In one glorious package.
HUNDRED WATERS – COMMUNICATING
Released September 14th on OWLSA
An intoxicating concoction of modern electronic production, classic pop acoustics, and top-notch songwriting. Moody without being maudlin, slow-burning and gorgeous.
KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD – SKETCHES OF BRUNSWICK EAST
Released August 18th on Flightless Records
In which the ultra-prolific neo-psych/prog band spends their third album of 2017 going off in the direction of structured and wildly unstructured jazz.
SEAN LEON – I THINK YOU’VE GONE MAD (OR THE SINS OF THE FATHER)
Released February 5th on The Initiative
I’ve been in attendance in Jameson Ave apartments for ad-hoc freestyle sessions anchored to pirated beats on YouTube. While Sean Leon wasn’t part of that particular social scene, the Parkdale rapper would probably find them familiar. I Think You’ve Gone Mad is a bit of Frank Ocean, a bit of emotive Future-esque braggadocio filtered through Drake’s persistent insecurity, and a lot of references to that fabled stretch of Queen Street between Dufferin and Roncesvalles.
DESTROYER – KEN
Released October 20th on Merge Records
Halfway between the wearily European post-disco of Kaputt and the wild, innocent E-Street-on-faded-AM musings of Poison Season, Ken pares down his more elaborate flourishes in favour of something more intimate. The cocaine-yacht beats of Kaputt are replaced with something decidedly more mid-1980s New Order.
THE COURTNEYS – THE COURTNEYS II
Released February 17th on Flying Nun Records
Candy-coated, fuzzed-up, blissed-out rock ‘n’ roll out of Vancouver that floats along like an early summer breeze. A textbook definition of indie garage-pop, a perennially popular sound.
BIG THIEF – CAPACITY
Released June 9th on Saddle Creek Records
It’s a joke straight out of Futurama – Monsters of Vaguely Folkish Alterna Rock – but the truth is that much of what is labelled as the “indie scene” is a teeming mass of kids who got their start in coffee houses and high school talent shows with acoustic guitars. Once in a while a greater talent will emerge from that vast anonymous sea; Big Thief is one such instance. The sound is familiar, but Adrienne Lenkar’s hypnotic voice and deft hand with vivid, disturbing imagery set her band apart.
METZ – STRANGE PEACE
Released September 22nd on Sub Pop Records
The Toronto band’s pummeling third album was done with the legendary Steve Albini and is the most utterly primal album they’ve done yet. It’s as though Mudhoney and Husker Du were melded in some apocalyptic furnace; that is to say, it’s Sub Pop as fuck.
SINGLE MOTHERS – OUR PLEASURE
Released June 16th on Dine Alone Records
The heart of London, Ontario strikes a wary, negative peace with growth and maturity, moving beyond pure punk rock fury to embrace bolder melodies and arrangements. They may be paranoid in advance of the kids who “used to like Single Mothers” making fun of them, but growth is necessary. Sometimes awkward, but necessary.
RICHARD DAWSON – PEASANT
Released June 2nd on Weird World Records
The freaky English folk guitarist centers himself after the departure of the Roman Imperial government but before the conquest of William in 1066. Once there, he ponders the lives of common English people with eerie singalongs, rustic melodies that are easily at home in rippling forest shadows, and chaotic, glorious bursts of noise.
FEIST – PLEASURE
Released April 28th on Universal
Metals, Leslie Feist’s 2011 followup to her crossover into the pop world, was a bit of a slog, long on moody atmosphere and short on moments of frisson. Pleasure re-injects those moments back into the proceedings, creating something that borders on the elegant mystery of PJ Harvey while still retaining her core identity.
FUTURE ISLANDS – THE FAR FIELD
Released April 7th on 4AD
Like Passion Pit before them, Future Islands corner the market on warm, wide-reaching synth pop that merges decades seamlessly and with surgical skill.
WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM – THRICE WOVEN
Released September 22nd on Artemisia Records
Coming back from odd excursions into ambiance and synthesizers, the pagan black metal band returns to what made them great in the first place: nature worship, howling-wolf vocals, and blastbeats for days.
DRAKE – MORE LIFE
Released March 18th on OVO Sound / Young Money Records
Views was a major disappointment but this “playlist” manages to resemble what the bulk of that album should have been: equal parts patois and grime, more party than pining, and some real respek on his name.
LAURA MARLING – SEMPER FEMINA
Released March 10th on More Alarming Records
A dark, slinky album of complex relationships that is equal parts Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen; Marling doesn’t reinvent the wheel but she does make it roll exceedingly well.
SHERWOOD & PINCH – MAN VS. SOFA
Released February 24th on On-U Sound
British bass music has always been the best soundtrack for navigating urban areas by night; Man Vs. Sofa, with it’s post-dubstep construction and it’s uneasy, nearly psychedelic use of sample choices, ups the ante significantly.
ENTRANCE – BOOK OF CHANGES
Released February 24th on Thrill Jockey Records
A romantic pop album from an unabashed folkie that centers itself squarely in the mythical LA-hippie past and makes no apologies for that. Haunted by the ghosts of Arthur Lee, Roky Erickson, and the Zombies, it aims for the majestic and hits it dead on.
THE NECKS – UNFOLD
Released February 10th on Ideologic Organ Records
Freewheeling experimental jazz that bridges the clatter and noise of urban modernity with the more primal howl of the trackless wilderness to come up with something that approximates the heartbeat of existence.
