When I compiled my favorite songs of 2016, I began by just calling the year a dumpster fire. Oh how little we knew back then, as we’ve seen our national and social discourse continue to go down the tubes. I mean, freakin’ Nazis are back in the public spotlight, for heaven’s sake. Nazis! You’d think that particular question — is Nazism a legitimate worldview? — had been settled long ago, but nope. It was just festering and waiting for a time when it could reveal its ugly, godforsaken face once more.
2017 was one reminder after another that people — on all sides of the social and political spectrums — were willing to overlook gross ethical and moral violations for the sake of power. I grew up in evangelical and staunchly Republican circles, so it was with a particular form of heartbreak that I watched former respected leaders publicly, even proudly, admit that child abuse and pedophilia were of no real concern so long as they could prevent those pesky Democrats from getting another vote.
But we also saw people in power being held to account for their terrible actions. Hollywood elites, politicians, and entertainers were forced to confront their years of sexual abuse and assault. It was heartening to see victims come forward, sometimes after years of doubt and shame. No doubt there will be more such revelations in the months to come, which will be a good thing. It’s good to see the truth finally come out and take down those who’ve abused their power and privilege to take advantage of so many.
But these events should give us pause in the midst of any celebration, lest we grow self-righteous. The social and political spheres represented by these abusers should be a stark reminder that, as Solzhenitsyn so famously wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” It’s all too easy to point out the flaws of your cultural opponents while dismissing those very same flaws when they’re found in members of your team.
And that’s where art, and music specifically, play a role. We dismiss art as mere entertainment or commodity, but all good art cuts us to the quick. Among other things, it reminds us of our shared humanity — that for starters, beauty knows no politics or teams. A beautiful song does not depend on political parties for its effect; it sits apart from such things and instead, appeals to the deepest parts of us, politics and cultural sides be damned. What’s more, it tells us uncomfortable truths, sometimes obliquely and sometimes right to our face. It offers us an opportunity to see the world from another’s point of view and maybe, just maybe, experience a bit of compassion and empathy.
As always, this mix is a collection of songs that helped me get through the year — that encouraged, uplifted, challenged, and yes, moved me. I hope it contains a song or two that’ll help you in a similar fashion in the days, weeks, and months to come.
12 Decembers’ self-titled debut was one of the last albums I fell in love with in 2017, thanks to its blend of sincere, sophisticated pop, shoegazer textures, and electronics — imagine the love child of Stars and M83, if you will. “Song 2” was stuck in my head for days, its lush guitars and airy vocals a perfect vehicle for a gently poignant ballad about romantic betrayal and disillusionment.
It took ten years but Airiel finally released a new album, the excellent Molten Young Lovers, and it’s chock full of jangly, driving shoegaze pop in the vein of vintage Kitchens of Distinction, Chapterhouse, and Ride. Lead single “Cloudburst” represents Airiel at their best, as Jeremy Wrenn’s clean, effortless voice drifts over shimmering guitars and a solid rhythm section sure to set your head a-bobbing and toes a-tapping.
Lee Bozeman is probably best known as the frontman for Luxury, but his solo stuff is equally strong, as shown by his recent Majesty of the Flesh EP. Since Bozeman is an Orthodox priest, it might seem odd that he sings so openly about love and ecstasy, but on “I Am My Beloved,” the erotic imagery is undergirded by a spiritual sensibility. Combined with the song’s ethereal arrangements, it’s spellbinding stuff.
Granted, their name might raise an eyebrow, leading you to think that you’re going to hear sordid tales of debauchery. While Cigarettes After Sex do occasionally dip into that territory on their long-awaited self-titled debut, most of their music consists of brooding, atmospheric ruminations on love and desire — of which “K.” is the finest example.
Cloakroom’s music exists at the intersection of shoegaze and metal (imagine Starflyer 59 if Jason Martin was into Black Sabbath more than Swervedriver and The Boo Radleys). On “Seedless Star,” that means a blend of crushing riffs, punishing rhythms, and gorgeous atmospherics. There’s a workman-like quality to this song; it’s solid and unyielding, and totally captivating as a result.
The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is a perfect song, and The Daysleepers’ rendition captures everything that’s perfect about it. To their credit, the group doesn’t really try to reinterpret it so much as reproduce it as faithfully as possible, with some shoegazey textures added for good measure.
There’s a majestic (npi) quality to Drab Majesty’s “Cold Souls,” from the towering synths and glassy guitars to Deb DeMure (aka Andrew Clinco)‘s booming voice. But it’s also mercurial, drawing from goth, post-punk, and shoegaze without really sounding like any of them. As such, it often recalls Lansing-Dreiden, a similarly mercurial outfit that produced majestic-sounding music.
