For most, the world at large didn’t bring a dumpster full of warm and fuzzies in 2017. I’m certainly not going to provide a laundry list of the toxic-smoke-billowing dump fire of political, economic and cultural atrocities that hogged the headlines this year. But as steady as taxes, death and raccoons, 2017 gave us a lot of amazing art. From the ambitious TV production of Margaret Atwood’s, Handmaid’s Tale, to the dramatic photography of Stephanie Keith, it was the ripple effect of American politics that coloured the canvases, both figurative and literal, this year. And while we fix our best thoughts and focus our actions on improving upon the small gains made, here’s one humble music editor’s very personally-attuned list of his favourite music that came out in this last year of turmoil. It feels impossible to number them bestest to the best, so I started with my number one and then listed the rest as honourable mentions.
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
This was hotly anticipated by yours truly. I admit to thinking that Josh Tillman in FJM form is by far the greatest and most interesting songwriter of the teenage years of the 2000s. As Tillman moved from depressive folkie to self-loathing hipster majordomo, the biting hilarity and shocking honesty that Father John Misty delivered was a brand new varnish on a quasi-throwback sound. First with the brilliantly disjointed Fear Fun, followed by 2015’s true-love reality-show concept album, I Love You Honeybear, Tillman finally found not just the delivery and voice but the band to soundtrack his phobias and desires. This year’s Pure Comedy, may have felt like remnant romance pieces jammed together with a state of affairs (and affairs ain’t great) documentary, but that would be the result of a shallow surface scan. Below the meniscus, Pure Comedy holds some of Tillman’s finest words in an embrace with his and producer, Jonathan Wilson’s most coherent and thoughtful instrumentation. The songs are painted with delicate strings, aural collage and noise and uplifting chorale voices that anchor Tillman’s lyrics about our inevitably bleak future. He bares all in the 13-minute Leaving LA, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar with Gavin Byers leading the strings. Despite being tinted by various shades of grey, the album forces you to remember that ‘each other’s all we got’. The album ends with another fragment of Tillman dragging you into his life and his love, but this time to blanket you in his life’s love. Saying that it’s stunning isn’t hyperbole. But the depths of the misunderstanding of Father John Misty have sadly kept this album off many similar lists. My pick off this album changed week to week, but one that sustained perhaps most was the gorgeous, So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain.
White Sea- Tropical Odds
Composer and singer, Morgan Kibby may be best known for her work with M83, but this year she delivered a strong followup to 2014’s In Cold Blood. Tropical Odds as well has enough electropop bangers to keep you dancing with a smile on your face but also has Kibby’s personal tales to showcase her powerful, intense voice. Dealing with her breakup from M83, Kibby took time to become a Sundance fellow soundtracking a number of films, winning a Grammy for a co-write with Panic at the Disco and finally, and surprisingly, recording and releasing Tropical Odds. Kibby wears her heart on her sleeve for this album with deeply personal lyrics and overwhelmingly emotional synths and beats. Have a listen to Gangster No. 1
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Few year-end lists will not contain this album, so apologies for the lack of imagination here. To find no lack of imagination, listen to this album beginning to end. Main man Adam Granduciel spent almost a year and half in the studio putting this gorgeous sounding album together. Every song, every instrument has been sharpened or sanded for a distinct sonic purpose. The drums stand out solely for sounding so damn rich. Each keyboard, guitar and vocal track within and above evoke notions of classic American rock but Granduciel’s breezy, carefree voice reassures that for the duration of the album, it’s all gonna be just fine. In Chains is just one song giving you this feeling.
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium
Weird, symphonic, angular, psychedelic, Sufjantastic, a bit kooky even… Applying descriptors to Planetarium feels like a waste of time. It lives as a singular piece in suites more than an album of tracks. A collaboration between Bryce Dessner of The National, drummer James McAlister, modern classical music composer and arranger Nico Muhly, and singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, Planetarium is simply an album inspired by the solar system. Yet simplifying it is purposeless. For a contemporary piece of conceptual classical music, this album adds to it aural elements you’d expect from a combo of Dessner and Stevens. Jupiter, may be the loneliest planet, it’s also my fave off this album.
Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Austin’s Spoon and big Spoon, Britt Daniel have been riding the vanguard of indie rock for the last couple decades and have found a stable of famous fans. This album is a return to what Spoon do best – indie rock jams to make hips swing and toes tap. A big reason Spoon garner the attention they do is because they’ve never been a bummer. There’s no room for indie drear among all these hooks. Hot Thoughts starts just this way, with the beat-led title track. But your humble editor’s favourite is the second track, WhisperI’lllistentohearit.
Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
This is a tough one based on the inexcusably meatheaded actions of Josh Homme kicking a photographer’s camera into her face in on Dec. 9. The man obviously needs to do some personal work. Artistically, the Mark Ronson-produced, Villains was a solid release in 2017. QOTSA’s musical output has largely been an inconsistent mash of slinky riff rock under Homme’s subtle vocals that aren’t afraid to sit in the falsetto. With a strong start in 1998 and several average albums following, Villains is the closest to a return to the era of Rated R and Songs for the Deaf that fans have heard in a while. Editor fave is Fortress. Hey, Homme, get your shit together in 2018.
Perfume Genius – No Shape
Your humble editor must start this one with an apology. I saw Perfume Genius open for Sigur Ros at the Skyline Stage in Philadelphia back in 2012. My unfair comment was something along the lines of “Perfume Genius makes (another twee target of mine back then) the Decembrists sound like Cannibal Corpse”. Gladly, I was surprised when I heard Wreath and realized that I was way too quick to judge Mike Hadreas as over-emotional and boring. He released his fifth and arguably best album to date under the Perfume Genius moniker with this year’s No Shape. There isn’t a weak song on this. Yes, it’s introspective and emotional and it’s moody and beautiful. Hadreas’ voice holds power in its softness as he accompanies himself on keyboard and allows a number of different styles of supporting instrumentation. Again, Mike, I apologize and await your next album. I’m giving it a 9.5/10 just ’cause.
Mt. Wolf – Aetherlight
UK trio, Mt. Wolf released Aetherlight, their first full length album in 2017. Descriptors such as anthemic, soundtrackesque and haunting are apt. Vocally, singer Sebastian Fox is impassioned and hymnal. Much of the music is a base of sustaining strings or synths with Stevie McMinn’s often-acoustic guitar and and Al Mitchell’s orchestral drums above. At times, it’s repetitive like chants of mantras. But each song is always building before hitting a crescendo. Defining their genre is hard and it’s a mouthful to refer to Mt. Wolf as a secular hymnal electro-acoustic indie-pop band. Just have a listen here and judge for yourself. Sip tea, if that’s your thing.
London Grammar – Truth Is A Beautiful Thing
Nottingham’s London Grammar had a huge year in 2013. Their sophomore release If You Wait, took them around the world and blew them up more than they imagined. Vocalist Hannah Reid made mention that the band was fairly worn down following this time. After a decent rest, the band got back to work and recorded Truth Is A Beautiful Thing. Loosely described as a ‘relationship with the road’ album, it’s a leap forward from the synth-pop/dream pop sound the band introduced in their debut. I will put out my usual descriptors (you get a sense of the music I love) of cinematic, expansive and yet still carrying a pop sensibility. For me, Bones of Ribbon is a track I could leave on repeat all day.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell is part of a new, important pack of country artists along with (his old band) Drive-By Truckers, Justin Townes Earle and Sturgill Simpson. Where most modern country artists are a formulaic mess of bland party tunes for people who secretly don’t like music, Isbell is among the new guard of country artists who look to classic country artists for sound and soul but apply modern themes to the genre. Though more ‘country’ than ‘alt’, there’s no “shakin’ yer moneymaker” plop. The Nashville Sound discusses anxiety, sobriety, America under Trump and parenthood – all autobiographical topics of Isbell’s. As well, the man can write a love song about his muse, wife, bandmate and another artist among the new troubadours of alt-country, Amanda Shires. He also can write a rocker reminiscent of the heydays of Springsteen and Petty. Hope the High Road is just one song that falls into this class.
Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Sadly, I only have a paragraph to write about Aimee Mann. On the positive side, she released another brilliant album. Aimee Mann is well known as one of a handful of singer/songwriters who truly are the cream in their species. Few artists can convey an idea within a four-minute story like Mann can. 2012’s @#%&*! Smilers, had its fan favourites but was considered less than strong. Mann bounced back with 2015’s Charmer, which moved the sound from guitar more toward keyboard. Last year’s Mental Illness, goes from strength to strength. A mellower album in instrumentation, Mann invited friends Ted Leo and Jonathan Coulton to contribute. As Aimee Mann does, each of the 11 songs on this album are musical novellas that manage to complete by the fadeout. The chimy ethereal opener, Goose Snow Cone is a standout.
Belle Game – Fear/Nothing
Finishing my list is one that few readers have likely heard. Released on Arts & Crafts and produced by BSS shot caller, Kevin Drew, Fear/Nothing is the debut release of Vancouver’s Belle Game. Self-described by the band as ‘crush-pop’, the focal point has to be the perfect voice of singer, Andrea Lo. Throaty, then falsetto with a sweet natural vibrato, at times evoking Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. The music is layered but at times, delightfully dense with wall of rumble synth bass and powerful drums. Adding sustaining pads partnered with complimentary guitar, there’s so much to hear time and time again on these tracks. Unlike other artists that fall into this dreamy brand of pop, Belle Game is not a band to throw on for atmosphere. They’re inignorable and demanding of attention. Listen to Spirit to understand.