Looking for new music? Continuing our Best of 2017 series, Jason Katsion highlights his favorite music of the year. For reading recommendations, check out our recent Best of 2017: Fiction Picks and our forthcoming Best of 2017: Non-Fiction Picks and Best of 2017: Children's Books.
There was an astonishing array of great music released in 2017. What follows is an enthusiastic and thoroughly subjective “Best Of” list that, admittedly, says much more about my own musical affinities than it does about the music world at large. I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I have. Many of them can be downloaded for free from Freegal and Hoopla with your Library card. I’ve included links to the Library catalog whenever possible, and in some cases external links to YouTube videos.
“Mary” by Big Thief, from the album Capacity
My greatest musical discovery of 2017 was Adrianne Lenker, the lead singer and songwriter of the band Big Thief, and there is no better introduction to Lenker’s evocative voice and idiosyncratic songwriting than the lullaby-like “Mary.” In an interview with NPR, Lenker explained that this stream-of-consciousness song was inspired by memories of being safe and warm at her grandparents home during childhood winters: “It's about childhood being brought to life and reignited after the slush of the teenage years. There's just a little capsule of a song that allows me to revisit all these colors and pictures and textures and feelings. There's a few lines where I realized that sometimes it's easier on this journey for me to give love and kindness and tenderness and empathy to those I really care for...and sometimes a little more challenging to direct it inwardly and give it to myself.” Other superlative tracks from Big Thief's album Capacity include the deeply personal “Coma” and the heartbreaking meditation on motherhood, “Mythological Beauty.”
“The Warm Shoulder” by Mary Lattimore, from the album Collected Pieces
This tender composition is one of many that I could have chosen by the harpist Mary Lattimore. Representative of her entire oeuvre, “The Warm Shoulder” is delicate, comforting, and beautifully restrained.
“Sugar for the Pill” by Slowdive, from the album Slowdive
This single from Slowdive’s triumphant 2017 return is unquestionably my pick for Song of the Year. I was enamored with its shimmering dream-pop from the moment I heard it, but my appreciation for the song only deepened upon hearing Slowdive’s Neil Halstead explain that the genesis of the song may be traced to a reading of Wuthering Heights; a novel that I have previously blogged about in excruciatingly nerdy detail. Halstead told the Song Exploder podcast: “I was reading Wuthering Heights in 2014. The first time I’d ever read it. And I think some of that made its way into the song. There’s a feeling of that kind of wild Heathcliff quality in the song a little bit. The doomed romance of Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s involvement. And it’s very connected to the nature they live in. [It’s] a metaphor for their own relationship.”
“I Live Now as a Singer” by Julie Byrne, from the album Not Even Happiness
Part of me wants to describe this haunting track by Julie Byrne as a torch song, but it’s not entirely clear if it’s the singer or her subject who is unrequited, and it may be that very obliqueness that keeps bringing me back.
“Piel” by Arca, from the album Arca
Arca is a Venezuelan electronic musician best known as a songwriter and producer for heavy-hitters like Kanye West, FKA twigs, Frank Ocean, and Björk (including her critically acclaimed new album Utopia). Arca's self-titled album is the first of her solo works sung in her own native Spanish, and it is every bit as compelling as that of her more famous collaborators.
“Different Now” by Chastity Belt, from the album I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone
“Baby” by Arms & Sleepers, from the album Life is Everywhere
“Morning After” by Ariel Pink and Weyes Blood, from the Myths 002 EP
A collaboration between professional weirdo Ariel Pink and up-and-coming singer-songwriter Weyes Blood (Natalie Mering), “Morning After” is an gothic delight. The madrigal-like instrumentation provides a perfect accompaniment to Mering’s expressive voice.
“123” by Girlpool, from the album Powerplant
While the opening lyrics of “123” may be difficult to parse, they perfectly match the exuberant tone of the music: “One, two, three, will you list it off to me? How you’re sorry you feel weird in a jubilation dream…?” Girlpool are also responsible for what may be my favorite .gif of 2017.
“Side Effects” by Fog Lake, from the album Dragonchaser
Aaron Powell records under the name Fog Lake, which is an apt moniker for the kind of fog-shrouded pop music he’s been producing for the last five years. One of the highlights of his 2017 album Dragonchaser is “Side Effects”, which features an atypically upbeat arrangement and lyrics that relate subjectivity as though it were universal truth: “Like when your image stains my mind until my conscience bleeds, and still it's all I want, and still it’s all I want.”
“Dissolve” by Emptyset, from the album Borders
The experimental music duo Emptyset create music that may accurately be described as noise, and “Dissolve” is the most invigorating noise I heard all year.
“StoneColdStunner” by BONES and Wicca Phase, from the album PaidProgramming
BONES is a ridiculously prolific Michigan rapper who churns out multiple self-produced albums per year, while Wicca Phase is a comically angsty “Goth Boi” who sings in a morose monotone that sounds something like a bored and depressed Ian MacKaye. I am aware that this sounds like an extremely unfortunate pairing, but I love “StoneColdStunner.”
“Check My Profile” by Odonis Odonis, from the album No Pop
I can best describe “Check My Profile” as the aural equivalent of being surrounded by menacing vacuum cleaners that inexplicably perform a synchronized dance as the foremost sentient vacuum cleaner advances with some urgency and says, “We have to talk.” That description may sound less ridiculous after you’ve listened to the song, or possibly more ridiculous. You tell me.
“Beachfires” by Burial, from the single Subtemple / Beachfires
Every EP and single that Burial has released since his 2007 masterpiece Untrue has been cause for celebration. And in 2017, we were graced with three new singles indicative of an interesting musical progression; retaining the unique beats and evocatively sampled voices that are Burial hallmarks, while at times shifting closer to an ambient sound, exemplified by “Beachfires.”
“Eternally” by Julia Lucille, from the album Chthonic
“Eternally” is a dreamy folk-influenced song that conveys much more than its spare lyrics.
Best of 2017: Music
(sequenced as a Spotify playlist)