The trends of many year-end summaries for 2017 focus on the negatives. Which makes sense; there was a lot to be negative about. But if you look at the reactions to the current social climate, there are things to be overwhelmingly optimistic about. The most compelling aspect of music this year was the immediacy of its reactions. To loneliness. To heartbreak. To loss. To death. In past years, when music seemed like it could be an escape from the world, it felt important to those who paid attention. But 2017’s music rid itself of the idea that music could be an escape. Instead, these singles and albums all confronted the world’s blemishes in a method that felt meaningful and deeply impactful. A ten-day retreat into a single space with Steve Albini acting as the producer is something that garners more skepticism than hope. Ben Frost is a master of balancing powerful dynamics of sound, nuclear hiss fizzling away until there are only vibrations. Yet with “Ionia”, Frost’s skill for colliding tones together is implemented in a much subtler way. A quiet wasteland of hums shutters as a volley of synths is woven throughout the track. At nearly seven minutes, the single showcases how Frost can make the apocalyptic work of his past sound amateurish. The work composed with Albini sounds like the moments in between the chaos, without losing any of the electronic melancholy.Spoon excels at the polished arrangements, the subtle guitar flourish, and the ear-worm hooks. “Hot Thoughts” doesn’t revolutionize this expertise. It doesn’t even lie about its origins. It’s classic indie rock, comfortable in its sound. Instead, it covers Spoon’s brand of rock into a new coat of paint. Layered in with piano and soft strings throughout, flashy guitar hooks blend into Britt Daniels’ crooning vocals. Eschewing cleverness in favor of an ode to internal confidence, “Hot Thoughts” offer an anxious way to express those internal bouts of passion without ever losing its sense of cool.
LCD Soundsystem returning to play Coachella in 2016 was an awakening for a lot of fans of the type of “indie” music from early in the 2010’s: the stalwarts of that generation are gone. Arcade Fire has soured rapidly with their derivative disco-influenced album and the xx’s latest effort reeks of Jamie xx fighting to reinvent the group’s sound. But despite this obvious transformation of the independent scene, LCD Soundsystem still provided a sobering look into what it’s like to be the perennial old man of rock ’n’ roll. Punctuated with dripping analog synths and James Murphy’s falsetto slipping into nothingness, “american dream” is a revelation about what it’s like to realize that the world has suddenly and abruptly morphed into a disgusting shell of its former self. Obviously meant to represent something greater, “american dream” sadly reflects the band’s age more than anything. But it’s the grand idealizing about the demise of one’s dream set against the backdrop of a tragic, synthetic ballad that shows even when it’s the end of an era, LCD Soundsystem prove that preparing for the end their entire career has ultimately paid off.“All Blue” could have been an eye-rolling pun about what it’s like to live in the world of gangsta rap. Instead, G Perico is adept at revealing the intricacies of his environment. Never comfortable, the g-funk synths navigate wiry channels that bounce along a booming sub-bass, all the while G Perico provides a way to survive his world. Covering up crimes and prepared for violence, “All Blue” isn’t so much a precautionary tale as it is a daily routine to succeed in Los Angeles. And with the second verse, G Perico shows how easily it could all end when the traffic behind you could bring gunfire. But instead of worry, he nonchalantly shrugs off the violence to showcase his authenticity. And from the breezy west coast beat to the laid-back style, G Perico is an expert in authenticity.Margaret Chardiet, the sole artist behind Pharmakon, has always maintained a focus on what it means to be human. Specifically, through the disconnects we experience, whether that be with the world around us or the individuals close to us. “Transmission” acts as a way to break through the infinite number of barriers that block our internal thoughts and the thoughts of others. Hellish vocals scream about a story of a conversation without words but maintained the weight of what they said. Chardiet lasers in on this focus with a trancelike barrage of synths and noise that churn into a nightmarish version of a synapse firing repeatedly. Its simultaneously a collapse of an impossible idea, but one that is mesmerizing as its