Monthly Report: January 2017 Albums
1. Priests - Nothing Feels Natural
A couple weeks ago, I worked with news crews in D.C. covering both the inauguration and the Women's March, taking the Metro around town during two of the most surreal and emotional days of my life. At the end of inauguration day, I went over to the Black Cat, which was holding an event called 'No Thanks,' and I was hoping to see Ted Leo, but I had to get on the last Metro train back to Maryland before he took the stage. But I did see some great bands like Priests and Pure Disgust that are carrying the torch for this long tradition of Washington punk bands who've been emboldened by their physical proximity to the federal government to speak out since the Reagan administration. And Priests played a great quick set of songs from their debut full-length album, which came out a week later. Priests are kind of already hitting that point where their sound keeps getting wider and more omnivorous, with guests like cellist Janel Leppin and saxophonist Mark Cisneros, both of whom joined them onstage at the Black Cat. It's a really passionate, outspoken album, but I feel like its overall emotional tenor is more about compassion than anger, there's a tenderness to Priests' idea of political punk. Buy Nothing Feels Natural today, Bandcamp is donating its share of all sales today to the ACLU.
2. Jefe - The World Is Yours EP
Shy Glizzy is on a roll from maybe his best project to date, Young Jefe 2, just six months ago, and has decided to just change his name to just Jefe. I feel like that's a less distinctive name, and I'm pretty skeptical about rapper name changes in general as per my Complex piece last year. But Jefe has already done something that few rappers do to cement a name change and actually release a project under the new name, so if he wants to be Jefe, I'm alright with that, "Give It Up" is great. Here's the 2017 albums playlist I'll be updating with every new record I listen to throughout the year.
3. Kehlani - SweetSexySavage
It's almost hilariously on-the-nose for someone like Kehlani to basically take an old TLC album and put the word 'savage' in it, since so much of the wave she represents is about just taking old '80s and '90s R&B samples and throwing trap drums on them. And this album checks off all the boxes with multiple Aaliyah samples and a New Edition interpolation. But Pop & Oak turn samples of old R&B into new R&B better than anyone these days, and they hold down the bulk of the album, so it works. And I like how sugary and bright Kehlani's melodies are, I feel like it gets lost in the shuffle how much her and Tinashe put kind of a surprising bubblegum sheen on an aesthetic that ends up really murky and drab in the hands of guys like Bryson Tiller. And "Advice" is really standing out so far as my favorite song.
4. Migos - Culture
I've never been that enthusiastic about Migos, relative to their contemporaries in Atlanta trap rap. But I respect that they're having a moment right now, more popular than ever 3-4 years after they were declared a flash in the pan, much like the moment Future enjoyed a while back. I'm more partial to Takeoff than Offset, who kinda dominates this record more in the wake of "Bad & Boujee," and Quavo already seems to be saving his best stuff for features, so this isn't even necessarily what an ideal Migos album would sound like to me. But I think it's stronger than most of their mixtapes that I've heard, "T-Shirt" and "Slippery" feel like the immediate standouts to me. I was disappointed that 2 Chainz turned in his first weak guest verse in years, though.
5. Prodigy - Hegelian Dialectic (The Book Of Revelation)
The classic Mobb Deep chemistry felt like it was dead on their last group album, but Prodigy's solo records continue to kind of pull him out into his own little universe in a really refreshing way. Some of the beats on this album are so strange and jazzy and unlike what he's rapped on before, but it works and kind of puts the focus on the words, and it just feels like he's getting a lot off of his chest. I mean, Prodigy kind of birthed hip hop's Illuminati fascination, and one of the best songs, "Mafuckin U$A," opens with him saying "everything not Illuminati, everything not a evil plot...everything is not connected, some things are but you buggin'" and then talking about taking real concrete political action. The day after the inauguration, he put it on Spotify as a single under the title "Make America Great Again: Mafuckin U$A."
6. David Bowie - No Plan EP
Though ★ felt like a pretty complete self contained work, it was intriguing to know that David Bowie had written more songs in his final year of life that didn't make the album, some of which were for the stage musical Lazarus. So I'm glad that some of that music resurfaced on the anniversary of Bowie's death on this EP, which contains "Lazarus" and 3 previously unreleased songs. I think "When I Met You" is my favorite of the new ones.
7. Cardi B - GBMV2
There's a whole world out there now of social media celebrities who've been able to parlay Instagram or Vine or Twitter fame to TV or music gigs, and by and large these are a bunch of annoying, photogenic opportunists. But Cardi B seems to just show herself to be smarter and more talented with every new medium she hops to. She's not an amazing rapper and some of her music is pretty generic and derivative, but her voice and persona were already pretty well honed, and she's got a good flow, the more money they put into her production, the higher her ceiling gets.
8. Mozzy - Fake Famous
Mozzy is definitely doing a slightly more serious and lyrically focused version of the Cali rap he's descended from, but this record does remind me a bit of recent E-40 albums in how the beats are endless variations on that very particular aesthetic and there's this army of extremely varied guests that only gets annoying when G-Eazy shows up. "The People Plan" is a great opener.
9. Joan Of Arc - He's Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land In His Hands
Joan Of Arc has been making deliberately annoying, mannered and self-consciously provocative records since well before that became a viable indie rock career path or got used to dismissing it as 'trolling.' But Tim Kinsella also tends to do some pretty interesting, unusual things with rock instrumentation that I never hear anyone else touch, and Live In Chicago 1999 still holds up as a pretty great record, so I occasionally check back in with Joan Of Arc. And this is the best record I've heard from them in a while, even if the lyrics start promisingly with the words "Let's begin with the premise that you are kidding, but then what?" and then kind of descend into some fairly obnoxious ideas.
10. Halestorm - ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs EP
The brilliant Nashville producer Jay Joyce elevated Halestorm to something above their usual effective 'generic hard rock band' schtick on their last album, Into The Wild Life. But their third EP of covers returns them to their occasional high powered bar band side gig, it's fun to hear them do Metallica or Soundgarden with a female singer or rock up Sophie B. Hawkins and Twenty One Pilots.
Worst Album of the Month: PnB Rock - GTTM: Goin Thru The Motions
Rappers usually squeak out a major label debut many months, if not years, after achieving national fame, so I gotta applaud Atlantic for moving on PnB Rock's album and getting it into stores within weeks of "Selfish" hitting the Hot 100. But I have to wonder if PnB Rock realizes that "going through the motions" is generally not considered to be a good thing, because the title is unfortunately pretty appropriate. It just feels like this guy has incorporated the whole last decade of melodic AutoTune rap without really putting his own stamp on it or writing any great songs yet. I don't hate the record, "Playa No More" sounds like a hit, but it's incredibly anonymous and impersonal for a debut album.