"We are living in a time when misery is just common circumstance."
Except when it comes to music.
If you thought 2016 was a year filled with bad news, 2017 was worse. I spent most of it peeking nervously at headlines, while talking to some of my favourite musicians about life, love and death as part of my upcoming book The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip (out April 3, 2018). My research sent me down many wormholes, spending far more time in the ’90s than I would recommend for anyone’s musical mental health. Miraculously, I still have a weekly review column in the Waterloo Region Record, and found no shortage of inspiration in the vital music of today. Judging by most other year-end lists I’m seeing, hopefully you find this one decidedly different.
As Prince said in 2015, albums still matter. On that note, be sure to read this excellent Liz Pelly piece on Spotify and “Best New Muzak.”
1. Weaves – Wide Open (Buzz)
If the best rock record of 2017 sounds like 2003, that’s fine by me: as long as 2003 can be defined by Deerhoof’s Apple O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell, and Arcade Fire’s debut EP. Those records, and this one, are the sound of rock’n’roll falling apart and reconstituted into something visceral that never travels in a straight line, yet with pop melodies keeping everything on course.
Listening to the second record by this Toronto quartet is a total rush, right from the opening track “#53,” as surefire an anthem as can still be written without falling into hoary cliché. Sure, the “Born to Run” glockenspiel on the track has led to an onslaught of Springsteen comparisons, but Weaves are not so easily defined. It’s easily my favourite song of 2017, but the lyrics also seem to address the shitstorm of awfulness: “I don’t wanna think about you again / I don’t wanna dream about you again / I know I’m going to cry about you again.” Gather round, all ye who are having nightmares about nuclear holocaust and/or anything else in the news cycle.
The first thing anyone notices about Weaves is singer Jasmyn Burke, whose gripping presence and commanding articulation almost overshadows the fact that she’s also just a really great singer who’s more than capable of nailing any pitch, but prefers to play with it instead. Guitarist Morgan Waters unleashes a flurry of sound with punk rock energy, but he also knows when to lay back and let the song speak for itself, like on “Walkaway” or the gentle 6/8 lilt of the title track, drenched in Lanois-esque reverb. Rhythm section Spencer Cole and Zach Bines are just as responsible for driving this record as Waters and Burke; Weaves is very much four equal parts. Tanya Tagaq shows up on the album’s most abrasive track, “Scream,” a daring move in the middle of an album that is highly likely to pull this band up from the underground.
Next time someone tries to tell you that The National or War on Drugs are the greatest rock bands working today—or the next time Rolling Stone puts a new U2 album in their top-three of the year—tell them to either go back to the nursing home. Or listen to Weaves instead.
2. The Xx – I See You (XL)
On I See You, the British trio accept the fact that they’re now playing for a much bigger audience, as opposed to being shy 20-year-old goth kids making incredibly sparse music that married the mood of dour new wave classics with pop songs and modern electronics …
Though tempos are occasionally upbeat, there are no sunny pop songs. Sim and Croft, childhood friends who are perhaps the only two gay people (of different genders) to duet in the same band, will always sound like outsiders, like childhood friends since kindergarten still singing for each other in the shelter of their bedroom (though Sim, in particular, has improved greatly as a vocalist; Croft didn’t have to). “I will be brave for you / do the things I’m afraid to do,” sings Croft, in one of the album’s most affecting moments. Another is when Sim, a recently reformed alcoholic, sing, “I go out, but every beat is a violent noise.”
3. Arcade Fire – Everything Now (Sony)
Reviewed earlier here, in which I discuss the “other” reasons people judged this record.
People love to hate Arcade Fire, and that’s fine. When they put out material like the dour back half of 2014’s Reflektor, I can’t blame the critics. But I’m genuinely mystified why Everything Now—which I’d place behind only Funeral and The Suburbs in their discography—was treated like a turkey. It’s a joyous delight containing some of their most melodic songs and most interesting production touches. It’s far superior to the LCD Soundsystem comeback record, or the anemic Ambien of the War on Drugs, or the over-intellectualized mess that is the St. Vincent record. This is not a legacy band coasting on a rep. This is a band hitting a stride while aiming to please.
