Best Music of 2017: #5-1

10-6 | 5-1

5) The National 
“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” – Sleep Well Beast

The human nervous system relays messages to the brain at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. The National’s intimate yet galvanic rock songs don’t hit the mark quite that fast, but they’re getting there. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a pre-lit firecracker fuse from a band that specializes in the slow burn. In under 20 seconds, all the requisite National parts snap into place; somber piano, pulse-quickening snares, panicky guitar shards, and Matt Berninger’s whiskey-soaked baritone that might usher in a lullaby were it not drowning in melancholy. It’s workmanlike to the point where you almost miss the little aural nuances— a lulling choir, chirping horns, and looped synthesizers — that the band employs to make Sleep Well Beast the most textured, IDM-friendly album of their career.

The great National songs transmit forth like romantic, weary, guilt-ridden confessions, as if you’re being made privy to the inner monologue of some thoughtful, damaged soul after about the third drink or so. “I’m always thinking about useless things/ I’m always mothering myself to bits” Berninger concedes on “Walk It Back” before catching himself. “I better cut it off/ Don’t wanna fuck up the place.” Berninger’s offhand remarks (“It all catches up to me.” “Nothing I do makes me feel different”) are elevated to precepts that obliterate self-deception. “I can’t explain it/ Any other way” he professes, shackled yet triumphant.

On their seventh album, these indie elder statesmen still render ennui in new, concentrated forms; the joyous piano dirge of “Carin At The Liquor Store,” “Sleep Well Beast’s” deconstructed minor key beauty, the terror of doldrums against a gallop of drums in “The Day I Die”. Berninger, now 46, sounds more authoritative and weathered than ever, emoting like a man whose life’s work is to earn redemption, knowing full well that someone, somewhere, remains sick of his shit. “I’m no holiday” Berninger admits on “Guilty Party” without flinching. Sleep Well Beast is an assured study in hushing the doubts, fears, and self-recriminations — all those monsters that can’t quite ever be silenced — by giving voice to them.

4) Slowdive
“Go Get It” – Slowdive

In the early 90’s, shoegaze was a sound very much of its era. It’s trademark screwed-down guitars, narcotic synths, and androgynous vocals flipped grunge’s existential angst on its head into a blissful, staring-at-the-ceiling-fan stupor. Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine, two of the genre’s titans, would ensure that time-in-a-bottle stature by dissolving at the height of their powers.

The twenty-two year gap between My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (1991) and follow-up m b v (2013) felt as interminable as it was mythologized, as if the wellspring of mastermind Kevin Shield’s creative animus had all but dried up before being miraculously replenished. The same wait between Slowdive’s Pygmalion (1995) and their self-titled comeback offers broader, more pragmatic insights into the genre’s timelessness. In 2017, Slowdive’s return sounds as unassuming and natural as a swimmer coming up for air.

The UK quintet, still fronted by singers/guitarists Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead, still devise gauzy dream-pop that swallows the senses whole —titanic, hypnotic, and oceanic. Reverb-laden arpeggios and slushy guitar barrages conspire to engineer “Don’t Know Why” and “Everyone Knows” into spiral staircases of crystalline songwriting and smeared melody. The lovely resignation of “Sugar For the Pill” offers a terrestrial come down from the cosmic “Star Roving,” a rocker built on the most aggressive guitar riff in the band’s history.

It’s in the particulars where Slowdive hints at something both tangible and eternal. “Go Get It”’s chorus climaxes with a bold shift to an augmented A chord of convalescing vocal harmonies, guitar, and bass. It collapses on three octaves at once, a melodic riptide that’s subtle yet devastating; the shoegaze equivalent of a dubstep drop. “I wanna see it/ I wanna feel it” Halstead entreats inside the maelstrom, as if there were any doubt.

3) SZA
“Doves in the Wind” – CTRL

Fiercely independent, unabashedly brainy, and graced by conversational words of wisdom from a loving mother, SZA’s CTRL feels like the loud-spoken, risqué sister to Solange’s elegant statement of pop purpose, A Seat At the Table, from 2016. Solange’s manifesto was a graceful exhale in the face of racial indignity and SZA’s debut is a coy whistle from the bedroom, but both are undeniably the sound of black, female empowerment.

When it comes to lascivious taglines, pick your poison: “Let me tell you a secret/ I been secretly banging your homeboy”; “You’re 9 to 5, I’m the weekend”; “I’ve had a thing for dirty shoes since I was ten/ Love dirty men alike.” On CTRL, SZA quietly explodes R&B from the inside out by embracing polygamist attitudes heretofore believed to be reserved for men only.

