So listen – I’ve only listened to 29 albums this year. This is embarrassingly small for me, who tries to do 2-4 new releases a week. But what can I say! I spent the first few months of the year working on my thesis and looking for a job (both successful!). But, I still wanted to talk about my favorites. I regret that there are many albums by bands I love (Gorillaz! Pissed Jeans!) that I haven’t had a chance to spin yet. I wrote my annual halfway point critic-y sister post over on The Filtered Lens, but here’s my purely personal post of the songs and albums I’ve loved so far this year. Up first – songs.
Favorite Songs of 2017 (So Far):
#25. “Is This the Life We Really Want?” – Roger Waters
Waters, both in Pink Floyd and solo, was never interested in subtlety. And any remaining subtlety has withered with age. This track, which sounds like a “Wall” cut, bemoans all of the injustices of the Western world – journalists facing danger, schoolgirls facing danger, the Earth facing danger, and fascist leaders not facing danger, all with savage profanity and an angry whisper. If this isn’t a call to arms, then what is?
#24. “Hard Times” – Paramore
After a few years dabbling in adult rock and a general grown-up alternative sound, the folks in Paramore looked to new wave inspirations for their fifth album, “After Laughter.” The best example came early, in single “Hard Times,” a completely rousing and bouncy joint that sees the group willfully eschew adult alternative for a Devo inspiration.
#23. “Everything Now” – Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire’s slow transition from existential indie rock group into bouncy disco band has had many factors, from a shortening in members to an acceptance of fame. And it soldiers onward to “Everything Now,” one of the most outwardly danceable songs the band has ever produced. Although still not an optimistic song, the production from one of the Daft Punk
men robots sure heralds their new turn.
#22. “Firing Squad” – Power Trip
The thrash/heavy metal band Power Trip spent a long time recording their sophomore album – five years. And it was worth it – the dudes in the band are riff machines, and it’s prevalent throughout their album. In this track, the lead single, the guitars hit an incendiary rhythm that doesn’t let up past one of the highest, most excruciatingly shrill guitar notes this side of Dave Gilmour’s solo in “Money.” Rock on.
#21. “Ignorecam” – Pissed Jeans
The dudes in Pissed Jeans – only dudes since their ~2012 reformation – are one of the only dude bands that fully recognize their place in music, as a bunch of dudes. They did it just fine on their absolutely stellar 2013 album “Honeys.” They continue on this song, sung from the point of a dude camgirl-watcher who gets off on being ignored. Not sure why exactly they felt the need to give the voice to this group of men, but it’s a killer (and tongue-in-cheek) song either way. Singer Mark Kovette usually sounds like he’s guzzling whiskey mid-song, and his throaty, guttural vocals sound especially so here.
#20. “Pink Up” – Spoon
Admittedly, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Spoon. While I recognize their immediate legacy in the indie-rock movement, they have never really done it for me. But their new album gets permeated by a completely pleasant pseudo-avant-garde track in “Pink Up.” It’s what the avant-leaning indie movement of ~2007 did best. It’s a perfectly enjoyable track that twists and turns but never loses it’s deeply pleasant rhythm.
#19. “Continuum” – At the Drive In
After 17 album-less years, ATDI finally saw Hell freeze over and blessed us with “in•ter a•li•a,”and while it’s far from perfect (‘perfect’ here meaning “Relationship of Command”), it has plenty of killer, gut-punching tracks. “Continuum” is driven almost entirely by Cedric Bizler-Zavala’s screamy vocals, which have only gotten stronger over time. The climax of the song, which literally jumps from a whisper to a scream, is one of the best bridges of the year.
#18. “Passionfruit” – Drake
And here I thought I was done with Drake. After three straight releases that I absolutely couldn’t listen to (two of which were loooooong, too), Drake came through with the music-heavy ‘playlist’ “More Life.” One of the breakouts is single “Passionfruit,” which starts with a sobering minute-plus synth rhythm (sobering, despite the DJ literally cutting in to tell people to drink more). It’s a pleasant track that sounds a lot like “One Dance,” but smoother, more digestible, and, well, fruity. Keep it up, Drizzy.
