Makonnen Sheran may be most famous for his voguish, trap-flecked R&B, but he’s never been afraid to leave his comfort zone. Even so, Love, which featured rap duo Rae Sremmurd, marked a major left turn for the Atlanta-based artist.
Produced by Mike Will Made It (and with unspecified input from Blink-182’s Travis Barker), it was an utterly bizarre blend of joyous pop-punk, double-time Beach Boys-esque surf rock and mournful AutoTune-twisted vocals. Lyrically, Love is gratifyingly hate-filled: Makonnen seethes over a disloyal ex, taking up smoking weed in order to complete his transformation from wide-eyed lovebird to embittered cynic (“I smoke now, you turned me into a stoner / I’m heartless, and I don’t need a donor”, he sings over a deceptively perky melody). Despite the big names on board, Love didn’t win many hearts this year – perhaps the world isn’t ready for Makonnen’s bracingly futuristic genre-bending quite yet. RA
No one does dancefloor melancholia quite like the Scandinavians, and Swedish producer/singer Baba Stiltz follows in their fine tradition of making mournful house music that feels intimate yet banging, chilly yet cosy.
Can’t Help It kicks hard but it’s bittersweet and bruised, as 24-year-old Stiltz reveals himself to be an insecure lover and this his anxious love song. He sounds not unlike an Erlend Øye for 2017 when he coolly delivers its one refrain – “I was just a boy when we first met / Guess I still am / Thinking ’bout the men you had before me / I’m selfish / Can’t help it / I love you so much” – as hyper synths skitter in and out and shards of icy sound jab, like nerves tangling restlessly underneath. So swoonsome is this track – which came out in May on Stockholm-based label Studio Barnhus – that it’s a surprise it hasn’t caused widespread fainting; it certainly had the potential to puncture the mainstream like a Caribou’s Can’t Do Without You. At the very least, it’ll melt your heart. KH
Based on the ages-old African American folktale The People Could Fly, Rhiannon Giddens’ We Could Fly was the emotional and spiritual centerpiece of the singer’s tour-de-force Freedom Highway, a piercing collection that interrogated the stories the country tells about itself while celebrating 200 years of American civil rights history.
The song, which tells the story of a mother and daughter dreaming of escape and liberation from bondage, features Giddens accompanied by acoustic guitar delivering one of the most tender vocal performances of her career. We Could Fly is a story about the passing down of wisdom, strength, tragedy and hope through oral tradition and music. And like Giddens’ life’s work as an artist who reanimates forgotten historical voices in the present day, the song shows that, often times, the best way to move forward, both individually and collectively, is to learn from generations past. JB
The Fox TV show Star is a splashy pulp novel amid the ever-so-serious hardcovers of prestige television. The weekly drama, an Empire offshoot that premiered last December, has hairpin plot twists, ridiculously over-the-top dialogue, and a recurring roster of names that would make any Love Boat casting director proud. (Naomi Campbell! Paris Jackson! Stephen Dorff?) But it’s also been the launching point for some of the most satisfying R&B of the past year, thanks to its focus on a three-member girl group trying to make it in the urban-music hotbed of Atlanta.
The setup allows it to be a musical in addition to a soap opera, and the offerings from the trio of Jude Demorest (the titular Star), Brittany O’Grady (her sister Simone), and Ryan Destiny (Alex Crane, who plays the daughter of Campbell and Lenny Kravitz, cast as an A-list musician) have filled – and properly updated – the void left by the era where R&B collectives like Destiny’s Child and Blaque could rule the charts. But the addition this season of crooner Luke James (Johnny Gill in BET’s drama-thick miniseries The New Edition Story) has made the show’s soundtrack worthy of weekly check-ins, and So Sick, a duet between James and Destiny, might be the series’ pinnacle; an old-school soul weeper, it allows the two parties to go all-in on their doubly doomed fates over a downcast yet funky bassline. MJ
Maybe it was the timing. Everything about Jammy’s Margarita, from the sun-kissed lyrics to the super mellow vibe to the goddamn beach in the video screams summer jam, but the Bay Area sing-rapper dropped the track in late September, just a little too late for its optimal party environment.
