The frustrations of politics and an almost daily parade of shameful antics by our elected officials made music an even more important outlet for me in 2017 than it usually is, and that’s saying a lot. Neither the internet nor television nor even the movies could entirely escape from commentary on our political moment, and though there is more than a fair amount of worthy political commentary in music today, few of my favorites here seemed to be aiming for Guthrie-esque relevance. I’m not saying that social commentary is unworthy of inclusion here, just that I was looking more for a “safe place” in the music I listened to during the past year. So that’s one caveat.
Another, and this is not unrelated to the first, is that I’m not one to jump on trends or who feels the need to identify the most modern new sounds first. In short, I’m no hipster and don’t pretend to be one. Whether this ends up making my selections more mainstream is perhaps best for you to decide, but my intent here is less to inform you of what’s “cool” and more to suggest an X if you also happen to like a Y among this list. Lists like these are made to argue over, of course, but the accessibility of streaming options makes it easy to sample widely and diversely, and I hope my list leads you to some of the joy I found listening to these albums. Here are my picks for the best music of the year.
I had more fun listening to this record than any other new release in 2017. The lyrics are clever and sharp, the music is fast, and the band, which has been around since 1994, has never sounded better or more in command of its talent. I laughed in delight the first time I listened to this; very few bands are capable of transferring their live energy to a studio recording, but this album seems to be taking shape just as you hear it. It’s energetic, funny, and lean.
The xx, “I See You”
Like everyone else, I was first caught by the slightly distorted sample of Hall & Oates that marks the lead single from this album, “On Hold.” There was that initial moment of confused recognition — “Is that what I think it is?” — followed by the persistence of Jamie xx’s hypnotic beat. And then the voice, seemingly detached but expressing a yearning and sadness that is itself compelling: how could this not be a hit? The rest of the songs on the album don’t need the gimmick of a sample. The alternating voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim create a varied soundscape that lures you in and takes you places Hall & Oates never could.
Beck Hansen’s latest combines about 18 months’ worth of recording into a seamless pop album with most of the songs displaying Beck’s familiar wordplay and glossy production values that are as bright and appealing as the primary colors the album itself was presented on in its vinyl editions. Though a few songs reflect Beck’s state of mind, the vast majority of the record is gleefully devoid of any meaning or context, submitting fully to the pleasures of the dumb pop song. Wow!
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound“
The title tells you what Isbell and his band are going for: a return to a more traditional country sound than has been heard on Isbell’s previous records. That doesn’t mean the guitars lose any of their emphasis, but the lyrics here are more contemplative, further demonstrating Isbell’s ability to appeal to both heart and mind. He tackles some big subjects here: mortality, addiction, and even white privilege. But the music is anything but ponderous.
Father John Misty, “Pure Comedy”
Another album that tackled big subjects, the former Fleet Foxes drummer offers songs that veer from sardonic critiques of human behavior to melancholic, sorrowful accounts of the consequences of human behavior. Father John (a.k.a. Josh Tillman) has a unique sensibility formulated in part by being raised in an Evangelical Christian household. His commentary on organized religion in songs like the title track is pointed and chilly, but the sounds are rich and enveloping. What else is music for?
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “Soul of a Woman”
It’s been more than a year now since Sharon Jones died of pancreatic cancer, and the awareness of her impending death prompted this recording, one that shows no sign of weakness in Jones’ voice or in the dynamic accompaniment by the Dap-Kings. This is an R&B album that goes down fighting. I am not usually one for gospel music, but if hearing “Call on God,” the song that closes this album, doesn’t stir something inside you, you are beyond help.
St. Vincent, “Masseduction”
In the ten years since Annie Clark began her solo career, she has become bolder, more innovative, and seemingly louder than ever. Her creative flowering has been exhilarating to watch, and her latest album pushes all kinds of buttons; she leaves nothing off the table in terms of subject matter while managing to maintain a performance style that is unique and engaging. This is great rock and roll in the tradition of Bowie, the Talking Heads, and even Gary Numan.
Ryan Adams, “Prisoner”
There was a period in the mid-2000s when it seemed as if Adams would succumb to the easy pattern of recording bland alt-country with his band, The Cardinals, forever churning out an endless cycle of the same album. But luckily, about three or four years ago, Adams decided to play rock guitar again, and his sad-dad compositions changed to Henley-like pronouncements of adulthood (without the ego). Now he’s got a broken heart, and when Adams suffers, his music gets much, much better.
Arcade Fire, “Everything Now“
This is a polarizing band. I haven’t met anyone who is ambivalent about them. They are either loved or hated. I’m decidedly in the “love” column, especially in regard to their theme albums. This time, they’re going on about capitalism and consumerism, and most of the songs here are written as sugary pop songs that filter into your brain and do annoying things there. Get it? They wrote a bunch of annoying pop songs to critique the culture that produces annoying pop songs!
Chastity Belt, “I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone”
Ultimately, rock and roll is designed to make you feel. It can be fun or gloomy or childish or bitter, and this band of young women can do all of it, if not at once then certainly all on the same record. They sound like everything they do is for the fun of playing in a rock band, and it’s infectious as hell. They keep getting better, and they’re going to be big any day now.
Best soundtrack: “Baby Driver”
This two-disc compilation has old R&B, pop, punk, rock, and two songs about Debra. And they’re not the same songs on nostalgia soundtrack exercises like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Stranger Things” that you’ve already heard a million times. These are nuggets, deep tracks, and shoulda-been hits, put together like the best mixtape you ever got.
Best reissue: The Beatles, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band“
I listen to most of my CDs on an old, beat-up Sony boombox. It is not a high-end piece of stereo equipment. But the mixing of this 50th anniversary edition of the Beatles classic is so good, so vivid, that I literally jumped when I heard it come out of the speakers. The sound of this is phenomenal, whether you’re a new fan or if you’ve memorized every note. And if you are a fan, spring for the four-CD edition: There is a lot of amazing music here.