What a year. What a long, grueling, terrible, only occasionally hopeful year.
Really, I’m just glad to say I got through it. 2017 was a painful reckoning with who we are and who we have chosen to be, and just keeping up with all the awfulness was, in itself, exhausting. I was going to say that I don’t know where I got the strength, but I do. It was the people in my life, particularly my lovely girlfriend and my still-new church family, that pulled me through it. I’ve rarely relied on people the way I did in 2017.
And I’ve rarely relied on music the way I did this year. Music is always a constant in my life, but this year’s top 10 list selections reflect the turmoil of, well, everything this year. What follows, mostly, is a top 10 list about making it through difficult things, about kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight, to quote Bruce Cockburn. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the darkness sticks around, thick as tar, weighing you down. I wrestled this year with my own beliefs (in God, in the political positions I hold), trying to come to some understanding.
I think it was worth it. I’m here at the end of the year, feeling like a somewhat different person. I’m trying to approach things differently, and I’m taking steps to reduce stress and concentrate on what I know I can change. If the tumultuous music of this year helped me with this, then I’m grateful. Getting through some of the records on this list was difficult, but worth it. I am all about music as a way to work through pain.
And this year served up enough of that. As a capper, just a week ago we lost Pat DiNizio. The voice and mastermind behind the Smithereens, DiNizio was a champion of melodic power pop, and his loss is a great one to anyone (like me) who loves that style. Add his name to a lengthy list of luminaries whose lights went out this year, including Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell and Malcolm Young, among many more.
Were there bright spots? Sure. I’m about to tell you about a few of them. But the music that follows honestly reflects a year in which the very atmosphere felt heavier, in which just getting out of bed some days was its own special challenge. To all of you who made it through with me, I salute you and thank you. And I hope you had music of your own to help. If some of the below list worked that magic for you, even better.
So here is what 2017 sounded like to me.
#10. Marah in the Mainsail, Bone Crown.
The AudioFeed Festival is always one of the most enjoyable weeks of my year. I go now for the new musical experiences as much as for the old favorites. Minneapolis band Marah in the Mainsail is one of my favorite discoveries from what has become my favorite fest. They’re a rough and powerful combo, driven by sharp horns and Austin Durry’s animal growl of a voice, and Bone Crown is their masterpiece. A concept album telling a dark fairy tale of a wicked fox king who burns the woods to the ground, Bone Crown makes every element work in its favor, rushing toward a stunning conclusion. It works best as a whole, but “Everybody Knows” and “Fisticuffs” and “Black Mamba” and “The Great Beyond” stayed in my head for months. Listen and buy here: https://marahinthemainsail.bandcamp.com.
#9. Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights.
Believe it or not, another AudioFeed discovery. Julien Baker is only 22 years old, but she writes from the depths of her soul, laying bare every insecurity and agony with the grace of someone much older. Her second album is her first for a mid-size label, and she subtly enriches her sonic palette here, mixing in piano and strings for the first time. But her songs remain conduits to her deepest and darkest inner lives, and as you listen to her struggle with her fundamentalist upbringing and her depression, it’s like you’re there with her. When she admits that she knows nothing will be all right on “Appointments,” it’s crushing, and when she grabs on to a glimmer of hope on “Hurt Less,” it’s monumental. Turn Out the Lights is one of the most honest and painful records on this list, and if she keeps this up, Baker will soon be one of the best singer/songwriters out there.
Julien Baker was born the year Slowdive’s last album, Pygmalion, came out, which means this glorious English shoegaze band has been on hiatus for her entire life. I never expected a reunion album from them, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have made a better one. Slowdive picks up pretty much where they left off, with a more mature outlook and more complete sense of songcraft, but still sounding like Slowdive. If you’re a fan, you know what that means – guitars that sound like waterfalls surrounding the intertwining voices of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell. These eight songs stand among their best, with “Sugar for the Pill” standing just that little bit taller thanks to its sweeping melody. I couldn’t have asked for better from a band I didn’t expect to ever hear from again.
#7. Kesha, Rainbow.
I’m as surprised as you are. In a year that was all about living through difficult things, though, Kesha’s re-emergence was the most miraculous. Separating herself fully from her abusive producer Dr. Luke, the now-30-year-old Kesha made the record of her life, a rollercoaster of a pop album that veers from loud guitar rave-ups to brassy anthems to bright ballads to country shuffles to folksy novelties to a duet with Dolly Freaking Parton. It’s an album that fulfills all of her potential and then some, but better than that, it’s an album about triumphing over trauma without succumbing to bitterness. “Praying” and “Learn to Let Go” and “Rainbow,” to name three, are lovely examples of breaking through to the other side with yourself intact. I cheered for her throughout this wild little record, and I’m jazzed to hear more from her.
#6. Neil Finn, Out of Silence.
It sounded like a gimmick. Neil Finn, formerly of Split Enz and Crowded House and certainly one of the best songwriters alive, would record his new album in one marathon session and broadcast it live on the internet. It felt like a way to prop up a substandard set of songs, and I reluctantly paid my money for the CD, not expecting much. But Out of Silence is, even without the gimmick, Finn’s best work in 15 years. The songs are complex, stately things, and the players he assembled – including a full string section and a choir – pulled these difficult arrangements off perfectly. It’s a more thoughtful work – songs like “There is More Than One of You” and “Independence Day” take multiple listens to truly absorb, as does a masterpiece like “Widow’s Peak.” Finn saved the most moving for the end. “I Know Different” is the story of a relationship that almost ended, and when the sun breaks through in its final moments, it’s the most gorgeous musical moment Finn has given us, maybe ever. The year’s most welcome return to form, Out of Silence is marvelous.
#5. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile to the Surface.
I have always liked this band, but A Black Mile is the first of their albums I have unabashedly loved. Andy Hull and company pulled out all the stops this time, spinning a dark tale of family chasms based in and around the Homestake Mine in Lead, South Dakota. This is their richest, fullest, most complete record, from the perfection of “The Gold” to the thunderous rhythms of “The Moth” to the bare-bones agony of “The Parts.” It all works together as a whole, and feels like a long climb out of a dark and difficult place. It’s an album of details, and Hull brings his A-game to his most well-observed set of songs. This is a great leap forward for Manchester Orchestra, and I’m excited to see how far they leap next time.
This was my number one choice for a while, and it still claims a large piece of my 2017 heart. Planetarium is a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner of the National, James McAlister of half of your favorite bands, and string arranger to the stars Nico Mulhy. It is ostensibly based on the planets of our solar system, but it’s really about insignificance and fear and dark emotions. The music here is complex but endlessly fascinating – I hear more each time I listen. Stevens is undoubtedly the driving force, and every song here bears his signature. He’s a one-of-a-kind musician, and here he’s given the chance to stretch out, creating programmatic orchestral works with electronic underpinnings and a healthy dose of outer space atmosphere. It sounds like it would be too heady to be affecting, but like all things Sufjan, it’s a small and human thing at its core. Once again Stevens has gifted us with an incredible piece of music. We should never take him for granted.
#3. Jonathan Coulton, Solid State.
I have known for more than a decade that Jonathan Coulton had an album like this in him, and I’m so glad he finally made it. The self-proclaimed internet superstar made his name with geeky novelty tunes (“Code Monkey,” “Re: Your Brains”), but has long been aiming for more sophistication. Solid State is his quantum leap, a concept record (with accompanying graphic novel) about how the internet will bring about the collapse of our future society, but one made up of stunning, beautifully made songs. “Brave,” an angry number about online trolls, is probably the year’s finest guitar-pop tune, but there are so many more, from “All This Time” to “Square Things” to the title track to the apocalyptic yet hopeful climax of “Sunshine.” It’s a magnificently realized pop record, vaulting Coulton to stand among the finest songwriters we have (including the one at number two). I’m so pleased by this development, and so happy to have these, Coulton’s finest and best songs.
#2. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.
Speaking of that pantheon of great songwriters, here’s Aimee Mann, who sits at the head table. I wouldn’t call Mental Illness a comeback – her last record, 2012’s Charmer, was merely very good, not amazing. But it is the first one she’s given us in a while that plays to her strengths. Mental Illness is a sad, stark record of broken love songs and middle-aged reckonings, tiny snapshots of people trying like hell to make things work, and knowing deep inside that it’s pointless. No one wrote a more gut-wrenching song this year than “Rollercoasters,” on which she collaborated with the aforementioned Jonathan Coulton, and that’s just one stop on this magical misery tour. Mann returned to acoustic balladry here for the first time in years, and it suits these sad songs to the ground. “You Never Loved Me,” “Patient Zero,” “Good for Me,” “Poor Judge,” “Lies of Summer,” just example after example of pitch-perfect songwriting, the way only a master can do it. She’s one of the best there is, and she proves it again and again on this gem of a record.
