I’m a little short on summaries for 2017. My relationship with music was maybe the most distant it’s been in years – definitely since joining Hearing Double however long ago. There would be days where I wouldn’t even touch music, preferring to just bide my time in silence or commute quietly to wherever it was I was heading.
This has way more to do with me than it does music at large, though. It’s not like music just stopped, or that 2017 was somehow a worse year for music than others. On the contrary, there were a few albums and songs from 2017 that will probably be canonized sometime in the next few years, if they haven’t already been bestowed with some kind of omnipotent praise. Mixed in with the noise were some exciting debuts, nostalgia-mining manifestos from industry veterans, reality-bending cartoon worms in wizard hats, and whatever More Life technically is.
I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I spent 2017 playing catch-up, though. I didn’t even listen to what would become my album of the year until November, some eight months after it first appeared on Bandcamp. Maybe it was because I spent a large chunk of my year traveling, barely tuned in to music news as it broke back home. Maybe it was because Hearing Double was on hiatus most of the year, so the professional impetus to listen was also gone. The normal traumas of transitioning into adult life caught up to me, and it would still be months stateside before I felt remotely comfortable trying to listen to music again with any seriousness.
But, now that the New Year passed and the dust settled, I can properly conduct my annual ritual of arbitrarily ranking music again! This is by no way an objective list, nor is it set in stone – I’ll probably shuffle my list again in a month as certain albums fall out of favor and other things click. Until then, here’s the standings as they are now, with twelve honorable mentions and, in Hearing Double fashion, a proper eleven albums of the year.
BTS – You Never Walk Alone:
A fleshed-out rerelease of 2016’s Wings, You Never Walk Alone is a wallop of well-crafted and ambitious mega pop, just in time for an American breakthrough
cupcakKe – Queen Elizabitch:
cupcakKe is one of the best up-and-coming rappers on the scene, and Queen Elizabitch is the perfect, boisterous manifesto of her sexual romps, pop crystals and lightning takedowns
Protomartyr – Relatives in Descent:
Protomartyr is a band I will champion until the day I die and Relatives in Descent – with all of its brooding guitar lines and Joe Casey’s slurred stream of consciousness – is their best yet
Big Thief – Capacity:
Capacity is such a wonderfully strung folk album whose penchant for slight dissonance – think about the crackling guitar leads in “Shark Smile” – makes for some of the most engaging folk rock in recent memory
Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice:
The cover for Lotta Sea Lice is what you should see if you Google search the words “warm hug”
Bleachers – Gone Now:
I like Jack Antonoff’s aesthetic more than I should, but there’s something in that nervous, heart-on-sleeve nostalgic bombast he does that I adore
Death Grips – Steroids (Crouching Tiger Hidden Gabber):
*sets desk chair on fire and throws it out the window*
The National – Sleep Well Beast:
The National are an indie rock institution, and the fact they can still release an affecting record like Sleep Well Beast this late in their career shows they’ve earned their pedestal
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding:
The War on Drugs blend Middle American poetics and aesthetics with the expansive sounds of dream pop and shoegaze, making the album of Michael’s dreams
Sobs – Catflap:
A large chunk of my 2017 was spent soundtracked by Singapore’s Middle Class Cigars label and its young cast of dream pop-inflected indie rockers. Sobs’ EP Catflap stood out to me the most, but their whole roster deserves a mention here.
11) Roger Waters – Is This the Life We Really Want?
Roger Waters has been in the press lately more for his political snarl than his contemporary musical endeavors. Maybe that’s because he’s spent the last few years investing more in his past with his touring of The Wall, or maybe it’s because of how aggressively public and forward his political commentary actually is. Who knows where Rolling Stone gets its headlines?
In 2017, Waters blended some of that snarl into the apocalyptic Is This the Life We Really Want? – a brooding record fueled by post-Trumpian disgust and channeled with some of the sharpest writing any of Pink Floyd’s veterans have penned since The Wall. There are obvious echoes to Waters’s past – notably “Smell the Roses” pulls a riff directly from “Have a Cigar” – but Waters channels it all with a dystopian heft that dwarfs anything else coming from rock’s old guard in 2017.
10) Elder – Reflections of a Floating World
The scraggily band of Massachusetts stoners comes back for a startling display of Paranoid-slugging guitar worship courtesy of your roommate’s crustiest bong. Elder approach their music with a certain fluidity and fullness that usually comes through as 11-minute jam odysseys, complete with sharp guitar runs, murkier rhythms and songs about fantastical worlds and Conan the Barbarian.
Reflections of a Floating World is really no different. It clocks in at over an hour long, filled with ten minute epics and guitar solos so detailed and dexterous that it almost makes the band’s definition as “stoner metal” seem moot. It’s like the fantasy album of my high school years, when Guitar World was bookmarked on my browser and my friends would brag about seeing Van Halen live.
9) Drake – More Life
It took a while for More Life to click for me. It’s a real good microcosm of world pop, and is maybe the best singular vision Drake’s ever had for an album, but I never felt a need to go back to the Canadian rapper’s “playlist” until a stray craving for “Passionfruit” sometime last month.
I’m glad I gave it a second chance, because More Life is such a lovingly-curated “playlist” – because Drake no longer deals in “albums” – full of the Canadian rapper’s worldliest charms. He seems a little more hesitant after the indulgent VIEWS – some of the best songs are left entirely to guests like newcomer Sampha and grime-lord Skepta – but Drake still proves to be the ultimate tastemaker here; it’s the Drake-led hook on “Passionfruit” that really anchors More Life in its pop-minded pursuits.
7) Chinese Football – Here comes a new challenger!
An EP courtesy of a few Wuhan-based young guns, Here comes a new challenger! is a spry gaggle of indie rockers in the vein of their American Football forefathers. While Chinese Football never really shakes their ties to the American band that inspired the name, they weave together jangling guitar lines and melodies on Here comes a new challenger! that are some of the most earned earworms of 2017.
Obviously the lyricism is lost on my entry level Chinese – I can barely even sketch a narrative from the pieces I do understand – but the warm tones ushered by Chinese Football’s playing and songcraft sound more like home than anything else I’ve heard this year. They’re the best Midwest emo band I’ve heard in years, even if that Midwest is decidedly on the other side of the world.
6) Four Tet – New Energy
Never does New Energy’s varied assortments of bleeps, hums, vrums, and bloops ever feel cold or uninviting. Copping everything from classic house and videogames to dream pop – those hovering synthesizers in the final moments of “You Are Loved” could be the denouement to an Asobi Seksu song – Four Tet almost always manages a sense of familiarity through the hour or so of New Energy’s static thrumming.
New Energy is also just efficiently straightforward. The songs on this album are basic in structure, even as their details grow and develop into club-ready soundscapes that are meant to be explored; on New Energy there’s always a clear beginning, middle and ending. In my mind, the average New Energy track could even be the backbone of a pop song, or vice versa. It’s the kind of ease that relaxes me and inspires the stupidest music-loving smile.
(Also, the twinkling “Memories” is one of the most gorgeous tracks I’ve heard all year.)
5) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
I remember seeing the video for “HUMBLE.” for the first time and frantically sending messages back and forth with a friend about the technical insanity behind it. In my mind, it built an image for DAMN. that was going to be chaotic, intensely visual in execution and more belligerent than any of Kendrick Lamar’s previous records.
DAMN. was all of those things. Between muscular highlights like “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.” and the tepid tides of “LOVE.,” songs on DAMN. are some of the most visceral and direct in Lamar’s catalogue. DAMN.’s singles are heavyweights, its deeper cuts – like “FEAR.” – are some of the most beautiful Lamar’s written, and the accompanying videos will likely be visual touchstones for media creators years from now.
More than anything, though, DAMN. felt like a character study. Lamar pulled together all of those big-font, all-caps contradictions from the back of the record sleeve and made an autobiography that stands almost like a Citizen Kane for one of hip-hop’s most lauded figures. Who can say if it’s the real Kendrick Lamar described on DAMN., but the character “Kendrick Lamar” continues to be one of the most interesting put to record.
(Plus DAMN. somehow had the audacity to include a U2 feature on a Kendrick Lamar album and, even more audaciously, make that feature work.)
