The most alarming development in the world of music in 2017 (beside the lack of protest music in a time of uncertainty) is the rise of the playlist. In the past few months, publications like The Ringer, LongReads.com, Pitchfork, and The Guardian have posted articles that explored the popularity of pre-made playlists by streaming services and the impact they may have on indie artists and the album as an art form. Sadly, many listeners today would rather go to the one stop shop of a vanilla playlist that rarely strays outside the lines, and as a result, many may never experience the fulfilling experience of hearing a well-crafted album from start to finish.
Fortunately, there are artists still striving to release great albums that require focus and reflection to truly appreciate. On this year’s list you will find many albums that were overlooked by major music websites, and you will also see many of the most prominent names absent. If you’re looking for a list that ignores hype and focuses solely on innovation and art within the form of an album, then this compilation of the best that 2017 had to offer might be just what you’re looking for.
In the past, I’ve posted this mid-year list at the beginning of June, but I decided that to truly be a mid-year list, I needed to post it in July. This is list is comprised of some of my favorite albums released between January 1st and June 15th (there is a two week window in June because I didn’t want to put anything on the list that didn’t have time to marinate). 2017 started slowly in terms of great releases, but the past three months have been chock full of great work by both up-and-coming artists and veterans who have returned with outstanding offerings.
The Magnetic Fields
50 Song Memoir
If 50 Song Memoir is proof of anything, it’s that Stephen Merritt is at his best when facing a monumental challenge. In 1999, he released 69 Love Songs, a box set that was just that – 69 songs about love, each told with Merritt’s signature bittersweet, often humorous lyrics. Since that seminal release, Magnetic Fields have stagnated a bit with a handful of meandering, mixed-bag albums. But in 2017, the songwriter has returned to his muse with another gargantuan challenge: to write 50 songs about his 50 years on this planet. Not only does he meet the quota, but the massive task helped him to shake the cobwebs off of his muse and write some of his best material in over 20 years.
Some may find the idea of a five-CD, 50 song album to be a bit too tedious, but Merrit masterfully tells his story in a way that is endlessly entertaining and continuously mysterious. This isn’t a straight-forward memoir (we never learn the names of his parents, if he has siblings, or the names of his lovers); instead, each song plays as a snapshot – sometimes a hilarious story (a mean cat, failing an ethics class in college, a song about how surfing is a dumb sport) and sometimes a heartbreaking revelation (the impact his mother’s boyfriends would have on him over the years, fears of the AIDs epidemic, mental illness). Merrit is at his finest though when the songs are a combination of both his signature snark and sadness.