If you’re a person who pays any attention to pop music at all, there were albums this year that you are almost bound to have heard. Lorde’s Melodrama is one. Kendrick Lamar’s Damn is another - both great albums of their respective kinds, and you’ll find my reviews at the links above.
But here are a few of the things that weren’t so omnipresent but which have brightened my listening year.
Capacity by Big Thief
Big Thief is a quartet from Brooklyn, New York, led by Andrienne Lenker, a singer and guitarist who says she’s been writing songs since she was six, and I don’t doubt her.
Maybe a novice could have fluked one or two of the songs on Capacity, Big Thief’s terrific second album - and that’s a big maybe - but not a whole set as consistent and delicately balanced as these. Lenker’s lyrics can be confronting. She deals with pain – emotional pain, but often physical pain as well - in tough, visceral imagery. There’s blood and tears in these songs, and probably other bodily fluids too.
There’s so much raw experience on display here that it’s easy to overlook the artistry, but there’s plenty of that in her use of words; she gives you images you feel. At times I wonder if Leonard Cohen is trapped inside this twenty-something woman’s body. But her guitar playing is intricate too, and her melodies are elegant. And she’s got a great band, who can make a good indie rock racket when it’s called for, but also know when to shut up.
Capacity is available on Saddle Creek
Everybody works by Jay Som
Jay Som is the recording name of Melina Duterte, a 23-year-old daughter of Filipino immigrants, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She got the name Jay Som from a random online baby name generator. It means ‘Victory Moon’.
Her recordings are home studio creations. She plays everything on them herself, which doesn’t mean she can’t sound like a fully raucous indie rock band when she wants to. but there’s also a melodic side to this album, which reveals itself in sweeping, swirling choruses, where her voice and deceptively tricksy guitar licks plant their hooks.
Duterte has classic pop instincts, but a quirky and unique perspective, and an indie-rock rather than major-pop-star budget, which all together is what makes Jay Som’s Everybody Works one of most charming and convincing things I’ve heard this year.
Everybody Works is available on Double Denim
Ctrl by SZA
SZA is pronounced ‘scissor’, which is apt. The opening track finds her detailing how she has taken her revenge on a boyfriend who made the mistake of spending Valentine’s Day in Vegas, rather than with her. And throughout this sharp, funny, and parental advisory debut, SZA delights in showing just how she deals with jealousy, and that she has no intention of playing victim.
SZA is Solana Imani Rowe, originally from St Louis Missouri, and she’s been active behind the scenes for a while, writing songs for other artists including Beyonce and Rihanna. But her own singing is strong and distinctive; an R&B-hip-hop style with jazz inflections, which you can hear in the way she delivers a lyric like ‘Broken Clocks’ and in typically sassy SZA-style, asserts her independence as she recounts her thing for dirty shoes and dirty men.
Kendrick Lamar makes a cameo appearance in an explicit ode to female pleasure and power, ‘Doves In The Wind’. In the song he defers to SZA, without diminishing himself, but it’s not as though she needs anyone else’s approval anyway. Ctrl is a soulful, swaggering and strongly independent statement from the most interesting R&B artist to make a debut album this year.
Ctrl is available on RCA
Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples
The second album by rapper Vince Staples is a dark, unromantic, musically adventurous piece of work.
Big Fish Theory is in a way as much a statement of self-determination as SZA’s Ctrl. Don’t expect revenge sex from Vince, though. He doesn’t want groupies, as he tells us in ‘Love Can Be’. He wants ‘uchies’ – in other words, cold hard cash.
Staples is a compelling rhymer, but what particularly makes his bleak, paranoid soliloquies stand out on Big Fish Theory are the kinetic electronic backdrops he sets them against. It’s a Detroit techno sound, bent around his own rhythms and visions.
Someone called Kendrick’s Damn “experimental music with mass appeal” and that applies equally to this record.
Big Fish Theory is available on ARTium/Blacksmith/Def Jam
Shake That Skinny Ass All The Way To Zygertron by Troy Kingi
I wondered whether I’d had this album long enough to know whether it really was one of my albums of the year - after all it only came out in November. Then again, there’s no other local album I heard in 2017 that comes close to capturing a groove like this.
Conceived one night at Taupo Bay in Northland, while Kingi and his brother were doing some star-gazing, it’s a full-on cosmic concept album about two people from different dimensions who fall in love and fulfil an ancient prophesy.
With a title that could belong to an old Parliament or Funkadelic album, the music recalls a raft of classic soul signifiers: Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and, inevitably, George Clinton.
It’s a wonderful, mad album of cosmic Maori funk.
Shake That Skinny Ass All The Way To Zygertron is available on AAA Records.
Little Arrows by Reb Fountain
Reb Fountain released two new recordings this year, after a long absence. The first of these, a five song EP, was recorded live and leaned towards a down-home, folk-rock flavour. This one – the second and more ambitious of the discs – is a full album that extends from Americana into what sounds more like Balkan gypsy music.
It had been substantially completed three years ago when the multi-instrumentalist Sam Prebble, who worked closely with Reb Fountain on the music, died unexpectedly, leaving the project to languish until she could find the fortitude to revisit it. Fortunately she did, and the result is a powerful set of songs and performances. In some ways the songs seem almost prescient in the way they address struggles, hardships, betrayal and loss. And yet there’s something in Fountain’s soaring voice that feels triumphant too.
Little Arrows is available on Fountain Records
Winterdust by Matt Langley
Dunedin was once the breeding ground for indie rockers, but these days its prime export seems to be singer-songwriters. Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid both originated in Dunedin, and have been widely celebrated this year, both home and abroad.
If fellow Dunedinite Matt Langley hasn’t had that sort of attention it’s hardly surprising. Winterdust is a modest, independently released collection, recorded entirely on his own, other than some sympathetic string parts added by Alex Vaatstra. But Langley’s songs stand up without any adornment, and there’s a Neil Finn quality about a song like ‘Delicate Sun’ - just one of the standouts on this gentle, sustained study in melancholy.
Winterdust is available on Bandcamp
Precipice by Indi
Until a year or so ago this Christchurch-based composer and performer was a member of Doprah, whose dreamy electronic pop had people predicting big things. But the band dissolved before those things had a chance to happen, and Force went back to working alone. And solitude seems to suit her. Combining electronics with orchestral instruments and her breathy, multi-layered vocals, she’s created an album of sonic depth and cinematic breadth.
For much of Precipice, Indi’s voice is a bit like a feather floating through an industrial landscape. There are extended instrumental passages that might be the score for a sci-fi or fantasy film. But there are also songs, where the underlying themes of womanhood and mythology crystallise in powerful personal lyrics.
Precipice is available on Bandcamp