My favorite albums of 2017

My mom’s basement flooded in July. This was not really that big a deal. My step-dad had been finishing the entire basement himself, so it was disappointing for him, but big-picture, this was about as low-stakes a housing disaster can be. There was damage, including some old family keepsakes, the type of stuff you really don’t need to hang on to but do anyway for the occasional shot of nostalgia.

I keep some of my stuff in storage there, including a duffel bag that serves as a graveyard for old, terrible jerseys and a box of random things from my childhood. Photo albums, sports memorabilia, letters from my globe-trotting pen-pal, and some random notebooks. The notebooks are a trip. There have been signs that I wanted to be a sportswriter for as long as I can remember. I would “play” SportsDesk with mini-sticks or in the driveway. This photo actually exists. And the notebooks are filled with fake box scores, standings, and mini-game stories.

They also contain re-written editions of the MuchMusic Countdown. Apparently displeased with the order presented, I would write the top 25 out in the order I thought those (or other) songs should go in. 11-year-old me gave Harvey Danger a hell of a run on top. Around that same time, I was seeing a child psychologist in Guelph regularly, and I remember that my sort-of “reward” for going to those sessions was that on the drive home to Cambridge, the Top 7 at 7 would be playing on whatever London’s alternative radio station was at the time. Just get through the session, and there was good music waiting.

I have not pursued music writing (or ranking) nearly as aggressively as sports, but it’s still something I really enjoy doing. (The connection between mental health and music remains, umm, quite strong.) And so instead of just listing off my favorite albums of 2017, I wanted to write a bit about some of them for a change. 2017 wasn’t as strong at the top as 2016, something it made up for with exceptional depth. When I listed out all of the albums I’d listened to in 2017 to start cutting down to 25, there were 88, which feels insane. I opted to stretch this annual list from 25 to 50, because there were just too many albums I enjoyed that I didn’t want to leave out or thought other people might see, check out, and enjoy.

What follows are the albums I enjoyed most in 2017.

An aside: My mom lives in Drumbo, which – and I am not joking here – refers to itself as “The detour capital of Ontario.” I really feel like they should borrow from The Wonder Years and erect a sign that says “But I was kinda hoping you’d stay” as you leave.

2016 List | 2015 List

1. The Smith Street Band – More Scared of You Than You Are of Me

The Aussie band’s follow up to the oft-gut wrenching Throw Me In The River, MSOY strikes a difficult balance between heartache – present and pending – and unrestrained excitement. It’s difficult to convey the spiraling exuberance something new coerces without bordering on cheesy. Will Wagner’s smiling, screaming descriptions of what could be find the mark, lending optimism while fully acknowledging the risks of letting walls down so quickly. The intro combination of Forest and Birthdays make you want to run out and kiss the next stranger you fall in love with on the subway (don’t do that). With sprinkled nods to Impostor Syndrome and unrestrained work ethic as a coping mechanism, this one hit home often.

2. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Look, an album that spawned multiple Reddit conspiracy theories would rank in my top 25 for that alone, regardless of how good the actual album was. That it’s Kendrick, with a powerful, multi-layered offering with immense replay value (listen to the album back-to-front, by the way) and an incredible accompanying live show makes it an easy fit near the top. It’s an incredible run, really, with exactly zero misses over four studio albums and whatever we agreed to call untitled unmastered. in the last seven years. And yes, I’m fully aware that “a bunch of indie records and also Kendrick Lamar” is the quintessential 30-year-old bearded white guy top albums list.

3. Charly Bliss – Guppy

There’s something to be said for really leaning in to what you are and offering no caveats for it. What exactly they are – pop-grunge? – is hard to define, but they leaned hard into their obvious pop-punk influences and delivered a master class in blending nostalgia, hooks with enough saccharine to sing (/scream) along to, and more viscerally introspective lyrics than the genre normally lays plain. It’s a tough balance, saying you’re happy someone’s dog died so they can pay you more attention now but doing so vibrantly. Eva Hendricks is just a phenomenally enjoyable frontperson, and I’m not sure I had more fun with an album this year. A model organism, or something, right, Steve?

4. Paramore – After Laughter

The former princess of pop-punk has evolved from energetic teen angst to a more subdued, well-produced, adult angst. In other words, Paramore have grown up with their audience, borrowing elements of synth-pop out of the Tegan and Sara re-positioning playbook. More playful arrangements help After Laughter ratchet up the replay value without providing too sugary a dressing for the open wounds that lie beneath in Williams’ still-perfect vocals. Fake Happy is a track perfectly emblematic of the vibe of the entire album, which is a sunny-on-the-surface exterior wrapped around a still-unhealed core.

5. The Front Bottoms – Going Grey

The bar was impossibly high coming off of Talon of the Hawk and Back on Top, and The Front Bottoms responded by moving a little further out of their pop-punk comfort zone, even toying with some synth elements that felt targeted at me directly. It was a smart and necessary risk to take, and their entire catalog plays better together for it (particularly in concert), the songs shifting along with the life goalposts Brian Sella finds himself jumping between over time. On closing track Ocean, the same Summer Shandy he was wistful for an album ago is now a veritable prison, a haunting realization that getting what you thought you wanted isn’t a sure cure for unhappiness. There are some lighter filler songs on here, but the ones that land do so emphatically, and there are few writers who nail the late-20s/early-30s condition with as much snappy verve and IG-captionable resonance.

6. K.Flay – Every Where Is Some Where

So I wrote out my life as a list, thinking ‘is this shit all there is?’ Uh, apparently. I’m not sure if I’m just in the minority having really enjoyed this, or if it slipped through the cracks with a lot of voices fighting for the same space in such a deep year, but K.Flay’s transition from mostly solo hip-hop to a more intricate alt-pop sound – without losing any of the biting lyrics or spirited delivery – was seamless. This was probably my favorite album to run to this year, with the consistent energy and entertaining self-deprecating introspection a fine pace-setter.

7. Sorority Noise – You’re Not as __ As You Think

Easy rule of thumb to get on this list: The more lyrics you have about a lack of sleep, the more I’ll probably appreciate what you’re doing. I really, really appreciated what Sorority Noise were doing here, with a painful, alarmingly honest take on loss, isolation, and the dissonance between depression and faith. On pure musicianship, this is probably going to hold up really, really well over time, and I’d imagine it’ll be considered one of the top emo records of this moment so long as the amoebic definition of that genre doesn’t shift away from this type of offering.

8. SZA – Ctrl

SZA probably tops my list of acts I’m sorry to have missed in Toronto this year (unless I don’t make it to one of Daniel Caesar’s 37 shows in Toronto over the next few days). It sounded like an experience, from talking to friends who attended, and that’s not really surprising given how genuine and open the album felt. There is so much relatable self-doubt within, and she does a terrific job tackling the difficulty in balancing the self with a relationship, during or after. This doesn’t need my recommendation given where it’s popping up on mainstream year-end lists.

9. Julia Michaels – Nervous System

The nice thing about a songwriter-to-the-stars transitioning to recording artist is that it’s a pretty safe bet it’s going to be exceptionally well-written. I’m generally a fan of albums that work as start-to-finish stories (No. 1 on this list qualifies, by the way), too, and while this isn’t that, you can pretty easily follow the narrative thread of a volatile and short-lived relationship across the seven songs, all of them well-suited for radio but tangled enough to connect with. That Julia Michaels put out an EP this good makes me wonder why she didn’t do so earlier, and it’s easy to get excited for what a full-length release might sound like.

10. Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

Los Campesinos! have always toed an interesting line between genres, and they kind of exist in their own bubble as a result (to the extent that they funded this album in part through the sale of football kits nobody is willing to part with). It’s a good bubble, the tiny overlap on a Venn diagram of sad indie, poppy emo, and people willing to hold a singer’s hair back as he throws up for 11 songs. There is such an urgency to every lyric and the way Gavin Campesinos! releases them that the album feels like a fever dream of sorts, his panic attacks almost contagious as he brings you inside of them. “31 and depression is a young man’s game” is a little too on the nose. (This was also one of my favorite interviews of the year.)

11. Daniel Caesar – Freudian

Canada’s finest in R&B/soul is having such a moment that he’s playing five straight nights at the Danforth, all of them sold out and all of them with obscene ticket prices on secondary markets. It’s incredibly well-deserved, as the 22-year-old Oshawa native released a touching, challenging, and nearly flawless debut studio album.

12. Middle Kids – Middle Kids

Another EP that has me excited for what a full release would look like, the Australian wife-and-husband-and-other-guy trio rode an Elton John bump to a pretty buzzy year. Hannah Joy is immensely talented, and the majority of the tracks building up over several minutes to more frantic endings really let the charisma in her vocals shine. They’re very high on my list of bands to try to see live next year, should they come back this way.

13. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

The Queen of Sad Songs lived up to 2015’s Sprained Ankle about as well as she possibly could, with another exercise in stomach-splitting confessions of self-contempt. It’s a painful listen, so going back to it as often as I have already speaks volumes about the quality of the work. I don’t recommend seeing her as your third sad concert in five nights unless you’re doing so with a very good stable of online friends and getting quite drunk for a Tuesday. (Also, the sleep-lyric thing pops up again here, not the first theme Baker and Sorority Noise have shared given their closeness and the religious elements at play for both.)

 14. oso oso – the yunahon mixtape
15. Dryjacket – For Posterity
16. Swordfish – Rodia

This is a very emo chunk of the list. oso oso had objectively the best offering, a much more polished and mature take on the genre that kind of touches on all of the earlier iterations that came before them. Dryjacket’s debut album grabs attention with quick-hitting tracks, polished vocals, pun-ny song titles, and the occasional brass piece or xylophone. It’s a lot of fun. Swordfish is much less fun and straight to the point as an emo offering, with the type of painful lyrics (“10 bucks says you think about her more than she thinks about you” as an opening lyric and echoed late-track refrain is almost cruel) you’d expect on a record mixed by a Sorority Noise member and referencing American Football. Along with Great Grandpa, Dryjacket and Swordfish are probably the bands I’m most interested in seeing how they follow up their 2017.

