1. Zola Jesus, Okovi (Sacred Bones)
Nika Rosa Danilova has been flirting with greatness for the past decade, her unique blend of darkwave and Kate Bush-derived art pop establishing her as a burgeoning talent over the course of five albums. She’s come close, from 2010’s bold Stridulum II, to 2011’s beautiful Conatus, to 2013’s superb Versions. 2014’s Taiga left me feeling a little cool, mainly because I kept expecting phenomenal music rather than merely “pleasing”. Perfection always felt within her grasp, which has always been a big reason why I’m drawn to her music. Her soaring, powerful alto voice lends great strength to her dark-toned arrangements, and that combination of voice, instrumentation, and songwriting reaches a new peak on Okovi, Danilova’s strongest work to date. Songs like “Soak”, “Witness”, and “Siphon” touch on dark themes, but a sense of empathy constantly lurks underneath the seeming bleakness. Detecting a sense of humanity is always a challenge when it comes to music this stark, but aided by sterling production and gorgeous string arrangements, not to mention a sensational vocal performance, Okovi’s visceral power is undeniable. It’s particularly ironic that on a record whose Latvian title translates as “shackles”, Zola Jesus sounds liberated. Reflective of both a year that saw society crumble and a personal year where I discovered new happiness, Okovi’s impeccable balance between light and shade makes this a very easy choice for Album of the Year.
- Zola Jesus, Okovi (Sacred Bones)
- Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest (Because Music)
- Pallbearer, Heartless (Profound Lore)
- Partner, In Search of Lost Time (You’ve Changed)
- Paramore, After Laughter (Fueled By Ramen)
- Spirit Adrift, Curse of Conception (20 Buck Spin)
- Queens of the Stone Age, Villains (Matador)
- Biblical, The City That Always Sleeps (New Damage)
- Goldfrapp, Silver Eye (Mute)
- Haim, Something to Tell You (Polydor)
1. Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
Going back to Sugababes’ “Freak Like Me” many moons ago, I’ve always enjoyed pop music that deconstructs an existing piece of music and transforms it into something completely new. That’s exactly what Selena Gomez, songwriter Julia Michaels, and producer Justin Kirkpatrick do on the innovative and brilliant “Bad Liar”. Unlike so much American pop music, “Bad Liar” strips the song down to skeletal form, built solely around the bassline of Talking Heads’ classic “Psycho Killer”. The fact that they’re able to take a distinct sample from one of the most famous rock songs of the 1970s and create something new an almost unrecognizable is marvel to hear. Couple Gomez’s restrained singing and her coy, spoken word cadence, it made for a welcome dose of originality and inventiveness in a derivative and cookie-cutter pop landscape.
2. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest (Because Music)
The story behind the creation of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first studio album in seven years was total critic-bait: following the tragic death of her sister, photographer Kate Barry in 2013 Gainsbourg relocated from Paris to New York and started collaborating with producer Sebastian Akchoté, best known for his work with Frank Ocean, in an effort to channel her sadness into music. Whether making music or acting, Gainsbourg has always been fearless, throwing herself into her art fully, which more often than not results in bravura performances, and the resulting album Rest is just that, and it’s understandable that music critics were over the moon. From a personal standpoint, this album clicked on many levels. Yes, Gainsbourg’s melancholy tributes to her sister are heart-wrenching (especially “Kate” and “Rest”), but she and Akchoté have created music that honours Charlotte’s famous parents Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, delves into much darker territory, turns up the funk, and ends up sounding completely unique and her own. The vocal phrasing and melodies are totally reminiscent of Serge and Jane (“Rest” sounds uncannily like something Birkin might have done in the early-1970s, “Les Crocodiles” greatly resembles Serge’s work circa Melody Nelson) as are the gently loping arrangements by Akchoté. Other tracks like “Lying With You” and “Deadly Valentine” have a more gothic tone, bringing to mind the great cinematic band Goblin. “Sylvia Says” is a groovy interpretation of a Sylvia Plath song, while “Songbird in a Cage” is an inspired collaboration with none other than Paul McCartney (hey, when Paul McCartney gifts a song to you, you record it!). In the end Rest succeeds not only because of the intent of the project, but also because it so assuredly adopts an eclectic array of styles while maintaining a strong sense of consistency throughout. It’s a triumphant work of art.
2. Paramore, “Told You So”
For all the words written about Paramore’s struggles to keep the band intact amid a revolving door of supporting members, the bedrock has always ben the musical partnership between singer Hayley Williams and guitarist Taylor York. From the revelatory 2007 single “That’s What You Get” through 2013’s spectacular self-titled fourth album, the duo continues to break new ground with each new recording. “Told You So” immerses itself in the multicolored tones of 1980s pop, its syncopation, choppy guitar work, and marimba owing a great deal to the more Caribbean and African inspired sound of new wave, with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen adding just the right touch of Tine Weymouth-inspired bass melodies. Capped off by a winning vocal performance by Williams, this track was an immediate highlight of the summer of 2017.
