Year In Review: The Beat’s top 10 non-Baltimore albums of 2017

Jlin’s “Black Origami”

1. Jlin, “Black Origami”: Rustbelt footwork visionary Jlin, aka producer Jerrilynn Patton, might be the only person on the planet who hears a wicked party album at the intersection of left-field hip-hop scientists Antipop Consortium, hiccupping English glitch pioneers Autechre, and the dizzying percussive melodies of Conlan Nancarrow’s player-piano works. From the otherworldly rhythms of ‘Kyanite’ to the bubbling buzz and whir of ‘1%,’ “Black Origami” is an intoxicating immersion into totally foreign sounds being bent and shaped into inviting dancefloor body quake. (Bret McCabe)

2. Kendrick Lamar, “DAMN.”: After the jazzy, concept record odyssey of “To Pimp A Butterfly,” diehard Kendrick fans were want to read too deeply into the relative simplicity of follow-up “DAMN.” Sure, there’s the whole “playable backwards” thing that Drake also did with “Nothing Was The Same,” but what’s so refreshing about this new record is that it’s just a really good rap album. No posthumous conversations with Tupac, no art film pretension to the album’s narrative structure. It’s just dope production, sharp rhymes, and expert songcraft. Mixing in Steve Lacy’s DIY aesthetic and Mike Will’s trunk-rattling southern production with the usual TDE in-house crew makes for a fine assemblage of instrumentals for Kendrick to do what he does best: rap his ass off and tell deeply human stories. No exhaustive RapGenius annotations required. (Dominic Griffin)

3. Mount Eerie, “A Crow Looked At Me”: “Death is real.” Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum lets us know right at the beginning of this album that we’re heading into a kind of bare-naked, wound-opening explication of the death of his wife and the mother of his child, the musician and artist Geneviève Castrée. It is also a kind of love letter. But you can’t turn a death into poetry, Elverum contends, as he vacillates between states of big-picture bewilderment (“The year moves on without you in it,” he sings in ‘Forest Fire’—of course, but how could it?), frank banality (taking out the garbage, getting rid of her clothes), and that impossible-to-pin-down thing where a person dies and parts of them remain, in memory or symbols—which is just not enough. (Rebekah Kirkman)

4. Jason Isbell, “The Nashville Sound”: Most of the major news outlets ordered a few dozen copies of “Hillbilly Elegy” and sent an army of reporters out into the wilds of the rural South or the ruined rustbelt city to find the “real Americans” they’d somehow overlooked leading up to the election of a white supremacist. But Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers, has been on the road for years, playing in those places and singing songs that plumb the depths of fucked-up white people. On the “Nashville Sound,” he makes the politics behind this explicit, at precisely the moment we need to hear it. ‘White Man’s World’ is an adjunct to both #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. It is a man reckoning with himself honestly, something all men need to do. But it is also beautiful in its specificity. In a world where Alabama is Jeff Sessions, Roy Moore, and even Doug Jones, we especially need to hear Isbell’s deconstruction of southern white masculinity. (Baynard Woods)

5. Lorde, “Melodrama”: After taking time off to live since her 2013 debut “Pure Heroine,” Ella Yelich O’Connor, 21, is pretty much old enough now to be recognized for her talent without the condescending footnote “and she’s just a kid!” Upon her return, Lorde harnesses her synesthesia to produce a cinematic sound that transcends age while also embracing the tenderness of youth that is too often written off as, well, melodrama. If a 16-year-old made an album with as much vocal virtuosity (‘Writer In The Dark’), dance-pop savvy (‘Homemade Dynamite’), and emotional scope (the hopeful bliss of ‘Green Light,’ the consuming shame and loneliness of ‘Liability’) as “Melodrama,” you can bet she’d be allowed no peace. (Maura Callahan)

6. Sampha, “Process”: After years of adding emotive texture to tracks from Drake, SBTRKT, Solange, and others, Sampha’s solo debut feels every ounce as potent as the hype led us to believe. His reliably mournful falsetto is still on display, but the production challenges his usual light touch, forcing him to show off the elasticity of his moody vocals. There’s new power in his delivery, a rueful clarity to his songwriting, and an immediacy that is hard to deny. Across these 10 songs, Sampha is equally adept at threadbare piano balladry as he is lending gravitas to trap inflected instrumentals—a voice for all seasons. (Dominic Griffin)

7. Björk, “Utopia”: It’s 2017: All of the men are still bad, and even though a few of them have lost their jobs after abusing their subordinates for many years, they’re still largely running and ruining the world. “Break the chain of the fuckups of the fathers/ it is time for us women to rise and not just take it lying down,” Björk rallies us in ‘Tabula Rasa,’ on an album that defies our collective despair. Co-produced with Arca, “Utopia” acknowledges elements of our calamitous reality (listen for the demon/dog barks that perforate ‘Body Memory’) while transporting us to some kind of future perfect matriarchal otherworld full of love, flute choirs, birdsong, and trilled syllables. (Rebekah Kirkman)

8. Priests, “Nothing Feels Natural”: When toxic waste has pushed climate change past the point of no return and radical praxis gets washed into a safely commodifiable #resistance, it’s hard for anything to feel organic. Priests don’t give us the “political record we need right now” but articulate and work through the existential anxiety attached to the burden of making one when everything you’ve organized for has gone to shit. While ‘No Big Bang’ questions what progress science and evolution has brought when balancing self-care and creative output in the current climate is a mental and physical nightmare, and ‘Pink White House’ expresses ambivalence about electoral alternatives, the music is outright adventurous, as if trying to follow the lyrics’ train of thought. What will start with the exuberant punch of X-Ray Spex will as easily go into the contemplative depression of late Portishead or the spectral wonder of early Cocteau Twins. Sort of starting where something like Fugazi’s “The Argument” left off, it’s an album of necessary questions that organizes past its despair. (Adam Katzman)

9. Thundercat, “Drunk”: The photo cover of Thundercat’s “Drunk,” depicting the electro-jazz/R&B artist emerging from the water like a shaken human Godzilla, is the perfect distillation of the album’s frantic weirdo spirit. While the weeaboo elegy ‘Tokyo’ and messy Wiz Khalifa collaboration ‘Drink Dat’ are emblematic of the album’s everyday-bullshit-as-ice cold funk vibe, the crown jewel of the 23-track release is Neo-Yacht Rock banger ‘Show You the Way.’ Who knew an inexplicable Thundercat team up with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins that samples Sega Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog sound effects would be the smoothest, horniest jam of 2017? (Max Robinson)

10. Kamasi Washington, “Harmony Of Difference”: The latest from the visionary Kamasi Washington is just 18 minutes (31 minutes if you count a final track, a terse suite of all the other tracks) though it’s as full of ideas as 2015’s three-hour long “The Epic.” And whereas “The Epic” had some out, Coltrane zip and a kind of interstellar sound—like “Star Trek”-baked lounge music—here it’s a measured, occasionally even smooth jazz. Grover Washington pleasantries are a precedent here or say, the tempered style of a ‘60s jazz legend moving into the ’70s (like Sonny Rollins covering Stevie’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’’). Critic Ben Ratliff has floated the theory that John Coltrane, had he lived longer, may have not necessarily kept going “out,” and “Harmony Of Difference” I think suggests what Coltrane may have been doing when he found chaos tedious. (Brandon Soderberg)

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