When listening to any artist’s music we tend to gravitate towards their command of emotion and vulnerability before anything else, and this year that pull was stronger than ever. 2017 was an incredibly stressful year in just about every sense of the word, and yet music remained the same, fearless medium it always has been, offering solace and motivation during the times where it was needed most. These ten albums were absolutely exceptional in the way they conveyed the same passion and vulnerability that society continues to tell us time and time again to conceal, and proved that succumbing to that emotion is what truly makes us human.
10. King Krule, The Ooz
King Krule has always had an intimidating, even polarizing demeanor about him that has the ability to either completely attract or turn people off the first time they hear him – perhaps it’s the thick English accent or the audible, even seemingly tangible sneer in his voice even when he’s singing about longing love, or perhaps from the intricate, experimental compositions that shouldn’t be able to exist hand in hand with his lyrics, and The Ooz is perhaps the most experimental album Archy Marshall has ever released. It lived up to its namesake, with its often gritty, grimy compositions and visually graphic lyrics, with an added veneer of self-deprecation that sounded more indulgent than torturous this time around. Sleepy saxophones crawl out of murky lakes of bass and cricket chirps of percussion on “Logos,” silvery water swirls in whirlpools in the heavy, jazz laden ballad “Slush Puppy,” and tendrils of smoke curl around talons while he laments to himself in “Czech One,” saying “Loverboy, you drowned too quick/ you’re fading out of sight,” proving that there has always been a soft center beneath his sharp exterior, that pain still gets through. And the pain gets through various times within The Ooz, literally as well as figuratively.
photo by Geordie Wood
9. Tennis, Yours Conditionally
Tennis’s fourth full-length album Yours Conditionally had the husband-wife team sounding less like a quirky caricature of sunny guitar pop and instead more sincere, uninfluenced by outside forces, unafraid to fully embrace their real emotions. Half of Yours Conditionally was written on dry land, and the other half was composed while Moore and Riley were sailing from San Diego to the Sea of Cortez, the journey perhaps contributing to the album’s themes of bittersweet loneliness and detachment from the outside world. The combination of the stress in constantly manning a boat as well as the divine romance of being alone with your significant other on the open seas made for ten absolutely gorgeous tracks. Of course, the isolation also made for some intense soul searching on Moore’s part, and she’s even made clear that “lyrically, it is a consideration of [her] relation to the world as a woman, as an artist whose work is transformed by another’s experience of it, and the conflicting needs that arise from these intersections.” Musically, Riley provides instrumentals that act as both stabilizers and enhancers, but Moore’s lyrics and vocals provide warmth and sincere introspection – they personify a body and the heart that powers it respectively.
photo via noisey
8. Alvvays, Antisocialites
Following their signature style of hiding dark, visceral lyrics under the facade of bright, shimmering instrumentals, Alvvays’s sophomore album Antisocialites didn’t stray too far from the path they paved with their self-titled debut, but it did change their lyrical tone. Mostly gone were the narratives that touch on dependence on another’s touch; instead, the Toronto four-piece explored the ideas of separation and escapism, at the same time fleshing out their jangly, colorful sound, which resulted in a saccharine sweet, yet remarkably tenacious collection of tracks without the sugar crash. Molly Rankin and Alec O’Hanley’s songwriting skills haven’t diminished in the slightest, considering the narrative grandeur of “Saved By a Waif” or the emotional, yet self-empowering ballad “Not My Baby.” The latter as well as “Plimsoll Punks” is among the most dynamic tracks the band has ever released due to the way they transformed into something completely different halfway through or towards the bridge, proving Alvvays’s immense skill in composition that will no doubt continue to improve.