#17. “DNA.” – Kendrick Lamar
Lamar might be the only person in music currently challenging Beyoncé in the combo of mixing ambition, stage presence, and popularity. “DNA.” is a dirty, rapid track that showcases the two things Lamar does best – boasts and vulnerability. He also tackles another target – Geraldo Riviera. Riviera naturally said some pointless, racist stuff about Lamar in the past, so Lamar responds to it directly, even including a soundclip of Riviera’s comments for all of us to hear. Savage? Jury’s out, but it’s great either way.
#16. “Bad and Boujee” – Migos ft. Lil Uzi Vert
Migos aren’t exactly upstanding guys, and it feels bad to support them. But this song has been stuck in my head since January and there’s nothing I can do about it. Migos excel in simplicity; the rhymes here often sound like poetry written by (filthy) kindergartners – but it’s all in the rhythm of the vocals. The easiness of the song isn’t laziness but a calculated exercise in infecting listeners with a rhythm that’s bound to survive past the year and into the ‘classics’ hall. And it was a #1 to boot. Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,
#15. “Nightmare Logic” – Power Trip
I’m not up to date on this year’s metal albums, but no song I’ve heard has had a more commanding central riff than this title track. The riff is so simple that it seems criminal how catchy it is, but that seems to be Power Trip’s MO. And although the lyrics seem to invoke a fight against an other-worldly evil being, they can be easily (and probably intentionally) applied to the resistance felt in our own country. This song is the fierce shot in the knee we all need this year.
#14. “Cut to the Feeling” – Carly Rae Jepsen
How good was Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album “E•MO•TION?” She released a follow-up EP of cut tracks, and still had some gold leftover. This track, cut from both the album and the EP, is pop powerhouse. Jepsen practically smothers us in her voice, piercing through the music to belt the song’s title. Also, “Cut to the Feeling” feels like a description of the lyrics to every song she’s ever written.
#13. “Shining” – DJ Khaled feat. Beyoncé & JAY-Z
Khaled has a habit of bringing in some of rap & R&B’s best talents and bringing out the best in them, even over his simple beats. “Shining” is no exception, although the features make it worth the while. HOVA’s verse is on par with his verse in last year’s “I Got the Keys,” breathing energy into his limping* career. But Bey owns this tracks, singing at full volume and rapping a verse. It’s just a winning combination.
* – 4:44 is great, I wrote this bit before the album dropped and was kinda predicting it to be less so.
#12. “Run” – Foo Fighters
After a lackluster conceptual album and tour fatigue, Foo Fighters took a well-deserved break. And I, personally, thought that their glimmer was fading fast. But they returned recently with “Run” (no relation to their previous single “Walk”). The song stands as arguably the heaviest in their discography, with a riff boarding on metal and Dave Grohl’s screamed vocals. It’s whiplash in song form, in a way the Fighters haven’t delivered in a while. Also, the video is a masterpiece.
#11. “Governed By Contagions’ – At the Drive In
Boasting a title that sounds like it came from an ATDI song name generator, the band exploded back into the scene after 17 years with this single, a punk-induced blast that effectively uses both of the band’s singers. It’s as blood-boiling as anything in their back catalog, and appropriately dense. It’s also likely the best track on their new album. Turn the volume all the way up.
#s 10-7. “Talk to Me,” “Legend Has It,” “Call Ticketron,” “Hey Kids (Bumaye) [feat. Danny Brown]” – Run the Jewels
Okay is this fair? Maybe, maybe not. This is my blog, I do what I want. Run the Jewels have made a habit of putting out albums that flow like long suites. Their new album, “Run the Jewels 3,” opens with a surprisingly light track called “Down.” But then they kick it into high gear with “Talk to Me,” loudly announcing the album’s title. Their first two albums saw them justifying their own existence through searing political tracks. But this release sees them recognizing their popularity and rapping more about themselves. It’s less dark (though still dark), and often more fun. My personal favorite from the album, “Call Ticketron,” is just about the experience of seeing Run the Jewels live. Also, props to Killer Mike for some of the year’s best lines: “We are the murderous pair / That went to jail and we murdered the murderers there / Then went to Hell and discovered the devil / Delivered some hurt and despair” (“Legend Has It,” which also has a great video). Here’s a fun parting fact: both El-P and Killer Mike are 42, making the combined age of Run the Jewels 84. Legends.
