Thoughts on Listening and the Music of 2017

In southwest France, a golden eagle grabbed a drone midair during a military training exercise at Mont-de-Marsan Air Base. Regis Duvignau/Reuters.

Listening is inevitably a subjective process. That said, I do my best to practice suspending or expanding my default filters in order to be more receptive to forms of aesthetic excellence that might not be congruent with my preferences. For example, in terms of pure listening pleasure, I’d probably rather hear Sarah Shook’s album than Father John Misty’s; however, when I more neutrally or expansively consider the two projects, I’m struck that FJM’s is a more ambitious undertaking and succeeds in a more complex and multifaceted way. Then again, while the Shook album may not be as far-reaching as FJM’s lyrically, thematically, or in terms of production, there’s an emotional and attitudinal vividness — an undeniable bravado, as well as a songwriting prowess — that permeates the album and translates into its own kind of virtuosity. 

As we’ve all experienced, some albums enroll you from the first listen while others grow on you. I didn’t immediately connect, for example, with Manchester Orchestra’s new release, but after repeated listens, I was seduced by the compelling melodies, pensive mood and textures, and vivid imagery. On the other hand, the War on Drugs album was mesmerizing on first listen, though my enthrallment dwindled as I listened for the tenth, eleventh, twelfth times. Had I written my best-of list in September or October, I might’ve included A Deeper Understanding in my top 15. However, over weeks of listening, I came to hear some of the approaches as a bit formulaic and repetitive. In another iteration, the Cigarettes After Sex debut enrolled me from my first listen. My engagement only deepened with each subsequent listen, the project standing as unparalleled, I think, in terms of unshakable melodies, hypnotic atmospheres, and otherworldly vocals, raising the bar on dream pop as a genre.

Another thing worth mentioning: the originality of a project. How to determine originality? Is originality solely doing what hasn’t been done previously, what is unprecedented, or can it also apply to ways in which influences are absorbed and made new? In several reviews this year, for ND and other publications, I touched on the idea of this or that artist being “originally derivative” or “derivatively original.” For example, the late 2016 release from Preoccupations: here’s a band clearly influenced by any number of sources from various periods and genres, in terms of songwriting, instrumentation, and vocals; however, the overall effect is one of skillful reconfiguration; the band arrives at a sound notably its own, even if the sources are apparent. I’d say that this is the case with the abovementioned War on Drugs album as well. The Dylan, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Dire Straits influences, to start with, are transparent, and yet the band’s sound occurs as distinct. LCD Soundsystem’s latest offers another example of this, the Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, and Talking Heads influences quite obvious, though the tracks offer a novel gestalt — the project a contemporary hybridization and deceptively fresh; i.e., original.

A word on the Mount Eerie project: a folkish album that mostly eschews standard musical structures — discernable verses and choruses, as well as any sustained attempt to craft winning hooks. Phil Elverum has thrown the pop how-to manual out the window. A Crow Looked at Me is in many ways an anti-aesthetic manifesto, a no-frills meditation on death (Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer in July 2016; the album is a tribute to her and the palpable absence left by her demise). The first track opens with the lines, “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art.” Yet that’s exactly what Elverum does — transform his experience with death and grief into a work of art. Lyrics are straightforward, at times almost clinical, akin to reportage, yet vividly imagistic as well. The instrumentation is sparse at best. Structurally and/or conventionally speaking, the pieces are barely songs. Elverum’s tone, however, his focus, his authenticity, and his dedication to precisely documenting an experience enroll the listener from beginning to end. So, that’s a definite kind of originality.

Many of the artists below are stylists, including Kendrick Lamar, Lana Del Rey, The National, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. While these artists have their influences, as do all artists, they’ve essentially transcended them; emerging, perhaps over the course of several albums — that is, cumulatively — as stylistically unique, forging and/or evolving into their own aesthetic brands. These are the artists to whom people tend to compare other artists, perhaps using -esque in their reference: Lamar-esque, Del Rey-esque. Sounds silly or pretentious, but in many cases one can immediately understand what the person might be alluding to. This does not always bode well. Some stylists become overly reliant on signature approaches, so much so that what was at one time fresh becomes templatized to the point of cliché; an initially seminal sound, tone, lyrical bent, or method, after repeated usage, becoming predictable or caricatural.

If a listener or reviewer is suspending preferences, considering a project from as many vantage points as possible, and encountering an album on its own terms, he or she realizes fairly quickly that most critical gauges teeter toward failure. The gut, head, and heart, hopefully informed by humility and humor, cast their votes as proficiently as possible. Out of that process, a singular or cohesive view is shaped. So, here’s a list of albums that strike me as the best of 2017. It’s difficult to come up with a list like this, and the merits of doing so are debatable. One good thing, though, about engaging in this exercise is that I was prompted to revisit many albums to which I hadn’t listened for weeks or months. At the same time, I found myself scrambling to check out numerous projects that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t gotten around to yet. For weeks now, I’ve been immersed in the music of 2017 — listening in the car, in the house, through headphones at night — and that, I can say, has been adrenalizing and a pleasure.

All my best for 2018,
John Amen

 1) Kendrick Lamar – Damn
 2) Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
 3) Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life
 4) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
 5) Ray Wylie Hubbard – Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can
 6) Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
 7) The National – Sleep Well Beast
 8) Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
 9) Aldous Harding – Party
10) Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Sidelong
11) Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface
12) Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now
13) U2 – Songs of Experience
14) Beach Fossils – Somersault
15) Lorde – Melodrama
16) Big Thief – Capacity
17) Ron Gallo – Heavy Meta
18) Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
19) Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
20) Conor Oberst – Salutations
21) Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
22) Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
23) LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
24) The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
25) Harry Styles – Harry Styles
26) Strand of Oaks – Hard Love
27) Oh Sees – Orc
28) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
29) Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm
30) Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Nice variety. I had to request Manchester Orchestra be added to the No Depression readers poll. Every year I try a few rap albums, but I just don't get them. I bought Kendrick Lamar's last 2 albums, but  would never listen to them for enjoyment. I' sure "Damn" will end up being top album on most mainstream best of's, including The Village Voice Pazz and Jop.

The Manchester Orchestra album really grew on me; sort of a shift for the band, perhaps a maturating in various domains. I've listened to hiphop to varying degrees since the 80s. Pretty vital pulse on the culture, I think, and for a while (90s?) the most dynamic popular expression happening. Kendrick Lamar is prob. one of the best. His new one is more eclectic that earlier albums, including To Pimp a Butterfly, which is masterful, lyrically and structurally. Anyway, 2017 seemed like a pretty good year for popular music. Of course, I'm already thinking that I should have included this or that, rated this or that higher, etc. Best not to take all that too seriously, I guess, the listening continues....

Great post! Love how you listen.