17. The Menzingers – After the Party

I’m not sure if The Menzingers are good, great, or just adept at making bad songs you can’t stop listening to, but something about Greg Barnett’s wistful bellows leaves you awash in hiraeth. After the Party was my most played song of the year, per a play count skewed by the very early release, and there are guilty pleasure songs up and down the album. They’re touring Europe with Pup in early 2018, which is a pretty damn good bill.

18. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
19. Lorde – Melodrama
20. Wolf Alice – Visions of a Life

You’ve probably heard/read enough about Staples and Lorde at this point. Staples is my favorite non-Kendrick, non-Earl rapper going right now, and he’s tireless in the rate at which he’s churned out quality albums and EPs the last few years (the DeRozan work ethic has apparently rubbed off). Lorde is Lorde, which is a pretty good thing to be. Wolf Alice are further off the radar, so allow me to offer you my favorite song of 2017 as a sample (along with this excellent Charli XCX remix of it).

21. Brand New – Science Fiction

Were it released two years earlier, or five years earlier, or whenever Brand Nee fans were hoping for their immensely anticipated follow-up to Daisy, the album probably would have played differently. As it stands, it’s a fine offering, but with the inescapable feeling that Lacey is tying up loose ends and closing the chapter on a book he was finally able to make peace with an ending for. The songs within aren’t reflective of the early Brand New the release inevitably made you revisit – that I spun Deja Entendu and Your Favorite Weapon as much as Science Fiction this year is at the same time a minor indictment of the new offering and a nod to the arrested emotional development SF’s lyrics try to come to peace with – but they follow logically from Daisy and Devil & God, with strong musicianship and explorative arrangements that make it, were it impossible to strip association and expectation out of the equation, one of the most interesting releases of the year. (This news was really disappointing, too.)

22. Aminé – Good For You

My vote for album cover of the year, Aminé sets the tone for his entire debut with the image of him sitting naked on the toilet. Most of the tracks skew up-beat, his lyrics are sharp and sarcastic, and he pulls the curtain back often enough to offer genuine vulnerability so that the levity still carries some weight (which might be a paradox in a pre-Chance world but is kind of what I seek out in hip-hop now).

23. Partner – In Search of Lost Time

Partner were called “Atlantic Canada’s Best Lesbian Garage Band” this year, which begs the question as to how many more lesbian garage bands are hiding out in Atlantic Canada. Please pass along links if there are more, because I could definitely stand to keep more Newfoundland roots in the rotation, especially if it’s as fun as Partner (they’re sometimes referred to as a Windsor duo, but one member is from Newfoundland and the other P.E.I., so I’m owning this). Partner are open about how much Tegan and Sara influenced them, and it shines through with an album that sounds like, well, two friends got stoned listening to Tegan and Sara and decided to start a band, only the giggles never subsided. A part of me feels like because I came to this album later in the year, I’m going to feel silly for having it this low when I look back.

24. The Courtneys – The Courtneys II
25. Knuckle Puck – Shapeshifter

The Courtneys are catchy with almost too much ease, and their casual and simple approach to sad songs coming out of Vancouver is a pretty perfect fit. Don’t listen to Lost Boys below if you don’t want to be humming “vampire teenage boyfriend” to yourself for days. Knuckle Puck are the most a 2017 band could possibly feel like 2002, which I swear is a compliment. Between KP here and Real Friends a year ago, the genre as it existed a decade ago remains in full effect, even as the stalwarts from that time (namely, pop-punk saviors The Wonder Years) grow beyond it.

26. Turnover – Good Nature
27. Big K.R.I.T. – 4eva is a Mighty Long Time
28. Alvvays – Antisocialites
29. Future – HNDRXX
30. Gang of Youths – Go Farther in Lightness

31. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
32. The Mountain Goats – Goths
33. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet
34. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign
35. Migos – Culture

36. Lights – Skin & Earth
37. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
38. Drake – More Life
39. Big Thief – Capacity
40. Great Grandpa – Plastic Cough

41. Charli XCX – Number 1 Angel
42. Harry Styles – Harry Styles
43. Pet Symmetry – Vision
44. 2 Chainz – Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
45. Jay Som – Everybody Works

46. Betty Who – The Valley
47. Lil Yachty – Teenage Emotions
48. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls
49. Tove Lo – Blue Lips
50. Coma Cinema – Loss Memory

My favorite live performances of 2017

  1. Carly Rae Jepsen w/ Toronto Symphony Orchestra
  2. Kendrick Lamar
  3. The Front Bottoms
  4. The Smith Street Band
  5. Pup
  6. Sorority Noise
  7. Jazz Cartier
  8. July Talk
  9. Japandroids
  10. Pinegrove
  11. Julien Baker
  12. YG
  13. The Weeknd
  14. Great Grandpa
  15. Schoolboy Q
  16. The Arkells
  17. The xx
  18. French Montana
  19. Austronautilis
  20. Citizen
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