#6. “call the police” – LCD Soundsystem
I have very mixed feelings about the publicity stunt that was the “break-up” and “reunion” of arguably-one-man band LCD Soundsystem. That said, James Murphy’s first single in seven years is exactly what you want from a Soundsystem song – nearly eight minutes, lacking a palpable central chorus and rhythm, and still inherently danceable. His lyrics are usually either completely targeted, or all over the place – and this song is the latter. Murphy sings like he’s throwing darts at a dartboard filled with “gentrified Brooklyn problems.” It’s a ton of fun stretched out over a long time, and it stops abruptly right as it becomes tedious. The true James Murphy way. Dance yrself clean.
#5. “On Hold” – The xx
The xx have never been the most upfront band. Even in the reformed group’s ‘new’ approach, they’re still very muted and emotionally vulnerable. And this is the exact reason why I, personally, don’t care for them. But for this track (the album’s lead single), Jamie xx takes a sample of a Hall & Oates song and exploits it as one of the song’s central rhythms. It’s an inherently catchy song that transforms a familiar rhythm into something else entirely. It’s a very groovy song, but one that repeatedly catches you in it’s cold, cold subject manner. The lyrics are just sad as all hell.
#4. “Sign of the Times” – Harry Styles
This song was a bold move, and one I deeply respect. At 5:41, the track is longer than every song in the One Direction discography (one remix matches it). It’s a somewhat bold lead single, one that signals an immediate shift away from the group he is permanently entwined with. And what a song – a piano ballad that’s vaguely about war (“Dunkirk” in theaters July 21st!) but also about personal relationships. It’s no secret that Styles was one of the better voices of the group, and it gets put on full display on this lead single. It’d be fun to watch the guy let loose if it wasn’t so emotional.
#3. “HUMBLE.” – Kendrick Lamar
The biggest jam of Lamar’s “DAMN.” was also its leadoff single. The song, less than three minutes, is a searing indictment of various things wrong with pop culture today. He touches on photoshopping models, billionaires giving talks and, vaguely and perhaps ironically, the luxury of millionaire celebs. And he does so with a ferocious energy, like he’s being paid word-per-second. The track is incendiary, the musical equivalent of a long string on fire, leading up to a bomb. Tense, direct, and catchy, it showcases Kendrick at his peak, truth-spewing form. And since I’ve done it a few times already – it has one of the best videos in years.
#2. “Fragments” – Blondie
The fun thing about doing pieces like this on my personal blog is being able to talk about any random album tracks I please, and there’s always ones that I love. This time around, it’s the final track on Blondie’s good new album “Pollinator.” The song is a left-field choice for my #2 of the year, for sure. It’s two seconds shy of seven minutes, and is a cover of a song written by a movie blogger. But Deborah Harry and co. just own it. It’s a new-wave song in the fullest – a slow intro that drags the listener long enough that they expect it to stay a sad ballad. And once that expectation is passed, the band locks in and jumps the tempo to practically double. Blondie don’t need to be putting in this much energy in 2017 (Harry just turned 72, for chrissakes), but the fact that they do makes this song so supremely entertaining. And the band stays locked in for most of the song’s runtime, before bringing it back in for a slower finale. I didn’t think we needed new Blondie in 2017, but we did.
#1. “Green Light” – Lorde
The first thing you should know about this song is that hitmaker Max Martin told Lorde her songwriting on this track was “incorrect.” She respectfully ignored his advice and released the song anyways. And man she dominates this song. The first minute sounds like old Lorde, piano ballad about meeting people in bars and what not. But once that off-beat piano kicks in, her whole history gets thrown out in favor of an excessively danceable tune that matures her teenage ennui in a very natural way. This song is the equivalent of a night where you went out a little too long – where you had a little too much, and got a little too emotional. But it’s also the morning after, when you realized that you don’t really care all that much after all. It’s three simultaneous emotions packed into one, and the pure volume and energy of the song make it difficult to handle. The proper response to this happens near the end of the song, when all instruments but the synth drain out in a supposed bridge, but one that Lorde ignores and keeps singing at high volume. This is a track for the bored teens, the 20-somethings who feel stuck, the 30-somethings who have to accept that life isn’t working out the way they want. It’s restless, fidget-y, and sleepless, but optimistic in a way that only Lorde could pull off. In other words, it’s 2017 in a song.
Favorite Albums of 2017 (So Far):
#10. Feist – “Pleasure”
Sparse, minimalist indie-pop isn’t usually something that barks up my tree, because I personally find it leaning more towards uninspired than emotional. But “Pleasure,” Feist’s first album in six years (and released only weeks before her appearance on the new Broken Social Scene record), feels intentionally lacking, like pieces have removed. It’s sparse to the points of actual silence, and yet the album has an undercurrent of something much bigger and darker. It covers a lot of ground, a lot of emotions and situations that are begrudgingly necessary in our own lives. This is a long way from an iPod commercial.
#9. Drake – “More Life”
Dammit, I like Drake again. His last three albums lost me completely – “Reading This” was frustratingly downtempo, “What a Time” was a cash grab and “VIEWS” was a painfully unlistenable act of showing you the table you’re going to put all of your emotions on, but then not actually doing it (as well as an exercise in the dangers of adopting another culture’s styles). But the common missing link in these albums was any remotely interesting music. Here, Drizzy incorporates music entirely, from the flutes in “Portland” to the sobering synth in “Passionfruit” that sounds like a tamer, better version of his inane and appropriative “One Dance.” Drake himself seems relaxed and in focus, more so than usual. And although this isn’t an album – it’s a ‘playlist’ – it’s still one of the better releases in his catalog.
#8. Foxygen – “Hang”
Foxygen are a pretty weird group. At their core, they’re early Rolling Stones imitators. Their music is very loose and fun, while being artfully destructive. But they do exist in 2017, an age where you can say “let’s spend the night together.” Foxygen exist more as the wet dream that exists in some Rolling Stones & Velvet Underground mix. This album, one of their better releases, is a large orchestral ensemble suite, although the band still officially credits only two members. Tracks like “Follow the Leader” and “America” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a more experimental prog-classic rock album, while maintaining a certain loose energy and heavy production that couldn’t have existed then. It’s a rare balance, and they haven’t always pulled it off in the past, but this album is a real gem.
#7. Slowdive – “Slowdive”
At it’s heaviest and loudest, shoegaze can be one of the most physically draining and ear-ripping experiences (My Bloody Valentine were regularly voted one of the loudest live bands and, well, Deafheaven). But at the other end of the spectrum are bands like Slowdive. They, like MBV and the Jesus + Mary Chain, regrouped for the current shoegaze revival and released their first new album in 22 years. The album retains shoegaze’s wall of sound, but through a dream-pop filter. The tracks on this album (especially “Star Roving”) fill you with a loud but warming sound that somehow reaches down into you like cocoa on a snowy day. It’s a summer-y album for people like me that don’t really like summer albums. Don’t feel like going outside? Let this be your sunshine instead. Note: headphones required.
*Doctors recommend a daily dose of sunlight. “Slowdive” has not been verified by the FDA and should not be considered a long-term replacement for vitamin D. Also don’t yell at me for calling Deafheaven shoegaze. “Sunbather” is.
#6. Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?”
This album title has a simple answer – no. Waters was never very subtle in his decades in Pink Floyd, and he has been even less so in his solo work. In fact, Waters is more direct in his lyrical attacks than any young punk band you’ll ever see. This album is chock-full of specific ailments the world faces. Waters (and all of Pink Floyd) is deeply anti-fascist, and with the rise of fascist and fascist-adjacent politics, Waters immediately followed suit. Although much of the album is acoustic and subdued (think “Mother”), his anger is broiling over the pot and onto the stove. Sure, at one point he refers to an unnamed world leader as a “nincompoop,” but most of his attacks land hard – he chronicles governments killing journalists, the indifference to women being murdered, climate change and police brutality in one verse. Waters is just as angry as ever. Also, happy 40th, “Animals.” You’re aging well, unfortunately.
#5. Power Trip – “Nightmare Logic”
I’d call this the best metal album of the year – to be fair, it’s the only one I’ve listened to so far. But it’ll probably stay that way. Power Trip take the best components of heavy metal and thrash metal and boil them down into songs that are straightforward but punishing. Metal bands can often be a little silly, but Power Trip demand to be taken seriously on this album, with grave political songs and mind-blowing riffs. The songs on this album are often somewhat basic, but they approach simplicity with a renewed energy, something most metal bands avoid (by either rehashing the same ideas, or trying to be overly conceptual). The rhythm in the title track barely stretches across more than one note, but it’s as effective as the best Motorhead classics.
