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20 Favorite Songs of 2017
—with playlist in ascending order.
20. Aldous Harding – “Imagining My Man”
Time is against the opening act, so most are quick to make a case for themselves. When I first heard Aldous Harding, she was supporting Deerhunter and defying that role, tracking an arc from obscurity to immediacy with breathtaking patience. No surprise then that her best song starts off muffled and slow and ordinary and ends six minutes later with a fadeout, because the spell it’s cast is too weird and complete to be broken abruptly. “Hey!” go her cheerleaders, weightless and decontextualized, as if from the vacuum of space.
19. Marika Hackman – “My Lover Cindy”
In a year I’ve left both Real Estate and their intermittently superior alternates Beach Fossils off the list, Hackman’s tunings are more than a balm. “Cindy” is jauntier than the rest of the coiled and prickly I’m Not Your Man, but the words don’t follow suit. Hackman could be rewriting “The Freed Pig,” the way she shows that lacerating self-critique and a rousing chorus aren’t mutually exclusive.
18. Sampha – “Under”
No doubt Sampha could animate any preposition with such vivid detail.
17. Perfume Genius – “Wreath”
The words echo Put Your Back N 2 It’s “17” and “Take Me Home,” but Mike Hadreas’ latest bid to transcend his earthly frame sounds jubilant, not like a disappearing act. If it took 2014’s audience-broadening Too Bright to get here, I’m glad I waited.
16. Lomelda – “Interstate Vision”
Indie rock excited me in 2017 because it felt newly conversational. Maybe we’ll look back on Frankie Cosmos as some kind of innovators, for daring to hear again the melody of speech and thus making music that’s wholly melodic, even when the songs are just monologues. “Interstate Vision” is like a more gnarled, stop-start version of that.
15. Syd – “Nothin To Somethin”
A melody bubbles up behind the beat, almost too quiet for speakers, and 30 seconds later Syd’s singing about the bubbles in her drink. But with music so subdued and authority so absolute, might as well risk obviousness.
14. Chastity Belt – “This Time Of Night”
There’s hardly a detail or image to be found in the lyrics of I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, outside of the lure of the phone and occasional naming of the lateness of the hour. Still, they need to be heard, as evidence of a subjectivity so blank that no object in its field of vision ever comes into focus. As melodic color bleeds into expanses of gray, the music seems to be circling an unidentified trauma or simply honoring boredom and numbness as complex emotions.
13. The Stevens – “Keep Me Occupied”
The most sophisticated faux-amateurs in contemporary rock, The Stevens come off like they were trying to write a #1 hit song and knew only to string a bunch of notes together and sing the title a million times, and somehow ended up with an insatiable hook, hypnotic groove and elegant improvisation.
12. Arca – “Coraje”
There’s an album called Music for the Masses that’s just as dark and weird as the one “Coraje” appears on. Arca shows up on lists of experimental music but his crossover appeal has everything to do with the music’s emotional directness. “Coraje” is the heart and desolate centerpiece of Arca, and it shouldn’t have taken a dictionary to tell me that the title translates to “anger.” See the artist at #17 for more lessons in quietness, for a voice that’s faltering when it isn’t resonant.
11. Ride – “Cali”
Avoid the single edit; you can’t get from “another summer is on the way” to “summer is gone” without long minutes of the bleary months in between.
10. Alvvays – “Not My Baby”
So many moments but the bit at 2:20 seals the deal: life is bittersweet melody and a tinny drumbeat.
9. The Shins – “Fantasy Island”
In which James Mercer, expert chronicler of youth, is still just a boy out there on his own, no matter how awkwardly writers try to rope him into state-of-indie-rock considerations.
8. Kehlani – “Undercover”
SweetSexySavage has a perfect 3-minute examination of every stage of a young relationship. I single out “Undercover” not because covert new love resonates most, but for the sum of its beautiful parts: acoustic guitar’s post-“No Scrubs” pinnacle; the way the beat anticipates and acknowledges “‘cause I got you”; that gleeful extra “fuck ‘em, ha” slipped under the cover of the chorus’s more practical “fuck it.”
7. Vince Staples – “Party People”
6. St. Vincent – “Hang On Me”
Maximalist artists make the greatest pocket symphonies. Masseduction’s opening salvo plays as false retreat: pulsating synths, guitar solo, string section, even bells, but all in a perfectly still, drowned world.
5. Tyler, The Creator feat. Estelle – “Garden Shed”
It must look convenient to finally acknowledge a rapper now that he has a song I could plausibly locate myself in. Still, the expansive “Garden Shed” contains only enough room for Tyler, even as he spends all but its final minute caught up in huge blooms of silence, as if weighing whether to speak. If his resulting verse is a case of toying with his audience, as some have boringly speculated, no matter. That initial heavy reluctance, or the central image’s proximity to the bicycle shed of “Can You Forgive Her?” and the boathouse of Maurice, or the empathic finality of “still. going. on.”—these things make a compelling fiction, which is all we should ask from artists.
4. The Proper Ornaments – “The Frozen Stare”
In which the band’s drab ’n’ dreamy hush is but prelude to the queasiest, most magnificent guitar interplay in ages.
3. Moses Sumney – “Lonely World”
In a few moments I’ll be rhapsodizing the death of mystery, but right now Moses Sumney is singing and I’m glad to be without bearings. On Aromanticism’s wildest track, the fever pitch of the bass and drums should in theory distract from the voice, but instead it plays out as a shoegaze tactic—a maelstrom that exists only at the whim of an ethereal, ever more powerful falsetto.
2. Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton – “R.I.P.”
What a fucking joke: Haines sends dear Elliott Smith the kind of wordless chorus he used to send The Beatles, then removes herself from rock’s endless cycle of eulogy, even as piano pushes forward the clock and a guitar weeps.
1. Slowdive – “Sugar For The Pill”
I’ll borrow a line from Alma in Phantom Thread: “To love them makes life no great mystery.” Slowdive’s reunion brought them closer than I would’ve thought possible back when the only mention of them I’d ever seen was in this very publication. “Sugar for the Pill,” as beautiful as “Celia’s Dream” but earthly, somehow, was the beginning of a much-needed demystification.
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