Thursday, January 4, 2018

the top 50 best songs of 2017

I said on Twitter a few months ago that of all of my year-end lists, this one is always the most complicated - because it's by far the most personal. With the constraint of a list of hits or talking about records in aggregate, you've manufactured some distance - but if you're just going through the list of the songs that spoke the most to you regardless of whether they were a single or not, there's no separation or barrier.

And when you add to the fact that 2017 was a tumultuous year - not just for me but for most of the world, although I did have my own share of trying times - it's a little unnerving to go through the cutting process and realize how dark it truly got. There isn't much escapism in this top 50, and what escapism does show up is very much colored by consequences waiting in the wings. I'm not saying it's downbeat - in comparison to the melancholy that colored a lot of last year, there are more pronounced moments of joy and triumph - but it is by far the most unsettled, pulling the least punches and ultimately producing a psychological profile of my year in 2017 I'm still not quite sure what to do with. But hey, all of these came from albums I covered this year, and I wouldn't have spent a month pruning this list to its form now if I didn't have faith in it - even though I can guarantee there'll be a fair few conspicuous entries that aren't here if you're comparing to other critical lists. So let's get this started...



I think entirely too many people forgot this record and this song in particular came out in January of 2017 - and I put myself on that list, because while this track made my mid-year list, the album itself kind of faded until I went to back a few weeks ago. But once I did, I was certain that this song in particular deserved praise - Natalie Hemby takes us on a walking tour of a small town's memory's of a person and how they were such a figure of note that she wonders if they even remember the world they left behind. And I truly love about the track is its quiet frankness in the framing: it's all hope against hope and wistfulness that Hemby conveys with understated brilliance and sobriety about the folks in the background who'll build the legend, not the legend itself. It's complicated and low-key, but resonant all the same.


Oh, I'm so happy this made the list - and you all have no idea how close it was, because 'Only Blood' is a nasty little track that most probably find a little uncomfortable, with Presley underplaying to intensify the genuine menace of the preacher's wife who loses her mind in religious fervor to murder her abusive husband, all against some phenomenal smoky guitar and a subtle key change to emphasize the violence - although probably the most transgressive choice was layering the fiery sermon behind the outro. Yes, I know I'm a sucker for a great murder ballad, but what makes this song is the evangelical setting and the truly haunting atmosphere and subtext. And just like with Natalie Hemby's Puxico, too many people slept on Angaleena Presley's Wrangled - you might want to fix that.


Look, I'll be the first to admit I wasn't crazy about St. Vincent's Masseduction - it's not better than the self-titled record or Strange Mercy, it's a pop record that somehow can feel a little undercooked... and yet the truly great songs on that record cut deep, with this being the first that'll make this list. 'Happy Birthday, Johnny' is the moment of hard sobriety for Annie Clark, the comedown after her self-conscious wallow as a pop icon, the confrontation with an old friend and drug addict now living on the streets who she wants to help, but then is accused of doing so to only feed her ego - and what's all the more potent is that Clark lets the subtext hang as having some truth to it, subtext highlighting her own addictive tendencies. Coupled with the minimalist piano and stunning touches of pedal steel and arranged strings, it's a moment of genuine tragedy punctuating differences in class, fame, and state of maturity, and lets neither character off the hook - an incredible track.


And speaking of record that pretty much everybody forgot - including country critics who didn't seem to give this return to form the time of day - Little Big Town bring in one hell of an explosive hook for their night-time escapades, with great harmonic balance, a huge driving guitar line that surges through an expansive mix that makes the coming party feel so much bigger than it probably will ever be. Playing with spacey effects yet blending them well enough in guitar and tight basswork to highlight a world where you're bucking against any internal turmoil with one last night, this was an anthem for whenever I went out in 2017 - not the only one, but a damn great one all the same!


Oh come on, as if Ron Gallo wasn't going to make my list in some form! The surf rock guitar that opens the track, the killer bassline drenched in the obvious callback to the Rolling Stones, the howling vocals against a lo-fi, garage rock mix, and a hook just sweet enough to temper the absolute acid in the lyrics, where everything from the kink of the sex to any remaining affection is utterly dead. Ron Gallo does not frame himself as sympathetic, and good thing too, because his sardonic quips at feeling like a dead man walking in this relationship don't make him sound likable - but when the hook is that infectious and the groove is that tight and the sneering energy is this potent, I absolutely cannot pass it up! Again, this is one of those artists on this list who you probably don't recognize, but seriously, if Ty Segall let you down this year for garage rock, you'll want to give Ron Gallo your attention.


And speaking of artists who flew under the radar for too many people... if you had heard Hurray For The Riff Raff in previous years, you probably were expecting something low-key or more driven by the acoustic country folk that characterized their last record. That all changed in a big way with The Navigator and while we'll be talking about the true tour de force from that album later, 'Hungry Ghost' definitely deserves as much attention. The rock solid bass melody playing off smoky spikes of electric guitar and jagged acoustics emphasizing that ragged groove, and that's before the change-up for the bridge. Now the song's intent is a little trickier to discern - like so much of The Navigator, it speaks to the ignored, the desperate queer kids hunting for a DIY sanctuary even as they're roundly dismissed or trodden underfoot. But the framing is not bleak or desperate - it's hungry, it's infused with passion and wild-eyed intensity that probably will lead to reckless choices, but they have the same right to make them as anyone else. So yeah, absolutely killer song... but on the flip side to this situation...


I don't think there's a way to fully appreciate this song without its history - and even then, I'm not sure it's enough. Because the naysayers are right, Tove Lo has written this exact same concluding arc at least three times before, winding up back at the club to do drugs and escape into the night, all dark electric pianos and overweight percussion with blurry fragments of trap hi-hats... and then we get the bridge. Tove Lo slips into her lower register as she tries to ask for drugs, but she's built up a tolerance - the delirious escape has become mundane and it won't be enough anymore. It's the moment of clarity that strikes anybody who uses a substance to escape their emotions when they realize they have to face reality, no matter what hookup she falls into next. It's genuinely poignant in a way Tove Lo has never been, even at her best, and it opens up possibilities for maturity and growth in an uncharacteristically beautiful way - truly a phenomenal moment.


On the one side you have an artist finding clarity, on the other you have an artist accepting the loss of it all. Yeah, this is the other pop song from St. Vincent to make this list, and it's a doozy, seeing her confront the sterile but seductive plastic sheen of Los Angeles and rip away to expose the raging insecurity and instability beneath it. And what's telling is that she knows she can't change it, only ride the wave on an swamped out guitar contorting through layers of distortion, a razor-tight boiling groove, and one of the most haunting hooks you'll hear all year, with the 'you' representing Los Angeles, youth, or the pop iconography that gives her a sense of power and control. When you couple it with an outro that spirals into a murk accented by mournful pedal steel and sax, you have the sort of misshapen, nightmarish pop song that St. Vincent infuses with impressive life this year. Terrific, powerful tune.


Of course, the flip side to pop songs ripping their own guts out are when you find the bright side to it all - and enter Kirin J. Callinan, one of the breakout acts of 2017 with a song that balances its sharp synthetic bounce and wonky guitar phrases with a huge hook I absolutely adore, all against Callinan operating a surprising amount of restraint in the vocals. But it's the content of this track that I really love, where Callinan embraces the pop psychology of 'living each day as if it's his last' with the sort of half-confused but completely sincere pathology that honestly feels borderline romantic. The message could have come from his dying father or a fridge magnet, it could inspire him to go roller blading, tell his girl he loves her, or just admit his passion for a truly excellent sandwich, but if it keeps him from indulging his desire to kill people, it's worth it, taking the dark side of asinine masculine tendencies and replacing it with something no less decisive and manly - and in a twisted way kind of awesome. It might not seem like pop for everyone - but I think it very well could and should be.


The more I hear Alex Cameron's utterly inspired duet with Angel Olsen, the more I'm blown away it even happened, the best song that Jim Steinman somehow never wrote. And what's mindblowing about this power ballad that might as well be a love letter to this style of track in the 80s are the layers to it: on the surface it's two exes rubbing their newfound freedom in each other's faces, but what's telling is what Cameron and Olsen reveal between the lines that humanize them and add real pathos. It rapidly becomes apparently that despite all of Cameron's hypermasculine posturing he's still not over Olsen, but at the same time for as bitter as Olsen is about the situation - she sees right through him and has thoroughly dismissed it all - there's a genuine pain for her that takes this song into much different territory - no joke, her describing how they 'made a meme of her legacy' is one of the most subtly tragic lyrics I've heard all year, showing two thoroughly broken people trying to find any vestige of relief. Again, most of you haven't heard Alex Cameron's stunning record Forced Witness this year - fix that.


I'm almost a little at a loss why this song has resonated with me throughout nearly the entire year. The guitars are rounded and subtle, the multi-tracking is gorgeous but not showy about it, and while there's definitely poetry in the lyrics, they're at their most potent when they're the most straightforward, the quiet sort of late night love song that shows partners knowing each other's rhythms and even if there was something wrongly said or misplaced, they're going to find something better from it. It's a song that has been in my own rotation for walking home at 2 am for, again, nearly the entire year that captures the sort of contentment for which I think we all aspire. Elbow may have released a more potent track this year - we'll get to it - but this deep cut I can see becoming a favourite to fans and non-fans alike.


