In a year of social turmoil, the best albums of the year got angry, vulnerable, and fuzzy. Tyler breaks them down.
Listening to new music has long been a source of escapism for me. Because of my musical adolescence (Blink-182, early Fall Out Boy, Taking Back Sunday and, quixotically, Sigur Ros), I was drawn to music that was so viscerally emotional as to completely remove my feelings from the discussion. It was impossible to remember where my real feelings ended and Adam Lazarra’s began as he and John Nolan would yelp “forget me, it’s that simple.”
For many, 2017 has been a mess. It’s a time of recognition of systemic oppression occurring at multiple levels with little to balance the scales. The forces of evil bear down, ceaselessly marching towards a future in which we are unable to look away from the train wreck of history that we, ourselves, inadvertently caused.
It’s a genuine bit of small comfort then that the best music of this year seemed doggedly focused on excising what emotional heft and anger could be cut out from the artists as they write. Their pain and reckoning is a mirror, a shared community that is briefly able to so relieve the turbid malcontentedness within a listener’s (my) brain.
So the best music of this year had the ability to transport, yet stay grounded in a reality. There’s not much blithely defined “tune-out” or “distraction” music in here; with the exception of one glorious pop-punk retro act, everybody around here seems to be wrestling with some pretty significant demons.
But really, isn’t everybody? So why shouldn’t the best music of 2017 reflect the moment?
[Note: Brand New’s Science Fiction is not on this list. It is an album that subtly deals with lead singer Jesse Lacey attempting to forgive himself for unnamed things, presumably the numerous disgusting acts of sexual harassment (some against minors), incidents of infidelity, and destructive relationship to sex that former fans of the band have come forward and shared about him. The relationship between Lacey’s horrific actions and his art can’t be separated, especially in a context that might grant him positive publicity, something he does not deserve given his lukewarm, self-centered apology.
Many studies have shown that 1 in 6 women have been sexually assaulted, saying nothing of sexually harassed. That means that more than likely at least one of the men in one of these bands has committed acts similar, or worse, than Lacey’s. Encouraging and empowering women (and men) affected by band members abusing their power over fans to come forward should be the chief goal of anyone in the music industry at this point.
Thus, this is the last we will talk about Brand New.]
25. Caracara – Summer Megalith
Building from a traditionally emo framework, oddly metered guitar lines, shouted bridges, a lyrical bend that tends toward the discussion of those lost but not forgotten, Caracara grind out a beautiful Midwestern approachability with a splash of maximalist rock soul (“Oh Brother”). Summer Megalith is quixotically an album for autumn evenings, soulfully sung and filled with song that look toward a setting sun with that emo-perfect combination of nostalgia, religiosity and bitterness (“Apotheosis”).
RIYL: Thunder Dreamer, Young Jesus, The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Dikembe
24. Vagabon – Infinite Worlds
Laetitia Tamko contains multitudes, and her sophomore album as Vagabon, Infinite Worlds, accomplishes an astonishing encapsulation of her varied worldview and songwriting prowess in a mesmerizing eight tracks and 28 minutes. Her voice soars in ways that recall indie-rock All-Stars in waiting Hop Along, and her songwriting skill is so expansive and exploratory that Infinite Worlds can sometimes feel like a clearing ground for a mess of ideas. But within all eight tracks (perhaps excepting the bizarre chillwave experiment “Mal a L’aise”), Tamko ties the album together with her intimate story-telling, a lyricism that feels ripped from thoughtful, not bloodletting, diary pages.
RIYL: Hop Along, Swearin’, Fiona Apple
Key Tracks: ‘100 Years,” “Cold Apartment”
23. Prawn – Run
Fourth wave emo seems predicated on the idea that combining the genre with extant forms of indie-rock (post-rock, hardcore, punk, power-pop) is the way forward to creating a sustainable genre not reliant on “waves” (something emo has so far been unable to do). Prawn has steadfastly acted against this impulse, believing that a straightforward mixture of third and fourth wave emo, pristinely performed and composed, is a repeatable formula for success. Just like their 2014 effort Kingfisher, Run is evidence that they might be on to something. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the record, yet all the proceeds here are eloquently and professionally produced, resulting in a product devoid of weakness, if a bit muted around the adventurous edges. But everybody needs a safe go-to, eh?
