Widgets Magazine

2017 winter music recap and spring preview: albums you missed and ones to look out for

Vince Staples in 2016 (Andy Moran, Flickr)

Keeping up with new music can be difficult. Between the stresses of the new year and the big name releases from artists like Future or Drake that often crowd out smaller releases from social media attention, you’ve probably missed out on a lot of fascinating albums from the first quarter of the year. With that in mind, here are six albums from the first three months of the year that you may have overlooked:

  1. Theo Katzman — “Heartbreak Hits” (released Jan. 6): “Heartbreak Hits” sounds like the best of mid-’70s pop rock blended together, melding guitar and vocal harmonies, a tight rhythm section and witty, well-crafted songwriting while ditching the pretentious bloat that dogged even the most talented acts of that decade. Katzman, who you may know as the co-guitarist/drummer/singer of Vulfpeck, is a skilled bandleader, playing guitar, drums and percussion as well as singing. He’s joined by a skilled set of collaborators, including Woody Goss and Joe Dart, two of his Vulfpeck bandmates, but he’s always the center of attention. A compelling frontman for this well-constructed genre pastiche. Key track: “Lost & Found”
  2. Julie Byrne — “Not Even Happiness” (Released Jan. 13): “Not Even Happiness” is the most beautiful album of the year so far, and I doubt a worthy challenger will approach. Julie Byrne, a roving folk singer who originated in Buffalo but has spent time in cities as far afield as New Orleans and Seattle, fills the half hour runtime of her second album with an artfully arranged set of airy, economical pieces of folk. Over simple guitar pieces, Byrne’s vocals, which hint at a certain serenity, carry with clarity beautifully written songs of love and melancholy. Key track: “Sleepwalker”
  3. Vagabon — “Infinite Worlds” (Released Feb. 24): Vagabon’s music is all about delicate interplays — between the moments of potent noise and equally powerful quiet that Lætitia Tamko wields skillfully on her debut album, between the grungy rock and atmospheric synth music, she sings her achingly beautiful songs of loneliness and heartbreak. “Infinite Worlds” could have been an overwhelming mess, a muddled mixture of interesting concepts that fail in practice, yet Tamko succeeds without reservation, expressing her distinctive voice and creating a refreshing take on modern indie rock. Key track: “Cold Apartment”
  4. Stormzy — “Gang Signs and Prayer” (Released Feb. 24): When “Gang Signs and Prayer,” British rapper Stormzy’s debut album, came out in the UK in February, it became the first grime album to hit number one on the British album charts. Grime, a distinctly British fusion of rap, dancehall and various electronic styles, has been waiting just outside the mainstream of British music for around a decade; so in a sense, Stormzy is just the grime star to break big at the right moment. Yet “Gang Signs and Prayer” makes perfect sense as the first grime number one. On it, the Croydon MC effortlessly moves between hard-edged braggadocio and heartfelt near-R&B tracks, mastering a sort of crossover appeal that many rappers can never seem to reach. Key track: “Velvet”
  5. Jay Som — “Everybody Works” (Released March 10): “Everybody Works” sounds like it was recorded by an entire band, a group of four like-minded Dinosaur Jr. enthusiasts jamming together and creating scuzzy power-pop gems. Yet Jay Som’s debut album is solely the creation of Oakland-based songwriter Melina Duterte, who plays all the instruments and sings all vocals over these 10 songs. From the kaleidoscopic string arrangements on “Lipstick Stains,” the album’s opener, to the epic, washed out guitar fuzz of “For Light,” the album’s seven-minute-long closer, “Everybody Works” offers what feels a direct line into the headspace of one of indie rock’s brightest new talents. Key track: “One More Time, Please”
  6. Freddie Gibbs — “You Only Live 2wice” (Released March 31): Freddie Gibbs is one of those rappers who sounds like he can rap over anything — his flow, hard-driving but never monotonous, effortlessly meshes with his beats in a way that very few rappers can surpass. On “You Only Live 2wice,” his first album since his 2016 acquittal on sexual assault charges in Austria, Gibbs once again wields his flow to tell stark tales of his life, focusing especially on his time stuck in the Austrian legal system. The project is sparse — eight tracks coming in at just over half an hour, with no features — but hearing thirty minutes worth of one of the hungriest, most talented MCs in America is certainly worth your time. Key track: “Crushed Glass”

And here are six to look out for over the next few months:

  1. Gorillaz — “Humanz” (Released April 28): “Humanz,” the fifth album by cartoon alternative pop primates Gorillaz, has technically been out for a week or two. Yet it’s just that weird of an album, a freewheeling mix of futuristic, apocalyptic synth pop, that it felt wrong not to talk about it here. Everyone from ’70s legends Carly Simon and Mavis Staples to modern rappers like Pusha T and Vince Staples is featured here, subsumed in the weird world of Damon Albarn’s creation. It doesn’t always work, but it’s the sort of album that demands your attention.
  2. Vince Staples — “Big Fish Theory” (Release TBA): Speaking of Vince Staples, the Long Beach MC’s second studio album, a follow up to 2015’s incredible “Summertime ‘06,” is due out sometime this spring. If lead single “Bagbak” and last year’s “Prima Donna” EP are any indication, “Big Fish Theory” is likely to feature some of the wittiest, most intense rap you’re likely to hear from anyone this year.
  3. PWR BTTM — “Pageant” (Release May 12): PWR BTTM, who you may have seen at Kairos last quarter, are releasing their second album this May. The three singles released so far have ranged from the fuzzy power pop explosion of “Big Beautiful Day” to the epic punk opera of “LOL,” and “Pageant” is likely to showcase the queer punk duo’s creative diversity and growth even further.
  4. The Mountain Goats — “Goths” (Release May 19): The Mountain Goats, the folk-punk project started by singer-songwriter John Darnielle in the early ’90s, have released fifteen studio albums and 23 EPs worth of passionate, frequently lo-fi music, focused on Darnielle’s bleating voice and driving acoustic guitar. “Goths,” the group’s 16th album, features no guitars. The two singles released from the album so far, especially “Rain in Soho,” hint at a bold new direction for the group, and potentially an album full of dramatic, gothic stylistic experiments.
  5. Marika Hackman — “I’m Not Your Man” (Release June 2): Marika Hackman’s 2015 debut album, “We Slept At Last,” was an intriguing mix of atmospheric folk music, full of understated arrangements and powered by Hackman herself, who sold songs about Shakespeare and werewolves with a mysterious wit. “I’m Not Your Man,” her sophomore release, looks to be a louder affair — London rock group The Big Moon serve as her backing band — yet based on lead single “Boyfriend,” Hackman remains an immensely compelling songwriter, no matter what’s playing behind her.
  6. Shabazz Palaces — “Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star” (Release July 14): There’s no group in hip hop quite like Shabazz Palaces, the experimental, jazzy duo composed of Ishmael Butler, formerly of ‘90s alternative hip-hop legends Digable Planets, and producer and composer Tendai Maraire. Listening to any Shabazz Palaces album feels like being immersed in the pages of a vividly illustrated Afrofuturist comic book, and “Quazarz,” their third, looks to be an equally engrossing experience. Of special note are the featured players — both The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas and Thundercat are set to appear to help tell the story of Quazarz, “a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary.”

 

Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Jacob Kuppermann

Jacob Kuppermann writes about music for the Arts & Life Section of the Stanford Daily. He is currently undecided, both in regards to his major and towards the world as a whole, but enjoys biology, history, playing guitar & bass, and thinking about the Chainsmokers.