When we weren’t busy watching sports contests, we listened to some stuff. Here are the best things we heard this year.
I became a cliché this summer. I did the thing where I graduated college in the Midwest and moved to New York. And honestly, it was kind of overwhelming at first. I wanted the city to be a new home, filled with everything I could ever want, but if you’re not used to avoiding eye contact and walking super briskly, it’s going to be stressful. I’m lucky, though, that Lorde’s Melodrama came out right around the time I arrived, because then I could walk around lower Manhattan with “Perfect Places” on repeat.
“Perfect Places” is sonically great, an anthemic, sleek fusion of rock and pop and ‘80s aesthetics that’s captained by Lorde’s wise, confident voice, which chauffeurs us through the busy nighttime streets that the music conjures. But the lyrics, both playful and heavy, are what make it unforgettable. A lot of the lines would feel at home in any pop song about going out and dancing, but the repeated three phrases in the coda summarizes a specifically young and excited mindset so well:
All the nights spent off our faces
Trying to find these perfect places
What the fuck are perfect places anyway?
I romanticized moving to NYC since I was young enough to conceptualize living somewhere beyond my hometown. I was anxious and confused and I think I thought a lot about “maximizing my happiness,” or stressing out about choices because I didn’t want to bring the wrong one on myself. (FOMO, basically.) I was the type that always wanted those perfect dance scenes in movies, or crushes that follow the traditional rom-com arc. New York, home of all great art ever, was the pinnacle, the perfect place. And I almost drove myself crazy in my teens trying to choose my own way into the great experiences that I thought would come so naturally if I just moved.
And dammit, Lorde’s younger than me but summarized it so much better than I can. What the fuck are perfect places? They could be anywhere. They could happen anywhere. We’re not going to will them into existence through meticulous planning. The fact that they’re in our heads, shimmering with potential, is important for our ambition and dreams, but in day-to-day life, if we’re constantly chasing perfection, we’re missing the point. Wherever we are, from suburban hometowns to the biggest city in America, it’ll come and it’ll go and we’ll be alright in between. Thanks to Lorde for helping me realize that this year. - Lauren Theisen
A few days before Halloween, I fell on my head. I was bouldering and attempting to climb an arch, and after getting up the vertical wall, over the horizontal part of the arch, and preparing to reach over and hoist myself atop it, my foot slipped and I fell 20 or so feet to the ground, whipping my head back and sustaining, in my doctor’s words, “a nice concussion.”
Not only could I not blog for two weeks, I couldn’t even look at a computer screen or read a book. The recovery plan for a concussion is frustratingly simple: Don’t use your eyes or your brain. I resorted to laying in bed with an eyemask on and listening to every conceivable podcast, an entertainment plan that was fun for about three hours. I was bored and my head hurt. Thankfully, the World Series was on.
As a scummy millennial shithead, I never listen to the radio and I consume all my sports on my computer. But with a formal diagnosis of donkey brains, all I could do was cue up the radio broadcast and experience the game the old fashioned way. It turns out that the radio is a the perfect way to catch a ballgame. Baseball doesn’t lose much by going audio-only. The rhythm of the game is ideally suited to an announcer cuing you in, thanks to the slow pace of things and the gradual developments inning over inning that might be lost if you were responsible for keeping track of them yourself.
Game 5 of the 2017 World Series was an all-timer, and the drama seemed even more ludicrous when I was forced to imagine it all (also, I was very happy that the game basically never ended, which would have forced me back to my now-empty well of podcasts.) When the next World Series rolls around, I will probably eschew streaming it in favor of the radio broadcast. Hopefully not because of another concussion, though. - Patrick Redford
Look man, I’m old as shit. Apart from the occasional flash of light on my new music radar (Ahem… THE STRUTS), I mostly stick to the same bands I’ve always stuck to, hoping they deliver a reasonable facsimile of the shit I’ve always liked from them. That means I was very much into Mastodon reteaming with producer Brendan O’Brien for another batshit crazy concept album filled with CHUGGIN’ RIFFS and trippy shit about ancient kingdoms. I like getting high and staring at the pattern videos from this album on my phone. I regret nothing. - Drew Magary
I waited to listen to Julien Baker’s second album, Turn Out the Lights, until I could appreciate it wholly on its own rather than as background music to something else. That meant waiting about two hours after its midnight release, once I’d logged off this here blog for the night. I was in a pretty good mood, nothing was wrong (no more so than it ever is, at least), and I was very excited to listen to an album I’d been looking forward to for weeks. I pressed play, alone in the dark, and started crying by the fifth track, which ends with the line “the harder I swim, the faster I sink” repeated as the song builds and builds and builds and then just abruptly dies. By the eighth track, which opens with “if I could do what I want/I would become an electrician/I’d climb inside my ears/and I would rearrange the wires in my brain,” I was sobbing. I didn’t stop until after I’d finished the last song.
