This year was a great one for music, but every year is a great year for music. There are so many artists releasing new albums in any number of genres on any given week, and streaming services make it all available at the touch of a mousepad. It makes listening to music an incredibly enjoyable and accessible hobby, if not overwhelming. So in an attempt to elevate my music-listening hobby and wage war on the staggering amount of musical content being output by the world, I decided to catalogue my favorite releases from this year.
Consequently, and primarily to feign productivity while home for the holidays, this list came to life. I've more or less ranked albums based on my personal preference, which is an arbitrary and demeaning (but fun) exercise, and given my thoughts on each. Genre-labeling is mostly my gut-reaction description of an album's sound, oftentimes with help from Google if I can't decide on a categorization. Most importantly, this is all my own personal opinion!
Individual songs are great, but this list is about albums. So without further ado...
Bell Witch's 80+ minutes of doom is not something I'm always in the mood for, but when I am, it hits hard. Mirror Reaper got me through hours and hours of calculus grading, and also soothed me to sleep a number of times. Probably my favorite metal release of the year. Also, metal albums consistently have the dopest album art, and this is no exception.
I definitely prefer Volume 1 to Volume 2, Stapleton's second release from this year. Perhaps I've spent so much time with Volume 1 that the predecessor was unfairly judged. In any case, the complete From A Room anthology is a very solid country release from this year.
It's a little long, and with the simple instrumentation it isn't quite as actively engaging as some of Thile's other projects, but it's consistent and impressive the whole way through. A fantastic addition to the Thile family tree of music. The album's closer is a rendition of an old Irish song called Tabhair dom do Lámh, and is one of the most beautiful pieces from this year.
Between this fantastic full-length album and their EP warm glow, the band's 2017 output has put them solidly in my radar for anything they do in the future.
Behind Lekman's narrative charm is an equally delightful set of twee pop instrumentals. The songwriting is fantastic as well, with some truly memorable choruses: the "I felt like a five-year-old watching the ten-year-olds shoplifting / Ten-year-old watching the fifteen-year-olds French kissing" hook on Wedding In Finistère is sensational, and the melancholic "You mouth out 'I love you' / The way a parents spell out 'i-c-e c-r-e-a-m'" refrain on Our First Fight is one of my favorite moments on the album.
Life Will See You Now functions as a reminder that we shouldn't take ourselves so seriously. At the same time, Lekman's romantic and amusing lyrcism is emotionally deep in unexpected ways. Toss in the lovely twee production, and it is no surprise that this album is one of 2017's finest.
For me, 2017 was a bit of down year in hip-hop. But ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ is one of the few projects that stands up to the genre's incredible albums from recent years, and is easily the hip-hop record I enjoyed the most on this list.
This project sits alongside other ambient releases from this year as perfect music for sleeping and studying. But - in part because of its shorter length - I've given Grafts plenty of active listens, and it shines in that setting as well. Its three movements are engaging and beautiful, and it holds up fantastically as both a background and foreground piece.
Morby presents a slate of charmingly simple folk rock tunes on City Music. His songs feature straightforward but provacative lyricism and instrumentals crafted deftly from the elements of rock. The title track is my favorite song on the album: it begins as a soft ode to the sounds of a city, slowly building, until it breaks out into an energetic jam. The somber opener Come to Me Now is another one of my favorites. Every cut on City Music has an infectious appeal, though, and in total the album thrives in its simplicity.
From the 11-minute rock opus Crumbling Castle which kicks off the album to the the fake-out ending of The Fourth Colour, Polygondwanaland is a thrilling and cohesive ride through King Gizz's foray into prog rock.
But LCD Soundsystem delivered. I really enjoy this album. The production, the driving and swelling songwriting, the 9-minute groovy behemoth how do you sleep?; I was instantly intrigued. I even warmed up to the juicy bass on call the police and the soaring synths on american dream, and the two pre-release singles ultimately became my favorite songs from the record. It is a long project, and I'm not a big fan of the closing tracks (emotional haircut and the 12-minute-long black screen), so I usually cut my playthrough of the album short after american dream. But on the whole, this is a fantastic release.
Of all the indie rock I listened to and enjoyed this year, this album falls the closest to adult contemporary music (the opener The Maze sounds like if Mumford & Sons dropped their faux-bluegrass production and wrote a solid song). While that sounds like it could be an insult, it's actually a testament to how well Manchester Orchestra is able to balance quality songwriting and interesting production with a clean and easy-listening rock sound.
As expected, the composition and lyricism on this album is delightful. The record's defining characteristic, though, is simply how it sounds. No Shape is delicate, with Mike Hadreas' multitracked high register floating above a rustic art pop foundation, but there is enough punch in the production to make a definitive musical statement. The result is a truly wonderful album that I wish I spent more time with during the year.
