The Best Albums of Spring 2017

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Every three months, the Bandcamp Daily editorial staff combs through the stacks to present our favorite records of the year to date. This edition runs the stylistic spectrum, everything from jazz to pop to gospel to everything in between. And if you want to see our picks for the first three months of 2017, you can check them out here.

J. Edward Keyes, Editorial Director

Charly BlissGuppy

“It’s not like we’re sitting around going, ‘This song is good, but is it good enough to be in a Honda commercial?’” said Charly Bliss guitarist Spencer Fox, when I interviewed them in April. “We just write songs that fulfill our idea of what a good song should be.” On Guppy, they’ve written 10 of them, each one crammed with glittering hooks and unabashed joy. It’s that last quality that makes the record so irresistible: the songs radiate hope and love and warmth, and even when Eva Grace Hendricks is singing about heartbreak, she never descends into self-pity, nor does she relinquish the upper hand (“I laughed when your dog died” is one of the best rock ‘n’ roll “fuck you”s of the year). The album came out in April, but it’s built for the summer months to come, to be played loud with the windows down on open highways and blasted at barbecues. Guppy is the blueprint for how to make a perfect guitar-pop record, and every single second of it feels immediately classic.

Tica DouglasOur Lady Star of the Sea, Help and Protect Us

Tica Douglas’s consistently beautiful second record is dedicated to the idea of mystery, uncertainty, and in-betweenness. Douglas, who identifies as non-binary, recently completed a Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary, and Our Lady Star is their attempt to restore to religion the lost aura of mystery. They succeed masterfully. The songs on Our Lady Star are deeply, profoundly moving, and feel almost fragile to the touch. The swaying, lullaby-like “Deaths Come in Threes” is built on small details: “Deaths come in threes / I woke up to the news / Didn’t have any black / I wore navy blue.” “It Moves Me” builds slowly, Douglas constructing a silvery latticework of guitar to cradle their soft, tender voice. And in the corner of every song is what Daniel Amos once referred to as “the foggy, tethered Ghost,” the faint trace of a higher power, making itself plain in the mundanity of the everyday.

Casey DienelImitation of a Woman to Love

Were there but world enough, and time, I would quote every single lyric of Casey Dienel’s brilliant hotel-hookup narrative “High Times” in this space. But since there is not, I will offer just this, from the first time Dienel meets her one-night-stand at the bar: “He said some things that seemed borderline basic / But when he took off his shirt, I acquit him.” Imitation is full of gems like that (the palpable exasperation in the line, “You spelled ‘I love ya’ with a ‘y’ and an ‘a'” on the twinkling, Kate Bush-y “Sincerely, Insincerely” is another winner), but what’s so stunning about Imitation is not its pithy wordplay—though there’s plenty of that—but the way it so expertly captures Dienel’s experiences as a woman living in 2017. “The only thing I really wanted to stay away from was a sense of wonder,” Dienel said when we spoke to her about the record. “A lot of times when there are songs about people’s sexuality, they’re caught up in…almost the saintly-ness of the woman’s body. I feel a more earthly situation with it. I didn’t want to have anything where I was talking about Gaia.” And while there’s plenty of sex on Imitation, the album is about so much more than that. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the devastating closer, “Paper Mache.” “There’ll always be someone pretty and young to replace us when they’re done,” Dienel sings against a gauzy bed of synths. It’s a cutting line, even more so because it feels lived. Imitation is one of the year’s best pop records; come for the choruses, stay for the wisdom.

ActressAZD

Trying to pin down what, exactly, Darren Jordan Cunningham is up to on his latest record as Actress is a quixotic task. The record is defined by constant shape-shifting: one minute, glassy synths are sparkling like tossed glitter, the next minute, the foundation is wobbling and the rhythms are slipping and stuttering. It is a dizzying, riveting listen, the sound of an artist taking the bare elements of electronic music and using them to invent an entirely new language. The album’s more straightforward moments are hypnotic: “Falling Rizlas” is an elegy constructed from wind chime-like synths, glued together with deep, soothing bass drones; “Runner” is a steady, throbbing techno banger that keeps sounding like it wants to transform into New Order’s “Blue Monday” but stops just a few notes short. But if those pieces are the record’s entry points, tracks like “There’s an Angel in the Shower” are its pieces de resistance. There, Cunningham layers an arsenal of disparate elements—gothy, funereal synths, blinking tones, arrhythmic percussion, far-off half-second vocal blips—to create a piece that is part meditation, part nightmare. Half of the joy of AZD is figuring out just how, exactly, these songs work. That the puzzle is so complex is a testament to Actress’s genius.

Molly NilssonImaginations

Swedish musician Molly Nilsson seems to be able to turn out melancholy, irresistibly-melodic synth ballads almost effortlessly and her latest, Imaginations, might be her best batch to date. Opening track “Tender Surrender” is a study in mood and control; the low-budget, sad-eyed synths groan blearily, starting soft and then building to rickety crescendos where Nilsson dispenses bon mots like “By now you’ve heard / …Seduction is a four-letter word.” “Let’s Talk About Privileges” is a stab at creating a synthetic Bangles single, with rubbery bass and Nilsson gliding up and down the octave, soft-focus saxophone sighing in the background. Nilsson’s voice—a sturdy, commanding alto—is a strong contrast to the songs’ soft-pink keyboards, and the album’s dollar store-synth aesthetic only serves to highlight Nilsson’s incredible gift for melody. It’s tempting to employ the usual tired “’80s throwback” language here—especially on a song as cheery and buoyant as “Modern World”—but Imaginations transcends those lazy descriptors. It’s an intoxicating pop record, calm, confident, and assured.

Marcus J. Moore, Senior Editor

Yazz Ahmed, La Saboteuse

There’s something especially romantic about Yazz Ahmed’s recent album, La Saboteuse. A self-described exploration of her British and Bahraini roots, the record feels like a moonlit walk along the promenade, as ocean waves crash along the shore. This isn’t Kenny G jazz, though: Ahmed integrates folk, alt-rock, and Middle Eastern rhythms, paying homage to her ancestors while connecting with the present day. On “Bloom,” Ahmed smoothes the coarse edges of the Radiohead original until it becomes a polished dance number. By the end of La Saboteuse, when the echoes of “Exhale” have faded into darkness, it becomes clear that this record is only the beginning for Ahmed; her journey’s just starting and there’s a bright horizon ahead.

The Comet Is Coming, Death To The Planet

I’ll say it plainly, since no one else will: Shabaka Hutchings is a bona fide superstar. From Wisdom of Elders (with South African collective The Ancestors), to Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do (with Sons of Kemet), Hutchings’s name has turned up again and again over the course of the past year. His recent EP with The Comet is Coming blends jazz and techno in a way that feels natural, even if its backstory is rife with despair. Death To The Planet imagines a world on the brink of destruction, when life teeters on the edge, and there’s no hope to be found. “Final Eclipse” and “March of the Rising Sun” feel remarkably upbeat, but there’s enough darkness in each to signify impending doom. Keep an eye out for Hutchings: Chances are his name will turn up again, and sooner than you think.

Alice Coltrane, World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda

It’s been 10 years since Alice Coltrane left this planet, 10 years since she ascended to the right hand of God. She’s wanted to get there since 1967, the year she first started releasing her own music as a bandleader. Coltrane’s art has always been marked by a feeling of transcendence—the sense that angels were guiding her fingers across the strings of her harp. On The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, Coltrane comes close to finding heaven on Earth, offering hypnotic mantras over electronic gospel music, all of which was recorded between 1981 and 1995 at an ashram outside Los Angeles. The music was intended for members of the ashram, many of whom sing on these recordings. On songs like “Rama Rama” and “Er Ra,” where Coltrane’s is the only voice, the album takes on a deeply meditative aura. It’s in those moments that the icon’s spirit is most deeply felt. She’s speaking with the Almighty; we’re lucky to be able to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die

While it’s easy to label Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die ‘avant-garde’ or ‘psychedelic,’ due to its spectral mood, the truth is that Fly or Die is remarkably focused, rooted in jazz while also pulling in elements of hip-hop, folk, and ambient. On Fly or Die, Branch is at the helm of her own quartet, which features Chad Taylor on drums, Jason Ajemian on bass, and Tomeka Reid on cello. Though this is technically a solo album, each musician plays a vital role in shaping the album’s meditative aura. Songs like “leaves of glass” and “waltzer” rumble along slowly, emitting Eno-like vibes as they progress. “Theme nothing,” the record’s centerpiece, boasts a strong Latin jazz melody, centered on Branch’s sporadic horn wails and Taylor’s percussive groove. This is soothing music for the weary mind, a moving testament to the power of free will and the beauty of artistic liberty. After years of buffering everyone else’s visions, it’s great to see Branch bringing her own to light.

Moonchild, Voyager

Believe it or not, kids, soul music used to sound like its own genre. Yeah, I know I sound like an old curmudgeon, but it’s true. The songs were about love, and they emitted indescribable vibes. Groups like Jodeci and SWV ruled the airwaves, and school dance DJ sets. Tevin Campbell wanted to talk for a minute. Moonchild takes me back to that time. On Voyager, the L.A. trio opts for serenity, splitting the difference between soul and jazz. The group creates nocturnal blends that recall KING and Hiatus Kaiyote. Adding strings and a harpist to the mix, Voyager feels lush and robust, the sound of a band fully comfortable in its lane.

Ally-Jane Grossan, Senior Editor

Kirin J. Callinan, Bravado

This is what I want Top 40 to sound like. On Bravado, giant, bombastic production accents Callinan’s capacity for vocal acrobatics; his delivery ranges from gross, breathy male porn star to Freddy Mercury falsetto. In short, Bravado is basically a mind-fuck. I can’t tell if he’s making fun of the Ibiza crowd, or is counting himself among them, but I feel like I can enjoy whatever it is he’s experiencing from a safe distance. There’s a whole lotta Phil Collins and Bruce Springsteen on “Living Each Day,” and the theatrical “Down 2 Hang” wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to a Rent sequel. There are so many bangers on this record that it’s almost overwhelming to try and make it through in one listen. Maybe in a year, I’ll look back and think, ‘What the hell was I was thinking?’ But right now, this record makes me feel like I’m having the time of my life.

Juana Molina, Halo 

I recently learned that Juana Molina was once a popular comedian in Argentina—which didn’t exactly make sense, considering the weirdo layered folk she creates. But then I realized there’s a dark humor to the way she manipulates and percusses her voice. Halo is a stunning example of this, and a gift to Molina fans. If you’re new to her work, it might be best to start with Son. Halo is more of the same cooing, tropicália-tinged folk she’s known for, bolstered by a studio full of new instruments and outside production help.

The Como Mamas, Move Upstairs

Though the music of this Mississippi group is heavily tied to their faith, and the deep and richly poetic voices of Ester Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, and Della Daniels have the power to make any atheist a believer. The three women have sung together at their church, Mt. Moriah in Como, Mississippi, since childhood. Even skeptics will be moved by their rousing gospel calls-to-action in the title track “Move Upstairs.” The songs on their first Daptone release were performed a cappella, but on Move Upstairs, get a deserved leg-up from the label’s house band. It’s the addition of instruments that give “He’s Calling Me” that Gordy Records, chugging soul sound made popular by groups like Martha and the Vandellas in the ’60s.

Chapter Music, Double Figures 

I was just a kid on the other side of the world when the Chapter Music label was formed in June 1992 in Perth, Australia, so naturally, I’m grateful for this compilation (which originally appeared in 2002) that highlights the first 10 tears of Chapter releases. It’s an excellent selection, documenting the deliciously-sweet indie pop that helped solidify a specific sound in the early ’90s. Inspired by labels like K Records, Shrimper, and Australia’s Toytown, Chapter Music was first a zine and then a cassette label, and this complication is a digitized celebration of the Chapter sound—or, as the original press release states: “Double Figures compiles Chapter’s favourite memories from its glittering 10-year history.” The songs have a DIY jangle that’s similar to the bands in the Sarah Records family. It’s hard to pick a starting point, but playing all 24 songs on repeat is highly recommended. There’s  Belle and Sebastian-like sorrow in Karl Smith’s “Your Work,” and opener “Side Projects” by Small World Experiences gifts us the zinger, “I love you so let’s form a band.” It perfectly captures the warm, fuzzy sound and the outsider mentality that exists at the intersection of romance and alternative pop.

Agent blå, Agent blå

This is the darkly danceable pop music of my anxiety dreams. Agent blå’s self-titled debut is nestled somewhere between feelings of aggression and apprehension, with the occasional flash of optimism. There’s a perfect moment near the end of the album, on “21:38,” when a violin swoops in to accentuate the intensity of singer Emelie Alatalo’s plea. Then there’s “Dream Boy Dream,” which is sweeter than a melted bag of Swedish Fish (fitting, since the band are from Gothenburg). The members of Agent blå are quite young, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that they were influenced, perhaps, by Robyn, whose line, “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her,” is one of most anxiety-inducing lyrics of the past decade.

Jes Skolnik, Managing Editor

Diamanda Galás, All the Way

“When I did the performance of ‘Round Midnight,’ I was in a rage, in an absolute rage, as a person would be at the end of a love affair,” Diamanda Galás explained when we spoke to her earlier this year. “Even if the love affair is in your own mind, even if it’s not real, it’s still—yes, there’s droll moments, there’s dreary moments, but there can still be a violent rage, like you want to attack the person with a saber. And so it’s in my performance. I did many performances of it that day, and many performances before, but that performance in particular was the one that was closest to the vein.” And indeed, Galás’s re-interpretations of the standards on All the Way, are true to form for her—brutally emotional, and reverent to the original in a way it’s sometimes hard for people to recognize. She doesn’t tear these songs apart and despoil them; to suggest so would be insulting. Instead, she cuts to their core, making music that was written decades ago, and which could sound outmoded or antiquated, truly fresh and immediate. She is virtuosic both with piano and voice, using both instruments in clear, focused, and fascinating ways. A lifetime avant-garde inspiration, Galás truly continues to innovate.

Jlin, Black Origami

Gary, Indiana footwork producer Jlin says her second record, Black Origami, “is built around duality and versatility. It’s versatile in such a way that you can’t say it’s this or that. I threw a lot of things in one project, I know I did; I did it very intentionally. Not only to show that I am this way, but also show that you can’t define everything. We live in a society that likes to define everything, and everything cannot be defined, and that’s fine.” And indeed, trying to parse the densely-layered and incredibly fine detail on Black Origami as part of a whole is a somewhat maddening enterprise; better to enjoy all those flourishes in context. For all its complexity and braininess, Black Origami is also a remarkably intuitive record. From the sinuous “Enigma” through the meditative collaboration with William Basinski (“Holy Child”), the interference blips of the collaboration with Holly Herndon (“1%”) and the interrupted military drill of the closer, “Challenge, to be Continued,” there’s a thread of growing discord and discomfort that gradually pushes from the background to the foreground—a looming, noisy doom. In the same interview, Jlin notes that “my intuition is what leads my ear, and that takes experience. You’ve got to trust yourself.” We’re incredibly thankful she does.

Martin Rev, Demolition 9

Martin Rev’s had a trailblazing career, from his roots in jazz to his work in the influential duo Suicide. But he’s not resting on his laurels; his newest album, Demolition 9, he told us, is “all about playing around. I’m like a kid playing with toys, assembling his own little arrangement out of stuff that doesn’t make any sense to anyone else but him.” Bounding from atmospheric noise to doo-wop, swinging pop to grim post-punk, covering electronic experimentation both spacious and dense, this is a playful and fascinating album, a sketchbook fully come to life. We tend to place a good deal of weight as a society on the idea that innovation stops at a certain age, and that early, explosive creative genius is more worthwhile than continuing that trajectory into one’s golden years; Rev, who is 69, is but one of the many ready to challenge that myth. Still possessed of his fertile imagination and experimental sharpness, even without his Suicide counterpart Alan Vega, and against the backdrop of a clearly changed New York City (this is Rev’s first work since Vega passed), Rev’s still making music that stands on its own, while still fitting into his overall legacy. Demolition 9 is full of flights of fancy, transportative and wholly unique.

The Bedroom Witch, Injury

As The Bedroom Witch, Sepehr Mashiahof creates a “bedroom floating through time and space”—a space both incredibly personal and universally resonant, where she can work through her own traumas and create a relatable space for other marginalized people whoa re dealing with the fallout from similar experiences. “I want all the struggling, beautiful freaks with whom I exist to find comfort in whatever way resonates with them individually through this other world that I designed for myself a long time ago,” she said in our interview. “This album is for them—it’s for us. And for our collective healing. Not for anyone else.” Mashiahof works with the same essential palette as ‘80s synthpop groups did in their evocation of the Cold War’s nuclear terror, though the horror she’s talking about is internal rather than external. Injury is her first full-length, and it’s more direct than her prior work, full of pulsing basslines, sparkling synth melodies, and some of the catchiest chanted vocal hooks about intimate violence committed to record. Bedroom Witch turns the dancefloor into a space for recognition, acceptance, and truth.

Tigress, S/T EP

Not Normal Tapes is nothing if not a reliable source for quality hardcore, not just from Chicago and Northwest Indiana, but internationally; Tigress has been one of Chicago’s most exciting punk bands for the last few years, so the fact that their first EP appears on the imprint is only natural. Their music is heavy as hell, built for the mosh, but while the lyrical content of much similar-sounding music often skews goofy and ignorant, Tigress are expert at skewering the tropes of the subgenre. “Pedestal,” the thunderous opener, pushes back against scene hierarchies and nostalgic idolatry, while “Brotherhood” needles the idea of scene unity and “crews” that reify the same old boring systemic inequities of mainstream culture (plus, when it comes down to it, how many people proud to be in a crew actually like one another?) It’s an exuberant listen and a terrific catharsis for those of us who have a fondness for meathead aesthetics without all the usual attendant garbage. (Their shows are, as you might imagine, raucous, likely to leave you with a smile as big and persistent as the bruises you’ve intentionally acquired.)

Mariana Timony, Social Media Producer

Annabel Lee, Wallflowers

A blast of scrappy indie pop out of Belgium, Annabel Lee’s first release Wallflowers is non-stop pure magical fun from the moment Audrey Marot exclaims, “It was easy-peasy-lemon-squeeze-y!” on opening track “Best Good Friend.” Hallmarked by an utter lack of guile and playful innocence, Wallflowers is all about finding happiness wherever and with whomever you can, whether it be cutting class with your BFF, or finding unexpected friends at a music festival who’ll put you on the guest list for “Coachella-la-la-la-la-la.” The music is amalgam of upbeat pop, garage, and even a bit of surf, coming across like a punkier Primitives or less-polished (but still gleaming) Darling Buds, with sticky choruses and bouncing rhythms careening into one another with unabashed joy. The cheery-voiced Marot has a talent for affixing delightfully random and totally adorable “na na na”s and “la la la”s to her lyrics, but it’s not all babyfaced bon mots. Snotty punk track “Period Sex,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about, features the most straightforward chorus I’ve heard in years: “I wanna have sex with you!” Out of the mouths of babes, let me tell ya.

B Boys, Dada

“Here’s a pointed reminder that I’ve seen it all before,” sing B Boys on “1 2 Reminder,” one of the highlights on Dada, their energetic debut full-length for Captured Tracks. The band mostly deliver a faithful, straight-forward take on classic ’70s post-punk, but they attack the music cleverly, and never get overly high-brow in their approach—even when they’re dealing with serious topics. There’s a certain detached dryness to both their outlook and guitar tones on songs like the choppy “B Boys Anthem” or the propulsive “Energy” that sounds fresh in this era of tear-stained angst. As the band themselves offer in “Fear It,” before the song dissolves into an unexpectedly groovy breakdown, “Not everything has to make sense.” Arriving at a time when it seems like every permutation of “discordant” and/or “angular guitars” has been explored, the raucously enjoyable Dada—which has both—carves out new avenues.

The Buttertones, Gravedigging

L.A.’s finest retro-nauts the Buttertones hit their stride on Gravedigging, a bold full-length that nicks the best bits of the past 50 years of popular music to whip up a frothy blend of surf, rockabilly, doo-wop, bubblegum, garage, and even a bit of punk, chasing all of it with a double shot of whiskey. And while the band is obviously technically accomplished—you have to be, to play music like this—the secret weapon here is Jonny Bell’s (Crystal Antlers) tip-top production, which elevates the Buttertones’ Spaghetti Western impulses (“Neon Cowboy”) above camp, and gives the music both class and grit in equal measure. From the spooky “Geisha’s Gaze” and cinematic “Two-Headed Shark” to the ’60s prom-ready “I Ran Away,” each song on the record plays like a mini-epic. As the title implies, the songs on Gravedigging mostly skew dark; but they’re all delivered with a sly wink and charming smile. Hide your daughters, here comes trouble.

Chastity Belt, I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone

Is there any other active rock band that sounds anything like Chastity Belt? Their remarkable third LP, I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, makes a strong argument that this band stands alone among their peers. Clear-eyed both in sound and unsparing emotional content, this elegant offering is both light and dark, punk and un-punk, jangly and crunchy at the same time. Though undeniably catchy, the songs don’t show off; there aren’t any ‘pow-pow-pow’ pop hooks, but there’s clear sonic depth, and more movement than one would expect, with soft washes of bright guitars burbling beneath the still waters of Julia Shapiro’s affectless voice. “Communication’s pretty hard,” she admits in phenomenal album closer “5 AM,” summing up the sense of modern anomie that hallmarks a record about sadness, self-deception, and over-indulgence in the pursuit of human connection. “I Used to Spend So Much time Alone” is less a record than an absolution. It’s okay to feel bad sometimes, the band seems to say. I used to feel bad sometimes, too.

Crooked Bangs, II

Austin’s Crooked Bangs have a menacing sound that’s appropriate for the times. The songs on II draw razor sharp parallels between post-punk, goth, metal, and hardcore for a record that’s compulsively listenable and, ultimately, very unsettling. Creeping malevolence undercut with simmering rage is the primary mode on songs like heavy metal-ish “Rabbit Hole” and the noisy, relentless “Suspendu” (the latter jumps straight into the buzzy “No Future” without missing a beat). This is evil shit indeed, but there’s hooks aplenty, and a glittering dynamism in those chugging riffs and unexpected time changes; they flicker in and out of focus, like a strange figure in the corner of your vision. On several songs, particularly “Baudelaire,” bilingual vocalist Leda Ginestra’s buttery vibrato crashes headlong into straight-up screaming, while the band blasts along behind her, casting a long shadow that’s difficult to escape. These bangers aren’t back from the grave, they’re from beyond it.

 

3 Comments

  1. Posted June 26, 2017 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Definitely on the same wavelength as Marcus J. Moore. Yazz Ahmed and Shabaka Hutchings are both superstars for sure. If we can count March I would add Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “Caipi,” which is currently at the top of my list. 2017 is already a banner year for jazz-fusion-genre-defying music and it’s only June!

  2. Posted June 27, 2017 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Most of them I don’t know, but totally agree with Yazz Ahmed’s latest album! Superb!

  3. Posted July 24, 2017 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    This has been really good. Please do one of these every quarter! Great jazz and indiepop.

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