The first half of 2017 has been amazing for music. So many legendary bands have made triumphant returns to music and there are more on the way. Some albums released this year have already made their way into my list of all-time favorites. I don’t claim to listen to the most music or the best music but today I’m going to list my 11 favorite albums released in the first half of 2017 that I think everyone should listen to.
At number 11 we have Mac Demarco’s third full length album, This Old Dog. People love to talk about Mac DeMarco but I’m a bit of an exception. This Old Dog is the first album released by DeMarco since I really got into the music scene back in 2015 so I don’t remember the impact or reception of his previous work. I am aware of the memes that surround his persona but this was my first real exposure to his music. For me, Mac DeMarco is not a musical innovator but what he excels at is making emotionally complex, atmospheric music using simple instrumentation and This Old Dog does not disappoint in that regard. I have no doubt that I will be revisiting This Old Dog time and time again when I’m in the mood for music that urges me to turn inwards and reflect upon my experiences just as DeMarco does on this album. The synths and drum machines featured on many of the songs add a welcome late-night, groovy atmosphere and I’m truly impressed by the consistent quality found on the record. I strongly recommend this album to anyone who enjoys soft, wandering, atmospheric music. I can already tell that This Old Dog will be joining my pantheon of albums that I revisit often, not because of any significant contribution to music as a whole but because of the emotions it invokes and the mood it creates.
The number 10 spot is occupied by Mike Oldfield’s Return to Ommadawn. The album is a sequel to 1975’s Ommadawn, a legendary work of progressive rock. I was thoroughly surprised by this release as it’s an excellent album coming late in Oldfield’s career after a long line of mediocre, uninspired records. Return To Ommadawn is one of the few great progressive rock albums released so far this decade by a pioneer of the genre. In a time when Yes is making uninspired soft rock and Pink Floyd is releasing B-sides, solid progressive rock is all too hard to find. Return to Ommadawn is a complete success and achieves that elusive goal progressive rock has been chasing for decades – the goal to not sound like a relic of the past. The record is clear, engaging and fresh. It rises and falls and there’s not a single moment rehashed from Oldfield’s previous work. Return to Ommadawn is one of the best progressive rock albums of the decade and its originality and character will not be forgotten.
I could talk about Tinariwen for hours. Hailing from North Africa, the band has both a rich personal and musical history. Their story began in a refugee camp more than 35 years ago, something you’d probably be unsurprised to learn after listening to their music. The band released their 7th album, Elwan, earlier this year and it quickly became one of my favorite rock albums of the decade so far. There’s an incredibly powerful energy in their blues-inspired guitar and African percussion that’s just impossible to find anywhere else. Not only is their music energetic but it carries a cohesion like no other. Smartly organized and deftly performed, Elwan is a cinematic journey. The band’s harrowing history is inseparable from their music and I strongly recommend you read up on their fascinating political origins. If you want to hear some of the most energetic, original and interesting music to come out of the rock world in years, check out Elwan by Tinariwen. It’s political, anti-war music made by people who’ve been to war and come back with a lot to say.
8th place is occupied by UK ambient artist Forest Sword’s second album, Compassion. If I had to use one word to describe Compassion, it would be “elusive”. The album is steeped in mystery, it evades definition or summation. I could assign adjectives to it, I could call it “ambient-dub” or “neo-psychedelia” but I have a feeling that it doesn’t want me to. Instead I believe Compassion is a meditation above anything else. The themes that float through its swirling, staggering atmosphere transcend the music and make themselves glaringly obvious despite only one song containing any sort of coherent lyricism. The album contains orchestral elements that I’m hesitant to call passages as they’re often washed away or overrun by drum machines and glitched vocals. Eastern influence, textured soundscapes and Forest Sword’s wonderful ability to fill his music with emotion have made this one of my favorite records of the year so far. Compassion puts Forest Swords well on his way towards joining Ben Frost and Burial as one of the most haunting, emotional electronic artists around.
7th place is occupied by Canadian rock band Mother Mother’s 6th album, No Culture. The band has come a long way from their origins as a folk rock outfit, now occupying a space somewhere between alt-rock and pop. It’s hard to pin them down because they very clearly make music for themselves, only occasionally acknowledging their audience and, more importantly, their critics. Like on albums past, No Culture’s lyricism snaps back and forth between playfully self-aware and angrily disconnected. This album is by far their most experimental and I applaud them for pulling it off. Ambitious, guitar-driven, walls of sound and massive percussion throughout the album leave little to be desired. It’s nice to see a band release some of their best work 6 albums into their career. No Culture is a shining example of what rock music can do to stay relevant in 2017. Check it out.
At 6th place, Slowdive isn’t the only legendary band to return to form after many years this year, but they’re certainly my favorite of the bunch. Their self-titled album Slowdive comes after 22 years of silence following 3 of the most acclaimed albums of all time. Their latest effort is lush, radiant and moody and nothing has been lost to time. The band modernizes their sound yet preserve the signature rainy, detached atmosphere they’re known for. The music has drifted towards dream pop over the years with layered vocals, shimmering guitars and clear drums. Some people have criticized them for being bland but I absolutely love how the bands vocals have matured, especially on songs like Sugar for the Pill where they distort and swirl around in the mix. Slowdive’s self-titled album is one of the best returns we could possibly ask for from a band that broke up 22 years ago. The band has produced another moody, atmospheric, dreamlike classic and I highly recommend the album to people who like bands such as Beach House, My Bloody Valentine and Mazzy Star.
