Last cuts were: Jachary (amazing but only 28 minutes), sza (look, I’m sorry Jenna. I really am), Dua Lipa (a few legendary singles in between filler), Syd and Niia (super hot but monochrome), Grizzly Bear and Vijay Iyer (too gorgeous, too professorial). Here it is.
10. Smino, “Blkswn”
When to listen: afternoon roof sessions
How many joints: 12/18 (66%)
Best stretch: “Flea Flicka” – “Anita”
Motherfuckers don’t rap in time anymore.
I’m not trying to be on a nitpicky “Whiplash” tip, but so many of this new generation, from 21 Savage to Lil Uzi Vert to Lil Pump to Tay-K, rush everywhere and lack the basic ability to keep time. Producers know this, and offset their shortcomings by cordoning off every bar with a bigass bass on the 1 and 3 and a bigass snare on the 2 and 4. So even if the rapper can’t feel the beat, everyone in the crowd will be able to. These little pens allow the rappers to focus on jumping around and exuding charisma and whatever it is they apparently thrive at.
Which is why it’s been so refreshing this year to listen to Smino. On “blkswn” he barely receives any rhythmic safety net at all from his producer Monte Booker; in fact, the tracks are engineered to give as little structural support as possible. This is because Smino is a rhythmic guru. His internal clock is impeccable, allowing him to plunge into double-and-triple time tongue twisters, recede into flirty drawls, hesitate, stutter, lunge, and then still land perfectly back on the 1. All these other dudes are system players; Smino runs free.
Up and down the album you can find virtuosic rhyme patterns, whether over clattering drums, or finger snaps, or nothing at all. One of the most sublime stretches showcasing his elasticity comes toward the end of “Flea Flicka,” which boasts a very small beat propped up by some gentle wah wah guitar and muted handclaps. “Said I want the cheeeeese,” he drawls lazily, before jauntily swinging his syllables through iambic octameter: “ I gotta find the parmesan / And long for provolone.” Then the next rapidfire phrases spill out in dense clusters: “nigga be locked in the fuckin’ studio / She on my digits tryna plan a visit / make it conjugal.” This is an album for dancers, for basketball crossovers and football jukes.
9. Jesca Hoop, “Memories Are Now”
When to listen: From a secret scratchy radio at a campfire in post-apocalypse Arizona
How many joints: 8/9 (88%)
Best stretch: “Memories Are Now” – “Cut Connection”
Like many of the best shows on television, “Memories Are Now” is a period piece. But from what period? It’s difficult to even discern the century. Nineteenth-century sea shanties? Revolutionary War-era battle hymns? Sixties protest ballads?
But “Memories Are Now” isn’t nostalgia porn. It is a journey through an era that Hoop has created herself, set somewhere in the present, unburdened by technology, uplifted by communal spirit and oral histories and gratified urges. This is a 2017 frontier album.
The songs are stripped bare, not out of laziness but raven-eyed intent. Producer Blake Mills played a big role in carefully applying a coat of makeup to make the surfaces appear all-natural. The percussion is proudly ragged, sounding like a shoe stomping a wooden block or a handle of whiskey being swished and knocked against a barn door. Like Smino, Hoop is anti-grid; the music inhales and exhales naturally. Lyrically, she stumps for independence, from groupthink and digital hegemony, and for forging connections that are physical and not viral: “Don’t forget life before the internet / The streets were run by sharks and jets and children running wild.”
And the title track is an independence anthem of the first degree. The only instruments are a nubby bass – proudly teetering on and off any metronomic sense of time – and a tambourine, shaken off camera in the corner of the room. Layers and layers of her versatile voice – it sighs, rasps, bites bitterly, sneers defiantly – create a choral effect not of a choir but rather a coven. The lyricism flips from straightforward motivation to slightly opaque poetry: “And every doubt is just a trigger proven strength / Clear the way, I’m coming through.” Each part of the song creates a nostalgia for the part immediately before it.
8. PWR BTTM, “Pageant”
When to listen: picnics, health clinics
How many joints: 11/13 (85%)
Best stretch: “LOL” – “Now Now”
It’s your right to never want to listen to PWR BTTM again, after sexual misconduct allegations emerged in May right on the cusp of the release of their new album, “Pageant.” I certainly don’t listen to the album the same way I heard it pre-allegations, when it seemed to me a euphoric, irresistible arrival of a new indomitable cultural force. The road to self-actualization narrative that the album offers up is forever tarnished; you can’t help but listen to the overflowing empowerment of “Big Beautiful Day” with a cynical ear.
But I still believe “Pageant” is an urgent, stunningly vital piece of art clawing out from the margins. And as much as I would like to bury it, it remains important to me because of the force and clarity in which it conveys the torment of being trapped in someone else’s body, and the elation of even glimpsing your true identity. No other piece of artwork or literature had made me better emphasize with the experience of being trans, or depressed, or bipolar. It is possessed by anguished valleys full of self-flagellation and self-loathing and cathartic peaks of physical breakthroughs and newfound resolve and unfettered joy. Blink-182 would be proud of the ferocity and frequency of the bite sized pop-punk hooks; its guitars snarl with cunning attitude.
And the title song, “Pageant,” is one of the most innovative and moving narratives I’ve heard in a long time. It depicts a tragic love story and power struggle between the physical and mental, cutting right to the tragedy below the glitter. “Brain says to my body / ‘Baby you know that I’m sorry / And I swear to god I’m trying / I just don’t know how to change,’” Ben Hopkins sings softly.
I believe in punishment, but I also believe repentance, especially for striving artists as afflicted as PWR BTTM. I hope they take their own album to heart – it lays out a blueprint for overcoming the worst of hardships through education, community, defiance, and self-respect.
7. Becca Stevens, “Regina”
When to listen: Central Park reservoir at dawn
How many joints: 8/13 (61%)
Best stretch: “Both Still Here” – “Queen Mab”
A New School jazz and contemporary music graduate, Becca Stevens arrived in Brooklyn in 2007 a mean jazz guitarist and an acrobatic singer with an omnivorous taste in music. She could slip into Frank Ocean pillow talk just as easily as Snarky Puppy heady athleticism as Bjork-ian croons. In fact, she was a prodigal vagabond. The musical equivalent of a Ditto, she slipped into well-worn imprints a little too seamlessly.
But “Regina” is not an amalgamation of virtuosic flexes but rather a Becca Stevens Record, possessing a crystalline sound and vivid purpose. The record effortlessly combines two main impulses: a gentle buoyancy, lifted by her lilting voice and fascination with fairy tales, and a leathery hide, slashed about with tomtom bombs and spiky guitars.
Listening to any one of these songs is to wander into a forest that grows more lush and inhabited by the step. It might start with a single tiptoeing mandolin. Shakers will flit around the edges. Layers and layers of vocal harmonies form a dense underbrush, and an authoritative bass establishes a firm footing.
But once in awhile Stevens will fell a tree at your feet so that you jump back, startled, and lose your bearings. The first minute and half of “Queen Mab” possesses one of the most unexpected turns in music this year, as an ethereal vocal round – straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with birds audibly chirping good tidings – snaps into focus as a polished Crosby Stills and Nash riff, which then is punctured by violent trap beat that even Metro Boomin would appreciate. Across the five-and-a-half minute song each of these elements collide and weave around each other.
There are some confounding stretches and tepid asides down jazz theory rabbit holes. But that’s all part of Steven’s omnivorous mission to confound and probe. She employs a host of guests not necessarily for their personalities but their textures: Jacob Collier brings a playful gravel, while David Crosby lends a solemnity. But throughout Becca remains the star, the flighty creator of a newfound genre-melding universe.