In all seriousness, though, this album is beautiful. Phoebe's voice and lyrical content is strikingly reminiscent of Baker's, but the instrumentation on this album is fleshed out and more polished than any of Baker's projects. The songwriting and lyricism is distinct: sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. For example, I don't think Julien Baker has any songs as immediately delightful as Scott Street; on the other hand, sometimes Phoebe's lyrics are so bluntly on-the-nose depressing (e.g. Funeral) that it feels a little silly and yanks me out of the experience, rather than affecting me in a powerful way.
In any case, Phoebe is a wonderful new artist and this album indicates that she'll have a fruitful career.
There are plenty of enjoyable features of this project, from the uptempo opener Darling to the druggy guitar solo outro on the 7-minute Two Arrows, but the best is the final song Saturday. It's an incredibly catchy and well-produced indie pop tune, and is one of my favorite album closers of the year.
From a musical standpoint, Dawson's experimentation succeeds. Ogre, for example, is one of the year's best songs, with escalating tension coming to a head in a joyous and galloping "When the sun is rising" refrain. Beggar and its shockingly catchy cascading guitar riff and the 11-minute epic closer Masseuse are other standouts.
Peasant consistently left me in awe, but it can be so challenging and hefty that I think I gave it less attention than it deserved. In any case, Dawson's fantasy world is endlessly intriguing and comprises a fascinating musical relic of 2017.
Between Claudio's breathy falsetto and the dreamlike R&B production, About Time strikes me as a poppier version of FKA Twigs' early EPs. Cuts like Unravel Me could slide in seamlessly between Papi Pacify and Water Me from Twigs' EP 2, so for fans of that early FKA Twigs sound, Sabrina Claudio's 2017 album is the project to check out.
Sharon Jones gives her final recorded performance on the album's closer, Call On God. Jones slays this incredible song, and in the context of her death, listening to her sing "Just call on God / And He will provide" is particularly moving. For a track that signifies the end of an album, the end of a career, and the end of a life, it does not dissapoint.
In short, Birdie is one of the easiest albums to throw on from this year. It's fun, it's soothing, and it's in no way challenging. With that being said, the charming songwriting and pristine production prevents this project from being forgettable.
With that being said, Petite Afrique punches slightly below its weight in terms of sheer enjoyment level (at least for me personally). I struggle to articulate why, but even though every playthrough of this album leaves me deepy impressed, I don't find myself really wanting to spin it very often. Nevertheless, Somi's artistry here is brilliant and deserving of attention and admiration.
At times, Music For People In Trouble is stunning in its simplicity: the opener, for example, is a folky ballad, sung over a softly picked acoustic guitar and the swelling of a sliding guitar. At other times, the record experiments and pushes boundaries, as with the random feedback noise in Good Luck Bad Luck, or the unnerving and robotic spoken-word section of the title track. Throughout, the songwriting and lyrcism is beautiful, and Sundfør's voice is a delicate treat.
With that being said, Tyler's 2017 album is a high quality album and is a significant step up from his previous projects. Though it wasn't a record I had on repeat, in my opinion it is probably the strongest hip-hop release from this year.
The opening track, Paresthesia, is exceptional, and makes use of driving percussion and a variety of unique electronic production details to set the scene for the album. The juicy synth that brings in the final chorus devolves into distorted noise in the most delicious way possible. Mirror Touch capitalizes on this momentum with the following single-worthy track, Do You Really?, which boasts a wonderfully memorable hook. The rest of the album delivers, firing off a series of well-produced and well-written indie electro-jams.
With the record on its last legs, a haunting sampling of vocal harmonies introduces Forgetting Rock n Roll, the marquee ballade on Mirror Touch. This track features some of my favorite production details on the album: a dreamy guitar twang that kicks off the anthemic chorus, and a soft, pulsing marimba note that bubbles up throughout the song.
This project was one of my favorite discoveries of the year, and each time I revisit it I find something new to enjoy.
As suggested by its opening piece, I Tell A Fly is challenging. It's exquisite, technically and musically impressive, undeniably interesting - but it is demanding. On first impression, it's immediately clear how talented Clementine is as a composer and vocalist, and the ambitious songwriting paired with risky production experimentation is admirable. But Clementine ventures far enough from even more conventional art pop that savoring this album takes some effort.
So is it enjoyable?
At times, absolutely. With each listen, I Tell A Fly becomes more comfortable as it reveals its twists and turns, its jerks and unexpected maneuvers. Clementine's experimentation hits more than it misses, and he ends up producing some of the most sonically engaging moments of the year. From the driving drum beat piano jam which occupies the first minute of Phantom Of Allepoville to the soothing oddly-enunciated vocals throughout By The Ports Of Europe, this project has plenty of pleasantry to offer.
I don't find myself coming home and thinking man I just really want to listen to Benjamin Clementine very often. But I Tell A Fly stands as one of the more profound projects of the year, and it puzzling nature consistently draws me back in.
Arca's self-titled album is a departure from his previous work in a number of ways. First and foremost is the presence of Arca's ghastly Spanish vocals, a significant development for a previously instrumental producer. His production itself is softer and more purposeful than on previous solo projects, yet still boundary-pushing in intriguing and unnerving fashion. All of these elements are tied together in a compositionally cohesive manner, and the result is phenomenal.
