Each December, we argue over the best music of the year. But what about the best music from all the other years?
Streaming platforms continue to give us unprecedented access to the past, which means countless overlooked and underloved recordings are continuously crying out for our attention. With that in mind, we’ve invited our music contributors to write about the most exciting older recordings that they discovered — or rediscovered — in 2017.
Bilal, “1st Born Second.” (2001)
Bilal aggressively resists labels. Check the Philly native’s Swiss Army knifelike vocal work as part of Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitled Unmastered” for evidence. Listen to his covers of Soft Cell, Radiohead and Earth, Wind & Fire while you’re at it. And please revisit his Prince homage at the 2016 BET Awards, because a random viewing of that led me back to the first sample of Bilal’s sprawling ambition: his 2001 debut, “1st Born Second.”
It was filed under “neo-soul” back when that reductive catchall was all the rage, but “1st Born Second” is an exploration of his vast artistic spectrum, from the jazz variations of “Queen of Sanity” and “When Will U Call” to the entrancing hip-hop influence of “Fast Lane.” The valleys and peaks of “Sometimes” are Bilal at his finest — from the emotional honesty channeled through each crescendo, to the calmest falsetto and most passionate screech. Perhaps Bilal would’ve been a superstar in another era, perhaps he’s too eccentric. Either way, there’s only one label that fits “1st Born Second”: excellent.
— Julian Kimble
“The War Report” (1997)
Amid the grandeur of Mafioso rap and the premillennial decadence of Bad Boy Records, the nihilistic street raps of Capone-N-Noreaga’s 1997 debut “The War Report” were planted strictly in reality. The production is unequivocally New York, featuring Mobb Deep’s Havoc, Bad Boys’ the Hitmen and DITC’s Lord Finesse behind the boards. Lyrically, both Capone and Noreaga display no consideration for the future and very little regard for human life. Fellow Queens rapper Tragedy Khadafi is present on more than half of the album’s songs, providing an older but equally insolent worldview.
But the album does offer one moment of tenderness: “Live On Live Long,” a Noreaga solo track dedicated to Capone, who was incarcerated for a chunk of the album’s recording and through its release. “The War Report” is an astute snapshot of the distinct time and place they inhabited; one where New York neighborhoods earned nicknames inspired by Operation Desert Storm and our two characters — as represented in repeated image on the front cover, dressed in full camouflage fatigues — are their own army.
— Ambrose Nzams
The Gits, “Frenching the Bully” (1992)
After Chris Cornell’s death in May, I tumbled down a Northwest rock wormhole and revisited the 1996 documentary “Hype!” As is always the case when a scene becomes an arms race, there are plenty of bands beyond the Soundgardens and Nirvanas that make all those headlines and platinum plaques possible. In this case, one of those bands was the Gits. In the film, they are seen performing “Second Skin:” Lead singer Mia Zapata sounds like a punk rock Janis Joplin as she lives up to her “I’ve got that chance to give every drop that’s left in me” lyric, leaving it all on the stage.
The song appeared on the band’s debut album, “Frenching the Bully,” a 30-minute mosh pit elevated beyond punk tropes by Zapata’s presence; she practically vibrates with vitriol, not just for others but herself as well. Tragically, she never was able to figure things out; “Frenching the Bully” was the only album the band released before Zapata was murdered in 1993, another too-soon loss in a scene defined by them.
— Chris Kelly
Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson broke through with the hard boppers. But he’d also worked with the early ’60s experimenters collectively known as jazz’s New Thing, and he learned their lessons. “Dialogue,” the first album released under Hutcherson’s own name, flirts with hard bop in its first track, the Afro-Cuban “Catta,” which is still suspiciously modal. From there, the record launches into worlds unknown. It’s never completely free (although the title track comes close); it explores skewed melodies in an alien harmonic language but also a surprising amount of swing.
Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist/flutist/bass clarinetist Sam Rivers and bassist Richard Davis are along for the ride — but the (at least) co-pilots are drummer Joe Chambers and pianist Andrew Hill, who wrote all of “Dialogue’s” tunes between them. The brilliantly off-kilter Hill is the album’s MVP, writing four of the six tracks. On the last, the then-outtake “Jasper,” there appears to be significant tape warp during Hill’s solo, but it’s strangely hard to be sure.
— Michael J. West
Ivy Queen, “Diva” (2003)
Too often in its history, reggaeton has been a sweaty assembly of loud, hubristic dudes battling for glory — and in 2003, no one was more tired of this than Ivy Queen. On her third album, “Diva,” the Puerto Rican rapper asserted herself as an unrelenting fighter who could brutally outshine and out-rhyme the entire boys’ club: “Mi talento es pa’ matar,” she roars on the album’s first track, declaring, “my talent is for killing.”
Queen hurls herself at the male world of reggaeton, using everything in her 5-foot-4-inch being — her brains, her brawn, her sexuality — to smash through a sexist glass ceiling. She alternates between pugilistic snarls and seductive growls as she reclaims agency for women objectified on the dance floor and beyond. She tempts a suitor over the winding buyout riddim of “Papi Te Quiero,” then reminds him that women call the shots when it comes to their bodies on “Quiero Bailar.” To rediscover Diva, especially at a time when reggaeton has come booming back into the mainstream, is to celebrate Queen’s ruthless ascent in a genre dominated by men.
— Julyssa Lopez
Jeanne Lee, “Conspiracy” (1975)
Listeners of a certain age probably romanticize discovery a little too much. Whether we were mail-ordering mysterious records out of fanzines or waiting in midnight lines at Tower Records, the tribulations of our music acquisition used to add a few extra scoops of magical fairy dust to the experience. Now, in the Spotify age, what kind of magic dust do algorithms sprinkle on our ears — if any?
