Ten Albums That Made 2017 Worth It

I can’t think of a year in my life that has been defined by numb horror quite like 2017. Between mass shootings and exposures of our pop culture heroes as abusive creeps and the erosion of political norms, it feels like we’re running on empty, coasting on the fumes of whatever we had that made us great. All year, I’ve not stopped thinking about Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and how we’re living in the wreck of the past, fighting an oppressive machine force designed to eradicate all that is good and human.

But, lo, there are bright spots. I moved back to Virginia this year just in time to cast my “I’m-so-progressive-don’t-just-save-the-whales-elect-them” vote as part of a Democratic wave that took back the state. I spent election night feeling as if a dam had burst inside me and every ounce of joy I’ve thought forever lost this year was flooding into the world. We’re still in the shit, but now we’ve got some hope back. We’ve got some proof that we can make a difference again. We’re a T-800’s fist closing into a thumbs up despite being lowered down into molten steel.

So, it’s not all bad. In fact, some of 2017 has been really good; mostly it was the music. Oh man, the music. The music was good.

I’m happy to offer a list of ten albums that have sustained me in 2017. I told myself that I was going to make it through this year if it killed me and these albums carried me, excited me, crushed me, or swept me away when I needed it most.

Two caveats:

First, the best album released in 2017 was Hanson’s Middle of Everywhere, an incredibly thorough retrospective of their 25 years as a band. If you’ve missed out on Hanson, or if you’re still making the same joke from 1997 about how cute those girls are, you owe it to yourself to get this record and experience a rock group that has been at the top of their game for decades. If you get a chance to see the Tulsa trio live, do not pass it up: they are one of the best American bands on the road. That being said, a greatest hits record doesn’t precisely honor the spirit of the list, so this recommendation will have to suffice.
Second, when I find myself in times of trouble, indie rock comes to me. I slept on so much hip hop, pop and R&B this year so my list is embarrassingly guitar-heavy and white, and therefore incomplete. I know for a fact that there are dozens of albums from more diverse artists that should be on this list and I’m excited to go back and listen to them. Send suggestions.

Sorority Noise – You’re Not as _____ as You Think
If rock and roll has any sort of eternal ethos, it’s this: when in doubt, stick to the basics. Guitars for melody, drums and bass for rhythm and earnest, honest lyrics to tie it all together with emotion. That combination never fails to get the listener dancing or crying or driving too fast. On You’re Not as _____ as You Think, Sorority Noise sound like the perfect evolution of the indie rock band (distilling, among others: Smoking Popes, Gaslight Anthem and Defiance, OH). This is a “first summer home from college” album, the one you drive around listening to with your friends, hoping to recapture some sort of magic, and knowing that instead you’ll have to settle for forging something new.

Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
No other band name in history has channeled the feeling of listening to their music better than Cigarettes After Sex. From what I can tell, Greg Gonzalez started Cigarettes After Sex nearly ten years ago to crickets. Then, somehow, a YouTube algorithm picked up his song “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” which went on to millions of views and inclusion in several prestige cable shows. Jump cut to 2017’s self-titled debut album, absolutely dripping with dark, wet songs about wanting sex, having sex, regretting sex, obsessing over sex, remembering sex and…well, you get it. I took a poetry workshop in college once and I brought in a pretty graphic poem about an imagined sexual encounter. Sharing it was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done and it was not received well. Cigarettes After Sex is an entire album full of that kind of awkward bravery, except the poetry works and it sounds like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Concrete Blonde. *shiver*

Lorde – Melodrama
Lorde surprised us all with Pure Heroine, which was pretty much a perfect album. Her long-awaited follow-up isn’t necessarily better, but none of her Top 40 competition has come close to delivering anything with the texture she achieves on Melodrama. Apparently, the album loosely traces a wild night out, a kind of long night of the soul set at house parties and LA nightclubs. I don’t know how much I connect with that, but I do connect with Lorde, who will not be denied her right to feel her feelings and dance like an escaped lunatic to sick darkwave beats. May we all be more like her in 2018.

Lydia Loveless – Boy Crazy and Single(s)
I’ve worshipped at the altar of Lydia Loveless for some years now and when I heard she was releasing an old ep and a bunch of B-sides for a new collection, it was like mana from heaven. Sure, a lot of this music pre-dates 2017, but it’s the first time it’s available for most folks in one place and it’s a great starting point in your spiritual journey towards Lydia. Loveless has my favorite voice in modern rock, pop or country and she absolutely shreds her vocals and her guitar to make sure we can still feel. She’s one of the last true rock and rollers, I think, giving us a direct line back to those roadhouses where they first amplified the blues. I’ve been a recovered punk long enough to know how loaded and dangerous the concept of “authenticity” is, but all I can think of when I listen to Loveless’ work is that she’s the real deal.

The Regrettes – Feel Your Feelings Fool!
When the revolution comes and men are meant to answer for our crimes, it will be well-deserved. Lest you doubt, look to the news. I’m sure some famous man has been found out to be a harasser or abuser in the time since you began reading this list. It’s probably reductive to say it, but 2017 felt like the first year where any attention has been paid to women fighting back. And, hoo boy, hearing 17-year-old frontwoman Lydia Night yowl “I’m like nobody else / so you can just go fuck yourself” as the hook to “Seashore” is more than enough of a reminder that women rock, and have rocked, forever. The Regrettes’ music is confessional, stripped down and built around the band members’ confidence in themselves. If this is what’s coming from Gen Z, then this try-hard millennial dude is happy to step out of the way.

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
I got to see Japandroids a couple weeks before Near to the Wild Heart of Life was released and they knocked me on my ass, as you’d expect from such a renowned live band. When I finally got to sit down with the album, I got knocked down again. As I said earlier in this list, the thing that makes rock music stick to your heart is earnestness. It’s a common thread picked up by all my favorite bands, and it’s the driving force on this album. It’s a departure from their punk-ier early stuff, but it’s still Japandroids using distortion and rat-a-tat snare hits to explore life, death, love and the importance of staying in motion. They mean every lyric and they bleed for every chord. The only thing they don’t do is apologize for it; they may be Canadian, but if you’re waiting for the “Oh, soory for rockin’ your face off, guy,” it ain’t comin’.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without emcees sniping at each other over their bona fides. Who’s the meanest? Who’s the baddest? But this is 2017 and I feel genuinely bad for every rapper standing in Kendrick’s way. Is it too early to call him the GOAT? Probably. But, here, today, when Kendrick talks, everybody listens. We all rushed out to call To Pimp a Butterfly his masterpiece, and it feels like he took it as a challenge. This year, he slapped us with DAMN. and we were awed again. This is the album where he showed us he’s incapable of picking a dud beat, incapable of letting a stray word interrupt his flow and incapable of being anything less than the best emcee working today.

Harry Styles – Harry Styles
I would not have guessed in a million years that one of the biggest teen idols of all time would go solo, go quiet for a couple months, and then come back as the fully-formed second coming of everything good about 70’s-era classic rock. Harry’s debut is self-assured tribute to the music that apparently shaped him most: dad rock. You get the sense that in channeling Jagger and Plant and Prince, he’s letting us see his real self for the first time, and that real self wants to lie with you on the shag carpet and fill his wood-paneled basement with smoke from the finest Panama Red. The album has incredible songwriting that shades the small, quiet moments and amplifies the grandest emotions. By all accounts, the live show is excellent as well. But what really knocked me out about Harry Styles is how much bravery it must have taken to release it. Conventional wisdom tells us that tween girls don’t have any interest in their (grand)parents’ Donovan or ELO records. Harry bet against those odds big time, and while the results are out on if Harry Styles will herald of a rock renaissance, it is a stellar debut with songs that deserve to become part of the canon.

Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
Probably the best I felt all year was when I was dancing in the pit at three nights of Hold Steady shows in Chicago. Something about the other fans and the sweat and wet confetti and everybody screaming “stay positive” lifted me higher than I thought I could go anymore. Craig is their lead singer, and We All Want the Same Things is his third solo outing. His first two albums were very, very good, but they didn’t always lift me as high as The Hold Steady could. We All Want the Same Things does. This is a record about self-care, about needing others and about loving your neighbor even when it’s hard. And now, more than ever, that’s the thing this country needs. Earlier this year, I was listening to this album in the car. My wife was out of town and I was a bit lonely. I was driving around, looking for something to do. It was raining. And then “God in Chicago” came through the radio and it felt like our love story was riding shotgun and like it was everyone’s love story and like everything would be all right and “four years didn’t seem like much anymore / we both want the same things / we kissed on the corner we kissed in the corridors / we fumbled with clothing / we all want the same things.”

