Okay, so that title is misleading. These aren’t necessarily the best albums of 2017 – who am I to judge? – but they’re certainly the new releases that I enjoyed most this year.
(Presented alphabetically by artist.)
I’m Only Dreaming by Eisley
By the end of the album’s very first song, it’s clear that I’m Only Dreaming is a special record. You want proof? Album opener ‘Always Wrong’ rides deliberate melodies that transform into stratified harmonies while the serenity of springtime seems to bloom right out of the speakers during in ‘When You Fall.’ If those don’t do it for you, try the majestic closure of ‘Brightest Fire’ or the tranquil tenderness of ‘Rabbit Hole.’ Few albums this year offer a single song as brilliant as any of these and yet I’m Only Dreaming has them all and more, including what is perhaps the album’s greatest passage as the second half of ‘Defeatist’ unfolds across a looped melodic line, tracing out a verse that hits maybe a little too close to home:
“As the dust falls down, I usually give up so easily. I let my head hang down before I even see a truth that’s plain as day staring back at me. I’m a defeatist, but I don’t have to be.”
I’m Only Dreaming is that rare album that grabs you from the moment it begins and never lets go; it’s bright and warm and surprisingly existential. The end result is that with this release, Eisley, on the heels of significant lineup changes, has created what is likely their best album.
Something to Tell You by Haim
Well, they’ve done it. Haim has completed their quest to become Millennial Wilson Phillips. Something to Tell You is full of early ’90s bounce, with three-part harmonies and punchy melodies. It’s a much tighter record than Haim’s debut, Days Are Gone, although it lacks that album’s sonic experimentation. (Your enjoyment of this development will likely run counter to your enjoyment of ‘My Song 5.’) When Haim delivers, though, they really deliver. ‘Want You Back’ and ‘Little of Your Love’ are two of the best pop songs in recent memory while streamlined ballad ‘Right Now’ may be the most satisfying entry in the band’s catalog.
It also makes me smile that Haim is produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, forever known to me as That Guy from The Hippos. (Who doesn’t love Heads Are Gonna Roll?)
Harry Styles by Harry Styles
When Chiodos released All’s Well That Ends Well in 2005, it was a rather big deal in my social circle. Aside from the lot of us being shamefully deep into screamo at the time, Chiodos were local boys, from just up the road in Flint. Hell, we had played basement shows with them when they were still driving a short bus and calling themselves The Chiodos Bros. As we spent a disproportionate amount of time air-shredding to All’s Well, one of my friends sagely noted that Chiodos had used that album to codify the entirety of screamo clichés. Intentionally or not, all the genre in-jokes appear on All’s Well in one way or another, be they thunderous walls of distortion or endless chugging or obnoxiously verbose song titles. The point being: that record worked for us not because it did something new but because it did exactly what we were expecting and it did those things well. Your expectations don’t always have to be upended; there’s value in simply having them met.
Which brings me to Harry Styles and his self-titled debut. When I saw the impressively coifed Harry on Saturday Night Live in the spring I didn’t know a single One Direction song (and I still don’t) so my expectations were low. Then he crooned his way through a couple of absolute classic rock bombers. I pre-ordered Harry Styles that night and when the album arrived a few weeks later, it didn’t disappoint. The record is chock full of soaring vocals and so many classic rock clichés that it’s possible there’s not a single original idea on the whole damn thing. And yet, in the same way that All’s Well worked all those years ago, Harry Styles works now. It’s a classic rock album, yes, but more importantly it’s musical comfort food.
DIVISI by A Lot Like Birds
What do you write about death? What do you say about loss? I’ve been staring at my keys for an hour trying to figure it out, just as I’ve spent a huge portion of the year trying to figure out what to say about DIVISI, one of the best albums of the year and one of the best albums about death and loss that I’ve ever heard.
The catalyst in this case was the death of singer Cory Lockwood’s mother. The song ‘For Shelley (Unheard)’ tackles the subject directly and with heartrending honesty. If the realization that our parents aren’t invincible – that they’re as fragile and flawed as we are – is the one of the keystones of growing up then ‘For Shelley (Unheard)’ is the saddest possible anthem for the ascendance to adulthood. The rest of DIVISI, an album that sonically hearkens back to early-2000s post-hardcore while also forging something new and fresh, is rife with equally potent lyrics. The eponymous closing track is a poetic treatise on the anguish of mortality and it comes on the heels of the pounding ‘From Moon to Son’ which looks at the death of a loved one and agonizingly laments, “I hope you’re eternal but all I have is hope.” (That line, as it illuminates the fragile thread by which faith must necessarily hang, breaks my heart. Every. Single. Time.)
All that said, there’s more to DIVISI than the inspection of grief. It’s a powerful, raucous album that is filled with engaging riffs, brilliant constructions and artful performances throughout. It’s the kind of record that crawled one line, one verse, one song at a time into my head until I couldn’t get it out, until it filled all available spaces. It’s inventive in a way that mirrors many of the albums that shaped my adulthood – a statement that is both an inherently limited compliment and also the highest possible praise.
And then there are those lyrics. Those painful, insightful lyrics about loss and separation and death. I know that I seem to be beating a dead horse here but, well, such is the passion of belief and I believe in what A Lot Like Birds have done with DIVISI. I believe in the honesty of it, the truth of it and the need for it. To wit, the first story I ever wrote that was worth a damn was a story about death. It was almost unbearable to write; tears streaming down my face and snot choking my breath as words filled the page. I believe that DIVISI is important because the truth of the matter is that no one wants to write about death, not really. But we need to. We need to write it down; we need to read it out. We need to know that others have felt loss, that others have survived. At least, I do.
A Black Mile to the Surface by Manchester Orchestra
At the climax of ‘The Silence’ – the masterful, grandiose finale of A Black Mile to the Surface – the song builds to a hauntingly chaotic swirl with bass booming and cymbals crashing as Andy Hull chants out the song’s closing lines. In the process, Manchester Orchestra offers up the lowest low and the highest peak of the band’s emotionally fraught and intensely rewarding fifth album. “Little girl you are cursed by my ancestry,” Hull cries out, addressing his daughter. “There is nothing but darkness and agony.” It is maybe the bleakest line in a long series of bleak lines penned by Hull. And then as the storm calms and the song winds down, just before a twinkling, dreamlike piano carries us away, he offers to her, his cursed daughter, a message of hope. Because in her he has found meaning and purpose, he has discovered that even as we journey through the very heart of darkness, there are things greater than our suffering, things worth living and striving for. “Let me hold you above all the misery,” he sings. “Let me open my eyes and be glad that I got here.” In that moment, through all the tumult that came before, there is peace, even as the song – and album – ends.
After Laughter by Paramore
There’s a line at the end of ‘Tell Me How,’ the final song from Paramore’s After Laughter, that guts me every time I hear it. It’s simple and cutting and insightful and goddamn if it isn’t just brutal as hell: “Of all the weapons you fight with, your silence is the most violent.”
I mean, goddamn. Domestic bliss, that ain’t.
The irony of After Laughter is that the bouncy, colorful, ’80s-tinged singles ‘Hard Times’ and ‘Told You So’ give the impression that this album is light and cheery and goofy (the Peter Gabriel-inspired music videos certainly don’t hurt). But the truth is that this album, underneath it all, is dark. Darker than any other effort we’ve seen from Paramore. Which, in retrospect, makes a lot of sense. Those two bouncy singles? They’re secretly melancholy as hell. ‘Told You So’ begins with the line, “For all I know, the best is over and the worst is yet to come,” while the chorus of ‘Hard Times’ repeats, again and again, a tormented sentiment: “I still don’t know how I even survive.”
If some older Paramore material felt inherently aimed at adolescents, then After Laughter certainly feels aimed at adults. It’s an occasionally disquieting venture into an emotional world that’s crumbling; here’s hoping that writing these songs was as cathartic as hearing them can be.
Italian Ghosts by Strawberry Girls
At the end of the summer, my wife and I drove to Chicago so I could buy a new car. Only a few days before the trip I had purchased Italian Ghosts, so I snuck it into the rotation a couple of times as we trekked from Detroit and back. As ‘Vanilla Rainforest’ ripped through bizarro time signature after bizarro time signature my wife asked, “What is this?” It wasn’t a compliment. Then, only a few minutes a later, she was aping Nic Newsham’s guest vocals on ‘Thank God,’ singing, “Somebody that can rip a fuckin’ dance floor!” Her volatile response to Italian Ghosts only makes her initial question all the more relevant: what the hell is this record?
Well, it’s got the soul of jazz fusion except for when it gives up the pretense of chill and absolutely shreds. It’s psychedelic and funky except for when the heavy distortion kicks in. It’s instrumental except for the fact that half of the album includes guest vocalists. (Trying to unwind this knot of labels, my friend Dan proclaimed that at least part of the album was “Kenny G metal.” Can’t argue with that.) If nothing else, Italian Ghosts is a strange journey as it moves from the machine gun snare of ‘Black Night, Golden Circus’ to the beautiful counterpoint outro of ‘Shadow of the Moon’ and, like with that drive to Chicago and back, it’s one I’m glad to have taken.