Altogether a swamp of homogoneous macabre, Arca is nevertheless full of special moments. The jarring electronic swells amidst the lashing noises in Whip are truly unsettling, and the deep thrum that emerges from the depths of Piel at 1:40, setting the tone of the album, is one of my favorite moments of 2017.
The vitalizing opener, Starwood Choker, introduces the elements from which the album is built: a rolling and swelling piano, guiding dramatic chord changes and uncovering a subtle melody, together with dreamy haze of strings. The album ebbs and flows from there, with peaceful pieces like As Much As Possible interlaced between vigorous compositions like Scrapes and Form Takes. The album closes with two dynamic pieces which surge to flourishing climaxes from humble beginnings. Throughout, the instrumentation and arrangement is divine, and altogether No Home of the Mind is one of the most gorgeous projects of 2017.
The title track on this album is one of my favorite ten or twenty tracks of the year. With novel and unbearably charming lyrcism, Womack mourns how love and heartbreak have changed since the days of old: "The only way this heartache is like an old Hank Williams' song / Is the lonely, the lonesome, and the gone." Womack's sultry vocals over an unassuming but lovely country instrumental make this one of the record's gems.
On the whole, The Lonely, The Lonesome, & The Gone is one of my favorite country releases of the past couple years.
The production on this record is pleasantly soft, with the steady drumming set back in the mix. The guitars and synths combine to produce a borderline shoegaze vibe, and Phillip's layered vocals throughout are soaked into the mix as pleasingly as possible. The result is soothing, yet at the same time vigorous and poppy.
The Days We Had really shines because of its songwriting. Each and every verse on the album, well-written and memorable, blends perfectly into its respective chorus. The hooks on this album are enduring and as catchy as any I've heard in the genre this year. The structure of the tracks is mostly straightforward, but Phillips changes it up often enough to keep the listener interested: take, for example, the mostly-instrumental mid-album cut Bloom, which jams out to a peculiar time signature. Wasting Time and Disguise are two of my favorite songs of the year; they embody what makes this album great, while also featuring small details that make them stand out (the synth solo that kicks in at 3:14 on Wasting Time is perhaps my favorite moment on the record). All in all, this thing is a joy to listen to.
Anyway, here's my point: After Laughter, Paramore's fifth studio album, made me fall in love with Hayley and her band again. Actually, it made more of a Paramore fan than I ever was before. Not only is After Laughter fantastic, and not only did it prompt many re-spins of my old favorite Riot!, but it got me to finally listen to Paramore's other projects. (I've been kicking myself for not listening to brand new eyes sooner; that album is incredible, and is as strong - if not stronger - than Riot!. If you haven't checked it out, please fix that!) So for about a week this past summer I fell in to a deep Paramore binge, with their entire discography on repeat.
The band's 2017 project is a different beast than their previous output. It's upbeat, poppier, and features some unexpected experimentation in production. But after getting over my initial lolwut impression (really though, the album opens with a marimba) I came to accept After Laughter as an incredibly enjoyable pop rock record. The songs are insanely catchy (just listen to the hooks on Rose-Colored Boy or Caught In The Middle), and Paramore pulls off the poppier sound well. Fake Happy is one of my favorite tracks of the year: the acoustic down-tempo intro, the soft synth production and groovy bass lines on the verses, Hayley's aggressive enunciation of the word "teeth" in the prechorus, the anthemic chorus, the lyrics throughout, it's all just so good. My favorite cut from the album, though, is probably Pool. The song opens with some twinkly bells that morph in a driving verse and a ridiculously catchy call-and-response-type chorus. All that is great, but Pool is special because of its incredible bridge, beginning around the two-and-a-half minute mark. There is something about Hayley's "Dive right back into you" vocals that make me stop whatever I'm doing, every time, to sing along.
This album is as fun and colorful as its album art, and offers a new flavor of Paramore for the world to enjoy. And though After Laughter's sound is a departure from the band's emo-twinged past, Hayley's distinctive voice is a rock solid reminder that this is (more or less) the same group that rocked out on Riot! in a previous decade.
As with any first-rate ambient album, Phantom Brickworks behaves exceptionally well under both passive and active listening. Take, for example, the vast PHANTOM BRICKWORKS II. On the one hand, the soothing, nondescript, and repetitive piece functions perfectly as background music. Upon closer inspection, however, steadily evolving minutiae become quite apparent: every few bars, Bibio introduces a new sound, a slight change in phrasing, a hidden sample underneath the fragmented melody. This is beautifully accomplished, and makes the 17-minute composition one of the album's most engaging. Long and flowering pieces are the focal point of this project, but Bibio also includes a handful of shorter songs, like the gorgeous closer CAPEL BETHANIA, to preserve the album's refreshing flow.
In a year where I listened to ambient music more than ever before, Phantom Brickworks stands out as my favorite of the genre's output. Bibio's haunting production has soothed me to sleep countless times, been the backdrop for evening study sessions, and also garnered an impressive number of active listens.
