T-Pain & Lil Wayne - "Listen To Me"
Permit me to swear. HOLY SHIT! God damn. Like what the actual fuck is this? I know it's from 2009, but the Willy Wonka sample has been flipped into something monstrous. Tha Bizness needs a medal for this. T-Pain actually sets the track off well, he spits some hard bars that rival Wayne's 2013 penchant for dissinterested sex. Then mixtape Wayne turns up: "Better yet like runnin' hot lava" "And if I'm in the building I've been motherfucking paid off". He rhymes "rebel rap", "shovel at", "devil back", "schedule that" and "Reynold's Wrap". This is one of the songs of the year, and it was meant to come out in 2009...
Rick Ross - "She On My Dick" Feat. Gucci Mane
At the time of publishing, this track isn't a single, but I doubt that will last. It's an absolute stand-out. The production from Beat Billionaire isn't even that impressive, but Ross just brings this aggressive energy, manhandling the beat until it's as turnt up as he is. Gucci Mane's section is proof that Ross' delivery is what makes this track, the song drops off a cliff when Gucci starts spitting, but it isn't long before Ross' breathless chorus kicks back in and lifts the pulse.
Jamiroquai - "Superfresh"
There was no need for concern on Automaton, Jamiroquai came back and delivered something easily on par with Love Foolosophy, and in time, maybe even the classic A Funk Odyssey. The lead single was an absolute romp, but this track better exemplifies the sound and direction of the record. It's that difficult bridge between nostalgia and futuristic, and it touches on the disco-funk of the 80s, the electronic of the early 2000s, and the huge EDM beats of the 2010s. Superfresh indeed.
The Chainsmokers - "Bloodstream"
The Chainsmokers made fools of the critics who were lining up to devastate Memories... Do Not Open before they'd even heard the full project. Backpedalling, Pitchfork assigned it a 4.2/10, and other publications crossed out the "0" and wrote "3-4" instead. "Bloodstream" might just be why. It's not a fist in the air, let's party until 8am and then get back on our steroid cycle anthem. It's downtrodden, self-aware, and actually quite sad. The "drop" is nothing like you'd expect. It's a warm set of chords set perfectly to the low-bpm percussion.
Actress - "UNTITLED 7"
Yet again, Actress delivered a record of pure face-melt. The huge build up to "UNTITLED 7" may bore some, so skip forward to the 3 minute mark and turn your volume up indiscriminantly loud, because once the groove of this track drops in, punctuated by aggressive kick drum stabs, it's pure euphoria.
Gorillaz - "Charger" Feat. Grace Jones
Mate... Why in the world did Damon Albarn not realize we love DAMON ALBARN!!! Not his Rolodex. And "Charger" is the reason why. The production is unceasing and uninviting, Grace Jones is merely on standby for the odd ad-lib, but somehow Damon's delivery and smokey vocals elevate this track to an absolute romper stomper. Listen to this song and stop yourself just going "a char char charger" over and over and over in inappropriate situations. Is he doing the cha-cha? Is he talking about a Dodge? Who the hell knows. The lyrics are so ambiguous. But he slays this track. Please, Damon, we want you.
Ether came and went so quickly. It snuck onto the Billboard 200 at number 179, which is criminal really, because it's a decent project. "Tweakin" is one of the highlights, with Young Dro dropping some passable bars before B.o.B spends a verse explaining exactly why his album tanked at number 179 on the charts. There are subliminal references to his most famous hit and the trajectory his career has taken since that moment, and while they sound bitter and defensive, it's at least refreshing to know he doesn't harbour any delusions of grandeur when it comes to his popularity.
2 Chainz - "Bailan" Feat. Pharrell
This track was unlikely to fail. There are few artists that Pharrell doesn't have chemistry with, but his connection to Tity is well rehearsed. It's not always easy to find the flow on a Pharrell beat either. Only the best can turn these weird time signatures into something special (think Jay-Z on "Blue Magic"), and Chainz manages to keep up with the beat and still sound his usual laid-back self, dropping quotable upon quotable.
Vitalic - "Levitation"
Vitalic never lost that ability to make a true dancefloor anthem. It sounds like the late-90s, but when those rubbery synths kick in, and it settles back into its groove, it's just at home in 2017, a floor-filler at a 2am German rave. There is a sense of fun too, a recurring theme on the record.
Leatherette - "Si Fly"
I can't place my finger on it, but there is an organic element to this song, almost as if it were recorded outside during an Australian summer, with insects providing background static. It sounds like the lovechild of "Kiora" by Bonobo and "The Rip" by Portishead, which is high praise. When the beat drops out and the sonic sand is washed away, you're in the middle of one of the best bridges of 2017.
Tennis - "Fields of Blue"
Yours Conditionally is already a lovely upbeat record, but "Fields of Blue" might just be the sunniest instrumental Tennis have ever released. A frank admission of love (or addiction, depending on your perspective), it's endearing and warm. Despite the subject matter, there isn't a hint of desperation or compulsion, just a song about being in love.
This record dropped December 2016, and it's an incredible body of work, as T.I. uses his unique technical ability to talk about the sickening systematic racism black people inexplicably face in modern America. The stand out is "Black Man", signalling the beginning of a run of features that Quavo has absolutely bodied. The true star of this track is Meek Mill though. "Black man, running from the law like Pac-Man" is evocative and desperate. "Got smoked by a cop on the dash cam". It's Meek's best verse since his last record, and when T.I. comes through with the final verse as the cleanup hitter the entire song somehow lifts to an even higher level. It's protest music, but it's catchy and memorable, indicative of the album, which is wildly underrated.
Wiley remains the greated Grime technician. This song is angry, aggressive, and dexterous. Wiley's flow is like a battering ram, and his collaborators struggle to find a new pocket; once you hear Wiley it's almost impossible to imagine anyone finding a decent alternate flow.
Throwing Snow - "Cantor's Dust, Pt. 2"
If you prefer your face to be fully melted off your skull when listening to music, this will be relevant. While Embers as a whole is a bit disappointing, there are still tracks like this, huge, industrial numbers that sound heavy and powerful. A good pair of headphones are needed to do this proper justice.
Future Islands - "Through The Roses"
While the song may be somewhat informed by the US Presidential Election, it's yet another example of Samuel T. Herring's incredible emotional compass and his depth of feeling. Just as tracks like "Tin Man" and "Seasons" are heart-wrenching, "Through The Roses" grabs you by the soul and pulls you into the desperate circumstance where you rely on another human being for your survival. It's even starker when you're sitting at your computer at 10am on a Monday morning well aware you don't have a "together", there is only a "you", and you're doing all the heavy lifting by yourself.
Problem - "Don't Want No Smoke" Feat. Taxstone
Problem remains criminally underrated in the game. He has such respect from industry vets, yet he never popped off. This track is one of his absolute best. His autobiographical verses are whispered in deference to the incredible Enya sample, and they hit hard, painting the picture of a man cornered and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. The Taxstone feature at the end is dope, and quite eery since Tax is now locked up and facing serious time.
Future - "Sorry"
Coaxing emotion out of Future is incredibly difficult. He's rapped over any number of sombre, downtempo beats and is yet to really show remorse for his lifestyle. Whatever the sample is on "Sorry", it's pitched him into melancholy, and amongst the self-aware bars about addiction and violence, there is a chorus full of regret, and a few lines at the end of verse 3 that point to this track being about high-profile ex Ciara. Future sounds genuinely sad, and it's a massive comedown and the centrepiece for his record.
Depeche Mode - "Cover Me - Alt Out"
This really should have been in the original tracklisting. It's an anxious and reserved instrumental to match the downbeat nature of the record. The vocals have disappeared, but the song never lags throughout all 4 and a half minutes. It's not the most bombastic track on the album, but it might be the most indicative of the mood.
Kodak Black - "Candy Paint" Feat. Bun B
This is the track that explained the sound and influence Kodak draws from. His popular tracks "Tunnel Vision", "Too Many Years" and "Patty Cake" are insanely catchy, but where is he from? What sound is he pushing towards? By placing Bun B on the end of this track, a voice we're so used to hearing alongside the legendary Pimp C, Kodak's flow makes a whole lot more sense. His extreme drawl that sits right behind the beat sounds fantastic up against the more rapid-fire Bun, and while Pimp C was an accomplished wordsmith, that Kodak can even draw a comparison to that kind of flow is high enough praise for one so young.
Clark - "Slap Drones"
Clark expertly toed the line between complete anarchy and melodic order on "Slap Drones". It's his gift, combining Autechre with Boards of Canada, to create something that could almost be played at a rave, if not for the horrid sense of foreboding that renders rave-type substances useless.
