Photo courtesy of artist
Even the Belfast born duo Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson that make up Bicepcould not have expected their debut album to explode the way it has. A top 20 chart placing in the UK and a triumphant cover from esteemed club magazine MixMag has cemented their place as one of the most exciting electronic artists of 2017. Over the years, the pair have introduced thousands of curious dance music fans to rare and long forgotten cuts through their website feelmybicep.com and DJ sets. However, any artist needs more than passion and understanding to make a stellar album. What they managed to do was iron out and stitch together elements from throughout the history of electronic music to create one of the most distinctive and exciting dance albums of the year. The touchstones were clear from the old-skool house of “Glue” to the trance of “Rain” and the astounding tech-house of “Aura” but everything was mixed so intricately and then freshly baked that it felt new and exciting. In the world of electronic music this was most definitely their year. – Paul Carr
Photo: Frank Ockenfels (Dead Oceans)
Phoebe Bridgers’ 7″ release of “Killer” created enough of a buzz to make her latest album one of the most anticipated debuts of 2017. The three tracks on “Killer” conveyed a weariness that bring to mind mid-career highlights of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, even though Bridgers had just emerged from her teens. Her full-length debut, Stranger in the Alps, manages to stretch that intensity to all of its ten songs (plus a brief reprise of the leadoff track “Smoke Signals” at the end).
Like other bummed-out odes to her Los Angeles home (notably Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk-era ballads), Stranger in the Alps is wistful, lonesome, and canny enough to linger in your head hours after your first listen. Her songs possess a reverence to past fabled songwriters (especially the aforementioned Neil Young), but there’s a modern, hazy sheen that is fully in the moment of all that is 2017. Appropriately enough, Phoebe Bridgers’ official website sums up the impact of her songwriting: Phoebefuckingbridgers. – Sean McCarthy
Affectionately called “the internet’s first boy band”, BROCKHAMPTON formed in 2015 through an online network of likeminded young hip-hop heads—indeed, via the message boards of a certain KanyeToThe.com. These boys have clearly done their homework, and in their collective consciousness float schemata of K-Dot, Yeezy, and the extended Odd Future fam. In theory, the combined efforts of these dozen+ artists should lead to a disjointed stew of ingredients… and maybe it does. The product is at once highly melodic, verging on top-40 pop rap, and unpredictable, a kind of expressionist hip-hop collage. At present, BROCKHAMTON seems to be riding a tidal wave of self-made momentum. In 75 days, the group has put out its debut and follow-up records, Saturation I and II, with the promise of a third installment before the year’s end.
If the group has a leader, it’s Texas-born Ian Simpson, aka Kevin Abstract, who’s rapidly become the one of today’s most fluent queer voices in hip-hop. “Why you always rap about bein’ gay? / ‘Cause not enough niggas rappin’ be gay”, he spits on perhaps II’s brightest gem, “JUNKY”. While the members cover themes of the hustle, sex and weed, they brings to their verses a disarming vulnerability—real talk of strife and togetherness
Maybe the group identity remains amorphous, but herein lies one of BROCKHAMPTON’s great assets: a shifting platform for the team’s evolving creative pursuits. (Don’t sleep on their many worthy music videos.) The collective shines because of its assembly of disparate geographic, racial and economic backgrounds. These men band together to create a new sort of vehicle for self-expression in the digital age, and for now, they’ve got our ears on lock. – A. Noah Harrison
Photo: Shervin Lainez (Barsuk Records)
Charly Bliss frontwoman Eva Hendricks became instantly recognizable and lovable with her helium-infused, bubbly vocals and a personality perfect for the most energetic of cartoon characters. Meanwhile, guitarist Spencer Fox literally was a cartoon character, providing the voice of Dash from The Incredibles over a decade ago. Add Eva’s brother Sam on drums and Dan Shure on bass, and you get a band full of youth, excitement, and raw power pop/bubble grunge sure to receive comparisons to ’90s groups like Weezer. Their LP debut Guppy clocked in at a very brief 30 minutes, leaving no room for error or filler. But that was no problem for these rookies as the half-hour effort is jam-packed with fuzzy guitar riffs and honey-sweet melodies. The topics of discussions, however, are not so saccharine, as Hendricks ironically tackles death, heartbreak, and the uncertainty of being a twentysomething. The emotional duality found in Charly Bliss’s music and lyrics effectively speaks to the inquisitive young generation of 2017. – Chris Thiessen
Photo: David McClister (Courtesy of artist)
Eastern Kentucky native Tyler Childers made it hard to escape Sturgill Simpson comparisons in 2017, given that his confident, category-defying effort Purgatory was co-produced by the alternative-country iconoclast. And sure, several of the songs are spiritual cousins of cuts off the towering 2014 Simpson breakout Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Looking further back, Purgatory even passes off whiffs of Jerry Reed, Waylon and Bocephus. Still, Childers creates his own sound – with a twangy heft few of his Americana peers were able to create this year. He sprinkles Kentucky bluegrass throughout the LP, providing a softener to balance out the rowdier moments, like the Steve Earle-stomp of “Whitehouse Road” and the rollicking romp of “Honky Tonk Flame”. Childers is not really country and is certainly not folk, and the “outlaw” tag is painfully reductive for the genre-melding he’s responsible for on Purgatory, an album that topped the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart in its first week this past summer. Broad categorical labels don’t mean much in 2017 anyhow. With vivid storytelling and a swaggering cool, Childers proved this year that he’s simply a roots music talent. – Michael Davis
Photo courtesy of Toast Press
No one knows who Clemens Bacher is, or cares that he’s a Vienna-based free jazz drummer who decided to pick up elaborate studio synth work under his name Cid Rim. Almost no one knows about his debut album Material, and it is a damn shame too because this boy knows what the hell he’s doing, creating elaborate, visceral synth works: one part Sega Genesis soundtrack and one part indie-keyboard masterpiece. The songs twist and turn, tones bubble and percolate, the drums tap and tip and twist and clap, all adding up to a joyous solo project that somehow manages to carve out its own textural plane that sits both outside of indie rock and IDM-appreciation at the same time. Maybe that’s why Cid Rim is still finding his audience. Those found are in for a hell of a ride. – Evan Sawdey
Nadah El Shazly
Publicity photo via Bandcamp
In just her first release Nadah El Shazly presents a work of deep experimental scope. Starting out her musical endeavors singing in Misfits cover bands and producing her own electronic music in the Cairo underground scene, it seems like she came a long way to produce a record such as Ahwar. This task was performed through collaboration across continents, with Maurice Louca (The Dwarfs of East Agouza) and Sam Shalabi aiding in the compositions and arrangements, while Thierry Amar (Hotel2Tango) recorded and mixed this endeavor.
With Ahwar El Shazly is coalescing her musical heritage, the great middle-Eastern and near-Eastern traditions, with an experimental outlook. The traditional basis of the tracks is mutated with drone soundscapes, psychedelic sceneries and avant-jazz concepts, while El Shazly’s vocal delivery awakens the mystical essence that lies beyond the notes. Considering that in just her first recording steps El Shazly released something that astounding, the future looks that much more bright. – Spyros Stasis
Photo: Kate York
Like Chris Stapleton and Brandy Clark, Natalie Hemby hit pay dirt as a behind-the-scenes songwriter before breaking out on her own. Now, on the understated Puxico, named after her tiny Missouri hometown, Hemby brushes her debut in muted colors and earth tones, rendering these songs as gentler harvests compared to what Miranda Lambert or Little Big Town had previously done with Hemby’s tunes. And without the ultra-slick processing, Hemby proves to be the best interpreter of her own material, a girl with an acoustic guitar and honeydew-sweet vocals and an excellent cycle of slice-of-Americana songs. As a result, she provides the best new voice in roots music by bringing rustic singer-songwriterism back home in lovely, undiluted form. – Steve Leftridge
Photo: Tim Twiss
Iglooghost has been around for a few years now, actually, though his first full-length came out this year. Born Seamus Malliagh, the Irish electronic musician puts everything he has into his work; for debut album Neō Wax Bloom, he intentionally eschewed loops, opting instead to meticulously assemble every bar of the album, something like an album-length version of Autechre’s classic “Flutter”. His work is reminiscent of that mid-’90s era of electronic music, though it has an energy that the style hasn’t exhibited in a long, long time. Nobody was asking for this, nobody was looking for the next Aphex Twin or Kid606, especially given that Aphex Twin and Kid606 are still out there making music. That said, to have an artist as young and exciting as Iglooghost to sit alongside them is meaningful for the genre, and a delight to anyone who gets to hear him. – Mike Schiller
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
This year marked the release of Michelle Zauner’s second LP under the moniker of Japanese Breakfast. The former Little Big League frontwoman is no stranger to critical acclaim, but 2017 may represent something of a tipping point for her solo project, as an artist who was once an underground indie darling takes her first steps towards mainstream appeal.
Sonically, Zauner deals in dreamy, indie pop, drenched in shimmering synths. Her sophomore effort is an expansive record, tentatively navigating shoegaze-y territory, but retaining a far greater sense of humor than you might usually expect from the genre. “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general”, Zauner sings on the album’s second single Boyish; one of several instances of teasing playfulness on the record.
But there is more to Zauner’s project than smart zingers in the lyrics. Years of touring and recording and just generally being in a band have given Michelle Zauner first hand experience of how some figures in the music industry treat women, in particular women of Asian descent. Her music – dreamy, yes; but passive? no – is a reaction to this, and she meets prejudice with the same kind of smart attitude and measured venom which also pervades her tunes.
“I still get asked if I’m the f**king groupie,” she Zauner said in an interview with Front Row Boston in 2016, “[I think] ‘wow, I’ve really come from a boy’s world'”. – John Burns
Photo: Cara Robbins
With sophomore album Everybody Works released in March, her second album in as many years, Melina Duterte, the multi-instrumentalist behind the name Jay Som, has proved that few work as hard and as well as her. Every instrument on the album is hers, recorded and mixed in Duterte’s bedroom studio, a process that contributes to the warmth and lo-fi feel of the final product. Duterte’s music is as awash with nostalgia as it is totally fresh in its approach, her jangly guitars and wobbling synths artfully tousled around understated lyrics. Stylistically, while Everybody Works sounds like a direct continuation of 2016 debut Turn Into, it’s a little tighter, made up mostly of short songs that don’t dwell too much on any one moment or emotion, and when it reaches closing track “For Light”, all the momentum built up over the album is carefully released – a perfect way to wrap up the first two Jay Som albums for now… but hopefully, not for long. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Kelela has been around for a while now, releasing an excellent mixtape in Cut 4 Me and a phenomenal EP, her debut with Warp, in Hallucinogen, but it really feels that Take Me Apart is the first major chapter in her career. Moving away from the rawness of the mixtape and the reducing the otherworldly sense of the EP, Take Me Apart passes as the first proper introduction to what Kelela is all about.
This is a work of intelligent R&B, retaining all the romantic element of the genre but appending a forward-thinking quality, which is rarely found in most of her contemporaries. Choosing to collaborate with some of the most interesting producers out there in Arca, Ariel Rechtshaid, Jam City and Kwes, Kelela is able to balance between these two diverse worlds, completing an uncanny union between the roots of R&B and its experimental side. It might be too early to say, but artists such as her can expand the scope of the whole scene. – Spyros Stasis
On her stellar EP Machine Woman found a new way to rattle the bones on her first release of new material since Genau House. When Lobster Comes Home feels like the quickening of the stride before she launches herself into the electronic music mainstream. The attitude, forged from years as a punk bassist, is present throughout her music. Machine Woman brings a punk sensibility to tech-house with a ‘fuck it, let’s do this attitude’, as every release and every DJ set perfectly balances beauty and chaos. From the cleaves of noise that shatter the calm of “But it was like 30 intros in a row” to the swaggering groove of the magnificently titled “I Want to Fuck Tech House” the EP marked Machine Woman as an artist to bring a bit of danger into the dance music scene. – Paul Carr
Photo: Lenny Gilmore
The Winters are coming. Bart, Liam, and Miranda Winters, and drummer James Wetzel (the only one neither a sibling nor a spouse to any of his bandmates), have been accumulating glowing write-ups and many-starred reviews of their debut album this year. Prior to now, the Chicago band have taken a reasonable measure of time to first find the balance to their chemistry, before then shaking and churning it as much as possible without blowing up the lab. Nothing Valley is the experiment gone right, a beaker full of steel barbs and sugar pills left near the bunsen burner and bound to blow, melt, or oftentimes both. – Ian King
Photo: Colin Medley
Haling from Windsor, Ontario (by way of Sackville, New Brunswick), the duo of Josée Caron and Lucy Niles brought a refreshing approach to indie rock on Partner’s exuberant debut album In Search of Lost Time. Indebted to the robust melodic rock of Veruca Salt, the effervescent power pop of Cheap Trick, and the guitar-driven aggression of Thin Lizzy, Partner’s music is witty, loud, and extremely catchy, best exemplified by the boisterous “Gross Secret” and the contagious “Play the Field”. In an era where the “rock” label has been applied to male groups who know how to do anything but, these two young women have helped breathe new life into the genre, and it’s only a matter of time before a much larger audience catches on. – Adrien Begrand
We organize music into tribes and movements, always looking for common threads between artists so we can ascribe meaning onto them. But this newest generation of rap stars feels disconnected from any notions of shared aesthetic or thematic purpose. There are united only by a general alignment toward irreverence, and Playboi Carti may be the best of them. //// The songs on his self-titled, debut mixtape have a diffuse, untethered quality. Carti raps in fragments that resemble hooks but never settle into any kind of order, and his beats are equally strange, whimsical, and distinct from any musical tradition. The cumulative feeling is one of constant displacement and improvisation, as if the songs are reinventing themselves with each listen, never taking on a final form. – Mark Matousek
Photo: Giant Eye Photography
While they’ve been around in various iterations since the dawn of the 2010s, 2017’s American Dream marked the California band’s first release as a trio. The first thing most will notice about Caitlin Gowdey, Erin Chapin, and Vanessa May’s work on the record is their indelible knack for writing unforgettable, stripped-back melodies. The harmonies they produce at the center of these folksy arrangements are something to write home about too, the trio nailing incredibly euphonic synchronicity with seeming ease. Rainbow Girls’ true bread and butter, though, is that in these gorgeous earworms that they perform, they don’t back down. They maintain some semblance of pop memorability while never straying from folk’s roots in humanity and protest. On American Dream, they speak for themselves through their own experiences as much as they sing for the liberty and justice of us all. Between that and their innate musicality, one would not be remiss to assume that their new trio rendition of the band will go a long way. – Jonathan Frahm
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Photo: Rubin Utama
As gifts to indie rock go, the Australian city of Melbourne is one that keeps on giving. This fall brought the buzzing pop punk debut album from Alex Lahey, while a somewhat slower rollout throughout 2017 has brought Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (whose name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) to the attention of easy going fans of easy going guitar pop. Their US label, Sub Pop, who also host the noticeably noisier Melbourne band Deaf Wish on their current roster, put out two of the band’s EPs in America this year, Talk Tight and The French Press, both of which are breezy yet substantive, and clever without forcing the point. – Ian King
When we call Sampha a “new artist”, we mean no disrespect to his already generous body of work. But in 2017, the bard unified his lyricism, production and musicianship in a way that feels entirely new. While his prior EPs and high-profile vocal features—with Solange, SBTRTK and Drake, among others—would hint at something special, few likely foresaw the breadth of revelations to come: his full-length debut Process, one of the richest and most rewarding releases of the year.
Immediately apparent is Sampha’s fragile falsetto, which soars and swoops overhead. Each song feels complete and multidimensional. Each exists in own zone. Together, the collection of ten tracks guide the listener down a winding and wistful path in an exploration of harsh reality—regret, despair, paranoia—but a path surrounded by color.
With co-producer Rodaidh MacDonald, Sampha subjects his creations to elusive UK-style production, built upon layers of house, hip-hop, ambient, and lord knows what else. Though he plays with historically black musical tradition, his work demonstrates the growing irrelevance of labels like alt-R&B or neo-soul. Sampha crafts music with sobering dexterity, emotional and stylistic. – A. Noah Harrison
We haven’t heard much from Sudan Archives yet — there’s only around 20 minutes of her music out there, if I’m not mistaken — but the music she has chosen to release to the world is odd, exciting, and beautiful in equal measure. Much more than merely a fiddler, Archives does things with the violin that actually sound like something new, an increasingly rare feat in an increasingly crowded musical landscape. Her electronic experiments are difficult and fascinating, her R&B leanings effortless and warm, and she never lets us forget that she is not just an artist, but a musician. Her latest track “Water” is a short but accomplished snippet of a song that points to a growing comfort in her craft; where she goes next is one of the most exciting questions music currently has to offer. – Mike Schiller
Photo Ibra Ake (Jagjaguwar)
Even before releasing his highly-acclaimed debut album, Aromanticism earlier this fall, Moses Sumney had already amassed an impressive resume of touters. The Los Angeles-based musician (born in San Bernardino, moved to Ghana at the age of ten), has created a sound that would fit perfectly on a Solange, Sufjan Stevens, or TV on the Radio album (he’s worked with all three). His folksy falsetto draw comparisons to both Stevens (Sufjan and Cat) as well as Nina Simone. But his music is wonderfully unclassifiable. Instead, it can best be described as “mood music” – you can’t categorize it, but it’s something you would reach for when you want something intimate, soulful, and immediate to hit you.
Critics obsess over artists’ “break up” and “falling in love” albums. But a good chunk of our lives are spent alone. Be it being single, widowed, or just in the car on a two-hour commute, Aromanticism is a document of such isolation. Moses Sumney doesn’t make this a celebration, or something to lament. Instead, he simply examines and gives an exquisite account of the adventures in solitude. – Sean McCarthy
I don’t know much about Superorganism, which released three songs this year, and I’d like to keep it that way. It appears the band has eight members and a soft spot for the crude, but endearing optimism of early digital animation. Both of these suppositions make sense in the context of the band’s music, which is fragmented and playful, showing the seams of collaboration through pitch-shifted voices, sound effects, and kaleidoscopic arrangements. I suspect there’s a great story behind their making, but I’d rather not hear it. I’d rather imagine any number of supernatural possibilities—telekinesis, witchcraft, a chance collision and transmission of sonic particles—and hope they conspire again soon. – Mark Matousek
Photo: Columbia Records
Last year, the Internet’s lead vocalist Syd left hip-hop collective Odd Future and made a splash with her low-key guest appearance on Kaytranada single “You’re the One”, among others. This year, Syd wasted no time in making her solo mark with the February release of debut full-length album Fin, where she parlays her too-cool vibes into languid, sensual swagger on track after track. Since that solid, sexy debut, Syd hasn’t wasted a second, collaborating with top Korean R&B singer Dean on catchy “love”, guesting on fellow Internet member Matt Martians’ solo release The Drum Chord Theory, and releasing the EP Always Never Home in September to kick off an end-of-year tour. With everything she’s done this year, Syd has shown that not only can she fit in with the fast-moving electronics that wind through the Internet’s music, she can hold her own and even thrive at the forefront of more straightforward pop. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Photo: RCA Records
Ctrl dropped in June, and though it’s SZA’s first full-length album, her discography already has its own Wikipedia page, so prolific has she been in terms of mixtapes, singles, and guest appearances on other artists’ tracks. Few albums this year made as big a splash as her long-awaited debut, a soulful whirl of chill synthpop, classic R&B sounds, and above all, SZA’s sincere singing and personal songwriting. It’s not news, of course, that SZA’s a good singer, a good writer, a good artist – that was all clear, if a little obscured by rough production, on the 2014 EP Z and all the other songs SZA has to her name so far – but this year, Ctrl let us feel just how well SZA can do when she brings it all to the table. Her lyrics resonate, her music captivates, and SZA herself has a relevant point of view that she knows exactly how to share. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Yaeji, born Kathy Yaeji Lee, arrived as an artist who embodied the direction music has been heading this decade: bass-heavy electro beats, fluid differentiations between singing and rapping, and a knack for capturing the solitude of the masses. On her excellent second release of this year, EP2, the intonation that “When the sweaty walls are banging / I don’t fuck with family planning” is just one example of how for her brand of house music, saying how one should feel is just as important as bringing production that makes them feel it. With the inclusion of her Curry in No Hurry project – bringing the communal experiences of the club and the table together – her unique approach to the holistic music experience hints at a truly game-changing future. – Brian Duricy