The Top Albums of 2017—As You’ve Never Heard Them Before

Throughout 2017, we here at The Dowsers have used playlists to provide an alternate lens on the most talked-about albums of the year, breaking down the records to reveal their key influences, collaborators, and sample sources. Here’s your opportunity to chronologically revisit the top records of 2017 with fresh ears:

 

Thundercat, Drunk

There may be no other contemporary player who’s logged as many miles, taken as many left turns, or made as many friends on his musical journey than Thundercat. The artist more prosaically known as Stephen Bruner began playing bass at age 15, absorbing the lessons of jazz fusion greats like Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Jaco Pastorius. He soon joined his older brother Ronald Jr. as a member of Suicidal Tendencies, serving the L.A. thrash-funk-metal institution for the better part of a decade, while still making time to tour with Snoop Dogg and build a rep as a session musician for the likes of Erykah Badu and Bilal. Even after Thundercat established his own flair for spaced-out, vanguard R&B with his debut solo album The Golden Age of Apocalypse in 2011, he continued collaborations with Flying Lotus on the Brainfeeder label and forged a new one with Kendrick Lamar. He and brother Ron were also a part of Kamasi Washington’s formidable group for The Epic. The influence of these past hookups are easy to hear in the astonishingly diverse sounds of Drunk.

 

Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.

DAMN. is the sound of a young artist at the peak of his abilities delivering his music straight, no chaser. Each song feels as if it is coming from a different universe, be it the ‘90s slow ride of “HUMBLE.” or the futurist R&B of “LOVE.” or the absolutely bipolar “XXX.,” which travels between Metro Boomin minimalism, Public Enemy fury, and smooth boom-bap consciousness in the span of four minutes. Though Lamar’s influences are vast and easily traceable (the bassy Afrofuturism of Flying Lotus, the beat-poetry prophecies of the Last Poets, the self-aware party-rap of OutKast), on DAMN. he synthesizes them effortlessly, letting his own musical voice shine through more clearly than ever before.

 

Mac DeMarco, This Old Dog

The candor that Mac DeMarco display on This Old Dog—in which he reflects on a fraught relationship with his father—is one element that evokes his ‘70s singer/songwriter heroes, a pantheon that includes James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Harry Nilsson. Yet the music’s effervescence and spirit of playfulness demonstrate his deep devotion to mavericks like Jonathan Richman and Yellow Magic Orchestra just as clearly. All the while, he inches closer to his long-stated ambition to make an album as strong as his favorites, with Neil Young’s Harvest and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band as a couple he often cites. Any way you slice it, This Old Dog is a shockingly mature effort for a guy who remains famous for interrupting a gig to stick a drumstick up his butt.

 

Lorde, Melodrama

Though her existence has changed immeasurably since “Royals” broke her wide in 2013, Lorde has not lost the unabashed fandom that’s proven to be one of her most endearing qualities. Indeed, she’s continued to be a rarity as a young artist who expresses a keen understanding of a remarkably diverse array of new and old sounds without sounding derivative of any of them in particular. And while many of the most dramatic moments of her sophomore album Melodrama do suggest the influence of a few of her most-cherished touchstones—single “Liability” is a close cousin to Kate Bush’s “The Man With the Child In His Eyes,” for instance—the connection between her own music and the stuff she loves is more a matter of shared energy and attitude.

 

SZA, CTRL

SZA has been upfront about her eclectic influences. She’s indebted to powerful vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill, who grew up near SZA’s hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey. She’s professed love for Purity Ring, who produced “God’s Reign,” an Ab-soul song on which SZA appears. And SZA’s music exudes a calming effect akin to that of Little Dragon, blending elements of other genres to push R&B into stranger and more interesting territory. It must be difficult to be a singer on a Top Dawg Entertainment roster dominated by rappers, but a few years of background work seemed only to prime SZA for a stronger solo debut.

 

Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy

Flower Boy is Tyler’s coming-out party. It’s the point where Odd Future’s enfant terrible pulls off the bandages, and reveals a true(r), more mature self. He still has the same tools in his kit—he’s still ripping off the Neptunes, and he’s still a very self-conscious provocateur—but he does refine, expand, and, ultimately, negate his prior persona. It’s an exciting and unexpected transformation.

 

LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream

American Dream—an alternately moody, anthemic, inspirational, cranky, and expansive masterwork if there ever was one—sounds like it could’ve fit into David Bowie’s back catalog. If you’re looking for a precise location, it’d be between Low and Lodger, the point in Bowie’s Berlin tenure when he shifted from Krautrock- and Kraftwerk-influenced experimentalism into a harder rock and dance sensibility. Yet the most Bowie-esque element of the new album is its adventurous spirit, something that’s continually been part of the LCD Soundsystem aesthetic as Murphy refined and extended the hallmarks first heard in the dance-punk moment of early-‘00s New York.

 

Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference

Harmony of Difference is the soundtrack to a film by A.G. Rojas that premiered during the Biennial at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in March 2017, and it shows the growth and diversification of Washington’s sound. He already draws heavily from the often overlooked glory days of the early ’70s when musicians extended the jazz tradition into rock, funk, and African music. Deeper grooves power some of the tracks on Harmony, and the solos are more concise—where The Epic’s definitive tracks clocked in at longer than 10 minutes, the best music here often comes in under six. All of Washington’s stylistic advances are represented on “Truth,” which also provides a nifty recapitulation of what made The Epic so special, with its robust rhythms, a choir carrying a soaring melody, and a solo that would do John Coltrane proud. It’s jazz eclecticism at its best—music that is both inclusive and deeply artful.

 

King Krule, The OOZ

Now 23, Archy Marshall has applied his inherent cool to two King Krule LPs, both of which feature an inimitable postmodern pastiche of blues, dub, lounge, hip-hop, jazz, downtempo, and experimental noir. His latest, The OOZ, is an itchy, bleary smear of atmosphere and attitude, swinging on saxophone and laden with songs about marginalized Bohemian existence, sung in Marshall’s tongue-swallowing Cockney twang. Given his lifelong exposure to off-the-radar music, it’s no surprise that Marshall’s stated influences—and the less obvious ones—comprise a sonic roadmap through the global underground. From ’80s New York no wave to golden-era hip-hop to mid-century country crooners to Jamaican classics to of-the-moment indie agitators, King Krule has swallowed it all and spit out something wholly unique and utterly captivating.

 

Fever Ray, Plunge

Taking a plunge into Karin Elisabeth Dreijer’s sound world can be as unsettling as it is exhilarating. Even though the sometimes brutal yet oddly buoyant electro-pop of her (now-defunct) sibling duo The Knife remains a fundamental element of the songs she creates as Fever Ray, the project continues to expose her broad range of influences, from dark metal to African music to the soundtracks of David Lynch and Miami Vice to the work of Meredith Monk and Kate Bush. And while the cumulative effect can be as chilly as a New Year’s Eve party in Göteborg, there’s always a charge—and sometimes even a warmth—thanks to the stormy emotions and vulnerabilities that exist just below the surface.