By the time I was done, it was three in the morning. I felt drained, all empty and laid open and bare, but in that nice purifying way that a really good cry will leave you: stripped so raw that you can now only be clean. It’s very nice to feel so much; I wish I did it more. I loved it. - Emma Baccellieri
No, I don’t particularly care that she doesn’t seem all that capable of hitting this note while singing live, nor do I want to be among the patronizing turds who will tell you that Rainbows finally proved that Kesha is a real musician. Such blatant disrespect for “Get Sleazy” and “Tik Tok” will not be tolerated in this space.
All I will tell you is that, even after hundreds of listens, this high note brings me a temporary but total reprieve from all of life’s anxieties. I hope it does the same for you. - Tom Ley
This is a tune written by in the early 1980s by Grant Hart of Husker Du about the sad ending of a relationship or a band. Hart originally intended to release it as a Husker Du song. But band lore holds that “2541” was deemed not good enough to put on a record by his bandmate, Bob Mould. Through the years, Mould has occasionally wondered aloud if the rivalry that always existed between him and Hart started arcing from healthy toward toxic when “2541” got nixed. The shattering of their relationship led to the Husker Du’s 1987 dissolution. Less than a year after his band’s sad breakup, Hart put the song out under his own name, and it immediately became a fave among the hardcore Husker following and helped ease the pain of the group’s demise a wee bit.
Hart died of cancer in September, sending me on a listening bender of his and his old band’s music. The highlight of this nostalgic and blissful binge has been my reconnection with “2541.” The mystical and magical YouTube music algorithm brought me to a live cover of the song done by Crenshaw.
Crenshaw, much like Hart, was always shown more affection by critics than the consuming public. It wasn’t supposed to be that way for Crenshaw. I remember waiting in a line that went literally around the block from the old 930 Club in DC in 1982, before Crenshaw’s first appearance there following the release of his universally hailed debut record. Like everybody else, I adored that album, and couldn’t wait to see the guy who was going to save pop.
But the show didn’t match the buildup: When he hit the stage, he was boring and bored and seemed like the only guy in the club who didn’t want to be there. It’s still among the biggest rock and roll letdowns I’d been confronted by, and I never felt like giving him another chance. Within a couple years I was devoting lots of listening hours and concert ticket moneys to Hart and Husker Du, who onstage left all witnesses certain they were exactly where they belonged.
But all these years later, I am confronted by Crenshaw’s raw, jangly cover of “2541.” Along with confirming Hart’s pop genius, this reminded me of my long lost love for Crenshaw, and that this song, just like Hart and, yeah, Crenshaw, shoulda been way bigger. Hart’s gone for good, but Crenshaw’s still at it. And now I think I’m gonna go see him next time he comes through town. - Dave McKenna
All the composer nerds—assuming there are 17 or so of them—will probably consider me basic for liking Hans Zimmer, but I accept my fate. Christopher Nolan, who loves to play with chronology in his movies, toyed with three different timelines in Dunkirk, and Zimmer’s score created the urgency and tension needed to envelop a war film in which not a lot of actual war happens. “Supermarine” is eight minutes of the walls closing in around you, as the orchestra uses imitations of clocks ticking, alarms, and sirens at different parts. (The transition at 5:33 is especially good, though it’s not going to sound as great if you just skip ahead.) The piece will make the listener feel like anything they do carries the utmost consequences. Additionally, “Home” is a more manipulative strain of that urgency; it plays with the audience’s mind as the scale never seems to stop getting higher and higher, creating an almost-claustrophobic feeling, until at 4:05, when the figurative hand nabs the person tumbling through the air. Fuck me up, Shepard tones. - Samer Kalaf
The worst part of any sports talk radio show is the callers. That isn’t strictly false on The Right Time With Bomani Jones—all things being equal, I’d still rather not hear from the chuds, maniacs, and teenagers who call into radio shows—but the callers, like nearly every other moment on The Right Time, were still a delight. At the beginning of the NFL season, Jones asked for stories of callers quitting football; the segment lasted four months, through the final show. ESPN brass clearly forced Jones to have an occasional “Unblock me, Bo” segment in which callers begged forgiveness for whatever they did to get blocked by Jones on Twitter; the proles prostrating themselves only to be denied divine absolution were as funny as anything that aired this year.
And without the callers, Jones and his producer, Shannon Penn, did the best sports radio I’ve heard in my life. That’s a low bar—I’m from Philadelphia—but Jones’s commentary was more incisive and energetic than nearly any sportswriting out there, except for Deadspin, of course.
Jones is ending The Right Time to make a television show with Pablo Torre and will be hosting a podcast instead of doing live radio. Both will be very good, probably, but neither will be The Right Time. - Dennis Young
I haven’t listened to much new music this year, which is pretty atypical of me. For whatever reason, I didn’t wade into any of the year’s biggest hits, choosing instead to spend my year rediscovering the kind of music I remember listening to as a kid on 99.7, Charlotte’s classic rock station (and home of the JohnBoy and Billy Show—RIP Robert Raiford). It gave me a chance to tap back into artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, Pink Floyd, and even led to some rabbit holes that ended up adding Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones. But amidst all of it, one song in particular stuck out as truly transforming: the At Fillmore East 23-minute live version of “Whipping Post,” by the Allman Brothers.
I won’t say it’s for everyone—23-minute songs that are 20 minutes of guitar solo usually aren’t. But if transcendent southern rock and listening to one of the greatest live musical performances ever is of interest to you, cue it up, enjoy the first 11 minutes, let the cool-down lull you to sleep, then prepare to weep as Dicky Betts fucking tears your heart out at the 14-minute mark, and stuffs it straight back in your chest complete with a shot of adrenaline that is the final three minutes. From Berry Oakley’s iconic opening bass line to Gregg Allman’s gruff, spectacular vocals to his brother Duane’s solo to Betts’s masterpiece to Jaimoe’s drumwork, this song is a trip, and it’s one worth taking. - Nick Martin
We drove the same car for 15 years so when we finally traded it in for a more recent used car just before the new year, I had my first introduction to satellite radio. While I griped about the shitty sound quality and number of channels dedicated to Pitbull, discovering SiriusXMU has finally brought my contemporary music knowledge closer to being in line with my colleagues. I finally know who War On Drugs is, and can nod in silent agreement with the assertion that they are “dad rock.” Okay, so I have some work to do. - Tim Burke
In the year two thousand and seventeen my sister bought an actual, physical CD of music. She had gone to see Punch Brothers and the all-girl group I’m With Her opened for them. And then: She paid attention enough to decide she liked this band she’d never heard of and bought their CD.
I recently visited her in her Virginia, where she’s getting a Ph.D and living in a big old house with a dog and a yard and a washing machine and a place out front where she parks her car. None of those things are all that notable except for how they differentiate our lives these days. While in high school, we shared a car but my license expired almost two years ago now and I’ve yet to find sufficient cause to renew it. That weekend, when we drove to get our nails done or go to a yoga class, my sister put on the I’m With Her CD. It played on repeat as we talked over it, but when I left I missed the songs I couldn’t quite remember. Their Spotify presence is surprisingly limited (technically, their debut album isn’t even out yet and what my sister has is a collection of live performances), and includes almost none of the songs from that CD—and if I got my sister to burn me a disk I wouldn’t even be able to play it on any of my devices—but it does feature this cover, which I love both because of the implied nostalgia of its entry into my life and because I just think it’s beautiful. - Hannah Keyser
The one thing I truly binge listened to this year, I consumed all of Season 3 over one weekend. The entire concept of the season is our own, well, concept of ourselves. Why we feel the way we do. Why we have the prejudices we do. Why maybe we shouldn’t fear all wild bears. Yes, all those items are connected. The season’s conclusions makes clear there are no clear solutions or easy answers. There’s no short cut to that better version of yourself. - Diana Moskovitz
