2017 was a year of amazing music! These are WSOE’s choices for the best albums of the year! Listen to our “Best of 2017” playlist on Spotify.
“The OOZ” is fully one of the best improvements on a successful formula that has come out of music in recent years. Archy Marshall hits us with all his classic lyrical themes and sounds, still singing about dark themes over often jazzy instrumentation, but adding color to every aspect of it. The instrumentation on “The OOZ” is more dense and varied than anything we’ve heard from Marshall yet. He manages to pull off another very long album, but now does so without filler or dragging music.
The immediate appeal of the album is undeniable, with fast-paced highlights such as “Dum Surfer” or “Emergency Blimp.” What’s more, where past work has failed to inspire relistening due to long sections of slow and low key tracks, Marshall has installed psychedelic and unexpected soundscapes that are worth really digging into.
“The OOZ” is a spectacular journey, marked by anxiety, honesty, and eclectic tastes. It shows a young artist beginning to fully grasp his full potential in a long format piece. [Patrick Larsen]
Recommended if you like: John Maus, Destroyer, Ratking
Listen to: “Dum Surfer”
There was a good chance that Robin Pecknold would have walked away from music completely at any point during Fleet Foxes’ five-year hiatus. Thankfully he didn’t, and Fleet Foxes returned to release their most dark and complex work to date.
A lot has changed since when “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album, was released in 2011. Namely, the indie-folk groups Fleet Foxes were often associated with are mostly a thing of the past now. Although I adore the first two Fleet Foxes records, they needed to do something different to preserve their relevancy, and “Crack-Up” does just that.
Pecknold’s lyrics on “Crack-Up” are direct enough to elicit enormous sing-a-longs and fervorous responses, and intricate enough where you will spend hours poring over lyric sheets hoping to unravel its lush imagery and symbolism. The instrumental composition is magnificently audacious. Everything perfectly compliments the worlds he creates with his lyrics.
Fleet Foxes did not simply return in 2017; they reminded us why they were one of the most talked about bands at the turn of the decade and secured that same buzz for years to come. [Thomas Coogan]
Recommended if you like: Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors
Listen to: “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”
Oh boy, BROCKHAMPTON! Arguably one of the most unique musical phenomenons to occur in not only hip-hop, but music in general this decade. Dubbed by some at first as a “thinking man’s Odd Future,” after relatively quietly dropping a mixtape called ALL-AMERICAN TRASH in 2016, the boy-band blasted onto the scene May 2017 with the bombastic horrorcore inspired single HEAT. It’s grimy rhythms, accompanied by the eclectic music video and performances (particularly Merlyn’s and Joba’s), captured my attention immediately, but nothing could have prepared me for what would follow.
A few more singles later and we had an album in early June, and immediately we were told there would be a second SATURATION in a month! The first SATURATION was an uneven collection of hardcore hip-hop bangers, gorgeous alt R&B, and catchy pop-rap, with some tracks getting overshadowed by the real heavy hitters. To me, SATURATION II is heavier and much more consistent sequel, upping the production quality, social commentary, and chemistry.
The album opens with GUMMY, which begins with a triumphant string sample before it abruptly transforms into a Kevin Abstract lead trunk knocker. QUEER comes out full speed thanks to Matt’s “Skinny boy, skinny boy, where your muscles at?!” and it combines some industrial hip-hop influence with alt R&B balladry similar to BUMP. SWEET is once again opened excellently by Matt “I love huskies but I feel like a wolf,” and its funky beat almost forges a single as catchy as GOLD, with its slightly weak hook being held up by everyone’s distinct verses (Merlyn and Joba being highlights). Ameer spits solo on the incredibly vitriolic and racially charged TEETH, SWAMP has one of their best ever hooks, and TOKYO hints at the sort of production they’d dive into further on SATURATION III (yeah, there was a third. Three in 6 months). FIGHT is another track that deals with social and existential issues, and is bolstered by Merlyn’s hypnotic hook and the great beat switch up.
For me, however, the obvious stand out was JUNKY. Opening with Kevin wrapping over an incredibly eerie beat-less instrumental as he laments the treatment of LGBT people in hip-hop culture. A distorted, sampled hook comes in, then the instrumental drops and fills out into a huge looming, nocturnal beast. The verses that ensue touch on drug-fueled paranoia, parental pressure, and disgust with rape culture. It’s an incredibly intense track, and the imagery of the music video only further asserts that. The album closes with the bright SUNNY which is built around a reverby guitar loop (which is a song that those invested in the BROCKHAMPTON mythos will surely hold in higher regard than the average listener) and the shimmering Bear//Face balled SUMMER, which is good, I just prefer the rawness of WASTE.
I think that on SATURATION II, boy band BROCKHAMPTON one-upped themselves in almost every way, and made us fans certain that the first SATURATION was no fluke. What we were given is an even better collection of fun, punchy, and often smart tracks, made by a group of people that each have a distinct voice, and are all doing what they can to change the face of hip-hop for the better. [Justin Schofield]
Recommended if you like: Death Grips, Tyler the Creator, ASAP Rocky
Listen to: “Junky”
You know in movies where the two characters that have never played music together pick up guitars and have a jam session that turns out pretty much perfect? That’s what this whole album, Lotta Sea Lice, is. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile are both big players in the indie/garage rock scene. Barnett’s hit 2015 album led her to close the 40th season of SNL and be nominated for Best New Artist at the 2015 Grammy’s. Vile is one of the founding members of The War On Drugs and boasts a successful solo career of six albums and six EP’s since 2008. Together, the garage rock royalty duo has created a bright, smart, and well-written album.
