As we press play on Donald Trump Presents Zombiegeddon 2, here's one last look at some of 2017's life-giving stuff—20 blissful musical mementos to hold close.
P.S. Yeah, yeah, I understand, but no, I will not confirm that "2018 is going to be our year." Face it, we're stuck here with our reproving ghosts and there's no easy fix. Everything will stay the same in 2018, or get worse. All of it—money, men, music. Taxes, fake allies, those stupid double entendres hooted over deadening digital presets that sound like a 747 full of infants with full diapers? All day, every day. What can we do? Organize our dumb asses, I guess.
Anyway, before marching any farther up Baphomet's asscrack, let's take a glance back at some of 2017's less-hyped-but-still-great songs and albums. Godspeed, kids.
Mary Lattimore—"Wawa by the Ocean"
Harpist Mary Lattimore dedicates this delicately nuanced arrangement of plucked echoes and glistening arpeggios to a very specific totem—Wawa convenience store #700 in the beach town of Ship Bottom, New Jersey. For Lattimore, growing up an hour-and-a-half away in Philadelphia, the hoagie-slinging pit stop was a veritable memory palace, triggering a fantasia of emotions. And this 10-minute composition—easily the most lovely piece of music I heard all year—touches on a multitude, using delay and looping effects to conjure a choir of voices and moods from her instrument. It's as if you're shadowing her on a childhood visit, from the awestruck anticipation sparked by a shimmering ocean horizon seen from an asphalt parking lot to scooting or swanning across hot sand to the surf, ducking under for the first time, water pouring off your face, beading on your skin as you bob in the waves, eyes blinking back the sun, then running to your towel to dry off and lounge and meditate on, oh, I don't know, how simultaneously seductive and repulsive the world can be sometimes, especially when you're not at the beach (or Wawa). The harp's familiar chiming interweaves with bell-like ascending and descending tones, intriguing yet soothing, becoming more hushed as the reverie fades.
From where I'm daydreaming (not resting bitch face, but still) Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Taja Cheek’s full-length debut is 2017's most fascinating, underrated album. A soul-glazed miasma of tape manipulation and samples, it embraces your despair with folky intimacy, then drifts into your psyche and hurls splashes of fluorescent euphoria. Informed by her mother's death during recording and given structure by co-producer Andrew Lappin, L'Rain bears traces of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless in its densely ephemeral swoon—you can imagine Kevin Shields blissing out to the painterly swirl of Cheek's sonic colors and shapes.
Distruction Boyz feat. Benny Maverick & Dladla Mshunqis—"Omunye"
With its frantic kick-drum flurries and ghostly, metallic synth drones, the Durban, South Africa-based DIY township scene Gqom (a Zulu word meaning "drum" or "hit," or slangwise, "rocks hitting the tiles" of a floor) is producing some of the world's most exhilarating dance beats. And on "Omunye," the frisky Durban duo Distruction Boyz polish and brighten the gqom sound so that it's a big-room, hands-in-the-air juggernaut; ironically, the lyrics are about people being packed on top of each other inside a tiny house party, wink wink. (Yeah, maybe they're having random sex!) Of course, in its crossover dreaming, "Omunye" forgoes some of the sound's darker, eerier minimalism for boldface bootyclaps, but why not embrace the scene's triumph. Who let the ghosts out? Everydamneverybody!
The cast of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feat. Rachel Bloom, Gabrielle Ruiz, Donna Lynne Champlin & Vella Rovell—"Let's Generalize About Men"
Led by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, the songwriting team for Rachel Bloom's comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend nailed the Great Sexual Assault Awakening of 2017 with this tweak of "It's Raining Men" via Pat Benatar. In a festive patriarchal switcheroo, the cast trumpets superficial, blanket statements about men. When they exult, "They're rapists," one concerned cast member interrupts, saying, "Wait… I have sons." Most shows would want it both ways, but Crazy Ex finishes the job in style, as the other three women wag their fingers at the stricken mom and gleefully wail: "Your sons are gonna be rapists!"
Peter Perrett—"How the West Was Won"
Somehow, the finest Y-chromosome rock moment of the year came from the Only Ones' mythically gifted, 65-year-old front-fiend Peter Perrett. Yep, the same guy who was seduced by Johnny Thunders during his late-'70s, London-era, junkie-amour solo phase to serve as de facto bandleader for the New York Doll's 1978 So Alone album, inspiring Paul Westerberg to write punk songs like wry, gimlet-eyed sucker punches to your heart muscle. Here, the five-years-clean Perrett gives us a "Sweet Jane" for Donald Trump's AmeriKKKa: "If I ever get really depressed," he sings in a huggably wan croon, as much wraithish as rakish. "I'll download Tor, buy a suicide vest/ Leave a dirty bomb at a Wall Street address/ Gatecrash a Rothschild party and leave it in a mess/ In a mess/ A dirty mess." After Perrett notes the West's penchant for genocide and proclaims his love for Kim Kardashian, son Jamie plays a sloshed guitar solo that's like last call for the rest of our lives.
Mitski doesn't need any hype from me, since seemingly every music writer in captivity is eager to hold her parasol on a St. Tropez beach. But this cover of the lush One Direction smash is astounding, immediately grabbing you and scratching off on a sublime, teeth-gritted joyride of breathy, dice-rolling motivational screech. (OK, I'd hold her stupid parasol too!) Lydia Loveless' acoustic cover of Justin Bieber's "Sorry" is even more startling. Scraping away Skrillex's digitally baroque production to leave just the urgent melody (by Julia Michaels, plus a cast of thousands), Loveless methodically parses the lyrics in a stark, Stevie Nicks-ish drawl—"I'll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to," she intones with dark resignation. When we hit the chorus and she opens up her voice—especially in the ebb and flow of the line, "Well I know that I let you down"—it sends a chill and the song is all hers till further notice.
Stefflon Don—"16 Shots"
Uncoiling an outsize furor, bawdily regal London grime star Stephanie Lee, a.k.a. Stefflon Don, makes Taken's Liam Neeson look like a petulant wee rogue. With a burning wind of patois, she transforms "16 Shots" into a force of reckoning. Raining down lyrical fire on anyone wicked enough to threaten harm to her mother (who appears in the video in a hostage scenario), it's as if her voice is ordering the lickshot snares on the chorus to crack even harder.
TYSM—"Ghost White Dress"
Texas singer Chelsea "TYSM" Todd is the latest and perhaps most natural protégé of ingenious pop tinkerer Felix Snow, a.k.a. vastly networked Connecticut hipster bro Bill van der Heyden, one of 2017's most influential young chart savants. (Snow's previous co-conspirators include SZA, Madi, Icona Pop, Kiiara, Terror Jr's Lisa Vitale, Young Thug, and Lil Uzi Vert.). Trilling high and cooing low with subtlety and sass, Todd's voice warms and tempers Snow's icy and twitchy avant-pop tracks, no matter how diced-up or distorted. In other words, she plays the relatable id cavorting in his latticework of synths. Though "Honeymoon Phase" is the pair's breakout hit this year, "Ghost White Dress" refines and pushes Snow's style to a friskier place. Stripped-bare bass, conga pads, finger snaps, and a lone squiggle whisk you into Todd's sly come-on, where she puts her hands around your throat and suggests: "I might push you into your coffin" or "I'll leave you in the lawn/ My triple hexagon…" The trick is that you still can't resist.
Armand Hammer—"Tread Lightly"
A collaboration between uncontainable underground rap viruses Billy Woods and ELUCID, the Armand Hammer album ROME is a grimly volatile, frightfully insightful spew of epic-poem proportions. And "Tread Lightly" is a thrilling entry point: Producer August Fanon crafts a collage of staticky police radio, piano plinks, cymbal swells, sawing strings, and a prowling bass line, but these dudes' mouths are Bomb Squads on their own. Woods: "Poe's 'Tell-Tale Heart'/ Pigs wait patiently for you Negroes to confess/ No rush!/ The wind through your shtetl rattled the sheet metal"; Elucid: "Tomorrow's just another yesterday/ Several ways to skin a coon/ Magnolia bloom with the blood pool/ Lord, who can I run to?"
Jacob Mafuleni & Gary Gritness—"Mweya We Chikoni"
On their collaborative album Batanidzo, French electro producer/instrumentalist Gary Gritness joyfully boosts the low-end boom of these twinkling Shona jams and chants by Zimbabwean mbira virtuoso Jacob Mafuleni and his singer/percussionist wife Martha Thorn. This transporting track revs up the crew’s playfully arranged Afro-funk to levels of otherworldly freakiness—even the whistling seems like it's coming from some sort of disoriented robot.
For a song with doom-metal guitars grinding and reverberating majestically amid thunderous snare thwacks, "Hierophant" (named after the tarot card representing religious authority and conformity) is remarkably tender. Singer Kristina Esfandiari has described her music as primal therapy to purge the psychic damage that she suffered from her upbringing in a Charismatic Christian community. And she can scream hypocritical bullshit on jackleg Pentecostal creeps with a bracing intensity. But for "Hierophant," from her band King Woman's debut album, she adopts a hoarse country-blues moan that connects even more deeply. The conceit is that Esfandiari, "devastated by lust," demands that the church fulfill its promise of giving her true redemptive love, instead of just posturing like another masculinist trash fire of betrayal and lies. The way she teases out her pained craving into a languid, string-swept lament is so archly, stereotypically blasphemous—like the flocks of priapic prophets who prey on women believers—that it's heartbreakingly witty. Capturing the beatific desire and banal mania of religious indoctrination, "Hierophant" almost ends up sounding like a sacred hymn itself.
Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift—"Love Is a Drag" b/w "Life Is Change"
The singer-songwriter couple deploy gorgeous harmonies and funereal tempos to lull you into such repose that when their brutal truth-telling about love and life inevitably cuts you to the quick, you just bleed out peacefully.
Objekt—"Theme from Q"
Songs like this are why I miss London club sojourns; proper, um, recreational medication; and certain extremely brief moments of my twenties. In one sense, Brit producer TJ Hertz's tech-house transformer "Theme from Q" could have been the work of hundreds of savvy producers at any point in the past 20 years. But the fact that it still sounds so striking is a tribute to Hertz's precise sound design. First, there's his sense of space—the way he layers the track's constituent parts, but also how those parts create a milieu. Here, it feels like you're in a vast disused train station just as it's beginning to bustle again. Bass resounds and recedes hypnotically. Breakbeats tiptoe around or stomp through meticulously sprung samples before disappearing like a mirage. Atmospheric whorls keep you geeked and giddy. Ambient idylls sparkle. A bass gets thumbed and plucked raffishly. The Lyn Collins "Think" break drops by for the eight zillionth time and actually serves a purpose. Not to mention that silly synth hook—six or so bloops in varying syncopations—that Hertz has you begging to hear again and again like a cat chasing a laser point.
She ain't no sideman. Hiding in plain sight as the slashing guitarist in her wife Courtney Barnett's band, Jen Cloher's self-titled fourth album leads with its chin. At times, she's a jukebox of '90s piss-off alt-rock, but with snarling wordplay all her own. "Shoegazers" is hard-earned bile as riff-grind wisdom. "Indie rock is full of privileged white jerks," she chides. "I know because I'm one of them."
Seen from afar as a thirtysomething engineering student, volunteer firefighter, and x-ray technician paying her way through the University of Illinois-Chicago, Jana Rush seemed to have left her anomalous music career behind. Once a precocious 10-year-old hanging around radio station WKKC, she was schooled by soon-to-be dance-music legends (Gant-Man, Paul Johnson, et al.) and billed as "The Youngest Female DJ" (at age 15) on a 1996 12-inch she split with ghetto-house pioneer DJ Deeon on historic label Dance Mania. Yet, despite an ensuing gap of 18 years between her second and third EPs—'98's Wicked and last year's MPC 7635 (named for her favorite sampler)—Rush never stopped dissecting machine rhythms and absorbing fresh ideas (the late DJ Rashad was a friend). Still, 2017's debut full-length, Pariah, is a stunner. Based in the choppy, spectral beats of footwork, her tracks yank the genre through jazz, acid house, jungle, juke, J Dilla sample flips, and beyond. Her intuitive intricacy calls to mind Jlin's Black Origami, but Pariah's impulses are more unruly, searching. As Rush once said, "What my music has in common is that it's typically crazy—and it sounds chaotic, but it's not."
Jaimie Branch —Fly or Die
From unhinged ska punk to tortured junkie spirit to fearless free-jazz bandleader, Brooklyn-via-Chicago trumpeter Jaimie Branch has remained a powerball of restless energy. She'll blow you sideways with shrieking blurts or stupefy you with an interlude of fraught ghost notes. Fly or Die, both composed and improvised with her band (drummer Chad Taylor, bassist Jason Ajemian, cellist Tomeka Reid) is a roiling statement of configured chaos. Each passage shades or reflects the other, melodies jerking into silence, mirroring Branch's tangled path.
Ryan Hurd —"Hold You Back"
Throughout his solo career, as well as his romance with country singer Maren Morris (the wedding's set for March!) Ryan Hurd has mostly been a hold-the-coat songwriter, scoring a No. 1 hit with Blake Shelton and Ashley Monroe's "Lonely Tonight." (For Nashville fans, that makes him Deacon to Maren's Rayna). But this pop-country masterwork is his best argument yet that he deserves more of our attention. Luring us into a woozy sway with a clipped, groggy blues riff, Hurd quickly shorthands an awkward morning-after: "I got drunk/ You got drunk/ We had sex/ We woke up." Two exes, one who's started over, one who hasn't. This could get ugly, especially when she's on her phone to the new dude. But it doesn't. For once, the adults are adulting. (Well, except for the drunken hook-up part.) "I don't wanna hold you, I don't wanna hold you, I don't wanna hold you back," Hurd testifies believably, and you can't help but think of how his fiancée's time in the spotlight has upstaged his own more modest success. Will humility prevail? Stay tuned.
L.A. Witch—"Kill My Baby Tonight"
Everybody occasionally needs to zone out to a droning garage-punk song with a singer who sounds like she's ghosting you because you're both fucking dead!
Karen Gwyer—"The Workers Are on Strike"
Opening Karen Gwyer's frenetic 2017 album Rembo, this rippling, shuddering techno helix seems to keep speeding up and surrounding you from different angles. But really, it's just Gwyer adding and subtracting atmospheric swooshes, pistoning beats, steam-puff synths, and twittering hi-hats to exhilarating/bewildering effect. Her fanciful song titles are mostly pranks, but here, in the midst of all this industrial activity, "The Workers Are on Strike" asserts itself as an appropriately urgent percolator of righteous confrontation. I feel like grabbing a Sharpie and a piece of cardboard right now. We got the power!
Show Me the Body feat. Denzel Curry, Moor Mother, Eartheater—"In a Grave"
Conjuring punk-funk scree with a distorted banjo, convulsive rhythm section, and staticky thudding synths, this Queens hardcore trio occasionally creates a springy backdrop, if not breakbeat, from which actual rhythmic lyrics could be projected. And here, they welcome a trio of volcanically voluble vocalists. After SMTB's Julian Cashwan Pratt caterwauls a preamble, Denzel Curry seethes, spits, and flows like a river of hot lava; Eartheater, a.k.a. Alexandra Drewchin, warbles a post-freak folk incantation, which is really just a breather before Camae Ayewa, the Philadelphia activist and one-woman Afrofuturist sensory overload who performs as Moor Mother, escalates the conflagration. Rapping like she's reading a final testament in a penitentiary death chamber, Ayewa barks wisecracks as war cries against heathen white supremacy: "Yeah, you're a body with no God/ Another human with no hue/ Descendants of the bullshit they ask you/ New Age robots and they teach you to rewire you/ And I ain't talkin' about the future, dude." Bye.