By Biff Hust. “If I woke up tomorrow morning with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now.” This is what I kept thinking over and over in November 2016. Now I just repeat the title of my favorite album thirty years ago over and over on a loop: “Nothing’s Shocking.” So it’s no surprise to me that my favorite album of the year consists of loops and samples and repeated mantras all done in an abstract, beautifully disjointed and raw style. Earl Sweatshirt’s opus Some Rap Songs is a combination of the brevity, simplicity, and focus of punk rock and the other worldly, spontaneity and mystical qualities of good jazz. Since this album came out it has been on a loop when I’m in the car by myself; I also put Jeff Tweedy on every now and then to come out of the cold, introspective world Earl creates only to enter a warmer yet just as introspective one Tweedy creates. Both of these albums capture my mood and the palpable yet jaded angst I sense in our society today. These albums are one and two for me this year. Earl gets the slight nod just because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard yet so compelling to listen to. I’ve been singing Jeff Tweedy’s praises for years now and finally feel vindicated that people love his “first” official solo album. Continue reading
By Antony Lyon. Last year, my music listening habits surprised me; now I suspect they heralded the new normal. I make a lot of playlists – thirteen this year by my count. I enjoy the deliberate process of making a soundtrack for the moment, and I spent a lot of my listening time putting them together. My two most-spun albums this year were not from 2018. One was U2’s Songs Of Experience, which is a late 2017 album. Predictably, I listened to it a lot. As with any old friend, I (almost) forgive its flaws and only hear its virtues. As I said last year, it’s not an album that will convert late-period-U2 skeptics, but for the believers among us, it deepens a great band’s legacy. By a mile, my most-spun album is Teenage Fanclub’s Songs From Northern Britain. This 1998 album, a pastoral folk-rock exploration emerging from the Scottish Highlands, received a lovely polishing with a new remaster this year. This remastered edition coincided with a moment in my life, and now the album occupies one of those mystical spaces for me. I’m destined to listen to it on a walk in the Highlands and to weep like a child. I can’t wait. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Typically, great art is borne of terrible times. So in these days when hate is rising everywhere, days when some are questioning the decline of democracy itself, you’d expect that “serious” music—particularly music with a strongly political bent—would be experiencing a renaissance. Yet it’s confounding that two years into this critical juncture in history, we’re seeing so little music that speaks to the moment, that provides a vital commentary on the state of our union comparable to the creative explosion of the 1960s or the literary revolution of the interwar period. Music is still searching for a way to do something new, and the best answer anyone’s come up with so far is to cross-pollinate genres or historical influences in a way that aspires to accomplish a seamless new blend—hopefully obscuring the fact that there’s nothing truly new or original about it.
But while my 2017 list bemoaned a particularly weak crop, I’m happy to say that in 2018, the road is curving back in the right direction. And there are even signs that maybe, just maybe, this historical moment of ours could be on the cusp of sparking the next great creative explosion. My hope begins with this year’s brilliant new evolutionary leap from Leon Bridges. Continue reading
By Spencer Davis. Time for another vinyl time capsule in our continuing series, The Vintage Collector. I’m making my picks for the essential classic albums you need in your vinyl collection. This time, we’re doing barroom piano ballads, proto-hair metal, sultry lounge standards, soul/blues fusion, and a lost album from a titan of jazz. Continue reading
By Antony Lyon. Nothing I say is going to make you change your mind. You either want to listen to U2’s new album, Songs Of Experience, or you don’t. It really says more about you than it does U2. I have a long record of proselytizing about late-period U2, which says more about me than it does U2, I suppose. Continue reading
By Antony Lyon. This year, in a break with tradition, I’ve left my list unnumbered and included a few releases that violate the “new in 2017” selection principle. So you’ll find both a remastered anniversary deluxe edition and a 2016 album that I didn’t discover until this August on the list. This year I’ve chosen in the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
I listened to a lot of albums once, and I listened to a lot several times. I played some more often than others, but I rarely became obsessed with one. I spent a lot of time making playlists by collecting discovered single songs, rather than committing to whole albums. As a result, I don’t know how to rank these albums in a way that isn’t simply arbitrary. But to give it some sense of order, I’ve organized my reflections in genre clusters.
I don’t really have the wherewithal to bend my listening habits into a broader cultural critique, but I suspect it’s waiting there for someone more ambitious than I. This list is not hashtagged clickbait—“The Music List We Need Right Now!” It’s simply a list of what moved me and kept me moving this year. Continue reading
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. Continue reading