2017 was not a fun year. Here are some albums that made us feel better, despite the wall of excrement that was most of this year.
St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION: With a guitar-playing style that recalls Frank Zappa—but is still wholly her own—Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent, is one of the most exciting “alternative” musicians to emerge in the last decade. The Jack Antonoff-produced MASSEDUCTION takes on politics, sex, and relationships with a sardonic, gorgeous edge. Standout track “Pills” might be the catchiest song of the year, if the number of times I’ve found myself absentmindedly humming the chorus stands as any indication. Start listening to this album now, if you want to be ahead of your music geek friends who will discover it in a few months.
Kelela, Take Me Apart: R&B genius Kelela’s 2015 EP Hallucinogen was solid, but her debut album is an instant classic. Take Me Apart has so many layers that listening to it once barely reveals its beauty—this is an album that you’ll want to spend some time absorbing. Kelela’s songwriting skills and vocal prowess elevate Take Me Apart high above “R&B” or any genre categorization. There is not a single disappointing song on Take Me Apart, which makes it difficult to recommend just one track to start with; this is really an album that lends itself nicely to repeated listens. Once you’re in Kelela’s fantastically constructed world, you will probably not want to leave.
Tori Amos, Native Invader [full review]: Native Invader’s second half is its strongest, and after the utterly confounding “Chocolate Song,” this is a relief. The intense mid-tempo ballad “Bang” connects the cycle of ecological and interpersonal violence to human hubris, while “Climb” explores the dark side of religious belief and the perennial Amos theme of women’s empowerment. The meticulously crafted “Bats,” with its winding piano line and echoing vocals, is one of Amos’s best songs in years. Native Invader’s last track, “Mary’s Eyes,” wrenchingly chronicles the aftermath of a stroke that left Amos’s mother unable to speak.
Kesha, Rainbow: Ignore the odd Holy Mountain/Lisa Frank cover of this album (or not, if you’re into that sort of thing) and judge it based on the music, which is transcendent. Kesha emerged from a very public battle with her former producer, Dr. Luke, whom she sued for sexual assault and battery—and if the general feel of Rainbow is any indication, it has been a hard few years for her. However, her return to music is rightfully triumphant; standout tracks include the danceable “Let ‘Em Talk,” country-tinged anthem “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”—the latter of which features Dolly Parton, perfectly—and “Godzilla,” a lovely little song about what happens when you take the famous lizard to the mall.
Perfume Genius, No Shape [full review]: If Too Bright was confrontational in its strangeness, then No Shape is its celebratory sibling. No Shape’s status as the most experimental Perfume Genius album so far coexists nicely with its pop sensibilities—tracks like “Slip Away,” “Just Like Love” and the plaintive ballad “Braid” balance out some of the more kitchen-sink tendencies throughout the album’s 43-minute run time. This is not to say that Hadreas and producer Blake Mills should have approached this album with more restraint.
Lorde, Melodrama: Lorde’s sophomore album is on a lot of “best of 2017” lists for a reason: it is outstanding. When I first heard “Green Light,” I was skeptical of the rest of the album, as the single is a fairly traditional pop song that tries to fit Lorde into a pop chanteuse role, to extremely awkward effect. The rest of Melodrama, however, more than makes up for the misstep that is the first song: The vocals on “Hard Feelings/Loveless” are impeccable, the synths of “Supercut” meld perfectly with Lorde’s voice, and the slightly foreboding “Writer in the Dark” showcases her Kate Bush-esque impulses to wonderful effect. With a second album this consistent and mature, it will be interesting to see how Lorde’s music and image further develops.
Queens of the Stone Age, Villains: Noted producer Mark Ronson worked with Queens of the Stone Age on this album, which unfortunately caused outrage amongst some of the group’s fans—what is a pop musician and producer doing working with one of the hardest bands around? MAKING A FANTASTIC ALBUM, that’s what—Villains just might be one of the best QOTSA records, as it seamlessly blends frontman Josh Homme’s vocal style, incisive lyrics, and heavy guitar riffs with Ronson’s good ear (so to speak) for streamlined melody. At just nine songs, Villains may be short, but it makes quite an impression.
Aimee Mann, Mental Illness: Veteran singer-songwriter Aimee Mann’s latest—her first since 2012’s pop-inflected Charmer—has been characterized by its creator as having been inspired by 1970s songwriters such as Dan Fogelberg. Try not to be scared off by that, because Mental Illness is Mann’s finest work in years—lead single “Goose Snow Cone” beautifully interweaves a narrative about loneliness and keeping one’s shit together with a nod to a cat, named Goose, on Instagram. Elsewhere, “Knock It Off” tells of the death of a relationship, and “Simple Fix” features a lovely chorus, aided by a superb Ted Leo on backing vocals. Mental Illness is a meticulously crafted album, and a standout in Mann’s already amazing catalog; you’ll probably want to grab your headphones for this one.
Chelsea Wolfe, Hiss Spun: Do you like metal, as a music genre? After you listen to Chelsea Wolfe’s intense Hiss Spun, you might be surprised at your answer to that question. Wolfe has devoted her career to making metal music for people who also like singer-songwriters of the acoustic/folk persuasion. Hiss Spun might be her most provocative record, as it takes the feedback-heavy, warped crunch of doom metal and builds a wall of static around Wolfe’s unique voice as she sings highly personal lyrics. Final track “Scrape,” with lyrics that tackle sexual assault—set against a musical background of intensely throbbing drumbeats and grumbling guitar feedback–could be an anthem for the #MeToo movement.
Nadine Shah, Holiday Destination: British-Palestinian singer-songwriter Nadine Shah should have a bigger audience. Her 2015 album Fast Food showcased her almost supernatural gift for melody, and Holiday Destination continues that journey. From the title track–which takes on the refugee crisis–to unexpectedly poignant ballad “Yes Men,” Shah proves that social commentary and good music are not mutually exclusive. If you’re a fan of singers with lower registers and/or protest songs, you should check this album out immediately.