10. Haim, Something to Tell You (Sony)
My fondness for Haim coincided with my own unprecedented interest in classic album oriented rock from the ‘70s and early-‘80s. For some crazy reason, stuff like Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and Toto have clicked in my head in ways that I never expected. So I suppose I’ve become the dad in Say Anything, blasting “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” in the car, completely without shame. Go figure. Anyway, what Haim has done so well since their early singles is bring that middle-of the road formula back into fashion a little bit. After all, with so many inoffensive-to-the-point-of-forgettable white male rock bands out there, the idea of three women with serious musical chops, a full appreciation of both rock history and modern pop music, and plenty of songwriting smarts sounds awfully appealing, if only to wake mainstream rock music out of its stupor. Four long years after the revelatory debut Days Are Gone, Alana, Danielle, and Esme returned with the high-gloss Something to Tell You and it builds on the trio’s “cool middle of the road” (yeah, oxymoron) aesthetic beautifully, and more consistently. I was never a fan of Ariel Rechtshaid’s music, but he proves to be a superb producer here, creating a full, warm sound that marries both lush arrangements and sparse, percussion-driven songs. “Want You Back” and “Little of Your Love” are splendid singles, but the deeper you go, the more rewards you find, such as the driving “Nothing’s Wrong”, the impassioned and minimal “Right Now”, the aching ballad “Night So Long”, the airy R&B of and “Ready For You”, and the shimmering, Rumours–meets-“Under My Thumb” of “You Never Knew”. No real risks are taken, but why should there be risks when Haim are so dialed in to that aesthetic they created? They’re a band that can cover Peter Green, Beyoncé, Shania Twain, and Prince at the drop of a hat, yet have a way of making those songs their own. It’s a rarity to see a band this young sound this fully realized.
10. Kelela, “LMK”
As strong as Kelela’s debut album Take Me Apart is, “LMK” is the one track that grabbed my attention the most. The hook is terrific (“All you gotta do is let me know”) but the production is spectacular, following the lead of fka twigs: ominous bass synth, skittering, glitchy percussion, and crystalline stabs that slice through the darkness. Creating something this rich with so few ingredients is no small feat.
11. Lana Del Rey, Lust For Life (Interscope)
I still marvel at how Lana Del Rey shook off some seriously threatening jitters early in her career and has steadily metamorphosed into one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. As strong as her early singles were, it all felt like a one-trick pony, but along the way several crucial things happened: her producers offset her crooning torch songs with some very clever production choices, Del Rey matured into a surprisingly astute lyricists, her confidence and presence has grown with each release (to the point where she can command the headlining stage at a massive music festival like Osheaga, where her 2016 performance blew my mind), and most importantly, she’s been able to show an incredible amount of diversity in her music, as simplistic as it all may seem. At 72 minutes, Lust For Life flirts with overkill, but it ended up being my favourite of her albums to date. It didn’t have to be that long, but the fact that she’s confident enough to attempt it speaks volumes. And besides, these songs all hold up very well, even the severely goofy duet with Sean “I’m hitting middle age so I might as well start imitating my dad’s vocal style” Lennon. It’s the album’s gems, though, that serve up some jaw-dropping moments. The title track duet with The Weeknd is full of bleary-eyed gorgeousness, “13 Beaches” and “White Mustang” paint indelible mental images, “Heroin” is a wry ballad that references Hollywood ‘80s metal (“Life rocked me, like Mötley”), “Change” delivers a poignant message in its minimalist delivery, and “Love” is as perfect a love song as I’ve ever heard. The cover art says a lot about Lana Del Rey in 2017 as well: she is in full command of her art, has never sounded better, and has everything going for her right now. Why wouldn’t you smile?
11. Wolf Alice, “Don’t Delete the Kisses”
It’s great to see a young British rock band like Wolf Alice do so well for themselves, but wow, if “Don’t Delete the Kisses” came out in 1996 is would have been monstrous. Ting is, though, as indebted as it is to Stone Roses, Pulp, and Lush, it is so beautifully rendered by the band and producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen that is somehow manages to feel contemporary. And for such a young lyricist, Ellie Rowsell displays so much maturity and poetry: “And there’s the night-bus, I have to go / And the doors are closing and you were waving / And I like you, and I’ll never let it show / And you won’t wait and maybe I won’t mind / I work better on my own / And now I’m, well, a bit drunk / And I ask myself / What if it’s not meant for me?”
12. Tove Lo, BLUE LIPS (lady wood phase II) (Universal)
At first it felt as though Tove Lo was rushing a little too quickly to follow up her excellent 2016 album Lady Wood. After all, with so many potentially great singles on that record, why not spend a little more time milking it to maximize that exposure? But good for her for not stopping the creative process. Besides, once you dive into the seamy, explicit sounds and themes of BLUE LIPS it quickly becomes apparent how well the album works as the second act of an ambitious double concept album. Like Lady Wood, it is divided into two different chapters, which respectively serve as the climax and the denouement of the story about a failed romance. Consequently, it starts out feeling increasingly euphoric (led by two stupendouns dance tracks, “Disco Tits” and “Stranger”) before bottoming out completely on the downbeat “Bad Days” and “Hey You Got Drugs?” It’s a risky venture for Tove Lo to be so artistically exhibitionist, but as provocative as it all is, it’s not for attention, and is in fact smarter than some will care to admit. She balances melodrama, amour fou, heartbreak, and introspection so well within the normally trite confines of pop music, and the fact that her songs so consistently succeed on the pop side (those hooks!) is admirable on its own, regardless of the lyrical content. As it stands, though, Tove Lo continues to solidify her identity as first-rate pop auteur and provocateur.
12. Kesha, “Let ‘em Talk”
Of all of Kesha’s empowering statements on the triumphant comeback album Rainbow, “Let ‘em Talk” is by far the most powerful. Backed by Eagles of Death metal in a pairing so inspired it makes me wish she’d join the band as permanent singer, Kesha doesn’t hold back, and it is glorious to hear: “You, you got your own opinions / Baby, I don’t even need to hear ’em / It used to hurt me, used to bring me down / Do your worst, ’cause nothing’s gonna stop me now…Loves and hates, they don’t really know about you / I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick.” It’s a blunt statement of intent from an artist who endured a litigation nightmare, and although she didn’t win her case against her former producer, the man is now a pariah and Ms. Sebert emerged as a folk hero.
13. Bell Witch, Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore)
Back when I was a regular visitor to the Roadburn festival, a favourite thing of mine to do was to take a break from all the endless standing, take in a doom performance in the afternoon, and sit. Sit and listen, lose myself in the music while giving my body a much-needed rest. You see, I have very little patience for doom metal in venues that don’t offer seating. Only a special few bands like SubRosa, Sleep, Candlemass, YOB, Conan, and Witch Mountain hold my attention while standing, and when it comes to the long, drawn out sounds of funeral doom, there’s no way I can endure it on my feet. When Bell Witch announced that their new album would be a single, 83-minute track, my mind immediately reverted back to that brutal Roadburn exhaustion, and I immediately wondered how anyone would ever want to sit and listen to 83 minutes of funeral doom. The idea to me is repellent. Or so I thought. Once I sat down to actually listen to it, it clicked like no other funeral doom record has done for me before. The heaviness was there, as the subgenre demands, but what was most discernable was melody, emotion, nuance, soul. The best review of Mirror Reaper was actually one line: “The musical equivalent to a Tarkovsky film.” Like the slowest, most majestic doom, Tarkovsky’s greatest movies require patience, meditation, and immersion, and once you lose yourself in Mirror Reaper you are led through a journey through the deepest sorrow, but also the most aching beauty. When this monstrous record takes a turn toward the mellow just prior to the hour mark, with Erik Moggridge singing in a very fragile tenor voice, that’s when you realize this two-piece band has made the leap from upstarts to something truly special. I can even go as far as to say that Mirror Reaper is the most beautiful funeral doom album I have ever heard, if not the very best. It is a transformative experience.
13. Zola Jesus, “Soak”
Nika Rosa Danilova mentioned on NPR that she wrote the ominous track “Soak” from the perspective of a serial killer’s victim. “I started to do thought experiments of what it would feel like to be a killer’s victim. What would I feel in those last minutes before my life was taken from me? In this mindset, I felt so many conflicting emotions: resentment, empathy, masochism, grief. Channeling these emotions into ‘Soak’ made me step back and see how much it reflected my own journey trying to get through my darkest moments.” With her powerful voice she conveys that desperate yet resigned feeling to vividly, a vocal performance that haunted me for much of the year.
14. Shooting Guns, Flavour Country (Riding Easy)
It’s been so much fun seeing Shooting Guns evolve into one of the finest psychedelic doom bands on the planet. There’s no one else like them, frankly: the music is jam-driven, but the jams they create are of the extremely heavy variety, a jet engine roar that envelops listeners, a constant give-and-take between being anchored by a robust rhythm section and being sent skyward by swirling effects, hazily textured melodies. Although the “doom” label sticks to ambitious bands like tree sap – it’s annoying and you can’t shake it – Shooting Guns always incorporate newer sounds into their work. On their third “official” album (not counting various splits compilations, and soundtracks) they veer towards more of a Deep Purple vibe at times, and other moments see the atmospheric side of their music starting to resemble krautrock pioneers Faust. No question, their soundtrack work, whether the Wolfcop movies or the silent film Nosferatu, has given the band a lot more confidence when it comes to showing their more contemplative side. However, at the core of their music is that ever-present embodiment of sheer power. You go to see Shooting Guns to have your face blown back by the visceral force of their instrumental compositions, and this extremely strong album captures that feeling very well.
14. Torres, “Three Futures”
The title track from Torres’s ambitious third album is probably the saddest song I heard in 2017. Atop a dry, morose arrangement of drum machine, ambient synths, and a carefully plucked guitar melody, Mackenzie Scott’s protagonist confronts a former lover, expressing deep resentment (“You trusted me to love your parents”), regret (“The hope I abused”), and ultimately compassion (“You didn’t know I saw three futures / One alone, and one with you / And one with the love I knew I’d choose”). It’s gut-wrenching in its melancholy, but rendered so tenderly that it ultimately feels extraordinary.