upful LIFE’s B.Getz takes a look back at seventeen standout albums of 2017, including works from SZA, Adam Deitch, JAY-Z, Chronixx, Dimond Saints and more.
Year end lists are always a difficult exercise, and despite the volume of art consumed during 2017, it’s never easy to say what is the best of the bunch. This post-election year was a ball of confusion, culturally fractured to the core. Amid the fear-mongering from the top down, the album- as the standard method of delivery for artistic and political statements of the musical variety, withstood another year of assault and marginalization to deliver a sturdy batch of LPs that run the gamut in style, substance, and subtlety.
The forthcoming assembly of albums is merely one cat’s take on the offerings released during this past ring around the sun. Beyond these 17 favorite albums of 2017, (and thirteen more honorably mentioned,) are hundreds more of worthwhile artistic endeavors. upful LIFE encourages you to continue to support artists by purchasing their albums, sharing their work on social media, and getting out to see them perform live. Soundscan stats may be a thing of the past, but supporting your favorite band or DJ will never get old or go out of style.
Wishing you all abundance, musically and otherwise, in the forthcoming year.
Jamiroquai – Automaton
Seven long years since the largely-forgettable Rock Dust Light Star, the mercurial Jamiroquai returns to the collective consciousness with Automaton. Disco queens scorch the scene, the bass and clavinet dance a heavenly housequake, sexy-time floats upon cinematic strings, Quiet Storm guitars and bold analog synths. Riding a clandestine carpet, Jay Kay is back in the saddle again, slangin’ the soulful salutations that we’ve missed so. All the elements that make Jamiroquai sui generis are clear and. present, Automaton is Jay’s Ferrari out on the open highway, buffalo-man headdress turned LED helmet glowin’ in the wind.
Incorporating sizzling, ravenous rhythms, libidinous bottom end, and all things Space Cowboy, this is the iconic, trendsetting Jamiroquai we have loved for so long. Take one listen to “Dr. Buzz” or “Vitamin” and you will catch the drift with an acid-jazz quickness. Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in. Jay Kay and company have given birth to another gem, proving that they’ve still got that magic touch.
JAW GEMS – HEATWEAVER Remixes
Portland, Maine-based quartet JAW GEMS has been keeping the people slack jawed for a handful of years now, creating a unique blend of jazzy broken-beat and prog-hop that has garnered attention from some influential folks.
HEATWEAVER Remixes, released in October, is a sprawling remix album featuring reworks from rappers and producers such as Daedelus, GOD.DAMN.CHAN, The Grid, Brady Watt, Milo, and most notably Break Science and The Russ Liquid Test. After a meteoric four year ascent that saw them release a debut LP, then tour nationally with Lettuce (the funk band’s Ryan Zoidis, also a Portland native, has championed them since the beginning ), the Ummah-scientists dropped the magnificent sophomore jewel HEATWEAVER back in August of 2016. The resulting remix album is dynamic roller coaster ride through a far-side of styles, an assembly of songs that defy genres, from Detroit Dilla-gence, to quasi-IDM beatscience, hazy melodic adventures in bass, and flowing stoner rap.
Lord Echo– Harmonies
Lord Echo is comprised of New Zealand producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Fabulous, backed by his fantastic band. Their astute blends of reggae, dub, soul and R&B are lavish, luscious concoctions, welded into emotional, danceable slabs of groove. On this third album Lord Echo introduces the African soul sound on “Makossa No 3”, and distinctive rhythms of classic late Seventies disco to an already diverse and engrossing sonic palette.
Mr. Fabulous takes steps to employ a colorful cast of guest contributors (including vocalists Leila Adu, Mara TK), Harmonies finds a place where woodwinds bubble (Life On Earth), disco sashays with syncopated glockenspiels (The Sweetest Meditation) and flanged guitars and funky bass create a foundation for some Marvin-like crooning (Just Do You). Consistent with his adherence to a recording ethos steeped in analogue aesthetics, the vibes are quite fuzzy and dusty, making for an authentic lo-fi experience. Some tracks brilliantly segue into one another to facilitate a continuing display of statements and mood shifts. Harmonies finds Lord Echo delivering the promise of an endless summer.
Lafa Taylor & Aabo– FEEL
When executed properly, electronic music and sexy R&B come together like chocolate and peanut butter; on the collaboration LP FEEL, Lafa Taylor and Aabo are more like cacao and almond butter, that is an evolved take on a timeless, classic combo. Both artists are prolific on the solo tip, each providing a steady stream of progressive dance music heavy on creativity and personality. The West Coast’s enigmatic vocalist/MC/producer and underrated producer/multi-instrumentalist team-up to torch the dancefloor with a handful of jams that pair the sexiest in classic house with the post-neo-soul of future R&B.
Lafa Taylor and Aabo broke down the essence of FEEL to CRAVE: “At the time we were making FEEL, artists like Disclosure and Kaytranada were just starting to come on the scene. Their pairing of soulful vocals with funky, 4 on the floor was a big inspiration to us… we began to layer electric bass, guitar, and percussion on top, played mostly by Aabo. Once we had the vocals finalized we felt that adding horn sections to some of the tunes would be a unique twist that you don’t hear much in house music, let alone electronic music.”
The Fritz- Natural Mind
In the 1972 book The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, author Andrew Weil suggested that altered states of consciousness were innate to the human nervous system. Apparently, the Asheville, NC-based funk juggernaut The Fritz feels the same way, and have unveiled their newest full-length LP accordingly. Dancefloors are responding feverishly to the five-piece’s robust workouts that recall the high-falutin’ funk of KC and the Sunshine Band, and the soulful vocals mined from the house that Stevie built.
Natural Mind is a self-released album, an accessible, funk-focused document with soul and R&B references galore. A playful nod toward the past helps inform The Fritz’s bulbous brand of original music. As usual for this squad, musicianship is at the forefront of Natural Mind, but not at the expense of gluttonous wanking. The Fritz is a quasi-jamband, but they do not identify as such, most notably because these boys write great songs. Natural Mind is chock full of huge hooks and engaging lyrics, atop 12 tracks of bouncy, funky organic grooves.
Lunice & Alchemist- Moving Parts
Alchemist is a legend in the rap game, his hood pass verified going on two decades. Lunice is of the next generation of producers that blur the lines between hip-hop and progressive electronic. Together they are two of the world’s premiere beatmakers. The pair was originally brought together for the Red Bull BC One World Finals, a breakdancing competition in Amsterdam. In his formative years, Lunice was a fervent breakdancer, he knows the types of rhythms needed for B-Boys and B-Girls to properly and thoroughly catch wreck.
To Alchemist, this collaboration made perfect sense. The duo set out to create an updated version of what breakdancers were getting busy to, and from there they dove deep and created an EP of music you can dance to anywhere. Truth be told, Moving Parts does not merely create a record for the breakdance crews, the prolific pair uncork a pulverizing platter that is essential for any self respecting heads, of either the bass or beat variety.
“I’ve always wanted to try and reimagine the sounds of a breakbeat being that I was a Bboy before I got into production and when Red Bull BC One and Patta offered me this opportunity I got on it immediately, and to collaborate with Alchemist on top of it all really made this whole experience surreal and one-of-a-kind.” Lunice
Top Dog Entertainment’s industry wunderkind SZA dropped her long-awaited major-label full-length debut Ctrl, to much fanfare and even more critical acclaim. Fans had been waiting some time for her to unveil her much bally-hood long player, no longer satiated by her smoked-out, filtered mixtape gems, or mesmerizing collabs with the likes of Rihanna, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q. Ctrl is boiling with glitchy stutter-step breaks power futuristic synths, and SZA lays her inner child bare, self-effacing and honest in an earnest and endearing fashion.
“Drew Barrymore” is a prime example of said vulnerability, “Broken Clocks” finds her voice at the forefront of a muscular joint, “Doves in the Wind” holds space for the warrioress within, and “Supermodel” brings attitude and gusto to the many moods of SZA. Those emotions are juxtaposed with the best in progressive downtempo and bedroom R&B. When Kendrick Lamar shows up to serve superb bars on your debut record, you are most definitely hot in the streets; on Ctrl, the artist known as SZA completely resurrects her inner self-savior.
Adam Deitch- Sky’s Alive & Late Night Collection Vol.II
Naturally, Lettuce/Break Science beat conductor Adam Deitch appears several times on this list. For the first time in album form, the venerable drummer/producer stands on his own twos, unveiling a pair of terrific LPs on his Golden Wolf Records imprint. He also appears on Lettuce otherworldly 2017 Miles Davis homage Witches Stew, and plays a prominent role on his father’s phenomenal record Grateful, in Bobby Deitch Band.
(editor’s note: We could not choose between his 2017 solo efforts, so we selected both, and gave him ONE slot for the pair of releases.- ~bg~)
Arriving in early summer, Sky’s Alive is described as “an exploration into signature 808s, lush chords, analog synth melodies and seamless vocal chops.” Deitch made a record that will sound at home in its natural Denver environs, but travels marvelously from city to city, Black Rock to New York, in Berlin, and beyond. Adam has a wizard’s touch as he captains a voyeuristic voyage, touring the sublime netherworlds in post-trap melody with a fine toothed comb.
Mid summer, Deitch shocked the world and delivered Late Nite Collection II, fresh on the heels of Sky’s Alive. A couple of years after the first Late Nite installment, this Adam Deitch again emerges confident and complex, returning to his golden-era, NYC boom-bap roots. The producer has added a filter of Rocky Mountain sunrises to the Pete Rock-inspired flow vehicles, seamlessly blending one banger into the next. The thunderous drums knock as one would expect, beneath joyful soul samples interspersed with pop culture touchstones. Steering the ship between several echelons of lush downtempo beat orchestration, as a producer, Adam Deitch remains outta sight.
In a genre best known for singles, Kingston’s Chronixx (Jamar McNaughton) reveals Chronology, a complete collection of contemporary reggae hits. This long awaited full-length LP is a confident mix of conscious roots, dancehall, pop, hip-hop, and the island’s sonic aphrodisiac- lovers rock. A champion of the aptly-labeled ‘Reggae Revival’ movement, Chronixx has integrated modern dancehall with the sonic foundations of Jamaican roots reggae, and the singjay is keen to highlight societal issues in his lyrics.
Previously without the benefit of major-label backing or a mainstream hit single, Chronixx built his own culture movement that has positioned him as the next big thing in global reggae music. Not content to merely reclaim the reggae genre as Jamaican sound, Chronixx intends to take the people even higher than the forefathers who laid a one-drop foundation for McNaughton to climb. Sashaying across a Mendoza line between consciousness and slackness, Chronixx delivers fifteen deeply personal explorations of Kingston culture and the challenges his generation shall face.
The Human Experience- Broken Open
Shortly after relocating to Brooklyn, The Human Experience returned with Broken Open, his sixth full length album as a solo artist. Appropriately delivered on Valentine’s Day, it is an age old story, one of a man- once a boy, and his journey inward. In David Block’s own words the document “examines the depths of the most difficult of human emotions.” Being in love, letting go of love, and learning to love oneself, these themes establish an ornate fabric that runs throughout Broken Open, as David Block explores the annals deep within his own heart.
Block has always incorporated live instrumentation to his electronic productions, and this album only further serves the songs in that particular capacity. The first official release from Block’s Slow Down collective, he enlists an eclectic cadre of collaborators that runs the gamut of styles and scenes, including The Grouch, Kat Factor, Heather Christie, KR3TURE, and many more.
