AF 2017 IN REVIEW: 12 of the Year’s Most Compelling Debuts

When you’re new to the music industry, it can be really tough to crack the top ten of a critic’s year-end list. Oftentimes, the artists with the most accolades are established entities releasing their third, fourth, or tenth album, having a massive comeback after a decades-long absence, reinventing their sound or finally finding a niche and boring down into it, or waving goodbye for good.

And while old favorites (usually) deserve the attention they get, the unfortunate flip side of that is that newer artists sometimes get lost in the tide, even when their debuts manage to make some waves. Sometimes, the freshest new sounds are branded as novelty simply for their newness. And while a nascent artist’s staying power can only be proven over time, 2017 seems to have produced a flurry of future stars. Here are a dozen albums that threaten to disrupt the zeitgeist.

SZA – Ctrl (Top Dawg/RCA)
The long-awaited debut from neo-soul chanteuse Solána Imani Rowe, better known as SZA, has been well worth the excruciating process that brought it to fruition. Following three acclaimed EPs and co-writes on tracks from megastars like Beyoncé and Rihanna, SZA hunkered down in earnest to begin writing Ctrl, then under its working title A. Mired in the anxiety of producing something that would live up to the hype she’d already generated for herself, she painstakingly wrote and rewrote some 200 tracks; it’s rumored that her record label actually had to confiscate the hard drive which housed her material just before the LP’s June release, because otherwise, SZA may never have settled on anything. Lyrically, the album reflects SZA’s indecision as it relates to the process of coming into her own womanhood and navigating its attendant relationships and self-discovery, but ultimately lands squarely as a radical dissertation on feminine sexual power – the kind that demands respect, exacts revenge, and fucks solely for the sake of pleasure. SZA’s scathing honesty is softened by luxuriant, sometimes unusual production choices that bridge gaps between genres as far ranging as indie rock and trap, her infectious patois exhorting baes and besties to spark blunts and eat tacos one moment while questioning their motives the next. Whether channeling Tisha Campbell’s Gina or sampling the matriarchs of her own family, SZA dazzlingly represents the millennial iteration of strong female identity, and Ctrl is her powerful mission statement.

Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps (Dead Oceans)
As confessional singer-songwriters go, Angeleno twenty-something Phoebe Bridgers has an uncanny knack for rendering unforgettable heart-piercing details that, while they feel hyper-personal, evoke the kind of universal emotions capable of stopping listeners dead in their tracks with recognition. One potent example is “Funeral,” which begins with Bridgers planning to sing at a dead friend’s wake. Later, in a moment of listless, empty depression, she chides herself for moping with the starling realization that “Someone’s kid is dead,” but in the choruses, she resigns herself to “being blue” all the time; in another verse, she laughs off suicidal ideation while strings soar softly behind a delicately strummed guitar. Bridgers’ wispy voice has just enough grit to direct unexpected expletives toward cops in the midst of what is essentially a love song, or to implore a long-distance lover for nudes in “Demi Moore,” or to open “Motion Sickness” with the nonchalant vitriol of a line like “I hate you for what you did/And I miss you like a little kid.” Having made friends with the likes of Conor Oberst (who makes an appearance on “Would You Rather”) and Ryan Adams, the prospect of Bridgers whittling her songcraft into an even sharper point might be almost too much to handle.

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens (Smalltown Supersound)
With its almost synaesthetic qualities, Kelly Lee Owens’ eponymous debut taps into something subconscious, mysterious, and utterly absorbing. Its evocative sparseness gives the record the homemade warmth of a newish, naturally intuitive producer; much like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (who released her similarly lush sophomore LP The Kid this year), Owens builds worlds from the breathiness of her voice and a keen sense of depth, space, and light. Owens has a surprising ability to cull new sounds from familiar instruments, teasing an intangible nostalgia out of rarefied air. She can induce a trance with cascading marimba (as she does on “Bird”) just as easily as she does with droning sitar (on nine-minute closer “8”). Counterbalancing clubby numbers like “Cbm” (color, beauty, and motion) with dream pop bliss-outs like “S.O” and “Keep Walking,” each of these ten tracks radiates its own frequency squarely aimed at providing a blunted body buzz that feels satisfyingly therapeutic.

Sophia Kennedy – Sophia Kennedy (Pampa)
If ever there was a sucker for quirky art pop, I’m definitely one, and if ever there was a record that oozes the polka-dotted plastic charm of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Sophia Kennedy’s self-titled debut is it. With joyous abandon, Kennedy indulges every whimsical tendency she has to offer – husky vocals, playful poetic panache, and plucky piano lines abound – and then goes on to deliver “Being Special,” a direct ode to embracing her weirdness despite the isolation it can sometimes create. It’s as if Kennedy is attempting to soundtrack her own cartoon musical, replete with the occasional slide whistles, warped gongs, boingy spring sound effects, and gurgled psychedelic asides. But Kennedy isn’t all kitsch, using that buoyant energy to boost darkly observed truths about herself, her peers, and the everyday scenes that play out in the city around her.

Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)
Following up her explosive 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me with a studio debut four years in the making, Kelela pulls no punches on Take Me Apart, daring listeners and lovers alike to get to know her inside and out. Backed by fluttering Technicolor production, Kelela’s contemplative and deeply sensual turns of phrase explore desire and disappointment in equal measure. Minimal beats from collaborators Arca, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Jam City put Kelela’s buttery soprano front and center, making each of her missives seem that much more urgent, those sentiments hovering in the liminal spaces where fantasy meets reality.

Sloppy Heads – Useless Smile (Shrimper)
Produced by Yo La Tengo’s James McNew (and featuring YLT biographer Jesse Jarnow, along with Ariella Stok and Billy the Drummer), Useless Smile tickles all kinds of indie pop sweet spots. Not since Times New Viking has a band so gloriously vacillated between punch-drunk lo-fi ruckus and delicious post-shoegaze psych jams. Though album opener “U Suck” makes for an annoyingly juvenile introduction, that track turns out to be a false flag for what’s to come: the gentle, laconic reverb of “Suddenly Spills;” the smoky twang of “Always Running;” the interplay of insouciant organ and rumbling drone on “I’ll Take My Chances;” the title track’s hints of Mazzy Star meets K hole. When it comes to amalgamating the sound of a late-Nineties/early-aughts college rock royalty, Sloppy Heads certainly don’t slouch.

Bedouine – Bedouine (Spacebomb)
The songs on Azniv Korkejian’s debut as Bedouine are simple affairs that beg a hushed reverence. They are snapshots of moments you’d want to bask in, unsuspecting until they open and flourish like a rare night-blooming orchid. Listening to them feels similar to the comforts of coming home; the irony is that their progenitor spent most of her life globe-trotting. She was born in Aleppo, lived on an American compound in Saudi Arabia, and spent her adulthood bouncing between Boston, Houston, Austin, Savannah, Lexington, Kentucky and Los Angeles, where she currently resides and works as a sound editor on film projects. And though she’s adopted a moniker that harkens to her Middle Eastern heritage and her nomadic history, her self-titled debut is where she finally puts down roots. Working with Matthew E. White at Spacebomb Studios, Korkejian crafted timeless, traditional-sounding folk songs with an introspective, almost off-the-cuff approach that makes for a stunning introduction.

Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love (Wilsuns RC)
Since 2014, Philly quintet Sheer Mag have been hard at work, reinventing Seventies classic rock with modern, punk-inflected ethos. Three bracing EPs and lots of buzz for their beloved live sets have certainly helped audiences acclimate themselves to the band’s lo-fidelity leanings, and Need to Feel Your Love delivers AOR’s feel-good trappings in abundance. But perhaps more importantly, nestled within that unabashed pastiche are truly subversive songs of protest railing against Trump-era policies of doom, death, and destruction. Tina Halladay’s snarl is truest when threatening corrupt politicians on “Expect the Bayonet” and most resilient when paying homage to the Stonewall rioters on “Suffer Me.” Gone are the problematic trappings of a genre that was always notorious for excluding voices like Halladay’s, and while she may not be interesting in soothing the white male rockist egos of yesteryear, Sheer Mag makes music that’s got the same soul.

