2017’s best music: 10 women, 10 albums
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There is a video of Nirvana playing (sans the late Kurt Cobain) at the band’s 2014 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The song is Lithium from the album Nevermind, and Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, is the guest vocalist. The slim, delicately featured Clark can seem an odd choice for a song that is about manic depression, bipolarity and self-loathing. You realize it’s not when she turns out an outstanding rendition, besting the other guest singers with the band that evening—Lorde, Joan Jett and Kim Gordon. St Vincent’s fifth studio album, Masseduction, came out this year, and it is among my top 10 for 2017. Like Nirvana’s choice of vocalists for that evening, my top 10 albums this year are all by women. Here they are, unranked and in no particular order.
Ctrl by SZA. American R&B singer Solána Imani Rowe, 27, goes by the name SZA (which may expand as Sovereign Zig-Zag Allah) and Ctrl is her debut album. With guest appearances, including Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, SZA takes her own life experiences as a young black woman and channels them into songs that explore sexuality and self-assertion. Her songs are tough and in-your-face as she hits out at sexism and double standards, particularly in the exploitative world of R&B and hip hop. On album opener Supermodel, a song about leaving an unfaithful lover, she sings: Let me tell you a secret/ I been secretly banging your homeboy/ While you were in Vegas/ All up on Valentine’s Day.
Song pick: Doves In the Wind (featuring Kendrick Lamar)
Everybody Works by Jay Som. Filipino-American Melina Duterte, 22, makes music under the moniker Jay Som and everything on her new album is played and recorded by her at home. Her relaxed, low-fi music has been described as bedroom pop that is pleasant and easy to listen to but her compositions can be complex and nuanced. The fact that her musical project is completely DIY makes it all the more fascinating. She sings about relationships, love and angst—what you may expect from someone in her early 20s—but her music is mature beyond her years. Song pick: The Bus Song
Take Me Apart by Kelela. Second-generation Ethiopian-American Kelela’s debut album took a long time in coming (the singer is 33). But it has been worth the wait. The album stands out amid the crowded neo soul and R&B landscape that is dotted with also-rans. Impeccably produced, the 14 songs are mature, confident, and refreshingly bereft of the frenetic desperation many new musicians betray. Kelela’s songs also deal with love and relationships—common themes in soul and R&B—but they do that with seeming effortlessness. A perfect album to unwind to.
Song pick: Better
Masseduction by St Vincent. Clark, as we know, is a star. Her four previous albums bear testimony to that. As does her collaboration with former Talking Heads member David Byrne. Known for her multi-instrumental indie rock and lyrics that are at once complex and symbolic, the new album deals with many things: an ex-lover; drugs; sadness. On New York, she sings of the loss of a partner and how that has changed everything about the city. Every song is as good, sonically and lyrically, as we have come to expect St Vincent to be. The only regret: There isn’t as much guitar riff as one would expect from her.
Song pick: New York
Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. Okay, I’m cheating here because Australian indie-rocker Barnett is not solo on this; she collaborates with a male musician, Kurt Vile. Nevertheless, it’s an album that’s a perfect combination of complementary talents. On their own, both Barnett and Vile excel in singing about mundane everyday happenings, often in a curiously appealing monotonous manner. On this album, they go back and forth between themselves with the verses, one completing the other’s thoughts. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation. Quirky but enjoyable, made more so by their talented guitar-playing.
Song pick: Over Everything
Rest by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Grief marks the new album by Gainsbourg, daughter of English actor Jane Birkin and French singer Serge Gainsbourg. Rest comes six years after her last album and explores the death of her half-sister, Kate Barry. Some songs, such as the one in her memory, Kate, are in French, some in English, and others, bilingual. And there’s one, Songbird In A Cage, written by Paul McCartney. Rest, as you may have guessed, is not a happy album. But sometimes, it’s sadness you’re looking for.
Song pick: Les Oxalis
Plunge by Fever Ray. Sweden’s electronic musician Karin Dreijer records as Fever Ray and was part of the duo, The Knife, with her brother. Plunge, her second album, has bold beats and themes that focus on sexuality and politics. Dreijer has in the past described herself as “gender-fluid” and many of her daring lyrics explore areas that deal with gender issues. Plunge demonstrates that Fever Ray is among contemporary electronic music’s foremost experimenters.
Song pick: To The Moon And Back
The three other albums on First Beat’s top 10 for 2017 have found detailed mention in this column in recent months. Soul queen Sharon Jones’ brilliant posthumous album, Soul Of A Woman was the fitting legacy of a singer who overcame formidable hurdles to achieve success. Pop diva Lana Del Rey’s new album, Lust For Life, marked a turning point in her career, moving from self-obsessed sadness to hope and happiness. And, finally, The Navigator, in which Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra viewed Americana through the lens of a Latina who grew up in New York. All in all, it was a great year for women in music.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan