24. Feist, Pleasure24. Feist, Pleasure
24. Feist, Pleasure
“This is a hard left,” she told The New York Times about Pleasure, her first new album in six years. Pleasure isn’t really one either, though—it’s as skeletal as advertised, further reversing the sharp turn of Feist’s mid-’00s, back to her core sound. The fuzz and buzz of early releases “Century” and “Pleasure” have stuck Feist with inevitable PJ Harvey comparisons, but the seeds were there as far back as The Reminder’s cover of Nina Simone’s “See-Line Woman.” “The Wind” sets Feist’s dry-air backing vocals to their natural metaphor; the high lonesome “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” and sedate Americana-via-Canada cut “I’m Not Running Away,” aren’t determined so much as circling warily around the same thought for so long it might as well be determination.
Feist wrote the album during a period of depression—in interviews she talks around but never quite about it, which is generally how it feels—and that sense of aimless exhaustion pervades the album. The self-affirmation of “Get Not High, Get Now Low” has a palpable faking-it-till-you-make-it. “Lost Dreams” wanders between rock-star gravitas (particularly “I am a dreamer,” delivered with unplugged swagger) and sprawling melancholia. The tension is haunting, not that Pleasure is sedate. The title track, with its twists and turns and pleasure-yawps, sounds fun largely because it sounds spontaneous.
Read Katherine St. Asaph’s full review here.
23. Sheer Mag, Compilation LP23. Sheer Mag, Compilation LP
23. Sheer Mag, Compilation LP
Before Sheer Mag announced their upcoming debut album, they collected their three excellent EPs—simply titled I, II, and III—into what might still be the year’s best rock album. Enough words have been spilled about the Philly punk band’s appeal: riffs for days, enough hooks to make Max Martin smile, firebrand, in-your face vocals from undeniable singer Tina Halladay. They make music meant to be heard while drinking seventeen beers during a barbecue; they sound like Thin Lizzy covered by the most hotshit garage band alive. It was true when the EPs were released separately, and it’s still true now. Crack open a cold one and turn it up. –Jeremy Gordon
22. Arca, Arca22. Arca, Arca
22. Arca, Arca
While Alejandro Ghersi already had amassed production credits ranging from FKA twigs and Kelela to Kanye by the time he turned 25, it was his work on Björk’s emotionally laden Vulnicura that served as Arca’s coming-out moment. During a rapturous and heart weary set by Ms. Guðmundsdóttir at Carnegie Hall back in 2015, said coming out was sartorial, Ghersi changing from a tough black leather jacket outfit to a plunging little black number over the course of the night, showing that even as an accompanist, Arca himself was an artist in constant flux, toggling between the masculine and feminine, refined beauty and spurts of noise.
Ghersi’s own work has reveled in gnarled electronic noise, a sound informed by both gender fluidity and John Carpenter’s The Thing, the grotesque overshadowing its gorgeous moments, body horror trumping body love. Jesse Kanda’s cover visuals of flesh matched the music within: bulbed, blackened, ghoulish and distorted. But for Arca’s self-titled third album (and first for XL), Ghersi’s own visage is front and center, and the first sound audible is his own voice. It’s his first time trusting that instrument; on “Piel,” it’s a castrato that quivers in the silence, soon in duet with lancing white noise and foreboding bass. His voice traces a melodic contour not unlike “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as rendered at Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio, singing of sloughing off old skin.
Peeling back the density and obtuseness of Xen and Mutant, Arca is his most engaging, emotionally draining and confrontational album to date. Arca’s hallucinatory production chops have never been in question, but in nudging towards actual songs as they do here, they find their most effective juxtapose, by turns seductive and fraught with every breath. In Arca’s wedding of voice and electronics, Ghersi most closely resembles Björk, who encouraged him to sing on his own music. Even without that knowledge, the catch in his throat on “Coraje” echoes hers on Vespertine’s “Cocoon” and on the spare “Anoche,” he renders the sentiment of “I Miss You” en espagñol, cooing for a love he misses, though hasn’t met him yet.
Read Andy Beta’s full review here.
21. Jay Som, Everybody Works21. Jay Som, Everybody Works
21. Jay Som, Everybody Works
Melina Duterte isn’t a belter; she delivers lyrics like gentle mantras, as if their repetition might produce a self-induced hypnosis, encircling herself in a world of her own making. “Sharing art, it’s not for everyone. I’m still working on that,” she recently told Pitchfork. And you could listen to Everybody Works, her debut album as Jay Som, a hundred times and still not feel as though Duterte is quite ready to completely open up. “Once, I was very brave,” she sings on the particularly confessional “(BedHead),” over a bed of murky, muffled guitars. “I stepped on the stage / It took my breath away.”
Nonetheless, here she is. Jay Som is Duterte’s one-woman band, whose breakout moment came in 2016 with Turn Into, a collection of songs that bubbled up on Bandcamp and turned their creator into a rising indie star. Turn Into was reissued by Polyvinyl, who also released Everybody Works, billed as Jay Som’s first full-length. Both albums were recorded by Duterte at her Oakland home, though Turn Into is so thoughtfully constructed it’s hard to hear it as a mere test run, despite its billing as a collection of demos.
But Everybody Works deserves the “real album” tagline, resisting the clichés of “bedroom pop” while holding tight to its introspective melancholia. Duterte’s lyrics are uncomplicated, but they speak to the kind of emotional quandaries that can be tough to put into words. Occasionally she sings to someone specific, maybe a lover, maybe a false friend: “You lie and you make believe / You can hide but you can’t deceive / I can’t tell you anything” (“The Bus Song”). More often, she attempts to describe what emotions feel like from the inside: “You’ve got me running in circles / My thinking pattern fades / Pull yourself away” (“One More Time Please”). There’s a humor to it, as when she sings, “My promises were never meant / I guess I’ll never feel okay” (“Everybody Works”), like an adult’s resigned nod to American Football’s classic anthem of teenage emotion.
Read Anna Gaca’s full review here.
20. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life20. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
20. Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
There are Japandroids fans who talk about their memories of the band like veterans reminiscing about fighting in the Great War, and that nostalgia is not easy to dismiss. Japandroids took the most elemental rock tropes and blew them up big enough to cover skyscrapers. Their songs evoked Manichean worlds where the girls were mostly good but sometimes very bad, where the alcohol was always flowing and the music was a vessel to emotional states both deeply sad and blindingly alive. Standing in the pit with your boys, your boys’ boys, the boys leaving town and the boys coming back, screaming along until your feral alcoholic state broke—it was a lot, and not for nothing could they be seriously referred to as a safe space for male friendship.
The five years following 2012’s Celebration Rock saw vast demand for a new record, even as their kind of rock—inspired by muscular, masculine riff factories like Thin Lizzy and AC/DC—rapidly ceded cultural relevance to more politically valuable genres. But Japandroids fans will be happy to know that Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a Japandroids album, pushed to 11 even in the quiet moments: towering riffs played on maxed-out amps, drums hit with due diligence, big whoa-oh harmonies, passionate, evocative rock n’ roll songwriting about girls and alcohol.
Japandroids always walked that Springsteen-paved line between corny and genuine; they tilted toward earnestness because of guitarist Brian King, whose boyish, spirited voice sold his ideals like someone confiding secrets after a few rounds. The first verse on the album–“The future’s under fire / the past is gaining ground / A continuous cold war between my home and my hometown”–either forces an eye roll or sucks you all the way in. If you’re even a little on board with this type of music, your heart will be fully invested by the second verse in second song “North, East, South West,” where King sings, “Hot and heavy when I hit the hay / in N-O-L-A, USA,” the band chanting each letter like cheerleaders heading a rally. Their insistence in making this kind of music carries no trace of self-consciousness, or self-deprecation. They remember a really important thing: This music stays powerful only if you never break kayfabe by admitting the obvious, which is that it can feel occasionally silly to be an adult drawing passion from rock n’ roll about girls and alcohol.
Read Jeremy Gordon’s full review here.
19. Perfume Genius, No Shape19. Perfume Genius, No Shape
19. Perfume Genius, No Shape
Did we ever settle on a definition of “chamber pop,” the genre that, for a minute, defined any indie band who were friends with a violinist? Arcade Fire aren’t chamber pop anymore. ANOHNI moved on with her life. Beirut is a country.
But in 2017, chamber pop seems like as good a phrase as any to describe Mike Hadreas’ new album as Perfume Genius, the weird, dense No Shape. However nebulous its relationship to actual pop music, “chamber” undoubtedly implied intimacy, along with audio fidelity. The opening seconds of No Shape are gently plinking piano and tape hiss, seemingly unfiltered; when I first played it on headphones I turned around to try and find the piano, like a true rube. Hadreas wants you to recognize his raw sincerity right upfront, which is no surprise. His first two albums, 2010’s Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, were filled with delicate, emotional piano ballads, many that started out sounding a lot like this.
In 2014 Perfume Genius went pop, relatively speaking, with Too Bright, a breakthrough collection of glitter and synths anchored by the towering, myth-making “Queen.” The dazzling power of that album’s biggest songs (shoutout to “Grid”) tended to obscure how much of it was, still, essentially delicate piano music. Hadreas doesn’t let listeners get much more than a minute into No Shape before he lets them know that era is over, in a huge, crystalline, in-case-of-emergency-break-glass crash on the opener, “Otherside.”
It’s the first of several dramatic set changes that punctuate No Shape, whosedocumented resemblance to David Bowie’s soundtrack for Labyrinth makes more sense the longer you listen. Hadreas tries all kinds of things he hasn’t up til now: a gentle calypso tide pool on “Just Like Love,” glassy trip hop on “Die 4 You.” “Run Me Through” dips into something like Amnesiac-era Radiohead. Hadreas even sounds a little like Thom Yorke, though you’ll never hear alt-rock’s mope king moan, “Pitted, deep lined eyes / Rough as last night.”
Read Anna Gaca’s full review here.
18. Pile, A Hairshirt of Purpose18. Pile, A Hairshirt of Purpose
18. Pile, A Hairshirt of Purpose
After three great albums that spent much of their runtime in violent catharsis or stumbling toward it, A Hairshirt of Purpose, Pile’s sixth full-length overall, is comparatively gentle and sprawling. Much of the press narrative around the record centered on singer and bandleader Rick Maguire’s sojourn from the twangy and ambitious post-hardcore quartet’s native town of Boston to houses in Tennessee and Georgia, where he wrote it. It’s a kind of Walden-esque story of creativity let loose in nature and isolation that Maguire scoffs at now. “I was just kind of sleeping and watching TV and eating ice cream. But whatever. If people want to say I was doing some Justin Vernon shit in the woods, that’s fine,” he said jokingly in a SPIN profile. Still, Hairshirt has an otherworldly beauty that previous Pile records only hinted at; songs that might have previously come equipped with power chords and thundering drum fills are now filled with harmony vocals and gently thrumming clean guitar. When the heaviness finally arrives, on highlights like “Texas” and “Fingers,” it’s powerful enough to sustain longtime fans through the rest of the album. –Andy Cush
Read our profile of Pile here.
17. Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors17. Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors
17. Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors
Dirty Projectors is a breakup album, hence the beard, burrowing into the circumstances of this dissolution with a biographer’s unsparing eye. It’s also a stunning record, including some of the best music the band has ever made. The trademark obnoxiousness of Longstreth’s melodic sensibility—an obnoxiousness I and many others have found wonderfully appealing—is located within compositions more sumptuous and sprawling than previous works, while still finding room to get a little weird. It’s also the loneliest record they’ve ever made, both in sound, theme, and scene.
Contrary to the arty obliqueness of previous records, the album offers personal details that are almost painful to hear. There are reconstructed arguments between the two, along with disclosures that sound like printed facts. On “Up in Hudson,” a gorgeous, unwinding song with the most transfixing drum patterns of the band’s discography, Longstreth coos about wanting to “slightly domesticate the truth / And write you ‘Stillness Is the Move.’” There are references to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood and once-fashionable hang spot McCarren Park, as well as the aggravatingly trendy Ace Hotel, where Longstreth sings about staying during a separation. (Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon recently sang about staying there, too, which I suppose now makes it the default personal retreat for all depressed indie luminaries.)
Longstreth resists the idea that the lyrics are strictly diaristic, but it’s impossible not to read between the lines. Elsewhere, he’s happy to withhold explanation: Asked about the recurring references to God and spirituality on the album, and if he experienced a religious awakening, he says, “I was going through some shit,” and punctuates his answer with an affable nod. Throughout our conversation, this is a recurring affectation, along with a big, broad smile that flashes across his face whenever he takes a second to collect his thought before answering. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone cheerier when talking about an album that chronicles a failed relationship.
