It seemed like the first half of 2017 had a veritable deluge of above-average releases. There were very few disappointments , and generally speaking just a lot of great stuff. As it becomes ever-increasingly easier to find stuff that appeals to me, or that at least is interesting in ways that I can admire, these half-year writeups become increasingly difficult to winnow down to fifty.
Admittedly, “50” is a number that is fairly arbitrary – it means slightly less than 2 songs a week, but also honestly I just wanted to shoot for a top 100 of every year, split in half – but it also means that I have to be very enthusiastic about the song, and it leaves me enough wiggle room that if I’m a little bit wrong about something there’s enought o cover it that it doesn’t seem like I’ve invested heavily in something that doesn’t work. Anyway, the fifty-songs thing isn’t changing, but I sure thought about it.
So here is a much-considered, much-deliberated-over, much-culled list of the fifty best (more or less) songs of the first half of the year. As always, you can download a folder full of them here. Also the Jay-Z record came out as I was writing this, and I didn’t get a chance to actually listen to it much yet, so it’ll probably come up in six months on the next one of these. Probably. I make no guarantees.
Aidan Baker & Claire Brentnall – Dead Languages
Aidan Baker, who is always wildly prolific, has been on a real tear so far in 2017, with all of his releases being above-average. This one made the cut because it’s the track I go back to the most. It’s more conventional than his usual faire, but I probably mean that in a good way.
Bash & Pop – Anything Could Happen
Tommy Stinson is the lead (and only constant) member of Bash & Pop , a name that he revived (with an entirely different lineup) this year, having last used it in the nineties. I’m not sure what impelled him to bring the name out of retirement , but the album Anything Could Happen is super-great, and the title track is as effective and energetic a piece of power pop as you could want.
William Basinski – For David Robert Jones
There has been no shortage of tributes, musical or otherwise, to David Bowie, but this one might be the strangest, and the best on its own merits. A classic-style loop already gives the piece a sort of callback-ish, memento mori quality. The decidedly Bowie-esque saxophone intrusion gives the piece a sense of release that some Basinski’s other work never quite has. Its companion piece pulls the trick of lulling the listener in with its repetition before startling us out with a jarring sound element, but “For David Robert Jones” does not do this – the saxophone comes in gradually, keeping the listener locked into the melancholy groove the whole time. Basinski himself compared the result to a New Orleans funeral, which I suppose is accurate insofar as it’s as close to the sound of a New Orleans funeral as I can imagine a William Basinski piece being.
Big Boi – Kill Jill (f Killer Mike & Jeezy)
It is especially rare in hip hop for someone to stake out a space and basically maintain it for several decades. It’s even more rare for that approach to be successful. Big Boi knows who he is, and he knows what he’s doing, and it’s who he’s always been, and it’s what he’s always done, and that kind of consistency is pretty satisfying.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Leonard
Will Oldham always does a great job with covers album. In his current, “meandering-through-projects” phase, they’re the most satisfying of his records . Merle Haggard was one of the greatest songwriters ever to live, so Oldham applying his voice to a selection of his favorite Hag songs is a pretty satisfying thing. “Leonard” isn’t one that I would’ve chosen as a likely candidate – it’s a good song, and also a highly idiosyncratic ode to Tommy Collins , crediting for inspiration, a leg up, and groceries – but it turns out to be a really great vessel for Oldham’s feelings about crediting your heroes and stuff.
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – A Song of Summer
A long, languid, limpid listening experience. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma picked his guitar back up in a major way for this record, and made a record that was in touch with Tarantel’s noisegaze roots, while still being unmistakably his own thing . It’s also optimistic and sunny, fitting its title, and just genuinely a great piece to get lost in.
Cloud Nothings – Modern Act
I am a serious hometowner, guys. I make no apologies for this. Adding a guitar player seriously beefed up their recorded sound, and if it’s a little less wildly urgent than they were a couple of records ago, well, we’re all getting older. This is still a pretty tasty power pop song.
Ian William Craig – A Single Hope
Each of the songs on Slow Vessels is a stripped-down, basic take on a song that appeared on last year’s Centres, which means that a lot of this record is made up of more conventional versions of what is, as I noted at the time, Ian William Craig’s most conventional record. That said, the songs stand in these versions on their own really well, and the whole thing is abetted by the fact that Craig really does have an incredible voice, and sort of seeing how the bread is made doesn’t actually do them any damage.