3. Pallbearer, Heartless (Profound Lore)
I’m tempted to just come out and grandiosely declare Pallbearer the best American metal band of the 2010s. And five years ago I never thought I’d ever say that about this band. Contrary to the curmudgeons who grumble pathetically, “They peaked with their demo,” Pallbearer’s evolution over the course of three albums has been wonderful to witness. What started out as a unique take on doom metal has steadily developed into something completely unique, a hybrid of doom metal, classic 1970s heavy metal, and most crucially, progressive rock. In fact, the more the band indulges their prog side, the better they sound, and that’s on full display on the sprawling, gorgeous Heartless. Brett Campbell’s singing has gotten so much stronger and more confident, and he’s able to dominate tracks rather than allow his vocals to be buried in the mix. The melodies and phrasing he comes up with are unique as well, not so much focused on a particular hook but sounding as an extension of a melodic guitar solo. And as for those solos, led by Devin Holt, they achieve a stateliness that rivals the work of Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt, combining melody and expression, which beautifully offsets the forceful, doom-oriented rhythm guitar riffs. You hear that confidence on tracks like “Dancing in Madness” and “I Saw the End”, as the foursome carry themselves authoritatively, fully knowledgeable that few in the metal genre can do what they’re doing. From the hugely improved vocal melodies to the expressive solos and ribcage-rattling riffs, Pallbearer walk the line between sheer power and fragile beauty better than anyone in the genre right now.
3. Lana Del Rey, “Love”
In a year riddled with tragedy and unrest it was Lana Del Rey who came through with a song that cut through all the misery and offered a tiny glimmer of hope. It’s almost as if this world has gotten too cynical for a simple song about love to connect with people, but Del Rey’s stunning debut single from her third album did just that. “Look at you kids with your vintage music,” she winks on “Love”, all the while creating a pitch-perfect pastiche of classic torch songs and teen ballads, from references to Phil Spector and the Beach Boys. Accentuated by its stark backing arrangement, the track’s power lies in ins simplicity and directness. Love might not be <i>all</i> you need, but it sure does make life worth living. “It don’t matter because it’s enough / To be young and in love,” Del Rey croons, urging listeners to embrace the feeling.
4. Partner, In Search of Lost Time (You’ve Changed)
Rock music needed an album like this so badly: something with volume, power, gigantic hooks, humour, and poignancy, if only to reassure me that the music is in the capable hands of a new generation of kids who have a thorough understanding of what rock music rock, and who adhere to that formula with a sense of unbridled joy. Hailing from Windsor, Ontario (by way of Sackville, New Brunswick) the duo of Josée Caron and Lucy Niles brought a refreshing approach to indie rock on Partner’s exuberant debut album. It had been so long since I heard a debut rock album this good that I sat there in shock while listening. Indebted to the robust melodic rock of Veruca Salt, the effervescent power pop of Cheap Trick, and the guitar-driven aggression of Thin Lizzy, Partner’s music is witty, loud, and extremely catchy, best exemplified by the boisterous “Gross Secret”, the hilarious “Everybody Knows”, and the contagious “Play the Field”. In an era where the “rock” label has been applied to male groups who know how to do anything but, these two young women have helped breathe new life into the genre, and it’s only a matter of time before a much larger audience catches on. To wax hyperbolic a little (no pressure or anything) this band is the future of Canadian rock music, and I can’t wait to hear what they do next.
4. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Cut to the Feeling”
Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015’s triumphant Emotion, “Cut to the Feeling” continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza’s production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song’s feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It’s the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face.
5. Paramore, After Laughter (Fueled By Ramen)
If there’s one album that perfectly reflect the cultural angst that has permeated 2017, especially in America as seen by a concerned but crisis-fatigued outsider, it’s Paramore’s superb, surprisingly mature and world-weary fifth album. The story behind After Laughter was big news upon its release, how their 2013 album (my Album of the Year that year) was their big mainstream breakthrough but left the band in tatters for the umpteenth time. For all the intra-band strife, for all the band members that keep shuffling through the revolving door, however, it’s been clear for a decade now that Paramore has been, and always will be, all about the musical partnership of singer Hayley Williams and guitarist Taylor York. They are the masterminds of this whole project, and this time around their latest album is preoccupied with the fallout from the many stressful moments their professional lives kept serving them. Thing is, while they might have been writing and singing about “Hard Times” in their own personal lives, it uncannily reflects the past year that was, and when seen through that lens After Laughter becomes extraordinary and scarily timely. The way the pastel colours of the artwork and contagious, sunny pop hooks contrast with the very dark and pensive lyrical content is cognitive dissonance epitomized perfectly, and it doesn’t take a sociologist to compare that to America’s boastful stance that it is the paragon of democracy while it knows full well that has willingly started its own self-immolation through 250 years of disastrous and tragic decisions. Paramore has made a perfect album for that mindset: they made music you can dance to, that you can sing along to, all the while making you aware that things are nowhere near as rosy as those hooks, harmonies, beats, and melodies seem to be. There might not be much hope for America, but you can find some consolation, some transcendence in a pop hook, and After Laughter radiates hooks. Just keep smiling through the tears, because things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. “I’m gonna draw my lipstick wider than my mouth,” sings Williams on “Fake Happy”, “And if the lights are low they’ll never see me frown.”
5. Haim, “Want You Back”
It’s always a little refreshing to hear a love song that doesn’t fixate on the whole “wronged victim” trope that permeates pop music. Haim’s shimmering “Want You Back” turns things around, and actually expresses remorse. There’s no hope of resolution, just regret and longing, which is conveyed so well by the vocal interplay of the three sisters. Musically it plays haim’s Fleetwood Mac obsession to the hilt, and because they do not shy away from the obviousness of that influence, it becomes one of the best, most assured songs they’ve written and recorded to date.