Is there a summary for the music of 2017? Almost all of it, whether promoted directly or not, was influenced by the news headlines. How that was filtered changed from artist to artist, but it’s impossible to not let it influence you, even if your reaction was to write about the bright colors in life just to escape and offer respite from the noise. Most of the albums in my top 10 were political in some way, but these three found a way to tackle those issues while simultaneously telling personal stories, which made them human experiences, more than just sounds in my headphones. Though what glorious sounds they are.
St. Vincent — Masseduction
In “Hang On Me,” the opening song of Masseduction, Annie Clark sings: “We are not for this world.” It’s a true statement in the vein of David Bowie, her artistic spirit, as she is writing far and above just about anyone else currently in the game. With album No. 5, Annie boldly marries alt-house with pop in a masterstroke. It gets weird, but never loses its singability. And speaking of those lyrics, the album gives a solid reflection of our current environment without being an overtly political album. For one, it’s personal with Clark, who has more and more found herself the prey of tabloid culture, even as she plays for the underground. But instead of a hand blocking the photograph, she gives a distorted devilish grin that haunts well beyond the lens. After all, she’s got a punk rock past that’s never masked, often sounding like the missing link between ‘70s CBGB’s and ‘80s Madonna, with a little bit of the rock star in the movie version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, hands outstretched above the masses. “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” Clark sings in the title track, which she’s called the thesis for the whole record. It’s not just a great line, but one of so many lyrics that cut right through everything else. Like that moment in “Happy Birthday, Johnny” when she collapses into “Of course I blame me” — a gut punch, and I stop breathing for a second every single time I hear it. Ladies and gents, what I’m trying to say is that this list may not be in any certain order, but this is easily my album of the year.
Jamila Woods — HEAVN
A critic recently said that due to the way we now consume music and the endless amounts available, that the idea of a city as a scene, like Seattle, San Francisco and New York has been in the past, probably won’t happen again. But there is seriously something happening in Chicago that needs to be celebrated. While Chance the Rapper sits at the heart of it all, Jamila Woods has been my favorite to watch and listen to. After a string of singles in 2016 that led to the LP that was picked up and re-released by Jagjaguwar this year, Woods became one of the best highlights from the Chi-town scene. While the songs have a soul, jazz and hip-hop backbone, the lyrics call out and cover everyone from The Cure to Incubus. It’s somewhat genre-less, a trait the millennials proudly brought forth, but HEAVN goes beyond generation to the new world order of self acceptance and putting back into your community what you’ve received. These are songs of empowerment — personally and politically. “Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me,” the mantra from “Holy,” is not just a great way to start the day, but the foundation for the entire day’s direction. Take in the words or just let the sounds bounce around you. Either way, you’re going to feel better about yourself and about all of our futures.
The National — Sleep Well Beast
In an interview with Matt Berninger last month, The National’s lead man presented the idea that people tend to think of a song as a love song or a political song, but rarely both at the same time. Sleep Well Beast dispels that concept on nearly all of its 12 tracks. Is he singing about his marriage? The relationship within a band? Black Lives Matter? Feminism? That you have to question it is one of the many reasons that The National is one of the greats. The balance also plays into the music, finding the band at their heaviest, most jittery and confessional — maybe most so on “Guilty Party,” one of the most real looks at midlife breakup that’s ever been committed to tape. Unless it’s suppose to be Richard Nixon as the narrator, which honestly works just as well.