Chavez put out their last record when I was still in high school, and were off my radar for a number of the years afterwards. It wasn’t until I’d moved out, gotten the first of a decade’s worth of shitty jobs, and began the process of going back through all the records I purchased more or less by rote while in college that I realized that they were both better and more useful than I remembered. Better in the sense that their songs generally rip and that Matt Sweeney is one of my favorite guitar players, but also better in that they do the thing that I have always relied on music to do, which is to provide a sort of fast-acting emotional reset. I spent much of the last year of my life in the sort of mood that required Chavez, which made the release of the Cockfighters EP in January of 2017 fortuitous; that “The Bully Boys” was first released just a few days after the 2016 election is something I’m choosing to overlook here because it is almost too on the nose. I have long maintained, often to people who don’t care, that Chavez’s “You Must Be Stopped” is, while obviously too literal by half, the song I would want playing if I entered a Major League Baseball game as a reliever. It still holds that status, but “The Bully Boys” and the whole short, spiky EP did what I needed it to do this year—get me charged up, to save something or to blow it up. - David Roth
Because I am old and lame now and no longer young and cool, I’m almost never up on the hip new music trends and artists as they first emerge. Also owing to age and lameness, when I do encounter a new, buzzy artist or sound, I find that my first impulse is to find reasons to discredit said new artist or sound, leaping on the tiniest imagined slights or faults to justify my deletion of the new mixtape so that I can go back to bumping old Nas albums. In an effort to fight the lamefying effects of old age, I try to make a concerted effort to push past my creeping musical conservatism. This normally results in me texting my younger, more with-it siblings about some “new” rapper I’ve “discovered” about six months after my brother and sister have already moved on to even newer artists.
In the latest edition of my well-worn track of late-pass musical journeying, 2017 was the year I finally got into 21 Savage. I found myself once again downloading his breakout tape Savage Mode on a whim, about a year after I’d first acquired then deleted it around when it first dropped in the summer of 2016. (A single, distracted, uncharitable half-listen back then had me believing it was trash.) This go-round I fell in love with the tape and with 21 Savage himself, and he’s quickly become probably my favorite new rapper since Young Thug.
If the ‘90s were rap’s apex of fully mastered (and actually listenable) dense lyricism, then the past decade or so has been the age of flows—a time where when and how rappers drop their syllables on and around the beat matters even more than what words those syllables actually constitute. Music being, you know, an auditory experience where making cool sounds is the primary goal, this has been a great development. Unless scattershot, carelessly arranged Talib Kweli bars are more your thing. In that case, you might want to stick with your old Rawkus albums and not venture too deep into this decade’s best acts.
Savage fits well within this era of twinkle-toed, percussive brilliance when it comes to his flows. His 2017 collab album with Migos member Offset, the Metro Boomin-produced Without Warning, combines two of the most inventive beat-riders of the current generation for a relatively minor yet still memorable project. Vocally, these two are dancers as much as they are hard-spitting rappers, and it’s impossible to listen to the way they prance and bob and weave through the beats and not come close to breaking your neck trying to keep your head bouncing along with them.
As much as Savage is a rapper of flows and persona—his rapping style is delightfully laconic, languid, and menacing, like listening to a stoned, half asleep bully detail the many ways he can and will bring grave bodily harm to you if you ever cross him—he’s also a genius with adlibs. Particularly, there is something about one of his most used line-fillers, “On God,” that I’ve become especially enamored with.
Ad-libs have traditionally served as the seasoning on the steak that is the actual rhymes, judiciously sprinkled here and there to add a little kick to the meal. Guys like 21 Savage though have made ad-libs a co-main course, heaping piles of them onto every verse, the interjections chirped behind their raps integral aspects of their overall rhyming style. The effect of this has pushed the frontiers of flows even further forward, allowing Savage et al. to tweak and twist and complement their rhymed patterns with additional inflection points.
And so when Savage liberally drops “On God” on songs like the above “Mad Stalkers” in that straight-faced, unadorned, earnest way of his, bookending his bars not with a period but with an interrobang, I feel like I’m hearing in those two words his very essence. 21 Savage doesn’t shout, he doesn’t implore, and he doesn’t repeat himself. Either you listen to what Savage has to say and appreciate his greatness, or you get the fuck out of his way before he decides to make you the target of his ire. And if you do fail to acknowledge him, best believe that he will get out you about it. That’s on God. - Billy Haisley