First, a few words about Arcade Fire.
I never thought the day would come that I would be ashamed to like this band. 2017 in music proved that possibly only Beyoncé is sacred. Anything that you liked yesterday could just as well be fodder for infinite Internet memes today and tomorrow. If you’re not saying or doing something important right now, do you even still matter? Just ask Taylor Swift.
With their fifth album “Everything Now,” Arcade Fire sought to satirize and critique that Internet culture. And where Father John Misty succeeded and generated the right kind of controversy, Arcade Fire’s album rollout was hindered by a marketing campaign in which the band issued phony reviews and literal fake news. At one point they halted the sale of “Everything Now” fidget spinners because they had their own fidget spinners to sell. And every Internet gimmick that in one artist’s hand would be genius in another would be U2 dumping “Songs of Innocence” on your iPhone.
Arcade Fire may have been good once, but they’re now in the same cultural doghouse as U2, Coldplay and even Nickelback, undisputed fair game for whatever labels and jokes you want to assign. I don’t know whether Arcade Fire was ever “cool.” Hipsters certainly do not like them anymore. But “Everything Now” was an excuse for all the haters to come out of the woodwork. “This band has been bad since “The Suburbs!” And they’ve always been overrated!”
The problem is that the music itself didn’t rise above the online reaction and marketing rollout. “Everything Now” is their worst album, and on the whole, it’s not especially good. The lethargic reggae beat of “Chemistry,” the arrhythmia that is “Peter Pan,” the generic punk and country of both “Infinite Content” tracks: this is the worst stretch this band has ever recorded. And yet as I’ve sat with this album more, it’s grown on me. Songs like “Put Your Money On Me” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” are dreamy earworms that linger in your mind, but they’re not the soaring rock anthems that have traditionally served as Arcade Fire album finales. The title track and “Creature Comfort” are two of the best singles of the year, the first an upbeat indie dance jingle with melancholy lyrics about media saturation, and the second a violent track with a club beat and a message about suicide.
So it pains me when I have to pretend as though I’m wrong to call Arcade Fire my favorite band, as though they belong to some other cultural entity that isn’t woke to what’s actually good. Arcade Fire were great before, and they can be great again, but it doesn’t mean they’re worth ignoring now.
As for what I most enjoyed in music this year, I’m not a good enough judge of what’s fashionable to know whether any or all of these artists are actually cool or important, but I refuse to be ashamed about any of them. These are the Best Albums of 2017.
- The National – Sleep Well Beast
And now a few words about The National. Since 2010 when I first discovered both of these bands, Arcade Fire has grown away from what they do best, but The National have cultivated exactly the audience they want by further refining their sound. “Sleep Well Beast” introduces a big helping of chaos to their slow-burning, moody rockers. There’s the crackling fire on opener “Nobody Else Will Be There,” the ethereal synths and pops on closers “Dark Side of the Gym” and “Sleep Well Beast,” or the sheer rage on the heaviest track they’ve ever recorded, “Turtleneck.” And is that a legit guitar solo on “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness?” You bet your Berninger it is. Yet Matt Berninger’s morose and obscure lyrics about being awkward at parties are still intact, and leaning on the piano hasn’t failed them yet, with “Carin at the Liquor Store” an easy rival for “Pink Rabbits.” At this stage, “Sleep Well Beast” may not even be close to the band’s best album. That impression may change the more time we can sit with it. But what I know now is that this is finally enough for me to put them at the top of my list as rightfully my favorite band.
- Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
This band owns. After “Celebration Rock,” Japandroids had a tough act to follow. They had put out a raucous, celebratory album full of songs about the liberating feeling of listening to music, throwing back a beer and punching your fist into the air. It should’ve saved rock and roll if anyone was paying attention. So what do Japandroids do five years later? They quote James Joyce for their third album “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” and write a coming of age record that’s still as inspiring in its roaring guitar and shout-along choruses. Brian King calls on everyone to “make some ears ring from the sound of my singing” in the uplifting opening track and then step on the gas for the bouncy “North East South West.” The song is a tribute to their hometown of Vancouver but could be the anthem for anywhere. But Japandroids’ latest crowning achievement is the seven-plus minute “Arc of Bar,” further proof of their ability to take some already meaty guitar loops and grow them until they sound absolutely immense. Japandroids have been labeled corny because they trade in loud rock and roll so earnestly, but I’d rather listen to this band than the hundreds that can’t even dream of matching their scope.
- Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
A friend told me that she thought listening to Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” was like hearing a giant think piece. And then around the eighth verse of Misty’s 13-minute Dylan-esque dirge “Leaving LA,” he sings about his “10-verse chorus-less diatribe”: “I used to like this guy/this new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.” Josh Tillman is very much aware of how he’s challenging his audience, and in the process he’s made a modern folk classic. Like anything important in the digital age, “Pure Comedy” is topical, misanthropic and ironic. He croons about the idea that capitalism will save us, about an Internet troll lying on his death bed lamenting his ability to criticize people further, and about a female music fan so basic even her voice has become robotic. And while this album demands patience and attention, it rewards with lively orchestral arrangements, gorgeous piano and guitar strumming, not to mention Misty’s voice reaching for the heavens. Just because Father John Misty isn’t earnest about his persona doesn’t mean he can’t put out the most seriously involved and rich album of the year.
- Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
An album this chill shouldn’t be this good. Mac DeMarco has made an album more mellow, relaxed and endlessly listenable than any he’s done before. But while he’s picked up the acoustic guitar more than his electric, “This Old Dog” doesn’t feel stripped down. It’s a rich album of intricate finger-plucking and soothing melotrons that sound effortless but truly aren’t. And all of them compliment Mac’s crooning melodies of growing old and fading love. You wish grooves like the dreamy synths during “On the Level” or the lilting chords of the title track could go on forever. It’s a light album, but not quaint, and I can’t stop listening to it.
- The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
As The War on Drugs have elevated to a major label and to stadium-sized rockers, frontman Adam Granduciel has stripped away the droning, experimental soundscapes that have adorned their previous albums and left nothing but an evocative, heartland roar. While some are spirited and others are downtrodden, every song on “A Deeper Understanding” grows until you’re in awe of this band’s grandeur. Not once do they sound slow or do the songs appear to overstay their welcome, and yet Granduciel finds room for his wonderful guitar solos on every track. He amazes with his technical prowess and gift for melody on “Up All Night” and evokes so much emotion with a single note that just howls on “Strangest Thing.” We just lost Tom Petty, and Bruce is busy on Broadway. We need this band.
- LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
You’ll forgive LCD Soundsystem for breaking up and forcing themselves back into existence after just a few minutes of “American Dream.” Because James Murphy’s latest masterwork contains everything you could want from a reunion album. It’s as much a versatile expression of Murphy’s deep record collection, like how “Change Yr Mind” has echoes of “Pretty Monsters” era David Bowie. It’s just as danceable without sacrificing its satirical edge, with “Tonite” lampooning bland pop anthems about fleeting moments. The title track is as soaring and lush as “All My Friends” or “Someone Great.” And this band still destroys when they feel like it. “Call the Police” escalates in propulsion over seven minutes without ever relenting, and “Emotional Haircut” absolutely unloads with guitar ferocity. Welcome back. It’s like they never left.
- Ty Segall – Ty Segall
Look, we do this every year. How different could yet another Ty Segall album be? The first two songs on Ty’s self-titled album are familiarly face melting. His first instance of stretching himself comes across 10 explosive minutes on “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned),” with the song moving from ‘70s hard rock before making a hard U-turn into something more punk. And he flexes the power to absolutely bowl you over on “Thank You Mr. K,” with Ty stopping the song to literally smash some glass, then unloading with a freakout even more unhinged than it started. But what makes Ty’s latest so surprising is the lovely twang on “Talkin’”or the acoustic chill of “Orange Color Queen.” These are genuine pop songs that prove Segall isn’t just prolific, he’s a jack of all trades.
- Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound
Cloud Nothings are not a pop band. But damn if they don’t make some incredible hooks within their driving, fuzzy guitar rock. “Modern Act” and “Enter Entirely” are would-be templates of a Song of the Summer, each one building catchy riff rock on top of Dylan Baldi’s gnarly vocals. And it’s as if Cloud Nothings know they should be more famous. “I believe in something bigger/but what I can’t articulate/I find it hard to realize my fate,” Baldi belts on the titanic album closer. It’s this morbid, doom-inflected range that keeps them underrated and yet at the top of their game.
