The Nextbop favorite non-jazz list is always a fascinating beast because it exemplifies the widest interests of the staff. It frequently doesn’t coalesce around many of the same ideas. There are numerous ties (for this and our jazz list). There’s frequently something off the wall from someone that isn’t at all a common pick, as if that couldn’t be expected from a group of jazz writers. At Nextbop, we’re known for finding the newest in jazz music but that kind of open mind requires range, range we’re more than happy to reveal to you each year in this list.
9 tie. Nicholas Deyoe – “for Duane” (Populist Records)
Nicholas Deyoe is quickly becoming a foundational pillar of LA’s New Music scene. On “for Duane”, his second release on the forward-thinking new music label Populist Records, Deyoe presents a varied and compelling collection of chamber works expertly and sensitively performed by members of wasteLAnd, a concert series/variable-instrumentation ensemble in which he serves as Artistic Director, as well as performances Aperture Duo, Ashley Walters as cello soloist on the stunning title track, soprano Stephanie Aston, and violinist/violist Batya MacAdam-Somer. This music is honest, challenging, and beautiful — what more can you really ask for?
9 tie. Julian Baker – Turn Out the Lights (Matador)
Through sparse arrangements filtered primarily through her voice, jangly Telecaster, and upright piano, Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights is a profoundly complex examination of self. Baker (only 22 years old) tackles mature themes of mental illness, queer identity, substance abuse, and an apparent crisis of faith with the fortitude of Bob Dylan at his most personal and honest. Like the best confessional albums, nearly every track feels as cathartic to listen to as it was for Baker to create. And while lines like “I used to never wear a seatbelt ‘cause I said I didn’t care what happened/And I didn’t see the point in trying to save myself from an accident” can seem melodramatic when taken as stand-alone lyrics, as a whole, they fit into an album narrative that nearly anyone who has experienced emotional pain or self-doubt can empathize with.
9 tie. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy (Columbia)
To say this record was a shock would be an understatement. That is not to say that Tyler the Creator has not delivered quality albums and songs in the past – it’s clear that he is a very talented rapper and producer. However, with Flower Boy, he has created his best written, most personal, and above all, most beautiful record to date. Flower Boy is an album about romance, depression, isolation and coming to terms with oneself. It’s about coming out, which Tyler masterfully covers on “Garden Shed”. “Boredom” is also stunning, everything is great – from the rappers frustrated bars to little things, like how Corrine Bailey Rae’s voice follows the instrumental at the beginning of the second verse. “911 / Mr. Lonely” is another highlight, with a fantastic bridge sung by Steve Lacy and great, desperate lyrics from Tyler.
9 tie. Jonti – Tokorats (Stones Throw)
Jonti Danilewitz hasn’t been gone in the last six years since his debut album, Twirligig. He’s been living life, collaborating, refining his sound until things were good and ready. One could think of it as part of the process, ensuring that Jonti’s swirling, colorful sounds are layered just so into an album so exquisite that it’s been worth the wait. The man has a hell of a voice, which is always nice to hear layered as he often does, but it’s the everything else in his repertoire that makes Tokorats such a welcome return.
4 tie. TOKiMONSTA – Lune Rouge (Young Art Records)
With this release, TOKiMONSTA (a.k.a. Jennifer Lee) provides a guidepost for what the future of music can sound like. The L.A.-based electronic musician puts piano driven melodies over familiar sounding beats for a highly comforting and highly danceable record. During this wave of high-profile electronic and hip-hop producer album showcases Lune Rouge stands ahead of most of the pack by neatly distilling several styles into her own unique form.
4 tie. Big Thief – Capacity (Saddle Creek)
No need to bury the lede — this record contains some of the best songwriting I’ve ever heard. Adrianne Lenker and co. have made an honest, moving album of fantastically idiosyncratic songs and musicianship. It carries the listener deftly through a varied emotional journey, continuing the precedent set by their first album, 2016’s aptly titled Masterpiece. I can only hope this complete rejection of even the idea of a sophomore slump means we will all be fortunate enough to be graced with many wonderful records from Big Thief for years to come.
