Thursday, March 08, 2018

COLUMN: Best of 2017 - Music

It's the most wonderful time of the year -- when you have to suffer through my pics for the 10 best records of the year. 2016 was a dull year for music, but 2017 made up for it in spades. Last year, I had to fight to find ten records worth celebrating. This year, I'd love to fit about 24 records into ten slots. If I have to narrow it down, though, they go like this:

10. St. Vincent - Masseduction - Annie Clark has spent a decade now making left-of-center subversive pop music under the guise St. Vincent, but never on as large a scale as "Masseduction." If critics are right when they call her the "female Bowie," then this is her "Let's Dance." Clark is a gifted guitarist, but you'd barely know here. "Masseduction" is all about the synths, driven by in-demand producers like Fun's Jack Antonoff and Kendrick Lamar's primary beatmaker Sounwave. If Clark doesn't watch it, the pop music she excels at subverting might soon be her own.

9. Grace VanderWaal - Just the Beginning - Grace VanderWaal won last year's season of America's Got Talent. She's 13 years old. Neither of those facts are as astonishing as how good her debut record is. It's one thing to be a kid and know how to write songs. It's another thing altogether to be a kid and make THIS. The plucky little ukelele that helped her win AGT is present, but now it's surrounded by rich production that runs the gamut from pop to Caribbean to psychedelia. Most mind-blowing of all is the mature control VanderWaal has over her trademark raspy voice at an age when most kids only care about zits and homework. This record isn't just good for a 13-year-old. It's better than most of her peers.

8. White Reaper - The World's Best American Band - Most indie rock upstarts pride themselves on the same influences: a little Talking Heads, a bit of Pavement, a working knowledge of The Smiths & Dinosaur, Jr., etc. But you get the feeling that the boys of Nashville's White Reaper never spent time record-diving in an indie shop. Instead, it sounds like they were raised on a steady diet of Thin Lizzy, Kiss, and The Cars. The resulting bubblegum-rock might be derivative, but in a sea of bearded indie troubadors who take themselves way too seriously, this is the most refreshing record to cross my stereo all year.

7. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. - 2017 was a lousy year for rap music. Greatness was out there, but the charts were defined and dominated this year by an assortment of flash-in-the-pan mumble-rappers destined for one-hit-wonderdom. So in a world of disposable hip-hop, what do you do if you're the best rapper on the planet? If you're Kendrick Lamar, you come out fighting. "DAMN." is right. This is Kendrick at his most biting and aggressive, knocking out clever wordplay at a lightning-fast pace, proving haters wrong and the critics right. No one can touch him.   

6. Lorde - Melodrama - Lorde arrived on the scene four years ago as a snotty but talented 16-year-old who already seemed to have the world figured out. A few years later, it sounds like she's realizing just how much she didn't know. "Melodrama" finds the Australian chanteuse ruminating over love lost and loneliness, all set to a sparse soundtrack from producer Jack Antonoff that lets every quirky element of Lorde's intimate voice shine. Lead single "Greenlight" provides the year's ultimate "dance like nobody's watching" moment, and this record should ensure a long career is hers for the taking. 

5. Ride - Weather Diaries - It's fairly tough to be level-headed when your favorite band reunites after 25 years for a brand new record. It's even tougher when the record's great. Ride could have made a noisy retread into 90s shoegazing and made their fans happy right there. Instead, they use their wall-of-sound background to expand their sonic palette into a record that should satisfy fans of new indie rock as it does with us old guard who've loved them since 1991. I still say they're the best band on Earth. "Weather Diaries" might not be the best record of the year, but it's definitely my favorite.

4. PWR BTTM - Pageant - 2017 was set to be PWR BTTM's big year. The queer rock duo had already garnered headlines like "America's Next Great Rock Band" and the advance buzz over their second album was palpable. But two days before its release, allegations of sex abuse involving the band arose on social media. Within 48 hours, the band had been dropped by their record label, their tour cancelled, and stores asked to return unsold copies of "Pageant." What could have been a powerful rallying cry for equality may end up little more than an obscure rarity. It's a real shame.

3. Bleachers - Gone Now - Jack Antonoff has morphed from "that guy from Fun" into one of today's most sought-after producers. In fact, he helmed 3 of the albums on this very list. Thankfully, though, he saved his best work for his own project. For his second outing under the Bleachers moniker, Antonoff pushes his bedroom laptop production skills to the limits, layering every track with bombastic effects, vocal change-ups, and interesting samples that make for a compelling, confident masterpiece.

2. Slowdive - Slowdive - When 90s shoegaze pioneers Slowdive announced a surprise reformation and reunion album last year, it was music to fans' ears. But no one was expecting them to produce the most cohesive and creative album of their career. The wall-of-sound guitars are still there, but the teenaged Slowdive of yore have now become mature songwriters, adding a delicate and refined beauty to their soundscapes. Thirty seconds in and you're already floating away like a shimmer on a sea of aural bliss.

1. SUSTO - & I'm Fine Today - Justin Osborne is a Southern man and a troubled soul, and we know because he either brags about it or apologizes for it in nearly every song of SUSTO's small but rich catalog. But behind the "aww, shucks" country-folk facade lies some of the greatest pop songwriting ever committed to wax. SUSTO's second album is augmented with sounds no Americana band is supposed to feature -- strings, horns, synthesizers, drum machines, and even a few Cuban rhythms surround inescapable hooks that require your immediate attention. What should be a simple album ends up being quite simply the best record of 2017 by a country mile.

Even if you just listen to ONE of these, it's worth it. Next week? My picks for the ten best TV shows of 2017.