Best of 2017

Unwinnable Listens to the Best Music of 2017 – Part Two

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.

Read Part One.


During this second week of the CYH?C® I am still, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by my experience. My biggest complaints are generally about the subdued nature of some of the artists. Slow, languorous tunes are very hard for me to engage with and a few of the entries on the playlist are solidly in that vein. The entire catalog of The National, for example, is designed for napping. Despite the occasional snoozers, though, I’ve had a solid ratio of good to bad.

So, at the close of Week 2 I should be even happier than I was last week. I’ve been exposed to some new gems, such as Kamasi Washington’s superb jazz album with bouncy, energetic horns and the haunting and confounding excellence of the Lana Del Ray songs I’ve heard. Nevertheless, I find myself consumed with ennui this week. It’s as if I long for the bitter frustration of past years, hate-listening with clenched teeth. Viktor Frankl famously wrote about humanity’s search for meaning in our lives through our experience of suffering. That’s probably what this is about. Some psychological shit that makes me seem deep, as opposed to finding it easier to make fun of other people’s taste in music than express any genuine feelings! Anyways, here are a few highs and lows:

The War On Drugs – “You Don’t Have To Go” – With a name like The War On Drugs, I assumed I would hate this band as much as the disastrous and racist policies of the Reagan administration, but this is a great example of how to make a chill song come alive. This might also be the best produced track I’ve heard so far by any band. It has a recorded-live-in-the-room feel and the guitar solo cuts through with a great, bright tone that fits perfectly with everything else going on.

Portugal, The Man – “Keep On” – This band helpfully denotes that one should not confuse them with Portugal, The Country, however, it was not clear to me if this Portugal is a single person or a band with a terrible name. It turns out they are a band from the town of Wassilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin was twice elected mayor. Major red flag. There is a lot going on in this song, production-wise, but deep down it is just as vacuous as the former Alaskan governor. Much like Palin, this band will also probably manage to fail upwards, so long as they continue to focus on making music for car commercials.

Downtown Boys – “Lips That Bite” – This is great, loose ripping rock from start to finish. It’s simple, but the band’s energy and the arrangement keeps it from sounding like all the bland wannabe punk rock out there. Sax solos are awesome.

Dean Hurley – “Eastern European Symphonic Mood No. 1” – The only other Dean Hurley song I’ve heard so far sounded like the kind of quietude you hear in a videogame when it’s trying to be creepy by playing subtle, ambient noises. This track takes that to another level. It might be the most minimal “song” I’ve ever heard. It is almost offensively minimal. There is barely any audible sound. It’s as if Mr. Hurley tried to capture the musicality of air moving down a long, dark hallway. I’m pretty sure this guy is fucking with us.

(Ed Coleman)

Like Ed, I continue to have a positive experience with CYH?C 2017. Without the continuous dentist drill of aggravation of the previous years, I find that I am coming around to a lot of things I was only lukewarm to last week. I also theorize that the difficulty of the challenge is less about the music and more about the context – when Spotify’s algorithm leaps from some shiny pop confection to a wispy, personal folk tune, both songs suffer from the whiplash transition.

Some artists I’ve warmed up to this week:

Kelela – I don’t know if you call this EDM or R&B or what, and I don’t really care – it is so far outside my taste that I won’t likely listen to it again after the challenge is over. That said, it is extremely well done, so shiny and intricate and understated. She’s got a great voice, too. “LMK” is a standout.

Lana Del Rey – I went from being surprised at how much I like the track “Heroin” last week to chomping at the bit to be able to listen to this album all the way through and give it the full attention it deserves.

Zola Jesus – Tracks from this album just sounded like generic electronic music last week. This week, oh boy. Zola Jesus is to electronic music as Chelsea Wolfe is to guitars. “Exhumed” and “Soak” are both standouts this week.

Downtown Boys – Continuing the girl power and echoing Ed, holy crap, this album. Righteous anger, saxophones, gang vocals. I am glad someone is still making music like this, and I am even happier that they are fronted by a woman of color (talk about a demographic that deserves to take on the snarling mantle of punk rock in this day and age). I don’t know if “A Wall” is intended as an anti-Trump song, but it sure sounds like it to me: “And when you see him now / I hope you see yourself, I hope you see yourself / And when you see him now / I hope you look, I hope you look / I hope you look / I hope you look”

(Stu Horvath)

I wasn’t able to tune in to the playlist for the latter half of this week, so I don’t have many findings to contribute. I mostly listen to music at work and my phone is rapidly approaching the last vestiges of its lifespan, so any precious battery life is triaged to truly crucial things (like Twitter).

Some highlights include:

Midlands reminded me that a lot of modern country music sounds indistinguishable from one another to me. This has less to say about the genre itself and is more indicative of how growing up in the American south can numb you to anything sounding remotely like a mandolin.

That being said, Kesha’s take in a few of her songs from Rainbow have surprised me. The algorithm seems to have known I’ve been wanting to listen to her new album, because I’ve probably heard half the songs from it in a week and a half. Some, like “Spaceship,” disappointed me, tiring out that auto-tuned, pop queen vibe she had going in her heyday, but “Hunt You Down” combined her flair with a country twang nicely.

The War on Drugs is the kind of chillwave indie rock I am all about. As I said last week, explaining why I enjoy certain songs over others is not my forte, so this is the part where I grunt “They just sound good.” I could Google a bunch of crap about instruments and genres, but I already had to do that just to get that first sentence.

Overall my experience was more positive this week, though I’m pretty sure the algorithm’s unpredictability is raising my blood pressure. Turns out, unexpectedly screaming – from the likes Velvet on the Horns and I Hate Sex – at a person prone to anxiety doesn’t result in the best listening experience. I have no real opinion on the quality of these bands: I was too busy wrestling with my flight or fight response during their songs to form one.

(Alyse Stanley)

This year’s Can You Hang Challenge is more difficult for me, I think, not because the algorithm but because I can’t really come up with anything intelligent to say about the music in general. It’s all fine. I listen to it on the car ride to and from work every morning.

There were a few standouts this week:

The Hamilton Mixtape – I haven’t heard any Hamilton before this challenge and a remix by Usher is probably an odd way to start listening to the series. It was…fine? Like most albums consisting largely of covers by different artists, it works best if you’re familiar with the source material. The Hamilton Mixtape is also responsible for the most jarring of the comparisons, when a song from Lin Manuel Miranda about the ratification of slavery in the Constitution played and then was immediately followed by Wolfbrigade’s “No Reward.” It was not the best transition, Spotify Algorithm.

Hurray for the Riff Raff – With that in mind, Monday morning had a truly phenomenal combination of artists, including Hurray for the Riff Raff (which felt like falling back into my early 2000’s indie mixtape days), Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and then the first song from one of my top albums of the year, a composition from trip-hop artist Joji. Who I love, because I put it on my top 10 albums of the year.

I Hate Sex: Screamo being…uh, not my bag (my sister used to listen to it to go to sleep and I found it challenging) I Hate Sex was probably the toughest? It’s less a case of it being bad and more a case of it being aggressively not my thing.

This might be the easiest challenge year for me? I’m starting to think the algorithm knows that metal is not my thing? That said, I have a feeling that I’m going to regret typing this when it comes and bites me in the ass.

(Amanda Hudgins)

I am very much enjoying this year’s mix. Either my old age crust has worn off or everyone else has graduated to my level. With that being said, here’s my scattered thoughts for the week:

I am really digging the new Roger Waters stuff and it’s probably because I’ve been re-investing my ears in old Pink Floyd.

STNNNG wins my “Pissed Jeans” award for best thing to not be in my record catalog. Not many artists can pull off the spoken word over music thing and they do it in spades.

I thought I listened to weird stuff and then I heard Guerrilla Toss. At first I was a bit unnerved by it, but after a song or two, I wouldn’t say I was hooked but I could appreciate the vibe.