Snoop Dogg - "Swivel" Feat. Stressmatic
At first I genuinely thought this record might have no filler, but just like COOLAID and Bush before it, replay value is hard to find. "Swivel" is about as West Coast as you can possibly get in 2017. Artists like DJ Quik, Droop-E and Rick Rock are dropping beats exactly like this, the kind of song that vibrates your scraper so much you send sparks. Snoop doesn't even need to turn up on this, the chorus is catchy and infectious. He finds a nice little pocket and sets up camp, throwing some dated bars at us that recall Doggystyle in the best way possible.
The entire project is great, but the first track sets the mood in spectacular fashion. Did you know DJ Quik could rap this well? He doesn't even sound West Coast, he sounds universal. Problem makes his second appearance on this list, his most diverse performance in recent memory. He pitches his voice up a notch, spits some reverse bars, and raps. And raps. And raps. 44 bars of raps. Great track.
SZA - "Doves In The Wind" Feat. Kendrick Lamar
I really do enjoy it when Kendrick works within a concept, similar to "Love Game" or "YOLO". And SZA sounds so damn smooth on this track, like lyrical velvet slowly enveloping every aspect of this sparse beat. Listen to Kendrick's verse in a decent set of speakers, he chases his voice back and forth between left and right, it's a really interesting mix technique. And the song is about as accurate as one can get. Only Kendrick could step back from the hyper-masculine posturing of mainstream hip-hop in 2017 and deliver a verse like this. Can you imagine Big Sean rapping this? Exactly.
Alt-J - "Deadcrush"
I've seen a lot of cricitism for this record, and it looks like Alt-J went a touch too experimental, although I think it's absolutely divine. "Deadcrush" will interest you if An Awesome Wave is your favourite record of theirs, it's propelled by that same kind of warm dance beat and an inventive bass section that made that album a future classic. I'd urge you to check the rest of the album out if you haven't, it's inventive and sounds like nothing before it.
There is just something about vocal samples from pre-1960s movies. While Biosphere try to create a foreboding and ominous atmosphere with this song, they never quite manage it, and instead your mind eye grabs at a black and white vista, different to a forest, closer to an expansive desert. This EP is less organic and atmospheric than their usual work, and hopefully, the samples on this track are indicative of the direction they're going to pursue.
Joey Bada$$ - "RING THE ALARM" Feat. Nyck Caution, Kirk Knight, Meechy Darko
Joey can spit, he is one of the true lyricists who has built up a big enough mainstream fan base to be disappointed when his record only sells 51k first week. Put him up against Nyck Caution and his lyrical skill is starkly apparent. It still sounds dusty, and the entire album is actually quite dull, but the beauty of streaming is we can cherry-pick the best tracks for our own playlists, and this is the standout.
Talib Kweli & Styles P - "In The Field"
This has to be one of the songs of the year. SP hasn't spat such venom since the late 90s, and that includes the latest LOX project. His increasingly nasal delivery drips with poison, rapping about the horrid injustices and violence faced by black people in modern America. Lyrically, it's in his top 5 verses. "The jail's the plantation they spread it across the land" "I ain't go to Harvard or Yale, I went to jail / But hold a horse that's pale and the slave ship sails / It ain't on water but I know who's steerin' it / The reptilians hid the truth about the pyramids". Incredible. And naturally, Talib Kweli matches that performance, being the most consistent underground rapper in the game. I played this song for my parents yesterday, because I believe everyone trying to understand injustice and racism towards black people in America should hear it. It has helped increase my knowledge, and everyone I speak to in Australia who is passionate about understanding, I've sent them this song.
While the mainstream goes crazy for "emcees" dropping bars over woodwind, Your Old Droog drops by with Heems to slaughter all-comers in the woodwind category with an incredible lyrical track, "Bangladesh". Heems concocts the best 4-bar stretch, rapping: "Now I'm in Tahiti with a queen like Nefertiti (she fly) / You can't see me 'cause my face between her titties (that's why) / Bank off the city, hit the bank, cop a CD (I'm high) / Offshore accounts in Dubai with habibi (my guy)". That's indicative of the quality of this song, a must for your playlist if you appreciate lyrical content.
