by Preston Radtke, Ryan Fine, Sarah James and Phil Akin
Music reviews were a new endeavor for Byte this year, but it was a great first year to cover. We saw some disappointments from previously loved artists like Arcade Fire and Blondie, to be sure, but we also saw some pleasant comebacks and changeups from the likes of Lorde, Aimee Mann and Paramore. Some of these albums made us smile and others made us cry, but they all left some sort of indelible mark on us, and that’s why they’re the best albums of 2017.
Blanck Mass – World Eater
World Eater is rough, a musical kick to the eardrums that makes most pieces from Benjamin Powers’ original band quiver. There are naturally no lyrics to this record, but the implications of the textures are all too apparent: domination and apocalypse. If everything in 2017 is a political statement as some have said, then World Eater is the part of the statement where the Chicago-sized robots from that other galaxy come in and play tennis with school buses filled with children and play hopscotch on Manhattan. – Preston Radtke
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
To even attempt to quantify A Crow Looked at Me with a slot on some year-end list is in some ways to take away from its unique solemnity and rawness as a work of art. Born in the aftermath of one of the most paralyzing tragedies that could possibly strike a person, this album has been described by its creator Phil Elverum as “barely music”. And that’s not really an arguable statement: the lyrics, if they can be called that, are so unfiltered that they read more like a therapy session than any conventional verse or chorus. By measures that far outweigh its minimal instrumentation, A Crow Looked at Me is one of the heaviest albums to be released this year, and it’s possibly one of the most naked expressions of grief ever released for the public. – Ryan Fine
Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Aimee Mann was one of those periphery musicians that many people knew of and respected, yet didn’t really know. It was getting late for Ms. Mann; her diehards had fallen off the bandwagon with 2012’s Charmer and her cameo on that one Portlandia episode was becoming more and more relevant: a songstress that people knew of, name dropped on occasion, and yes, confused with Sarah McLachlan. Mental Illness was her sort-of comeback record, the battering ram that smashed her back into the sort-of mainstream.
The record itself is kind of what you’d expect a Mann record to be. Acoustic guitar-driven, pastoral and simple. In an industry that rewards musicianship centering on youth, Mann produced a capsule of an aging but still relevant standout, bemoaning the past while acknowledging her place in the world. – Preston Radtke
Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
If To Pimp a Butterfly was Kendrick Lamar’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, then DAMN. certainly follows through as his Yeezus. His previous full-length album, a politically and racially charged epic full of countless guest appearances, brought him to new levels of reverence in the hip-hop universe. Fans wondered how he would make an even more grandiose statement now that the era of Trump had officially been ushered in, and the short answer is, he didn’t.
DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s most personalized statement by far, serves mostly as a snapshot of himself as an artist and a chronicle of how he got to this point. It’s a powerful record, but it gets its power from a much more reflective and restrained place than we’ve come to expect. We’ve heard enough of Kendrick Lamar the orator for the time being; now is the time to hear from Kendrick Lamar the person. – Ryan Fine
Perfume Genius – No Shape
Up to this point in his career, every new album from Perfume Genius has been much louder and grander than the previous one, which is no accident. On tracks like “Alan”, he recounts a time when his lyrics were much more cryptic and indirect, when he sang about being afraid and in pain. Now he’s getting bolder and expanding his atmosphere with huge walls of sound, his lyrics now unapologetic exclamations of sexuality and self-love. It’s a beautiful affirmation that in a world where the tortured artist is lauded, it’s possible to get to a better place and not sacrifice an ounce of quality. – Ryan Fine
Paramore – After Laughter
The newest album from pop-punk staple Paramore is decidedly less punk and more retro ’80s synthpop. After Laughter is a layered album; it’s funky and easy to dance to on the surface, but upon closer listening you realize it’s about life’s struggles. This juxtaposition of down lyrics and an up beat is exactly what brought Twenty One Pilots to the forefront in 2016, and with Paramore’s alternative roots, songs about Hayley Williams’ struggles aren’t new, they’re just wrapped in a new sound. Fans of the “old Paramore” may be hyper-critical of this album, but while it is a very different genre from what they’ve done in the past, After Laughter is still authentically Paramore. – Sarah James
Big Thief – Capacity
Where 2016’s Masterpiece is grandiose, Capacity is basic. Where Masterpiece is gritty, Capacity is folksy. And where Masterpiece is majestic, Capacity is far more down-to-earth. Though these records stand at near opposite ends in the Big Thief catalog, they both share an eternal bond of overarching beauty and fragility. It is almost unfair to compare the two; such a practice would imply that one is greater than the other. But as much of a cop-out as it may be, both the 2016 and the 2017 Big Thief products are awe-inspiring in their own unique ways.
Capacity is a tightly morose exposé of friendship, love and upbringing. Adrianne Lenker’s docile delivery is tear-jerking at some points (“Mary”) and empowering at others (Mythological Beauty”). – Preston Radtke
Lorde – Melodrama
Though a second Lorde album has been rumored to be right around the corner for at least a couple years, its eventual release this summer was heralded by no significant bitterness. This was due in no small part to the diverse sounds of lead singles “Green Light” and “Liability”, which promised an album full of surprises and delivered on that promise in spades. Between unhinged emotional ballads like “Writer in the Dark” and nihilistic party anthems like “Perfect Places”, Melodrama is easily one of the moodiest pop albums to be released this decade. – Ryan Fine
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
The year 2017 could be dubbed “the year of the Indie comeback”, with groups like Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Gorillaz putting out releases after extended absences. Perhaps the most anticipated return was LCD Soundsystem, the brainchild of DFA wunderkind James Murphy. Murphy’s latest LCD iteration is much more blatantly gloomy and dark than previous ones; these songs don’t hide their broodings behind accessible beats and synths. Tracks like “How Do You Sleep?” and “American Dream” force a sense of despair and forgotten rebellion upon the listener. This is by no means LCD’s finest creation, but it might be its most expressive. – Preston Radtke
Night Runner – Thunderbird
Thunderbird is a great next step for Night Runner. The duo incorporated many new sounds into their established 80’s synthwave music, including more guitar solos and vocals in a collaboration with Danny Sexbang of Ninja Sex Party. Despite a few misses here and there, the album is overall a hit. Their sophomore album is a welcome change from their debut album, and after all, they’re two guys just trying to make rad music. – Phil Akin