6. Daniel Caesar, “Freudian”
When to listen: 1 a.m. w/ bae
How many joints: 7/10 (70%)
Best stretch: “Neu Roses” – “Blessed”
(Plagiarized from myself) “Freudian,” Daniel Caesar’s debut, can be read as a deep dive on his attempt to build both an album and a relationship at the same time. The first building block is beauty. Caesar’s girl is beautiful, and so his music must be too. And “Freudian” is an audiophile’s paradise, filled with buttery guitars and snares that snap like fresh baguettes and bright plinking pianos that gently pan from one ear to the other. The guitar on “Hold Me Down” drips with honeyed reverb and then crunches on the low end. The solemn, vaguely baroque choir on “Neu Roses” flickers with the burnished intensity of Stevie Wonder’s best vocal arrangements. And the crown jewel of “Freudian’s” soundscape is Caesar’s voice itself. It’s a wheel of wet clay waiting to be molded, turning from jaunty hip-hop cadence to stately alto on a dime.
But it’s all too easy to fall in love with pure beauty, which is meaningless if hollow. Caesar knows this. He knows his voice is beautiful to the point that it lacks an edge; it’s a pristine beacon emitting in one way. And so in an effort for intimacy and empathy he creates scabs in his music and picks at them. He ruins the end of “Loose” with a phone ring and a listless, emasculating semi-apology from a woman whose attention is clearly elsewhere. He cuts into his glittering keyboards on “Transform” with harsh fret noises. He interrupts the virginal church choir on “Neu Roses” with a sweaty slow jam in which he loses control of his tongue and slurs bitterly, but not before wandering into a distorted, whirring sound clip of a speech. He throws in suspensions and chord subs and jazz voicings and found sounds. All of these choices transform both of the album’s aims–the music and the relationship–from a perfume ad into an urgent, unpredictable affair.
5. Vince Staples, “Big Fish Theory”
When to listen: playing pickup basketball under the bridge
How many joints: 7/10 (70%)
Best stretch: “Yeah Right” – “Bagbak”
In a scene from “Stranger Things 2,” the kiddos are at a school dance, locking eyes, planting kisses, drinking punch, tearing up the dance floor. But then the camera zooms out into the night sky and flips; the school reappears, decrepit and sunken, as shadowy forces loom overhead. It’s a reminder that even when the surface appears blissful, the Upside Down always threatens just out of view.
This feeling – anxiety curled in euphoria – pervades “Big Fish Theory,” Vince Staples’ best album yet. It’s a black lives matter record disguised as a club record. You can tune out the lyrics and spazz to the metallic beats and the rhythm of his impeccable flow. But if you pay attention, he might just be saying something that could ruin your day.
The beats on this album share very little in common with trap, or Compton funk, or New York boom bap, or really anything else happening in hip hop right now. It’s heavily influenced by house and Detroit techno, with producers including dance mavens SOPHIE, Flume and Zack Sekoff. You could vogue to the brisk “Homage.” But unlike Azealia Banks or Goldlink, Vince never commits fully to dance and its mandated mindlessness. “Party People” interrupts its #vibes with a reminder of death and destruction. “Yeah Right” sounds like New York Fashion Week if staged in the sewer system.
“Big Fish” theory is an urban record, not in the way the Grammys ghettoize black music, but in that is possessed with the energy of the city. It’s made up of paranoid bravado and claustrophobia and surfaces that scrape and bruise. Vince left the old formulas behind: he’s writing a new black identity.
4. Sampha, “Process”
When to listen: 1 a.m. w/ bottle
How many joints? 6/10 (70%)
Best stretch: “Reverse Faults” – “Timmy’s Prayer”
“Took the break pads out the car,” Sampha wails during a moment of silence on “Reverse Faults,” before chaos emerges in the form of anxious keyboard patterns, low buzzes and spooky vocal clips of his own voice. The moment is all too apt, because “Process” is the “wild card, bitches!” of debut albums. You’d expect the young Brit – whose career hereto now had been propped by actual stars like Drake, Jessie Ware and Solange – to put out a powerhouse vehicle for his golden voice, more in line with the output of Khalid or Daniel Caesar this year. Certainly not this trembling, self-destructive mess.
