Best of 2017

Unwinnable Listens to the Best Music of 2017 – Part One

The Rules: 
Set the Unwinnable Best Music of 2017 playlist on random.
Listen to nothing else for all of January.
Cling to sanity. 
Write about it.


Ahh, here we are, together again, punishing ourselves for our holiday excesses with the Can You Hang? Challenge (Patent Pending), 2017 edition. Or, is it the 2018 edition, because we’re actually doing it in 2018? (Personal Note: have the fact checking department see how the Golden Globes handles this).

Thing is though, this year hasn’t been so miserable so far. Our new participants, still unhardened by years of submitting to this torture, may disagree, but my experience has been surprisingly mellow, even upbeat. The worst songs I’ve heard are boring, not grating. I’ve already filed more songs to my personal playlists this week than I have over the course of previous years’ challenges. Even the Spotify has been cooperating – its most egregious crime so far has been to randomly play the exact same song from the exact same album twice in a row. Gold star, Spotify.

All that being said, there is a giant asterisk here, with the words “So Far!” dangling off it. I suspect the playlist is toying with me, lulling me into a false sense of security in order to twist the knife later. Still, I will cherish this first week together, Unwinnable Best of 2017 Playlist. No matter how you torture me next week, you’ll never take this memory away from me.

Pleasant surprises from the first week: HAVAH, Slasher Film Festival Strategy, Lana Del Rey (!), Wobbler, Debbie Harry’s aging voice, Rhiannon Giddens (bonus: my wife also seems to dig Giddens).

(Stu Horvath)

I haven’t been very plugged in with music last year, so against every fiber of my being, I’ve decided to dive into the Can You Hang? Challenge this year, fully expecting to hate everything outside my musical taste because I’m an elitist-ass prick. To my surprise, I found more songs to love than despise. For now. Here’s hoping it stays this way until the challenge is over.

Some personal highlights:

I’m almost ashamed to say I haven’t devoted much time listening to Trent Reznor despite his massive influence in music and, boy, is this a treat. I’m hoping to bump into more of Nine Inch Nails’ songs during the challenge.

Hurray for the Riff Raff cemented my belief that I’m just not made for Americana and folk music – and her songs have to pop up twice within an hour. The infamous Spotify algorithm thus makes its impression.

HAIM and Queens of the Stone Age are my ear balms. Thank you mysterious voters.

Melissa nominated PSY and I’ll not forgive her this month. In one song he does shout-outs to his own songs, which is like wearing your own band shirts to a concert. Only Morrissey does that, and his douchebaggery means he’s not getting away with it anymore.

Yaeji is a surprising find since I hardly listen to house music. It’s unexpectedly soothing.

I didn’t realize a Dean Hurley song was playing because it sounded like white noise. Upon some research, his music is recommended for fans of Sunn O))), which is surprising and sadly not very accurate. I’m aware this will make some Twin Peaks fans hate me.

(Khee Hoon Chan)

I’ve always figured myself for a terrible music critic. Ask me why I liked a song and I’ll stare at you blankly, frantically ad-libbing smart-sounding words in my head until I’ve mustered an answer better than “it just sounded good.” And while I enjoy listening to new music, I hardly ever seek it out. When Unwinnable asked for my top ten albums of 2017, I realized I hadn’t listened to that many in the last decade.

With that in mind, it’s no exaggeration to say the Can You Hang? Challenge has been a shove outside my comfort zone. Artists I’ve never heard of now invade my car, my work, my home, culminating in a disquieting feeling of being lost, adrift in the unfamiliar.

Continuing this over-dramatic metaphor, albums like The Hamilton Mixtape [Editor’s note: apparently this came out in 2016 and we’re probably pulling it off the list, sorry Alyse!] and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN have been buoys; their recognizable sounds give me purchase amid all this new. I’ve only heard two songs from the former, and I already know I’ll be listening to it on repeat come February.

Hurray for the Riff Raff and Rhiannon Giddens, with their folk-inspired sound, have also provided a much appreciated familiar twang. While I despise most modern country music, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake my Appalachian roots when it comes to that old Americana sound.

With the Dropkick Murphys, however, it was a different story. I used to be a pretty big fan of Celtic punk, but the singer’s voice grated against my ears; I genuinely wondered if he had a bit of mud stuck in his throat.

And I don’t think I’ll ever understand anything remotely electronic sounding. The algorithm often fed me strings of songs from that genre, and it all bled into one rave heartbeat. I could never tell when one ended and another began.

(Alyse Stanley)

Oh man, is it January already? Back for more Spotify-induced punishment!

Well, my run started off as if Matt Marrone hijacked my Spotify feed but luckily it corrected itself. For a while, I felt like I was listening to a four hour soundtrack, most of the music becoming largely unmemorable. Thankfully, I did find a few gems tucked away.

Pissed Jeans, Rope Sect and White Reaper have taken my brain by storm and have become my favorite bands I never heard of, so thanks to whoever picked those bands. I am digging the new sounds of Bjork and Blondie, but I wish Rancid hadn’t made a new album. I appreciate the soundtrack to Twin Peaks even more now since it’s familiar sounds break up the monotony of the uninteresting.

I have a secret: I partially use the Unwinnable Best of Music list to disturb your brain waves with my love for unusual sounds.

I noticed many entrants on this years list have unusually long band names like The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets and Wolves in the Throne Room. Cool names and all, but are they a mouthful or what?

Here’s some quick shout-outs to things that piqued my interest: Yellow Eyes, Grails, Steve Wilson, Chelsea Wolfe, Makthaverskan and Cult of Luna.

(Ken Lucas)

Each January many of us make promises to ourselves, resolving to improve who we are and how we conduct our lives. The past few years have brought the Unwinnable Can You Hang? Challenge® into my life and each year I tell myself I won’t be a mean jerk about music that others find enjoyable. I have failed every year. Some might consider this to be a character flaw to be worked on, but as a brain genius who is totally mentally stable I recognize that the real issue is that other people simply refuse to stop listening to terrible music. After the first week of the CYH?C®, however, I am pleasantly surprised by almost all of what I heard! Congratulations to my Unwinnable comrades for finally listening to music that I consider good.

That said, there were still a few clunkers mixed in throughout the week. I’ve included those here as well, because I am nothing if not consistent(ly a mean jerk). Here are my highlights and lowlights:

Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton – “Fatal Gift”: This is a really nice, chill tune. A little spacey and atmospheric, but then it picks up energy towards the end and is very engaging. Also, the only thing more badass than this album cover is the name the Soft Skeleton.

Rancid – “Make It Out Alive”: Go to bed, Rancid. I heard two songs off this album and they both sucked. This one was WAY worse. It’s about being an aging punk reflecting on the friends who died before they got to phone in a tired retread of what they did 25 years ago. The dead friends are better off.

White Reaper – “Little Silver Cross”: I’m looking forward to hearing more of this album. This song would have been epic on an 80’s soundtrack. Great vocals and guitar harmonies. The guitar tones are killer, too. I would literally kill someone to have this guitar tone. Is that how guitar works?

Linkin Park – “Halfway Right”: Several songs by this band came up for me. I was surprised because it wasn’t the guitar/synth rap-rock or whatever you’d call the garbage music that made them famous. This stuff is also garbage, but it’s disposable pop that you’d hear in a car commercial or, like, a Forever 21. Not that I spend a whole bunch of time in Forever 21. I spend a totally normal amount of time in Forever 21.

(Ed Coleman)

The other entries in this first week’s Hang are overwhelmingly positive, so I hope you’ll all allow me to be the thorn in everyone else’s side and focus entirely on the stuff I didn’t like.*

Red Velvet – Good lord, why? Why, in a world where the Pussycat Dolls already exist, would anyone make an album that sounds like this, let alone in the year of our lord 2017? Listening to this makes me feel like I should break out my unhemmed belly shirts and hip-hugger camo pants and trace my now non-existent abs with body glitter. Mostly I’m pissed that Red Velvet keeps reminding me I had abs in the noughties. Assholes.

Depeche Mode – I’m not willing to totally write them off since I’ve only heard this single track and generally I’m glad when Depeche Mode shows up on a playlist. Their song “Fail,” though: these days I’m not in the mood to hear warbled admonitions about how it’s futile to even start hoping. I hate that this is the last track of the album. The only way to fail is to stop fighting, Mr. Gore, and it’s way too goddamned early for that.

TOKiMONSTA – “Lune” was playing when I got a text from my husband saying our seven-year-old guinea pig Freddie had passed (Freddie was short for Winifred; she was very punk), which of course is not TOKiMONSTA’s fault in the slightest. As the intro to the album, the track is dark yet forward-moving and actually underscored my feelings, buoying me on that shitty subway ride. RIP Fredster, may your mohawk be ever spiky and your popcorns ever high in the great timothy hayfield in the sky. I’ll think of you whenever I hear this song.

*So the stuff I didn’t like is only three things and one of them doesn’t even really count. This year’s list truly is remarkably agreeable. Everyone hanging here is writing gospel truth, even if it pains me to see Hurray for the Riff Raff even mildly disparaged. (Ya broke my heart, Khee Hoon, YA BROKE MY HEART!)

(Sara Clemens)

Thinking of recommending music to someone grinds my teeth to the root, and the anxiety of responding to someone else’s suggestion flicks the nerve. The pressure to please and the hope of spreading the gospel of what one finds so truly compelling, can be too much to bear. It doesn’t help that so much of the musical experience is subjective and difficult to quantify and qualify without descending into the adjective-writing exercises of musical criticism.

Take all that anxiety, throw in a healthy dose of supposed in-staff trolling of the list and I’m left scratching my head on so many picks here. Do I write with a gaggle of monsters because they love this stuff or because they want me to suffer through it? The truth is, as per usual, a mixture of both.

My reasoning for much of the instant revulsion I feel to stuff like Midland is that my father is a country musician. A fantastic, skilled one at that, who builds his own backing tracks, faithfully reproduces a variety of instruments through a guitar synthesizer, and hacks his way through other 90’s and early 00’s technology to forgo the headaches of playing with unreliable drummers and whatnot. I appreciate, admire, and respect all that. But the sounds of modern country music take me to my early and mid teenage years, a hyper-compressed and over-manipulated melodrama meant to pluck my heart strings, which it does in many ways. But the same goes for the Dropkick Murphys, who, as a resident of Boston, are the rallying cry for stadium-filled herd mentality, along with Linkin Park, that bullhorn of aimless teenage angst, and Roger Waters, as Pink Floyd was one of the major brands for boring burnouts at that time as well.

But those are all the low hanging fruit, of course. And I’d much rather talk about the gems: Rope Sect for that goth throb, Grave Pleasures putting some swing in the metal n’ roll, Reznor and Ross’s Vietnam soundscapes fleshing out the experiments of Ghosts. I’ve been warily appreciative of Lana Del Rey for some time but am digging her latest, still swooning with that lazy haze but with slightly widened eyes. The Mt. Eerie has me weeping, an album whose backstory put me off immediately but upon listening I find cathartic in its weight. Dean Hurly’s electronic pulses are perfect for my office job, where I do most of my suffering under this playlist, and I want to make a case for Red Velvet but I’ll save that for a full album listen later. I’m disappointed to find myself enjoying The National, but am assuaged to find my flippant dismissal of The Arcade Fire to be personally vindicated and that Spoon can still get groovy despite the fact that they mostly tricked me with “I Turn My Camera On” back in the day.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to hang to the end, mostly because I don’t pay for Spotify (for reasons well outlined in Liz Pelly’s recent Baffler article) and therefore only listen at work when I can block the ads, but I expect to get a taste of most of the list at least. If nothing else, it’s nice to affirm that Unwinnable remains a bastion of strange, beautiful, and baffling weirdos who are also constantly revealing many incomparable delights.

(Levi Rubeck)

I spent most of this week at MAGFest in DC and didn’t even try to convince my caravan pals (there were 8 of us in the same van for the 10 hour drive) that we should listen to the Unwinnable Can You Hang playlist as I was sure they would riot and leave me at  Love’s gas station somewhere in West Virginia.

I listen to music only when I drive to and from work, so my selections are a touch limited this week. Mostly the experience was pleasant, even if I didn’t run into any of my own selections — the music was mild and inoffensive, is more of what I meant.

My first song was from Morrissey. As an artist I’ve never intentionally listened to, it was an inauspicious beginning and he seemed to just be very upset about something and profoundly inarticulate. It also made me wish that Ed Coleman, who organizes the Playlist, added notes next to everyone’s selections so I know who to judge.

I didn’t realize how much Linkin Park sounded like Owl City, specifically on the saccharine song “Sorry for Now.” This is a part of the whole “mild and inoffensive” thing. The Best of List feels like it should give me stronger feelings than “oh this is basically like when I listen to the radio, but less curated.”

(Amanda Hudgins)

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