Here’s what moved me, or got me moving, in 2017. I made a concerted effort to be a better music listener this year, and I think I succeeded? I don’t know. Probably not. I was reading lists from friends and realized I didn’t listen to as much as I thought I did. Then again, I think that every year. But here’s what I dug this year. As in recent years, instead of a top 10, I’m dubbing a Best Overall, followed by Best In Genre, of the four primary genres (I don’t have time to parse it out by sub-genre and sub-sub-genre and sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub genre) and then Honourable Mentions.
Favourite Album: Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator
I will never claim to catch all the music that comes out. Every year we do these and I’m reading through friends’ lists, and even though I’ve got about 20 on mine, I feel dwarfed by how much I DIDN’T listen to that year. But I’m honestly kicking myself for not getting into Hurray for the Riff Raff sooner. No… that’s not the right word. For not even hearing her. There’s nothing about her that I wouldn’t like. I think Helen shared her cover of Be My Baby with me, and that put me onto her album, and sent me down the rabbit hole of her earlier work. And that’s what makes a great album. You need to devour the album again. You need to devour more of that artist’s work. The Navigator is as rich and flavourful an album can get, culling sounds and stylings from across the musical spectrum, steeped in different eras, but never feels like a walking tour of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She effortlessly pours the tracks out as if to say “I’m just gonna make music. Whatever happens, happens.” It’s lyrical stories of the downtrodden and displaced people is the perfect album long anthem for 2017.
Favourite Country: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
This was actually a very close one for me. I was constantly going back and forth between Isbell and Nikki Lane’s Highway Queen. Both are raw, powerful, pure country, yet completely different. I just connected with the energy of The Nashville Sound more than I did with the subtler Highway Queen (not that it’s a particularly subtle album). The rousing guitars, the beautiful harmonies, the strained emotions poured through the lyrics. It’s a beautiful record to spin while sunk into a chair, glass of rum in hand.
Honourable Mentions: Nikki Lane – Highway Queen; Chris Stapleton – From A Room Vol. 1 & 2; Midland – On the Rocks; Margo Price – All American Made
Favourite Rock: The National – Sleep Well Beast
The National is on the verge of qualifying for the Legacy category, a category I introduced to keep me from stuffing the ballot with artists I’ve long been a fan of, blocking my exploration of new music. But for now… All four years of love and care Berninger, the Dessner brothers and Devendorf brother put into this album while balancing a busy tour schedule and various side projects are showcased by how grand and big it feels. Not big like arena rock big, but there’s some heft to this album. If that makes sense.
Honourable Mentions: HAIM – Something To Talk About; Wolf Alice – Visions of a Life; U2 – Songs of Experience
Favourite Hip Hop: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Lamar deftly maneuvers from rapid fire aggressive raps to slower, smoother R&B tracks, yet never missteps in his razor sharp lyricism. As a genre, by its very nature, hip-hop is very personal, and few are as a self-aware and conscious of that as Lamar. He knows exactly who he his, and what he can do, and is in control every step of the way. That skill, of being both a craftsman and an artist, is on full display in DAMN.
Honourable Mentions: Migos – Culture; Jidenna – The Chief; Wu Tang Clan – The Saga Continues
Favourite Pop: Kesha – Rainbows
You can’t talk about this album without talking about everything that led to it, specifically Dr. Luke being a garbage human being and the justice system failing her. But from the soaring empowerment ballad “Praying” to the anger infused pop-funk track “Woman” with the Dap Kings, this feels like a statement that this is the artist she always wanted to be, and is now allowed to be. She crushes it every step of the way, and if you wrote her off based on Right Round or Tik Tok, you weren’t entirely wrong, but this is not an album to miss, and I do recommend heading back and re-checking out her earlier work. It’s not entirely bad. It’s solid pop.
Honourable Mentions: Lorde – Melodrama; Harry Styles – Harry Styles; St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
Favourite Score: Rupert Gregson-Williams – Wonder Woman
Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score for Wonder Woman is fascinating on two levels. He conjures the heroic emotions reminiscent of his super-hero predecessors like John Williams, Danny Elfman & Hans Zimmer. He continues that grand tradition. But he also fuses this ancient world sound with modern sensibilities to give this grandois, bombastic, rousing theme throughout his score.
Honourable Mentions: Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049; Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water; Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk
Favourite Debut: SZA – CTRL
I can’t remember the last time an R&B album, a modern R&B album hit me like this. Sure you had Leon Bridges a few years back, but he was old school R&B throwback. With SZA, there’s a raw power to her songs. It just hit me. I really dug what she did on this album, and it makes me really excited for her future output. Which is true for any of my favourite debuts, but certainly SZA.
Honourable Mentions: Harry Styles – Harry Styles; Jade Jackson – Gilded; Jidenna – The Chief
Favourite Legacy: Gorillaz – Humanz
Gorillaz are just one of those acts I will always enjoy the sheer artistry of. Top to bottom artistry. And Humanz is a joy to experience.
Honourable Mentions: Jamiroquai – Automaton; Wu-Tang Clan – The Saga Continues; Public Enemy – Nothing Is Quick In The Desert; Robert Plant – Carry Fire
Favourite Discovery: Harry Styles – Harry Styles
I’ve made mention that I’ve found my way to various artists by way of Saturday Night Live. Bruno Mars, Sia, HAIM. I had encountered One Direction via Studio 8H before, but generally just ignored them. But for some reason I gave Harry Styles a shot during his first solo appearance earlier this year, and just sat in awe of how great he was. I picked up his album when it came out, and just really dug it. He shows great reverence for some great British acts throughout modern history, from The Beatles to Elton John to Queen to Pink Floyd to Duran Duran to Robbie Williams, but never feels like a walking tour of a Brit-Pop/Rock Museum. He culls these influences to explore himself as an artist, and in doing so setting himself apart as the presumptive Justin Timberlake of One Direction (sorry, Niall Horan).
Honourable Mentions: Hurray for the Riff Raff; SZA
Special Mention: Baby Driver Soundtrack
This was just a fucking amazing soundtrack and it should be highlighted. But I didn’t know where else to put it.
Obligatory Foo Fighters Mention
I don’t give a shit if I come across as a gods damn fanboy in this, but Foo Fighters are a gods damn treasure. Like, the way Baby Boomers idolize the Beatles and the Stones, and put them on a pedestal, that how I am with Foo Fighters. They aren’t just first ballot Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they are first round Knighthood. Sainthood.