2017: Favorite 50 Music Releases This year’s shitshow can’t be completely undone, but we are not beyond repair.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


10

MHYSA

fantasii

[Halcyon Veil]

[LISTEN · READ]

Somewhere between a strip tease and an ancient ritual dance, fantasii smacked us upside the head until the stars in our eyes started to fall into a kind of sacred rhythm. Calm and collected yet splitting at the seams, E. Jane’s reinvention as MHYSA took the diva theatrics to the next level, concocting a split personality as performative as it was intimate, one that begged for late-night rotation in some imagined club half-rendered through a laptop screen. Whether she was spitting sexting freestyles over formless noise or mumbling wounded confessions over beats that could fuck up your car’s audio system, MHYSA’s willingness to contradict was exactly what made fantasii’s slanted vision so pointed. Both empowering and self-questioning, MHYSA pointed toward a future of black feminine freedom, where jewel thief Doris Payne was held on the same level as Harriet Tubman or Beyoncé, and strength and weakness were understood to be two versions of the same slippery human thing.


09

Playboi Carti

Playboi Carti

[Interscope/AWGE]

[LISTEN · READ]

For a record that defined the year in rap, Playboi Carti was something of an anomaly. First of all, it was a commercial mixtape — 15 whole tracks with a discernible sequence and signs of having been both mixed and mastered. It was even made available (very belatedly) on physical media. Secondly, Carti managed to keep a relatively low profile as his contemporaries built massive, near-inevitably problematic cults of personality on the backs of their own viral hits. This was the crux of Carti’s appeal; his presence on a track could be understated at times, but it was always essential. The handful of memorable lines that dot Playboi Carti aside, he was just as effective when relegated to an almost entirely percussive role, taking the post-Migos blurring of the line between lyric and ad-lib to a new extreme. Given a mind-bending set of beats from Pi’erre Bourne and others, Carti situated himself perfectly within track after track, deftly scaling up or down as the situation required. Of everything that 2017 promised about rap’s future, Playboi Carti felt the most like a real path forward, a crystallization of the SoundCloud underground’s zeitgeist in a format built to transcend the scene’s messy adolescence.


08

Lorde

Melodrama

[Republic/Lava]

[WATCH · READ]

I’m just really obsessed with Lorde. All I could think to say while drinking cheap beer on a school night. What I mean is I got dressed up in velvet. “Megaphone to my chest.” I felt it making me blush. What I mean is I buried myself in bed while on the phone. Tell me I am not unreal. Tell me I have never said the wrong thing. Tell me to quit being such a Virgo and overthinking everything. “And then they are bored of me.” I left the house and returned with candles. What I mean is, this year, I let myself feel shattered and nervous and chaotic and alone and electric. I lived in Melodrama. I dreamed in Melodrama. I no longer know the difference between falling in love and falling apart. Who cares? “Come home to my heart.” I put on Melodrama while getting ready, then I put it on at the party. I put on Melodrama the next morning, still wearing velvet and feeling wild. Here’s to going out, being a mess, fucking, talking shit, crushing. Here’s to spilling wine. Here’s to adoring the rush.


07

Laurel Halo

Dust

[Hyperdub]

[LISTEN · READ]

The bodhi tree is originally not a tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
Originally there is not a single thing
Where is there room for dust?

Sixth Patriarch Huineng

“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky.”
– David Bowie

So, there’s nothing at the beginning or the end. But there’s also nothing in the middle. And in that nothing, everything. A syzygy, a conjunction of opposites (with a further conjunction of personal and impersonal). The minutiae of decisions, drinks, dialtones — all of these have Buddha-nature. Shades of the fractured Buddhist pop of Arthur Russell or Laurie Anderson lingered around the edges of Dust. Sedimentary layers shifted and shuddered, disturbing concrete [poetry] until it lay in broken slabs, its twisted rebar on shameless display — the ground of being was impermanent. And in that uncertainty, there was mystery — Dust was also a cyber noir or, more accurately, the accompanying soundtrack of jazz deconstructed and digital, vocal fragments that cohered, yes, that did not cede completely to experiment, but told a story half-glimpsed and deceptive in any seeming of autobiography. For pulvis et umbra sumus: silicon shadows we are.


