Is music an escape from the world or the key to it? Over and over, when we began considering the best music of the first half of 2017, politics seemed to intrude, whether in moments that echoed headlines or ones that spoke individual truths too often drowned out by that other, noisier machine. Maybe that’s the case every time the calendar turns over. Probably not.
Rather than attempt to come to a consensus about the best albums or songs from the first six months of the year, we opted to select music that was meaningful to us as individuals, music that washed away all the background noise, songs and albums and performances that made sense to us, whether or not they made sense of the world. Moments like that are blessings, not to be taken for granted. Here are nearly four dozen blessings selected by NPR Music staff and our partners from around the public radio system. Let’s count them.
Charly Bliss, Guppy
Like many people I know, this year’s deluge of real world news has conjured an ever-present anxiety simmering just below the skin. So when I need a musical reprieve and a head-clearing pick-me-up, few artists are as satisfying as Charly Bliss. A debut wiith sunny melodies and blistering guitar riffs would make Weezer proud, Guppy is a taut, ten-song thrill-ride. But there’s more to its charm than meets the eye: Embedded in Spencer Fox’s powerful hooks and Eva Hendricks’ bubbly voice is a wounded vulnerability and blunt honesty that imbues these songs with heartfelt meaning. That’s especially true of the throttling break-up anthem, “Glitter,” in which Hendricks unfurls rapid-fire one-liners that take aim at anyone who’s mistreated her while owning up to her self-absorbed behavior. “Am I the best? Or just the first person to say yes?” she sings — one of the year’s best knife-twisting kiss-offs — equal parts wide-eyed, adolescent wonder, introspective regret and pissed-off sneer. It’s this sweet and sour combo that makes Guppy one of those immediately mood-altering albums that’s guaranteed to enliven even your most bummer-filled days. —Mike Katzif
Wayne Shorter at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center
Wayne Shorter, the illustrious saxophonist and composer, has led his current quartet for the better part of two decades. I’ve seen the group — a magically cohesive unit with Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums — eight or nine times over the years, and I’ve never witnessed a more transcendent or turbocharged performance than this one. Circumstances may have played a role in that remarkable outcome. Shorter had returned at long last to Newark, his old stomping grounds, for a four-day festival in his honor via NJPAC’s TD Jazz Series; the quartet played the second half of a concert that began with Shorter in improvised duologue with the keyboardist Herbie Hancock. There was also the thrill of a new challenge: Shorter had composed a dynamic, suitelike piece, “Scout,” which the band was performing in public for the first time. But the most important factor was simply the hyper-alert, insatiably curious instinct of the man himself, who at 83 is not only an undiminished force on his horn but seemingly still intent on pushing against every conceivable boundary. —Nate Chinen, WBGO
Perfume Genius at Exit/In
The mythical figure of the rock star was sacrificed on the altar of Generation X’s pessimism long ago. It’s been twenty-six years since Kurt Cobain ignited the pyre with Nevermind, nearly fifteen since Elliott Smith’s death choked its last ash. Yet this year, another Pacific Northwesterner threw a match. No Shape, the fourth album by Mike Hadreas as Perfume Genius, explodes the shame-haunted confines of his previous work, reasserting the power of audacious desire and transformative expressiveness. It’s a personal triumph and a challenge to both the misogyny and homophobia that rock performance has often masked, as well as the sexually neutered solution that reformists like Nirvana offered.
Hadreas walks through the flame and emerges incombustible, the Khaleesi the rock world needs, and he’s been proving it on tour all year. In May, at Nashville’s Exit/In, Hadreas wore a corseted gown with Bowie pinstripes and a Castro clone’s muscle tank. As the four-piece band built a roar, he contorted his limbs in rhythm with the music’s crackle. The set peaked again and again. Then, at the encore, Hadreas sat alone at his keyboard to sing “Alan,” his love song to longtime companion and collaborator Alan Wyffels. “Though I’d hide, maybe leave something secret behind,” he murmured, dwelling on the diminished expectations of his anti-rock star past. But then hee put his doubts to rest, and let his falsetto loose to fill the room.”I’m here, how weird!” he sang. The affirmation went out to both Wyffels and the rapt audience before him. Wyffels emerged and sat next to Hadreas to play an older song, “Learning”; the two men chased each other’s fingers on the keyboard, Hadreas bottoming Wyffels’s arpeggiated runs. It was a perfect moment: an expression of love and security that could take the men offering it to each other somewhere new every night. It was freedom, lighting a way forward in the dark. —Ann Powers
“This Land Is Your Land” at The Folk Alliance International Conference
My favorite musical experience this year hasn’t necessarily been a favorite song or album. Instead, it’s a “moment” from the 2017 Folk Alliance International Conference, held in Kansas City in February. The FAI organization brings together folk and roots musicians from around the world for the annual conference, and this year’s theme was “Forbidden Folk: Celebrating Activism In Art.” M.C. Hansen, from the Danish band The Sentimentals, invited a number of artists who were in town for the conference over to the house where we were staying to record Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” It was very impromptu, but Hansen rounded up about 22 artists representing various countries to sing verses of the folk anthem in four different languages. It felt very powerful and positive, and like something we all really needed to hear at the time. —Linda Fahey, Folk Alley
The Stereo Remix of Sgt. Pepper’s
It’s weird to say this, but the definite version of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 2017, not 1967. And I’m saying this as someone who rarely listens to box set reissues/remixes, as someone who values original intent. And oddly that’s exactly why I love the newly mixed stereo version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In 1967, when George Martin and The Beatles mixed Sgt. Pepper’s, they were caught in a mono world that, unbeknownst to them, was about to become obsolete. And so they spent weeks mixing the mono version, the stereo mix was almost an afterthought; yet that’s the version the world listens to. I’m one of those geeks that has amassed multiple versions of the mono Sgt. Pepper’s from various pressings around the globe. It’s brilliant. And despite my love for those recordings, hearing Giles Martin’s 21st century mixes based on his father’s careful notes, using original recorded tracks before they had to be bounced to accommodate the 4 track tape machines of the day, I feel that much closer to the four creative souls who made the most important record in my life. The world isn’t going back to mono. And now having heard these new mixes, I’m never going back to the old stereo version. —Bob Boilen
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
What makes this work so prodigious? Is it the all-star production? Lamar’s lyricism? (Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide.) Certainly, ancestry plays a role (I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA) along with narratives of social phenomena like political cynicism (I got so many theories and suspicions.) One thing is certain: The album’s significance will surely be epic. (Years in the making and don’t y’all mistake it.) With ‘Stormy’ themes like solitude (Feel like only me and the music, though) and ambition (My resume is real enough for two millenniums), Lamar also reveals his vulnerability (I understand I ain’t perfect). Religious references abound (Nobody pray for me). There’s a touch of romance (Love me, I wanna be with you). One of my favorite lines from “XXX.” (America, God bless you if it’s good to you) is a sharp political statement. Lamar’s raps about fear (The shock value of my success put bolts in me), gratitude (Oh my! My heart is rich, my heart is famous) and good old-fashioned storytelling (they say 5-0 came circlin’ parking lots) put this album among 2017’s masterworks. —Suraya Mohamed
Bargou 08, Targ
Sometimes, it can seem like there are no more surprises left in the world — no ground left unsurveyed, no sonic discoveries yet to be had. And yet, along comes the band Bargou 08, with one of the most exhilarating and startling albums of the year. Frontman Nidhal Yahyaoui spent more than a decade collecting the folk music he heard growing up in Tunisia’s Bargou Valley — a poor, landlocked and isolated area in northern Tunisia. (The name of the album, Targ, refers to the dialect spoken in the area around Yahyaoui’s home – it’s a combination of Arabic and Amazigh, or Berber.) Propelled in part by the energy of the Tunisian revolution in 2011, Yahyaoui and his longtime friend and collaborator, a producer and keyboardist named Sofyan Ben Youssef, transformed those old folk songs into an electronic, floor-pounding paradise. The result is an intoxicating blend of modern beats, synths, drums, the throaty end-blown gasba flute, a hearty zokra (cousin to the oboe), the oud-like wtar and Yahyaoui’s impassioned vocals. —Anastasia Tsioulcas
Big Thief, “Mary”
When I first listened to “Mary,” I was folding my laundry on a Sunday. Capacity, the latest from Big Thief, has more than its fair share of stunning moments, but when “Mary” came on, I was transported. The song has a way of hallowing any moment in its even tenderness — of ennobling even the tedious matching of socks. It’s a love song to the world and an ode of gratitude to a dear friend. It sounds like a hymn and a lullaby. “First it sounds and then it means,” Adrianne Lenker, the song’s writer and singer, told me later in an interview. To me, it sounded like my favorite song of the year thus far. —Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey
Milck’s “Quiet” Flash Mob at the Women’s March
The start of 2017 was noisy. It was often hard to hear anything with clarity above the confusing, chaotic and divisive din of news and opinions. This a capella performance by a handful of young women in a crowd of millions felt like the only sound that could cut through that noise. The story goes that L.A.’s Connie Lim, aka Milck, spent years trying to weave her wounds from domestic violence and anorexia into a song that felt true to her experience on “Quiet”. Lim spent another year shopping around for the right label to execute its perfect release. But in the wake of the 2016 election, Lim threw all planning out the window. She found a group of singers who would be in D.C. on January 21, sent them individual vocal parts over the Internet and met them for one rehearsal before they stood together in pink pussy hats to perform “Quiet” in cascading harmony at the Women’s March on Washington. The viral video that resulted, the fact that this song became an unofficial anthem for the March and any subsequent attention Milck has received are all bi-products of the purest reason music is made and shared — because an artist has something vital to say, and literally can’t keep quiet. The sonic imprint they made on my heart, and I think on a lot of hearts around the country, still pulses well into 2017. —Talia Schlanger, World Cafe
Harry Styles, Harry Styles
I never intended to like this record. I don’t say that to assert my hipster bona fides; I rocked out in earnest to “What Makes You Beautiful” for a good semester and was immediately on board with “PILLOWTALK” when Styles’ former bandmate Zayn Malik struck out on his own last year. But that was just the problem: Zayn was supposed to be the Timberlake to 1D’s *NSYNC, and I wasn’t ready to entertain a challenge to the throne. Luckily, Styles’ solo debut makes no pass at moody pop-R&B, instead laying bare his classic-rock influences. Harry Styles is full of shining moments: Styles soaring over the glorious “Sign of the Times” coda, the clever poignancy of his best lyrics (“Even my phone misses your call”), the winking, self-aware la-la-la-la’s in “Woman.” Even the album’s rollout was delightful: At a time when surprise drops are pop’s new normal, Styles’ more traditional campaign included an amiably ridiculous turn as Mick Jagger on SNL and singing “Landslide” with Stevie Nicks. The trope of the teen pop star hoping to reinvent as Serious Artist is well known; Harry Styles strives for artistry without taking itself too seriously. —Rachel Horn
Frank Ocean, “Chanel”
In an interview months after the release of Blonde, the album the world thought it would die waiting for, Frank Ocean declared himself free from traditional music strictures: “Because I’m not in a record deal, I don’t have to operate in an album format. I can operate in half-a-song format.” Though not half-a-song, “Chanel,” which first emerged on Ocean’s Apple Music radio show in March, is his first foray into this territory of possibility.
