Winter has set into Philadelphia like that one not-so-distant-but-distant-enough relative that shows up to family gatherings aiming to work their way back into everyone’s social calendar. They interrupt conversation flow with their misplaced anecdotes about their life since you last saw them. They’ve undergone life changes that, despite their readiness to share, you’re always ill-equipped to receive and, of course, they cut off your path to and eat most of the good food, as well as drink the good beer. But enough about my issues visiting my family.
2017, I’m so glad you’re gone. 2018, I’m apprehensive about what you might bring because we all thought 2017 was going to follow 2016 in better fashion… until early November happened. Then 2017 went both socially and politically crazy. Art in my sphere of attention found a weird consistency. Video games found ways of turning a mirror on the world that, from my view, made me think and feel in ways that I normally found in music. Conversely, music became both the pulse of my quiet moments and a meditative practice as it often provided the voice of equivalent exasperation with the outside world.
The way 2016 saw so many great musicians leave us, 2017 decided to – oddly enough – enact Isaac Newton’s third law and bring a lot of artists back that had been away. GAS showed back up after 17 years, Slowdive finally followed up Pygmalion, Broken Social Scene, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Feist and even Brand New (despite the controversy that followed) returned to our lives in, often a not-so-small way. Personally, 2017 was a year I found myself digging further into metal of all kinds. Sadly, when I’m exploring genres, I’m usually finding older sounds first, then using them for sonic context when I get into newer releases. However, Nightmare Logic by Power Trip, Caustic by Primitive Man, The Dusk in Us by Converge and Reflections of A Floating World by Elder took a nice hold of my ears in 2017 and should really be given time by anyone looking out for some heaviness. And sadly, despite these 20 selections that really aided me in 2017, there are plenty of downright great albums that just didn’t make my list. So, if you haven’t listened to SZA, Moses Sumney, St. Vincent, Vince Staples, King Krule and legions of others that I straight ran out of room for, go listen to them, come back and tell me I’m wrong. And yeah, you’re correct, but there are only 20 spots and these are mine, with a tie at the summit.
Banana and out!
20. Albums of 2017
20. Eluvium – Shuffle Drones
Matthew Cooper’s music (ambient music as a whole, really) occupies a similar space that the much-maligned No Man’s Sky does in video games. It doesn’t need a grand statement or cinematic spectacle. It just needs a bare minimum of attention to grip me then it becomes the soundtrack of performing tasks, traveling, the space between conversational breaths. There’s only 13 minutes of music here, each song around 30 seconds, but its design yields infinite possibilities as it can be listened to in any order by design. Each listen becomes its own procedurally generated Voltron with endless possibilities.
Highlights: You can really choose your own adventure with this one.
19. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life
Lana Del Rey’s voice, career and the fandom around her have been both attractive and repellent to me since “Video Games.” This is the type of art I love the most, the kind that grabs me immediately and forces questions of why I like it only to further my understanding of it, its creator and to seek similar material. To varying degrees I’ve loved the 3 prior albums, but a fully crystallized, sweeping artistic growth is present here that I couldn’t help but dig further into with repeat listens. The sonic tapestry is varied, incorporating classic rock and trip-hop chill as well as even some robotic doo-wop. Lust for Life sees Lana Del Rey realize her career was leading here. I can’t wait to see where she may go.
Highlights: “Love,” “Heroin,” “Tomorrow Never Came,” “Cherry,” “Summer Bummer”
18. Priests – Nothing Feels Natural
One of a trio of long distance runners that showed up early in the year to be returned to constantly with full rewards reaped each successive listen. Nothing Feels Natural is one of those albums that still feels as angry as I am about the occurrences that keep happening, feeling that the decisions being made are out of both ours and the decision-makers’ control. This D.C. punk quartet, like you or I, realize it isn’t going to be a one-off since we keep allowing it.
Highlights: “No Big Bang,” “Appropriate,” “Nicki,” “Leila 20,” “Puff”
17. The xx – I See You
It seems like much of what was the indie vanguard in 2012 stepped back, re-tooled and did some thinking. Post 2012’s Coexist, the rise of Jamie xx has really been the story for this band. He remained present with his remix work, the collaboration with the late, great Gil Scott-Heron and his lauded debut In Colour from 2015, The xx as a trio haven’t released anything for 5 years. I See You rearranges things slightly by showing Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim as not simply mouthpieces, but formidable talents in a delightful trio that bring warm, inviting vocals and wonderful lyrics to an album packed with wintery melodies.
Highlights: “On Hold,” “I Dare You,” “Lips,” “Brave For You,” “Performance”
16. Slowdive – Slowdive
Pygmalion, a left turn to end all left turns for a shoegaze band that, for all intents and purposes felt forgotten. They were in the shadow of the iconic My Bloody Valentine and they weren’t UK hit-makers like Ride and they weren’t lucky enough to get latched onto by grunge fans like Swervedriver. How does a band go from one of the sleeper hits of the 90s in Souvlaki to the often atonal, spare and elliptical 3rd album that would silence them for more than 2 decades? I have no idea, but it makes so much sense when you hear their eponymous, grand and sublime 4th album. It’s the piece of the sonic puzzle that we didn’t know we wanted or needed as well as one of 2017’s most beautiful listens.
Highlights: “Star Roving,” “Slomo,” “No Longer Making Time,” “Go Get it,” “Sugar For the Pill”
15. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
I never get tired of this band. Their early freak folk, their hauntingly ornate sophomore album Yellow House, a dizzying third effort with a star-making single in “Two Weeks,” and the follow-up in Shields that turned away from the mainstream without alienating anything they’d built prior. A B-side compilation and nearly 6 years go by and they return with Painted Ruins, a more electronic, beat-driven latticework of an album that is decidedly colder than their prior output to me. However, it also proves that they’ve not been sitting idle since their last album. They’ve been thinking about sonic textures, how to purvey mood or evoke time and place. Painted Ruins feels like an interesting sketchbook that may point them to new places.
Highlights: “Cut-Out,” “Losing All Sense,” “Mourning Sound,” “Neighbors,” “Sky Took Hold”
14. Haim – Something to Tell You
How can I not love Haim? Want some deliriously fun pop melodies delivered by essentially a modern take on the girl group formula? Yes please! Haim’s sophomore effort, Something to Tell You, builds on their 2013 Days Are Gone with masterful sheen. These 3 California sisters have crafted a pop tapestry of heartache, longing, betrayal that is intelligently informed by the best aspects of soft rock. Like morning coffee or a warm blanket, many of these songs helped my days begin and end positively.
Highlights: “I Want You Back,” “Little of Your Love,” “Ready For You,” “You Never Knew,” “Walking Away”
13. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
November, 2016 garnered a ton of response, case closed. Whether you were happy or sad, you had something to say about it. My favorite response was the SNL sketch where Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock were laughing at 20s-30s-ish white people disgusted as election night unfolded. It’s the kind of honest reckoning that the white characters need and actually ignore as they decide to pop Xanax and talk about the supposed ‘inside information’ from their friends at Slate and Huffington Post. The sketch is actually deeply poignant on levels that many folks proclaiming to be “woke AF” might actually need to learn. I feel similarly about RTJ’s best album yet. This album from 2 aged (by many folks’ estimation) hip-hoppers is filled with rage, fun, camaraderie and incendiary response. I know this; we only have each other. The politicians don’t and won’t care. That’s the problem when you give selfish people the position that should be for the selfless. A character trait that we humans, as part of this slowly evolving food chain have not equipped yet. Thank god for this album though. Hopefully both we and it survive long enough to get there.
Highlights: “Call Tickerton,” “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” “Stay Gold,” “Thieves!,” “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”
12. Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder
This band disappears. It’s their way. One can only imagine the Blues Brothers-esque setup where Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning and the other dozen plus members of Broken Social Scene get together, experience hi-jinks and sing jubilantly big-sounding anthems together. Okay, it’s probably not the same kind of fun as Jake and Elwood running from the cops, but I love how this band pops back up just when I think they’re gone for good only to release their best album yet. As Feist sings, “it’s gonna get better,” I have no choice but to believe her.
