This is the second of three installments looking back at some musical highlights of the year.
This week and next, I’m listing my top selections for the best albums to have come out around the globe in 2017. This week, I’ll count down the first half of my top ten selections (from 10 to 6). These albums defined a year of political hardship and social unrest and accompanied our collective feelings about being a person on this planet in the age of tyrants. As the artists who made them tirelessly search for meaning (of love, identity, fraternity) in their career-defining albums, we are greeted with both arms open, and stand ready to be understood and to sympathize in return.
Honorary Mentions: “This Old Dog” by Mac Demarco; “Ti Amo” by Phoenix; “Gang Signs & Prayer” by Stormzy; “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire; “Drunk” by Thundercat; “Dedicated to Bobby Jameson” by Ariel Pink; “Omnion” by Hercules & Love Affair; “American Dream” by LCD Soundsystem
10. Kelela: “Take Me Apart”
Kelela’s debut album feels instantly recognizable yet still unique – the songwriting follows effortlessly through the layered electronic production. It is perhaps one of the best R&B releases of the year, although it is much too complex to fit neatly into any current musical genre. Kelela sings of the experiences of a black woman and elevates the source material into excellence – a form of oral myth for her community.
9. Sampha: “Process”
After years of high-profile collaborations (with Solange, Drake, Kanye West, et al.) Sampha has delivered one of the best releases of the year, “Process” – an album of multiple layers questioning the making of self that won the 2017 Mercury Prize. By means of creating a meditative quality in his songs, Sampha deals with the loss of his parents. The very fabric of the 10 songs that make up the album is thematically soaked in grief; we see Sampha getting closer and closer to the real meaning of his feelings, without ever capturing it. But the journey seems to be the real motivation behind the album, in which the creative process is an instrument for understanding and approaching oneself – as made evident in the album’s apt title. Whether through simple piano notes or layered electronic production, or even repeating bagpipe scales, Sampha has created a grandiose shrine out of pure sentiment – and his emotive vocals seem to guide us through the artifacts of his past.
8. The xx: “I See You”
“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak,” writes John Berger in his celebrated book on art criticism, “Ways of Seeing.” Berger, I’ve found, is quite right – and so is The xx, for visibility is the main theme running though their third LP like a thread. In an interview conducted after the release of the album, The xx stated that its name was inspired by a Drake concert. Talking about this titular origin, frontwoman Romy explained why it was not just another instance of exchange in the artist/fan dynamic, but a pivotal moment of realization. “It’s warm, it’s affirming that you see your friend. You feel understood and you don’t feel as alone.” The five-year hiatus since their last album has taken its toll on the band, for they have confessed to growing apart in the years leading up to “I See You”; this album chronicles their way of coming together. The xx has fully embraced the sample-based production of bandmate Jamie xx in this album, and consequently we see them grown out of their signature minimalistic sound. The result is a flamboyant album (in their terms), examining the idea of seeing and being seen in return – where sight accompanies words and sounds.
7. Paramore: “After Laughter”
One of the most surprising releases of the year was Paramore’s “After Laughter,” an album that is completely sure of its sound and the direction it has taken the band. Trading their pop-punk roots for an ’80s synth pop–influenced style, Paramore (and, more exactly, frontwoman Hayley Williams) chronicles life with depression and anxiety after yet another lineup change – yet formulates an album of pop firecrackers that you can sing along to with tears of joy or sorrow. The sheer juxtaposition of extremely contemplative lyricism with eccentric musical scores is what makes the album such a success. When Williams sings about “Hard Times,” we are filled with hope for easier times.
6. Grizzly Bear: “Painted Ruins”
Grizzly Bear returned this year with a magnificently poetic album that once again showcased their uncanny, brilliant understanding of the complexity of existence. The texture of the album feels like a patchwork of distant memories sewn together – “Painted Ruins” is pulled together not so much out of thin air as from archeological sites of heartbreak and contemplation. Such excavations are evident throughout the lushly melodic 11 songs that make up the album, as when frontman Ed Droste sings “Let love age / And watch it burn out and die.” The album is a familiar chaos of different ethnographic sounds coming together, where the booming percussion and intricate guitar riffs that accompany Droste’s vocals grow harmonious with each other. The songwriting is deeply visual and, in a sense, filmic – Droste depicts bodies lying “on the burning ground” or the burning sheets that make us “watch the room light up.” The album beams with the light we see coming from a fire as we slowly approach the window.