10. Iron & Wine - Beast Epic
A voice and an acoustic guitar. If you ever question whether such a thing will tire, just listen to Iron & Wine. Sam Beam writes songs you know you’ve heard a thousand times the first time you hear them. And even though there’s more here than just a voice and an acoustic, it never loses touch of that core, that beautiful core. This album sounds like a return to roots: it’s been ten years since The Shepard’s Dog and the hero’s journey begun those years ago seems to have found its homecoming. There’s hardly a thing more pure than the sounds of home.
9. Four Tet - New Energy
Kieran Hebden is the only musician that can use sitars and dulcimers and flutes and nature sounds without making something that sounds like the nauseating background of a new-age self-help tape. That in and of itself is a remarkable achievement. As is usual for him, this is electronic music that exists in a world no one else has ever been. And the fact that New Energy is perhaps his most listenable album doesn’t signal a concession, but instead a new maturity. It takes discipline to refine towards simplicity.
8. Moses Sumney - Aromanticism
The voice is really close. Especially with headphones. It sounds like an omnidirectional angel is standing right here, singing in a falsetto so delicate I can hear the cave of its sinuses, which must be lined with silk. The strings and pads and guitar sounds never encroach upon that delicateness; they give it something to nuzzle up against. But more than for its sound, the brilliance of this album is in its contradiction: it’s a romance album about aromanticism. It’s a bunch of perfect love songs about not needing someone to love you. A statement of autonomy.
7. Brian Eno - Reflection
I’ll remember 2017 as the year I finally got ambient music. Like really learned to love it. And not only while lying down. Reflection is what sold me. It’s one song, if you can even call it a song, running fifty-four minutes. It’s sparse and alien and cold. But it’s human. And it’s creative—not only in the sense that it was created—but because whenever I listen to it, I’m creative. I can dream if this album is playing. And when the fifty-four minutes come to an end, it usually seems the only choice is to start over, and over, until I’m ready to stop dreaming.
6. Daigo Hanada - Ichiru
This album sounds like sunrise feels. Not the sunrise you stayed up for but the one you woke up for. There’s nothing but piano here. A dampened piano. A felt-dampened piano. Swelling in pastel light. And it’s so calm and quiet you can hear the hammers moving in the instrument, you can hear each of the hidden ticks of the marvelous wooden body that is a piano. The intimacy of that somehow makes this album sound more like a conversation than a concert. It’s compelling and hooky and it just like, you know, feeeeels good.
5. Julian Baker - Turn Out The Lights
I didn’t really want to like this album. It’s devastating. But it wiggled its way inside my periphery and I found myself listening to nothing else for weeks. Those weeks started out pretty melancholic. Life was happening in a way I didn’t want it to. But then things changed and I was still listening when everything turned celebratory. I came to realize this album had more influence in that progression than I gave it credit for. There’s so much power, so much life, so much freedom in learning to celebrate the melancholic. At twenty-two years old, Julien Baker is already mastering this. And musically, she’s doing something new. I’ve never heard songs without percussion move so well.
4. Kelela - Take Me Apart
The best music is the best because it pushes the whole musical conversation forward. This album sealed the death of R&B. Not by avoiding its maxims, but by pushing them so far forward it might be impossible to look back. Take Me Apart is too unpredictable, too layered and too complex to be called R&B. It’s messy and disorganized, but it’s messy and disorganized in a tight, bulletproof container. Kelela holds your hand, just not while standing right next to you. She’ll be a step or two ahead the whole time, pulling you through an hour-long journey that leads from the familiar to the revolutionary.
3. Hundred Waters - Communicating
Synthesizers have knobs and filters and effects. The human voice does not. Right? Nicole Miglis makes me wonder. There’s nothing technological about her singing, but sometimes it sounds like she has knobs and filters and effects built into her throat. Her timbre goes up and down and around in miraculous ways. And so does the music that encircles her. Downbeats can be hard to find, but not in the way that feels manufactured or contrived. Machines are made to sound human. Listening to Hundred Waters is like looking at a clock so well-designed that you forget it was designed. And that’s still saying nothing about the heaving heart of this band. It’s overflowing.
2. Sampha - Process
Twinkling but subterranean. I’m getting tired of using stupid nature metaphors to describe sounds. But I can’t help it. This album is as high and light as the stars and subdued and insulated as the underground. To this album’s great credit, it doesn’t repeat any ideas, nor does it water anything down. And Sampha’s lustrous voice is the perfect vehicle to deliver songs about, well… whatever they’re about, which seems to unfold in every atmospheric corner of this music.
1. Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness
Revealing. This album is revealing. Less for its music, which is nothing short of transcendent, than for its words. They reveal a person. You can feel a real human being carved out in the space between lines that are so simple and so true, they must be alive. And the voice is laid perfectly against the fog of its reverb, the instrumentation behind the guitar is subtle enough to let the wood ring and strong enough to give it breath. But what made this album by far the most affecting of the year for me is its poetry. It is a symphony of its own.
It Was Hard Not To Include:
Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory, War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding, LCD Soundsystem - American Dream, Tyler The Creator - Flower Boy, Nathan Shubert - Folds, Sophia Kennedy - Sophia Kennedy, SZA - CTRL, Forrest Swords - Compassion, Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins, Kendrick Lamar - DAMN, Japanese Breakfast - Soft Sounds From Another Planet, Spoon - Hot Thoughts, Fleet Foxes - Crack-up, This Is The Kit - Moonshine Freeze
Kelly Lee Owens, Arca, The xx, Lana Del Rey, Laura Marling, Aldous Harding, Phoebe Bridgers, Shigeto, Shannon Lay, Kamasi Washington, King Krule, Zola Jesus, Fever Ray, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Kevin Morby, Juana Molina, Khotin, SYD, Kiasmos, Big Thief, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lorde, Taylor Swift