The rest of Knuckle Puck's sophomore album delivers. Shapeshifter is short and sweet, and features punchy pop punk production and some killer songs that are begging to be air-guitared. Want Me Around embodies everything I love about this record: a juicy drum intro, crunchy guitar tones backing some more interesting layered production, and all of it presented with a supremely catchy hook.
This is a great album to scratch that guilty-pleasure-mid-2000's-Simple-Plan itch in a modern and mature way, and I love it for that reason alone.
The shining is star in the Glasshouse constellation is Your Domino, one of my absolute favorite cuts from this year, which features upbeat synthy production and the catchiest hook on the album. There are so many details in this song that I adore: the frenzied drum roll which brings in the chorus, Jessie's delivery of "give me a look so powerful," the ramped up production in the final chorus. It's such a great pop tune. Your Domino is special, but the entire record is full of 3-4 minute single-worthy tracks, one after another, ending (the standard edition, that is) with a gorgeous ballad in Sam.
There is nothing wildly innovative or extraordinary about Glasshouse. Rather, it's a consistent and illustrious example of contemporary pop and R&B.
All this is to say that I discovered Faye and her self-titled album far too late into the year. This thing is amazing. Her indie-rock-flavored production laced with a silky sliding guitar drew me in instantly. The songwriting is lovely and her voice is pleasant, if slightly unremarkable. Google suggests that Faye is "alt-folk"; I was initially tempted to describe her as "indie folk" or just "indie rock". Whatever she is, she delicately crosses genre territories on this record with a folky and country sound backed by solid rock percussion. The result is marvelous.
The album kicks off with the upbeat She Won't Go Away, and keeps the momentum going with the incredible I Know You, one of my top songs of the year. The track opens with Faye singing softly over a lightly strummed clean electric guitar; soon, a punchy drum beat kicks in and introduces the sliding guitar, and the piece picks up momentum. This culminates in the drums opening up for a brief slide guitar solo. After a quiet bridge, the strum of a harp calls the drums back in and Faye fades the song out with an infectious jam sesh. Alone Again, another highlight, is a subdued and heartbreakingly beautiful song about loneliness, with lyrics that are stunning in their simplicity: "My mind's empty as the room I'm sleeping in / I covered my window / Now my plants are dead / So they know how I feel / Alone again." Also, the opening riff is dripping with influence from the haunting Twin Peaks theme, and it works so well.
Faye Webster seems like an awesome person. With this record, she officially has my attention, and the next time she rolls through LA I will be first in line to buy a ticket.
Fortunately, Sylvan Esso showed a great leap in maturity and innovaton of the genre with What Now. While still retaining that juicy electronic groove, the production on their 2017 project is repackaged with new flairs, details, and experimentation. The record's opener, Sound, features crackling vocals over a bass guitar and suggests a step in a new direction. The Glow kicks off with an acoustic guitar strum and lands closer to indie rock than it does to synth pop. Track after track, Sylvan Esso delivers a beautifully intricate electropop sound over straightforward but energetically catchy songs. This project is a joy to listen to and is a clear step up from its predecessor. Not only that, but What Now sets a high bar for CHVRCHES and Purity Ring in terms of evolving their own sound in 2018.
The opening track Night of the Long Knives makes a fierce statement and stands as one of the album's strongest songs. Everything Everything cools the pace slightly after that, but delivers a series of tracks with sharp production and catchy hooks. The back half features some more ambitious compositions, like the 6-minute title track A Fever Dream and the aggressive single Ivory Tower. Overall, this project showcases a well-executed, if not mildly subdued and matured Everything Everything sound, and as such prevails as one of the stronger rock albums from this year.
On this album, lead singer Tina Halladay's androgynous and dirty vocals rip through a collection of catchy, protest-fueled rock tunes. Her voice is anything but pleasant. In fact, my first snide impression of Sheer Mag was Eric Cartman starts a rock band. Having listened to this record for the umpteenth time, my current opinion is Eric Cartman starts a rock band, but now in the most lovingly way possible. It's a recipe that sounds like a disaster, but it works so well. Buoyed up by mature songwriting and addicting choruses, Halladay and company execute their dated sound in shockingly fresh and enjoyable fashion.
Expect the Bayonet is my favorite track on the album, and holds a spot as one of my favorite ten songs from the year. It embodies everything good about this album: a simple but effective finger-snappin' guitar riff, an impossibly catchy hook, and punchy politically-charged lyrics: "If you don't give use the ballot / Expect the bayonet!"
While Sportstar and Brick stand out in part because of their eccentricity, the album's best song is Bobby. It's a melancholic country-ish tune featuring a catchy violin theme and simple and steady vocal harmonies. Lyrically, the song is mysterious, but personal and beautiful all at the same time. Bobby is not only the strongest cut on Rocket, but it's one of my favorite songs from this year in general.
