June 30, 2017 | by NO RECESS! Staff
One of the nice things about good art is it’s an inexhaustible resource, in part because we can never run out of things to say about a world that’s always changing, or ways to emotionally react to it, whether it’s through a labyrinthine Kendrick Lamar verse or a dirt-thick Pissed Jeans riff. So when we started NO RECESS! there wasn’t any hesitation that good, thoughtful music would be coming down the pipe to write about every week; it already was. With each passing year, that’s more true than ever, and you never know where it’s going to come from: a #1 Hot 100 hit for Migos, an influential mixtape trio whose last album tanked, a follow-up to a breakneck At the Drive-In classic from 17 years ago, or the tragedy of Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum losing his beloved wife and immortalizing her in plainspoken song.
With the increasingly harrowing political landscape, firebrands like Priests won’t run out of material anytime soon; ditto the state of health care for Aimee Mann. Our half-year favorites are in no way definitive; we only hope to serve as a guide. If you came here for the unpredictable Young Thug, we hope you leave with the indescribable Zeal and Ardor. If you seek the rage-rap bluster of Run the Jewels, maybe you’ll discover the big-voiced Americana of Becky Warren. And on with it. Happy July 4th. — DAN WEISS
At the Drive-In, In•Ter A•Li•A (Rise)
Right, they’re not as surprising or powerful as they were 17 years ago, when they last released an album, and the excesses of the Mars Volta have tampered down Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s roar into something that occasionally whines. But it’s remarkable how strong the long-awaited follow-up to Relationship of Command is anyway, how surprising those seasick guitars can still be when they smack you across the face, and even those stray darts of magnetic poetry that are Bixler-Zavala’s guilty pleasure still stick in the craw.
Best Moment: The only reason the endlessly exploding “Pendulum in a Peasant Dress” never quite goes off the rails is because it never quite adheres to them in the first place. — DAN WEISS
Bash and Pop, Anything Could Happen (Fat Possum)
There’s an irascible rock ‘n’ roll brat inside of Tommy Stinson that will never die. The youngest Replacement turned 50 this year, but Anything Could Happen is as ageless as anything he’s ever produced, standing toe-to-toe with the rambunctious swagger of Bash and Pop’s 24-year old predecessor, Friday Night Is Killing Me.
Best Moment: What’s better than a former ‘Mat using booze as a pitch-perfect life metaphor? “Comes as no shock / We take our love on the rocks,” Stinson sings on the heartbroken barroom rocker called (what else?) “On the Rocks.” — RYAN BRAY
Chuck Berry, Chuck (Decca)
Chuck hardly moves an inch from the classic, all-American rock ‘n’ roll Berry helped birth some 60 years ago, and therein lies its greatest strength. The singer’s first album in 39 years ultimately proved to be his last, but he undeniably went out on top. Released just months after his passing, Chuck left us with concrete proof of how indelible his rock bona fides are.
Best Moment: There’s no more moving moment on Chuck than when Berry takes stock of his life on the bluesy, introspective swan song “Darlin’.” — RYAN BRAY
Body Count, Bloodlust (Century Media)
Ice-T, Ernie C, Ill Will, and the others bring the gravity on this ferocious and prescient hunk of street metal. It’s one of the strongest Body Count releases ever, even with a guest appearance by the present-day Dave Mustaine and a break in the middle of the action so Ice-T can explain (in an unexpectedly genial way) the brief history of this, his absolutely livid rock band.
Best Moment: That Slayer medley, what a hoot. — JAMES GREENE JR.
Charly Bliss, Guppy (Barsuk)
Tuneful and lyrically idiosyncratic, the debut full-length from this Brooklyn four-piece is the hyper-melodic candy-punk that angsty poptimist dreams are made of. Taking cues from the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack and Paramore in equal measure, Guppy is a feat of both sweet and sour.
Best Moment: From “Scare U,” the coziest of lyrical oddities: “Forced fun, ill at ease / All I eat is bread and cheese / Pink elf, bleed the sheets / I wanna talk about it, but I don’t know what I mean.” — CHRISTINA ZAMMARELLI
Cherry Glazerr, Apocalipstick (Secretly Canadian)
While I won’t stand here and vouch for the band’s live performance (if this year’s twitchy visit to KEXP was any indication, they aren’t too concerned about turning in a “solid” performance). Taken for what Apocalipstick is, as a recorded, produced, and obviously polished effort to pull the real power from Clementine Creevy’s voice, Cherry Glazerr do get credit for creating the catchiest, most consistent noise-pop album of the year (so far). — JOCELYN HOPPA
Best Moment: Right out of the gate with “Told You I’d Be With the Guys,” Cherry Glazerr ain’t the band you knew from a few years ago (the one whose members weren’t even out of high school yet).