Something that was pointed out to me recently (thanks Tom!) about Lotta Sea Lice is that Courtney and Kurt wrote songs for each other. Four of the album’s songs are written by Vile, three by Barnett, one by Barnett’s wife, Jen Cloher (who also opened for the duo on their tour), and one by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Tanya Donelly. My favorite songs from the album are “Over Everything,” “Fear Is Like a Forest,” “Continental Breakfast,” and “Blue Cheese.”
“Over Everything” was actually sent to me by my best friend and music guru Elise. I happened to hear it while outside on a sunny day, arguably the perfect state to listen to the song, and was an immediate fan. It’s a perfect opener, easy to listen to, but also with an edge to it. The song is varied and manages to wait out six and a half minutes without boring the listener. It’s a song that accomplishes the fine line of being a song you could listen to while sunbathing and also while dancing around your house.
“Fear Is Like a Forest” is my favorite song on the album. It’s the aforementioned cover of Jen Cloher, but it feels so original. It’s creepy, mysterious, upbeat, and a total bop at the end. It makes me want to throw the weirdest dance party ever and deserves ten different music videos for all the different vibes it’s projecting. I have to commend Jen Cloher on her lyricism, the way she writes about love and the fear of letting someone go rides the line between simple and complex without feeling pretentious. It feels authentic and heartfelt but also like a jam to be played driving at night with the windows down.
“Continental Breakfast” is a genuinely sweet song. It comes off as really a conversation between friends over, as suggested, breakfast. The guitar is relaxed and comforting and feels like a “lazy Sunday song.” It feels worn in, in the way it sings about routine and long lasting friendships. Self-deprecating lines like “I walk like a bruised ego along shorefront property unowned to me/But I’m feelin’ inferior on the interior don’t ya see” make Courtney and Kurt seem more vulnerable and makes the song seem more like it’s about an actual friendship. Maybe it’s about the friendship between Barnett and Vile themselves.
“Blue Cheese” was an immediate love. It’s what I call a “film song,” a song that could easily be in a movie or a trailer because it just has a great cinematic flair to it. In a way, the song is utterly ridiculous, with nonsensical lyrics and what sounds like a kazoo in the background. But, it’s the fact that Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile don’t take themselves too seriously that makes me love them, and the album even more. This song makes you want to dance and also go on all sorts of adventures, but really it feels like it encompasses the feeling of the album all in one song. A fun, well structured, bright, guitar party hosted by Courtney and Kurt, and everyone is invited. [Erin Pattie]
Recommended if you like: The War on Drugs, Jen Cloher, Angel Olsen
Listen to: “Fear Is Like a Forest”
All of Ed’s albums will make you want to either sing along with your best pals or go cry in a dark room, but in contrast to his past two albums, “Multiply” and “Plus,” he also manages to add a different cultural component to a few of his songs on “Divide.” Ed gave up all social media last year and traveled the world and all of the new experiences he gained affected the style of some of his songs in a way that was unexpected.This was shown in the song “Bibia Be Ye Ye” which translates to “All Will Be Well” in Twi, a language spoken in Ghana.
The album starts off strong with “Eraser,” which really demonstrates just how much Ed hates the fame he has acquired over the past few years. While “Eraser” is fast and upbeat, the song is actually quite sad because Ed’s dream to share his music with the world came true, but now he has to deal with all the negative aspects of being a celebrity.
My favorite songs on this album included “Happier” and “Perfect,” as well as “Save Myself,” which is found on the deluxe version of this album. “Happier” is just heartbreaking and “Perfect” is probably the cutest song to ever be written, especially when watching the visuals that go along with it in the music video. The final track of the “Divide” is “Save Myself,” which is a wonderful reminder to stop prioritizing others over yourself and learn to love and accept yourself for who you really are. [Natalia Romero]
Recommended if you like: Shawn Mendes, Bastille, James Bay
Listen to: “Happier”The first of Brockhampton’s three albums in 2017 helped catapult the group into mainstream success after gaining a massive cult following in 2016 and into early 2017.
Saturation (also known as Saturation I) is perhaps one of the most diverse rap projects I’ve ever heard. That’s what makes Brockhampton and Saturation so special, no member or song is like the other. Yet, Brockhampton’s style is ever-present, especially on songs like the opening track “HEAT” and head-nodder “STAR.” They’re not afraid to go outside the box and use the all-too-familiar autotune techniques in modern rap in songs like “BOYS” and “BANK” either.
In a weird way, Saturation tells an interesting tale, not lyrically but through the stylistic progression in each song. The album starts off very raw, but soon after the first couple of songs, more samples are collected and utilized. Grand pianos and synthesizers glisten in songs like “2PAC,” “FAKE” and “TRIP.”
The most out there track in my opinion is “CASH,” which utilizes female backing vocals, layered harmonies, and an acoustic guitar loop. The same simplistic drum beat that listeners grow to love in the album supplements the layers and soaring horn lead towards the end of the song, and it took me on a journey. That’s what Brockhampton does best on Saturation.
In your face, brash and unapologetic to break down rap genres, the Californian brand is dominating the rap scene, not only in 2017, but for years and years to come. [Andrew Vendelis]
Recommended if you like: Death Grips, Tyler the Creator, ASAP Rocky
Listen to: “Cash”
Japanese Breakfast, the solo project of former Little Big League Member Michelle Zauner, is, for my money at least, the singular best new act in the indie-sphere. After her debut, the potential there was obvious. ‘Everybody Wants to Love You’ is one of the best debut singles of the decade, and although I did love Psychopomp, I could tell Zauner had a lot more in her. This solo project originated as a bandcamp album dedicated to her recently passed mother; just a method of the grieving process. The raw emotion on that project and knack for great melodies has carried over into one of the most unique sounding albums of the year. Mixing elements of synth-pop, shoegaze, traditional indie-rock with the lyrical content of a science fiction story. The risky combination culminates into the album with the most striking production of the year in an effort to create an effortlessly strange atmosphere. But a strange atmosphere that’s interrupted by the sweet melodies and Zauner’s already trademarked echoey vocals. Angst is felt at the edges of her words but she never overdoes it.
The standout song on this project is the lead-single, Machinist. A love song following Zauner’s relationship with a robot, one that’ equally hilarious and touching. The slight autotune on her voice adding a slightly metallic tone to the vocals. It explodes into a chorus you could dance to with the backing of horns you’d hear on M83’s ridiculously underrated album from last year Junk. However, what’s most striking about Soft Sounds is its perfection of pacing. There are tracks here ranging from 30 seconds to 5 minutes and each feels meticulously placed to tell Zauner’s story. She shows a command in storytelling that’s subtle, compelling, and relevant to her experiences as an asian american woman. Her music videos for the album, all directed by here, further exemplify that Zauner is an artist in complete control of her output. She’s a singular artist determined to have a singular vision that’s uniquely tailored by her. As the penultimate track plays, ‘This House’, the lonely acoustic guitar contrasts with the grand production that preceded it and lulls us back into the real world we left at the beginning of the album. It leaves us in a contemplative, and emotional, state. I had the privilege to see Japanese Breakfast this year and it quickly climbed the ranks as one of the best live shows i’ve ever seen. In 10 years, we’ll hopefully be talking about Zauner as one of the staples of indie, one that churns out masterpiece after masterpiece. [David Scheckel]
Recommended if you like: Jay Som, Girlpool, (Sandy) Alex G
Listen to: “Machinist”
Similar to all of Mac DeMarco’s albums, “This Old Dog” is completely chill and relaxing to listen to, but this album is clearly less processed and more acoustic that any of the previous albums he has released. Since this album was heavy on acoustic guitar and little else went on in the background, “This Old Dog” turned out to have very simple instrumental arrangements and I love that.
My favorite songs on this album were “My Old Man” and “For the First Time.” “My Old Man” is the first track on the album and it displays Mac’s perception of his own aging and how everyday he becomes more and more like his father. In “For the First Time,” Mac can’t accept that the woman he loves has left him. [Natalia Romero]
Recommended if you like: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foxygen, The Growlers
Listen to: “For The First Time”
Lizzie Grant aka Lana Del Rey has long been the queen of sad-girl pop with songs literally titled “Sad Girl” and lyrics like “and I still get trashed baby/when I hear your tune”. Looking at the album art of Lana’s album, Lust for Life, however, we see something we’ve never
seen before: Lana Del Rey. Smiling. We’re immediately presented with a more vulnerable, expansive, and self-aware Del Rey than in previous years. This vulnerability has earned her a spot on four best of 2017 album lists and a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album.
Listening to Lust for Life, you can’t help but be drawn in by the arresting harmonies on songs like “Groupie Love” and “Get Free”, collaborations with legends like Stevie Nicks and modern artists like The Weeknd, and the decidedly political themes on songs like “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It” and “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing”. The songs are cinematic, dark, sexy, bright, and beautiful. On her fifth studio album, Del Rey seems to be giving her listeners a celebration of everything that makes her music, hers.
A few standout tracks on the album for me are “13 Beaches”, “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing”, “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems”, and “Get Free”. “13 Beaches” is well composed, brilliantly written and features a full string orchestra all at once. I think there was a way “13 Beaches” could’ve failed, if any one of the elements in the song had been missing it would’ve lost its strange magic, but Lana Del Rey manages to bring a plethora of different elements (like synth and violin) together to create a sad and beautiful solo track.
“When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” might be one of my favorite song titles of all time. The imagery the song conjures up as well as the apocalyptic lyrics like “Is it the end of an era/Is it the end of America?” To ultimately decide “oh no, it’s only the beginning” make the song haunting, not only in its lyricism, but in its themes and instrumentation as well. I don’t know if I’m biased because of my love for Stevie Nicks, but “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems” is my favorite collaboration on the album. I would’ve ranked it my favorite if the entire song was the harmony on “But when I love him get a feeling/Something close to like a sugar rush” for four minutes, but the reason the song is really brilliant to me is because it seems like there’s a story to it. It could be interpreted as Lana and Stevie loving the same guy, lamenting the slow death of a relationship, or honestly anything else. The allusion to one of Del Rey’s most popular songs with the line “it’s more than just a video game” shows a maturity in her songwriting only enhanced by Nicks’ appearance. The song feels like a classic.
My personal favorite song on the album is “Get Free.” If you’ve read any of my past album reviews, you know how much I appreciate a strong closer to an album, and “Get Free” could not be more perfect. The first line of the song is “Finally I’m crossing the threshold/From
the ordinary world to the reveal in my heart”. The finality of that line starts what is one of my favorite album closers of all time. The song was originally titled “Malibu” and was more about
her experiences over the last six years, but I think this change works just as well, if not better. Referencing classic Lana songs like “Ride” and “Dark Paradise,” Lana Del Rey has created a song that not only revisits her past, but moves her forward, in her own words “out of the black and into the blue.” In the outro, we hear seagulls chirping and waves crashing. It sounds like the beach, and I can see the music video in my head. It’s almost as if she’s taken us on this journey with her. It’s almost as if we’re free. [Erin Pattie]
Recommended if you like: Lykke Li, BANKS, Sky Ferreira
Listen to: “Get Free”
There is nothing better than a feel-good album: that one you can completely lose yourself in or listen to on a road trip and instantly feel better. “A Deeper Understanding,” the fifth album by Philadelphia indie rock band The War on Drugs, is one of those albums. Formed in 2008, the band has been a favorite in the alternative music world. Following up on the success of their previous album “Lost in the Dream” (2014), “A Deeper Understanding” puts the band on the map as the next big thing in music.
“A Deeper Understanding” contains the band’s signature blend of warm, hazy, synthesized rock with lead singer/songwriter Adam Granduciel’s Bob Dylan-esque vocals. As a whole, “A Deeper Understanding” uniquely balances edgy rock with dreamy, romantic melodies. Every song adds a unique texture to the album: the booming drums in “In Chains,” the guitar solo in “Knocked Down” and “Strangest Thing,” and the jittery keyboard in “Up All Night.” The album’s hit track “Holding On” is a beautiful combination of upbeat, synthesized guitar and sparkly percussion reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s 1987 hit “Touch of Grey.” The band has never been shy about revealing their influences in their music, from Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty to folk and 80s pop-rock. Yet although these influences are present, the band has developed such a distinct, authentic, and modern sound which this album showcases perfectly.
Given the title of the album, it is not a surprise what Granduciel’s intention was. The song lyrics all revolve around his inner thoughts and emotions regarding love, life, individuality, and nature. A common feeling of some of the song lyrics is rather melancholy. Granduciel sings about feelings of loneliness, isolation, and losing someone he loves. However, there are certain lyrics which respond with optimism and encourage us to capture the rare moments when you can leave behind those negative feelings and just enjoy life for what it truly is. This melancholy yet optimistic meaning accompanied with dreamy melodies makes the album warm, comforting, and overall an incredible experience. [Rachel LeFrock]
Recommended if you like: Kurt Vile, Spoon, Future Islands
Listen to: “Holding On”
Simply put, “The Navigator” is everything that a storytelling album should be. Alynda Segarra, frontwoman of Hurray for the Riff Raff, tells a story that is intended to mirror her own life. She writes of a young Puerto Rican girl living in the United States who is confronted with many of the problems that women of color have faced in this country for decades. She lives in the realities of abuse and drug addiction taking the lives of her friends and her culture.
The album is split into two acts (it even comes with a Playbill style booklet), one concerning her alter ego’s youth and one her middle age. Its through line is powerful. Going from song to song feels totally natural and the mood develops strongly to the mind-blowing peak of “Pa’lante,” which features one of the most inspired vocal performances of 2017.
Segarra’s storytelling is remarkably succinct, and to good effect. She gives vignettes of her alter ego’s experience in verses that manage to find specificity and universality in very little space. Apart from being beautifully written, this also allows for the album to be as catchy as it is. Her writing invites you to join in on the powerful and often visceral storytelling, making it that much more moving. It is perfect for listening from front to back and just as good for playing one song at a time.
“The Navigator” is as moving as any Broadway show. Segarra shows her chops as a great American storyteller, and has anyone who listens dying to hear her next work. [Patrick Larsen]
Recommended if you like: Valerie June, Big Thief, Hiss Golden Messenger,
Listen to: “Pa’lante”
In my opinion, the top two tracks on this album were “Boredom” and “See You Again.” “Boredom” perfectly depicts what it feels like to be bored, especially when he describes his eyeballs as turning to drywall as a result of being in the same room with nothing to do for such a long period of time. In “See You Again,” Tyler finds the perfect person for him, but they unfortunately only live in his dream state and they disappear when he returns to reality.
“Flower Boy” is nominated for a Grammy this year, but even if it doesn’t win as the Best Rap Album of 2017, this album was unquestionably one of my favorites. [Natalia Romero]
Recommended if you like: Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, Earl Sweatshirt
Listen to: “Boredom”
As his 7th Studio album, John Mayer’s The Search for Everything delivers everything you would expect from the singer/songwriter but on a far more personal level. It is clear that the album has a similar sound as some of Mayer’s previous records. But what distinguishes this record is that it is deeply sentimental and even vulnerable. As the title implies, The Search for Everything serves as Mayer’s own quest for forgiveness, compassion, and finding meaning in his life. Mayer reflects on his own identity and self-confidence as well as his many years of heartbreak throughout the album. In the song “In The Blood,” Mayer sings “And what about this feeling that I’m never good enough? Will it wash out in the water or is it always in the blood?” and “I can feel the love I want/ I can feel the love I need/ but it’s never gonna come the way I am.” In a way, the album serves as Mayer’s oncoming “mid-life crisis,” giving off a sense of his loneliness and nostalgia for love. In the track “Moving On and Getting Over,” Mayer sings “Because you’ve been gone/I’m growing older/but I still can’t seem to get you off my mind.”