Where Blonde often meandered through hazy space, “Chanel” is propulsive, swaggering. “Can’t you see I am the big man? God level, I am the I am,” he speak-raps. For me, the charisma of “Chanel” comes from the twists of Ocean’s delivery, the rise and fall and rise of his emotive voice throughout the song. When the tenderness that colors “It’s really you on my mind” gives way to the hoarse, red-beacon urgency of a verse about cars, diamonds, cosigns and stealth — it’s in those precise moments when Ocean’s assertion that he “sees both sides like Chanel” and his confident grasp of doubleness are made manifest. —Karen Gwee
Beth Ditto, Fake Sugar
Beth Ditto doesn’t reinvent pop — she reminds us why its basic formula is so effective. Her new album, “Fake Sugar,” shaved about a minute off my running time. I eventually gave up choosing tracks to add to my playlist and just put the whole album on repeat. If the music feels recognizable, the video for the first single, “Fire,” reminds us why Ditto is such a radical pop star. She is an unapologetically queer, fat, southern fashionista. And it doesn’t hurt that, like so many beloved divas before her, a single note out of her mouth can blow the roof off a building. —Ari Shapiro
Du Yun wins the Pulitzer
I let out a fist-pumping “Yes!” at my desk on April 10 when I heard Du Yun’s name announced as the Pulitzer winner in music for her chamber opera Angel’s Bone. The win not only rewards Du Yun’s, audacious, genre-crossing score, but also supports the evidence that smaller-scaled opera is meaningful and thriving. Moments later, I realized that the two finalists — Ashley Fure and Kate Soper — were also women. Later still, I thought perhaps the Pulitzer jury was somehow listening when composer Andrew Norman spoke to NPR Music last November about diversity in the classical music world. “The canon is overwhelmingly white and male,” he said. “But we can use new music to fix that.”
The Pulitzer results are a step in the right direction in a musical world dominated by men. A world where male musicians, such as conductor Yuri Temirkanov, openly declare women unfit to conduct orchestras and where a survey of 85 American orchestras in the 2016-17 season showed that female composers made up only 1.3 percent of the music performed. We’ve got a long way to go, but Du Yun’s win made me hopeful. —Tom Huizenga
Laura Marling, Semper Femina
This past year brought on a new wave of feminism, and with it, the most strikingly feminine album I have heard. At 27 years of age, U.K. singer-songwriter Laura Marling has crafted a collection of intimate, emotionally rich songs that seek to explore the female gaze turned on itself. Semper Femina — Latin for “always woman” – is Marling’s conscious edit of a cautionary phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid: Varium et mutabile semper femina. (“Woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.”) In fact, it is precisely the mutability and complexity of women, in our relationships to each other and to the world around us, that Marling celebrates within these nine vignettes. From the darkly sensual album opener, “Soothing,” which banishes with love an unwelcome lover, to the coda, “Nothing Not Nearly,” which concludes “nothing matters more than love,” she gets to the heart of the beautifully multifaceted nature of women — and, indeed, of Marling herself. Personally, I am deeply grateful to her for the gift of this panoramic view of ourselves: We need soothing. We can take away your pain. We need beauty. We cry sometimes. We sing. We put up a fight. We need to be free. We love you. We are the muse, but also the artist. We were wild once, and must remember. Semper Femina. —Carmel Holt, WFUV
Arrington de Dionyso live at Comet Ping Pong
The show could not be advertised, merely passed by worth of mouth and personal text messages. Just four days after the Pizzagate gunman pled guilty to charges, Arrington De Dionyso returned to Comet Ping Pong, the D.C. pizza joint that had been embroiled in malicious and baseless Internet rumors in which artist himself had also been circuitously implicated. Where his confrontational but stunning visual art once hung, De Dionyso and local improvisers (two drummers and an upright bassist) came to cleanse the space with fervid purpose. The room was nervous, but full and open. With an army of saxophones (both traditional and invented from PVC pipes), De Dionyso inhaled the ghost of Albert Ayler and spewed cathartic fire for over an hour straight, a cyclonic love cry to truth and sonic protest. —Lars Gotrich
Valerie June, “If And”
One of the most important things an artist can do in a time of violent desperation and brazen inequality like the one we’re living in now is to make music that jars, disrupts and intervenes. But throughout the first half of this year, I’ve also found myself craving a salve, and finding it in the willful steadiness of Valerie June’s mystically down-to-earth opus The Order of Time, her song “If And” especially. In serene waltz-time, she reminds us of the consequences of neglecting our most intimate relationships. “One thing for sho’, one thing that’s fate / If and you don’t show them you love them, it will be too late,” she nudges in her balmy, nasal twang, her melody turning bluesy curls around a droning chord. June doesn’t just sing of trustworthiness — she models it vocally, adding syllables for fluidity’s sake and smoothing her phrasing of particular lines into cursive triplets. It feels equally nurturing and insistent. —Jewly Hight
This electronic reimagining of the sacred and the secular was like discovering a door into another dimension, a world that is familiar but sounds completely new. Band leader Otura Mun is an African American drummer/DJ from the Midwest who, through a crazy airline mix up, ended up in Puerto Rico instead of Jamaica. He found a musical and spiritual home in the sacred beats and chants of Afro Cuban santeria music. He and his visionary bandmates attached electronic triggers to traditional percussion instruments and fed their vocals through voice manipulators to create an amazing album that reveals something new with each listen. I have been a fan and student of Afro Cuban music for over 40 years and thought I heard every iteration of the music until I heard this. —Felix Contreras
