Another Dumb List - My Ten Favorite Records From 2017
There was a time, not all that long go, when I couldn’t even name ten albums to toss together into a year end list for this site. Things are better (for the most part) than they were in 2014 and in 2015—and naming ten albums from 2017 that I enjoyed was surprisingly easy. Stacking them in this kind of order—especially, like, 10 through 7—isn’t always easy. It’s the same questions I struggle with every year end: what makes my ninth favorite album slightly better or more impressionable than the tenth?
I can’t answer these questions. It’s just another dumb list, full of short and possibly pretentious blurbs that talk up albums I already reviewed, and really liked, once.
Hope your 2017 wasn’t awful, and maybe you checked out some of these albums. If you did, or if you read anything I was responsible for writing, thanks. It’s not always easy keeping this blog running—I started it in 2013 because I was too depressed to be on the radio, and I spent a majority of 2015 and 2016 nearly too depressed to write, and too depressed to care about music the way I once had. Not that it really matters—I mean, nothing really does, but my goal for 2017 was to beat my post count from last year. Last year, I hit an all time low of 127 posts. Right now, including this thing you’re reading right now, I’m at 132. I didn’t beat it by much, and I’m more selective now about what I listen to and review, but I’m happy to see the numbers headed up instead of further down.
The Indiana based trio Cloakroom showed an abundance of potential on 2015’s Further Out, and two years later, the band has returned—tighter sounding and full of ambition. Yes, they wear their influences on their sleeve—Failure and Hum comparisons obviously come to mind, but the group works throughout Time Well’s ten tracks to make something wholly original out of space rock, alternative, and stoner/sludge metal elements.
At a time when the idea of ‘rock music’ or a band making a ‘rock record’ is practically unheard of, Time Well shows that there is still something interesting and compellingly listenable that can be accomplished with a guitar, bass, and drum.
Of all the albums on this list, I’ve been sitting with Prisoner the longest, not only because it arrived in February (way ahead of almost all of these), but it also leaked near the tail end of 2016. Prisoner is, by no means, a perfect album, but even the ‘best’ Ryan Adams albums aren’t perfect—1989 falters once or twice, and the classics like Love is Hell and Heartbreaker all have spots that’s bring the momentum down. But because it’s the album on this list that I’ve spent the most time with, it has grown on me, and I’ve had the time to figure out where I fit into it, and where it fits in with Adams’ canon.
It should come as no surprise to hear that Prisoner is a break-up record. While 1989 was his coping mechanism during his very public divorce from Mandy Moore, it’s here that he really lets loose with the raw emotions that stem from a marriage falling apart—at times, the song titles read a like a cry for help and the lyrics are bleak, all of it dressed up in music that runs the spectrum of Adams’ myriad styles, including E Street Band theatrics, 1980s rock ‘n’ roll bombast, pensive acoustic strums, and dreamy, shimmery Johnny Marr-esq tones
Relatively concise, Prisoner can, at times, be uneven—but even in its less successful moments, it still shows what a capable (and prolific) songwriter Adams is, and that taken as a whole, it’s a strong album that is worth revisiting.
Three EPs spread across a double LP, a third of this is technically a reissue—Goodkin’s stunning Record of Life was originally released in 2015; this set collects it, along with its companion EPs, both of which we released this year.
Ambitious and high concept in ways that still reveal themselves after multiple listens, Goodkin, armed with only his 1963 Gibson ES-125t, is a fearless songwriter, willing to put all of himself, as well as his loved ones (both dead and alive) out there.
While each Record is self-contained enough to work on their own, listening to all three sequentially expands Goodkin’s universe, as you meet characters who reoccur and you ride the emotional highs and lows while lives end but love remains. It’s an evocative, and incredibly personal collection, but Goodkin is a smart enough songwriter that while these songs and stories are his, the themes present are universal enough that you not only are able to find where you fit in to his memories set to music, but you can use these songs to soundtrack your own moments of living, losing, and loving.
How do you follow up your debut album when your debut is an auspicious and ambitious triple LP? Arriving two years after Washington’s The Epic, the Harmony of Difference EP brings together five loosely connected new compositions then concludes with “Truth,” a sprawling 13 minute journey that takes up the entire second side of the record.
One of the most admirable things about Washington as a performer, composer, arranger, and band leader, is that despite his penchant for high art, he tries to keep an audience in mind—much like The Epic, Harmony of Difference is never inaccessible. Sure, jazz is always going to be a ‘smart person’s’ music, but you don’t have to be enrolled in a MFA program or subscribe to The New York Times to enjoy this or to take something away out of it. It’s emotional and evocative (a feat in and of itself considering its all instrumental), it’s dense and complicated, but it’s also structured around motifs that get stuck in your head for days.
Play it start to finish; play it finish to start—either way, DAMN is an impressive and admirable album from one of hip-hop’s most forward thinking and innovative voices. An unrelenting journey that touches on the idea of fate, coincidence, spirituality, sin, success, failure, fear, hope, and most important of all, race in America in 2017. It’s an angry album—it’s challenging and confrontational, but outside of its cyclical nature, what makes it so smart is that that while it is dense and complex, it’s never inaccessible. Lamar doesn’t make ‘pop rap,’ but he also doesn’t alienate his listeners, even when it would be so easy to do.
In a sense, DAMN can be looked at as a reflection of the unrest of these times. Lamar, at age 30, is one of the most successful names in rap music, respected and lauded by a diverse audience and critics alike—but he’s still on edge. He’s still worried about failure, and he’s still got one foot in the streets, and that brings a truthful grittiness and exuberance into these songs that is practically unrivaled.
I don’t listen to nearly as much experimental, ambient, and instrumental music as I did a few years back—it’s a tough genre to remain committed to, simply due to how many performers there are, how prolific some of them may be, and tough to find interesting new works in an overcrowded market.
