Across the Margin continues its rollout of the Best Albums of 2017 with albums 40 – 31…
40. Kevin Morby – City Music
Singer-songwriter Kevin Morby came to our attention last year with his remarkable album Singing Saw. Formerly the bass guitarist in the prolific folk rock band Woods and the frontman of the Brooklyn-based rock band The Babies, Morby has spent the last four years crafting a brilliant solo musical career. Singing Saw appeared close to the top of our list of Best Music of 2016 and it should come as no surprise that Morby’s 2017 album, City Music, should find itself on our list as well. Recorded with his live band, and with the notable presence of guitarist Meg Duffy, City Music is an album that celebrates, well…city music. It’s a captivating fourth offering from Morby filled with the highs and lows, cynicism and optimism, and beauty and grit that city life offers. There’s a questioning vibe to the album, as it ponders the je ne sais quoi — that intangible thread — that causes those souls seeking inspiration to foster a life amongst the teeming throngs of a metropolis. It’s an album that finds Morby singling in his deadpan Bob Dylan voice as he opens the album “Oh! That city music! Oh! That city sound!” It’s lyrics such as this, sung with such passion that it borders on a religion, that draws you into Morby’s music, and across the album’s twelve beautiful tracks there’s a message that from solitude and observance of one’s surroundings can come inspiration and enlightenment. Morby however is no monk, searching out his meaning from within the sparse confines of a mountainous temple. His sanctuary is an “uptown apartment that looks down upon an international urban landscape,” and it’s from there, that he has crafted a touching and elegant album.
39. Gangs of Youth – Go Farther In Lightness
Gangs of Youth, the Sydney, Australian rock band are going to be huge. There is something so special about this band, and also something so familiar that rock fans everywhere are going to be able to latch on to. Present are hints of The Hold Steady (particularly Craig Finn’s robust delivery), shades of Broken Social Scene’s potent circular guitar crescendos, whispers of Bruce Springsteen’s raucous passion, and the comparisons to rock’s elite just begin there. It isn’t going to far to state that frontman Dave Le’aupepe is one of rock’s best young singer-songwriters, as exhibited in the politically charged song “Atlas Drowned,” the introspective and moving “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane,” and the poetic “Let Me Down Easy.” Gangs of Youth have an instinctual knack for the sort of slow-building rock escalations that culminate in explosive climaxes, and because of this Go Far in Lightness is surely one of the best guitar rock albums of the year, brimming with pulse-pounding anthems and surprisingly profound lyrical insight.
38. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet
A dear friend of Across the Margin, whose musical appreciation we respect immensely, turned us onto Japanese Breakfast via a casual text that read “Chk this shit out!” Many listens later and we were hooked. Japanese Breakfast is Michelle Zauner’s (of the Philadelphia-based emo band Little Big League) solo musical project and it has already produced a solid debut album, 2016’s lo-fi, dream-pop Psychopomp. A trek back to Eugene, Oregon in 2014 due to a family illness found Zauner recording solo music while away from her band and from those recordings — done according to Zauner as a means of “instant gratification” — formed the basis of Psychopomp. Soft Sounds from Another Planet is Japanese Breakfast’s sophomore offering, and the album feels more proper and slickly-formed than their 2016 kickoff. Tracks like “Road Head” personify the sort of Pacific Northwest indie rock that Japanese Breakfast excels at. It’s a song driven forward as much by Zauner’s ethereal vocals as it is by surreal-yet-infectious arrangements and there’s an aloof confidence to the song and the greater album’s cosmic power. It’s no secret that Michelle Zauner’s biggest asset on Soft Sounds from Another Planet is her vocal prowess, at times functioning as another instrument in the band’s extensive repertoire, and we here at Across the Margin hope that there’s much more in store from this talented group.
37. Sylvan Esso – What Now
What Now is the second studio album from powerhouse indie pop duo Sylvan Esso. At times stripped down, funky and sweet, and other times electro and flush with peppy pop swoons, What Now is the sort of album that grows on you with each listen. Tracks like “The Glow” feature boisterous beats from producer Nick Sanborn’s snapping and crackling Moog synthesizer while singer Amelia Meath’s buoyant vocals dance about. It’s the excellent interplay of Meath’s powerfully impassioned delivery and Sanborn’s well-crafted synth and electro beats that drew us into Sylvan Esso’s world like a moth to a flame in the first place. The album’s third track, “Die Young,” is a radio-friendly pop hit, a tasty synth-laden musical treat that never gets old no matter how many listens, and the same can be said for the highly danceable “Radio.” Sylvan Esso have proven that they are masters of crafting well-written, catchy yet insightful songs, and all across What Now’s ten imaginative tracks is evidence of their devilishly simple yet appealing songwriting, the type of music we haven’t heard since the short-lived band Postal Service gave us 2003’s wonderful Give Up.
36. Gorillaz – Humanz
The virtual, cartoon-band Gorillaz, fronted by Blur vocalist Damon Albarn, released their fifth studio album in 2017. Their latest offering, Humanz, follows Gorillaz’s well-crafted formula to success: take a du jour collection of talented artists and musicians, throw in an offering of themes ripped from the global headlines placing an emphasis on the dystopian end-times of our society, and then pressing “Play.” It’s a recipe that has given us such formidable tracks as “Feel Good,” “Clint Eastwood,” “Stylo,” “DARE,” and “Dirty Harry,” and on 2017’s Humanz, there’s more of the same in store. But that’s a good thing, because what Gorillaz know how to do is craft kick-ass, infectious tunes, while a veritable parade of musical talent lend their creativity to the songs. There’s powerhouses Mavis Staples and Pusha T collaborating on “Let Me Out,” rapper Vince Staples crushing it on the album’s second track “Ascension,” De La Soul lending their lyrical prowess to the beat-laden track “Momentz,” and singer Kelela and rapper Danny Brown going one-two on the ‘80s retro vibe song “Submission.” There’s something on Humanz for everyone, and we’ve barely even scratched the surface of mentioning the special guests featured therein. Playing more like someone’s “Awesome Mix” than an album with a message and deliberate progression, Humanz is a fun, rousing sonic adventure and a welcome rainfall after a several year drought.
35. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm
Out in the Storm is the fourth full length release from Katie Crutchfield’s band Waxahatchee, and is an album that acts as another leap forward for this dazzling project. In 2015, Waxahatchee’s Ivy Trip floored us, as we found ourselves wholly enamored with Crutchfield’s delicate voice and introspective musings dancing effortlessly over the sparse but intricate soundscapes which frequently culminated with delicate pop eruptions. And don’t look now but those pop eruptions we spoke of have been amplified in Out in the Storm, Watxahatchee’s most emphatic, guitar heavy offering to date. It’s clear that Crutchfield set out to make some noise with this album, pulling veteran producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady, Dinosaur Jr., etc) into the mix, as well as Sleater-Kinney’s touring guitarist, Katie Harkin. Out in the Storm finds Crutchfield exploring the pain of a recent break-up, but the manner in which she approaches it is determined, and the anguish she channels is somehow reorganized into some of the most alluring, and flat out catchy, songs we have come upon all year.
34. Fever Ray – Plunge
After an eight year hiatus, it was an absolute joy to behold the welcome return of Fever Ray, Swedish musician Karin Dreijer, in 2017. Many know Dreijer as one half of The Knife, with her brother Olof, or from her 2009 self-titled solo debut which acted as an introduction to her entirely unique and labyrinthine soundscapes (take a quick listen to “IDK About You” off Plunge if you want to see what we mean by “labyrinthine!”). Plunge is a wild ride, entirely inventive, avant garde at times, wholly intimate, and delightfully sexual. Holding back not at all, Dreijer’s honest and brash fearlessness on Plunge is refreshing and welcome, spitting in the face of those who shame others for normal carnal desires. “First I take you then you take me / Breathe some life into a fantasy / Your lips, warm and fuzzy / I want to run my fingers up your pussy” Dreier sings on the incredible “To The Moon and Back,” an example of the sort of intoxication spirit that has us returning to Plunge time and again.
33. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Murder Of The Universe
In what amounted to an unfathomable fit of creativity and ouput, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard released five albums in 2017. Yeah, that’s right — five (and nine since 2012)! Although this sort of remarkable productivity could lead one to assume their prolific output is in some way a quantity game, rest assured that all the albums they released in 2017 are rife with the brand of raucous rock ‘n’ roll that is making KGTLW a live must-see act. The album of the quintet that enticed us the most was surely Murder of the Universe, an emphatically strange punk concept album that shreds. The Melbourne seven-piece outfit have released in Murder Of the Universe an audacious and continually hard-driving album that is as wonderfully absurd as it is flat-out rocking. Surely Murder of the Universe isn’t for everyone, but the freaky soup that comes from the blending of humor, psych rock, unhinged zaniness, and a far-out narrative is awe-dropping in scope and in delivery, an intriguing and captivating psychedelic journey which unfolds over twenty-one tracks and forty-five unforgettable minutes.
32. Tyler, The Creator – Flower Boy
Tyler, T Creator may have, with Flower Boy, dropped the album he has been attempting to make throughout his young but prolific career. While Flower Boy is satiated with a slew of noteworthy guests, including A$AP Rocky, Lil Wayne, Frank Ocean, and Rex from Orange County, it is the depth that Tyler brings to his verses throughout the album that is most compelling. The profound insight throughout Flower Boy is remarkable, exemplified in “Boredom,” where an exasperated Tyler spits “Ringy dingy dong / I can’t be alone / I been starting to feel like I don’t know anyone / So now I’m staring at my ceiling fuckin’ going / Like I have no idea where I’m going,” or on “Garden Shed,” where the rapper addresses rumors about his sexuality disclosing “Garden shed for the garçons / Them feelings that I was guardin’ / Heavy on my mind / All my friends lost / They couldn’t read the signs / I didn’t wanna talk and tell ’em my location / And they ain’t wanna walk / Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase / Thought it’d be like the phrase; “poof,” gone / But, it’s still goin’ on.” Tyler is proving to be quite the musical visionary, and Flower Boy is his most honest and impressive album to date. Don’t look now but Tyler is maturing, and although he will always clown around, it’s high time to take his art dead serious.
31. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
After a five year hiatus, indie rockers Grizzly Bear released a palatial album this August entitled Painted Ruins, a follow-up to 2012’s delightfully intricate and dark Shields. On cursory listen, Painted Ruins seemed like a departure for Grizzly Bear, as the album felt abstract, open-ended, and more ambitious in scope than any of their previous offerings — which may have be off-putting for fans expecting more of the same. But what we liked about Painted Ruins is that the album is a slow-burner despite this new direction, with each successive listen, and each flirtation with its songs, pulling you deeper into its intricate world. Grizzly Bear’s exploration of electronica, and the soaring digital soundscapes they craft on songs like “Neighbors” is an exciting window into what a fully realized Grizzly Bear could be, and what a Grizzly Bear firing on all cylinders and using all the tools at their disposal can achieve. The album is a modern masterpiece of songwriting, with lush layering, swooping and soaring vocals, and flashes of experimental pop all connected by a strong creative vision and we are confident the album will live on as a fine example of what art rock is at its core. Let’s just say that Painted Ruins is next level Grizzly Bear and leave it at that.