My use of such phrases as “a potent stew of unflinching self-reflection”, “the crushing ennui of youth”, and “textures commingle in unexpected, alchemical ways” in the list below is testament to the fact that I should retire from music journalism before my critical faculties finally collapse in on themselves.
Lana Del Rey
Lust for Life
Sure, she copied the album’s title—and possibly the smile she sports on the cover—from circa-1977 Iggy Pop, but so what? Lana Del Rey borrows a lot of things from a lot of places; Beach Boys fans will surely think they’ve heard the phrase “Don’t worry, baby” (which Del Rey croons in “Love”) somewhere before, for instance. No one captures the crushing ennui of youth quite like Lizzy Grant, and the fact that she has tempered her usual well-studied miserablism with what seems like actual joy—as on the title track, which features the Weeknd (that’s not a typo—it’s how his stage name is spelled)—adds depth to her already elaborate self-invention.
Father John Misty
On his third outing as Father John Misty, Josh Tillman takes on the whole world. No, really, he does. On the title track alone, which opens the record, he tackles the possible evolutionary roots of gender inequity and humanity’s drive to ascribe cosmic significance to our meaningless struggles. The most biting commentary arguably comes in “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”, which suggests that, even if we can cast off the shackles of oppressive late capitalism, we are doomed to forge them again for the sake of convenience. It might all be a bit heavy-handed if not for Tillman’s faultlessly melodic singing and the lush orchestral-pop sound forged by producer Jonathan Wilson and collaborators including Gavin Bryars and Nico Muhly.
Based on recent interviews, it’s clear that a lot has happened in Karin Dreijer’s life in the eight years since she released Fever Ray’s self-titled debut. Not just the dissolution of the Knife, her long-running project with her brother Olof, but the breakup of her (heterosexual) marriage and her embrace of her own gender fluidity and self-proclaimed queerness. It’s all there in the music and lyrics, which are more visceral and aggressive than Fever Ray’s more melancholic and introverted past work.
Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics are a potent stew of unflinching self-reflection (“I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA”) and razor-sharp commentary on the economic and racial divides that continue to define the United States. He’s one of the most crucial voices in contemporary rap—and anyone who hated all that free jazz and funk on To Pimp a Butterfly will be happy to note that DAMN. is a more straight-ahead hip-hop record.
The absence of guitarist Bo Madsen and his sinewy, angular playing takes some getting used to, but the lush, melodic songs on the synth-heavy Visuals still hit the pleasure centres of the brain in the way that only impeccably crafted Danish art-rock can.
A Crow Looked at Me
“Death is real,” Phil Elverum sings on “Real Death”, this album’s opening track. “Someone’s there and then they’re not/And it’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art.” And yet that’s precisely what Elverum has done here, processing his wife’s 2016 passing into 11 plainspoken, even blunt, reflections on mortality and survival, resisting any temptation to romanticize his own grief. The effect is beautiful, devastating, and, one hopes for the artist’s sake, deeply cathartic.
Sleep Well Beast
It seems a bit disingenuous to describe Sleep Well Beast as “indie rock for grownups”, given that no one under 30 listens to indie rock anyway. Regardless, this is a record that positions the National as one of the possibly moribund genre’s leading proponents, still vibrant and inventive after nearly 20 years of existence.
Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno
I spent a lot of time listening to piano music in 2017. I wanted to block out the noise of the world, and, as a guitarist who wouldn’t know his way around a keyboard if all the notes were written on the keys, the sound of a piano let me shut off the overly analytical part of my brain. Finding Shore, a collaborative effort between pianist Tom Rogerson and studio guru/ambient-music godfather Brian Eno, is worth a more active listen. Rogerson’s improvisations and Eno’s electronic textures commingle in unexpected, alchemical ways that are never less than interesting and are occasionally transcendent.
For their first album since 1995’s Pygmalion, U.K. shoegazers Slowdive made no attempt whatsoever to update their sound. Thank God for that, because those swirling guitar textures and vocal harmonies were perfect just the way they were, and the only thing anyone could have wanted from Slowdive in 2017 was more of the same.
Annie Clark’s masterpiece of shimmery future-pop is practically worth the price of admission just for “Pills”, a deeply ironic confessional ode to the ecstatic joys and downward-spiralling pitfalls of fame and antidepressants.