Cayetana – New Kind of Normal
I’m glad Cayetana exists now, as I close out my twenties. If they had been around when I was 15 my heart would have never recovered. For my money, they’re the best punk-pop-riotgrrl-whatever band making music today. They might just be the best band making music today. New Kind of Normal, their second album, takes the idea of a sophomore slump to a shooting range, shouts pull and demolishes it in the air. The three-piece from Philly has delivered unto us one of the most heartbreaking collections of self-examinations to ever be pushed out through an amp. The songs here are bleak and uncompromising, full of fear and self-loathing, but sung as defiant anthems, each one imbued with enough hope to remind you that it ain’t over until it’s over. They’re not quite doing punk covers of the DSRM, but that’s the neighborhood. In a year of mass, shared depression, defiance in the face of hopelessness is what keeps us going. On “Easy to Love,” Augusta Koch is pleading when she sings “maybe you will find / someone easier to love.” Maybe that’s true. But I don’t want anyone else. I want you, Cayetana, with every bit of sadness, anger, volume swell and reverb you have to give me.

Broken Social Scene’s Hug of Thunder is the same old party – and that’s okay

My wife and I were married on our college campus on a warm Saturday in August. It wasn’t a convenient spot for many of our guests, but they came anyway, arriving days, hours, minutes before the ceremony. As a reward of sorts for the early birds, Sarah and I hosted a karaoke party at one of our old haunts, a sports bar just on the edge of town. It was an incredible sight to see all our friends together, to join our cliques, to celebrate something powerful with music and beer and pretzel bites and wings. But, now, as I remember that night, I’m a little sad. I don’t know when, or if, all those people will ever be in a room again.

Since their establishment, Broken Social Scene were Canada’s musical Avengers*, putting members’ musical projects at the center of the indie world and creating some of the most jangly, expansive pop rock of the aughts. So, when BSS went on hiatus in 2010, their fans must have felt the same melancholy pang I did at the end of that hot August night, like some combination of air and light had left the room.

Luckily for those fans at least, the collective has finally returned with Hug of Thunder, an album that drops listeners right back into the melting pot of Toronto’s indie scene. The album has all the BSS hallmarks: melodies to spare, dissonant shifts in tone, and a shade of political and social rage that just colors the lyrics just enough to tap your maple tree.

That mellow ire is showcased on “Protest Song,” an album highlight that frames the end of a relationship as a sort of regime change. Emily Haines’ vocals, always a crucial ingredient in the BSS alchemy, are sweet and clear here, like harmonium keys. But when she starts cramming too many syllables into the chorus – “We’re just the latest in the longest rank and file list ever to exist in the history of the protest song” – the controlled chaos the band is known for rears its head to perfect effect.

Hug of Thunder absolutely soars when it plays content off context like that. Another track, “Gonna Get Better,” kicks off with the best lyrics on the album: “Future’s not what it used to be / we still got to go there”. The cynicism on display is tempered by the fact that the song sounds like Adele-produced-by-Aaron-Dessner. It feels like we’ve heard this song before as a kiss-off to a former lover, but it hits us in new ways by casting the world’s present political malaise as the ex.

Despite the bite, there’s still beauty on display. Some of the album’s strongest moments are when it slows down and lets you get lost in the soundscape. “Skyline” and “Please Take Me With You” are the winners here, and it’s impressive that after nearly twenty years as a band, BSS can still make simple lyrics like “Please take me with you / I want your heart” cut so deeply.

While coming back from a long break with songs this tight is a win, BSS newbies might find themselves at a loss with Hug; in the past seven years, a glut of more accessible lo-fi indie pop acts rushed to fill the broken Broken Social Scene scene. If Best Coast, Wavves or Alvvays are your touchstones for this kind of sound, the “so what” of this comeback could remain elusive. “Halfway Home” will have listeners punching air, but BSS doesn’t do the pure sugar hooks those bands built careers on. That’s not to say Hug of Thunder is a monotone slog – it’s not – but rather to point out that it rewards active listening. It’s sounds a little like the album cover looks: a bright white blur, with textures that come into focus as you get closer.

The record got me thinking about that night out at karaoke. As much as I would’ve loved to sing silly songs with my friends into eternity, all parties end. And as we all get older, we realize that what happens between parties matters just as much as what happens at them. But having everyone together that night reinvigorated a lot of relationships, just as a new BSS album always does. After all, the best part of their work is that when you’re done with it, you’re pumped to go catch up with projects from the whole crew – Kevin, Brendan, Metric, Feist, Stars, Len (sort of). The whole point of BSS is that the list goes on and the members of the collective have songs for you for days.

Hug of Thunder is a success for BSS, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of some of their earlier work. It reminds us why this band is special, and that it’s for the same reason that seeing all your friends at the bar, the reunion or around a picnic table in someone’s backyard is a lifting, shiny experience. This record is voices you know having conversations you’ve had before, just all a bit older and wiser. It reminds us that growing up isn’t so bad if you still remember to get together with friends now and then.

*Or Alpha Flight, I guess

Hug of Thunder is out now on Arts & Crafts / City Slang