My 20 Favourite Albums of 2017

Music is good, guys.

20. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now

You can make a good case that Jens is the most engaging storyteller in music. Life Will See You Now is another album of funny, imaginative and sweepingly melodic snapshots of life, along one song that chronicles the entire history of the universe.

19. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

The fourth Waxahatchee album saw Katie Crutchfield open up, both musically and emotionally, as she sorts through the wreckage of a failed relationship with a bold, hook-filled record laced with her typically sharp writing. (Her twin sister Alison almost made this list with her solo debut Tourist in this Town.)

18. Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder

The disparate gang of Canadian indie lifers got back together for an album that celebrated friendship, community, and refusing to let yourself be beat down by an ugly world. Comfort food for those who want to feel like 2008 never ended.

17. Future Islands – The Far Field

After breaking out with the bold, anthemic Singles, one of the best bands of the 2010s made their Trouble Will Find Me: a slow-burning, emotionally rich record that shows them settling comfortably into their sound, while adding a couple new standards (Ran, Time On Her Side) to their untouchable live set. To carry on an earlier analogy, Through the Roses might be The Far Field‘s Pink Rabbits: a song you might initially brush over that gradually reveals itself as one of the most beautiful things this great band has ever done.

16. The Courtneys – The Courtneys II

I’ve been trying for a year to figure out what 90s alternative band The Courtneys sound like, but maybe the answer is “all of them.” In my fantasy world, this is what Canadian rock radio sounds like. Propulsive and catchy, it’s perfect driving music. (Probably. I don’t have a car.)

15. The National  – Sleep Well Beast

Too uneven to be one of their best, Sleep Well Beast is at the very least admirable for the subtle ways it shakes up The National’s sound, with glitchy electronic underpinnings and even a guitar solo or two. While there are some forgettable songs, the highs (I’ll Still Destroy You, Nobody Else Will Be There, Guilty Party, presumable concert highlight Day I Die) slot comfortably in the upper echelon of what is becoming a ridiculously deep canon.

14. Caracara – Summer Megalith

The debut from Philly’s Caracara is, like their Twitter bio promises, “distorted emotional music.” But it’s also enriched by beautiful arrangements, string sections and some Extremely Fucking Good horns. (Shouts to Prenzlauerberg for surpassing Bloc Party’s Kreuzberg as my favourite heartbroken song named after an area of Berlin.) One of 2017’s greatest growers, this one sunk into my soul over the last couple of months.

13. Rainer Maria – S/T

A very good late-90s, early-00s emo band that I barely knew reemerged after 11 years away as an ass-kicking arena rock power trio. The first four songs are probably the best opening run on any album this year, from the the skyscraping Broke Open Love, through a Zeppelin-esque one-two of Suicide and Lazy Eyes and Lower Worlds, culminating in Forest Mattress, which boasts one of my favourite choruses of the year. One of the most underrated albums of the year.

12. Jay Som – Everybody Works

Bedroom pop done perfectly. Melinda Duterte (no relation) (hopefully) tried on a few different sounds on her breakthrough second album, from scrappy pop punk (1 Billion Dogs) to dreamy guitar heroics (One More Time, Please), and they all worked. (Everybody Works, they all worked…someone who is good at the comedy please help me write this, my family is dying.)

If the video below doesn’t charm you, then I cannot help you.

11. Oso Oso – The Yunahon Mixtape

*extremely misses-the-00s voice* My Nostalgia Trips

10. Alex Lahey – I Love You Like A Brother

In which a young Australian woman learns the secret to a great debut full-length: Only put good songs on it. Ten tracks of sharp, funny observations that are refreshingly less concerned with life in Hellworld 2017, and more with timeless 20-something challenges like attempting to get your life together, attempting to date, attempting to maintain a bank balance, and mostly failing at all of it. Alex Lahey has already mastered the art of a good hook; her choruses just explode out of the speakers. If I had to pick one album on this list that more and more people are going to fall in love with over the next year, this would be it.

9. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet

Michelle Zauner’s second album as Japanese Breakfast is hard to pin down; like tourmate Melinda Duterte of Jay Som (whose single “The Bus Song” Zauner directed a wonderful video for), she experiments with several different sounds but manages to tie them together into a cohesive album. Soft Sounds from Another Planet has an enveloping gauziness to it that stays true to the album’s title, while leaving plenty of space for Zauner’s charismatic presence.

(Building a swooning girl-group ballad – Boyish – around the chorus “I can’t get you off my mind / I can’t get you off, in general” moved this album up at least four spots.)

8. Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights

After building up a fervent fanbase of wounded teenagers and Sad Internet Dads for two years on the strength of her debut Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker – prodigiously gifted songwriter, virtuosic singer, excellent Tweeter, Dunkin Donuts stan, tiny avatar of the emotional chaos that binds us together – released 42 of the most agonizingly sad minutes of music you’ll find anywhere. It’s not an easy front-to-back listen, as her bare, confessional songwriting can be A Lot after a while. But the moments of catharsis, when the music swells and Baker breaks into her shattering upper register, are almost unspeakably beautiful. She’s a force of nature.

7. Slowdive – Slowdive

I want to wear this album like a blanket and live in it forever.

6. Lorde – Melodrama

I didn’t really like any of the three advance singles from one of the year’s most anticipated albums on their own. But as part of this perfectly constructed, loosely conceptual masterpiece, Green Light, Liability and Perfect Places are all wonderful, bettered only by Supercut, probably 2017’s best pop banger, and The Louvre, which is perfect.

5. Cayetana – New Kind Of Normal

Cayetana wring a ton of feeling out of familiar pieces. There’s the energy of pop-punk, the bouncy, melodic bass lines of new wave, the rootsy yearning of Americana. But Augusta Koch’s raw, vulnerable vocals give these songs a sense of deeply-felt purpose and urgency that connected with me in a way I can’t really put into words.

4. Big Thief – Capacity

Big Thief trade in intensely intimate, knotty folk-rock that works well as afternoon background music but reveals itself as something more on closer listen. On highlights Shark Smile and Mythological Beauty, singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker delivers specific and personal stories that retain a sense of mystery that leaves them open to interpretation. Even if you don’t engage with Capacity on that level, the craft on display is remarkable. Along with last year’s Masterpiece, Big Thief have started their career with two albums that will stick with you.

3. Charly Bliss – Guppy

So fun it should be illegal. Guppy is one of the most confident debut albums I can remember, loaded with hooks, humour, riffs and boundless energy. Charly Bliss opened for a recharged Wolf Parade in November and were the obvious highlight. In most years, this would be the most joyous rock album released by miles.

2. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life

But unfortunately for Charly Bliss, my sweet best boys came back after a very long five years and managed to successfully follow up my favourite album of all time. Musically, Near to the Wild Heart of Life tinkered with the Japandroids formula just enough to avoid being compared song-to-song against Celebration Rock, while shifting the band’s lyrical concerns from chasing the dragon of your mid-20s to coming to terms with – and embracing – adulthood, love and the value of home. This is a love-letter-from-the-road record, and while that’s hardly a new idea, name me better, more romantic examples of the form than North East South West or Midnight To Morning.

An album this positive, celebratory and big-hearted may be out of place in 2017, but that only makes it more valuable.

1. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

I was lucky enough to be cruising around in my dad’s convertible right around sunset on a late July evening on a curving, empty Winnipeg street when I first heard Strangest Thing, the ne plus ultra of what Adam Granduciel has been doing with The War On Drugs since at least 2011’s Slave Ambient.

Its first three minutes, calm, reflective and at the slow, steady pace of my drive, wore down my defenses. But once the song’s central riff kicked in around the three-minute mark, I was rapt. A minute later, I was overcome, could barely breathe. I pulled over, reclined the seat and just looked up at the sky. The song’s final minutes created a universe so expansive and powerful that I just let it wash over me, let my mind go wherever it wanted to. It was a serendipitous – if a bit melodramatic – moment.