Look, I'm not sure I can probably explain how or why Deaf Havana's All These Countless Nights not only stuck with me in 2017, but got better with every single listen - entirely too many rock critics just brushed it aside and in all due honesty I probably should have too, given that this really isn't innovating or expanding their sound. But if I were to put forward a counterpoint, 'St. Paul's' hits the sweet spot of melancholy for me in a way few other songs did this year, mostly because as a love song, it comes with reconciling one's own failures in full view - because against that stunning liquid guitarline, our frontman is forced to throw caution to the wind and make it work, for a girl who took all the steps to be with him including moving halfway around the world, and it's him finally finding a desperate core to do the same. Unflinchingly earnest and heartfelt that earns the perfectly timed guitar solo, it's a power ballad in every sense of the term, with the stakes and sincerity to truly stick.


But let's move away from love songs to breakup songs... and my god, the title track from Little Big Town's newest record hits hard, from the perspective of the guy wracked with guilt that he had to end things. And not only does the framing of this song work - it can't entirely place the protagonist in a positive light, he did cause the heartbreak - but it sticks with the moral complexity that happens when relationships have to end for all of the right reasons, even if - or especially if - they're painful, and yet since this song doesn't frame either partner as the 'bad guy', it's all the more sad that he's so conscious of the pain he's causing and that some feelings of compassion still linger. The fact that Little Big Town of all bands wrote a song with this much grounded maturity and emotionally complex framing - all against a stunningly well-delivered hook from Philip Sweet and Jay Joyce at his most subtle as a producer - it's a marvel to behold, and the fact that it went ignored by too many people is a real tragedy.


I told you all it was going to make this list! And given that I've already talked about this song in my list of the best hits of 2017, I'm going to aim to keep this brief: the best songs of the careers of Selena Gomez and Kygo respectively, or at the very least in their top three, a starmaking turn with a terrific guitar-driven groove and prechorus, along with one of the year's best hooks. Selena Gomez sells the well-deserved end of this relationship with the perfect balance of disaffection and exhausted anger, the sycopation on the drop is wonderful, and hey, since we're going through songs that made my top ten list already...


It's a damn tragedy that Ed Sheeran made a better U2 song than U2 did this year - and again, 'Castle On The Hill' is among the best songs Ed Sheeran has ever made. Is it better than 'Afire Love'... eh, I wouldn't go that far, but it's close with 'Lego House' and that's high praise indeed. But still, this was a hit I never dared to dream to ask for, and that it did as well as it did is truly thrilling. More of this and less of 'Perfect', Ed, then we might be getting somewhere!


I think pretty much everybody has admitted that the newest record from Japandroids didn't quite live up to the hype, especially in the indie sphere - Celebration Rock was five years ago, it's hard to match those expectations. That said, the opening, self-titled track to their album is concentrated Canadian wonderful and I refuse to hear otherwise, capturing the whirling panic that comes with a restless heart taking that step to move across the country and say goodbyes to an old home. As a song it's reckless as hell, taking a slow build into a monster hook, with furious drumwork and the language that captures the portent of his choice with the punk thrill of actually doing it. This is Japandroids swinging big for a tremendous anthem, and man, they stuck the landing.


Again, I've already talked about this song too in my top ten, and yet the fact that 'DNA.' stands out so damn much for me is a testament to its tightness, intensity, intricacy, and Kendrick deciding to go into double time with ruthless effectiveness. And again, songs like this don't become hits and are a much better fit on this list, but in terms of sheer bars and relentless, well-timed potency, they don't get much better than this!


Even when I reviewed Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton's long-overdue comeback earlier this year, I struggled a lot to explain her fundamental appeal: barebones piano playing off steady rhythms and tightly multi-tracked, husky vocals, it would seem by-the-numbers in modern indie pop... and yet Emily Haines transcended all of them, with stunning vocal arrangements and a taste for melodies that split the balance between meditative and downright hypnotic - seriously, that piano line will stick in your mind and will not ever leave. 'Minefield Of Memory' has her insulating herself in a sanctum of her own thoughts, and while she hasn't quite found a way to deal with the depths of her sins buried just outside, she's found some form of center and that's amazingly potent all the same. But if we're talking Canadians in times of great turbulence...


No, the New Pornographers minus Dan Bejar did not deliver a classic record in 2017, but with the title track they caught the zeitgeist remarkably well regardless, hitting the pits of depression against frenetic guitars, a charging groove, and the gleaming sheen of the keyboards that only drives the melody and terrific multi-tracking all the further. With two distinct hooks because apparently they didn't think the damn song was infectious enough, A.C Newman, Kathryn Calder and Neko Case exchange an admission that they didn't find any damn center and that they just need to get through it however they can - the deeper poignancy isn't coming, there's nothing romantic about this, and if you want to get out of all of this safe and mostly sane, you need to embrace pragmatism. Trust me when I say that in 2017, that was a message that clicked way better than I was expecting - not so much an activist anthem so much as a survivor's, but man, it worked.


I said from the beginning that there wasn't a lot of escapism on this list - this is the exception, and yet even with that, it's a qualified one. 'Wreath' comes near the climatic turning point on No Shape, as Mike Hadreas takes his characteristic discomfort with his physical body and yearns for something more transcendent, all against a surging swell of gauzy strings at its core that echoes off that booming bass and guitar punctuation, the sort of gorgeously layered production that hits the precise balance between raw humanity and a drive to blow clean past it, hitting the sort of clear, almost overwhelmingly romantic beauty that characterized all the best moments of No Shape. The entire record is stunning, but this... it might just be the zenith.


I think even the folks who didn't like the newest War On Drugs record liked this track, and it's because, really, it does everything that makes The War On Drugs such a deeply potent indie rock band. The exposed edges of the guitar against the gauzy liquid layers against hints of harmonica keening over the expanse, with an obvious depth to Springsteen and Mellencamp and the rest of the 80s heartland rock scene that always found more depth than they often got credit. And that depth is there... between the lines of course, Adam Granduciel's writing is always more subtext than outright text as he tries to find some place of balance in between acknowledging the stunning beauty around him and the pain of never being able to capture it... but let's get real, this song is on the list for the guitar solo after the drum kick ending the bridge, a stunning instrumental tour de force that is reminiscent of 'In Reverse' three years ago. It might not be as instantly memorable as 'Red Eyes', but it's a masterwork all the same.


This was the year that I became acquainted with the Turnpike Troubadours, and while a good four or five songs had a serious shot at this list, this was the one that won out. Half because the restrained yet wonderfully organic midtempo country hit a wonderful sweet spot, especially with that pedal steel and fiddle, half because the lyrics balanced out the powerfully specific as a tribute to the songwriter's late aunt, but also universal in capturing little details of the bar girl for whom the connection might not be reciprocated but the place of quiet affection is resonant all the same - and I'm going to stop right there in case that person for me sees this video. Suffice to say, it's an quietly brilliant country tune showcasing all of the maturity and poise the Turnpike Troubadours refined this year - and yes, it goes without saying that you should check out their newest record, it did not get enough attention.


Surprise, I know - but a song like 'Praying' makes this list because it really is that goddamn potent - and again, not even the best song from Rainbow, and we'll get to that later! But even still, between Kesha's masterfully organic and raw performance to writing that balances righteous fury with a reclamation of personal worth, all against a beautifully organic buildup and fantastic hook, it's a song that got Kesha of all people Grammy nominations - hey, they got it right this time! And really, for a song like this and an album like Rainbow, she deserves it.


...I liked this song before I saw the meme! And really, that's kind of overshadowed how goddamn brilliant 'Big Enough' was, in placing Alex Cameron and Kirin J. Callinan both as lone wolf cowboys eyeing each other across the waste... before coming to the acceptance that the world is indeed big enough for the both of them. And yeah, it's over-the-top and wonderfully absurd and altogether deserving of the ridiculous screaming cowboy in the sky, but thematically it's the centerpiece of Bravado, an acknowledgement of masculine power while throwing aside its arrogant posturing in favor of universality. Coupled with the perfectly timed fiddle and fusion of bombastic electronics with the key-shifting genius of Callinan's composition... it's a starmaking tune for everyone involved, and at least for me in popular, it's not quite 'big enough'. Not yet, anyways.


If you had told me last year that a pop punk band was going to write their version of Alan Jackson's 'Remember When' and give it all the same lived-in pathos and power, I would have called you crazy... but Neck Deep did it. The guitar tone that evolved and picked up more layers with the passage of more years, the harmonies that feel perfectly balanced and yet pull back just enough to capture the lonely pain at the climax, and production that gave the song just enough space to really swell and take on the grandeur of that entire life from beginning to end, especially on the third verse with the richer lower tone before a bridge accented with tremolo strumming that can make the straightforward bombast click. It's not a complicated song, but like the best pop punk, it doesn't need to be - Neck Deep knocked it out of the park with this one, truly one of their best.


If there's a moment that hit with more timely catharsis than Jason Isbell roaring that 'last year was a song of a bitch' on this track, I don't know what was. And while all of The Nashville Sound was wonderful for different reasons - we'll get to more of that in a few minutes - 'Hope The High Road' was probably the most straightforward anthem he and the 400 Unit gave us. And yet like Jason Isbell always does, it's colored with phenomenal detail - he himself is strained to the point of exhaustion, he's seen his performer archetype as the sensitive, introspective white male singer-songwriter lose more of its relevance and he's fine with it going up in flames, and he knows that in facing all of the hatred and mistrust, he's going to take the high road confident that there can't be more of that than he and everyone else can handle. Again, there were a lot of songs full of righteous anger this year - we'll be getting to a bunch more of them - but this was most certainly a standout.


