My dear couriers across 2017’s River Styx,
Here we’ve been talking about streaming, and the situation’s gotten suddenly worse, given the FCC ruling against net neutrality. It’s one thing to navigate the economics and aesthetics of new listening models and another when monopoly-seeking pipelines like YouTube and Spotify might get the leverage to choke off alternatives such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Trump rose on the promise of a border wall, but instead he’s delivering a network of paywalls. (One of my songs of the year, “A Wall,” by the girl-rock, queer-punk-Latina Downtown Boys, applies pretty well to both subjects.)
At least the undeniable reign of “Despacito” as the song of the summer was a collective rebuke to the would-be wall builder, even if the version that dominated American airwaves was annoyingly diluted by Justin Bieber. (No hate on the Biebs, but it’s not his finest hour.) Julianne, I also wondered what you thought of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda reviving the star-studded charity single, with “Almost Like Praying” by Artists for Puerto Rico. It didn’t make as much of a commercial splash as a song as it did as a news event. Musically, it’s just so-so. But with its list of contributors, it has to be one of the biggest gatherings of Latino stars ever on record, including “Despacito” singer Luis Fonsi. And maybe I’m just a sucker for any song that riffs on “Maria” from West Side Story, but I’m not sure any celebrity charity single has ever had such a moving conceit, its lyrics making a recitation of Puerto Rican place names into a yearning litany, a verbal-musical map of the island, geography as soul.
Miranda also shows up on the intro to my own favorite Spanish-language album of the year, another investigation of place and identity from a Puerto Rican artist, the self-titled album by Residente. He had his DNA mapped, then traveled to all the parts of the world he’d discovered ancestry (Latin America, Africa, Siberia, China, and more) to collaborate with musicians there. This global sound-walk may sound like a kind of abstract exercise, but the music is red-hot and bristles with the paradoxes and risks of migration, assimilation, and appropriation.
In some ways, Ann, though Residente is no millennial (he’s a veteran of many years in the great Calle 13), I think he’s experimenting precisely with the boundaries of the “soft self” you talked about.
It’s no coincidence in this age of online genealogy (and, to some degree, of social Darwinism) that Kendrick Lamar also centered a key track of DAMN. around the concept of “DNA,” though in this case much more as a metaphor for the struggle between destiny and choice that Lamar wrestles with throughout the album. The record’s circular structure, the first song beginning with a fragment of the last, is about whether there’s ever an escape from the cycles that precede us. I think Lamar is haunted by the question of whether the self is a harder prison to escape.
Simone Schmidt, the songwriter behind the Toronto band Fiver, asks similar questions about social history on her quiet stunner, Audible Songs from Rockwood. These songs are about the stories of female prisoners she’s found in the archives of a long-shuttered institution for the “criminally insane” in Ontario, and they nudge all kinds of boundaries of the self—between mental wellness and illness, the sanctioned and the criminalized, colonial and racialized, privileged and dispossessed, and, of course, past and present.
There’s a similar elasticity in many of the electronically enhanced albums by female composers this year that found forms of resistance in a porous subjectivity, kind of letting themselves be warped by space and time—the opposite of totalitarian rigidity and top-down thinking. I’ve written about that theme in Björk’s Utopia, but the same spirit’s at work in the absorbing textures of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid and the Afrofuturist jazz of Nicole Mitchell on Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (She balances it out with some present-tense militancy on her other 2017 album, Liberation Narratives.)
From another angle entirely, there’s a slipperiness in the status of selfhood—both fallen and transcendental, doubled and deleted, and permeated with moral electricity—in what I’d call my real song of the summer, which is the soundtrack and sound design in David Lynch’s incredible limited series, Twin Peaks: The Return. I had to represent the year’s single greatest work of art in my best-of list, though it takes several different albums to gather together all the Roadhouse-band songs, background score, and crackling sonic effects.
And while you’re right, Ann, that process and creation through exchange are a particular millennial strength, I’ve loved seeing it across generations too: Kesha’s duet with Dolly Parton on Rainbow. Björk’s collaboration with the young Venezuelan artist Arca (whose own self-titled album this year is powerful too). Willie Nelson gettin’ around as always with his appearance on Margo Price’s All American Made. Angaleena Presley singing a song she wrote with the late great Guy Clark on her undernoticed second album Wrangled. And jazz/hip-hop bassist Thundercat (best known as the linchpin of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly) bringing together many decades of L.A. studio wizardry by featuring yacht-rock heroes Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins without a hint of condescension. Not to mention all the ways that artists this year found subtle and overt ways to honor lost gods such as Prince and David Bowie, such as Miguel with his very paisley “Pineapple Skies,” LCD Soundsystem answering Blackstar with a “Black Screen,” and Arcade Fire with (blue, blue) “Electric Blue.”
That kind of cross-generational collaboration at one remove resulted in a special moment for me this year, when Ann’s beloved Perfume Genius released his cover of “Body’s In Trouble” by my beloved Mary Margaret O’Hara, that elusive Canadian musical clairvoyant, from 1988’s Miss America. It’s a song about awkwardness, misfiring nerves, all the fraught angles of being a physical being (and for O’Hara, a female one), but Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas personalizes the anxiety in more contemporary queer terms—where O’Hara sang, “Want to feel somebody/ Body won’t let you,” he sings, “Want to feel somebody/ My body won’t let you.” He said about the song, “My relationship with my own body is confusing and I use music to try and puzzle it out, or as rebellion against needing a form at all.” (PSA: Perfume Genius also invited O’Hara to perform at the Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht, Netherlands, this year, and Mojo posted the whole show on SoundCloud.)
Between our technological mediations and our evolving concepts of identity and sexuality (as Ann’s mentioned, a topic in her must-read history of American music, Good Booty), sometimes it can seem like our own subjective awareness might be a form of “fake news.” But I was also drawn to a lot of more straightforwardly self-reflective works this year, such as Lorde’s deservedly acclaimed (although unfortunately commercially inert) coming-of-age album Melodrama.
Then there are various aging artists’ excursions into retrospection, such as Mark Eitzel’s wistful Hey Mr. Ferryman, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields’ monumental 50 Song Memoir, Open Mike Eagle’s psychogeography of his childhood stomping grounds, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats’ tribute to fading subcultures, Goths.
Frankly I’m surprised to see how many records on my list are by my contemporaries and how many of them are indie rock–derived in some way—more than any of my lists in years, surely. Maybe I’m just reaching for the familiar under duress. Or maybe, like Darnielle, I’m looking toward an idea of “alternative culture” that lost its coherence along the way but feels freshly urgent again, though it would have to be in entirely other forms (as the young feminist rock bands know well).
With that bias in mind, here is a sampling of my favorite albums of the year. I was going to post an even bigger list of songs, some of them one-offs and others representative of the many albums that I couldn’t fit in, but as I’ve listened back and talked with all of you, that list is mushrooming. I’ll post a playlist of many more at the end of our chat. New alternatives are sprouting every day.
25 (Roughly) Albums of 2017
Big Thief, Capacity
Bjork, Utopia (my review here)
Mark Eitzel, Hey Mr. Ferryman (my review here)
Fiver, Audible Songs from Rockwood
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. (my review here)
Lorde, Melodrama (my review here)
LCD Soundsystem, American Dream (my review here)
Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir (my review here)
Nicole Mitchell, Liberation Narratives/Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (two albums)
Arto Lindsay, Cuidado Madame
Jason Moran, Bangs
Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me
Mountain Goats, Goths (my review here)
Randy Newman, Dark Matter (my review here)
Open Mike Eagle, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Angaleena Presley, Wrangled
Margo Price, All American Made
Joseph Shabason, Aytche
Jackie Shane, Any Other Way (reissue collection) (me on Jackie Shane here)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, The Kid
Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory
Twin Peaks: The Return soundtrack material: Dean Hurley, Anthology Resource Vol. 1; Angelo Badalamenti, Twin Peaks Limited Event Series Soundtrack; Johnny Jewel, Windswept
Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm