The 30 Best Albums From a Year That Wasn’t
“When the king is a garbage person, I might wanna lay down and die. Power down all my darkest urges, keep my personal crown up high”
If there’s a better lyric to sum up 2017 than Open Mike Eagle’s above line from “Happy Wasteland Day,” it’s hard to imagine it. How do you stay positive when every day seems to bring a new legislative cruelty, a fresh erosion of our civil liberties or just another dose of unimaginable stupidity (usually in tweet form)?
It’s like we’ve all been walking around in a Mountain Goats chorus singing “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” except our collective abusive stepfather happens to be a vindictive 71-year-old racist misogynist commander-in-chief and his army of enablers.
It’s been interesting talking to friends about what they’re listening to these days. A lot of them have retreated to what seems like an audio version of comfort food — pulling out those favorite albums and artists that bring them back to a different time, some sort of portal to their 20s spent in Williamsburg or hip-hop shows in the mid-90s.
That’s not a unique occurrence to this moment in time — people tend to stop discovering as much new music as they get older — and it’s often a lot easier to program something familiar to match your mood than it is to stumble upon something that forces an unexpected one.
I’ve certainly circled through the all-time favorites in my Apple Music library plenty in the past year, but felt even more of a need this year to seek out creative work that seems important in the present moment. It wasn’t only a reaction to the surreal larger climate. It’s been a transitional year personally too, highlighted by a breakup, layoff, the deaths of a family member and a professional mentor, as well as watching friends go through similar things.
As the year trudged along, one of the most cathartic things I was able to do was dig in to as much new music as I could. In his intro to Stereogum’s year-end best-of list, writer Tom Breihan noted that “If we didn’t have music to help us get through this, I don’t know what we would’ve done. But we did have music. We had so much music, from so many different corners of the universe.”
And that’s true. Whether it made you shake your fist in shared rage, left you slack-jawed at its emotional rawness, provided simple escapist joy or just reminded people that there are more reasons to be optimistic than not, it all helped.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about music (and there’s no shortage of year-end “Best Of” lists to sift through by people who do it a lot more frequently and skillfully) but it seemed like a helpful exercise in reflecting on the good and bad of the past year to curate my favorite things that ended up on the soundtrack of it. Here are 30 albums worth bringing along into 2018 while we leave the worst of the past year there.
30. Brent Faiyaz, Sonder Son
After singing the hook on GoldLink’s “Crew” and putting out two great albums (one by his group Sonder and this solo debut) in 2017, the 22-year-old singer feels like he’s about to make an Anderson .Paak or Frank Ocean type leap in 2018.
29. Margo Price, All American Made
I’ve seen Margo Price in three different settings in the past 14 months. The Troubadour in Los Angeles, where half the crowd watched the Dodgers win a playoff game in the front bar just before filing in for the opening song. A proper concert hall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the set started promptly at 7 p.m. and no alcohol was served anywhere in the venue. And then there was her afternoon set at Farm Aid at a soldout Star Lake (or whatever corporate name it has now) Amphitheatre outside of Pittsburgh. Her live show was pretty much flawless each time — although seeing her duet with Willie Nelson at the latter was pretty amazing.
28. Curtis Harding, Face Your Fear
Danger Mouse producing a classic soul record? That works.
27. Sorority Noise, You’re Not as _____ as You Think
How do you process grief and loss while dealing with your own crippling depression? In the case of the Connecticut emo band, you make a raw album that doesn’t shy away from any of that horror. The subject matter makes it hard to want to put this one in heavy rotation, but there are moments that just grab you like when lead singer Cameron Boucher describes the recent deaths of friends to suicide and addiction with lines like “Just this year I lost a basketball team to heaven.”
26. Sampha, Process
I’m still kicking myself a little bit for selling tickets to see Sampha at Terminal 5 in February, since it might be awhile before he plays that size of a show again. But trekking to that terrible venue in any sort of weather, let alone the middle of February, is usually enough to ruin a show before the artist even comes on so probably still the best decision.
25. Tyler, the Creator, Flower Boy
The genius has always been there, but was too often overshadowed by a juvenile need for provocation in the form of violently misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. While that always seemed to be in the pursuit of shock value rather than any actual virulent personal beliefs, it always felt like a detraction from the music (maybe the hordes of teenage Odd Future fans might disagree, I don’t know). All of that bravado is gone on Flower Boy, exchanged for sincerity and growth. It was one of the most pleasant musical surprises of the year.
24. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
I’ll let Ryan Adams handle this one.
In response to FJM’s upcoming appearance on Austin City Limits, Adams tweeted, “It’s so wonderful you booked the most self-important asshole on Earth to ‘break it all down for us’ while he does his Nick Cave impression.” Adams went on to refer to FJM’s Josh Tillman as “Elton Josh” and “Sir Fuckhead,” adding, “He sounds like shit Elton John but if he was just sitting in a corner staring at his hands on LSD.”
That self-important asshole did make a pretty decent record though.
23. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
The latest Japandroids album sounds a lot like the past two Japandroids albums, which is great, because the first two Japandroids albums rock your face off. In a polite Canadian way, of course.
22. Open Mike Eagle, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
I referenced “Happy Wasteland Day” above, which is just one piece of the concept album about the destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago where Eagle grew up. It’s hard to hear a track like “Brick Body Complex” talk about “My other name is 3–9–2–5 [the address of the building that was demolished in 2007]make sure that my story’s told. Sixteen or so stories high, constructed fifty five years ago” and not draw parallels to the same tale of woe in Living Colour’s “Open Letter (To a Landlord).” It’s been almost 30 years since Corey Glover sang “Now you can tear a building down, but you can’t erase a memory. These houses may look all run down, but they have a value you can’t see” and a new generation of artists are still having to tell the same story about the failures of public housing in this country and the people who are displaced because of it.
21. Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm
The second of two “dueling breakup albums” released by the Crutchfield sisters in 2017, this one, by Katie’s band Waxahatchee, continues a run of four stellar albums that began with 2012’s American Weekend. NPR did a pretty cool thing when this album came out and had the sisters talk about each other’s work. Here’s what Allison (she’s further down the list) said about this one.
What really strikes me about it, and what I’m the most proud of on her behalf, I think, and proud of as her sibling, is lyrically that it’s a remarkable achievement for her. I think that it’s probably the most focused she’s ever been on any record that she’s made. And it’s probably the hardest I’ve ever watched her work as a lyricist.
20. Lorde, Melodrama
This is an excellent pop album that has still in no way erased that insanely weird South Park episode from my head yet.
19. GoldLink, At What Cost
Here’s one really good thing that came out of D.C. this year.
18. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice
Just like Ted Leo and Aimee Mann’s collaboration a few years ago, this pairing wasn’t one that you would have dreamed up ahead of time but made total sense once it came together. As opposed to let’s say…..DRAM and Neil Young.
17. Rapsody, Laila’s Wisdom
For as much justifiable complaining as there is about the Grammy nomination process, the fact that Laila’s Wisdom was rightfully recognized as one of the five best rap albums of the year makes it a little harder to whine about the year’s selections. (Although Tribe still deserved something). After grinding for over a decade, she made the most of a well-earned Roc Nation deal and created a 14-song behemoth that maximizes her impressive gift of wordplay.
16. Miguel, War & Leisure
One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to start using more names as verbs in 2018. In “Pineapple Skies” Miguel sings about how he and his lady “Stevie Wonder through the night” while he’s “Luke Skywalkin’ on these haters” in “Sky Walker.”
15. Allison Crutchfield, Tourist in This Town
Katie Crutchfield on her sister’s album, from that same NPR interview:
She was seeing the world, but also going through all of these big changes and having a hard time with it. She came home and she wrote this whole record about everything that she’d been through, and it’s this triumphant sort of thing that happened at the end of a very eventful year.
14. The National, Sleep Well Beast
The National have been making consistently great, introspective records for years now, but this one took it even further. Sleep Well Beast takes a bit of repeated listens to really sink in, but singer Matt Berninger described the essence of it better than any review has so far in a Rolling Stone interview last year.
People have always described our music as dark and say it goes very melancholy, somber places. They haven’t heard anything yet! This next thing is crazy. And it’s about marriage, and it’s about marriages falling apart. I’m happily married, and but it’s hard, marriage is hard and my wife and I are writing the lyrics together about our own struggles and it’s difficult to write, but it’s saving my marriage. Not saving my marriage, my marriage is healthy, but it’s good for everything! And so it’s gonna be a strange record, and I’m crazy about it.