But this erratic debut couldn’t be more captivating. It’s true to its title, and shows an artist working through rising fame and the grief of his mother dying. Some of these moments are painfully vulnerable: you can hear him fighting back tears when he yells, “You’ve been with me since the cradle / You’ve been with me, you’re my angel / please don’t you diiiiiisappear” on “Kora Sings.” It’s a raw outburst like the ones you see on the subway, where most of the audience will avert their eyes, but others are unable to look away.
Other tracks are less traumatic, and Sampha settles comfortably into soulful electronica, as on the bouncing, shrewdly layered “Under.” But mostly the rookie leaves his roots exposed, confident that his attitude, micro-gestures, and daring experiments in form will convey more about him than any over-the-top showmanship.
3. Marika Hackman, “I’m Not Your Man”
When to listen: Riding Amtrak in a rainstorm
How many joints: 11/15 (73%)
Best stretch: “Apple Tree” – “Blahblahblah”
Marika Hackman’s “I’m Not Your Man” is probably the most comforting album you’ll ever hear about murder, gluttony, cannibalism, lighting tongues on fire, and zombies. The subject matter is frighteningly dark; the guitars are coquettish and lulling. The divide just keeps drawing you in.
Over and over again, Hackman toys with light and dark, setting a scene and then smashing it to bits. On “Gina’s World,” she sings about killing the sun in spellbindingly bright harmony. “So Long” is a breakup song that ends, “I’ll keep you in my bed tonight.” On “Good Intentions,” she kills her sister, before revealing that her sister has killed her several times.
These dizzying plot twists and gruesome imagery are tempered by a musical state of zen: Hackman’s band produces winsome, fully-fleshed arrangements that simmer and carouse. When I saw her over the summer she bopped along joyfully with The Big Moon, grinning ear to ear and jokingly going back-to-back on guitar solos; you’d never know she was singing about cutting up someone’s tongue “like a bicycle spoke.”
The duality mimics the most intense level of intimacy, of sharing a secret with someone in a packed room. There’s nothing quite like the moment when you create an entire universe of understanding within a three inch bubble, as a litany of noise stews around you – when you focus all your energy into a tiny sliver of sensory intake for a single connection. And even through the raging guitars and dense backup harmonies, you hear exactly when Hackman closes her parched lips and her tongue hits the top of her mouth, you can practically feel her saliva in your ear. And you know that she’s about to say something mischievous, that was only meant for you.
2. Japanese Breakfast, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”
When to listen: while lucid dreaming
How many joints: 8/11 (73%)
Best stretch: N/A (the best songs are dispersed evenly throughout)
“Dreamy” is a word used often to describe music. There are dreamy voices, like Ella Fitzgerald, and dreamy guitarists, like Alex Scally. But much rarer is the music that sounds as if it was written and recorded inside a dream. The shapes are disorienting yet pleasantly fluid, with instrumental parts emerging gently out of a haze. The tactile sensations are solidly present, but only in lapses. There’s someone with you, and you know their face and you can hear their every word, until they turn away and are replaced by someone else, and the words wisp away from your memory.
Japanese Breakfast’s first album, 2016’s “Psychopomp,” came close to approximating the dream state. But the shroud was too dense, the fine details too blurry, the lens too wandering. After all, you can’t space out, or daydream, within a dream. Every facet must be dynamic and fully realized, even if it mutates on a dime.
“Soft Sounds From Another Planet,” her follow up, is a dream – a deep, R.E.M., eyelid-fluttering dream – an astonishing sonic and narrative achievement. It immerses you in one improbable, vivid scenario, before seamlessly whisking you away to the next.
Michelle Zauner, the real name of Japanese Breakfast, achieves this in several ways. The first is through her soundscapes – deep and wonderfully textured, with synth pads that float and basses that churn and swoop and hi hats that pop crisply. The instrumental of “Diving Woman,” which depicts the female deep sea divers of a South Korean island, conjures sets the scene far before the lyrics enter. A synthesizer wavers like ripples over water; you take a plunge and your knees slap the surface in the form of a bracing snare. When the bubbling guitars enter you’re fully submerged, kicking solidly downward with force as the bass does the same. Zauner never tells you that the diving women of Jeju hold their breath for up to three minutes, but you know all the same, because the groove floats and bobs for nearly that amount of time, with glimmers of conches and abalone and seaweed and grindylows floating across your hazy sightline.
