These are the 20 best albums of the year.
15. Father John Misty
Josh Tillman’s third release as Father John Misty is the perfect postmodern salve for a 2017 culture thrown into moral and social chaos. Amid political and entertainment worlds driven by spectacle and artifice, Tillman offers a 75-minute existential epic with a post-ironic bite that simultaneously indicts and inoculates us from religion, pop culture, politics and neoliberalism. Amidst a melodramatic, ‘70s-inspired—particularly Elton John-influenced—orchestra of pianos, strings and horns, Tillman emerges as a Jonathan Swift in the age of “new sincerity.” It’s anything but a humble affair.
The titular opening track indexes the follies and foibles of humanity that stem from religious fanaticism and is followed by “Total Entertainment Forever,” which mockingly celebrates a culture of distraction, beginning with perhaps the most quoted line on the album: “Bedding Taylor Swift/ Every night in the Oculus Rift.” Tillman continues by nonchalantly toppling capitalism and human-made hierarchies on “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” and sarcastically addresses the polarization of liberal and conservative ideologies in “Two Wildly Different Perspectives.”
Nothing is spared from his critical skewering, not even himself, despite the album’s neurotically intellectual self-aggrandizement. Perhaps the most astonishing track on the album, “Leaving LA” is a 13-minute Dylan-esque opus that sardonically confronts Hollywood artifice before Tillman turns his critical eye inward: “Oh great, that’s just what we all need/ Another white guy in 2017/ Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”
Simultaneously humorous and glib, Pure Comedy musically navigates a dystopian world that is all too familiar. But rather than being resigned to its fate, Tillman offers possible glimpses into how to be human and to form communities in the face of it all. As he sings in the title track, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.” – Ethan King
With DJ Rashad long gone, Jlin has risen up as footwork’s most recognizable and important artistic force. Yet, with each successive release, the Indiana-based producer moves further away from the genre’s conventions and tropes. The magnificent Black Origami pulls from several sources; it is at once the quintessential footwork piece and an attempt to dismantle the genre entirely. The pulsing, stuttering beats may resemble the frenetic pace of footwork, yet parts of the album are of the sort of high-minded, complex school of thought that birthed IDM in the ‘90s. Above all, though, Black Origami points to the future.
Kitschy nostalgia was once the domain of underground electronic music in various forms, but as that concept becomes more of a mainstream mode of thought, it becomes necessary to push back against it and find something else. While Black Origami owes something to the defiantly cold and inhuman techno of the ‘90s, it doesn’t quite belong to that era or to the warm, Day-Glo experiments of the decade prior to that. It’s a fiercely modern piece of work moving in several different directions that asks quite a bit of its audience. It’s not club music, nor is it bedroom techno. Black Origami is a unique experience that demands our attention, and it’s very much worth the effort. – Kevin Korber
13. Julien Baker
Turn Out the Lights
On her second album, Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker pushes through various aspects of mental health and depression, of isolation and hurt. A deep sadness snakes through the album, but tracks like “Appointments” and “Turn Out the Lights” find their release in embracing (or at least acknowledging) this side of Baker’s psyche. She’s made a couple albums now that have pushed through the challenges of sexuality and faith, of facing addiction and contemplating suicide. Her lyrics offer catharsis, but they also offer profound personal revelation. In this way, Baker becomes fully present with a controlled artistry.
But the success of Baker’s latest LP doesn’t only lie in its openness. Turn Out the Lights offers a stream of carefully constructed songs, usually spare piano and guitar but with atmospheric effects and well-placed multi-tracked vocals. Baker’s skill with dynamics elevates these songs; she offers steadiness when needed, slow builds when appropriate and also moments of surprising relief. As Baker contrasts grace with despair, the music searches for redemption in its own way. The tension finds its truest expression when Baker’s music is hopeful even as her words convey a struggle, as on the title track and “Sour Breath.” This juxtaposition expresses the beauty in the muck, finding an inexplicable harmony without fully knowing peace. – Justin Cober-Lake
12. Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked at Me
[P.W. Elverum & Sun]
Phil Elverum (formerly of the Microphones, and performing as Mount Eerie since 2003) has said of this album that it could have been entitled “Death Is Real,” so heavily did the shadow of his wife Geneviève Castrée’s passing loom over it. Indeed, the album in no way seeks to conceal or obscure its subject. Even the kind of “transparency” we get in, say, Mark Kozelek’s recent music is just an intentionally aesthetic form of transparency. But in Elverum’s music, we have transparency in its barest form, void of self-awareness.
“When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb,” he sings on the opening track, “Real Death.” “Words fail.” And the heartbreaking last line of the same song: “It’s dumb/ And I don’t want to learn anything from this/ I love you.” We find several other moments of this kind of poetry throughout the album, heartbreaking lines whose stark simplicity expresses the incomprehensible absurdity of the situation—“I watched you die in this room, then I gave your clothes away/ I’m sorry, I had to/ And now I’ll move.” Listening to the album feels like being a silent companion to Elverum as he goes about the business of life, day after day, looking after his and Geneviève’s daughter, tending to the house, living as we are all forced to do, with our sense of all-too-present absence.
One of the album’s great songs, “When I Take Out the Garbage at Night,” describes “The dark window of the room that you died in/ The big empty room on the second floor/ Cold because I won’t close the window/ Just in case something still needs to leave.” This album is a powerful, moving act of letting go—the kind that is at once releasing and keeping close a life lost, mourned and ultimately celebrated. – Dylan Montanari
11. Spoon Hot Thoughts
There comes a point in a band’s career where greatness is so expected, you can practically put them in the running for your Best of the Year list the moment they announce a new record. Spoon, a name that has become synonymous with consistency and showmanship, is so good it feels unfair at times. This year’s Hot Thoughts arrived to modest fanfare, but once it digs in its teeth, the listener has a hard time shaking loose from its undeniable hooks and charms.
Following the shimmering, polished sounds of the imperfect They Want My Soul, Hot Thoughts feels like a powder keg at times. There’s a wiry energy that flows through it, making each track, from the mellow grooves of “Pink Up” to the blown-out skronk of “First Caress,” feel like an adrenaline rush. It flirts with dance jams with their typical rockstar bluster, and the album’s greatest quality is the infectiousness that sneaks into every nook and cranny of the album. Each track on Hot Thoughts (save for the instrumental closer, “Us”) has at least one unshakeable hook, and the miraculous thing is that every new killer hook is different from the last. Hot Thoughts may not be perfect, but despite its messy landscapes, it’s the closest Spoon has come to perfection in quite some time. – Hollister Dixon