One of the things that I love most about music is how it can sweep me away.
No matter how many years pass or new albums I hear, I am still awed when it happens — the way a fragment of melody or barely-caught lyric can tune some dial in my brain and shift the world around me into a different color. It’s a personal alchemy. I break into involuntary smiles and unasked-for tears and dance to a song that no one can hear but me. I remind myself that I am alive and better for it.
I’m aware that it’s a cliche to wish for escape in a year like this one. 2017 has pushed hard against the idea that the world is a fundamentally good place. As I’m typing this, Alabama has just barely rejected sending an accused pedophile to the Senate and I’m happier than I’ve been in months. But I can barely believe what I typed. It’s confusing and it makes me angry to think that we’re so far from where we could be. Sometimes it feels like I am trying in futility to hold it all back.
My favorite music this year has been made by artists who help me push. They are black, white, straight, queer, gender-fluid, young, old… you name it. They come from places as far-flung as New Zealand and Sweden and as close to home (but still a world away) as the Marcy Projects. In their stories and rhythms and harmonies, I have found a release from all the regressive ideals and bullshit, the energy to rip the Twitter IV out of my arm and go somewhere else for three or four minutes at a time. In the words of one of my favorite artists: “fuck politics, let’s do some dancing.”
Here are ten albums from 2017 that created worlds of their own for me. Maybe they can do that for you too.
10. U2 – Songs of Experience
U2 has gathered a global congregation by reaching heavenward, but their latest effort literally aims for the cosmic. Political and personal, existential and anxious — at its core, Songs of Experience is a series of missives on love and communion from beyond the grave. I have returned to it repeatedly since its December release, each time discovering something new, fresh footsteps on a journey that at this point stretches far beyond Joshua Tree.
So where are we going? Because this is a U2 album, there are timely references to Syrian refugees, autocratic con men, and the soul of America. At this point it’s practically underrated how these Dubliners in their mid-50s aim to speak to the current moment, something that none of their peers or descendants seem to be able to do. Bono’s lyrics are largely influenced by a recent brush with mortality, and they incorporate a fresh, Dylan-esque black humor that feels beyond the petty concerns of the world. You can hear it in songs like “The Blackout”, which uses the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs as a metaphor for how the band persists in a musical landscape that has seemed to outpace them. (Don’t count the Mesozoic rockers out; a ballad like “The Little Things That Give You Away” deserves to be in the band’s pantheon of classics, based on the way it makes the hair on my arm stand up.)
Ultimately, the beauty in Songs of Experience comes from how free it feels from the world’s bonds. For all its worldly concerns, the political symbols feel largely intended for a personal interpretation. It’s as if Bono is urging listeners to get out of their own way and recognize the passion within themselves to resist, to stare the worst of the world in the face and sing. The middle of the album has a stretch of songs (“Summer of Love” -> “Red Flag Day” -> “The Showman”) that are more danceable than anything the band’s put out in decades. For the first time since the 90s, it feels less like U2 telling their listeners to have joy and more like they’re providing the means to make it on their own. It’s urgent in the best way, lifting you up higher and higher still before letting you loose.
9. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
Annie Clark does not fuck around. Every choice on MASSEDUCTION seems to swing for the fences, from beginning and ending the album with multiple suicide attempts to the gluteus minimalist album art and all-caps title. (Three of the ten albums on this list are stylized in all caps, and which feels about right for 2017.) She’s stretching herself sonically, bringing in Jack Antonoff’s mecha-punk production to help create sounds that she’s never made before, like the high-pitched crescendo of “Young Lover” or the raging apocalypse of “Fear The Future”. Standout single “Pills” tunnels from a freakish earworm of a song to somewhere truly frightening, like the psychedelic boat trip in Willy Wonka brought to life, before resolving with an almost bluesy bridge complete with a Kamasi Washington sax solo. If that sounds like a lot, rest assured that I neglected to mention at least 6 other details. It is representative of Clark’s genius: every time I listen to this album, I find a new texture or melodic idea to disappear inside, a new space to inhabit.
