Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best Albums of 2017

Cut Copy redeems 2017 at the Music Farm in Charleston, early this month. Photo by meee.

I've had a lot of conversations about "narratives" this year. In short, I'm sick of them. In the age we're living in politically, what's even the point? 2017 isn't a straight line from 2008; we thought 2008 was positively nuts. I won't sit here and tell you that great music doesn't reflect the current moment; god, my two favorites last year -- the albums that completely defined the final month of election season and the immediate aftermath for me, in fact -- were Danny Brown's Atrocity Exhibition and Kate Tempest's Let Them Eat Chaos, both of which were about nothing if not the anguish of right-now. Looking over my 2017 list and remembering my experience with each of these records, weighed with how they come across to me now, there certainly is music that's about how it feels to live, endure or deny our collective bout of insanity. Jlin, Laurel Halo and Iglooghost amplify the idea of sensory overload until it overtakes your brain to such an extent that other music and life itself sound quaint for a time.

But life isn't quaint, it's volatile and unpredictable and harrowing in ways art can't predict. 2017 has been the year in which we functioned in the shadow of "It." I'm not just talking about what you think I'm talking about, and when I say "we" I literally mean "we," myself and my family; you can include yourself if you want. I watched an immediate family member die this year, and everything I heard or did or consumed in 2017 is in that shadow; that was our "It." The United States took decisive steps -- by no means its first -- toward fascism; it feels palpably like the first act of the fiery end of humanity more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. That was my "It," too; that was everyone's "It." One's dealings with "It" automatically generate narrative. To borrow an analogy my teenage self would deeply appreciate, the lighting crash of last November is like the moment on The Downward Spiral when there's that sudden bang and one of the two channels stays distorted for the rest of the album. That's right, the whole world became less a disaster movie than a silly concept album. Nonetheless I'm not convinced that being steeped into every detail of our own reactions to "It" is the right way to cope, to go on (not to go on as if nothing happened but simply to go on, as a character puts it in Renoir's The River) or quite frankly to make art that genuinely lasts. (Mount Eerie disagrees with me.)

There are some records with traces of activism and anxiety that of course I can hear resonating strongly across eras; after all, think of how much still-beloved music of the Nixon era is protest music. Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. -- a much more interesting and engrossing record than it initially looks to be -- chronicles a feeling of ennui in the aftermath of "It" while also sorting out internal dramas and devoting itself to just thrilling the largest possible audience. Joey Bada$$, as wide-eyed and earnest in his way as John Lennon circa Some Time in New York City while saying a great deal that both hurts to hear and needs to be vocalized, is less hesitant in his full-fledged attack on "It" and its implications; he interestingly left the supposed bangers -- which aren't nearly as good, bold or inspiring -- off the full-length and issued them as singles. Depeche Mode's strongest album in over a decade gains its vitality -- and reasserts that band's solid reliability -- through a disgust they correctly surmise is nearly universal among, we'd hope, the kind of people who think fondly of Depeche Mode.

But this is also the era in which an endlessly punchable Neo-Nazi proclaimed Mode the music of their movement -- so a band that, despite sustained popularity across decades, hasn't been in a "zeitgeist" for twenty-plus years, if ever, suddenly became headline news briefly. Dave Gahan shutting down the assertion with enjoyable nonchalance didn't change the fact that narrative was having its way. Depeche Mode was never theirs, they were ours -- and those were elastic terms, of course. "They" might be the normal kids in your high school (at mine, it meant the homophobes), or rock critics in the '80s who understood neither the band's love of Shadow Morton-sized melodrama nor their humor (which continues right through Martin Gore's soulful intonation of "oh, we're fucked" on Spirit) but one asshole says one thing and the most dependably minding-their-own-business of all megapopular bands has to react. And as an extrapolation, an opinion of Spirit was no longer just an opinion but a political statement.

On sitting down to write this essay, I realized that talking about the mood of this time and talking about the best music I heard during it were two markedly different things; as implied above, it isn't a strict distinction at all, but I would be lying if I told you that I thought our collective, constant horror at "It" and what "It" means and what "It" did to our lives and the lives of our loved ones was the essence of the full-length records I've come to truly love recently. It was hard for me to locate albums this year with a real throughline of the kind of soulfulness and consistency that keeps me yearning to return to a record again and again, to consider it as a full piece, to dissect and fall in love with it. There was so much terrific music released this year, all the same, and much of it did cope with this specific reality; but I find myself more interested in what would resonate equally across any situation, better or worse. Kendrick Lamar and Sheer Mag, to name but two, locate the universal in specifics; Nadine Shah, whose Holiday Destination is the most slept-on and vital-to-this-moment of my four A-grade records this year, delves into the personal within the political, and vice versa in a manner that exudes compassion and critical self-examination. Chastity Belt is more of the former, less of the latter, with a sometimes devastating bleakness and honesty mixed in. The thing is, not only do we need these voices now, I firmly believe we'll continue to need them. As with Depeche Mode, that's as likely to be "we" in a private sense, alone in our rooms with headphones on, as in the social, "important," buzz-clip sense; that does matter, and maybe I should be forcing it to matter more.

But immersing oneself in Slowdive, a twenty-year dormant act come back from the dead better than ever? Delighting and swooning at the most well-crafted and elaborately performed Mountain Goats record to date? (As long as I breathe I'll never forget the first time I heard the bridge kick in during "Shelved" and thought holy fuck he's committing to this.) Putting the windows down to Vince Staples at just the time of day when you know it will annoy your neighbors the most? Thrilling to the family-homemade qualities of Loyle Carner's record, being able to hear how much it means to him to be able to make it? Wanting to hug Valerie June and London O'Connor for entirely different reasons? Exploring, studying, poring over the words Sarah Cracknell sings on Saint Etienne's record and then forgetting what you've learned and just luxuriating in the longing in her voice? If none of these feelings are as timeless as the feeling of dropping the needle on Joanna Newsom's Divers or D'Angelo's Black Messiah, they're as close as we can get with so much tension in the air and so much trauma surrounding seemingly everybody in some volume. I'm not saying it doesn't matter when these things happened. I'm not saying these people don't have great stories that brought them to this point. What I'm saying is that these were musical moments I loved and they seem less alien than anything about "It," or anything surrounding "It," and they're important and good for that reason. But that doesn't make for a catchy essay about what. it. all. means.

One of my favorite bands who've been good for a long, long time recorded my favorite album of the year, which is about a semi-dead movement I mostly only know about third-hand, but its empathy and detail strike me as both intensely touching and mordantly witty -- variants on a theme that it transforms into high drama, every song remarking upon the others like on The Village Green Preservation Society. Number four was by a rapper who'd previously not done much for me, but his adoption of beats and brevity made the difference. We saw Kate Tempest, Cut Copy and the Mountain Goats play live, surrounded by others like us, all simultaneous catharsis about and respite from "It." These were my favorite albums in 2017 -- mostly concise and hard-hitting, with a lot of variance within and collectively -- and that's all there is to say, ultimately, beyond discussing and comparing our choices and swapping recommendations. Music isn't just some recreational distraction here, it's why we cope with the other shit, and what helps that coping. But does "this helped me cope" generate clicks? And can we keep doing what we do, honestly and passionately, if it doesn't?

***

Boring Statistics: Reviewed/rated 208 albums in 2017, up from 173 last year. Sampled and rejected an additional 205; total 413, down from 427 in 2016.

About the list: Highly recommended albums are bolded, and my top ten is enlarged with capsule reviews linked; anything else in the top fifty probably warrants a closer look if you have the right ears. I keep rankings throughout the year and then re-listen to everything with an A- or A grade (highly recommended) for this post, so those upper numbers are meticulously decided upon. The rankings are a lot less precise from #27 down to the hundreds, and there are some albums in the lower reaches that I only heard in full once or twice. I know that isn't ideal but I've only got so much time, and I don't think I'll steer you wrong here, as everything I put in the monthly posts is quite carefully considered. This was a good year for good albums (and great songs), not so much for excellent or great albums; but my top four could stand up in just about any year. Most years it pains me to decide which two or three favorites will have to be squeezed out of the top ten; this year it was much harder to decide what really deserved to make the cut the most. But on exploring all this material again, I'm quite happy with the final rank and I hope you enjoy perusing it.

***

50. Nicole Atkins: Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock)
49. Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop)
48. Youmi Zoumi: Willowbank (Cascine)
47. Antibalas: Where the Gods Are in Peace (Daptone)
46. The Horrors: V (Caroline)
45. (Sandy) Alex G: Rocket (Domino)
44. Surfer Blood: Snowdonia (Joyful Noise)
43. Lee Fields & the Expressions: Special Night (Big Crown)
42. William Basinski: A Shadow in Time (2062)
41. Blue Hawaii: Tenderness (Arbutus)
40. EMA: Exile in the Outer Ring (City Slang)
39. Juana Molino: Halo (Crammed Discs)
38. Angelino de Augustine: Swim Inside the Moon (Asthmatic Kitty)
37. Ben Frost: The Centre Cannot Hold (Mute)
36. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: Soul of a Woman (Daptone)
35. Broken Social Scene: Hug of Thunder (Arts & Crafts)
34. Wolf Parade: Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop)
33. Diet Cig: Swear I'm Good at This (Frenchkiss)
32. Jay Som: Everybody Works (Polyvinyl)
31. Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines (Sub Pop)
30. Amber Coffman: City of No Reply (Columbia)
29. Peter Perrett: How the West Was Won (Domino)
28. Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)
27. Run the Jewels 3 (Mass Appeal)
26. The Flaming Lips: Oczy Mlody (Warner Bros.)
25. Depeche Mode: Spirit (Columbia)
24. Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star (Sub Pop)
23. The Underachievers: Renaissance (RPM)
22. Kelela: Take Me Apart (Warp)
21. Valerie June: The Order of Time (Concord)
20. London O'Connor: O∆ (s/r)
19. Saint Etienne: Home Counties (Heavenly)
18. Charly Bliss: Guppy (Barsuk)
17. Loyle Carner: Yesterday's Gone (Virgin)
16. Joey Bada$$: All-Amerikkkan Badass (Cinematic)
15. Wolf Alice: Visions of a Life (RCA)
14. Iglooghost: Neo Wax Bloom (Brainfeeder)
13. Laurel Halo: Dust (Hyperdub)
12. Songhoy Blues: Resistance (Fat Possum)
11. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (Interscope)


10. Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love
(Revolver) | A- | review

9. Cut Copy: Haiku from Zero
(astralwerks) | A- | review

8. Jlin: Black Origami
(Planet Mu) | A- | review

7. Chastity Belt: I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone
(Hardly Art) | A- | review

6. Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai
(Merge) | A- | review

5. The National: Sleep Well Beast
(4AD) | A- | review

4. Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory
(Def Jam) | A | review

3. Slowdive
(Dead Oceans) | A | review

2. Nadine Shah: Holiday Destination
(1965 Records) | A | review

1. The Mountain Goats: Goths
(Merge) | A | review

***

THE NEXT FIFTY
51. Tyler, the Creator: Flower Boy (Columbia)
52. Don Bryant: Don't Give Up on Love (Fat Possum)
53. Paramore: After Laughter (Atlantic)
54. Bicep (Ninja Tune)
55. Dalek: Endangered Philosophies (Ipecac)
56. Steve Hauschildt: Strands (Kranky)
57. Ryuichi Sakamoto: async (Milan)
58. Dawn Richard: Redemption (Local Action)
59. American Wrestlers: Goodbye Terrible Youth (Fat Possum)
60. Benjamin Clementine: I Tell a Fly (Virgin)
61. L.A. Witch (Suicide Squeeze)
62. Thurston Moore: Rock N Roll Consciousness (Caroline)
63. IFE: IIII + IIII (Discos Ifa)
64. Sylvan Esso: What Now (Loma Vista)
65. The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Concord)
66. Brian Eno: Reflection (Warp)
67. Waxahatchee: Out in the Storm (Merge)
68. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid (Western Vinyl)
69. Kelly Lee Owens (Smalltown Supersound)
70. Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)
71. Jesca Hoop: Memories Are Now (Sub Pop)
72. Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar (Virgin)
73. Bjork: Utopia (One Little Indian)
74. Feist: Pleasure (Interscope)
75. Rostam: Half-Light (Nonesuch)
76. Teen Daze: Themes for Dying Earth (Flora)
77. Visible Cloaks: Reassemblage (Rvng Intl.)
78. Trombone Shorty: Parking Lot Symphony (Blue Note)
79. Moire: No Future (Ghostly)
80. Living Colour: Shade (Megaforce)
81. Lee Gamble: Mnestic Pressure (Hyperdub)
82. Saltland: A Common Truth (Constellation)
83. Madness: Can't Touch Us Now (Universal)
84. Karriem Riggins: Headnod Suite (Stones Throw)
85. Deer Tick: Vol. 2 (Partisan)
86. Jupiter & Okwess: Kin Sonic (Glitterbeat)
87. Vagabon: Infinite Worlds (Father/Daughter)
88. Tinariwen: Elwan (Anti-)
89. The Clientele: Music for the Age of Miracles (Merge)
90. Zara McFarland: Arise (Brownswood)
91. Spoon: Hot Thoughts (Matador)
92. Blondie: Pollinator (BMG)
93. Denzel Curry: Imperial (Loma Vista)
94. Romare: Love Songs, Pt. 2 (Ninja Tune)
95. Portico Quartet: Art in the Age of Automation (Gondwana)
96. Gas: Narkopop (Kompakt)
97. This Is the Kit: Moonshine Freeze (Rough Trade)
98. Bonobo: Migration (Ninja Tune)
99. Mogwai: Every Country's Son (Temporary Residence)
100. FaltyDL Heaven Is for Quitters (Beat)

ALSO RECOMMENDED IN 2017
Floating Points: Reflections - Mojave Desert (Pluto)
Loscil: Monument Builders (Kranky)
Oddisee: The Iceberg (Mello Music)
The xx: I See You (Young Turks)
The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch)
Lupe Fiasco: Drogas Light (Thirty Tigers)
SOHN: Rennen (4AD)
Ibeyi: Ash (XL)
The Heliocentrics: A World of Masks (Soundway)
Goldfrapp: Silver Eye (Mute)
Lindstrom: It's Alright Between Us as It Is (Smalltown Supersound)
Dizzee Rascal: Raskit (Universal)
Hauschka: What If (Temporary Residence)
Crystal Fairy (Ipecac)
Simian Mobile Disco: Welcome to Sideways (Delicacies)
Chuck Berry: Chuck (Dualtone)
Golden Retriever: Rotations (Thrill Jockey)
Freddie Gibbs: You Only Live 2wice (ESGN)
Sherwood & Pinch: Man vs. Sofa (On-U)
Jacques Green: Feel Infinite (LuckyMe)
PVT: New Spirit (felte)
Blanck Mass: World Eater (Sacred Bones)
TOPS: Sugar at the Gate (Arbutus)
Orchestra Baobob: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit)
Allison Crutchfield: Tourist in This Town (Merge)
Destroyer: ken (Merge)
Molly Burch: Please Be Mine (Captured Tracks)
Beach Fossils: Somersault (Bayonet)
Actress: AZD (Ninja Tune)
Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion (Because)
Do Make Say Think: Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)
Sufjan Stevens/Bryce Dessner/Nico Muhly/James McAlister: Planetarium (4AD)
Samiyam: Pizza Party (Stones Throw)
Ty Segall (Drag City)
Les Amazones D'Afrique: Republique Amazone (Real World)
Forest Swords: Compassion (Ninja Tune)
Spiral Stairs: Doris & the Daggers (Domino)
Alison Moyet: Other (Cooking Vinyl)
Curren$y: The Fo20 Massacre (s/r)
The Shins: Heartworms (Sony)
Big Thief: Capacity (Saddle Creek)
Pond: The Weather (Marathon Artists)

***

EPs THAT SHOULD BE IN THE TOP TEN ALBUMS LIST
Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La (Customs)
Jlin: Dark Lotus (Planet Mu) [only two tracks, the second on Black Origami, but it was here first]
Holy Fuck: Bird Brains (Innovative Leisure)

OTHER EPs RECOMMENDED IN 2017
Rolling Blackouts C.F.: Talk Tight (Sub Pop 2016)
Kamasi Washington: Harmony of Difference (Young Turks)
The Mountain Goats: Marsh Witch Visions (s/r)
Anohni: Paradise (Secretly Canadian)

******

Sometime in the next week, we reflect with the List of Lists. In January, we reflect with a new series; later this year, the Essentials return. And at the end of 2018, it will be time already to start thinking about taking stock of this entire stupid fucking decade. Godspeed.

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