Last year I began our annual look-back succinctly with “Fuck 2016.” But if only I knew. In many ways, 2017 was worse. For one, it was a full year of President Shit-for-Brains in the White House, during which we had Nazis openly marching in the streets and far too many people voting for a pedophile for senate. (One bright spot was that he didn’t win.) It increasingly felt like the bad guys were winning and that the United States was a place overrun by greed and cynicism.
In such times, there’s no better place to turn than to music to soothe the soul and give voice to our frustrations. Thankfully, 2017 was a bumper year with a wealth of great music from new, established, and re-emerging artists. These are the records that made life still worth living. SS
Having drifted far afield from her discordant beginnings, Zola Jesus crossed fully into a lavish pop direction with her fourth album, 2014’s debut for Mute Records, Taiga. To these ears, it wasn’t exactly a success artistically, with some of the tension that fueled her past work being lost in the gloss. Taking a few years off, she returned to her old label home, Sacred Bones, for her latest, which feels infinitely more personal. The emotional weight of Okovi didn’t hit me until temperatures began dropping; it bears the icy consonance of her earlier work while the album’s brevity (it’s just under 40 minutes) gives each track added importance. When she sings, “You should know that I’ll never let you down” on “Soak,” you can tell that she has somebody specific in mind. Similarly, “Siphon” conjures a matter of life and death in the repeated lines of “Won’t let you bleed out, can’t let you bleed out.” Somehow Zola sounds resolute in the face of despair, making the album come off all the more triumphant for it. SS
Jlin, long one of the most exciting artists in the Chicago’s footwork scene, continued her rise to the top of the pack with sophomore album Black Origami. There’s a loose, improvisational vibe to these songs and a sense of revealing the music’s layers. Jlin is a magician unafraid of showing you what’s in her sleeve. The seams left on these compositions are deliberate and the humanity of them, including the repeated use of distorted human voices, is what keeps the listener coming back to these beguiling miniatures that beg us to dance and say, “You can’t grasp this.” There isn’t one moment of cliche or an ounce of pandering. Over rolling tub-drumming and hissing shakers and cymbals, “Challenge (To Be Continued)” uses a video game shout and sliced up, distant cheers to heighten drama without releasing tension. The thrilling “Nyakinyua Rise” uses vocal samples and animal sounds as ballast for a thick, three-dimensional groove principally strung from hollow percussion. Meanwhile, “Never Created, Never Destroyed” feels like an anthem from a future we’re not ready for yet. RS
Don’t call it a comeback as Wolves In The Throne Room never went anywhere. But Thrice Woven sure feels like it after 2014’s Celestite. The earnest but ultimately unfulfilling take on spacey synth-rock was a misstep that possibly the band itself now realizes. Thrice Woven is not just a return to form for the reclusive proto-hipster black metallers, but possibly the best album the band has ever released. All of the facets of the band’s past are here—female vocals and recorded spoken word passages that break up the metallic screaming, furiously cascading and shimmering guitars, droning percussive rhythms—but they are all coordinated flawlessly. It’s epic and stunning and glorious to behold. BO
The true ingenuity of Take Me Apart is in its composition. Singer-songwriter Kelela has before cited her influences as R&B, jazz, and more specifically, Björk, but the album seems to stretch those influences beyond their original reach, crafting an atmosphere that feels light years away for any other artist. (Grimes’ Visions and The XX’s debut might be close.) Kelela hits on something otherworldly here, despite lyrics that are very much grounded. The synths on “Better” hum in a canyon-like space, creating deep and resonant tones while having the understated presence of a whisper. With a wobbling synth line as its anchor, “Jupiter” is possibly the most intriguing and most overlooked song on the record, despite at times seeming like the soundtrack for a massage studio with its babbling brook, chimes, and thunder sounds. TMA’s composition is so inventive while perfectly echoing the tone of Kelela’s relationship quandaries throughout the album. Descriptions hardly do it justice, but TMA is the epitome of forward-thinking. ML
If you hadn’t yet heard of 23-year-old Archy Marshall, 2017 was a great year to get acquainted. Marshall gifted the music world with his sophomore release in October, expanding on his catalogue of acid jazzy, trip-hoppy, experimental punk with 19 dark and hallucinogenic new songs. Marshall told NPR the record was “about the monotony of day to day, falling back into your head, being taken with your thoughts into a different place.” On “Logos” he sings of a fractured relationship: “I thought about her, her smell through clothes, her spoken smoke, mixed with my cologne.” Meanwhile the video for single “Dim Surfer” found him emerging from a stretcher to front a band of the undead. It’s an appropriate conceit for a macabre and otherworldly sound, one that Marshall has embraced with aplomb. JP