For me, the only time a discovery in the digital wilds feels special is when I completely forget where I first encountered the goods — as is the case with this astonishing album by avant jazz vocalist Jeanne Lee. Did someone post the album’s day-brightening opener, “Sundance,” on social media? Did I Shazam it at lunch? Does it matter? Here’s what the rest of this record sounds like: a calm woman’s beautiful voice — sometimes accompanied by light winds, bass and drums; other times completely alone — modestly hopscotching in the direction of enlightenment. I’m so glad she crossed my path on her way there.
“Lone Justice” (1985)
Maria McKee was 20 years old, a charismatic country-rock ingenue with a miraculous voice, when her band Lone Justice released its debut in 1985. “Lone Justice” was supposed to make her a superstar, to bridge the gap between underground cowpunk bands like the Blasters and X, and mainstream lunch pail rock stars like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen; “Lone Justice” drew equally from both. It had everything: a maiden single, “Ways to Be Wicked,” co-written by Petty, and a track list so strong that a custom-made Bob Dylan song didn’t even make the final cut. A twangy mix of Saturday night rave-ups and Sunday morning devotionals, it was ferocious and joyous, plaintive and devout. Reviewers often used the word “spunky” to describe it, and they weren’t wrong.
After it sold underwhelmingly, McKee stripped her band down to the studs, made a synthy pop follow-up, and has since struggled to find a sound worthy of her voice. But without the cultural reconsiderations that get afforded to countless other mediocre old albums — no reunion tour, no deluxe reissue, no oral histories — “Lone Justice” remains an orphan.
— Allison Stewart
“Perfect Angel” (1974)
Even for a period of pop history that was remarkably unsettled, the late Minnie Riperton’s musical coordinates were hard to pinpoint. Her sweet, insanely acrobatic soprano would inspire some vastly more famous divas, but she cut her teeth singing with the rough-and-ready stable of roots musicians at Chicago’s Chess Records. Stevie Wonder became a champion and co-produced this ecstatic, trippy, warmly optimistic set. (He also brought along Michael Sembello, whose fuzzy electric guitar mingles with Riperton’s vocal lines to terrific harmonic effect.)
Like Riperton’s vocal register, the range of music and sound here is staggering. “It’s So Nice (To See Old Friends)” is a smooth countrypolitan cocktail. “Reasons” evokes raw Isley Brothers funk. The sophisticated Wonder-penned “Take a Little Trip” sounds like Becker and Fagen on a dry run for “Aja.” When “Every Time He Comes Around” arrives, Riperton’s voice, tragically silenced by breast cancer in 1979, seems as if it has spookily morphed into a theremin.
— Scott Galupo
“Notes Campfire” (1996)
Souled American existed out of time. The Illinois quartet were alt-country before the badge existed. They obsessed over between-note silence when the mainstream smelled like teen spirit. Spooling out backward over six albums spanning 1988 to 1996, percussion slowly disappeared, melodies withered, trebly guitar and six-string bass warbled more plaintively, painfully, with each release.
By 1996’s “Notes Campfire,” the band was essentially a duo and it was too dark to see. “The found after the find,” they sing on “Before Tonight,” “Note’s Campfire’s” transcendent opener, a spiraling meditation on unwanted time. “Suitors Bridge,” “Born (Free)” and the jaw-dropping, eight-minute “Waterdown” are breathtaking — turning so far inward and grappling so hard at the space between notes they make the National sound like Katrina and the Waves. The album is a dark pinnacle in the career of an unjustly forgotten American band — 47 minutes of music whose unrelenting minimalism and turgid drive becomes more fascinating with each listen.
— Patrick Foster
“Straylight Run” (2004)
Taking Back Sunday’s “Tell All Your Friends” has become a hallmark for both band and fans — a crash course in emo angst in its most raw and accessible form. Soon after its release in 2002, vocalist John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper broke off to create another band: Straylight Run. As I revisited “Tell All Your Friends” this year, I finally took the time to dive into Straylight Run’s eponymous album. While the all-out screaming intensity was largely absent — replaced with the tender harmonies of Michelle DaRosa’s voice — Nolan’s writing finds an effective backdrop among the somber pianos and restrained drums.
“Straylight Run” has aged well thanks to some of Nolan’s most introspective and quotable lyrics. If Taking Back Sunday was blinding anger, Straylight Run sounds like finally giving in, collapsing in a puddle of your tears, and though none of it is as “mature” as it purports to be, “saved by grace but destroyed by naivete,” (as Nolan sings on “It’s for the Best”) is a condition that always seems to apply no matter how old I am.
— Briana Younger
“Night Piece,” (2004)
There’s something very Japanese about the way Shugo Tokumaru makes music, but his raw ingredients are mostly American and often down-home. The plucked, hammered and whistled timbres of the multi-instrumentalist’s solo debut were a bit perplexing upon “Night Piece’s” 2004 release. Why was this Tokyo native dabbling wistfully in country and bluegrass, lullabies and Looney Tunes jazz?
Five albums later came 2017’s “Toss,” which arrayed many of the same colors on a larger canvas. Using “Toss” as a lens, “Night Piece” comes into focus. It’s not just an introduction to the eclecticism that allows Tokumaru to hop nimbly from “Lantern on the Water’s” electro-drone dream-pop to “The Mop,” which begins as a “Notorious Byrds Brothers” reel before whooshing into space. Re-listening reveals the album, although brief, as a fully realized work of art. The notes clatter incongruously, but then fall right into place.
— Mark Jenkins