MY 2017 AOTY LIST IS FINALLY HERE! LIST WEEK IS COMPLETE!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Well OK, not really. Jeremy, your faithful editor here, and let me tell you: truth be told, List Season this year has been more stressful for me than ever before. I had a really hard time choosing what should go where. I had at least five versions of this list. I decided at the last minute to cut it off at 10 and do the remaining 20 as alphabetical honorable mentions, because ordering became impossible. Finally, I landed on this iteration. There are, of course, some things I didn’t get around to listening to that I probably should have (here’s looking at you Kelly Lee Owens) but at this juncture in time, these are my 30 favorite albums of 2017. I am not even going to go out on the limb of saying these are The Best Albums of 2017, because that feels too shaky. I’ll simply say, when thinking back on the music of 2017, these are the albums I enjoyed most, responded to the most, related to the most, was moved by the most, felt the most, revisited the most. I hope some of you find something new here, or revisit something you may have written off. And don’t blow off those honorable mentions - those are some damn good albums!
All right. Onto my list!
I really enjoyed this record when I first heard it, but after months of revisiting it - a rest on the couch here, a long drive there - I love it. I think it is Feist’s strongest and most singular statement to date, without sacrificing or heavily altering anything that has made her music such a point of ardor for me in the past. Pleasure retains her predilection for somewhat raw, scrappy production and recording style, with songs filled with space and hiss and room tone. The title track slowly bursts into a PJ Harvey-esque rocker, while more introspective tracks like “Lost Dreams” and “The Wind” unfurl and stretch out, lithe and full. The lyrics and the music are so full of little details that I think it took me this long to feel like I’ve fully heard the record, and now that I have, when I look back at all the albums I have really liked this year, Pleasure simply stands at the top for me.
Zola Jesus (aka Nika Danilova) also released what is probably her strongest record to date this year, in the bleak, all-encompassing Okovi. The title is Slavic for “shackles” which feels deeply appropriate given the themes of loss, grief, and the shards of hope that permeate the songs. Danilova’s voice - as powerful and sweeping as ever - anchors these brooding songs, but it has never sounded as finessed and controlled as it does here, whether it’s the hysterical “Exhumed” or the pleading “Remains.” Best of all is “Witness”, a song that nearly made me cry when I first heard it. Over languorous, beautifully weeping strings, Danilova delivers her most staggering performance, matched with some very moving lyrics. That the album ends with a long instrumental arranged piece kind of bothered me at first, but now I’ve come to relish in it. It’s the beautiful skyward send off Okovi deserves, and the moment of calm it needs. By then, she’s said everything she needed to say.
And now a left turn. Jens Lekman is kind of a lovable dork, a goofball. Despite interviewers commenting more than once on his calm, almost stoic demeanor, his songs are fun, silly, bright, a little winkingly twee, and catchy. Very frequently, they sound like the kinds of songs that nobody else could get away with. Life Will See You Now is his first album to sort of go headlong into a more electronic/beat-driven sound, though it is contrasted with a more organic set of sounds. His lyrics on this album are as witty, self-deprecating, and verbose as usual, his stories full of interesting and humorous details. At times, such as on “How Can I Tell Him”, his writing is almost unbearably touching; at others, like on “Evening Prayer” or “Wedding in Finistère, he is clever and buoyant. I just can’t help but love this album - it’s fun and silly and smart, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
When Sylvan Esso released their self-titled debut album, I didn’t know who they were. I hadn’t caught the buzzy singles like “Coffee” or “Hey Mami”. But then I saw them open for tUnE-yArDs, and I felt like I witnessed something awesome. Between Nick Sanborn’s twisty synths and pulsating beats, and Amelia Meath’s pining, elastic, and quietly powerful voice, I was caught. Their second album, What Now, essentially improves on their sound in almost every way without changing the DNA. You can still dance to most of the songs here with glee, and the ones you can’t are still striking ballads-in-miniature, like the melancholy “Slack-Jaw”. But let’s face it, we’re here for the dancing, and almost every song - “The Glow”, “Radio”, “Song”, “Signal”, “Just Dancing” - makes me wanna tap my toe or bob my head. The keyboards are constantly shapeshifting; the beats are infectious; Meath’s lyrics are catchy while still being profoundly human and relatable; her voice is stunning as ever (as it always was - go check out her folk band Mountain Man for further proof). I just could hardly ask for more from this dynamite duo. It’s a dance album that’s more than a dance album, and yet also a really killer dance album.