And for a while, she was my choice to lead this list. But I decided to go with an album that meant more to me personally than any other, an album that did in my head and my heart, that explored questions I’ve been working through for years with piercing honesty. Only a few of you will agree with this, but those who do likely had a similar journey of conflicting emotions while listening, and came away similarly torn apart.
#1. Derek Webb, Fingers Crossed.
You may not know Derek Webb’s name, but if you traffic in the spiritual circles I do, you have heard his songs. He was part of Christian band Caedmon’s Call for a decade, then a prophetic voice as a solo artist for another decade after that, writing songs that pointed fingers at the church for all manner of sins, but always remembering to point four fingers back at himself. His work was amazing from a songwriter point of view, but always firmly within – and often addressed directly to – the Christian church.
And then he cheated on his wife and was found out. She divorced him, and over the past four years Webb has slowly yet surely lost his faith. Fingers Crossed is his first album since all of that, and it’s devastating for those who know his work. But even if you don’t, this album boldly and honestly tackles the weightiest of subjects, detailing the despair and anguish of these twin losses, dissecting himself and his roiling thoughts with the same unflinching gaze he has always brought to his music. It’s as powerful as it is difficult, as emotionally draining as it is therapeutic. I love it and hate it and love it.
Webb has described this album as a tale of two divorces, and he weaves them together expertly. Several of these songs are searing laments for his lost love, and if you can get through a song like “I Will” or “Love is Not a Choice” without feeling something, I envy you. I feel hollowed out by them, empty and hopeless. The songs about his lost faith are similarly powerful. “Easter Eggs” mirrors a lot of my own thoughts over the past 20+ years about God and our relationship to him, and the title track captures the existential horror of losing the thing keeping you from falling into the abyss. It’s so well-rendered, so extraordinarily well-observed. Musically as well, this album is a black hole of loneliness. Webb has been making music on his own for some time, but he has never sounded this alone.
“The Sprit Bears the Curse” stands out for its apparent novelty – it’s a typical worship song, using the language of the Nashville praise machine that feeds evangelical churches around the country. But this one is about alcohol, not Jesus, a bait-and-switch he pulls at the end. It feels like a joke at first, but slowly it becomes a powerful excoriation of worship music and a stunning confessional at the same time. This is a song of abandonment, like many of these songs – Webb feels like God has turned his back on him, and while he understands why his wife has done the same, he doesn’t understand what happened between him and God. “Either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen,” he sings, and it resonates. I’ve felt that way before, for a very long time.
Full disclosure: I started attending church again last year after a 20-year absence. I’ve found a great place to grow as a person and as someone with at least the embers of belief. The music – including Derek Webb’s music – has kept me part of this world for decades, and I’m grateful to have found a place and a church family that I love as much as I have always hoped I would. Hearing Webb make the opposite journey on Fingers Crossed hurts just that much more because of it. Not because I need him to believe anything, but because I know these feelings and this journey, and it’s painful.
Webb reserves his one bit of hopefulness for the very last second of this album. The closer, “Goodbye for Now,” is the saddest song I have heard this year, bringing the threads of abandonment together: “You left me here to document the slow unraveling of a man who burned the house down where he kept everything…” But it ends on an unresolved chord, the musical equivalent of “to be continued,” and I can’t help but think of that as a deliberate choice, a way of saying that this story isn’t over, and as painful as it has been, we keep going. We keep living. We keep trying to figure it out.
God, that resonates with me. This entire album made me feel like nothing else this year. Some days I can’t even listen to it, it’s so extraordinarily emotional for me. Webb has followed this record up with a weekly podcast called The Airing of Grief, in which he talks with people who have been moved by this album, whether they agree with it or are angered by it. It’s all part of the process, all part of healing and moving forward, whatever we leave behind.
In some ways, I can’t recommend this album at all. In other ways, I can’t recommend it enough. You can judge for yourself at https://derekwebb.com.
That does it for me. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then we’re into 2018. I can only hope that it gets better from here. Thank you to everyone who has read and sent emails and commented on Facebook this year. I couldn’t keep doing this without all of you, and I appreciate you more than I can say. I hope everyone’s holidays are as merry and bright as they can be.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.