Key Tracks: “North Lynx,” “Hawk in My Head”
22. Kevin Morby – City Music
Just like Angel Olsen’s MY WOMAN last year, Kevin Morby’s new record, City Music, opens with a mysterious, captivating feint. “Come to Me Now” is a mini-noir, a show-stopping piece of synth-driven romance before diving into the rest of what turns out to be Morby’s best album. His California folk hero sensibility, a mirror of contemporaries M. Ward or psychy name-changers Thee Oh Sees, feels refreshing now as it hadn’t four years ago, before the onset of grotesque, ironic hedonism brought on by Father John Misty would ruin the nascent scene for the foreseeable future. Morby could now sincerely be called a throwback (“Tin Can” and “Crybaby,” I mean c’mon), a paragon of earnest beat-poet hazy sensuality and self-discovery, finally carried through in full force on City Music. Even if this doesn’t appeal to you, I entreat you to “Come to Me Now,” an unreal moment of songwriting clarity.
21. Oso Oso – The Yunahon Mixtape
Speaking of throwbacks… did you ever really get down to The Starting Line? Mae? Reliant K (the good times)? Something Corporate? If you answered yes to any of these, The Yunahon Mixtape is going to feel like a startling moment of time-warp nostalgia. Delivering huge choruses without feeling the need to be over-dramatic, Jade Lilitri deftly merges retro, decades-old stylings that bands like Panic! at the Disco and All Time Low degraded and eventually nearly destroyed with the angular sensibilities of early fourth wave emo to create a pleasant, rousing “mixtape” without the dramatic crutches that hampered other retro-focused acts over the past half-decade.
Key Tracks: “Reindeer Games,” “Great Big Beaches,” “The Slope”
20. Rozwell Kid – Precious Art
There are a couple other contenders, but it’s hard to think of a more rabble-rousing opening song or first single than Rozwell Kid’s opener “Wendy’s Trash Can,” a busted-up ode to things left behind on the long, literal road of a tour. “It’s not the same as the picture I had painted in my brain” may drop a little close to cliche, yet the next forty minutes of Precious Art are a refutation of the painting itself, bratty spits of songs directed at the pop-rock history Weezer put forward with The Blue Album and simultaneously ran into the ground with nearly every record post-Pinkerton. Hilarious yet sincere odes to lost love (“Booger,” if you can believe it), or yet more sincere odes to the inability to find parking near the gig (“South By”) are balanced with hooky singles that might never be like “Blow It” to create a pop-rock masterwork about being angry that nothing really became what you wanted it to be, yet well… here we are. Might as well record that song about the booger, right?
Key Tracks: “Booger,” “Wendy’s Trash Can,” “Blow It”
19. Benjamin Booker – Witness
Technically, Benjamin Booker turned it down for Witness. His former, self-titled effort and his history in the New Orleans music scene established his as a jangly garage punk rocker, with a bass rasp replicated by precious few in the genre. Yet Witness breaks Booker through to the mainstream by melding the messy anger of his former work (“Right on You”) with folk and soul-inspired tunes (“Motivation”) and a heaping helping of Mavis Staples (god bless Mavis forever and always). While that can make the album at first seem scattershot and grasping at a resonance and relevance Booker never before chased, “Off The Ground” pulls everything together inside two and a half minutes, starting with slow-burning folk and exploding into frenetic fuzzed-out punk mania towards its end. Perhaps, in this moment of national anger and confusion, the fusion of folk and punk, especially when delivered by a clever and insistent songwriter like Booker, can resonate greater than the sum of its parts.
RIYL: Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Leon Bridges, The Dead Weather
Key Tracks: “Off the Ground,” “Witness,” “Motivation”
18. Adult Mom – Soft Spots
The deluge of bedroom rock (or just recently graduated from) projects created a nasty dissonance between the qualitative work being put in by women in indie rock and the quantitative. Frankie Cosmos’ Next Thing was by no means bad, it just got lost in a swarm along with Free Cake for Every Creature, T-Rextasy, and others. In that environment, Adult Mom’s effective and poignant Soft Spots might’ve gotten lost. Yet this year, when the bedroom pop gods deigned to give a little break to the righteous explosion of bands flooding the scene, Adult Mom’s record shines as a well-executed effort, with small-scale narratives about relationship intricacies (“J Station”) blended alongside big synth blasts of anthemic mid-tempo (“Patience”). Singer Steph Knipe’s slow, sweet voice is vaguely reminiscent of The Cranberries, and lends a gentleness to the proceedings that bedroom rock bands can be wanting for.
