Best Albums and Records of 2017: KOSIMO's Top 10 Picks
DOPE year for music. This year I did a top 40 chart because there’s a convenient website for it, and you’ll find that chart at the bottom (hey Hodera! you’re on it!) but I’ll only be writing about Top 10 per usual. Please share your thoughts and personal choices in the comments. Music writing makes me really happy. Diving in:
10. Arcane Roots – Melancholia Hymns (alt. rock)
Could never quite figure out how to describe Arcane Roots. I want to say they started out prog-grungy, which almost sounds like an oxymoron (and yet, see Exhibit A, a techy Nirvana cover) – but this record starts off with lush post-rock textures that still allow Andrew Groves’s vocals to shine through (think Sigur Rós meets City and Colour). This epic quality permeates the rest of the song and yet by track 2 (“Matter”) they’ve flipped it on its head and gone nearly full power metal with a hint of MuteMath.
The amount of songwriting diversity this band displays is intensely rewarding, and this record seems to carve out more of a niche for them than any of their previous efforts; once upon a time, Groves sounded a bit restrained, that familiar feeling of trying too hard to fit words into an already-written piece of music. That time has ended. This is a cohesive group effort – and it expands and contracts methodically like a beating heart.
9. SZA – Ctrl (R&B)
SZA is a woman. duh. This is a raw, feminine record. “I'm writing this letter to let you know/I'm really leaving/And no I'm not keeping your shit,” she sings on opener “Supermodel.” Half 🖕🏼, half still kinda ♥️ – feel it? That’s realness. 2017’s been a cool year in terms of bruising the patriarchy, the Women’s March etc, and I think this record is a phenomenal example of a self-empowering woman still grappling with the presence of men in her life and all of the complications, positive and negative, that that might entail – she even gets help from Kendrick, Travis Scott, and some other male guests. When she needs a dude’s perspective she just asks someone to say it plain and simply, and you get lines like “N***as’ll lose they mind for it/wine for it, dine for it/spend time for it, see no colored line for it/double back handicap and go blind for it.” When she’s tired of him she’ll send him off and treat him like a piece: “Make him lose his mind every weekend/You take Wednesday, Thursday/Then just send him my way/Think I got it covered for the weekend.”
Production is spatially open with complimentary sonic accoutrements, often deliberately light on the percussion in favor of some guitar, light Fender Rhodes, or microsynths. Sick R&B record for the times.
8. Run The Jewels – RTJ3 (rap/hip-hop)
So everything that the SZA record is in terms of open production and time for absorption, RTJ3 is not. El-P and Killer Mike have this habit of absolute maximalism where they try to squeeze as much possible into as little time as possible, because, y’know, they have a lot to say, and I haven’t heard them fail yet. Once. The bars are perfect, and conversely to Ctrl, where the vocals carry the momentum, on RTJ3, a more conventional but smarter-produced rap record, the music is the engine of movement, and the emcees just try to operate the megaphone as they steer the bus. In 12 seconds we got: “Say hello to the masters, on behalf of the classless masses/We showed up, ski masks, picks, and axes to murder asses/Lift up our glasses and watch your palaces burn to ashes/Fucking fascists, who the fuck are you to give fifty lashes” and it’s not just that the flow is great, but the ideas contained therein are smart, politically charged for the times we’re living in, and targeted with a sniper scope.
I don’t just love this record because Killer Mike’s boys with Bernie. It’ll fire you up.
7. Teengirl Fantasy – 8AM (experimental electronic)
I didn’t appreciate this record fully until I heard it in what I imagined is the intended context.
Like, is this a great post-techno record with lush production and emotional movement? Sure. Is this the perfect sunrise counterpart for people who listen to Tycho in the afternoon and evening and Burial in the middle of the night? Absolutely. But you will not get this one until you’re driving for four hours while the sun is coming up, you’re with people you really love, your body is still partially in stasis and definitely would have succumbed to highway hypnosis had it not been for that rest stop coffee at 4:30am, and you’re driving into DC on a cold day to do some good for the world. sorry, did I say you? I meant me.
Anyway, if you ever find yourself coming back from a club in Brooklyn so late that you see the sunrise, I highly recommend blasting this, especially “IT WAS ALREADY LIGHT OUT.” And then subsequently when you’re doing work from your living room and you need a beautiful soundtrack that’ll bring you back to that and then maybe remind you that every morning is a nuclear fireball 92 million miles away randomly blasting radiation at us at just the right angle from just the right distance to give us life... yeah. Enjoy.
6. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (contemporary classic-style rock)
It’s a perfect union of all the old and new Americana folk and rock songwriting we’ve come to know and love: Springsteen, Petty, Dylan... maybe even a little Bibio, Gaslight Anthem, some mid-career Killers. Instrumentation is strategic, from slide guitar to xylophones, synth pads, glitch percussion, all accents on rock band-driven momentum. I mean if you really dig expertly arranged old-school 70s and 80s rock songwriting this is a record for you.
You can’t hear words like “Summer ride on the beach/Howl at the day/I've been hiding out so long/I gotta find another way” and not imagine holding hands and mustering a smile midway through a Big Sur sunset – but they’re from Philly. So it’s even more mindblowing that this is the sonic paintbrush their brains use.
5. A Lot Like Birds – DIVISI (post-hardcore)
Of all the tangential Sacramento post-hardcore offshoots, y’know the Blue Swan and Equal Vision types – Dance Gavin Dance, Stolas, Secret Band, Slaves, yada yada yada, all those bands with the shredding and screaming the poppy clean dancey vocals and the weird time signatures – ALLB always stuck out to me the most. For one, they always took it seriously, where DGD and Jonny Craig always had this obnoxious party air to them from time to time. Then there’s just the sheer poetry of it... I was always in love with how Cory Lockwood’s spoken word parts danced in fugue with Kurt Travis’s spacey melodies and Michael Franzino’s arrangements. Reminded me of Saul Williams caliber slam poetry with thoughtful music behind it. Less of an aural cocaine assault than the other Sacramento stuff and more of a nuanced, emotional take.
So I thought ALLB was doomed when Kurt left after Conversation Piece and No Place because of creative differences and the band pledged to go a different direction. I was dead wrong. And I even kind of didn’t like DIVISI at first listen, I thought it was derivative, I thought all those tones had been used before. Then it grew on me.
Lockwood’s a better singer than I ever gave him credit for, and I like his vocals even more than I liked Travis’s. Franzino’s composition skills have improved tenfold. He knows that he now has a full-time backing vocalist in his recent guitar addition Matt Coates, which allows everything to flow much more seamlessly and gives Cory more creative freedom when it comes to melody. I didn’t even mention (which I should) that ALLB has one of my favorite drummers of all time. Favorite tune on DIVISI goes between “No Attention for Unsolved Puzzles,” “The Sound of Us,” and “For Shelley.” The sound overall has gotten less heavy, but to their benefit – and I find that some of these songs are the ones I wish Circa Survive was writing right about now.
4. Kelela – Take Me Apart (alternative R&B)
We have enough exposure to R&B that’s in your face (Beyoncé, Usher, Omarion, Tinashe, etc); this is an unexpected counterpoint.
Kelela is her realest self by herself. This record plays out more like a series of memories instead of in real-time, and a large part of that is due to production by Alejandro Ghersi aka Arca (spoiler, you’ll see him in the no.1 spot; I’m obsessed), who models notes and textures seemingly outside of the boundaries of physical laws. It makes the whole thing more reserved and sad because you start to get this feeling as if all of the opportunities to say the things she’s saying have already passed. Not necessarily regret, but rather a hazy and melancholy reminiscence that’s less a Should Have and more a Definitive Maybe, And Let’s Keep It That Way™. We incidentally find a bit of rationale for this modus operandi at the beginning of track 6: “Then you replied, ‘Could I have done something?’/You've got some nerve asking me now/Though I'm in love with it, I will amputate/I care enough not to keep you around/Is it rough for you? I can't bear the way/You look at me when I let you down.”
