2017 Was Weird and Bad: my ten favorite songs of the year
What makes my eighth favorite song of the year just ever so slightly better than the ninth? Why do we, as internet music critics, bother to make these lists year after year? Why do I take time out of my schedule to revisit all of the things I've listened to in the last twelve months, toss it all together in a list that I hope I will not be embarrassed by, then write short blurbs about the things I'd already talked about at least once on this site?
Making a 'year end' list is both thrilling and terrible. It's a chance to try to impress your friends, or in my case, your audience, with your intellectually stimulating choices. It's a chance to revisit songs you may have forgotten about throughout the course of a year. But it's also a chance to make the wrong decisions and pick things that you'll later be like, 'Oh man why did I pick that song?' It's not one of the best of that year?
You want these lists to do two things, and it's nearly impossible for that to happen. You want the list to both withstand the test of time, and you want it to be a product of the time. You want to look back and think, 'Yeah, I still fucks with those songs.' But you also need it to capture a moment; like, a reflection of that year. I still stand by picking two songs by Ryan Adams' 1989 as my favorites of 2015, and I still stand by my list from last year, specifically picking "I've Been So Lost For So Long" by American Football as my favorite song, because along side pickings that are of the time, and will withstand the test of time, you also have to take into account how a song emotionally impacted you as well.
2017 was weird and bad. But, unlike some previous years, when I was not in a very good place, I was able to put together a list (and a commemorative mix) of songs from this year.
2017 Was Weird and Bad - a mixtape (right click, save as, oh my god, whatever, etc.)
If there was any song released in 2017 that could have served as an anthem, or at the very least, a call to action, it’s this one. Released mere moments before the unprecedented and unapologetic outing of sexual predators throughout nearly every facet of the entertainment industry, Kesha Rose Sebert returns following a five year absence—a bulk of which she spent involved in a complicated legal battle with producer and label head, Dr. Luke, whom she alleged drugged her, sexually assaulted her, and verbally and emotionally abused her throughout the early days of her career.
The lead single from Rainbow, “Praying” is everything it needs to be, and more. It’s dramatic and startling. It’s confessional, it’s brutally honest—but it’s also hopeful, and delivered in such a way that makes it less of a ‘fuck you,’ and more of a story of survival. Built around melancholic piano chords, Sebert proves that she can, for better or for worse, actually sing without drowning in Auto Tuned warbles. And on “Praying” she aims high, and never misses. It’s a visceral, frisson-inducing performance, especially at the 2:22 mark, when the drums kick in and Sebert is joined by a soulful choir of back up vocalists, helping her through the refrain.
In a time when it takes something like hashtag activism to get a serious issue brought to light, “Praying” reminds us that we need to believe women, and it reminds us that even in the face of something absolutely deplorable, there is strength and there is hope.
9. “New York” by St. Vincent
I’m still not sure what to make of Annie Clark’s fifth album as St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION. It’s not bad, but it’s also not as immediately enjoyable as some of her previous efforts have been. It’s a difficult record, full of meticulously crafted and experimental pop songs about, as she puts it, ‘sex, drugs, and sadness.’
Released well in advance of the album, “New York” is a) like nothing else on MASSEDUCTION; b) one of the most un-St. Vincent songs in Clark’s career thus far; and c) it’s one of the few songs throughout her canon where she swears—and boy, does she do it a lot here.
Unrelenting in its rollicking pace, structured around piano accompaniment courtesy of Thomas ‘Doveman’ Bartlett, it finds Clark lamenting the titular city, as well as all the people, and memories, that come with it. She’s lost a hero and lost a friend—is this about David Bowie? Is it about the famous women she has been romantically linked to?
It’s a fun song because it’s so fast paced and jaunty, filled with a big, swooning refrain, thanks to co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff—but it’s also a melancholic song, as Clark’s lyrics, as ambiguous as they can be, evoke a sadness over missing people, as well as a specifically idealized version of New York that she can’t get back to. So while MASSEDUCTION may have been a little uneven and faltered slightly under its own ambitions, it’s a powerful pop moment like this that grabs your attention, because you can recognize fragments of yourself in the desperation with which Clark sings “You’re the only motherfucker in this city who can stand me.”
8. “Natural Blue” by Julie Byrne
One of the two immediate standout tracks from the spectral folk of Byrne’s Not Even Happiness, “Natural Blue” bounces along playfully off of her plucked electric guitar strings and glistens dreamily thanks to the assistance of the lush string arrangements that arrive during the song’s refrain.
Through her smoky, wise beyond her years, and ethereal voice, “Natural Blue” is one of many songs Byrne has penned that details her nomadic lifestyle as a touring musician in the DIY scene, written in her trademark evocative and slightly mysterious style. Capturing pieces of the leg of a tour while in Colorado, she said that the song comes from “feeling so at mercy of the experience of touring and somehow breaking through to live fully in those moments of mysterious peace, wherever they may be.”
7. “Loving “ by Land of Talk
Arriving after Elizabeth Powell’s seven years of self-imposed exile from the music industry, Life After Youth was a welcome return for her Land of Talk project, showing growth and maturation in her songwriting as well as the embracing of minor experimentation in some of her arranging.
Recalling some of Powell’s earliest work as Land of Talk, “Loving” is primarily based around downcast and jangly electric guitars, a strong bass line, and driving percussion, and it shows that she can still pen a nervy, precocious, and ramshackle indie rock song. “Loving” is one of Life After Youth’s most infectious and memorable moments, thanks in part to the charming stutter Powell takes on in the song’s refrain—“There’s that song,” she sings. “T-t-t-touch your body, feel it; it’s gonna get worse.”
6. “Dark Space Low” by Angelo Badalamenti
Four months after the final episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return” or the third season of “Twin Peaks” or whatever we’re calling it—I am still shook. I shouldn’t be, though. Nothing should be that visceral of an experience; nothing should sit with you in the pit of your stomach for this long, giving you a strange feeling every time you think about it.
But that’s what David Lynch and Mark Frost did within the 18 hours of “Twin Peaks,” culminating in a mind bending, harrowing two hour finale that dares you to rethink everything you know about the mythology surrounding the show and its inhabitants.
Playing over the final episode’s ending credits, “Dark Space Low” is barely over two minutes in length, but it is full of an emotional dissonance that most composers only dream of being able to conjure. Badalamenti—Lynch’s go-to composer for both the original “Twin Peaks,” as well as a bulk of the music from “The Return,” takes you to an unshakeable place of mournful, creeping, resonating drones—the kind of evocative composition that brings you right back to that moment of sitting in your living room, watching the ending credits roll up the screen, a muted, slowed down image of Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee behind them, as you tried, in vain, to make sense of what you just witnessed.
5. “Truth” by Kamasi Washington
Released as a single months in advance of the EP it serves as the conclusion to, the sprawling “Truth” is powerful enough to stand alone as one of the most impressive pieces of music in 2017. It’s also the first piece of new music from Washington since his auspicious 2015 debut, The Epic.
Here, he hasn’t lost the knack as a jazz composer, performer, and band leader, as he leads an all-star cast, including Thundercat on bass and Terrace Martin on saxophone, blending all of the most successful elements from his previous work—the inclusion of a huge, dramatic sounding choir, sweeping strings, and most impressive—the infectious hook, or rather, a musical idea or theme that the band continues to play off of and return to.
“Truth” lasts slightly over 13 minutes, and for the entire thing, it sounds like the band is playing as if their life depends on it—everyone involved in this recording is giving everything they have and you can hear that palpable emotion packed into every note that is played.
Jazz is never going to be a mainstream form of popular music, but an artist like Washington, who is actively working outside of jazz circles, is trying to make the genre more accessible, or at the very least, interesting, to a wider audience; a thought provoking, ambitious, yet manageable piece like “Truth” shows he’s doing his best.
4. “Appointments” by Julien Baker
When an album is as astoundingly good and devastating as Baker’s sophomore turn, Turn Out The Lights, is, it’s tough to select one song out of the bunch that is both representative of album, as well as means the most to you.
The first ‘real’ song on the album (following an instrumental introductory piece), “Appointments” really sets the tone for the songs that will follow, as well as sets the bar high for the kind of emotional weight Baker maintains throughout. Her lyrics are both incredibly personal but also ambiguous—and that’s the point. It’s about her, but it can be about you, too, and that’s why this song, and the whole album, hit so hard.
“Appointments” also shows Baker’s range and flair for drama as a vocalist—the song, and her voice, begin pretty unassumingly, but by the end, she’s stabbing at her piano keys, howling with an otherworldly urgency that grabs a hold of you and will never let go. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright,” she pleads. “I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.”
It’s a stark line—also possibly naïve, but sometimes, something like that is all we have.
3. “Funeral” by Phoebe Bridgers
Much like Julien Baker, I struggled slightly with the decision of which Phoebe Bridgers song to include. “Smoke Signals” seemed like an obvious choice, due to the atmosphere it sets with both the downcast instrumentation as well as the evocative lyrics.
There are a lot of ‘dark’ moments on Bridgers’ Stranger in The Alps—rarely does she let up. “Funeral,” surprisingly so, given the subject matter, is not one of the album’s bleakest moments. The song recalls a trip back to her old neighborhood, tasked with singing a song at the funeral of someone a year older than her, as well as her struggles with processing the day to day anxieties that come from simply existing.
Set over a relatively sparse and mournful arrangement, the thing that sold me on “Funeral” was the song’s refrain—“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time. And that’s just how I feel—I always have, and I always will.” It’s the kind of line that is so blunt, you can’t help but laugh. But, if you’re like me, it also hits entirely too close to home.
2. “Broken Clocks” by SZA
For a part of the year, this song was a strong contender for my favorite song of the year. During my initial listens of CTRL, it was “Broken Clocks” that stopped me in my tracks, grabbed a hold of me, and made me say, “Wow. SZA is really good.”
There was no doubt that she was good, though. There are so many impressive moments on that album—almost too many to count, like the gigantic anthem “Drew Barrymore,” or the glitchy electro-pop of “Prom,” or the slithering and slinking groove of “Go Gina.” But “Broken Clocks”—well this song tops them all.
Built around a slow, skittering rhythm, SZA, born Solana Rowe, walks the tightrope between singing and rapping—something she does throughout the whole album. But it’s on the song’s affecting refrain that she really lets loose. It’s a simple series of phrases, sure, but it’s the absolutely pure, raw emotion that she pours into it that makes it a) the best song on the album, and b) one of my favorite and most important songs of 2017.
Tapping into that same kind of unabashed honesty that Solange Knowles found last year on “Cranes in The Sky,” Rowe has earned your undivided attention, and has earned the right to break your heart.
1. “Guilty Party”/”Nobody Else Will Be There” by The National
I bend a lot of rules with these lists. I mean, it’s my dumb blog, so I guess I have the right to do that. In 2015, the top two entries on this list were four songs—two by each artists, looked at with a flimsy descriptor like ‘two sides of the same coin.’ Last year, I also included three songs by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds within one entry.
So whatever, you know?
My life is like a National song. Maybe your life is like a National song too. Maybe you’re within my demographic—in your mid-30s, somewhere in the middle class, married, maybe you’ve got kids, maybe you have a companion animal, and you’re living with a debilitating depression and anxiety. Maybe you don’t know how to cope with some of those things, and it all catches up to you sometimes. Maybe you make a lot of jokes at the expense of your own fragile mental health because you don’t know what else to do.
Maybe you want to cry all the time, but you can’t.
My life has been like a National song for a number of years now. It’s why “Conversation 16” was my favorite song of 2010 and why my wife and I look at it as ‘our song.’ It’s why “Pink Rabbits” was my favorite song of 2013, and why, for the longest time, a section of the lyrics were the ‘about me’ on my Facebook profile.
Sleep Well Beast is not a ‘divorce record,’ nor is it a record full of love songs. It’s a ‘marriage is difficult’ record—and that’s accurate. It is. The trick is to make it look effortless, and not to let anyone else know about those moments, but on Sleep Well Beast, Matt Berninger, and his wife and co-writer on a number of songs, Carin Bessner, let you into those tense, private moments.
The two standouts from the album—the two that hit the closest and hardest for me, are the album’s slow burning opening track, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” and the jittery, bombastic “Guilty Party.” One arrives as an apology, the other as a desperate plea—both, in the end, are about understanding.
“Nobody Else Will Be There,” musically, is like nothing The National have ever done. The song begins with a captivating loop of a muted guitar chug, around which brushed cymbals, other atmospherics, and strong piano chords are laid down. Berninger, in his trademark serious baritone, works to paint an evocative picture of the place where boredom and anxiety meet when you’re in a social situation that you just want to run away from—“Why are we still out here holding our coats? We look like children. Goodbyes always take us half an hour—can’t we just go home?” Then, later, possibly the most devastating line—“My faith is sick and my skin is thin as ever; I need you alone.”
“Guilty Party,” released as the second single from the album, serves as a companion of sorts to “About Today,” the 2004 track the band rescued from obscurity by turning it into a monstrous, larger than itself anthem they perform at the end of nearly every live set. In “About Today,” Berninger mumbles the lyrics, “Can I ask you about today? How close am I to losing you?” Over a decade later, he’s still apologizing—“I say your name; I say I’m sorry. I know it’s not working. I’m no holiday.”
Musically, the band is firing at its peak. Shimmering guitars, strong piano chords, sharp bass notes, and rollicking percussion that blends with a jittering drum machine beat, as well as the addition of brass and strings—it’s the sound of everything the band has been working toward in the last decade, tumbling together into a beautiful cacophony and a practically definitive statement.
Lyrically, it’s sparse, but it finds Berninger walking that line that he treads so often—finding the space between too personal or too straightforward, balanced with mysterious and fragmented. It all catches up to him, all the time, he sings—and that happens to all of us, doesn’t it, maybe now more than ever.