By: Tim LaVoie
Between breaking news alerts, 2017 formed into the year people fought back. The shocks of 2016 grew into the movements of 2017. Music mirrored this, as bold women and the socially conscious dominated playlists. I did my best to reflect that here. It’s important to remember that music is not a competition. These are just some records I liked and I hope others will too. So I recalibrated how I selected my top pick by answering: “Which album brought me the most joy each time it came on?” Because at the end of the day, that’s the point.
20. Sampha - Process: Sampha spent the last few years as the go to guy for soulful singing parts on tracks from hip-hop’s biggest stars. On his solo debut, he impresses with crackling dubstep shaped production on burning, futuristic tracks. But he’s at his best during his soothing ballads. Particularly affecting is “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, a touching autobiographical piece, and one of the five best songs of the year. Essential tracks: “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, “Blood on Me”
19. Waxahatchee - Out in the Storm: The fourth record from the, once lo-fi, indie rocker Katie Crutchfield is her most realized, enjoyable offering yet. Thanks to smart, self-effacing songwriting, the increased studio budget and full band take away none of her everywoman charm. Essential tracks: “Hear You”, “Recite Remorse”
18. Power Trip - Nightmare Logic: Hailing from Pantera-country, Power Trip do their fellow Texans’ legacy proud. Nightmare Logic’s pummeling riffs of old-school thrash metal harken to the 80s and early 90s in all the best ways. If the last record someone pumped their fist in the air to was Master of Puppets, this gem is the ideal album to bring them back into the hair-twirling fold. Essential tracks: “Executioner’s Tax (Swing the Axe)”, “If Not Us Then Who”
17. The xx - I See You: The xx sound reborn. I See You finds The xx at their most adventurous and enjoyable moment of their still nascent career. Jaime xx mines an eclectic mix of samples, creating the perfect vehicle for the tension and release of the dueling male/female vocals and reverb-drenched guitar. Essential tracks: “On Hold”, “I Dare You”
16. King Woman - Created In the Image of Suffering: Kristina Esfandiari described the sound of her doom-rock project King Woman both as “Mazzy Star singing for Black Sabbath” and “songs to drink Ny-Quil to.” No point in trying to improve upon those. Esfandiari uses King Woman to expel the lasting demons from her upbringing in, and escape from, a cult. On Suffering, she explores the shame, guilt, and dangerous power dynamics that made her former world. Esfandiari chanting, “You break the bread you drink the wine/ You were a bad man” on “Worn” is unshakeable. Essential tracks: “Worn”, “Shame”
15. Ryan Adams - Prisoner: Adams claims this isn’t a “divorce album”, but a survivor’s album. This sounded ridiculous at first, as every track on Prisoner revolves around the specifics of his recent split. But with every listen, this set reveals new layers. Prisoner is Adams picking up the pieces and trying to understand what went wrong, rather than simply wallowing. Musically, he focuses on crisp rock songs - equal parts synthy 80s Springsteen, jangling Smiths-like guitar licks, and massive Winwood-sized choruses. The highlight is the confessional “Shiver and Shake”, whose soft keyboards make it the worthy sonic heir to Springsteen's “I’m on Fire”. His best record since 2005’s Cold Roses, Prisoner reminded the world just how good Adams is when firing on all cylinders. Essential tracks: “Shiver and Shake”, “Anything I Say To You Now”
14. Kevin Morby - City Music: Morby stylized his fourth solo album as a musical postcard from New York City. More than that, it sounds as if recorded in the early 70s right in Warhol’s factory. City Music is what the Velvet Underground would have sounded like if Lou fell for hallucinogens rather than the hard stuff. These songs skillfully mimic Reed’s adventurous spirit while capturing all the daily frustrations and triumphs that make big-city life such a trip. Essential tracks: “Aboard My Train”, “Pearly Gates”
13. Future Islands - The Far Field: Three years removed from instant YouTube fame following their viral Letterman performance, Baltimore’s 80s new wave revivalists return with a turn towards the intimate. Rather than try to recreate the massive, late-night-show-conquering choruses found 2014’s Singles, Future Islands shaved their finely honed craft down to its essential parts. By betting on surgical control when the odds called for them to swing wildly for the fences, Future Islands crafted their best record. Essential tracks: “Time On Her Side”, “Through the Roses”
12. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory: Club, electronica, and blatant Yeezus influences creep into every open space of Vince’s once sparse, a beat and a rhyme hip-hop. Already accomplished beyond his 23 years, his only blemish was that he could be perceived as cold and nihilistic. No more. Vince’s expanded sonic palette adds both nuance and charm to an already vital catalog. Essential tracks: “Crabs In a Bucket”, “BagBak”
