I’ve rarely felt so detached from the prevailing music culture as I did in 2017. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
It’s not only that my resounding obliviousness of the songs that stormed the pop charts (I would recognize Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” or Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” juggernauts both, if they started spilling out of a speaker near me), since that’s been the case for quite some time. This year, I also felt a detachment from the albums that were ensnarled the attention of music tastemakers. I dallied with the likes of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Lorde’s Melodrama, and Fever Ray’s Plunge only to find myself aware of artistry and purpose while also feeling a pronounced disconnection. When I’m feeling generous, I attribute the personal chill to the simple possibility that these albums are not for me. In less gregarious moments, I’m convinced I’m assessing music in an Emperor’s New Album scenario.
Given the compounding misery of the year about to close, maybe I found greater solace in the familiar, the new music that spoke directly to my embedded preferences. As I type, I’m listening to Savage Young Dü, the unlikely box set collecting early, largely unheard material from Husker Dü, and it’s warming my soul like few other records have these past twelve months. So this list of the best new albums of 2017 may not stand up to scrutiny from modern music aesthetes, but it absolutely speaks to where I’m at now. I don’t know if this list is cool, but it’s absolutely mine.
1. Perfume Genius, No Shape — Every time I cycle back to No Shape, I am awestruck anew by its majesty, poignancy, and piercing beauty. Mike Hadreas delivers epic pop music, awash in layers of sweeping, unpredictable sounds. It manages to be massive and intimate at the same time, the latter quality enhanced by the brutal, beautiful honesty of Hadreas’s lyrics, tracing love and hope and pain with surgical precision and disarming ruthlessness.
2. St. Vincent, Masseduction — Annie Clark’s jagged genius decimates all the rules of rock and pop. Songs soar and simmer, constantly offering devious flurries of invention even as she embraces the rigors of established pop song craft like never before. Few other current artists so consistently push boundaries with the same enrapturing results.
3. Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm — The creative outlet of ace guitarist and sharp songwriter Katie Crutchfield hit a new peak with Out of the Storm, an album of heartache channeled into swirls of contained sonic fury. The influence of nineteen-nineties alternative rock is still present, but Crutchfield’s palette has marvelously expanded.
4. Diet Cig, Swear I’m Good at This — The full-length debut from this poppy punk duo is jammed full of songs that deliver their sharp jab and bound away. The lyrics are clever and lined with the awaking feminist urgency of lead singer and guitarist Alex Luciano. The jumpy joy Diet Cig obviously feels in making the music is infectious.
5. The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding — Complex and soulful, A Deeper Understanding is the sort of album that would undoubtedly be plentiful if the sonic textures of classic rock had kept evolving over the years. Instead, it’s a blessed rarity, drawing on familiar styles while forging something beautifully distinct.
6. LCD Soundsystem, American Dream — Whether viewed a comeback or simply the next entry from an outfit that laid low for a bit, American Dream is a jubilant blast of creative dance music met with wry, understated lyrics. It’s a spirited survey of all the possibilities of the form.
7. Grizzy Bear, Painted Ruins — Deceptively easygoing, the fifth album from Grizzly Bear is resonant and alluring. The band comes up with crafty melodies and punchy hooks, then sketches in musical details that promise fresh discoveries with every listen.
8. The Mountain Goats, Goth — Theming an album around the outsider cultures that found respite in the most glamorously gloomy artists of the heyday of college rock (The Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Gene Loves Jezebel are among the bands explicitly invoked), songwriter John Darnielle finds one of his purest muses yet.
9. Sylvan Esso, What Now — An album fixated on the freeing pleasures of great pop songs is appropriately built around tracks that sound like they could dominate the charts if justice was a component of popular taste. The unashamed simplicity of the pining for pop song pleasures is exactly what makes What Now wondrous.
10. Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock — The absurdist musical master’s finest album since Spooked, released in 2004, is giddily playful, loping through genre exercises with a carefree confidence. It plays like a statement of revived purpose.