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10 Favorite Albums of 2017
1. Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)
The near future, population one. It’s always music that leaves me out of the narrative that most stokes my romantic sense of loneliness and puts me back in my life. The text here is failures of communication and the ends of relationships, the possible subtext is Kelela’s visibility as an artist, and at first I wondered whether to read the album’s title as an invitation or a challenge — to ex-lovers, to the listener, to those who’ve treated her as accessory to her production team, to the “voice needs work” peanut gallery. But more likely it’s just a memo to herself. Kelela runs the whole damn show, and quite literally so at Minneapolis’ Entry last November. The chance to see a major artist in an intimate space, plus the radius of the attendant glow, probably has something to do with her placement at the top of this list. But, honestly, I feel blessed to have the album, too.
2. The Courtneys – II (Flying Nun)
Averaging more cymbal hits per second than Vivian Girls or Hüsker Dü but considerably looser in approach, groovy as The Clean, The Courtneys fill the resulting space with melodies that feel uncommonly generous and new, even if it’s just a matter of drummer and lead vocalist Jen Twynn Payne matching her own energy. The litmus test or, better, the moment of final surrender is when “Lost Boys,” after a few melodic first drafts, finally revs up to its dumb-then-perfect central refrain and holds it for long minutes until the guitar workout. That one got me in a trance when they played the Entry last spring, and then II defined my summer. I wanted my drum set back if only to bash along to each of these 38 minutes, had to settle for driving around with them instead. The sun it gets higher, higher.
3. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (SuperEgo)
I still can’t tell if Mental Illness is the confessional album its title and stripped down arrangements suggest, the same way I can’t tell if Paul McCartney has ever been truly vulnerable or only infinitely tender. Songcraft intervenes, and it should. The thin veneer of distance makes the songs better. Mental Illness doesn’t bring Mann noticeably closer, but it’s her most immediate and exciting album that isn’t Bachelor No. 2 for the simple reason that every single melody, no matter how small, lands beautifully, with the words as suction.
4. The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch)
Having been immersed in the Stephin Merritt songbook for decades helped, but 50 Song Memoir held me in the grip of a seemingly endless epiphany when I first started exploring it. It seemed that by explicitly conceiving of music as memoir, he’d found a way to exploit all his habits as an artist for good, and to emphasize his strengths, to wit:
—his melodic stamp is so pronounced that the melodies themselves become self-referential, autobiographical;
—unusual sounds in weird arrangements have scene-setting purpose even at their most deliberately annoying, and at their best conjure a haunted world, e.g. the meows of a long-dead cat, through the fog of memory;
—lyrical economy (obvious);
—reckoning with the details of his life renders him more sentimental than ever, clarifies detachment, irony and bitterness as the gloss they always were, yet one with deep-rooted causes. You’re dead now! … Na na na na, life ain’t all bad.
5. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (Def Jam)
Visionary, streamlined and sleek, rhythmically undeniable, Big Fish Theory is the sound of an artist so confident in a new direction he’s willing to make his great shit from last year sound sluggish and old. The surprise of year-end season has been learning that even this album’s admirers don’t hear it as his best work. I know to you—
6. Circuit Des Yeux – Reaching For Indigo (Drag City)
In the last five years there have been few concert-going moments as powerful as walking in unaware on a Circuit Des Yeux opening set, quickly realizing that, uh, something is happening here, relenting to its grip and, with a dumbfounded grin, witnessing others do the same. Haley Fohr has upstaged the likes of Bill Callahan, Julia Holter and Ryley Walker, to name just the shows I’ve seen, but had yet to release an album that wasn’t a somewhat lesser shadow of these performances: cavernous, incantatory vocals and fret taps on maximum overdrive. Fohr’s 2016 album as Jackie Lynn expanded her palette but the breadth of the arrangements on Reaching For Indigo is a new kind of revelation. Still, continuity plays its part—see: the hypnotic patterns of her former guitar-playing replicated with synths, piano, vocal clips. And when Fohr sings “I can only promise to take up space,” it sounds like a callback to those early shows when she would occupy the whole room, not the timid corner of many young artists.
7. Girlpool – Powerplant (Anti-)
I figured all along they’d borrowed a page from Waxahatchee, that they’d thought about and, to some unknowable extent, pre-planned the transformational narrative their career would follow before they played a note (do all bands do this?), but I had no idea they were always ten steps ahead of me, and fifty to the left. I saw Girlpool twice when they were a guitar-and-bass harmonizing duo, and twice again in 2017, their first full year as a rock ’n’ roll band. In May they hewed pretty closely to the sound of Powerplant, with guitar effects and drums introduced as new layers of dynamic interplay (“Corner Store,” “123”), and softened vocals that would sometimes blur to a Lush shimmer (“Kiss and Burn,” “Your Heart”). The shock came in October, by which point the band had frayed all its edges and brought the music to a breaking point, Cleo’s every syllable a fight for articulation. The chorus of “Fast Dust” became the most vulnerable sequence of notes ever forced into the light. Maybe it was a sign of crisis but it also felt like the band’s next stage had arrived years ahead of schedule. Saxophone, the newest element, blasted the peeling surfaces of “She Goes By” and the title track, and I had the stunning realization that the latter would lend itself to a lovely jazz piano treatment. Girlpool’s transformations have never been simple.
8. L’Rain – L’Rain (Astro Nautico)
We’ve been two years without new A Sunny Day In Glasgow material but here’s Taja Cheek dreaming beyond the boundaries of recorded music with techniques that could have been considered outdated, all used up. When was the last time backwards running tape thrummed with such potential? But in terms of scale, 26-minute L’Rain has more in common with other Bandcamp pocket symphonies I’ve top 10’d, Archie Moore’s Dreamshit Surfer or, more applicably, Foxes In Fiction’s obliquely diaristic, date-naming Ontario Gothic. On L’Rain it’s penultimate track “July 14th, 2015” that names the date of a happy birthday voicemail from Taja’s mother, since departed, and brings the work’s personal context into sudden, startling view. I can’t watch Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes without wondering if movies have any greater purpose than to reconstruct the exact texture of childhood and past lives, the shape and dimension of places once lived, and now when I listen to L’Rain I’ve started to wonder the same about music. What else but to save the voices of loved ones, and the shape and dimension of our interiority at the time of their passing?
9. Charly Bliss – Guppy (Barsuk)
Even if Charly Bliss had existed in the mid 90s and Guppy had been manufactured by the millions, I doubt you’d find it at Goodwill today. Punchline: Everyone would have kept their copy. I refer to the album’s nearly unparalleled catchiness, of course, but don’t overlook the lyrics, which come from the Kristin Hersh school of imagery at any cost. Why be banal when you could sing, “She’s got her toe in the cornhole, bleeding out in a snowcone”?
10. Cornelius – Mellow Waves (Rostrum)
Probably the exact inverse of Beck’s Colors (which I haven’t heard!) but born of similar instincts: Mellow Waves is the place where an artist’s longing for simplicity crashes into his technical sophistication and perfectionism. The latter goes to work, and the listener hears this crash as a faint turbulence. That might explain the album’s self-deprecating, only half-true title. Keigo Oyamada has to make it all sound too easy before the listener can grow skeptical and hear his burden.