Thursday, January 25, 2018
Year in Review and Best of 2017 Part 3 - Music
Time to talk music! If you missed them, check out my previous Year in Review articles for movies and games. As with last year's music piece, this is more of a bonus article. I lack the language to write in depth about music and my scope is limited to around a dozen albums a year. I'd love to get album recommendations so I can check out great stuff I missed! Each album has links to my favorite tracks when available.
Top Tier - My favorite albums of the year.
Gorillaz - Humanz - Six long years after 2011's low key The Fall and seven years since the magnificent Plastic Beach, Gorillaz return with their most guest star-centric album. There are still some wonderful Damon Albarn verses, but the focus here is on a lineup of solid cameos, one of the best being Benjamin Clementine's Hallelujah Money. The thematic connection between these assorted songs and singers is a party at the end of the world, an apocalypse defied by an embrace of goodness and love (We Got the Power.) The Deluxe Edition includes a bonus disc with great material that's just as strong as anything on the main album and I appreciate it for introducing me to Kilo Kish.
Top Tracks: Saturn Barz, Hallelujah Money, Out of Body (Bonus Disc)
Lana del Rey - Lust for Life - Like Humanz, Lana's newest album stands up against darkness with the power of love. A far more optimistic album than the wonderfully gloomy Honeymoon and Ultraviolence, Lust for Life shows Lana continuing to develop her grand, cinematic sound while embracing a new sense of hope (while not shying away from addressing pain.) This is also, like Humanz, an album with quite a few solid guest performances, from The Weekend to Stevie Nicks to Sean Lennon.
Top Tracks: Love, Tomorrow Never Came
Roger Waters - Is This the Life We Really Want? - I'm a huge fan of Waters' post-Pink Floyd work; maybe I couldn't get into his 2005 opera, Ça Ira, but The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, Radio KAOS, and Amused to Death all rank among my all-time favorite albums. Waters' latest comes 25 years after Amused released in 1992, but his writing and performance remains as strong as ever. This is the most Pink Floyd-styled album Waters has released, with one of its strongest tracks (Picture That) featuring audio callbacks to Animals and Meddle. This is a very pointed album: It's explicitly anti-war, as Waters work often is, but it's also explicitly an anti-Trump album. There's no subtlety or symbolism hiding his intent here, just a giant middle finger with Trump's name on it.
Top Tracks: Deja Vu, Picture That
Twin Peaks: Music from the Limited Event Series - Speaking of things coming back 25 years later, the third season of Twin Peaks debuted this year and it was full of surprises, but one of the oddest choices to me remains the fact that nearly every episode ends with a musical guest. Not all of these scenes are compelling, but the music itself is excellent, with bands picked by David Lynch and Mark Frost to perform songs that often have a lyrical connection to something in the series. A collection of songs both modern and classic, I prefer this album on its own versus the context of many of these songs in the show itself. It also helped me discover a lot of great musicians I was unfamiliar with!
Top Tracks: Shadow (The Chromatics), Wild West (Lissie), Axolotl (The Veils)
Excellent - Great albums worth your time.
Depeche Mode - Spirit - Released early in the year, Depeche Mode's 14th album is an angry shout at blind populism, driven by strong lyrics and arrangements. At times blunter and less poetic than some of their earlier work, Spirit is nonetheless an excellent album that calls out complacency and cowardice just as strongly as it calls out oppression. A dark album that talks about hopelessness but serves as a rallying cry rather than a surrender.
Top Tracks: Going Backwards, Where's the Revolution
Halsey - Hopeless Fountain Kingdom - Halsey's follow up to her 2015 debut departs from the more mainstream sound of Badlands, showing an artist willing to go weirder and spacier and that's always appreciated. While these tracks aren't as catchy as the first album's hits, they show a stronger, more confident and remarkably honest approach to pop songwriting. I'm on board with whatever she plans to do next.
Top Tracks: Strangers, Bad at Love
Lenka - Attune - Lenka's best album since 2011's Two, Attune is a strong improvement over her last two albums (Shadows in 2013 and The Bright Side in 2015.) Attune has an extremely mellow tone, with simpler production values and a meditative focus. Lenka's music remains completely personal, exactly the kind of art she wants to make without trying to focus on the wider appeal of her first two albums.
Top Tracks: Arrow, Lucky
Lupe Fiasco - Drogas Light - It's hard to top 2015's phenomenally good Tetsuo & Youth, but Drogas Light is a solid Lupe album that just drags a little too much in its second half. The first half is strong, fierce, and focused, with Lupe's social commentary at the forefront. This would be a stronger album with a few cuts, but the best tracks are fantastic.
Top Tracks: Dopamine Lit, NGL
Very Good - Strong albums with standout elements.
Eminem - Revival - Eminem has long worked to balance his personal and political songs with his horror film persona Slim Shady. The Marshall Mathers LP 2, released in 2013, is the perfect synthesis of the two, mixing heartfelt, confessional songs with gruesome nightmares. Revival leans more towards the personal/political side, with the darker songs feeling out of place. MMLP2 effectively put the Slim Shady persona to rest, so having him appear here feels unnecessary at best and outright distracting at worst. There are some great tracks here and I'm a big fan of his Eminem's collaborations with Skyler Grey, but there's plenty that could be cut here. Alicia Lemke's brief track Revival (Interlude), sung to the tune of Regina Spektor's Human of the Year, is one of the strongest on the album, released two years after Lemke's death.
Top Tracks: Castle/Arose, Tragic Endings, Revival (Interlude)
Jethro Tull - The String Quartets - String versions of rock songs have been a trend for a while now, but it's rare to have the original artist involved. Ian Anderson leads the Carducci String Quartet through a series of classic Tull remixes, occasionally lending his voice to some tracks. It's not revolutionary, but it's a fine, pleasant listen.
Top Tracks: In the Past, Only the Giving
Lorde - Melodrama - Five years after she made her debut with Pure Heroine, Lorde released this follow up with a heavier dance beat focus. While I don't think it's as strong as her first album, Melodrama stands on its own without ever feeling like an attempt to reproduce previous success.
Top Tracks: Green Light, Supercut
Below Average - Albums flawed in significant ways.
Taylor Swift - Reputation - I'm not sure what happened here. 2012's Red and 2014's 1989 are two of my favorite modern pop albums, so I went into Reputation expecting something spectacular and just found a giant mess. I'm open to the idea of Swift attempting a hip hop sound, but the direction of this album is so misguided and weightless that I struggle to find anything positive to say about it. Swift's clever wordplay surfaces every now and then but it's buried under an uninspired sound that lacks the soul of her previous work. The final track, New Year's Day, sounds the closest to 1989 and is the only one here that I fully enjoyed.
Top Track: New Year's Day