2017 was in general a rough year, and music released this year reflects that. We saw music that looked back to earlier sounds (Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” reeked so much of ABBA, I had to make sure it wasn’t a cover), and music that seemed to only look forward (“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone now” as the prime example). We saw many new artists, and first LPs from young artists: Khalid, Alessia Cara, SZA, Sampha, Daniel Caesar. We also saw second albums from younger artists which avoided the sophomore slump. These artists bring a weird but exciting mixture of snark, irony, fresh excitement, and maturity in sound. We saw established artists release new music, e.g. LCD Soundsystem coming back from retirement, sadder and angrier than before. Other acts—Fleet Foxes, Alt-J, The Shins, Sam Smith, Passion Pit, WALK THE MOON, Ed Sheeran, Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, and The xx—all released new music, but I either haven’t listened to these releases enough or didn’t think they were worth placing on this list.
Out of all the music released this year, here are my top ten albums.
But before that, albums which I thought of but didn’t place:
- Kendrick, Arcade Fire, Lana. Solid stuff, but within the context of each of these artists’ discographies, these albums don’t quite hit the heights of earlier work.
- Sampha – Process. A few beautiful tracks but another album on my list does the R&B vibe better.
- Taylor Swift – reputation. I was hyped after Look What You Made Me Do, …Ready for It?, and Gorgeous dropped. But again, another album does what reputation was trying to do better.
- Algiers – The Underside of Power
- SZA – Ctrl
- Moonchild – Voyager
- Big Thief – Capacity
10. Alvvays – Antisocialities
Alvvays is a Canadian dreampop band. Dreampop is as much about atmosphere as it is about lyrics and melody; Alvvays strikes a balance between these elements in their second album outing. “Dreams Tonite” is heartwarming and wistful at the same time. “Plimsoll Punks” begins with a riff reminiscent of Nico’s “These Days,” but shifts into the driving power-chord sound of punk. “In Undertow” is a breakup song that playfully undermines the sadness of its lyrics with a reverb-filled, dreamy vibe. The vibe isn’t full-on pop-happy like, say, Passion Pit; in the midst of the upbeat there are tinges of regret. But, like waves hitting the shore again and again, we hear the repeated “There’s no turning back” of the chorus.
Highlights: “In Undertow,” “Dreams Tonite,” “Plimsoll Punks,” “Lollipop,” “Saved By A Waif”
9. The National – Sleep Well Beast
2017 was a lot of Sad Dad Rock™ for me. The National have been probably the best proponents of that sound in the last decade, and it’s actually incredibly impressive that they haven’t slumped since releasing Alligator in 2005. Sleep Well Beast takes the rock of previous National albums and adds a bit of Radiohead-manic electronic vibes, with a few stutters in the tracklist.
Sleep Well Beast’s themes revolve around both politics and (as usual) the natural deterioration of relationships. It takes work to maintain them, but the band suggests that it isn’t anybody’s fault in particular if a relationship fades away (“Guilty Party”). But it’s sad. And it isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of hope. “Dark Side of the Gym” is a sweet and oddly cute song, but at the track’s end comes a frenetic and choppy electronic instrumental straight out of Radiohead’s Kid A, leaving you with an unsettled sense. The same weird energy speaks into the strangeness of the political year. Both temporariness and failed policy weigh heavy on this album.
One extremely poignant moment is when frontman Matt Berninger sings to his kid, “Put your heels against the wall / I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you / I’ll still destroy you.” Being at college away from my family on the other side of the globe, I was struck especially hard by this. I started bawling.
Highlights: “Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Day I Die,” “I’ll Still Destroy You,” “Guilty Party,” “Dark Side of the Gym”
8. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
More Sad Dad Rock™. The War on Drugs works off their incredible work on 2014’s Lost in the Dream, an Americana/psychedelic expression of paranoia and emotional pain. A Deeper Understanding shows someone who is moving on and processing (“I can tell pain is on the way out now”). We hear plaintive contemplation and joie de vivre in different tracks. My main complaint is that it is a bit front-loaded. Not that the later tracks are bad, but that it’s hard to finish the whole thing because the best tracks are within the first seven.