There is a ton of good hip-hop on this mix. I’m glad I choose Run the Jewels, but I wouldn’t have guessed that I would be super into Young M.A’s album. She is nice on the mic.  And everyday is Wu-Wednesday. I only heard one Sinjin Hawke track but I dig the Apex Twin approach to hip-hop/R&B/trip-hop sounds. Looking forward to more weird electronic music on this mix.

There is a ton of great metal on here! My biggest takeaway has been how nostalgic many of these modern bands feel. HAVAH captures the lost Joy Division sound. White Reaper and R.I.P. revive trashy gutter rock. Power Trip is is the 80’s thrash metal band that got lost in the Bermuda Triangle and just recently returned. The great thing about all of these bands is that they retain that retro sound but add the musicianship that lacked from so many garage and basement bands of that era.

(Ken Lucas)

I have to eat my hat or crow or maybe just a giant slice of red velvet cake this week because yesterday I heard a bangin’ track from my heretofore least-liked band, Red Velvet. It was called “Peek-a-Boo” and it helped get me through a bitterly cold 5k run. A red velvet letter day!

Like most everyone else, I’ve been finding this year’s mix to be some real easy-listenin.’ There is some stuff that’s hard for me – I don’t understand how to listen to screamo so I can’t tell if the stuff I’m hearing is good or bad. I do know it makes me uncomfortable. Which is something! An uncomfortable something! Someone describe to me the ins and outs of screamo, please!

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score to The Vietnam War has been giving me consistently good work vibes whenever I listen to the mix at the office. It taps a bit into the distortion Reznor’s been playing with on his other projects, but the more melodious parts balance the experience and keep the album from devolving into noise. It’s weirdly motivating as I plug away at answering emails and writing copy. It’s some real good underscoring, turns out.

I’m totally looking forward to the next two weeks, which is a place I’ve never been at this point in previous challenges. It’s probably unwise to give in to self-satisfied confidence with these things, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’ve heard most of the playlist at this point – what could possibly go wrong?

(Sara Clemens)

Based purely on the rancor tossed around in the Unwinnable Slacks, I was not expecting much from the ‘Hang. What a surprise, that so many people who commit their opinions to type would swing those same viewpoints with blustering intensity – out the gate with hate on Red Velvet, Midland (guilty!), anything screechy or alluding to Cthulhu or elves. Such is the way of subjective opinions.

But this week saw a lot of moods shift. I heard a Midland song with a sax that sucked me in for a bit! A few folks came into the Red Velvet fold, for one track at least. Many jokes were made at Depeche Mode’s expense. And apparently Ken and I should be best friends and travel back in time to see STNNNG (get into that back catalog Ken!)

My personal scorecard for this past week has many plus marks jotted down. Aldous Harding does late period parlor room PJ Harvey so good that Polly Jean must have red-hot ears, those salted-caramel piano dirges get me every time. Morricone Youth is probably the most aptly named band of all time, the twangy truth flies out straight from the screen, all they need is to get dropped in the perfect scene. Hurray for the Riff Raff surprised me with some fantastic rhythm work on a few songs, which, as with the rock sax of Ecstatic Vision, is the best path to my heart. Psy was inoffensive! Even Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a group I wrote off years ago, has finally clicked, giving a sense of peace to my inner orchestral-anarchist.

The winner for the week on my end is Brutus, a three-piece black-metal-post-hardcore kinda group with a woman screaming while smashing the kit. I remembered the cover art from giving a track a spin back in May, and for whatever reason, I passed then. But I am a new man, and Brutus brings the heat and the spleen that sustains me. Not too far from the evisceral temper of Oathbreaker, who also blasts beats and howls from the crags of the earth, but Brutus is just a hair lighter. And the fact that they were born out of a Refused cover band seals the deal for me.

So here’s to hoping for a few more surprises and good-natured groaning.

(Levi Rubeck)

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