WILEY – GODFATHER
Released January 13th on CTA Records
Grime’s, err, Godfather capitalizes on the recent resurgence of the genre to remind everyone of what made him so special in the first place.
THE RURAL ALBERTA ADVANTAGE – THE WILD
Released October 13th on Paper Bag Records
The Toronto folk-rock band returns to the sound of their peak, 2011’s Departing, to once again channel the hopeful-but-doomed sound of the Arctic wind whistling across the snow-buried Prairies.
ELECTRIC WIZARD – WIZARD BLOODY WIZARD
Released November 17th on Spinefarm Records
The veteran English doom-metal band conjured up a record so crushingly glacial that merely playing it aloud will form new moraines. Wizard Bloody Wizard exists in a perfect world where every album is modeled after Master Of Reality and every riff is heavier than the last.
ALVVAYS – ANTISOCIALITES
Released September 8th on Polyvinyl Record Co.
Toronto’s premiere indie-pop dreamers prove their bona fides with a sophomore album that doubles down on the songwriting chops of their debut and establishes a growing body of work that a thousand lesser bands could only dream of.
THE DREAM SYNDICATE – HOW DID I FIND MYSELF HERE?
Released September 8th on Anti- Records
2017 was a year that featured any number of classic bands re-emerging from long silences to rediscover their sound. The Dream Syndicate are the most criminally overlooked of the lot; they sound just as mystical and psychedelic as they did in their Doors-soaked early Eighties heyday, blending post-punk and the Velvet Underground together into a thick, moody stew.
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – VILLAINS
Released August 25th on Matador Records
The last great mainstream rock band standing seems constitutionally incapable of putting out a record that’s less than stellar. By now they’ve got the details down pat: molten lava riffs, slinky post-grunge desert rhythms, and the keening wail of Josh Homme, and may the Lord strike me down if it isn’t as good as it ever has been.
NICOLE ATKINS – GOODNIGHT RHONDA LEE
Released July 21st on Single Lock Records
A little bit Roy Orbison, a little bit early Sixties girl popper, and a lot of the ghost of Dusty Springfield; Nicole Atkins is each of these and all of these, and her sound seems as contemporary as it does classic.
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS – WHITEOUT CONDITIONS
Released April 7th on Concord Records
Like Brill Bruisers before it, Whiteout Conditions proves that, sixteen years after their debut, no one in indie pop holds a candle to the continuous strength of The New Pornographers, with or without Dan Bejar.
TORO Y MOI – BOO BOO
Released July 7th on Carpark Records
The standard-bearer for chillwave takes an inward turn as he deals with growing fame and notoriety. He jettisons the locked-in grooves of his previous work in favour of something more ambient and, ultimately, something freer.
SYD – FIN
Released February 3rd on Columbia Records
The L.A. R&B singer – and former producer with the Odd Future collective – has, for her first solo album, ditched both the “Tha Kid” part of her moniker and her long-time band The Internet. The result is a smoky collection of modern beatcraft and pure sex.
STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES – SO YOU WANNABE AN OUTLAW
Released June 16th on Warner Bros. Records
The first truly country album Earle has made in 20 years, So You Wannbe An Outlaw represents his tense relationship with the form. The time of the outsider has come again, and so his starkly unpop take on his roots sounds breathtakingly contemporary.
SZA – CTRL
Released June 9th on Top Dawg Records
SZA doesn’t just do R&B. SZA does everything; she just places it in the framework of R&B and makes it all fit like she’s been doing it forever.
TOPS – SUGAR AT THE GATE
Released June 2nd on Arbutus Records
Imagine Grimes, but instead of ADD-riddled gonzo pop, it’s smooth, late-night soft rock. While it never quite makes it out of middle gear, that middle gear allows them to reveal some truly gorgeous vistas.
JANE WEAVER – MODERN KOSMOLOGY
Released May 19th on Fire Records
Jane Weaver’s sixth album layers brilliant and ethereal psychedelic melodies over pounding motorik rhythms, as though Silver Apples came of age in Berlin in the late 1970s.
DO MAKE SAY THINK – STUBBORN PERSISTENT ILLUSIONS
Released May 19th on Constellation Records
Post-rock’s resident jazz heads return from an eight year silence to speak with restless force. Warmer and more freewheeling than most of their Constellation brethren, it will lift your skinny fists heavenward before you even realize it.
MOON DUO – OCCULT ARCHITECTURE VOL. 2
Released May 5th on Sacred Bones Records
Sacred Bones’ psych-rock mind-chasers released two albums of their signature drone-rock in 2017. Of the two, the second volume brings them out from behind the dark side of the moon into a lighter, sunnier, and overtly more joyful place.
LITTLE CUB – STILL LIFE
Released April 28th on Domino Recording Company
An indie-pop framework filled out with chilled nightclub grooves and analog synthwork that emerges smoking and whole from the grave of the 1980s.
DIET CIG – SWEAR I’M GOOD AT THIS
Released April 7th on Frenchkiss Records
Alex Luciano kicks off the album with a story about how when she was sixteen she dated a boy with the same name as her and how it was weird to moan out her own name in the back of his truck. What follows is a slacker-punk tour de force that reclaims her sexuality, rallies for equality, and forges a path in a field still overly dominated by masculine voices.
MASTODON – EMPEROR OF SAND
Released March 31st on Reprise Records
On Emperor Of Sand, Mastodon completes their transition from early 00s harbinger of the thrash revival to plenipotentarie of the state of heavy music. Metal for people who don’t like metal.
THE SHINS – HEARTWORMS
Released March 10th on Columbia Records
In 2004 they were the band that would change your life, but it took thirteen years for James Mercer to sound like he was finally letting loose. Heartworms is like old Shins records with the fun turned up and a bunch of burbling analog synths showing up to party.
BLANCK MASS – WORLD EATER
Released March 3rd on Sacred Bones Records
Imagine if you put together a gigantic cross-Atlantic rave that partied so hard it ripped a hole between dimensions and the dimension it merged with was arid and hellish and partied to pure industrial levels of aggression. That’s World Eater.
LANA DEL REY – LUST FOR LIFE
Released July 21st on Interscope Records
The languid chanteuse’s fifth album doubles down on her particular style of Hollywood sadcore, a combination of the downer vibe of Slowdive or Codeine with the pop sensibilities of a Katy Perry or a Demi Lovato. It’s a winning combination and is only enhanced by the presence of all her guests. On that note, if only two singers were born to be on the same track, it’s Lana Del Rey and the Weeknd.
JULIE BYRNE – NOT EVEN HAPPINESS
Released January 13th on Ba Da Bing! Records
This year’s winner in the Hushed Ambient Folk Sweepstakes, Julie Byrne’s second record is like the first glimmering rays of dawn creeping up over a blackened landscape.
SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS – SOUL OF A WOMAN
Released November 17th on Daptone Records
Consider the sheer power on display on this blistering soul album, and consider that Ms. Jones brought this kind of passion and fire while she was dying of cancer, and weep at how little you’ve really accomplished in life.
CHELSEA WOLFE – HISS SPUN
Released September 22nd on Sargent House Records
Imagine, if you will, Amy Lee; instead of riding on the coattails of Linkin Park and and appealing to the same demographic that went to Hinder or Staind concerts, she’s drawing on rich, blasphemous traditions of black and doom metal. It’s as though she were fronting Sleep but members of Harvey Milk and Emperor made cameos. Or, if you’re already a fan, imagine if Chelsea Wolfe put out her best album.
OPEN MIKE EAGLE – BRICK BODY KIDS STILL DAYDREAM
Released September 15th on Mello Music Group
Hellfyre Club alumni Open Mike Eagle eschews the loud, in-your-face nature of modern hip hop in favour of a style and production that feels like it comes from a collective place, as though he’s channeling everyone who ever lived in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project that forms the central concept of the album.
COURTNEY BARNETT & KURT VILE – LOTTA SEA LICE
Released October 13th on Matador Records
The intercontinental Indie Rock Super Friends prove on Lotta Sea Lice that their somewhat disparate styles are held together by a common stoner-slacker ethos that welds them together almost seamlessly. The highlight of course is Courtney dead-on nailing Kurt’s signature delivery on “Peepin’ Tom”.
OH SEES – ORC
Released August 25th on Castle Face Records
John Dwyer loosens up on the ever-denser quality of the last few Thee Oh Sees records and turns back toward the surreal, psychedelic sprawl of his early efforts. While it’s still scorching garage rock beyond reproach, it also knows when you need to stop and take a breath.
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – LUCIFERIAN TOWERS
Released September 22nd on Constellation Records
Ever since Efrim’s kid needed money to go to college, Godspeed You! Black Emperor has discovered a new world that is both prolific and in love with brevity. Luciferian Towers represents the peak thus far of this new Godspeed, full of string-driven visions of an anarchic apocalypse.
FOREST SWORDS – COMPASSION
Released May 5th on Ninja Tune Records
Matt Barnes’ second album is a forceful examination of the spaces between samples, of throbbing electronic beats juxtaposed against moments in time drawn out like taffy. He displays a rare touch that feels more like the exploration of the possibilities of electronic music that took place in the 1990s.
GRIZZLY BEAR – PAINTED RUINS
Released August 18th on RCA Records
Sweeping, open-ended, and unafraid to go off on a musical tangent, Painted Ruins shows what can happen when you let a band do whatever they want. If someone tries to tell you that bands just don’t make bold rock music anymore, put this record on and raise your middle finger.
KEVIN MORBY – CITY MUSIC
Released June 16th on Dead Oceans Records
The former Woods bassist is equal parts Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and the wave of back-to-basics Seventies-worshipping singer-songwriters that have emerged over the last few years. For a brief, shining moment, he’s even the Ramones. He’s everything to everyone, but in a better way than that phrase usually denotes.
GAS – NARKOPOP
Released April 21st on Kompakt Records
Narkopop is the sound of melting directly into the universe.
WOODS – LOVE IS LOVE
Released April 21st on Woodsist Records
A folk-rock exploration of the enduring power of hope in a hopeless world that becomes sublime as soon as the horns come bursting out of the gate.
PHARMAKON – CONTACT
Released March 31st on Sacred Bones Records
Pure lust translated into screaming pure power-violent noise. Freed of the prison of standard instrumentation, Contact creates trances through the building blocks of sonic experience and fuels an out-of-body transcendence.
HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF – THE NAVIGATOR
Released March 10th on ATO Records
As American an album as you’re likely to find this year, The Navigator combines big politics with little lives and threads together examinations of race, gender, and class into a snapshot of Alynda Segarra’s firebrand mind circa 2017.
SLEAFORD MODS – ENGLISH TAPAS
Released March 3rd on Rough Trade Records
Like Mark E Smith before them, Sleaford Mods spew rapid-fire missives about trashy English culture over minimalist structures of bass and drums. Like an old man bitching about the world today, but actually entertaining, with real humour and bite.
NADIA REID – PRESERVATION
Released March 3rd on Basin Rock Records
An honest, confessional mixture of ambient indie folk and jazz-inflected vocals that marks the New Zealand singer-songwriter out as a talent to be watched.
IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE – UYAI
Released March 3rd on Merge Records
The Nigerian electro-funk band finds a serious groove and builds a chrome-plated, synth-stabbing party around it. If your speakers start getting wet, that’s just from the sheer sweat coming off of this record.
KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD – FLYING MICROTONAL BANANA
Released February 24th on Heavenly Records
A psych-prog tour de force that I’m convinced is a lengthy love letter to that instrumental section in the middle of “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”
PISSED JEANS – WHY LOVE NOW
Released February 24th on Sub Pop Records
Crushing, pummeling punk rock that pulls no punches in questioning the absurdity of toxic masculinity.
XIU XIU – FORGET
Released February 24th on Polyvinyl Records
Over the last few albums Xiu Xiu have lapsed into self-parody, but Forget scorches all of that away and for the first time in a dozen years they feel vital, fresh, and alive.
POWER TRIP – NIGHTMARE LOGIC
Released February 24th on Southern Lord Records
Thirty-four years after Kill ‘Em All, Nightmare Logic shows the staying power of thrash metal. Brutal, brief, and meticulously structured, Power Trip’s second album is a modern metal classic.
VAGABON – INFINITE WORLDS
Released February 24th on Father/Daughter Records
Nearly half an hour of ambitious, ethereal, utterly gorgeous indie rock that doesn’t waste a single note. It’s simultaneously intimate and maximalist, which sounds like a paradox until you listen to it.
MEAT WAVE – THE INCESSANT
Released February 17th on SideOneDummy Records
Smashing punk rock with world-shaking hooks, blackened atmosphere, and Steve Albini. These three things will always be a winning combination.
WILLIAM BASINSKI – A SHADOW IN TIME
Released January 20th on 2062 Records
The avant-garde composer best known for his Disintegration Loops series released a blurred, ambient tribute to the late David Bowie that serves to soundtrack pretty much anything.
THROWING SNOW – EMBERS
Released January 20th on Houndstooth Records
Ross Tones takes a little bit of everything – garage, dubstep, downtempo, ragged synth work, field recordings – and tosses a potato in to get a stew going, baby.
THE XX – I SEE YOU
Released January 13th on Young Turks Records
Miles beyond the dour, muted neon of Coexist, I See You adds in the breezy rave vibe that characterized Jamie xx’s last solo effort and tones the bleak vibes into something more wistful than melancholy. As refreshing as diving into a pool, and easily the best album of the group’s career.
PIANO MAGIC – CLOSURE
Released January 27th on Second Language Records
The band celebrated their 21st anniversary by putting out a great album and then breaking up. “Celebrating” seems like an odd word choice until you remember that they’ve been utter garbage for the last decade. Finally, though: an honest, somber collection of pure songcraft to go out on.
RE-TROS – BEFORE THE APPLAUSE
Released September 15th on Modern Sky Entertainment
liars, Factory Floor, PiL – these are some guideposts for you to explain the glory that is this Chinese post-punk band’s latest release. Endlessly varied, constantly moving, and able to pull off just about any move they choose; when the familiar piano stabs of “Red Right Hand” show up in “Pigs In The River” you’ll cling to it like a branch in a hurricane.
DEERHOOF – MOUNTAIN MOVES
Released September 8th on Joyful Noise Records
Once a year or so, the most consistently great band in rock ‘n’ roll releases another stellar entry into their catalog. 2017 is no exception.
TONY ALLEN – THE SOURCE
Released August 8th on Decca Records
The legendary Fela Kuti drummer’s signature deft rhythmic styles are all over his full-on jazz explosion, but the real secret weapon here is Nicolas Giraud’s late-night party trumpets. The interplay here (and, ok, with Daniel Zimmerman’s funky-ass tuba) makes a whole new movement out of post-bop.
THE WAR ON DRUGS – A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING
Released August 25th on Atlantic Records
Remember when AOR was a dirty word in serious respectable music and now dadrock-core is a thing and we’re mining AM radio circa 1986 for inspiration? A Deeper Understanding is like lengthy, gloomy ruminations on the meaning of Bruce Springsteen in audio format.
ARCADE FIRE – EVERYTHING NOW
Released July 28th on Sonovox Records
2017 was the year of Arcade Fire’s Inevitable Critical Backlash: as though the album’s concept wasn’t a snarky swipe at the commodified “indie culture” those same critics were complicit in promoting; as though post-disco weren’t the perfect vehicle for the satire of that commodification; as though the sudden inability of indie critics to get a joke wasn’t obvious; as though Kieran Devlin’s charge of misogyny wasn’t a painfully awkward jump-the-shark moment for the discourse around the album; as though “Good God Damn” and “Put Your Money On Me” weren’t the best songs left off of Some Girls. Look for a Lodger-esque retcon by 2037.
BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE – HUG OF THUNDER
Released July 7th on Arts & Crafts Records
The first album from the Toronto collective in seven years sounds exactly like what you’d want and expect from a Broken Social Scene album, and in 2017 that kind of stability is priceless.
WAXAHATCHEE – OUT IN THE STORM
Released July 14th on Merge Records
Katie Crutchfield is the reigning queen of crunchy Nineties indie rock with energy, lyrical skill, and emotional longing informing every note she uses. Some artists dwarf themselves on their first major studio efforts, but Out In The Storm shows that sometimes that enhanced budget just makes things more anthemic.
KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD – MURDER OF THE UNIVERSE
Released June 23rd on ATO Records
Gizzard’s second album of 2017 was also their most hardcore, a prog-indebted metallic screed about altered beasts and vomit coffins. Like John Dwyer if the Thee Oh Sees frontman scarfed down a bunch of amphetamines first.
THUNDERCAT – DRUNK
Released February 24th on Brainfeeder Records
Drunk is what really quality pho soup would sound like if it were funky bass-driven jazz. It’s hot, a little flavourful without being overwhelming, full of beef and free-flowing like broth. It slops over everywhere but goddamn if that’s not part of the experience.
GIRLPOOL – POWERPLANT
Released May 12th on Anti/Epitaph Records
A sprawling lullabye of an album, Powerplant is sleepy eyed indie rock with soothing melodies that give way into a more disturbed, unsettling REM state.
SLOWDIVE – SLOWDIVE
Released May 5th on Dead Oceans Records
Reunion albums are a dime a dozen. Reunion albums that truly match the artist’s previous work are very rare. Reunion albums that exceed that artist’s previous work are virtually unheard of. Slowdive falls into the latter category.
PERFUME GENIUS – NO SHAPE
Released May 5th on Matador Records
Bigger, bolder, and blazing with life, No Shape finds Mike Hadreas escaping the grim lo-fi gravity well of his past and shooting off into the soaring adventure of the Great Beyond.
FREDDIE GIBBS – YOU ONLY LIVE 2WICE
Released March 31st on ESGN Records
You Only Live 2wice is the beginning of the Gary, Indiana rapper’s second life after being acquitted on rape charges in Austria. The album feels like a rebirth, of sorts, but it also feels like a glowering taking-stock of all of the paranoid impulses in Gibbs’ soul, all of the other wrongs he may have perpetrated and poor choices that he’s allowed to linger, and fester. As usual with Gibbs, it’s the details that fill in the spaces, like Gibbs being in an Austrian jail and being perturbed that all of the reading material in the library was in German.
SPOON – HOT THOUGHTS
Released March 17th on Matador Records
Spoon has hit a legendary stride – where they’ve perfected a specific sound and they do it better than any competition could hope to – and Hot Thoughts is the culmination of that stride. Funky without being derivative, jagged without being overly edgy, Spoon has this night-life thing figured out.
PRIESTS – NOTHING FEELS NATURAL
Released January 27th on Sister Polygon Records
Stridently righteous DC hardcore the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a long while. Whoever said that riot grrl was dead was a goddamn liar.
KAMASI WASHINGTON – HARMONY OF DIFFERENCE
Released September 22nd on Young Turks Records
15 years ago jazz was basically a legacy genre, an art form dutifully practiced by old-guard musicians and kids whose parents forced a particular education on them, championed by dusty NPR/CBC radio shows and soundtracking the banal gatherings of people whose money necessitated a certain sense of edgy class. Now it’s once again just about the coolest thing going. Funny old world, innit?
ARIEL PINK – DEDICATED TO BOBBY JAMESON
Released September 15th on Mexican Summer Records
There’s something in Ariel Pink’s personality that’s like biting on tinfoil but there’s also something in his music that sets this aside entirely. It’s a blend of 1960s freewheeling psychedelia, 1970s golden AM radio sounds, endearingly awkward white-boy 1980s New Wave funk, and Cobain-esque 1990s punk rock. It is, in short, a summation of the best parts of the last 50 years in one gloriously bizarre album.
LORDE – MELODRAMA
Released June 16th on Lava Records
Melodrama is a Seventies pop-rock epic disguised as a modern pop album and it hits every single melodic wishlist item with a nervy fervor fitting for her age and the revolutionary times.
GRANDADDY – LAST PLACE
Released March 3rd on Columbia Records
The Sophtware Slump was a key album of the 2000s but subsequent efforts failed to move the band beyond second-tier touring status and they broke up in 2006, citing lack of money. Like so many other classic bands, however, Grandaddy reunited a few years ago and their inevitable new record at least matches their best output. It’s an album about divorce and survival, crafted in indie space rock and Jason Lytle’s signature butter-punk vocals. It may also be the band’s last; bassist Kevin Garcia died in May of a massive stroke and the comeback tour behind Last Place was cancelled.
TYLER, THE CREATOR – FLOWER BOY
Released July 21st on Columbia Records
Compare Cherry Bomb, Tyler’s last album, to the more recent output of other OFWGKTA members like Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, or Syd/The Internet. He seemed then like the kid who refused to grow up, even when his friends were moving on with their lives; he’d end up as that guy who could only hold down a pizza delivery job, knocking up some girl from town and probably developing an opiate problem like so many Americans these days. Flower Boy is, tellingly, a much more mature album, comfortable in a toned-down juxtaposition of the edgy and the sublime; it proves that even Tyler, the Creator can finally make it through a protracted, suspended adolescence and come through the other side.
(SANDY) ALEX G – ROCKET
Released May 19th on Domino Recording Company
Rocket is all over the place, and that is it’s greatest strength. Is is mournful country-folk? Yep. Crunchy lo-fi indie rock? You betcha. Unpleasant punk screed? To be sure. Ambient instrumental head trip? Absolutely. It represents the pinnacle (thus far) of Alex G’s ambitions, and it keeps revealing new nuances with every listen.
RYUICHI SAKAMOTO – ASYNC
Released April 28th on Milan Records
Expansive, ambient compositions that hold the consideration of modern existence and mortality in between their sounds. Sakamoto has been putting together these avant-garde moments of brilliance for 42 years now, but 2017 might just be the year that he’s finally hit his peak.
TIMBER TIMBRE – SINCERELY, FUTURE POLLUTION
Released April 7th on City Slang Records
Imagine, if you will, a world in which late-Seventies Pink Floyd and Eighties Dire Straits conspired with Bruce Springsteen circa 1987 to put out a better followup to Born In The USA. That album is Sincerely, Future Pollution.
THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – 50 SONG MEMOIR
Released March 10th on Nonesuch Records
Stephin Merritt seemingly functions at his best when tackling enormously outsized projects – 69 Love Songs was literal, after all – and so the idea of making an audio autobiography with one song for every year of existence sounds exactly like what you would both want and expect from a Magnetic Fields album. Like that long-ago explosion of love, the hit-to-miss ratio is shockingly high and many of them – especially “A Cat Called Dionysys”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life” and “You Can Never Go Back To New York” – rank among his very best.
THE NATIONAL – SLEEP WELL BEAST
Released September 8th on 4AD
The National have this “The National” thing down cold. Many bands in rock ‘n’ roll history find their niche and are capable of mining it for all it’s worth. Very few – The National among them – continue to evolve after hitting that plateau. 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me felt like it was going to be as National as it was going to get, but Sleep Well Beast tinkers with their sound in subtle, welcome ways that manage to look to old, pre-fame work as well as to the increasingly more glitched-out future. Plus “Turtleneck” goes all in in a way that they haven’t since their second album, and that’s always nice to see.
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – AMERICAN DREAM
Released September 1st on DFA Records
Everybody’s singing the same song.
It goes “tonite, tonite, tonite, tonite, tonite”. I never realize these artists thought so much about dying. But, truth be told, we all have the same end. Could make you cry, but I’m telling you: this is the best news you’re getting all week.
SHABAZZ PALACES – QUAZARZ: BORN ON A GANGSTER STAR / QUAZARZ VS THE JEALOUS MACHINES
Released July 14th on Sub Pop Records
Ishmael Butler and Baba Maraire go in for two things: total head-nodder psychedelic trips and odd, discordant accompaniments to their beats. These two albums, released the same day Use Your Illusion style, are the most low-key that records can be and still be a mind-bending psychedelic blowout. This is future-ready jazz-hop exploration of sound and concept, a more melodic and played-straight take on Flying Lotus’ style, hip hop that slouches toward Atlanta to be born again.
JOEY BADA$$ – ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$
Released April 7th on Pro Era Records
The NYC rapper’s debut album was a love letter to the gritty old days of the Wu; his second album looks more toward the future, tackling the politics of being black in America in an age when the white supremacy movement has catapulted one of their own to the highest office in the land. It’s a focused and concise record, built on solid beatcraft that predates the Kanye era, and it delves into its central message in as thrilling a way as has been attempted in straightforward hip hop this year.
VINCE STAPLES – BIG FISH THEORY
Released June 23rd on Def Jam Records
Vince Staples’ career thus far has been a rocket upward trajectory; Big Fish Theory is the moment the rocket changes direction and slams into the stratosphere. In a milieu where too many of his compatriots seem content to hijack R&B sounds, trap drums, and standard bell-and-string samples, Vince Staples takes the lead from Danny Brown and wholeheartedly embraces electronic music styles. There’s so much to lover here: elements of British dubstep, grime, garage, and bass music combine with Staples’ own assured sense of flow, bombast, and melody to create the catchiest goddamn off-kilter hip hop album in years. Every track is instantly recognizable and a classic in it’s own right; if this is “pop crossover”, it’s the man crossing over on his own strict terms.
FLEET FOXES – CRACK-UP
Released June 16th on Nonesuch Records
Robin Pecknold spent the years between Helplessness Blues and now being miserable at Columbia University; to his credit, the sense of palpable frustration that shows up in his interviews doesn’t clutter up the proceedings of his band’s third album. Part of that, perhaps, has to do with their need to re-establish their legend; in the years since their second album, their former drummer has become an indie music icon and hilarious Facebook personality, and their chosen niche has become flooded with all manner of pop-folk contenders/pretenders. Thus, Crack-Up takes off in a prog direction, eschewing straight-forward structure for shifting winds and jazz influences. It’s more challenging than either previous Fleet Foxes album, and guaranteed to be passed over by legions of well-scrubbed middle-class kids spoiled by the spoonfed pablum of Mumford & Sons and Co. All the more reason to get lost in it’s oceanic movements.
KENDRICK LAMAR – DAMN.
Released April 14th on Top Dawg Entertainment
There was a moment, in the weeks following the release of Kendrick Lamar’s fourth album, that the most-streamed charts were pretty much just the album’s tracklist. The burning star that is his legend had produced two Most Important albums – 2012’s cinematic concept album good kid m.A.A.d. city and 2015’s funked-out, stridently political To Pimp A Butterfly. The latter’s single “Alright” became an anthem for Black Lives Matter and the resultant sound of exploding heads on Fox News is captured on the first song. Musically this record bridges the previous two: the knotted, personal introspection of 2012 is mixed in with the confrontational politics of 2015 to make an album that feels more like a series of episodes than the widescreen vision he previously used. This makes for an album that breathes a whole lot more, and an album that allows for a more mainstream-friendly attempt at making Statements. By “mainstream-friendly”, of course, I mean that it’s guest features include choruses by Rihanna and an appearance by everyone’s least favourite purveyors of free music, U2 (who still manage somehow to pull off seeming vital like it’s 1992 or something). There are no backseat freestyle moments, no ten minute interviews with the ghost of Tupac Shakur, but there is wall to wall Kendrick Lamar, and that’s what matters.
FATHER JOHN MISTY – PURE COMEDY
Released April 7th on Sub Pop Records
What is art?
Is it the ability to speak truth to power? Is it that strange outgrowth of rage and righteousness that demands you say something, even if it’s couched in metaphors, against those you feel are doing wrong. Pure Comedy is former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman speaking that truth to power, except that the reality of “power” is a little more complicated than the typical civilizational us-and-them the frogposters would like to pass the great conflicts of the age off as. Power, in this case, is everyone: dispersed and networked over the whole of the population, leveraged and channeled and following strange electrical patterns across the whole of the globe.
That’s the thing; that’s the heavy little message that Tillman’s laying on you here. Alan Moore said it better than anyone else: “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.” Or maybe Godspeed: The car is on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel. All of humanity’s biggest problems – climate change, resource scarcity, massive inequality, religious mania, good old fashionied irrational hatred – can be laid directly at the feet of human beings themselves. The Earth’s most soulful predators. Uniquely situated to take maximum advantage of the world in which they find themselves, they squander their advantages in the name of being the apex predator among apex predators. The penthouse on JG Ballard’s High Rise. Il capo di tuti tuti. There’s no HYDRA, no Illuminati, no Rothschild Central Banking Conspiracy, no Deep State, no Crab People. Yes Virginia, there is no God.
So what do you do?
Can’t cry about it, may as well laugh.
That’s the essence of Pure Comedy. It’s right in the title. It’s all just so *absurd* in the grand context of the universe that hosts the human race that it’s funny. Really, really funny. Black humour to be sure; gallows humour, even, but still capable of delivering chucks by the barrelful. The absurdity of human response to meaninglessness is to laugh at it, which is why you remember Carlin so fondly, and Bill Hicks. The climate is going to go feral within the century and we’re anethetizing ourselves on cheap and plentiful entertainment and The Revolution won’t really fix anything and god damn if it isn’t just the biggest cosmic joke ever played upon any species ever.
Some people can’t handle that, and so you get mixed reactions to the record. To be sure, it’s played in a much more ‘mature’ style than previous Misty albums, if a hungry mid-Seventies Elton John can be called ‘more mature’. It’s less hooky, more big piano-man numbers replete with strings and ballooned to anti-commercial lengths. It’s a big fuck you to what he’s ‘supposed to be doing’, as a bourgeoning indie rock star. Plus, as I said above, it makes people who would rather not be thinking about the impending elimination of the majority of the species within even several lifetimes somewhat uncomfortable. People who get ill when they consider our precarious perch on a ball of rock hurtling suicidally fast through space. Those people like to call such pointed humour “pretentious”, as though any of us are not pretending to be something we’re really not.
That’s all part of the comedy as well. It’s somewhere in the seventh or eighth minute of “Leaving L.A.”, a ten-verse chorusless diatribe. The real maturity – the realization that growing old in a fantasy-land like Los Angeles is both disturbing and depressing – is embedded in a nine-minute slow-burn called “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”. That’s also pretty funny. Seen from a certain light, the entire existential crisis facing humanity is downright gut-busting. So here we are, hurtling along, killing our environment to create some enhanced shareholder value and get a good start on the fourth quarter bonuses, and now some white guy with a beard is playing a piano and telling us all this is probably going to end violently in about twenty years or so.
We have achieved peak meta. Thus far.
ST. VINCENT – MASSEDUCTION
Released October 13th on Loma Vista Records
What is art?
Is it the relentless pursuit of a particular aesthetic? The need to combine sound and visual, text and texture, bits of culture until they feel just right? Until they fit some ideal that is at it’s core inexplicable – an ideal that *feels* right internally?
Is art a feeling?
