Two music gurus. A year's worth of musical talent.
One epic draft.
This is going to be hard.
The first pick that comes to mind is Kesha, for many reasons. It's an injustice that for most of her career, Kesha was noted more for her party-girl aesthetic rather than her underrated songwriting and vocal chops. After a lengthy legal battle resulting from ongoing abuse by her producer Dr. Luke, Kesha finally released her new album “Rainbow” last year. The album isn't perfect—it's too eclectic and brash to strive for perfection—but it shows Kesha coming into her own as a songwriter. Her forays into country are genuinely intriguing, and lead single "Praying" could elicit shivers from a brick.
Aside from the music, Kesha deserves credit for her bravery. The latter half of this year has seen many courageous actors and musicians take a stand against the abuse the entertainment industry has long permitted. Taylor Swift made the cover of Time Magazine for her legal victory against an assaulter this year, so it's not hard to wonder why no one was apparently listening when Kesha first made accusations against the major producer back in 2013. As it stands, “Rainbow” is as vibrant as its namesake, and as endearing as its creator. More important than sounding perfect, Kesha sounds triumphant.
Alright, so my first pick I'm actually scrapping because I was mistaken on when her big song came out (that was going to be Bishop Briggs, for whatever it's worth), and so I move right to my originally-second-pick, but if you're reading this you were totally my first pick the whole way...Sampha!
I've been keeping tabs on Sampha for over half a decade at this point, but this was the first year he came out with his own full-length album, and it had some instant classics on it. "Blood On Me" is an aggressive banger. "(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano" is something else though, man.
He wrote this while he was taking care of his sick mother. It was the last song he sang to her before she passed. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Sampha's voice has a natural strain that makes the song's simple elements and simple narrative cross you up and hit you with incredibly complex and raw emotion. Having previously only been exposed to Sampha's work with SBTRKT ("Something Goes Right" is an all-time jam) I loved being exposed to this Sampha.
Sampha gave us his debut album and the most beautiful song of the year. This was his breakout year, and he's going to be around for quite some time, I hope.
*extremely Mike Nelson voice* "I'm 97% sure we will not overlap."
Well Mike, you already nabbed one of my picks. Sampha’s album is gorgeous, and well worth the long wait. "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano" might be my favorite song this year. It's so good and pure. There's no irony or overwrought attempts to create drama, just a beautiful tribute to his mother. Thanks for the lovely write-up on it—even though I'm bitter you swiped it.
I'm going to follow-up with Phil Elverum (who records as Mount Eerie) for releasing one of the most devastating albums in this, or any, year. Written in the months following his wife Genevieve's death from pancreatic cancer at age 35, “A Crow Looked at Me” explores the end of life with such intimacy that it borders on perverse. "Death is real," Elverum repeats at several points over the course of the album, as if the most profound meaning he can draw from her passing is also the most banal.
There's no great philosophical musings in his words, and no earth-shattering insight into what it means to live or die. Instead, it's his observations of the world around him that leave a listener breathless. In "Forest Fire," he mutters, "I remember thinking the last time it rained here you were alive still / and that this same long heat that I was in contained you." It's a couplet so saturated with grief that listening is almost unbearable.
In a way, there's never been an album (that I'm aware of) quite like “A Crow Looked at Me.” It's so raw and visceral that the songs almost don't seem inspired by death, but rather some strange in-between world where a loved one's breath still lingers and their scent clings to a pile of clothes. In the first song, a package Genevieve had ordered arrives the week after she passes. Death is real, but we're left to make sense of the shapes and spaces our loved ones continue to fill after they're gone.
Allow me to address a few things:
- Apologies for the 10-day delay in continuing this chain.
- I take back my apologies, it was Christmas, you savage.
- I remembered seeing you and Ford talking about Sampha in some Twitters, and that dawned on me right when I was making my pick. Had to go for the jugular. I regret nothing.