But behind each boast is a nugget of real vulnerability, a sense that she’s deceiving to avoid being deceived, that relentlessly playing the field isn’t all that much more desirable than being alone. But rather than invite slut-shaming, SZA projects emotional fearlessness on CTRL, her chin up, our gaze met. “Pussy like doves in the wind” she professes, likening womanhood to the ephemeral in ways both wanton, hilarious, and divine. “I wish I was a normal girl” she yearns, knowing with absolute certainty that she’s not.

Yet of all 2017’s unladylike ladies, SZA is the most relatable. “I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night” she apologizes on “Drew Barrymore,” a shout out to women everywhere, unassured, bookish, and still lovable. Sonically, she rips a page from Frank Ocean’s Blonde, shaping minimalist beats, helium-pitched vocals, and scattered scraps of synth and guitar into a sinewy, spartan milieu. But CTRL’s aural deconstruction isn’t just post-R&B; its message of sexual empowerment is post-#metoo, too. In celebrating her nerd-dom, street-savviness and promiscuity, SZA is unashamedly candid (and powerful) in all aspects of her emotional topography — fitting for a record about gaining mastery over oneself and others.

2) The War On Drugs
“Holding On” – A Deeper Understanding

photo by Ryan Collard

On record, “Holding On” sounds enormous, endlessly unfolding, and utterly immaculate. The War on Drugs’ soaring meditation on transition, loss, and renewal features a Wall of Sound production assembled from interpolated fragments of beloved Springsteen classics “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s a bevy of motorik drums, glockenspiel, and 80’s synths all bound by the sturdy mortar of Meg Duffy’s sidewinding slide guitar. Like the Boss, front man Adam Granduciel is a notorious studio maven who’s fourth LP, A Deeper Understanding, feels like the end of a long journey to materialize the grand sounds he hears in his head.

From “Holding On’s” classic rock triumph to the cinematic opus of “Thinking of a Place” to the glistening, multi-tracked melody of “You Don’t Have to Go,” the album rarely sounds anything less than flawlessly realized. But beneath it all remains the grit, tenderness and constancy of a beating human heart. Hearing Granduciel and co. render a live, stripped down version of “Holding On” on SiriusXMU studio sessions is revelatory in a different way. The song now chugs like a pickup truck down an old dusty road — scrappy and steadfast, the kind of thing that you’re sure could run forever. Somehow, it feels both more enduring and more mortal — a fitting dichotomy for a song that hints at loss as a form of transcendence.

Granduciel’s pursuit for permanence in the face of the unknowable and the fleeting, (“I resist what I cannot change/ And I want to find what can’t be found” he sings on “Pain”) makes A Deeper Understanding’s artistic actualization all the more edifying. “Holding On” is a bold grasp at the intangible, like fingers clutching tight to catch sand grains from life’s hourglass. And for six magical minutes, it does just that — both holding us fast and transporting us in a way that dares to stop time.

1) Kendrick Lamar

photo by Peter Yang

Kendrick Lamar’s admission that DAMN. is, in fact, a musical palindrome is probably the least profound of all his thematic album Easter eggs, especially compared to the non-linear, Pulp Fiction-like climax of 2012’s cinematic Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and the multi-threaded 2Pac memorial within 2015’s avant-garde To Pimp A Butterfly. But playing DAMN. in reverse is as illuminating metaphorically as it is impressive technically. Approached from any direction or context —as rap colossus, pop star, poet provocateur, or cultural firebrand —Lamar embodies unquestionable mastery.

Whereas Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was an artistic tour de force and To Pimp A Butterfly a bitches brew of black music tropes, DAMN. is Kendrick as rapper indomitable, his doctrine of the wounded African-American psyche rendered quite literally in all caps. Lamar’s syllabilistic annihilation of “DNA”’s closing verse blisters like a scalding stove burner. There’s a reason why fellow apex predator LeBron co-opted “ELEMENT” as his NBA playoff theme music, why “HUMBLE”’s goofy, 6/4 Frankenstein lurch still floated from car windows all summer long, why “LOVE” was a seemingly effortless exercise in Kendrick outdraking Drake. Game recognizes game. Every experiment Lamar attempts and style he co-opts now feels like it’s best of breed, a veritable hip-hop TED Talk, a product of one man’s Midas touch.

Over a back-masked sample of Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” and with pop empress Rihanna on his arm, Kendrick inquires: “Tell me who you loyal to/ Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?” But DAMN’s coup de grâce is the way its material pleasures take back seat to Lamar’s spiritual enlightenment. “Sit down/ Be humble” Lamar demands, draped in papal robes and Last Supper digs. No artist had more to lose in 2017 than Kendrick, yet with DAMN., his foes remain blips in the rear view. The contradiction is exhilarating. The more Kendrick lays prostrate to the omniscient, the mightier he becomes. Loyalty? It comes in many forms, but Kendrick’s faith is as uncomplicated as it is compelling — fear God, trust in your craft, and believe in yourself.

10-6 | 5-1

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2018 by in Best of and tagged , , , , .
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