I understand why people think Win Butler is a cranky grampa castigating the consumerism of “the kids,” but that’s who he’s been since day one—not sure why that would sink Everything Now. Admittedly, the two songs that expand on that theme—two takes on a song called “Infinite Content”—are the least successful songs here. But they’re also a total of three minutes out of the whole record, a record we’re led to believe is a disaster on the level of U2’s 1997 album Pop, but where nothing comes close to Reflektor’s lows, i.e. “Porno.”
If part of Arcade Fire’s plan was to lower expectations and then pleasantly surprise us, well, then maybe, just maybe, there’s some counterintuitive genius there.
4. Tinariwen – Elwan (Anti)
For various reasons, I saw less live music this year than I have since I was a teenager. One of the few shows I witnessed was also the most glorious I’ve seen in a very long time: Tinariwen at Massey Hall.
Very little ever changes from one Tinariwen release to the next; sometimes the magic is there, sometimes it’s not. With such potentially transcendent music, that’s hardly surprising. Emmaar found the band sounding out of place and uninspired; the California desert was clearly not their home, and the invited guests/hosts didn’t help matters any—their presence seemed more like stunt casting to tweak interest in yet another Tinariwen album. This time out, however, something has clicked, even in California: there is a firm resilience in the languid grooves, a quiet strength that never bubbles over. There are more acoustic guitars, bass lines that bring a sparse funk feel to some tracks, and the trademark group vocals and distorted blues guitar leads.
5. Maylee Todd – Acts of Love (Do Right)
The most immediately gripping songs here are the ones that sound like soft-pop hits descended from Donna Summer and Madonna, from Sade to Solange, rich with ’80s synth bass and tightly wound rhythm guitar lines, or the type of early ’90s house music employed by Bjork on Debut. There’s also some straight-up Studio 54 thump on “Disco Dicks 5000.” … On the more downtempo tracks, however, Todd pushes herself into more political and personal terrain, with the necessary sonic innovation to illustrate it further ... Responsible for all the programming and engineering, she also plays almost all the instruments. Most affecting is her devastating vocal turn on “That’s All I’ll Do,” set only to a string octet, where Todd dives into the deeper end of her range to thrilling effect. Throughout, Todd’s inventive arrangements make a convincing argument that she could be a new Quincy Jones—there are more than a few Thriller moments here. Hyperbole? Not until you hear it yourself.
6. EMA – Exile in the Outer Ring (City Slang)
EMA owes musical debts to industrial, goth and new wave of the ’80s and ’90s. She writes songs with strong pop melodies, but everything that surrounds them is often terrifying: there are no easy outs here. Her entire approach to production shows her to be, unlike so many other artists for whom synths are window dressing, to be a sound sculptor, not some random patch-finder …
Exile in the Outer Ring is very much a zeitgeist record, speaking to the disembodied, the dislocated, and life in the margins in modern North America. It's one of the most powerful records of 2017, and—having been released in August—was so even before greater resonance could be applied to the chorus, "Tell me stories of famous men / I can't see myself in them." … “The outer ring” refers to the area between the suburbs and rural areas, the last affordable place to live for city workers who have been gentrified out of their old neighbourhoods. It’s a geography abandoned and rarely addressed by anything in pop culture, a place where EMA’s disembodied electronic environments and conventional songwriting chops clash perfectly.
7. Geoff Berner – Canadiana Grotesquica (Coax)
This year Canada lost a great songwriter who held up a mirror to the nation and, at the end of his life, forced us to confront some ugly truths. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Geoff Berner is still here to do all that and much more.
What happens when a klezmer artist makes a country record? Geoff Berner has certainly posed more unusual questions over the course of his 17-year recording career. The Vancouver accordionist and acerbic singer-songwriter is a satirist of the highest order, one capable of extracting hilarity from horrors and providing the most emotionally complex evening of music you’re likely to encounter at a live show…
His seventh album opens with “The Ghost of Terry Fox,” one of the most tragic tales in Canadian celebrity: the story of Steve Fonyo, the cancer-stricken amputee who actually completed Fox’s mission, but suffered from second-banana syndrome in the eyes of an indifferent public, racked up several criminal convictions, was stripped of his Order of Canada, and was the victim of a home invasion in Surrey, B.C. … Berner takes a similarly biographical approach to “Gino Odjick,” a song about the Vancouver Canucks’ “Algonquin Assassin,” an on-ice enforcer and residential school survivor who, along with other prominent Indigenous Canadians, met the Pope to hear an apology from the Catholic Church.
8. Whitehorse – Panther in the Dollhouse (Six Shooter)
Whitehorse is, at its core, two master musicians schooled in folk and rock, juggling guitar, bass and live drum loops in a live setting, with swoony harmonies. This time out, they employ more electronics than just loop pedals, as well as some funkier beats, courtesy of NYC hip-hop production duo Like Minds (Q Tip, the Roots). Nothing drastic: Doucet’s monstrously rich, twangy and tremolo guitar work is still front and centre, as are McClelland’s melodic bass lines.
The lyrics look at modern politics (“they’re screening refugees for authenticity”) and the not-so-sunny-side of life, when “all the normals are shutting off their lights.” “We hear the sniffles behind the bathroom floor,” they sing: “Is it cocaine or heartbreak? / We never can be sure.” If Whitehorse’s music is inherently slick and pretty, the subject matter is not. They are both storytellers, paying as much attention to lyrics as they do their instrumental skills.
9. Timber Timbre – Sincerely, Future Pollution (Arts and Crafts)
Here’s something I never in a million years thought I’d witness: a six-year-old child doing a funky dance to a Timber Timbre song. Yet that’s what happened one of the first times I played “Grifting,” from the group’s sixth album. Normally purveyors of bleak, backwoods blues with twangy guitars and ’70s synths, Timber Timbre pulled out a clavinet to make an unusually groovy beat for the track in question, which isn’t as fish-out-of-water as a longtime fan might suspect.
Sexy, slinky grooves have slowly been permeating Timber Timbre’s music as the band’s sound became more expansive, most notably on 2014’s Hot Dreams. Other than “Grifting,” there are no surprises here, other than the fact that this group manages to milk endless possibilities out of a predictable format, one in which bandleader Taylor Kirk’s undead-Elvis voice is drenched in reverb singing lyrics like “Now I come before you moving through this tomb of vapour-y perfume and fog-filled rooms,” one in which Simon Trottier and Mathieu Charbonneau extract all kinds of unsettling sounds from their instruments, one in which Tindersticks meet Tangerine Dream and groove to dub reggae and early Peter Gabriel records.
It would be lazy to dismiss a band this experimental as formulaic. Timber Timbre have a formula, to be sure, but one that keeps evolving and getting more freaky as they go: witness the Vocoders and completely wiggy, Fripp-esque guitar solo in “Moment.” And yet they’re simultaneously sweeter and more accessible: the album closes with “Floating Cathedral,” one of the loveliest songs in their catalog—surprising us right until the end.
10. Sampha – Process (Young Turks/XL)
Even in an era when the likes of Frank Ocean are blowing open all preconceived notions of what modern soul music can sound like, Sampha sounds several steps apart from any of his American counterparts. That’s evident on the stuttering syncopated beat on “Blood On Me,” on the science-fiction-soundtrack textures throughout the whole album, on the clipped sound samples that echo Matthew Herbert’s work in the 2000s, on the elastic melodies that owe as much to Bjork as they do Marvin Gaye.
Sampha is a stunning vocalist, enough of one to carry some of the weaker songs, but that’s not even the real appeal here: it’s his entire approach to sound. He and co-producer Rodaidh McDonald (The Xx) take an avant-garde approach: they are to R&B what Joni Mitchell is to folk, what Kate Bush is to pop.
11. Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Matador)
…This is the most successful mix of Spoon’s experimental and pop tendencies since Kill the Moonlight, and producer Dave Fridmann brings it into brilliant focus with sonic touches that illuminate all the band’s strengths. Jim Eno’s rhythms are a driving force, even if a set of shakers is placed higher in the mix than his actual drum kit at times. Singer/guitarist Britt Daniel has said the death of Prince hit the band hard while recording; maybe it’s a coincidence, but this is also the sexiest Spoon record in a long while, thanks to Eno’s beats, Daniel’s rhythm guitar and the ear candy from Fridmann and new keyboardist Alex Fischel.
Daniel’s lyrics have always been somewhat oblique; even ardent Spoon fans might have trouble telling you what any of their songs are about. So it’s telling that on an album recorded during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, there’s a catchy pop song by this Texan band with the chorus, “Let them build a wall around us / I don’t care, we’re going to tear it down / It’s just bricks and ill intentions / I don’t care, we’ll tear it all town,” followed by a “na-na-na-na-na” hook worthy of the Bee Gees that might come in handy as a protest chant…
Stream: “Hot Thoughts,” “Shotgun,” “Pink Up”
12. Terra Lightfoot – New Mistakes (Sonic Unyon)
On New Mistakes, the rockers are bigger. The ballads more intimate. But the real leap here is her narrative voice on tracks like “Norma Gale,” where the John Prine influence, which she references in lyrics elsewhere, manifests itself. (.) Behind her, her crack band add all kinds of tasty bits underneath the swaggering singer up front, never more so on the surefire set-closer “Hold You,” where every member of the band truly shines—as does the guest saxophonist who shows up in the last 30 seconds of the song and almost steals the show, Clarence Clemons style.
When classic rock stations claim they don’t have any room for new artists on their playlists, Terra Lightfoot should stroll through their doors with this new record and give them all a swift kick in their tired, saggy asses.
13. Philippe B – La grande nuit vidéo (Bonsound)
This is snowy-day Montreal apartment music, by one of Quebec’s loveliest chansonniers, with echoes of Nick Drake and Jean-Pierre Ferland. Philippe B plays finger-picked guitar and plaintive piano, with some lush arrangements for eight string players, eight wind players and a harpist.
Their cinematic qualities are not a coincidence: he was watching a lot of old films and studying the work of Bernard Hermann and John Carpenter, though his own work is much more romantic than that. Or creepy: “Sortie_Exit,” with vocals by Milk and Bone’s Laurence Lafond-Beaulne, is reminiscent of Krzysztof Komeda’s lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby. La grande nuit vidéo is a bold step up from one of Canada’s most underrated songwriters—underrated, of course, because he’s barely known outside Quebec.
14. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory (DefJam)
Vince Staples is riding a wave of acclaim for his skills as an MC, but those seem secondary to his musical vision on this, his second album, following up an EP earlier this year and his “double-disc” (whatever that means these days) debut, 2015’s Summertime ’06. On the considerably more concise, 37-minute Big Fish Theory, Staples deftly dances through L.A. G-funk, Chicago footwork, Detroit techno, Atlanta trap, and more than a few debts to British beats from Massive Attack to Kode9 to Stormzy.
The opening track, “Crabs in a Bucket,” co-produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, even channels Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack—or Moby’s sampling of it. Staples has a voice that oozes charisma and character; the fact that Kendrick Lamar shows up for a brief cameo here barely registers, and nor do any of the other guests except Kilo Kish, who stands out for being a consistent female presence in Staples’s world. A more musically rich rap record you’re unlikely to find in 2017.
15. Alvvays – Antisocialites (Royal Mountain)
No sophomore slump here. Everything that was merely promising or undeveloped or somewhat uneven on the 2014 debut by this Toronto band of transplanted Maritimers has been transformed into a triumph. Singer Molly Rankin used to write melodies slightly outside of her range. Here, she’s no longer a newbie straining to hit the high notes while guitars swirl around her; she’s a singer who walks the precious line between introversion and complete confidence, once again writing melodies that are instant earworms, not unlike their breakthrough single “Marry Me, Archie.”
Guitarist and co-songwriter Alec O’Hanley (Two Hours Traffic) also did a lot of recording and mixing this time out, following initial sessions with L.A. producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado). In his hands, every one of this band’s strengths comes into full focus in ways it didn’t on the washed-out debut: the guitars of O’Hanley and Ranking shimmering with colourful textures, and blending beautifully with Kerri MacLellan’s Farfisa organ. Bassist Brian Murphy is a melodic player and drummer Sheridan Riley hits hard enough to ensure the band doesn’t drift away on a sea of twee. After dreadful new albums by the War on Drugs, Grizzly Bear, the National and LCD Soundsystem, Alvvays is a rare bright light for indie rock in 2017.
16. Sudan Archives – s/t (Stones Throw)
Yes, it’s strange that a self-taught violinist from Cincinnati would rebrand herself as Sudan Archives. Brittney Denise Parks had her world turned around when she heard violin music from northeast Africa, and decided to incorporate it into her own brand of electronic music and looped vocals. Parks relies heavily on loping, syncopated grooves with deep bass and a dub sensibility, filtered through Aphex Twin glitchiness and African instruments like the mbira or one-stringed fiddles.
Her vocals are sultry, her violin seductive. The songs are short and almost too slight, which only leaves the listener wanting much more. She’s sure to deliver. And if this EP isn't enough, look up her YouTube version of Kendrick Lamar's "King Kunta."
17. Ryan Adams – Prisoner (Blue Note)
In 16 albums over the past 17 years, the most beloved work by songwriter Ryan Adams is his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker. Heartbreak is again a theme here, made crystal clear in songs like the title track, “Breakdown,” or “Haunted House,” which would have fit in perfectly on Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love record (an obvious touchstone here).
The production here is sparse and yet dense with detail: the electric guitars are graced with subtle shades of ’80s chorus pedals (like one of Adams’s many heroes, the Replacements), the acoustic guitars shimmer front and centre, and the rhythm section (including Adams on bass) is full and rich. Daniel Clarke on organ is also a key asset, particularly on the album opener, “Do You Still Love Me?” It’s normally an insult to any artist’s creative process to suggest that personal pain and tumult necessarily results in great work, but nevertheless: this is another Heartbreaker for the ages.
18. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Arts and Crafts)
Wild Heart is a huge leap forward in terms of songwriting, performance and production for this guitar-drums duo. These are much more than just drunken Saturday night odes to youth, romance, rock’n’roll and the open road (not necessarily in that order) that used to be Japandroids’ stock and trade. That still exists here: “North South East West” is exactly the kind of fist-pumping catharsis one expects from this band; expect this one to be a key part of the soundtrack of 2017.
But they’re both in their mid-thirties now, and so their signature intensity is being applied to varying tempos and textures, including instrumentation that will be difficult to duplicate onstage as a duo. Wild Heart is very much an album as opposed to a live document. Slowing down, in more ways than one, has made Japandroids an even better band. Great rock bands are getting fewer and fewer. This one is fighting the good fight.
19. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (SuperEgo)
Just as 2014’s collaboration with punk rocker Ted Leo, The Both, was so refreshing because Mann was playing much louder, much faster and in a collaborative fashion, likewise it’s a revelation now to hear her strip away so many of the sonic layers that defined her approach to adult-pop perfection in the last 20 years. She mostly plays acoustic guitar and piano here; drummer Jay Bellerose is barely noticeable, as is the rest of her band. Subtle string sections colour around the edges, as do layers of California vocal harmonies.
This is Aimee Mann the folk singer, although her typically complex chord progressions still place her closer to the Brill Building than, say, Billy Bragg. This is easily one of the best collections of her career: her razor-sharp wit and powers of observation in full focus, her unadorned voice sounding crystal clear and lovelier than ever.
20. Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines / Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star (Sub Pop)
When Ishmael Butler was known as Butterfly and fronted the mid-90s hip-hop group Digable Planets, he was one of the first to explicitly reference the genre’s lineage back to jazz. Gang Starr and Tribe Called Quest got there first, but Digable Planets pushed it further into the abstract, not just sonic signifiers and samples. Twenty years later, Butler is doing the same with his new project, Shabazz Palaces, who released two new albums simultaneously in the middle of a sweltering summer.
Perfect timing: Butler and his creative partner Tendai Maraire eschew trap and boom-bap and anything else you might expect in summer hip-hop jams, in favour of a truly potent brew of psychedelia, dub reggae, spiritual jazz, science fiction, Parliament/Funkadelic and futurist Detroit techno. Hip-hop barely registers, other than the fact that there’s an MC up front. Shabazz Palaces is “a glitch in the matrix,” they boast. Repetition? Choruses? That’s for suckers. “We post-language, baby.” That’s for earthlings—because this music is clearly from another galaxy.
Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines is the proper album, the one rich with lyrical detail and sonic intent. Apparently it’s about aliens—who knows? Butler is engaging enough with wordplay and imagery that it doesn’t matter is his overarching narrative is impenetrable. Plus, he easily wins Best Song Title of the Year: “Love in the Time of Kanye.” Most important, the music is consistently inventive and frequently surreal.
Born on a Gangster Star was created quickly from an inspired session meant to produce some B-sides. Drunk on a creative bender, Shabazz Palaces kept going and ended up with a companion album that’s just as worthy, albeit one that’s considerably looser and even more abstract than the main attraction. “Moon Whip Quäz” borrows a bit too heavily from Kraftwerk’s “The Model”—not a terrible source, by any means, but it’s the longest track on Gangster Star, for no discernible reason. But when a group like this hits a stride, it’s all good.
Class of 2018:
Jessie Reyez – Kiddo (Universal)
Months before #metoo sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry and beyond, Jessie Reyez released “Gatekeeper,” a scathing takedown of the casting couch and its many modern permutations. That she released it on her debut EP on a major label that vaulted her into continental consciousness shows she’s afraid of no one; like fellow Colombian-Canadian Lido Pimienta, who faced a racist shitstorm of vitriol after rising from indie obscurity to winning the Polaris Music Prize, Reyez is fiercely talented and not to be messed with.
Kiddo shows a woman who not only shakes off Toronto hip-hop’s icy reputation and brings a Carnival atmosphere to “Blue Ribbon,” but can also turn around and deliver a devastating slow waltz with just her guitar and voice (“Figures,” which she played on The Tonight Show). Expect Jessie Reyez to define the zeitgeist of the next 12 months.
Gord Downie – Introduce Yerself (Arts and Crafts)
This is not an album that belongs on a list. This is not an album that should be judged in any way. It’s a dying man’s final statement—well, actually, Downie was working on several projects in the last year of his life, but this is the one he wanted to be sure to finish. It’s a series of love letters to family, friends, bandmates, co-workers, and more. It could have been incredibly maudlin; that it’s not remotely so is a testament to who Downie was as a person and an artist.
What nobody seems to have talked about is that it’s also an astounding vocal performance from Downie, likely his best ever: the lower-register, hushed intimacies of Coke Machine Glow mixed with the soaring, almost operatic melodies of his later work in and outside the Tragically Hip, and none of the claustrophobia that marred much of Secret Path. Released 10 days after his death, Introduce Yerself was initially received as a sort of self-pinned obituary, rushed to deadline, a souvenir of this moment of collective grieving. Listening more than a month later, it’s clear that it’s much more revelatory than that.
Jackie Shane – Any Other Way (Numero)
Change of Heart – Smile (Label Obscura). Reviewed here.
Prince – Purple Rain: Deluxe Edition (Warner)
Worth your while:
Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder (Arts and Crafts)
Daniel Caesar – Freudian (Golden Child)
Cold Specks – Fool’s Paradise (Arts and Crafts)
Daphni – Joli Mai (Jiaolong)
Beth Ditto – Fake Sugar (Virgin)
Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)
Feist – Pleasure (Universal)
Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai (Merge)
Julie & the Wrong Guys – s/t (Dine Alone)
Kacy & Clayton – The Siren’s Song (New West)
Mappe Of – A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone (Paper Bag)
Meridian Brothers – ¿Dónde Estás María? (Soundway)
Oh Susanna – A Girl in Teen City (Stella)
Old 97s – Graveyard Whistling (ATO)
Perfume Genius – No Shape (Matador)
Margo Price – All American Made (Third Man)
Andrea Ramolo – Nuda (Fontana North)
David Rawlings – Poor David’s Alamanack (Acony)
Sam Patch – Yeah You, and I (Dep)
Wolf Parade – Cry Cry Cry (Sub Pop)
Best record of 2016 that I only discovered in 2017:
Le Couleur – P.O.P. (Lisbon Lux)