You can’t miss him on the cover of XXL‘s most recent Freshman Issue: He’s the rapper wearing the most tortured expression. XXXTentacion has been knocked out cold during a concert, performed insane stage dives, even sucker-punched one of his own fans in alleged self-defense. His outlaw record and the hype surrounding his summer tour — which he recently cut short after learning his cousin had been shot — almost overshadows the fact that he’s behind some of the most unexpected, experimental hip-hop released this year. His hardcore Billboard charter “Look At Me!” is the biggest song to emerge from a scene of lo-fi, high-energy young rappers from South Florida who are stacking up SoundCloud plays by the millions. But as his Revenge EP, released in May, reveals, his sound is boundless, shifting effortlessly from explicit emo-trap ballad (“I don’t wanna do this anymore”) to Diplo-produced softcore (“Looking for a Star”) to grunge grinder (“Valentine”) back to punk confessional (“Slipknot”). And when he raps, “Due to my history / I don’t know what’s next for me,” on the latter, it sounds less like typical hip-hop posturing than ill-fated premonition. —Rodney Carmichael
Sylvan Esso, What Now
Sylvan Esso’s spangly electro-pop songs can throb joyfully, even ecstatically. But on What Now, even the brashest bashers — “The Glow,” “Kick Jump Twist,” et al — are deepened by the gently reflective ballads that surround them. As producer Nick Sanborn gives weight to the soft static in “Slack Jaw,” for example, Amelia Meath sings of the way being in love can produce a strangely humbling sense of awe: “I got all the parts I’ve wished for / I’ve got everything I need / Sometimes I’m above water / But mostly I’m at sea.”
As its title suggests, What Now fixates heavily on aftermaths, whether it documents music-industry pressures in the grabby “Radio” or, in “Die Young,” faces down a logistical complication Meath hadn’t anticipated: “I was gonna die young / Now I gotta wait for you.” But the album feels most of all like a celebration — of connection, of commitment and acceptance, of movement and sound and the liberation that comes with letting love in. —Stephen Thompson
Phil Elverum live at Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Phil Elverum’s latest album as Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked At Me, deals with the quiet aftermath of his wife Geneviève’s death from cancer. It’s the year’s heaviest album without question, filled with lucid observations about grief, loss and becoming a widowed parent, and all the more devastating for Elverum’s plainspoken delivery. Friends who are obsessive fans have told me that they can’t listen to it, or listened once and put it away. So when Mount Eerie was booked to play at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery this April, you can only imagine that the 39-year-old songwriter was in on the incredibly bleak joke.There was an air of trepidation in the Masonic Lodge prior to the show, with fans discretely folding toilet tissue into their pockets in the bathrooms. But although it was by no means uplifting, our complicity in being willing to sit through it, and the sheer, unerring horror of Elverum’s lyrics, gave the evening an air of borderline comedic camaraderie.
Elverum performed alone with an acoustic guitar. He told us we could expect 13 songs and no encore. A dead Christmas tree stood to his left. “If you’re wondering what this is here for, it’s so you have something to look at instead of me,” he informed us. On the song “Swims,” he sang about how, two months after Geneviève died, “our counselor died,” which elicited choked laughter at the awful inappropriateness of it all. He paused the song: “It’s true!” I managed to hold it together until the penultimate song, “Crow,” Elverum’s address to his infant daughter: “Sweet kid, what is this world we’re giving you? Smoldering and fascist with no mother.” His composure was admirable and horrifying. After the gig, I was surprised to see a line of people queuing to meet Elverum, who was cheerfully shaking hands. But it reminded me that although we use the word “funereal” to convey unutterable darkness, it’s the people at those sad events who light up the possibility of carrying on. —Laura Snapes
This spring, Leslie Feist returned after a six-year hiatus with the best album she’s ever made. Pleasure, her fifth full-length, is spare, raw and gritty. It’s also intensely intimate, particularly in the spacious way it was recorded, with a sound that feels like you’re sitting in her bedroom as she unspools her grief and emotional upheaval. The album lacks the infectious, carefree joy of songs like “1234” or “Mushaboom,” but is still built around inspired melodies and surprising turns — like the group chorus that suddenly kicks in halfway through “A Man Is Not His Song,” or Jarvis Cocker’s dramatic reading toward the end of “Century.” Every element, from Feist’s vocal performances to the brilliant production, is utterly transfixing. —Robin Hilton
The video for Migos’ “T-Shirt”
It’s hot out. Take a moment to transport yourself to a winter wonderland: a trap-cabin in the snow. This music video is shot like a scene from The Revenant, with Quavo, Offset and Takeoff decked out in bearskin, head to claw, bopping around in the taiga. It’s at once goofy and gorgeous and entrancing. And if the visuals are hypnotizing, the rapping is an incantation. Pulsating lyrics (“Neck water faucet / Mockingbirds mocking”) and surging instrumentals make you forget that there’s no real reason to be doing what we’re doing: riding snowmobiles, drinking hot chocolate, shooting wooden arrows into the sky. You want to live with them on that mountain anyway. —Leah Donella
Timber Timbre, “Moment”
“Timing’s off, and everything’s lost, and I know it. Elixirs wear off and each dose, the cost of a memory,” Taylor Kirk sings at the opening of “Moment,” a sad, hopeful song with the contours of a wilted flytrap. I really did try to find, to celebrate the half-year mark, something more upbeat than Timber Timbre’s dour, restrained, frustrated, lush lament of love that’s seen as deeply undeserved, inevitably lost and retroactively repurposed as a spiritual divining rod. Maybe, considering that I’d found a nice, sustainable bit of my own love recently, the fear of its loss and the odd guilt conjoined to its simple existence resonated more deeply into my tectonics than sad songs usually do (and they always do). “The privilege of you… desire deserving of something more true.” Does everyone, once they have it, fear they have not have earned it? Or is that just for us imposters? Are we all entitled to it? Is the gravity and degree of that love meant to be symbolic of the person who holds it, a totem to their worth? Considering all this… maybe I’ll just keep my head down and try to stay out of trouble. —Andrew Flanagan
