As has become custom, it’s time for me to cast adrift my end of year “Best Of” playlist into a harsh sea of bemusement, indifference and outright contempt.
This time round, I thought I’d do things a little differently. In addition to posting below the unspeakable horrors of the playlist itself, I’m going to give a run down of my top 10 new musical “moments” of the year, in descending order of excellence.
There were quite a few other contenders that didn’t make the list (“Des…..pa…..cito”, Desiigner’s howling on “Outlet”, the chorus from Bad and Boujee), but these were the ones that made me really glad I listened to music in 2017.
10. Battered At A Scramble – Mogwai
I love Mogwai. They’re probably my favourite band. But they don’t rock out enough. The early records really hammered the quiet/loud dynamic, and because I’m a simple soul that remains a primary part of what I want from them.
Sure, give me a lovely, delicate record of twinkling guitar pieces to soundtrack some movie or TV show, but for goodness sake don’t spare the roaring guitars when it comes to the albums proper.
Battered At A Scramble felt like the first time in a good long while that the ‘Gwai had really cut loose and allowed themselves to properly hammer it out.
The track begins with some fairly nondescript preliminaries; a bit of fuzz, a couple of interesting little guitar lines. Then, at about 90 seconds in, everything clicks into gear and we get what I would generally describe as a “skate ramp” riff, coupled with sonic dynamics that make you feel as if you’ve accidentally wandered onto the runway as a particularly dramatic 747 takes off overhead.
Love it. They should do this more often.
9. In Twenty Years Or So – Father John Misty
As essayed elsewhere (see Lincoln In The Bardo review), I wasn’t initially entirely sold on this year’s FJM record, although it grew on me with time. I initially found it a little too world weary and arch, even by the artist’s own usual standards.
My eventual route “in” was this tune, which closed the record and did so with a lovely little ray of sunshine on what had otherwise been a pretty bleak day.
The lyric of In Twenty Years Or So is predictably misanthropic (“In twenty years/more or less/this human experiment will meet its violent end”), and by this point you’re starting to feel really quite jaded of that sort of business. And then, this lovely little thing happens – there’s a bit of an instrumental interlude, and suddenly Joshua Tillman is finding a way to make sense of it all…
“But I look at you
As our second drinks arrive
The piano player’s playing This Must Be The Place
And it’s a miracle to be alive
One more time
There’s nothing to fear”.
I have to confess to being rather moved by all this. The world can indeed be a nasty, unpleasant place, but sometimes you will have these quiet, unexpected moments, sat with someone (or someones) you love, where you really, truly wouldn’t be anywhere else, for anything.
For me, it lightened and improved the whole album. Any time I was finding it all a bit much, I could rest easy, knowing that this was waiting for me at the end of it all, like a warm hug at the end of a long day.
8. Snakes Alive! – The Disappointment Choir
Bit of a cheat, this one, because we all know Bob, and Bob’s tremendous, and a talented chap, and we all want great things for him. But regardless of all that nonsense, the album was clearly one of the musical highlights of the year, and would have been no matter who made it, and this track was its pinnacle.
There’s one particular moment in the track that I really, really like. Guessing, obviously, but my read of Snakes Alive! is that it’s essentially a song about release, on many different levels. That comes through in the sound of the thing, and in the lyric, but there’s also a great moment where it really comes through in the vocal as well.
Second verse, maybe two and a half minutes in.
“So I wait, and wait, and wait/but it’s not brave at all/to lock it down”
The lyric brilliantly conveys a sense of holding oneself in check, convinced that it’s somehow proper and necessary, before eventually realising that it’s only hurting everyone involved, and that your stasis is born of weakness, not strength. It strikes me as a critical moment in the song, and the album as a whole, and I absolutely LOVE the way Bob varies his vocal on the words “lock it down”, properly chewing through it. You feel a bit of what he’s feeling, right there and then, and that’s what music’s all about.
7. Biking (Solo) – Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean only released a few tracks in 2017, but they were basically all great. Nothing quite touched the majesty of Nikes, Self Control or Solo, but this probably came closest.
I’m not sure there’s a musician working today who does a line in introspection quite like Ocean, and Biking (Solo) gave us another example of that, in a beautiful section of lyric where Frank considers marriage, love, and the limitations thereof.
“The first wedding that I’ve been in my twenties
Thinkin maybe someone is not something to own
Maybe the government got nothing to do with it
Thinkin maybe the feeling just comes and it goes
Think I want me a lil one that look like my clone
Me and my baby can’t do on our own.”
Wonderful stuff. If only he’d written this in time for my wedding vows.
6. Sign Of The Times – Harry Styles
Probably the most unexpectedly enjoyable tune of the entire year, Sign Of The Times got steady play across 2017. When I posted it on the blog originally, some wiseacre pointed out that it sounds like a late period Oasis single, and they’re absolutely bloody right, but I still love it.
The peak of the track (literally and figuratively) arrives about four minutes in.
We’ve already had a couple of runs through the chorus, but now it’s time to really take flight. Everything cranks up a notch, Styles implores “We don’t talk enough/We should open up/Before it’s all too much”, and the choir lurking somewhere near the rear of the studio give us this great, escalating backing chant. Then he’s off into full on diva mode: “We’ve got to get away/We’ve got to get aw-ay-hay”, etc.
It’s tremendous fun to listen to; completely overwrought, all dials pushed to ten nonsense (hence the Oasis comparison being spot on), but with a weird kind of charm that makes it work for me. It’s also quite magnificent for karaoke, because it allows everyone to shamelessly emote for a couple of cathartic minutes before struggling to make eye contact for the rest of the evening, and indeed the rest of their lives.
5. Family Don’t Matter – Young Thug
Beautiful Thugger Girls was an excellent record, but somehow didn’t hit the spot for me to the same extent as its predecessor JEFFERY. The lead off single, however, was a doozy.
From the cowboy stylings (including an actual “Yee-haw”), to the plucked guitar that underpins the tune, to the incredible rush to fit all the necessary words into its own chorus, Family Don’t Matter was an unconventional thing of joy, from an artist full of surprises.
But Young Thug himself didn’t supply the song’s best moment. That honour went to guest vocalist Millie Go Lightly (awful name), whose delicate interlude towards the end brilliantly offset the mania that went before it.
Not only was it enjoyable to hear a native Londoner croon the words “Rolling through/The W6”, but this section also contained one of the year’s most memorable and efficient lyrics:
“I’ll be having nightmares shaped like you
You’ll be blowing smoke clouds shaped like me”.
A whole relationship summed up brilliantly in fifteen vivid words.
4. Big For Your Boots – Stormzy
Predictably, Stormzy “crossed over” this year, and Big For Your Boots was all over the place. It possibly wasn’t his best tune of the year (that garland must be awarded to 4pm In London), but it was heaps of fun nonetheless.
Two great moments in this one. First the intermittent cry of “Swing/chop” which punctuates the track, and which is great fun to shout along to, and then the following lyric, which is funny and smart and bang on for the tone of the tune.
“Try to tell me I’m way too big to rebel
Nah, man, you’re never too big to rebel
I was in the O2 singing my lungs out
Rude boy, you’re never too big for Adele.”
3. Slow Disco – St Vincent
Oh god, the whole thing, basically. Probably the best track on one of the absolute best albums of the year, and about as simple as St Vincent gets.
The arrangement is perfect, the lyric is simple but smart (“Slip my hand/From Your hand/Leave you dancing with a ghost”), and horribly redolent of heartbreaks past. Virtually every line of it is quotable and on point.
But the whole thing only really reaches peak emotional resonance when the backing vocal comes in right at the end. Pass the hankies, please.
2. Mystery of Love – Sufjan Stevens
If push comes to shove, possibly my track of 2017, even though you sort of get the sense that Sufjan can knock this sort of stuff out in his sleep.
A couple of Saturdays ago I found myself wandering through the centre of London alone, off on an Xmas shopping expedition. The weather was freezing, but dry, and there were people and lights everywhere. This song came over the headphones and for three minutes just completely overtook me, and reminded me of what an utterly beautiful place the world can be. A moment of breathing space in a life with far too little of the stuff.
About 80 seconds into the song, when things are already ticking along quite nicely, there’s this lovely series of ascending notes, and the whole thing just comes together with this gorgeous crystalline beauty that frankly makes you wonder how Stevens can even live with himself. Absolutely wonderful stuff.
Didn’t hurt that it also soundtracked a pretty brilliant movie.
1. Doin Me – Mikey Mike
“Follow no man
Follow the god within
They’ll be coming for you heart real soon
Son, this whole thing is rigged
You’re back in the Matrix
You got to find your own way out.”