4 tie. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun)
“Death is real/Someone’s there and then they’re not/And it’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art”, Phil Elverum talk-sings to open up Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. Let’s state the obvious: this is a bleak, stark, utterly devastating record. It is not easy to listen to. Hell, at times it is not even enjoyable to listen to, but don’t let this take away from how moving of an album it is. Written immediately after the loss of Phil Elverum’s wife/mother of his child to pancreatic cancer, the album is essentially a recording of Elverum attempting to make sense and come to terms with her death by way of the only thing that makes sense to him during these times: music. A Crow Looked at Me is a remarkable look at art, grief, death, and the importance of continuing to keep living even after life’s most catastrophic events.
4 tie. La Lá – Zamba Puta (Independent)
Even though peruvian singer/songwriter La Lá’s sophomore record only lasts for 25 minutes, it uses each of them to their maximum potential, inviting countless repeat listens. The range on display here is impressive, with “La Felicidad”, a beautiful ode to her mother and “Bebés” a jazzy song dedicated to her son, both being album highlights. The range is not just in terms of musical styles, with the singer occasionally leaving her native Spanish to sing in Portuguese (“Cornamenta”) and English (“Espejo adolescente”). She cleverly tackles machismo and gender-stereotypes with her well written lyrics and compositions in the tongue in cheek “Primor” and the gorgeous duet with her brother, “Linda Bler”. This is easily my favorite record of the year. I covered “Zamba puta” and La Lá’s interesting path to the world of music for
4 tie. Washed Out – Mister Mellow (Stones Throw)
Ernest Greene doesn’t make albums, he makes moods. His works seems to tumble from speakers, already formed but assembling in mid-air at the same time. The lo-fi fuzz factor of his electronic music is a bit diminished from his earlier chillwave beginnings, but the same feeling one gets that this music can cradle your hazy brain for hours on heend is still there.
3. Milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! (Ruby Yacht)
On his latest record, Milo continues with the abstract poetic rapping style that has defined his career. The difference here is that, Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! is his jazziest – most Madlib-esque – record yet, and he sounds more than at home here. His esoteric rhyme style, with a delivery that ranges from the almost deadpan (“pablum // CELESKINGIII”) to the animated (“magician(suture)”) never falters throughout the album’s 43 minutes. Standout moments include “call + form (picture)” where the rappers uses Monk’s keys to describe emotion (“It’s a kind of hopelessness, a loneliness/A color I only ever heard played by a nigga named Thelonious”) and the surreal, piano filled and Elucid assisted “Landscaping”, where he briefly expresses himself through cartoons (“I’m Muriel crying “Eustace” in that building lobby/Oh, and my Courage is such a cowardly dog”). I covered this record in more detail here.
1 tie. The National – Sleep Well Beast (4AD)
The National occupy a very special place in the indie rock world. As Pitchfork‘s Jayson Greene puts it, The National’s music is a soundtrack to the “bits of craven irresponsibility and abandon you cling to in the margins of an otherwise stable existence.” Sleep Well Beast is decidedly different from previous releases from The National. While their music still maintains a slow-burning, brooding quality to it, there is a lot to love in terms of newfound sonic experimentation on this record. From the skittering drum machines of “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Guilty Party” to the frenetic guitar riffs in “Day I Die” and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, it is obvious that the band is stepping outside of their comfort zone musically, and it pays off in a dramatic way. Singer Matt Berninger has also grown immensely as a songwriter, covering territory previously untouched by the band. On prior albums, there were rays of hope that could be found within the most angst-ridden and desperate of Berninger’s lyrics. On Sleep Well Beast, however, the mood evolves into a much darker tone, with lyrics like “Let’s just get high enough to see our problems”, “Forget it, nothing I change changes anything”, and “So blame it on me, I really don’t care/It’s a foregone conclusion” injected throughout the entire record. An absolutely stunning album from start to finish, this is a must-own record for 2017.
1 tie. Kendrick Lamar – Damn. (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
Kendrick Lamar comes down from the philosophical perch from his last release but his mind still stays above sea-level. Even though the album’s production is a step beyond what’s on-trend, Lamar’s vocal performance melds seamlessly to create his most accessible album yet, less idiosyncratic than good kid, m.A.A.d city, less high art than To Pimp A Butterfly. DAMN. is Kendrick at his most pop-oriented, but nonetheless just as serious as we’ve come to know him.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.