Tennis' sound is remarkably uniform on Yours Conditionally. In fact, I had trouble deciding which tracks to select as "Highlights," since the entire album is so consistent in terms of vibe and quality of presentation. This issue is in no way detrimental, though, as the samey-ness that plagues other similarly uniform albums is not present here. In contrast, Yours Conditionally comes together as a compact and beautifully monochrome puzzle, with each song its own uniquely shaped piece.
The album opens with an epic, swelling tome of post-punk in A Private Understanding, which periodically explodes in a crunch of guitars and eventually latches onto Casey's cryptic "She's just trying to reach you" refrain. From there, Relatives In Descent doesn't let up. Track after track, this thing delivers. Windsor Hum is easily one of my favorite songs from this year, and the violently dissonant "knock it down" and "throw him out" chanting on Up The Tower might be my favorite part of the whole record. The return to the "She's just trying to reach you" mantra in the album's closer is a perfect way to tie the record up.
Relatives In Descent is teeming with disciplined aggression and mystery, and the sonic template its delivered in is extraordinary in its own raw, punky way. To top it all off, the stoic woman plastered on the cloudy magenta background is probably my favorite album art of 2017.
Percolator, the album's opener, plays: oh my god I forgot how catchy this song is.
Westermarck, the album's second song, plays: oh my god I forgot how catchy this song is.
Glitter, the album's third song, plays: oh my god I forgot how catchy this song is.
...and this goes on for the rest of the album. For a record that I've spun over and over again, its wealth of impossibly catchy hooks tends to mass together in my mind as one, large, delectable Guppy blob, only to unravel itself in all of its poppy glory upon playthrough. And that's why Guppy is easily one of my favorite album of the year. It's a 29-minute fireball of upbeat power pop jams that evolves almost as one long song.
From the delicious chunked guitar over energetic drums that open the album to the subtle key changes throughout Westermarck, Guppy delivers as a solid indie rock album. But what makes the album stand out among its peers - for better or for worse - is lead singer Eva Hendricks' vocals. Personally, I love them, but they are certainly bizarre. Cutesy and nasally, at times Hendricks sounds like she could be the forgotten older sister of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
One of my musical weaknesses is raw, straightforward, female-led indie rock - think Hop Along, Waxahatchee, Great Grandpa, etc. Charly Bliss checks all of these boxes and then some. Boasting some of the catchiest verses and choruses of the year and served with Hendricks' peculiar but enchanting voice, Guppy is a bite-sized force to be reckoned with.
Life Without Sound opens with the melancholic and deliberate Up To The Surface, but gets the ball rolling soon after with the upbeat Things Are Right With You and its insanely catchy chorus. The album keeps it up from there, delivering punchy and hard-rocking tracks in rapid succession. The five-song stretch from Things Are Right With You through Modern Act is one of my favorite stretches of songs from any album this year, and is the easily strongest part of this record. Internal World is perhaps the best cut amongst these songs, with an anthemic chorus that ramps up in an amazingly satisfying way in its final iteration.
Life Without Sound, released in January, was one of my early favorites from 2018. It's a fun and supremely catchy rock record, and one that I will fondly revisit.
Somersault executes a breezy and pleasant indie pop sound which is pristinely clean. It's very similar to Real Estate's album from this year, but better in a number of ways: the songwriting is stronger, and the production and instrumentation is more interesting. Upbeat songs like Down the Line are just so fun, and That's All for Now is one of my favorite album closers of the year.
Every track on Painted Ruins, from the comparatively upbeat Mourning Sound to the soaring closer Sky Took Hold, has its merits. Three Rings, however - a multiphase art rock masterpiece - stands out as the cream of the crop. In fact, Three Rings is probably my second or third favorite overall song from 2017. Starting as a gentle rumble and ending as a controlled eruption, the finesse that went into this song is incredible. The snare rhythm that enters the second 39 seconds in always gives me butterflies; the steady and rhythmic cymbal at 1:50 and the undulating "don't you be so easy" melody at 3:09 build momentum and tension; finally, three-and-a-half minutes in, the bass enters and the drums let loose and by the four-minute mark the tension explodes into a climactic and culminating jam. It's a wonderful piece that encapsulates and perfects everything I love about Painted Ruins as a whole.
Maybe I'm fond of this album partly because I don't view it through Veckatimest-tinted glasses. If so, I'm fine with that, and when the time is right I'll venture back into Grizzly Bear's discography. For now, Painted Ruins stands as one of my personal highlights of 2017.
The Menzingers, historically more raw and punk, tightened it up a bit on this album. The production is cleaner, polished, even slightly restrained; but the guitars tones are crunchy as ever and this thing still rocks. The songwriting is exceptional, featuring memorable riffs and some of the most enjoyable choruses of the year. Moreover, there are small details - like the structure on the album's opener Tellin Lies', which features a spaced-out outro, or the ramped up guitar jam in the final chorus of the following song, Thick As Thieves - that elevate this album above others in the pop-punk genre.
Though every track on After The Party is great, there are some notable highlights. Lookers, a nostalgic rock-ballad about years gone by, is one of my favorite overall songs of the year. Midwestern States, a phenomenal song on its own, resonates with me in particular as a midwest/Chicago-to-LA transplant. The anthemic Your Wild Years rocks out with the best hook on the album.