She’s scared. This record is comfort in hiding and confidence in dream sequence. It’s beautiful.
3. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister – Planetarium (indie/experimental pop)
I’m a white boy and therefore a total sucker for concept albums.
The fact that it’s Sufjan Stevens and the dude from The National songwriting with one of the best arrangers of all time makes this concept album even better. The fact that it’s a concept about each mythological theme of each planet in our immediate cosmos representing a personal story is 20x multiplier. Then there’s the fact that it’s actually really good, there’s a bunch of vocoder, really expertly placed synths, pianos, horns, and strings, and strong melodies. If there’s one complaint about this record it’s that I’m not good enough to listen to it in one sitting but that’s a me problem. It’s expansive, heady, emotional, and limitless.
The best songwriters are good at relating a very specific and intimate personal experience with some sort of ubiquitous feeling or universality (pun intended). Stevens is one.
2. Yowie – Synchromysticism (instrumental rock)
This record feels like psychosis.
Yowie is an instrumental trio made of two guitarists and one drummer (weirdly enough he’s the band leader, and calls himself Defenestrator, which, if you’ve never heard the verb defenestrate before, means “to throw something out of a window”...) who sets the temporal boundaries for his counterparts to absolutely run each other into the ground. There is not one harmony on this entire record. There is not one consistent time signature on this entire record. The whole thing was recorded live, in one take. The whole thing is a dissonant mess. The whole thing is perfectly controlled. It’s like if you could slow down a nuclear reaction and just see the electrons getting ripped off atoms one by one and somehow, occasionally, you could observe a pattern in that fission, but then before you knew it that pattern was gone and replaced by something else.
They’ve done something I’ve never heard musically done before, ever. It’s heavy, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s special. Apologies in advance for what you’re about to hear and the subsequent headache. Or you’re welcome. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
1. Arca – Arca (experimental electronic/pop/latinx/???)
Why do I love this artist so much.
For those unfamiliar, Alejandro Ghersi aka Arca is a Venezuelan electronic producer who’s worked with Björk, Kanye, and Frank Ocean (yeah, there was a 30 second interlude on Endless that’s apparently an Arca brainchild too). His onstage presence is pretty much a very gay runway model / opera singer and he creates some of the most vulnerable and visceral electronic music I’ve ever heard, namely because he so expertly and uniquely crafts his sounds that they literally seem like they’re floating inside some sort of wormhole, unbound by the laws of physics. They flutter, screech, move in weird ways... if something sounds like a keyboard remotely then it’s been distorted 15 times and played in freeform, not in any discernible time signature.
For those familiar, if 2014’s Xen was Arca getting infected by some alien virus and 2015’s Mutant was him traveling to the virus’s home planet to become fully absorbed in its culture, then this self-titled effort is him coming back to Earth, fully integrated with the virus, but showing earthlings how it can enhance the human frame. The best part about this record is that Ghersi taps into his own voice to craft actual songs with structure??? Yeah, and it turns out that he has this beautiful operatic baritone-tenor and sings exclusively in Spanish, and it gives the whole thing this even stranger flavor to it like all of a sudden a Mars Volta breakdown is floating underwater in some giant amoeba and you’re looking at it through a microscope, but once you understand the lyrics you get that familiarity of heartbreak and sex and wanting to curl up in the fetal position because you’re afraid and the world doesn’t make sense and everything feels frozen.
Idk. I don’t know how to talk about this record in a way that makes more sense than you just listening to it. It’s beautiful, and new, and shocking, and the spatial components go from reminding you from some baby heartbeat in the womb to an outdoor summer funeral party on Raining Spanish Mars.
I’m attaching two videos here: you should listen to “Anoche” first to get a sense of the weirdness, and then “Desafío” to hear the closest Ghersi has ever come to borderline pop, with his particular stylings intact, because it’s brutal.
Here’s the full Top 40 chart for your reference, and mine, and again, please do share your picks in the comments. Happy listening.
This article was written by Dave Pilmenstein. Follow Dave on Instagram @pilmenfiend and KOSIMO on all social media platforms @KOSIMOgroup