The Year In Music 2017: Spencer’s Picks

By Spencer Davis. Last month, I wrote a piece for this website explaining why I fear we’ve reached the end of music. Those ideas have been floating around in my head all year, and there’s a reason for that: I’ve been largely uninspired by the music that was released in 2017. After years writing about the best in indie rock, Americana, electronic, and hip-hop, I feel like every one of these genres has quietly reached a plateau—a Mobius strip of innovation in the guise of imitation, where nothing sounds new and any creativity by the artist is taking place mostly at the margins. We’ve reached points before in our musical history where a particular genre lost its ability to leave an impact. Think back to 1998 and how listless rock music had become after a decade of mopey grunge excess. The same phenomenon happened with the waning days of hair metal in 1990, or with pop music around that same time period, or with jazz in the late 50s. In each of these cases, the exhaustion of one art form made room for the birth of another, and rock-and-roll or hip-hop or grunge or indie rose to meet the challenge.

This time, though, feels different. Precisely because all of our musical forms have reached the exhaustion point simultaneously. Hip-hop has become stale, relying on minimalist beats and safe, Auto-Tuned choruses to speak to an ever-narrowing audience in clubs and on top 40 radio. Americana, once a refreshing throwback to the past, now feels increasingly forced and cliched after a wave of hipster Lumineer imitators beat the horse to death. After a decade of laughable Nashville radio filler, country momentarily offered a breath of something new by looking to the past and imitating the sounds of vintage 70s and 80s outlaw country—but the problem with looking backwards is that it gives you nowhere else to go. Electronic and EDM, while conceptually seeming like the obvious place to go if you’re looking for the music of the future, instead seem content with confining themselves to a niche of the market, endlessly looping the same sounds and textures and beats with diminishing returns. And rock music? It barely exists anymore, with most indie bands relegating the guitar to an afterthought and established rock stars like U2 doing everything they can to shoehorn elements of other genres into their music in a last desperate bid for continued relevance.

If this is a harsh way to start off a list of the year’s best music, I apologize only up to a point. The albums I’ve listed here are certainly good, listenable music—but are any of them truly great? Will we listen to any of them five years from now, or even one year from now? Looking back to my 2016 list, I can’t help but feel that the very best albums of 2017 wouldn’t have cracked the top 15 of that list. And sure, maybe that’s just a sign of a down year; after all, if we’re only a year removed from such superior work, then we may only be a year away from a renaissance. If so, I think it will require something more than repackaging the sounds of the past; it will require new voices, new ideas, and maybe some new names.

So if inclusion on this year’s list now reads like a backhanded compliment of sorts, then so be it. The true greats, including possibly even some of the artists I’ve listed here, will be more then capable of rising to the challenge—or else they’re not true greats.

1. The National – Sleep Well Beast
2. Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude
3. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger In The Alps
4. Slowdive – Slowdive
5. Brand New – Science Fiction
6. St. Vincent – Masseducation
7. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens
8. Benjamin Booker – Witness
9. Lorde – Melodrama
10. Loyle Carner – Yesterday’s Gone
11. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
12. Various Artists – The American Epic Sessions

I debated seriously which album to put at #1—and honestly, you might just view my top 5 as completely interchangeable. But in the interest of breaking the tie, I’m going to award the top prize to The National—a band who surprised me with a comeback of sorts. Though one of the truly essential bands of the 00s, their two releases since then (2013’s Trouble Will Find Me and 2015’s A Lot Of Sorrow) sounded more like a tired boxer struggling to find the motivation to keep punching. But this year’s Sleep Well Beast must be their second wind hitting. They sound feisty, playful, fearless. And while the album is too long and suffers from the occasional misstep (ahem, “Turtleneck”), the high points are high indeed: like the darkly shuffling “Guilty Party” or the lovely piano ode of “Carin At The Liquor Store” or the endearing weirdness of “Dark Side Of The Gym.” Matt Berninger’s signature baritone has aged like a fine scotch, smokier but mellowing nicely with a sippable sweetness that wasn’t there before. And for the first time in half a decade, you can hear The National prodding furiously at new ideas in their songcraft. They don’t always achieve them, but you can still feel and respect the creative restlessness at play.

A close runner-up is Leif Vollebekk, whose superbly easygoing piano ballads are the Napa wine to The National’s sonic whisky. Soft but deceptively complex, with lyrics that sting as you replay them in your head, Twin Solitude may not innovate, but I keep coming back to it over and over again. Phoebe Bridgers cut just as deep with Stranger In The Alps, a collection of haunting guitar ballads that were quiet like a whisper—but with lyrics that were louder than bombs. The challenge with such a soft album is that it can lull you to sleep if you’re not careful; Bridgers deftly dodges that time and again with subtle little production flourishes: an unexpected percussion experiment or a piano cue that redefines the tone of the song just when you need it.

After almost twenty years away, the underrated early 90s band Slowdive brought shoegaze back from the dead with all the same vitality and insecurity that they mined so effectively in their youth. What’s amazing is how effectively they revive a bygone era while still somehow sounding thoroughly modern. Meanwhile, Brand New didn’t give us anything “brand new,” exactly, but Science Fiction was a highly-listenable throwback to the days of crunchy alterna-rock guitar hooks, giving the band its best release in over a decade—and the perfect swan song if they really do call it quits now, as rumored.

St. Vincent always delivers, and if the second half of Masseducation had lived up to the promise of the first half, it would be the album of the year. Still, Annie Clark’s unique ability to playfully marry shredding guitar leads, danceable pop beats, and biting social commentary continues to make her one of music’s most essential voices. Coming to us from Wales, Kelly Lee Owens shrugged off the repetitiveness of electronica with her ambitious debut, a batch of actual songs that always find a way to smartly evolve in delightful new directions. Benjamin Booker is an artist whose first album didn’t quite hit home for me, but this year’s Witness helped me see him in a new light; his vocals and guitar sounds may derive from standard garage rock, but the gospel and soul elements on songs like “Witness” and “Believe” elevate him to a higher calling.

After an appropriate time away from the limelight, the once-ubiquitous Lorde forever put to rest the danger of becoming a one-hit wonder with Melodrama, a smart and sophisticated pop album that achieves something rare for her genre; it’s a cohesive, unified piece of art unto itself, not just a collection of catchy singles. Veering damn close to becoming a concept album, she manages to fashion club anthems that speak to something deeper, reminding us that music can be fun while still having both a heart and a brain. From the flip side, British hip-hop artist Loyle Carner offered hope for the future with his brand of confessional, distinctly English rap poetry. More spoken-word than we’re accustomed to in America, he paints vivid imagery of a street life that may be entirely foreign to us, but is no less “street” for it.

Finally, I close with two more throwbacks. Despite its name, there was nothing Nashville about the new album from Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit; we can probably read that title as an effort to reclaim the mantle from what country has become. And if so, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, because Isbell has become the genre’s most honest and reliable songwriter. And I can think of no better sendoff to 2017 than with an album that laid its seeds almost a century earlier. For The American Epic Sessions, a companion piece for his PBS documentary about the earliest days of records, Jack White redefined the very concept of a soundtrack, assembling a murderer’s row of iconic musical talent—including Beck, Elton John, Alabama Shakes, Nas, Willie Nelson, Los Lobos, The Avett Brothers, Bettye LaVette, Ashley Monroe, Taj Mahal, Raphael Saadiq, Stephen Stills, and Merle Haggard—and asking them to record on the oldest recording machine known to man, a 1920s Western Electric recording lathe powered by a good old-fashioned weight-on-a-string. Recording a mix of vintage blues, C&W, and gospel, along with some newly penned tunes, they put together a fascinating collection that spans the history of sound. Like a musical time machine, there’s no greater mindfuck than hearing some of the greatest and most familiar voices of today rendered in that tinny, scratchy, warm-spun vibe of yesteryear. Find it on vinyl if you can and discover something truly timeless.

Honorable Mention:
Bonobo – Migration / Caroline Spence – Spades And Roses / Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Volumes 1 and 2 / The Clientele – Music For The Age Of Miracles / Elbow – Little Fictions / Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow / Jay Som – Everybody Works / John Moreland – Big Bad Luv / Josh Ritter – Gathering / Laura Marling – Semper Femina / Maggie Rogers – Now That The Light Is Fading (EP) / Sylvan Esso – What Now / The XX – I See You / Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child

19 thoughts on “The Year In Music 2017: Spencer’s Picks

  1. Misery loves company so I just want to say I am relieved to read your last post and comments and this one. I was beginning to believe there was something wrong with me or that I became ancient in one year. I do believe age has something to do with my lack of love for this year’s music because my good friend’s sons are 20 and 19 and they are constantly falling in love with music and sending me stuff. I feel like such a hater because I’ll give it one listen and 9 times out of 10 it’s a meh reaction or even ugh. My own son is 18 and listens exclusively to hip-hop and aside from Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar, I don’t get the new stuff at all. I was a staunch defender of Age of Adz and Bon Iver’s latest but damn if I hear auto-tune one more time my ears are going to start bleeding. (I’m looking at you U2). So all of this to say I will be hard pressed to come up with a list, the first half of the year was better than the second half but I think that has a lot to do with me and my listening habits/attitude, I have become jaded and apathetic as the year has progressed. I blame Trump for that! I know I should be inspired to want to change things and listen to music to rile me up but I don’t. I’ve started running again and I can’t even use Propaghandi or OH Sees to get me moving faster. There was some female fronted rock/punk that I dug but not enough to love. I hope I come up with a list because I love the process of reflection and ranking but if I don’t The National and Slowdive are where you and I agree the most as placement. (but not your analysis of the National’s last two).

  2. Thanks, Biff! I’m with you. There’s a reason I’ve barely written about music this year, and it’s that so little music felt worth writing about. The irony is that I’ve always insisted in the past that I cared less about novelty than about quality. I’ve criticized artists who go “weird for weird’s sake,” while praising artists who just focus on good, honest songwriting. And yet this year, it’s like I hit the wall with everything we’ve been hearing, because it’s all the same.

    And that applies even to some of my favorite artists. Josh Ritter? This was his first album that failed to excite me, and it’s because for the first time, he feels like he’s running in place. Ryan Adams? It’s pretty clear he’s content at this point to beat his new 80s rock vibe to death (and yet it got so much damn love from the critics!). Noah Gundersen was one of my absolute favorites over the past few years, but by going into grunge lite with his production, he’s drowned out what made him special. Spoon, Arcade Fire, The XX, Hiss Golden Messenger, LCD Soundsystem, Lana Del Rey, Cloud Nothings, Grizzly Bear, Phoenix, Fleet Foxes, Foo Fighters, Beck, Margo Price, David Ramirez, Angus & Julia Stone, The War On Drugs, even fucking Bob Dylan? They all put out albums this year that sounded like diluted retreads of earlier, better work. Hell, even some of the albums I listed favorably here—like Jason Isbell, Laura Marling, Elbow, or The Clientele—fit that description. They only made the list because they were ever so slightly better in the execution. And because, well, the competition was even weaker.

    I’d say it’s that we’re getting old, but I honestly don’t think that’s it. Because it’s not like the music has changed and left us behind. It’s that the music hasn’t changed.

  3. I agree with you Spencer. There hasn’t been anything truly new in music in a very long time. Probably since EDM. Sure there have been new takes, new sounds, but nothing is revolutionary. Pitchfork’s protest music list cracked me up. Is there such a thing anymore?

    Although I’m not sure there is a top 10 for me, I’ll have to generate my own list. The National is way up there, as is Leif Vollebekk. But we differ on LCD Soundsystem. Maybe it’s because I saw them live (one of the best live shows I’ve ever been a part of – and that’s how you felt, a part of it), but their new stuff is actually smart and in subtle ways different than their previous material. Still true to their New York record store roots and self-conscious as ever about aging and their place in music. Songs like “Oh Baby,” “I Used To” (what a solo) and “Tonite” are as strong as anything they’ve done in the past.

    But even a genre-defying band like LCD Soundsystem isn’t doing anything new.

