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.