11. Planning for Burial - Below the House: The new record from Wilkes-Barre native Thom Wasluck’s drone/post-metal project is a slow, astral affair. Clumped in the metal section because it has no other natural home, Wasluck would be a far more natural fit opening for My Bloody Valentine or Sigur Ros than Power Trip. Below the House creates a washed out ambient world of swirling fog that softly rolls under clean, quiet vocals. Waves of drones fill all the available air as the pieces build to pounding crescendos or discretely unfurl into the next piece. Below the House is a moving, blustery record perfect for a winter night in. Essential tracks: “Dull Knife Pt. II”, “Warmth of You”
10. Sorority Noise - You’re Not as _____ as You Think: The third record from Hartford’s punk-infused indie rockers ups the ante from their prior work in every conceivable way. You’re Not scratches the upper reaches of ambition for power chord based music, as clean, 90s emo-pulled melodies prop up giant releases of distorted guitar. Lyrically, Cam Boucher deals with his personal losses over the last two years - “I’m placing bets against myself/ Honestly, I’m a mess” - creating a purposeful, dense album that cuts deep without ceding any listenability. Essential tracks: “Disappeared”, “A Portrait Of”, “Second Letter from St. Julien”
9. Julien Baker - Turn Out the Lights: At just 22, indie-folk prodigy Julien Baker crafted a scary-good record. The songs all start simply, with plucked electric guitar or quiet piano. These lead to slow builds of swelling strings and organ before hitting a cathartic exhale, her voice booming some unsettling mantra - “The harder I swim/ The faster I sink.” The bleakness of Turn Out the Lights can be destabilizing, but its accompanying honesty and pure beauty make the payoff that much sweeter. Essential tracks: “Everything That Helps You Sleep”, “Turn Out the Lights”, “Claws In Your Back”
8. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 3: Everything in rap seemed to move at a snail’s pace in 2017. Kendrick’s lyrical ability is unrivaled, but everything he touches now seems so DAMN slow. We’re at a strange point where Kendrick makes the most critically acclaimed records on earth, yet they have maybe three songs that would be more at home at a club than a Dupont Circle dinner party. Enter Run the Jewels. Bereft of any and all types of bullshit, RTJ3 is one banger after the next. Each track is a haymaker. Now a political force, Killer Mike’s delivers lines with angst and urgency. El-P’s production remains in-your-face and punchy. RTJ3 is equal parts a call to arms - “Kill Your Masters” closes the set - and celebration of rap’s most fruitful friendship. Let’s hope it’s contagious. Essential tracks: “Call Ticketron”, “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix)”, “Legend Has It”
7. Phoebe Bridgers - Stranger in the Alps: This was a banner year for women singer-songwriters. Aimee Mann, the Weather Station, Julie Byrne, or Julien Baker, could all occupy this spot. Yet, the debut record from 23-year old Phoebe Bridgers proved to be the most memorable, haunting effort of that stellar pack. Strongly influenced by Mark Kozelek, every track can linked to one of his compositions. The earthy crunch on “Motion Sickness” sounds pulled right off of any Red House Painters album. “Funeral”, a finger-picked, first-person narrative would be a perfect fit on Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. Clearly seeking the comparison, Bridgers closes the album with a fantastic piano-only cover of Kozelek’s murder ballad “You Missed My Heart”. Like Kozelek, her strength as a songwriter is in combining the personal and universal, connecting her unique pain to moments we all shared - “It’s been on my mind since Bowie died/ just checking out to hide from life.” Bridgers crafted a fragile, warm album not just to hear, but to live within. Essential tracks: “Funeral”, “Scott Street”, “You Missed My Heart”
6. The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding: Seeking inspiration, War on Drugs mastermind Adam Granduciel moved from his long-time headquarters of Philadelphia to Los Angeles to record A Deeper Understanding. He managed to sneak the open spaces, brightness, and dreamy haze of L.A. into every crevice of the record. The album is classic WoD: equal parts Dire Straits, Tom Petty, and synthy 80s arena rock. The song construction is so meticulous it’s easy to imagine Granduciel spending every second of the last three years tinkering with the endless layers of each track. A noted perfectionist, Granduciel will watch his speakers to confirm the levels are correct. That attention to detail is obvious, as it’s the little things - a few bells here, a Springsteen-like piano run there - that elevate his music from a game imitation of, to an unrivaled tribute to a bygone era. Essential Tracks: “In Chains”, “Holding On”, “Strangest Thing”
