By Emilio Arias
Hackings. Shootings. International pissing contests. Tax cuts (hikes?). Nuclear threats. Stolen elections. iPhone batteries are a lie. Literal Nazis with tiki torches. 2017 was a rough year. And yes I know this is 3 weeks into the new year but this is our blog so...deal with it.
Thankfully we had safe refuge within the confines of music...and hot damn was there a lot of good stuff that came out in 2017.
Trying to pick a top 5 of is like trying to invite everyone to your birthday party...you’re going to leave out a good friend that you have a bunch of embarrassing drunk stories with. But at least remember to invite the closest (read: coolest) ones.
Here’s my list of albums that got us through 2017 better than the rest.
Oh-So-Close Honorable Mentions:
What Now - Sylvan Esso
The electro pop duo from North Carolina flex their raw dance-move muscles on this album with lead firecracker Amelia Meath showing a jagged edge that might as well be a well manicured middle finger to the patriarchy.
Migration - Bonobo
England’s Simon Green moves from the beaches to the deserts with this absolutely stunning album featuring a perfect blend of soaring guest vocalists, ethnic musical influences and more bells and harps than your high school orchestra.
Sleep Well Beast - The National
This just in: The National is a serious band that takes themselves seriously. But this album is seriously fantastic. Added bonus; The National dives into a previously unexplored world -- guitar riffs and solos. It’s delicious.
Pure Comedy - Father John Misty
In the year 2131 when aliens first make contact with earth, the amorphous alien leader will meet with our greatest minds and leaders. Undoubtedly the first words out of this alien’s telepathic mind will be “yo you have a copy of that Father John Misty album? It’s been making me cry since 2017. That shit was fire”. There’s not a greater lyricist on earth than the long haired cynic from Seattle.
Sampha - Process
“No one knows me like my piano” proclaims London’s most exciting singer/piano maestro since Sir Elton John donned the glitter jacket. On Process, Sampha redefines his future by letting us into the world that only him and his piano know -- and it’s a sight to behold.
5. Everything Now - Arcade Fire
There was something disconcertingly fitting about Arcade Fire’s frenetic meditation on over consumption, mass media, corporatism and joyful apathy amongst the backdrop of 2017. Perhaps it was the band’s omnipresent marketing campaign which bombarded us with tongue in cheek images of the EVERYTHING NOW™ über-corporation. Or maybe it was the the critic’s disappointment that put a dent Arcade Fire’s once impenetrable sheen as “the band to save indie rock”. Could it have been the album’s inability to decide on which genre, or even direction it wanted to take? Whatever it was, and even despite the album being the band’s first critical flop, something about the anxious and chaotic undertones struck a resonant chord that felt...intentional.
Starting with the stuck-in-your-head-forever title track (which undoubtedly had ABBA tapping their toes in approval) and thrumming onward into the darkly upbeat singles "Signs of Life" and "Creature Comfort," the themes of anxiety and overindulgence in internet age of now, the album’s, at times, jarringly disjointed tracks are kept together by one theme: anxiety. And what better way to celebrate the era of media oversaturation, reality TV presidents and flat earth movements than an album that embodies the cyclical nature of it all with it’s infinite content? Even the album’s more skippable tracks (read: "Peter Pan") fit as a sort of dull glue that brings the whole mess together.
It may come off a little ham fisted at times but Everything Now is like the soundtrack for the coming apocalypse --- not the nuclear one (although that’s certainly on the table), but the spiritual one that Win Butler and Co. have been portending since their first album. Just pop this record on and dance, cry, warble and wail your way amongst the flames of the coming armageddon!
4. Aromanticism - Moses Sumney
While Moses Sumney’s sultry debut album was a last second find and addition to this list, his subtle, gorgeous, downbeat entry was a welcome salve. Combining the sparse and austere production of Frank Ocean, with the crooning falsettos of James Blake, Aromnaticism is as sexy as it is enveloping. Defying any sort of label, Sumney’s production is a highlight unto itself. Utilizing everything from sparkling harps, bright synthesizers, twanging guitars to soft jazz drums and deep basslines, the album almost has a “kitchen sink” attitude to backing Sumney’s vocals. This sort of cross breeding of indie rock, R&B, soul and electronica feels like the cresting of a new wave in music that blurs lines, morphs through genres and generally symbolizes the new melting pot paradigm in which we are ingesting music. Gone are the days of being a strict “rap” or “rock” fan and having the radio dictate what you were going to hear that day. With the power of tools such as Spotify, Apple Music and/or whatever other medium by which you consume your music, you can be listening to Motown classics for breakfast and finishing your day with the latest deep-house mix for dessert. And Sumney’s debut album certainly feels as cool as a rich gelato as it melts in your ears.