Highlights: “Skyline,” “Gonna Get Better,” “Sol Luna,” “Stay Happy,” “Mouth guards of the Apocalypse”
11. Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Kamasi Washington (along with every other jazz musician starting after 1990) is standing both alongside and on the shoulders of giants. I think he knows, understands, respects and revels in this fact. He plays sax melodically with a sense of both the abstract and avant-garde that, while not always present in the forefront, plays part in what seems to be the germination of a giant in progress. While his 3-hour plus debut, The Epic, was just that. Epic on all fronts. Harmony of Difference is a statement as well, but smaller and more wieldy. 5 different and diverse cuts culminate and coalesce in the EP’s closer, the masterful “Truth.” A sonic testament to how difference should be the harmony that holds together rather than drives apart.
Highlights: Listen to it all. Front to back. You won’t be disappointed.
10. LCD Soundsystem –American Dream
LCD Soundsystem’s farewell show played like a modern hipster Last Waltz. Just like the swan song of The Band in the 70s, if you weren’t a fan prior to their farewell concert, they certainly constructed a strong argument for newcomers to give them a chance. Then they disappeared, lovingly, into the world beyond. Years later, rumbles, mumbles and allegations of a reunion and new album start popping up. Then it happened. I had plenty of side eye to give it and refused to listen to anything till the album came out. Once “change yr mind” and “tonite” kicked in that first listen, that was it. They Godfather 3-ed me. Murphy’s Mark E. Smith- esque sing speak vocals coupled with an ability to sing as the group displaying their mastery of dance grooves may not be pushing further beyond their dance-music-for-the-gracefully-aged, but it keeps me grooving.
Highlights: “change yr mind,” “tonite,” american dream,” ” call the police,” “oh baby”
9. Kelela – Take Me Apart
I’ll be completely honest. Soul music of the modern variety and I haven’t gotten along in a while, despite the attempts from both sides to re-build that bridge. Oddly enough, I think hip-hop has informed more of my love of soul music of late than actual soul music. Having loved albums by Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Lloyd Bridges and others, the weirder it seems to be, the more I’m into it (see Erykah Badu – woman is bat-nuts and I love her for it!). Take Me Apart by Kelela is most-likely the final battering ram to knock down the wall between modern soul and I. Hallucinogen from 2015 and Cut 4 Me from 2013 showed a star undoubtedly on the rise. I was not ready for Take Me Apart at all. This shows there wasn’t so much a star rising as a new celestial body carving out space in the universe for itself. This album gives weight to its peers while at the same time leaves them behind as it, to me at least, Homogenic‘s itself into the modern soul lexicon. This may not be the chart-busting attention-grabbing statement that puts Kelela on your local ClearChannel station in heavy rotation, but her career thus far will be looked at in the years to come as source for many that will come after it. In fact, I’ll pre-emptively say this album isn’t high enough on this list.
Highlights: “Blue Light,” “Frontline,” “LMK,” “Onanon,” “Take Me Apart”
8. Lorde – Melodrama
I’ll admit it. I checked out Lorde because of the silly South Park bit…and I liked it. Pure Heroine was a decent album displaying a ton of potential. Upon seeing the follow-up album being titled Melodrama, I had to build a dam to hold back the cynicism. What no one really told me is that it was working at a level far superior to its predecessor. I’m kind of glad because it might’ve, oddly enough, kept me away. This album in headphones late night in the city had such a trasnportive feeling. The world became the technicolor films of Douglas Sirk with dialogue pulled from a more modern lexicon. The characters march along plot lines towards the climax, often a happy-ish ending, with issues, emotion and conflict along the way. Lorde, like the aforementioned Sirk, masterfully walks these lines even though she’s at the center. As people, we often deride the drama of others with platitudes like “if only he thought about his actions” or “she brings this on herself every time.” On the face, Lorde’s is just that, melodrama. However, melodrama is something we all experience more often than we want to admit and Lorde’s album shows there’s great power and humanity in it. Yah, yah, yah.