Beyond the new colors in her sonic palette, what I love most about MASSEDUCTION is how it further stretches the idea of what a St. Vincent song can be about. As much as Clark has often been inclined to communicate her artistic intent with blunt theatricality (see the album cover), there is a subtlety to the downtempo tracks and ballads on this album that cover entirely different ground. Throw on “Savior” at a party in SoHo and see how long it takes someone to realize that it’s about BDSM. “New York” might be the current Best Ballad That Captures New York, with a gritty yet heartfelt refrain that feels like it could only come from one place in the world. And “Happy Birthday, Johnny” breaks me more every time I hear it, as a self-destructive family member pierces the St. Vincent persona itself and exposes the fear and guilt beneath the affectation.
8. BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II
Skip to the next paragraph if you’ve heard this story before. In 2010, more than a dozen young artists of all colors, creeds, and persuasions start chatting on a Kanye West message board and decide to make music together. After about five years of false starts and name changes, they emerge fully formed, calling themselves a boy band and releasing a seemingly endless torrent of inventive and vital music. They’ve refined the barely-controlled chaos of Odd Future’s posse cuts, the genre-less pedigrees of modern pop, and the fuck-it-we’re-doing-it-live DIY ethos of the Soundcloud rap generation. BROCKHAMPTON is the promise of the internet, personified.
SATURATION II is the second album of a trilogy that the group released in 2017, and it’s the moment where you can literally hear everything come together. The music coalesces in a genre-mash of sung raps and scant gang chants, orchestral flourishes and woozy synths, like cars taking turns at the entrance to a freeway before hitting the gas. It’s dizzying in the best way, with no feeling to latch onto for longer than a minute or so before you’re tossed to the next voice, the next beat, the next surprise.
With all of this mayhem packed into 48 minutes, there’s really no representative track to pin down the Brockhampton “sound”. If forced, I would pull up the posse cut “SWEET”, which shows off the group’s versatility with its electric mix of staccato, smooth, and outright maniacal flows (the last courtesy of group standout Joba). But why choose? The joy of this project lies in its unexpected turns. “SUMMER” feels like they started with the guitar solo on Kanye’s “Devil in a New Dress” and worked backwards into a Boyz II Men jam. “JELLO” is a head-spinning shittalking fest with a playground chant chorus. “GAMBA” interpolates the old Pokemon theme song into a chipmunk love song. It’s creative energy spilling in all directions, a testament to how youth and freedom can often make the most exhilarating noise.
7. Lorde – Melodrama
In 100 years, when computers have taken over every job on the planet, Lorde’s 2017 missive will be proof that they can’t steal art from us. Melodrama is incredibly effective pop music that feels intensely human at the same time. Every single sound is personal: mic placements, falsetto gang vocals, hastily strummed acoustic guitars. You can hear it in the onomatopoeic noises Ella makes, in those low, sad harmonies and mathematically “incorrect” rhythms that turn her anthems about being young and heartbroken into something distinct on pop radio. The sonics of this record might be best represented at the album’s breaking point, “Hard Feelings/Loveless”. Producer Jack Antonoff makes a screeching solo out of what sounds like a machine being ripped apart until there’s nothing left but 808s, heartbreak, and debris in the air. I feel like I’m floating.
AND HER WORDS. Lorde uses language like no other songwriter on the planet, wringing romantic poetry out of the mangled juxtaposition of physical sensations and raw feels. The album is structured around the highs and lows of a house party, but Ella’s distinct lyrical choices render the drama anything but mellow: Hold a megaphone to my chest, broadcast the boom boom boom boom and make them all dance to it.; Oh God, I’m closing my teeth around this liquor-wet lime.; Summer slipped us underneath her tongue. It’s sensory overload twisted into a John Hughes film. I feel like I’m dancing.
