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.
6. Zola Jesus, “Siphon”
I can’t remember hearing as eloquent, compassionate song about attempted suicide as what Nika Rosa Danilova has composed in the form of “Siphon”. It conveys a strong sense of urgency and tension, but for all the dark undertones lies a sense of support and positivity that steadily takes over the song. Those lyrics take on extraordinary power, and this astounding track reaches a cathartic and loving climax: “We’d rather clean the blood of a living man / We’d love to clean the blood of a living man…We’d hate to see you give into those cold, dark nights inside your head.”
6. Spirit Adrift, Curse of Conception (20 Buck Spin)
A strong sense of history informs Spirit Adrift’s revelatory second album, whose sublime melodies echo King Crimson’s Red, the classic doom of Trouble, the more melancholy side of Metallica, and Judas Priest’s masterpiece Stained Class. Where singer/guitarist/songwriter Nate Garrett and producer Sanford Parker succeed so greatly is how the album utilizes those influences yet creates something singular. A result of Garrett’s maturity as a songwriter, that balance of discipline and adventurousness is a rare feat. This kimd of leap forward is something I always crave from metal bands, but for any number of reasons (mainly a very low bar set by successful yet far less talented bands) it so rarely happens anymore. When I first heard what Spirit Adrift had in store on Curse of Conception, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. As described above it is structurally indebted to some very key influences, but hearing this record so assuredly forge its own identity almost had me dumbfounded. This feat is so rare. Garrett is in full command from start to finish, and the way doom, classic heavy metal, and progressive rock find such a pristine balance is remarkable: the heavy moments feel crushing, the more aggressive passages are laced with strong melodies, and Garrett’s own vocal melodies ditch conventionality, reminding me a lot of how Baroness had to learn how to grow into their sound. At the rate Garrett and Spirit Adrift are going, I fully expect them to continue to evolve in a similar fashion. as marvellous as this album is, there’s the inescapable feeling that this is only the beginning. Big things are in store.
7. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains (Matador)
I was skeptical upon learning that Mark Ronson was going to produce the seventh Queens of the Stone Age album. Not that the idea had zero chance of working, but so often have these big name cross-genre collaborations, especially in mainstream American music, fail to generate anything of worth. When I heard the end result of this seeming oil-and-water partnership, however, I was blown away by how Ronson and QOTSA were able to meet comfortably in the middle: Josh Homme’s bleary-eyed desert rock hybrid is lent some serious groove, funk, and polish thanks to Ronson, who knows a thing or two about groove, having worked with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, and Bruno Mars. Yes, this is some of the most seriously catchy music of Homme’s career (“The Way You Used to Do” remains one of the only mainstream radio tracks from 2017 that I actually still like) but the heavy side of the band his the hardest since Songs For the Deaf. “The Evil Has Landed” goes from Houses of the Holy funk to a throttling four-on-the floor jam, “Domesticated Animals” hammers out a contagious three-chord riff, while “Feet Don’t Fail Me” is a thunderous opening track. Toss in a pair of truly pretty songs in “Fortress” and “Villains of Circumstance”, and you’ve got a record that was probably the most pleasant surprise for me. I was excited for a new Queens of the Stone Age album, but thanks to Ronson and Homme, Villains exceeded all my expectations.
7. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Deadly Valentine”
“Deadly Valentine” is simple in its approach: recited wedding vow text atop an airy electronic arrangement. What Charlotte Gainsbourg and producer SebastiAn create, however, is a fusion of romance, tragedy, light, and darkness…which you can dance to. It’s a track that bridges art and pop like few others this year, the crowning track on a masterpiece of an album.
8. Biblical, The City That Always Sleeps (New Damage)
The best way I can describe the mind-bending, abstract psychedelic progressive stoner metal that comprises Biblical’s triumphant second album is that it is the album Mastodon and Between the Buried and Me were born to make but never will. As consistent as Mastodon and BTBAM have been, Biblical mops the floor with their more famous peers, displaying an uncompromising vision throughout this seriously wild, eclectic, thrilling 37 and a half-minute record. The way it shifts so gracefully between aggressive heavy metal, Yes-style melodies, Pink Floyd-esque dreaminess, King Crimson-inspired intricacy, and the swirly space rock of Hawkwind was enough to stop me dead in the tracks. It’s heavy but so smooth, its eight tracks serving more as separate movements of a two-part suite. From a personal standpoint it pushes practically every single button, as far as heavy music goes: respect of music’s history, command of songwriting, and enough integrity and foresight to take some very obvious influences and make something totally original out of it. The trouble for Biblical is that because The City That Always Sleeps is so brazenly defies categorization it is extremely difficult to find an audience. It’s not “extreme” enough to attract the attention of metal tastemakers, it’s far too proggy, far too “hesher” to even warrant a review by an indie publication, and it’s too eclectic and on too small a label to get any sort of mainstream airplay. No, this is a record that will only find an audience in the kind of music listeners that crave original new music that strays off the grid, through word of mouth, one nerd at a time. So take it from this nerd: give this spectacular album a listen, and tell more people about it.
8. Kelly Clarkson, “Meaning of Life”
Kelly Clarkson continues to age more gracefully than any of her American pop peers from the 2000s, thanks to a willingness to show more maturity and not worry so much about following trends. The title track to her eighth album is straight-up soul music, and true to form, she knocks it out of the park. There’s a very slight rasp to her voice that gives the song just the right amount of edginess, and combined with the sheer command of her voice (such power and discipline) it makes this simplest of love songs an instant classic.
9. Goldfrapp, Silver Eye (Mute)
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Goldfrapp is how they never like to repeat themselves, instead preferring to shift gears, no matter how commercially successful the previous album was. Not only does it speak volumes about the integrity Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory have, but it also shows how versatile they are as songwriters and musicians. They always have new ideas. On the heels of 2013’s beautiful and melancholy Tales of Us, Goldfrapp threw another change-up in the form of Silver Eye, only this time with an added twist. The duo has always been auteurs, but this time around they decided to collaborate with two of the better producers today: John Congleton (best known for his work with St. Vincent and Baroness) and talented musician/producer The Haxan Cloak. The end result is an album that returns to the more electronic side of Goldfrapp’s oeuvre, balancing strong, pop friendly hooks and production choices that veer slightly towards the more abstract and avant-garde. Alison’s voice is, as always, at the forefront, but especially on the Haxan Cloak tracks like “Ocean” and “Moon in Your Mouth”, a hint of menace lurks just below the surface, making for some of the most foreboding music Goldfrapp has ever created. Contrasted with more immediately pleasing fare like “Anymore” and “Systemagic”, it all makes for an album that flirts with eclecticism yet retains that consistency that Goldfrapp have always been able to pull off. No matter what direction they take, the music always sounds like Goldfrapp: moody, adventurous, and like nothing else out there.
9. Partner, “Play the Field”
I’ve written a lot about how it feels as though real, good indie rock music has been ignored in favour of limp, non-committal music by fey white boys on cool record labels. Ontario duo Partner came through with a total gem of a debut album that brings such badly-needed energy to indie rock, and the best track is the anthemic “Play the Field”. Its cuteness is undeniable, but it captures the awkwardness of adolescence so well, and in the end winds up being an empowering song for LGTBQ youth: “’Cause even though I’d really like to / It’s not worth being called a dyke to / See you in your sports bra / Though it just might change my life.”
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.