- Mount Eerie, man, I have many thoughts after the three songs I got through on that album, but I will respectfully say that we have plenty of areas we don't overlap in our music loves. There's a level of despair I care not to access on this day, and he is the portal trying to suck me down to it.
Okay, I'm on to my second pick, and I'm totally sure how to phrase it. I'm going to play it completely unfair here and say it's Future Islands/Sam Herring. Herring is the lead singer in Future Islands, and we'll get to his singling-out in a few sentences, but let's talk about the full band for a minute. I saw Future Islands back in 2014 when they were touring for their album Singles. I only knew one song at the time—“Seasons (Waiting On You)"—and I left knowing I would actively try to never miss another concert of theirs. Now, we're not doing our Top Artists of 2014 here, so let's flash forward to 2017, the year we're actually discussing.
In 2017, Future Islands put out what I consider both their best album to date and the best album of any artist this year. It is a complete, beginning-to-end ‘80s-style dance party fueled by synth and the most passionate, must-see frontman in the game right now, Sam Herring. It was surprising to me to be so entertained by a studio album from them, knowing it only gets better to see Herring belting out their songs on stage, gliding back-and-forth as if on ice skates and dropping his vocals at times to let the devil in. This was the year everyone knew they should go see the spectacle that is Future Islands in concert, which is why they got dropped onto the main stages at festivals all summer.
Meanwhile, Herring popped up on a couple of my favorite collaborations of the year, "I Don't Know" by BadBadNotGood and "Paper Trails" by Celebration. The latter of which is an absolute beauty—one of my favorite tracks of the year. Here's hoping that if you're reading this, this was the last year you didn't go see Future Islands. Rob, I'll grab you a ticket next time they tour, and we can dance all these emotions out.
Now you're forcing me once again to defend my indefensible aversion to this band. I appreciate that Herring's signature howl is a unique force in the modern music landscape, but I can't bring myself to enjoy listening to it. He's featured as the vocalist on the Clams Casino track "Ghost in a Kiss," and I would love the song if it was anyone else singing.
I'm going to pull another 180 and give props to Lorde as one of my favorite artists this year. Lorde's debut “Pure Heroine” feels like a lifetime ago, but it holds up. The sleek, dubby production of that album was unlike anything else on the radio back then. The fact that she scored major chart hits with such understated songs is a small miracle, even more so considering she was only 16 at the time. Lorde at 16 was cooler than I can ever hope to be.
Last year’s follow up “Melodrama” is brighter, poppier, and louder than her debut. In other words, the shades of Burial-esque production have been wiped away by Jack Antonoff. But Lorde's songwriting is stronger than ever, and the whole thing has a warm, sticky vibe that gives the songs a feverish quality. It feels like the messiest night out of your life, with all the peaks and valleys that entails. Her lyrics sometimes even reveal a subtle sense of humor that belies her age.
I'm not sure that any of Lorde's recent singles have done well on the radio, and that's a shame. Not because rotations equal success, but because this is music that deserves to be heard by a wide audience. In a year that saw several A-list pop stars make self-conscious attempts to rebrand (Miley, Katy, Taylor), Lorde's confidence and talent leave her standing above the rest.
Lorde is a fantastic pick. While it didn't latch on with me as much as some other albums did, I recognize that was a strong album and understand why everyone fell in love with it. "Liability" was my personal favorite there.
Okay, so my next pick is regrettable in a number of ways. First, ugh, I can't believe I'm doing this. Second, this will either be someone you were hoping to pick or someone you'll be greatly disappointed in me for picking. And third, I really need to pick a woman at some point in this exchange. I am confident in saying I listened to and enjoyed more female-led music this year than any other year in my life, and yet here I am...picking another dude probably subconsciously because he's such a babe. I'll get around to it, but first I have to make sure you don't steal this guy while he's still on the board.
2017 was the year of...Harry Styles?
Here's what just happened. I picked my nose, and you saw me pick my nose, and even though I'd love to wait and see what your reaction is before I shove this booger into my mouth, I'm just shoving it in.
