In my household, it seems that Lorde’s second album has not caught on as much as her first one. It seems like we like her less as an angsty young adult than as a precocious adolescent. A big part of the appeal that shot her to fame was her ‘weird kid at the back of the class’ vibe, the way she turned a surprisingly perceptive eye on the feverish rituals of growing up. Her songwriting felt like a sleeper cell’s coded messages from inside a war zone. But precocious little girls have to grow up one day. If anyone could be expected to do it with grace and smarts, it’s Lorde, and she has. If it puts me off a little that her turf now includes the grownup matters of sex and drinking, it’s not because I didn’t want her to grow up. It’s because there’s already a lot of music being written about those things, from every imaginable perspective, and there always will be, because it’s songwriters’ Ground Zero. I want Lorde to work out whatever she has to work out with her first heartbreak and her first lessons in long lonely drunken nights, and move on to writing about something else already. She’s too good to get stuck writing about petty angst.
Remember when an outsider from nowhere made a song mocking music video cliches into a chartbuster anthem of millennial angst? That was Ella Yelich-O’Connor, age 17, of Aukland NZ aka Lorde. Lorde is a real, grown-up pop star now, a major player in the music industry, a professional with a promising career ahead. She’s an insider now. Nothing she does from here on out can compare to how cool and fresh and unexpected her first big hit was. We’ll be talking about this song as a cultural flashpoint when we look back on the decade.
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Or dreading. Or, more likely, irrelevant and weeks too late to the party. 2017 is over and no one wants to think about it any more. It was a crap year, but crap years often inspire great feats of creativity. At least we had a tide of good music. Oh, so much good music…
1. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty
This is the album we deserve and need. It’s depressing as fuck, its bleakness relieved only by Misty’s signature hyper-articulate mordant wit. After the wedding album comes the hangover album. It’s the work of a man who’s snapped out of his honeymoon haze, looked around and saw the world all gone to hell. If there was one record I leaned on all year, it was this one.
2. Low In High School – Morrissey
You would think that Morrissey, with his nasty eccentricity and tone-deaf statements and complete inability to learn from controversy, has outlived his usefulness as a public figure. Yet he’s still capable of writing some of his punchiest music, and musically at least, he’s still relevant and on-point. He’s still both narcissistic and self-deprecating, angry at the world, romantic, petty, and inexplicably interested in Israel. He may even have matured a little; some of the new songs are quite sexy, as befits a man with some life experience under his belt, no longer pretending to be a celibate little naif.
3. Woodstock – Portugal. The Man
In a crap year, we kind of need a little escapism, a little fun. These guys have been plugging away for years, to little notice, but this year they finally hit the big time. They’ve always had a knack for great catchy tunes, tempered with a little darkness. They’re more catchy than ever, almost too catchy, like a tweaked out parody of catchy. Which is perfect, because we need to get tweaked on something that looks and tastes like pop sugar.
4. Lust for Life – Lana Del Rey
Well, I certainly couldn’t have predicted that Lana Del Rey would become one of the most consistent artists on the scene. She burst out in a blaze of way, way too much hype, and then she went and lived up to it. She likes to toy with romantic cliche in a way that both knowingly ironic and yet sincerely romantic, and she knows her way around retrofitted reference points. On this album she sounds like she’s beamed in from an alternate-universe Summer of Love, and it sounds nothing but timely.
5. Masseduction – St. Vincent
St. Vincent’s hi-fashion aesthetics may make her look like a ‘fun’ artist, but she’s actually a ‘dark’ artist, one who likes to explore the poses we strike in life. She can be depressing, she can be witty, she can be glamorous or scary, she can be all of those things all in one song. She’s one of those increasingly rare artists who work to please themselves, and end up with accolades they never aimed for, because they’ve hit on something pleases a lot of people.
6. Double Roses – Karen Elson
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for this record for years. Karen Elson’s first album became an instant classic for me in 2010. Now she’s finally back with her gorgeous voice, sophisticated songwriting and gothic folk/chamber-pop aesthetic intact. You gotta appreciate an artist who knows how to make the most of a harp solo.
7. Lotta Sea Lice – Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Courtney Barnett deftly dodges our elevated expectations. And after the big breakout of her debut LP in 2015, the expectations couldn’t be higher. Instead of trying to live up to the hype all over again, she offers instead an informal-feeling collaboration with fellow deadpan songwriter Kurt Vile. It’s just as articulate and insightful as you would expect, with irreverent observations about the mundane and a sense of friends just having fun. Maybe they should form a band.
8. If All I Was Was Black – Mavis Staples
I have a shameful confession to make: I’ve never listened to Mavis Staples before this year. I know that she’s been a force in soul music for decades, and somehow, I’ve never paid attention. Maybe the thing that pushed this particular record into my conscience is its relevance. It’s an of-the-moment piece of work that’s politically relevant, from a veteran of the civil rights movement who can’t believe she’s still fighting the same old battle. But it’s not a work of anger and indignation, but an openhearted and optimistic one; as befits someone who made her name in the 60’s, Staples still believes that love can heal all of our rifts. And if she can, so should we.
