If you are reading this, congratulations. Well done on arriving at the end of 2017 without dying in a flood, an earthquake, fire, famine, nuclear war, terrorist attack, murder by police, new plague, white supremacist mass shooting, poverty, poison, revenge, hate crime, accident, or just by tossing your own stupid remains on some moonlit night into the depths of a quarry like a victim of the mob hit that was the past twelve months. You know when you’re on a particularly turbulent flight and all the passengers erupt in applause as the pilot finally lands the plane safely? That’s right now. You made it. You’re alive. A standing O for us all.
Welcome to my annual list of the top eleven albums of the year. A few brief words on how this list was chosen and assembled: First off, this is my list. It doesn’t have to be your list. I don’t claim it to be a comprehensive catalogue or accurate cross-section of musical production in 2017. I don’t care if it’s cool, and I definitely don’t care if it’s correct. It is, rather simply, music that I loved. If loving this music is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Some of it is problematic. Some of it is uncomfortable. Some of it is sad. Some of it is hilarious. But all of it is brilliant, I believe. I hope that there is one record on this list that you have heard before, and at least one that you have not. That was my aim.
If a theme did emerge this year, it was one of late-style, in Adorno’s logic—what Edward Said described as “surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.” In this list is what can be characterized as late-career works from artists like Slowdive, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Jay-Z. None of the records I chose was a debut. “In addition,” Said continues, “lateness includes the idea that one cannot really go beyond lateness at all, cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness, but can only deepen the lateness. There is no transcendence or unity.” I no longer believe this to be true. The last album of his storied career, David Bowie’s Blackstar was among his best of works, and Gord Downie’s final record may have been his very finest.
Stubbornly, this is a list of albums—not tracks, EPs, 12”s, mix tapes, reissues, archival releases, and the like—because I still believe in the indelible format of the long-playing recording, regardless of its medium. There is good reason why we use the same word for collections of songs and of photographs: they are both recordings of events, inscriptions in sound and light, and as such, albums are compendia of our most glossed-over and unvarnished memories. This is why certain records can be so evocative of a particular place and time—invoking every single sense—and I think it’s why we tend to want to make wrap-up lists like this one each year.
Finally, this list is unranked. Instead, I chose one song from each album, and curated the songs into a playlist. Unfortunately, there is no single platform that contains every song I chose, so I arranged the playlist in the form of the blurbs and links below. I designed this playlist to be listened to in order, in its entirety, one song after another. (Revolutionary! I know.) If you like it, I also encourage you to buy the music on this list, either from an independent shop, or directly from the label or artist. The songs herein conveniently fit neatly onto a CD, which is the way I still like to compile and listen to playlists. It’s my version of making an album. I hope you enjoy it. I care because you do. So thank you for reading, thank you for listening, I love you, and see you in 2018.
“Ascent” – Kate Carr – From A Wind Turbine To Vultures (And Back) – Flaming Pines
Have you ever climbed a mountain? If not, I recommend it. There is nothing quite like being higher than anything else around you. A popular cliché says that it’s lonely at the top. The reason for that is because most people can’t be bothered. It’s a lot of work climbing a mountain. Sure, you can helicopter your way to the top, but there is an immense sense of accomplishment reaching a real summit on your own steam, and looking on at the vastness and relative emptiness of this still-beautiful world.
If you want to, you can skip over Kate Carr’s incredible augmented field recording, a strange document of rare quality and precision. It is twenty-seven minutes long, and you’d be forgiven for thinking, initially, that not much happens. But in doing so, you will have skipped over the literal and the figurative ascent, and will have ab initio missed the point of this excursion entirely.
Read my first impressions of From A Wind Turbine To Vultures (And Back).
“Ab Ovo” – Joep Beving – Prehension – Deutsche Grammophon
(From “Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the Twentieth Century,” forthcoming from Repeater Books.)
Like a lot of kids, I took parent-enforced piano lessons when I was young. My teacher was a stern Polish woman who had a reputation for smacking her pupils’ knuckles with a ruler whenever they played a wrong note. Music lessons began when I was three years old, with basic rhythm training. I remember walking in circles on the Afghan rug in my stern Polish piano teacher’s apartment, little drum in hand, counting and beating in time with a wooden mallet. In addition to that drum, my mother brought home shakers, bells, and a triangle with which to make percussive noise. At four, I graduated to the piano keyboard, taking Royal Conservatory lessons until high school. I went to several teachers: Mrs. Peedee from the neighborhood; Mrs. McNaughton at Alberta College; Yana Tubinshlak, a sturdy Russian Jewish woman with two massive, ornate, and ancient pianos sat side by side in her drawing room. She never smacked my knuckles. But she did say things like: “What orchestra are you playing with?” if I accidentally struck a discordant tone. Mrs. Tubinshlak was my favorite teacher.
But, like a lot of kids, I hated practicing. In the summertime, I would have rather been outside shooting hoops or riding bikes with friends. In the winter, I wanted to be playing hockey and throwing myself down snowy hills on a toboggan. Instead, I spent two hours a night, every night of the week, practicing piano.
Our piano was made in 1916 in Woodstock, Ontario, by the D.W. Karn Piano and Organ Company. It was an upright model—known as a “Cabinet Grand”—built of quarter-sawn oak in the Mission-Arts and Crafts style. My parents bought it for $350 when I was born, and made sure I made good use of it.
Each year, I took the Royal Conservatory exam at the Edmonton House, an apartment hotel on the edge of downtown. According to urban legend, the Edmonton House, with its upper balconies exposed to the river valley, was a popular place for people to commit suicide, although there was no clear correlation to piano exams.
Every Friday afternoon in our elementary school, we had assemblies in the gymnasium. Everyone from grades one to six would sit in neat rows on the floor. These were like a cross between pep rallies, recitals, and talent shows, at which students would dance, sing, or otherwise show off. One Friday, I was supposed to perform “Für Elise” on the piano. I had been practicing for months. I had it down. I knew it backwards. But somehow, when I got up on stage in front of six hundred other students, I froze. All that practice drained from my brain. I couldn’t seem to summon a single memory of how to play the song. Looking back, I imagine that the impetus behind musical automation, and the drive for digital perfection—for MIDI, and for instantaneous, permanent memory—was determined at least in part by the overwhelming embarrassment and trauma of experiences like mine. The sheer terror of performance now belongs to the machine.
“Sugar for the Pill” – Slowdive – Slowdive – Dead Oceans
The shower-masturbation sequence in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, twenty years old this year, which Slowdive incidentally soundtracked, is among the sexiest, funniest, and most accurate sex scenes in all of cinema. From now on, I can’t fathom an encounter that won’t be masturbatory. Good thing I love me.
Read my first impressions of Slowdive, and listen to the playlist, entitled “Nowhere in Ten Songs.”
“The Pendulum” – Daniel O’Sullivan – Veld – O Genesis
The opening track to Grumbling Furrier O’Sullivan’s solo record sends Enya-worthy shivers southward, spineward. Note in particular the acoustic phenomenon of “beating,” where the superimposition of two similar frequencies creates within the interstice a third frequency, a modulation of amplitude, and one of infinite natural instances where 1 + 1 = 3. This album is alchemy.
Read my first impressions of Veld.
“B.H.S.” – Sleaford Mods – English Tapas – Rough Trade Records
When Sears Canada began liquidating its merchandise in advance of the company’s insolvency, it secretly started hiking its prices higher than an octogenarian’s socks. Sure, the competition bureau was called in to investigate, but what are they going to do? Penalize a company that no longer exists? The problem with capitalism is that it holds no one to account. CEOs waltz away from financial disasters with seemingly zero consequences. Rather, the best and brightest capitalists are rewarded for stripping off everything of value from a fire sale, like sharks in a Hemmingway novel. Nobody sees and says this more clearly than Sleaford Mods, the punk-as-fuck UK duo for whom 2017 was a goose with golden eggs for material.
“Grit” – Pessimist – Pessimist – Blackest Ever Black
There’s an old joke that goes: the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist believes that things could never be better, and the pessimist fears that the optimist is right.
“Carbon 7 (161)” – Jlin – Black Origami – Planet Mu
Read my first impressions of Black Origami.
“The Story of O.J.” Jay-Z – 4:44 – Roc Nation / Universal Music Group
The powers that be managed to deracinate, fatten up, and otherwise silence Kanye West in a year when we needed nothing more than for a ballsy American to go on international television and say straight into the cameras that the president doesn’t care about black people. What we got instead was Jay-Z singing the blues, because Kanye tells it like it should be, and Jay-Z tells it like it is. One reason why 4:44 works so well as an album, rather than a mere collection of songs, is because of the uniformity of its vision at the hands of a single producer, No I.D.—the name alone ironically suggesting effacement and ubiquity at once. The result is a sharply focused record, an account of a true baller late in his game, grappling with the trappings of his own success, coming to maturation in Trump’s America.
“America” – Scott Wollschleger – Soft Aberration – New Focus Recordings
Unlike Simon and Garfunkel’s whimsical Beatnik-era search for identity, or Neil Diamond’s bombastic nationalistic anthem, or Nas’s prophetic cautionary tale, Scott Wollschelger’s “America” is a more mournful invocation of what once was the land of the free and home of the brave. In this piece, rendered meticulously imperfect by the cellist John Popham of the outstanding trio Longleash, are echoes of Aaron Copland’s quintessentially American “Our Town,” as well as something as unexpected as James Horner’s Field of Dreams score. To be sure, there is little neither free nor brave about America now, its president and citizens hiding behind the glowing screens of mobile phones, betrothed to hands both more powerful and yet tinier. Let us be haters, we’ll marry our misfortunes together.
Read my first impressions of Soft Aberration.
“Fam_Famine” – Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers – Constellation Records
I wish that Godspeed would take themselves seriously already. I’m joking! God. Don’t take yourselves so seriously.
All kidding aside, Godspeed have never donned wigs and stockings, simpering with painted faces, attempting a masqueraded escape lowered to sea-level in lifeboats amongst women and children, as the captain and his crew have quite clearly done. I think that our hometown house band may have found a way to take themselves just seriously enough, doing the solemn duty of playing until the ship goes down.
Read my first impressions of Luciferian Towers.
“Bedtime” – Gord Downie – Introduce Yerself – Arts & Crafts
Following a diagnosis of glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that ultimately ended Gord Downie’s life, he did not, like so many of us would have done, rest on his laurels, and sink quietly toward his own expiry. No. What Gord Downie did was to take his band mates and best friends of three decades The Tragically Hip on one last road trip across Canada, and then record not one but two exemplary solo albums: 2016’s The Secret Path, and this year’s heart-gnawing collaboration with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, Introduce Yerself. Each of the record’s twenty-three songs is written to a person. I assume that “Bedtime” is for one of Downie’s children, and if you’ve ever had a child—or been one—this song, which resides at the exact meeting place between “It’s A Good Life if you Don’t Weaken” and “Lover’s Spit,” will leave you in pieces. Downie’s inimitable talent was to take the everyday, the quotidian, the seemingly small, something as simple as a creaking floorboard, and like a master toy-maker, imbue it with an intricately moving sense of magic realism, yet without slipping into saccharine sentimentality. This album is not for everyone. It is for those of us who loved Gord Downie, and its weight and heft seem to reveal how much he loved us back.
There could be any number of valid readings of this song—that it’s a metaphor for Downie’s more frequent returns to the stage near his end of days; that death itself is not final—but what I take away is the profoundly valuable lesson that everything important in life must be done twice. Like a bad drive off the first tee, or a foul ball, this year was a do-over, in the Daniel Stern-in-City Slickers sense, only far darker.
We can do better. We must do better.