For all of the masterful sonic landscapes and crisp turns of phrase, it’s Ella’s ability to infuse these songs with emotion that elevate them to masterful pop music. She puts you fully in her head, as in the sparse ballad “Liability”, which bares her insecurities as much as any song I’ve ever heard: They say, “you’re a little much for me, you’re a liability”…. I’m a little much for everyone. I’ve had those moments too; nights where you’re sitting alone on the floor next to your refrigerator, thinking no one could ever love you. It’s human, and thankfully it doesn’t last forever. Towards the album finale, the song’s reprise cleanses her vocals in autotuned echoes, like angels guiding her home. I feel like I’m soaring.
6. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
I’ve never really been sure what to say about Kendrick Lamar. I mean that quite literally; I have written and deleted more words about him than any other artist. He’s one of my favorite rappers of the last decade, yet the overarching sensation I get when attempting to engage with his music in writing is that it isn’t made for me. Yet (obviously) Kendrick’s work still resonates — his sense of empathy is so pronounced and his skills as a lyricist are so vivid that they can’t help but strike a chord.
DAMN. focuses on the contradictions within Kendrick’s soul, using a dense narrative and complex structure to keep you in a constant state of uncertainty. Not even the tracklist is fixed; based on which front-to-back direction you listen to the album, it can be alternately heard as the story of a man transcending his wicked nature through the support of family, love, and religion… or a man’s essential goodness being slowly ripped from him by his environment until he dies in the street. Both are there, literally at the same time. It’s a masterful piece of work that keeps me coming back to it for closer readings, and it doesn’t sacrifice melodic hooks or lyrical power to tell its story — the rare music that provokes thought and action at the same time.
When I first got my hands on DAMN. in the spring, I walked through the city and tried to take it all in. Storm clouds were forming and there was an electricity in the air. It felt like an apocalypse. Maybe it would be better if the world did end that way, in the pure fury of a master at work.
5. Big Thief – Capacity
Adrienne Lenker got the name of her second album wrong. Capacity is a title much better-suited to her debut, a grab bag of raw folk rock that occasionally found moments of quiet brilliance. But while the 2016 album showed that Big Thief’s music contained multitudes, her follow-up took less than a year to show how she took that potential on the next level. It’s a song cycle that feels like its own whole universe, the project that deserves to be called Masterpiece.
These songs are palpable — physically tangible in a way that musicians are rarely able to attain. There’s a measured stillness here, like I’m slowly submerging myself in them rather than just listening. Much of this has to do with her voice, which flows underneath chugging guitars and twinkling acoustic figures in a constant Om. It often feels as if Lenker is breathing the songs out rather than singing them, telling stories about her life and family in ways that cut to the bone.
4. Paramore – After Laughter
I can’t quite recall an album quite like this, where what seemed at first like a new paint job overhauled a reliably fun band into a great one. I’ve been a Paramore fan since their PureVolume days, but their prior albums have never had the staying power for me that their best songs did. After Laughter shocked me with its replayability, as I found ways to bask in its synth pop anthems long after the summer sun wore down.
The 80s throwback sound has become quite popular on the radio in 2017, and this album stands out for some truly indelible pop hooks — the most consistently catchy and sturdy of Paramore’s career. Yet I keep coming back to these songs in particular because there’s a broken heart under the sheen, a depth and shading that is ever-present, even when you’re singing your lungs out with the windows down. After Laughter joins the pantheon of music that sounds elated but features real loss and grievance. It’s most best articulated in the standout track “Fake Happy”, which has perhaps the most straightforwardly pessimistic lyric I’ve heard delivered all year: “I should’ve known that when things are going good thats when I get knocked down.” This is the most authentic form of neon: glow sticks that need to be broken in half to release their toxins and ultimately create wondrous light.
3. JAY-Z – 4:44
Jay-Z has worn a lot of titles in his career: street mafioso, rap technocrat, chart conqueror, business mogul, presidential advisor. But on his thirteenth album, the rapper mostly sounds like a wise man. These are beach chair raps of the highest caliber, a man taking inventory of his surroundings and rendering them in verse. Literally structured like a therapy session that “kills off” a previous version of himself (Jay added a hyphen back into his name with this project), these songs assess Where He’s From and ponder his legacy in stark, black and white terms. From structural racism to marital infidelity, nothing is off the table .
Though it’s fascinating to hear one of hip hop’s most mythic living figures unmask himself, 4:44 wouldn’t be anywhere near as rewarding if the music weren’t as compelling as its subject matter. Hov’s always been one of the best rappers in the world, and his confidence is at an all-time high here. He creates his own pockets with a conversational flow that comfortably sits alongside No ID’s bare soul samples, like an uncle talking to you in the corner of a family party. There’s a lot of masterful wordplay and cadences here (I could write an essay on the way he says “OK” on “The Story of O.J.”), but my favorite rap moment of the year is “Marcy Me”: a tour-de-force of tumbling syllables and vivid storytelling. Its first verse is perhaps the pinnacle of Jay’s career, so intricate that I simply don’t believe the apocryphal claim that he’s never used a pen to write his words down. Not that it matters; no one else on the planet can create music this technically impressive, thematically deep, and seemingly effortless.
The album’s marketing campaign swore that the title 4:44 came from a clock in Mr. Carter’s bedroom, one that inspired him with a meaningful number when he woke in the night. Forgive me for the blasphemy, but I think that’s a bit of confirmation bias. I’d see this poetry more like Biblical Verse: a new testament for our times, Jay-Hova’s very own Book of Wisdom.
2. Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights
Julien Baker spends a lot of time thinking of herself as a vessel. Sometimes she means it in a physical sense, as in the opening lines of “Everything That Helps You Sleep”, where she pictures herself as a husk:
What is it like to be empty? Full of only echoes and my body caving in,
A cathedral of arching ribs heaving out their broken hymns.
More often across her incredible sophomore effort, Turn Out The Lights, Baker becomes a vessel for others: friends, lovers, listeners, a higher power. I imagine that this sense of being something to everyone must be both affirming and exhausting. Her music is often quiet and relatively unadorned, as if she’s strung together 10 or 11 of that slow, sad song that’s your clear favorite on a classic emo album.
It’s clearly resonating. The singular quality of Baker’s live shows is a sense of communion, this coming together of people that want to share in her cathartic hope and longing. Most fall silent, awe-struck by her voice. In a scene filled with memorable, communicative voices, Julien Baker sings alone. Her voice can modulate from aching fragility to a raw, piercing directness. Often at the climax of a song, it feels as if she’s been given extra air in her lungs to expel whatever’s left in her heart. Yet she never demands reverence; one of my favorite things about Julien Baker is that she seems to want everyone to sing along. It’s as if she sees the world itself as a space in which we can find the touch and voice of God everywhere, from sirens that sound like “the Holy Ghost speaking in morse code” to a car ride home that makes it all hurt less.
At this point, if you have never heard her music, this might all sound like emotional overload. It certainly should be. And yet, Baker’s empathy as a songwriter allows her to not only create such vulnerable music, but also develop her gifts in a way that doesn’t allow her emotional palette to feel repetitive. It’s a testament to her skills as a musician that there are so many moments of quiet beauty on Turn Out The Lights that don’t draw their power from her voice. I’m thinking of the hypnotic central riff in “Appointments”, circling around itself in an ever-rising crescendo. Or the elegant grace notes of “Televangelist”, her lone piano as arresting as an orchestra.
It’s for these reasons that I’m excited to see what else Julien Baker can do with sparseness. Vessels are often defined by what they hold, but more often they’re most beautiful on their own. In just the space of one album, she’s become a master of negative space. Maybe it’s the pindrop-silent rooms she’s been playing across the country, dictating how she can let a moment breathe. Or maybe it’s the result of a life inspired by prayer, wringing meaning out of apparent nothingness. It’s certainly a philosophy that makes sense for someone who sings:
Nothing turns out like I pictured it.
Maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases.
1. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
There was never any question to me about what my favorite album of 2017 would be. Equally buoyant and weighty, open-hearted and penetrating, Jens Lekman’s music makes me feel like nothing else in the world when it plays. The Swedish songwriter’s Life Will See You Now is a collection of soaring indie pop with touches of disco, calypso, and lounge music colliding in a beautiful set of anthems to living.
Jens is a storyteller, an idiosyncratic one, and his lyrics oscillate between big and small scenes to find moments of congruence. (Often quite literally; the story of “How We Met, The Long Version” starts at the Big Bang and ends with borrowing a stranger’s bass guitar.) He writes songs about 3D-printed tumors, jerry-rigged carnival rides, complicated male friendship. In many ways, his lyrics best resemble found poetry, as scraps of overheard asides and slices of life distill into essential truths about the human condition.
Album opener “To Know Your Mission” lays out Lekman’s de facto philosophy as a conversation with his teenage self:
I just want to listen to people’s stories, hear what they have to say.
My friends say, “just be a shrink then.”
But I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll have the grades.
In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear.
If there’s a purpose to all this, then that’s why God put me here.
My favorite song on Life Will See You Now frequently changes, but most often it is a bouncy, horns-led number called “Wedding in Finistère”. The song’s story takes place after the titular rehearsal, as Jens ponders the fear of making choices with an unsure bride-to-be as they look upon the sea: “Marry and regret it. Don’t marry, regret it too…. either way, you’ll wish you hadn’t.” Eventually, the bride goes back to the wedding, but the song isn’t about her moment of indecision; it’s about lives unlived, the progression of time as we find new ways to replace ourselves. A wedding party celebrates both the beginning and end of a life. It’s no wonder that the city of “Finistère” literally translates to the “end of the world.”
The thing is, that song’s also a summer jam. The compositions on Life Will See You Now aren’t merely memorable for their philosophical musings; they’re backed by weapons-grade melodies and musical accompaniments that are literally illustrative. The cascading strings in the chorus of “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel” feel like the sky is opening up right in front of you. The resolution of “Our First Fight” doubles as a daring, onomatopoetic bridge. It’s a synthesis of form and function, the music emphasizing each lyrical idea and elevating it.
I often say that I write about music because I like to work out what it means to me. There’s something beautiful about finding a place where you can just meet a piece of art, allow it to change how you think about yourself in real time. I think that Life Will See You Now hits me so hard because I feel like an observer in my own life sometimes. I’ve known my share of lost souls and barflies, flight attendants and troubadors. There’s something in this tapestry that I want to emulate. I want to find the meaning in it all. Maybe at my best, I want to be an ear in a world of mouths. Lekman makes me feel like there’s even a living in it, at least for a lucky few.
Last March, I had the opportunity to see Jens Lekman and his band live when they came through Philadelphia on tour. It was my favorite kind of night; I drank too many glasses of cheap wine and danced with my arms wide open and the world felt right for once. As I looked around the room, at a few hundred people singing along to every note of music written by this Swedish songwriter from a world away, I was struck by the impossibility of the moment. There is no unseen happening of events that could bring these people in the same room on this night; no power except the joy of music, joining our lives together like leaves in the wind before scattering us again. I am thankful for it.
Blurbs about some albums I wanted to highlight that weren’t in my top 10. One song recommendation with each write-up.
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Barely missed the top ten, mostly because I don’t know how to talk about it. I’ve never liked this band’s prior work, but this album blew me away: 60+ minutes of swirling rock music that reaches out into the expanse and brings back something that can still anchor you to your seat. “Knocked Down” should be a new standard for sleepy sunset ballads.
The Menzingers – After The Party
“Where are we gonna go now that our 20’s are over?” ask The Menzingers on “Tellin’ Lies”, kicking off a winding set of anthems about the futility of trying to keep the good times going when you’re past your prime. Perhaps the best pop punk album I’ve ever heard that’s about actually growing up, instead of just going through some shit.
Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In The Alps
My favorite discovery of the year is a fresh entrance into the long tradition of songwriters who find the most immaculate way to sing about sadness. Phoebe Bridgers’ music is equal parts Elliott Smith and Julien Baker — a sparse set of songs built for the wee small hours, filled with evocative imagery and melodies that feel like they were always hanging in the air. She could be an all-time great if she continues to create songs as lyrically concrete and emotionally complex as “Funeral”.
Taylor Swift – reputation
I already wrote about this album, and it’s probably my least favorite piece I’ve written in years. (I basically spent 2,000 words saying she’s still a great songwriter that perhaps got a little too pulled into her own narrative, which paradoxically is why she connected so much with fans in the first place. Ugh, doing it again.) Here’s where I am now: there are some catalog-worthy songs here that take chances (“Delicate”) and some WTF moments that sound hilariously great or bad depending on my mood (most of the first half). I’ll probably listen to it less than Red but more than 1989. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Noah Gundersen – WHITE NOISE
Talk about taking chances. One of my favorite living songwriters mostly tosses out what he does best in favor of a loud rock album. It’s not perfect, but songs like “The Sound” have a fury about them that’s worth exploring further.
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
This is difficult. A Crow Looked At Me is a blunt, raw representation of grief and loss that is nearly impossible for me to listen to without curling into a ball. Songs like “Real Death” deserve to be written about, but it feels like I’m almost trivializing the trauma at their center. (Even that feels weird… I don’t mean to hawk death as advertising.) At the same time, does silence in reverence of a memory ultimately do a disservice to the art created in that same memory? I guess the only one who can really say is Phil Elverum, who has known loss I hope to never get close to knowing and turned it into a crushing, broken beauty that feels like trespassing.
Amber Mark – 3:33am
If the world’s lucky, we’re going to hear a lot more from Amber Mark. This stunning song cycle is about losing her mother but somehow finds moments of grace (like the centerpiece “Monsoon”) that make me want to dance and cry at the same time.
My Full Top Thirty List of 2017
- Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
- Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights
- JAY-Z – 4:44
- Paramore – After Laughter
- Big Thief – Capacity
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
- Lorde – Melodrama
- BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II
- St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
- U2 – Songs of Experience
- The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
- The Menzingers – After The Party
- Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In The Alps
- Jessie Ware – Glasshouse
- Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
- Taylor Swift – reputation
- Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
- Noah Gundersen – WHITE NOISE
- Los Colognes – The Wave
- The National – Sleep Well Beast
- Lana Del Rey – Lust For Life
- Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
- Thundercat – Drunk
- Boogie – Thirst 48 Part II
- Sinkane – Life & Livin’ It
- Kevin Morby – City Music
- Alex Lahey – I Love You Like A Brother
- Amber Mark – 3:33am
- Drake – More Life
- Harry Styles – Harry Styles
The 2016 Re-Rank
Now that some time has passed, wanted to take another swing at my 2016 EOTY list. RIP Chairlift.
- The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
- Frank Ocean – Blonde / Endless
- Bon Iver – 22, A Million
- Chairlift – Moth
- Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
- A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
- Maren Morris – HERO
- Solange – A Seat At The Table
- (TIE) Conor Oberst – Ruminations
(TIE) Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
The 2007 Re-Rank
Revisiting music from 10 years ago and seeing what I still listen to is interesting to me.
- The National – Boxer
- Lupe Fiasco – The Cool
- Radiohead – In Rainbows
- Bright Eyes – Cassadega
- Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
- Kanye West – Graduation
- Lil Wayne – Da Drought 3
- Say Anything – In Defense of the Genre
- Fall Out Boy – Infinity on High
- Maroon 5 – It Won’t Be Soon Before Long
Out of this list, I would say the first 3 are the albums I listen to more than a few times a year. The 10th anniversary of Boxer was an especially big moment for a lot of music blogs, and the coverage definitely pushed me to rediscover an album that feels like a memory of a time long since passed that truthfully I never experienced at the time. Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool is the last time one of my favorite rappers made music that was accessible and technical at the same time. I couldn’t imagine For Emma being my least favorite Bon Iver album 10 years later, but now that he’s left the planet it totally is. Don’t sleep on that Fall Out Boy album either — it runs their anthemic emo through a pure pop filter with pretty unique results.