One of my favorite aspects of this album, and Mayer’s music in general, is the variety of different sounds and genres it contains. From the funky, R&B-inspired opener “Still Feel Like Your Man” to the folk and country-like “Roll it on Home,” Mayer displays his many musical influences. Mayer’s dreamy vocals blend perfectly with bluesy guitar riffs (“Rosie,” the guitar solo in “Helpless”) and elegant piano harmonies (“You’re Gonna Live Forever”).
While Mayer may not offer anything new or different musically in The Search for Everything, I think this album succeeds because it instead shows that Mayer is settling into a groove which is his own. Although he may still be searching for who he is an individual, Mayer has grown to develop a strong sense of who he is as an artist. [Rachel LeFrock]
Recommended if you like: Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Coldplay
Listen to: “Love on the Weekend”
After over two decades away, Slowdive made a tremendous comeback with their eponymous album. While past records were heavy and weighty in sound, the new album brings an element of dream pop. Tracks like “Sugar For The Pill” shimmer with dreamy riffs and rolling synths. The album retains the best things about the Slowdive we knew and love like their emotional lyrics and hazy sound, but bring in a polished and more nuanced sound. Slowdive has brought out a new sound from the genre that they helped to start.
There’s a conscious understanding of space throughout the album. While there is a wall of sound, there’s a certain restraint that keeps things from becoming massively overwhelming. Slowdive is soothing, crisp, and impeccably British. The album is like a blanket — hazy, fluffy, and comforting. It is truly a triumphant return. [Joseph Henry-Penrose]
Recommended if you like: Ride, Lush, Beach House
Listen to: “Sugar for the Pill”
After half a year of listening, Alex Cameron’s “Forced Witness” is better than it ever has been. Perhaps this is because of what the tail end of 2017 has done to men embedded in power and how we deal with sexual assault. Or maybe it’s just catchy. Either way, “Forced Witness” is essential listening.
The album is catchy, yes – there’s no denying the level of experience and fresh ideas that went into putting this album together. Collaborators include Brandon Flowers, Angel Olsen, Kirin J. Callinan and Cameron’s saxophonist/business partner Roy Molloy. It’s also funny. The characters are constantly getting into ridiculous situations (such as online relationships with Nigerian scammers). It may be the first time that someone has proudly compared themselves to “Marlon Brando in 1999.” But underlying all of this is one major issue that is finally bubbling into the limelight: toxic masculinity.
Cameron’s characters are not good people. Each song explores feelings of entitlement, anger and despair that stem from how we view men as a society. These people want to fistfight for women who aren’t interested in them. They cheat freely. They use slurs in everyday speech. Despite all of that, Cameron finds a way to make them interesting and even entertaining. He updates some of the tropes for 2017 (instead of cheating in real life, he routinely watches cam girls). He gives us a direct view of the self-hatred and privilege, both real and perceived, that drives these characters, and the destruction that follows them.
“Forced Witness” works on just about every level you could want it to. It’s smart, funny and catchy – and that manages to make repulsive stories positively refreshing. [Patrick Larsen]
Recommended if you like: Angel Olsen, Weyes Blood, Kirin J Callinan
Listen to: “True Lies”
“Pure Comedy” is singer-songwriter Josh Tillman’s third album under the moniker Father John Misty, and it is his most expansive work to date. Delving into themes of entertainment, consumerism, and fame, the album becomes a self-examination of Tillman himself and the human experience as a whole. It’s a grandiose ambition, but “Pure Comedy” largely delivers.
Lyrically, this album serves as a continuation of songs like “Holy Sh*t” and “Bored in the USA” off of Misty’s last album “I Love You, Honeybear.” While many have chastised this album for being too similar to those tracks and lacking variety, “Pure Comedy” shifts focus and magnifies different issues on each track meaning I rarely lose interest when listening. “Total Entertainment Forever” is a clever and punchy critique of escapist entertainment, John Carpenter-esque dystopia ripples throughout “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” and “The Memo” features text-to-speech vocals that tackle self-esteem and self-reflection in the social media age.
Many will be and have been put off by ostentatious nature of the album (music publication Noisey referred to the album as “if a wine bar started a podcast”). However, tracks like “Smoochie” and “Leaving LA” emotionally ground the album giving it a sense of authenticity. It is strange to think that “Leaving LA,” the 13-minute, “10-verse chorus-less diatribe” as Tillman puts it on the song itself, is the genuine and modest song on the album but that’s the case.
“Leaving LA” is not without its fair share of absurdism though as he sings “It’s like my father said before he croaked/”Son, you’re killing me, and that’s all folks.” However, that all shifts on verse nine as Tillman details his first memory of music; choking on a watermelon candy in a JCPenny’s. It beautifully and despairingly encapsulates the narrative of the album as he croons “That’s when I first saw the comedy won’t stop for/ Even little boys dying in department stores.”
So far on lyrics have been discussed and it is unfair not to mention the impressiveness of the instrumentals. Lush orchestral arrangements back nearly every song on the record. They develop the complexity of “Honeybear” without sacrificing any of its catchiness. The explosion of brass after a four-minute build on the title track is by far one of my favorite musical moments this year.
Tillman’s bold aspirations are met on “Pure Comedy” making it a fine addition to his already impressive catalog. [Thomas Coogan]
Recommended if you like: Weyes Blood, Elton John, Conor Oberst
Listen to: “Pure Comedy”
Cigarettes After Sex’s Self-titled debut album successfully broke into the dream-pop genre in 2017. Lead singer Greg Gonzalez’s smooth voice makes for easy listening as he croons about his personal heartache, love stories, all-encompassing a modern romance in 2017.
The first single released off the album, “K.” is a powerful entrance into Gonzalez’s love life, as he sings of the transformation of his relationship and how it feels to watch that manifest before him. Also notable is “Sweet,” a romantic piece about the endless and simplistic comforts love can bring to life. The chorus calmly sings, “It’s so sweet, knowing that you love me. Though we don’t need to say it to each other, sweet.” I’m not sure what else there is to say about Cigarettes After Sex – they’re low-fi jangling dream-pop. You know what they’re trying to do and quite frankly, they’re doing it quite well. [Katherine Wolter]
Recommended if you like: no vacation, Beach Fossils, Mazzy Star
Listen to: “Sweet”
A lot of long-time St. Vincent fans rolled their eyes when they found out that Jack Antonoff was producing her fifth album “MASSEDUCTION” as they viewed it as a betraying venture into the mainstream. While Annie Clark’s pop sensibilities are more present than ever on this album, the fears of pop conformity are completely unfounded as “MASSEDUCTION” is her strangest and most idiosyncratic work to date.
“MASSEDUCTION” is full of battling polarities. The lyrics balance unapologetic hedonism with sorrowful regret while genres bend between between wonky synth pop, sultry guitar rock, and meditative, devastating trip-hop, just to name a few. If someone gave me that description of the album before I listened to any of it, I would have assumed it was a garbled mess of ideas, but Clark navigates both the drastic disparities and small-scale subtleties without ever losing course.
Clark’s balancing act is no better represented than on “Los Ageless.” Warbling electronics with sprinkles of guitars backdrop the verse as Clark softly speaks. The chorus then explodes into a colossal refrain of “How could anybody have you?/ How could anybody have you and lose you?/ How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind too?” Each chorus gets more and more emotive with a grimy, distorted guitar breakdown separating the last two. The fury of the operatic last chorus then dissolves into a somber assortment of effects and strings as Clark wistfully lists confessions and ends with “I try to write you a love song, but it comes out a lament.” This then elegantly transitions into the funereal “Happy Birthday, Johnny.” The biggest accomplishment of “MASSEDUCTION” is take all of Clark’s differing ideas and styles and composes them into a single comprehensive vision.
St. Vincent has always been an artist that refused to be pigeonholed. On “MASSEDUCTION” she continues to defy conventions and manifests herself into something holistic and anomalous. [Thomas Coogan]
Recommended if you like: Prince, David Bowie, Feist
Listen to: “Los Ageless”
Well dang, who saw this coming?
The ex-One Direction star surprised EVERYONE in 2017, coming off the heels of fellow bandmate Zayn’s electric 2016 solo debut. Zayn’s pop vocals and chart-topping hits had everyone buzzing about what Harry Styles would bring to the table in 2017. Enter, “Sign of the Times.”
The first single off of his self-titled debut, “Sign of the Times” harks back to a David Bowie-esque melody, accompanied with shimmering electric guitars and a muffled grand piano. Styles delivers an exceptional vocal performance in the tune, exploring the highs and lows in his tenor range, a preview of what was to be a great debut record.
Songs like “Two Ghosts,” “Ever Since New York” and “Sweet Creature” welcome the gentle strums of a Ryan Adams-esque acoustic guitar alongside Styles’ iconic vocal timbre. The wildcard on this record is “Kiwi,” ringing in at just under three minutes in length, and not one second isn’t filled with a Rolling Stones, all-out banger of a song. Styles shouts at the top of his lungs in this song, accompanied by thudding drums and distorted guitars to give this writer the biggest surprise out of any song in 2017.
Styles incorporates a classic rock/soft rock vibe throughout most-to-all of his songs on his debut record. It feels like something straight out of the 1970s, and to be honest, I would not have wanted anything better than what Styles gave us for a first record. We all expected another pop-infused mega-album, but we got a soft-rock shocker that has the potential to be a timeless classic and one we’ll look back at when putting Styles’ career in perspective. [Andrew Vendelis]
Recommended if you like: One Direction (obviously), Ryan Adams, Fleetwood Mac
Listen to: “Kiwi”
It took me a whole day to listen to “No Shape” in its entirety because I needed to put every new song I got to on repeat. This was most prevalent for the stunning album opener “Otherside.” A quiet, austere, beautifully recorded piano begins the track, and Mike Hadreas’ trembling vocals soon accompany it until the song erupts into a spectacular array of synths, percussion and a climbing choir of voices. You would be hard-pressed to find an intro song more jaw-dropping than “Otherside” this year or any other.
“No Shape” is Perfume Genius in their most evolved, varied and transformative state. The raw, intimate beauty of “Learning” and “Put Your Back N 2 It” is found on cuts like “Every Night” and “Alan” and the daring art-pop of “Too Bright” is expanded on with the weightless “Slip Away.”
There are thematic continuations from Hadreas’ previous material as he confronts the fact that he’s still dealing with the lingering effects of addiction on “Valley” by posing the question “How long must we live right/ Before we don’t even have to try?” This then unfolds into Hadreas metamorphosing beyond himself on “Wreath” when he defiantly sings “Burn off every trace/ I want to hover with no shape.”
