Jamiroquai have always been at the forefront of musical experimentation, but Automaton is a real throwback, the first time they have ever taken a step backwards. It's this retreat into the drum and bass of the mid-90s that actually keeps their sound fresh and exciting. That period is now ripe for the nostalgic picking; the new generation want something that feels different from tropical house, and the 30-45 age range love to revisit their youth. The title track seems to be an explicit rejection of the plugged in generation, but it's actually about cyborgs! Jay Kay really is on another level spiritually. The 3 song suite "Hot Property", "Something About You" and "Summer Girl" will have Justin Timberlake scrambling in the studio to compete, a gentle reminder of how influential the band has been. The album is a real vibe, a summer record that will soundtrack many road trips. Bruno Mars tried to do it, but if you want quality, call in the experts of Funk.
Best Tracks: "Automaton", "Shake It On", "Vitamin"
This record continues Goldfrapp's happy marriage of indie singer-songwriter and electronic maven. Maybe trip-hop is a little unfair, because in 2017 that's one of the least flattering labels in music (along with lo-fi). At times this record moves with a glacial, powerful pace. "Moon In Your Mouth" is epic, while closer "Ocean" is quintessential 4am music. There's a cagey, anxious quality to the music and lyrics. "Zodiac Black" is downright scary, while "Everything Is Never Enough" is the anti-anthem of the year. This won't quite propel you back into the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, when Fischerspooner and co were making merry with innovative electronica, but it's a great set and forget record, there's not a weak song.
Best Tracks: "Anymore", "Tigerman", "Ocean"
So it turns out, Kodak Black is actually capable of writing a good album! I think everyone was slightly sceptical, was he another 21 Savage? Was he going to push something half-finished out, like Desiigner, and pour water on his buzz? Painting Pictures is a statement of intent, but it's not full of the aggressive posturing that third-tier trap artists seem hell-bent on pursuing. Instead, we have songs like "Save You", "Conscience", "Reminiscing", and "Top Off Benz", all digging deeper into the emotional well than Kodak has ever done previously on wax. Emotion and violence co-exist, in the same way, dare I say it, that 2Pac used to approach his music. Actually, he's much more like Kevin Gates, who released a platinum selling record that wonderfully fused honesty with the desperation of the streets. Kodak places "Patty Cake" ("I'm bout to snatch your baby girl and skeet all on her face") next to "Save You" ("I wanna show you I appreciate you"). He even flips the script on "Side N***", revealing a vulnerability you'd never have expected from a guy who wears ski masks in interviews. This album is absolutely worth your time if you love trap music, it's a banger that will make you feel and think.
Best Tracks: "Tunnel Vision", "Conscience", "Candy Paint"
Gangster Gibbs isn't the most gifted emcee, but when he settles into a flow he's able to punch out songs with a consistency that's endearing and lends itself to repeat listens. Rappers always talk about catching a vibe, and while artists like Scarface are able to tap into the ghetto emotion, no-one wants their heart ripped from their chest for an entire record. You Only Live 2wice keeps Gibbs' emotions in check, dropping depressing gems while providing an outlet via violence or aggression in almost every track. Opener "20 Karat Jesus" is in the same vein as Danny Brown's classic 2016 Atrocity Exhibition intro "Downward Spiral". Gibbs looks inwards, and doesn't like what he sees: "Blinded and misguided, nigga / Heavenly Father take the wheel / I'm on the interstate with some Guerriallas / With shit can get me like 200 years", "I'm living like every decision a sin", "Got symptoms of withdrawal from the fall when I used to ball / I show you how in one summer one nigga could lose it all". It could be an oppressive listen, but the epic beat on "Crushed Glass" and the sepia-toned nostalgia of "Homesick" give the listener some respite. It's not the classic that Gibbs surely has hidden in him somewhere. The beats are slightly one-dimensional, and his flow is unflinching, but it's an immersive listen, and at just 31 minutes it never lags or drags.
Best Tracks: "20 Karat Jesus", "Crushed Glass"
Nelly's last commercial entrance was 2006's Loose. You may not know she has actually been consistently releasing music for the past 11 years. Mi Plan (2009), The Spirit Indestructible (2012), The Best of Nelly Furtado (2010), Mi Plan Remixes (2010) and a Spanish EP in 2008 have kept her relatively busy in the studio. She took five years off after The Spirit Indestructible and arrives with The Ride as an independent artist. That means no Timbaland, the architect of Furtado's incredible 2006 album, when he was so hot he also produced Justin Timberlake's classic Future Sex / LoveSounds. As you'd expect, without billions of dollars to spend on cutting edge production, The Ride is a little light on pop smashes. Production was handled almost solely by John Congleton. No, I didn't know who he was either. Apparently, he's a very accomplished session musician. What he and Furtado have brilliantly managed to do is convey that feeling of being halfway through a journey of self-discovery. Furtado said she suffered a nervous breakdown around the time when Loose was taking the world by storm, and, for her own mental health, she took a step back from the world to focus on herself. The Ride is part of that journey, but it doesn't feel like the end of it. The songs are caged and at times anxious. The euphoric breakthroughs of tracks like "Live" and "Right Road" are tempered by as-yet unfinished stories that "Pipe Dreams" and "Flatline" present. Furtado hasn't broken through into the light, but she can see it off in the distance, and The Ride is her continuing journey towards it.
Best Tracks: "Live", "Phoenix", "Paris Sun"