Top albums of 2017: Mike Usinger
If something binds most of the following triumphs together, it’s that change is good. Make that your mantra for 2018, and the world might actually start to seem like a brighter place.
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 3
Earlier this year Snoop Dogg took a deserved shot at modern rap by noting everyone wants to sound like they’re sitting at the same lunch table as Young Thug, Future, and Drake. Not the case with Run the Jewels, who continue to bang old-school-hard at targets ranging from Mango Mussolini Donald Trump to corrupt cops to gentrification-obsessed developers. Believe the hype.
Those expecting the plaintive gothic folk of Aldous Harding’s eponymous debut were forced to adjust their expectations; this time out the New Zealand singer-songwriter takes a decidedly less harrowing approach with songs that flirt with DIY chamber pop. Harding’s undeniably unique vocal delivery isn’t for everyone, but those who rightly get it will argue there’s no more enchanting singer waiting to break.
Where she could easily have built on the propulsive indie rock of her previous Top 10 outing Splinter, Torres instead set out to challenge, with Three Futures requiring a good half-dozen listens before it starts to make sense. Put in the time, though, and you’ll be rewarded with a lush synth-focused triumph that proves experimental doesn’t have to mean inaccessible.
Turn Out the Lights
Sometimes it’s okay to be sad. Julien Baker finds beauty in the darkness on Turn Out the Lights, an incandescent guitar-and-piano meditation on love, longing, and—above all—hanging on when all seems hopeless. The 22-year-old’s greatest accomplishment is the way her highly personal lyrics (“The harder I swim the faster I sink” from “Sour Breath”) also manage to be completely universal.
Canada’s greatest noise-punk unit gets experimental on its third full-length, dabbling in everything from barbed-wire pop to vintage postpunk to turbocharged Americana. Binding everything on the Steve Albini–produced Strange Peace is the way Metz redlines things from start to finish. Essential listening for anyone who cares about a lineage that started with aural terrorists like Big Black and the Jesus Lizard.
The Book of Law
“Fascinating” only begins to describe Lawrence Rothman, a gender-fluid prodigy with nine alter egos whose debut features some high-wattage guests (Kim Gordon, Duff McKagan, and Angel Olsen). Fittingly, given the Missouri-spawned singer’s back story, no two songs are the same, glitter-spackled Broadway show tunes sitting beautifully next to death-disco goth jams and lounge-tastic MOR.
Lana Del Rey
Lust for Life
Pop music’s most melancholy chanteuse doesn’t totally lighten up on Lust for Life, but she finally sounds like she might be learning to occasionally smile. (Check out the ethereal treasure “Groupie Love”.) That Del Rey is still cooler than any of us is driven home by a guest-stars list that includes A$AP Rocky, Stevie Nicks, and the Weeknd (that’s not a typo—it’s how his stage name is spelled).
The Underside of Power
Thanks to the shadow cast by Donald Trump’s America, the world is an ugly and intolerant place right now, that inspiring the impassioned call to arms that is The Underside of Power. Distortion-frazzled synths, sheet-metal percussion, and punk-grimed guitars provide a driving backdrop for singer Franklin James Fisher’s amphetamined-soul vocals, the gripping chaos enough to convince you that maybe it’s finally time to hit the streets and take a stand.
Great as its 2015 debut, Before the World Was Big, was, girlpool evidently decided that something needed fixing, the duo expanding its original bass-guitar-and-vocals attack with the addition of thumping drums. Add some truly ferocious six-string violence on numbers like “Corner Store” and you’ve got a record that winningly transcends Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s intentionally lo-fi beginnings.
I See You
After building a massive following with a monochromatic sound that took downbeat to hypnotic levels, the xx evidently decided it was time to add some colour to the mix. With I See You, fans got a complete reimagining of the trio’s carefully crafted aesthetic, songs drawing on styles (disco calypso, ’70s radio pop, Jamaican dancehall) that once seemed completely unthinkable.