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.