Ever try to list your top 10 albums for the year while the world is on fire?
The old cliché that music offers us refuge during dark times has gotten a real workout recently. And as 2017 peppered us with a rat-a-tat of crummy news you know too well for me to need to rehash here, nobody’d begrudge us that balm, whether it came from a pop hit that unexpectedly reduced you to tears during your morning commute or from shouting along a familiar chorus in the midst of a crowd at First Ave.
Music criticism, though? The nitpicky act of sorting the great from the good from the gunk? It gets little enough respect in the coziest of historical moments. If fiddling while Rome burns is irresponsible, critiquing the fiddler’s performance is downright perverse.
So allow me to justify my existence (or at least my profession). Music isn’t just about escape, isn’t only the comfort food we turn to in panicky moments. It’s also, to use a scary word, art—maybe even (gulp) Art. It offers examples of how to live in the world, and scrutinizing our tastes to determine what we value says a lot about who we are and what we want.
And this year, what I personally valued more than ever was directness. I heard it in the way Alabama native son Jason Isbell came to grips with his privilege singing “White Man’s World” at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre, the historic venue whose reopening was the most heartening local music news of the year. I heard it in the way Providence indie radicals Downtown Boys ridiculed our calamity-in-chief’s racism with “A Wall” at Minneapolis’ Triple Rock Social Club, whose closing was a real punch in the gut.
Oh, the Triple Rock. The demise of the punk-friendly Cedar Avenue venue, especially coming so soon after the death of Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, made a grim year grimmer, and it contributed to a prevailing musical mood in town that was often even more retrospective than usual. We finally got a live Replacements album worth listening to, and a Hüsker Dü box set, and we fretted over the fate of Prince’s vaults. There was vital contemporary music all around us still—locally and nationally—but the direction it was headed was anybody’s guess.
Whether or not that future turns out to be female, like the T-shirt says, the present certainly is. If speaking the truth felt as though it had little impact in so many areas of public life this year, the effect of women facing down their abusers rejuvenated the promise of the suddenly all-too-relevant writer Margaret Atwood that “a word after a word after a word is power.” Long before the unmasking of predatory males earned its own hashtag, an accusatory tone resonated throughout music, from Minnesota singer-songwriter Mary Bue’s unsparing recollection of sexual assault on her simmering “Petty Misdemeanor” to Kesha’s monumental power balled “Praying.”
Even songs from women that weren’t explicitly “political” felt like protests in the way they addressed men. Amber Coffman asked, “How is playing it safe working out for you?” on her open-hearted pop album City of No Reply. Katie Crutchfield warned, “Everyone will hear me complain” on Waxahatchee’s streamlined indie-rock record, Out in the Storm. Lorde murmured, “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark” on her gloriously weird #1 album Melodrama. No sane man wanted to be on the receiving end of those lyrics.
In fact, it could be as hard to predict what music would feel culturally significant in 2017 as it was to guess what tomorrow’s breaking news might be. The heartfelt yet convoluted political ironies of Arcade Fire’s Everything Now felt as irrelevant as the expert yet petty celebrity head games of Taylor Swift’s Reputation. Listeners might not have been lashing out at white nationalism by replaying “Despacito,” but a Spanish-language song rising to the top of the charts felt like a symbolic victory regardless, just as the lyrics to Migos’ endlessly memeable hit “Bad and Boujee” seemed right at home when transformed into an anti-Trump slogan at a protest downtown last winter.
Similarly, stripper-turned-rap star Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” sounded like a battle cry when a crowd of women waiting for SZA to perform at First Avenue this summer chanted along to that surprise hit. That show was maybe the most celebratory I experienced this year. With her elongated sing-song and wiry pop, SZA is at the forefront of a crop of African-American women—Syd, Kehlani, our own Lady Midnight—whose music is so varied that to lump them together as “R&B” feels reductive.
And there were reminders that white guys sometimes still have something to offer. If the wry lounge-pop of the genteel-voiced Swede Jens Lekman were any whiter it’d make you snow blind, but his Life Will See You Now rang out with a sense curiosity and pleasure in sharp contrast to the cruelty of the day, as did the crafty, country-tinged observations of local veteran singer-songwriter Dylan Hicks’ Ad Out.
If I seem overly focused on lyrics here, let me point out that my favorite album of 2017 has no words at all. Jlin is a Gary, Indiana steelworker who reworks the dense Chicago electronic dance style known as footwork on Black Origami. These tracks felt as claustrophobic as your Twitter feed and offered no comfort or hidden escape routes, but in their rhythm and ingenuity was a sense of possibility, a suggestion of how to navigate the funhouse of current events we’re all trapped within.
Because let’s face it, the world is never not on fire—it’s just that the more comfortable among us only notice when the flames spread far enough to singe us. And when that happens, any song that can make you feel a smidgen less helpless is a necessity. But any song that challenges you is even better. Music isn’t going to change the world for us, after all. But it might help us imagine how we want it to change.
- Dylan Hicks, Ad Out
- Parables of Neptune, Parables of Neptune
- Mary Bue, The Majesty of Beasts
- Brother Ali, All the Beauty In This Whole Life
- 4th Curtis, I Won the Pageant
- Why Khaliq, The Mustard Seed
- Various Artists, Forged Artifacts: The Greatest of All Time, Vol. 2
- Allan Kingdom, Lines
- Tiny Deaths, Elegies
- Stokley: Introducing Stokley
- Jlin: Black Origami
- Whitney Rose: Rule 62
- Waxahatchee: Out in the Storm
- Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound
- Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
- Amber Coffman: City of No Reply
- Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now
- SZA: Ctrl
- Lorde: Melodrama
- Shabazz Palaces: Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines/ Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star
- Kehlani: SweetSexySavage
- St. Etienne: Home Counties
- Oddisee: The Iceberg
- John Mayer: The Search for Everything
- The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir
- Angeleena Presley: Wrangled
- Open Mike Eagle: Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
- The Mountain Goats: Goths
- Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai
- A. Savage: Thawing Dawn
- Oumou Sangare: Mogoyo
- The xx: I See You
- Arto Lindsay: Cuidado Madame
- Khalid: American Teen
- Migos: Culture
- Les Amazones D’Afrique: Republique Amazone
- Spoek Mathambo: Mzansi Beat Code
- Big Thief: Capacity
- Gogol Bordello: Seekers and Finders
- Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La
- Sheer Mag: Need to Feel Your Love
- Fred Thomas: Changer
- Miguel: War and Leisure
- The National: Sleep Well Beast
- Syd: Fin
- Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory
- Beth Ditto: False Sugar
- Lee Ann Womack: The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone
- Halsey: Hopeless Fountain Kingdom
- Palberta: Bye Bye Berta
- Miguel ft. Travis Scott, “Sky Walker”
- Future, “Mask Off”
- Kesha, “Praying”
- Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar”
- Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”
- Cam, “Diane”
- Migos “T-Shirt”
- Taylor Swift, “New Year’s Day”
- Downtown Boys, “A Wall”
- SZA, “Drew Barrymore”
- Hamell on Trial, “Not Aretha’s Respect (Cops)”
- DJ Khaled ft. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, “Wild Thoughts”
- Charli XCX, “Boys”
- J Balvin and Willy William ft. Beyonce, "Mi Gente"
- John Mayer, “Still Feel Like Your Man”
- Khalid, “Young Dumb & Broke”
- Paramore, “Hard Times”
- Kehlani, “Honey”
- Sam Hunt, “Body Like a Back Road”
- Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow"