Across the Margin carries on its rollout of the Best Albums of 2017 with albums 30 – 21…
30. Slowdive – Slowdive ((Written by Douglas Grant.))
Hiatuses — though frustrating to loyal fans — can be healthy for the sake of a band’s artistic expression and integrity. Slowdive is no different. The Berkshire dream pop band has returned with a new self-titled album after a twenty-two year hiatus, and in that time their ambient sound has only blossomed with age.
The opening track, “Slomo,” is a slow buildup of the band’s oceanic sound that longtime fans will breathe a collective sigh of relief over, treating listeners to both Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell’s vocals after such a lengthy absence. The opening track sets a tone that is quickly offset by the aggressive guitars of “Star Roving,” a song that lets listeners know that this isn’t going to be a mere front-to-back shoegaze album. The album teeters back and forth between the mellow and the upbeat from there on out. With this new album, Slowdive has showed a maturation since the last time the band members collaborated in-studio, but that’s not to say that their signature sound has deviated from what drew in fans in droves since the 1993 release of their widely acclaimed album Souvlaki. These many years later, the band has remained steadfast in expanding on the soundscapes they’ve created, continuing to rely on the soft vocals, heavily echoing guitar chords, reverberating drums, and synthpop keys that attracted scores of audiophiles back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. However, as they now step out onto a musical landscape that has changed exponentially over the last three decades, they can stand proudly with this latest contribution to their body of work, and those who were around in those early days will know that the self-titled Slowdive is a worthy, long-overdue addition to the band’s musical catalog. Younger listeners who might not be familiar with Slowdive will most likely hear their atmospheric sound and recognize that the band has inspired many of musical acts that have followed in the years since Souvlaki and 1995’s follow-up album, Pygmalion.
29. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
We have already praised a multitude of albums on this countdown for their honest introspection (Nick Hakim, Julien Baker, Tyler, The Creator), yet no album that we have come upon is as forthright and cutting as Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me. The eighth full-length from Phil Elverum was notably written after the death of his wife (Geneviève Castrée, the mother to their daughter, and his thirteen-year companion) from pancreatic cancer. The brutal truths laid out on A Crow Looked at Me are jarring at points, but the simplicity, and the attention to even the most mundane but ultimately affecting details of life is entirely captivating. Recorded with just a laptop and a microphone in the room that his wife passed in, A Crow Looked at Me is a stripped down, gut-wrenching remembrance of one of the hardest things any person will ever go through in life, and in that way, it is like nothing we have ever encountered before.
28. Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Admittedly, we here at Across the Margin weren’t incredibly versed on Ryan Adam’s lengthy catalog (this is his sixteenth album!) before coming upon Prisoner, which had us vigorously combing through Adams’ prior work after being fully taken in. Prisoner is a heartfelt album, influenced by his painful divorce from singer Mandy Moore, but it’s remarkably airy and beautiful too. In the way that Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or Beck’s Sea Change laid profoundly sad songs upon pleasant musical canvases, Prisoner is a minimalistic album that is alluring and somewhat feel-good in spite of the pain that is ever present. Now fully in the know in regards to one of America’s great songwriters, we are already eager for what comes next from Adams, and in the meantime left with so much to chew on, including the best breakup album of 2017 in Prisoners.
27. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
After a long hiatus, the musical word has finally gotten Kurt and Courtney back together again. Sadly, we aren’t referencing Nirvana and the “it” couple born of the ‘90s Seattle grunge scene. What we are speaking to are Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, two enormously talented singer-songwriting tricksters with musical styles so different that their coming together is a living example the oft-repeated TV trope: It’s so crazy, it just might work!