RIYL: Frankie Cosmos, Free Cake for Every Creature, Soccer Mom, Florist, Girlpool
Key Tracks: “Full Screen”
17. Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes
Now that they’ve locked up the title of “Best Myspace Music Success Story” (sorry Lily Allen), Sick Scenes seems like an appropriate next move for Los Campesinos!; measured, softer, and somehow more melancholy, this time on the prospect of aging out of nearly everywhere. From experiential changes of hometowns (“The Fall of Home”) to aging out of using prescription drugs as a romantic crutch (“5 Flucloxacillin”), Gareth, ever the acid-tongued miscreant, flubs his way through sexual innuendo to get to worries about his own monumental remembrance (“Got Stendahl’s”). Yet LC!’s music has never felt more mature, inventive or daring, nearing a decade into their surprisingly consistent indie-rock career.
Key Tracks: “Got Stendahl’s,” “Hung Empty,” “I Broke Up in Amarante”
16. Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator
I remember reviewing Hurray for the Riff Raff’s first cassettes nearly ten years ago, thinking they had the ability to draft into the wake of alt-country revisionists that were just popping off at the time. Much to my elation and surprise, Alynda Segarra and her band ascended to something much higher, achieving a form of Puerto Rican folk-punk wholly unlike anything else in the music scene today. Combining alternating percussion and angular, avant-garde guitar with poignant missives on the necessity of maintaining a struggle against gentrification and race warfare (“Rican Beach”) with traditional country ballads on picking oneself up from the lowest points (“Life to Save”), Segarra ties everything together with her effortlessly soulful voice (frequently reminiscent of Fiona Apple), flexible and comfortable with any of the swirling genre experiments around her.
Key Tracks: “Pa’lante,” “Life to Save,” “Rican Beach”
15. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
“Death is real, someone’s there and then they’re not, it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art.” Phil Elverum’s pitch black humor, that those are the first lines of his album A Crow Looked At Me, clearly, a recollection of the loss of his wife to pancreatic cancer, is his only moment of levity if you could call it that. A Crow Looked At Me isn’t enjoyable, in any sense of the word, yet it walks a dangerous tightrope above the chasm of grief porn, arriving on the other side of the walk no more clear about the significance of the death than when Elverum started. Yet the album is alive in its depression, and provides the clearest view of grief that has been put to music in a very long time. It may be impossible to listen to without a stiff drink, or more than once, but A Crow Looked At Me feels important in its very existence, married as it is with Elverum’s haunting voice and guitar work.
RIYL: Sun Kil Moon before Mark Kozelek became even more of an insufferable asshole.
Key Tracks: “Real Death,” “Ravens,” “When I take out the Garbage at Night”
14. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm
Katie Crutchfield could be thanked for the onset of the bedroom rock boom of the last half-decade because of the remarkable success and development of her Waxahatchee project. From the fuzzy American Weekend to the developmental magic of Cerulean Blue, through the written on the road Ivy Tripp and finally to this year’s angry break-up, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield has proven to be a phenomenally adept songwriter, able to float around disparate indie-rock cliches and turn them into piercing diatribes about weakness, and the ways others take advantage of those weaknesses. Out in the Storm is the most close-knit of any of Waxahatchee’s releases, despite being the biggest sonic step the band have ever taken. Yet in that dichotomy lies Crutchfield and her bands’ particular, unique strength; a track like “Never Been Wrong” could end up feeling like a play for greater-sounding relevance… instead it serves Crutchfield’s angry snarl, such as the moments when she invokes the “everyone” who will soon see her ex for the monster he is, and all the sound drops from the mix, only to dive back in all the louder. It’s this balance that Katie Crutchfield is uniquely gifted at, and Out in the Storm is yet another affirmation of her excellence.
Key Tracks: “Never Been Wrong,” “Recite Remorse”
13. Charly Bliss – Guppy
Eva Hendricks, lead vocalist and guitar player for Charly Bliss, was bound to be divisive. Her voice can sound like an alternatingly charming and nauseating Josie and the Pussycats power-pop nostalgia trip, never mind that she frequently is singing about laughing about dogs dying (“DQ”). But that’s Charly Bliss, rough-edged bratty power-pop wunderkinds and their debut album Guppy. At ten tracks and under 30 minutes, Hendricks packs in youthful insouciance for cultural norms (or, frequently, boys), instead focusing on self-absorbed notions of how to maintain a proper diet and not freak everybody out (“Scare U”). Guppy is chock full of hooks, relentless in its pursuit of the next big wall of guitar high, and thus serves as a welcome getaway from the rest of the overly thoughtful music of 2017.
RIYL: Veruca Salt, ROMP, Weezer
Key Tracks: “Glitter,” “DQ,” “Scare U”
12. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Adam Granduciel’s vision, surprisingly, never outpaced his reach. Even as The War On Drugs has evolved from a Springsteen-ian side project of Philly rockers to a full-fledged festival headlining act, Granduciel’s grandiosity in conveying the lonely, romantic ideals of his project never seem to fall short of meeting or exceeding expectations. After Lost in the Dream exploded the band’s already ambitious sound, A Deeper Understanding appears to be a distillation and strengthening of the languid framework of many of The War on Drugs’ more slowly-paced tunes. With the exception of “Nothing to Find,” which sounds like a Slave Ambient holdover, most of the tracks on Deeper take their sweet time getting to their explosive finales, or do away with them all together in favor of liquid guitar solos and Kurt Vile-esque jamming. Not that any of this is a bad thing – unlike Vile, Granduciel’s noodling around song frames is instantly captivating, perhaps due to his increasing pedal effects expertise. What results is an album that feels daunting to the touch (all but one track over 5:30 minutes) but welcomes itself in and becomes inescapable through even one listen.
Key Tracks: “Thinking of a Place,” “Strangest Thing,” “Pain”
11. Allison Crutchfield – Tourist in this Town
After the demise of her punk band Swearin’ (although hey, looks like they’re comin’ back!), it was forgivable to think Allison Crutchfield might be subsumed and outshone by her sister, Katie (Waxahatchee). Tourist In This Town puts those thoughts to bed with a forceful blast of emotive synth-rock. For her second solo effort after the bedroomy Lean Into It, Crutchfield draws a clean line between the arty, angular Swearin’ and the big as hell choruses and hooks of Tourist, while also maintaining that homespun DIY ethos that the Crutchfields seem to understand intrinsically. Functioning as a sort of travelogue of her time between bands, Tourist is road-weary and exhausted, Crutchfield’s breathy voice soaring over the synths in tired coos (“Secret Lives an Deaths”). Tourist in an eminently winning solo album for the practiced songwriter, and proves that she’s just as formidable a songwriting force as her sister, which of course means a force stronger than 99% of all songwriters in the game.
RIYL: Japanese Breakfast, Little Big League, All Dogs
Key Tracks: “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California,” “Dean’s Room,” “Expatriate”
10. Slaughter Beach, Dog – Birdie
The indefinite hiatus of Modern Baseball just as they were developing an original sound inside the sometimes staid genre of pop-punk (no spoilers) is undoubtedly a tragedy, especially if we never see the band out on the road to share their brand of insecure positivity with fans again. Yet, if it means we get more of Jake Ewald’s Slaughter Beach, Dog project, there at least will be good to come from the tragedy.
Birdie is, despite its similar place in year-end rankings, a massive step forward for Slaughter Beach, Dog, mostly due to an iterative refinement of sound. Focusing on softer-core folk-pop-punk sounds built around strumming guitar lines and hooky choruses (or both, as in “Sleepwalking”), Ewald eschews a frail serenity all to infrequently seen among the rest of his scene peers. Whether he’s still telling loosely connected narratives about fictional characters as on last year’s Welcome or drawing his audience a bit closer to his personal life as on Modern Baseball’s HOly Ghost, Ewald is rapidly becoming a evocative and poignant songwriter. It’s impossible that he maintains the “three albums every two years” pace, but just to have the last two years of his writing is gift enough.