Read our full feature on Dirty Projectors here.
16. Future, FUTURE16. Future, FUTURE
16. Future, FUTURE
Upon the release of Hndrxx, his second release in as many weeks in February, Future said that it was “the album I always wanted to make.” If so, it argues that Future has long imagined himself as melodically-driven crossover star consumed by love and heartbreak. Frankly, he’s better at applying his songwriting talents to straight-up rap songs, but Hndrxx is nonetheless an interesting experimental document that has a number of songs that stand up on their own merits. “Use Me” is a gasping power ballad sold by a very convincing vocal performance, while “Incredible” and “Testify” place him within the context of straightforward pop songs. The album blooms fully, though, on “Fresh Air,” which has a beat that sounds like something Kingdom would make for Kelela, but a huge chorus that could rip radio wide open. –Jordan Sargent
15. The xx, I See You15. The xx, I See You
15. The xx, I See You
I See You, the xx’s first album in a little over four years, does not herald a new direction for a group that stumbled into one of the defining sounds of a generation. Instead, the trio finds a fairly happy medium between the quiet intimacy of their pioneering debut record and whatever else may lie in front of them. This was the riddle that Jamie xx, Oliver Sim, and Romy Madley Croft needed to solve. Their self-titled first record—with its sparse, cold arrangements and lyrics that read like instant messages—was, even by the band’s own admission, an accidental miracle, and thus impossible to replicate.
The album was so singular that its aesthetic trickled up to the very top of American pop. The Drake and Rihanna duet “Take Care,” one of the best songs recorded by either artist, lifted an entire Jamie xx production for its beat, but it was the emotionally vulnerable conversation between the two that felt like a direct reference to the animating thesis of the xx. You can still hear the group in the most contemporary of pop songs: Drake and Rihanna recorded a “Take Care” sequel, “Too Good,” that cemented their place in Drake’s vast universe of influences; Kiiara’s “Gold,” with its clicks and pops floating in empty space, is an exact re-imagination of the group’s first album as radio pop; gnash’s “i hate u, i love u” is another hit that, like The xx’s early songs, feels like a text message exchange between teenagers set to music.
That legacy felt like a burden on Coexist, the xx’s half-step of a second album. The record proved that the magic of their debut couldn’t be repeated, but the band wasn’t able to push through to the next level. There were hints at what would eventually be the basis of Jamie xx’s solo work—techno rhythms, a wisp of tropical synths—but they hewed too closely to the sound of their debut but without the memorable songwriting.
I See You is still distinctly and deeply an xx album, but in the gap between albums the group has found a way to move unmistakably forward while still sounding like themselves. “Say Something Loving,” the second single, is a prime example. Sim and Madley Croft trade sentences over spidery guitar lines, but their singing is clearer and more throaty. Jamie xx contributes drum fills that nod subtly towards EDM, and a fleeting vocal sample—“before it slips away,” lifted from the Alessi Brothers’ 1978 track “Do You Feel It?”—seems intended to haunt the song. Tension is built, but not exactly resolved—much like their first record, but with a different energy. On “A Violent Noise,” Sim and Madley Croft are foregrounded as always, but the track conveys its emotion—“Every beat is a violent noise”—most deeply via Jamie xx’s production, which is at once shuddering and shot through with a bright synth tone that connotes an optimistic strength.
Read Jordan Sargent’s full review here.
14. Slowdive, Slowdive14. Slowdive, Slowdive
14. Slowdive, Slowdive
Given the goodwill that they’ve generated since disbanding—the well-regarded reissues, documentaries, and legions of younger bands hailing them as influences—it’s easy to forget how badly Slowdive’s first run as a band ended. Their second album Souvlaki is now as much of a shoegaze ur-text as any My Bloody Valentine recording, but at the time it was just a mostly notable for the fact that it was made in a cannabinoid haze, in part, with Brian Eno. Following the release of that record, they drifted further into that stoned ether: According to the liner notes for a reissue of their third album Pygmalion, they were asked to deliver a pop record by the head of their label, and decided to do the exact opposite, releasing nine tracks of heavenly kosmische and ambient electronics—its opening track “Rutti” was over 10 minutes long.
Then in February of 1995, the band—absent drummer Simon Scott, who left after feeling out of sync with the spacey new direction—released Pygmalion, a vaporous collection of electronic pieces. Previous albums had already made them scapegoats for everything the music press saw wrong with the subtle emoting of the shoegaze scene, but their newfound abstraction was a bridge too far for those who’d stuck around until that point. Their label Creation Records dropped them in the week following its release. One review suggested they “work on their headstone.” And so they did, ending the band shortly thereafter. When guitarist Neil Halstead moved from the home where he worked on much of the record, he left almost all of his clothes drying on a line outside and never came back for them.
For the band to return to the title Slowdive after 27 years—a name also used on their first-ever release—suggests that, like for many bands who make eponymous releases deep into their career, the record is a reset button. Perhaps as a result, Slowdive feels simpler too. With all that the band has attempted over the course of the near three decades since their initial formation, they could have made just about anything. They’ve written opiated balladry, ambient techno, even oozing drones, and turned rock band instrumentation into jetstream engines. But here, the songs are conspicuously stripped down—lyrics are legible, guitars sound like… guitars. It’s an approach they haven’t really taken since their very first recordings, from the Slowdive EP through Just for a Day. The chiming drive of lead single “Star Roving” is so bare and uncomplicated that it feels more like the current generation of reverb-hazed indie bands than much else in their catalog (just search Twitter for “SlowDIIV”).
Because how intent they seemed on pushing at the borders between rock and electronic music during Pygmalion, and how charmingly amorphous and hard to grasp Souvlaki remains over 20 years after its release, it could be easy to takeSlowdive as a retreat. But its surface-level simplicity only serves to highlight how experimental the band are as songwriters. Their best moments felt sort of like sleepwalking, linking together fragmented emotions and shattered scenes with vaporous chord progressions and a thick reverb mist. That’s why it makes sense for Slowdive to have cosmic rock songs (“Slomo”), minimalist piano dirges (“Falling Ashes”), and heavenly C86-isms within a few tracks of one another. When was the last time a daydream made much sense?
Read Colin Joyce’s full review here.
13. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural13. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural
13. Priests, Nothing Feels Natural
Anyone who’s said “at least a Trump presidency will make punk rock great again” hasn’t been paying attention to Priests, the D.C. band who’ve been releasing ferocious, funny music attacking late capitalism and its discontents since 2011. They’re best known for their lapel-gripping mix of claustrophobia and confrontation; brought to life, any given Priests song paces around the cage and shakes the bars.
This gripping quality is communicated most visibly by singer Katie Alice Greer, who yelps, shrieks, and chants her way through choruses designed as self-aware tantrums, demanding someone answer for this mess they’ve put us in. But Priests is very much a collective project, driven equally by Daniele Daniele’s urgent drumming, Taylor Mulitz’s post-punk bass lines, and G.L. Jaguar’s sinister guitar tones. On Nothing Feels Natural, their long-awaited debut full-length, each band member pushes themselves to new levels—something Daniele characterizes in a 36-page (!) interview zine accompanying the record as “the reach,” the “exposed vulnerability” that surfaces when someone struggles to carry out something new and just barely makes it.
The reach is all over Natural, which displays influences from the Raincoats and Shopping to krautrock and Portishead. For Daniele, this meant exploring more dynamic drumming styles; for Jaguar it meant turning down the distortion and focusing on single notes instead of chords. Songs like “Appropriate,” “Pink White House,” and “Puff” cover familiar territory, shouting down Burger King, Wheel of Fortune, and an American dream replete with palm trees and SUVs. “Pink White House” is peak Priests—clever and dystopian, slick with B-movie horror lines like “you are just a cog in the machine / and I am a wet dream / soft and mean.”
But where previous Priests songs rarely made it past the three-minute-mark, an extended bridge gives it a sense of space. Similarly, the second half of “Appropriate” descends into deconstructed no-wave chaos, with Luke Stewart pulling pure agony out of improvised saxophone. The jazzy flourish reappears on an ambient mid-album interlude, and the tail-end of kitchen-sink disco groove album closer “Suck.” (We saw it coming with Downtown Boys and Bueno and Pill but could it be that, in Alan Vega’s wake, sax is back in punk?)
Credit: CREDIT: Mac photo by Brad Barket/WireImage; Priests photo by Roberto Ricciuti/WireImage; Kendrick photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella; HFTRR photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns