2017 Music Review: top 10 albums, 20-track playlist

I’ve made a tradition of reviewing my take on the new music scene each year since 2012, and the format seems to be working pretty well. I like it because it keeps me honest as a forcing function to remember what I heard over the course of the year and thoughtfully consider what I liked and didn’t like; and it’s useful as a reference for posterity. As usual, I missed some things and am already aware of them now, but I try to stay mostly in the confines of what I discovered during the year 2017 itself even though I’m now so late. So here now is the sixth annual edition of that effort — enjoy!

General Notes

First off, note that embedded here is my 20-track playlist so you can easily listen while you read! Half the tracks come from the top ten album list, half do not, and no artist is repeated. Last year I reorganized my historically prosaic approach into topical bullet lists and I think it was the right move so I’ll stick with it. Following that I present my personal top ten albums along with a short review for each and some track highlights too. Enjoy!

Disappointments

Some things didn’t strike me as I had hoped and are particularly worth noting. Here’s a breakdown of those by category.

  • “sophomore slumps” or lousy followups to breakouts
    • HAIM – Something to Tell You – This breakup-themed album is just as polished as their breakout 2013 debut but with none of the joy or surprise. Frankly, it’s a bummer.
    • Wolf Alice – Visions of a Life – Ditto to HIAM except that this band is much younger and so represents a clearer sophomore slump. An apparent attempt at seriousness, the album is unfocused and varies aurally between uninteresting and painful.
    • Tuxedo – Tuxedo II – The collaboration between Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One retreads the same ground as their exciting initial project with no additional surprises and fewer hooks. Maybe this is just filling out a contract since they remain on Stone’s Throw.
    • Algiers – The Underside of Power – Just as energetic as their fierce debut, but much less focused and perhaps a little too overblown. That debut was tightly bound and packed memorable punch, but this one just never grabbed me.
    • Kendrick Lamar – Damn – 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a tough act to follow, but Damn doesn’t even try. It’s an unmemorable rap album without standouts to anchor the nearly-hour-long slog. As usual, nearly everyone disagrees with me — this one took top honors in several magazines.
  • major question marks
    • Gorillaz – Humanz – The star-studded guest list doesn’t save this grungy rap record from being a mostly unlistenable bore.
    • Arcade Fire – Everything Now – I ranted before about their 2013 effort, Reflektor, the first disc of which I rather liked. Pitchfork called Everything Now “pale”, “joyless” and “tiresome”. Allmusic called it “their first significant stumble.” I also dislike it, though I think 2010’s The Suburbs holds that title.
    • LCD Soundsystem – American Dream – James Murphy very publicly called this band quits in 2011 at the height of their fame only to walk it back five years later. That 180 might be hard to forgive even if the album were innovative, but it’s an unoriginal rehash instead. A decent if plodding rehash, sure, but not one that justifies a reunion under such terms.
    • Father John Misty – Pure Comedy – 74 minutes of preachy sadness without any of Josh Tillman’s typical winking self-awareness to make it fun. 35 minutes of low-tempo despair remain after the central 13-minute epic “Leaving LA.” Yuck.
    • Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up – After a long hiatus, this band has gone off the deep end. Sharply and suddenly changing arrangements, variously disjointed and intense delivery, and no hooks. Some loved it for its introspective lyrical depth; but I think the whole Fleet Foxes gang, which included Josh Tillman before he quit to make Father John Misty in protest, have jumped the shark.
  • bad protest albums
  • otherwise unqualified yawns still worth noting

Highlights

  • interesting debuts
    • Gabriel Garzon-Montano – Jardin – A collaborator with Mayer Hawthorne, Lenny Kravitz’s daughter Zoe, and Drake, this multi-talent’s first full-length is understated and groovy R&B.
    • Hoops – Routines – Kids from Bloomington, Indiana, make 80s-style lo-fi rock with a modern temperament.
    • Cende – #1 Hit Single – Brooklyn kids associated with Porches and Frankie Cosmos (among others) bring forth twee pop splendor.
    • Marika Hackman – I’m Not Your Man – Found by chance at a Subpop festival by yours truly, this British artist’s debut is dissonant and edgy. Listening is addictive and she might improve with practice.
    • Moses Sumney – Aromanticism – Easily the weirdest vocal indie pop I’ve heard in a long time and with the angelic soul instrumentation it deserves.
  • honourable mentions
    • Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins – A fine addition to their catalogue and with a few standout tracks than rank among their best; but side two meanders.
    • Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life – This weirdo keeps the intrigue high without deviating from her unique, smoky sound. It’s too long though.
    • Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson – A devotional to a controversial pop star from the sixties who recently passed, this glam rock extravaganza is Pink’s best output following his solo split from Haunted Graffiti.
    • Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman – Jones’s final album, issued posthumously, is technically superior production-wise to most of her previous outings with the Dap-Kings, but the songwriting stagnated. Still, while others have picked up the torch, it’s undeniable that she was at the forefront of the soul revival we’re currently enjoying.
  • best to date
    • Dude York – Sincerely – This local band has upped their songwriting and adds a female vocalist to great success.
    • Lorde – Melodrama – This record made it high in a lot of magazine lists and is definitely a big step above her debut in both writing and delivery.
    • Death From Above 1979 – Outrage! Is Now – Maybe not the “best” among purists who love them for their turn-it-to-eleven approach, but this is certainly their hookiest and most approachable effort. That might be due to Eric Valentine’s production, who boasts credits as varied as Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, Queens of the Stone Age, Nickel Creek, and Slash!
    • Chastity Belt – I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone – There’s nothing so biting as the lyric from their debut: “You’re just a man who tried to teach me something.” But this is a step forward in coherence and instrumentation.