- Steven Wilson – To The Bone
Steven Wilson went on BBC One Breakfast this August and was dubbed the biggest artist you’d never heard of. The host hilariously asked him, “What’s prog rock,” and the clip they proceeded to play was of the most danceable, pop-centric variety, his single “Permanating.” Wilson called the song his “ABBA moment,” and I can only imagine a crowd full of Wilson’s legion of dad-rock fans dancing out to this one live. But Wilson didn’t get mainstream attention by moving away from heavy, elaborate concept albums. The fun of “Permanating” aside, “To the Bone” strikes just the right balance of grand, sweeping emotion and technical mastery, whereas his past solo albums without Porcupine Tree can be too theatrical, too droning or too long. On “Pariah,” Wilson trades a soaring vocal duet and explodes a wave of sound just when you thought the song couldn’t peak any further. And “The Same Asylum As Before” shows Wilson’s gifts for wielding aggressive riffs and shouting vocals in between his 8-minute dirges and guitar solos. The reason “To the Bone” hit the top of the charts wasn’t a fluke; it’s because it’s his best work yet.
- Alvvays – Antisocialites
You can point to the legions of Belle & Sebastian copycats who make blissful, upbeat guitar pop in the way that Alvvays do on their second album “Antisocialites.” But to hear the perfectly beautiful single “In Undertow” or the swooning meditation of “Dreams Tonight” doesn’t fully capture how wacky and accomplished this band can be. Listen to the carnival ride of a breakdown on “Plimsoll Punks,” the echoing guitars and bouncy bass line on “Hey” or the punishing punk rock drums to open “Lollipop.” These are dynamic songs that compliment the dreamy, buoyant vocals of Molly Rankin and elevate Alvvays above the other twee bands that might spell their name with two “Vs.”
- St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, might be second to only Beyoncé as an artist who can keep pushing the boundaries of her persona and her art and remain untouchable. Her latest album “MASSEDUCTION” finds her performing a garish satire of more vapid personalities. Disembodied limbs adorn her artwork and stage show as she sings about a hellscape like “Los Ageless” where “the women milk their young” in the pursuit of beauty. The limits of that joke are tested on something like “Pills,” more of an infomercial than a song. But in scaling back some of the melodies, St. Vincent has returned to her scorching guitar and horn freakouts and soaring, yet surreal anthems like on “Fear the Future” or the orchestral “Slow Disco.” St. Vincent’s fifth album proves she’s not infallible like Beyoncé, but she’s more in control than ever.
- The Menzingers – After the Party
“Where we gonna go now that our 20s are over,” goes the chorus to “Tellin’ Lies,” the opening track of The Menzingers’ “After the Party.” This is a pop punk record that elevated this band beyond their emo roots because it reckons with growing old, faded glory, desperately trying to get away from home in the Midwest and finding one last sing-along as the bars close for the night.
- White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
The title of White Reaper’s album may be a paradox of sorts, but they wholeheartedly believe it. Sounding like a lost Thin Lizzy or Alice Cooper record, White Reaper show so much riffy gusto in convincing you they’re serious about their rock and roll.
- Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
The latest from Josh Homme and his ever-changing band members doesn’t have the same sludge or doom rock of their previous album, but it’s just as groovy and even boasts danceable hard rock this time around. “Villains” is an appropriate name, because this band is dangerous and unstoppable.
- The Orwells – Terrible Human Beings
These Chicago kids know how to write some catchy tunes. Just try not to jump along to opener “They Put a Body in the Bayou,” one example of the dark and dirty lyrics they’re still cooking up. Mario Cuomo’s yelling is still perfect for the mosh pit, but they’ve grown as a band and as musicians, actually building their bouncy chords into a convincing climax and jam session on the seven-minute “Double Feature” to close the record.
Other Albums I Think Are Dope From 2017:
- Tennis – “Yours Conditionally”
- Spoon – “Hot Thoughts”
- Torres – “Three Futures”
- Japanese Breakfast – “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”
- Lorde – “Melodrama”
- Julien Baker – “Turn Out the Lights”
- Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”
- Dan Auerbach – “Waiting on a Song”