pumping out nostalgic, bite-size morsels for the public to reminisce on until another comes out a few years down the road.
Now, some artists (even really great artists) can ride the wave of their niche for years, decades or more without getting stale, but hitting repeat or fitting art creation into a tried-and-true mold doesn’t always work for everyone. Ditching the past and solely looking forward isn’t necessarily the best approach either in certain situations, but what alt-J does on Relaxer is certainly exploring uncharted territory considering their catalog. Even for a group that’s relatively expansive, Relaxer takes that notion a bit farther. From casting a crew of blaring horns on “In Cold Blood”, adding an avant-garde twist to the folk classic, “House of the Rising Sun”, to a hip-hop-esque number with “Deadcrush”, Relaxer is undeniably the groups most ambitiously diverse effort to date. And as the characteristically black sheep of it’s forebears, “3WW” couldn’t be more of a peculiar song to kick off Relaxer. Dynamically falling with exquisite delicacy and rising to the top with a blasting chorus, “3WW” epitomizes the ebbs and flows of Relaxer and stands as one of the most unique songs ever released.
As one of the great contemporary acoustic artists to come out of the United Kingdom, Laura Marling’s release in Semper Femina focuses her efforts of a career dedicated to the genre of worldly folk. In theory, it seems difficult to refine a craft release after release, but Laura Marling’s effortless ability to stay true to the track while avoiding the slightest sense of redundancy is just one of her notable attributes. Semper Femina is necessarily a cataclysmic or polarizing release from her catalog (if you haven’t heard any of her previous releases, they’re worth a spin… or a bunch), but it comfortably fits into the soothing and softly sweet frame she’s created for herself. And all while dissecting femininity within society (see latin translation of semper femina), Laura never shies from laying down a soulful track like “Wild Fire” and “Nothing, Not Nearly”, a classically folk song with “Always This Way” and “Nouel”, and a more contemporary number like “Soothing”.
Dark and demonic, spacey and airy, and poppy and carefree, Wolf Alice’s follow up to 2015’s My Love Is Cool tests the boundaries that were considered anything and everything under the sun. The only difference is on 2017’s Visions of a Life, the band includes just about everything under the sun a traditional indie alternative rock can throw a rope around. With a raucous reminder that guitar is still (and most likely always will be) front and center, Wolf Alice’s ability to weave in and out of light and dark nuances is rooted in their ability to elevate and compose on the guitar, as if poking other band members on the shoulder for their response. And with guitar being a golden calf of sorts for the group (low and behold, there are two guitarists in the group), “Sadboy” explores the horizon of Wolf Alice’s repertoire that typically end up emphasizing elements of alternative hard rock. Kicking off like Pearl Jam’s 1993 mammoth, “Daughter” with only double hi-hats and acoustic guitar, “Sadboy” gradually rises with dooming effects in the chorus that are split up with a demonic breakdown. And on the colossus “Visions of a Life” where all cards are laid on the table, the listener is notified once more that distortion and cymbal-laden drum parts aren’t secluded to Rock or Metal, despite hearing the slightest nodes of both.
When listening to Visions of a Life, it doesn’t take a whizkid to realize it’s dark demeanor. But what’s astonishingly unique about this release is not it’s damn-near violent mystique, it’s also the magnifying dynamics within instruments and effects that act more like the hills of a roller coaster. In natural Wolf Alice fashion, every song encapsulates unmatched light and shade, except the shade part is dark – deviantly dark.