Top 10 favourite albums of 2017

2017 has been a very eventful year for music. Kendrick Lamar continued his dominance of the rap game releasing another critically acclaimed and commercially successful album, DAMN., and taking the charts by storm. Drake released a “playlist” called More Life which introduced the world to UK rap legend Giggs and further confused those with his ever changing accent. UK actor and comedian, Michael Dapaah in character as Big Shaq became one of the biggest memes of 2017 and released the biggest UK rap song ever “Man’s Not Hot” after the success of his viral Fire in the Booth freestyle with Charlie Sloth. Sampha finally released his debut album Process, which won the Mercury Prize, and captured the world with his beautiful soulful voice. SZA, Syd, Kelela, Daniel Caesar, Brent Faiyaz and more released some of the smoothest alternative R&B albums in a while. JAY-Z got everyone talking when he admitted he cheated on Beyonce (stupid) and released some of his best music in a while and some incredible music videos. And throughout the year, there was so much amazing black British music. J Hus, Stormzy, Skepta, Dave, Little Simz, Krept & Konan, MoStack, Giggs, AJ Tracey, Kojey Radical, Wiley, Not3s, Nadia Rose, Chip, 67, Kojo Funds and more all released amazing projects and songs this year. So let’s get into it. These are my top 10 favourite albums released in 2017 from favourite to slightly less favourite.

10.

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Moses Sumney — Aromanticism

One might be tempted to label Moses Sumney as an R&B or alternative R&B artist because he’s a black singer but he’s much more similar to an Elliot Smith than say Chris Brown. On his debut album Aromanticism, Sumney softly coos in his falsetto about loneliness and isolation backed by ambient and indie folk instrumentation. Think Dirty Projectors or Arca. His voice is often a quiet whisper a perfect vessel for delivering his beautifully written poetic lyrics. Sumney joins other current soulful black singers like Sampha and Benjamin Clementine who are creating some of the most unique music melding the genres of electronic, indie, soul, baroque, folk and R&B music in a distinctly black style.

9.

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LCD Soundsystem — American Dream

In February 2011 LCD Soundsystem disbanded and it was made official following a large farewell concert at Madison Square Garden. The farewell concert was chronicled in the documentary film Shut Up and Play the Hits. So it came as surprise when in January 2016 the band announced their reunion and a day later their fourth studio album American Dream. LCD Soundsystem return without a hitch with American Dream, still sounding like quintessential LCD but with some bells and whistles. They return with their distinct dance-punk and new wave sound but updated and refreshed for 2017. Frontman James Murphy muses on the current turbulent political climate with his unique brand of lyricism. It’s a great return to form and shows that no one does dance-punk/rock better than LCD Soundsystem but nice try Arcade Fire.

8.

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Slowdive — Slowdive

Legendary English shoegazing and dream pop band reunited in 2017 for the first time in 22 years since the release of their last album Pygmalion in 1995. Along with My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive are regarded as one of the best and most influential dream pop and shoegazing bands ever. Their latest, self-titled, album after more than two decades proves why they’re so critically acclaimed. When an album is self-titled it sets very high expectations and Slowdive definitely exceeded them on this album. They sound as dreamy as ever but their new songs are even more vibrant and fresh, the wash of guitars and reverb entrancing you in bittersweet memories and nostalgia.

7.

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Jay-Z — 4:44

After the disappointments that were Magna Carta Holy Grail and The Blueprint 3 Jay-Z is back to prove why he’s still considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Jay-Z, I got into hip-hop when I was around 13/14 so the first Jay-Z album I remember coming out and listening to was Magna Carta Holy Grail which massively disappointed me. I always preferred Nas and Biggie to Jay. 4:44 is Hov going back to basics, leaving behind the braggadocio and ego and being more vulnerable and honest than he’s ever been. The album is brief and the production is stripped back solely handled by long-time collaborator, No I.D. and Jay-Z himself. The album succeeds immensely with tracks like “The Story of O.J.” being among the best this year.

6.

