Top Eleven Songs of 2017:
Listen to Best of 2017 on Spotify
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 3
"We return from the depths of the badland / with a gun and a knife in a waistband / Went to war with the Devil and the Shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan."
Hip-hop duo made up of Killer Mike and El-P haven't been afraid to do things differently: a year after their breakout 2014 Run the Jewels 2, they remixed the album using only cat sounds and re-released it as Meow the Jewels. Yes, you read that correctly.
Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.
"I'll prolly die die walkin' back home from the candy house / I'll prolly die because these colors are standing out."
Kendrick Lamar is indeed the greatest rapper today, and at this rate he will likely end up on the Mount Rushmore of Rap. Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Tupac, Eminem all have great lyrics, but Kendrick's beg to be deconstructed. Fluid to the ear yet dense for interpretation, he is the best in the game. This album isn't quite at the OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-JUST-HAPPENED level as To Pimp a Butterfly, but it's an incredible album.
St. Vincent - Masseducation
"I can't turn off what turns me on."
When Annie Clark released her eponymous album in 2014, she cemented her legitimacy as a top bill act. Her follow-up release continued a move closer to electro-pop. While Clark has maintained a deeply private life off-stage, she pushes the boundary lyrically, venturing into areas like power, sex, and identity. In some ways, it converges with many of 2017's feminist causes.
Jay-Z - 4:44
"Super Bowl goals / My wife in the crib feedin' the kids liquid gold / We in a whole different mode / Kid that used to pitch bricks can't be pigeonholed."
Jay-Z's career arc shares some parallels with characters played by Laurance Fishburne. Go with me on this ...
Spoon - Hot Thoughts
"I know you must hold secrets / Such a long way from home / You're a lost letter, needs delivery / Someday you'll be where you should go."
Now in their 25th year of keeping Austin weird, but in a good way. Britt Daniel's writing has never been better, using contemporary hooks with a long shelf-life. Sharon Van Etten also makes an appearance with backing vocals.
Beck - Colors
"Found our way through the lost years / Now the day brings it all here."
After a stunning win at the Grammys for Album of the Year in 2014 ("Hi Prince!"), Beck Hansen teased us in 2016 with the first single and signaled to us a creative oscillation back towards experimental pop. Had he released both "WOW" and "Dreams" in 2017, this may have been a top five album, but he does become the first artist to make two End of Year playlists with one album.
LCD Soundsystem - american dream
"Oh sure it's ruling the airwaves / What remains of the airwaves."
In 2013, Rolling Stone magazine listed LCD Soundsystem as one of the New Immortals - current musical acts which would stand the test of time. And that was two years into a four-year breakup. Thankfully, they reunited for the 2016 festival circuit and ultimately released their highest-charting album to date.
Lorde - Melodrama
"Well those great whites, they have big teeth / Hope they bite you / Thought you said that you would always be in love / But you're not in love no more."
With a sultry, powerful voice, and an even sharper pen, it's easy to forget that Lorde is only 21 years old. Emerging from a break-up with her longtime boyfriend, her sophomore effort is not only stronger than her first album, it stands a very good chance of upsetting Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar for the Grammys Album of Year.
Elbow - Little Fictions
"Come to the river son / Let your obsession go / What does it prove if you die for a tune / It's really all disco."
One look at this Manchester four-piece's CV, and you have to wonder why they aren't a bigger deal stateside: former Mercury Prize winner (3x nominated), Brit award winner (2x nominated), 5 Gold albums and 2 Platinum albums, and composer of the London Olympics BBC Theme. Guy Garvey could very well be this decade's best lyricist not named Kendrick. Imagine Peter Garbriel-era Genesis covering Radiohead.
Tyler, the Creator - Flower Boy
"You live in my dream state / Relocate my fantasy / I stay in reality / You live in my dream state / Anytime I count sheep."
My work peeps know Tyler Okonma first and foremost as "that guy who directed the goat videos." Watching the NPR Tiny Desk concert offered a more proper view: an artist who loves to be the jester, but in secret wants to the the bard. "See You Again" shows a poet looking beyond his typical blue humor in search of his true love; it's a 21st century take on Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene.
The National - Sleep Well Beast
"The poor, they leave their cellphones in the bathrooms of the rich."
Frontman Matt Berninger vocal's have traditionally dwelled in his lower Baritone range. On Sleep Well Beast, he extends his range into the top registry, reinforcing the urgency in his lyrics.
Arcade Fire - Everything Now
"I'm in the black again / Can't make it back again."
Four straight albums of both commercial and critical success has set the bar high for this Canadian indie band. Perhaps that's why many critics called this a misstep for the band. It's an unfair expectation, and Win Butler's sparse lyrics and innovative sound continue to create a sound much greater than the sum of its parts.
The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
"I've been pullin' on a wire, but it just won't break / I've been turnin' up the dial, but I hear no sound / I resist what I cannot change / And I wanna find what can't be found."
I described 2014's Lost in the Dream as "Springsteen in the studio with Jerry Garcia, with Brian Eno at the board." Frontman Adam Granduciel continues to channel a flurry of influences in this follow-up, from Shoegaze to Heartland. Vocally, it sounds as if Granduciel drove solo from Maine to Los Angeles listening to nothing but Bob Dylan.
Ryan Adams - Prisoner
"Another year will pass / I will count the days / Another sun goes down / And I'll never see the rays / What can I say? / I didn't want it to change."
In the last ten years, Ryan Adams has wrestled with his health, his sobriety, and his marriage. Divorced and sober, with his ailments under control, he's managed to walk the fine line of emoting grief without wallowing in it.
Ty Segall - Ty Segall
"Sink, swim, breathe in the air / When you can't breathe it any longer / It might just disappear."
The only musician who can make Ryan Adams' output look sparse, and he's about to release ANOTHER album in seven days. Segall continues to be the best-kept secret of garage rock. This latest album demonstrates a broader range of influences, including T. Rex and Neil Young.
U2 - Songs of Experience
"A dinosaur, wonders why it's still on the earth, yeah / A meteor, promises it's not gonna hurt, yeah."
They were broadly criticized for their prior release Songs of Innocence, which was unfairly driven by their choice to release via Apple iTunes spam. The album holds up remarkably well, with a youthful voice and a recognition of from where the band is from. Songs of Experience thankfully in a shorter time frame, allowing for more direct comparisons with its predecessor. It's a band that has rediscovered its ability to laugh at itself: not in the self-deprecating way it did with The Zoo TV Tour, but more so in the sense they recognize they are figurative dinosaurs in an era of singles over albums and streaming over physical copies. It's because of the band embracing these truths that makes this album great. Especially when comparing Experience to The Rolling Stone's chronology equivalent Voodoo Lounge, it's clear this band has more to prove, strives to be both relevant and timeless, and succeeds in both.
Guilty Pleasure of the Year
Taylor Swift - Reputation
"But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time / Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time / I've got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined."
Taylor Swift has always been a critically acclaimed songwriter who hasn't been afraid to extend into new genres. Each jump, from Speak Now to Red, from Red to 1989, and from 1989 to Reputation, she's seen general critical acclaim and massive commercial success. But it hasn't been without criticism: each lead single from her last three albums has raised eyebrows, wondering whether Swift could really establish credibility in that space. To make such an argument is short-sighted; when looking at the last four albums collectively, Reputation is actually a natural progression.