The first song I encountered from the One Direction graduate's solo debut is a song called "Carolina." It sounds so much like T. Rex that I was immediately a Styles convert, and his album only reinforced that with a bunch of songs that sound nothing like "Carolina." There is some legitimately beautiful music on this album, with the ballad "Sign of the Times" being the favorite of the audience-at-large. Personally, I'll take the harmonies of "Ever Since New York" as my highlight and the lonely and desperate chorus of "From the Dining Table" as my second favorite. My issue with the album as a whole is that it's kind of all over the place. But he's a 23-year-old putting out his first record, he'll find his way, and if he pieces together a more complete album it's going to be a knockout.
And to top it all off, he was one of the main characters in “Dunkirk,” a movie and a theater experience I loved even though I [spoiler link alert] completely misinterpreted one of the story lines. Have yourself a freakin' year, young Styles.
I'm not even sure where to begin. I'll keep it short and just say that your booger metaphor is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, in the best way possible.
I wouldn't have thought to include Harry Styles, but have no reservations about him being on our list. Normally I'd scoff at a young artist going for such bigness on a debut album, but he pulls it off. It's especially refreshing compared to other young men like Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes who find legions of fans despite churning out disposable little ditties. Plus, he just seems like a decent guy.
Now that we've officially squashed any semblance of indie cred Writer's Bone may have had, I'd like to offer my praises for Kelela. We've waited an eternity for her to finally release a proper debut album, and “Take Me Apart” is a stunner. The comparisons to FKA Twigs are inevitable, but while Twigs' music sounds claustrophobic and urgent, Kelela's latest batch of songs takes on a more ethereal quality. Each artist has crafted her on unique take on contemporary R&B, but with FKA Twigs staying mostly quiet this year, it was Kelela's turn to shine.
Kelela injects a Bjork-like experimentalism into the album's best songs, and even the more straightforward R&B cuts are sublime. In the sultry lead single "LMK," she asserts her control in a relationship by reminding a lover, "it ain't that deep, no one's tryna settle down." My personal favorite is "Enough," which stutters over a gunshot beat before melting down into a mesmerizing, hypnotic coda. Music (of any genre) doesn't get any sexier than this.
I love it when you give me new stuff to listen to. Even if it's Mount Eerie. BRB, gotta listen to this one.
Alright, I gave Kelela a whirl, and I see where the Twigs comparisons come from, but I wouldn't have made the connection myself. Kelela has a sound that I find much more accessible. While I recognized it was an album I would need to give multiple listens to let it latch on, I was still enjoying the beats. Nice pick, I'm gonna give that record a little more time before I have anything useful to say about it.
I have a big pile of artists I'm still looking at here and only two picks left. This is like going through a breakfast buffet. I know what's going to cover the base of my plate, but I'm going to try stacking a bunch of mini chocolate croissants on top and balance this thing as I walk back to my table.
I mentioned earlier that I want to make sure I get a female artist or a female band in here, and I'm going for it. You picked the two monsters of the year already in Kesha and Lorde. I really enjoyed SZA's debut album, and I know she would be a lot of people's first pick in this here draft. Same goes for Big Thief, though I'm in the minority who likes their last album better. Alvvays would also be on a lot of people's lists, and rightfully so because they came out with a big pile of good tunes this year. Katy Perry had one of my top songs of the year. Dua Lipa had a couple major hits. Sylvan Esso released their most challenging music to date. I really liked what Rose Elinor Dougall and Middle Kids and Weaves did this year on the rock side of the house.
That was too many croissants, I know, but I needed to make sure I stacked them nice and high and give credit where credit is due. But one of my top albums of the year came from a little band called Hurray for the Riff Raff, so they're my next pick.
Start to finish, “The Navigator” is one of the best listens of the year, whether you're like me and just want pleasing sounds or you're like you, Rob, and pay closer mind to the lyrics and the message being sent. It essentially happens over the course of two acts, with the second half being a powerful look at gentrification that gives strength to those who are displaced. I have a really tough time picking out a favorite from this album because it's just all so good. Purely on sound, I have to go with "Rican Beach," but the obvious highlight from the album is "Pa'lante," which gives countless nods to Puerto Rican heritage, from which the front-woman for the band—Alynda Lee Segarra—descends. Easily one of the most powerful songs I heard this year, especially when you package the message with it.
I feel comfortable saying this was their best album to-date, and I'm excited for them to continue to grow as musicians and as storytellers in the years to come.
I'm going to start collecting your metaphors and similes, and assemble them into a page-a-day calendar. Now you have me wanting a mini-chocolate croissant. My artist of the year is mini-chocolate croissants. A brunch plate full of them.
Finishing this piece off is stupidly hard. I normally like to stand up for the little guys, but I haven't exactly done that so far. I've definitely noticed myself going soft with age. If you told me five years ago that I'd spend most of 2017 listening to Kesha and Lorde, I would have keeled over. But more than allowing myself to enjoy pop music, I realized that to view all pop as nothing more than a commodity is reductive at best, and can quickly descend into sexism.
I initially went into this last slot with an agenda to pick an experimental artist (Ben Frost, Blanck Mass, Yves Tumor), to prove that I haven't lost my edge. But instead, I'll be more honest and highlight the young woman who created my flat-out favorite album of the year: Julien Baker.
Julien Baker's sophomore album “Turn Out the Lights” isn't for everyone. It's almost relentlessly dour, riddled with letdowns and losses and addictions. But it's also beautiful. Not "pretty." It's lump-in-your-throat, head-in-your-hands beautiful.
Baker tackles issues like mental illness and queerness with such grace that her songs approach a spiritual level of transcendence. She finds poetry in the bleakest moments, singing lines like, “I could have sworn the sirens were the Holy Ghost just speaking in Morse code." Every second of the album is exquisitely timed, whether it's a distortion pedal, string arrangement, or whispered male vocal harmony. Baker herself sounds on the verge on vanishing, but determined to exist.
2017 was a tremendously awful year for the world at large. “Turn Out the Lights” was born from one woman's journey, but reflects back the worry and desperate beauty of our planet.
Honestly, I can't say anything about “Turn Out the Lights” you haven't already. It is a beautiful listen, and it may be my favorite album you've brought up so far. AND. And. It's not super depressing. Then again, my definition of "super depressing" music has changed drastically since you introduced me to that Mount Eerie album. Nice list, Rob.
And now to list all the artists I didn't pick before getting to my #5. I had a lot of trouble narrowing this down, but it came down to a single principle I've been following throughout this conversation. Is this the best year this artist has ever had? This eliminates almost every band I was considering for this spot. Kendrick Lamar, Grizzly Bear, Action Bronson, Real Estate, Algiers, The National, Dan Auerbach—I really enjoyed what they did this year, but they've done better.
And so I come to group of artists who I haven't talked about yet but I really wish I could talk about. De Osos, Black Joe Lewis, Moses Sumney, Ásgeir, Alvvays (I know I already mentioned them) Jay Som, Greta Van Fleet. To me, they all broke out this year. They exceeded what they have done in their past, and when all is said and done with their careers this will either be viewed as their peaks or a part of their peaks. I can't wait for more from each one of them.
But even more than them, I can't wait for more from Benjamin Clementine, my final selection. Clementine delivered what is simultaneously some of the most beautiful and most challenging music I listened to in 2017 in his second full album, “I Tell A Fly.” It's an album that has such a strong start—from "Farewell Sonata" through the epic and erratic "Phantom Of Aleppoville"—you almost lose track of the rest of the album. "Phantom of Aleppoville" is just so stupid good. It's about eight different songs in one, and I'm sure at least half the people who listen to it will not love it, but I can tell you if you're one of those people you are both wrong and dumb. It's conflicting, it's emotional, it's silly, and Clementine shows massive range within the course of one long and simple message against bullying. I know this was not Clementine's breakout to the masses, but it was his breakout to me, and I am thrilled to have an eccentric of his talent in my listening rotation.