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. Her lo-fi bedroom songs are slow-paced and unassuming, matching her low-key personality, but Wildly Idle gradually reveals itself to be an intimate and powerful album, anchored by her 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.

Cold Beat – “Chaos By Invitation”

It’s fitting that the first song on Cold Beat’s newest album, Chaos By Invitation, sounds like no other song the band has made before. “In Motion” is a long, spacious synth ballad that has a feeling of infinity to it — listening to it makes me feel like I’m alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean, looking at an endless horizon. There is an ambiguity in the track that has become one of the hallmarks of Cold Beat’s sound. On one hand, it sounds peaceful and relaxing to be in the ocean, but it’s also frightening to be solitary in a vast expanse.

This is only the third album for the Hannah Lew project, but it has already grown and evolved in ways that few artists do in their entire careers. “In Motion” is a strategic choice as the opening track, because it officially signifies the shift hinted at on their previous album, Into the Air, which started out as familiar guitar-driven rock before ascending into synth-pop territory halfway through. Chaos By Invitation focuses heavily on those synths, and it becomes primarily a solo vehicle for Lew, who recorded it with less collaboration than their previous albums.

The more solo nature of the album and the restriction to mostly synths would seem to imply a more narrow and claustrophobic sound. “In Motion” proves that wrong right out of the gate, and the rest of the album continues to showcase Lew’s ability as a diverse and creative songwriter who is emboldened by working with different resources than she has in the past. “Thin Ice” and “Don’t Touch” are more classic Cold Beat tracks with a spikier sound and anxious lyrics, but then there is “62 Moons,” another dreamier track with evocative lyrics about a relationship that ends with a “fade to black.”

With fewer collaborators, Lew’s singing stands out more on this album than it has in the past. She sings in almost a classical or operatic way, but adapts her voice to the different styles on the album. She reaches a more high-pitched coo on “False Alarm,” which sounds vaguely like a Grimes/Simple Minds collaboration, but she sounds more like an android on a dense electronic track like “Black Licorice.” One of the last songs on the album, “Strawberry Moon,” is like a synthed up version of a classic c86 pop song, and Lew’s voice fits snugly into its upbeat dreamy vibe.

What I most appreciate about Cold Beat is what makes them one of the trickier bands to write about: nothing about their music is obvious. The style they play is difficult to describe in buzzy genre words (electronic-synth-goth-punk-pop?) and Lew’s lyrics, while not being completely cryptic, don’t really lend themselves to the type of easy interpretations that are the bread-and-butter of music blogging. The only obvious parts are how the band changes with every release and how much thought is put into every part of the album, from the construction of the songs to the sequencing. Lew’s project is a model for what rock music should be, and the success of Chaos by Invitation reflects her continued growth and evolution as a songwriter.

#7: Cold Beat – “Into the Air”

Cold Beat’s debut album, Over Me, was one of my favorites of last year, and the Hannah Lew project wasted no time following it up with Into the Air, which improves on the first by expanding and refining the group’s sound. While Over Me sometimes felt repetitive, every song on Into the Air feels different from the next, and the album tells a cohesive story as it progresses and the sounds change.

I get really geeky about album sequencing sometimes, and I got especially into the sequencing on Into the Air. The early songs on the album are more in line with what I expected after Over Me, with relatively straight-forward new-wave rock like “Broken Lines.” But about halfway through, the music starts to change, starting with “Cracks” which adds synths to the mix, and then the electronic instrumental “Clouds” that segues into the final part of the album, where “Spirals” and “Ashes” continue down that electronic path.

The way the album is sequenced, there is a feeling of ascending “Into the Air,” among the “Clouds,” and ending up in the ominously pretty blue sky portrayed on the album cover. This is reinforced by lyrical motifs about ashes and dust, like a wind is blowing you away into the sky. While ascending into the sky is typically considered positive, like going to heaven, on Into the Air the technology has an icy, creepy vibe to it that makes it more like OK Computer. “Cracks” in particular feels frantic and paranoid, and it’s the track that starts the upward ascension of the rest of the album.

I don’t know if the band intended any of what I just wrote, but part of what makes Into the Air so replayable — beyond the quality songwriting — is that Lew’s lyrics lend themselves to interpretation and don’t have a specific, obvious meaning. Yet there is still a story being told on the album, a sense that all the tracks are tied together and going down the same path. Where exactly that path goes is up to the listener to decide.