What a year for music! The Unwinnable family managed to produce another eclectic top ten list. Congratulations to us. From the sincerity of St. Vincent to whatever it is that Makthaverskan does, this list is a perfect representation of the year that was 2017. While the last several years produced top music lists just as diverse in genres and moods, as the person compiling the submissions, I found there was much more overlap. For example, last year’s top album was David Bowie’s Blackstar. That album was chosen as one of the top albums of the year by most of the people submitting a list of their personal favorites. Granted the man was a legend who died, still, there was pretty widespread agreement it was a top album.
There was something strange about 2017. The album topping the list this year, Add Violence, by Nine Inch Nails, was only on two people’s lists, but both people placed it at as their number one album, so it managed to squeak by as the winner (I have listened to this album multiple times at Stu’s house and it is a remarkable work, but if I listen to the deconstructive 11-minute track “The Background World” again I may resort to self-immolation). Actually, every single album on the Unwinnable list this year had only two submitters selecting it, except for St. Vincent, which had four people place it somewhere on their list. Did we retreat to our personal bubbles of music in 2017, so that nothing could break through to unite us all? Was there even a true song of the summer this year? Did summer even happen? Is this hell? These are all fun and legitimate questions.
Let’s face it, 2017 has been a confusing year for all of us and this top music list captures the uncertainty, the frustration and the desire to set ourselves on fire that we all faced this year.
Rainer Maria, by Rainer Maria
Rainer Maria didn’t need to be reborn. They carved up the emo boy’s club with a bite of indie rock gain and soaringly interwoven vocals. Then they were gone for long while, growing and changing as people, taking in the world until the time was right to reconvene. It’s a literal rebirth, S/T as a nod to themselves and their first EP, but they have a more urgent swirl and throb to their sound. This isn’t the quaint charm of A Better Version of Me or the adjacent alt-rock of Catastrophe Keeps us Together—it’s an album of experience, of humans who have clashed and rooted through life to bloom into their tightest most propulsively tense work to date. Everything from the Rainer Maria of yesteryear buttresses this album, but it’s weathered, jittery, with healed and healing scars and a bit more bite and buzz, rising on the thermal energy of their youth, higher than ever.
Why Love Now, by Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans have been examining the hypocrisy and psychic damage of patriarchal masculinity for a while now, with a snotty sneer drawn from the best of punk and noise rock. But Why Love Now is the apex of this approach – from the pogo-pop skronk-stomp satire of inherited male privilege in “The Bar is Low” through the ludicrous extremes of the male gaze as forged by consumer culture in “It’s Your Knees” and “Activia.” It wouldn’t have been possible without Lydia Lunch and Lindsay Hunter’s contributions though, providing Pissed Jeans the evidence to convict the most pervasive failures of masculinity as seen by women and giving the band their tightest album to date.
Something to Tell You, by Haim
The sisters Haim’s sophomore follow-up to their breakthrough, Days Are Gone (2013), was some of the most fun I had listening to a new album in 2017. Something to Tell You is just damn good pop rock.
The album’s opening track and single, “Want You Back,” sets the tone for what’s to follow; thumping bass-driven, riffy tunes. The sisters trade vocal duties and their voices blend together the way that only siblings’ can. Their videos and live performances always show them having fun and frankly, I find it contagious.
A Crow Looked at Me, by Mount Eerie
This is a record so hauntingly beautiful it’s hard to listen to. Phil Elverum faces the death of his wife, musician Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer – leaving behind their one-year-old daughter – with a low-fi and direct and personal and poetic set of vignettes about picking up the pieces and moving on, without ever forgetting. The record is both a profound work of art and a rejection of the meaning and power of art in the face of death.
Guppy, by Charly Bliss
Charly Bliss’s Guppy is more than just Eva Hendricks’s howling squeal of release, but that roar of unrestrainable emotion remains one of the defining sounds of the album. Guppy’s an album long explosion of joy, sadness, and youth; and the distinctive bellow of Hendricks on tracks like “Black Hole,” “Julia,” and “DQ” says as much about the band’s outlook as just about any guitar riff or cutting bit of lyricism featured on the band’s first full-length release.
The album is pop rock perfection, stringing together song after song packed with irrepressible emotion unified by aggressively catchy hooks and the uncontainable emotions of youth bursting out of Hendricks’s vocals. Whether musing on ill-fated relationships on “Glitter,” or an intensely blooming attraction on “Scare U,” Guppy remains intensely relatable all while dragging listeners along by their ears.
Melding pleasing pop rock with emotionally charged lyrics isn’t an original invention. Charly Bliss’s musical inspirations are clear, “Ruby” plays like a direct homage to Blue Album-era Weezer, but their take on the genre is refined and polished to a degree few can equal. At just ten tracks, and less than thirty minutes in length, Guppy doesn’t linger, but its effect is unshakeable. Charly Bliss took three years to finish the album and it shows not in the breadth of their vision, but in the specificity. They may do what others have done before, but they do it better.
III, by Makthaverskan
With their third LP, Makthaverskan rein in the unruly pop-punk tempo and unsteady songcraft of their previous work, leaving room for frontwoman Maja Milner to let rip with her never-better gutpunch of a voice over compact, indelible instrumentals.
Makthaverskan have already written several perfect songs, from “Asleep” to “Witness,” but listen to the 2015 EP version of the latter in contrast with the III version for a snapshot of how tight they’ve gotten. On the EP version – which, to be clear, still fucking slaps! – Milner was a dead ringer for Siouxsie Sioux and the rhythm section dragged, the bass monotonously plunking away beneath the din. The version on III completely rips; the arrangement is drawn taut like a bowstring, drum fills crashing the song into existence as Milner lets out an electrifying shriek, embracing the hoarse edge of her high end.
Elsewhere, the record takes The Cure’s geodic Kiss Me/Disintegration-era B-sides like “Snow In Summer” and “To the Sky” as its guiding light, delivering 37 lean minutes of shimmering, singular goth rock that never once falters. I get chills listening to this thing, and I live in Florida.
Hiss Spun, by Chelsea Wolfe
I am extremely (extremely) new to the metal genre, so I’m the pleb who doesn’t even know which sub-genre Hiss Spun falls into. Please bear with me, Unwinnable metal-heads.
What I can say is Chelsea Wolfe’s sixth album has been constantly in my ears on my fall and early winter commutes. Wolfe’s silvery voice juxtaposed with Ben Chilsholm and Kurt Ballou’s sound-designy backing creates a hypnotic blend that belies the turmoil and complexity found upon a deeper dive into the lyrics. The tracks of Hiss Spun cover everything from the searching pain of trying to connect solely through sex to the folly of war and inevitability of our own destruction of the planet on which we live.
This woman carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, and that she presents her burden with such haunting evocation while at the same time making it sound so tuneful is, well, pretty fucking metal.
Villains, by Queens of the Stone Age
I consider myself a casual fan of QOTSA, evidenced by the fact that it often takes me a moment to remember that QOTSA is an abbreviation for Queens of the Stone Age whenever I read it. And while I find that Josh Homme and company consistently deliver killer guitar riffs, interesting arrangements and off-beat rhythms on individual tracks, listening to a full album of theirs sometimes leaves me feeling like I listened to the same song over and over again ten times. This year’s Villains, however, sucked me in and wound up being my favorite album of the year. I’m sure true fans of QOTSA were uneasy when they heard the album was being produced by Mark Ronson of “Uptown Funk” fame, but my curiosity was piqued. Like anyone who enjoys a good dance party, I have a soft spot for great pop music and I hoped Ronson would help the band deliver a unique QOTSA album.
Villains did not disappoint, from the ripping syncopated riff of the first single “The Way You Used to Do” to the strange, almost Rocky Horror-esque space sounds of “Head Like a Haunted House” the album provides everything I enjoy about QOTSA with a fresh, dance glam sheen. Homme’s vocal melodies are more daring and loose than I remember them being and the guitar tones are brighter and more crisp, so while a couple of the songs fall into the traditional QOTSA “dark slog” category, I still found them compelling. The keyboards add a nice texture to many of the tracks, like the sinister calliope sort of thing going on in “Un-Reborn Again,” which kicks back in after a soft, string quartet interlude with a hard charging reprise accented by great sloppy guitar and saxophone solos.
Maybe truer fans of the band were disappointed by the dance party take on the QOTSA style, but it suited me perfectly. Most importantly, I used the abbreviation QOTSA eight times in this blurb, so hopefully I’ll know what it means in the future without a second thought.
Masseduction, by St. Vincent
The theme that runs through this album is loneliness. The loneliness of the city (“Los Ageless”, “New York”), the emptiness of self-medication (“Pills”), loss of family (“Happy Birthday, Johnny”), all filtered through a veneer of superficiality. The end result sees Annie Clark position herself as an alt-Lady Gaga, relying just as much on Jack Antonoff’s production and programming as her own angular guitar, and playing live to tape on the current leg of the tour. But beneath the artificial exterior is her most personal album yet, as artful as it is gutwrenching.
Best Album of 2017: Add Violence, by Nine Inch Nails
Since Add Violence came out, I have listened to it as often as I can, as loudly as possible, and I have come to an unnerving conclusion: Trent Reznor has destroyed music.
The whole EP is as lush and assured as you would expect latter-day Nine Inch Nails to be, and seems a direct reaction to our current political atmosphere, but the final track, “The Background World,” is the one that sounds the death knell for music as I previously knew it. Clocking in at 11 minutes and 44 seconds, it begins abruptly and builds intensity subtly. The lyrics are apocalyptic – something is coming and we cannot escape. Reznor and his collaborator Atticus Ross are restrained here – the angsty excesses of the past are replaced by the music of inevitability. In the moment you expect the fury of the storm to open up, it doesn’t. Instead, a menacing nine-second loop uncoils. Every time it plays, the static and distortion increases, burying you in noise, then the jarring skip and it begins again, fuzzier, less distinct, but never entirely losing the melody. When it ends, the silence feels wrong. Other music seems thin and empty – a dream of music, without substance. The only thing you can do is flip the record and start Add Violence again.
Get a quality copy. Turn it up loud (use good headphones). Sink into the noise. Listen to the end of the music.
Are you ready for our annual Can You Hang Challenge? Starting January 2 (because, honestly, who needs to aggravate the hangovers we know we’re going to have January 1), we listen to nothing but the massive Spotify playlist containing all the albums nominated for this list. Set to random. With no skipping of tracks. We then write about our suffering at the hands of everyone else’s bad taste and Spotify’s abysmal algorithms on a weekly basis until the blessed arrival of February. It’s a good time. Really. Play along at home and tweet your wailing misery at Ed Coleman, Stu Horvath and the official Unwinnable account!