Cloud Nothings, Life Without Sound (Carpark)
Dylan Baldi’s newest holler into the void continues to mine the heavy, melodic indie-rock Cloud Nothings really began to beef up with their last two albums. The band is playing better and tighter than ever, implicitly presenting a powerful argument against evolving in any way. (But it would still be exciting if they do.)
Best Moment: The quicksilver melody change as Baldi switches from “I want a life / That’s all I need lately” to “I am alive but all alone” in the whipping refrain of “Modern Act.” — CONOR MALCOLM CROCKFORD
Do Make Say Think, Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)
Another long-missed indie band emerges from the dark forest of the music industry. But holy shit, post-rocker instrumentalists Do Make Say Think resurfaced (it’s been eight years) with material that’s fantastical (yet restrained) by the standard of the band’s well-known and well-loved earnest soundscapes. The music on Stubborn Persistent Illusions may feel stubborn and persistent, leaving a listener wanting it to grow, change and be more. But when they do finally execute a dynamic shift, you understand why you waited.
Best Moment: “Horripilation” is one of those wait-for-it tracks, but do yourself a favor and wait for it. — JOCELYN HOPPA
Elder, Reflections of a Floating World (Armageddon Label)
It’s been a fascinating journey watching prog and metal, two differently disparaged formats of the 1970s, grow into one architectural titan of a cross-genre that’s never quite commanded respect from the critical conversation. With the meteoric rise of Baroness and Deafheaven, that began to change, and with worthy additions to the heavy-melodic continuum. You can plot a point onto that grid for Elder as well, a five-piece who excels at sonic world-building with winding, occasionally string-aided passages on their newest album. For six songs in 64 minutes, Reflections of a Floating World peaks and peaks without ever stooping to doing something hip.
Best Moment: The rocket launch of arpeggiated guitars and ascending orchestral scales that sends the third act of “The Falling Veil” into the outer galaxies. — DAN WEISS
Emperor X, Oversleepers International (Tiny Engines)
Political anxieties inform the songs on Oversleepers International the same way they affect our everyday lives. Characters deal with expired visas and struggle with international healthcare systems. They fantasize about riots and secretly drugging senators. They fear Brexit and spiders. Emperor X’s sole proprietor Chad Matheny has been writing sonically damaged earworms for nearly two decades, but International is his most joyous, tragic, and empathetic to date.
Best Moment: Matheny details the debt he incurred while defeating testicular cancer on “€30,000” with harrowing yet uproariously detailed lines like “I killed a hundred million cells of embryonic carcinoma with the love that caused my middle-aged heart to burst” and a climactic yelp of “BUT I CAN’T PAY!” — RYAN WASOBA
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy (Sub Pop)
Love him or hate him, Father John Misty turned out a heavy, 75-minute introspective album that grins sharply through grim lines about our relationship to the digital world and our need for validation (among, well, a few other things). It’ll bring you down and isolate you, but Josh Tillman’s articulation on these matters will free you all the same.
Best Moment: The most astute Misty observation comes from the “The Memo,” — “It's not self-love that kills you / It's when those who hate you are allowed / To sell you that you’re a glorious shit / The entire world revolves around.” — JOCELYN HOPPA
Future Islands, The Far Field (4AD)
An atmospheric album that chronicles nearly a decade’s worth of touring and its wearying effects against languid synth beats, The Far Field is a softer Future Islands album, but also a tighter one. With unforgettable stage presence Samuel T. Herring emoting out front, the band pairs perfectly with a newfound summer romance.
Best Moment: With love to the smoky Debbie Harry duet “Shadows,” it’s just crushing when Herring declares on “Aladdin” that he’s “Breached the peak of ‘please’ and ‘thanks’ / I’ve seen my features age / My fingers strange.” — AMANDA SCIGAJ
Girlpool, Powerpoint (ANTI-)
Scrappy, beloved hopefuls this tiny in their scope and execution tend to break up before releasing something this consequential, so let’s be grateful this acoustic duo turned electric trio didn’t. The bookending “123” and “Static Somewhere” make no attempt to disguise they’re anthems (thanks, new drummer!), and vignettes in between like “Corner Store” are taking on a musical sophistication their art-space audience may yet be aware of (and they themselves definitely are).
Best Moment: The bright ‘n’ jangly riff that twice pokes out from the creeping doominess of “Soup,” adding a whole other fucked-up dimension to lines like “Come over to my place / I’ll help find your fix.” — DAN WEISS
Grails, Chalice Hymnal (Temporary Residence Ltd.)
