It’s that time of year again! The glistening snow is gently falling, jingle bells are jingling away in the distance, and we get to tell you which albums we couldn’t stop listening to for the last 12 months! Yes, this is a “TOP TEN” list, but these albums don’t need to be rated or organized from best to slightly less-best. There is no countdown here, any of these albums could sit anywhere on a list of ten. We just loved these albums and wanted you to love them like we do.
WAR ON DRUGS – A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
For an album filled with what can only be described as slightly-sad thoughts, A Deeper Understanding doesn’t evoke sadness at all but leaves the listener feeling quite content, warm, and cuddled by the glisten of the ‘70s stained guitars and full warm synth arrangements. Somehow this album sounds 40 years old and brand spanking new in any 4 bars you could blindly select.
What is truly incredible, is that Adam Granduciel (the man who is War on Drugs), played and layered almost every instrument on the album himself during production. From guitar to piano, harmonica, a vibraphone, and a mellotron. The production on this album has reached a new level for Granduciel, truly exploring how guitars, both acoustic and electric alike, can sit so comfortably among the array of splendid, glowing synthesizers. The album could almost stand alone as an instrumental piece. The reverse is also true. Granduciel is a true poet on this album, and the lyrics could live on their own.
“I’m moving through the dark / Of a long black night / Just moving with the moon/ And the light it shines/ And I’m thinking of a place/ and it feels so very real / Just moving through the dark.” (“Thinking of a Place”)
“I’m aware you’re tired and lost / Like a demon in a doorway / Waiting to be born” (“Pain”)
Granduciel speaks often of being lost and finding a light. By the end of this album, you have gone on a journey through his life. Being lost, being found, and falling back into darkness again.
“Let it move through me / Let it blow through you / And take you into the night / Yeah” (“You Don’t Have to Go” )
SAMPHA – PROCESS
When he was only 3-years old, Sampha and his family found themselves with a piano in the home, and it forever changed the way he would express himself.
PROCESS is a gorgeous debut album, showcasing Sampha’s love of this classic instrument, but also taking us along journeys through the electronic to explore soul, trap, hip-hop, pop, and R&B.
Unlike his past work, where his vocals shyly hid behind the productions, Sampha’s understated and completely gorgeous voice is thankfully front and center this time around.
It’s no surprise that Sampha took home the 2017 Mercury Prize for this work.
As an artist, finally stepping out of the shadows of the many other artists he has worked beside and behind (Beyoncé, Solange, Drake, SBTRKT, Kanye West, Frank Ocean) Sampha readily shows us that he is, and always was, ready to be the front man we have been waiting for.
SZA – CTRL [pronounced SIZZA – CONTROL]
After releasing 3 EPs (See.SZA.Run 2012, S 2013 , and Z 2014) and writing for artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna, it is a true pleasure to sit down and listen to 46 minutes of SZA’s raw, real, debut full-length album CTRL (originally titled A).
Solána expresses so many things that you wish you would just say on a regular basis
“Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one.” (“Drew Barrymore” )
“You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty, havin’ nobody, only you buddy,” (“Garden (Say it Like That)”)
Beyond lyrics that hit home, musically this album is a soundscape of what today’s music is all about; neo-soul, hip-hop, and pop. Drake or The Weeknd would happily jump on any these productions as a solo hit any day of the week. From SZA’s Orhtodox Muslim upbringing to her social anxieties and her urge to just be a normal person, you can feel real and true emotions screaming through on every sultry, beautiful track. This an album about loving and losing and just trying to cope the best way you can.
KENDRICK LAMAR - DAMN.
Kendrick is loquacious in the best possible sense; a true storyteller. He packs so much into such a small space that sometimes I find myself on-edge as I listen, waiting to hear him take a breath between his incredibly powerful verses. There is no Kendrick sound, and yet there very much is. He is a chameleon, a shape-shifter, mutating and evolving in every song. Quiet and raspy, soulful and smooth, quick and wordy, high pitched, low pitched, you can’t lock him down and that is one of the most beautiful things about his music.
Working with incredible artists and producers (U2, Rihanna, Zacari, BadBadNotGood, Mike Will Made It, James Blake, The Alchemist, 9th Wonder… the list goes on), DAMN. proves its place in our top ten list over and over, checking off boxes we didn’t know we had ready to be checked.
