As 2017 comes to a close, naturally a bunch of radio kids wanted to look back and reflect on their favorite albums of the past year. Consequently, each WXJM music director compiled a list of their top albums this year and why they loved them - what were your favorites?
Erica Lashley’s Picks:
SZA – CTRL
SZA’s debut studio album has made me lose control over the music I listen to; there is something magical behind her powerhouse vocals and personable songwriting that keeps me coming back for more. Masterfully produced and featuring fellow artists such as Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar, and Isaiah Rashad, the album blends contemporary R & B feelings with neo-soul vibes, creating a style that SZA calls “glitter trap.” Recordings of conversations with SZA’s mother and grandmother bookend the album and are included as interludes, contributing to the relatability and theme of female empowerment evident throughout the album. SZA uses brutally honest lyrics to strikingly resonate with other modern-day 20-somethings in a way that goes straight to the heart. Every track has been my favorite at some point since the album was released on June 9, 2017.
Crumb– Locket EP
The second release from Brooklyn band Crumb showcases their unique, laid back, jazz-psychedelic sound in just four songs that are certain to get stuck in your head. Their first EP released in 2016 showed just how well the four members could combine their unique playing styles and lock together perfectly to complement Lila Ramani’s stellar songwriting. "Locket" takes their sound further into the psychedelic realm, featuring hip synth and guitar solos dripping with delay and spacey tones, sometimes even a little reminiscent of The Doors. With lyrics that can relate to anyone, especially recent and current students, it can feel a little like Lila is singing directly into your soul. You’ll probably always find these tracks on my recently played playlist.
Thundercat – Drunk
This groovy album from the master of six-string bass takes you down a rabbit hole of catchy melodies, funky basslines and silky vocals that you can’t help but sing along with. The album starts with a brief track introducing the album: “let’s go hard, get drunk, and travel down a rabbit hole.” The relatable lyrics with loose themes of partying draw you into Thundercat’s journey from being bored, losing his wallet at the club, wishing he could be a cat, adventures in Tokyo, space rides, setting boundaries with a toxic lover, to drinking, and hoping you “won’t get caught and get a DUI”. The album features other artists like Kendrick Lamar, Kenny Loggins, Wiz Khalifa, and Pharrell Williams, and leaves you wondering … with a such a crazy-catchy, jazzy R&B album … is there any groove left for the rest of us?
The National – Sleep Well Beast
Since their conception, The National have carved out their own piano-driven, emotional sound featuring Matt Berninger’s deep vocals. With every album, the band has managed to bring out something different in their cultivated sound and songwriting, and "Sleep Well Beast" takes this to a new level. The album features more electronic sounds, as in the song “Walk It Back,” changing it up with unexpected moments like the choral-like vocals at the start of “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” and the driving blues-guitar sounds in the unique track “Turtleneck.” "Sleep Well Beast" contains more mature, still dark themes like death, destroying relationships, and who to blame when everything seems like it’s falling apart. Despite such a large discography, The National still finds ways to devastate your emotions and pluck at your heartstrings.
Homeshake – Fresh Air
Kolezanka - Vessel
Lina Tullgren – Won
Horse jumper of love - HJL
Graham Schiltz’s Picks
Lorde - Melodrama
While Lorde's debut "Pure Heroine" showed her ability to make radio friendly teenage anthems, "Melodrama" proves she is one of the most compelling pop artists today. The album flows between club bangers like the Hudson Mohawke inspired "Sober" to the soft piano balladry of "Writer In The Dark.” She explores the growing pains of young adulthood with earnestness and a charming dose of self awareness. "Melodrama," while musically broad in scope, retains coherency and consistency throughout only a bona fide pop star could provide.
Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory
Venturing away from the neighborhood narratives that characterized Staple's first LP "Summertime '06," Big Fish Theory" provides the ever articulate rapper's insights into fame and wealth. While his production is consistent with the rest of his discography in its dark tone, Staples employs some of the most prominent contemporary electronic artists (Flume, SOPHIE, GTA) to craft a unique blend of house, techno and hip hop. While Vince handles all but one of the verses, he's supported by hooks from a grab bag of artists from Damon Albarn to Ray J. The climax of the album, Kendrick Lamar assisted "Yeah Right,” features some of Lamar and Staple's best bars from a year when both dominated rap. Though it may not have gotten much play on commercial rap radio, "Big Fish Theory" cements Staples as a left of center rapper with the makings of a superstar.
Brockhampton - Saturation II
Rap "boy band" Brockhampton were thrust into the rap spotlight after their "Saturation" trilogy, released throughout 2017. Led by the emotional Kevin Abstract, he drops the introspections of his solo work and replaces it with fury and fire. His pitched up hooks anchor the album, while he also provides some of the album's best verses on "Gummy" and "Junky." Though Abstract may be the most prominent member, his supporting cast elevates the album to something exhilarating. Ameer Van provides a slick flow and punchline verses, while Merlyn Wood's shouted vocals provide bursts of energy where needed. While posse albums have a tendency to drag on and expose weak links, "Saturation II" contains surprisingly little filler. After Brockhampton's three fantastic albums released this year, it will be exciting to see where they go next.
Aaron Carroll’s Picks
Tyler, The Creator- Flower Boy
I really hate to be overly cliché and say something like “this album spoke to me” but damn… this album spoke to me. I was initially kind of “meh” on Tyler in the early Odd Future days, but it was the "Wolf" album that made me a fan. Throughout that album, and the following "Cherry Bomb," we saw sneaks of jazz, neo-soul and R&B mixed with vulnerable lyrics scattered throughout. All of those together are a complete weakness. Enter "Flower Boy," where Tyler has gone full-on emo and it's one of the most beautiful things to ever come out this decade.
On this album Tyler eschews shock value lyrics with subject matter that would probably have Eminem a bit shook, for lyrics about loneliness, isolationism, sexual identity and emptiness. Even with an all-star guest list that includes A$AP Rocky, Lil Wayne, Pharrell and Frank Ocean, Tyler is the star of this album. Not to mention, the guy produced the entire album by himself. When this dropped on the same day as the new Lana Del Rey album, everybody on my timeline was really only talking about "Flower Boy."
What makes this album so special is its emotionally dense subject matter that many of Tyler’s young fanbase, including myself, can relate to. I swear to you “Boredom” is my theme song because it’s literally the FOMO anthem. “911/Mr. Lonely” is all about how the feelings of unrequited love can eat you the hell up. Oh yeah and Tyler basically had a coming-out moment on “Garden Shed.” All in all, Tyler showed with his latest album his maturity as a lyricist, producer (oh my God, the gorgeous production), and as a person. Six years ago, I would’ve laughed in your face if you told me Tyler, the Creator would make an inspiring and heartfelt album, but here we are.
If there’s anybody that deserves to win in 2017 and beyond, it’s Solana Rowe. This is highly evident in the singer’s debut full-length album "Ctrl." SZA explained in many interviews that creating the album made her dig deep to a place she had never dug before, and it payed off for sure. The album is a journey through the mind of a 20-something black girl in today’s society. Stories of self-love, self-hate, anxiety and even stories of being a sidechick make up this album. What makes it so beloved by many is the relatability, humor and brutal honesty in the lyrics. "Ctrl" won hearts through its creativity as well as its relatability, specifically among young women of color. SZA is a front member of a really awesome wave of newer rule-breaking female R&B and pop artists that include Kehlani, Kali Uchis, Kelela and Jhené Aiko. This wave mixes open sexuality and confidence with honesty and vulnerability, over atmospheric mid- to downtempo production. The production on here makes some of the smoothest music to come out this year, building on the dark, sparse, but booming “trapsoul” sound heralded by Bryson Tiller and Drake. What also can’t be overlooked is SZA’s versatility and how she’s very capable of crossing-over with more indie and pop-flavored tracks like “Drew Barrymore” and “Prom.” All of the elements of this near-perfect album are what earned SZA five Grammy nominations for 2018. She’s the most nominated female artist of the year and "Ctrl" proved that she deserves them all.