Demen – Morgon
Anonymity itself is certainly better than constant, #onbrand self-promotion, although it’s usually only a notch less obnoxious as a gimmick. In Demen’s case it both seems to be something that is more a matter of fact , but also fits with the music pretty well. In any event, I always have time for chilly, abstract music, especially when it comes out on Kranky records, and this is a truly superb example of the form.
Aaron Dilloway – Ghost
Ohio’s own former Wolf Eye has made what might be his most focused, most intense record since he left that group. “Ghost” is the kind of thing that justifies wading through hours of interchangeable records made by dudes with a noise table and no real ideas – it’s expansive and direct at the same time, and huge chunks of it just defy belief.
Do Make Say Think – War On Torpor
I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s the world , but there’s been a lot of comfort this six-month interval in the fact that a bunch of veterans are coming out and being good at the things they’re good at. DMST’s first record in a many years is a very good DMST record, and it really does push some boundaries and make some new statements and go a long way to re-establishing what DMST is as a band and all that. But the song I find myself championing the hardest is the very, very classic-DMST-sounding “War on Torpor,” which is the first track on the album and very comfortingly establishes that yes, this is the same band, even after a long time off.
ENDON – Torch Your House
When Hydra Head pops back up to release a record, I pay attention. When a band makes a great split record with Boris, I pay attention. The result in this case was an incredible heavy noise record, with some truly incredible, completely unique vocals. One of the best very, very loud records of the year in fact.
Future – Sorry
Hip-hop’s foremost great pop miserablist has been on the kind of career-defining high for the last couple of years that is really hard to match. He has released a bunch of records that have all been extremely consistent . His two records in two weeks (each of which went to number one) was a sort of climax so far, and HNDRXX specifically is a phenomenally weighty downer masterpiece, ending with the pressure-driven, no-quarter “Sorry,” in which Future makes you really believe that he means the hell out of that title. Dude is truly sorry, is what I’m saying here.
(Sandy) Alex G – Bobby
(Sandy) Alex G has steadfastly not changed his approach – his songs are still recorded in his bedroom, and still sound handmade and almost ramshackle in a way that is endearing rather than irritating . He changed his name recently (adding the (Sandy), specifically), which may have led to the rich vein of glorious, beautiful miserablism that he tapped to write Rocket, and its (and possibly his) very best song, “Bobby.”
Diamanda Galas – O Death
This is the version from All the Way, although it just as easily could have been from At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem . Hell, it also could’ve been “The Thrill is Gone” (from the former) or “Amsterdam” (from the latter). It could, honestly, have been any of the 14 songs from the two albums that Diamanda Galas released on the same day, because they are both incredible. But it’s this version of “O Death” that does the best job of communicating what it is about Diamanda Galas to love – namely, scary folk music, a sense of jazz composition that is second to pretty much nobody else’s alive, and one of the all-time greatest (and most interesting) voices ever put to tape.
Gorillaz – Ascension (f Vince Staples)
Every album Damon Albarn has ever made has been spotty in basically the same way – he’s got a knack for off-kilter hooks, and occasionally writes brilliant songs. The Gorillaz last record, The Fall, was an experiment in instant recording – Albarn recorded the whole thing on his iPad, claiming not to even write things beforehand. In the time following he started an entire other supergroup , and wrote an opera. He then recorded a regular solo album and reformed Blur. All of which is to say: it seemed like he had moved on from Gorillaz. The lack of focus that kept him away does sort of take its toll on the record, but only insofar as this is an extremely scattershot record with songs written by Damon Albarn. One of the shining point – easily the best song on the album, and one of the best songs all year – is the incredible “Ascension”, in which Damon Albarn and Vince Staples put their unlikely common ground (to wit: they are both capable of writing either party songs that sound apocalyptic or apocalypse songs that sound like parties – the chorus hook in this song is literally “the sky is falling baby, drop that ass before it crash”) to the service of an absolute banger that is also about the apocalypse. Great job, guys!
Ha Ha Tonka – The Party
Ha Ha Tonka call themselves a roots-rock band, which I guess is fair, although I sort of think of them as the world’s premier power-pop country band . This, in fact, is a rare optimistic-sounding song for Ha Ha Tonka, with a pretty great sing-along chorus.
Will Johnson – Every Single Day of Late
This is another weird, kind of creepy Will Johnson song, from a record where he’s at his weirdest and creepiest.
Jordan Hall – Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (in A Major)
For a record called How to Listen to Machines, Jordan Hall actually makes some highly-accessible, highly-pleasing violin-plus-electronic-sounds records. He’s got a great compositional sense, and this is sort of “Noise for Beginners,” as he approaches the idea of finding music in the sounds of modernity in a way that leans more on actually drawing the music out, rather than burying it further in . In listening to it, and especially here int he standout “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (in A Major)” you can sort of train yourself to hear what the noise elements are doing, thus helping the album live up to the “how to” in its title.
Heart Attack Man – Surrounded by Morons
I mean, I don’t want to leave Cleveland either (see above w/r/t “serious hometowner”), although admittedly it’s got less to do with my wonderful power-pop band needing more opportunities or whatever than it might for Heart Attack Man. All their other reasons are pretty dead-on, though.
Robyn Hitchcock – Detective Mindhorn
Robyn Hitchcock turned his guitar back up, and made his rocking-est record in a number of years. Robyn Hitchcock seems a lot more inspired (and a lot more vivid) than his last couple of records , and whatever has re-invigorated him (or inspired him to write re-invigorated songs, at least) is clearly a welcome addition to the world.
Jesus and Mary Chain – War on Peace
I wrote 2700 words or so on the record this comes from, so the only thing left to say here is: this is my favorite song on the record.
Kendrick Lamar – Humble
I mean, I basically have nothing unique to say here. Kendrick Lamar is the best, this song is a wildly popular single from a wildly popular album, and it’s wildly popular because it’s great, and Kendrick’s great, and that’s just about the long and the short of it.
Mary Lattimore – The Warm Shoulder
The harp always seems like an instrument that lends itself to be played oddly, but rarely actually is. I’m gratified by the solo compositions of Mary Lattimore, then, because she’s really doing something pretty out-there with her harp, and does so without ever turning studiously weird for its own sake.
Los Campesinos! – I Woke Up in Amaranthe
Los Campesinos! has made a fairly amazing career out of being singularly-focused on the thoughts and feelings of unfailing earnestness, and a general sort of discomfort with the range of human activities that come from interaction and, specifically, not being very good at dealing with feelings. Perhaps as a result, their records can be kind of spotty , but when it all fires properly, the result is exultant in a way that earns the exclamation point in their name.
Bill MacKay – Powder Mill Park
The death of Jack Rose has, several years later, seemingly caused a seeming burst of attention to guys that are also playing strange, experimental music on solo (often acoustic) guitar. Bill MacKay is one of them, and his record got a surprising amount of press and praise, and I can only see this as a good thing, because it’s an incredible record. It’s so good, in fact, that he probably doesn’t need the comparison but, y’know, it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to say stuff other than “THIS MUSIC IS REAL GOOD”.
Migos – T-Shirt
“17 5” refers to the price Quavo payed for the cocaine that he’s dealing, and the following note that he’s wearing “the same color t-shirt” is parcelled with the “White!” exclamation that follows it – he has unusually pure cocaine, and he payed $17,500 for some quantity of it, which he would ike to sell you know. This has been “Solving Lyrical Mysteries with Me, John Aaron”. Also a reminder that I am not a cool person (because in theory a cool person would know all the hip drug talk without having to consult Genius), just a guy who likes Migos.
Moor Mother x Mental Jewelry – Hardware
Two of Philadelphia’s finest noise purveyors came together and made a record that, while probably not necessarily the best record of the last six months, is definitely the most unfairly overlooked. If you’re looking for a righteously furious noise record, this is definitely the one to go with.
John Moreland – Lies I Chose to Believe
Every time I do one of these, the alphabetical nature of the list causes at least one humorous juxtaposition. This is not a righteously furious noise record. In fact, the only one of those words that can be used to describe this one is “record.” It’s gorgeous, though, and an excellent display of John Moreland’s incredible, weather-beaten voice.
The New Year – Mayday
I am here for just about anything the Kadanes choose to do, and this policy has always been rewarded. This is the first New Year record in nine years, and if that’s how long it takes it get something this fully-realized and this gorgeous, then I’ll happily wait another nine. But, y’know, if it takes less than nine years for the next one, that’s kind of ok too.
Noveller – Trails and Trials
Noveller churched up her normal approach with A Pink Sunset for No One, which was fine in that it’s always good to see growth and new areas of interest, even if it’s not something that she’s as good at as her previous, more spare, more ambient records. Still and all, there are some real bright spots – “Trails and Trials” is a great Mark McGuire-style blissed-out jam – so I look forward to hearing what else she comes out with in this vein. Or, y’know, not in this vein if that’s how she wants to do it. She doesn’t have to answer to me, thankfully.
Oddisee – Like Really
There are a lot of reasons to love Oddisee (and I have stated some of those reasons in this space before!), and a lot of reasons to especially love The Iceberg, an earnest, clever record, largely about human decency. There are a lot of things to like about that record, and about that message in general. There are a lot of ways to use the phrase “like really.” This is an important takeaway from an unfairly slept-upon rapper, frankly. You should all go listen to a lot more Oddisee.
Tara Jane O’Neil – Blow
Tara Jane O’Neil and Robyn Hitchcock don’t have much in common in general , but both of them made self-titled records full of their most direct music in years in 2017. Admittedly, in TJO’s case it’s something a little bit less blustery than in Hitchcock’s, but Tara Jane O’Neil is a characteristically lovely record, floating along largely on some of O’Neil’s strongest melodies, and suggesting about as much as it explicitly contains.
Oxbow – Letter of Note
Oxbow, like The New Year, made us wait almost a decade for this record, and also like the New Year, they extended their basically-perfect stretch of material for another album. Unlike the New Year, they did it not with carefully-planned, deliberate, melodic rock music, but with cacaophonous jazz-blues-metal. “Letter of Note” builds to a yammering, exploding climax that only Oxbow can really pull off, and that manages to sound both earth-scorching and life-affirming, providing real catharsis.
POS – Pieces/Ruins
After filling the world with wonderful singles in 2016 , POS made his album-length return to making music this year, and the result was predictably wonderful. “Pieces/Ruins” is top-notch POS righteousness, and is topped by a fantastic Busdriver feature. And the world is always better for fantastic Busdriver features.
Penguin Cafe – Wheels Within Wheels
Their backstory is weird , their ensemble orchestration is weird , basically this stuff is catnip for me, and this album is a heavily-played favorite in the last couple of months. “Wheels Within Wheels” is the standout here, but you should all go play the whole record when you get a chance.
Pharmakon – No Natural Order
It is very rare to make interesting power electronics, especially beyond the first couple of records. Pharmakon manages it, probably because her focus is on the constant vicissitudes of “having a body” and “having to share the world with people” and “having to live in the world in the first place” rather than, y’know, how much Jesus is bad or whatever else the rest of them are on about . So this manages to be an interesting noise record, a fantastic loud record, and just a generally satisfying listen.
The Sadies – Questions I’ve Never Asked
A few years ago, when I included “Leave This World Behind” on one of these writeups, I posited that The Sadies are the world’s best country band, and four years later I see no reason to amend this position.
Saltland – The Light of Mercy
A Common Truth, Rebecca Foon’s second album as Saltland is the work of a cello genius. On the excellent, album-topping “The Light of Mercy”, she worked with violin-genius Warren Ellis, which makes this a double string-genius song. Obviously.
Sampha – Blood On Me
I have, as exhaustively documented here, a basically-bottomless appetite for tense, dark R&B, which I must here acknowledge so that the reader understands that I am aware of the context of my position when I say that Sampha’s Process is a truly incredible album, one of the best of the year, even taking into account that it’s also directly in my wheelhouse.
Micah Schnabel – Jazz and Cinnamon Toast Crunch
For biographical and also sonic reasons, Micah Schnabel remains my favorite songwriter in the world. I also like jazz, although I am only the third-most enthusiastic person I know when it comes to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but I suppose one can’t have everything in common, can one? Even if none of that were true, I would find it hard to believe that this song’s life-affirming power would not still be basically off the charts.
