It felt pivotal, like America has turned away from the social ideals — if clearly not always the reality — that strive to make our country great, and toward something darker, more loathsome and authoritarian. It’s the kind of climate in which music and the arts matter more than ever as an escape or a gesture of defiance.
I didn’t have a lot of time to hunt down new music this year, for a variety of reasons. Something else has dawned on me, too, about the digital age: While some have remarked about the overwhelming quantity of music released in 2017, I find it weirdly harder to find, or at least grab onto, new music. Sure, there are websites and podcasts aplenty devoted to the topic, and free music is easier to find and stream than ever before. But that ubiquity seems to dilute the impact, and it spreads a kind of anonymity. There’s no marketing push from record companies like there was back in the record store era, so new-album releases are quieter. And who picks up music mags anymore?
Nevertheless, these were my jams in this dismal year.
We scored tickets to see Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett play here in October, so I made an effort to check out Cloher, Barnett’s wife, who was the opening act on what would turn out to be her first-ever tour of the states. That night, the Australian native performed solo, just her and an accoustic guitar, with songs and banter in-between songs that betrayed a sensitive soul who wears her heart on her sleeve.
Her self-titled album doesn’t exactly hide that side, with lyrics about longing and heartache, and maybe thinly veiled jealousy or even resentment of her spouse’s global success. Despite that, the album exudes a more confident sense of cool, with sparsely arranged songs that chug along unhurriedly like the Velvet Underground — save for the rocking “Strong Woman,” which sounds like P.J. Harvey — and Barnett lending her guitar talents. I love Cloher’s breathy, understated voice, and lyrics like “To be kind, truly kind, is radical.”
Slowdive came back from the ’90s to deliver a dense, gauzy album, their first in 22 years. It’s full of lush sounds that falls somewhere in the Venn Diagram overlap of dream pop, ambient and shoegaze. Guitars shimmer, the bass resonates and there are nifty production tricks all over the place. It’s music meant for playing loud, ideally wearing headphones, and it made me wistful for a happier, more optimistic decade. Sometimes that’s more than enough.
Priests —Nothing Feels Natural
Washington D.C. punks not dead! Released early in the year, “Nothing Feels Natural” felt wholly appropriate for the times, with protest songs led by a full-throated Katie Alice Greer and lyrics bemoaning consumerism and questioning what it means to be a citizen in this day and age: “My best friend says ‘I want to start a band called Burger King,'” Greer sings on “Puff.” “And I say ‘Do it!’ Make your dreams a reality.”
Musically, this is uptempo post punk, indebted to standard bearers like Gang of Four and Talking Heads, incorporating diverse styles like funk, reverb-heavy surf pop, polyrhythms and girl-group R&B to keep the protest danceable.
Kurt Vile & Courtney Barnett — Lotta Sea Lice
Both these artists made my 2015 list, the last time either released an album, so it might seem like an easy cop-out choice. And I confess I worried the album might suffer from the usual “supergroup” trappings as I waited for the album we had pre-ordered to arrive in the mail.
Thankfully, I was wrong. “Lotta Sea Lice” captures the best of these two laconic singer-songwriters — Vile’s predilection for strung-out psych jams and Barnett’s mastery of real-life, mundane details as lyrics — while giving them some guardrails. The album admittedly has a bit of a cobbled-together feel, with covers of songs by Barnett herself, Jen Cloher and ’90s alt-rock stars Belly, plus “Blue Cheese,” a song Ville wrote as a teenager. But it ultimately feels harmonious and authentic.
Downtown Boys — Cost of Living
Another band making urgent, politicized music that gets you up and moving, Providence, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys is a multiracial, gender-integrated and bilingual band with an album named “Full Communism” behind them, to give you an idea of where they’re coming from. Their leadoff single is called “A Wall,” and it proclaims “A wall is a wall / and nothing more at all.” The album is produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto. It features the assertive voice of frontwoman Victoria Ruiz, guitar and saxophone, like an updated version of ’70s punk band X-Ray Spex.
Laura Marling — Semper Femina
“Semper Femina” is a more quiet and contemplative effort than “Short Movie,” Marling’s 2015 release, but it’s also more consistently good. It’s fully of prettily arranged songs that veer between Marling’s English folk forbearers and Joni Mitchell’s ’70s Laurel Canyon period. Marling has a gorgeous voice that she uses to muse on the fairer sex.
“I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman,” Marling explained in a press release. “And then I thought it’s not a man, it’s me — I don’t need to pretend it’s a man to justify the intimacy of the way I’m looking and feeling about women. It’s me looking specifically at women and feeling great empathy towards them and by proxy towards myself.”
Protomartyr — Relatives in Descent
This band — which hails from right here in Ferndale, woot — continues to strengthen its sound on its fourth album, now for British label Domino. As always, Protomartyr writes lyrics unlike any other band (“To save money for his plain wife, My stupid son never grasped the finer points of life,” vocalist Joe Casey speak-sings on “Caitriona”) that feel like barroom musings of the drunk poet at the end of the bar thinking about the end of the world. Greg Ahee’s guitars slash and burn and rhythm section brings the power. Observers of local lore should admire the song “Windsor Hum,” which takes its inspiration from a local phenomenon, similar to the ways 2014’s “Under Color of Official Right” mined the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal for lyrical content.