A quarter of the way through the year, and I can confidently say two things. First, this has been a strong year already. And second, I’ve written about three of the best releases of 2017- not just of the month- below, but I know this is going to be a month I look back on at the end of the year and am bummed I missed featuring a fourth (or fifth) album that was released during it. There were companion pieces to tremendous albums that came out in 2016- a full-band re-imagining of sorts from Conor Oberst, and an EP of new stuff from Donovan Woods. There were stunningly good debut EPs from Valley Queen, Caroline Lazar and Sean Heathcliff. There were tremendous new records (at least one, and maybe all, of which I’ll be extremely bummed I didn’t have the words for right now) from Kelli Schaeffer, Jake Xeres Fussell, Sera Cahoone and Will Johnson. Hell, there was even a great new live album from Rocky Votolato. All of that’s to say that March was strong to quite strong, and here’s the best of what I heard.
The Navigator is one of the most necessary albums of 2017, a concept album penned by Alynda Segarra about the things happening around you and I right now. The titular navigator is Navita Milagros Negrón, though ostensibly this is an album about Segarra and her life. It’s about the shame society makes people feel for celebrating their family’s culture. It’s about the gentrification that’s slowly destroying cultural hubs in cities, bulldozing businesses and communities that have stood for generations, all in the name of ‘progress.’ It’s about the expectation of assimilation and searching for your place in America, all while knowing that so much of America views you as an ‘other’ if you’re not white no matter what you do to ‘”it in.”
It’s a sophisticated, compelling, beautiful protest record from a point of view- a queer woman of Puerto Rican dissent- that has no voice in folk music currently, but very obviously needs to be heard, respected and considered. It’s a folk record in mindset, but it’s not tethered to the genre in execution, drawing heavily on the Puerto Rican heritage that Segarra has worked so hard to understand personally. The result is an album that feels exciting and vital and sounds like the America we’re told about in schools- a melting pot of ideas and cultures that defies strict definition but works as a whole.
Nadia Reid’s sophomore album is hauntingly beautiful, an understated collection of songs about Reid figuring out who exactly she is, what makes her tick and finding acceptance in the end. Like the rest of us, she’s figured a lot of this out through failed relationships, keeping tally of the things that worked, so as to seek them out in others later, and trying hard to avoid the things that didn’t. Unlike the rest of us, she possesses a tremendously pure, gorgeous voice, the kind that can be both warm and cutting, sometimes within the same song. These are the kind of beautifully airy songs you can get lost in on a quiet evening as they fill the room, with enough space float around you but enough grit and force to be engaging and impactful.
Semper Femina is the sixth album from Laura Marling, and it’s easily the finest, most convincing and engaging piece of work she’s put together. An album about femininity and how complicated, messy and rewarding friendships/relationships between women can be, Marling sounds as confident and focused as ever, tugging at the edges of her sound here and there, refining it in others and coming out with the most cohesive-sounding record in her catalog. Marling, like her music, is deeply cerebral, full of intricacies and the same contradictions as the rest of us, and Semper Femina feels like the first time she’s harnessed it all to its maximum affect and potential. It’s weird to say this 6 albums into an artist’s career, but we should all be interested in seeing what the future holds for Laura Marling.