The Best Albums of 2017

Every year, I think I that the year that followed was an excellent year for music. I guess I’m just one of those people that likes things, I guess. Anyway, this year this list was particularly hard to make. I expanded it officially to fifty a couple of years ago, and this year thought about shortening it again to like, ten or twenty just so that I could feel good for the things that were left off of it. I heard a lot of great music from older acts that were coming back or otherwise continuing pre-existing comebacks (The Feelies, Randy Newman, Bash & Pop, etc.), by reliable standbys (Boris, milo, Bonnie Prince Billy), and by beloved Clevelanders (Cloud Nothings, Marc McGuire, Heart Attack Man), and even by one who’s basically all three (Pere Ubu), all of whom made records I enjoyed a great deal but were kept out of the top fifty. So anyway, these are the fifty greatest records of the year, but I can’t even pretend like I usually do that this is objective, or that this list wouldn’t look very different if I made it at another time. Also, I’ve lumped the Oddisee records together as one thing even though I usually consider two records released in the same period by one artist separately (Diamanda Galas, for example, made two records this year, only of one of which made the top 50), and also I don’t usually consider live albums that are of existing material (the Sleater-Kinney live album was excellent, but also didn’t really even make consideration). This is because it’s my goddamn list, and I think the two records are complementary versions of the material and therefore count as one statement. So there.

  1. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
  2. Oddisee – The Iceberg/Beneath the Surface
  3. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper
  4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
  5. Endon – Through the Mirror
  6. Oxbow – Thin Black Duke
  7. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
  8. Cold Specks – Fool’s Paradise
  9. Big Brave – Ardor
  10. William Basinski – A Shadow in Time
  11. POS – Chill, Dummy
  12. Sampha – Process
  13. Prurient – Rainbow Mirror
  14. Bjork – Utopia
  15. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
  16. John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
  17. SZA – Ctrl
  18. Quelle Chris – Being You is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often
  19. UUUU – UUUU
  20. Penguin Cafe – The Imperfect Sea
  21. Micah Schnabel – Your New Norman Rockwell
  22. Dalek – Endangered Philosophies
  23. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
  24. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
  25. Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Hitchcock
  26. Thundercat – Drunk
  27. Alan Vega – IT
  28. Neil Cicierega – Mouth Moods
  29. Amenra – Mass VI
  30. Will Johnson – A Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm
  31.  Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Luciferian Towers
  32. Downtown Boys – Cost of Living
  33. Lorde – Melodrama
  34. Jonwayne – Rap Album 2
  35. The Telescopes – As Light Return
  36. Watter – A History of the Future
  37. ZGTO – A Piece of the Geto
  38. The Body & Full of Hell – Ascending a Mountain of Heavy Light
  39. Ben Frost – The Centre Cannot Hold
  40. Gnod – Just Say No the the Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Death Machine
  41. MIKE – May God Bless Your Hustle
  42. Pharmakon – Contact
  43. Diamanda Galas – All the Way
  44. The New Year – Snow
  45. Aidan Baker, Simon Groff & Thor Harris – Noplace
  46. Migos – Culture
  47. Mogwai – Every Country’s Sun
  48. Future – HNDRXX
  49. Merzbow – Hyakki Echo
  50. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Damage and Joy

Who the Fuck Listens to This: Sia – Everyday is Christmas

Christmas albums are a weird thing. In the record-selling industry of 2017, they’re one of the only things that actually sells. The reasons for this are as predictable as they are kind of hard to understand. The national mania for Christmastime is something that necessitates its own sub-branch of the secondary parts of the music industry 1, and it is apparently lucrative to represent a draw to a certain kind of pop star. This year alone, country stalwart and putative Sexiest Man Alive Blake Shelton, former child-pop-sensations turned servicable power-pop mainstays Hanson, and, in our focus today, Australian weirdo songwriter and occasional pop star Sia have all made bids to enter this field.

Money aside, the other focal truth about Christmas albums is that they’re kind of a double-edged sword. Christmas music is something people have an appetite for, but the existing set of Christmas songs is pretty boring. Everybody has heard them all dozens of times a year, and new entrants into the “played all the time every year” canon are pretty few and far between. So you have a couple of options, as a Christmas-album maker. The more common route 2 is to spiff up some of the standards, write a few Christmas-esque originals, and never really think about it again 3. Occasionally, however, someone jumps in with an album entirely of originals, which makes it interesting to consider as an extension of someone’s work. That brings us to Sia.

Sia is an unlikely choice for “album full of Christmas songs”, primarily because as a songwriter, she’s a classic miserablist. She’s made her career, as a performer and as a songwriter, on the back of being a dab hand at the art of the soaring saddo ballad. While certainly there is no shortage of sad Christmas songs, they tend to be more of the bittersweet, introspective type. Nobody, in short, is swinging from chandeliers to hide the pain of being an essentially-empty drugged-out lonely person in Christmas songs. That surprise could work to Sia’s advantage – after all, there’s an even shot that she contains the sort of multitudes that would yield something that makes people want to snog and sip nog around the yule log.

Spoiler alert: she might contain multitudes, but nothing on this record would appear to readily yield to -og words of any description.

Although it is fair to say that, while her primary authorial tone does make it seem mighty unlikely that she would yield a great Christmas album, it is not the thing that stands in her way. Part of the problem is that despite her assertion that she “thought we had a bit of a shortage of good Christmas music” 4, there’s very little on the album to indicate she has any feelings about it one way or the other. She says all the words you’d expect to find on a Christmas album, but none of it really ever comes together.

When I say that none of it comes together, I mean that pretty much as a totality. The album, which was created, like all of her other albums, in collaboration with Greg Kurstin 5, so one can assume that it was constructed under usual working methods for both folks involved. It just so happens that these methods do not, in fact, work very well for Christmas music.

For starters, the whole album seems to have no idea what it’s doing, sonically. There’s jingle bells and hand bells and all sorts of other kinds of bells, real and imaginary, and the whole thing has a general head-rush overblown quality that is pretty common to contemporary Christmas music. It is sort of filtered through Sia’s customary hugeness – every song, even the treacly piano ballads “Underneath the Christmas Lights” and “Snowflake”, is pitched to the cheap seats, which makes the album exhausting, even at only 35 minutes.

There seem to be a couple of attempts to marry the Generalized Christmas Spirit to Sia-standard regret porn, but the attempts are halfhearted. The aforementioned “Snowflake” seems to be about having some sort of romantic involvement simply because it’s Christmas, the time for romance (?!), and there appear to be some pseudo-sexual undertones to “Snowman” and a couple of references to Santa that really make me question some things 6, but it doesn’t really fit the whole thing very well, and the record is better off (for whatever standard of “better off” could possibly apply to this) when it sticks to the sort of essential Christmas stuff.

Ultimately, it’s the fact that she seems to have genuinely been going for a fresh new take on Christmas – the songs seem to be honestly considered, even if they are garbage – that hurts this the most. Most Christmas albums are cursory affairs, with very few ideas, and dashed-off originals. They’re the musical equivalent of those pinecones they sell in grocery stores that are soaked in some kind of nightmare hellscape of cinnamon oil: they bear some resemblance to what you think you want in the first place, but it’s all so half-assed that you wonder what can be done. By contrast, perhaps the only good thing I can say about this Sia album is that, even if it’s mindlessly inconsequential, it is at least whole-assedly so.

So we come to the question: who the fuck listens to this? I guess if you love Sia as much as you love Christmas, you might be interested. Generally speaking, however, most of what is celebrated at Christmastime has its roots in tradition, in the repetition of things that were done in years previous. Certainly not for every person, and certainly not every time, but Christmas is a season of “favorites” and comforting sameness. This is, in all likelihood, why Christmas music is whatever portion of an industry that it is: there’s an appetite for the songs themselves, but of course even a “definitive” version would come up short eventually, even if just through sheer repetition 7. That said, it’s not impossible for new songs to enter the Christmas canon 8, so I suppose there could be some utility in trying to be the one that does it. But as far as listening goes? I couldn’t tell you. There’s not much Christmas utility here, and the songs are largely outside of Sia’s mien, so they aren’t very satisfying in that sense either.

All of that said, if what you want is Christmas music, and you want it to be performed by people who really mean it, and you want good and worthwhile and new additions to your Christmas repertoire, I must guide you to Low’s superlative EP Christmas, which has a handful of your more traditional cuts (including the best-ever version of “Blue Christmas”), and two of Low’s actual best songs – “If You Were Born Today”, which is actually, literally about Jesus, and “Taking Down the Tree,” which does miserable and Christmas way better than anything on this infernally stupid Sia album.

  1.  secondary in the sense that there aren’t a lot of acts that make their living on making this kind of thing. There’s the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, of course, whose primary existence is to play shows around this time of year, and there’s a handful of Christmas-themed joke cover bands out there, but beyond those marginal cases, nobody is a Christmas musician first and foremost. So the portions of the industry that benefit are the radio, the playlist-makers at streaming services, and recording artists that record an album of Christmas-themed music as a somehow-surefire cash grab. 
  2.  it is, for example, the route taken by Shelton and Hanson in their contemporaneous Christmas albums. 
  3.  I mean, most of the songs on a christmas album are even spared from being played live, given how rarely pop stars of the kind of level that could sell a Christmas album don’t really tour at Christmastime. 
  4.  said assertion can be found here. 
  5.  a biographical side note: Sia first came to prominence as the sometimes-vocalist for the deadly dull Zero 7, and Greg Kurstin first came to (at least my) attention as the founding member for the deadly dull Geggy Tah, both of whom were doing things that were marketed at me circa 2001 (the former had just started, the latter would soon break up). This means that I have been largely-indifferent to this entire creative endeavor – i.e. Sia’s body of work as a singer – for my entire adult life. This album, needless to say, did not help. 
  6.  to be fair, I was, I think, 31 when I realized that the lyrical underpinnings to Christmas staple “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” were, in fact, that the kid narrator saw his parents pretending to be Santa, and thus caught them in the act. I had thought, prior to this realization, that the titular “mommy” was hooking up with Santa as, like, a sex bribe I guess? Like instead of cookies there was this chance to make out with this kid’s mom so he got a better present? I guess one would have to ask what it says about child me that “deceiving their child to make the world more magical” was replaced by “deceiving her husband to mack on Santa.” Please note that it was still to get better presents, however. I’m not a monster. The point of all this is: there may be no untoward feelings for Santa, and maybe I just see those wherever I look. 
  7.  It’s not like people stopped recording “The Little Drummer Boy” after David Bowie and Bing Crosby did it, to use one example. 
  8.  although it’s worth noting that the two that come immediately to mind, Paul McCartney’s “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” are over a decade apart, were released a long time ago, and were also released by two of the most successful (in sales and chart terms) artists of all time. 

Tiny Lists in Celebration of Hanukkah, Day 6

10 Best Books I Read in 2017

(whether or not they came out in 2017)

  1. Matt Ruff – Lovecraft Country
  2. N.K. Jemison – The Stone Sky
  3. Box Brown – Andre the Giant
  4. Ned Baumann – The Teleportation Accident
  5. Jack Dann – Dreaming in the Dark
  6. Tom King – The Vision: Little More Than a Beast
  7. Mishell Baker – Borderline
  8. G. Neri – Yummy
  9. Jeff Van DerMeer – Borne
  10. Ed Piskor – Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 3

Tiny Lists in Celebration of Hanukkah, Day 5

10 Best Albums I Heard in 2017 that Weren’t Released in 2017

  1. Yoko Ono – Plastic Ono Band
  2. A Witness – I Am John’s Pancreas
  3. CRTVTR – Here It Comes, Tramontane!
  4. Simon Finn – Pass the Distance
  5. Migala – Arde
  6. Various Artists – Tokyo Flashback
  7. Brian Eno & John Cale – Wrong Way Up
  8. Sun Ra – My Brother the Wind
  9. Jessica93 – Who Cares
  10. Pauline Anna Strom – Trans-Millenia Music

Tiny Lists in Celebration of Hanukkah, Day 4

10 Best Podcast Episodes of 2017

  1. I Was There Too – Stephen de Souza
  2. Doug Loves Movies – Onur Tukel/Anne Heche/Sandra Oh
  3. Comedy Bang! Bang! – Manchester Orchestra/Jessica McKenna/Zach Reino
  4. How Did This Get Made – Ninja Terminator
  5. Hollywood Handbook – Doing Spont!, Our Good Friend
  6. The Doughboys – nugget power hour
  7. Oh No! Ross and Carrie – The Flat Earth Folks (all of it, even though it’s technically more than one episode)
  8. WTF – Randy Newman
  9. With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus – John Hodgman
  10. Nerd Poker – Amyna (because it represents an excellent podcast starting back up, and that’s a good thing or the world)

Tiny Lists in Celebration of Hanukkah, Day 3

Deaths that Were Huge Bummers That I Didn’t Have Anything Useful to Say About in 2017

  1. Bill Paxton
  2. Jonathan Demme (he also nearly made the abandoned pieces list, as I tried to start writing about Storefront Hitchcock, the greatest concert film ever made, but stopped because it seemed like it wasn’t the right sort of thing)
  3. Chris Cornell
  4. Prodigy
  5. Darren Daulton
  6. Dick Gregory
  7. Holger Czukay
  8. Harry Dean Stanton
  9. Sharon Jones

Tiny Lists in Celebration of Hanukkah, Day 2

Abandoned Blog Pieces

  1. 7. A piece about how seriousness, or specifically an abandonment of the idea of seriousness, has been a major benefit both to science fictional literature and superhero movies in the last few years (this one may yet come into existence)
  2. Who the Fuck Listens to This – Marilyn Manson (between having his guitarist arrested, his original bassist dying, and hurting himself badly in a hospital, even the patron saint of “Who the Fuck Listens to This” deserves a damn break)
  3. How the differences between the album version of “Echoes” and the version of “Echoes” performed in 1974 at Wembley says basically everything about the difference between rock music in 1970 and 1974, and why the fact that both of them are fucking awesome is why Pink Floyd is a better band than you think they are.
  4. Has Anyone Told Quavo He Could Consider Not Appearing on a Song Sometime?
  5. Something about Chance the Rapper’s Grammy Win, and how it either makes it clear that labels aren’t even good for the one thing they could be good for, or how someone can be technically independent, but still actually make music for corporations.