Grails is lumped in with the rest of the post-rock scene, but rather than slow-burning orchestral arrangements and post-apocalyptic sturm und drang, Grails opts for something more refined and cinematic. “The Moth & The Flame” is a highlight from their fantastic Chalice Hymnal, an expansive, unfolding track that feels so much more vast and epic than its four minutes suggest.
Kiriyama Family probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when discussing Iceland’s music scene, which is a shame because their soulful, retro pop is thoroughly enjoyable. It may seem conventional when compared to their fellow Icelanders (e.g., Björk, Sigur Rós), but “Innocence” is a fantastic song in its own right, from its yacht rock-isms and graceful tonal shifts to Hulda Kolbrúnardóttir’s fiery voice.
A lot of beloved bands returned from the dead in 2017, but one reunion that might’ve flown under the radar was that of Texas’ Knife in the Water. But “Call It a Shame” was proof positive that the group’s harrowing blend of folk, country, and noir was still as affecting as ever, and just like the dulcet tones of their lap steel, never really goes out of style.
All Bitches Die was one of the most difficult and confrontational albums I heard in 2017. But by addressing misogyny and domestic abuse with brutal electronics and operatic vocals, Kristin Hayter created some of 2017’s most captivating and haunting music. On this song, Hayter is at her most furious as she imagines a back-and-forth between a vengeful God and a violated supplicant seeking justice. This is biblical, Old Testament, wrath of God stuff. Consider yourself warned.
On A Crow Looked at Me, Phil Elverum invites the listener into his grieving process as he mourns the death of his wife Geneviève. “Ravens” finds Elverum recounting various memories of his wife’s illness and death while contemplating nature and mortality. It’s awkward being exposed to grief and emotion as naked and raw as this, especially given how densely packed “Ravens” is with memory and image, but it’s also a great and humbling privilege.
Nico Niquo’s In a Silent Way was one of the most intriguing ambient albums I heard in 2017, thanks to its gently unsettling nature. The title track is initially lulling as soft synth arpeggios caress your ears but then the song begins to move in unpredictable ways, and a darker undercurrent emerges. So yes, it’s a relaxing song, but it also keeps you on your toes, which isn’t something you can often say about ambient music.
Within a few seconds of hearing its opening washes of sound, I knew that “The Park at Night” was going to be a spellbinding experience — and that’s been true with each subsequent listen, too. This song may represent one of Angela Klimek’s first forays into ambient music, but that’s hard to believe given its sense of restraint and elegance; these icy soundscapes may seem epic and vast, but they also make for an incredibly intimate and enveloping listening experience.
It’s impossible for me to be even slightly objective when it comes to Slowdive’s music. Still, listening to their first album in 20 years was a relief because it was so excellent — as good a return as I could’ve hoped for. “Sugar For the Pill” is the album’s most melancholy moment, a slow-burning ballad about a fading relationship. It’s right up there with “Dagger” as one of Slowdive’s most nakedly emotional and heart-breaking songs, proving that they don’t need walls of sound to affect the listener.
Stumbling across this album on Bandcamp was one of the year’s best discoveries for me. Starsabout plays pristine, atmospheric indie-rock that should appeal to fans of Radiohead and The Mary Onettes as well as vintage 4AD acts. But there’s also an emotional undercurrent that makes Starsabout’s songs especially fetching. As Piotr Trypus sings “Where is my home,” he’s tapping into an ache we can all identify with.
You can dismiss Jay Tholen’s music as quirky, weird, and goofy… but doing so overlooks the thoughtfulness and heart that lies just below its surface. But with his latest, Celestial Archive, Tholen is quite upfront. Case in point, “Onus Productivity Suite,” in which Tholen lays out his manifesto: “What I make should be beneficial, good, and gentle, and never pull you down.” Would that more of us had a similar mindset.
Timber Timbre’s “Sewer Blues” would be the perfect accompaniment for a journey along the margins of society, filled with forbidden sights and forgotten people — or a “tomb of vapor and perfume and fog-filled rooms” as Taylor Kirk puts it. From the blues-y guitar riffs and creepy synth pads, to Kirk’s Nick Cave-ish voice and cryptic lyrics (that nevertheless tap into the unease so many of us feel given our current socio-political climate), the song is a fever dream that sounds both dangerous and entrancing.
Unwed Sailor have frequently modified their sound over the years, moving from slowcore and math-rock to psychedelia. But on “The Other Way,” Johnathon Ford et al. go deeper and darker than ever before, crafting a Grails-like score for a seamy, noir-ish movie that doesn’t exist (yet). It’s all creepy arrangements and melancholy violins, and ends on an unresolved measure that only adds to the mystery.