After The Party isn't innovative or challenging. It won't set any trends and it won't win any awards. It doesn't pretend to be anything more than an enjoyably relatable collection of well-produced and well-written rock songs, and that's okay. It's comforting pop-punk, and as such I expect this record to becoming a favorite of mine as I continue to grow up.
On the whole, I tend to prefer shorter albums. Or, more accurately, I think it's a significant challenge for a band to forge a long project without sacrificing quality and enjoyability. Indeed, there are a number of artists from this year (King Krule, Father John Misty, LCD Soundsystem, BIG K.R.I.T., Rapsody, The National, to name a few) whose releases I thought would have benefited greatly from a generous trimming. In this regard, The War On Drugs consistently surprises me. With a daunting 66-minute runtime, A Deeper Understanding is an anomoly. Most of the songs clock in somewhere around the 6-7 minute mark, with Knocked Down, a comparitevely brief 4 minutes, and Thinking of a Place, an vast 11-minute opus, being the extremes. The point is, A Deeper Understanding is a long album of long songs - but it doesn't feel like it. Everytime I spin this record, I am never bored or impatient with any of the individual songs or the album as a whole, and that's a testament to how successfully Granduciel and company craft and evolve their pieces.
The natural centerpiece of A Deeper Understanding is the aforementioned Thinking of a Place, a sprawling and lavish rock ballad; the following track, In Chains, features my favorite individual moment on the album with the invigorating bass-snare kick-hit that launches the song into overdrive. The best cut, however, is Pain. A microcosm for A Deeper Understanding as a whole, Pain is built on a steady drum beat, an ornate tapestry of guitars and pianos, Granduciel's husky vocals, and a thick and groovy bass line. The first restrained guitar solo which enters at 2:10 foreshadows the second unleashed guitar solo at 3:40, in which the jam grows and grows to a gratifying climax. The song is incredible, and is one of my favorites from this year.
Plural features some of the most well-written and well-produced indie pop of the year. The songwriting is simple but effective, the melodies are beyond catchy, and Asa Taccone's crystal clear falsetto is so infectuous that it's difficult to not sing along with him for the entire album. What separates this album from others, though, is the sharp production. Crisp drums and punchy bass lines provide a rock solid foundation for the myriad layers of unique sounds dispersed throughout the record. It's a recipe that the duo executes perfectly.
Every single track on Plural is wonderful, but Dear to Me and Sarah are exceptional, and remain two of my favorite songs of the year. Dear to Me features backing vocals from HAIM and is reportedly Taccone's personal favorite song from the album. Sarah, the closest thing to a ballad on Plural, boasts flawlessly executed melodies in both the verses and prechorus, and a heart-wrenching, anthemic chorus which is perhaps my favorite chorus from any song this year.
The first thing that stands out in KLO's opening tracks is how masterfully Owens deliberately builds tension with her instrumentation. For example, the track Arthur features a deep bass which ping-pongs between two notes, the lower of which is ever-so-slightly sharp - the result is deeply uncomfortable, yet anticipatory. To the first-time-listener's dismay, she avoids full resolution. There is no drop, there is no change in chord structure; the song simply fizzles out, prompting a slow come-down from the anxious buzz she induced in the previous minutes. The following track, Anxi, features creepy vocals from Jenny Hval and builds and builds and builds - and then deliberately subsides. It's thrilling, if not borderline frustrating.
In marches Lucid, one of the few tracks on the record featuring any kind of active resolution to Owens' palpable tension. The song steadily gathers momentum through repetitive and controlled instrumentation, not unlike the preceding tracks. Finally, though, KLO shifts gears, alters the chord structure, drops a bass line and lets loose an exhilerating jam that lasts through the end of the song. Lucid not only snaps the anxiety of its own breed, but it brings to a climax the album's cumulative tension, built up from the opening seconds. A few songs later, in another climactic and relieving moment, Bird explodes into an outright groove, featuring a tight bassline and restrained percussion thumping over a hypnotic glockenspiel.The closing tracks, Keeping Walking and 8, are markedly less anxious than the first part of the album and also more subdued than the middle. They perfectly resolve the album as a whole, which comes together as a three part movement: anxiety and tension, followed by exhilarating resolution, ending with a comforting come-down. This cohesive and perfectly executed arc is one of the reasons why this album is so special. Throw in KLO's prodigous soundscapes and her remarkable electronic production, and the result is one of the best projects of 2017.
On September 22nd - a mere two days later - Moses Sumney released his debut album Aromanticism. My first impression was favorable, which is not surprising given how Sumney glides his remarkable voice over the project's intricately beautiful instrumentation. Over the next couple days, I spun the record consistently and moved it into my regular rotation. On the 25th, Doomed clicked and I had my first oh my god this album is incredible moment, and by the time October rolled around I knew that Aromanticism could very well become that happy surprise that fragmented my established top-tier group of 2017. Sure enough, here we are.