    Yes, we’re old. But yes, music isn’t new.

  4. I didn’t think LCD Soundsystem was bad, per se. Just dull. It didn’t grab me. That’s actually true of most of the music I’m criticizing here. Which is different than in past years where the critics have gushed all over something like Father John Misty or Kanye or Grimes or ANOHNI—I genuinely thought that music was BAD. This year, the consensus favorites you’re seeing on other critics’ lists were just totally unremarkable to me. And that especially goes for Kendrick Lamar. Praising him just seems more like automatic reflex than anything else.

    • Agree to disagree on Kendrick. I think he’s a remarkably gifted lyricist and DAMN might be my favorite record this year. “The Sound” came on this morning. Noah Gundersen’s unfortunate turn reminds me of Remy Zero’s “Golden Hum.”

  5. I’m with Biff (at least a part of what he said). I’m more than skeptical when a bunch of middle aged dudes declare music dead or exhausted. I think there’s some merit to the charge that several artists many of us love failed to turn out something that felt like an evolution of their sound, but let’s be clear — take a step back and none of them, none of music has really been evolving for decades. I do think 2017 was somewhat disappointing, but I think a lot of it is that I’m exhausted. Artists and sounds I love didn’t push any boundaries, and this is the important part, I keep rejecting everything the kids are falling in love with for whatever reason I come up with, but that’s about me, not about them or the music (most of the time).

  6. So the kids are mostly falling in love with pop music these days, or at best, pop-inflected hip-hop. That’s fine—every generation of youth has its disposable ear candy, and I’d submit that while even this kind of music is capable of being objectively judged as either good and bad in terms of quality and creativity, I’d also submit that we need not judge the state of music today by that kind of music.

    But what about the stuff the critics love? Why are we failing to connect with that too? I don’t think we can assign it to just age. After all, the consensus #1 album of the year seems to be either Lorde’s Melodrama or Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Lorde made my own top 10, and it’s definitely music for young people, so I don’t think we can just say that we’re aging out of what’s popular. And Kendrick Lamar—are we all in agreement that we typically respect the hell out of him as an artist, and just didn’t particularly connect with this new, stripped-down sound he went for?

    Biff mentioned Vince Staples, and I think he’s a good entry point into the part of the Venn diagram that we’re really trying to explore here: the music that seems to connect strongly with both youth and critics. Other examples would be Future, Perfume Genius (which I think a few of you liked?), Sampha, Migos, and Kamasi Washington. The common theme among a lot of these is that they have a more urban, hip-hop influenced sound (even when they’re not hip-hop). Which I’ll concede veers dangerously close to proving Antony’s point—we’re just old, white fogies who don’t get this younger, urban, more diverse music! Except that I had a lot of fun with this year’s Run The Jewels album, and was seriously in love with last year’s Blood Orange album, both of which would fit right alongside that list in terms of style. Which leaves me in a lurch.

    Bottom line, I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe a few exceptions don’t disprove the rule, and Antony’s right that (in general) we’re aging out of the kind of music that excites the artists and taste-makers of today? Maybe music really has hit a creative wall and, since we don’t work for a commercial publication, we’re empowered to admit this was a terrible year for music while the other list-makers out there can’t? Maybe the truth is a mix of both? All I know for sure is that the question both fascinates and deeply troubles me.

  7. I loved Damn! I feel Kendrick has cemented his status as greatest rapper of the current generation with this one. Pimp a butterfly was his art house flick and Damn was his blockbuster, but a blockbuster I love like Logan or Baby Driver. My number 1 for the year. I also really liked Kamasi and Sampha. They are in my top 10 as well as perfume genius. There was stuff I liked but the last couple of months have been really stale and I think it’s more me than music.

  8. In fact Kamasi was the last time I feel
    Like I truly connected to new music. I was traveling to a UCLA football game with my AVID class traveling down the 210 toward Pasadena as the sun was setting providing an awesome color to this cool jazz that was soundtracking kids excited conversation and it just put me in a real awesome head space so every time I play it I am transported to that moment.