Stef Chura – Messes (Urinal Cake)
2017 turned out to be the year that Detroit-based musician Stef Chura cleaned up. Re-working her best Bandcamp songs from some seven self-released albums, Chura made molehills into mountains on Messes, and then stood upon their peaks, yodeling her biting lyrics in the curious warble that’s become something of her trademark. Clearly informed by a love of the ‘90s alt-rock Chura grew up on, the album has some folksier inertia as well, like the iridescent “Human Being” or its final aching track, “Speeding Ticket.” Chura claims that she’s a perfectionist, but the album’s best moments are those that are flawed – say, when her voice cracks or she slurs her lyrics. Paired with the candid nature of her songwriting, this realism ultimately makes Chura more relatable. If Messes were a mirror, it might be cracked and dirty, but it would absolutely reflect the beauty of a chaotic life well-lived.

Nick Hakim – Green Twins (ATO)
In 2014, Nick Hakim posed a simple question via the title of a two-part EP: Where Will We Go? Already bursting with potential, it took three years and a stint at Berklee College of Music for Hakim to find his direction, but the sprawling, euphoric Green Twins makes it clear he’s on another plane entirely. Surreal grooves float in a warm haze of unexpected, quirky production flourishes that make them endlessly endearing; stray piano here, a distended vocal loop there, an occasional burst of brass, doo-wop drum machine reverb throughout. But it’s Hakim’s soulful croon that connects and cuts the deepest, his breathy register perfect for the many intimate realizations that comprise his love-stoned lyrics. Green Twins has the same homemade eccentricity of vintage Ariel Pink or Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but Hakim’s music feels far more earnest, more inventive, and certainly more dreamlike, an opportunity to poke around in one man’s gauzy, pulsating subconscious. Due in large part to those sensual qualities, it activates an almost instinctual response to stay and explore a little longer.

L’Rain – L’Rain (Astro Nautico)
Though multi-instrumentalist Brooklynite Taja Cheek’s solo debut turned into something of a treatise on mourning, it’s not as immediately obvious as say, Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me. That’s because Cheek was almost finished with L’Rain when she lost her mother Lorraine (from whom she takes her stage name) to sudden illness; it’s comprised of Cheek’s field recordings and Soundcloud snippets going back several years, making it somewhat tricky to pin down. Certainly indebted to free jazz as much as it is bedroom-produced dream pop, fluttering vocal loops rewind through spritely guitar arpeggios, Cheek’s vocals like some version of herself refracted, a Gaussian blur of her matrilineal roots. The soupy “Bat” gives way to a tumultuous vignette of “Alive and a Wake,” which itself gives way to a field recording of a storefront church on “Benediction,” which then gives way to the album’s mesmerizing carousel of a lead single, “A Toes (Shelf Inside Your Head).” This collage-like assembly amounts to a dizzying meditation on the inexorable march of time, its fragments wafting in and out like distant memories; in that way, it’s a fitting tribute to loved ones lost, even if L’Rain keeps those parameters pretty loose.

Hoops – Routines (Fat Possum)
Though its title suggests stability and even monotony, Hoops’ debut record was born of anything but routine; in fact, it’s the direct result of founding member Drew Auscherman shaking things up. Initially conceived as Auscherman’s direct to four-track solo bedroom recordings – Hoops’ three cassette-only releases are now available as a compilation – he welcomed longtime pals Kevin Krauter and Keagan Beresford into the fold. It wasn’t a move solely meant to up the ante on Hoops’ salt-of-the-Earth Midwestern image, though all three are the sort of nice Indiana boys you’d introduce to your mother; as a trio, they co-wrote the songs on Routines and swap instruments with aplomb when playing live. Signing to Fat Possum also put some legitimate dream pop shine on Auscherman’s formerly lo-fi affair, though the project still retains its homemade charm. While Auscherman may have been set in his ways, it was a wholly newfound approach that made Hoops a breakout band in 2017.

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