Hey, it’s still the first week in January. That means there’s still time for me to pontificate on my favorite listens of last year. I’ll include the list at the end, with links to the album or artist’s Bandcamp site where possible. Another unexpected delight this year: I found myself buying more music from that service than just about every other. As always, buy the album if you can.
2017 was a strange year for music. Some compelling new discoveries and a whole bunch of unexpected returns helped get me through the ongoing mental assault of real-time news cycles and political slavering on social media. LCD Soundsystem‘s American Dream hit pretty much everyone’s lists of favorites this year. Band front-man James Murphy checked out after 2010’s This is Happening and what must have been some grueling tours. Now his triumphant return to form on American Dream brings epic party anthems like “How do you sleep?” and “I used to” are joined by more laid back, almost sombre tracks like “American Dream” and “Black Screen”.
How does one top St. Vincent‘s eponymous 2014 album? I’m not sure it’s remotely possible. Annie Clark takes a different tack with MASSEDUCATION, trading machine-like guitar riffs for synth beats and keyboards. Sonically jarring, at-times challenging, listeners are rewarded with the achingly beautiful elegy “New York”, and a return of Annie’s fictional(?) character in “Happy Birthday, Johnny”. Even the mooning album cover makes me uncomfortable.
Speaking of challenging, Björk continues to defy genre and conventions on her latest, Utopia. I’m still learning my way around this one, but it feels like it’s worth it. Dreamy, moody, atmospheric. Perfect for cold winter weather.
2017 was a good year for electronic music. Brainwaltzera’s Poly-ana combines Boards of Canada level drones with German sensibilities. Desolate’s Lunar Glyphs is a foreboding soundscape of brooding electronics and sampled movie dialogue and foleys. Great late-night listening. Four Tet’s New Energies has, as the title suggests, a newer sound than previous outings. There’s a positivity in their musical constructions here. A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s Iris is a delicious ambient adventure of tape samples and atmospheres. These are all worth a turn.
Another band back from hiatus, The National’s Sleep Well Beast is surprising, if not as a departure, but for the band’s growth. Sure, they’re still bitter, but they’re moving into more conceptual directions. The lead-off single, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” evokes some kind of science fictional dystopia, echoed in the haunting “I’ll Destroy You” that morphs into an orchestral onslaught. “The Day I Die” has some classic Boxer era drum work. Berninger’s vocals and writing continue to amaze and delight, if not necessarily uplift. Musically, the band is evolving, including horns, glitched electronics and a more remote orchestral sensibility, recognizable as the band who produced Boxer and High Violet but further along their journey.
2017 will be the year I remember Slowdive came back. Yes, SLOWDIVE. The 90’s shoegaze band that defined the genre. While the grunge kids were wearing plaid, a whole bunch of other kids were shuffling around in black jeans and black shirts staring at their feet while listening to mightily distorted guitar screeching over brooding songs of loss and discomfort. Twenty-two years later, after the release of Pygmalion, they’ve come back and sound better than ever. Barely changed, “Star Roving” sounds like it could have been off their second album, 25 years ago.
Related among the new discoveries, late this year, Wolf Alice‘s Visions of a Life fits right in here with distorted guitars and tape loops. Blending 90s shoegaze with pop and punk, this north England outfit is a great listen and I’m looking forward to more from them.
I feel like Wolf Alice and Alvvays should hang out. Maybe they do while they’re touring the UK. The Toronto band released Antisocialites this year, and though it may be lacking the adorable “Marry Me Archie”, and the over-listened-to, highly enjoyable “The Party Police”, from their self-titled debut in 2014, it feels more polished. Sad indie pop songs delivered with a snide assurance by fellow maritimer, Molly Rankin. “Dreams Tonite” is genuinely heart breaking. “Not My Baby” is a pop masterpiece.
What is it with Canadians being awesome? Feist‘s Pleasure is easily in my top 5 albums of this year, if not the decade. I bet if I were still scrobbling from all my listening sources, I’d find that I’d listened to this album an embarrassing number of times. It’s funny, because I didn’t really get into Metals when it came out and I found Let it Die too laid back. They didn’t stick for me. I may have to go back and relisten. From the opening track, “Pleasure” is just fantastic. Leslie Feist’s vocals veer at times towards a more snarling PJ Harvey than I remembered from her. “I wish I didn’t miss you” is straight up blues guitar and an overdriven mic that has never sounded so sweet. The album sounds like it was just thrown together effortlessly, fully-formed, perfect.
Stars‘ There is No Love In Fluorescent Light is a rebuke against too much screen time wrapped in dream pop songs about love and loss. “We called it love” and “Losing to you” are probably my favorites on this disc, but the whole album’s gotten a lot of plays through a since it found its way here. The band is at their best and the vocal pairings of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan never sounded better together. I am also really fond of the cover.
Shout Out Louds, Ease My Mind was an unexpected delight.
And The Jesus And Mary Chain had a new album out, Damage.
And Grandaddy… and Fleet Foxes…
Here’s the full list.
- A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Iris
- Alt-J, Relaxer
- Alvvays, Antisocialites
- Björk, Utopia
- Brainwaltzera, Poly-ana
- The Deep Dark Woods, Yarrow
- Desolate, Lunar Glyphs
- Feist, Pleasure
- Fleet Foxes, Crack Up
- Four Tet, New Energy
- Future Islands, The Far Field
- Grandaddy, Last Place
- The Jesus and Mary Chain, Damage
- LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
- Matt Mays, Once Upon a Hell of a Time
- The National, Sleep Well Beast
- Shout Out Louds, Ease My Mind
- Slowdive, Slowdive
- St. Vincent, MASSEDUCATION
- Stars, There is No Love in Fluorescent Light
- Steven Wilson, To The Bone
- The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
- The xx, I See You
- Wolf Alice, Visions of A Life