It could explain the scandalously low view count for the accompanying video (barely scraping 6k at time of writing) – a crying shame, given it’s one of the most satisfying and swoon-worthy listens of the year. It’s reminiscent of Berhana’s similarly underappreciated 2015 track Janet, both possessing an almost horizontal level of chill, smooth and silky, alternating between romance and late summer melancholy, displaying a poignant vulnerability behind the sunny guitar out front. BL
Family history informs every syllable of the riveting song Is It Too Much? by sibling Americana stars Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer. Though the sisters grew up harmonizing, they never recorded an album together before their release this year, Not Dark Yet. Every song on the set draws on the context of a horrific backstory. When the women were teenagers in the 80s, their father killed their mother, then turned the gun on himself.
As solo songwriters, Lynne and Moorer have dealt with this shattering material before. But only this year did they do so together. Because the album came together quickly, they used mainly cover songs to express the depth of their experience and connection. The album’s sole original piece, Is It Too Much?, proved to be its most potent. In the song, the women vow to support each other in their darkest hours. The fragile beauty of the melody speaks of their pain, while the genetically perfect sync of their harmonies communicates a bond that’s even stronger. JF
Andrew Savage, the lead singer of Parquet Courts, has a reputation for being spiky. In an online clip he can be seen taking the NME to task for hyping his band as the new hope of rock’n’roll, and he regularly voices his concerns about the state of music and criticism. His solo project didn’t garner the same wave of breathless enthusiasm.
Released in October, Thawing Dawn is a collection of songs that he didn’t feel fit with Parquet Courts, and see him become more introverted. He is seated with an acoustic guitar on the front cover but there’s actually lots of synths and electronics twisted into the songwriting that makes it less Dylan and more Eno. Indian Style and Wild Wild Horses are the stand-outs and see one of indie’s most sardonic songwriters get sincere – and pull it off. LB
The intense post-punk duo Raime put out one of the year’s best 12in releases in March as their alter ego Yally. Dread Risk is the A-side, a track that is as dark and poised as a gothic yoga instructor.
A peppy digidub riddim sets up its groove in a dark room, and soon phantom figures are flitting in and out: a skittering drum pattern here, a strangulated holler there. Eventually the breakbeat finds its feet and, accompanied by a two-note brass line, coalesces the rogue elements into a dramatic jungle track – but with the electric sense that it could all fall apart at any moment. 2017’s dancefloors were rarely as forbidding – and yet as seductive – as when this was playing. BBT
The title track of the Omaha savant’s sophomore full-length is a barely hinged tour de force of caustic, scuzzy guitar soaked with feedback and kept on the rails by a propulsive 4/4 rock beat.
On paper it’s nothing we haven’t heard before, only the violent, vitriolic energy of Nance’s particular blues-rock refracts into a sort of proto-punk that’s both familiar and weird. Above all it’s a sturdy and well-crafted piece of songwriting, catchy as hell with wry lyrics describing the anxiety of the way we live now. The themes of interpersonal alienation and infinite content have been well-worn in the two decades since OK Computer, but Nance addresses them with fresher and more acerbic social critique in 156 seconds (“There’s no use for the human soul, it died for the digital age!”) than an entire Arcade Fire album cycle and with a fraction of the overhead. BAG
The first time I heard this song I was browsing the expensive coats and statement necklaces in clothes shop Cos. I paused for a moment hoping to recognise the serene voices and lyrics, but soon relented and very secretly flared up my Shazam; praying fellow shoppers would not notice my arm’s subtle elevation and attempt to pick up the quiet noise from the speakers.
I put it on Spotify immediately and was sucked into the smooth, stately world the Brooklyn band had created on their new album Somersault. I had never liked their music much before, it was a bit too scruffy and lo-fi, but this year’s record – especially Tangerine’s shoegazey melancholy, elegant strings and balmy cameo from Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell – was like stepping into an alternative universe in which I was sauntering around Williamsburg in fall wearing expensive coats and statement necklaces. HG