  9. Antony, as someone closer to the now many generations below us (although I have a window – my assistants try to keep me informed of what the kids are up to). If it’s more about us than the music, I’d love to better understand what qualifies as the great music of this generation. What in your mind are examples of albums that are good, but that we’re too old to understand or care about? Biff pointed to Vince Staples, but I dig him. Same with Kendrick. But overall what I think this generation lacks is a unique musical movement. I’d love to be wrong though, so give me some examples!

    • And Antony, maybe it’s not even something that’s “good” because that can be subjective. Maybe a list of artists that people like us would be listening to if we were 18-25.

  10. Yeah after your last post I was like, I liked that, I liked that, I liked that….maybe this year wasn’t as bad as I thought, I think it’s just a rut that I’m in.
    I hate migos and future though. Am so over father john misty. Did not connect to fleet foxes, grizzly bear, or josh Ritter like I thought I would

  11. @Mark. Maybe it’s a dodge, but I don’t have the answer to the question. I actually don’t think we should expect an answer in the way there used to be one. Whatever else is true, pop culture has fragmented because of the internet. The bad is that there are few cultural zeitgeist moments, but the good is that everyone has some pocket where they feel they belong. Maybe that’s a practical way of understanding the “death of music” — it’s not music, but the sense that Music (capital M) is advancing and evolving. To me, the most compelling part of Spencer’s argument was the questions about the medium through which music is delivered. That changes everything.

    The advantage of my theory of the middle-aged-curmudgeon is that we are fading out, so we aren’t completely out of touch with what’s new and meaningful. I think folks like us (to speak for all of you) will have a longer, slower transition out of relevance because we have a strong sense of musical curiosity. But I see my judgments changing — there’s stuff I love and then there’s stuff I appreciate as a sign of the times (Kendrick, Lorde, etc). But I think if I were younger, I would love it. It would speak to me the way Nirvana did. The way Mos Def did. The way The National did. But it doesn’t — I listen and move on.

    • I wonder if a 14-year old kid today actually DOES connect with their music the way we did with Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, though? I mean, a huge factor in the intensity of our connection with that music was that it was highly emotional stuff. The music of today’s youth doesn’t have that; its appeal is either fun or intellectual. I suspect that this inherently limits the ability of anyone to get truly invested in an artist to the same degree?

  12. I don’t know about that. I know there is a wave of emo-esque rappers out there right now one being that shitbag XXX Tentacion who opens his album with this spoken word:
    My collection of nightmares, thoughts, and real life situations I’ve lived
    17 is the number tattooed on the right side of my head
    My own personal number
    Soon to be explained in future interviews or instances
    By listening to this album, you are literally
    And I cannot stress this enough
    Entering my mind
    And if you are not willing to accept my emotion
    And hear my words fully
    Do not listen
    I do not value your money
    I value your acceptance and loyalty
    Here is my pain and thoughts put into words
    I put my all into this
    In the hopes that it will help cure
    Or at least numb your depression
    I love you
    Thank you for listening
    That is aiming straight for that confused 14 year olds heart. The problem is this dude is a horrible torturer and beater of females.
    That is just one example of the stuff my students are listening to. It’s all rap, it’s all this Emo/suicidal/xanz popping and lean drinking auto-tuned Lil something or other. I know for a fact the kids are connecting at the emotional level.
    For the LGBQT kids who don’t want hip-hop there’s Big Theif, Jenny Hval, Arca. All very emotional stuff. Mount Eerie and Nick Cave were the most emotional album I heard this year but not ones I want to return to, maybe ever.
    There will always be emotional connections to music I think it’s just we’re not 14 anymore. Or even for me 30 anymore

  13. Sorry one last thing, anytime an artist brings a spiritual element to their work their will be a connection at that level as well. Chance and Kendrick do this and I think that is why I still connect to them so strongly even though I don’t vibe with everything they are talking about.

  14. @Biff — Between that XXX Tenacion track and the picture of Post Malone that Mark texted me today, my hope for music and the kids has taken a pretty serious hit. Everything about that spoken word is alarming to me. From the content and message it delivers to the nonliteral use of “literally” (the latter, clearly being a curmudgeonly pet peeve).

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