Saturday, December 23, 2017

Our Wild Year: My Favorite 2017 Albums

Continuing the trend from last year, it seems I've become just another statistic and am listening to less and less new music. Dammit, I hate it when science is right! I don't have my Last.fm data yet (because I'm trying to complete this list before 2017 actually ends), but of this top 20, there are only two albums from artists I was not familiar with before 2017. I gave a lot of new artists the old college try, and I enjoyed albums by Greta Van Fleet, Charly Bliss, Sampha, Japanese Breakfast, and various Steven Hyden recommendations, but I found myself more gravitating toward new music from familiar artists rather than actively seeking out previously unknown artists. I'd like to say I'll try to seek out more new artists in 2018... but I doubt I actually will. Oh, and I hardly went to any concerts this year either. It's time to truly embrace being an Old, I suppose. But before I start yelling at everyone to get off my lawn, here are my favorite records from 2017, starting with some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Chuck Prophet – Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
Cory Branan – Adios
Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
HAIM – Something to Tell You
Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic
New Found Glory – Makes Me Sick
Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Van Morrison – Roll with the Punches

10) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Stars – There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light (tie)
Best Tracks: "High Ticket Attractions" and "This Is the World of the Theater" (New Pornographers); "Alone" and "Real Thing" (Stars)

I've always had a soft spot for Canadian indie rock bands, especially those with talented female vocalists (including and especially Metric and Emily Haines). No disrespect to Carl Newman or Torquil Campbell, but Neko Case and Amy Millan make both these bands, and both these records, that much better. For the Pornographers, Whiteout is probably their best record since 2005's Twin Cinema (still my favorite of theirs). It's equally stylish and idiosyncratic, with precise rhythms undergirding bouncy synth lines and jubilant vocals, as in "Attractions." Even better is "Theater," a mesmerizing showcase for Case's unique vocal talents and the highlight of the record. First hearing her voice soar over the chorus is one of the true thrilling music moments of 2017.

No less baroque but with perhaps a bit more flair for melodrama are Stars, who favor more lush arrangements and vocals, as evidenced on "Alone," a Campbell-centric lament of urban isolation. Stars has never exactly shied away from the occasional cliché—still, it's a powerful song and one of my favorites of the year. Ditto "Real Thing," an '80s synthpop ballad featuring Millan at her swoon-inducing best. (It's even got a kickass guitar solo to boot.) Each song shimmers like a little indie pop gem from the lovingly detailed production—there may not be any love in fluorescent light, but there definitely is under studio sheen.

9) The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Best Tracks: "Up All Night," "Holding On," "Strangest Thing," "Thinking of a Place"

When I write, I like to listen to film scores to try to get into the right headspace. Mansell, Murphy, Martinez, and Reznor/Ross are my favorites—atmospheric, entrancing, and largely free of the rigid structures of popular music. It's easy to let your mind drift to places it might not otherwise if distracted by hooky choruses and the jarring start-stop rhythm of traditional albums. I say all this because The War on Drugs puts me in the same mindset as a good film score. Not that it doesn't have lyrics or hooks or discrete tracks, but it has the same focus on mood and melody as a film score, and the songs often meander, expanding and contracting without the urgency of the typical four-minute verse/chorus/verse rock song. But this is very much a rock record—the influence of Pink Floyd is obvious, but there's also an element of early-'80s Dire Straits in the guitarwork and mid-'80s Moody Blues in the keyboard flourishes and vocals. (Congrats, by the way, on both bands for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. The Rock Hall is very, very stupid, but I've loved both these bands since I was a kid, so it's still pretty cool.) But back to The War on Drugs. A Deeper Understanding doesn't quite have the killer-track high points as Lost in the Dream (those first two tracks though), but when Adam Granduciel and Co. catch a pop groove—like they do on "Up All Night" and "Holding On"—it makes you think these guys might make the Rock Hall one day. I don't go to many concerts these days, but if TWOD come to Phoenix anytime soon, I'll definitely buy a ticket.

8) Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Best Tracks: "Hot Thoughts," " Can I Sit Next to You," "Shotgun"

Like almost everyone, I first heard Spoon when "The Way We Get By" was on an episode of The O.C. They've been on my radar as a "like not love" band ever since—I'll generally check out their albums and dig a track or two, but they're more likely to make the honorable mentions list than crack the actual top 10. This year, it's different with Hot Thoughts—I was hooked from the first listen. The self-titled opening track swaggers and shimmies its way into your brain, making your foot tap and your head nod like a not-unwanted parasite. The record is full of similarly invasive earworms—the rhythms are tight, the grooves are grimy in the very best way, the choruses are slick as all hell, and there's just enough off-kilter weirdness to keep you on your (tapping) toes. The highlight is "Shotgun," a relentless, propulsive, sweat-tinged stomper that sounds like the kind of music Radiohead would be making if they remembered they were a rock 'n' roll band. Spoon seems like they're at the top of their game now, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if their next album ranked even higher on my year-end list.

(Two quick asides: 1) I *love* the first two seasons of The O.C. I stopped watching after season 2 and I think I made the right choice, from what I've heard. 2) The use of "The Underdog" in Spider-Man Homecoming was *perfect* and one of many excellent uses of rock songs in superhero movies this year.)

7) Jay Som – Everybody Works
Best Tracks: "The Bus Song," "1 Billion Dogs," "One More Time, Please," "Baybee"

Other than reaching my mid-30s, I think one of the main reasons for the lack of new artists on my year-end lists is Grantland shutting down. I miss a lot about Grantland (including the last readable Bill Simmons columns, Bill Barnwell's "Thank You for Not Coaching" columns, and their pop culture brackets), but the thing I might miss the most is Steven Hyden's "Songs of the Week" columns. Steven Hyden is my favorite music critic mostly because he is my spirit animal—he's also a schlubby-ish, bearded white dude raised on Tom Petty who seems somewhat exasperated but accepting of rock's ever-receding cache in the cultural marketplace. His columns (and now tweets) introduced me to Lydia Loveless, The War on Drugs, and the band that appears at #1 on this list... as well as this entry, Jay Som, aka Melina Duterte. Duterte is a one-woman wunderkind, writing, playing, and recording everything on the record herself. Everybody Works is shimmery, seductive, confessional lo-fi pop for people who live alone in apartments. Each word seems whispered directly into your ear, each note seems like its plucked from the other side of an empty bedroom. The album runs the gamut from uplifting ballads ("Bus") to rousing indie rock ("Dogs") to daydreamy synthpop ("Please," my personal favorite). It's intimate, yet accessible, and I'll eagerly be keeping an ear out for her next release.

6) Dave Hause – Bury Me in Philly
Best Tracks: "With You," "My Mistake," "The Mermaid," "Bury Me in Philly"

Dave Hause is the erstwhile lead singer for the short-lived (although not officially disbanded) Philadelphia-based punk band, The Loved Ones. The Loved Ones came up around the same time as fellow East Coasters The Gaslight Anthem, and I have very fond memories of listening to early albums from both bands as I puttered around my hometown after grad school before I got my first teaching job down in Phoenix. The Loved Ones haven't released an album since 2008's Build & Burn—a true hidden gem and one I still listen to to this day. And perhaps it's better that they haven't, given what happened to Gaslight... That said, frontman Hause's new record that sounds a lot like what I imagine a new Loved Ones record would sound like—humble, heartfelt punk rock with a mischievous streak. Humility is found in "Mermaid" ("Don’t wanna sing no flannel whiskey songs and try to make them art"), heart in spades throughout, and plenty of mischief in "Dirty Fucker" (the title says it all). I honestly didn't think this album would rank this high earlier in the year, but I found myself coming back to it time after time due to Hause's ceaseless cheerfulness—it's a feel-good record (musically if not entirely lyrically) in a year in desperate need of them.

5) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Best Tracks: "DNA.," "LOYALTY.," "HUMBLE.," "DUCKWORTH"

Another year, another Kendrick album in my top 10—that's now 3 years in a row (and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City might have been my top album of 2012 if I had listened to it when it first came out). Of his four major releases, DAMN. is probably my third favorite, behind To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid but ahead of Untitled Unmastered. (I'm honestly not familiar enough with Section.80 or his mixtapes to offer an educated opinion.) DAMN. doesn't have the masterful storytelling and gripping narrative of Good Kid or the zeitgeist-seizing immediacy and powerful lyricism of Butterfly, but it is his most cohesive and confident record yet. The record harnesses his raw talent and channels all his rage, frustration, and confusion as he tries to reconcile his upbringing, race, and fame in the wake of last year's election. It's a tall order, and if DAMN. isn't quite as thematically focused as Butterfly, it's at least more sonically consistent, making it his most accessible record yet. That might bode well for his Grammy chances in 2018—can he finally win a major award outside the rap categories? Not even Kanye has pulled off that feat. The Grammys are ultimately meaningless as far as determining the quality or importance of music, but there's no denying winning a major Grammy would confer a modicum of mainstream prestige on Kendrick individually and rap music as a whole. While I certainly won't be watching the ceremony, I'll at least be checking my Twitter to see if Kendrick (or, okay, Childish Gambino) can finally break through.

4) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Best Tracks: "Cumberland Gap," "White Man's World," "If We Were Vampires," "Anxiety"

Like DAMN., Jason Isbell's new album somewhat obliquely addresses our current political landscape. While Kendrick samples the blithering blowhards on Fox News, Isbell writes about the people watching on the other side of the screen. Similar to his complicated relationship with country music, Isbell also seems conflicted about his race, equally excoriating and empathizing with the wide swath of the Venn diagram between country fans and Fox News consumers. "White Man's World" is an indictment of the "forgotten men and women" rhetoric of the Trump campaign ("There's no such thing as someone else's war / Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for"), while "Cumberland Gap" laments the fate of those same men and women ("There's a reason why I always reach for the harder stuff" and "So I cash my check and I drink 'til I'm on my ass again"), referencing both the war on coal and the opioid crisis. However, the album coalesces around the more universal theme of people struggling to get through the day, week, year on "Anxiety." The crescendoing guitars and Isbell's pained delivery of "I'm wide awake and I'm in pain" encapsulate 2017 about as well as anything released in this shitty, fucked-up year—a sentiment echoed on "Hope the High Road" ("Last year was a son of a bitch / For nearly everyone we know"). That's not to say the whole album is stuck in the quagmire of Trump's America—hope is offered in the form of a couple vintage country love songs. "Vampires" uses the idea of mythical immortality to remind us that this is just temporary ("It's knowing that this can't go on forever"), while the final track, "Something to Love," begins and ends with a beautiful, plainspoken appeal: "I hope you find something to love / Something to do when you feel like giving up / A song to sing or a tale to tell / Something to love, it'll serve you well." Here's hoping everyone has something or someone to love in 2018.

3) Paramore – After Laughter
Best Tracks: "Hard Times," "Rose-Colored Boy," "Fake Happy," "Pool," "Tell Me How"

Paramore's latest is a a loose concept album based around the feeling you get when you say, "Fine, thanks!" to a passing coworker when they ask how it's going. Nothing is fine, not in 2017, but it's easier to act like it is than to explicitly confront the fact that it's not. To that end, Hayley Williams couches her struggles with depression, anxiety, and pessimism in the glossiest, poppiest music of the band's career. "Hard Times" wraps its plunge to rock bottom in '80s-style MTV pop-rock, "Rose-Colored Boy" is the most cynical powerpop jingle you'll ever hear, and "Fake Happy" crystallizes the theme of the album in diamond-hard synth notes and prismatic production flourishes. At the center of it all is Williams, at her peak powers as a songwriter and vocalist. The material is a far cry from the cheerful pettiness of "Misery Business," and her range and pathos as a singer have never been stronger, both of which are on full display in album-closer "Tell Me How," a winsome, whisper-soft elegy on losing and loss. Her voice conveys that sense of loss directly to your heart, and it doesn't leave until long after the final, forlorn note of the song ends. It's the best song of the album and one of the very best of the year overall.