Kurt Vile is the sort of musician who could linger on a chord, or a solitary note, and get stuck there for days, zoning out on the implications of said notes existence (or lack thereof). In contrast, Courtney Barnett is capable of packing so many nuanced observations into a single, short-lived idea that one wonders if the entire thought might collapse under the weight of its own mass. Such are the opposing forces at work on Lotta Sea Lice, a fun, whimsical and often conversational (musically, we mean) collection of duets from two of the more talented songwriters today. What becomes apparent as the album unfolds is that these two performers are not as different as we thought them to be initially, for when you dig deeper, what is uncovered is that Vile and Barnett are musical soul-mates, long-lost “lovers” of self-expression and the songwriting process who’ve just been coming at it from different angles. And it’s within this realm of common-ground where the magic of Lotta Sea Lice is precisely realized, most notably on the album’s pleasing opener, a song about writing songs, “Over Everything.” What we learned from our time enjoying Lotta Sea Lice is that Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett could write a song about baking cookies and the reality of their connection is that the song would most likely be a solid gold hit. At the end of the day, isn’t that what music is really all about?
26. Mon Laferte – La Trenza ((Written by Jonathan Marcantoni.))
American audiences may not know Mon Laferte, the Chilean singer-songwriter / producer / fashion icon / actress, but she is one of the biggest musical acts in Latin America. While her first two albums were propelled by rock ballads, heavy guitars and aggressive percussion, her 2015 self-titled album was a major step forward artistically, as Laferte balanced her rock roots with a combination of jazz, burlesque, and a swagger reminiscent of a cross between Billy Holiday and Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles. The result was an album heavy on pathos and theatrics, which propelled her to superstar status. It would have been easy for Laferte to rehash of her last album, but instead, La Trenza (The Braid), is another throwback album, albeit to a different time. If her self-titled album came from the turbulent 30s and 40s, La Trenza is straight out of the 60s. The songs are more low key than her usual offerings, bordering on folksy where Laferte restrains her impressive vocal range in order to mine deeper reservoirs of heartache and reach higher levels of ecstasy. While her collaboration with Juanes, “Amárrame” (Tie me up), is poppy and radio-friendly, it is the exception. “No me fumes mi marihuana” (Don’t Smoke My Marijuana), sounds like a B-Side to a Willie Nelson record circa 1969, while “Mi Buen Amor” (My Good Love), and “Flaco” (Skinny Boy), sound like the sort of Hollywood love songs Henry Mancini used to write. The music is lush but subtle, with occasional horns, and simple arrangements. Laferte mostly relies on her guitar and her powerhouse vocals to carry the songs. While the first time I listened to the record, I was put off by the style, the album grows ever more resonant with each listen, as the strong lyrics and tight instrumentation reveal seemingly endless layers of meaning and harmony.
25. Fleet Foxes – The Crack-Up ((Written by Douglas Grant.))
We scoured the internet frequently, looking for a sign — any sign — that Fleet Foxes were locked away in a studio somewhere recording their new album. We would get frustrated when there was no news, even more so when we’d pick up snippets to the contrary: frontman Robin Pecknold had enrolled in Columbia University’s undergraduate program, or that he had become obsessive over his artistic vision to the point where his mental health was in danger, escaping into the woods of Washington to live a reclusive lifestyle. Fans would ultimately wait six years for Fleet Foxes to put out a new album after 2011’s Helplessness Blues, but, as is evident in the meticulous crafting of each track, The Crack-Up was well worth the wait. The band’s sound is more refined with this latest venture, though this could arguably be a risky proposition considering the fandom they garnered through their rawer-sounding and folky self-titled debut album. One of the pleasant but jarring aspects of this new album is that songs often pivot abruptly, creating in the flow of songs a stream of consciousness that fans must listen to from beginning to end in order to truly appreciate. Furthermore, this time around the band comes forward with a harmonic sound — more focused cohesion in the melodies — that would suggest that this six-year break might just have been beneficial for the artistic growth of not just Pecknold, but for the remaining five members as well. Artistic expression can’t be forced or rushed, and Fleet Foxes have justified their absence from the stage and studio for the last six years with this exceptional work, making The Crack-Up an album that simply needed time to realize its own promise and potential.
23. Mountain Goats – Goth
Goth is the sixteenth full length release from the John Darnielle-fronted project, and the story coming into this album was that there would be no guitars. As daunting as that seemed for a folk-indie rock band, when the album was released it became immediately clear that the lack of guitars wasn’t going to be a problem in the least. This became evident in the opening stunner of a track “Rain in Soho,” which employs the help of members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus to lift the song to glorious heights. It’s a powerful and uplifting song, and the album flows smoothly from there all the way through to the brilliant closing, “Abandoned Flesh,” which highlights the impressive brand of storytelling which has bolstered Darnielle’s lengthy and acclaimed career. The lack of guitars, in fact, turned out to be a blessing, in that it allowed for the beautiful and technically dazzling arrangements to breathe, and afforded the listener full engagement with the lyricism of one of modern day’s best musical storytellers.
24. Toro y Moi – Boo Boo ((Written by Douglas Grant.))
With his latest album, Chaz Bundick has put out twelve tracks that are often moody and contemplative, the sound more akin to 2013’s Anything in Return than his previous release, 2015’s What For? True to form, Bundick’s lyrics remain autobiographical and anecdotal, as is evident in “No Show”: “Been a while since I been home / It took a second ’cause my baby don’t know—I / Been so hesitant, I’m such a no show—why? /My baby got fed up with my ego / Oh—wasn’t even thinkin’ we were going worldwide / Figured it was better than the southern life.” Bundick reflects on his time in South Carolina and the Bay Area, and some of the common themes that are to be found throughout his albums are here as well, including love lost and the fear of being too career-driven. The album often feels cathartic for Bundick; What For?’s positivity and optimism are mostly absent in Boo Boo, but this is okay. This is what artistry’s all about. Bundick’s body of work, on the whole, is inspiring and uplifting, and we certainly won’t begrudge him the opportunity to express his pains, fears, and frustrations if he should feel so inclined.
22. Brockhampton – Saturation II
Brockhampton’s Saturation II, their second album released in a three month span (they have another slated for release later this week!), feels like pure energy. It feels like youth. Led by Kevin Abstract, the group of fifteen rappers and producers that is Brockhampton has branded themselves as a boy band of sorts, going so far as to call themselves the“Southside One Direction.” This group came together in a very unique way, whereas all involved supposedly met each other on a Kanye West fan forum, and now they have teamed up and are living together in Van Nuys poised to make serious inroads in the rap game. Saturation II is bolstered by a series of spirited anthems (“Swamp,” with the “Fucking commas up from the outside!” hook for example), an honest approach to lyricism blatantly in defiance of cultural and hip-hop norms (“Junky,” where Abstract raps “Why you always rap about being gay? / Cuz not enough niggas rapping be gay”), and a few heartfelt tracks such as the overtly Kanye-inspired “Gamba” and the affecting “Fight” which discusses racism in a forthright manner. Featuring tight and potent production from Romil Hemnani and Q3 and a brimming squad of MCs hungry as can be and eager to make an impact, expect to be hearing a whole lot more from and about Brockhampton in the years to come.
21. Temples – Volcano
Volcano is the second full-length release from the British psychedelic pop band Temples, and it’s a stunner. Building off the momentum of their Noel Gallagher and Johnny Marr approved 2014 debut Sun Structures, Volcano is an album that whisks the listener away to another time and possibly another place, a land where kaleidoscopic synth rock and psychotropic melodies reign supreme. What is lacking in lyrical depth, is made up for triumphantly in technical prowess and pure pop and rock firepower. Invoking the power of psych rock gods of yore such as 13th Floor Elevator and Pink Floyd, and of their contemporaries in Tame Impala and King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard, Temples soundscapes are weird, yet shimmering with more pulsating pop meanderings than the aforementioned bands. While Volcano is a huge leap forward for Temples, it truly feels like just the beginning of brilliant career for a promising young band.