So here we are again at the end of the year. There’s no denying that 2017 has been an ‘interesting’ year all around. But I’m not talking about that today – no, instead I’m using the next two posts to look back on, what has been, an excellent and eclectic year for music.
I know that I had some issues with my final selection back in 2016, but this year has been even more difficult. It came to a point where I even started toying with making this a Top 30 instead because of some of the albums that were starting to disappear down the rankings, but I’m sticking with 20.
In terms of sheer volume and variety 2017 really has been my biggest year in music ever. It has also been a year of discovering some back catalogues of artists like Bon Iver and re-evaluating some of last year’s placements. More on one of those later in this post.
So before we get into all this…
Honourable Mention: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Soundtrack
It would be so easy to include the latest year of songs in my countdown. However, I don’t think I can easily sort out how much I love the songs themselves from how much I love the TV show (‘Rebecca’s Reprise’ immediately comes to mind). So, I figured it would be fairer to do this.
It’s hard to describe just what makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend my favourite current show on television. Not only is it a clever deconstruction of romantic comedies, but it is also one of the few shows out there that has provided an honest (and at times unflinching) look at mental illness. The cast are top notch with lead Rachel Bloom being deserving of nearly every award that she could be eligible.
The fact that this is not watched by more people just feels wrong. However, this has given me the joy of spreading the word and finding new converts to the cause. Even if you haven’t seen it, the soundtrack is worth the listen.
Top Tracks: The End of the Movie, Strip Away My Conscience, Let’s Generalize About Men
Right, let’s get into it…
#20 – Stitch of the World by Tift Merritt
It’s always nice to start this off with an album by someone who I had never even heard off before this year. Stitch of the World was one of the first albums from 2017 that I listened to. As such this album has had a long way to fall as more and more albums have overtaken it. Still, it managed to stick the landing… which is more than I could do if I were standing barefoot in a tree.
This is an album so far off the radar that it still doesn’t have it’s own Wikipedia page. It’s also a real shame that this is an album that faded into the background as 2017 marched on as, in the end, Stitch of the World is a really strong slice of Americana that deserves a chance to be savoured
Top Tracks: Icarus, Stitch of the World, Dusty Old Man
#19 – Goodnight Rhonda Lee by Nicole Atkins
Whenever Nicole Atkins releases an album she is nearly always guaranteed a place in my end of year list. She’s one of those singers who I have followed right from the beginning of her career and where I have e-mail alerts set up to notify me of her upcoming releases.
With this, her fourth album, I would say this is my least favourite of her discography because it is a lot more laid back than what I would expect. Still, to place above so many other albums released in 2017 she must be doing something right! Goodnight Rhonda Lee is a bit of a throwback to Nicole Atkins’ musical roots to make something more intimate and containing a hint of 1950s/1960s glamour.
She really is one of those singers that never quite made it. Maybe her time will come. I hope it does.
Top Tracks: Goodnight Rhonda Lee, A Little Crazy, If I Could
#18 – DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar
Rap is a genre that pretty much passes me by. There are the rare albums that I ‘get’, but usually it leaves me cold. Considering that Kendrick Lamar has likely released yet another album that will be touted at the ‘best of the year’ by most publications, I was ready to just right myself as out of touch again. Then I listened to DAMN.
I hope it makes sense to say that this is the most accessible album that he has done. It feels much more akin to Good Kid , M.A.A.D City than To Pimp a Butterfly which, for me, is the mark that this is an album that I can enjoy. It isn’t as dense with ideas or as aggressive as Butterfly, instead this feels more like a stripped-back album where Lamar is freer to be eclectic with his influences and put his raps at the centre of things.
So yes, a nice surprise for me there to find a rap album to add to the slowly increasing pile of exceptions.
Top Tracks: DNA., HUMBLE., ELEMENT.
#17 A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked At Me feels like the ultimate act of musical voyeurism, an album about singer Phil Elverum losing his wife to pancreatic cancer. It’s one part Devendra Banhart, one part Nick Cave and a million parts devastating. I tried to listen to this at work and found myself crying at my desk… I think my boss figured that I was having some sort of mental breakdown.
It would be easy to compare this to Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree where he sings about the sudden death of his sun in a car. However this is much more stripped back and a lot rawer. This was a drawn out death that left a man as a single parent to a small child. The lyrics deal a lot more with the post-death confusion rather than just complete devastation. It also goes chronologically through his grief and features songs that eschew traditional song structure because, in effect, this is a musical diary.
A Crow Looked At Me is an album where you have to be feeling emotionally robust before attempting a listen. This might have been higher on my list had I been able to listen to this more… but that’s how it goes.
Top Tracks: Real Death, Ravens, Toothbrush/Trash
#16 Visions of Life by Wolf Alice
This is the most recent entry into my top 20 list, spurred on by the number of British publications that featured this highly in their end of year lists. The moment ‘Heavenward’ began to play, with it’s beautifully echoing noise pop/shoegaze influence, I knew that this would be kicking out another album from my list.