Jesca Hoop isn’t a typical singer-songwriter. Memories Are Now is her fourth album, and although each one has taken a slightly different guise, she has retained her knack for knotty structures, surprising risks, tight harmonies, and melodies that sound as old as time, but are fresh and new. Her fourth album is one of pristine songcraft, full of tunes that are deceptively simple until you tear away the layers. The opening title cut is bewildering in its lurch toward the climax. “The Lost Sky” repeats the same verse and chorus three times, growing in intensity each time. “Songs of Old” sports some of the highest notes I’ve heard her sing, and she nails them with such gusto and passion. These songs are like little puzzles - spare on the surface, with not much more than acoustic guitar, voice, and some strings - but enough little details thrown in, like tiny shining jewels, to keep you coming back for more.
The fact that this album just got nominated for an engineering Grammy feels like some sort of grand cosmic victory. Mike Hadreas’ music is the kind that stops you in your tracks almost every time. Once so insular it could crack you in two from sheer emotional fragility, the homespun piano ballads have given way to a much more tense and meaty and complex sound. Hadreas and company’s instrumental palette is more varied than ever, between funky synths, nighttime noir keyboards, unidentifiable stringed instruments, more percussion, and a few glowing walls of sound. It’s no small wonder that an album where nearly every song goes in a different direction than the last feels surprisingly coherent and cohesive. On “Slip Away” he’s breathless; on “Just Like Love” he’s airy and coy; on “Valley” he’s forlorn and thinking on the past’s impact on the present; on “Choir” he’s almost frightening; on “Alan” he’s reserved and ruminating on an enormous love. The album veers wildly left and right and then left again. It’s unpredictable, in a way that would make most albums fall apart, but Hadreas and friends (including producer Blake Mills) have crafted a multifaceted, surprising, and emotionally rich gem with No Shape.
Emily Haines’ usual gig playing new wave-inspired electro indie-rock with Metric is well-known by this point, but unfortunately it seems a lot of people - including fans of the band - have been sleeping on her tiny but formidable collection of solo work. Her debut, Knives Don’t Have You Back, came out in 2006, followed quickly by a short and sweet EP in ‘07. And then people kind of forgot about it, even though it’s one of the strongest solo turns from a front-person of the current century. Now, 10 years later, we get her sophomore record. Choir of the Mind keeps much of the debut’s sonic interests in tact while also adding some new touches. The songs are nearly all led by Haines’ emotive, melodic piano, and her aching, moving lyrics. Her voice has never had the widest range, but 20 years into making music she knows exactly how to use it, and she wrings some genuine pathos from these songs. More percussion, subtle synths, and guitar flit in and out (courtesy of the eponymous Soft Skeleton crew), but this is Emily’s show. Songs like “Planets” and “RIP” are draped in thick choruses of Haines’ voice, while “Fatal Gift” gives her the rare chance to jam out. More meditative cuts like “Nihilist Abyss” and “Siren” are beautiful and evocative in their emotional language. Haines is never stronger than when she’s doing her own stuff, and I am beyond thrilled she made another record. That it’s this strong is just a cherry on top.
I am not going to write much about this record. Yes, it’s basically an acoustic singer-songwriter record, but it is so much more. It’s a stark, compelling document on grief and loss, from one of music’s most enigmatic and interesting players. Mount Eerie delivers a record that is almost impossible to get through, due to the sheer emotional gravity on display. A record of songs written in the wake of his wife’s passing, the lyrics are full of hyper-specific references, such as her ashes, or her bloody “end-of-life tissues,” and it never really lightens up. It’s a gorgeous, stirring, and honestly profoundly upsetting record, but the strength of the writing, the imagery, and the melodies cannot be overstated. Seek it out if you haven’t heard it yet, but don’t surprised if you end up crying and never listening to it again.
This album surprised me. I had never heard of Sampha before, which I know is probably some sort of sacrilege in some corners, but when he released his debut album and I began seeing positive reviews for it, I figured I’d check it out. Now here it is on my Top 10. Sampha delivers a singer-songwriter record that operates more in an electronic/experimental pop vein, which is sort of refreshing. “Blood on Me” hits so hard it takes my breath away. “Kora Sings” is airily, effervescently beautiful. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is heartstopping. “Reverse Faults” is booming and incredibly catchy. All over this album, Sampha surprises, keeps us guessing, and does it all with a finesse - and a production so pristine it blinds (in a good way) - that belies the fact that this is his debut album. He’s already a pro, crafting emotionally resonant pieces of pop music that doesn’t sacrifice style and hooks for feeling and intricate sonic touches. I am definitely going to be keeping an eye and an ear on Sampha going forward.
I struggled with my #10 spot a lot this year. So many records I wanted to spotlight on this list. But in the end, I decided to go with my gut and stop denying it: this new Aimee Mann record is incredible, and is one of her best yet. It may not sound like much to some of you - “oh, another acoustic singer-songwriter, okay…” - but if you listen more closely, the genius arises. Mann’s lyrics - both sad and sympathetic, while also darkly funny most of the time - are masterful. She has an unbelievable way of spitting off a striking image or two and making it sound very, very easy. Her rhymes are rich, never too obvious, and always feel in service of the song. Nearly every song has at least one line or verse that is so smart, so descriptive, so stealthily evocative that it kind of stops me in my tracks: “3,000 miles to sit in a room/With a vanishing groom/Till it undoes me,” from “You Never Loved Me”. Or “You look around and think ‘I’m in the right neighborhood’/But honey, you just moved in,” from “Patient Zero.” Or “We’re babies passing for adults/Who’ve loaded up their catapults/And can’t believe the end results” from “Simple Fix.” The lyrics are the key here, and they’re beautiful, moving, and clever. It doesn’t hurt than Mann’s voice is strong and smooth throughout, her melodies aching and catchy at the same time, aided by a small group of musicians (extra guitar, percussion, and some beautiful arranged strings). It’s a simple album on the surface, but the emotional world underneath is endlessly engaging and rich.
Hello good folks, Jeremy here, lead video editor for The Needle Drop. It’s one of those times again when Anthony’s underlings step out of his melonheaded shadow for a brief moment of sunshine. This time it’s for a mid-year list. Basically, here are fifteen albums from the first half of the year that I enjoyed the most and am still listening to – including while they play on repeat in my head – as June comes to a close.
I want to point out that this is an alphabetical list. It is unordered. I did not want to ascribe numbers yet, because some of these opinions could shift up or down come the end of the year, and it just didn’t feel right to rank these albums quite yet. Instead, it’s an even field here; just fifteen records I have loved from the first six months of this year that I think you should give a listen.
Hope you find a pick or two you like, or maybe even one you hadn’t heard of yet. Enjoy!
Celebration have been one of my favorite bands for almost as long as I’ve been actively listening to and seeking music. They are also one of the most criminally overlooked and underrated. Crafting rollicking pieces of organ-drenched rock and roll, with frontwoman Katrina Ford’s deep, expressive voice anchoring the occasional cacophony. On this, their 5th album, they continue to show their stripes, one glistening, groovy, fun song after another. Don’t let their unGoogleable name deter you - listen to this band. Listen to this album
Avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson has earned a reputation over the past few years that acts as both a blessing and curse. He’s released a few albums since his breakout New History Warfare Vol. 2, and to be honest, at first glance, they all feel almost too similar to elicit much excitement. I’m always impressed by him, but sometimes I err on the side of shrugging complacency. I felt this way at first with his new one here, but after a few spins, the intricacies come out, the technicality becomes almost blindingly awesome, and when it’s all over, I can only smile and say, “Well, damn. He’s done it again.”
Feist returns after a very long break, and the world is all the better for it. Continuing down the path she started toeing back on Metals, Feist has given us perhaps her most challengingly spare and unpredictable songs yet. After the PJ-influenced title track comes to a halt, we get a mix of tender ballads (“I Wish I Didn’t Miss You”, “Baby Be Simple”), some eerily placid cuts (“Lost Dreams”), and even a couple rockers (“Any Party”, “Century”). Little Feistian touches like the Foley recordings at the end of “Any Party” (which includes a humorous blip of the album’s title track coming from a passing car), the minimalist bluesy touch of “I’m Not Running Away”, or the Mastodon sample that closes “A Man is Not His Song,”pepper the album’s cobwebbed corners. This is maybe the purest Feist record yet, and also possibly her strongest.
Anthony may have been cold on this one, but goddamn do I love this Jens Lekman record. It’s bright, fun, colorful, weird, silly, groovy, and insanely catchy all at once – basically everything I look for and hope for in a Jens record. That “do do do” refrain on “Evening Prayer” will be stuck in my head until the day I die, and the breathless chorus of “Wedding in Finistère” is the kind of thing only Jens Lekman could ever get away with. More pensive cuts like “Postcard 17” (with its deeply satisfying “Fucking ridiculous” ending) and the aching“How Can I Tell” fill out the tracklist, giving us one of Jens’ most varied and instantly satisfying efforts yet.
Jesca Hoop has been on my radar since her debut Kismet back in 2007, with its knotty song structures and odd vocal tics. It was a strong debut, but it wasn’t until her sophomore LP, Hunting My Dress, that she really hit her stride. Now on this, her fourth solo album, she has more or less struck gold. A set of profoundly spare songs, Hoop shows off her intriguing lyrical skills, her strange structures, and her flexible, passionate vocals more than ever. Her singing and songwriting sound better than ever, especially on cuts like “Memories Are Now” and “The Lost Sky” where her harmonies come piercing through, and “Songs of Old” where she hits her impossibly high notes. It’s the most impressive singer-songwriter album of the year, and one that reiterates the vitality of the genre.
And now for a very different singer-songwriter. Argentina’s Juana Molina has been cranking out records for more than 20 years, and yet she still flies woefully under the radar. Perhaps she prefers it that way. Halo, her seventh album, continues her pattern of crafting weird, otherworldly, unpredictable electro-acoustic songs. Molina’s music is so dense and complex in its webbing of ideas that I can still find new intricate subtleties on my fifth or sixth listen. From the as-bare-as-can-be (and as-slow-as-can-be) “Lentísimo halo” to the upbeat “Cosoco”, from the made-up words of “A00 B01” to the chilly opener “Paraguaya.” Yes these songs are sung in Spanish, but that doesn’t stop Molina’s music from being as surprising and enthralling as ever.
OK. Anthony’s gonna give me crap for this, but hear me out. When I first heard this album, I liked it a lot. Then I listened a second and third time, and I fell to a place of indifference. But then, slowly, it inched its way back in, and now I can’t help but feel drawn to its warm and peaceful compositions. The opening track, “Follow My Voice”, is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard this year, and when Byrne sings, “To me this city’s hell / But I know you call it home,” with her deep, smooth voice giving way to the emotion just a tiny bit, it’s piercing and heartbreaking. Yes, the album tends to blur together, but it’s such a tranquil, warm 32 minutes, that I really don’t mind. Despite the low-key nature of this album, I am actually pretty excited to see what Byrne does next.
Seems that long breaks are a running theme on this list. Land of Talk took a 7-year hiatus, during which a lot of shit happened, which you can extensively read about elsewhere. I’m just here to tell you how awesome it is to have Liz Powell back. Her band’s second album, Cloak and Cipher, is one of my favorite indie rock records of this current decade, and though this new album doesn’t quite hit those heights, it comes close. It’s a record of loss and pain, but also of optimism and new horizons, with some lovely electronic instrumentation and some surprising melodic turns. Powell is a distinct, emotive voice in the oft-tired genre of indie rock (and one of the genre’s best guitarists, which is on far deeper display on past LPs). And though her tunes certainly don’t sound too out of sync with her Saddle Creek labelmates, there’s something there – some indefinable quality – that sets them apart, and this record attest to that.
Experimental singer-songwriter Larkin Grimm has a couple pretty great records under her belt (especially her sophomore LP, The Last Tree, which boasts one of my all-time favorite songs, “Little Weeper”), and now she’s given us another one. Chasing an Illusion is at once her darkest and also brightest album, fusing her feelings on motherhood, abuse, love, and life. The sprawling opener, “Ah, Love Is Oceanic Pleasure,” sounds like something Jackie-O Motherfucker might’ve come up with, and the comparatively catchy and upbeat “Beautifully Alone” features a very satisfying melody. Moodier cuts like “I Don’t Believe You,” which are beautiful and heart-wrenching (“I wish that I could die / I wish that you would die too”), are contrasted with lovely, bittersweet ruminations on being a mother in this scary world (“Keeping You Alive”). It’s a strange but ultimately very satisfying album, one of her most cohesive and affecting to date.