4) Alvvays – Antisocialites
My first Alvvays experience was the Urban Outfitters-ready “Archie, Marry Me,” a straightforward pop song with a light tinge of a shoegaze guitar pedal. In that song’s second verse, there’s a moment where that shoegaze pedal cuts across the record and creates one of my favorite sounds I’ve ever heard.
Antisocialites’s opening track, “In Undertow,” somehow managed that same effect, and my ears swooned when I first heard it. The difference with Antisocialites, though, is that in a song-to-song comparison Antisocialites ones-up everything on that previous Alvvays record. The dreamiest moments always seem smarter, more streamlined toward the pop-centric charms Alvvays has always levied.
It helps that none of the lyrics are ever as clunky as its precursor’s “We can find comfort in debauchery.” Instead, we have strong rockers like “Plimsoll Punks,” dream pop balladry a la “Dreams Tonite,” and “In Undertow’s” near-perfect channeling of Alvvays’s fuzz pedal roots. Even the day glo cloud-gazing of the album’s closer, “Forget About Life,” feels like such a well-earned sigh.
3) Yaeji – EP2
Yaeji is one of the most interesting artists on this list. Her music flirts between worlds, effortlessly tossed between house and hip-hop. In the most nonchalant way possible, she even skirts the language barrier with an uncanny blend of Korean and English, switching between them whenever the melody or rhythm calls for it.
“Drink I’m Sipping On,” the centerpiece of Yaeji’s second EP, is mesmerizing in the way it develops. “Raingurl” is the softest-spoken banger of the year, with the kind of gyrating backbeat built for addiction. “After That,” meanwhile, could be a lounge singer’s tune with the way Yaeji handles the melody – at least before becoming the basis for a trap beat’s transcendental cousin.
That the EP’s concluding cover of “Passionfruit” feels so natural only adds to the world-shrinking strengths of its singer and remixer.
2) Lorde – Melodrama
I remember really liking Pure Heroine. Melodrama is definitely not Pure Heroine, nor could it ever be Pure Heroine. Pure Heroine was an album that became so much larger than it sounded, somehow becoming omnipresent with “Royals” and “Tennis Court” becoming radio hits and molding Lorde into an indie-crossover darling.
I can’t imagine how an artist whose sound seemed more rooted in college radio than international super stardom would’ve felt with that kind of success. Melodrama makes me imagine that that pop stardom isn’t a perfect fit; Lorde seems to explode her share of relationships and friendships over the course of Melodrama’s economical excesses. Even with producer Jack Antonoff playing his usual ticks behind a soundboard – big hooks, piano rolls, a guitar riff in “The Louvre” that sounds lifted from Bruce Springsteen’s cutting room floor – Melodrama never escapes a very pronounced sense of darkness.
I mean, this is an album where Lorde cries about being someone’s liability, where she threatens to “blow shit up with homemade dynamite” in a song where she also fantasizes about a car wreck. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the album’s best pop tracks – “Perfect Places,” “Supercut” and “Green Light” – all deal with varied successes at escapism.
But when everything’s said and done, the Lorde that made Pure Heroine so enticing is still there, injecting a more capital-P pop sound with the same daggered lyrics, the same poisoned voice and the same outsider outlook that made her such a refreshing voice all of those years ago.
1) Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me is an incredibly difficult album to listen to. At times it doesn’t even feel like an album of music; Phil Elverum’s lyrics are so detailed and so unfocused that they feel more like stray thoughts and diaries than actual lyrics.
Written about the death of Elverum’s wife, artist Geneviève Castrée, A Crow Looked at Me is a painful album, too distracted by post-mortem details to ever deal with petty definitions of words like “death” and “grief.” Instead, Elverum ruminates on finally taking out the trash in a shared bathroom, on throwing away his wife’s toothbrush, on the backpack she bought for their one-year-old daughter to take to school one day, planning ahead for a family life she couldn’t be a part of.
It’s hard for me to write about this album beyond stating the obvious: it’s a sad record and a sparse record. Elverum comes across as unfiltered. There are no choruses, no discernable verses. The vaguest note of metaphor is the foreboding ravens that come up every so often between Elverum’s words.
It’s an album that’s better experienced than read about. I can’t imagine I’ll ever hear anything like it ever again. I can’t imagine I’ll ever want to.