10. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Let’s just forget for a moment that the Collector’s Edition of DAMN. ever happened. OK, is it out of your minds? Good. Now let’s also for a moment ignore the nearly invisible thread of a thematic composition, as it’s really the drops of blood that fall from Kendrick’s mouth throughout the record that help illuminate this thin string. It’s true, Kendrick embraces his own death and almost enjoys the metallic taste that society has caused to pool in his mouth. And damn if he doesn’t lash out right away with “DNA.”, easily the banger of the year solidified by the fervent extra verse that ends the track with silent mouths agape. Despite “HUMBLE.” also taking from the leftover rush of endorphins, Kendrick decides to expand off of his jazz rap endeavor, this time with a rosy filter of R&B rap and laid-back vibes. “ELEMENT.” is the front-runner when it comes to such a trial, with Rihanna-featured “LOYALTY.” coming close behind. While not every love-drenched track succeeds quite as much as the two, it’s hard to argue against this next logical step in Kendrick’s style and sound.
I’ll be completely honest, though, I’m not the biggest fan of this album as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, the product in its entirety is put together quite nicely, nonetheless tacked on with some buttons of overdramatic acts and trivial narratives. In fact, I’m really more impressed by people’s reactions from such an album, because I can tell you exactly how many friends have said to me, “Holy shit, ‘DUCKWORTH.’ though!” throughout this year. How the hell does an artist consistently inspire the masses? And how the hell has he come out with, arguably, three classic albums, albums that will probably go down in history as hip-hop pioneers? Whether you like it or not, Kendrick’s cemented his influence and importance to the rap game without having to die, and judging by the conceit of the record, I think Mr. Lamar himself can’t quite wrap his head around it either. –Conmaniac
9. Lorde – Melodrama
Melodrama showcases not only Lorde’s mastery of writing from her youthful perspective, but her producer’s ability to craft a soundscape that fits the themes and moods of her lyricism. However, while these two qualities were present in her debut, the strength of these two qualities is much more apparent this time around.
Joel Little did a great job of emphasizing the cynical youthfulness of Pure Heroine with his very sparse, hazy production that also made for a very consistent palette. However, Lorde’s collaboration with Jack Antonoff across Melodrama results in a record leagues more eclectic, energetic, and melodramatic than its predecessor. This wider palette is the perfect background for Lorde to wax on the ups and downs of the rollercoaster that is the life of one’s early 20s. Pieces of colorful and dynamic electropop, inspired as much by ’80s pop as by alternative R&B, are the soundtrack to the euphoric, lovesick highs of the party. Sorrowful and equally dramatic piano ballads make the crushing aftermath of said parties that much more poignant. Both sides of Melodrama make for a three-dimensional portrayal of the rush of emotions that come with newfound freedom.
Melodrama is not just another stellar pop album from the genre’s youngest, and most promising, stars. It is an improvement upon her already remarkable debut and a sign that further improvement with subsequent releases is a possibility. If this upward trend continues, we may be have one of the greatest minds in pop music of this century in our hands. –wtferrothorn
8. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
“Oh, we get it already,” I often think to myself after finishing each playthrough of Julien Baker’s most recent cry-fest she’s shared with the entire planet. “You’re really goddamned unhappy. Aren’t we all?”
Then I hit repeat and listen to it all the way through again, singing along at the top of my lungs in my empty house on New Year’s Eve. Oh, yes, I’m staying in tonight. To say that this album is a miserable slog of monotonous shit is perhaps an understatement, but that’s kinda the point. You may lob your criticisms at it for all its homogeneous songwriting, its utter lack of dynamic — musical or emotional — but if that’s you, then perhaps you’re just not enough of a miserable bastard right now for that. Maybe you’re more well-adjusted with your emotions these days. Good for you. Julien Baker is a tiny woman with an impossibly large voice as she laments the difficulties of a life with depression, anxiety, mental illness, etc. Welcome to the world of middle-class white people. I often say that it’s hard to relate to a character who’s sad all the time if they never give us a reason to root for them. If they’re never happy or normal or balanced, just hearing someone whine about their problems doesn’t make you empathetic, it’s just basically annoying. Julien Baker isn’t a character, though. She’s a deeply flawed and real person with some shit to sort through. So let’s sort through it together, Baker. I’m just as pathetic as you, most days. –Astral Abortis
7. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Alice Munro once posited that “[T]he grieving have no language with which to speak to the unbereaved,” and, well, Phil Elverum knows this as much as anybody: “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife? Or does the room go silent when I mention you?” he maffles, a little arch, mostly distraught. Because that’s the thing about grief: it’s agonisingly specific. Any real depiction of it seems almost selfish. Of course, paradoxically, some of the things the album is specific about is the ambiguities, the cruelty of realising you didn’t know someone you loved as wholly as you wanted: “I can’t remember, were you into Canada geese? Is it significant? These hundreds on the beach?” before concluding, in what is perhaps the most tragic, horrid lyric in an album full of punches below the belt and throttled screams into the void, “I don’t remember / You did my remembering for me.” Yikes.
It’s the selfishness of the album, the willingness to relinquish commercial concerns, or concerns of narratological identification, in deference to raw, visceral, unique emotion that A Crow draws its considerable emotional heft. Elverum here is a man irrecoverable and incomplete, and he makes no bones about it. There are occasional punctuating spots of… well, light is the wrong word, but future at least (most obviously in “Soria Moria”, cleverly pirouetting from addressing Genevieve into addressing his daughter) but it’s small consolation. If it weren’t for this minute ray, one imagines Elverum withering and dying on the spot.
Genevieve’s looming spectre hangs over the album like a Sword of Damocles, to such an extent the album feels like a posthumous autobiography: “You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you” says so much about her character, who she was, that the corresponding savagery of “Chemo had ravaged and transformed your porcelain into some other thing, something jaundiced and fucked” feels like an aberration of nature, which Elverum has now eschewed: “I reject nature,” he says forcefully, the only time on the album he sounds properly acid-tongued.
So it’s a selfish, painfully unwelcoming, often utterly horrible listening experience; why, then, has it enthralled and comforted so many? I suspect – and this is only conjecture – that people come into this album and realise that they themselves are grieving, even if they may not know what for, the source buried under layers of self-preservation or willful ignorance; in a life full of ruptured relationships, deceased dogs buried with tears under plum trees, opportunities not taken or missed: perhaps we are all grieving. Another quote, this time from “Isaiah Berlin”: “We are doomed to choose, and each choice necessarily entails irreparable loss.” Yes, we are all grieving, and somehow despite it all Elverum tries to do our grieving for us. It will never work, but at least someone is willing to try. –Winesburgohio
6. Converge – The Dusk in Us
In the opening song of The Dusk In Us, “A Single Tear”, Jacob Bannon apprehensively whimpers “When I held you for the first time / I knew I had to survive” and then again, the second time gnashing at each word. It’s from that point we see a perspective change from Bannon. He’s not some scrappy punk spouting half-baked platitudes. He’s not the storyteller that had us all embroiled in the case of a Jane Doe. He’s a father, cognizant that the world around his son is on fire. It’s a role he embraces well, and as a result, The Dusk In Us feels like Bannon passing down his way of life, what he sees in the world, and how to survive the flames. “There’s monsters among us / And at dawn they’ll go with the last shred of hope / Someday it’ll change, or so they say / Just bide your time and try to alive” he croons in the title track, moments before it breaks into sludgy rapture. Ballou, Newton and Koller pull off their usual histrionics – the Slayer-esque velocity of “Broken by Lights”‘s latter half feels ripped from When Forever Comes Crashing, and “Wildlife” draws from the armamentarium of flashy musicianship that’s defined the band for the last decade – but with even moreso atmospheric ruminations that complement Bannon’s somber musings. It’s a different kind of heaviness, pensive, and more palpably weighty than we’re used to, yet finessed just as we’ve come to expect from the band at this point. And that’s what is the most impressive thing about this album; whether it’s Bannon’s more contemplative tone or the rhythm section’s grimy crawl, Converge is a band of standards, refusing to release anything that falls short of them. It’s what’s given us a pantheon of classic albums, a shortlist that The Dusk In Us easily belongs on. –TheSpirit
5. The National – Sleep Well Beast
To say The National have been riding out a champion hot streak is at best an understatement, with the Cincinnati outfit entering the year atop four back-to-back albums of stately indie that all slinked effortlessly into that hallowed space of critical praise and public reverence. Sleep Well Beast continues that modest Midas touch. By turns patiently elegant and lushly boisterous, The National introduce a little brawn into their brand of gracile chamber pop, morphing what was previously a hushed plea into highly sophisticated rage. They take on the infinitely flawed state, melancholy in the metropolis, middle-aged isolation and their by-now standard gamut of love and loss, keeping a delicate synth-laden mood throughout. The namesake song in particular sees the band crest their own ambition, a restrained show of jittery ambiance and clattering percussion telling of a pretty world gone askew. It’s arguable whether Beast is singular or strong enough to upend the zeniths they’d reached for on previous records, but that lofty goal, whether achieved or not, takes little away from the fact that The National have crafted yet another collection of sheer beauty, tenderly dexterous poetics and gold sounds full of indelible sparks. –butcherboy
4. Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile To The Surface
Interesting to note how a record picked and prodded for its homogeneity has left Manchester Orchestra’s fanbase (at least on this site) in splinters and shards. I see it: the production is washed-out, swallowing the minutiae with reverb, like a lens focusing on the foreground and blurring whatever lurks in the back. This is a rock album, after all, and Manchester Orchestra are proffering you an opera of quotidian bullshit, and you will lose your problems in it, and you will like it, thank you very much.
Hull, especially on this album, is all about uncertainty, about growing into traditional notions of success but still feeling uncomfortable in them – like they’re hand-me-down clothes. He’s stabilised his family and his career, but they’re touchstones that still feel meant for somebody else. Well, naturally, pertinent and unyielding themes will bleed into the songwriting process, and Andy Hull cannot – will not – tear himself away from the melodramatic. I don’t listen to this often. At times, it’s unrelenting, histrionic, and despite the fact you couldn’t even reach bedrock if you clawed through a hundred layers of guitar, the album isn’t for large, head-banging audiences. Thematically, these are songs that don’t need to be let out of their cages, songs that are scared of taking wrong turns; less speak your piece, more hold your peace.
Which is ironic, I think; Hull may not be able to completely embrace the life he’s living, but this album about struggling with the idea of conviction plays out with such conviction that I feel like a voyeur. “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m going anyways” – so begins “The Grocery”, and trust Hull to position a story about a murder-suicide in between two love letters to his family. What a sign of a troubled/ing mind, to tell a tragedy with a rock song while reconciling it with your own problems in one way or another. I imagine Hull asking, “Did I just say that out loud?” after reading some of these lyrics. Yes, Andy, you did. Very loudly, in fact. –verdant
3. Gang of Youths – Go Farther in Lightness
A stubborn old man with a stubborn old schedule would make his way to his stubborn old newsagent once a week, and with a huff and a sigh, he’d place a few stubborn old dollars on a stubborn old counter. His eyes would glaze over for a couple of seconds as a clerk would make the critical exchange; one machine would clank and rattle his stubborn old change into obscurity and another would whir an obedient new ticket into existence. Of course, this ticket was far from obedient 99.9% of the time, and with every blank cheque came an increase in mental debt. However, the stubborn old man, being stubborn (and old), held onto his ticket with the same stubborn old vigour he did the week before and the week before that, hope in his eyes that this might be the one. And, well, it was.
And less than a year later, his obedient new ticket was a stubborn old blank cheque and he was back to the stubborn old newsagent, repeating the same motions but with a lot less vigour. In a way, I sort of feel Go Farther In Lightnesswas wasted on me. I was hopeful in it, and it delivered. The fortunes of its goodness seemed near limitless: the way Le’aupepe dictated his tremulous faith, the way melody and timbre would dance with and around each other, the way it made me feel; I’d been locked into a trance by something bigger than me and it was stunning. It followed me everywhere I went. Gang of Youths were the soundtrack to my 2017, proclaiming life in the midst of turmoil and relentlessly pursuing humanity, for better or for worse. I took this album across the country. It graced every audio-generating device I could invite it to and the words of Le’aupepe’s fractured mind were always on my lips.
And less than a year later, my triumphant musical fortune has been reduced to noise, and I’m back on the hunt for something, anything, that’ll treat me as well as Go Farther In Lightness did. Gang of Youths didn’t let me down. My lack of foresight and self-inflicted desensitisation let them down. And while I might never be able to stand dazzled, indulging in the presence of this record like I once did, I could never call Go Farther In Lightness anything less than the most important album experience I had in 2017. –cryptologous
2. The Menzingers – After the Party
There’s a lot to be said of After the Party. Not only are The Menzingers acutely self-aware, they’re also capable of immense restraint. To write an album lamenting the disease of aging in an increasingly unfamiliar world, all the while playing a straight-forward rendition of the pop punk that saturated the band’s youth seems almost like an oxymoron. As bands typically tend to do as they “mature”, they also ‘mature’ their songwriting. As though there’s some kind of fucked up sense of dignity they need to develop, make things more grandiose, or special, or different. The Menzingers believe no such thing. They break out the gate with melodic guitar licks, bouncy rhythms and an anthem for an entire generation of regretful thirty-somethings with no idea what the fuck they’re doing. “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” is the chant Greg Barnett strings along throughout the entirety of opening track “Tellin’ Lies”, setting the tone for the rest of the album which, as a whole, continues the band’s general theme of bona-fide classics with unforgettable hooks, choruses, and the balance of more sombre, reflective passages. They’re no longer young, dumb, and full of cum. No, boys. You’re older, intelligent, and full of cum. –Astral Abortis
1. Brand New – Science Fiction
Jesse Lacey is a man who is clearly troubled but very unwilling to shoulder the blame for his wrongdoings. Despite the transgressions of Lacey, and the disappointment felt that an icon had abused his privilege and position, Science Fiction brought Brand New’s career to a relatively satisfying, if not sullied, end. If the band’s material prior to Science Fiction was interpreted as bleak, Science Fiction transcends Lacey’s depressive lyricism for some of the best songwriting he’s ever put to tape — whether by making its dues in appropriately sending off the band in fine fashion, or by sounding a solemn requiem for them by way of self-reference, or by crafting bold epics that never let up their emotively-destructive pathos. In its own obsession with intricate musical composition and personal turmoil, Science Fiction finds ways to let its own flaws shine through its melancholic confines whilst its greatest strengths become obvious immediately. In Brand New’s self-destruction, Science Fiction was intended to be the end of a storied career – one that had followed the band and the various demons that had occupied Jesse Lacey’s writings. But what was once the ending many bands would kill to have became a living nightmare. A band once adored for their down-to-earth honesty and gripping songwriting will forever be synonymous with the wrongdoings of one person, and that’s quite unfortunate for the others involved and now complicit, to say the least. That’s life for you, I suppose. –Frippertronics