As the bubbles from “Diving Woman” recede you find yourself driving down dimly lit highway, where Zauner’s multilayered lyricism takes over. She paints in both incisive detail and broad, matted strokes, giving you a realistic narrow focus while your subconscious fills out the rest of the scenery. It’s “a corkscrewed highway / Lightless miles of big rigs / Lightless miles, miles and miles,” she describes. A whole world exists outside the clouded window, but meanwhile the interior of the car is engulfed by a sharply focused nightmarish emotional catastrophe, in which a sex act is being attempted, but the partner is a spectre: “Last ditch desperate, like a makeshift siphon,” she coos, and you might just wake up covered in sweat.
The daze continues, in visions of robot love and twinkling instrumental interludes and “clothes engulfed in a bonfire,” until, finally, she wakes up for the closer, “This House.” It’s sober and cutting, and suddenly fearful of the magical, shapeshifting world she just created. “What if one day you leave / And all confused desire and time zone changes / Change what’s left of you and me?” she asks. It doesn’t seem like such a bad fate, considering the transfixing journey.
1. Phoebe Bridgers, “Stranger in the Alps”
When to listen: in your grave
How many joints? 10/11 (91%)
Best stretch: “Smoke Signals” – “You Missed My Heart”
Since I graduated high school there have been three albums that enacted hostile takeovers of my life. They not just shifted my musical tastes but entire chunks of my worldview – my posture and speech patterns and thought processes and dreams.
The first was Kanye’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which exploded into my college freshman dorm with limitless ambition and confidence; it was essentially the catalyst for my adulthood independence.
The second was Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange,” which I listened to every day for two months while spending the 2012 summer in Santiago, Chile. It was both a comfort blanket and a dare to adventure into the unknown.
And the third is “Stranger in the Alps” by Phoebe Bridgers.
Not so much a set of songs as a contagion, “Stranger” injected pure pheromones into my bloodstream with every listen. To listen to “Stranger” is to be forcibly catapulted straight into Bridgers’ limbic system, to feel everything she feels. So I would get uncomfortably high with her listening to “Demi Moore,” walk around the streets of the East Village disconsolate for no reason blasting “Scott Street,” go through old photo albums underneath the drone of “Smoke Signals.” When she mourned in “Funeral” I found a grief for my late grandmother dredging up to the surface.
And most acutely, when Phoebe fell stupid in love, I did too. I got Romilda Vane’d – twice. I fell for the depth and intensity of Phoebe’s love to fall for one girl, affectless and uncommunicative, and then another, squeaky and shallow, in immediate succession. And then when that was over I fell in love with a deep stretch of singleness that felt like a cocoon. I never felt more happy feeling more sad.
And then Phoebe’s infection spread from me to my friends. It made us sit around listlessly on Saturday afternoons, poring over the twisting relationships of “Chelsea,” tracking the various versions of “You Missed My Heart” (the album’s own “Jungleland”), screaming “Motion Sickness” at parties. The songs spread from our Harlem apartment to casting auditions to Montana driving trips to Italian villas.
And when we went to her show at Baby’s All Right in October, we found ourselves in a room surrounded by a hundred other patient zeros – from the 19-year old who gave up her fake ID in a blink in exchange for one-time entry, to the woman silently weeping in front of me through “Funeral,” to the dads flabbergasted by her chilling Tom Petty cover. And then it spread to Sara Bareilles and John Mayer and Alessia Cara and soon the whole world will be stuck in a Phoebe Bridgers reverie that will make them gorgeously sad and cause them to make awful, wonderful, indispensable decisions like the ones I made this summer.
So listen to this album, but don’t enter half-heartedly. Save it for when you find yourself falling for someone, or losing your sanity, or embarking on a trip; come to it and let the wave take you out to sea until you drown, and then rise to the surface, gasping and soggy and reborn.