If so, Annie Clark has it covered. Her entire career has been a study in art-as-aesthetic. She started off as a pastel-robed member of the Polyphonic Spree, ferchrissakes. She toured with Sufjan Stevens, another artist who is no stranger to chasing after a particular sound in pursuit of an inexplicable feeling. You can trace her own pursuit through her career as St. Vincent in a series of pictures that accompany the marketing of each album. She starts off on Marry Me looking like your typical indie guitar-girl ingenue – shoulder length hair, breezy, nothing fancy. Regina Spektor with a knowing expression on her face. A mid-afternoon festival slot look; probably on day 2, when the core of the festival’s crowd is either sleeping off their drugs or looking to score new ones. By Strange Mercy the hair is shorter, the aesthetic more streamlined. She doesn’t want to be a cheerleader no more, she she she she. An album later and her hair is white, her clothing stylized and specific, her stage show ironically mechanical, doll-like. Here is a woman who has embraced art, it said. Here is a woman who takes out the garbage and masturbates. Here is a woman who snorts a line of the Berlin Wall and keeps going. A woman who has done an album with David Byrne and has embraced the peculiar art asesthetic of post-punk New York City – a little awkward, alien, silvery, aloof, engaged in a tense stand-off with it’s own sexual desires but willing to indulge, live, explore – even if only ironically, at times. It’s a particuarly Warholian notion and Ms. Clark’s embrace of it leads to MASSEDUCTION.
There are a lot of tired Madonna cliches that could be made about MASSEDUCTION. Certainly it’s the most directly pop-oriented St. Vincent album to date. “Pills” is urgently upbeat; “Sugarboy” rides a synth line that would be at home in festival EDM; “Los Ageless” is built on a trashy glam groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on Mechanical Animals. The flip side of any good pop album are the ballads, and that’s covered here as well. “New York” and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” are crisp and ready to sing along to, even once you realize what crushing downers they are. Both sides – dance and ballad – are expertly crafted, as though the pop album of the 2010s were the perfect vehicle to convey that inexplicable *something* that Annie Clark was feeling. This is her Campbell’s Soup Can moment – an appropriation of the mainstream culture’s non-aesthetic to convey something electric.
MOUNT EERIE – A CROW LOOKED AT ME
Released March 24th on P.W. Elverum & Sun
What is art?
At the root of all things, is it simply an attempt at communicating things that are simply too difficult to convey completely in words?
Phil Elverum is a folk artist who has achieved underground fame on the basis of his work as The Microphones and for his somewhat more experimental work as Mount Eerie. In 2003 he married Genevieve Castree, a songwriter and cartoonist; twelve years later they had a daughter. Then Ms. Castree was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and died in early 2016, leaving Elverum bereaved with an 18 month old child.
“Why share this much? Why open up like this? Why tell you, stranger, about these personal moments, the devastation and the hanging love? Our little family bubble was so sacred for so long. We carefully held it behind a curtain of privacy when we’d go out and do our art and music selves, too special to share, especially in our hyper-shared imbalanced times. Then we had a baby and this barrier felt even more important. (I still don’t want to tell you our daughter’s name.) Then in May 2015 they told us Geneviève had a surprise bad cancer, advanced pancreatic, and the ground opened up. What matters now? we thought. Then on July 9th 2016 she died at home and I belonged to nobody anymore. My internal moments felt like public property. The idea that I could have a self or personal preferences or songs eroded down into an absurd old idea leftover from a more self-indulgent time before I was a hospital-driver, a caregiver, a child-raiser, a griever. I am open now, and these songs poured out quickly in the fall, watching the days grey over and watching the neighbors across the alley tear down and rebuild their house. I make these songs and put them out into the world just to multiply my voice saying that I love her. I want it known.
Death Is Real could be the name of this album. These cold mechanics of sickness and loss are real and inescapable, and can bring an alienating, detached sharpness. But it is not the thing I want to remember. A crow did look at me. There is an echo of Geneviève that still rings, a reminder of the love and infinity beneath all of this obliteration. That’s why.”
So that’s A Crow Looked At Me: recorded “August 31st to Dec. 6th, 2016 in the same room where Geneviève died, using mostly her instruments, her guitar, her bass, her pick, her amp, her old family accordion, writing the words on her paper, looking out the same window.”
It is harrowing. It is real. It’s more like a documentation, like a field recording, than a proper album like most releases. It’s full of details that floor you with how much unutterable grief can be packed into very mundane details, like a gift that arrives at the door after the person who ordered it has passed on. There are ominous passages that expand into disturbingly cinematic vignettes like “Ravens”, which is based on the time just after Castree died when Elverum, self-admittedly insane with grief, drove and then took the ferry to Haida Gwaii, in northern British Columbia, 3 days from anywhere, and then fell ill with norovirus, screaming and weeping in time with his daughter. At times (most times) it’s incredibly uncomfortable, like peeking into the diary of someone who isn’t writing for publication but simply to distill the poison from themselves. It’s like reading Kurt Cobain’s journals, in a way, but Elverum invites us in and that makes all the difference. It speaks to a profoundly universal human experience – the mortality of those we love is infinitely more horrifying to consider than our own mortality, and A Crow Looked At Me taps into that primal fear and gives it voice, and power.
It’s the best album released this year but I don’t recommend you listen to it. I’ll probably never listen to it ever again. It’s an experience that will seem viscerally real to anyone who’s ever lost someone, and the way that it frames the exact thought process is honestly frightening. You don’t need to have that experience a second time, on purpose, unless you’re a masochist. Is it art? Is it just relaying reality, raw and unfiltered. No script, the ulitimate reality album? Elverum himself casts doubt on this concept of art-as-communication in the album’s very first lines: “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art / When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb / When I walk into the room where you were / And look into the emptiness instead / All fails.”
So who knows? There’s this, though: art is honesty, fundamentally. Dishonest art is just propaganda, and so to be art, per se, the work under consideration must be honest in itself. A Crow Looked At Me is the most honest album of the year, and it’s honesty is shocking – shell-shocking with it’s relentless emotional cruelty.