5 Best Songs and Albums of the Year (So Far)

(Photo Credit: Columbus Alive)

2017 has had its share of musical diversity – here’s a look at our favorites so far.

At the end of 2016, I predicted that 2017 would see a rise in angry and abrasive music across all genres, reactions to the seemingly rapid decay of the Western world. And at first, it looked like I was right. The year started off with Run the Jewels, Pharmakon and Pissed Jeans dropping albums, and the first At the Drive In single in 17 years. But since then, the general outlook has settled. We’re not experiencing the year like we did last year (and may never will again), but there has been a great number of memorable songs and albums so far. From the patiently awaited follow-ups to masterpieces from Lorde, Father John Misty and Kendrick Lamar, to the impatiently awaited reunions from At the Drive In, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Slowdive, the year has delivered on multiple fronts. Indeed, there is a seething trend to this year’s music, but it shouldn’t be seen as an umbrella – for every Mount Eerie song about death, there’s DJ Khaled reminding us what to live for. And for every political Roger Waters track, there’s a bouncy, disco Phoenix song waiting in the wings. The music department here at The Filtered Lens may just be me, and I am but one man (a man who spent much of the year focusing on finishing grad school), but I’ve been listening to and weighing everything that I can. So without anymore random name-dropping, here’s my picks:

Best Songs:

#5. Harry Styles – “Sign of the Times”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

Sure, releasing this single on the 30th anniversary of Prince’s classic “Sign o’ the Times” was a bold and unwarranted move. But it’s a great song at it’s core. The piano ballad was also the lead solo single for the former One Direction playboy – and a very unexpected step into new territory. The song’s patient 5:40 runtime outpaces everything in the One Direction catalog (a look at their Spotify page finds only two songs over five minutes – both remixes). And sure, the song’s constant references to bullets and war might be ‘convenient’ for Styles’ upcoming role in Christopher Nolan’s D-Day movie “Dunkirk.” But Styles is an extremely good singer, and he puts it on full display here, with a wide physical and emotional range. This isn’t a boy-band song, not even a little. This is an emotional ballad with a lot of weight and with a constant feeling of a private moment that we’re not supposed to be seeing. Not convinced? Check his golf-suited performance of it on “SNL.”

#4. LCD Soundsystem – “call the police”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

Regardless of what you think about the ‘reunion’ of LCD Soundsystem (and, as a big fan, I have mixed feelings about the whole scenario), they’ve/he’s come out of the gate swinging with “call the police.” The song resembles exactly what an LCD Soundsystem song should be – comically long, extremely danceable despite a lack of chord changes, and lyrics that are both brutally honest and explicitly puzzling. The song lacks a real chorus, but it quickly falls into an inviting rhythm, so it doesn’t matter. In the seven years since the last Soundsystem record, James Murphy’s songwriting style has not changed one bit. The song sounds like Brooklyn, historically – from the working-class families Murphy describes as his own, to the gentrifiers debating Judaism and texting the police. But is that even the right reading? I can’t be sure. Not convinced? Check their crowded performance of it on “SNL.” Have I said this already?

#3. Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

Kendrick’s last proper album, 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” jumped to the top of our and just about everyone else’s Best Of lists. The album saw Kendrick, not yet a legend, transcend rap entirely to accommodate poetry, free jazz and spoken word, almost as a godly figure watching on everyone else. His new album “DAMN.” very intentionally proved he can excel on Earth, too. Lead single “HUMBLE.” is the album’s hottest track, a sub-three-minute jaunt that takes aim at the overblown lifestyles of his peers. The song sets the album’s tone of a simpler, rougher answer to “Butterfly” – a manifesto that proves Kendrick is the greatest current rapper, and that he can be so on human terms, not just on the terms of a concept album. Pretty ironic, though, to hear the greatest of our generation warn “be humble.” So far he’s been great at taking his own medicine.

#2. Migos (feat. Lil Uzi Vert) – “Bad and Boujee”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

It takes a lot to become a breakthrough in the Atlanta rap scene – on top of competition, there’s the auras of OutKast and Killer Mike hanging overhead. But few forces in rap have shown more potential than the kids in Migos. Although they’ve bubbled in the up-and-coming conversations for a while, they catapulted into the mainstream with this track, which was at #1 for 3 non-consecutive weeks (Migos member Quavo was also #1 on DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One” a few weeks later). The song follows Migos’ easy formula of simple rhymes, memorable one-liners and trap beats. It’s also the album’s second-longest track, nearing six minutes, a rarity for a #1 hit in 2017. Sometimes we just need a fun song – and Migos and Lil Uzi Vert are already experts. They have a lot of patience, which feels nonexistent in rap nowadays. “Bad and Boujee” is a hot track made cool by slowing down and

#1. Lorde – “Green Light”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

As I mentioned in my review of this album, the opening verse of this song could easily be found on a Lorde parody. The song, the first on the album, starts as a typical minimalist ballad. But within a minute, it swells into something much bigger than she’s ever done. The song is, for all intents and purposes, a club dance track. But because it’s Lorde, it’s done on her terms. There’s small stylistic choices, like the slow build-up and the false breakdown, that separate this from traditional pop songs. Max Martin infamously told Lorde this song was “incorrect,” as if there’s any right way to do it. Lorde’s MO is about subtly fighting genre and songwriting conventions, and she hasn’t done it better than on “Green Light.”

Runners-up include: Drake – “Passionfruit,” The xx – “On Hold,” Kendrick Lamar – “DNA.” Blondie – “Fragments” (my personal favorite!), DJ Khaled feat. Beyonce & Jay-Z – “Shining,” Foo Fighters – “Run,” Run the Jewels – “Call Ticketron”

Songs are great! We love songs! But we love albums even more! So here’s our pick for the year’s best albums so far:

#5. Slowdive – “Slowdive”

(Photo Credit: Slowdive)

Given the emo and pop-punk revival and the general great state metal is currently in, it made sense that shoegaze would get its own revival. What seems less advised is a revival featuring the genre’s original heavy-hitters. It started with the most renowned shoegaze band, My Bloody Valentine, releasing “m b v,” their first album in 22 years. It was quite good, but it wasn’t necessary for their legacy. And earlier this year, The Jesus and Mary Chain released their first album in 19 years, which was saved from total mediocrity only by a Sky Ferreira feature. But “Slowdive” feels necessary. The band’s first album in 22 years is everything that dreampop and shoegaze should be – an absolute bore on sheet music, but completely fuzzy and warm in a way that feels like a blanket covering you in the middle of a battlefield. As before, it’s all about the sonic quality – the volume and emotion of the music far trump the vocals and lyrics. I streamed this album through my laptop, not properly with headphones, and I was still completely consumed by the band’s texturing and layering, to the point where it felt like I was inside the songs.

#4. Run The Jewels – “Run the Jewels 3”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

(Note: Although this album was surprise released for streaming on Christmas Day, this reviewer decided then to abide by the original, January release date, quantifying it as a 2017 release. Pointing emoji, fist emoji).

Run the Jewels, the absolutely unhinged rap duo of Killer Mike and El-P, spent their first two albums making their case as an important, energetic and political group. On their third album, however, they spend much more time flexing and guarding the throne they’ve earned. “I told y’all on RTJ1, then I told ya again on RTJ2, and you still ain’t believe me. So here we go, RTJ3,” Killer Mike raps on early track “Talk to Me.” The album, although much more intense, is also more fun, as the two men (combined age: 84) finally recognize the praise they’ve been given. Run the Jewels, as a project, are inherently political. But it almost makes sense that in today’s America, where everything and everyone has been radicalized in some way, that Run the Jewels would turn down on the politics and just make music for music’s sake. Both legends in their own right and in their own ways, “Run the Jewels 3” is the victory lap they’ve deserved but never been able to take before. And what a damn fun lap it is.

#3. Lorde – “Melodrama”

(Photo Credit: Genius)

Lorde’s second album is a natural progression from her debut. She keeps the same small-town, teenage ennui of her lyrics but trades out the exasperated minimalism for music that pushes against the restraint of teenage-dom any way it can. Sometimes it’s through vocals, as Lorde sings loud and proud (and often double-tracked) over the music. And sometimes it’s the music, which jumps across pop, piano ballad and even industrial. There is a lot of punching on this album, like a drawn-out snapshot of that moment when you’re really bored and all of a sudden get a burst of energy and have nothing else to do but punch the carpet. Was that just me? Either way, the entire album is permeated with restless energy, loveless relationships and bored nights spent in public. Lorde might be doing more for personifying the troubles of a young woman than any other entertainer or writer alive.

#2. Mount Eerie – “A Crow Looked At Me”

(Photo Credit: Mount Eerie)

Mount Eerie, aka Phil Elverum, was already something of an anomaly in music – his solo work often mixes breezy acoustic guitar with drone metal, taking the emotional depths of both genres and making a mix crammed with fatigue and existentialism. But last year, unfortunately, Elverum suffered a personal tragedy in the death of his wife Geneviève Castrée, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only a brief time after giving birth to the couple’s only child. The couple were already relatively reclusive, and Elverum spent much time alone after her passing. The result of that time is “A Crow Looked At Me,” a uniquely beautiful and utterly heart-wrenching acoustic album that chronicles the grieving process in chronological order, from immediate denial to involuntary acceptance. Elverum couldn’t sound less blunt in his lyrics – three different tracks end abruptly with the lines “I love you,” “You are the sunset,” and “Death is real,” respectively. Elverum can never properly remove himself from her in his praises, which cannot be seen as a fault – rather a natural part in the process of grieving. Castrée was also a musician, and the album was written and recorded in the room she died in, and with her instruments. Those facts alone add a weight most albums can’t even come close to having. It’s perfectly acceptable to take breaks during this album.

#1. Kendrick Lamar – “DAMN.”

(Photo Credit: Aftermath Records and Top Dawg Entertainment)

As mentioned, Kendrick’s previous full-length is an album that transcended Earth entirely, a rap ode that encompassed depression, addiction, blood feuds, pride, and even Tupac himself. It’s already going down as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time, and making a case for inclusion on broader lists. His follow-up, however, is a return to Earth, to compete fairly against his peers and foes. The album has even fewer features than “Butterfly,” crediting only Zacari, Rihanna, and literally U2, but it’s also a lot simpler and dirtier than that album. The beats are less ambitious, the tracks less bloated; the album is rawer and more real than the predecessor. Lamar returns to make the claim that he can still be the best rapper within the terms of the genre, that he doesn’t have to break those rules to do so. And the album is packed with doozys – specifically “DUCKWORTH.,”  a true story about the chance encounter of Lamar’s father and the founder of Top Dawg, the label Lamar is on. The track reimagines their interaction as a negative and violent one. Lamar is still at the top of his game, proving that there might not be anyone in music more ambitious, more energetic and more creative than he is – he’s one for the record books.

Runners-up: Roger Waters – “Is This the Life We Really Want?,” Drake – “More Life,” Thundercat – “Drunk,” Feist – “Pleasure,” Power Trip – “Nightmare Logic”

Thanks to anyone who’s read this far and hasn’t gotten upset at my lack of including an album I haven’t had a chance to listen to yet. I’m hoping to put up a similar post on my personal blog soon (probably the same, but with more metal). We’ll see if Kendrick can hold on until December!

-By Andrew McNally

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