Best Records of the Year: 2017
Mastodon, Kendrick and More
12/11/17, 11:22 am EST
By John Corry
Disclaimer: I suspect there are some records I have either not heard yet or I haven’t had time to digest. These may include, but are not limited to: Forever by Code Orange, MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent, All-American Bada$$ by Joey Bada$$, Painted Ruins by Grizzly Bear (among, potentially of course, others). Laura Marling’s Semper Femina, Fiest's Pleasure, War Moans by Mutoid Man, and Thrice Woven by Wolves in the Throne Room were all very good and difficult not to include. In addition, Eminem’s new album, Revival, comes out in several days, and– this is why I bring this up: I am EXTREMELY torn over whether or not my first impression is that it’s at least decent or TERRIBLY BAD (I’ve been a big Eminem fan since The Slim Shady LP in 1999; Recovery was cool, Marshall Mathers LP 2 wasn’t as good all the way through, but showed promise, and I don’t know what I’m saying here, I’m very confused–)
This list is comprised of several angles: aesthetic quality (technicality, originality, emotional palpability), honesty (or as far as I can tell), cultural relevance, personal relevance (for me, I can’t avoid it)), and artist relevance (both in the artist’s catalogue, and in where the record stands in that attempt in the artist’s catalogue, compared to all other artists who may have attempted something similar (though obviously different)).
10. Emperor of Sand, Mastodon (Metal/Rock)
I don’t get it.
Is it as good as Once More Round the Sun? Maybe, maybe not. Crack the Skye? Hell no, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, it’s better than a lot of other stuff I’ve heard this year. ‘Show Yourself’ and ‘Steambreather’ are of the two poppiest songs in Mastodon’s varied (genre-wise) career, but the former is fun and its solo is great, and the guitar tones and soundscapes in the latter are only possibly beaten in Mastodon’s catalogue by ‘The Czar’ (Crack the Skye) or ‘Stargasm’ (The Hunter), which is saying a lot.
The album as a whole has a way of sounding simultaneously more poppy and more proggy (used in the prog rock terminology) than any other album Mastodon’s done, but as far as heaviness goes, I guess there is a way to be a dick about that…
‘Jaguar God’? ‘Scorpion Breath’? Some of the riffs in ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Word to the Wise’ rival any other Mastodon has ever written.
‘I was to blame for all the rain,’ Brann Dailor sings in that last one.
Damn straight, haters.
9. Reputation, Taylor Swift (Pop, Country)
If you haven’t heard it yet, I’ll say now: here it goes: I fucking love Taylor Swift’s music. You wanna be a fuck, I’ll spend five thousand words explaining my position, but until then, I’ll try to be as objective as I can.
I will fail.
Aesthetically, it’s better than 1989, more consistent than Red, and it’s difficult to compare it to anything before that. Either way, she’s retained her penchant for honesty, which is more than enough to make something she does worth listening to, and is the primary reason she’s been so big for relatively so long. Most artists like her disappear in a few years, but she hasn’t because: a.) she’s willing to take risks; b.) she’s almost seemingly incapable of filler (that or I’m biased #IPromiseThoseFiveThousandWordsAreComing ), and c.) most importantly: she’s fucking fantastic at writing her heart out. I don’t care what you think of her music beyond the lyrics, it takes balls to sing about the shit she sings about, and perhaps never more so than on Reputation.
‘Dancing With Our Hands Tied’ and ‘Dress’ are currently my two SOLE contenders for BEST POP SONGS EVER WRITTEN (okay, I might be a little biased (it’s ‘Dress’, no question). She may occasionally get cheesy/ borderline cliché or caricature (see: ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ (unless you’re a fan: she is very good at knowing her thing))–perhaps even a little too often (keyword: PERHAPS), but: ‘please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere’???
You write something like that (yea, okay, it’s possible that she didn’t write that, but I know for a fact that she did used to write her own songs, and she has much more of a stranglehold on her music than most pop stars of any stature,, so I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here).
8. Heaven Upside Down, Marilyn Manson (Rock/Pop)
Manson’s got some cultural relevance.
I was eight years old when Mechanical Animals came out. After at least one more great record after that, there were certainly a few records after 2003’s The Golden Age of Grotesque which Manson may have had some trouble with. That changed with his last record, 2015’s The Pale Emperor.