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SZA — Ctrl

SZA’s debut album could have come a few years earlier but because of issues with her confidence and lack of control it didn’t. But it came this year which was the perfect time because this has been SZA’s year. Almost every black woman I know has loved SZA’s album and related to it in some way. As the sole female member of indepedent hip-hop label TDE, which has produced some of the biggest artists in hip-hop including Kendrick Lamar, she’s an odd fit. But like most members of TDE she’s incredibly talented. The production on Ctrl is very smooth and reminiscent of 90s neo-soul yet simultaneously contemporary and unique. The album also has an indie spirit with dreamy guitar riffs such as the one on “Drew Barrymore” the anthem for misfit girls everywhere. Her voice is expressive and her lyrics are poignant as they are relatable for weird, awkward black girls.

5.

Vince Staples — Big Fish Theory

After the critical acclaim of his debut album Summertime ’06 Vince Staples could have easily played it safe with his sophomore album and repeated the success. However, Vince does the opposite on Big Fish TheoryBig Fish Theory is one of the most unique hip-hop albums in recent years and as experimental as a relatively mainstream hip-hop artist gets. Of course Vince is not going to be topping charts any time soon but with his infamous interviews and hilarious Twitter account he’s increasingly popular. Big Fish Theory is a very unique album, it’s production is totally electronic there isn’t a single beat I could call traditional hip-hop. The album has a mix of different electronic genres including UK garage, house, techno and EDM. Vince flows incredibly well on these unconventional beats and enlists Kendrick Lamar on “Yeah Right” one of the best bangers of the year.

4.

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Tyler, the Creator — Flower Boy

Flower Boy also known as Scum Fuck Flower Boy is I wanted Tyler to make after Cherry Bomb. While Cherry Bomb wasn’t a bad album, Tyler’s experimentation with production meant it was often a difficult listen and he didn’t always pull it off. But he showed glimpses of the greatness that appears on Flower Boy. When Flower Boy leaked it started a lot of speculations about Tyler’s sexuality referring to some not so subtle lyrics on the album. Tyler has still not confirmed these rumours despite some who point to tweets he’s made in the past. The thing about Tyler is that no one takes him seriously because he’s sometimes too much of a joker. But I think Tyler wants us to take him seriously  on Flower Boy and let the music speak for itself because he doesn’t use the persona of Wolf Haley on this album it’s just Tyler Okonma. And Tyler Okonma is very talented. Flower Boy has some of the most beautiful production, soulful singing and honest poignant lyrics on any album this year. It’s been great watching Tyler grow into a mature artist and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

3.

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J Hus — Common Sense

2017 has been an incredible year for black British music as I mentioned in my introduction and J Hus’ Common Sense is a stand out. J Hus has been making massive waves since he broke out in 2015 and it’s great to see that he’s been able to turn that talent into a great album. Common Sense is the perfect encapsulation of young black Britain in 2017, it captures the mad raves, the dance-hall and afrobeats hall parties, the roads; the essence of young black British African and Caribbean life. The production on Common Sense (most of which is handled by JAE5) is fantastic, from the jazzy title track “Common Sense” to a grime rave banger “Clartin” and UK garage tunes like “Plottin.” J Hus is undeniably one of the most talented artists in the UK and I’m so excited to see what he does next.

2.

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Sampha — Process

I’m so glad to have another black British artist not just in my top 10 but in the top 3. Not to go on about it but it really has been an incredible for black British music. In any other year, Process could be my number one but a certain someone had to release another masterpiece. But what an incredible album Process is and well worth the wait. Sampha has caught people’s attention since appearing throughout SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album in 2011 stunning everyone with his angelic soulful voice. I’ve seen Sampha live and honestly he sounds even more incredible live like that’s even possible. By having literally one of the most beautiful voices ever Process could have had average production and I would have loved listening to it. Thankfully that’s not the case as the production is also great handled by Sampha himself and Rodaidh McDonald. It’s production is electronic similar to James Blake but it’s also very soulful. He bares his soul on this album singing about his anxiety, fear, loneliness and grief. A standout track is the piano ballad “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” dedicated to his late mother it’s the most emotional, touching song in an album full of heartwarming moments.

1.

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Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.

And it’s no surprise that my number one album of 2017 is a Kendrick Lamar album. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a Kendrick Stan but this pick is only slightly biased because I genuinely think DAMN. is the best album of 2017. It had some fierce competition and I’ve had Process over it a few times but in the end I think I made the best decision. No other album in 2017 affected me as much as DAMN. After To Pimp a Butterfly which is my favourite album ever I eagerly anticipated what Kendrick would do next. I don’t think  he will ever top To Pimp a Butterfly, at least for me but he came pretty DAMN. close. On DAMN. whose concept I still haven’t fully begun to unpack yet, Kendrick goes internal examining his now messianic status, his fears and anxieties and the state of the world we’re living in with excellent results. “FEAR.” the album’s centrepiece is one of the best Kendrick Lamar songs ever, a 7-minute epic detailing his life from the age of 7 to now. “HUMBLE.” proves that he’s capable of making of chart-topping bangers without sacrificing lyricism. On “DNA.” he goes in on his critics and does lyrical acrobatics. The album is full of highlights and while there are some more poppy songs like “LOYALTY.” and “LOVE.” Kendrick continues to prove that he’s the greatest active living hip-hop artist. After To Pimp a Butterfly was released there was not doubt Kendrick Lamar was one of the greatest rappers of all time (and my personal number one) there’s no absolutely reason why anyone should think otherwise after DAMN.

Sampha: Process review – finally in the spotlight an introverted artist bears his soul on his fears and anxieties

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I’ve been a fan of Sampha since 2013 when I first heard him featured on most tracks on SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album. I was absolutely captivated by his soulful singing voice, it was one of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard. But I didn’t know who Sampha was. For some time I assumed he was behind the SBTRKT project before discovering it was Aaron Jerome. From 2013 until this year I heard Sampha featured on a number of tracks including Drake’s “Too Much” (which he sampled from a Sampha song from his 2013 EP Dual), Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.” If I had bothered to look into his music I wouldn’t have found much though, before Process, his debut album, Sampha had only released two solo projects: 2010’s Sundanza and 2013’s DualSundanza is hard to find because it’s not on any digital platforms and Dual is a brief 17 minute EP. Still had I discovered Dual earlier it could have tided me over while I awaited the debut album of an artist I loved but didn’t really know. This is partly due to Sampha himself. Sampha Sissay was born in Morden, South London to Sierra Leonean parents who came to the United Kingdom in the 1980s. His introduction to music came from learning to play on the piano at his parents’ home in Morden and listening to records given to him by his older siblings. In the few video interviews there are of Sampha he comes across as a very quiet, shy introverted person but someone who is a very talented and cares a lot about music. As someone who was very shy but has now broken out of their shell and is still a generally reserved and introverted person I relate to Sampha a lot. Sampha doesn’t give everything about himself away on Process but he’s brutally honest and it’s so beautiful but absolutely heart-wrenching at times.

Process begins with “Plastic 100°C”, produced by Rodaidh McDonald and Sampha. Process is full of sounds I’ve never heard before and the opening track introduces this musical palette to the listener. The track begins with a sample of Neil Armstrong saying “I’ll work my way over into the sunlight here without looking directly into the sun.” This line conveys the feeling that Sampha feels by releasing this album he’s been in the background for so long but now he’s taking a huge step by putting himself in the spotlight but not quite fully plunging into it. Sampha’s voice is soft yet intense you can feel his desperation but he’s almost reluctant to share it. The chorus “it’s so hot I’ve been melting out here / I’m made out of plastic out here” is just the one of many examples of evocative imagery Sampha will use on this album to describe the feeling of anxiety so perfectly. Here he describes the pressure and anxiety of this stage in his career as hot and that he’s melting because he’s made of out plastic not strong enough to withstand the heat of the music industry and fame. The line “oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah, I didn’t really know what that lump was, my luck” captures this anxiety perfectly by referring to a lump. The lump is both metaphorical and physical. You might feel the sensation of a lump in your throat if you’re nervous as well that the line also refers to when Sampha did actually discover a lump in his throat in 2011, a physical manifestation of his anxiety. Sampha’s father passed away when Sampha was 9 years old, his brother also suffered a severe stroke and then his mother, after having been diagnosed with cancer in 2010, died in 2015. This fear of illness and death is something I relate to even though it hasn’t affected me or anyone close to me personally I struggle with it everyday. I fear every day that either of my parents will fall ill or die and I can’t imagine what I would do and or how I would cope. I fear that something bad will happen to any of my siblings and I fear that I could die at any time. It’s a horrible feeling one that I have to distract myself with things so I don’t dwell on it but it’s one that never goes away and often resurfaces late at night and when I’m away from home.

I know grief is an inevitable feeling and I will eventually lose someone close to me and that’s a very frightening thought. But through Sampha coping and processing his grief on Process I know this album will help me cope and process my grief in the future. The album’s most emotional moment comes at “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.” It’s a stripped back piano ballad as Sampha reflects on his musical upbringing and the memory of his recently deceased mother. It’s very very emotionally affecting I almost tear up every time I listen to it. The line “no one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home / You would show me I had something some people call a soul” ugh 😭. The song “Blood on Me” is a heart-racing frantic “banger” as Sampha describes the feelings of fear and anxiety as things which chase and haunt him: “I swear they smell the blood on me
I hear them coming for me.” His voice sounds more desperate than it did on “Plastic 100°C”, the breathing sounds make you imagine he’s literally running away from his fears and anxieties on the song. The production on this song is incredible, the tinny drums and the heavy bass as the song builds and builds until it climaxes. The song works incredibly well when you’re actually running if you’re feeling stressed out run with this song and imagine you’re escaping from your fears and anxieties it feels very cathartic. “Kora Sings” also has incredible production featuring a kora, a West African instrument, it has a very unique sound and combined with the drums on the song, it’s simply beautiful. The entire album is indescribably beautiful. The production, the use of percussion, the piano, it’s extremely well produced.  Another example is “Take Me Inside” which starts off as another low-key ballad as Sampha’s soft voice croons away but then in come the electronic sounds and synthesisers as which build very quickly and then fade away.

“Reverse Faults” like “Blood on Me” is another banger. It feels weird to call any song on this album a banger because the lyrics are so very personal, emotional and reflective but songs like the two aforementioned just have an incredible breakdown and lyrics you want to scream out loud. The song goes from a mellow synthy instrumental into a more explosive electronic instrumental and Sampha sings “took the brake pads out the car and I flew” the lyrics just evoke the feeling of freedom. “Under” is another song which has beautifully evocative imagery to describe the feelings Sampha is experiencing “I’m somewhere in open sea yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah I’m gasping for air.” The production on this song to me sounds like the most like a James Blake song, the drums and bass have the feel of a James Blake song but the vocal performance is more expressive than any James Blake song. The vocal performances throughout this album are just incredibly expressive Sampha has so much range and so much emotion is felt in the way he sings the lyrics. “Timmy’s Prayer” and “Incomplete Kisses” are no exception. On “Timmy’s Prayer” Sampha cries out “I wish that I listened when I was in prison now I’m just a visitor I came to the gates but you turned me away you asked me what am I waiting for
I’m waiting ’cause I fucked up, ooh” here Sampha describes how he’s lost meaning in his life now both of his parents are gone and he’s questioning himself and God. Co-written by Kanye West, “Timmy’s Prayer” contains the same emotional honesty of Kanye at his best and that line is the one time Sampha swears on the album showing just how desperate he’s gotten. “Incomplete Kisses” is a melancholic, beautiful track with a piano and electronic sounds, the song builds up to an emotional climax which makes you reminisce about those moments where things were left unrealised. The final song “What Shouldn’t I Be?” is perhaps the most lowkey song on the album as Sampha quietly reflects on his past connections, his home, his family he concludes the album by saying “It’s not all about me (What shouldn’t I be?).” It’s an ambivalent end but one that suggests though he’s looking back and reconnecting with people in his life but he also has a better sense of himself as well. I’m so glad that Sampha has decided to put himself out there more because Process is a really impressive debut album and my second favourite album of the year so far. Like DAMN., my favourite album of the year so far, Process shows a black man who is not afraid to show that he’s vulnerable and that he also fears and has anxieties like everyone. I hope more artists like Sampha and Kendrick Lamar continue to do the same.