06

Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

[Top Dawg]

[WATCH · READ]

Look, we could sit here all day talking up various aspects of DAMN. Like how Kendrick Lamar is so famous now, he can get Don Cheadle to be in his music videos or have even his most mundane instant messages reported on as newsworthy. Or how about that U2 feature, which sounded like a terrible idea on paper, but ended up being a highlight in practice? We could even bring up how the album was a constant self-meditation on how some aspect of Kendrick’s identity — be it sins, or poor financial decisions, or something inherent in him — will ultimately, well, damn him to failure. And then there were the lyrics, which were so self-referential and circular that DAMN. functioned perfectly whether you played the track order as presented or in reverse order. Those were interesting talking points, but they’re frankly all irrelevant without this one: DAMN. was just a really fucking great album. Even weighed down by the pressure of following To Pimp A Butterfly, a work many already consider to be an all-timer, Lamar effortlessly hoisted the ball from half court, mashed it 500 feet, beat the goalie stick-side, and sunk the hole-in-one to win the World Cup. Mixed sports metaphors can’t lie, Kendrick Lamar was that damn good.


05

Klein

Tommy

[Hyperdub]

[LISTEN · READ]

In the late 18th century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham proposed a new style of circular prison — known as the Panopticon — that would allow a single watchperson to simultaneously observe each inmate without any particular inmate knowing whether or not they’re being watched. If the Panopticon weren’t a punitive state apparatus for social control but the metacognitive prison of the irrational mind, then Tommy would be its musical equivalent: a moment of kaleidoscopic reflexivity. The record’s disjointed — yet conjoined — association of open-hearted moments allowed Klein to become submerged in the fractal admixture of ephemeral feeling with empirical imprecision yet transcendent meticulousness. Oblique memories shapeshifted into premonitions like radiance deflected by shattered mirrors; tragedies collided with reassurances, uncertainties, and consolations. But in this aural panopticon, it wasn’t always clear who was observing whom, as Klein frequently shifted between the observer and the observed. It was a testament to the psychological hegemony of emotion: the more we seek to command the psyche, the more it consumes us in return. On Tommy, indeed, Klein only feigned her agency, herself quite frequently bound by fragments of sound — squabbling voices, imploding atmospheres, and belligerent kick drums — that vied for attention like codependent lovers or backstabbing friends.


04

Charli XCX

Number 1 Angel

[Atlantic]

[LISTEN · READ]

Abstraction cultivates the arousal of Charli XCX’s reality; if Number 1 Angel was all a dream, I didn’t want to wake up. Channeling across the cables under sea, like voter fraud; a synthetic mystic, “Dreamer” or “Blame It On You” too: of self-control. Friendship ultimately lasts, whether love or “Drugs.” Love to those who’ve kept a secret they can’t explain. “Emotional” epiphanies. Alarm-blared beats swelling into the fantastic, as Charli XCX masterminded a youthquake of selfies cycling through a Top 40 ouroboros. The night out, come “Roll With Me.” Never any other night out, but this night out. An instinct at “3AM.” Something surrounding all senses of relief. An Instagram post you demand I remove, but confusion, significance. A “Babygirl” back by popular demand has been-had. A life? Angelic five-head TMTers alight with glee in the glory of Number 1 Angel. The game Dan and I play for front-page savory. Shh, “ILY2,” bb. Our love triangle with Mr P, bundled up, narrated by Charli XCX. With teases like these, smudging our “Lipgloss” before Number 1 Angel’s climactic CupcakKe feature makes me feel like we should hang out more often. What is absolution from anxiety? It’s courage. It’s curbed. It’s Charli. It’s Charli, baby.


03

Arca

Arca

[XL]

[WATCH · READ]

If last year’s The Young Pope was TV’s poetically earnest yet narcotic and exploitative (of the far reaches of transgression meeting permittance, ego meeting virtue, and power meeting mortality) meditation on the proverbial fast-eroding volcanic rim we all continue to hotfootedly inhabit, Arca was 2017’s elegantly flailing musical answer. Alejandro Ghersi’s compostions have always slashed through the head like blown-out siren songs to some sort of fleeting virtual opulence. His tentative melodies glittered like car-accident glass, with abrading clamor casting dead-eyed fuck offs as the static found its release into grace. There may’ve been a very pop sense of gauzy, endless-night splendor to Arca (most exemplified on the hooky “Desafio”), but the lingering sensation was more akin to a hypnotically spreading stain of human mess. Of shredded nerves and desperate, endless lust. Of a soul too bodily compromised to be more than a firefly in a jar. The sadness in lurid oblivion. The rot flashed out in the thick of your transcendentally gorgeous, slow-motion-worthy reverie. The groty and the abject. The young dying restless. And all of it just the right amount of too close for our freezing-cold comfort.


