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.
It’s that time of year again where I run through the list of songs that inspired me, entertained me, or just plain got stuck in my head for amusing reasons, more than any other songs in the last 12 months. Most of these were released in 2017. Some came out in 2016 and I either didn’t hear them until this year or didn’t come to fully appreciate them in time for last year’s list. I’ve given brief explanations and YouTube links for the Top 30. For the rest… just check the reviews where they’re linked, if you’re curious.
And as always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2017 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.
Artist: Lewis Del Mar
Album: Lewis Del Mar
In Brief: An interesting blend of Latin-inspired rhythms and guitar parts with indie/experimental rock sensibilities that are equal parts ambient and abrasive. Not every experiment works, but the effect of these unique ingredients coming together can be quite alluring when they get it just right.
Ed Sheeran – ÷
I made the obvious joke when this album first came out that critics would be strongly divided over it. Har har. But I have found that there’s a pretty strong “love it or hate it” factor to a lot of Ed’s genre-hopping here. X already felt like a bit of a compilation of “Here’s all the different styles of music Ed likes to play around” with; this one’s even more so, with his occasional rap breaks and even a bit of Celtic influence showing up at times among the more conventional, guitar-based, singer-songwriter fare. I’m frustrated with this one because my favorite musical moments tend to be paired with some of Ed’s more hedonistic lyrics (the guy sure sings about drinking and sex a lot, even while he’s trying to remind you life is about more than these things), and the better songwriting tends to show up in the more subdued songs. “Dive” is the one track so far where I feel like he hits the mark on both music and lyrics. His vocals on that song (as well as a few others) are just incredible. But then there’s a string of tracks in the back half of it that make up for it by being poorly written and not terribly interesting to listen to. So yeah, it’s a rough ride.
The Shins – Heartworms
The Shins have this pattern of tantalizing me with some of their most intriguing, rhythmic material at the front of an album, and then settling into predictable indie pop patterns midway through that they never really recover from. Broken Bells has that problem too, but so far, both of their albums are more consistent than anything I’ve heard from The Shins. I just can’t bring myself to get excited about most of this record, despite James Mercer trying his best to give every song a distinctive sound and his vocals generally being a delight to listen to. The end result I end up remembering little bits of songs more than I end up remembering the actual songs as a whole. That’s usually not a good sign.
Valerie June – The Order of Time
Valerie June’s mixture of R&B/soul with rootsy southern elements was really interesting to me on her last album, Pushin’ Against a Stone. I didn’t like everything about that album, but it was an interesting window into a few genres I don’t normally listen to, so I felt like I wasn’t properly equipped to form a strong critical opinion on it. That’s probably even more true with this album, which puts a lot of Valerie’s more downbeat material front and center, saving the barn-burners for later in the album. I understand that it’s more about expressing a feeling than it is about instrumental prowess. But a lot of this record feels repetitive to me, and I also find myself getting annoyed with her vocals more often than I can remember being a problem on her last record. I’ll give it a few more tries, but I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that I’m not the intended audience for this one.
Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now
I had never heard of Hoop until her collaboration with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam on last year’s Love Letter For Fire, which was an underwhelming record that had a few charming standouts nonetheless. It seemed that the collaboration between two wildly creative artists ironically boxed in both of them. Jesca’s solo material, at least on this record, seems rather sparse, full of unusual instrumentation but often only lightly adhering to a steady rhythm. It’s not quite as out there as Joanna Newsom, but it’s headed in that direction. I can appreciate the imaginative approach she takes with her lyrics, particularly in the eyebrow-raising closing track “The Coming” where she describes a loss of faith over a brooding six minutes. This album will probably reveal more surprises to me as I dig more carefully into its nooks and crannies. But the first few listens were a bit of a struggle for me to get through despite there only being nine songs.
Lewis Del Mar – Lewis Del Mar
Since Lewis Del Mar (which is a duo, not the name of an actual guy) was first described to me as indie rock with a Latin twist, I initially pictured something like Trails and Ways. That picture immediately dissolved when I heard the fuzzed-out, chaotic bass and drums that open the record, the kinda-raspy but soulful vocals of lead singer Danny Miller, and the collages of conversation and found sound that creep into the gaps in several of their songs. There’s definitely some Latin influence there, particularly in the convergence between the acoustic guitars and the syncopated beats, but there’s a restless experimental tone to much of this record that brings to mind groups like TV on the Radio or As Tall as Lions. I suppose you could throw in a little Vampire Weekend, since that’s everyone’s favorite go-to comparison when tropical rhythms make their way into indie rock music. But Lewis Del Mar won’t be easily mistaken for any of those bands. Sometimes their approach is a bit disorienting, but I like the “never know what you’re gonna get” aspect of this album, and it’s probably the one I’ll keep coming back to the most out of anything new that I gave a try this month.