While Emil Amos’ stoner metal band Om has received far more fanfare, his project Grails has been consistently putting out impressive, wordless post-rock records since the early 2000s. The self-produced Chalice Hymnal sounds like a performance rather than a recording. And as the music drifts, there’s never really a second I’m under the impression it’s not entirely forward-thinking as well. — JOCELYN HOPPA
Best Moment: “New Prague” is one instrumental where a lack of words is of zero concern.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Navigator (ATO)
On this sci-fi-flavored (semi-) autobiographical concept album, Alynda Segarra's titular navigator charts a path through alienation and erasure in “the city” to find her niche as a poet and storyteller of hopeful resistance and survival. Thusly, a wide variety of Americana influences, including folk, doo-wop, bomba, and rootsy blues-rock, come together in an aural representation of Navi's personal intersectional experiences.
Best Moment: Although the bomba groove paired with devastating lyrics in “Rican Beach” lands a gut punch, the stirring moment in the nueva canción-inspired piano ballad “Pa'lante,” where Segarra calls out the names of ancestors from Emmitt Till to Sylvia Rivera, honors the dead while reminding the rest of us to keep going. — HEATHER BATSON
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)
Isbell and Co. hit their Springsteenian stride with this harmony-infused, shared-billing band album that could only have come out of Tennessee. The former Drive-By Trucker’s songwriting conveys as much insight, regret, and hope as ever, but the performances here have more bite and grit to them than we’ve heard yet from the (far) left-field country-chart topper.
Best Moment: The tense frustration of “Cumberland Gap,” relieved only by guitar. — HEATHER BATSON
Kehlani, SweetSexySavage (TSNMI/Atlantic)
While most of her upstart R&B peers traffic in atmosphere and feeling, Kehlani Parrish’s proper debut album follows a blunter, old-fashioned strategy: banger after banger. These include the effusively sensual “Distraction,” a glockenspiel-decorated “Advice” that doesn’t follow its own, and the breathless meter of “In My Feelings,” which stuffs a syllable into every single beat. Love the 22-year-old’s tenacity as her tunecraft barges past the 19-track mark without a single cut exceeding four minutes. There are different ways to flex one’s discipline.
Best Moment: “Undercover,” which makes something beautiful out of contorting fresh Spanish guitar around a decade-old Akon hook. — DAN WEISS
Khalid, American Teen (Sony)
Young, dumb, and broke, he says, though only the first could possibly be true in 2017. He’s at least smart enough to write some of the wisest songs extant about the youthful temptation to throw caution to the wind and be as stupid as you can before life catches up. Elsewhere, he dives right into the inherent shallowness of pitiful breakup songs and somehow comes out looking good. If he was as stupid at age 8Teen as he claims, he’s an impressively fast learner.
Best Moment: “8Teen,” a climax that arrives in the middle of the record. — MELODY DANIELLE RICE
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. (Top Dawg)
Not that the man needs any introduction, but fearsome salvos like “DNA.” and “ELEMENT.” on his all-caps barnstormer DAMN. set the tone for yet another Kendrick Lamar album that defies pigeonholing, except this one features U2. Nevertheless, hip-hop’s poet laureate still slays with lightning-fast delivery and detailed wordsmithing that spares no detail whether in a personal narrative like “DUCKWORTH.” or a critic-baiting anthem like “HUMBLE.”
Best Moment: Taking out the right-wing trash with utmost class on “YAH.”: “Interviews wanna know my thoughts and opinions / Fox News wanna use my name for percentage / My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin’ / See me on the TV and scream, ‘That’s Uncle Kendrick!’” — AMANDA SCIGAJ
Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian)
As always, Jens Lekman is an master of storytelling as evocative and personal as Proust, with a droll self-awareness that saves his work from the dangers of insufferable naiveté. With his fourth album, Lekman’s pop sensibilities and judicious use of synth and dangerously kitschy samples keep the songs sounding happy and breezy while the topics of mortality, connection, and existential purpose keep the whole thing from floating away.
Best Moment: “What’s That Perfume That You Wear” — when pained nostalgia for private moments with a lost love yields to a steel pan and choral sample from Calypso master Ralph MacDonald mashed up with a cello line —achieves a climax full of joy and yearning. — HEATHER BATSON
Low Cut Connie, Dirty Pictures (Part 1) (Contender)
A swampy stomp streaked with shades of Harry Chapin, Low Cut Connie deliver the drinkin’ and carousin’ record you didn’t know you was gonna affect you so deeply in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. Incredibly, this band can use the noun “jerk-off” and manage to not sound like your dad.
Best Moment: The knot, muck, and hurt of the climactic “What Size Shoe” makes for a perfect ending stamp. — JAMES GREENE JR.