This song falls in such a weird place for me and yet it's one I would wrong not to acknowledge. It's easily one of the softest and most melodic songs Mark Kozelek has ever written, but it stops midway through for a glitchy breakdown showing the cancellation of a European tour stop. And even while enjoying the placid European vibe full of charcuterie boards and wine, things keep going amiss across the water, with a trail of police shootings and Kozelek's simmering fury at a lack of sane gun control, and even in Portugal he finds out the shoe store he wanted to visit was closed... but even after all of that, he still has found a moment of real peace, and goddamn it, he's going to go back and find that shoe store when it opens up again. And for someone who took a trip to Portugal last year with a close friend and later rekindled the relationship after months apart this year, it's hard to feel a song like this didn't help keep the good memories alive. And to me, that's worthy of a spot here.


So remember when I said that The War On Drugs' likely won even the naysayers over with 'Strangest Thing'? That goes even further for 'Magnificent (She Says)', arguably one of the best singles Elbow has released in their career of over fifteen years - so much so they actually had some chart success with it. And yeah, there's a reason as the song easily lives up to its title: the thrumming balance between the tight guitar and bass melodies against the gleaming keys that switches up against the strings on the prechorus against Guy Garvey's smooth but commanding delivery, all as a message of hope to an infant child who sees the world with unchecked innocence even against a deeper cynicism that comes with age and reality. Again, a song like this is hope against hope, all big dreams and wistful eyes on the horizon, even maybe sparking something long dormant. A beautiful, potent tune, and yet if I was looking for something even more striking...


It genuinely breaks my heart that Lorde didn't get more success this year, and not just for a song like this, a piano ballad that would have been an easy sell... until, of course, people realize it's about how she sees both lovers and the world at large who don't know how to handle her intensity and presence. And what's so achingly sad is that not only is she right - especially when it comes to the mainstream - she's also accepting it and the loneliness that comes with it - and for someone so young to have reconciled that is genuinely heartbreaking, maturity came too fast for her. But this is one of those songs that resonate as a little too personal for me to go further on it - suffice to say that I get it, and I definitely agree we deserve better...


People don't give Temples the damn credit they deserve, and 'Mystery Of Pop' is all the damn reason in the world why. One of the most instantly catchy melodies you'll hear all year against scuzzy bass and guitar that kicks into the sort of stomping progression where the lyrics almost don't even matter... but what's truly potent about this track is that it's all about making pop music, sifting through the greats like Bowie, finding the fragments of genius, and trying to build that grand unifying force themselves. What's thrilling about the song is how close they come to realizing that grand dream, which is the whole appeal of this song! To date, this is easily their best song, and considering it came on a record that was a grand stylistic shift and experiment in its own right, it'll be truly fascinating where they choose to go next.


(Irish Exit video is not available, unfortunately)

Like with 'Minefield Of Memory', it's tough for me to describe quite why I love it as much as I do - if anything, even harder because it's so short. Some of the foundation points remain the same: Emily Haines' beautiful vocals which swell up wonderfully on the prechorus against the subtle keyboards and beat, but I think what clicks for me her most is the content: the feeling of encountering an ex where you're aware of both exactly what went wrong in your relationship, and yet why you loved them regardless. And when you see them at the heights of their glamour it's hard not to get swept up in those memories once again... but you pull back for that Irish exit, where nobody sees you leave, and it's better that way. In terms of capturing that complicated maturity, Emily Haines paints a wonderful portrait with so few words, and it really is spellbinding.


Not gonna lie, every time I went through this list and hit 'Abandoned Flesh', I thought I was a mistake for putting it here, let alone this high. But then I would relisten to it three times and be convinced otherwise, because like with the rest of Goths the song works by playing to a low-key vibe. It's basically a historical snapshot of a mostly forgotten goth band played with a subtle jazzy flair, but that works because like with the rest of the album, it hits the moment that despite big dreams within a subculture, the majority will have to wake up, wipe off the eyeliner, and get a job - and yet it's still framed mostly sympathetically, a band that may not be entirely remembered but still worthy of attention, even if most have forgotten. It's clever, genuinely mature, and the sort of elegant album closer that absolutely sticks the landing - fantastic little tune.


No, it's not 'Dirty Love' - what could be - but this was the Kesha song that stuck with me the most in 2017 because it is everything I love about approach to punk and glam that just connects. This mix is ragged, intense and raw, full of the gender-bending profanity that has been Kesha's hallmark, cranked up to eleven with raw exuberance and the welcome stabilizing grooves of Eagles of Death Metal, who provide a solid grounding presence. This is Kesha's giant middle finger to everyone who everyone who dared dismiss her, delivered with precisely tuned yet explosive raw joy, all sorts of flash but worthy of it all. It's just a shame that Kesha hasn't just shipped this to rock radio to flush away whatever turd from Theory Of A Deadman wallowing on top - because really, this is a fireball that the charts could use.