Highlights: “Homemade Dynamite,” “Green Light,” “Perfect Places,” “Sober,” “Writer in the Dark”
7. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
DAMN. is as elliptical as it is ferocious, as hook-laden and radio-friendly as it is full of message and impact. There is no one better in hip-hop. This is an album to bump in the headphones, people will probably dance to its singles in clubs, it’s great to drive to and the storytelling here is better than many have done in the past and outpacing everyone doing it today. I said it and I stand by it. Look no further than the album’s closer, “DUCKWORTH.” It’s a tale spanning more than 20 years from paths crossing over KFC biscuits, to a recording session about said meeting by the son one of the principle characters. It’s a tale to strange to be fake, like the documentary Gates of Heaven, but too powerful to not inspire, like another documentary, Hoop Dreams. This is the stuff of superhero origin stories or rock documentaries, so out of this world, yet nailed down with such precision that I was reminded of the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when Maxwell Scott states “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” One day this meeting will happen regarding Kendrick Lamar (if it hasn’t already). I believe in the legend that he is. DAMN. is further proof of that legend.
Highlights: “DNA.,” ” LOYALTY.,” “DUCKWORTH.,” “ELEMENT.,” “HUMBLE.”
6. Perfume Genius – No Shape
“From ancient Lesbos to ’60s SoHo, drag balls to Paradise Garage, queer havens aren’t just shelters created in opposition to the wider world, but hives of imagination and creativity where alternate realities reign, even if they sometimes dissolve at dawn. Perfume Genius’ fourth album, No Shape, is one of them.” This statement from Laura Snapes I read months after being immersed in love with this album. Frankly, I thought that Snapes had somehow gotten into my head and pulled it out. It might be the perfect line to introduce someone to this album, or even this artist. Mike Hadreas has fashioned a world here that, at all of its extremes – happy, sad, quiet, loud – this is a world he, any of us really, would be happy to live in. It’s a world we can shut down our critics confidently, where we can be beautiful, where we can convince ourselves of our own power and most importantly, just be.
Highlights: “Go Ahead,” “Wreath,” “Otherside,” “Valley General,” “Sides”
5. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
The 2000s saw many bands just instantly win me over. None did so with as much grace and sheer melodic beauty as Fleet Foxes. The 5+ years since their last album seem like an eternity. Their former drummer bounced and began a solo career that has eclipsed them in the public eye as well as social media feeds as he adopted a cynically flash and funnily cruel personification of sex, drugs and rock and roll as Father John Misty. On top of that, he and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) have gone to painfully defiant lengths to maintain that their beards don’t make the men. Robin Pecknold and fleet foxes have conversely maintained and firmly embraced what the band and its leader are, earnest. Aesthetic stances aside, all has been worth the wait for this monumental beauty of an album. Fleet Foxes, once again, deliver a masterclass in vocal harmonies with Pecknold’s songwriting growing more introspective and song construction at its most complex. Very much like the album’s cover, Pecknold may be the solid land mass with which densely layered waves of indie folk collide and around which they rise and fall. They may not be here to put rumps in the seats or top the charts, but they take what they do ever so seriously and they’d have it no other way.
Highlights: “Cassius, -,” “I Should See Memphis,” “If You Need to, Keep Time On Me,” “On Another Ocean (January / June),” “Crack-Up”
4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers
Still doing their thing as the seemingly lone post-rock band that people name at the mention of the style (Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky are still around too, people! Don’t sleep on them or the ever prolific Mogwai!), Godspeed You! Black Emperor are nothing if not purveyors of sonic monoliths. The music of mastermind Efrim Menuck and company cannot be described as small. The sound is gargantuan whether loud or quiet, thought-provoking however abrasive and beautiful whether the aim is darkness or transcendence, all of which is accompanied by some severely leftist politics. Luciferian Towers is essentially 4 tracks (2 being presented in 3 parts) of what could be their most melodic period. Lacking the truly epic presence of their earliest material, this suite follows Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress in the choice to eliminate field recordings as well. In spending time in the lighter, prettier side of the dark a sort of hope arises.