The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch)
If no one predicted Stephin Merritt would make one of the greatest works in recorded music with the laughably successful 69 Love Songs 18 years ago, why bet against him now? Even if you didn’t think 50 autobiographical-chronological new additions to his fussily efficient canon were all going to knock it out of the park, A) we finally get to learn something about the dude, and B) there’s more than a great hour of worthwhile and exquisitely detailed new songs among these two and a half hours. Which means new discoveries every day, like “They’re Killing Children Over There,” a recollection of an offhand #woke moment from a Jefferson Airplane concert in 1970, or “Happy Beeping,” a shitty memory of a temporary father figure who mocked Merritt’s synthesizer obsession in 1982.
Best Moment: The Devo-esque “Weird Diseases” is the catchiest catalog of a man’s life in maladies you’re ever likely to hear, peaking when the famously cantankerous Merritt brushes off Asperger’s, “if that exists.” — DAN WEISS
Aimee Mann, Mental Illness (SuperEgo)
While this isn’t the first Aimee Mann record about mental illness, it is the most stripped down, where an acoustic guitar and her subdued voice are at the center of the action (aside from some background string arrangements and well-placed ooohs and ahhhs). The sparse approach only serves to wring out even more piercing emotion from her typically strong songcraft.
Best Moment: Opening salvo “Goose Snow Cone” is about being away on tour when her cat Goose was sick. She was sent a photo of him wearing a cone of shame, thus Goose Snow Cone (since you were wondering). — JOCELYN HOPPA
Migos, Culture (QC/YRN/300)
With Kevin Gates in jail again, they return to their rightful place as the catchiest hook hustlers in rap, bouncing their signature triplet flows off of elegantly sparse sonics and slogans that only make sense after they’ve been rattling around in your skull for a few drugged-out weekends: “Mama told me / Not to sell work,” “Big on big,” “Stripper girl shaking all ass on the floor,” obviously, “Bad and boujee / Cooking up dope with the Uzi.”
Best Moment: When that velvety hotel-mezzanine piano intro in “Big on Big” gives way to those gorgeous strings and a call-and-response hook that could go on for months. — DAN WEISS
Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me (P. W. Elverum & Sun)
Phil Elverum wrote the 11 songs on A Crow Looked at Me immediately after his wife Geneviève Castrée passed away, focusing on every heart-crushing detail of its impact for him and their daughter. A Crow Looked at Me is nowhere close to an easy listen; at times Elverum sounds guilty about even making the album, barely gathering the strength to change his pitch while singing. It’s a devastating premise for any artist, especially one who already earned a reputation for distilling loneliness to tape.
Best Moment: On “Seaweed,” Elverum spreads Geneviève’s ashes at dusk and sings “The truth is I don’t think of that dust as you / You are the sunset” in a brief upwards shift into a major chord. Jesus. — RYAN WASOBA
The Mountain Goats, Goths (Merge)
John Darnielle loves darkwave as much as he loves pro wrestling, only this time he has a musical (as opposed to merely cultural) template to work from, resulting in a more satisfying collection of tunes than 2015’s less linear Beat the Champ. He doesn’t merely stick to the titular musical template, though. Instead, he corrects its historical faults, writing more tender, human songs than flashpoints like Sisters of Mercy or Gene Loves Jezebel, who’ve never been more fascinating subjects than they are here.
Best Moment: “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” the richest Mountain Goats melody since “Cry for Judas” five years ago. — MELODY DANIELLE RICE
Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child (Legacy)
The hardest working 80-something in showbiz crafts an album about being old, tired, and yet never slowing down (even when the death hoaxes say you should).
Best Moment: “Still Not Dead,” in which the title says it all. — MELODY DANIELLE RICE
The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord)
One of the most underrated albums of 2017 rocks harder and more purposefully than anything else Carl Newman has ever done, and it’s a lot less oblique than his usual, too, perhaps by necessity. He duets with Neko Case more than ever, carves new complexities from the art of the call-response refrain, and crunches down on Trump’s unimaginable ascent in the dystopian single “High Ticket Attractions.” And it’s all as elaborately layered and harmonized as usual, just pointing all its power towards something with higher stakes than pop for once.
Best Moment: When the palm-muted Krautrock of “Darling Shade” builds to one throbbing powerchord and unleashes (gasp) a minor key in the chorus. — DAN WEISS
The New Year, Snow (Undertow)
It’s been nine years since the New Year released a record, and the wait was totally worth it. Although Snow took almost a decade to make, the long-anticipated result is grandiose, layered, and complex, yet without any hint of misguidance. Although their sound is subdued and bleak, all the tragedy on Snow spins like a carousel at a carnival — simultaneously triumphant and full of sadness.
Best Moment: “Myths” is a stunner, and its slow, intense build-up exemplifies everything you need to know about these underrated slowcore aficionados. — JOCELYN HOPPA