Kendrick raps about so much more than the ever-so-common violence, sex culture, and drugs. Though these elements play a role, Kendrick takes the route of discussing a way to live one’s life in defense of the negative things and reaching that sometimes seemingly unreachable higher plane of just being a person who can get by.
Even if you just read the song titles, you get the vibe of Kendrick’s message.
DNA. Loyalty. Pride. Lust. Love. Fear.
What lesson should you take away from this record?
“It was always me versus the world/Until I found it’s me versus me.” (“DUCKWORTH” )
LORDE – MELODRAMA
Obviously, we have to talk Green Light, in of itself is a beautiful work.
It seems a silly point, but even the fact that Lorde has it in her to write pop music that doesn’t rhyme is a testament to who she has become as an artist. So much of the production on this record is warbled and muted; like a plunger on a trumpet bell or your palm resting against the strings of an acoustic guitar as they are strummed, giving way for her raspy, low voice, kind of just talking, but showcasing an incredible power and message.
Within 11 songs, Lorde brings us into her world. A world where love has failed, darkness seems to be looming just above us all times and life showcases its true, constantly confusing nature; we find a person who hasn't given up entirely. She is searching to find the love and the light, despite it all.
“Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark/ Now she’s gonna play and sing and lock you in her heart.” (“Writer in the Dark” )
“Cause I remember the rush, when forever was us/ Before all of the winds of regret and mistrust.” (“Hard Feelings/Loveless” )
“We keep trying to talk about us/ I’m someone you maybe might love/ I’ll be your quiet afternoon crush/ Be your violent overnight rush.” (“Supercut” )
How can the listener not want to call Lorde up on her cell and be her shoulder to cry on, take her for a drink, and force her to dance with you in some dark bar like you are the only two people there, careless and searching for joy? Or maybe just listen to it a second time through.
ED SHEERAN - ÷
We open the album with “Eraser”, which sounds like Mike Skinner just dropped a new Streets track (Google it!). Ed shares his limited but catchy rap/slam poetry skills with us and it’s an odd choice as an opener, but somehow works as a way to enter this album (find more of Ed’s rap verses on “Galway Girl”). This album has been criticized by many, calling it “swaggerless”. However, I feel the oversentimentality is what his audience lives for.
Ed portrays himself as the everyday man and almost even a causality of life, showing himself as a “regular joe” searching for love, and someone that can be easily hurt. Yes, this is an album with more than a few first-dance wedding songs on it. Yes, this is an album that is slightly sappy. No, this album is not deeply political or world-changing, but it is wonderfully produced pop music and I happen to love the colloquial ways that Ed writes. On the song “New Man”, Ed even talks about a man who has his ‘a**hole bleached (although I don’t know who suggested putting DJ scratches on this song. Fire that producer right now!).
“Shape of You”, alone, makes this album special. I’m sure there will be a collective sigh here, but I stand by saying that everyone knows this song by now, and there isn’t one person who has heard it and didn’t immediately love it and start moving or smiling.
Is this album perfect? No. But as an overall work of music, it plays well to the ear and shows off Mr. Sheeran in exactly the way he was hoping to be portrayed. This isn’t the number 1 album this year, but it certainly stands within this list.
JESSIE REYEZ – KIDDO
Canada for the win! Toronto’s own Jessie Reyez seemingly popped out of nowhere this year, and we are thrilled that she did – even Calvin Harris jumped at the chance to have her on his song “Hard to Love”. At first glance, 7 songs (really, like 6 and a half) doesn’t seem enough to constitute the best album. However, when you let the melodies, the production, the message, and the artist herself sink in, you can easily see why this album is so special.
Every song on the album is different: style, sound, the level of aggression, instrumentation, but it all works brilliantly together. Some tracks are hard as (redacted), and others, like “Figures” are stunning old-school ballads. However, where a song lacks hardness in production, it easily makes up for it with a powerful message.
Throughout this album, Reyez speaks in a raw, real, and untamed way about being a woman in a sexist music business, tumultuous relationships with overbearing sad little men, and a youth filled with dreams of money and love and making her parents proud.
“I wish I could hurt you back / Love, what would you do if you couldn’t get me back / You’re the one who’s gonna lose / Something so special, something so real / Tell me boy, how the f**k would you feel?” (“Love figures”)
Reyez has said that her music can be vulnerable and down on herself one moment and then the next, she'll look at herself in the mirror and say: "Butch up." (-wmagazine). Jessie beautiful imbue
We. Love. This. Album.
KELELA – TAKE ME APART
This album is R&B pop like you haven’t heard it in a long time - if ever. The production is sophisticated, sexy, deep, and somehow retro and modern at the same time. Every song feels like someone from 2045 traveled back to the ‘90s and wrote a pop record to send as a gift to 2017.
Both emotions and synthesizers swell on this album. Incredible producers like the XX and ARCA truly bring pop to a new light. Kelela welcomes you as close to herself as she can, taking you into her heart as it grows, as that same heart breaks to pieces, and once more discovers that a new love can light you a blaze even when you least expect it.
Arca-produced “Onanan” is a favorite for me, personally. Something about the left-of-center production, warbled true-to-Arca synths, with a vocal styling that, if told unknowing, could be a certain era of Janet Jackson (harmonies especially!)
You feel high for most of the album. Floating above the music, watching this story unfold with your ears. Though Kelela sings of heartbreak and LOVEv2.0, she is clear that love takes work, in the best of times and the worst of times. One line from “Altadena”, the final track of the album, in its simplicity, spoke to me and really pressed home the battle scars that Kelela proudly exposes:
“In the middle of your week / When you get your head down / I hope you think of me / and how I moved it around / Wrote a thousand poems today / Still, I got nothing to say / Except I’ll never forget / All it took”
GORD DOWNIE – INTRODUCE YERSELF
If you are a Canadian who admires music in any way, you miss Gord Downie, whether you were a big Tragically Hip fan or not. Gord left a deep and lasting impression on the country of Canucks that cannot be matched or met by anyone in recent music history. Introduce Yerself, is Gord’s final project, recorded in the last months of this life and released just days after he passed away. Gord’s past musical footprints aside, this album is incredibly beautiful and full of depth, raw, and real feelings. It is, without a doubt, an album that can stand alone, aside from Gord’s some 30 years in the business.
Gord says that each song on this record is about a person, a single individual and how they left a mark on his life. Produced by Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene), in a petite studio that could be a set for a quirky ice fishing movie, there is no fluff on this record. Every instrument and every word is chosen carefully, thoughtfully, and sparingly, always putting Gord’s very un-fancy, unpretentious, unassuming voice as the key focal point. Together, Drew and Downie explore a musical side of Gord that is new and experimental in it’s arrangements, but stays very true to a feeling and a vibe that is Gord Downie.
Then you have a song like “Nancy”. Gord’s vocal performance here gives the impression that he only just finished the song. That he is finally singing it to himself, in full, for the first time. Perhaps at a dinner with his closest friends, sharing a deeply personal moment with those he loves most. Just Gord and his beaten, old guitar.
“I can always see you even far away / I can even hear and see and sing and dance / Makes me feel everything / Hope and love, a chance” (“Nancy”)
Though Gord knew he was at the end of his life through this entire album process, always raw and real and truthful in his lyrics, he never lost his ability to be positive, to be an optimist, and to try to make a difference wherever he could.
We miss you Gord, and we are so happy that this album gives all of Canada a tiny bit of closure.
KHALID – AMERICAN TEEN
He’s a legit teen, people! Khalid had just turned 19 less than a month before his album was released. This means every one of these 15 songs was written when Khalid was 18 or younger. For a man that can only recently can be called a man, his music is mature well beyond his number of rotations around the sun. Lyrics can be taken as a voice in the corner from a high-school party, but dig deeper and any 30 years old could be feeling the same feels.
“Maybe the end is near / But I’ve been waiting all year / To get the hell up out of here / and throw away my fears / I’m so faded / Off of all the things I’ve taken, and / Maybe I’m not really drunk / Maybe I’m really good at faking” (“American Teen”)
American Teen is full of classic teenage prods; talking about Uber, subtweets, and cell phone photo albums, living at home with your parents, and your car smelling like the weed smoke from the night before. When asked about what kind of music he likes to make, Khalid said “I don’t think of genre when I create. I just wanna make shit that sounds good in my car.” (-Rolling Stone)
With a signature voice, beautifully crafted new-wave pop productions, and lyrics that anyone can connect with, Khalid has a long life ahead of him in the music business. Songs of love and loss and teenage simplicities, make this an album worth diving into from start to finish.