January 1, 2018

Some favourite songs of 2017

The year started like this: cold and foreboding, with many of us incredulous about the results of American election and somehow naive about its implications. But in the darkness of January, there was also Julie Byrne.

Julie Byrne's “Natural Blue” rehearses a memory as warm as the sun. “Back on tour / driving through southwestern towns / that I had been in before.” But this time, something different happens: there is a first encounter. In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes quotes John Ruysbroeck, a 14th century Flemish mystic: “Now, take all the delights of the earth, melt them into one single delight, and cast it entire into a single man — all of this will be as nothing to the delight of which I speak.” If this song is romantic, it is also about being locked into a posture of retrospection, where a remembered detail might gain a new kind of significance by its association with the beloved, might become a symbol of love’s excess. To quote Barthes again: “Excess has led me to proportion; I adhere to the Image, our proportions are the same: exactitude, accuracy, music: I am through with not enough. Henceforth I live in the definitive assumption of the Image-repertoire, its triumph” (55).

Kendrick Lamar completed another victory lap with DAMN. and, true to form, he brought a lot of other artists along for the ride. XXX is miraculous for a number or reasons. Lamar delivers a blistering performance, meditating on gun violence in America and again demonstrating how the personal is political; in addition, he also achieves something few artists could pull off: seamlessly incorporating U2 in a way that doesn’t detract from XXX.’s style, deaden its impact or cheapen its spectacle.

With Mythological Beauty Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenke unravels her own story of family trauma, a second person account of her mother, who gave up a son for adoption, with the eyes of an unknowing child, alert to her surroundings, who now sees the actions of mother with empathy. On her second album with Big Thief, Lenke demonstrates that she’s already a master songwriter, and with Mythological Beauty she strikes that rare balance between rhythm and wordplay, observation and introspection.

The joy of Dum Surfer lies in its power of estrangement. Since its release, I’ve returned to this song again and again, as addicted to its dizzy blend of genres (post-punk, house, reggae, etc.) as I am to its dystopian vision. You feel as though you’ve stepped into a scene from a crass film noir, where the familiar referents of urban life appear distorted, charged with meanings that you haven’t before encountered. Here is the world sparkling under a ghoulish tint. Here is the seedy underbelly you’ve heard about, lurking beneath the surface of everything.

This is a song for unbelievers of all kinds, but it’s especially for those of among us who aren’t able to believe that the God they worship has enough grace for LGBTQ* folks, or that such lives and experiences are in any way secondary to those of heterosexual, cisgender folks. If you’re still living in doubt, or if you prefer abstractions to people, then accept this song as a grace: another chance to consider which god you serve.

Like all of SZA’s songs from Ctrl, “Prom” highlights her vocal agility, navigating the uncertainties of interpersonal relationships while exploring just how spacious they can be. The “Prom” of the title is both promise and prominade: love’s performance, where emotions crash against expectations, where the couple form takes hold and we learn how to maneuver around/within it.

In this hypnotic but understated track, Andrea Balency’s voice glides over a steady beat. In one moment she sounds detached; in another she sounds fully present. With its backing music, Mount Kimbie echoes the shape of a party approaching its climax. There is chaos, confusion, cacophony but the song’s momentum doesn’t slow. Whether or not you’re having a good time, the world will look different tomorrow.

On every outing, Mike Hadreas writes an anthem that seems to steal the light from everything around it. “Slip Away” quite literally silences the haters and detractors who bully us into thinking ourselves unworthy, our desires invalid. A celebration of consensual love in all its forms, at once embodied and ennobled.

All day, every day individuals are collected into a metal box entrusted to someone who knows how close he can get to a curb or a car. Together, they lurch forward as their driver makes a sudden stop. For some of us, the bus is a space where we can steal some time to think, huddle over a phone, turn the page of a textbook, ask for directions. Jay Som’s Melina Duterte also sees the bus as a space of possibility. With The Bus Song, she turns a few contemplative moments in transit into one of the angstiest and uplifting songs of the year.

Despite it’s upbeat tempo and chorus, “Blood on Me” is as vulnerable as anything else on Sampha’s debut. It’s a song less about fear than about how one navigates one’s emotional terrain in the midst of crisis. How much fear belongs to us and what makes it counts as legitimate? “Blood on Me” is the sound of adrenaline facing off with existential ambiguity.

And, finally, here's a playlist that goes far beyond what's been annotated above.

They released albums this year but we paid them little notice. They defined the sound of indie rock in the first decade or so of the 2000s and now appear as the tired establishment: Arcade Fire, Dirty Projectors, Wolf Parade, Grizzly Bear, Feist, The National, LCD Soundsystem, Broken Social Scene, Fleet Foxes.

On a personal note: I enjoyed songs from around half of the artists mentioned (I even witnessed Broken Social Scene perform a nostalgia-infused set at a summer festival), but I’ve grown bored of bands like the National, Fleet Foxes and Wolf Parade, and by now I’m mostly annoyed by the Arcade Fire and Dirty Projectors. This year Grizzly Bear released what might be the most inaccessible album of their career and, generally, I liked it, mostly because it sounded like Grizzly Bear. (“Four Cypresses,” in particular, is the sort beautiful, dense song that only a band like Grizzly Bear could pull off.) Feist channeled PJ Harvey and delivered a spare, guitar-driven album with songs (“Pleasure,” “Century,” “Any Party”) that resonated with me almost immediately. I’m fairly certain I will always like Feist.

When I look at my favourite songs from 2017, I observe what’s become a commonplace mixture of rap, r&b, indie rock/folk, and electronic music, but I also see a lot more diversity in the artists making it. To say my demographic (white, male, cisgender) is typically overrepresented at shows is an understatement. It’s one thing to observe new trends in the music scene, but it’s another thing to understand why they occur. And while it might look like the dominance of one is slowly receding with age, it should be noted that there has also been a lot of work done, most of it unrecognized, to claim space in the music scene for those it has traditionally excluded; there have been efforts to make concerts safer for people of colour, for women, queer and non-binary folks; there has been work done to create platforms for emerging artists who don’t experience the forms of privilege that indie rock has fostered over the years. And this is vital work that needs broader support in the new year and beyond.


  1. Happy New Year Jon. I will certainly check out some of this music, none of which I have heard yet. Musically the past year was defined for me not by anything current but by Senegalese Benedictines (Keur Moussa) Quebec rock from the 90s (Les Colocs and Arianne Moffatt) and Asian-American jazz (Fred Ho).

  2. Josh! Happy new year to you too. Thanks for recommendations!