It’s that time of year again — I write a list of songs that you probably haven’t heard, you critique it with a list of songs I absolutely haven’t heard.
But we don’t really have to fight, because that exchange says nothing about either of us or our tastes, because it’s impossible to be well read with the deluge of multimedia released every single day on this crazy world-wide web of ours.
I didn’t pay attention to new music in 2017 as much as I normally do, so this list leans heavily on releases from the first half of the year. In no particular order, these are some of the best songs I heard that still hit me just as hard at year’s end.
Jens Lekman: What’s That Perfume That You Wear?
The best breakup songs are the least morose ones — and with its peppy beat and steel drums, this single from Jens Lekman is as far away from a downer as he could get. After his sophomore slump LP I Know What Love Isn’t, where Lekman at best sounded like a Morrissey imitator and at worst sounded like every other acoustic jam band ever, this grooving, wistful number was a real return to form.
Mac DeMarco: This Old Dog
Mac DeMarco, the rare indie rocker who knows the difference between “chill” and “dull,” started the year off right with this low-key anthem to devotion — a reassurance, most likely, to a girlfriend stuck back home while he tours the world.
Real Estate: Darling
Always a delight when a band you’ve forgotten about for half a decade shows up with a tender, satisfying tune just packed full of delightful little guitar licks.
Eshon Burgundy: Nothing Above You
Eshon Burgundy is a rapper from Philadelphia who breaks the genre’s mold by spending each song giving glory to Jesus instead of himself — but also breaks the mold of “Christian” rap by avoiding its cornball mores. The single “Nothing Above You” is an honest confession that more Christian musicians ought to emulate. Whereas most K-LOVE-friendly songs pump out insincere declarations of finish-line faith (I’ve made my decision, I’ll be perfect from now on), Burgundy captures the grind of daily obedience and the war between flesh and spirit. And, even more, there’s no blaming any external temptation: “I want to be on my own, I want to be in the wrong” he admits — “but you [Lord] will not leave me alone!”
And beyond the great lyrics, the production is top notch — with a sweet touch in Burgundy’s daughter singing along during the chorus.
Mondo Grosso: Labyrinth
Requires no explanation.
The title track from my pick for album of the year. Disasteradio is a one-man project whose breakthrough album, 2010’s Charisma, has aged far better than many of the most hyped albums of that year (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The Suburbs, et. al.). It’s a frenetic, exuberant celebration of technology democratizing the creative process — with lone New Zealander Luke Rowell using MIDI and vocoder to produce synthpop punk that’s more polished than even some major labels’ output, then actually getting noticed by a mass audience via YouTube-Soundcloud-Bandcamp. It was an underdog success story that epitomized the dreams of many young creatives.
Seven years later, the Internet has changed quite a bit, and that’s where Sweatshop comes in. The technology that once seemed to connect us has allowed our shared culture to regress into tribalism, increased our personal isolation, and — oh yeah, it’s built on quasi-slave labor that no one wants to disrupt because that would hurt their bottom lines, either financially or politically.
This is all communicated through the album’s recurring image of an astronaut alone on his spaceship, where astounding technology enables him to do things that previous generations could only dream of — but gives no relief for solitude.
Sonically, the album is rougher than Charisma — the Pinkerton to its Blue Album. The unironic cornball MIDI settings go even further this time, with whole songs built around synth guitars and a frenetic, finger tapping-style solo played out over vocoder. Yet it still chock full of beautiful, exhilarating moments
Nadia Reid: Preservation
A quiet, graceful, and powerful breakup song — sung by the person doing the dumping.
David Bazan: Care
The Seattle singer-songwriter who I profiled years ago continues his winning streak with the poignant, synth-centric Care LP. The opener/title track sketches two old friends, a man and a woman, pushing the boundaries of catching up vs. hooking up. Now, in his Pedro the Lion days, Bazan would have just wallowed in the sin and failure, but in his older age, we see a counter-cultural morality overtake the former desire to look cynical. “Stop romanticizing cheating,” he concludes, no longer a narrator but a teacher.
Sheer Mag: Expect the Bayonet
Hoo boy, am I gonna get some heat for this one. This song is quite literally an anthem for violent revolution from the world of Antifa/”Punch All Nazis”/Leninist LARPing. And, conceding that, it’s a perfect example of how to do political music, a reminder that the left has sorely needed since forever ago (never forget this cringey abomination from Adam McKay) and a beginner’s guide for the right.
First off, no conservative who sees the members of Sheer Mag on the street will actually be intimidated by the line “If you don’t give us the ballot, expect the bayonet.” But the song is a reminder that there is just a thin line between politics and raiding each other’s villages. So if we’re just lobbing rhetorical bombs at one another, it’s a far better situation than the alternative.
What the song gets right is that, though it’s sung as though the audience is the enemy, the “rich men in their white skin,” it’s actually all about firing up the base — making people who agree with you feel inspired, like they’re on the cool winning team. That’s why r/The_Donald was such a big part of 2016 — you don’t jump onto a bandwagon unless it seems like a wild (and fun) ride.
And, of course, it’s a sweet guitar rock tune at a time when the genre is mostly a desert. It’s got a catchy, laid-back riff in the verses, a unique chord progression, and great energy on the vocals. You don’t need to agree for your toe to start tapping — and until conservatives can put out something just as good, the Antifa types like Sheer Mag will continue to corner the market.
Sufjan Stevens: Tonya Harding
It’s that typical aching, synth-maximalist, ultra-reverbed, ultra-empathetic Sufjan style we love the most, milking all the pathos possible out of ’90s tabloid fodder, capturing the contradictions of human spirit, all that good stuff. The brief essay he includes in the release gives all the relevant biographical info you’ll need to understand the lyrics — and also shows us how much he’s improved as a writer in the past decade.
For more tracks that I enjoyed this year but didn’t make the cut, check out this playlist.