A Deeper Understanding has an uncanny ability to make small moments feel grandiose, in a way a lot of rock music in 2017 is either unable to do or uninterested in even trying. Each song, almost all over 5 minutes, creates its own world, different synths, guitars and melodies drifting through, dissipating, reappearing. You don’t need to parse what Granduciel’s lyrics are about, but just let yourself feel whatever you feel when you exist within the soundscapes and images he brings forth.

A week after A Deeper Understanding was released, I sat in a Muskoka chair outside a Prince Edward County house high above Lake Ontario, a little bit drunk and a little bit stoned, theoretically tending to a bonfire but really just staring through it, while my girlfriend and eight other friends were gathered inside the house on the first night of a long weekend out of the city. On its face, a nice moment. Thinking of a Place, the album’s 11-minute centrepiece played. I only wish there was a picture of my goofy-ass grin as I sat there, lost in a dream, looking like a very, very happy cliché.

A Deeper Understanding doesn’t need those contexts to do its work – you can hear them even if you’re listening on dollar-store headphones at a desk – but man, it does not hurt.

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True Detective review: A detective story

True Detective Finale - Form and Void

It must have been strange to be True Detective writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto for the last few weeks, as True Reddit Detectives combed frame-by-frame through his show, dug through old comic books, brushed up on their Lovecraft and drew up high-minded theories about its central mystery and what that mystery represented. The phenomenon seemed to hit its peak around “Who Goes There”‘s Grand Theft Auto side-mission and “The Secret Fate of All Life”‘s undeniable, narrative-shifting high point. There seemed to be a convoluted explanation that could point to anyone being the Yellow King, or the (lol) “Spaghetti Monster;” there was suggestions that the story would turn supernatural, or even offer no true resolution to the Dora Lange murder at all. 

Meanwhile, writer/showrunner Pizzolatto had a finished product on his hands. We weren’t privy to the fate of Marty Hart’s flip phone-sexting partners and Rust Cohle’s beer-can nativity scene or whether this was all a dream in a locked room or a gateway to the seventh circle of hell where an insanity-inducing play was being performed… But he was. He knew what he had on his hands.

He had an incredibly-stylish, mostly* well-acted, ghost-free serial-killer miniseries about a mismatched pair of damaged dudes chasing a nasty boogeyman.

*(Yes, McConaughey and Harrelson were fantastic, but there were actually other actors on this show, as easy as it was to forget that. Let’s be generous and say they found varying levels of success, while feeling sorry for poor Michelle Monaghan and her extra-dirty martinis.) Continue reading

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1. Volcano Choir – Repave

repave31 of ’13

1. Volcano ChoirRepave

Justin Vernon has never seemed comfortable being in (or just being) Bon Iver. It is/was an identity, a moniker – one of several he’s assumed. Or maybe he’s just afraid of how success can box in an artist. Win a Grammy and suddenly you’re Grammy-winning recording artist Bon Iver and expected to make Bon Iver records.

Maybe that’s why there’s only been two-and-a-half of them in nearly seven years. Maybe that’s why there’s more so-called Bon Iver side projects than there are Bon Iver recordings. Maybe that’s why there may never be another one. Justin Vernon is one of the most gifted composers and singers alive, but he seems concerned with ensuring that no great responsibility comes from that great power.

Which, I should add, is absolutely his right. He is under no obligation to work at a particular pace, make a certain type of music, be a certain type of artist. We, as an audience, are certainly free to pine for a third Bon Iver album, given that they’re both legitimate modern classics, but he can chase down whatever artistic whim strikes him. Doesn’t matter if that means disappearing into a collective of Midwesterners doing late-night 80s soft rock, fronting a blues-rock bar band, or being a primary collaborator on the best hip-hop album of 2013. He’s good at all of those things.

But what he’s best at? He’s best at doing this kind of shit. Continue reading

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2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

vampireweekend31 of ’13

2. Vampire WeekendModern Vampires of the City

A large part of Vampire Weekend’s initial appeal, at least I thought, was their spunkiness. Their playful Graceland-inspired arrangements and clever wordplay was approachable, immediate and weightless. Looking past the privileged-white-kid grad school-isms (you should), Vampire Weekend and Contra were largely just impeccably-made, fun indie rock records made by a bunch of young pop culture aficionados.

So the idea of a band so great at being weightless, cheeky and ironic making their “mature” record and filling it with musings on death, God and the inexorable forward motion of time did not get me excited. But I guess we all have to grow up eventually.

What I didn’t expect was that Vampire Weekend would channel their quarter-life crisis into music more endearing, diverse and singular than anything they’d previously been capable of. I also didn’t realize that they could make music that’s utterly beautiful.

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3. Los Campesinos! – No Blues

noblues31 of ’13

3. Los Campesinos!No Blues

It’s hard to believe that rambunctious, verbose Welsh indie rockers Los Campesinos! already have five(!) albums. “You! Me! Dancing!” only started making the rounds in 2006; they released two stellar albums in 2008, had their fractured, transitional phase with 2010’s Romance Is Boring, regrouped with 2011’s Hello Sadness and now released their best record.

For a band that arrived with quite a bit of hype, they’ve followed a strange career path. They didn’t fail to launch like their peers in Black Kids, but certainly didn’t take off like Arcade Fire. They developed a fervent, if limited, fanbase and stuck to their jangly guitars, gang vocals, xylophones, tied-up-too-tight energy, soccer references and the morbid self-loathing of frontman Gareth (no longer going by Gareth Campesinos!). Without ever ever flirting with the mainstream, save for one inescapable Budweiser campaign that helped pay the bills for a band whose membership rarely dips below six, they’ve carved out a nice little career and an impressive back catalogue that would make for a hell of a greatest hits.*

*Of course, these guys would rather you made your own best-of playlist, carefully curating each song based on the message you’re trying to send, then transferred it to cassette tape and gave it to a crush you totally blew it with along with a note detailing – at length – the futility of wooing someone with an obsolete media format god you’re such an idiot what were you thinking oh well we’re all going to be dead soon anyways.

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4. Savages – Silence Yourself

silenceyourself31 of ’13

4. SavagesSilence Yourself

There’s few riskier positions a new rock band can assume than capital-S Seriousness. Machismo will always find an audience; so can vulnerability. Be disaffected and funny and no one will accuse you of trying too hard. Or just try to make people dance; who’s going to fault you for that?

But styling yourselves and interminably serious, humourless and important? That’s just off-putting. I mean, chill out; it’s only rock’n’roll, right?

So, um, about Savages. They have MANIFESTOS. Really. There’s six of them, heavy on capitalization, written on their website. The page title is “Manifestos.” (With the period.) My personal favourite, because it does the job I’m supposed to do with this piece:

“SAVAGES is not trying to give you something you didn’t have already, it is calling within yourself something you buried ages ago, it is an attempt to reveal and reconnect your PHYSICAL and EMOTIONAL self and give you the urge to experience your life differently, your girlfriends, your husbands, your jobs, your erotic life and the place music occupies in your life. Because we must teach ourselves new ways of POSITIVE MANIPULATIONS, music and words are aiming to strike like lightning, like a punch in the face, a determination to understand the WILL and DESIRES of the self.

This album is to be played loud in the foreground.”

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5. Kanye West – Yeezus

yeezus31 of ’13

5. Kanye WestYeezus

Almost invariably, when you talk to someone who doesn’t like Kanye West, their primary justification is that “he’s an asshole,” and they’re basically correct. He’s an egomaniacal, moody narcissist with a persecution complex and a tendency to make the case for Kim Kardashian’s place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Oh and he gave an album a title comparing himself to Jesus.

I used to make that complaint all the time. I thought he was an obnoxious, mediocre lyricist and a clunky rapper. His productions were sweeping, dramatic and ambitious, but there was a disconnect between the grand music and his grating presence within it. I respected My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy more than I enjoyed it. I was Yeezy agnostic.

But I straight-up worship Yeezus. It’s the best heel turn since The Rock joined The Corporation, which is totally a cool reference, Attitude-era WWF was awesome, I’m not lame you’re lame shut up. Continue reading

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