“The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” – Albert Einstein.
In some ways, 2017 has dragged on with seemingly no end, but in others it seems like it has only just begun. For me, musical releases help bookmark the year and organize it into some sort of chronology. However, this year — while full of some really great releases — my engagement with music has been more in spurts than a steady stream (I probably should get that checked out), so my interior calendar and timeline is all out of whack.
Nevertheless, here are my musical highlights from this year so far, broken down in a few categories. If you don’t want to read a whole lot, there’s a concise ranked list at the end of this post.
ON POP RECORDS
Not too long ago, I would have balked at following phrase ever going across my keyboard: I do really love a great pop record. That being said, I still almost uniformly despise mainstream pop music, but I still enjoy collections of earwormy, hook-laden, bangers — provided that creativity isn’t lost in the inescapable tropes of pop music.
To me, no band has accomplished this feat better in 2017 than Superbody. Their sophomore record, Youth Music, heavily cashes in on 1980s nostalgia, the duo embracing the pastiche even as a lifestyle (check out their absurd Instagram account for plenty of examples). However, their wildly creative execution of pop love songs by the “rules” of their period inspiration is enthralling, bold, and straight-up fun. The aggressively retro styles and textures take a moment to fully settle in — especially the warped baritone vocals — but underneath the gloss lies a concise and delightfully layered pop album.
Quick shout-outs to COIN, Phoenix, and San Cisco for putting out solid pop records this year, too.
I’m a huge Sufjan Stevens fan, so I was very excited when three new(?) projects of his were announced pretty close to each other. The Carrie & Lowell live album and movie (which is awesome), the Greatest Gift mixtape coming this fall (the title track of which is featured on the awesome forthcoming record by the Welcome Wagon), and the long-awaited proper recording of Planetarium, his conceptual celestial collaboration with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister. The singles from this latter record — particularly the lead single, “Saturn” — were really lackluster and almost turned me off from the project completely. Thankfully, I acted against that initial reaction and listened to the whole album all the way through. The context of the album’s flow casts the singles in a totally different light, and it’s overall a really good record. Go ahead and listen to it, mmkay?
I have to use this section to also mention the new Mac DeMarco record, This Old Dog. I’ve admittedly never been a DeMarco fan, but I for some reason decided to listen to this new album. This record might be the most pleasant and accessible album I’ve heard this year. I can’t think of a context where it wouldn’t be a good idea to listen to This Old Dog. It’s a simple, endearing, and warm record that accomplishes a lot with a very narrow palette.
Finally, the new Paramore record, After Laugher, has grown on me slowly but surely. Kudos to the band for almost totally reinventing their sound while still maintaining their distinct musical identity.
THE YEAR OF THE COMEBACK RECORD?
2017 has been the home to quite a few high-profile comeback records. While the new Gorillaz record (their first in seven years) didn’t catch my interest, nor do I have particularly strong feelings about the forthcoming LCD Soundsystem record (also their first in seven years), there were a couple of comebacks this year that I thought were great. Here are some thoughts on each:
- Slowdive, Slowdive (22 year wait) — In a nearly perfect comeback record, Slowdive bridges the sounds of Pygmalion and Souvlaki while showing that the band has matured in vocals, lyrics, and production. Some songs overstay their welcome (particularly the closer, “Falling Ashes”), but the record clearly demonstrates that Slowdive has a place in the music world nearly two-and-a-half decades after their genre-defining breakout.
- Do Make Say Think, Stubborn Persistent Illusions (8 year wait) — Hey, a reference to that Einstein quote I cited at the beginning of this article! My digression aside, this album was well worth the wait. I’m not sure exactly why it took Do Make Say Think so long to release their follow-up to 2009’s Other Truths. Whether it was due to the band’s admittedly drawn-out creative process or other unseen variables, Stubborn Persistent Illusions was certainly worth the wait. The band has consistently improved upon each release (though Other Truths certainly wasn’t as accessible as its predecessor, You, You’re a History in Rust), and this new record continues the trend of reliably great post rock music. If you only listen to one instrumental record this year, make sure it’s this one.
- Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up (6 year wait) — From the opening minute of the record, it is evident that Robin Pecknold’s years away from the band has changed him; but in the movement that follows this opening segment, it is evident that everything that makes Fleet Foxes great is present in their experimental third record, Crack-Up. It’s a starker record than the band’s first two releases, but equally lush, poetic, and captivating.
MOST PERSONALLY MEANINGFUL
In the last 18 months, mental health has been a specifically poignant topic for me and my family, so it was very meaningful to see Passion Pit release their latest record, Tremendous Sea of Love in exchange for tweets raising awareness for mental health and medical science in treating such conditions. The unconventional release is matched by a musical lack of concern in following convention. The record was recorded, mixed, mastered, and released independently by Michael Angelakos earlier this year, and the songs allow themselves to noodle in ways that would have seemed out of place on previous records. This most notably manifests in the triumphant “Somewhere Up There,” which shuns traditional song structure and moves from buoyant pop to sprawling electronic symphonics to a voicemail left by Angelakos’ mother. It’s a great record with an important message behind it.
I definitely have to mention My Bones Are Singing by Those Lavender Whales here. I heard this record just before I found out that a close friend had cancer, so hearing Aaron Graves’ earnest and sincere reflections on his personal experience with the disease was deeply moving and gave the record new personal depth and significance. You can read my full review of the record from earlier this year here.
Lastly in this section we have A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie. I won’t spend too much time talking about the record here, as I have a full review forthcoming, but I will say that this album is maybe the most striking response to death ever put to music. It’s heart-wrenching, intimate, and beautiful. I couldn’t listen to this record often, but I think that it’s an incredibly important piece.
TL;DR — TOP 10 OF 2017 SO FAR
Here are my favorites from the year in a list form.
10 ~ Slowdive by Slowdive
9 ~ Tremendous Sea of Love by Passion Pit
8 ~ Star Stuff by Chaz Bundick Meets The Mattson 2
7 ~ PARADE by Nail Houses
6 ~ Crack-Up by Fleet Foxes
5 ~ This Old Dog by Mac DeMarco
4 ~ Youth Music by Superbody
3 ~ Hang by Foxygen
2 ~ My Bones Are Singing by Those Lavender Whales
1 ~ A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie