2017 was a fantastic year for music. It's interesting to look back on every year to see how my music tastes have evolved. I have constantly kept a list of favorites of every year as each year finishes. Some developments are more surprising than others, but there are some consistencies in my life that are eye-rollingly predictable. I will be posting more Top 10s of each year soon, but for now here are some of my favorite albums of 2017 and a lil' review for each. Enjoy.
10. The Shins - Heartworms
James Mercer is in the pantheon of modern indie rockers who have consistently produced great indie music. From Oh, Inverted World to Heartworms he has maintained a certain zany sound and lyrics dripping with wit. As Mercer ages, his music and albums also mature but still somehow maintain that youthful sound and feel.
While previously, The Shins' songwriting would consist of clever wordplay. But in Heartworms, they balance more mature themes of nostalgia, regret, and longing for youth, while continuing their signature sound without wavering. This is the draw to The Shins. They are the most consistently great indie-pop band out there.
This album is a solid journey of music. It opens up with "Name for You", an oddly touching, but incredibly catchy track dedicated to Mercer's daughter; it seems almost a nod to other parent-child odes like Cat Stevens' "Wild World". The album continues on an indie-pop high until "Mildenhall", arguably their best track Heartworms that harkens back to their Chutes Too Narrow days. Mercer stops the poppy goodness to reflect on his youth at an air base in Mildenhall. "The Fear" is the perfect conclusion to this feel-great album - a two-chord anthem of middle-aged wisdom. Mercer sings about all the "stupid things a man could feel", wishing "if only I had sense enough / to let it give way to love".
This album is wiser, familiar, and a perfect indication that James Mercer has not lost touch with his earlier gifts.
9. Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now
Jens Lekman is an indie musician (I guess?) from Sweden and is no stranger to the reality of life. He sings about heartbreak, the loss of a friend, and other difficulties commonly found in everyday life. In 2009, during a somewhat ritualistic freshman year hard-drive dump, I received Lekman’s full discography (at the time), but it wasn’t until 2017 where I really got to experience Jens on a more intimate level.
What makes this album stand out to me is the seriousness of his lyrics coupled with some of the most cheerful pop, composed primarily with samples seeping with joy. In the opening track, “Know Your Mission”, he longs to have meaning in life, to know his purpose much like the Mormon missionaries who spoke to him when he was a teenager. The following track, “Evening Prayer”, is all about a friend who is struggling with cancer, but it is juxtaposed with an infectious scat melody. “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” tackles the heartbreaking memories associated with particular scents - unwelcome sadness that hits suddenly. But this too plays out like tropical house that makes you want to both dance and cry. In “How We Met, The Long Version” he even comically explains how the world and universe was created, how man became to be, and how societies grew and fell, which eventually led to the moment where “one day I asked if I could borrow your bass guitar … and that’s the story of how we met”. This is some real ernest stuff.
Meanwhile, Lekman is also recognized as an interesting lyricist. His lyrics are sung kind of like a string of thoughts, rhythm secondary to the rhyme. But it’s these lyrics together with his music production that make this album such a delight.
8. Fazerdaze - Morningside
Before writing this review-lette, I really knew nothing about Fazerdaze, other than that I really loved their music. Hailing from New Zealand, Fazerdaze is the project of singer-songwriter Amelia Murray, who combines fuzzy rock with catchy hooks and joyful energy.
She opens the album with the lovely track “Last to Sleep”, which exhibits her anxieties and uncertainty as a young adult. Her hopeful rhythm guitars are strummed in bliss, while the mono synth-lead syncopates in familiarity of better memories. Murray follows this up with “Lucky Girl”, a crunchy acoustic pop song with contradictory feelings of apathy and gratitude as she bellows “I know I’m a lucky girl / I’m a lucky, lucky girl” in a hook that’s incredibly addicting. "Misread" is a more rugged of a track that feels like Sleater-Kinney performing inside the London Underground. And finally, “Shoulder” is a track that feels like that fuzzy state between dreaming and waking up where time seems to stop, which is the best way to describe the aesthetic of the album as a whole.
Her music is something that doesn’t feel real, but it exists in this realm of dreams and memories. She is succinct in her lyrics and simple in her song craft, but it’s perfect.
7. Sam O.B. - Positive Noise
This is a later addition to my list, but a strong contender for my favorite albums. I literally know nothing about this musician other than he is from Brooklyn and he makes some smooth jams. This album is equals parts soft jazz, yacht rock, dance-till-you-die synthwave, and martinis-at-the-cabana lounge tunes.
"Common Ground" is a track that celebrates the beauty in the fire of individuality. Sam O.B. somehow combines the feel of a 1970s TV show intro with a pre-chorus guitar melody that feels straight out of a commercial for your local grocer. It's odd but it works beautifully. There are certain moments in this album that bring a huge smile to my face. One of those moments is in the intro to "Revolve" where it literally sounds like I am playing Donkey Kong Country. Anyone who knows me well also knows that this is a compliment of the highest regard. He continues the album with the perfectly timed "Samurai" where the chord synth pads are played like a Dave Matthews Band live jam. I can't really explain it other than the bass-line and the chords are timed so peculiarly that it shines wonderfully. "Salt Water", "Sirens", and "Midnight Blue" are also some fine tunes that could go without saying.