5. Converge - The Dusk In Us: Dark times call for dark tunes, and the wider metal community delivered in 2017. Outstanding releases from doom beacons Bell Witch, Pallbearer, and Loss each merited a top 10 placement. Boundary-pushing black metal from Ellende and Myrkur continued to blur lines by further incorporating traditional European folk. But crowns are for kings, and 27 years in, Converge remain that. Their ferocious brand of hardcore spiked metal has a new intensity on Dusk, a record every bit as raw and visceral as 2001’s iconic Jane Doe. Tracks like “I Can Tell You About Pain” and “Arkhipov Calm” buzzsaw with the searing rattle of a band desperate to be heard. These are balanced by slow, droney pieces like “Thousands of Miles Between Us” and “The Dusk In Us”, on which Converge expand their melodic, experimental side beyond the outer reaches of anything in else their immaculate catalog. Long may they reign. Essential tracks: “I Can Tell You About Pain”, “Thousands of Miles Between Us”, “Wildlife”
4. Fever Ray - Plunge: The second solo album from the Knife’s Karin Dreijer brings back the tight songwriting and hooks mostly absent on the electronic duo’s sprawling final album, Shaking the Habitual. These tracks pulse with an intensity that makes every beat, every zipping laser sound, so immediate and unflinching they’re felt under the skin. This is physical music - confrontational and confounding. Proudly queer and fiercely feminist, Dreijer lays out her political vision between zigs and zags of futuristic electronica. Her weaponized pitch-shifted voice declares war on the gender and sexuality based constructs of the modern power structure. On lead single “To the Moon and Back” - the most unabashed pop song she’s been a part of in almost 15 years - Dreijer revels in the giving listeners explicit details of a lesbian crush fantasy. These declarations combined with the spooky, slower back end of the record make Plunge an unnerving, thought-provoking work. Essential tracks: “A Part of Us”, “To the Moon and Back”, “Musn’t Hurry”
3. Slowdive - Slowdive: Following a 22-year absence, these shoegaze O.G.s return with a record that shatters expectations and bests any classic from their early-90s heyday. Reunited bands first have to answer: “Why?” The reunion can’t be justified with only new music, but that new music must honor the band’s legacy without sounding like an empty cash-in. Slowdive answers the “why?” quickly and emphatically on the opening track, “Slomo” - enveloping the listener with gorgeous washes of endless texture, lifted by reverb-laden guitar and Neil Halstead’s ghostly vocals. This is a band with something to prove. Namely, that their genre’s trademark sound isn’t merely a 90s time capsule gimmick, but a timeless vehicle for the most beautiful arrangements in rock. The walls of swirling ambience on tracks like “Star Roving” and “No Longer Making Time” are soft and comforting. While the throbbing bass line on album highlight “Sugar for the Pill” acts as the record’s spine. It connects all the gushing haze into one dream-like sequence that’s so immediately pleasing it doesn’t seem fair. A shimmering statement to the band’s legacy, Slowdive over-delivers in every meaningful way. Essential tracks: “Sugar for the Pill”, “No Longer Making Time”, “Slomo”
2. Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me: Last July, Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, died of cancer, leaving him alone with their one year-old daughter. A Crow Looked at Me is Elverum’s devastating concept album chronicling the end of her life and the months following her death. Sung to Geneviève - “Today our daughter asked me if Mama swims” - the resulting collection is so direct, so detailed, and so honest, the record is beyond criticism. When listening, all your issues become frivolous. The opening line of first track bluntly lays out the main lesson of the album: “Death is real/ someone’s there and then they’re not.” Recorded in the bedroom where Geneviève died, the music itself is sparse - strummed acoustic guitar, enhanced in spots with a humming accordion or plunking piano notes, leaving most of the room for Elverum’s plain-spoken signing style. His use of bracingly specific details illustrates the depth of his loss - still receiving mail with her name on it, throwing away her toothbrush, not remembering if she liked foxgloves (“You did most of my remembering for me”). A Crow Looked at Me is as intimate as art gets. It can feel uncomfortable and overwhelming - “A week after you died a package with your name on it came/
And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret/ And, collapsed there on the front steps, I wailed.” It hurts, but nothing matches the haunting power of Elverum’s stunning goodbye. Essential tracks: “Toothbrush / Trash”, “Swims”, “Ravens”
1. Lorde - Melodrama: The perfect pop song is the most difficult magic trick to pull off in music. It has to be catchy enough to be a dance floor-ready crowd pleaser across generations. But it must have the smarts and substance to elevate it above mere bubble gum to something of true artistic value. The perfect pop song should be an impossibility. But somehow they exist. Whether it’s “Like a Prayer”, “Dancing on My Own”, “When Doves Cry”, or “Under Pressure” - these impossible songs aren’t just catchy, they all say something. Lorde’s sophomore record Melodrama somehow catches, and never lets go of that eureka feeling, that equilibrium between brains and beats, that contradicting rush of serious fun.