02

Yves Tumor

Experiencing the Deposit of Faith

[Self-Released]

[LISTEN · READ]

My nose, my lips, your head shape: an intimate futurity. Sensuous attentions abuzz and unfolding into nameable clarities. My nose, my lips, your head shape: a taking stock, a composition and a tentacular propriocepting. My nose, my lips, your head shape: epidermal attachments that veer from the violent vivisection of phrenology to the gentle fumblings of an incipient phenomenology. My nose, my lips, your head shape: empathy in touching, the conjugal swathed in a deposit of faith. My nose, my lips, your head shape: the deposition of a de-position, swaddling clothes contoured into a corporeal inheritance. My nose, my lips, your head shape: enfolding the untold in a loop. Ligature, lithe and limber, lacing the lineament. Attunements aufgehoben and accretions unstuck from the ongoing. Eddies that elude enclosure and hypostasis. My nose, my lips, your head shape: a body produced but also dispersing. Resonant fugitivity, serpent music: the opalescence of scales reflecting into the otherwise of an elsewhere.


01

Mount Eerie

A Crow Looked At Me

[P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.]

[LISTEN · READ]

What a strange record to put in the top slot, this moment-to-moment recitation of grief and mourning, written and recorded by Phil Elevrum in the immediate aftermath of the death of his wife, the artist and musician Geneviève Castrée. I can’t get the memory of my first listen to it out of my head, drunk in my living room with a dear friend from France who was in town to premiere her most recent film. It was a film in which she’d had to play the lead, because its intended lead, her best friend, had killed herself. I had my own things, too. We wept, of course, uncontrollably, and we held each other. But the record itself was quiet, unassuming, delicate, if still overpoweringly sad, the type of record that evades the sort of grandiosity usually placed at the head of these lists.

I love A Crow Looked At Me, but this love I have for it is an ambivalent one, a strange conflicted embrace of this incredibly specific recounting of an incredibly specific end of 2016 and beginning of 2017. I can barely relate to this thing, even as it crushes me. My connection to the sort of heterosexual nuclear family at its core is fraught, a life foreclosed to me, or that I’ve chosen to foreclose, as I claw my way out of my body, my gender, my future. Even the ideal, death-free form of Phil’s life seems alien and frightening. But more than that ambivalence, there is the record itself, an unfinished arc far more than an object for admiration and love, a process, an ongoing velocity of grief, a futurity routed through a no-futurity. There was little in the way of repeated melodies, almost nothing in the way of metaphor, just a searching series of vocals pushing through grief, seeking out melodies, abandoning them. The typical phrasings and lyrics that crop up across Phil’s oeuvre were almost nowhere in sight, save one sad utterance of “I went back to feel alone there.” That moment of familiarity, like the familiarity of his measured, searching voice, was a relief among all this devastation and loss, but it couldn’t bring us anywhere. Its familiarity, ultimately, continued the ache of that ambivalent embrace.

As soon as I revisited the album for this essay, I collapsed in a pile of tears before starting to write, then stopped and sobbed again, shuddering at my kitchen table through short intakes of breath. Of course. It’s hard to think about, but I’m trying, as I write, to embrace that ambivalent embrace with which I embraced this record all year. The first line reminded us that “Death is real,” that “it’s not for making into art.” And still, its narrative and its author are here, present, in their own small section of North America, in a “world smoldering and fascist, with no mother.” I want it to be more than its specifics, to say something about this year, the fascism, the horror, something more than about family and death, but it doesn’t.

But if I interrogate that desire, perhaps that speaks to why I, we, embraced the album. We embraced its disinterest in our embrace, if our embrace would turn it into a grand statement about life or this year or music itself. There were many other albums that better captured the zeitgeist of 2017, that pushed against borders of the stylistic, technological, political, cultural, or just literal varieties and their wretched brutality. In its acceptance of its own limits, in its hopelessness and searching and failure, it made space for the minor as a crucial act. Thankfully, graciously, in the crushing misery of this year, A Crow Looked at Me was a crushingly miserable album that made no claims to universality, that sat there in utter specifics with no call to identification. It was an album of toilet brushes, hospital gowns, ashes, flies in windows, and supermarket catatonia. It was an album about a tiny chunk of land in the North and a painting in Norway and the death of Geneviève and the life of their infant daughter.

