2017 was arguably a trash fire of a year for many global and political reasons, but this outrage has sparked some strong music. Some of the music on this list is a direct response to the political climate, such as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN and, partially, as Björk explained in an interview with Pitchfork, Utopia. As we enter 2018, I am excited and hopeful that we will see some great art, for art is the opposite of fascism. With that out of the way, here are my favorites of 2017:
Visions of a Life – Wolf Alice
I was very lucky to see Wolf Alice perform at Great Scott in Boston over the summer, and their energy onstage is infectious. Ellie’s frantic energy colors Visions in tracks such as “Yuk Foo,” and “Sky Musings.” “Sky Musings” is actually one of my favorite tracks because of its candor: Ellie Rowsell, Wolf Alice’s frontwoman and lyricist, explains that she had an existential crisis on a long flight, which is something with which at least I, if not most people, can relate. 2017 was an exciting year for Wolf Alice, as they continue to grow an audience, performing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and opening several European dates for the Foo Fighters.
Three Futures – TORRES
TORRES as a musician, to me, is very much like Elizabeth Bishop as a poet (yes I want to write an essay about this); what I mean by this is that, what is left unsaid is just as important as what is said, or sung, in TORRES’s case. As much as TORRES is a vocalist, she is a guitar player. What I mean by this is that she doesn’t play guitar simply to accompany her singing; her guitar playing takes center stage just as well. I saw TORRES perform at the Sinclair the day after she released Three Futures, her third album. What she could not say with words, she communicated with riffs and shreds.
Utopia – Björk
I’d agree with many that this is a sort of companion piece to Björk’s 2015 release, Vulnicura. While Vulnicura explores and wallows in the heartbreak of divorce, Utopia is about beginning again. Björk sings with childlike wonder: “All of my mouth was kissing him/Now, into the air, I am missing him/Is this excess texting a blessing?/Two music nerds obsessing.” Despite these songs, Björk does not forget to mention the trauma caused by her divorce. In “The Gate” she alludes to her “chest wound,” a visual and lyrical motif from Vulnicura. She describes this wound as something that has become a gate from which she can give and receive love, albeit, cautiously.
Masseduction – St. Vincent
Is it a coincidence that I was able to see many of the artists of these albums live? For St. Vincent, I think it was fate. A friend of mine told me to listen to this album, and I was not disappointed. St. Vincent’s music has a theatrical and cinematic quality that very few musicians can achieve. Not only is Masseduction artful, but it also produces quite a few bangers: the dark pulsing of “Los Ageless” is at home in a nightclub, and the conclusion to “Pills” sounds like a ballad from Queen. In between these colorful pop songs are piano ballads recounting old and lost friends; in contrast, these songs focus on Annie Clarke’s lyrical abilities. The album concludes perfectly with the dark, brooding “Smoking Section.”
Capacity – Big Thief
If I had known about Big Thief in 2016, their previous album, Masterpiece, would have made last year’s list. Adrianne Lanker’s poetic lyrics, and shakily delivered vocals are what make Big Thief a lifelong staple in my music library. Unlike TORRES and St. Vincent, Big Thief’s delivery is not known for precision; but Big Thief’s messiness, as if you are in a garage with Lanker or having a conversation with her, is what makes them so great. Big Thief’s growing catalogue is something that gives me lots of hope- and lots of music that makes me feel at home in my intense emotions.
Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
Being a perpetually single person, it’s really hard for me to like an album that is composed entirely of love songs- but here I am, falling in love with Cigarettes After Sex. I don’t think this album could ever get old. Greg Gonzales’s vocals and the band’s timeless sound make this a permanent staple in my playlists.
Soft Sounds from Another Planet – Japanese Breakfast
Japanese Breakfast departs from last year’s Psychopomp with a more electronic sound that transports its listeners to… well, another planet. Soft Sounds channels Bowie in slower tracks such as “Till Death” (which is an ode in and of itself to Bowie, as Michele Zauner sings, “All our celebrities keep dying, while the cruel men continue to win.”). Other strong points on the album are the groovy riffs from the opening track “Diving Woman,” and upbeat and disco-y “The Machinist.”
Melodrama – Lorde
My unedited thoughts to Lorde’s second album are exactly as follows: wowowowow how can you only be 21 years old? Lorde is an old soul AND a party girl, and I don’t think I’ve ever related to someone more. Lorde is an example, to me, of how powerful great pop music can be. Heartbreak, manic rage – Lorde shows a more fierce side on this album, in contrast to her cool and composed 2013 release Pure Heroine. Her vocal range is larger, and her tracks vary between soft and sad (“Liability” and “Writer in the Dark”) and large and epic (“Green Light” and “The Louvre”). As much as Lorde is a participant in the party, she is also a keen observer. On Melodrama, Lorde explores young relationships, those that are full of high moments of pleasure but altogether unsustainable and rocky.
A Place I’ll Always Go – Palehound
Palehound represents two things I love: Boston and queer women taking over music. Palehound has gained national attention. I’ve seen them twice as they opened for Waxahatchee and Big Thief. Despite their renown, they remain true to the Boston scene, and I’ve seen Ellen Kempner, Palehound’s frontwoman and lyricist, working at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sale (yes, I freaked out a little). A Place I’ll Always Go explores relationships in many different ways: “Room”is a laid-back tune about a new relationship. “If You Met Her” is evaluates a former flame in comparison to a new relationship, though it leaves the listener wondering whether or not, within the moment this song illustrates, Kempner has moved on or not. I’m sure she has though; Kempner and Palehound have toured with the likes of Mitski and recently released 7″ with Saddle Creek. Kempner’s songwriting really shines on my favorite track “Feeling Fruit.”
Slowdive – Slowdive
With their first album release in 22 years, Slowdive made quite the comeback, earning Pitchfork’s title for Best New Music. “Give me your heart, it’s a curious thing,” Neil Halstead sings on “Slomo” the album’s opening track, and an invitation for the listener to – pun intended – dive in. Slowdive creates a large and open soundscape on their newest record.
Ctrl – SZA
“Why is it so hard to accept the party is over?” SZA sings, I imagine, on a couch, surrounded by friends still groggy or asleep from the night before. They begin to awaken from hunger, and commence to binging Narcos from episode one, as Solana commands. SZA, just as much as Lorde, is the introspective party girl. Maybe it’s a Scorpio thing, because I, too, relate to this newly found archetype. On her first full-length record, SZA explores female sexual autonomy. Sometimes she’s the heartbroken, and sometimes she’s the heartbreaker, and I love her for her versatility and her ability to capture the myriad self.
DAMN. – Kendrick Lamar
Lamar’s powerful storytelling on DAMN. is an example of how the personal narrative can be made political, and so damn powerful. DAMN. opens with a monologue in which a man is taking a walk, opts to help an old woman, and is ultimately killed for it, which recalls the past few years of police brutality, racial profiling, and its divisive responses (such as the one Lamar samples from Fox News). Lamar produces big hits such as “HUMBLE.” and “LOVE.” but truly, his storytelling and powerful verses shine on the powerful protest of “XXX.” and the personal “DUCKWORTH.” “DUCKWORTH.” closes the album (or opens it, as Lamar has said the album can be played forwards and backwards, and can be looped) with the story of his father, whose life was spared in a robbery at his workplace, KFC. Ducky, Lamar’s father, “drove to California with a woman on him and 500 dollars. They had a son, hopin’ that he’d see college, hustlin’ on the side with a nine-to-five to freak it.” While the song is a thank you note to his parents, it is also a thank you note to fate, which kept Lamar from growing up fatherless and violent. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be servin’ life while I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.”
I See You – The xx
If I have any regrets about Boston Calling, it is that I wasn’t able to see The xx perform. Their performance directly conflicted with the 1975’s, and everyone who knows me knows how hard I stan the 1975. The xx’s third album, I See You, is sexy and sleek, perfect for a party playlist. One of the most memorable tracks, “A Performance,” describes how appearing to be over a breakup in front of an ex is a performance. Two of the other strongest tracks, “On Hold,” and “I Dare You,” became hits worthy of the dance floor.