A Deeper Understanding is incredible in how it wears its influences on its sleeve—Springsteen, Bryan Adams (the lead singer sounds a lot like Bryan Adams), psychedelic rock—and how it develops old sound into a new and distinctive style. It’s still that 80s-inspired rock, but with more echo and more verve and more sadness. A Deeper Understanding is a triumph in atmospheric production.
Highlights: Pretty much the first seven songs. Favorites are “Pain,” “Nothing to Find,” “Thinking of a Place.”
7. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
Moses Sumney’s R&B LP is a masterfully produced work. The piano work is immaculate, the electronic manipulation works seamlessly with the acoustic aspects, and Moses Sumney’s vocals are perfect. The chordal changes on some tracks are exquisite, more than usual for R&B albums (including Sampha’s almost-as-good Process). The instrumentation is sparse, but compelling.
On a thematic level, Aromanticism speaks from a jadedness with modern love, noting how lust is often confused for love and that now they seem to be the same thing. He proposes that an alternative that looks beyond “love,” an aromantic stance. We see so many of these albums criticize modern love; Aromanticism is rare in providing a potential solution. It’s escapist, and ultimately pointless, because it’s self-reflexive, and it’s a flaw. But Sumney is perceptive—and an amazing musician to boot.
Highlights: “Plastic” and “Doomed” are two of the best songs released all year.
6. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
“And when I first saw you / the sky, it was such a natural blue.” Julie Byrne’s simple but moving lyricism shines against the ground of fingerpicked guitar. Not Even Happiness is a beautiful study in mood and word. Byrne’s lyrics draw from pastoral and confessional traditions, deeply tied to places in nature while being lucidly introspective. Her lyric sheets could almost stand apart from their music as a collection of poems. E.g.:
Blue palms glide in the light of a red moon
The Catalinas brought me to the West
And yes I have broke down asking for forgiveness
When I was nowhere close to forgiving myself
from “I Live Now As a Singer”
Her guitar abilities are incredible, and what’s more impressive is how the guitar doesn’t call attention to itself. But neither does it fade away; it complements the contemplative mood of Byrne’s words, producing one of the most coherent folk albums I’ve ever listened to.
Highlights: “Follow My Voice,” “Sleepwalker,” “Natural Blue,” “I Live Now As a Singer”
5. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
I’m so glad LCD came out of retirement. American Dream has some of their best work yet. I wasn’t aware that they were coming out with a new album until I woke up one morning and Spotify told me that they had. It was an incredible first listen. “oh baby” set the tone of the album: sadder, more serious. “how do you sleep?” made it clear that this album is also more biting. American Dream is about par with Sound of Silver, one of the greatest albums of last decade, and as a whole, better, I think, than This Is Happening.
There’s more of those tracks which I really don’t know how to call other than “sad dance-rock bangers” (Gorillaz’ new album Humanz has a few of these, too): “tonite” and “other voices” make you want to dance yourself clean, but they also make it clear the emptiness of the titular American dream. On “american dream,” James Murphy sings, “And you can’t remember the meaning / but there’s no going back against this california feeling.” The album ends with “black screen,” a 12-minute tribute to David Bowie, which I can’t listen to often because of its heaviness.
Highlights: “oh baby,” “tonite,” “how do you sleep?,” “call the police”
4. Gang of Youths – Go Farther in Lightness
This album was really slept on. Australian band Gang of Youths performed an incredible feat: making a 16-track anthemic rock album that isn’t tiring to listen to (and it’s a second album that doesn’t slump).
I first stumbled across the album when Spotify recommended it to me. Boy am I glad it did. Go Farther In Lightness is a rare album that hooked me because of its lyrics, not because of its music (I’m generally more a vibes listener than a words listener). It has some incredible lyrics. It also has some unfortunately cheesy high-school-English-project lyrics. Lyricist David Le’aupepe wrestles with some big topics: breakup, God, family, prayer, temporariness. Sometimes he handles this ambitious project incredibly well. Sometimes he handles the themes poorly (“Let Me Down Easy” is, coincidentally, the biggest letdown).
The backing music is fantastic. Like The War on Drugs, Gang of Youths displays its influences openly: old Arcade Fire, old National, Springsteen. But they push it forward, and even include some string instrumental tracks, which are absolutely gorgeous to listen to.
The album’s closer is a celebration of life, warts and all:
Say yes to sun! Say yes to pain!
Say yes to sticking with a city through a thousand days of rain!
Say yes to grace! Say no to spite!
Say yes to this! Say yes to you!
Say yes to me! Say yes to love!
Say yes to life!
Highlights: “Keep Me in the Open,” “The Heart is a Muscle,” “The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Sorrows,” “Say Yes To Life”
3. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
Confessional poetry in song form. Julien Baker caught my attention with her first album, Sprained Ankle. Like Julie Byrne, she’s lovable because of her lyricism, and that remains true in this her second album. Where Byrne relies on imagery for introspection, Julien uses a cutting honesty. I place Julien Baker’s album higher because it has more oomph.
Julien has a self-understanding that encompasses emotional, mental, relational areas of brokenness. She seeks truth but can’t seem to quite get there. It’s at times painful to hear her condemn herself or apologize for something she doesn’t have to (“All my prayers are just apologies,” she sings in “Televangelist”). She prays a lot, it seems: “Lord, Lord, Lord, is there some way to make it stop?” And:
So could you hear from heaven on earth
If I scream a little louder
I know you would have heard
Say there’s no way I could be further
If I scream a little louder I know you would have heard it
It’s painful to hear this, but what’s striking is that I think we’ve all felt like this at times. Julien expresses some faith, but it’s one that doesn’t leave much room for grace. That said, Julien’s album is one of the most moving ones I’ve ever heard.
Highlights: “Turn Out the Lights,” “Shadowboxing,” “Televangelist,” “Everything That Helps You Sleep,” “Hurt Less”
2. Lorde – Melodrama
So when I said that I was hyped for Taylor’s new album, I was hyped because I thought she was shifting her sound towards Lorde’s art-pop vibe. I think Taylor’s album failed to capture the magic of art-pop. Within our cultural context, Taylor’s new music doesn’t have the ease of artistic expression that artists like Grimes, St. Vincent, and, well, Lorde enjoy. Taylor ended up sounding like someone trying to be the new Queen of Edge, rather than becoming Edgy™ herself.
All that to say: Lorde did what Taylor was trying to do better. Lorde’s edge feels effortless, largely because her music remains playful. Melodrama is a breakup album, backed largely by piano riffs and beats of the “sad-dance-rock-banger” type. She doesn’t really rely on drops here, but on hooks both instrumental and lyrical. “Supercut” uses both, having a smashing backing riff and a great lyrical hook: “It’s just a supercut of us.” “Green Light” is a dance track that uses a piano for rhythmic movement.
As a crowning achievement, “The Louvre” contains one of the greatest millennial lyrics ever: “I overthink your p-punctuation use.” Like who under the age of, like, twenty-five hasn’t done this? Lorde is a voice of my generation, and when her album dropped in the summer, I was like, “Yes.”
Highlights: “The Louvre,” “Liability,” “Hard Feelings/Loveless,” “Writer in the Dark,” “Supercut,” “Perfect Places”
1. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At MeThis isn’t just an album. Maybe it isn’t album at all. It’s a document of grief. Phil Elverum’s wife dies, and he records the grieving process throughout months, using his wife’s instruments, recording himself singing in her room and other places she haunts. Elverum releases these tracks under the name Mount Eerie, one of his music projects.A Crow Looked At Me evokes grief in a way that no other album has done for me. There is no other album I know of that contains rawness, openness, a willingness to give up strong metaphor in order to grieve honestly. Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell and Sun Kil Moon’s Benji don’t come close to this. Crow is just a grieving man and his wife’s old guitar. He doesn’t sing as much as a speak over the guitar. The musical arrangement is simple; little production, little rhyming, little floweriness. But you hear his pain and feel within your soul a bit of his loss.
Death is real
Someone’s there and then they’re not
And it’s not for singing about
It’s not for making into art
When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb
When I walk into the room where you were
And look into the emptiness instead
My knees fail
My brain fails
from “Real Death”
I can’t listen to this album repeatedly. I’ve only listened to it twice through. It’s on another musical plane, as it were. As a document of processing through death, it is a testament to the temporariness of this life and to voids that can’t be filled by any earthly thing and which we can only acknowledge. Even if Phil Elverum did have hope of life after death, it would still remain a fact that death is real, at least for now; it is, after all, the last enemy to be destroyed.