This was the sleeper hit of the year for me - I may have liked Whiteout Conditions and loved the title track, but 'We've Been Here Before' is the sort of song that rang as so much bigger, the prescient warning moment where like before the pleasantries were disposed and the band breaks the fourth wall. Part of the 'we' is directed at the band, an acknowledgement that they can't just hide within artistic abstraction and distance from the tumult of the real world, but it's also hard not to feel like these proud Canadians were also turning to us and saying, 'you see what's going on south of the border - that can happen to us too, and it was only by some fluke we got out of it!' And sure, the message got it most of the way there for me, but what truly won me over was the brilliant vocal arrangement on the hook, the splashes of guitar after that hook, and how subtly things seemed to break down around the edges of the melody and composition, implying that sense of creeping desperation that we actually got the point. And I can only hope by the end of 2017, we did, especially when the delivery mechanism is this awe-inspiring.


Speaking of awe-inspiring tracks, I'm not sure there was a vocal performance as emotionally resonant, mature, and powerful as there was from Alyssa Segarra on 'Pa'lante', so much so that most of the reverb and echo wasn't even used for the first half of the song, relying on sheer charisma to carry her anthem for the downtrodden, effortlessly shifting to Spanish when necessary to give names to the nameless and speak truth to power. Even the instrumental shifts show that same balance between intensity and aching exhaustion, from the pianos to the bass-touched Latin rhythms to the spoken word segment to the sort of outro that can't help but stir the spirit. And in a year where Latin music was more popular than it's been in over a decade in America, I'd be loathe not to include the best they have to offer, because this is undeniable.


Look, Creeper's debut album Eternity, In Your Arms has already won up a considerable amount of critical acclaim, and will possibly get even more when I put up my list of the best albums of 2017, but if we're looking for what put them on the map and broke them through, it was 'Black Rain'. The interweaving male and female vocals, the gothic pomp that opened the track and infused the melodrama with the best sort of stylistic bombast, and one of the best goddamn hooks of the year, it's only a matter of time before Creeper's brand of pop punk gives the dormant genre another shot of life, and I'd love to see it cross into the mainstream. Give it maybe one more record, especially if they get the right promotion similar to how twenty one pilots did... yeah, Creeper is going to be goddamn huge, and 'Black Rain' is the best possible introduction.


So I'll be honest and say I didn't quite love Jason Eady's self-titled release as much as Daylight & Dark, which I think to this day remains his best record. But you might as well chalk up 'Barabbas' as another staple in his catalog of songs that could be well be deemed country classics in the making. And it's the sort of premise that honestly makes me baffled we've never really heard it in country before, because it sounds like it's always been there - the story of the outlaw set free by the sacrifice of another man that our protagonist neither knows nor quite understands, and Eady's restrained balance of shock, relief, and a sense that the tragedy was more felt than known directly... it's a masterful song, it's nearly on par with the title track of 'Daylight & Dark', and another reason why he is one of the best damn names in indie country, bar none.


It always unsettles me a bit how much I like this song, because I'm not at all a fan of hardcore punk. Post-punk, sure, which with the echoing thrum of the bass and manic guitar work shows more than a little influence, but the vocals are guttural and foul, and that's not even getting into the content, which is basically Lil Uzi Vert's 'XO Tour Llif3' played with appropriately nihilistic framing and writing that highlighted the craven ugliness of it all as well as the sex that is the furthest thing from sexy. And yet in the most perverse way it clicks, it gets the framing and the intensity sitting at the lowest possible point and getting any vestige of pleasure out of it in an utterly nightmarish song. And when you pair it with a disturbing catchy melody and a killer groove... yeah, this crushes.


I've said multiple times that I think Hot Thoughts was the change of pace that made so many long casual fans snap awake and realize how damn great Spoon has always been, but 'WhisperI'lllistentohearit' was something different entirely, a regretful crescendo built over a song that piles in more windswept layers of groove, be they in the synths or the bass or that seething guitar line. And yet even beyond that there's something deeply haunting about this track, the lost potential of the target that's seen so many dreams burn away, with this moment potentially being the dark shot of life given for all the wrong reasons. It's the sort of song where the groove is so damn tight you almost think it's threadbare, going to snap off at the ends... and yet it holds, up until an abrupt ending and a record that'll serve to flip all that dark seductive energy on its head. And yet, the illusion was incredible while it lasted.


...I can't say much about why I adore this song without revealing way too much of my personal life, so let me say this: in a year where there were no shortage of songs exploring depression and turbulent emotions and substance abuse, a song that rips off the band-aid to show someone desperately trying to make the conscious choice to be happy and preserve what they have... yeah, plainspoken, painfully direct, taking a melody from the Zac Brown Band and making it into so much more, it's one of the best things Deaf Havana have ever released and not just for that reason is it this high on this list. Yeah.


Why in the Nine Hells was this not a hit? Seriously, I want to know, because apparently this had shockingly low radio callout scores in 2017 until 'Look What You Made Me Do' came around, and I have no idea why! Well, okay, I have some idea: the melodic shift midway through into that huge hook with roaring guitars and much faster pianos, the fact that Lorde doesn't display melancholy at this breakup so much as channeling her natural intensity into pure anger at having to wait for her lingering emotions to clear so she can move the hell on - it's basically a Beyonce-style breakup anthem from a pop star known for quiet restraint and sending her aura of untouchable cool up in flames - and really, as Lorde herself mentions, that inferno can be hard for a more guarded mainstream public to handle. But for those of us who can weather the flames, this was the pop song that ruled my year, marrying Jack Antonoff's impressive knack for bombast with Lorde letting her intensity blaze forth - and we were all so much better for it.


Unless you follow this channel in depth, the majority of you have no idea who Eric Taxxon is - and really, I wouldn't expect you to, as obscure Bandcamp electronic producers who put out a good five projects at least a year tend to be tough to find or get into. I say all of this with the following statement: 'Real Boy' is the best song The Postal Service never made and arguably better than everything they did make too, a stunningly intimate portrait of online queer relationships with one of the best melodic progressions of 2017 and framing that reflects the homespun, bedroom electronica that becomes instantly beloved when its discovered for its frank but emotive humanity. The poetry is simple but amazing effective, the synth tones are as soothing as any textured chiptune, and Taxxon's performance is among his best. Folks, when Pitchfork or a major label discovers this guy in five years, you're going to want to be ahead of the curve, because of every record and song I've put on this list, this is the one that will get the least critical acclaim, and yet will deserve it the most.


I've come to realize that a lot of people were really on the fence about Steven Wilson's To The Bone in his embracing of the pop structures have always been one of the reasons why he's had the crossover success he has, but I'm not one of them. I reviewed his record while on vacation and yet 'Pariah' resonated with me so much more even beyond that. The beautiful liquid cascades against the synthesizers and acoustic guitar, Steven Wilson's ability to sell abject exhaustion with the modern world, and Ninet Tayeb counterbalance with a husky rawness that pays off the second chorus with stunning effect with a gargantuan tremolo solo. This is progressive pop rock that knows both restraint and when to go huge, and ranks alongside 'Hand. Cannot. Erase.' as one of Wilson's best ever tunes, proof that despite his characteristic studied melancholy, he's best at bringing hope.


I get why people don't like this song - hell, I'm not even sure it's a song I actually like so much as the raw, gaping horror is keeping this lodged in my top ten. Because 'My Auntie's Building' is a risk, both for Open Mike Eagle in the usage of some of the most outwardly noisy and abrasive production to date but also to end the album like this... because it's not a clean ending. It's one verse as he sounds increasingly small amidst the world crumbling around him, wide-eyed horror as his bars paint the picture of a world torn down and replaced with nothing, which ruined the lives of so many families now scattered, and his choice to leave it all so abortive reflects the nature of that trauma - there was no clear answer, there was never enough time to reconcile it, just the dispassionate displacement of a home, a psychic wound even he can't quite parse. It's not the safe way to end a record like Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, but truthfully, it's the only way, and thus in a world where so many artists would provide some escape, Open Mike Eagle delivered the truth, if only to show a fragment of what it truly felt.


Yeah, if there was a year for this song to have profound resonance, it was 2017. And yet for as much as Algiers dove into the pitch-black, fiercely conscious, utterly explosive material that informed The Underside of Power which targeted divisions in class, race, and political affiliation with militaristic precision and rage... they gave us an anthem. And it's arguably one of the most upbeat songs they've ever released. It strips away divisions of those disenfranchised and gives them a fierce rallying cry: Franklin James Fisher has seen the underside of those fragile systems that keep them down, he's been through the gauntlet and has not been broken and he sees the change coming from on high. Playing off the noisy fuzz flooding through most of the song and the touches of Northern soul, he leaps onto the spikes of guitar and rides the gospel swell to the heights, and that before we get the shimmering touches of keys on the bridge that hold the mark even as the mix descends into cacophony before coming out all the stronger. If you weren't listening to Algiers in 2017, you were missing a fire that was sorely missed, and there's all the time in the world to get onboard now!


If there was a theme about The Nashville Sound, it was confronting all of the maturing and 'moving on' that Jason Isbell thought he handled on Southeastern and Something More Than Free, and throwing him back into the pit - his struggles, internal or external, can't just be left behind the closed door of time, and 'Cumberland Gap' is the starkest possible example, an alcohol infused nightmare of a track that is filled with imagery of getting swallowed, falling backwards, searching for a reason that's just not coming if there ever is one against the driving groove accenting by some of the noisiest production Isbell and Dave Cobb have ever used, with real groove cobbled out of the howling feedback. And what makes up the thrill - and the terror - of a song like this is that it's Jason Isbell, coming off of records where you thought his sobriety was guaranteed, stability was found... if even he's losing it, how can anyone hold on? And when you couple it with a hook that's simple but unbelievably potent all the same, especially coming off the minor progressions on the verses and prechorus, it's hard not to feel a kinship in the lurching instability of it all, and that made it resonate all the harder.


I may have said that Eric Taxxon was the least known artist on this list, but if you're looking for a close second who is worthy of just as much attention, look no further than Jaime Wyatt with her best song to date, 'Stone Hotel'. And aside from being a song that should rightly get a spot if there's ever another season of Orange Is The New Black, it's a song that takes the story that saw her thrown in prison and gives it one of the best hooks country had to offer. Between the wonderful organic groove of the fiddles, saloon piano, pedal steel, organ, and acoustic guitar, all building to a stomping prechorus and monster hook, Wyatt manages to cram the song full of the details of the desperate poverty that drove her to steal, getting thoroughly screwed by the legal system, and then winding up in jail where despite the gross indignities of it all, she's got someone waiting for her and needs something to buoy her spirits. And yet again, this song, for as impatient and scathing as it is towards a system that screwed her over, there's hope here, and it's a wonder to behold... a lot like this song.


This was the hip-hop song to beat in 2017, right from the very beginning - and nothing did. Just like 'Crown' before it, this is Run The Jewels at their most emotive, complex and powerful, with El-P joining Aesop Rock in a tribute to Camu Tao where he wrestles with the guilt of wishing his friend would perish quicker to spare him the suffering, and Killer Mike telling the story of a friend killed for his chain and how losing a provider for that family led to a downward spiral, and yet he speaks to that killer and says he hopes that was enough to pull himself out of poverty so that his own mother wouldn't know the same pain of losing a child, punctuated by the thunderclaps at the biblical portent of that veiled warning. Coupled with the stunning horn accompaniment from Kamasi Washington on the hook that comes right out of nowhere following the wiry warbles of grimy synth, the glimmer of sleigh bells, and our rappers at their most expressive, it leads to a hook that can pay off the catharsis acknowledging those memories will never be forgotten. For me, easily the best hip-hop song of the year, one of Run The Jewels' absolute best, and all the more evidence that they're a force to be reckoned with, even at their most vulnerable. And on that subject...


If you've been in indie country circles, you've already heard the critical acclaim for this: that Jason Isbell has once again added to his canon of classics, a song that rivals 'Elephant' for sheer emotional power. And you've also probably heard the naysayers, that its usage of vampires as a metaphor is the sort of thing most country artists would never do and along with all of the ghostly atmospherics there are a few too many veneers to truly pull someone into the story. For me that was never an issue - hell, given where I hung out most of 2017 this feels almost apropos - and none of it takes away from Jason Isbell's acknowledgement of his partner's mortality, with a faded wish that they could have so much more time and flaunt those rules of mortality, played with gothic trappings in the imagery but a realistic emotional core that transcends all of it, capturing loneliness, heartbreak, and grief to come, against a simple but amazing effective acoustic melody, Amanda Shires' perfect backing vocals, and a mix giving just enough space to show it all. It's one of the most tragic and romantic songs I've heard all year, it's one of Jason Isbell's best, it's the best country song of 2017, and it damn near was the best track of this year... and yet...


I could write an essay on this song alone - the first time I heard it I knew it was going to be on this list, and every subsequent listen confirmed its position at the top of this list; for about the past four months, this was my song of 2017, hands down. Among the best tracks the Mountain Goats have ever written, it is unlike anything they've ever made - no guitar, all piano and thrumming bass and symphonic vocals calling to mind Sisters Of Mercy circa-Floodland, and with writing and delivery that was arguably even more potent. Because this song isn't just a goth anthem - although it certainly is one - it's about the slow, inexorable collapse of goth culture, as the vestige for the outcast damned is crumbling around them, half through the uncaring mainstream eye and half through the long, slow decay of time. And what's all the more potent is the main conceit that nobody truly knows the cause of the collapse - nobody knows the breaking point of the legends, you might be able to trace the roots of birth but you can't find the point of death. But it's always there, it's omnipresent, it's the one barrier that goth claims to idolize but always hesitates to truly embrace - 'nothing harder to go through with than a vanishing act', indeed. And yet the scene decays, with all of the iconography all the more pronounced as John Darnielle's vocals get all the more intense and guttural, all full of biblical portent and apocalyptic prophesy... only for the song to hit that climax point and fade into ambient quiet, moments of respite in dark inclusion on the bridge and the emptiness that followed. And in a year where the passage of time felt all the more pronounced, as old institutions were torn down, and I found myself in one such gothic establishment resurrected from abandoned decay too many times, this was the soundtrack to my year, and is my #1 song of 2017. Let's only hope that 2018 can bring a new dawn.

1 comment:

  1. Big Enough sounds like garbage, im shocked it made this list let alone that high

    ReplyDelete