Kelli Schaefer live at opbmusic
Kelli Schaefer is a local musician, so some of opbmusic’s staff had already seen her unveil songs from her album No Identity during a gig several months prior to this session. We thought we knew what to expect — but we weren’t prepared for this. Schaefer, who’s known as a talented guitarist, surprisingly opted to front her band without an instrument. Seemingly freed from that burden, she held the stage with a subtle anxiety that added urgency and importance to virtually every word she sang. The centerpiece of the performance was this powerful version of “Underground.” Driven by a simple but infectious bass line, the song gives Schaefer room to sing — and can she ever sing. Through chopped-up verses and soaring choruses, she turned in one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen in years. —Jerad Walker, opbmusic
Joanna Sternberg, “Don’t You Ever”
The prodigiously gifted Joanna Sternberg is one of the finest young bassists in New York, playing everything from jazz to klezmer with a multitude of artists. But she’s an equally powerful singer/songwriter, who makes a virtue of simplicity paired with subtle subversion for maximum emotional impact. “Don’t You Ever?” is a perfect example. In a voice as appealingly artless as Sara Carter of The Carter Family, Sternberg brilliantly blurs the line between the earnest and the ambiguous over some workmanlike acoustic strumming in this lo-fi home recording.
Is the implied punctuation at the end of the chorus’s final line, “Don’t you dare feel like you are alone,” a period or a question mark? Is this a consolation or a query? And is the admission “I don’t feel right inside my body … never felt that I was a lady, never felt like a man” a statement about gender identity, a more broadly existential dislocation, or something in between? The best answer would seem to be “all of the above,” which is part of what makes the song so effective. And it’s Sternberg’s unvarnished expression of compassion and emotional unrest that gives the tune both its universality and its gut-punch quality. —Jim Allen
The video for The Blaze’s “Territory”
This 5-minute film by French cousins Jonathan and Guillaume Alric — who make electronic music and videos as The Blaze — will make you feel … something. It’s hard to predict exactly what because the video for ” Territory” is moving on several different levels. This wordless story of an Algerian man’s homecoming touches on generational schisms in Muslim families, modern depictions of Islamic communities, complex expressions of masculinity and the mental toll displacement can take on a person’s psyche. Those thought-provoking threads are made all the more poignant by the Alrics’ stunning cinematography. Rarely do we encounter musicians so talented behind the camera. With just a 5-song EP to their name, the Alrics are, both figuratively and literally, artists to watch. —Otis Hart
Oumou Sangare, Mogoya
Oumou Sangaré is one of Mali’s most recognized singers. She grew up in a polygamous family and witnessed first-hand the struggles of her mother, who was abandoned by her father. Her lyrics draw from her personal experience and often tackle subjects such as women’s rights and arranged marriage. But it is her voice that sets her apart — sweet, yet powerful. Sangaré sings in the Mali’s ancient Wassoulou musical tradition, yet her latest album, Mogoya, is an album of today. Layered and infused with electronic beats, drums, electric guitars and back-up vocals, the songs uplift you, enchant you and are guaranteed to make you dance. Sangare is also a businesswoman and a hotel owner, so she only records music when she has something to say, updating her sound on every album, never driven by demand. —Monika Evstatieva
Jlin, Black Origami
During an artist-on-artist conversation in New York in early June, the electronic composer William Basinski asked Jerrilynn Patton, who produces abstract, highly rhythmic tracks under the name JLIN, about bass. Though her music often gets labeled “footwork,” Chicago’s post-house battle-dance scene, Patton said she actually doesn’t enjoy mixing in bass-oriented, nightclub environments, because the sound gets muddy and takes away from the controlled state she prefers. “My style,” added the Gary, Indiana native, “is CPU: clean, precise and unpredictable.” Black Origami, her second album, is full of motion-filled music that fits this description. Its surgical-strike percussion is aimed less at the intoxicated proletariat dancing its pain away on a Saturday night than those who use precise improvisational movement to escape the contemporary world’s psychic gravity. (Patton regularly collaborates with professional choreographers, and her videos, including the incredible new one for “Carbon 7,” embody the notion of improvised movement.) Compositions like “Nyakinyua Rise,” “Holy Child” (made with Basinski) and the title track seem like offspring of Steve Reich’s Ghanaian and gamelan adventures, the long lineage of Chicago’s great drum-machine minimalists and marching-band drumlines, while her personal reinvention of the sampler makes tonal rhythm patterns sound like alien mathematics. Bass is often present, but it’s just a by-product of the larger whole. —Piotr Orlov
The video for Algiers’ “The Underside Of Power”
Few bands feel as vital as Algiers. That was true when frontman Franklin James Fisher and the gang hit the scene in 2012 with their politically-charged, post-punk/gospel pastiche and it’s doubly true in 2017 with the group’s sophomore album, “The Underside of Power.” That vitality isn’t just a product of our current cultural/political climate; it’s because the message and the music are so bound up together that it feels like an M.C. Escher painting.