3. MASSEDUCTION - St. Vincent
St. Vincent (or as her native Texan cohors know her, Annie Clark) has already established herself as a torch bearing paragon of indie rock. Collaborating with oddball legends like David Byrne, Sufjan Stevens and Jack Antonoff certainly did nothing to diminish the image of St. Vincent as a guitar shredding, doe-eyed, head scratching musical novelty. But little did the world know that lurking underneath her previous albums was a mutant butterfly waiting to burst forth from the shadows of her rock brethren and rain down musical fire and excellence upon us --- that butterfly is MASSEDUCTION. Ditching the distortion heavy guitar riffs of her 2015 self titled album in favor of Antonoff-led digital production, Clark has taken her game to an entirely new and almost overwhelming level. But don’t think for a second that this drum pad fairyland (The deliciously fun and seductive "Los Ageless" comes to mind) is missing any of the indie richness and soul that earned St. Vincent her street cred in the first place. If anything, this proto-prog album has launched Clark into the rarified air of near avant garde artist, a-la the previously mentioned Everything Now. Tackling themes of Xanax fueled disaffection in Pills, alienation at the hands of everyone’s favorite concrete jungles in "New York" and "Los Ageless," and constant softcore porn inundation with the title track "Masseduction," Clark’s heady songwriting isn’t pulling any punches. To top it all off, Clark has embraced the image of a glassy eyed, confusing, modern sex symbol; just give one glance at the album art and you’ll see what I’m talking about. This meta narrative gives the album a wickedly poignant allure in a time when we want all our favorite albums to be just a little more self aware.
2. A Deeper Understanding - The War on Drugs
Nobody sounds quite like the War on Drugs right now. We’ve all heard the classic Americana rock comparisons, but these guys still have their version of that definitive, nostalgic, sweeping sound. And it’s that very sound that is sharpened, honed, refined and driven right through your heart on A Deeper Understanding. At a time when the barrier between genres is as mushy and nebulous as ever, The War on Drugs has doubled down on what makes their sound work and carried the flag of “rock” into the sunset. Gifting us with an album that averages well over 5 minutes per track, this album is as long and winding as it is beautiful and soothing. From desperately wistful tracks like "Pain" and "Thinking of a Place" to glowingly driving anthems such as "Holding On," this album finds different avenues to rip your heart out.
But even more wonderfully, Adam Granduciel and company have reminded us that the ultimate rock symbol of freedom and expression is far from dead; the guitar solo. Considering how much we’ve become accustomed to repetition and the rise of the sampled track, A Deeper Understanding takes us back down a retrofitted highway of fretboards, distortion and bended strings...and it’s absolutely grand in scope. If you’re lucky enough to catch these fellas in concert, their mastery and dedication to their craft is on full display -- Granduciel evoking images of a long haired mad scientist, compulsively kicking, twisting and clamping at a dizzying array of foot pedals and distortion. From afar it appears as though he’s in the throes of some fever dream and the only way out is to smash the countless spiders on the ground with gusto. But to him...I’m sure he’s just finding the perfect pitch to pluck our heartstrings, with his merry tap dancing just another move in his arsenal of musical weaponry.
1. American Dream - LCD Soundsystem
Seven years after James Murphy and co., joyously danced themselves clean of LCD Soundsystem, the band is quite literally back together. If you’d gone into a coma before LCD’s “fakebreak” and the first thing you heard was American Dream, you would have guessed this came out mere months after 2010’s This is Happening -- the gang from New York have lost absolutely nothing in terms of raw firepower and modulated synth-suality. If anything, with the time off and beauty of age, James Murphy gives even less fucks, is more salty and has learned a trick or two during his time in hipster exile.
I’ll be the first to admit that my sense of anxiety immediately before this album dropped was overwhelming -- what if it sucks? What if they’ve lost it? What if James really is just mailing it in or doing it for the money? My resurrected love for one of the greatest accidental bands of all time was just too fragile to handle a letdown. This was 2017! The world is going to hell in a handbasket and we needed our heroes to deliver everything and more to save us from the incoming doomsday. Unfair expectations indeed.
Needless to say, I think James Murphy had the exact same fears -- American Dream is an ode to endings and new beginnings, both literal and metaphysical. Even the much maligned album art (giant ugly block letters layered over a perfectly hazy blue sunny sky) feels like a smack-to-your-face metaphor for what a diehard LCD fan would see in the last moments of their life before ascending to hipster heaven.
What surprised us the most about American Dream was not that we got more of the same wonderful kookiness and dance-party fun, but how raw and real we were allowed to see the band become. Now don’t get me wrong, "Someone Great," "Losing My Edge" and "All My Friends" are all windows into James’ anxiety ridden, overzealous, labyrinthine mind, but never before have we the audience been given the key to explore the depths of LCD’s heart. Tracks such as the who-cut-onions oh baby, no holds barred how do you sleep and ode to the late David Bowie black mirror all explore that theme most pressing in the corner’s of LCD’s consciousness -- loss and endings. From dealing with James’ divorce, to his business dissolution and brutal lawsuit with former business partner Tim Goldsworthy (if you don’t know about this look it up...it’s wild) and the loss of mentor and friend David Bowie, American Dream takes on a whole new feel and flavor in this context. The “dream” the album is referring to isn’t some comforting narrative, but rather a sweat drenched nightmare that we’re all living through with every waking moment. Sounds dark? Well it is. But that’s why we have this album to help us dance through the flames.
As much as it’s clear that James Murphy and co are painfully self aware of their age and tenuous musical legacy, it’s also obvious that they’re having fun doing what they do best -- making millions of people move their feet. Just promise you won't break anything when you start headbanging to emotional haircut or start a riot to call the police. See LCD knows that sooner or later the party is going to end, but they want to make sure they’re the song you’re playing when the house catches fire and the cops show up.
And that my scumbags, are the top albums of the shitshow that was 2017.
by Emilio Arias
Confined and impermeable are not words generally associated with good or accessible music. Yet that’s exactly the world in which Adam Granduciel and his heartland/roots-rock outfit, The War on Drugs, brings us into and locks us in with their newest album, A Deeper Understanding. Much like the title implies, we the listeners are brought down and happily trapped into a dark and expansive subterranean sonic world full of loss, longing, sadness and desperate hope. Raw, powerful, soaring and fun to listen to, A Deeper Understanding takes all that you’ve come to love about life on the road with The War on Drugs and drives you towards a new setting sun.
At this point in their career The War on Drugs have heard all the comparisons, for better or for worse; Dylan, Petty, Springsteen, Young. But where most groups would swing between bristling at being unable to escape the shadow of their influences, or grudgingly stay the course and adopt the sounds of their heroes, The War on Drugs has taken that legendary foundation and remade it distinctly their own. A sound which has been honed, sharpened and steeped to a nearly perfect cocktail on this album. Granduciel’s hallmark exuberance (just you try not to get pumped when he shouts his joyful woo! on their 2014 track, “Red Eyes”) isn’t found anywhere on A Deeper Understanding. But it isn’t needed to convey the powerful themes running through the album; the sonic highways on which the album roars down provides all the speed you need.
Where their 2014 breakthrough album Lost in the Dream reached a fever pitch with slow builds and driving guitars, A Deeper Understanding is a fever dream, slowly heating up and breaking out into a cold sweat as we observe from the corner of Granduciel’s hermetically sealed mental studio. If Dylan wrote of fantastic characters brought to life by acidic metaphors, and Springsteen crafted heroically vivid stories of Americana, The War on Drugs gives us detailed recollections through that hazy window of half remembered memory.
But metaphors and imagery aside, what truly shines on A Deeper Understanding are the expansive and vice-grip arrangements and melodies; acting as their own rich story, standing apart from Granduciel’s longing lyricism. It’s impossible not to lose oneself in the complex guitar solos of “Pain,” or the brightly unexpected xylophone in “Holding On,” which is made all the more impressive when realizing that Granduciel produced most of the studio instrumentation on his own. The wandering loneliness and longing so elemental to this album is heightened by Granduciel’s literal solitude in its creation.
The War on Drugs has never shied away from a grand sonic vision, and that ambition is no more obvious than on the length of the tracks themselves. Clocking in at a healthy 66 minutes across ten individually gorgeous tracks, A Deeper Understanding is an insular journey down a forgotten highway towards an uncertain future or leaving behind a haunted past. Able to toe the line between a sealed in studio album that traps us in the dark and beautiful recesses of its creator's mind, while simultaneously granting us visions of an open and beautiful world, the album succeeds where other records might fail; eliciting a sense of loss and pain while at once being authentic and real, and leaving you with a sense of hope and optimism that your destination will be worth the journey.