RIYL: John K. Samson, Pinegrove
Key Tracks: “Pretty Ok,” “Sleepwalking,” “Gold and Green”
9. Sorority Noise – You’re Not As ____ As You Think
The modern pop-punk band must be more. More to escape the malaise and doldrums of the basic three-chord bratty formula. More than Say Anything. Paramore is the best example of this phenomenon, and although After Laughter isn’t amazing, the band is stretching for something remarkable, and nearly getting there outside their framework. Cam Boucher and Sorority Noise had wandered around in the formula for two albums and four EPs before finding gold in unmitigated sorrow on You’re Not As ____ As You Think. “Just last year I lost a basketball team to Heaven,” Boucher wryly remarks, and the rest of the record is an accounting of overcoming that grief in service of a greater artistic purpose, despite that Boucher doubts he’s worthy of adulation or redemption.
You’re Not As isn’t anything drastically reinventive — “A Better Sun” hints at Modest Mouse guitar tone and Sigur Ros atmospherics, yet evolves into a big, chugging chorus. Yet Boucher’s lyricism and Doubting Thomas character keeps everything afloat and making sense, as if the band were confident in not completely rebooting themselves, just adding pieces to accent the final product. What an enormous difference additional emotional weight and slight musical tune-ups can do for a band. Boucher and Sorority Noise are still pop-punk cliche narcissistic, yet You’re Not As ____ As You Think justifies this narcissism in spades.
Key Tracks: “No Halo,” “Car,” “A Portrait Of”
8. Harmony Woods – Nothing Special
Sofia Verbilla, the songwriter behind Harmony Woods, understands something about the nascent, early days bedroom-indie-rock formula that most don’t. Namely, just because you’re adept at making observations about the world around you and the relationship you’re involved in doesn’t mean they carry any emotional weight when transmitted in the blase tone of disaffected guitar music. Her response on Nothing Special is a full-throated shout of emotional fervor, pregnant with over-dramatic meaning – “oh god, I think I might need you” – stretched over a guitar framework that seeks to be more than the sum of its parts, and ends up succeeding. Verbilla is still extremely adept at conveying the small moments of a relationship, such as the trip out on a commuter train to see a loved one. She just ends the grounded poetry with a twinkle of romantic – “because your smile quite frankly actually reminds me that things might be okay.” It’s this emotional honesty that immediately vaults Nothing Special above its peers and makes it one of the best debut albums of the year.
RIYL: Common Holly, Cayetana, Katie Ellen
Key Tracks: “Parking Lot,” “Jenkintown-Wyncote,” “Renovations”
7. Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
Craig Finn’s music has always felt inextricably linked to The Hold Steady, his most famous project. Even his features (a half-rapped guest spot on P.O.S. “Safety in Speed”) feel like characters from Separation Sunday creeping out of their putrid rock clubs and hanging with the stoner rap kids. His first solo effort, Clear Heart, Full Eyes feels impossible to remove from late stage Kubler-Finn rock revivalism, despite its Texas-folk excellence.
So We All Want the Same Things, then, is the great miracle vaulting Finn ever higher in the rock writer pantheon. Concerned, as he has been for the last eightish years, with the inevitable entropy of youth into old age, Finn sprawls out across the rock palette, blending plinking piano hooks with gutter survival (“Ninety Bucks”), or dangerously War On Drugs-style Springsteen on a synth binge modern rock (“Birds Trapped in the Airport”), retaining his propulsive shout-song and saving it for key moments (“Tracking Shots”). The true gift is the centerpiece, “God In Chicago,” when Finn drops all pretense of melody, pairing a spoken word tragedy of lonely, grieving friends carrying out a grim funeral rite with slowly dirging piano, is a flat stunner. It reminds the listener that, despite Finn being a member of rock n’ roll’s canon of All-Time Great songwriters, his strongest days may yet be ahead of him.
Key Tracks: “God In Chicago,” “Tracking Shots,” “Preludes”
6. Young Jesus – S / T
After a few years wandering around on the punky side of post-Built to Spill indie rock, Young Jesus took a massive step forward with S / T by managing tempo and loosing themselves of the necessity to say as many things as possible in the most energetic fashion. A record this assured in its mannered songwriting approach shouldn’t be as captivating as it is, yet that’s the benefit of John Rossiter’s trembling, quiet but poignant vocal delivery that stays just above talk-song until it blooms into full shouted cacophony (“Feeling”). Saddle Creek rightly snatched the band up in the weeks following the release of this record, rightly understanding that their development from jangly indie rock wannabes to actualized post-rock wunderkinds may be close to bearing fruit. With lyrics personal and spare (the semi-romantic cavern plunging as relationship understanding of “Desert”), Young Jesus managed to hone their image without changing their core essence, effectively rebooting the band and propelling them many lengths further than they might’ve previously thought to have gone.
RIYL: Built to Spill, Cloakroom, Greet Death
Key Tracks: “Storm,” “Eddy,” “Under”
5. Telethon – The Grand Spontanean
Personally, especially in a year like this, I find it important to have an album that’s easy to pop on during the commute and forget that anything in the world exists other than this propulsive, punk-rock blaze of noise. Last year, that was PUP’s vicious The Dream is Over, which was impossible to listen to without scowling, screaming and wanting to fight. Titus Andronicus have long been standbys. Yet 2017, up until the fourth quarter, didn’t have a record like that. Yet in the strangest places (dirty Milwaukee rock clubs), in the strangest packages (90-minute rock operas about, among other things, Twitter and Disneyland), the release is found in Telethon’s unbelievable, unforgettable The Grand Spontanean.
Somehow maintaining a relentless punk-rock E Street tempo over five “acts” and 90 minutes, Spontanean is as winning as rock n’ roll has felt in many years, breaknecking from the poppiest Born To Run style love letters (“Apocalypse When,”) to Replacements odes (“Runner’s High”) to lyrical, reinterpreted covers of No Doubt (“Tiny Rushes”), The Killers (“Until the Ball Stops”) to gigantic, nine-minute narrative musical numbers that would put American Idiot to shame (“Stillwave”), somehow Telethon still manage to wedge in an appropriate Franz Kafka reading (by The Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay) and… I kid you not… a three track, legitimately exhilarating ska set by an entirely invented, different band called the Improbable New Sensations. The Grand Spontanean is a truly unbelievable listening experience, transportive, tight and exciting in a way that indicates Telethon as rock gods-to-be.
RIYL: Titus Andronicus, Green Day, Ted Leo
Key Tracks: “Punctuation!,” “Runner’s High,” “Apocalypse When,” “Stillwave”
4. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
In what in other genre circles would’ve been plenty of reason to start beef, Phoebe Bridgers released her Ryan Adams “executive produced” debut Stranger in the Alps a month before the highly anticipated release of fellow folk superstar in training Julien Baker’s sophomore album, and managed to yank a few sets of critical eyeballs over to her decidedly more glossily produced version of personal folk bloodletting. While Baker would still somehow exceed the expectations of her record (no spoilers), the fantastic Stranger was such a surprising wallop of crafty folk-pop songwriting it’s hard to think about a time when Phoebe Bridgers wasn’t a household singer-songwriter name (even if she isn’t quite there yet now).
Stranger in the Alps presents such a varied, professional spin on the traditional bedroom folk diatribes that it’s difficult to acknowledge how darkly personal Bridgers gets inside the pleasant surroundings. “Killer” and “You Missed My Heart” both deal with embodying and reflecting murderous feelings in their narrators, while “Would You Rather” romanticizes the escape from depression and suicidal thoughts that can come from two people meeting in the right place. Elsewhere, Bridgers gets drunk and wanders all number of streets, meeting current and future exes, feeling terrified thinking how she ended up here and the impossibility of ascending above it. Along with pristine production, Stranger in the Alps beautifully announces the arrival of a new folk star.
RIYL: Kathleen Edwards, Julien Baker, Conor Oberst
Key Tracks: “Smoke Signals,” “Scott Street,” “Would You Rather”
3. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights
Her ability to give her listeners goosebumps within seconds of listening to almost any of her songs using only her voice, a guitar and maybe a piano means that Julien Baker should be mentioned, frequently, as one of the most viscerally exciting artists in the world. Yet because of the depressive pep talks that most of her songs take the shape of, Baker often gets somewhat unfairly roped into the emo genre. There’s nothing markedly different about Turn Out the Lights from the best Fiona Apple records, or Laura Marling, Sharon Van Etten or Julie Byrne, save that Baker is able to accomplish so much with so little surrounding her.