13. Tyler Childers, Purgatory
“My buckle makes impressions on the inside of her thigh, there are little feathered indians where we tussled through the night” is such a perfect lyric that I probably played “Feathered Indians” five times the first time I heard it. The rest of the Kentucky native’s second album is fantastic as well. It’s produced by Sturgill Simpson and channels Gram Parsons/Townes Van Zandt.
12. Katie Ellen, Cowgirl Blues
There are so many great bands based out of Philly right now and I was lucky enough to discover Katie Ellen when they opened for Worriers at the Knitting Factory last month. Both the opening “Drawing Room” and closing “Bleeding Heart” tracks are standouts.
11. Syd, Fin
As good as her work with The Internet has been, Syd hit an absolute new peak with her first solo album. She’s said that a lot of the songs were originally written with other artists in mind but that she ended up keeping them for herself. It’s hard to imagine it any other way after hearing the final product.
10. Sheer Mag, Need To Feel Your Love
Another of the Philly bands mentioned above, Sheer Mag’s debut album sets lead singer Tina Halladay’s raspy bellows about topics like voter suppression (“Expect the Bayonet”), resistance (“Meet Me In The Streets”) and the Stonewall riots (“Suffer Me”) to a gritty garage rock soundtrack. The album isn’t entirely political — the catchy title track is as straightforward as its name suggests — but it’s certainly one of the most cutting musical statements about our modern climate you’ll find all year.
9. Brockhampton, Saturation II
Saturation II is probably the best of the three albums this self-described hip-hop “boyband” released this year, but you could probably slate the combined trilogy in this spot as well. Odd Future is probably the best modern comparison, but Brockhampton weirdly channels my excitement for the early days of Wu-Tang Clan. There’s no stylistic similarity, but I remember driving to high school listening to Enter The Wu-Tang and just being blown away by how ten MCs with completely different styles had put together something so groundbreaking and unique. This feels like that kind of thrilling moment where you have a large collective of individual young talent who have figured out, at least for the time being, how to make the sum larger than its parts.
8. Young Thug, Beautiful Thugger Girls
Young Thug is a rare artist who can sing (this is his “singing album” after all) about fidelity with a line like “I haven’t lied in days for you, treating myself like I’ve got AIDS for you,” or wax philosophically on fatherhood by saying “I pray my daughter never ever experience no train” and somehow have it be endearing as hell. My former colleague Micah Peters recently wrote a great feature for The Ringer on the drug-fueled nihilism that complicates the enjoyment of artists like Thug, Future, Lil Uzi Vert and more. That element — much more evident on some of his other recent releases — is much harder to find on this specific project. While Beautiful Thugger Girls’ certainly has an aggressively hedonistic side, it’s counterbalanced with its own unique warmth and addictive melodies.
7. Rex Orange County, Apricot Princess
The British teenager’s appearance on Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy brought plenty of attention to his own solo album, a joyous genre-shifting collection of piano-backed love songs that he described to Pigeons and Planes as “an inside album. You can listen to the album and feel all of those emotions within one night. It can be happy and dancey, and then you can think of something that you’ve fucked up on.”
6. Cigarettes After Sex, Cigarettes After Sex
This music is meant to be played in dark rooms, preferably late at night, so it’s especially weird that the first time I heard this happened to be at a daytime outdoor July 4th party at a friend’s co-worker’s house. Shout out to the fellow guest who completely misjudged the vibe of the occasion but inadvertently turned me on to one of my favorite albums of the year.
5. SZA, CTRL
SZA’s long-delayed release issues thankfully didn’t reach Yankee Hotel Foxtrot levels of discord, but there’s something even more triumphant in CTRL’s breakthrough success because of them. I’m not going to come up with any new accolades that haven’t already been written about this album, but I did enjoy SZA’s recent Pitchfork interview, which serves as a good reminder — even for people who aren’t Grammy-nominated pop stars — on the value of appreciating your current circumstances even if they aren’t what you want them to be at the time.
Pitchfork: What were you doing a year ago?
SZA: Airbnb-ing from place to place. Then, six months ago, I signed a lease on this apartment [in L.A.]. But I’m about to move out of there, ’cause I need a house. My dog is stressed.
This time last year everything was so different. I had so much time. I have much more appreciation for the time that I do have to myself: Spending time with my mom, or getting my nails done, or going to the sauna, or taking a nap may be the best three hours of my life now.
There’s a sense that there’s much less time but it seems to be a lot more valuable?
Not to be too yoga-sounding, but it’s like you get to be a lot more present.
And mindful. The truth is, that time was always valuable, it was just hard to see the value.
4. Julien Baker, Turn Out The Lights
The 22-year-old Tennessee singer’s second album is so personal, raw and honest about subjects like mental illness, addiction and faith that it can become unsettling as a listener, like gaining access to a diary you’re not exactly sure you have any right to be reading. Turn Out the Lights is an emotional tsunami — one that’s even more of an incredible accomplishment given the age of its creator.
3. Worriers, Survival Pop
It didn’t take the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency for Worriers to get political, but it certainly amplified the urgency of their message. Continuing on the themes explored on 2015’s fantastic Imaginary Life, the Philly punk band’s latest album “was really just baseline surviving in the face of the patriarchy and capitalism,” according to singer and songwriter Lauren Denitzio. While “What We’re Up Against” is a rather self-explanatory repudiation of the current political forces and “Best Fear/Worst Fantasy” rejects personal responsibility in making homophobes better understand the people they “don’t understand,” it’s the optimistic self-reflection of songs like “The Possibility” and “Future Me” that give the album its heart.
And while the queer feminist perspective of Worriers’ music feels incredibly important at the moment, I’m also well aware that as a straight white 41-year-old man, it’s not crucial to me the way it is to others. I saw Worriers perform in November at a small all-ages show at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn and found myself watching several LGBTQ teenagers in the front row screaming out every lyric with joy and rage and immediacy because they needed that release — it’s the “survival pop” described in the album’s title.
“I can’t say that things are getting better but I feel like at the very least being able to travel has made me feel a little less isolated in how I’m feeling or how my bandmates are feeling,” Denitzio told Missing Words in September. “I feel like everybody needs to find those spaces whether its a march or a meeting or a show or whatever it is where you can be with other people and you aren’t like inundated with everything from the Internet or from the news that would make you think that there aren’t people that agree with you because there are.”
2. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN
I feel like debated on who the greatest can stop it
I am legend, I feel like all of y’all is peasants
I feel like all of y’all is desperate
I feel like all it take is a second to feel like
Mike Jordan whenever holdin’ a real mic
I ain’t feelin’ your presence
Feel like I’ma learn you a lesson
Feel like only me and the music, though
I feel like your feelin’ ain’t mutual
I feel like the enemy you should know
- Gang of Youths, Go Farther in Lightness
The opening track on this album, “Fear and Trembling,” starts with a “Thunder Road” like piano intro followed by a description of a “moosehead hanging from a wall at a bar at a nondescript part of the street.” You know, as opposed to a slamming screen door and Mary dancing across the porch while the radio plays.
After lulling listeners in for the first 90 seconds or so with their best Springsteen and the E Street Band impression, the song suddenly speeds into a chaotic frenzy reminiscent of more recent Jersey product Titus Andronicus and completely wallops you out of nowhere.
Listening to all of Go Lighter in Darkness produces a bit of a similar sensation. Unlike some of the immediate “holy shit” moments produced by some of the albums listed right above this one, the second full-length effort from the Australian rockers creeps up for the first few listens before just engulfing you.
With 16 songs totaling almost 80 minutes, Go Lighter in Darkness — the album’s 2014 predecessor The Positions was all about singer and songwriter Dave Le’aupepe’s ex-wife’s cancer fight that would eventually claim her life after its release — is his lengthy response to that tragedy and the existential questions that plague us all.
“I don’t know, man,” Le’aupepe told Rolling Stone Australia in August. “I’m gonna die one day and I don’t want to fuck around. This is the thing I care about, and I want to do the shit I care about. I don’t give a fuck about the commercial possibilities of the music. I just wanted to swing for the fences and attempt not to care what people thought and attempt to convey my thoughts about life, my musings, my aspirations, my fears, my anxiety, my empathy for others, in a way that I found pleasing. So it was healing for me.”
In the wrong hands, song titles like “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane,” “Persevere,” “The Heart Is a Muscle,” and “Say Yes To Life,” not to mention to album’s title track, could be almost laughably earnest. But the substance behind each of them adds to a giant collective triumph.
In a year where many of us seemed to have been seeking something to keep pushing us forward, it was an anthemic Jersey-rock influenced double album by a multicultural band led by a Samoan-Jewish Australian that seemed to sum up that motivation better than any other musical offering this year.