I have no doubt that Yours Conditionally will remain as one of my favorite pop albums of all time. Indie pop duo Tennis have a special talent for injecting a sense of time into their music. Their depictions of love as all or nothing harken back to an era of by-gone pop music with attitude and spirit. Analog synths and punchy bass almost do the 80s better than the 80s did itself and sharp, scratching guitar solos dart in and out. The production on Yours Conditionally is impeccable and it’s clear that the band put an outstanding amount of work into the record. The band definitely knows what they’re doing in the studio and as a result their music is a cut above what their contemporaries are churning out. Tennis have produced their best material yet that’s not soon to be forgotten.
Coming in at 4th place is No Shape is the 4th album by Seattle artist Mike Hadreas who performs as Perfume Genius. No Shape, having been billed as an art pop album by an LGBT artist, completely blew me away with its intricate instrumentation, beautiful songwriting and relatable themes. It discusses the universal aspects of love with explosive enthusiasm and decadent beauty. Hadreas throws his entire spirit into the album and makes his inspiration plain for us to see. The album is proud and basks in light, almost like a detailed, colorful painting of the romantic period. No Shape transcends the insecurities and corruption that plagued Mike Hadreas’ younger self and earlier work. The atmosphere and texture of the album is engrossing, walls of sound explode unexpectedly and vocals range from intimate to colossal. No Shape destroyed my expectations for an art pop album; it is a triumphant exclamation from a man who is beyond grateful to be where he is. Poetic lyrics, experimental, transcendent instrumentation and angelic vocals make No Shape one of the strongest records released so far this year.
Nightlands “I Can Feel the Night Around Me” is my third favorite album of 2017 so far. I’ve bonded with this album like no other, and for a couple of reasons. Nightlands David Hartley manages to effortlessly synthesize so many of the styles that defined the musical education given to me by my parents. From the bossa nova-tinged vocals, percussion and almost woodwind-like guitar of Moonbathin to the soft-rock inspired, echoing Lost Moon, Nightlands is heavily influenced yet escapes being derivative. Listening to the album is personal, it’s a message from Hartley, acknowledging our shared past. The album is like an empty highway at night – dark and quiet while the world rushes by just outside. It creates an atmosphere with its modernized laurel canyon, soft rock influence. Contemporary pop music so often borrows from trends and styles that have been dead for decades but it does so disrespectfully. With several exceptions, I would be hard pressed to consider the current funk and reggae revivals anything but grave robbing. But I Can Feel the Night Around Me borrows from the past with love. The album has a simple, relaxing mood that’s aided by its cool, welcoming instrumentation and an open, spacious atmosphere that helps you easily feel what Hartley is trying to say: take it easy.
Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. takes 2nd place. I’ll start my discussion of this album by saying that I didn’t like To Pimp a Butterfly. Apart from a few songs I found it incoherent and hyperactive. The storytelling on Damn is more mature and complete than anything Kendrick Lamar has put out before and another thing that has improved since his previous efforts is the instrumentation. I felt that on previous releases he overshadowed his rapping with loud, chaotic backing tracks. It’s nice to hear Kendrick give himself some room to breathe with more laid back tracks such as YAH, FEAR and XXX. Kendrick achieves stunning clarity on DAMN. and lays out for us both his inner and outer struggles. I’m so thankful for this album, I think it stands out from the rest of Kendrick’s catalog as his most accessible and complete work. DAMN. is not a grasp for innovation, it’s a release by the best rapper alive refining and maintaining his style. Full of self-examination, observation and musing, I lose myself in the album everytime I turn it on. DAMN. will undoubtedly end up as one of the most significant rap albums of the year.
My album of the year so far is Father John Misty slash Josh Tillman’s Pure Comedy. I went into the album with high expectations as Tillman’s last record, released in 2015, was my favorite album to come out of that year. And like I expected, he did a complete 180 on his third release and zoomed out, so to speak. Even the design language of the cover art indicates this – on I Love You Honeybear, Josh was alone, surrounded by a few of the many demons he battled during the album’s manageable 45 minute runtime. It’s not hard to figure out what the tone of Pure Comedy will be like just from taking a look at the sprawling, crowded album art. For the most part, this album talks about Josh interacts with the world rather than how he interacts with himself. And a lot of people hate it. People decry his worldview, they complain that Pure Comedy is arrogant and tiresome. In fact it’s the opposite of that. He’s addressing his deepest insecurities and laying bare for us what drives him nuts about the world we inhabit. Sparse, beautiful instrumentation and straightforward lyrics give the album a focused atmosphere. On the final track, In Twenty Years Or So, the dismal outlook is reconciled. Josh tells us exactly what we should take from his hour of rambling and ranting, he tells us that life is a miracle. We have nothing to lose, our insignificance gives us freedom. Pure Comedy was an instant favorite. It’s an emotionally draining album and it can be hard to listen to but I think there’s one reason why people have reacted so negatively to it. In our postmodern society, we often have to hide our art and opinions behind irony. The prevailing worldview of meaninglessness and fragility makes it impossible for anyone to make comments or observations without first applying a coat of irony or nonchalance. But Pure Comedy faces the ugly truths of our world head on and lives to tell the tale. It’s an absolute masterpiece of sincerity in a world where sincerity is heavily frowned upon. Pure Comedy will be remembered as one of the best albums of our generation, that much I am sure of.