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.
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