Thundercat - "Tokyo"
One of the tracks of the year, hidden away on the incredible jazz/funk of Thundercat's album Drunk. It's a homage to the sights and sounds of Tokyo, set to a futuristic 90s theme reminiscent of legendary game Gran Turismo. The lyrics are playful and fun, recalling the humour that Lonely Island found on their track "Japan", and it's way too short. Stab your repeat button because this is just a great lark to get you through a tough, dark period.
Young Thug - "Get High" Feat. Snoop Dogg and Lil Durk
This album will be forgotten in 2 weeks, which is a tragedy, because it's pushing the genre forward. Nonetheless, giving Snoop free reign over a really sparse beat is rarely an error. And Lil Durk drops by to remind us just how inventive Young Thug truly is. Durk sounds like every other rapper using auto-tune at the moment, aside from Future. It could be Quavo or Travis Scott delivering this verse. But Thugger is a one of one, there is no mistaking the unique and exciting cadences he concocts.
Forest Swords - "Raw Language"
Another song that feels like it's been stacked together using discordant sounds. The fanfare at the beginning could be Just Blaze during his mid-90s ringtone era. The vocals give it an epic feel, and like a well made retaining wall, the building blocks are obvious but look brilliant when seen in the final product.
Young Chris - "Life of the Party" feat. Lil Wayne
Young Chris always lifts his performance to match his collaborator, and "Life of the Party" is the standout track from his Network 4 mixtape. Wayne's verse is tight but derivative, and it's Young Chris who snaps harder, delivering something as aloof and dismissive as we have come to expect from Lil Wayne in mixtape mode. It's not a party starter, the beat is too cagey for that, but it's typical of mid-2000's Philly.
Raekwon - "My Corner"
Honestly, what did you expect when The Chef and Lil Wayne dropped bars? Rae's bars are incredible, aggressive and opulent. "Anthrax pussy, the minks, whiskey king" turns into "tryna hang with wolves, yo, you still plain pussy". Wayne shows up in rare form, sounding almost bored as he drops into a silky smooth flow that sits marginally behind the beat. The production isn't anything special, but the two veterans turn the track into something memorable.
Andy Stott - "New Romantic"
I was a little disappointed with this record, but "New Romantic" is a stark standout. The industrial-strength beat is paired to early-2000s computer-based synth stabs that lend an endearing and familiar quality. It sounds cobbled together, but in the best possible way.
Kasabian - "The Party Never Ends"
So we were all sitting at our computers desperate for vintage Kasabian, and what we got was another example of the watering down of Brit-rock that has inexplicably fallen upon us over the past decade. The Arctic Monkeys may have staved it off for one album, as did Franz Ferdinand, but best believe groups like Kasabian, Maximo Park, The Rifles and God forbid The Kaiser Chiefs are releasing more and more generic records as they age. So it's with delight that "The Party Never Ends" appears on this album, the title indicative of the carefree nature of those halcyon early days. The synth refrain is reminiscent of "Ovary Stripe" or that epic bassline in "Processed Beats". They have it in them... Please let's see it more!
The standout track on this album is the final track "These Words Are Everything", but that song is a single with a video and everything. Instead, peruse this track, because it might transform your opinion on Jonwayne. This track was offered for streaming prior to the album dropping, and it built huge hype because Jonwayne is spitting, and spitting hard. The opening skit is likely the way his conscious mind words when out in public, given the content on the rest of the album. He seems quite shy and withdrawn, taken to long bouts of deep introspection. When confronted by an unruly fan in a restaurant, rather than brush him off, he just disses the guy into submission, sounding more like Kendrick Lamar than traditional Jonwayne. This guy can rap, and now view the rest of his output through your newly tinted glasses. He's even more multi-dimensional than you thought!
Big Sean - "No Favors"
Despite this not being a single, it still charted at number 22, likely thanks to the elusive star power of Detroit's Eminem. On first listen Sean floats, finding a rhythm for his chopped flow and not bothering to compete with Eminem on a lyrical miracle level, and it sounds like Eminem is the one ruining this song. Em just pillages his favourite topic of violence, throwing lyrical barbs at whoever he sees on his newsfeed that day. His flow is choppy and unappealing. But the more you listen, the more you realise Sean never stood a chance. Eminem packs dense multi-syllabic rhymes into each set of bars, with at least 3 meanings for each punchline. It's definitely not his best work, but it's a very very good verse, it just takes some time to appreciate.