As there was no one record that monopolized my attention this year—nothing I wanted to hear compulsively, like Heartthrob or The Truth About Love in past years—I found myself shuffling through a lot more new music than I usually do, and with a greater sense of curiosity. Consequently, I discovered acutely how far my tastes ranged from week-to-week, even day-to-day. It’s not unusual that an album I really liked at the beginning of the year faded in my estimation toward the end of it, but in 2017 I found this fluctuating attraction to certain songs and artists to be even more extreme, and while at first I put it down to a kind of middle-aged ADD, now I think of it more as a function of the type of emotional involvement with music I used to take for granted when I was young but no longer have the time to indulge. Of course, one of the reasons you glom onto certain artists or albums is that you instinctively steer toward the safe harbor of familiarity, and I’m not just talking about the stuff you liked when you were a college freshman. When making up lists like this, I always trust my impulses first, and I know that doing so can necessarily push away things I might genuinely love if I gave them enough time; though I also think that music, as opposed to movies, is a more impulsive endeavor, for both the creator and the receiver. And if there’s anything that unites the albums that made my top ten it’s their ability to please me in an ever-intensifying way now that I’ve learned them more or less by heart, and in many cases that didn’t happen until December. That said, the new album I probably listened to most intensely this year was Randy Newman’s, and I can’t rightly say why it didn’t make this list. Maybe I just prefer his older, more concise songs to his late-career theatrical approach, but I guess that’s a safe harbor, too, and when I was honest with myself, I had to admit I liked a lot of other stuff much more.
1. Milano, Daniele Luppi/Parquet Courts/Karen O (30th Century)
I’m not sure if Italian composer Daniele Luppi got what he bargained for when he hired Parquet Courts and Karen O to interpret the songs he wrote about his hometown of Milan in the 1980s when he was growing up. With their VU-ish demimonde bona fides and flair for the ridiculous, O and PQ vocalist Andrew Savage provide perfect windows into the kind of soul that was affected by the fashionable milieu under inspection, even though I’m sure neither experienced it firsthand. In any case, I got more than what I bargained for.
2. Ctrl, SZA (Epic/Sony)
In a year when it was difficult to listen to any music without wondering how the guys treated the girls and the girls put up with the guys, Solana Rowe’s proper debut was distinctive in its brand of R&B candor. Focused less on sexual transgression than on emotional insufficiency, she schools her lovers in no uncertain terms, all the while testing her own resolve as both an artist and a human being. Her slithery beats pull you into her embattled imagination, a place where honesty of feeling struggles with the demand to make her intentions clear.
3. Sidelong, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers (Bloodshot)
The drawl is so outlandish that it’s got to be genuine, but it took me a while to make sense of her romantic world view, which slots blackout-level drunkenness above sexual ardor in the pantheon of things that are bad for you but feel too good to give up. Her band is empathetic enough to match this ornery self-regard with music that’s way too rude for the honky-tonk. They’re smokin’, literally and figuratively.
4. MacGregor Park, Fat Tony (First One Up)
Being white, I enjoy my hip-hop necessarily from a remove, but somehow I can identify with this Houston rapper’s quotidian stories about burgers and weed and carefree sunny days on a more direct level, even if it’s only in my dreams. The music in his dreams is propulsive, airy, infectious, and by no means an extension of the kind of existential dread that’s been hip-hop’s preferred mode of late; which isn’t to say Fat Tony doesn’t have problems, only that he doesn’t presume they’re what his listeners expect to hear about.
5. Habibi Funk: An Eclectic Selection of Music from the Arab World (Habibi Funk)
A specialized label assembles a dozen tracks recorded some time ago by Arabic language artists, some of whom the label released previously with stand-alone albums. The label says this type of music “historically never existed as a…genre,” but “funk” is a good enough description, whether it’s Anglophones copying James Brown and Texas garage rock, or vernacular musicians getting the party started with more rarefied styles called zouk and coladera, so “eclectic” is also a good description. I’m glad they didn’t use the word “exotic,” but I sure as hell never heard anything like it.
6. Capacity, Big Thief (Saddle Creek)
Adrianne Lenker’s enervated singing style belies her determination to give you the lowdown on some awful things that happened to her and loved ones, and while her bandmates address the attendant sentiments with indie guitar-pop good taste, they do rock out when the stories call for it. It’s easy to feign immunity to this kind of subtle fare, but eventually you break down and start the album over because somehow it makes you feel so much better than you felt before you listened to it.
7. Any Other Way, Jackie Shane (Numero Group)
This Nashville-born, formerly Toronto-resident singer made a brief stand for raucous southern soul in the early 70s with a performance style that deracinated the traditional sex roles of the blues by assuming both at once. Shane’s is a professionalism born of pain rather than need, which may explain why she disappeared so soon and so completely (she’s still alive). Music had obviously served its purpose. Thank whatever god she so passionately believes in that someone had the wherewithal to dig this awe-inspiring stuff up.
8. 4:44, Jay-Z (Roc Nation/Universal)
The last thing I need is a lecture from Sean Carter on the pitfalls of fame and wealth, but experience can’t be beat, and when he admits his failures, mainly in matters of the heart, he uses his storied verbal facility to admirable ends. It’s so effective, in fact, that I’m thankful I’m not in his shoes—as if that could even be possible. Humility has no place here—Jay-Z has always known exactly how smart he is—but thoughtfulness proves to be its own reward, for us as well as him. Plus, I’m a sucker for a Nina Simone sample.
9. Uyai, Ibibio Sound Machine (Merge)
Maybe because her story reverses the usual immigrant narrative—born in London, raised in Lagos—Eno Williams’ music can hardly be called pure. It’s a mixture of so many dance styles, European and African, that any attempt to parse the influences turns into a chump’s game. The one unifying character is the Ibibio language, which Williams resorts to during the chantlike choruses to give them a percussive force, which is not necessary given the band’s horns-and-electronics-driven funk chops, but you can never have too much of a good thing.
10. Silver Eye, Goldfrapp (Mute/Traffic)
Though not exactly a safe pop act, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have never wandered very far into left field, even on those occasions when they went dark. Assisted by dronemeister the Haxan Cloak, Silver Eye hits the left field fence repeatedly while serving up their usual sexy beats with newfound energy and purpose, not to mention a sense of mission that leavens their
cheeky instrumental contrivances with relatable drama. I’m tempted to call it prog dance rock, but never Knife-lite.
The Crow Looked at Me, Mount Eerie (P.W. Elverum & Sons/7 e.p.): Death as an eternal afternoon.
Damn., Kendrick Lamar (Interscope/Universal): Mediated emotions, tidier beats, one-word titles. State of the art, by definition and design.
Fake Sugar, Beth Ditto (Capitol): Finally, the proper pop diva she was born to be, and, by all indications, loving every minute of it.
From a Room Vols. 1 & 2, Chris Stapleton (Mercury Nashville): Classic southern rock resurrected as classic outlaw country, with nary an Eagles harmony in earshot.
Lotta Sea Lice, Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile (Matador/Beat): Non-opposites attract and complement each other in predictable but delightful ways.
Sweetsexysavage, Kehlani (Atlantic/Warner): R&B calculation taken to extremes, with a voice that justifies it.
Trouble Maker, Rancid (Epitaph/Sony): 17 songs, only 4 of which are over 2-and-a-half minutes.
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, Open Mike Eagle (Mello Music): You can take the kid out of the projects, but you can’t take the projects out of the music.