By the end of last year, we were all ready for a break, for a stop to the constant waves of news and destruction. We didn’t get that in 2017; instead, we got the never-ending sea.
Putting together my best albums list, I was struck by how dominated my year in music was by women. That is to say, while some male artists and bands released good, even great, albums, few felt essential. Usually new releases by The National or Fleet Foxes or LCD Soundsystem would define the season; in 2017, they were enjoyable side dishes but never the main course. (And don’t get me started on Arcade Fire.)
Eight of my 10 top albums are by women or women-led bands. In the year #MeToo took off, it was the defiance, solidarity and humor of artists like Laura Marling, Diet Cig, Overcoats and Big Thief that most resonated. Theirs were the stories we needed to hear, for certain, but they were also the most sonically adventurous, the most willing to take risks.
Even as the outside world continues to overwhelm and overstimulate, this is not time to play it safe — as if it ever were. Like Hurray For The Riff Raff sings, “¡Pa’lante!” Onward.
You can stream songs from all of my top albums of 2017 below.
1. Phoebe Bridgers — Stranger in the Alps
My first hint of Phoebe Bridgers arrived last January. In that month of traumatic readjustment for the country, Bridgers seemed to acknowledge a new state of constant unease. It’s no coincidence “Smoke Signals,” her first single from Stranger In The Alps, references the death of Davie Bowie and Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead.
For this 23-year-old songwriter (just months older than myself), loss is the norm. “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time / that’s just how I feel,” she sings on “Funeral.” Far from being self-absorbed, Bridgers coaxes out layers of resolve and even comedy from that pity and doubt. I missed Bridgers’ debut EP Killer, produced by Ryan Adams, in 2015 but I’m glad I waited. Here “Killer” finds its home between the dryly witty “Scott Street” and the anxiously devotional “Georgia,” as Bridgers straddles her desire for intimacy and fear of that desire.
The whole album is a balancing act, a high-line routine. Bridgers emerges with the same sharpness of detail and self-deprecation as Courtney Barnett (“I have emotional motion sickness / Somebody roll the windows down”) and the same potential for devastation as mentors like Conor Oberst (“I woke up in my childhood bed / Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself / When I remembered someone’s kid is dead”).
I’m reminded of a scene from Lady Bird, itself one of my favorite movies of 2017. A nun tells Lady Bird that her college essay shows how much she loves Sacramento. “I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird responds. The nun looks at her curiously: “Don’t you think they are the same thing?”
Phoebe Bridgers pays attention. We should too.
Must Hear: “Motion Sickness,” “Smoke Signals,” “Scott Street,” “Funeral”
2. Laura Marling — Semper Femina
Finding Laura Marling in 2013, when she released Once I Was An Eagle, must have felt like discovering Joni Mitchell in 1970. Here is a master of folk, her songwriting honed, her voice like no-one else, her ambitions never greater. It’s fitting for this year that Semper Femina is an album devoid of male presence altogether — Marling writes about women, from the perspective of women, revering women.
“She keeps a pen behind her ear / In case she’s got something she really really needs to say / She puts it in a notepad / She’s gonna write a book someday,” Marling sings in “Wild Fire.” One of Marling’s great fascinations, in her music and life, is women’s creativity: Before the release of this album, she hosted a podcast called “Reversal Of The Muse,” interviewing women about their experiences and artistic process.
Marling’s instrumentation has only grown more emboldened over the years. “Soothing,” the album’s first single, slinks along a dual bassline like a detective tip-toeing through shadows. “Don’t Pass Me By,” a personal favorite, uses a drum machine sometimes too slow for the beat, almost tripping over itself. The guitars seem overly-eager, but it’s all a rouse. Something snaps back into place; the chorus descends; the strings gently weep. And for guitar virtuosity, look no further than the breezy “Always Been This Way,” where Marling charts her own independence: “At the end of the day, at least I can say I made my own way / And my debts have been paid.”
Semper Femina comes nowhere near close the rawness and anger of Once I Was An Eagle, but it’s also of different mind. “We love beauty cause it needs us to / It needs our brittle glaze,” Marling sings in “The Valley.” In Semper Femina, beauty is women, always.