Almira by Tyson Motsenbocker
Tucked into the back of my dresser there is a small handkerchief. The item itself is unremarkable: white cotton with thick, cheap stitching and visible creases from where it had once been folded in its long-since-discarded cellophane packaging. That handkerchief has lived in my belongings for a decade, traveling with me through a half dozen moves, but I’ve only ever used it once. Since my grandfather’s funeral in 2007 it’s remained tucked away in the back corner of a drawer. I’ll never use it again and I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get rid of it. The object itself is meaningless – it didn’t belong to my grandfather or offer any particular comfort when I wept at his passing – still, it feels like a bridge to him somehow, a tie that binds the present day to a past world in which he was only just out of reach. It exists only to remind me of him, of a life outside my own that was important to me, that I wish I’d known better. Each time I see that handkerchief it’s bittersweet because it’s joyful to remember love and painful to remember loss and because, in the wake of death, these are all we have.
Which brings me to Tyson Motsenbocker. At the close of ‘Almira,’ the title track from first of Motsenbocker’s two excellent 2017 EPs, the already sparse instrumentation falls away to bare finger picking. “I saved all your voicemails after you were gone,” Motsenbocker sings, “Asking me to call you back, from the great beyond.” It’s this moment, more than the harmonies of ‘You’re Still Here’ or the bright trill of pizzicato strings in ‘Memphis,’ that keeps me coming back to Almira. It’s a resigned moment – and a whole song, really – that captures the pain and beauty of grieving for someone you’ve loved. It’s delicate and honest and it hurts; what more could you ask?
What What What by What What What
For a decade and a half I’ve been using the iTunes five-star rating system to curate and manage my personal music library. There’s nothing performative about this process; it’s an expressly personal way for me to engage with music. An internal debate over how to rate a song, while meaningless to literally everyone else in the world, pushes me towards a self-contained dialogue regarding what I value in music and how well any particular song delivers it. Over the years, I’ve found that these considerations have expanded my academic understanding of what songwriting techniques I find effective while ultimately enriching my appreciation for music both in particular and in general. That there is no intrinsic economic value to these efforts never crossed my mind. It certainly occurred to Apple, though.
With the launch of Apple Music, the streaming service add-on to iTunes, Apple began to move away from the star rating system and towards a binary “like/dislike” system (a heart-shaped icon, in this case). This change was driven not by a motivation to create a better or more user-friendly approach to library management, but rather by a desire to better facilitate their algorithm-driven For You playlist, a blatant attempt to compete with Spotify’s massively popular Discover Weekly playlists. As an iTunes power-user, I can’t help but be disappointed by the implications of this change. Binary ratings inherently lack nuance (full disclosure: I have previously complained that even a five-star rating system is insufficiently deep) but that’s a feature, not a bug. Nuance doesn’t fit neatly into algorithms. Binary ratings do. And so when Bobby Darling sings, “I must have missed the part where everyone signed up to be numbers,” during the chorus of ‘Numb in the Middle,’ it’s a perfect reproach for our increasingly digitized, algorithmic world.
That wry awareness of the pitfalls of modern life fuels What What What, the self-titled debut of Darling’s new solo project. The album is a razor-sharp examination of the unique challenges of our increasingly internet-dependent lives and across eight pointed tracks, Darling tackles the bizarre anomie of 21st century existence. To paraphrase Jean Twenge, What What What succeeds in large part because of Darling’s ability to look at our tech-mad world and not succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be but rather to understand how they are now. (The unique hooks and the riffs that will burrow into your brain play a part, too.)
Through his rollicking alt-rock anthems, Darling explores the rudderless isolation that often results from our digital lives (“But something feels wrong. I’ll figure it out when I get onto WebMD”) while also admitting that the interconnectedness of social media can bring people together and, even in the face of ever-present backlash, provide inspiration (“There’s a chorus of boos…but I’ve got something to do”). Finding a healthy middle-ground between our digital and tangible lives may be the chief mental-health concern facing current and future generations and Darling dives into that quagmire with a charming authenticity. As a result, I’ve found that What What What is one of those albums that gets better with each and every listen, that benefits from close inspection. “I wanted meaningful control,” Darling sings on the album’s final track and, as I click for a five-star rating, that sentiment feels exactly right.