2017 In Music — An Accounting of My Music Year

Every year that musicians continue to make music is a great year. I love music, especially new music. There are few feelings like that of putting on something you’ve never heard before and hearing it unfold for the first time.

This year had it’s own character. I took a lot more chances on musicians that I would have missed in previous years and took recommendations from a lot of different people (no less than 45 different sources). My year in music was better for it. Here are some of the highlights.

Top Ten

While a top ten list is antiquated and encapsulating music in an arbitrary measure that is a year, I find it important to do for myself and my vanity projects. As always, there are no metrics for this, no rules nor strict adherence to any type of system for what ends up on this list. I just go with my gut and try to overcome my biases that inevitably creep in.

1. Big Thief Capacity

I came across Big Thief’s first album via the song “Masterpiece” somewhere in the middle of 2016. I was surprised to see that they had followed that album up a year later. But this isn’t a follow up album as much as it is a statement of arrival. Everything the band does on this record surrounds Adrianne Lenker’s vocals and guitar with just enough to let her talents shine. I caught them live late in the year and was blown away. In the middle of a deeply emotional set, Lenkner ripped into some of the raddest guitar parts I have ever heard. Songs: Mary, Shark Smile, Mythological Beauty

2. The National Sleep Well Beast

This album had more edge and more fight than any previous album by The National. Both in the lyrics and in the music. It felt like they challenged themselves to make something unlike anything they had made before, and didn’t settle for anything less than that. Songs: Day I Die, I’ll Still Destroy You, Guilty Party, Carin At The Liquor Store

3. Rostam Half-Light

Rostam has had a hand in a number of projects I’ve loved over the last couple years. Modern Vampires In The City (Vampire Weekend), A Seat At The Table (Solange), Blonde (Frank Ocean), I Had A Dream That You Were Mine (Hamilton Leithauser), and E-MO-TION (Carly Rae Jepson). So when he decided to put out his own record, how would I not love it? And as an added bonus he broke down one of the songs on Song Exploder. Songs: Sumer, Bike Dream, Don’t Let It Get To You

4. Julien Baker Turn Out The Lights

Most of the songs are sparse, just an electric guitar and her voice. Raw, sometimes haunting, always direct, taking hard topics head on. She Borrows elements of punk and hardcore, from her previous band, and reimagining them in a wholly new way. This album is confident and beautiful. Songs: Sour Breath, Turn Out The Lights, Televangelist

5. Sylvan Esso What Now?

I loved the first Sylvan Esso record. In fact, it was my favorite album of 2014. I saw them play live twice this year and left both shows thinking “If their new record doesn’t become one of the biggest albums of the year, then I don’t know what will.” Songs: The Glow, Die Young, Signal

6. Spoon Hot Thoughts

This album had two different lives this year. The first life started during SXSW when Spoon basically ran the festival, with shows and appearances galore. I caught one in a tiny venue, three rows from the front. The second song, “Hot Thoughts”, when the bass and drums kicked in right after the first verse, was a close as I have been witness to rock and roll perfection. The second life came more subtly during an afternoon listening at work. The song “Tear It Down” came on and started unceremoniously with the organ chords and then the beat. Then the chorus hit with the words “Let them build a wall around us
I don’t care, I’m gonna tear it down.”
I probably listened to the song another 10 times in a row, a catharsis to whatever frustration and vitriol was playing out in the news. Songs: Hot Thoughts, Do I Have To Talk You Into It, Tear It Down

7. Phoebe Bridgers Stranger In The Alps

The song “Smoke Signals” showed up on a Spotify auto-generated playlist at some point during the year. It caught me on the first listen with mentions of both Lemy and Bowie’s death. The rest of the writing was smart and challenging. I hoped the rest of the album would be as good as that song. It was. Songs: Smoke Signals, Scott Street, Killer

While this was the first song I heard referencing Bowie’s death, a few more surfaced so I consolidated them here.

8. Lorde Melodrama

I didn’t expect to give this album many listens since Lorde isn’t really my wheelhouse and I felt like it had too much hype (which, right or wrong, is a warning sign for me). But the songs are smart, catchy, and culturally contemporary. And it inspired one of my favorite acts or guerrilla art of the year. Songs: Supercut, Perfect Places, The Louvre

9. Vince Staples Big Fish Theory

A year of analyzing song lyrics revealed to me, quantitatively, that hip hop has the most interesting and important lyrics in music right now. I was aware of that prior to diving deep into the quantitative aspects of songwriting, but I didn’t fully embrace it. Now I do, and I’m glad because I wouldn’t have given a record like this one any attention otherwise. And no other record had songs that were as stuck in my head as this one. Songs: 745, Yeah Right, Party People

10. Perfume Genius No Shape

I’ve always dug Perfume Genius’ song making. Each of his prior albums have a couple songs that I love. For this record, he teamed up with Blake Mills, one of my favorite producers. The result is a beautiful record that feels as fresh as anything out there. The opening track is so unassuming and then at 1:05, BAM, it hits you. Songs: Slip Away, Otherside, Valley


Mentionables

These albums are great by any measure. I listened to them a lot and they have great songs worthy of being in my top ten and are worth listening to.

Kendrick Lamar DAMN.

I feel like 10 years from now this will be one of those albums that is held up as an example of a master delivering the goods at his peak.

Broken Social Scene Hug Of Thunder

They got the whole crew back together for this one, and you can tell.

LCD Soundsystem american dream

From the first synth sound 45 seconds into the first song, to the 12 minute eulogy to Bowie at the end, I am glad to have LCD Soundsystem back.

Craig Finn We All Want The Same Things

I really love songs that have geographical references. And I equally love songs that tell a story, in a narrated and detailed way. “God In Chicago” hits both of those perfectly.

Sheer Mag Need To Feel Your Love

They had a great run of EPs. They put together a full length for the first time this year and it was awesome.


Miscelanea

My year in music is not confined to my top ten list. There are a number of moments every year that contribute to defining a particular 12 month stretch. Here are the most prominent of those moments.

I saw Tom Petty live for the first time. He died a few months later, which still boggles my mind. But then the tributes started rolling in. Every musician had a Petty song to play and I’m pretty sure I’ve youtubed ever single one of them.

I loved the weaving of music into Baby Driver, especially the opening scene.

I saw Willie Nelson live, at his ranch/movie set western town, for the third time. He was sick and only managed a handful of songs, left the stage, and then returned to play “I Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today.”

I saw Chance The Rapper at ACL. That guy is energy embodied.

Between my aforementioned SXSW panel, a Wesley Morris Article, and this NY Times feature on Women in Rock, I have been shaken awake and made aware of a number of hidden biases that, all too often, determine what I hear. I am working hard to change that and I am grateful to those moments that shook me awake.

Here’s to a great 2018 in music!