What can I say? I’m a sucker. (I’m tempted to just leave it at that...) Laura Marling has given us her most stripped back album in a while, and it’s pretty glorious. It’s a velvety, beautiful record, featuring some of Marling’s most tender vocal deliveries. I admit, the opening track “Soothing” is a bit of a feint, and I would actually sort of love to hear an album of hers sound more like that on the whole, because it’s a slinky, eerie, gorgeous song. “The Valley” is all countryside prettiness, and “Don’t Pass Me By” is sort of a Beach House-meets-Portishead thing that shouldn’t work, but does. For all the little accents, it may be “Nouel” – the sole track that consists of just voice and guitar – that takes top honors. But all in all, this is another solid – if at times too patiently paced – album from Laura Marling.
This one’s tough in that it’s a hard album to listen to and hard to recommend, but it also can’t be denied for what it is musically and lyrically. An album of songs this personal, this intimate, this frighteningly upfront about the death of a loved one, is inevitably going to be a rough sit, especially with lyrics about “bloody end-of-life tissues” and scattering ashes. A couple moments of utter beauty sneak in, such as “Seaweed”’s “I don’t think of that dust as you / You are the sunset,” but mostly it’s an album that makes Carrie and Lowell look like a Brady Bunch singalong. It’s a gorgeous document of grief, and for that alone, it belongs here, despite the fact that I’ve probably only heard it three or four times.
While I maintain that Put Your Back N 2 It is still my favorite Perfume Genius record, it now feels miles away from what we get on his fourth, No Shape. A wild, blissfully scattered and careening ride, this album has no idea what it wants to be, which is exactly how Mike Hadreas wants it to be. We get explosives (“Otherside”), pensive acoustic cuts (“Valley”), slinky duets (“Sides”), and droning love songs (“Alan’), among many other things. This feels like a step in a new direction – or two or three – for Hadreas, which is nice coming after Too Bright inched a little too gingerly away from PYBN2I’s spare balladry. Hadreas is in full force, now, and I am here for it.
This one took me by surprise. I barely knew who Sampha was before this. I knew he popped up on a few tracks here and there, but it wasn’t until he dropped a whole album that I started to take notice. A beautiful piano player, singer, and songwriter (as evidenced by the insta-classic “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”), he also knows when to up the frenzy (the crazy-passionate “Blood on Me”, the quasi-drops of “Reverse Faults”). Sampha has given us a singer-songwriter album that feels both timeless and also of its time, supplying hooks aplenty and heartfelt writing. I don’t know why I didn’t take much notice before now, but this is a powerful album, from a powerful singer, and I am excited for what comes next.
I’ve always been a fan of The xx, but never to the extent some people are. Their debut was minimalistic and infectious, but it was also a little meek. Their sophomore album continued this path. Finally, though, I feel like I’m 100% on the bandwagon, because their third album is their strongest to date. Beefier arrangements, including an increased bass and beat presence (probably a result of Jamie xx’s breakout as a producer in his own right), and more complex songwriting push this album in the right direction for the band, a step they needed to take to avoid what I will mostly-lovingly call Beach House syndrome. The emotional twinned vocals of Romy and Oliver, along with Romy’s reverb-drenched icicle guitar licks, still fill out the picture, but it all feels more rounded, but complex, a little denser. Rollicking, catchy songs like “Replica” and “On Hold” (which features a perfect Hall and Oates sample) sound like they could’ve only been on this record, which is a good sign for this young, talented band.
And that’s it, y’all. Fifteen albums I love. I hope you like some of them too. Thanks to Anthony for letting me get this list up here. It’s nice to get to reach out directly to some of you who don’t hear from me (though perhaps unwittingly witness my handy work on a near-daily basis). It’s been a pretty good year for music so far, and some albums (like Melodrama for example) are currently growing on me, so don’t be surprised to see albums from the first half of the year ranked higher than these come year’s end. Speaking of which, see ya then!
A round-up of the greatest albums Anthony reviewed this past month!
The weekly segment in which Anthony touches down on some of the best and worst tracks he has heard in the past week.