Visions of a Life doesn’t stay in one area of alternative rock to get too comfortable. It goes on a bit of a random journey around the genre taking on elements of noise rock, grunge and indie rock. Yet it manages to feel like a cohesive album despite going between beautiful synths and scream tracks. Obviously my preference is for the former… but sometimes you need the latter as a bit of a palate cleanser.
I’m somewhat ashamed to say that this marks the first of only four non-American albums on my list (and the first of only two British albums). I guess I knew this was happening, but then again I’ve never been a big fan of British music anyway.
Top Tracks: Heavenward, Beautifully Unconventional, Don’t Delete The Kisses
#15 Colors by Beck
Okay fine, this isn’t Beck’s best album. However, this it the most positive album that he has released since Midnite Vultures and any year is made better with a Beck album. Considering the political climate it feels a bit jarring to have such a positive pop kaleidoscope of an album coming from him… then again he delayed the release of Colors by a year because it’s original release would have come shortly after Trump won the election.
This is one of those albums where you put it on and it makes you smile. Tracks like ‘I’m So Free’ and ‘Dreams’ are so infectiously happy that it kinda proves that an album like Colors has as much a place in the moment as the more thoughtful albums.
Top Tracks: Dreams, I’m So Free, Colors
#14 – Okovi by Zola Jesus
After the misstep of her previous album, it is so great to see Zola Jesus back at the height of her goth-pop powers. Sometimes it works to go more in a pop direction, and you can’t blame her for trying, but Okovi is really a sign of just how pop she needs to go. Having listened to her albums for years it has been interesting to see how each release has been a further calibration to find her best sound; between this album and Conatus I think she’s found the balance.
Everything about Zola Jesus’ best music is epic in scope. Her operatic contralto, her dark layered production, her inward looking lyrics. This is art pop and proper art pop at that. With Okovi it feels like having gone through her depression, and dealing with a lot of the trauma that her friends were dealing with, Zola Jesus has found her voice. I would not be surprised if her next album is what launches her into the stratosphere.
Top Tracks: Wiseblood, Remains, Exhumed
#13 – American Dream by LCD Soundsystem
It’s rather shameful to say this, but this album was the first time that I have listened to LCD Soundsystem. I know that all their previous albums are heavily acclaimed, it’s just that I’ve never had the urge to discover what all the fuss was about. I figured it would be like that time where I tried listening to The National and was completely underwhelmed.
With American Dream I have to admit that is has been a slow burn. On the first listen the only track that really grabbed me was ‘tonite’ with it’s dirty synths. Now that I am further into the listening I am finding more beauty and more things to dance to – on the most recent listen I just had the titular track ‘american dream’ click into place for me.
As albums go it’s very self-aware in a way that is very much needed in the English-speaking world this past year. It’s also the album that I really wish Arcade Fire could have released instead of Everything Now. I know that’s a bit much to ask for, but they’d have it in them to deliver an album like this.
Top Tracks: how do you sleep?, tonite, american dream
#12 – No Shape by Perfume Genius
One of the themes for a bunch of albums that found their way into the upper part of my list this year is queerness. 2017 marked the first year where I began to take more of a note of albums within the LGBT+ community and No Shape is the first of 5 albums in my list (would have been 7, but a last minute surge of listening managed to knock Arca and Trixie Mattel’s albums out of my Top 20).
If you listened to Perfume Genius’ previous album (Too Bright) you would not be surprised to know that No Shape is continuation in his efforts to make soulful brand of chamber pop. What’s different, however, is that his attention is more fixed on the positivity he has gained from being with his long term partner.
It’s still a rarity to hear music about one man’s love and devotion for another man, which makes No Shape all the more special. Where many artist’s who previously drew on their dark side to music only to falter when something good comes into their live, Perfume Genius has found a way to make happiness work for them by producing some of their most beautiful music ever.
Top Tracks: Slip Away, Wreath, Alan
#11 – All American Made by Margo Price
The biggest omission from last year’s list was Margo Price’s exceptional debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. With her debut she showed up to the country music scene ready to slay and with this second release it’s abundantly clear that her talent means she won’t be going anywhere fast.
All American Made is a more polished album than it’s predecessor (as she now has the money to do so) and deals with some more political messages, where her debut had a more autobiographical bent. This is also an album where she is able to get the legendary Willie Nelson to sing a duet… and then completely outshine him.
If you’re an American conservative there are tracks on this album that are not to your taste. Then again if you manage to listen to ‘Pay Gap’ and still think it’s a myth and/or okay… then jog on, this album is not for you to enjoy.
Top Tracks: A Little Pain, All American Made, Pay Gap
The countdown will conclude tomorrow with #10-#1. If you have any predictions or thoughts on the countdown please comment below.