9. The Far Field – Future Islands
I can’t get enough of Future Islands’ retro-synthpop romanticism. Their music sounds like a collage of 80’s New Wave elements, but it’s far too emotional to ever be called a retreat. It’s something beautiful and brand new that sounds like something that’s been around forever. That kind of instant familiarity is what we look for in new music, and we rarely find it, but when we do, it’s like an addition to the family. Samuel T. Herring remains one of the most unforgettable vocalists of the moment.
10. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – Halsey
Halsey is a young songwriter whose work is both intimately confessional and ambitiously high-concept. On her second album, she writes about the effects of fame (it’s no cure for loneliness) and the challenges of challenges of love, quotes Shakespeare, and ties it all together with a loose narrative about disaffected youth in a near-future world. It’s catchy, modern, and ready for heavy airplay on indie radio at least, but satisfying challenging and personal.
11. Every Where Is Some Where – K.Flay
K.Flay is an artist whose work can be called post-genre. She’s been called – nominally – a hip hop artist, but that doesn’t cover it. She’s pulling sonic influences from all over, but her writing is confessional, almost emo. It’s also her strength. Sometimes dark and laced with profanity, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes funny. She’s part of a new generation of female artists who present themselves as unapologetic anti-heroines, telling their stories, taking pride in their honesty and pain, not afraid to be get weird and ugly. This is her second album.
12. Melodrama – Lorde
Last but not least in the series of outstanding second albums by precocious young women. Who could forget about Lorde? She was the teenage prodigy sensation of 2013 and now she’s almost all grown up. Sure, first love and first fame aren’t exactly fresh topics, and, no, there’s no way anything could be as unexpected and original as Pure Heroine was. But Lorde is approaching those topics with her usual wiser-than-her-years aplomb, and she’s still unique in her eccentricity.
13. Salutations – Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst used to be the teenage prodigy sensation of his time. Now he’s just another nearly-middle aged man who’s not as relevant or as cute as he used to be. That could be a cue to drop off the map. Or it could be a cause for renewed inspiration. It’s frankly great to see a major songwriter, who the emo generation grew up with, becoming mature and staying interesting. Also, what best of- list is complete without a shoutout to Oliver Sacks?
14. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – Open Mike Eagle
This is the first time I’ve featured a hip hop album as one of my favorites. As you may have noticed, hip hop accounts for a huge swath of today’s pop culture, and it’s something I’m slowly educating myself about. This is a great place to start; it’s free of the aggressive posturing and machismo that makes most mainstream rap (and frankly, most mainstream anything anymore) so unappealing. Open Mike Eagle isn’t here to beef with other rappers or name-check the designer brands in his closet. What he offers is smart, personal, relevant songwriting that cuts across genres. Michael Eagle does standup on the side, and his wit lightens every track (and especially evident in videos.) Also, bonus points for year’s best Bowie shout-out.
If Lorde is still playing music when she’s actually old enough to worry about ‘getting old’ the songs that made her famous will have an entirely different context. The petty concerns and posturing of youth, which the music industry is almost entirely built around, are notoriously difficult to outgrow, even for artists who were at least technically adults when they established themselves. Lorde came to fame as a teenage prodigy; outgrowing the material that made her famous will be a particularly hard challenge. Lorde is 21 now and just released her second full-length album. As a legal adult writing about breakups and life in the spotlight, she’s going to be sorely tested to keep her voice as fresh and original as it was when she was a precocious adolescent writing about getting on her first plane. How she makes her way remains to be seen, but she is gifted beyond her years and the ball is hers to drop. If she never matches the angst and innocence of her first set of songs, she’ll surely do something equally interesting.
This time last year I was making a resolution to improve my life. Nothing too specific or unrealistic like ‘lose 15.85 pounds’ or ’embark on a fabulous new career’. Just work on making my life a little bit less shitty. And guess what! I’ve succeeded! I’ve improved my life in little increments all across the board. One of the most significant betterments of last year was I bought a car, after four years of shlepping it out on public transit. And incidentally, it’s because of the car that I’ve made another improvement. It’s been an unprecedentedly good year in music, and it’s because I now listen to the radio in my car that I even know about it. A little shout out to iHeart Austin is due here, for being a fantastic radio station that plays great new music as though it were actually popular. Last year I was so discouraged the shortage of albums I really loved I didn’t even do a best-of list. This year I’m doing an expanded best-of, and I’ve decided to make it a double-whammy, with separate lists for albums and singles.
- The Next Day – David Bowie
The biggest and most important event of the year was, without doubt, the unexpected comeback of David Bowie. After a near decade of silence, he sprang a new song on us almost exactly a year ago, followed it up with an album, and continued to feed us videos throughout the year, all without saying a word to the press or participating in any of the usual publicity activities that are supposed to accompany a new release.
*Best David Bowie Song* Valentine’s Day
2. Random Access Memories – Daft Punk
If it wasn’t for David Bowie defaulting to number one, this would hold the top spot. It’s probably the album I listened to the most, and will have future associative memories of. In an age of electronic super-saturation, Daft Punk, the guys who helped precipitate the trend in the first place, did a complete one-eighty and made a disco album. Not a fake disco album, a real disco album, with no less than Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder bringing the authenticity. So old-school and yet so modern.
3. Reflektor – Arcade Fire
I’ve always filed Arcade Fire under ‘good but not that great’, but now they’ve finally graduated to being great. They’ve provided the best song of the year, which I can only describe as propulsive, and the rest of their hefty double album is pretty impressive too. Dense and ambitious both musically and intellectually.
*Best Fake David Bowie Song* Reflektor
4. Pure Heroine – Lorde
Witness the improbable overnight success of an Aukland teenager who sings with the sophistication of a woman three times her age. She might sound as though she sprang into the pop stratosphere fully formed out of literal nowhere, but Ella Yelich-O’Connor has been groomed for stardom by Universal Records since age 14. She is 17 years old now and released her first single and EP just last year, to immediate acclaim. That, my friends, is the best possible example of a record company getting it right, in terms of discovering and nurturing young talent. The amazing thing is that Universal has presented Lorde to us not as a commodity but as an artist. It’s pretty clear that she has an infinite future as such.
5. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic – Foxygen
Psychedelic music is not dead! Foxygen’s third album sounds like it was funneled through a magic time portal directly from the Summer of Love. I suspect that the whole Haight-Ashbury vibe is pure pasticeh, but it sounds authentic enough that when they pop up on my iPod I fleetingly wonder what long-forgotten nugget from 1969 have I stumbled across. It’s also a reminder that a lot sixties psychedelia was total hokum, all awash with drug-fueled self-seriousness, and it’s really best enjoyed with tongue firmly in cheek.
6. Wolf’s Law – The Joy Formidable
Their name captures their essence. The Joy Formidable is high energy, with euphoric vocal hooks and catchy melodies and at the same time formidable aggression and heavy guitars. Original enough that I can’t instantaneously place who their big inspiration would be. Definitely one of the most enjoyable out of a crop of young indie bands breaking big right now.
7. Woman – Rhye
Sexy bedroom music with a distinct sixties cocktail lounge vibe. The slow-burn torch singer vocals are so impressive and bring so much atmosphere. Imagine my shock when I found out the singer is really a dude named Milosh. Yeah, he always sings like that. I wonder if there’s some element of camp here that I’m missing, but it doesn’t feel so. In the end, knowing that I’m not hearing the sexy woman I first imagined but just some man with an unusual voice doesn’t detract from the overall effect of sleepy sensuality.
8. Isles – Wild Belle
A group that struck me the first time I heard them. Singer Natalie Bergman has a memorable voice, and she and her bandmate brother have a boatload of influences in play, from the reggae of Keep You, to classic soul and jazz. They’re definitely playing the retro angle – just see the videos.
9. Mosquito – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Hideous album cover aside, this might just be the best Yeah Yeah Yeahs album yet. It’s certainly their most diverse. Still plenty of their old punk energy, but with lots of unexpected touches, like an elevating gospel choir. I don’t remember them being a particularly touchy-feely band in the past, so the number of emotionally naked ballads on this record is unprecedented. Turns out they’re really good at it, too.
10. The Bones of What You Believe – Chvrches
Chvrches is another new electro-pop/indie rock band that appears to have a bright future, making uplifting catchy pop tunes that hit the sweet spot. Call them children of Blondie, if you will. They have an indie edge and an affinity for synthesizers, and a cool girl image in the person of singer Lauren Mayberry.
The search for the new Lana Del Rey is over, and her name is Lorde. I mean no insult by making the comparison. Lorde cites Del Rey as an influence, and she is lucky that there’s a market for a younger, more indie Del Rey. Lana Del Rey sprang, in record time, from internet sensation to having her own Hermes bag. She shines at the Met Institute Gala, writes original music for Baz Luhrmann movies and gets high fashion endorsements. She’s been parodied by Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live. She’s not an indie anymore. Lorde is a sixteen year old from New Zealand who sings with the sophistication of a woman twice her age, and she lucked into a wide open niche. Despite her grown up sounding voice, she has an age-appropriate sensibility. She writes exactly like the smart teenager she is; old enough too see through (and make sarcastic fun of) the illusions of glamour, but still wide-eyed and innocent. “Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane” she sings on Tennis Court “I’ll see the veins of my city like they do in space.” Her lyrics are both artless and astute, just a girl expressing her thoughts in plain language, except that she’s a prodigisously gifted girl who sounds like a seasoned pro. Pretty soon she’ll be getting her first Hermes bag.