Though January is traditionally a slow month for new music, 2017 decided to change all that. I feel like more great albums came out this month than have in a lot of other Januarys, and given the other uh, political changes that accompanied the new year, music continues to be the perfect escape when you need to zone out a bit.
From major label rap like Migos’ enormous comeback album Culture, to the cooing synth soundscapes of Bonobo’s Migration, and country underdogs like Natalie Hemby’s Puxico, here’s ten of the most crucial albums you need to hear from this month. Scroll to the bottom for a custom playlist of the best track off each record to get just a taste, or to have a variety of new songs to choose from.
The xx, I See You
For a lot of people I know, The xx’s self-titled debut record was one of the first “electronic” album they really fell in love with. Sure, the British band’s spare, synthy compositions are fairly pop-leaning as far as electronic music goes, and they are deeply influenced by R&B rhythms, but back in 2009, xx was a gateway drug of sorts for those who thought this world was beyond their grasp, and 2012’s Coexist widened that door even further. So it’s fitting that the band’s follow-up, I See You, goes even deeper into murky, complicated territory instead of aiming for the light bombast that buoys pop’s mainstream. Romy Madley Croft’s slight, ever-anguished vocals lead most of the songs on their third record — and she writes the majority of the lyrics — while Oliver Sims and Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx) churn out dark melodies laced with pulsing beats that keep this record veiled instead of blazing. But not all strength is loud, and this slippery, starlit album is full of massive emotions doled out in quiet, beautiful tremors.
Julie Byrne, Not Even Happiness
Not Even Happiness is the sophomore album from this New York songwriter, who spins songs so delicate and complex they feel like glistening cobwebs. Byrne’s meticulous style led to a three-year gap between her DIY tape debut Rooms With Walls And Windows, but the extra time has allowed her the space she needed to write intimate, baroque ballads about love, loss, and everything in between. When she sings, Byrne sounds like a bird taking flight, her voice is natural and gentle, but it is also a sweeping and intentional force. Completely self-taught and without any technical music knowledge, Byrne’s style is completely her own, and Not Even Happiness is one of the most promising folk records of 2017, even this year in the year. If you like what you hear, check out our interview with Julie about the making of the album.
Delicate Steve, This Is Steve
Delicate Steve makes wordless guitar music, but don’t let that fool you, This Is Steve has some of the catchiest melodies of 2017. He makes the kind of guitar line that’s so lyrical, insistent and inventive, that you’ll be singing or humming along to it. Deeply influenced by African rhythms, world music, and other off-the-wall pop experimentalists like Yeasayer, Deerhoof, and The Dirty Projectors, Steve Marion is a rising guitarist who is well worth your time. His third full-length album This Is Steve is his first for Anti Records, and Steve signing with the indie giant is just one indicator of how the world is opening up in front of him. From working with Paul Simon to getting Chuck Klosterman to write him a fake bio, Marion is on the radar of some of the most well-respected names in this field. Make sure he’s on your radar too, and get to know him in our interview here.
If I have to tell you who Migos are then you’re leaving wrong, but both I and the Atlanta rap trio will forgive you for your sinful lifestyle. It’s time to convert though, because Migos not only put out one of what will easily be the best rap records of the year, but they did it after overcoming nearly insurmountable circumstances. First, their hit song “Versace” was swaggerjacked by Drake, then, a series of run-ins with the law plagued the trio’s rising tide of success and stymied the release of their first official album, Young Rich Nation. Undeterred, Offset, Takeoff and Quavo kept hitting the studio, eventually striking gold with their No. 1 record “Bad And Boujee,” a shout out from Donald Glover, and the undeniable bubble of their next smash hit “T-Shirt.” Culture will make waves all the way to the end of the year, get ahead of the current by listening now.
Without the gateway drug of The xx, it’s possible I wouldn’t have opened my heart to Bonobo. Which isn’t to say that the two are even that similar, as much as they fall into a sector of music that felt inaccessible to me until I heard “VCR” back in college. Over the last seventeen years, Simon Green has reliably put out six records of textured, gorgeous minimalist electronic music that learns toward the wonder-filled, starlit side of the spectrum. Migration is one of Green’s most intricate albums to date, and is perfect for late night driving, early morning walks, and any times of stillness in between. The music moves with force and grace, making a transition in your own life feel not only possible, but palpable, one song at a time.
Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is the kind of music that makes you stop longing for a hero and decide to save yourself instead. Never, at least to my knowledge, have a two-piece rock band packed this heart into an eight track album. This is the rare band whose five year hiatus actually led to sustained musical growth and sharpened songwriting precision. It is impossible to see this album as anything other than an exponential leap forward in quality, passion, and adrenaline from its stunning predecessor Celebration Rock. For an imagined storyline that traces the trajectory of these pummeling, plaintive songs, check out Hyden’s in-depth review of the record. To make up your own, simply press play. May I particularly recommend the final track, “In A Body Like A Grave.” Turn it up, and head to a highway somewhere you can drive fast and scream lyrics into the wind. This album is a rage against the dying of the light, yes, but it also finds the slender flicker of a new spark in the flutter of ashes.
Ariel Pink & Weyes Blood, Myths 002
Fans of Ariel Pink and Weyes Blood will find their newest collaborative EP fascinating, because it simply join their respective styles without any give or take on either side. Instead of influencing one another or creating some sort of supergroup, Myths 002 takes Natalie Mering’s gorgeous, classic soprano and places it right alongside Pink’s penchant for off-kilter synths and weirdo sampling patterns. Whole swathes of the baroque pop that made Weyes Blood’s Front Row Seat To Earth one of the best albums of 2016 are condensed to fit into the eerie, tense patchwork structures that Pink favors, and somehow their clashing styles is exactly what makes this short EP so compelling. But hearing them so close together, so close up, only serves as further proof that Mering is in the process of discovering a whole new world for herself as an artist, and Pink is simply retracing what he’s been up to for the last several albums. Still, it’s one of the most intriguing, tense releases of the month, and a strange stepping stone for both of these artists.
Cloud Nothings, Life Without Sound
Cloud Nothings’ latest record is melodic post-punk with doomsday swirling at the center, and given the current events leading up to its release, that theme is a fairly resonant one. Dylan Baldi’s Cleveland quartet have calmly and consistently released some of the most accessibly chaotic post-punk of the last decade or so, and their fourth album Life Without Sound sees them keeping the volume up even if the noise is more manageable this time around. Listen below.
Natalie Hemby, Puxico
Natalie Hemby isn’t a big name in country music, but as is often the case in that genre, you’ve already heard (and probably loved) several of the songs she’s written. Among them are Miranda Lambert’s wistful Platinum single “Automatic,” both “Pontoon” and “Tornado” for Little Big Town, as well as “Drinks After Work” for Toby Keith. 2017 is the year that Hemby decided to step out from behind the curtain and release her debut album, and it certainly benefits from her years already spent working in her native Nashville. The record is named after a small town in Missouri, and though the songs jump from subject to subject, they all keep a small, close-knit community in the rearview mirror. Puxico‘s instrumentation is casual fingerpicking, simple country melodies, and none of the high-octane pop that’s fueled some of her songwriting hits, so you get the sense that a stripped-back, gentle niche is where Hemby personally feels the most comfortable. And, as always, hearing a person sing out of comfort is so much more interesting than hearing them sing toward commercial interests. When will country radio realize this? Maybe never, in the meantime, independent releases from female songwriters keeps growing, so perhaps we’ll just outgrow them if they can’t keep up.
Brian Eno, Reflection
Brian Eno is never one to make things easy for us. Last year the enigmatic producer released his first album in four years, The Ship, a four song album with two tracks that approached near twenty minutes each. At the top of 2017, on the very first day of the year in fact, he went one step further and released Reflection, a single track “album” that moves with the textures of ambience the British musician has so long been fascinated with warping and twisting. Accordingly, listening to the record is akin to taking a long walk into a dark wood that you have never visited before, down a path that will never lead the same way twice. This can be fatiguing, sure, but it can also be deeply meditative, and a venue for opening the mind to its own internal wandering. Given the title, that seems to be the point. Listen below.
Here’s a playlist with my favorite track off each album to give you a taste of what each record is like, listen below, and if you’re interested in more curation like this follow Uproxx Music on Spotify here.