final pulse dies away.Gazzy Garcia was born in Miami, Florida on August 17, 2000. Seventeen years later, Lil Pump had a single peak at number three on the US Billboard Hot 100. How this happened is something of a mystery, and it’s hard to tell if this is due to the post-modern appreciation for Lil Pump’s “mythology” (where Lil Pump dropped out of Harvard in order to save the rap game, has an obsession with Miranda Cosgrove, and coined the term “ESSKEETIT”). How many plays did Gucci Gang get because it was morphed into meme compilations? How many times did it get downloaded to be used as a punchline? The better question is does it matter? “Gucci Gang” is an infectious and streamlined take on SoundCloud rap without the erasure of Lil Pump’s personality. It works as a song whether you buy into its “joke” or not, and made Lil Pump a household name overnight.When you look closely at the album art for BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS, you’ll see Young Thug holding his guitar upside-down, but you’ll also see that he’s just a torso on a stool, an apparition in the middle of an awkwardly-lain image for his debut “singing album”. In a way, this art is the perfect encapsulation of where we are in the canon of Young Thug – how we’ve landed at “Family Don’t Matter”. As an artist whose shroud and mystique has always been his main talking points, every release has the potential to clear some haze or add to the blur. A corral-styled guitar interfused with heavy drum bass is, in typical Young Thug fashion, atypical and unexpected. But what makes this track so fiercely stupefying isn’t the instrumentation, but the inherent discrepancy in the Young Thug we’ve learned over the years: I’m Up promised us a man hellbent on protecting his family at any cost, now he dismisses the concept of family altogether. If nothing else, “Family Don’t Matter” conceptually promises to pull the curtains back a few inches on the man without an explanation, only to show another curtain lurking behind; it’s as heady as it is frustrating.Alvvays’ self-titled debut was dream-pop that played up its most fantastical elements. The locales and people could only exist in dreams. But with their follow up Antisocialites, Alvvays find themselves in a much more lucid world. “Dreams Tonite” is a slower, more realized take on romanticizing the world. Mundane events like riding the bus swirl together with starry-eyed guitars gleam as Kerri MacLellan’s vocals follow a relationship so doomed that she questions if an escape to her dreams could even be romantic. Its morose and heartbroken, but it escapes hopelessness through its aching to find hope in dreams. As the synths sparkle and MacLellan’s falsetto finds a home in a cozy reverb, “Dreams Tonite” is a search for growth without succumbing to bitterness.There are just under 30 posts on yaeji’s SoundCloud page; each has been posted within a year. No other artist has had such a meteoric rise in the realm of house music as this Korean-American Brooklynite, and each of her EPs that she’s released this year are show off her unique form of house music. House music has always been about transforming records of the past into something new, and her rendition of Drake’s ode to dancehall from More Life cements why yaeji has taken risen in such a meteoric fashion within a year. “Passionfruit” is a relationship red flag for Drake when he sings about the difficulties of distance in a relationship, but in yaeji’s hand, she transforms the song into an intimate affair. The lyrics registering as a whisper and the beat’s soft-spoken existence all reinforce a more sympathetic and nuanced tone. Subdued and heavy on the bass, the track is a private event that feels like a conversation had in the gaps between songs when dancing. This is something that yaeji excels in and proves the old adage that less is more when it comes to house music.Storytelling is the crucial thread that has held together Jens Lekman’s career as a songwriter. Stories about love and life that have been boxed in as “twee” and often limited the scope of Lekman’s talent. Those who have categorized his songs as clumsy, awkward, and endearing will be floored when the hook to “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” explodes with a nostalgic burst. Going through memories connected with past aromas, Lekman traces the love of his past without a hint of irony. Not only has he erased past trivializations in one song, but he’s also created a tropical pop hybrid that pieces together a picture of love and loss that could only exist through the eyes of a storyteller as accomplished as Jens Lekman.