2) Brand New – Science Fiction
Best Tracks: "Waste," "Same Logic/Teeth," "137," "Out of Mana," "In the Water"

I'll just start with it: There's no way to discuss this album without mentioning the sexual misconduct allegations against lead singer Jesse Lacey. But I don't think I can discuss the best albums of 2017 without this album. Many mainstream music outlets feel differently. Even bringing up this trifling conundrum feels like a disservice to those affected by his actions, so I'll just say that I'm only discussing this album in the context of the artistic achievements of the band as a whole. That said, the first thing I think about when I think about this album isn't Lacey's lyrics or vocals, but Vincent Accardi's guitarwork—which is definitely a first for a Brand New album. Simply put, it's nothing short of virtuosic (keeping in mind that The War on Drugs also appears on this list), and is maybe the best guitarwork on an emo/punk record since Thrice's Vheissu (and there are shades of Teppei Teranishi's work on this album as well). Accardi deftly switches between styles and instruments between each song like six-stringed maestro. On "Waste," he creates waves upon waves of airiness and reverb; on "Same Logic/Teeth," it's all snarling riffage and mechanized wailing; "137" is a slow, lilting build to a nuclear apex; and "In the Water" is a post-levee-Zeppelin-esque epic that might be the best track on the album. The album as a whole is on par with Deja Entendu and The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me as the band's best and will serve as a iconic, albeit complicated, final album for a band that's been one of my favorites for over a decade. I hope Lacey and, more importantly, those hurt by him—both directly and indirectly—can all heal from this.

1) The Menzingers – After the Party
Best Tracks: "Thick as Thieves," "Midwestern States," "Black Mass," "Your Wild Years," "After the Party"

If the rest of this top 5 are very 2017 albums in their own ways, my #1 album revolves around a different number altogether: 30. As in, "Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?" That line, from the chorus of opening track "Tellin' Lies," serves as the thesis to The Menzingers' After the Party, a punk concept album about growing up. Not the "Well, I guess this is growing up," the leaving your hometown or your first love, of "Dammit," but the settling down kind of growing up you do in your 30s. If your 20s are all about "always running like Dean and Sal" ("Lookers") and "stumbling home with the sun" ("The Bars"), then your 30s start to feel a lot like life "After the Party." Having turned 34 in 2017, I can relate to guitarist/vocalist Greg Barnett's feeling of being "not young enough to be a companion / not old enough to be a guide" ("Tellin' Lies" again) or seeing an ex with her "new husband and a baby on the way" ("Bad Catholics"). Mostly, though, I can relate to Barnett's musings in "Your Wild Years," which is my favorite song of 2017. In it, Barnett can't seem to escape from feeling like the alcoholic fuck-up he was in his 20s, paranoid that it's going to ruin the adult relationship he's found himself in: "I toss and turn at four in the morning / Petrified of where our future's going / ... / So I fix a drink nice and strong in the kitchen / Something quick that'll cure my conscience," and later, "I got drunk in the afternoon with your father in the living room." But he's trying to grow up, and maybe he's not gonna fuck this one up: "You smiled, know that I was trying the best that I can do." The song is kinda sad, kinda sweet, and perfectly captures a very specific emotion in under just 4 minutes. It was the song I listened to the most in 2017, and it'll always be the song I think of first when I think back to this year. Here's to growing up and not fucking things up.

Bonus: My 5 Favorite Songs of 2017 (in alphabetical order):
"Anxiety" – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
"One More Time, Please" – Jay Som
"Tell Me How" – Paramore
"This Is the World of the Theater" – The New Pornographers
"Your Wild Years" – The Menzingers

Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear about the albums and songs that helped get your through 2017. Here's hoping 2018 is better.

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