Must Hear: “The Valley,” “Don’t Pass Me By,” “Always Been This Way,” “Nothing, Not Nearly”
3. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
Only Kendrick Lamar could come fresh off crafting the most ambitious album in hip-hop, turn around a B-sides collection better than most full rap records the very next year, and then drop DAMN., a morality tale of biblical proportions, the year right after that. Except here, there are no easy answers, no “We gon’ be alright.” Instead, there’s “I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA.”
Compared to the funk-bebop magnitude of To Pimp Of Butterfly, DAMN. almost feels sparse; the air is all taken up by Lamar himself. There are more hits, for certain, but no lack of ambition either. Just a shift in perspective. On TPOB, Lamar wrestles with his newfound fame and what he owes to the black community; on DAMN., it’s what the world owes him. Loyalty. Humility. Love for the sinner.
Lamar wrote DAMN. to play front-to-back or back-to-front, depending on what narrative you want to follow. “Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide,” opens the first track. “Are we gonna live or die?” It depends entirely on how you listen.
Must Hear: “HUMBLE,” “LOVE,” “DNA,” “DUCKWORTH”
4. Overcoats — Young
My usual line to describe the music of Overcoats is thus: “It’s like the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? except on top of EDM beats.” Usually that grabs people’s attention.
I’ll admit, I’ve been following Overcoats since college; Hana Elion and J.J. Mitchell graduated Wesleyan University the year before I did, and played Spring Fling my junior year. Seeing them perform again this fall, in a packed Columbus club rather than a half-empty field, felt like a homecoming anyways.
For a debut, though, Young shows a true proof of concept, much of which comes from the perfect melding of Elion and Mitchell’s voices. It’s most evident on “Hold Me Close,” the dynamic first single, which possesses an instantly classic chorus; think “I’ll Fly Away” by Alison Krauss. “Leave The Light On” could be a bluegrass hit in another life; instead, it’s chopped and screwed, ready for the dance floor.
Overcoats begins and ends each show with a hug, Elion and Mitchell locked in a seemingly eternal embrace. That’s what this album feels like, too.
Must Hear: “Hold Me Close,” “Smaller Than My Mother,” “23”
5. St. Vincent — Masseduction
While Taylor Swift lept to claim her “Reputation,” it was St. Vincent who best tackled fame this year. Weirdly enough, both used Jack Antonoff, of Bleachers and producer fame, but to very different ends: Swift’s “Getaway Car” is as far from St. Vincent’s “New York” as can be. (Both are great, though, let’s get that straight.)
Masseduction builds on a steady progression of personas for Annie Clark, the culmination of a years-long exploration of celebrity, technology, and sexuality. No matter what other critics say, there’s no shortage of guitars here — just a more precise employment of them. They come in urgent scrawls on songs like “Fear the Future” and “Savior”; elsewhere, like on “New York,” a simple piano is more than enough.
In an almost unfair distribution of talent, St. Vincent seems to take the reigns of art-rock from David Bowie and David Byrne simultaneously, continuing their love for both showiness and probing the fractured self behind it. She ribs prudity (“Masseduction”) as much as she parodies excess (“Los Ageless”); she sings “Pills pills pills” like a 1950s TV jingle, but her dependence on them to feel normal is only half-joking.
“How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds, too?” she sings in “Los Ageless.” Sometimes, behind the frantic sheen, it’s hard to hear the sadness inherent in St. Vincent. Other times, she asks a question for which there’s no answer.
Must Hear: “New York,” “Los Ageless,” “Fear The Future”
6. Charly Bliss — Guppy
Charly Bliss is the Pixie-Stix-intravenous-shot-in-your-arm of pop punk, with a mean sense of humor and a head for headbanger choruses. Their debut album, Guppy, is 30 minutes of pure pleasure. What a relief.
Lead singer Eva Hendricks has a nasal voice that shocks at first, like Claire Boucher of Grimes, but it’s an absolute perfect fit for her snotty digs: “I laughed when your dog died / It is cruel, but it’s true / Take me back, kiss my soft side / Does he love me most now that his dog is toast?”
With a sonic palette not unlike other ‘90s-worshipping bands (Diet Cig and Speedy Ortiz come to mind), the album is full of adolescent attitude and apprehension. “Am I the best? Or just the first person to say yes?” she asks on “Glitter.” It’s a line you catch yourself chuckling at, before realizing how sad that sentiment is underneath. And then the guitar shredding starts, and you’re back in the sugar stream. Guppy is proof to the rule: Rock isn’t dead, it’s just owned by women.
Must Hear: “Glitter,” “DQ,” “Percolator”
7. Jay Som — Everybody Works
“Lipstick Stains” sounds like slowly waking, stretching arms, sunlight streaming through the bedroom window. From those opening yawns of morning, Everybody Works unravels tenderly — but not so quietly.
Jay Som, the project of guitarist, singer and songwriter Melina Duterte, borrows its melting instrumentation and not-quite-present vocals from ’90s shoegaze, but it reminds me most of And Then Everything Turned Itself Inside Out, the 2000 masterpiece from Yo La Tengo. Everybody Works was recorded in Duterte’s bedroom, but the result is cavernous.
Seeing Jay Som in concert, with a full band behind her, the tenderness morphs so easily into long stretches of psychedelic distortion. “Baybee” takes two spacey electric guitars and wraps them around each other in a delicate dance; if it weren’t for the rhythmic precision of both Duterte and her band, Everybody Works could feel ungrounded. But Duterte turns on a dime. The year’s most satisfying moment arrives in “The Bus Song,” where Duterte asks, “Why don’t we take the bus? You say you don’t like the smell.” The crowd shouts back the next line: “But I like the bus!” Could intimacy ever be so playful?
Must Hear: “The Bus Song,” “Baybee,” “Everybody Works”
8. Khalid — American Teen
Can you believe Khalid is just 19? You’d have to, because the songs on American Teen are of indulgence and infatuation, of the endless process of figuring-it-out. “My youth is the foundation of me,” Khalid sings. His contribution to the genre — pop? R&B? irrelevant — is to capture a feeling of nostalgia while living the very moment he romanticizes. Maybe it’s the ’80s synths and drum kits he borrowed.
Khalid’s hooks, though, are all his own. “Location,” where Khalid’s voice floats on some futuristic arpeggiated synth, climbed the Billboard charts in 2017 and deservedly so. But it’s “Young Dumb & Broke” that steps up as a generational anthem. Sure, we’ve got no money and have the world to learn, “but we’ve still got love to give,” Khalid declares. Throughout American Teen, Khalid wants to cut off from attachments but finds himself inextricably drawn back, as on “8TEEN,” when his sense of abandon is infectious: “I’ve never fell in love / I saved those feelings for you / So let’s do all the stupid shit that young kids do.”
Must Hear: “Young Dumb & Broke,” “8TEEN,” “Location”
9. Waxahatchee — Out In The Storm
The most satisfying kiss-off of 2017 may have come from Katie Crutchfield’s best and angriest album: “You walk around like / It’s your god-given right / And you love being right / You’ve never been wrong.” For Out In The Storm, Waxahatchee recruits an all-women band to create one of the year’s best rock records, full stop, a welcome shift from the skeletal lo-fi of previous albums.
I caught Waxahatchee twice in concert this year, once opening by herself for The New Pornographers and once, after the release of Out In The Storm, with her full band and sister Allison behind her. The difference in energy was astounding, and I give much credit to this new batch of songs, like “Silver,” where Crutchfield’s voice and guitar find companions in her sister’s, and “8 Ball,” which chugs along like that car driving to “Brooklyn, New York, USA.” Those moments make the intimate ones, like “Recite Remorse,” all the more powerful — shimmering with organ, wondering where the relationship went wrong, or if it was that way all along.
Must Hear: “Never Been Wrong,” “Silver,” “8 Ball”
10. Hurray For the Riff Raff — The Navigator
Quite a few albums could have taken this 10th spot on my list, but the one most deserving is The Navigator, an ambitious folk concept record melding all of Alynda Segarra’s diverse musical interests. Having grown up in the Bronx, part of a Puerto Rican family, Segarra collects sounds from 1960s folk-rock, Americana and Caribbean traditions. Here she cuts her own path, straying further from imitation than her last effort, the pleasant but old-timey Small Town Heroes.