#4. Lorde – “Melodrama”
From synth to industrial to piano ballad, Lorde’s sophomore album hits practically every point. The beauty of the album lies easily in how much of a sophomore album it feels like. Her first album was about life as a bored New Zealander teenager, minimalist and bleak; this album shares the sentiment, but from the POV of a 20 year old who has deeper experiences. Lorde’s choice to show those advancements through music rather than lyrics is brilliant, as it gives the album a whole depth that was intentionally missing from her debut. It’s a completely separate and distinct record, one that takes the already palpable emotions from her first record and translates them into different terms. This record is plagued with uncertainty about the future – it just switches between worry and carelessness. Lorde seems wise beyond her years, and this album shows.
#3. Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”
K-Dot’s last full album was, need I say, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The modern masterpiece will almost definitely go down amongst “The Chronic” and “Stankonia” on the list of all-time best rap albums. Lamar presents himself on that album as a deeply flawed person, but does so in an otherworldly manner. On this album, he falls back down to Earth to compete at a fair level. The album is grittier, dirtier, and grounded more in velocity and realism than ambition. But don’t mistake that for a lack of creativity, because Lamar brings the heat. The album is full of intense boasts and rapid-fire rapping, from “DNA.” to “HUMBLE.” As always, the features are sparse, mostly centered around a solid Rihanna duet. And the album climaxes with a track that gives the oral history of the time Lamar’s father met the man who founded Top Dawg, the label Lamar is on – and then reimagines their interaction as a violent one. Lamar’s verses about addiction and personal demons actually feel more suited to this gritty album, and while it’s no “Butterfly,” it’s still a damn delight – sorry, a DAMN. delight.
#2. Mount Eerie – “A Crow Looked At Me”
The fact that I made it through this album in one pass is amazing. The fact that I did it over a drink is downright impressive. Only in rare circles of indie-folk do you find music this depressing and, when you do, it’s usually unwarranted and/or fictionalized. This isn’t. This album is the chronicles of folk/metal singer Phil Elverum losing his wife to pancreatic cancer shortly after she gave birth to their first child. The album acts as an extended news clip from a small-town station, a prolonged eulogy, and an admission of guilt over feelings Elverum maybe wanted to ignore. The album is entirely acoustic, and was structured chronologically from the immediate aftermath of her passing to acceptance a year later. The album’s songs are largely devoid of rhyme and structure, and are just thoughts thrown onto a page. Elverum describes the simplest of tasks – taking the garbage out, collecting her mail – with an emotional intensity that an average listener cannot relate to. It is extensively brutal, emotional, and honest. The entire album resembles a Mountain Goats song boiled down to it’s core and re-worked to be even more honest and unfiltered. If you think you can handle this album – then go for it. Elverum himself says there isn’t a lesson, that it’s just life. But even that can be overwhelming.
#1. Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 3”
Run the Jewels have nothing left to prove. The two rappers, Killer Mike and El-P, spent the group’s first two records using their respective underground statuses to reach newfound fame. And now, both men (each 42 years of age), have hit that status. So their third album is less political and more vocal flexing. When you have both El-P and Killer Mike onboard, some narrative boasting is exceptionally enjoyable. They spend much more time on this album rapping about their own status as newly-christened throne holders. And they do it with flair – Danny Brown, Tunde Adebimpe, Trina, BOOTS, Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington make appearances. RTJ have spent their first few years existing on a kind of fringe – a band more political than most current popular rappers, with a intensity not suited for radio. This album sees them join the ranks of current rappers and outdo nearly all of them immediately. The album follows their previous works, in that often songs blend together in one long suite (as you saw above), resulting in a constant crush of beats, El-P’s otherworldly one-liners and Killer Mike’s energy. Truly, a match made in heaven.
Highly doubt anyone’s still reading (I didn’t), but if you did, thanks and remember to smash that like and follow button (did I do that right). Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have listened to, you know, a bunch more albums. Also remember to check out The Filtered Lens for occasional reviews from me and great takes on film and TV from others. See you in December!