Her lyrical excellence is the reason, and for all of the shocking profundity of the small revelations in her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle, Turn Out the Lights pivots on such small moments and metaphors, like her inability to recognize another’s love as if she’s an android unable to be unplugged from her emotionless existence. Or the meaning when she starts missing the appointments that keep her sane. Her voice soars through the words, achieving a level of understated drama that flat no other artist fully understands how to carry through.
Sprained Ankle felt singular, a momentary supernova of beautiful catharsis, bereft of healing. Turns out Julien Baker was just getting started.
Key Tracks: “Turn Out the Lights,” “Everything That Helps You Sleep,” “Claws in Your Back”
2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
My perennial bridesmaid. Kendrick is, at this point, in the stratosphere alongside Kanye West and Beyonce for the Decade’s Most Important Musical Artist, yet I’ve never thought any of his records have been the best of that particular year (Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp a Butterfly both finished third). Yet while DAMN. doesn’t get the ‘chip this time either, that shouldn’t take away from the colossal achievement of the album itself. An angry, perennially conflicted and even yet more incisive Kendrick appears front of stage on DAMN., taking shots at all his competitors (Drake, please) while shedding much of the jazzy experimentation of TPAB for straight-up murderous flow. That “HUMBLE.,” “DNA.” and “ELEMENT.” hit the pop airwaves says just as much about the weakness of the hard-hitting rap radio landscape as it does about Kendrick’s laser focus on taking every possible crown he can in one swipe.
Nearly going “all hits, no misses, no features” makes DAMN. feel all the more insistent, a political statement about what Kendrick views as the black experience, now removed from “African-American” or “black” and back to the human “Israelite.” After wandering the forests of modern jazz and coming back to craft this love letter to slow-burning Compton rap, Kendrick’s next move remains, as ever, unfathomable and anxiously anticipated, presumptively extending the reign of the Best Rapper Alive.
Key Tracks: “LOVE.,” “HUMBLE.” “DNA.”
1. The World is a Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign
Emo has, deservedly, taken it on the chin this year, if not in qualitative deflation but in public perception. The revelation that many of the heroes of emo’s second and third wave weren’t drawing artistic fantasy out of thin air when they screamed their vicious, misogynistic teenage sexism onto wax makes the genre all the less accessible, appearing, once again, as a cis white boy club, poisonous and wretched as the rest of powerful cis white America.
Always Foreign, lyrics primarily written by first-generation Puerto Rican-Lebanese American Dave Bello, is an angry lash-out answer at the misogyny and criminality surrounding a band held as the standard bearer for fourth wave emo for the last five years. Inspired in equal parts by the acrimonious dismissal of guitarist Nicole Shanholtzer and the election of a racist orange pile of dung, Foreign is not resigned and hopeless, yet defiantly also not as hopeful as the last two TWIABP records have been (the band’s name, referenced in the last song from their first record, has long been a rallying cry for fans beleaguered by other bands’ relentless pessimism). Instead, Bello and his cadre are angry. Very, very angry.
That anger is important as a reminder of the state of culture in this union. While many artists have turned in powerful works of art that eloquently and incisively deal with microcosmic reasons for the degradation of the American Experiment, Always Foreign posits less of a reckoning with that downtown and more a rage against the dying of the light – “I hope evil can see you as you get what you deserve,” “call me an Arab, call me a spic, I can’t wait until I see you die,” “will you be faking it when the business is failed and your money is revealed as meaningless?”
Pain lives on Always Foreign, and TWIABP, ever the emo band at its core, translate that pain into the most poignant and affecting art of their career. There’s only one “Blank” track experiment, and the post-rock crescendo-core of their former lives have been distilled down nearly into just straight high, nearly all the time (with the notable exception of “For Robin” a low-key number excoriating those who fetishize celebrity death).
Always Foreign is important as a moment in emo, and as a moment in the national consciousness. TWIABP have always been keen and perceptive songwriters, yet here Bello crafts a narrative accurately and clearly reflecting the anger and despondency of a generation of people who saw many collective preconceptions about society shattered in a very short amount of time. While doing so crafting the most insistent music of their career is a startling achievement, even for a band perilously close to locking down Band of the Decade, two years early.
Key Tracks: “Marine Tigers,” “I’ll Make Everything,” “Faker”