The album ends with the epic "237 AM", an ambitious but sexy track of saxophone solos, heavily modulated electric pianos, and jazzy beats. "I want your love / I want your lovin' baby", Sam repeats for almost eight minutes as it crescendos (or should I say climaxes?) into a sax solo that belts out from a bygone time of chic excess.
Positive Noise truly is some positive noise.
6. Broken Social Scene - Hug of Thunder
From 2001 to 2008, the golden age of indie rock reigned supreme. Bands like Arcade Fire, The Shins, Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse, Wilco, and Death Cab for Cutie all wrote some of their best stuff during this period. Some of them have come and gone, others have been more or less consistent. Like The Shins, Broken Social Scene has been fairly constant with their bombastic sound.
Hug of Thunder was a breath of fresh air. After a decade of mainstream indie-rock saturation, it was nice to hear an album from one of the bands that started it all. Many people are familiar with their track "Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl". Although soft and relaxing, that is not Broken Social Scene. They are loud, energetic, and fun as hell. Their debut You Forgot It In People is the perfect example of their wild energy. Almost 15 years later, Kevin Drew, the frontman, still has it. At age 41, he has proved to the indie rock scene that he has not outgrown the genre.
Hug of Thunder opens with "Sol Luna", a quiet instrumental intro that preps the listener for the storm ahead. "Halfway Home" then kicks into a wild barrage of sound and percussion that perfectly embodies the sonic spirit of Broken Social Scene.
This album is their most political and pointed to date. While earlier they might have celebrated life generally and strummed their guitars with their amps turned to 11. Now they continue that aesthetic, but instead it's much more sincere. We have band-member Emily Haines begging "We're the latest in the longest rank and file list ever to exist in the history of the protest song".
5. Washed Out - Mister Mellow
Washed Out’s Mister Mellow is a pretty far departure from his usual dreamy chillwave aesthetic. Instead of an ethereal sound, he strives for psychedelic freak-wave, worshiping the imaginative, inebriated mind rather than great-feeling wonder. To put it bluntly, Mister Mellow is a not-so-subtle love letter to the blunt. I find this absolutely hilarious as I read song titles like “Burn Out Blues”, “Instant Calm”, “Floating By”, and the aptly named “Zonked”.
Mister Mellow is a short album, clocking in at 29 minutes, but it’s a conceptual piece of work accompanied by a visual release. The vibe of this album feels exactly like the album art - a sort of synesthetic experience of light and sound jumbled with seemingly random objects that would only make sense in a hallucinogenic trip. Ernest Greene, the sole musician behind Washed Out, somehow generates a sonic exposé of browns and yellows, combining lounge-house elements, trip-hop, and borrowed aspects of the chillwave subgenre he fathered into existence.
“Floating By” is a particularly special track, as we listen in to a pitch-shifted and stressed-out Nine-to-Fiver that just “need[s] something to get me through / I want to clear my head”. Greene than sings “While the world is out there stressing / I’ll be floating by” like some sort of distant phantom of your subconscious. He then repeats the vocal track in an almost staccato upsurge that builds up to a climactic high followed by an infectious down-beat. “Hard to Say Goodbye” is another psychedelic experience with samples of jazz piano, jazz bass, and some sort of disco orchestra. This is all conformed together with a ghostly vocal sample of “ba-ba-ba’s” that tries hard to elicit emotion but it is drowned in a druggie's dipsomania.
Greene finishes his album with the track “Million Miles Away” that seems to harken back to his Paracosm and Within and Without days. It’s slow, other-worldly, and patient. He mumbles his way through the lyrics, establishing him back into the forefront of his chillwave movement. Who needs spas when you have Washed Out.
4. Real Estate - In Mind
Real Estate is an indie rock band that popped up after its genre’s golden age, but they have never tried to be anything more than what they are: a quintet of guitars, bass, keys, and drums. They are simple, but not arrogant. They are light, but not overly “chill, dude”. They are melodious, but not exactly catchy. Listening to their whole discography, from their self-titled Real Estate in 2009 to In Mind from last year, one will learn that their style is always pleasant and never stale. They have proven over and over again that they are here to make music and chew bubble gum. And they’re all out of bubble gum.
In Mind feels like a continuation of the Real Estate sound but with some needed deviations. It opens up with their darling track “Darling”, a beautiful mix of soft synthesizers, clean electric guitars riffs, and a gentle drum beat tapping away at a constantly shifting time signature. This is a song I can always listen to, no matter the mood or month. The album continues on with “Stained Glass”, which feels like their homage to earlier alt-rockers like The Vines when they knew how to calm down. “Two Arrows” particularly stands out from the rest. It begins with the usual Real Estate blueprint, but then it builds on the same minor-key riff for a solid four minutes until it abruptly ends at its loudest point. I can’t help to immediately recognize their “I Want You” Beatles inspiration in the outro department.
Real Estate’s In Mind isn’t so much about the themes or the lyrics, but rather the song craft. About 80 percent of the tracks on In Mind were demoed to each other via the Voice Memos app, and then they all collaborated in the structure and performance of each track. Real Estate truly calls back to the rock of the 60s and 70s, a time where talented musical groups are still revered and referenced.
3. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
In terms of my musical growth, 2016 was a year of deep diving into hip hop. I grew to absolutely drool over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid m.A.A.d city. And then in April of 2017, on my way to see him live, Lamar drops DAMN., a high concept album of death, desire, and redemption. DAMN. is an incredibly journey of coupled contradictions as he begs you the question “Is it wickedness? / Is it weakness? / You decide / Are we gonna die?”
The album is book-ended with death, both in “BLOOD.” and in “DUCKWORTH.”, but each is a result of two different paths of life. One path is a life of frivolity and going against the commandments of God, and the other is falling into a life of weakness and helplessness. You can even listen to the album in reverse order and you as the listener can decide on the fate of Lamar's inevitable death.
In the intense and angry “DNA.”, he holds an argument against himself about his own heritage and its own conflicts within it, as it transitions out of a horrendous audio clip from Fox News quoting his own work and then detesting that “hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”. He then continues “Tell me somethin’ / you motherafuckas can’t tell me nothin’ / I’d rather die than to listen to you / My DNA not for imitation” while the most chaotic slew of beats ensue.
The whole album is crafted so perfectly. The tracks "LOVE." and "LUST.", "PRIDE." and "HUMBLE.", all respective opposites, are positioned next to each other to create a sense of disagreement - playing both sides of his own duplicities. This only adds to the dichotomy of an already symbolically packed album. I don't have any more space here to explain how DAMN. is a piece of great American art from an artist who is trying his best to change the unfair world he sees around him.
2. Imaginary Tricks - Skommel
Imaginary Tricks was perhaps my most serendipitous stumble-upon during my daily music discoveries. Their album Skommel is an absolutely joyous album where every track feels like a single. While the album art really struggles, Imaginary Tricks is confident in their sonic image, playing each track with vigor and gaiety.
The album opens up with "Mr. Big Idea", a rather particular track whose repetitive hook repeats in your head throughout the day. They slow things down with "Seeing Two", a droning tale of a song that really focuses on atmosphere rather than actual songwriting. "Lights Out" is a dark and eery single of hi-hat frenzies. Its chorus feels almost like a B-side to an Animal Collective album. They lighten things up with their absolutely wonderful tracks "Night Owl" and "Bird, the two fowls of the album that are a constant call-back whenever you are in the mood for some great nondenominational independent rock. "No Ordinary Guy" almost sounds like the beginning of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" but then things get really weird when they sing "Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Doug. My name is Doug." What follows next is a pleasant description of the singer's heritage (perhaps real or fictitious).
To be absolutely honest, I can't really compare this band to any other band out there. They are solely unique. The singer's voice is so other-worldly, with the range of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! but with a hint of Thom Yorke. Please listen to this album and please support this band. They have the potential to explode, but for now they've got 5,000 plays per track on Spotify.
1. Hoops - Routines
Fuzzy cassette-tapes and thrift store film cameras on a sunny day. Routines is an album of lo-fi psych-pop that can lift you out of the sludge of routine; an album that celebrates the good times. Hailing from Bloomington, Indiana, Hoops borrows the best parts of Ariel Pink, Mac DeMarco, and Mild High Club in an all-out, hazy, and cassette-soaked reverie.
I absolutely adore every song on this album. "Sun's Out" opens up Routines with a pitchless synthesizer, a simple drum beat, a catchy bassline, an acoustic guitar, and finally a heavily-effected lead guitar that all build upon each other to set the atmospheric precedent of the album. "Rules" definitely feels like it can fit in with Ariel Pink's pom pom, without Pink's psychotic vocals. "On Top" hooks you in with an incredibly charming lead guitar riff, which oozes optimism with every plucked delay. They even have a track entitled "Benjals", which doesn't require any other explanation other than a hyperlink. During "On Letting Go", the frontman reminds you that "I don't write love songs", which seems like a pessimistic thing to state, but there is no cynicism on display here. Even if there are moments of down-on-your-luck sadness, their elated sound helps them reconcile any negativity and move forward.
Routines is a highly addictive album. It's one of those rare musical productions where when it's over, there is little hesitation to flip the tape back to side-A and rewind. Hoops reaches back to a simpler, more hopeful time with its musical style. Its tinny, cassette ambience is not overdone to the point of eye-rolling cliché, but rather Hoops uses this obscure, vintage sound and runs with it.