Kendrick Lamar- DAMN.
So "To Pimp a Butterfly" was my favorite album of 2015; hands down, no competition. That album still holds a special place in my heart and it’s my favorite Kendrick Lamar album. As I listened to it throughout that year (and the next), I thought to myself, “How in the h-- is he going to top this?” or “What’s he going to do next?” Kendrick has managed to become one of the most exciting artists in all music right now. It seemed like he was going in the direction of switching the style up with every album. With the release of the hit single “HUMBLE.” it was obvious that was the plan. The song sounds absolutely nothing like what was on "TPAB." It more closely resembled some tracks off of his major debut "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," but Kendrick had never released such an overly mainstream-sounding & braggadocious song, before. It obviously worked well for Kendrick as the track became the most successful single of his career. So was Kendrick about to make an album full of trap bangers? He did sort of, I guess. About half of "DAMN." was comprised of these trap bangers and more poppy radio hit potentials. The other half is what really makes the album great. Songs like “FEEL.” (my favorite), “FEAR.” and “DUCKWORTH.” are great for the hardcore K. Dot fans while “HUMBLE.”, “DNA.” (my second favorite), and “LOVE.” are great for the more mainstream audiences.
What makes "DAMN." the best album of 2017 is that Kendrick showed his versatility. He showed that he could hop on mainstream radio-friendly sounds but still be the Kendrick we love, keeping his essence and rapping his a-- off. Essentially, this is the album that can satisfy all fans of hip-hop (and even other genres). This is not to even mention the ambitious concept of the album — which I’m not even going to explain because we could be here all day. I’ll just let you Google the message that Kendrick was trying spread with the album. Kendrick, himself, said to honestly not think too hard about it. Listen to it front-to-back (or back-to-front) and you will see that there is not a bad track on here. Kendrick Lamar has truly reached the highest point of his career and is a certified superstar, and he didn’t even have to sacrifice his art or sell his soul. If you needed more proof, "DAMN." not only topped the Billboard 200 for multiple weeks, but it also topped Billboard’s year-end chart for album sales and earned Kung Fu Kenny 7 Grammy nominations. This 3rd (or 4th, depending on who you ask) highly-acclaimed and successful album proved that Mr. Lamar might be having one of the greatest runs in hip-hop, next to Mr. West. There’s no question now that Kendrick will go down as one of the greatest to ever touch a mic in ALL of music.
Heather Eckstine’s Picks
Incendiary- Thousand Mile Stare
This album is ridiculously crazy, and was refreshing since the last time they released an album was 2013. From heavy breakdowns to mosh calls, "Incendiary" really brought it with this release. They’ve incorporated more of a hardcore influence compared to their previous albums, and you can really tell how they’ve progressed. They had an album release tour and came through Richmond, and that show was one of the wildest ones I’ve been to. Talk about violent, it was sick.
Code Orange- Forever
This young group never fails to amaze me. "Forever" is full of wild riffs and progression and this album is probably one of the heaviest of the year. Code Orange is slowly rising to the top, and it’s really cool because they’re all pretty young. They’ve made a lot of progress in the past few years and it’s gonna be cool to see where they go.
Body Count- Bloodlust
Body Count never disappoints, and I was really stoked to see a new album from them. "Bloodlust" was everything I would expect from Body Count and then some. This album continues to have the original influence of bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Minor Threat, plus a heavy hip-hop influence. I mean, there’s a Slayer cover on it, how great is that?
Integrity- Howling, For the Nightmare Shall Consume
Power Trip- Nightmare Logic
Glassjaw- Material Control
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