Top 10 Albums

With some worthwhile notes established, here are the ten albums I loved the best. They were chosen through a proprietary algorithm combining my personal enjoyment, a sense of thematic or or technical consistency, and some measure of absolute artistic merit; then ranked, which was the really tricky bit. Enjoy!

10. Thundercat – Drunk
Thundercat is bassist Stephen Bruner, who has recently collaborated with pretty much everyone cool from LA: he played with Flying Lotus on You’re Dead!, Kamasi Washington on The Epic, and Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp a Butterfly, which took top honors on this review in 2015. In fact he won a Grammy for “These Walls” from that last album. Now he has an oddly fragmented, vignette-like full-length where his muscular bass and angelic falsetto are front and center in a smooth fusion of soul, jazz, and funk. The album sprawls to 23 tracks, but many are under two minutes and all serve to explore various angles of Bruner’s at times silly and wistful personality. Several standouts anchor the otherwise wandering album, including surprise guest vocals from Kenny Logins and Michael McDonald. It’s unlike pretty much anything else around right now. Highlights: “Bus in These Streets”, “Lava Lamp”, “Show You The Way”, “Them Changes.”

9. Foxygen – Hang
Foxygen are weirdos in the vein of MGMT but with a slightly more dramatic flair. Hang sounds like the soundtrack album from a musical about disaffection and confusion in modern America, but delivered with unparalleled gusto! Sounds are borrowed for sure: in the extreme case the chorus in “Avalon” sounds like an ABBA song but with a changing tempo and a Big Band production. Even so, you feel by the end of the disc like some Hollywood kids have told you a few things about life as they see it. I don’t need to be sold on the message to enjoy the ride, and enjoy it I did. Highlights: “Follow the Leader”, “Avalon”, “America”, “On Lankershim”.

8. Laura Marling – Semper Femina
For the most part I’d ignored the buzz about Laura Marling until at last I heard her single “Soothing” on KEXP and couldn’t resist any longer. She’s long been known as an eminent singer-songwriter and this album only justified that as my first exposure to her full-length recordings. The instrumentation varies from brushes on drums to multi-instrument orchestration, but the arrangement choice always gels with her sometimes breathy and sometimes self-harmonized vocal delivery. These vignettes of storytelling are both affecting and musically interesting in the best traditions of folk music, and they should especially delight fans of acoustic recordings. Highlights: “Soothing”, “The Valley”, “Wildfire”, “Wild Once”.

7. Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues
Maroon 5 have mostly become a punchline, especially among those who loved their 2002 breakout debut Songs About Jane but who felt betrayed by their long-delayed and knowingly-titled 2007 followup It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. But despite frontman Adam Levine’s multiple side gigs and collaborations, Maroon 5 haven’t actually gone away. For example, their 2010 followup-followup Hands All Over was actually pretty decent. A fair amount of press over this latest LP piqued my interest, especially given its seemingly tone-deaf title, and it actually delivers to a surprising degree. Unlike some of their earlier missteps, the polish on this album isn’t front and center, and that means the latent groove and hooks that this band has always produced get all the attention. Highlights: “What Lovers Do”, “Lips On You”, “Who I Am”, “Closure”.

6. Boulevards – Hurtown, USA
Boulevards is Raliegh, North Carolina’s Jamil Rashad, who grew up to listening to his parents’ vintage jazz and soul records. After attending live shows with everything from punk to metal to hardcore and playing in several bands in art school, Rashad eventually pushed forward with his love of 80s funk music. I missed his 2016 full-length Groove and just noticed his 2017 followup in time to fall in love with it and add it to my year-end list. This record combines late 70s disco with 80s funk with early 90s hiphop in a way that doesn’t reinvent those sounds but doesn’t just replicate them either. The result is a unique delight. Highlights: “Donezo”, “Steady”, “Lying to Myself”, “Strawberry Patch”.

5. Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear
Curtis Harding is from Atlanta by way of Saginaw, Michigan, where he got his start occasionally singing while touring with his traveling gospel performer mother, Dorothy. After doing some vocal remixes with OutKast he eventually fell in with Cee-Lo Green, co-writing and appearing on The Lady Killer. I missed his first full-length, cut with support from the guitarist from the Black Lips; but the buzz from that effort signed him to Anti-, and no doubt it was their superior distribution that got him into my ears while I was shopping at Easy Street Records in West Seattle. Face Your Fear places Curtis Harding in the pantheon with greats like Raphael Saadiq, and many spins later, I have yet another another reason to thank my local record stores. Highlights: “On and On”, “Need Your Love”, “Dream Girl”, “Ghost of You”.

4. Washed Out – Mister Mellow
Washed Out, the moniker of Georgia native Ernest Greene, has been making hazy chillwave tunes for the past decade. His bucolic 2013 LP and his last for Subpop, Parocosm, made this blog’s top 10 that year. But following that effort Greene took a break, switched labels to Stone’s Throw, and doubled down on the chill in chillwave. Mister Mellow is a gauzy mood piece about being disengaged and disenfranchised but in a resigned and even relaxed way. I think it’s less about making a political statement and more about making a musical or practical one. These songs are variously relaxing, engrossing, and interesting, with a variety of sounds mixed together throughout interludes and proper songs. At under half an hour, the album is amorphous and over nearly before it begins, much like the best and most addicting altered states. Highlights: “Floating By”, “I’ve Been Daydreaming All My Life”, “Hard to Say Goodbye”, “Get Lost”.

3. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Spoon has done it again. Longtime hitmakers from Austin, Spoon have always been at the forefront of indie rock and have consistently pumped out the jams. Frontman and guitarist Brit Daniel with co-producer and drummer Jim Eno have both been responsible for delivering unique hooks and the kind of lyrics that ride them to linger at the back of your mind. Perhaps their first openly critical political song was 2007’s “Don’t Make Me a Target” that was understood to be critical of the Bush Administration’s interventionist philosophy, and a decade later they took a similar opportunity to deliver “Tear It Down,” a totally unveiled declaration of resistance to unjust walls. Since this is also their strongest album since that 2007 effort, there’s reason to suppose that Spoon’s creative juices flow best when they have a good opportunity to make a statement. Highlights: “Hot Thoughts”, “Do I Have To Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next To You”, “Tear It Down”.

2. Emily Haines – Choir of the Mind
Emily Haines is most well-known for her work with Metric, her long-time band from Toronto; and with Broken Social Scene, a Canadian collective earlier mentioned for having a lackluster protest album out this year. BSS is led by Kevin Drew and also features the likes of Leslie Feist (who had an earlier mentioned snore out this year), other members of Metric, and most of Stars (who also had an album out this year I haven’t yet listened to). But the common thread with all of Metric, Stars, Feist, and Broken Social Scene, is that by or before 2017 they’d all jumped the shark. Apparently not so with Emily Haines herself. Her first solo album, 2006’s excellent Knives Don’t Have Your Back, was a somber and meditative song cycle written in her depression following the death of her father, the poet and jazz lyricist Paul Haines. Now she’s back in a return to form with Choir of the Mind. Replete with paino ballads as before, this second album includes much more instrumentation on several tracks and features a wider tempo and stylistic spread as well. At its lushest, this album is the most Metric of anything she’s touched in more than ten years, complete with drum machines and a surging beat; and at its most spare and atmospheric, it evokes the same kind of introspective wonder and reflection of her first solo outing. Highlights: “Fatal Gift”, “Legend of the Wild Horse”, “Minefield of Memory”, “Statuette.”

1. TennisYours Unconditionally / We Can Die Happy
I’m making an odd move here, but I want to combine the same-year output of both an LP and an EP by the same band to declare Tennis the best of 2017. Released in March, the full-length Yours Conditionally built on the songwriting advances of their excellent 2014 album Ritual In Repeat but also shed some of the distracting production flourishes of that effort. The result is a transcendent and complex song cycle explores feminism and identity in the context of both society at large and intimate relationships. It’s so complex, in fact, that it’s frequently sarcastic in expressing frustration with current norms, but it does so in a subtle and possibly timeless way. We Can Die Happy followed in November, further building on the sound and with the added whimsy and surprise that a tight EP can offer. Both releases feature the complex lyrics, nuanced instrumentation, and unmistakable pop mastery that have been Tennis’s hallmark this whole decade. Lead singer and frontwoman Alaina Moore only continues to hone her singing ability on these recordings. Tennis somehow channel the best of the late sixties and early seventies songwriting masters while writing urgently in the modern context, and they manage to do it better and better with each effort. This is a band at the top of its talents. Highlights: “My Emotions Are Blinding”, “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar”, “10 Minutes 10 Years”, “I Miss That Feeling”.

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