As always, I wanted to give a mention to the music I enjoyed this year that didn’t fit the traditional “album” format, or else that was released in 2016 and I didn’t catch up to it until this year. Either way, none of it’s eligible for my Top 20 list, but all of it is definitely worth checking out if anything I have to say here piques your interest.
WAIT, THAT’S NOT AN ALBUM!
Tennis – We Can Die Happy EP
This could basically be considered a companion piece to Yours Conditionally, which (spoiler alert) did make my Top 20 list this year. Among these five little indie pop gems are the more danceable “No Exit” and “Diamond Ring”, the domestic bliss of “Born to Be Needed” and “I Miss That Feeling”, and the intriguing vulnerability of the closing ballad “Building God”. There isn’t a dud in the bunch, and I’m honestly inclined to just play the album and then this EP in sequence since it all flows so well together.
Audio: “No Exit”
Owel – Live From Audio Pilot Studios
This “live in studio” disc goes to show that while Owel’s music seems pretty meticulously orchestrated, their live sound doesn’t venture far from the expansive sound heard on their albums. Most of Dear Me is recreated faithfully here in a slightly different order, giving a glimpse into of what it might be like to see them live, minus any crowd noise. It’s as close as this West Coaster will probably get to attending an Owel concert any time soon, and the only reason I didn’t put it on my top albums list for the year is because it’s such a faithful recreation that it’s every bit as good as the album (minus two personal favorite tracks of mine, plus a B-side), and thus I can’t really consider it new material.
Live Footage: “I Am Not Yours”
Rina Sawayama – RINA EP
This EP is a strong introduction to a Japanese-born, English-raised singer/songwriter who has chosen throwback pop and R&B from circa the turn of the century as her musical venue. It’s not a genre I’d normally get into, but her collaboration with producer Clarence Clarity throws some interesting curveballs into the mix, making these songs more intricate and insidiously catchy than you might expect at the outset. (Seriously, she really shouldn’t have led off with “Ordinary Superstar”. It’s not representative of her talents, but it gets way better after that.) The rock-edged “Alterlife” has been my jam for the last month or so, while “10-20-40” is a smart pop tune with some electric guitar spice of its own, apparently about some sort of a pill addiction. Perhaps the emotional centerpieces are the ballads “Tunnel Vision” and “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” paradoxically lament missing out on real life while being a prisoner to social media, even as the sound of them hearkens back to a time when our online interactions were mostly limited to AOL Instant Messenger and badly designed GeoCities pages.
Music Video: “Alterlife”
Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Intelligence
Ryan O’neal continues to deliver his Atlas saga in these tiny clusters of songs themed around some aspect of the human experience. “Body” is a cautious, string-laden ode to our physical selves, “Heart” is all a flutter with nervous anticipation of an exercise in blind trust, and “Mind” is calculated and machine-like, reflecting the pattern recognition that leads us to comprehend our own sense of identity. (The Enneagram series following this EP is already in progress, but I’m going to treat that as a 2018 release because he’s only two tracks in with seven to go, as of the end of this year.)
Christine Denté – Closer to Free EP
Since Out of the Grey was the first “alternative pop” act I got into way back in the early 90s, and they did so much to shape my appreciation for the more personal side of faith-based music, I still have an incredible soft spot for nearly anything either of the Dentés touch all these years later. Christine doesn’t sound radically different apart from her husband Scott, aside from the music being more based around keyboards than guitars, but with her son Julian producing, she still kept this one in the family, and in many ways it feels like an alternate path Out of the Grey could have taken after 6.1 all those years ago. I’m all a flutter for the concise pop gem “Butterflies Inside”, while “Culdesac Cathy” is an intriguing meditation on suburban privilege, and a few of the other tracks have a chill, introspective pop vibe that I quickly warmed up to.
Audio: “Butterflies Inside”
Flint Eastwood – Broke Royalty EP
Compared to Small Victories, which I raved about this time last year (even though it was actually a 2015 release), the new tracks on this EP seem more focused on take-no-prisoners pop production than on clever songwriting, which might be a slight step down in quality since Jax Anderson was so good at balancing smart lyrics and danceable electropop sounds before. But the first two tracks “Queen” and “Push” are indisputable bangers, and I do enjoy the moments of introspection heard in “Rewind” and “Slipping Away”. I hope that if Flint Eastwood ever manages a full-length album, the strengths of both EPs can be corralled without having to further recycle any of the actual recordings from either one. (I enjoyed “Glitches” and “Monster” on both EPs, but let’s assume everyone who was gonna hear those songs has heard them by now and just move on.)
Music Video: “Queen”
Coldplay – Kaleidoscope EP
I’m really recommending this EP for two songs – the climactic ballad “All I Can Think About Is You” that serves as a throwback to the A Rush of Blood to the Head era, and the phenomenally offbeat “A L I E N S”. Those two songs easily demonstrate that Coldplay hasn’t run out of interesting tricks to play. I do find some enjoyment in the soothing ballad “Hypnotised” as well, and as corny as “Miracles (Someone Special)” is, I actually didn’t think Big Sean’s feature on that song was as ill-advised as some listeners did. (That just leaves the infamous Chainsmokers collaboration, and the less said about that, the better.)
Live Footage: “All I Can Think About Is You”
LAST YEAR’S LEFTOVERS:
Phantogram – Three
I’m not sure how I hadn’t heard of this electropop duo until early 2017, but their third album definitely finds them firing on all cylinders, pulling off a tricky balancing act between the trippy, the trashy, and the introspective. Not every song works for me, but the front half of the album is nearly flawless, and even the lesser songs all have a unique vibe to them that demonstrates a willingness to avoid repeating themselves.
Live Footage: “You’re Mine”
Lewis Del Mar – Lewis Del Mar
Could this be considered Latin indie rock? A couple dudes from New York borrowing influences from the Central American heritage of the band’s frontman, as a sort of mirror to what Vampire Weekend does with West African influences? Maybe. Their sound is experimental enough – lots of low-end and hypnotic drum loops, but much of it acoustic guitar-driven – that it really isn’t that easy to pigeonhole. They clearly have a lot on their minds, and from a few easygoing pop gems and ballads to some truly twisted and weird deep cuts, they impressed me enough to keep me coming back to even their most puzzling material.
Live Footage: “Loud(y)”
Tim Be Told – Friends and Foes
It’s almost unfair that I disqualified this one from my 2017 list. I mean, it was released on Christmas Day last year. But rules are rules, and honestly, who drops a record in late December these days? (I mean, other than Beyoncé.) Weird timing notwithstanding, Tim Ouyang is a talented singer whose music I was on the fence about several years before I finally gave it a chance with this record. Being the only band member left, he’s shifted the sound more towards pop with a bit of R&B influence, which his strong pipes are well-suited for, and despite some cliched moments, I was surprised how much I kept coming back to moments like the title track, “Love You Back”, and especially “Lay Your Burdens Down” that really wrestled with broken relationships, misunderstandings, and harsh judgments that could leave a man questioning the very nature of his relationship to God. Difficult stuff, but Tim sings about it with a hefty dose of optimism, coming out swinging his fists against the depression an oppression, no matter how unfairly stacked the odds are against him.
Audio: “Friends and Foes”
Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
A wonderfully mellow and soothing folk record, occasionally straying into haunting territory, from an Irish singer/songwriter I’m surprised to only have heard of this late in the game. This is definitely mood music that demands the listener pay close attention to catch all of the lyrical and textural highlights, but Lisa’s sweet and slightly smoky vocals are there to guide the listener through even the starkest of moments, caressing every word in such a way that indicates this album was made with the utmost care for the smallest of details.
Music Video: “Snow”
Pharrell Williams & Various Artists – Hidden Figures: The Album
Much like the movie these songs were composed for, the album came out at the tail end of 2016, and even though it was a total out-of-genre experience for me, Pharrell Williams did such a phenomenal job of making a few of these songs really stand out at iconic moments in the film that I felt compelled to seek out the album even though normally I don’t bother with film soundtracks and “inspired by”-type albums due to how they usually feel like marketing gimmickry to capitalize on a film’s hype. Modern R&B and hip-hop production collides with Gospel and soul influences appropriate to the era the film is set in, and while it’s not a musical world I know well, it’s hard to get anthems like “Runnin'”, “Able” and “Surrender” out of my head. These songs are all beaming with a well-earned sense of pride at how the women seen in the film fought against the oppression of their time by being so dang smart and strong-willed that the people determined to marginalize and ignore them simply couldn’t afford not to pay attention. These are lessons America could stand to re-learn in 2018.
Live Footage: “Surrender”