2017 was a terrific year for music, and narrowing my favorite down to thirty albums was a difficult task. Entries 30 to 16 are presented here without comment, followed by a detailed list of my top 15.
The refrain of “Too Good at Goodbyes” pretty succinctly sums up Sam Smith’s recent career as a blue-eyed soul superstar: “I’m never gonna let you close to me / Even though you mean the most to me.” Smith is nothing if not a passionate soul singer, dynamic and talented enough to tackle a genre marked by some of the greatest singers in recorded music history. Too often, however, his music remains at arm’s length with its inspirations. His sophomore album, The Thrill of It All, never plays or experiments with soul or R&B formulae, and it’s all the more cold and distant because of it.
In the late 1960s, Joan Crawford’s later years as an actress, she guest-starred on a CBS daytime soap opera called The Secret Storm, temporarily filling in for her daughter who had taken ill. At the time, Crawford was in her 60s, and her daughter Christina was 29. Yet still, for four episodes, Crawford portrayed the youthful Joan Borman Kane with not a hint of irony or self-awareness. Sometimes I think about that, and I wonder what it would have been like to follow that series during the ‘60s and witness Kane age 40 years over the course of a day without any sort of acknowledgement.
If Blue Album and Pinkerton are Crawford’s golden years as an actress, then Pacific Daydream, Weezer’s eleventh studio album, is Crawford in The Secret Storm. It’s been 25 years since Weezer first formed, and Pacific Daydream is perhaps their most unconvincing attempt to pretend they’re as young as they once were. Frontman and songwriter Rivers Cuomo can’t seem to occupy a space other than the kinetics of the band’s youth, and as they move further and further away from their golden years, their unique brand of geeky angst tends to sound more and more manufactured.
FBI agent Holden Ford sits tensely at a table across from the looming Edmund Kemper—nearly seven feet tall and over 250 pounds.
“It’s not easy. Butchering people is hard work, physically and mentally,” laments Kemper, the infamous Co-Ed Killer. “I don’t think people realize. You need to vent.”
Much like the chocolate boxes of Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get when it comes to Beck (unlike chocolate boxes in real life, which are clearly labeled). He’s a tough artist to pin down: a rapper, an Americana singer, a low-key alternative rocker. Beck doesn’t so much think outside the box as he just lives outside it, and it’s made his career an exciting one to follow. Beck’s previous album, Morning Phase, found harmony between understated acoustic guitar plucks and the uneasy ambiance of soaring strings. All in all, the 2014 album stood out as one of Beck’s finest achievements, which created an ineludible disadvantage for this year’s follow-up Colors.
In contrast to Morning Phase, Colors is exuberant and rejuvenative. Consider Beck’s career at the time—2008’s Modern Guilt officially fulfilled Beck’s record contract with Interscope Records, and he would remain without a record label for nearly seven years. Morning Phase, released under Capitol Records, was Beck’s triumphant return to the music scene, and the large-scale success of the album (including a Grammy win for Album of the Year) kickstarted a second phase of Beck’s career.
“There was a very strong positive feeling that was happening while we were making [Colors], this renewed appreciation and affection for playing music,” Beck told NME earlier this month. And renewed he sounds, with sprightly warmth and buoyant spirit nestled in his vocal chords, a far cry from the unflappable slacker messiah of the ‘90s. Colors is, first and foremost, a splashy dance rock record, something Beck has never really done before. But unlike most of his albums, what’s fresh for Beck isn’t necessarily fresh overall; Colors is catchy and glossy, but it gets by far more on Beck’s talents as a performer than a songwriter.
In the decade-plus since her major pop culture debut, Miley Cyrus has proven herself to be a walking, talking identity crisis. Following her rise to fame as the tween pop icon Hannah Montana and her subsequent post-Disney success with singles like “Party in the U.S.A.,” Cyrus underwent the inevitable attempt at maturation every teenybopper pop star goes through in an attempt to keep up with their aging base. The end result was Bangerz, a quasi-rebellious attempt to display just how far she’d strayed from her Mickey Mouse origins. And though Bangerz shot her to the height of her popularity, Cyrus went from childlike to outright childish, bragging about her sexual exploits and newfound marijuana habit as if society viewed these acts in the 2010s with the same degree of taboo it did in the 1950s. During the Bangerz era, Cyrus sounded less like an adult and more like a teenager demanding to be treated like an adult; it culminated in some of her worst mainstream music to date, as well as the infamous VMAs twerking travesty that garnered plenty of criticism for her alleged appropriation of Black culture.
It seemed she took the criticism to heart. After a four-year hiatus with no major music (outside of the unlistenable 90-minute SoundCloud release Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz), Cyrus has once again rebranded herself, this time as a wholesome, folksy pop-country singer on Younger Now. But despite transforming her musical aesthetic for the third time in her career, Cyrus is still highly lacking in imagination; like her past works, Younger Now is resigned to being a pale imitation of its genre, and ranks among the year’s worst albums as a result.
As editorial editor for The New Paltz Oracle, I have to come up with weekly pieces taking a stance on one issue or another. I’d planned and written an editorial discussing the many problems with the Graham-Cassidy legislation, but when Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy decided not to take it to a vote earlier this week, I was forced to scrap the editorial and write something else. Not one to waste a perfectly good piece of writing, I present to you now an editorial that didn’t get a chance to see the light, simply because the GOP couldn’t wait another day or two to decide their bill was a hot mess.