Highlights: “Anthem for No State I-III,” “Bosses Hang I-III,”
3. GAS – Narkopop
Narkopop comes 17 years after Pop, Wolfgang Voigt’s last outing under the GAS moniker. The Kompakt label head, in the years between 1996 and 2000, released drone-laden synth washes that are still worthy of the ambient listener’s time, but for me they do little other than create a tapestry of Voigt’s body of work. Pop in 2000 was a different beast. Ambient still, yes, but a transformation came with its release. It was as if the music was the re-imagination of life through the simulated ecosystem of Voigt’s sonic textures. On the surface, it’s tranquilly inactive to the point non-ambient fans would be bored. However, upon opening up to the sound, a vibrance emerges and suddenly it seems brimming with warm, unabashed life.
Narkopop, following its predecessor, is as full of life. However, in a post-Stranger Things world, it’s more of an ‘upside down’ of Pop. It is the equal and opposite reaction, the shadow cast by light, the other side of the coin. All that said, it’s not sinister sounding, nor does it hint to the presence of demagorgons, but where Pop could’ve conceivably been ambient Eden, Narkopop feels like industry has moved in. I hope it’s not 17 more years before Voigt releases another of these.
2. Fever Ray – Plunge
I miss The Knife and I wish they weren’t gone. Their manifesto packed in with their swan song, Shaking the Habitual, was honest in its message that everything needed to change. Very little happened for more than four years, then came Karin Dreijer bearing the Fever Ray banner toting frenetically cold, manic electro energy along with just impetus to make some risks pay off. Plunge sees Dreijer exert command both vocally and stylistically of her direction so much that a little voice in my head said “The Knife just have needed to disappear so Fever Ray could shine.” It’s absolutely invigorating to hear matters of the heart channeled through critical thought like this. I am at a loss to remember when I heard someone execute that this well.
Highlights: “This Country,” “A Part of Us,” “Wanna Sip,” “To The Moon and Back,” “Mama’s Hand”
1b. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel, main man The War On Drugs, may be known for obsessive studio perfectionism, but A Deeper Understanding is the single most listened to album in my headphones in 2017. For that reason alone, this album shares the summit of this list. There were no sonic havens I wanted to escape to more than the synth-laden, grounded rhythms, chiming guitars and bass builds. This album is a lush paradise in perpetual sunset in which we’d all love to just peacefully inhabit and maybe get along. If you’d told me at Wagonwheel Blues, this band would get here. I’d have called you crazy. And yet, and yet…
Highlights: “Holding On,” “Knocked Down,” “Nothing to Find,” “Thinking of A Place,” “You Don’t Have to Go”
1a. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
“The comedy of man starts like this / Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips / And so Nature, she divines this alternative / We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end / Is kind enough to fill us in / And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since”
The opening lyrics of the album, as well as its title track, don’t pull many punches, if any. This life, this world, these times, it’s all confusing and the former Fleet Fox spends a long album detailing his issues as well as seeing the deplorable comedy of it all. It’s his most theatrical, yet fully grounded and probably the longest running time of his Father John Misty output. It’s a wild, winding ride where no one, not even himself, is safe. There’s no other album in 2017 that is as up front about the weirdness of the modern world. The dying man who has to check his news feed for what he’s about to miss, the confusing placement of religious institutions in the lives of their devout as well as what the devout may consciously overlook out of faith. Vocally, I don’t thing Josh Tillman has been stronger than this. I’ve always found great comfort in “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Father John Misty, in some way, has been channeling the perspective of “Life’s a piece of shit / When you look at it.” Pure Comedy is the crystalline version of that perspective and it’s replete with citations, sources and examples. I could quote this album all day and most of it hits me in ways that still blow my mind. None of them point out the current over-arching human condition more than, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.” Thank you, Father John Misty for this vibrant, fearless, funny and honest album.
Highlights: “Leaving L.A.,” “Pure Comedy,” “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Ballad of A Dying Man,” “Two Wildly Different Perspectives”