Hadreas finds himself embracing others and losing himself in them. The remedying energy of love is cradled throughout “No Shape.” Perfume Genius began making music that was graceful yet closed-off, but “No Shape” is not that. It is the sound of thawing that exterior, abandoning your mold and lovingly grasping those around you. [Thomas Coogan]
Recommended if you like: Arca, Julia Holter, Julie Byrne
Listen to: “Wreath”
Melina Duterte captures the youthful, indie experience on Everybody Works. With crisp production, honest lyrics, and a slight penchant for analyzing pessimism, she brings together sounds of fuzzy shoegaze, psychedelic guitar riffs, and even a little jazz. Recorded in her bedroom, Duterte plays all instruments on the album — from drums and synths to wailing guitars. She even produced the album. The album follows an arch from the dreamy “Lipstick Stains,” quickly rising with energy with songs like “The Bus Song” and “Baybee.” On songs such as “(Bedhead)” Duterte’s dreamy sounds shine with wavy tones and introspection. Meanwhile, “1 Billion Dogs” blasts crunchy tones and discordant guitars. Yet, through all of this Duterte does not lose her sound and her quintessential message — that everybody works. [Joseph Henry-Penrose]
Recommended if you like: Mitski, Cherry Glazerr, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
Listen to: “Baybee”
After several albums consisting of black metal dirges, drone experiments, and MIDI indulgences, many fans of Phil Elverum’s work were likely pleased to hear that this album was a bit of a return to form for him.
However, this moment is far from a celebration.
A Crow Looked at Me, Elverum’s 13th album (including his work as both The Microphones and Mount Eerie) was written in the wake left by his wife Geneviève’s death. Geneviève was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, shortly after giving birth to their only daughter, and passed away July 6th, 2016. She was 35 when she died, leaving Phil to care for their one-year-old daughter alone. He wrote this album as a chronicle or expression of the grief and experiences he has following her death.
A Crow Looked at Me is arguably the most emotionally powerful and emotionally draining album I have ever listened to, and as such it is difficult to tag it as “enjoyable.” The instrumentation was played entirely using Geneviève’s now abandoned instruments, and is slow and gentle, consisting largely of acoustic guitar, piano, and bits of accordion. Phil’s lyrics are straightforward and often uncomfortably detailed, with his voice ranging from entirely emotionless to on the verge of emotional collapse. He touches on the backpack for their daughter that his wife ordered in secret right before her death, spreading of her ashes, and having to finally empty her trash and throw away her toothbrush, months after her passing. One of the most poignant moments comes in the track “My Chasm,” “Do the people around me want to keep hearing about my dead wife?” where he talks about his inability to not bring up Geneviève, even in just a supermarket aisle conversation. He ends the song with the desperate croon “Death is real!” On the track “Real Death” he says death is not for “making into art,” and when “real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb,” and this works as a bit of an explanation of the mindset Phil was in when writing the album
For those unfamiliar with his past work, Phil Elverum’s past work, his music often utilized noisy, unorthodox production, working as metaphors for Phil’s own exploration of his place in the universe, and lyrical themes that focused on nature. He approaches A Crow Looked at Me differently, as a man who once found peace in nature and the universe, but now lost due to the death of his wife. Here he manages to regain his peace by finding his wife in nature, rather creating meaning from insignificance. Phil even addresses this on the track “Emptiness, Pt. 2” with the lines “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about/Back before I knew my way around these hospitals/I would like to forget and go back into imagining/That snow shining permanently alone could say something to me/True and comforting.” It is because of this that I think the album is best experienced in the context of his work as a whole, though still an incredible album in its own right. This is not art, this is not entertainment, but an utterly powerful message Phil Elverum hopes to get across: death is real, it is not romantic, and it is permanent. [Justin Schofield]
Recommended if you like: The Microphones, Sun Kil Moon, Sufjan Stevens
Listen to: “Ravens”
After exploding onto the indie scene in 2014 with their self-titled debut, dream-pop band Alvvays built great anticipation when announcing their follow-up. With incredibly catchy choruses sung by lead singer, Molly Rankin, and bubble-gum pop production , the only thing Alvvays was really missing was texture. Their sophomore effort, Antisocialites, drives into them further into the dream-pop sphere with a touch of shoegaze on songs like ‘In Undertow’. Reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas, the band has added thick walls of sound to a few of the songs on here to accompany the more traditional indie-pop cuts like ‘Not My Baby’. The short and sweet ‘Dreams Tonite’, one of my favorite singles of 2017, is a perfect example of this new style. The unmistakable 80s synths that begin the song are met with pedal-distorted textured guitars of any great Galaxie 500 song. It culminates in one of the stickiest choruses of the year and Rankin’s continued great lyricism. While many indie-pop groups in 2017 prioritize their production and leave lyrics as a side-thought, you can find a cleverly melancholic line in just about any Alvvays song accompanied with equally impressive production.
The briskly paced album evokes a nostalgic reaction, emphasized by Rankin’s poignant delivery. Without reading into the lyrics, you’d think Alvvays’ music was meant to be fun-loving indie pop, but further investigation proves that they’ve carefully calculated this contrast between the joy of the music and the woe of the lyrics. This contrast creates project applicable to any situation. Getting ready for a fun night out? Put on Antisocialites. Just faced a break-up? Put on Antisocialites. It’s 3am and your anxiety is getting the best of you? Put on Antisocialites. I don’t say this in jest either, their first two albums have become a therapeutic respite from my daily worries, and I hope they can do the same for you. [David Scheckel]
Recommended if you like: Cocteau Twins, Galaxie 500, Beach House
Listen to: “Dreams Tonite”
It’s no surprise that Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, DAMN made WSOE’s Best of 2017 list. With Grammy nominations for both best rap album and album of the year, Lamar has once again proved his amazing storytelling abilities. The album started out with “BLOOD.” a seemingly innocent story of Lamar trying to help an elderly woman, who ends up shooting him. After the gunshot is heard, the song leads into an excerpt from Fox News criticizing Lamar’s previous performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET Awards. The reporters are heard criticizing his lyrics, “and we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fosho.” This clip is just the beginning of Lamar making critics choke on their own words as they end up being a critical part of the album overall. “BLOOD.” Is one of many powerful songs on the album, but in my opinion it was perfect to start off with as it enables Lamar to express his struggles between wickedness and weakness.
Lamar was able to capture the full spectrum of experience, by saying something both musically and politically all while working within the confines of the rap genre. You know an album is so good when you can have a song like “FEEL.”, literally about how Lamar feels as a black man in 2017, and then move seamlessly into “LOVE.” which undeniably a great radio pop song. Both of these songs on the same album – incredible.
DAMN,’s versatility is what landed it such critical acclaim. Lamar managed to make an album with uplifting radio friendly bangers like “HUMBLE.”, while also somehow capturing how f***ed it is to be alive, especially alive and black in 2017 in the United States. [Katherine Wolter]
Recommended if you like: Vince Staples, Isaiah Rashad, Kanye West
Listen to: “DNA.”
“I mean I would die for her” is an actual text I got from my friend Meaghan as we discussed the possibility of seeing Lorde on her Melodrama world tour, or “dance” as Lorde calls it. We are both hardcore Lorde fans, and it seems that we are absolutely the rule, not the exception. After a hit EP and album at the ages of 16 and 17 respectively, a slew of successful singles with artists like Disclosure and for movies like Catching Fire, and curating the soundtrack of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Lorde has finally given her fans what we’ve been waiting 4 years for: an album nothing short of iconic.
Charting at 1 or 2 in eight year-end album roundups, nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, and critically acclaimed, it’s no secret the critics are also all over Melodrama. To promote the new album, she teased us by dropping clips and soundbites of “Green Light” before dropping the fun and jam-worthy song with a gorgeous video to match. She performed new songs at Coachella afterparties and live shows. When the album finally dropped in June, it did not disappoint. I read someone compare it to when you’re at a party, and you’re in the bathroom, and you can still hear all the music, but you’re sitting on the floor having an existential crisis. The album is beautiful, dramatic, tragic, and all around strong. What makes the album especially genius is not its complexity, but rather its simplicity. Lyrics like “I care for myself the way I used to care about you” and “All of the heroes fading/Now I can’t stand to be alone,” Lorde makes herself vulnerable and relatable, appealing to audiences everywhere.
Some of my personal favorite tracks from the album are “Sober,” “The Louvre,” “Writer In The Dark,” and “Supercut.” I’ve joked that “Sober” is one of the only songs that I can apply the compliment “that trumpet really enhances the song” too. It’s a dark and bass-heavy confessional track where Lorde wonders what will happen after she comes down from her high, though she also seems exhaustingly familiar with the routine. Filled with imagery and metaphor, “Sober” encompasses the post-“Green Light” stage of loneliness, being distracted and destructive. It tackles the feeling of wanting to throw something against a wall with a darkly glamorous finish, following in the same vein as Pure Heroine tracks like “Glory and Gore.” It’s dark, it’s sexy, it’s angry, it’s dangerous, and I fell in love with it the first time I hit play.
“The Louvre” is a sweet but psychotic love song with lyrics that literally say “I am your sweetheart, psychopathic crush.” Lorde seems to be revisiting the beginning stages of her relationship with the knowledge of its end. She critiques her own behaviors “A rush at the beginning/I get caught up, just for a minute” and then asks her lover to hold a megaphone to her chest so everyone can hear how her heart is beating and so she can “make ‘em all dance to it.” The sugary sound of the track mixed with the depth of the lyrics make for a very successful song.
“Writer In The Dark” was actually my most listened to song on Spotify in 2017. Lorde says “I woke up in the middle of the night and was lying next to someone. And I wrote it down on my phone”. The magic of “Writer In The Dark,” much like the other songs on the album, is the realness of it. The likelihood that it could’ve happened to you and maybe even the probability that it did.
“Supercut” is an expansive track that could’ve easily closed the album. It includes my favorite lyric on the album “In my head, I do everything right,” it’s such a genius lyric not because it’s complicated and means so many things, but because it is such a relatable lyric and I think that really encompasses this album for me. It’s emotional, happy, nostalgic, bittersweet, and feels like moving forward.
And with that, we see that Lorde has made 2017’s most dynamic loneliness album, and in my opinion, its best album in general. She did something many people have trouble doing themselves; she gave herself the permission to be melodramatic. Lorde felt everything on this album, and in turn, she made us feel everything from anger to sorrow to elation. She made us laugh, cry, rage, smile, scream, and be as dramatic as we like, but through it all, she let us dance. [Erin Pattie]
Recommended if you like: Haim, MØ, Marina and the Diamonds
Listen to: “Sober”