My Favorite Albums of 2017

I listened to a ton of music this year — mostly to escape the news cycle, but also because the process of writing about it has made me more excited to engage with it, which is why I still do this. I’ve narrowed it down to 15 albums, but I left off a lot of worthwhile music, which I might compile in another post if there’s interest.

One of my main beefs with media year-end lists I see is that they all have this very focus-grouped feeling, where they’re trying to represent every kind of music and appeal to every reader. This is just the music I like (it’s roughly in order of how much I listened to each album), and I don’t make any concessions towards popularity or what I think will necessarily appeal to other people. So I imagine no one on earth will remotely agree with much of this, but I hope at least one of the (mostly underappreciated) albums on this list strikes your fancy.

15. Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rest

I’ll admit to being ignorant of Gainsbourg’s previous work (and I almost missed this album too), but Rest instantly jumped out to me because of its masterful production and dark disco hooks. The occasionally joyous sound somewhat masks that this album was written in a period of grief, and the way Gainsbourg’s lyrics (occasionally in French) clash with the music make this an ambiguous and intriguing album — the kind that makes a joyful chorus out of a Sylvia Plath passage.

 14. Sneaks – It’s a Myth

There are few things harder in music (or life, really) than convincingly being cool, but Sneaks (Eva Moolchan) pulls it off on It’s a Myth because of her effortless charisma. Her deadpan poetry and natural swagger are at the forefront of these economical, minimalist songs that are a seamless fusion of post-punk, funk, and hip-hop.

13. Novella – Change of State

Novella’s lengthy description of Change of State sells it as a political post-Brexit album, but the real appeal here is their sound, a mix of krautrock rhythms with dreamy guitar and vocal harmonies. This band clearly loves Stereolab, and Change of State makes a convincing case for how good taste can lead to good music.

12. Björk – Utopia

The new album by Björk is overwhelming — to the point that it is hard to figure out how to reasonably rank it against other albums. For better or worse, Björk has never felt so distant from contemporary music, and Utopia‘s endless sprawl and the approximately three million things going on in every track make it feel like nothing else this year. While at times indulgent, the album is grounded by Björk’s optimism at a time when that might be even more unusual than her music.

11. Daddy Issues – Deep Dream

The sound of Deep Dream is a pure 90s throwback, with Jenna Moynahan’s grungy riffs contrasting with her light vocals, but Daddy Issues are much more than a tribute band. They bring a different perspective to the grunge genre with emotionally complex lyrics that are equally funny and insightful, using personal experiences to address contemporary gender dynamics and general anxiety. I also find their lack of originality oddly endearing: while so many bands try to be everything at once, Daddy Issues know exactly who they are, and they have the unpretentious, catchy songs to prove it.

10. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

After playing bass in the unfortunately-named The History of Apple Pie (a band I liked, for the record), Owens stepped out on her own with this sleek collection of down-tempo minimalist electronic songs. While clearly indebted to trip-hop bands like Massive Attack (“Keep Walking” is mostly a 2017 reboot of “Teardrop”), Owens’ airy vocals differentiate it from her predecessors, and her ear for production makes it one of the year’s smoothest and most addictive albums.

9. Frankie Rose – Cage Tropical

Every year I seem to fall for one of these throwback 80s pop albums. This year’s is by Frankie Rose, who uses shimmering synths and rich bass to craft catchy and subtly emotional songs on Cage Tropical. Like her former bandmate, Kristin Kontrol, Rose has mastered how to create memorable pop songs through her years of experience, and this album feels like the perfection of her synth-pop vision that began on 2012’s Interstellular.

8. Widowspeak – Expect the Best

Molly Hamilton’s crooning vocals and Robert Earl Thomas’ gorgeous shoegaze/country guitar have always made Widowspeak sound warm and cozy. On Expect the Best, they turn their own music against itself, with songs that show how comfort and nostalgia can turn into inertia that makes you feel directionless. While not a huge musical evolution for the band, Hamilton’s lyrics made this connect with me more than any of their previous work.

7.  Palehound – A Place I’ll Always Go

Written after the loss of her grandmother and a close friend, A Place I’ll Always Go is an honest and heartfelt reflection on loss and friendship by Ellen Kempner, who records as Palehound. While her flashy guitar playing tends to steal the show, Kempner’s lyrics provide the emotional base that makes her fuzzed-out riffs more potent. She captures the feeling of emptiness that follows the loss of a friend by offering us a window into her world — even her mundane descriptions of trips to the grocery store or Dunkin’ Donuts are rich with pathos.

6. Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun

After 2015’s massive Abyss, Wolfe plunges even deeper into darkness with Hiss Spun, a thunderous collection of songs that makes most other artists’ attempts at rock music feel inconsequential. Wolfe is a powerhouse vocalist, and her intensity and flair for the dramatic make every song on Hiss Spun feel like a fight for survival. It’s not for the faint of heart, but great rock music rarely is.

5. Girlpool – Powerplant

After the bare-bones minimalism of their debut album, Before the World Was Big, Girlpool enlisted a drummer and embraced a full rock sound on Powerplant, which easily could have been their “sell-out” moment. Instead, it’s like they emerged from a cocoon. The duo of Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker still have their unique chemistry forged from years of friendship, and the collision of noisy guitars with their vulnerable lockstep harmonies is one of the most compelling sounds in music today.

4. EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring

After the election of Trump, journalists penned a seemingly endless amount of portrayals of the American working class in a desperate attempt to figure out how it happened. They could have just listened to Exile in the Outer Ring instead. Drawing from her upbringing in South Dakota, EMA’s provocative third album is a searing portrait of the American heartland that melds her personal experiences with a broader political message. Its grimy industrial/grunge sound, her lyrics and her vocals capture how it feels to be abused and forgotten about — as well as the barely-restrained fury that simmers underneath.

3. Hand Habits – Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)

When most people think of great guitarists, they focus on artists who draw attention to themselves with their massive riffs and personalities. Meg Duffy, who records as Hand Habits, is a guitar hero for the indoor kids. Their lo-fi bedroom songs are slow-paced and unassuming, matching their low-key personality, but Wildly Idle gradually reveals itself to be an intimate and powerful album, anchored by their beautiful, psychedelic-tinged guitar. It’s like a shy friend who ends up being kind and caring once you get to know them.

2. Cold Beat – Chaos By Invitation

I continue to bang the drum for Cold Beat and its mastermind, Hannah Lew, who has put out a run of three albums that I compare favorably to any other current artist. Never content to stay in one musical place for too long, Lew pushes her project into new synth-driven territory on Chaos By Invitation, but does it while retaining the band’s distinct (yet hard to pin down) sound that somehow feels chilly and warm at the same time. While the switch to synths would seem to indicate a narrow musical path, Lew shows her creativity and versatility as a songwriter by making a collection of memorable songs that all feel different.

1. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

I have no idea how Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith does what she does. Her collection of modular synthesizers, with all of their cords, knobs and wires, look like impossibly complex machinery, but in her hands they’re a conduit for music that feels deeply human and in touch with the natural world. Inspired by the four stages of life, The Kid plays as an outline of one person’s existence, beginning with the wide-eyed joy of early childhood discovery, then progressing to the adult process of learning, questioning, and finding your place in the world. Smith’s own journey of exploration is captured in The Kid‘s restless musical experimentation, and all of its quirky tracks build up to one of the most moving, achingly beautiful conclusions to an album I’ve ever heard.

Björk Convincingly Imagines a Better World on “Utopia”

Björk making an album called Utopia almost feels redundant. Her soaring, one-of-a-kind voice, genre-hopping style, and fusion of technology, nature and humanity has always imbued her music with natural utopian qualities. I even wrote a goofy paper in college about the very subject five years ago. Her ninth album doubles down on those elements that have always been present in her music, which makes it’s her most Bjorky album yet. It’s a 72-minute bird-song-backed ode to love and beauty that tries to imagine a better world than the one we live in now (which is, admittedly, not an incredibly challenging task).

The concept of a utopia is inherently political — offering a vision of a perfect dream world is a way of pointing out what is wrong with the world we actually live in. With so much political discourse taking on an unmistakably whiny, angry, and outraged tone (which is understandable, but still exhausting), the concept of Utopia is a smart way to funnel political ideas through a message of optimism and hope, themes that naturally suit the majestic soundscapes that Björk is known for. The result is that Utopia makes some powerful points about the world we live in, but in a sneaky way. What’s missing from this utopia is just as telling as what is in it.

Most of those missing themes were on her previous album, Vulnicura, which was at times ugly, angry and difficult, as she outlined the end of a relationship in stark detail. The beginning of Utopia hits the restart button, with Björk finding love again and relating it to her deep connection to music. Opener “Arisen My Senses” describes the original awakening and making mixtapes, followed by “Blissing Me,” where she is one of “two music nerds obsessing” and “sending each other mp3s.” Some of this gets a bit gooey for my tastes, but it sets the tone for this album, which is mostly about Björk wishing the whole world felt like she did when she was falling in love.

The lyrics on Utopia end up settling in familiar territory for Björk, with a focus on loving and caring for each other along with the planet we live on. This isn’t revolutionary material by any means, but after Vulnicura, there is a comfort in having Björk back to being her usual self. And she is still capable of articulating these fairly simple themes in ways that other artists would never think of. “Body Memory” is a weird, 10-minute epic where she describes a return to her primal state. Backed by strings, a choir, heavier beats and some sort of animalistic growling noise, she vows to “refuse to accept what was meant to be” after the events of Vulnicura, making the choice of love over hate.

The other big prescription that shows up in Björk’s utopia is abolishing the patriarchy, which pops up in a few songs. On “Tabula Rasa,” she sings of “the fuck-ups of the fathers” and how “it is time for us women to rise up and not just take it lying down.” While she doesn’t go full SCUM Manifesto, her vision is clearly one that includes more femininity, especially in positions of power. “Saint” makes that case clearly by describing a matriarchal leader who cares for the sick and poor, providing an unspoken contrast with our real-world leaders while also comparing it to the healing power of music.

The sound of this album is really where the utopia concept comes to life. Björk succeeds in creating a musical paradise, with flutes, strings, choirs, birds, and her voice all combining to make a musical Candyland. Much like Vulnicura, this album isn’t really interested in traditional songs, but instead in creating a landscape to get lost in. The relative lack of hooks combined with the long run time can make Utopia feel a bit indulgent, and I think some big choruses could have made the world she created feel even more lush and beautiful. On the other hand, I feel like Björk has earned the right to indulge in her music, and I can put up with her noodling around when it sounds this lovely and complete.

It is tempting to think of this album as a pure fantasy of another world, but on the title track, Björk makes a point of singing that utopia “isn’t elsewhere. It’s here.” Her genuine belief that the world can reach her ideas on this album gives Utopia a feeling of optimism and hope that is refreshing in the current political climate. I would normally chuckle cynically at that sort of pie-in-the-sky thinking, but Björk is one of the only artists who can really pull it off in her music. After all, this is an artist who has made a career out of making the impossible a reality.

Desert Liminal’s “Static Thick” is a Low-Key Gem

In the sea of anonymous releases on Bandcamp, the dream is always to find a legitimately great band that you never would have heard of otherwise. It rarely happens, because there is such a saturation of music writing and critics/bloggers are eager to jump on anything that might appeal to more than five people, but sometimes a band like Desert Liminal slips through the cracks. Their recent release, Static Thick, is among my favorite albums (cassettes?) of 2017, even though it hasn’t reached many listeners.

But that’s enough reveling in obscurity. I listened to a lot of music this year, and Static Thick stood out because it has such a distinct vibe, a lot of which comes from Sarah Jane Quillin’s vocals. She has a husky voice (think Fiona Apple and Cat Power range) and sings with a bit of a drawl that adds to the disorienting, blurry nature of her songs, which explore gray areas sonically and thematically. She plays keys with various effects while Rob Logan handles drums, and the sound is about as minimalist and lo-fi as you would expect from a duo with a self-released Bandcamp record. Sometimes these bands I find on Bandcamp can sound like they’re missing something, or are still working out the kinks, but I wouldn’t change a thing about Desert Liminal’s sound, which is full and rich despite the minimal set-up.

I’m always curious to see how bands describe their sound, especially if it resists easy categorization like this one, and Desert Liminal’s are particularly entertaining: “dreamed up sike rok for high-functioning depressives” and “30 yr old woman falls in love with distortion pedals.” Both strike me as fairly accurate. The pedals and Quillin’s vocals do give the music a hazy, dreamy vibe, and the music is naturally downbeat, almost to the point of being narcotic. This fits with Quillin’s lyrics, which are gloomy and ambiguous like great poetry. There are clear themes of loss and grief, like on “Sun Limina,” but a lot of it is left open for interpretation.

The band I kept thinking of while listening to Desert Limina was another Chicago duo I was obsessed with recently: Algebra Suicide, which had a similar duo approach and a focus on dark poetry backed by minimalist music. That band was a little more lyrically driven than Desert Liminal, and had talking instead of singing, but they both create moody and powerful songs with very simple parts. And also like that band, part of why I like Static Thick is that it’s a welcome respite from overproduced music that sounds too eager to please as many listeners as possible. This is smart, challenging music that packs surprising potency in its low-key presentation.