In difficult times, we somehow manage to still have fun. My best memories of this hellish year are set to music. Driving around to Drake’s “Passionfruit” in the spring, pretending it was already summer; bartending on hot summer days, yelling the lyrics to Kendrick and Rihanna’s “Loyalty” with my coworkers; reveling in the darkness of the new Twin Peaks series, and putting the soundtrack on repeat all October; losing our shit at a Run the Jewels show just a few weeks ago; getting down to “Bodak Yellow” at literally every party.
There’s way more great music than we could write about (see: Jamila Woods, RTJ, Jay Som, Syd, Moses Sumney, half of the LCD album, Tera Melos, Rapsody, Slowdive, how tf did we forget Vince Staples, etc.). So instead of compiling a definitive list, we asked our friends to write about their favorite albums of the year, and I’d say we covered some damn good ground. Check out the albums and their reviews below, in no particular order.
Thank you to the artists for giving us the soundtrack to 2017, and thank you to our friends for being here with us.
Your friends at Bighorn Sheep
Tyler, the Creator :: Flower Boy
Flower Boy is Tyler, the Creator at his loneliest and most vulnerable. Although his music has veered into romance and melancholy, his career and public image is still largely defined in pop culture writ large by the unnerving nihilistic energy that exploded onto the scene in 2011, ski-mask clad on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
In this year’s release, I can’t help but feel like Tyler finally put it all together, evolving his sound and making good on his incredible talent. With just a couple of exceptions (still excellent tracks), Flower Boy sees Tyler embracing cozier musical spaces within to bare his soul.
The highlight of the album, “Boredom,” takes a softly sung refrain and collapses it into a warm, jazzy beat, one that is as danceable as it is evocative of time spent staring at the ceiling all alone. He begs for someone to reach out and spend time with him, something he echoes in “911 / Mr. Lonely”, singing “call me, call me, call me…” On “November”, Tyler tries to recall his November, his happiest time. In maybe the most beautiful moment of the album, he enlists a group of people to share their November, ranging from objects to people, to entire times and places.
Perhaps it is an all too neat narrative, but it is interesting to see the music behind the (admittedly tongue-and-cheek) motto “kill people, burn shit, fuck school” evolve into this elegant, thoughtful album. That’s not to say the music is no longer fun and exciting, but to say it speaks more to our climate, where it can often be hard to be any more mad. Sometimes you just need to be sad.
SZA :: Ctrl
SZA’s Ctrl is the millennial brown girl’s anthem. Across its 14 tracks, Solana Knowles confronts heartbreak and insecurity to the tune of finding her way in her twenties. While earlier EPs S and Z obscured her vocals through hazy layers of production, Ctrl puts SZA’s powerful voice front and center, resulting in a record that is achingly vulnerable. See opening track “Supermodel” in which SZA delivers a love letter with the passion of a woman scorned: “Let me tell you a secret, I been secretly banging your homeboy / Why you in Vegas all up on Valentine’s Day?”
Ctrl flexes its nineties aesthetic with Forrest Gump references, “Drew Barrymore,” and girl power theme “Go Gina” that SZA could’ve penned in her Lisa Frank journal. Lyrically, it smacks more of the online dating era, where relationships are undefined and more options often means more loneliness. Rather than shy away from the uglier side of romance, SZA revels in all its modern-day complications: gleefully reclaiming the side chick, longing for an old lover who’s so bad they’re good, and learning what it means to be grown. Throughout it all, SZA wants you to know that she can have fun while also wanting more, and as her mother says to close the album: “that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.”
Kelela :: Take Me Apart
Kelela has never been one to follow convention. The 34-year-old daughter of Ethiopian immigrants has been in the public eye since her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, but waited relatively long to release her debut LP. This delay was intentional: she spent those years perfecting her sound, pulling together different producers and honing her voice to eventually distill her creative vision. That vision is Take Me Apart.
This is music that will transport you to another galaxy where R&B, soul and electronic music come together to create a pulsating, beautiful meditation on love and loss. Existing somewhere between neon raves and nineties disco, Take Me Apart will crawl inside your body and vibrate your bones. Kelela layers sound to push the boundaries of expectation, creating an album that seduces you further on each listen.
While Kelela’s music is apolitical, its disregard for traditional form and genre mirrors her own radical queer and black aesthetic. In an interview with Vulture, she described her musical process: “I’m thinking about the black women who have never really felt perfectly shaped for the spaces that have been made for them… I wanted to create a space for us to not be subject to any confines, especially when it comes to sound.”
One can think of this album in conversation with SZA’s Ctrl, a somewhat more mature perspective on love that also questions the boundaries we place upon loving others. Even as she reminisces on past loves and lives, Kelela keeps pushing forward.
St. Vincent :: MASSEDUCTION
Annie Clark’s St. Vincent gives us an album as radio-friendly as it is rooted in sex and despair. These gorgeously produced pop songs are an evolution from the quick, jagged rock of 2015’s St. Vincent – prettier but no less subversive. The dark, carnal subtext frequent in Clark’s lyrics drives tracks like “Savior,” an unabashed ode to kink and domination, and the title track, when she growls, “I hold you like a weapon.”
More explicit than sex and BDSM are themes of desperation and self-resentment. After she runs from her pain in “Los Ageless,” she mutters in the fade-out, “I guess that’s just me, honey, I guess that’s how I’m built. Try to tell you I love you and it comes out all sick.” Across the album, she flips between self-sabotage and hopelessness. The most haunting moment is her recount of a suicidal crisis on opener “Hang on Me.” She is ashamed of her own “hysterics,” promising she isn’t crying wolf, not like last time, begging her lover to “just please, oh please don’t hang up yet.” It’s a grim reminder that even someone as successful and talented as Annie Clark can succumb to depression. (And this is our reminder that it is always okay to ask for help.)
Clark’s most exciting quality is how she intentionally blurs where Annie ends and St. Vincent begins. In a genre that leans on the confessionary songs of tortured artists, Clark maintains such secrecy that it’s impossible to tell which songs are based in experience and which come from her imagination. This is her greatest strength: Clark knows that meaning belongs to the listener, not the artist. When asked about the uncharacteristically personal “Happy Birthday, Johnny” in a recent interview, her wry response is, “Doesn’t everyone know a Johnny?”
On her fifth album, Clark continues to be one of rock’s great storytellers, reminding us time and again that the story often contains more truth than real life.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith :: The Kid
Otherworldly, grounded, star-flung, and human all at once, The Kid is “In the World, but Not of the World.” Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith showed up on our radar last year with EARS, an equally beautiful – but more abstract – album. On The Kid, Smith channels her synthesizer weirdness into song form, striking a balance between structure, experiment, and pop. Cosmically manipulated vocals build on undulating textures; songs rise like waves and fall adrift into abstraction again.
Her lyrics present themes of love, mortality, and loss. Smith is keenly aware of our limitation within the dimension of time, only able to travel in one direction. The knowledge that all of time exists at once is both beautiful and unhelpful; regardless of our understanding of our universe, time will continue on and all things will pass.
This music is the sonic expression of Carl Sagan’s famous phrase:
“Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return – and we can. Because the cosmos is also within us: we’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
Feist :: Pleasure
I, like many, have spent the year exhausted. It felt like the world was screaming all at once all year long, with events public and personal battering at full force. For me, the respite came in Feist’s delicate and rumbling “Pleasure.” The album ranges from feminine and introspective to percussive and abstract. It feels human.
The titular album opener starts at a slow, deliberate pace with a guitar melody slowly picking up as Feist’s vocals simmer and hum above, before pivoting into a growl as she asks – is my pleasure in your pleasure? Some songs find Feist recklessly in love, desperate to leave a party to find true companionship (“Any Party”), and some find her utterly heartbroken (“I Wish I Didn’t Miss You”). Some find her both hurting and healed (“Get Not High, Get Not Low”). The beauty is how well she articulates each feeling.
When all the rest of the world was making me go numb, it felt like Feist gives me the melody to feel it all (groan).
Kendrick Lamar :: DAMN. + Jay-Z :: 4:44
Most of hip-hop’s titans are no longer standing. Some were struck down by violence, others disease, many simply saw the game pass them by. This year, however, two of the genre’s remaining behemoths delivered extraordinary work, and both did so by narrowing their focus.
With “DAMN.,” Kendrick Lamar, the-undisputed-best-around-right-now, found a way to follow a once-in-a-lifetime release. By scaling back on the sonic ambition and lyrical scope of 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” Lamar’s new album “DAMN.” offers a smaller, more personal slice of Kendrick’s psyche.
Where “TPAB” employed a veritable orchestra of LA’s finest studio musicians, songwriters, vocalists, and producers, “DAMN.’s” production is much more of a piece with current hip-hop trends. On “DAMN.,” Kendrick’s biography, his DNA, his fear, his loves and his lust, are now the focus rather than the collective story of a people in peril. The result is a third classic album in a row, one that situates hip-hop’s current king within the kingdom itself, as opposed to ruling from some inaccessible castle surrounded by jazz musicians and legend.
With “4:44,” Jay-Z, the rarely-disputed-greatest-rapper-of-all-time, must find his way to relevance in spite of no longer being even the most important cultural figure in his own bedroom. This too comes from a narrowed focus. Where Jay’s previous classics featured litanies of the hottest producers in the game and changed the course of popular hip-hop production more than once, “4:44” is handled entirely by fellow forty-something, NO I.D.
NO I.D. builds the album’s soundscape almost entirely out of recognizable loops. Over the likes of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sister Nancy and Donny Hathaway, Hov opens up more personally than he has ever before. There is the apology to the wife he famously wronged (“4:44”), admiration to his mother for having the courage to come out as a lesbian (“Smile”), and an oft-overlooked rumination on Black creative greatness in an entertainment industry dominated by mediocre white people (“Moonlight”). Taken altogether “4:44″ is a blueprint for aging hip-hop genius. Skills don’t necessarily expire, and if hip-hop’s 40-somethings are able to channel a bit of the self-effacing emo-ness of the Drake era, they can remain worth listening to.”