Björk is probably as singular an artist as you’ll find working the pop music realm over the past 20 years. While most of the world thinks of her as an alternative artist, much of her catalog is at its core filled with pop music—only turned inside out and mutated. It’s fitting that after a series of albums that seemed to go more and more abstract, her last album, Vulnicura, came back to earth with the most human of concerns: heartache and breakup. After the virtual bloodletting of that cycle there was nowhere to go but up and Utopia gives that too you in wink-wink, nudge-nudge fashion. If Vulnicura was weighed down with the pain of loss, Utopia is bouyed by a thread of birdsongs that pepper the album. Björk described the record as her “Tinder album,” and she is positively giddy with the possibilities of new love, new flirtations, and just new possibilities. Aided by her Vulnicura collaborator and co-producer Acra, the album is full of shifting, lighter-than-air tones, which are occasionally shot through with abrasive sounds and snatches of tough beats. There’s nothing as immediate as some of Björk’s greatest singles, but the songs still draw you in and engage you, even across some relatively extended running times. Utopia shows that Björk always has something to say and an interesting way to say it. DSH
I’ll be the first to admit that when Damn first arrived, it felt anemic in the shadow of the monolith that was To Pimp a Butterfly and the heady detritus that appeared on Untitled Unmastered. It didn’t feel complex enough, as if he owed us something even bigger. It didn’t feel deep enough, as if he were responsible to save us all. Indeed, Damn was a quick jab, a visceral, sample-packed, front-loaded firecracker, with little in the way of theorizing or proselytizing. There’s no real soapbox because that’s not K. Dot’s current version. Instead, it’s huge singles, summer jams, whiz-bang references to Juvenile’s “Ha.” Effortless brilliance.
But wait, it wasn’t until Kung Fu Kenny released Damn in reverse that the truth was revealed. Listening to the album backwards, the way it was reportedly intended, that final third is the most thrilling and artistically imposing triplet Kendrick has yet produced. The verbal mathematics that end “Duckworth,” the big, soul-searching, epic of “God,” likewise the self-deprecating earnest of “Fear,” show a success story trying to grapple with success and the pitfalls that follow. It’s even more transcendent than TPAB. Trucking in a creative flow that’s starting to parallel those before him (Prince, Janet, Zappa, Madonna), Kendrick is now the kind of giant we have to never doubt, just because it’s all that good. KJE
Few albums were as present and intense as Masseduction this year. That’s accounting, too, for Annie Clark’s noticeable lack of guitar shredding and the significantly poppier direction of the album. Every song’s emotion is palpable; at any given time, the listener will be wrecked, pepped up, or at least, given some general invigoration. This in part can be attributed to how digestible and distinct the songs are, each of which can tip their hat to the work of other established and already great artists. “Pills” and the title track are akin to heyday MIA, just as “Sugarboy” is to Human League and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” to Joni Mitchell’s stripped-down, simple genius (a la “A Case of You”). Then there’s the song-of-the-year contender “New York,” whose strength could carry an otherwise mediocre album by appealing to the lovelorn and in-love. In a modern world that’s especially rife with conflict and chaos nowadays, it’s nice to know Anne Clark continues to be a beacon of songwriting consistency. Masseduction has cemented that. ML
Life & Livin’ It, the latest release from Sinkane, is a delightful collection of catchy tunes that effortlessly blend funk, soul, electronica, Afrobeat, and pop. Sinkane, led by Ahmed Gallab, dips into a variety of influences from Gallab’s Sudanese roots and Stateside upbringing to create a unique sound with universal appeal. Cuts like “U’Huh” and “Favorite Song” were the perfect summer jams, but while the resulting songs are undeniably uplifting and infused with optimism and positivity, the lyrics are often imbued with powerful social messages. The feel-good “U’Huh” is, according to Gallab, a celebration of both the joys and struggles of life, as well as a testament to the power of staying positive: “As long as we try. We’re all going to be alright.” JR
Absolutely nobody predicted this. After two decades of silence, Slowdive pulled off the impossible by releasing the best record of their career. Comparing this self-titled release to their earlier work is like watching a hazy photograph come into brilliant focus. Without sacrificing their essence, they’ve found the perfect balance between their indispensable landscapes of reverberation and a sharp, percussive propulsion. Neil Halstead and engineer Ian Davenport have done marvelous work, producing an album that is at once epic and intimate. You can certainly get lost in the vastness of their sound, but discrete moments grab your attention, pushing the music forward and highlighting riffs, melodies, and even drum fills. This band has always showcased patience, but now their drive comes through loud and clear. Tracks like “No Longer Making Time” and “Go Get It” have palpable bite, “Sugar For the Pill” is the most direct they’ve ever been, and “Slomo” communicates an optimism that’s rare in this band’s catalog. All of this and without straying from the luxuriant textures that make for a great Slowdive record. With this breathtaking re-emergence, they’ve gone far beyond simply satisfying the curiosity of their fans. They’ve outdone themselves, bettered their progeny, and significantly expanded their legacy. MS