Phil gave us space to engage with this process of our subjectivity butting up against his, intertwining and interacting but remaining immanent. He recommitted me to the world as it is, reminded me of the danger of grand statements and the sad comfort in uncertainty. As I, we or you, move through the time A Crow Looked at Me spends unravelling, we wander through a mesh of musical histories, bits of old melodies and too on-the-nose memories, the histories of three people and a few moments of artistic output they admired and made. As we listen, our tiny trajectory through time and space and sensual experience and thought and culture move through his own trajectory. We are entangled, disentangling, not threatened and, for once, not asked to subsume ourselves. Phil’s stories are not perfect; they’re just shards, allowed to exist in a flux of grief unto themselves. If he had tried to be more than he is, I think I would have pushed him away. But he didn’t.

I keep weeping, and my tears are my own. This, I think, is the path forward opened by this record, its own tiny pushing of borders. In the precision of his own grief, Phil found something of a model for a less-dangerous emotional relation between listener and performer that allows for engagement from all sides. The ambivalence of my embrace is crucial to my love of it, allows me to love it. We are not subsumed, but we weep. Our specificity survives, his specificity survives, and this aspect felt like its own crucial politic, to give us the freedom to weep on our own terms, be it for the suicide of a friend or something closer or farther from his songs. Thanks, Phil.


Favorite 50 Music Releases:

50. Perfume Genius - No Shape (Matador)
49. Sun Araw - THE SADDLE OF THE INCREATE (Sun Ark/Drag City)
48. Tara Jane O’Neil - Tara Jane O’Neil (Gnomonsong)
47. Nmesh - Pharma (Orange Milk)
46. Colleen - A flame my love, a frequency (Thrill Jockey)
45. Bell Witch - Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore)
44. Toiret Status - Nyoi Plunger (Noumenal Loom)
43. Julie Byrne - Not Even Happiness (Ba Da Bing!)
42. Pharmakon - Contact (Sacred Bones)
41. Amnesia Scanner - AS TRUTH (MIXTAPE) (Self-Released)
40. Kara-Lis Coverdale - Grafts (Boomkat)
39. Actress - AZD (Ninja Tune)
38. Upgrayedd Smurphy - HYPNOSYS (R-CH-V)
37. Pan Daijing - Lack 惊蛰 (PAN)
36. Richard Dawson - Peasant (Weird World)
35. woopheadclrms - Meeting Room + Rare Plants (Ukiuki Atamata)
34. Giant Claw - Soft Channel (Orange Milk)
33. Konrad Sprenger - Stack Music (PAN)
32. Khaki Blazer - Didn’t Have to Cut (Hausu Mountain)
31. Young Thug - Beautiful Thugger Girls (Atlantic)
30. Lawrence English - Cruel Optimism (Room40)
29. CupcakKe - Queen Elizabitch (Self-Released)
28. Léo Hoffsaes & Loto Retina - Early Contact (PERMALNK)
27. Big Thief - Capacity (Saddle Creek)
26. V/A - Club Chai Vol.1 (Club Chai)
25. Slowdive - Slowdive (Dead Oceans)
24. Chino Amobi - PARADISO (UNO NYC/NON WORLDWIDE)
23. V/A - Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series/Limited Event Series OST) (Rhino)
22. Jlin - Black Origami (Planet Mu)
21. Björk - Utopia (One Little Indian)
20. M.E.S.H. - Hesaitix (PAN)
19. Chief Keef - Thot Breaker (Glo Gang)
18. GAS - Narkopop (Kompakt)
17. SZA - CTRL (Top Dawg)
16. DJ Escrow - Universal Soulja Vol. 1 (Self-Released)
15. V/A - Sounds of Sisso (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
14. milo - who told you to think?????!?!???!???!???! (Ruby Yacht)
13. Ryuichi Sakamoto - async (Milan)
12. V/A - mono no aware (PAN)
11. Felicia Atkinson - Hand In Hand (Shelter Press)
10. MHYSA - fantasii (Halcyon Veil)
09. Playboi Carti - Playboi Carti (Interscope/AWGE)
08. Lorde - Melodrama (Republic/Lava)
07. Laurel Halo - Dust (Hyperdub)
06. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. (Top Dawg)
05. Klein - Tommy (Hyperdub)
04. Charli XCX - Number 1 Angel (Atlantic)
03. Arca - Arca (XL)
02. Yves Tumor - Experiencing the Deposit of Faith (Self-Released)
01. Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series


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