photo by Arden Wray
7. The National, Sleep Well Beast
Sometimes its hard for us to listen to The National as readily as some of the other artists we write about on this blog, mainly due to the way they make you feel, really feel, their music. Their deep lyrical narratives are repeatedly arresting, and Matt Berninger’s voice are the lock and key that places the handcuffs on your wrists, the voice that evokes their every emotion so gently and yet so fervidly at the same time. It’s easy to get too involved with the dense narratives and begin to compare them to your own life experiences, and since hearing Berninger admit “I have only two emotions/ careful fear and dead devotion” in Trouble Will Find Me I’ve always been a little scared that I’ll get called out again. That’s why we, ironically, slept on Sleep Well Beast until December, where we finally gave in and listened to “Dark Side of the Gym.” I was met with the softest I had ever heard the band, and that led to even more surprises – lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” had Berninger on a whole other vocal register, one that, while yelping in desperation, also had a glimmer of hope attached to it, one that I was pleased that I heard throughout the album. To be honest, we’re still taking our time with it, but we know that there’s still that tinge of darkness that The National has utilized over the years, but in Sleep Well Beast, it sounded far more manageable, even coveted.
photo by Graham MacIndoe
6. Sufjan Stevens, The Greatest Gift
Technically speaking, The Greatest Gift isn’t really an album at all – rather a mixture of demos, remixes, and unreleased tracks from Sufjan Stevens’s most recent album Carrie & Lowell, an absolutely album that, despite the time elapsed from when it was released, still manages to reveal something new with each listen. And yet his musical potpourri remained one of the most stunning releases of the year, proving Stevens’ unparalleled aesthetic appeal – what other artist’s music could be amplified in emotional power just by recording it on an iphone? – as well as a specific desire for that often well concealed, vulnerable center of our souls to come alive for a moment or two before hiding it away again to face the world. Our favorite track off Carrie & Lowell, “Drawn to the Blood,” had not one, but two remixes – the “Sufjan Stevens” remix pulsated and contracted like a beating heart, the “Fingerpicking” remix hollowing out a larger space for Stevens’ voice to reverberate freely within the walls of his guitar. The specific ways in which the remixes contributed to the tracks without completely mutilating the original sentiment was perfection – the “Helado Negro” remixes of both “Death With Dignity” and “All of Me Wants All of You” give each track more tension and heartache, while the “900X” remix of “Fourth of July” was eerie and glitchy, an otherworldly dirge, complete with distorted whispers of the afterlife whispering into your ears. As for the previously unreleased tracks, “The Hidden River of My Life” and “City of Roses,” they achieve something deeper with being released separate from its larger work, for they evoke a much different mood in its lyrics – Stevens tells us through a gorgeous menagerie of banjo in the former that “I’m a walker, I’m a drinker, Safeway shopper, thunder egg reader/ I’m biker, yeah I’m a beaver, web-foot walker, trail blazing fever,” the “yeahs” peppered in too playful for the somber affair of its predecessor. But it was “Wallowa Lake Monster” that completely stole our hearts, as it offered another otherworldly, almost transcendental narrative on the death his mother, as well as their troubled, strained relationship. Though the track exists as a continuation of the solemn nature of its larger work, its clear that this is perhaps the most solemn of all, due to Stevens’s absolute acceptance that “no oblation will bring her back,” that he has seemingly understood everything within the span of its seven minutes, as his voice gradually frays and hollows out betwixt a glitchy, cacophony of angelic wails. The arrangements and additions within The Greatest Gift did their namesake proud, and where these came from, there’s bound to be more, if Stevens will ever grace us again with the art that goes on inside his head.
photo courtesy of Asthmatic Kitty Records
5. Perfume Genius, No Shape
Mike Hadreas’s career as Perfume Genius has always been one driven by emotion. His heartbreaking narratives always came through with potent immediacy, whether it was sparse, minimal, and dark like in his debut Learning, more matured like Put Your Back N 2 It, or more experimental and passionate like in 2014’s Too Bright. Needless to say, there’s immense power in being soft and somber, two concepts that Hadreas has undoubtedly mastered throughout the years in his attempts to both constantly and brilliantly oppose a grossly ignorant society denying him the right to exist because of all the concepts he represents – homosexuality, androgyny, male vulnerability – as well as embrace his own humanity at the same time, and that has never been realized as confidently and as gorgeously as in No Shape. There was more than just a voice and piano – there was texture, depth, more freedom, in style and in spirit. His past makes his music honest, something in which to comfort himself as well as let others take comfort in him, and perhaps he owed it to his audience to give them something to truly lose themselves in, and considering the vast expanses heard in tracks like “Slip Away” and “Die 4 You,” there was definitely the opportunity to do just that. He also references his partner of eight years Alan Wyffels – who also plays in his supporting band – as well as their relationship that clearly exists as one built on mutual respect and fascination. There’s constant yearning and never ending desire, both of which sounded just a little more attainable with every track.
