The Top Ten Albums of 2017
2017 was yet another great year for music with a myriad of excellent albums released in the ever mutating miasma of genres that is today’s pop music scene. One notable trend was the further fracturing of consensus among which albums were the best in their respective genres. Which isn’t too surprising, given the sheer volume of music that’s released these days and how accessible it all is due to the internet. With streaming platforms like Pandora, Spotify, YouTube and many others, gone are the days that new artists need to rely on word of mouth to help people discover their music. In 2017, you are just as likely to find out about new music from an algorithm generated suggestion as you are from another human. Regardless, this human has a few choices for the best music of 2017, so without further ado, here they are:
10. Alex Cameron – Forced Witness
The music of Alex Cameron frequently summons the spirit of the classic ’70s jazz rock of Steely Dan. On its surface it’s well written with seductively smooth melodies and confident execution. But if you dig a little deeper and listen to the lyrics, something much more sinister is at work. Behind the curtain of the velvety production lies some pretty seedy and downright miserable characters, like the “man on a mission” with “blood on his knuckles/because there’s cash in the trunk” in “Runnin’ Outta Luck“. And that’s just the beginning of the “wait, what?” moments that the lyrics on Forced Witness supply. For instance there’s the “countdown to diabetes” where “they only stop when they want to” on “The Hacienda“. Whatever is going on here, it’s not nearly as innocuous as the faux reggae and soft rock musical packages would suggest. While much of the lyrics on Forced Witness are clearly meant to satirize the difficulties of navigating relationships in the current environment, you also have to wonder if Cameron relates a little too well to the dysfunctional portraits he paints. If one track sums up the album, it’s “True Lies” which is narrated by a sad sack who is getting pictures from a “woman on the internet” with “beautiful eyes” yet he knows that she may just be a “Nigerian guy” and doesn’t really care. In a post-factual age, an artist like Cameron brilliantly points out how the lines between parody and pathology have become disturbingly blurred.
9. milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!
In the era of brainless trap rap that glorifies materialism and misogyny, milo’s intellectual rap is a breath of fresh air that recalls the golden age of underground hip hop of the late ’90s and early ’00s. While Kendrick Lamar offers a more contemplative and aware alternative to the likes of other popular rap, he still mostly works within the same blueprint of rap that is produced for commercial consumption, especially with Lamar moving toward the mainstream with this year’s DAMN. Featuring dusty jazz samples and dense lyrical content with references ranging from Nabokov to Arthur Miller to Ted Danson on Cheers, milo’s music is food for the true thinking hip hop head. His nimble flow keeps the rhyme schemes coming at a quick pace and there are enough guest spots to ensure that the album doesn’t get monotonous. The quality of the instrumentals cannot be overstated, these tracks make the case for sample based rap’s supremacy and also tap some surprising sources like Stravinsky via Hubert Laws and other obscure jazz records. Even more impressively, milo handles the production on all but a couple of tracks himself, proving that he’s a true hip hop auteur. For those longing for an album that taps into the vibe of underground hip hop without sounding like a complete throwback, Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! will provide the substance you crave.
8. Cornelius – Mellow Waves
Japanese producer/multi-instrumentalist Keigo Oyamada, who records solo albums under the name Cornelius, had not released a proper album since 2006. Back in his heyday of the late ’90s and early ’00s, Oyamada’s quirkiness and proficiency with several instruments had many referring to him as the “Japanese Beck”. As the title indicates, the overall theme is relaxing motifs with warm sounds, but don’t take that to mean Mellow Waves is sleepy time music. While you certainly can use this album to unwind or even at bedtime, the offbeat nature of his music still persists with songs incorporating electronic bleeps to acoustic interludes with lyrics ( mostly in Japanese) to jazzy Fender Rhodes keyboard and even a splash of hard edged guitar on “Sometime/Someplace“. The amount of different themes that Oyamada stuffs into these songs, which are relatively compact at generally three to four minutes each, rewards closer and repeated listens with unfolding facets much like the origami of his native land. Over the past decade when Oyamada retreated to collaborations that were mainly confined to the Japanese market, it was easy to forget about his considerable talents. Now, with this intricately captivating new work, his return to the international stage is most welcome and we can only hope the next Cornelius album will arrive sooner rather than later.
7. The xx – I See You
The xx made a huge splash in 2009 when they dropped their first album and landed on many top ten lists with their UK style of R&B infused minimal rock. Since then, beat master Jaime xx put out the excellent solo debut, In Colour, which explored dance and experimental music and cemented his status as one of the premiere electronic musicians to watch. That album casts a heavy influence over The xx’s latest, I See You. Jamie’s broken beats and horn samples take center stage on the opening “Dangerous“, which would fit right in with his solo work as well as on dance floors across the globe. Similarly, the single “On Hold“, makes excellent use of a warped Hall and Oates sample and creates a futuristic groove that’s a propulsive earworm. The xx still do slow burning love songs adeptly, like on “Replica” and “I Dare You“, where Romy Madley Croft’s vocals shine particularly bright, but Jamie’s stepped up production game is also a big factor. I See You makes for a great late night listen, or as a soothing antidote to boy/girl problems, but this time around it offers a bit more pep and variety, packing both The xx’s emotional lyrics and vocals, while integrating Jamie xx’s explosive growth as an arranger and producer.
6. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
A big part of the appeal of Canadian singer/songwriter Mac DeMarco’s music is that he genuinely seems like a chill guy that would be fun to kick back with and have a few laughs. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s also an excellent songwriter with an affably enjoyable voice. On This Old Dog he adds a little more emphasis on synths that creates more depth and range to his sonic pallet and is a welcome enhancement of his relaxed tunes. Lyrically things get a little more serious too, especially on a couple tracks that examine his estranged relationship with his dad on “My Old Man” and “Watching Him Fade Away“. The former considers how we slowly turn into our parents while the latter expresses the pain of losing a father, even if in life he wasn’t around. Both are fairly heavy topics for a dude known as being happy-go-lucky and the auditory equivalent of a worn-in baseball cap. And if you listen closely to the lyrics of “Moonlight on the River“, another heartbreaking song about a loss, possibly his father as well, then you may have to chop some onions to conceal your emotional state. Having said that, there are still a couple upbeat tunes on the album that keep it from getting to be too much of a bummer, like “Baby You’re Out” and my personal feel good jam of the summer, “On the Level“.
5. St. Vincent – Masseduction
Annie Clark aka St. Vincent knocked it out of the park on her last effort, 2014’s self titled album, with a batch of inventively catchy tunes. This time around, Clark has delved deeper than ever into her personal life as an inspiration while also embracing a more pop oriented sound that makes for some of her most accessible tracks ever. Even so, it was an album that took a while to fully appreciate, as at first it seemed like a bit of a step down from the last St. Vincent album. But with time, the hooks sank deeper and the production revealed itself to be top notch throughout. It’s also somewhat of a paradoxical album that is both emotional and detached, with Clark musing over losing her mind in a dystopia on “Los Ageless“, catastrophic events on “Fear the Future” and wandering empty streets on “New York”, wondering who can put up with her now that her lover has gone. It’s impressive on tracks like this that she isn’t afraid to bare her soul in such specific and unambiguous terms. While Masseduction is not without artifice, we get some peeks behind the facade at something a little more real and it points toward Clark continuing to mature as an artist.
4. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
Australian psych rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have had a huge year in 2017, touring relentlessly and announcing an insane target of five new albums. As of this writing they’ve delivered four and still have a couple days to squeeze in one more from which they’ve already released a couple advance singles. Flying Microtonal Banana kicked things off and finds the band experimenting with microtonal tunings by using guitars with additional frets that allow for a wider range of notes. The result is a very Middle Eastern flavored sound that conjure images of desert landscapes and sand blasted temples, which the band aides with lyrics about rattlesnakes and melting. I struggled with whether to give the nod to this album, or their most recent Polygondwanaland, as it is a epic set of interlocking songs, but ultimately the microtonal guitar and other world music instrumentation make Flying Microtonal their most unique album of the year. Plus, it starts incredibly strong with a trio of tracks that standout in their melodic composition and percussive drive from the band’s duel drummers. Another trademark of the band is to create a complete album experience and this is no exception, the band fully immerses you in the exotic sound they’ve created and it makes for one heady trip to a far off land of sonic visions.
3. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Philadelphia band The War on Drugs‘ chief songwriter Adam Granduciel has been honing a widescreen update of the classic rock motifs employed by heavyweights such as Dylan and Springsteen for over a decade now. Those familiar touchstones remain steadfastly intact on A Deeper Understanding, such as the “Born to Run” evoking glockenspiel of “Holding On” or the Mark Knopfler style smooth guitars of “Pain“. But tucked within what at first glance may seem like traditional rock songs, are some very modern details which keep The War on Drugs from merely regurgitating cliches. Sounds like the bouncey drum machines and driving synth bass of “Up All Night” or the ambient intro and interludes of the spacious “Thinking of a Place” mark A Deeper Understanding as a collection of tunes that could only have been created in 2017. Graduciel also knows how to use repetition to his advantage on the builds of “In Chains“, which somehow sounds like a cross between a chill club track and Bruce Hornsby, complete with Phil Spector via Eddie Money drum breakdowns. Every instrument is expertly placed and finessed, each part of every song effortlessly flowing into the next. All of the pieces mesh with ease to create an enveloping wash of carefully calibrated sound. If you’ve been wanting some new reference tracks to test out or show off your speakers, be they Aperion or otherwise, look no further. In making an album with this much attention to detail and songwriting, The War on Drugs have become the new kings of hipster dad rock. And I say that without irony, it’s a title that bands should aspire to, the world needs some new artfully updated classic rock, probably more now than ever. And so it follows that A Deeper Understanding is a dad rock masterpiece, a Sgt Pepper for your Weber wielding neighbor who’s looking for a spare moment to crack a brew and enjoy some languidly well crafted tunes.
2. King Krule – The OOZ
The OOZ, Archy Marshall’s second proper album under the King Krule moniker is an ambitious, difficult work that is unlike anything else in today’s music scene, or any era for that matter. It’s a true hybridization of styles with jazz, punk, surf rock, hip hop, ambient electronic and even some dub reggae style effects all combining in a soupy concoction that doesn’t always go down easy, but is eerily enveloping. But what’s more impressive than the seemingly disparate genres that Marshall is able to combine, is that the fashion in which he does it sounds remarkably fresh. The term “groundbreaking” gets thrown around a lot, but in this case, it’s not hyperbole. Lyrically, themes of loneliness and depression match the skeletal off kilter soundscapes that provide the backdrop for Marshall’s often unintelligible South London accented baritone. Make no mistake, Marshall’s music is as dreary and sodden as the fog that his hometown is famous for, but there is quite a lot to get excited about here. One particular standout is the pairing of the menacing “The Locomotive” and the haunted house meets The Ventures vibe of “Dum Surfer“. The crossfading between the tracks is seamless as to create the impression of two halves of one whole and they make for unique counterpoints. On other tracks like the warbly “Czech One“, the keyboards recall the minor key electronica of legendary knob twiddlers Boards of Canada. The album does lose some steam toward the end, and at 66 minutes it probably could have been trimmed by three or four tracks to tighten things up, but even so, it’s easily one of the most idiosyncratic and compelling albums of the year.
1. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
What can be said about Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman, either you love his brand of misanthropic proselytizing or you hate it. One thing’s for certain, the man knows how to push buttons and is a master at trolling in a way that would never occur to most online hecklers. In the year 2017, as we slid further toward inevitable doom or made America great again, depending on which brand of skewed thinking you subscribe to, a personality like Father John Misty was the perfect vessel to roast it all. Things start out fairly grandiose, with Tillman tracing the folly of humanity from its beginnings as a hunter/gatherer that emerges with a “half formed” brain and relies on others to “fill us in”. Thing don’t get much better with the development of “civilization” and the belief that we’re at the “center of everything”. The infinite jest that is “Pure Comedy” is fully on a species that keeps grasping for “horizons that forever recede” and willingly sequesters themselves in a “prison of belief”. Yes, let there be no doubt, Tillman is laughing at us, not with us and that’s just the first track. But that doesn’t mean that the audience can’t get in on the joke too. From there he second guesses overthrowing the social order on “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” and if that seems like a pretentious song title, it is, but again, you can still be in on the joke if you choose. Sure after the revolution, “with no one advertising to us constantly” the “temperature started dropping/the ice flows began to freeze”, but there’s also “some degree of resentment/for sudden lack of convenience around here”. But not to worry, “there are some revolutionaries among us/developing some products”, that ensure humanity will end up right back in the clutches of technology. Tillman even takes some shots at himself on the 13 minute “Leaving LA“, referring to himself as “another white guy/who takes himself so seriously”. The lyrics are definitely the main event here, but the music is also a lush recreation of the ’70s AM classics, complete with full orchestras and even some electronics to put a slightly modern twist on things. The production is immaculate, with each piece of instrumentation presented with clarity and detail. Much of Pure Comedy is a caustic indictment of humanity’s many failings, but there’s still many moments of witticism and gallows humor. Despite all the darkness and cynicism that prevails over the album, even Tillman concedes toward the end of the closing “In 20 Years or So” that “it’s a miracle to be alive”. Even if 2017 is a year many would like to forget, we’re still here and the sheer unlikelihood of that is undeniably wondrous.