From a musical and technical standpoint, Aromanticism is exceptional. The album flows well, with short (but interesting) interludes dispersed between the longer and heavier pieces, and with a 34-minute runtime the album is pleasantly concise yet long enough to make its point and leave an impression. The composition and instrumentation is gorgeous, from the playful fingerpicked guitar in Plastic to the boisterous full-band cacophony in the closing stretch of Lonely World. Lyrically, the album is exquisite. Leaning on abstraction and mysterious simplicity, Sumney is a natural poet. Take, for example, the first verse of Doomed: "Hollow one / With inverted tongue / From whence does fulfillment come? / When I expel / From this mortal shell / Will I die for living numb?" At other times, Sumney is straightforward in his poetry: "With you, half the battle / Is proving that we're at war / I would give my life just for the privelage to ignore" he croons on Quarrel, a song about lovers fighting; or the song Make Out In My Car, whose lyrical content consists entirely of the repeated phrase "I'm not tryna go to bed with you / I just wanna make out in my car."
Though Sumney's at-times simple lyrics are lovely, the reason he can pull off stunts like singing "My wings are made of plastic" for minutes on end - and the true reason why Aromanticism is such a special album - is because of his voice. The man has the most uniquely dazzling timbre I've ever heard. Reedy and husky, yet undeniably angelic, Sumney's voice is a hybrid instrument of its own, and Aromanticism acts as its concerto. From the way he effortlessly prances through multiple registers to his enunciation and vocal runs, every track is an auditory delicacy.
With a strong musical foundation and interesting lyricism backing Sumney's incredible voice, it isn't surprising that Aromanticism is one of my favorite projects of the year. However, there are some truly special moments that further upgrade its status. For example, Doomed, the hypnotic centerpiece of Aromanticism, is unquestionably my favorite song of the year.
The instrumentation on Doomed is distinct from that of the rest of the album; not only is Sumney's guitar absent, but the track is void of any percussion. The musical backdrop behind the vocals consists of steady and pulsing synth notes, crescendoing into the final minute. This contrasting production works in the song's favor, placing emphasis on Sumney's stunning multi-register falsetto.
The backbone of Doomed is the refrain, which offers a rhetorical question, repeated throughout the song to varying intensities: "Am I vital / If my heart is idle? / Am I doomed?". As the piece gathers momentum, Sumney jumps a perfect fifth from the root note on the phrase "Am I doomed?"; while satisfying, that perfect fifth manages to build tension and suggests an impending resolution. Finally, around 3:20, the synths climax and Sumney relieves the tension in one of my favorite musical moments of 2017 by jumping an entire octave on the penultimate "If I'm doomed." It's a stunning apex of a thoroughly spectacular album, and gets as close to evoking a physical reaction with me as any piece of music has done.
I don't exactly know what prompted Sumney to question his fate on this track. His abstract lyrcism, though suggestive, leaves a lot up to interpretation. Whatever the reason, it brought to life a beautiful composition that I will revisit fondly for the rest of my life. In the context of Aromanticism as a whole, the track is even more powerful, and it elevates the album from a good album to a great one.
With all of that being said, Cigarettes After Sex nails the nostalgic dream-pop vibe like no other. Soft pitter-pattering drums and sensuous bass lines lay the foundation for infectious melodies and anthemic choruses, and laced on top of it all is the warm glow of reverb-soaked guitars and strings. The result is addictive, despite its flaws.
I don't have much more to say about this album, mostly because it is 10 slight variations of the same straightforward song. And part of me feels dirty placing this album above the likes of Aromanticism, which is unquestionably a better project in my mind. But hey, like I said - Moses Sumney can take the number 1 spot on another list, and Cigarettes After Sex can rest easy knowing that I thoroughly enjoyed their imperfect album more than almost anything else this year.
"I feel like there is a veil surrounding me," she said, looking at her feet. "This whole day. It's weird. There is a disconnect between my actions, my words, what I see, how I feel. If it impacts our night together in any negative way, I'm sorry."
It didn't. Big Thief put on an incredible performance, despite whatever Adrianne was dealing with that day. But that interjection stuck with me, and remains a vivid memory from that concert - it was an unflinchingly honest moment, and one that felt genuine. And it embodied what makes Big Thief's Capacity such a special album: Lenker's poetic and harrowing storytelling has a sense of authenticity that eludes many artists. "You held me in the backseat with a dishrag / Soaking up blood with your eyes," sings Lenker on Mythological Beauty, revealing how she obtained her characteristic scar as a child. "I was just five and you were twenty-seven / Praying 'Don't let my baby die.'" Her rendition is heartbreaking.
Lyricism is only one part of Capacity's brilliance. Musically, the album is both technically impressive and purely enjoyable. Lenker and her longtime friend and bandmate Buck Meek are two of the most talented songwriters in the genre today, and it shows on Capacity. Behind instrumentation which is at times delicately raw and at other times fully fleshed out four-piece rock, Big Thief presents a series of exquisitely written songs. From the upbeat groove on Shark Smile to the eerie lo-fi chorus of Coma, the band radiates artistry.
Until I heard Moses Sumney's Doomed, I regarded Mary, the penultimate track on Capacity, as my favorite piece of music to come out of 2017. Like Doomed, the instrumentation on Mary is uncluttered and pure: a faint thrum of ambient chords, paired with the twinkling of a piano. There is something so simple and enchanting about Mary's melody, as if Lenker captured the essence of a brand of folk music from some forgotten utopian society. The song's crowning jewel is its dazzling refrain, in which Lenker gently tumbles over her own prose in delicately cascading fashion.
Big Thief is never flashy, and in no way groundbreaking, but in my opinion they achieve near-perfection in the indie folk rock genre. With a wide but cohesive range of sonic palettes, expertly crafted songs, and Adrianne Lenker's impossibly gentle voice, Capacity is one of 2017's treasures.
As 2017 went on, I was vaguely aware that Japanese Breakfast had released a couple singles with a second album due for a summer release, but the band wasn't high enough on my radar for me to actively care. So the night that Soft Sounds was released in mid-July, it was just another album on my list of new music to check out. That changed almost immediately. From the moment the album's opener, Diving Woman, graced my speakers, I was hooked. Before my first listen-through of the album finished, I had already purchased a ticket to see Michelle and company live when they came through Los Angeles in September.
Diving Woman, a crescendoing six-and-a-half minute jam with a groovy bass line and ramped up production, immediately sets the stage: this album is a different beast than Psychopomp - a record consisting of mosty 2-3 minute lo-fi songs. The groove picks up again with the driving bass and face-melting saxophone of Machinist, the album's lead single. Road Head and Boyish contain some of my favorite lyrics of the year, and the concluding tracks (Till Death and This House) are achingly beautiful. Michelle's unique voice on top of lush indie rock production makes every single song a joy to experience.
Soft Sounds demonstrates how much Japanese Breakfast has grown as a band in just one year (while also giving me a new appreciation for Psychopomp), and indicates a promising career. Even though I have this album in second place on this list, I suspect that in five or ten years I will look back and consider Soft Sounds as the standout and lasting record of 2017.
So what makes this album such an earworm? First and foremost, it's SZA's voice. Her unique vocal inflections and pronunciations are addicting, and make every single song on this record something to look forward to. SZA could narrate in a capella sing-song form the experience of watching paint dry and the result would immediately land a spot on my "Favorite Songs of 2017" playlist. Listen to the way she enunciates "I could be your su-per-mo-del" on the album's opener; the delicious way she twists the lyric "Promise to get a little" on Prom; the vocal run on "Say why?" in the beginning of Normal Girl, or the way she belts out "normal girl" in the second chorus; the phrase "runnin' from love" in the album's closer, 20 Something; the entirety of Love Galore; the examples are endless. Nearly every word that SZA sings on Ctrl is given her unique vocal flair.
Behind her intoxicating voice is a steady output of poppy, intricate, and driving R&B production. From the sparse guitar chords which open and close the album, to the thumping drumbeat of Normal Girl, to the lush musical tapestry of Drew Barrymore, this album has it all. The soundscape throughout is sufficiently varied to keep the 49-minute playthrough interesting, yet it retains a cohesive and flowing vibe. Some of my favorite moments on the record are small production details, like the muffled rising arpeggiated synth notes in the verses of Garden (Say It Like That), or the softly buzzing high pitched synth that floats above the tick-tock percussion of Love Galore, or the seductive boom-bap drum beat on Doves In The Wind.
From a lyrical standpoint, SZA is in no way the next Shakespeare, but the stories she tells on Ctrl are intriguing and poignant. Her prose is deeply personal, yet undeniably relatable. In all honesty, though, SZA's pronunciation and enunciation is so idiosyncratic that the record is littered with phrases and words that I consistently mishear, misinterpret, or straight-up misunderstand. To me, this makes the album all the more captivating: SZA's voice functions as an exotic instrument, whether her words mean anything to me or not. But all that being said, there are times when Ctrl's lyrcism hits home. One of my vivid memories from this summer is being serenaded by the line "Hopin' my 20-somethings won't end / Hopin' to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin' the 20-somethings don't kill me" while watching the sun set in Santa Monica. Those lyrics cut even deeper in late November when I had the opportunity to sing along with a crowd of thousands of 20-somethings and SZA herself in concert. As a project that grapples with oncoming adulthood and the challenges therein, it is no suprise that Ctrl's lyrics have a habit of resonating strongly.
Ctrl certainly isn't perfect. But Solána Rowe isn't perfect, and one of her messages on Ctrl is that no one is. For that reason, I suspect that this project will become more and more important to me as I stumble into the back half of my third decade on this earth. And that's a poetic thought that I could end on, but as I already mentioned, that's not why this album is my album of the year. The bottom line is that Ctrl is an addicting listen: the production is top-notch, the songwriting is impressive, and SZA's breathtakingly unique voice is a drug. I got hooked, as so many others have this year.
And that's what I think about Ctrl. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.