photo courtesy of artist/ Matador records
4. Tim Darcy, Saturday Night
Darcy played both the existential philosopher and the starving artist in one of Saturday Night’s stunners “Saint Germain” as he told us “creation is the loudest screech of escape/ which explains why mine sounds like a scream.” But as the frontman of art punk band Ought, Tim Darcy is no stranger to vulnerability or sensitivity; in fact, his lyrics and the melodies that escape his guitar seem to feed off their presence. Ought, of course, being a band party born out of protest, perfectly rides the line of being intellectual but constantly pissed off, and Darcy’s contribution is similar; Darcy’s lyrics, yelped out with a tone existing somewhere between vitriol and inquisitiveness, touch on existentialism and human nature as well as the monotony of everyday life. In Saturday Night, Darcy’s experimental debut solo album, however, he became a human conduit for emotion, and, as a result, the vulnerability appeared less like divine annoyance and more like a lovesick serenade. Obviously, the songs were much more introspective, perhaps a result of allowing ideas to flow freely rather than attach them to any specific sentiment, and there were a few overarching themes – toxic masculinity, vulnerability, gender dynamics – expressed through half-fluid, half-disjointed instrumentals and more experimental effects. But the most gorgeous part of it was the lyrics, how they most indicative of Darcy’s attempts to understand himself, and, by extension, the world in which he exists – he summed it all up in “Tall Glass of Water,” asking “if at then end of the river/there is more river/ would you dare to swim again?,” then answering, saying “surely I will stay, and I am not afraid/ I went under once, I’ll go under once again.”
3. Baths, Romaplasm
Romaplasm is quite possibly the most gorgeous album that Will Wiesenfeld has ever released as Baths. Sure, we’ll always have the fresh, playful sounds of Cerulean and the dark matter of Obsidian, but there’s something so tantalizingly human about both the unique, otherworldly sounds that make up each track, as well as Wiesenfeld’s purpose and inspiration behind the album itself. This time around, he wanted to be as self-indulgent as possible, and thus tapped into what truly gives him the most joy in life, the specific things in which his “heart lies” – books, comics, anime, video games – and yet it doesn’t sound as self-indulgent as he believes, but honest and genuine instead, considering just how unparalleled his sound really is. These passions are portrayed an brilliantly subtle manner, however, the emotion is placed on display, even though we hear things like 8-bit orchestrals, pan flutes, and bouncy, disjointed bass and percussion every now and again like we’re stuck in a never ending video game glitch. Wiesenfeld takes you around the world and back again, taking on various personas as you go: he’s a lovesick, starry-eyed passenger on an airship pining for its particularly appealing captain in the breezy fantastical “Yeoman,” an intrepid space explorer in the Cowboy Bebop-esque “Extrasolar,” where textured effects ricochet off his elastic, oxygenated voice like space debris, as well as a medieval hero scaling castle walls to win the heart of the prince inside in “Abscond,” telling him “you’re the ire of your father but the other half of me” as he wipes the sweat from his brow, taking him by the hand, asking “do you have everything?” before they escaping the castle on horseback. With such dense narratives, it only makes sense to have equally dense, complex instrumentals, and each track has that tenfold – “Abscond” has everything from the sounds of horse hooves to perfectly timed medieval violin blares,“Wilt” is deep, lush, and sensitive, a bleeding heart set to music as Wiesenfeld asks “so, who will house my sentiment?/ it comes in floods and runs me red.” And “Human Bog,” perhaps the most beautiful song Baths has ever released, is sparse and echoed, Wiesenfeld addressing his struggles with his identity in the most direct way he’s ever done. And therein lies the essence of the album – as anticon puts it, it is ultimately a “post-modern take on Romanticism,” with added emphasis on “emotion and individualism,” confronting “the gnawing chaos of life with a focus on beauty and the sublime.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. In that regard, the album absolutely beautiful in that strange, otherworldly, ethereal way that I truly think we will never be able to fully understand, much less accurately describe, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that perhaps that’s the point. Romaplasm will always remain a testament to just how rewarding it can be to truly embrace yourself as well as your passions, – those things that truly bring you ultimate joy and grant you feelings that others are unable to create or reciprocate. Those feelings are valid, and the ability to get so caught up in them, while it might seem like a curse at times, ultimately make you human.
photo by Mario Luna
2. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up
Robin Pecknold named Crack-Up after the F. Scott Fitzgerald essay of the same name, where the author expounds the state of being broken, evaluating everything that has happened up to the point of breaking, and ultimately having to venture back inside yourself in order to come out whole, albeit a bit shaken, on the other side. It was for this exact reason why the album wasn’t as immediately arresting as their first two albums, and for this reason why it rivals both of those works in the amount of introspection and honest emotion it offers its listener. In the years after releasing Helplessness Blues, Pecknold went back to school only to come back to music, solidifying that his purpose in the world is to tap into his own ability to understand it. In fact, Crack-Up was best when Pecknold was caught up in his own emotions and possessed by real-world nostalgia, so taken with what he’s communicating that the instrumentals all tended to blur together into euphoria: “Third of May/ Odaigahara” was nostalgic and sprawling in its narrative about his and co-founder Skye Skjelset’s friendship; “Fool’s Errand”’s piercing instrumentals simulate galloping horses or crashing waves, Pecknold’s vocals soaring and gliding in betwixt them; “On Another Ocean (January / June)” had Pecknold riddled with hesitation until it suddenly transitioned to June, where all those questions are treated with sense of self-reliance. Pecknold screams into the void amidst blossoming instrumentals that, in one of the most beautiful phrases of the album – “I won’t bleed out/ if I know me” – back to emphasizing the importance of self-indulgence in order to survive in a continuously changing society. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have never experienced your own crack-up, the search for something bigger and bolder than yourself is, for the most part, universal, and Fleet Foxes offered to give you the first push with this gorgeous album.
photo by Sean Pecknold
1. Grizzly Bear, Painted Ruins
Daniel Rossen repeats twice within Painted Ruins that “it’s chaos, but it works,” which seems to be a catch-all phrase for Grizzly Bear’s entire discography, from the quiet calamity of Yellow House to the colorful, bombastic Veckatimest, to the textured, complex Shields. And Painted Ruins was, from beginning to end, also an absolute chaotic experience to listen to, in the best way possible. Beginning with Daniel Rossen’s lurching, mesmerizing inquiries (“were you even listening”) pulling you into their fantastical world at the very beginning and ending Ed Droste’s near existential crisis during the last quarter of “Sky Took Hold,” Grizzly Bear finally placed the heart its been slowly and painfully carving out for the past thirteen years and placed it on a silver platter, handing it to us mid-beat. The amount of poetic narration and direct introspection were equal, the instrumentals ricocheting off each other as Droste and Rossen acted as a tag team vocally. “Four Cypresses” and “Systole” solidified Rossen as that ethereal, wistful voice guiding you into soft and somber reflection, Droste unearthing more of his deep, bleeding drawl in stunners like “Cut-Out” and “Three Rings.” Although the album contains the feelings of self-doubt and unease, the sense of hope and the chance for rebirth always seems to sit idly by, even sometimes embedded in the fibers of its complex instrumentals. In this, the image of the title’s painted ruins comes to mind, in both its negative and positive connotations; on one hand, the process of painting over something that has shattered seems fruitless, but on the other, it also symbolizes the act of moving on, taking into account your pain and your flaws and using them as the foundation for something even more beautiful than it was before. It’s an amazingly complex, textured album flawlessly conveying the process of decay, epiphany, and, partly, the slow, grueling process of rebirth, a project that reflects those concepts inward into the souls of its creators as well as out into the world around it.
photo by Tom Hines
Thank you so much for visiting kidwithavinyl throughout all of 2017! Here’s to more amazing music in 2018.