“Living In The City” bustles with energy, jangly and welcoming, like Paul Simon’s “Late In The Evening.” On songs like the title track or “Rican Beach,” Segarra’s musical fusion emerges as a protest of its own: “First they stole our language, then they stole our names / Then they stole the things that brought us faith.” Throughout The Navigator, Segarra has been made a refugee by white supremacy and gentrification, by apathy. She’s been separated from her people, from her culture, and won’t rest until she finds justice. “To all who had to hide, I say, ¡Pa’lante! To all who lost their pride, I say, ¡Pa’lante!” she declares in the album’s climax. Go forward, and make change.
Must Hear: “The Navigator,” “Pa’lante,” “Living In The City”
Almost every Big Thief song sounds like it’s sung in a whisper; almost every guitar sounds like it’s dampened and just a little bit flat; the production leaves room left unfilled. Altogether, it’s an entrancing effect. On songs like “Mythological Beauty” or “Mary,” you can feel yourself leaning in to hear what Adrianne Lenker is saying. For me, the most devastating moment comes in “Shark Smile,” a muted country-rocker that ends in a car crash.
SZA’s CTRL couldn’t be musically more different than Big Thief — instead of quiet folk, it’s slinky R&B — but their lyrical self-scrutiny draws a certain parallel. “I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth / We get so lonely, we pretend that this works,” she sings on “Drew Barrymore.” SZA winds her voice around the verse, liberated from the beat, in her search for emotional and sexual satisfaction.
Japanese Breakfast—Soft Sounds From Another Planet
Michelle Zauner’s songs on Soft Sounds From Another Planet are so often symphonic and grandiose, I’d love to see what she’d do with a live orchestra. Like Jay Som, she taps into shoegaze, but as its title might suggest, this album reaches into space-rock heavens. And it’s from the atmosphere, on standout “Boyish,” Zauner drops the best line of the year: “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off in general.”
Diet Cig—Swear I’m Good At This
Swear I’m Good At This delivers 13 indie-pop-punk punches in under 30 minutes, but it’s full of lines you won’t quickly forget. “I’m not being dramatic, I’ve just fucking had it,” frontwoman Alex Luciano sings. Diet Cig is done with being quiet, and done with being taken advantage of. Here’s a millennial sentiment if I’ve ever heard one, from “Maid Of The Mist”: “I wanna hold a seance for every heart I’ve broken / Put them all in a room and say ‘get over it.’”
The National—Sleep Well Beast
Funny, in its own way, how the best albums by white men this year all wrestled with the struggles of getting older. Of course, that’s just the name of the game for The National, who play around with electronic soundscapes in Sleep Well Beast but ultimately stick to their bread-and-butter: Matt Berninger’s gorgeous baritone, singing mopey lyrics, cast against expansive drums. A few tracks, though — “Day I Die,” “I’ll Still Destroy You,” “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” — will find themselves in the long list of The National classics.
LCD Soundsystem—American Dream / Wolf Parade—Cry Cry Cry
Expectations are hard. They confronted both LCD Soundsystem and Wolf Parade, who returned with new albums after seven-year hiatuses, but . James Murphy’s dance-punk collective (the other band carrying on David Byrne’s legacy, aside from St. Vincent) sounds much as they did on This Is Happening, their career-best, and they haven’t forgotten how to build a crescendo into a satisfying release (“call the police” especially). What I’ve missed most, though, are the frantic polyrhythms they bring on songs like “other voices” and “emotional haircut.”
Wolf Parade have adapted well with the years, too. On the gothic and percussive Cry Cry Cry, the band manage to strike political overtones without getting stuck in them. Instead, they bring organ and horn-propelled rockers like “Baby Blue” and bites of dancey synth-pop on “You’re Dreaming.” For both records, it was well worth the wait.
Additional shoutouts to:
Stars, Vagabon, Sylvan Esso, Julien Baker, Partner, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Chris Stapleton, Paramore, Broken Social Scene, Feist and The Menzingers