There are a few experimental and ambient acts that I discovered when I first became interested that I still diligently follow, and Milwaukee’s Apollo Vermouth is one of them. Primarily the work of experimental guitarist Alisa Rodriguez, Crashing Into Nowhere is a chilling, haunting, and beautiful collection of pieces that effortlessly meld elements of shoegaze, dream pop, and ambient droning.
Crashing Into Nowhere is among the most impressive and successfully executed experimental music simply because of how evocative it is as Rodriguez creates dense, frigid yet inviting, cavernous sounding atmospheres that it is all too easy to get lost in—she makes the kind of sounds that, when a piece is over, you’re actually overcome with a sadness because you truly wish you could go on living within those sounds for as long as possible.
Are The National the ‘American Radiohead?’ It’s a question I wrestled with during my early listens of Sleep Well Beast, and it’s a question I’m still not sure I know the answer to. The album, coming a decade after their breakthrough Boxer, finds the band in a more confident, ambitious, and experimental place.
While 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me was the sound of a band struggling with sudden mainstream success and growing pains, Sleep Well Beast is the sound of a band that is still growing, but they know how to operate within that growth. It’s the first National album to incorporate myriad electronics—keyboards, drum machines, various other noises—at first, it’s a little jarring, and seems a little cobbled together. And yes, sometimes it just flat out doesn’t work (“Walk it Out.”) But overall, taken as a whole, Sleep Well Beast is, again, a fascinating portrait of adulthood and everything that comes along with it, with the band sounding tighter and more bombastic than ever. Matt Berninger’s lyrics, no longer as ambiguous and fragmented as they once were in 2007, receive assistance this time around from his wife Carin—and together, the two have made a ‘marriage is hard’ record, an idea that is both extremely personal, yet ideas that are widely applicable.
Rarely do you hear a debut full length that is just this good—and in 2017, I heard two of them (see the second album on this list.) The work of three year’s spent toiling in the studio, crippled with self-doubt over the direction the album was taken, SZA (born Solana Rowe) recorded, scrapped, re-wrote, and re-recorded the album a number of times before the finished product was released.
A loosely based concept album, structured around the idea of ‘control,’ Rowe takes on her anxieties, the spaces between love and sex, gender identity, race, and more, setting it all to an incredibly diverse soundtrack that blends soul, R&B, pop, and hip-hop.
Rowe can sing; she can rap; sometimes she does both in the same song. CTRL is a thought provoking, clever, and surprisingly fun album that, like Rowe herself, demands your full attention.
There was a span of about a month or so when Stranger in The Alps was going to be my favorite record of 2017—it’s simply that good, and that impressive. Bridgers, barely out of her teens, has made an absolutely striking debut release, showcasing her unique voice—both literally and figuratively. It has a youthful innocence in its sound, and her songwriting is wise beyond her years.
The reason Stranger in The Alps is so successful is Bridgers’ ability to walk the line between writing something catchy, writing something dark, and writing something with a self-deprecating sense of humor—often times all three collide within the same song. The album’s big single, “Motion Sickness,” is hook driven thanks to its refrain, but it’s also a sad and funny story about her (possibly fictional?) romantic involvement with a much older musician. She follows that with the harrowing “Funeral,” one of my favorite songs off the record, and one the most important songs the year for me.
She also pulls an audacious move by covering a Mark Kozelek penned true ‘murder ballad’ as the album’s final track, pulling the song away from Kozelek’s idiosyncratic nature, and driving it into an unrelenting and haunting territory, structured around a hypnotic flurry of piano notes. If you’re not familiar with the song (it’s latter-day Koz), when the violence suddenly arrives, you’re as surprised as character who was on the receiving end of a knife in the back.
Backed by a Secretly Canadian imprint’s money, Stranger is also, for her first time out, surprisingly slick—“Georgia” is full of sweeping grandeur and ‘millennial whoas,’ and there a number of occasions throughout where fancy production flourishes are sprinkled. Would the album be better, or just as good, if it were stripped back? It’s tough to say. It arrives as a huge, bold statement, full of honesty and stark observations on the human condition.
Baker, much like her ‘sad girl with a guitar’ peer Phoebe Bridgers, is barely in her 20s, but she’s lived practically a thousand lives—she’s struggled with her spirituality and faith, she’s had questions about her sexual identity, and she’s battled addictions and is attempting to remain sober. Following up her self-recorded debut, Sprained Ankle, Baker returns, backed by a newfound confidence in her voice, her songwriting, and the pedigree of Matador Records—a label smart enough to let her work in a real studio space, but didn’t push her to develop this set of songs beyond their skeletal nature.
Part of what makes Turn Out The Lights work is just how sparse it is—there’s very little additional instrumentation outside of Baker’s guitar strums and piano tinkles. That minimalistic approach lends itself well to letting her lyrics, and her voice (that voice, you guys) take center stage. These songs are stark; they are harrowing; a word like ‘sad’ or an expression like ‘heartbreaking’ doesn’t do this album justice. This thing is out for blood, and it will leave you a god damn mess every time you listen to it.
Baker’s voice is so powerful, so telling, that it should be registered as a lethal weapon—she makes no attempt to hide that with her otherworldly, devastating howl at the end of “Appointments,” during the climax of the album’s titular track, or during the gorgeous, emotional closing “Claws in Your Back”—and if that song doesn’t make you a believer, I don’t know what else Baker has to do to convince you she’s the real fucking deal.
Music that knocks the wind out of you like this doesn’t come along very often, and it is really something to behold when it does. Julien Baker is a national treasure—I don’t say that in jest—and she’s made a record that pulls you in for an unexpectedly visceral experience.