Melodrama was not destined to be a modern classic. Rocketed to fame at 16-years old, Ella Yelich O’Connor no longer belonged to the world she so aptly captured on “Royals.” Far from a teen in the Auckland suburbs, 2017-Lorde is a Manhattan dwelling young woman, her songs covered by Springsteen, and hailed by David Bowie as the “future of music.” It was easy not just to accept, but even expect that her return would be an out-of-touch disaster; an awkward, unnatural attempt and failure to jump into the Swift/Gaga stratosphere of pop stardom. Instead, Lorde got weird, and delivered the most idiosyncratic, daring pop record of the last decade.
The meshing of club fodder, Kate Bush-like piano ballads, and a folk singer’s level of self-evaluation, collide seamlessly through the album. The note-perfect, piano-driven production begins on album opener, “Green Light” - a jittery dance hall track that swells across keys, backing in and out of its huge chorus. The single encapsulates the duality of Melodrama as a whole. It feels both small and massive, personal and universal, attainable but overwhelming. It’s a break-up song but she’s got the green light to get back out there and dance.
“Sober” is a funky, horn-touched track where Lorde deals with the familiar feeling of pre-regret. “The Louvre” is a new-wave ode to the ecstasy felt when a relationship is being born, when potential is the most exciting thing on earth. Yet, it’s on album centerpiece “Hard Feelings/Loveless” where Melodrama jumps the shark from just great pop album to something almost undefinable. The mid-tempo break-up song glides along in a pleasant, unobtrusive way with Lorde lamenting, “Cause I remember the rush, when forever was us.” Then the crash - off-key scrapes of industrial feedback rip from speaker to speaker. The obvious floods to mind: this is not Sia. This sounds like early 2000s TV on the Radio. Once the squeals dissipate, the track falls off another cliff, this time returning with a hip-hop beat and a taunting, victorious Lorde, “Bet you wanna rip my heart out/ bet you wanna skip my calls now/ Well guess what? I like that.”
Lorde saved her best for last, as Melodrama’s last quarter is its finest. The pulsing “Supercut” is a Robyn-esque joy ride that finds Lorde reminiscing about a failed relationship, while focusing on the good times and downplaying her own faults. That she turns regret into the album’s most club-ready banger is a distillation of her greatest gifts as a songwriter. “Supercut” would be the album’s best song if not for the closer, the towering drinking anthem “Perfect Places.” The lines could have been pulled from a Hold Steady or Replacements classic - “ All of the things we're taking/ Cause we are young and we're ashamed/ Send us to perfect places/ All of our heroes fading.” An elegant anthem about being a mess, “Perfect Places” soars on the back of crackling percussion and buzzing synths. What she’s reaching for is obvious - to get hammered. It’s the “why?” that she, like all of us, can’t quite figure out - “All the nights spent off our faces/ Trying to find these perfect places/ What the f*** are perfect places anyway?”
A lot of ink has been spilled writing about Lorde’s ability to capture the vulnerabilities, anxieties, and general messiness of being young and rudderless. But it’s her touching, poetic, and resilient way of elevating that mess that makes Melodrama so unique. All that is only part of it, as it’s totally fair to wonder what the hell a wealthy 21-year old Kiwi knows about the mean ways of the world. After spending the year with this record, it’s safe to think she’d admit it’s very little. But it’s not advice she’s hawking, it’s the idea that being lost can be one hell of a good time. Essential tracks: “Perfect Places”, “Supercut”, “Hard Feelings/Loveless”