The weight of the lyrics is reinforced by the cultural and historical significance of the musical forms the musicians draw from. The instrumentation becomes more potent because of the way it serves Algiers’ message. That increases the gravitational field of the lyrics further, which beefs up the music’s virility … so on and so forth. Watch the video for the title track of the new album. Sometimes a music video can perfectly capture the essence of a song, but I’ve never seen a one capture the essence of a band so perfectly. The moment during the breakdown when Fisher literally breaks down? It gets me every single time! —Sean Cannon, WFPK
“Girls” by The 1975 ReMashed in the style of Enema Of The State era Blink-182 by new.wav
If you were in your teens when Blink-182 crossed over at the turn of the millennium, the reality that its classic lineup is probably never coming back feels a little like learning your high school crush is married: It shouldn’t matter, but it does, because the universe where things worked out differently still glows somewhere in your mind. That may not have been what motivated musician Cameron Hurley to arrange and perform a note-perfect Enema of the State pastiche, but he certainly carries it off with studied passion – enough so that even with one voice doing all the parts, it still reads decisively as a Mark Hoppus number with Tom DeLonge singing backup. Taking as its vessel the edge-of-creepy “Girls” by The 1975 (heirs to some of Blink’s impenitent juvenility), Hurley’s “remash” as new.wav gets everything right about the source material: the dropout at the top of the chorus, that second-verse blast beat that momentarily throws you out of the groove, the bridge breakdown whose layered vocals never quite work live but shimmer when they come out of a car stereo. We can’t have our youth or the culture that shaped it back, but we can dream. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen
Juana Molina, “Paraguaya” (and its video)
The universe where Juana Molina’s recently-released single “Paraguaya” exists is a very particular one. In the song’s hypnotic music video, disembodied heads coexist among bones stirring black-tar coffee, jagged cake slices are cut, spooky shadow puppets dance at will and utensils levitate. It ends with a languid shot of Molina sitting down with another woman (her mother, Chunchuna Villafañe) for coffee and cake. The wondrous video invites all kinds of interpretations. But no matter what you think of “Paraguya,” culled from the Argentinian musician’s latest album Halo, this song is undeniably a deliberate confrontation with one’s own history, past and present.
Listening to “Paraguaya,” it’s impossible not to reexamine your own actions. The rhythmic quality of Molina’s music, reverberating with the low lull of a drone, ghostly electronic embellishments and the sparse plucks of a string section, suggests that this less a song than it is an incantation, both an inward and outward gesture that beckons towards healing. It’s also evident in Molina’s brilliant, alliterative wordplay, in which she invokes burning the herb rue and prepares a potion and prayer to recite on a moonlit night. Unsurprisingly, this challenging and centering song has become part of a ritual for me: Not a night goes by that I don’t listen to it before drifting off to sleep. —Paula Mejia
Gabriel Garzon Montano, Jardin
This year, Gabriel Garzon-Montano released his debut album after several brushes with greatness. Jardin was three years in the making — the result, partly, of procrastination and partly of his analog recording method — and represents a gargantuan, brilliantly produced step toward that elite status. Every nook and cranny of songs like “My Balloon” is occupied with sound, not just for the sake of filling space — listen to the way some instruments splash a faint but effective dash of color to the overall composition. On “Long Ears,” he manages to make the sound of paper ripping sound funky. He performed at the Tiny Desk recently and stripped his entire production down to reveal vulnerability and clever word play. At the halfway mark of 2017, there have been dozens of projects and artists competing for my attention. Gabriel Garzon-Montano and Jardin is the one that I continue to revisit and rediscover. —Bobby Carter
The War On Drugs, “Holding On”
Three-plus years is a long time to wait for a new album from one of your favorite bands, especially a hometown group whose last record was widely declared album of the year when it came out in 2014. I’m talking about the incredible Philly band The War On Drugs. This past Record Store Day, it released the 11-minute track “Thinking Of A Place,” a contemplative, slow-burning, late-night-ride-down-a-dark-road kind of song. It was a glorious return, but one couldn’t help but wonder: “Where’s the rock!?!?” But Adam Granduciel and his crew don’t mess around; it was a great tease of a track, followed by “Holding On,” an instantly anthemic, driving-guitar classic. Within seconds, it grabs you by your rock and roll heart, giving faith to humankind that rock is not dead. —Bruce Warren, WXPN
Tank and the Bangas on Ask Me Another
When Tank and the Bangas performed at a taping of NPR’s Ask Me Another in April, I expected an impressive show. The band had just performed a spirited, emotional Tiny Desk concert a few weeks earlier, after winning the 2017 Tiny Desk Contest. Plus, the AMA show fell on my birthday — so my hopes were high. But when the band took the stage that night, it shattered my expectations. Tank and the Bangas commanded every ounce of attention in the room; it was so enthralling that I kept sneaking looks at the crowd — a mix of public radio devotees and diehard fans of the band — just to make sure I wasn’t alone in my rapture. I wasn’t. I watched people cheer, sing and dance — even cry — but mostly, I watched them watch intently, similarly captivated. The songs ran through a range of emotions, and the band excelled at tapping into the deepest parts of each feeling — heartache, celebration, self-doubt, joy — and pulling the entire crowd with it. Throughout the next month, I saw the band six more times on the tour that accompanied the Contest; I never lost the sense of wonder I felt that night. —Marissa Lorusso
Karizma, “Work It Out”
Talk to enough dance music lovers and you’re bound to hear some comparison between the club and church — the dance floor as a place to get in touch with something ritualistic, communal and spiritual. House music has a long relationship with gospel, and Karizma continues the tradition of chopping up a song made for praising God into one made for dancing. The influential Baltimore club producer loops the source material, “Jesus Can Work It Out” by Dr. Charles Hayes & Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir, over rough and ready percussion for a cut that radiates optimism. It’s sure to lift the spirits of dancegoers looking for something holy. —Sami Yenigun
The cast of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at the Tonys
The best of part of watching the Tony Awards every June is sneaking a peek at the nominated musicals, and this season was no different. Seeing Josh Groban (in his broadway debut) lead the cast of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812, it was hard to believe the show did not take this year’s Best Musical prize.
The musical (set in a Russian supper club and based on a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace) features 37 juggling, instrument playing, specially skilled performers who leap further beyond the fourth wall than seemingly possible at the completely transformed Imperial Theatre on Broadway. Somehow the intimacy and theatrics of the production translated perfectly in the vastly larger Radio City Music Hall, as well as on network television. Cast members couldn’t resist flirtling with audience members Tiny Fey and Stephen Colbert and dragging composer Dave Malloy onto the stage (donned in his award show tuxedo) to play out the show-stopping number, “The Abduction,” for the rambunctious crowd of 6,000 spectators.
Breaking the fourth wall in a television broadcast is impossible, but this performance comes as close as any ever could. The only thing missing is Nicholas Pope’s immersive surround sound design in the Imperial Theatre, where the hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention on more than one occasion. —Josh Rogosin
The video for John Moreland’s “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)”
Last month, John Moreland told a fan on Twitter, “I ain’t country and I ain’t sad.” While the former can be infinitely debated and parsed, you can forgive the fan for thinking the Tulsa songwriter might be not the happiest guy. Heck, there’s an Instagram account dedicated to cheering him up, complete with images of pugs riding unicorns in space. I’m serious. Moreland’s gut-punching lyrics have a way of turning even the biggest and brawniest of us into a puddle of emotions. And his concerts are always a treat because the crowd actually shuts up and listens. Still, hearing the folk-rocker “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” is incredibly refreshing. Its disposition differs from most of his prior material, but it’s not a cheery song. It shows a resolute Moreland moving forward, ready to leave the baggage and worries in the past. The accompanying music video follows him around at home and on the road with friends and his wife. You even catch a couple smiles from him in there. While Moreland’s last two albums sounded like he was searching for something, this song signals that he’s finally found it. —Ryan LaCroix, KOSU
The Smith Street Band, “25”
There are five times in the bridge to The Smith Street Band’s “25” that make me vigorously start pointing at the ceiling. Four of those times are directly related to the particular way Wil Wagner delivers lyrics with an affect that communicates both “punk is fun!” and “I’m worried about myself.” (Example: “AND IT SURE. IS. NICE. TO. REMEM-BER. THINGS. YEAH!”.) The fifth time is a production detail. On the drive back into the final chorus, there’s this ~~pew~~ sound expertly buried in the mix that seems to say “hey, warp speed to the pity party baby!!! It’ll be a blast!!!” It’s not wrong. —Andrew Limbong
The video for Young Thug’s “Safe”
Young Thug released “Safe” as a single in February, and it didn’t make its way onto his latest album, Beautiful Thugger Girls. Instead, it stands alone – which is perfect, because it’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. “I spend more money on security than I make; just try to be safe,” goes the hook. And I’m stuck on it – because isn’t safety what we all desperately want for the people we love and the communities we care about? The song is best experienced by watching the video. Young Thug certainly showed up for this one. It’s actually a one-man show in which he serves an emotional platter complete with fear, anger, vulnerability and whimsy. He glides around a sparse set, dancing by himself and at times looking directly, intensely at the camera. Like his signature vocal inflections, his movements and facial expressions hold multitudes. My favorite moment? At 2:23, when he skips backwards and fans his arms out over his head. —Jenny Gathright
2017 so far for me is all about a Ralph Towner two-fer. The guitarist, pianist and composer released his latest solo album, “My Foolish Heart,” in February. And this Friday, the group he co-founded nearly 50 years ago, Oregon, will release what I think is its 30th album (counting a “best of”). The solo record grabbed my ear from the first note because the playing is so strong – it’s all guitar, six and twelve string – and his finger work is assertive and full of energy. Turns out there’s a reason. A couple of years ago, Towner blacked out during a concert soundcheck. Doctors determined that his heart was beating too slowly, so he had a pacemaker installed. That trauma and its ultimate happy ending seem to have influenced Oregon’s new album, “Lantern,” as well. Though the only two original members are Towner (who also plays piano and synthesizer here) and woodwind player Paul McCandless, the music is alive and marked by the group’s trademark interactions. And the title tune is a free piece that reminds listeners that Oregon has always played challenging, out music and does not deserve the “new age” label with which the group is sometimes saddled by jazz snobs. In a group that’s so collaborative, it’s hard to single out any one player – though McCandless sounds great. But for me, Ralph Towner’s the man. —Tom Cole
Xiu Xiu, “Wondering”
Arguably Xiu Xiu’s most pop-considerate track yet, “Wondering” from Forget is a collision of shrieking wobbling synths, an unconventional assemblage of electronic and acoustic percussion, heavily reverberating crashes, and Jamie Stewart’s remarkable, fragile voice. I can confirm the catchiness and danceability by the way the whole room shook when Jamie Stewart & Shayna Dunkelman played it at the Brooklyn Bazaar last April. But what keeps me dancing isn’t the synth pop with syncopated percussion tricks. Stewart sings, “Alive is anything / Tonight is anything / Outside of anything / Collide with everything… Down on your knees / Wondering, maybe?” The reeling synths and reverberant crashes echo his question. Wondering, maybe?
To me, the song is about wondering at possibility, but it’s also about being overwhelmed, even floored, by the sheer feeling of wonder, even at life at its most banal. It’s about blinking twice and still being brought to your knees, stopped short, wondering at “alive,” at “tonight,” at “everything.” This song still takes my breath away. —Jenna Li
Deb Talan, Lucky Girl
If you hung around Boston’s singer-songwriter scene in the early 2000s, you experienced the phenomenal, yet fleeting solo career of Deb Talan. The writing on her last record, from 2004, cut to the core — but she was then becoming very focused on The Weepies, her band with husband Steve Tannen, and the band’s success made the possibility of another Talan solo release seem slim. Thirteen years, three kids, a victory over breast cancer and a bunch of unprocessed feelings later, Talan’s back with Lucky Girl, a project she undertook to regain lost pieces of her identity. Even when she’s pouring herself into emotional songs, Talan shows her lighter, funny side with playful lines like “Son Volt came to town / I missed them again” (“Son Volt Came To Town”) and “Daddy will take down Peter Pan from the shelf / And he’ll read it out loud, though you could read it yourself” (“Growing Up”). It’s always a gamble whether a project put down and picked up years later will be as good as your expectations, but Deb Talan has beyond exceeded mine. —Cindy Howes, Folk Alley
Craig Finn, “God In Chicago”
The plaintive “God In Chicago” appears at the midpoint of Craig Finn’s ‘We All Want The Same Things,’ his third and most fully realized solo record to date. While it’s got all the characteristics of the best Hold Steady and Lifter Puller songs — when push comes to shove, I bet Wayne from Winnetka could hold his own with Charlemagne from ‘Separation Sunday’ — the track feels utterly singular in Finn’s body of work. With unsettling solemnity and uncanny deliberation, “God In Chicago” befits a Midwestern winter, icy and foreboding. It comes not in hollers, but in hushed tones, hinting at desperation and hiding fresh wounds. It’s a short story of a song that’s fixated on specificity: that Mexican restaurant near Midway, a left turn on Cermak, the Walgreens near the Hyatt. “God In Chicago” is an attempt at closure amid unfinished business and uncertain future. —Lyndsey McKenna
There are so many reasons why I love this multimedia music project inspired by Amazon’s stellar series The Man In The High Castle. Sure, the 18-song compilation itself is grand (there’s virtually no way to beat doo-wop covers by Sharon Van Etten and Norah Jones), but it’s more than that. The campaign included a 24-hour stream of old-school radio hosts spinning cuts from the record as if the LP had been freshly pressed in the fictional 1960s of the show’s alternate timeline. Given the mix of contemporary artists playing old-time music on an Internet stream drenched in post-war sci-fi nostalgia, it’s easy to feel simultaneously stuck in the past and living in the present. But isn’t that how many of us feel these days? In 2017 radio can still be our lifeline; the voices, our companions; and the music, our reminder of the better and brighter (or darker and more haunting) things to come. Needless to say, Resistance Radio continues to give me goosebumps each time I tune in. —Joni Deutsch, West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The Mavericks, “Easy As It Seems”
The weeks leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election were challenging, to say the least. Tempers snapped. Arguments escalated. Suddenly, small differences of opinion seemed insurmountable. The realization that the nation was on the edge of a gargantuan chasm — not to mention the divisive tension he experienced within his own family — inspired Raul Malo to write “Easy As It Seems,” one of the standout tracks on The Mavericks’ Brand New Day. A co-write with the band’s lead guitarist, Eddie Perez, and Alan Miller, “Easy As It Seems” has its fair share of The Mavericks’ musical trademarks: it’s a catchy, Latin-infused dance tune; Malo’s voice is as crooningly romantic as ever; and the horns and percussion work in perfect harmony. The sound might be comfortingly familiar, but “Easy As It Seems” is an eye-opener — a reminder that, no matter who you voted for, “Ignorance is blinding / They tell you that it’s bliss” and “Building walls between us doesn’t fix a thing.” Hopeful statements, I think, that encourage an ever-evolving civil conversation with those whose opinions don’t match our own. —Elena See, Minnesota Public Radio
As ferociously iconoclastic as mainstream pop gets, Lorde’s Melodrama is a rare thing: a follow-up to a huge debut hit that doesn’t just confirm a star’s status but redefines it on her own terms. Like the post-‘90s work of Robyn, who Lorde has cited as an influence, Melodrama (which is perfectly named — it’s an album about the self-conscious performance of huge emotional moments) is stuffed with extroverted songs about the inner life of an introvert. As a writer, Lorde has taken astonishing steps: She strings a narrative of a single party together over the course of the album’s 11 songs, and is able to draw your focus to crucial small details of personal attraction and betrayal, as well as the way the bright flame of an intense moment can flicker into the past and the future. She manages to stand both inside and outside the action, staring down the closing walls of adulthood, ready to bring her world crashing down before she gets hemmed in; insulated by nighttime and justifiable bad choices and proximity to friends that might not be there in the morning or in five years. I don’t live in that place any more; my kids don’t live there yet. But I recognized it instantly, and I bet someday they will, too. —Jacob Ganz