Six Organs of Admittance – Under Fixed Stars
Six Organs comes and goes with me , but they have been on a real hot streak with their last few records. I would appreciate it if both ostentatious guitar music and folk music sounded a lot more like this and a lot less like what they sound like usually.
Spoon – WhisperI’lllistentohearit
Very few other bands have made a consistent showing of being so rock-solid consistent as Spoon. They’re great every single time, and every album sounds both different from the other albums and unmistakably like a Spoon album. If there were more bands like Spoon, the world would be a much happier, much rocking-er, probably much funkier, place.
Vince Staples – Big Fish (f Juicy J)
Leaving aside all the praise that I regularly heap upon Vince Staples, on this song he’s so good that the fact that the feature is Juicy fucking J doesn’t interfere with how much I love the song. That is some great rappering. Admittedly, it doesn’t hurt that Juicy just provides the chorus. I am not, as you know by now, a person that listens much to the lyrics, and so one of the things I appreciate most about Vince Staples is his ability to use his words as much for their sound as their message – take the line “Reminiscin sittin’ in that Benz/of the 22 Bus stop way back when/with the 22 5 shot eyes on scan/for the click clack click and the boom bop bam,” in which allusions are made to concealed weapons, public transit, fisticuffs, gang violence, and also just straight-up onomotopoeia. Seriously, I can’t say enough about how much I love Vince Staples.
Colin Stetson – All This I Do For Glory
You know, most virtuosic talents eventually dissolve into making masturbatory, too-many-notes records that are about a specific kind of technique. They end up reading like job applications for future jobs as a Known Virtuoso, with little to no value as an actual listening experience. So while this seems like it might not necessarily happen for Colin Stetson, it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear that he’s still writing actual songs, and that in this case he’s written what I think almost certainly must qualify as the most funky piece for solo bass saxophone in recorded history.
Thundercat – Them Changes
It must be said that occasionally I am forcibly reminded that if the world were to actually remake the contents of its artistic production to my tastes, I would be denied some tremendous music. This Thundercat record, for example, is a wonderful piece of work, and it comes from a guy who, with great gusto and enthusiasm, chose to have guest features from Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. Clearly this guy surrounded himself with awful music (and Drunk doesn’t not sound like that kind of nonsense music), and came out with something legitimately great, and for that reason, I’m glad that Kenny Loggins is a part of his life, and that bad music is there to inspire great music like this. I mean, this song is also produced by Flying Lotus, features an Isley Brothers sample and has Kamasi Washington on it, so it’s not all something that comes directly from terrible music. Just some.
Underachievers – Gotham Nights
It is almost an annual tradition that two out of three of these six-month reviews has an Underachievers track on it, and every time I go to write about them I find that I do not have deep, thoughtful or complex feelings about it. I love this song, I’m very happy that it exists in the world, and generally the Underachievers are a couple of my favorite rappers. I think I’ve said something similar to this every year. It’s good. Go listen to it.
Paul White – Accelerator (f Danny Brown)
Paul White has been the producer behind a number of top-notch hip hop records in the last few years, including those by ONAT favorites Open Mike Eagle and Danny Brown, who provided the vocals for this song, which also sounds like a dance party attended by robot cowboys.
Shannon Wright – The Thirst
Playing most of the instruments herself, and shifting gears to electronically-accented piano songs from her customary more guitar-ish approach, Division is a bunch of new things for Shannon Wright. “The Thirst,” however, shows that even when she changes the backing, she still has that voice, and she still writes songs that sound like only herself.
Xiu Xiu – Queen of the Losers
I genuinely don’t know if I’m ever going to find a Xiu Xiu record not a little bit compelling, and certainly each of the releases for the last six years has found its way into these writeups, but their last year or so of output really has been super-great, and Forget is their strongest proper Xiu Xiu album since Dear God, I Hate Myself . They have allowed their sense of humor to ride in the front seat a little more (I mean “they sound like they’re having more fun than on Knife Play” has got to be one of the faintest statements ever made, but you see what I mean), and written some really hook-y songs for this one, and “Queen of the Losers” is the high point.
And there we have it! Tune in in January when I cover the rest of the year!