Happy to take some time once again to make like the thinky-face emoji and glance quizzically back over the year in music. Thanks for all the insight and recommendations so far, and thanks to you in particular, Ann, for that affecting piece on the soundtrack to your grief.
I’m also glad you mentioned the Manchester Arena bombing. I’m not proud to say I had to Google it a few days ago to remember whether the tragedy at the Ariana Grande concert happened this year—and my jaw dropped when I read that it happened only six months ago, in late May. The images coming out of the arena rocked me to my core at the time; now it feels like it happened a century ago. But doesn’t everything? From mass shootings to sexual harassment scandals to just the everyday jolt of waking up to remember Donald Trump is still president, the news of the year has been so overwhelming that it has disoriented my very sense of time. And yet I also feel the need more than ever to stay vigilant against the danger of becoming desensitized. Reconnecting to raw feelings now feels like a political act, a means of staying human in inhuman times.
I want to start not with sound but with words. One of the most vital books on music I read this year was the critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which spoke so eloquently to the importance of making space for dreaming, laughing, and, of course, listening to joyful music in troubled times. As he processes the news of last summer’s Pulse nightclub shooting, Abdurraqib notes, “My activism is at its best when it takes time to laugh over FaceTime with a beloved friend on the morning after people were murdered because it allows me, even briefly, to imagine a world where that happiness can still freely and comfortably exist.” In a time when those types of mornings-after have become depressingly regular affairs, we need coping mechanisms to help us with, as you said Julianne, the emotional labor ahead. It was hard this year to keep dreaming. Music helped.
Our roundup so far has been understandably dour, so I want to circle back to something Carl asked in his first post about the music (if any) that made us feel hopeful this year. It’s difficult these days not to see “HOPE” as a four-letter word, a sour, unfulfilled promise of the Obama era, a semantic tumbleweed blowing through an apocalyptically divided America. I was incredibly heartened, though, by Naomi Klein’s excellent book-length rallying cry No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. It’s a blueprint for HOPE 2.0: Klein argues that, to effectively resist Trump’s regime, every time we say “no” we must also say “yes” to something else. “[P]art of our work now,” she writes, “is not just resistance. Not just saying no. We have to do that, of course. But we also need to fiercely protect some space to dream and plan for a better world. This isn’t an indulgence. It’s an essential part of how we defeat Trumpism.”
And so amid the fittingly downtempo vibes of pop radio in 2017, I found myself seeking out music that made me say yes, in all caps and with a grammatically irresponsible amount of exclamation points. Music that—to paraphrase the song that felt like the year’s purest expression of pop euphoria—cut right to the feeling.
This was the impulse that kept bringing me back to an album that so many of you have already mentioned, Perfume Genius’ explosive No Shape. More than anything he’s released to date, those songs are a testament to Mike Hadreas’ baroque, gloriously excessive imagination: I keep describing that glittering crescendo in the opening track “Otherside” as sounding like someone crammed all of the Cure’s “Plainsong” into a confetti cannon and let it blow. It might be my single favorite musical moment of the year: After a zillion plays, when I saw him play it live last week, the drop still made me grin so hard my face hurt. The first few Perfume Genius albums were gorgeous but wrenchingly sad, like the tragic ballad “Mr. Peterson” or the ominous warning “Hood.” We are all too used to queer stories that end in sorrow—history is brimming over with them—so what feels so radical about No Shape is how vehemently it asserts the possibility of queer joy. “Did you notice, we sleep through the night?” he sings on the closer “Alan,” named for his real-life partner. “Did you notice, babe, everything’s alright?” It’s a stunning song, and Hadreas’ voice quivers as he gradually accepts his hard-won happy ending, “I’m here … how weird.”
Speaking of weird, god bless Björk, now and forever. I haven’t spent too much time yet with her recent, densely lovely album Utopia, but I’m looking forward to vacationing there over the long, hard winter. Ever against the grain, Björk sounded happier in 2017 than she had in years, and to summon those feelings in such a bleak time felt in itself like an act of bravery; as the wise Icelander herself once sang, “It takes courage to enjoy it.” The Björk song I found myself listening to most this year was an older one, the fiery “Declare Independence” from 2008’s Volta (and speaking of playlists, as we did in less positive terms a few entries back, my renewed obsession with “Declare Independence” was mostly because it made an appearance on a very necessary resistance-themed playlist I made, called “STAND UP FIGHT BACK”), but Utopia’s lead-off single “Arisen My Senses” provided an effective counterpoint. Like a lot of the songs that affected me most deeply this wearying year, “Arisen My Senses” is a mantra against desensitization. It’s more personal than political, as Utopia finds new love blooming in the aftermath of the heartbreak she chronicled on her last album Vulnicura, but in its own way it felt just as necessary. Being a single woman trying to date in these strange, post-Weinstein times is exhausting in its own way, but if even Björk is on Tinder these days, it can’t be entirely devoid of magic.
I’m so glad some of you have mentioned Charly Bliss’ sludgy, beatific debut album Guppy—a roundup of the music that made me feel euphoric in 2017 would be incomplete without mentioning Eva Hendricks’ sugar-rush scream, or their gleeful cover of Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.” (Their live show was also one of the most entertaining I saw all year. Catch ’em soon before they’re playing much larger venues!) I also want to shout-out Laura Marling’s massively underrated sixth album Semper Femina, an album-length meditation on femininity and relationships between women, which in this cultural deluge of Trump-era misogyny felt like a welcome sanctuary. I also appreciate the collective, feminist-utopia vibes of Charli XCX’s just-released mixtape Pop 2, which features collaborations with peers such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Tove Lo. “It’s not necessarily all about me,” she said, when asked about the release’s collaborative spirit, “it’s about everyone getting their moment to shine and do their thing.” Like Cardi B’s exuberant support from “Every single FEMALE RAPPER,” Charli’s forward-thinking attitude explodes the old catfight narrative and makes the idea that all women in the music industry are competing with each other for a small amount of space feel blessedly outdated.
When I was feeling bummed this year (which was often), no song could shake me out of my funk more efficiently than Carly Rae Jepsen’s aforementioned “Cut to the Feeling.” It technically came out last year (it was recorded for the soundtrack of the animated movie Leap!, an appropriately Carly Rae–esque verb) but was released as a single in May. Because it’s a standalone release, it auto-repeated when I listened to it on Apple Music, and thus I often found myself in this blissful feedback loop of listening over and over and over again. The crystalline synths that open it are a direct, nostalgic nod to Madonna’s “Get Into the Groove,” but during the chorus the song evokes the near-religious ecstasy of “Like a Prayer.” And God, what a chorus: “I wanna dance on the roof, you and me alone! I wanna cut to the feeling!” Jepsen shouts, wondering why real life can’t feel more like a movie. (I had the same thought this weekend, coming out of the utopian seaside love story Call Me By Your Name. I wanna cut to Armie Hammer.)
Jepsen is no longer the pop-radio darling she briefly was when “Call Me Maybe” reigned as the Song of the Summer a few years ago, but in the time since, she’s amassed a fervent cult audience of people seeking an alternative to the bummer vibes of more mainstream pop music. In a time when so many people are numbing their fears, retreating from emotions, and detaching from the despair all around us, Jepsen’s unbridled enthusiasm feels, to me at least, like the perfect medicine. I held this perfect song so dearly this year, like an amulet against desensitization. It was, like so much of the music I turned to in 2017, a tiny pop utopia, a way station to recharge my spirit for the long journey still ahead.
Time to throw it back to you, Carl. What music made you say yes this year?
I wanna cut to the 2018 midterms,
1. Lorde, Melodrama
2. SZA, CTRL
3. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
4. Perfume Genius, No Shape
5. Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm
6. Charly Bliss, Guppy
7. Laura Marling, Semper Femina
8. Kesha, Rainbow
9. Jay-Z, 4:44
10. St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION
11. Feist, Pleasure
12. Drake, More Life
13. Girlpool, Powerplant
14. EMA, Exile in the Outer Ring
15. Grizzly Bear, Painted Ruins
16. Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
17. Faith Healer, Try
18. Lil Uzi Vert, Luv is Rage 2
19. Zola Jesus, Okovi
20. Haim, Something to Tell You
1. “Bodak Yellow” by Cardi B
2. “Supercut” by Lorde
3. “Supermodel” by SZA
4. “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar
5. “Wild Thoughts”/“I’m the One” by DJ Khaled
6. “Never Been Wrong” by Waxahatchee
7. “XO Tour Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert
8. “Happy Birthday, Johnny” by St. Vincent
9. “Slip Away” by Perfume Genius
10. “Woman”/“Praying” by Kesha