Ultimate Fantastic- Super Human
Born in the shadows of a bliss-dance bombshell on a glorious Playa morning, Northern California future-music krewe Ultimate Fantastic descend on this planet in tortured, troubled times. Keeping one shell-toe in classic boom-bap, the other moonboot inside bombastic bass tombs, debut album Super Human (Jumpsuit Records) gets the party started proper with an intelligent design. The foursome deliver their ambitious artistic statement devoid of pretense, offering their adventurous music as medicine, delivering art for art’s sake, a canvas filled with color, raining positivity, and pushing the envelope in a variety of fashions.
As psychedelic beats bump the bottom end bulbous, resident emcee/vocalists Pharroh and Wink offer a definitive juxtaposition between styles and steez, vocalist Deja Solis the perfect foil for both rappers to detonate. Production wizard Dropical is positively masterful throughout the album, deftly navigating the worlds of Dirty South trap, West Coast bass music culture, metropolitan future-trill and New York’s golden era. An amalgam of what’s classic, a look toward what’s next, and a massive dose of be here now, Super Human is a castle of epic a proportions, a royal palace that is ultimately fantastic.
Lettuce- Witches Stew
Witches Stew finds Lettuce in familiar exploratory environs, revealing an ambitious tribute the iconic Miles Davis, and work that is equal in stature. Revisiting a bonafide classic era, the psychedelic funk Voltron only serves to solidify their rep as the baddest band in the land.
Already two decades deep, Lettuce refuses to restrict itself to the tenets of the old school in either the jazz or funk idiom; Miles wrote the book on this approach, and both entities use(d) their art to elevate their reach- to blaze new trails, time and time again. On Witches Stew, the ensemble stitches together choice material from Davis’ 1970 opus Bitches Brew, predecessor In A Silent Way, plus other selections from the legendary trumpeter/bandleader’s groundbreaking (and funkiest) era.
All About Jazz said it best: “In fact, the octet tender their homage, Witches Stew, in such a way it suggests ‘The Man with the Horn,’ were he still living, might well look the band for inspiration as he did Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone at the time of the original recordings.
Kendrick Lamar- DAMN.
On April 14th, Kendrick Lamar released the long-awaited, very divisive DAMN. Brimming with contradictions, and seemingly over the burden of constantly pushing the sound and footprint of hip-hop forward into jazz, operatic indulgences, Miles Davis interpolations and Flying Lotus’s LSD-soaked cocktails, Kendrick dumbs it down. DAMN. is definitely aimed at the masses and gets the point across loud and clear. A dazzling display of rhyming, self-examination, political leanings and 808 porn, the record was received to much fanfare and critical acclaim immediately upon release.
On To Pimp a Butterfly, K-Dot sorted through the interpersonal chaos between his ears, on DAMN. He is mean-mugging the culture bullies. His flow continues unfettered, still among the greatest in the game today, and he need not fall back on the colorful afghans in sound that populated TPAB, nor the punch-line jugulars of his debut masterpiece. Producers like Mike Will Made It and Sounwave make Damn. feel hood certified yet still progressive – a record filled with tempo switches, backwards masking, needle bounces and broken beats galore. Even melodies appear and fluctuate amid the bass rumble – but Lamar’s rapping is the superstar of the day, narratives as fresh and relevant as the orator himself.
Dimond Saints- Prism in the Dark
Descending on heartsick terrain in demoralizing and disconsolate times, here come the Dimond Saints, demonic duo comprised of Oakland producers an-ten-nae and Releece. From a faraway universe of secrets and shadows, like an irrational God on the blackest of Sundays, the pair unveiled Prism in the Dark, their long awaited full-length LP of original music. Eighteen maniacal and meticulous months in the making, the narrative is everything it promised it could be, profoundly hinting at going further, by forwarding the avant-garde in spiritualized, psychedelic bass music. Welcome to the Dimond District, behold this future moon music.
Prism in the Dark keeps its promise to create a container; a diamond the duo embalmed with equal parts blood, sweat, and a river of tears runs through it. In bravely building this pantheon au courant, Dimond Saints touch the proverbial sky in stepping out of the bass-culture comfort zone; giving love to the world, while taking us tumbling way down whatever unholy chasm their music is capable of opening.
JAY-Z – 4:44
JAY-Z used to be un-fadeable, a hustler supreme who did not lose. Ever. Fatherhood has switched up his steez markedly, father time as well. On the legacy tip, Hov’s raw and emotional 4:44 investigates his entire newfound worldview, and he delivers his gospel. Triumphs and tribulations abound, the album finds Shawn Carter in retrospective mode, wondering aloud if his art will appreciate in value, but never worried whether his contributions are appreciated.
It’s fitting that a fellow golden-eaa hip-hop architect, No I.D. (Kanye West, Common, Vince Staples), produced the entire record. His soul-drenched backdrops provide the canvas for the first JAY-Z album where the listener hangs on every single word, verbiage rote with double, triple and even quadruple entendres- even more so than on any of his dozen previous efforts. Clocking in at a lean 36 minutes, this is a tell-all document that marinates on betrayal, parenthood, legacy, family- basically the stuff we all will face as mortals. 4:44 is the documentation of what he has become, where he is from, and what he is out to provide for his family, and for a post-Obama Black society searching for their own reflection in the mirror of Trump’s America.
Rising Appalachia- ALIVE
Protest music and punk rock are kindred souls, but resistance in music knows no single genre or style. Building on that DIY punk ethos and adding to it a Southern gothic flair for porches, banjo pickin’, fiddles, percussion, and even 90’s themed hip-hop/R&B, and you begin to approach the gumbo DNA of Rising Appalachia.
Themes of social solidarity define ALIVE, the first live record from Rising Appalachia, the duo of sisters, Leah Song and Chloe Smith. The pair are augmented as usual by multi-instrumentalist David Brown and all-world percussionist Biko Casino; the foursome run through a a songbook rich in deep-fried Appalachian sound. The record spices up their spirited compositions with flavors from a variety of influences. Rising Appalachia have spread their songs and messages around the world, and ALIVE arrives to document their live performances in recent years. The sisters’ are a bright light in an always-evolving traditional roots movement, but the group consistently offers something unique, and decidedly their own. ALIVE is a lovely showcase of both the beauty and potency of protest music.
Ikebe Shakedown- The Way Home
Brooklyn groove merchants Ikebe Shakedown first darted onto the national radar in 2009 with Hard Steppin‘, and have continued a forward march ever since. Their discography is littered with patented Afrobeat ragers, some that featured the like-minded Budos Band gang, and saw them grouped in similar Daptone circles.
In the subsequent nine years, Ikebe Shakedown has cemented their reputation as an absolute monster dance party. Expertly mixing cinematic Soul, Afrobeat, heaping portions of Funk, deep disco, and a pocket that extends twenty thousand leagues deep, Ikebe Shakedown has continued to forge toward their own original steez. The Way Home finds Ikebe Shakedown using a similar blueprint as in past efforts,, but adding some more overtly funk and soul aesthetics, chilling out on the hard-hitting Afrobeat a bit, so that when it emerges, it retains it’s fierceness and impact. Observers hear (and feel) more of a Stax/Motown/Muscle Shoals homage on this album, eschewing the Fela connotations and Antibalas comparisons once and for all.
Thriftworks- The Feather and the Sword
Bobby Deitch Band- Grateful
Mastadon: Emperor of the Sun
The Pendletons- Gotta Get Out
Hypnotic Brass Band- Hypnotic Joints
saQi- Temples in the Sky
Open Mike Eagle: Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Manic Focus- Mind’s Rising
Four Tet – New Energy
Random Rab- Formless Edge
Tyler, the Creator- Flower Boy