This one’s better (or: they’re very close). The first single, ‘We Know Where You Fucking Live’ is the weakest song on the album. ‘Say10’ is not only totally vintage Manson *TheMostVintage , but points at something new, while retaining the good of the old, and is among the best songs he’s ever recorded. 'Kill4Me' is fun and groovy, 'Je$u$ Cri$i$' has the line, 'I write songs to fight and to fuck to, if you wanna fight then I'll fight you. If you wanna fuck, I will fuck you, make up your mind or I'll make it up for you,' if you’re into that type of thing (which, apparently, I am (it ‘gets the people goin’!’).)
Very few musical artists have had the fame and the lasting relevance that Marilyn Manson has had since the turn of the century, and will have so long as the line ‘the beautiful people, it’s all relative to the size of your steeple’ has any relevance. It’s nice he’s getting it back.
7: Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes (Folk/Prog/Jazz)
Fleet Foxes were a pretty big deal for hipsters like myself (TOTAL HIPSTERS) when their last album, Helplessness Blues, came out in 2011. It was their second record, and it expanded on their promising debut, but it also introduced a much darker element, which was what I was personally very stoked on.
Then six years went by, and I don’t want to be just like everyone else, so I needed somewhere to put my anti-Tool angst…
It’s spacey, and very consistent-though-varied, which is where ‘spacey’ usually gets dicey. Still folky, but less in your face about it. The songs stick out for being good songs, not just for being good folk songs. Plus it’s much riskier in its songwriting, and it fully works out.
6. 4:44, Jay-Z (Hip-Hop)
I’ve never been the biggest Jay-Z fan.
The Blueprint is of course great, and Reasonable Doubt never gets boring, but other than them, and maybe I’;m wrong here: I always thought he was more into flaunting his money (or his want of it) than actually saying anything real; like he was only flaunting his money because he had nothing else to say (again, outside of The Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt, and a few other songs here and there).
4:44 is not that way though. He’s actually keeping thought together for most of it (relatively), which is rare in hip-hop. Plus the beats are surprisingly badass.
At ten songs it’s much shorter than most hip-hop albums, and that usually works for the better (see Nas’ Illmatic, Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers, and, ironically, Jay-Z’s aforementioned The Blueprint), but it works here not only because it leaves you asking for more, but because it goes by in like, a second. Flow is on point.
Is it an Absolute that marriage problems always create good art?
I don’t want to know…
5. Villains, Queens of the Stone Age (Rock/Pop)
QOTSA have yet to disappoint.
Villains is especially a treat because, aside from Era Vulgaris (which is a little more obviously transitional), it’s the most distinct in the band’s catalog. ‘Feet don’t Fail Me’ is groovy, ‘Fortress’ is happy and borderline sentimental though far from being indulgent, and ‘Head Like a Haunted House’ is one of the most fun things one of the most fun bands ever has ever done. ‘Un-Reborn Again’ is, like, thoughtful n’ shit. ‘Hideaway’ is borderline disco. ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ is borderline Led Zeppelin. All the way through. Rock lives. Can’t go wrong.
4. The Dusk in Us, Converge (Metal/Hardcore)
Speaking of never being disappointing, Converge is among the top five coolest and most important artists of the past quarter-century. You read that correctly. This is for many reasons: their music and lyrics are real, fun, technical, emotional, and never sound forced; their sound is instantly recognizable (if you’re not still a snob about metal music (I see you)) and innovative; singer Jacob Bannon’s artwork and art design are almost as integral, and certainly as awesome and original as their music is (to their shtick); and guitarist/producer Kurt Ballou has the most original production sound in all of metal, and he’s producing many other top-rate artists right now (Old Man Gloom, Code Orange, Nails, among more), just as singer Jacob Bannon’s record label, Deathwish, is helping out on the business side. If rock is alive, metal is kicking, and I feel kinda sad for anyone afraid of it. It’s got everything (see my angles for writing this above ^), and there is lots of cool shit going on currently.
And The Dusk in Us is cool for just that: it’s fucking cool. ‘A Single Tear’ is what you’d hope it would be. The riffs in ‘Eye of the Quarrel’, ‘Under Duress’, and ‘Reptilian’ are fun, technical and memorable, and ‘Cannibals’ is one of the craziest-yet-still-makes-sense songs the band has yet made. ‘Arkhipov Calm’ is my personal favorite (the guitars, man!), but ‘Thousands of Miles Between Us’, and the title track prove, as Converge always does, why the band is as revered as they are in metal circles: their albums flow as both full albums and unique collections of songs, they’re new and fresh on every record thus far, and they retain their sound without rehashing old tricks (at least seemingly).
If someone were to ask me which album I’d give to get into them, I’d only go with Jane Doe because that’s the consensus. Currently I’d say either this or Axe to Fall, and both for the same reasons: they’re great all around.
3. Damn., Kendrick Lamar (Hip-Hop)
As with last year, I’m very torn over these last top four, and the reason is most likely because of Damn.. This thing is so politically charged, and he does it so well on this (if you can get over the fact that you may disagree with him) that it’s easy to overlook Kendrick’s natural ability for flow, beats, emotional potency and style.
I hear people bitch that he’s too political, and, probably more so, that his politics are wrong, with which I totally disagree: I don’t think he’s trying to have an argument over politics here(or make any political point for that matter (or any argument)), and not everything in life has to have something to do with politics at every moment, even politics in itself in the sense that ‘politics’ is really just rhetoric (running the country, or thinking about the world, both have a lot more going on (on a thought level (original thought))). When Kendrick is ‘talking politics’, he’s not necessarily ‘talking politics’, that’s just what he’s thinking in that moment. It only comes off as ‘political’, given the nature of what he’s thinking, the fact that he is likely trying to make a political point in an artistic realm inherently emotional before it is political (music), and how good or bad he is at articulating that in that realm which is inherently emotional before it is political. Means the music and the honesty come first (unless you’re a postmodernist).
Dude talks shit on, and praises, ideas from either side, if looked at a certain way (which is the way one should criticize any art from a strictly analytical point of view (Dualistically)), but he’s smart enough–and talented enough of an artist–to know which side of anything he subconsciously understands better. The timing may be close, but it wouldn’t feel as honest as it does if he were going into it with a political agenda first. Even if he did go into it that way, true art is emotional first, and true artists allow themselves to get emotional (though hopefully only long enough to write what they need to write (which is a tough process *THEMOSTTOUGHEST )) before they get political (as opposed to: thoughtful (thought and emotion are much closer than politics and emotion)).
‘DNA.’, ‘Element.’, ‘Humble.’, ‘God.’, ‘Fear.’, ‘Duckworth.’ are all standouts. Every song is good, although ‘Love.’ might be the best, and dare I say it, even the best hip-hop song all year. It’s not as innovative as To Pimp a Butterfly, nor as lasting as Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (I think at the moment), but it holds up Absolutely in its own right–as of right now, I can only see it getting better in time.
Plus: it’s far better than most of that mindless crap you hear on the radio nowadays (yea, I’m going there).
2. Arcadea, Arcadea (Rock/Pop)
The aforementioned Emperor of Sand haters, as much as I may hate to admit it, may have been right in at least one aspect of their sentiment…
The best Mastodon album to come out this year wasn’t by Mastodon, but was by Mastodon’s drummer/co-singer Brann Dailor’s debut 'side project', Arcadea.
Don’t mistake me for saying that Arcadea sounds much like Mastodon, however (though maybe a little). Joined only by two synth players, Dailor sings and drums to songs more memorable and interesting than almost anything else put out this year, and the music is actually interesting. Just the concept is fun/original; metal’s darling drummer/singer is joined by two synth players to play what sounds like a hybrid between new wave pop, mainstream thrash metal, and traditional prog music. Arcadea have one of the most original sounds I’ve heard in a while. Dailor’s voice is as-always distinguishable, especially the way they produce it on this record, their songwriting is impeccable (see ‘Infinite End’), and I’m still hearing things I didn’t hear before in the production–
The synths, the drums–everything!
At first, it’s overwhelming (*SoOverwhelming ), but it grows over time, and it’s pretty obvious, no matter who you are, upon first listen that it is different–and fun.
The hooks stick like pop hooks, but it’s actually, like, real.
1. After Laughter, Paramore (Pop/Rock/Funk (on this one))
Paramore’s After Laughter is FUN-AS-FUCKING Hell, it’s groovy, it’s memorable, Haley Williams is my soulmate, every moment on every song is as good as every other, and it’s different than anything Paramore has ever done, but it doesn’t sound nearly like the huge leap it should sound like and the way similar albums by other artists do (rivaling Radiohead’s Kid A in that regard? #NoWay ). The hooks are fun, and the music is simple, but never comes near close to having to strive to get its point across. For what is probably the last remaining ‘emo’ band from the 2000s, Paramore is tha’ shit, and has never ceased to be.
Not a bad moment. Not a bad song. Lyrics on ‘Fake Happy’, ‘Idle Worship’, and especially ‘26’ are on point.
One of the most listenable–if not the most listenable–records of the decade thus far.
Revised list from 2016:
3. Run the Jewels III
4. You Will Never Be One of Us
5. A Moon Shaped Pool
6. Great is Our Sin
9. The Madness of Many (Animals as Leaders)
10. We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service