MAGNET’s #9 Album Of 2017: Sylvan Esso’s “What Now”

It’s fun to fall down the wormhole of Sylvan Esso remixes, which are essentially reimagined twists—sometimes by others, just as often by themselves (see the improved perfection of the Echo Mountain Sessions)—on a reimagined original. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s chicken-and-egg ensemble is unique in modern pop music. More akin to a self-sampling hip-hop team than an indie-rock duo, they might be better considered “premix” artists. If the eponymous 2014 debut offered a bionic/chameleonic glimpse at the metrosexual Mountain Man makeover, this sequel is where they shed their skin, reemerging stronger and yet more vulnerable (i.e., more human) than ever. The album’s whiz-bang production is a consistent kick (jump, twist), but it’s really on those distilled Echo Mountain visual essays that true love takes hold, in large part due to the ace supporting players: Wye Oak dime Jenn Wasner on bass/keys, Mountain Goat Matt Douglas on (what else?) horns. It’s an acoustic read on a digital upsample of a low-res capture, which makes no sense but works like a charm. Just like the band itself. —Noah Bonaparte Pais

MAGNET’s #10 Album Of 2017: Cigarettes After Sex’s “Cigarettes After Sex”

Quiet-storm guitar rock can be a beautiful thing—just think of the languid, deep-blue mood pieces of yore created by Mazzy Star and Mojave 3. But Greg Gonzalez didn’t sit and stew in El Paso, Texas, for eight damn years so that he could create a replicant strain of ’90s sadcore specimen Red House Painters. We have every reason to believe that Gonzalez aimed instead for more sensual, shiver-inducing Sade territory, and the evidence is all over the self-titled debut by Cigarettes After Sex. Gonzalez doesn’t just turn a vocal melody; he shapes them into tendrils of ecstasy and longing. And true to the band’s name, these songs are inches-deep sex jams about sleeping and pillow-talking with so many women. Opener “K.” is devoted to Krista, Krystal or Kristin, depending on which verse you’re listening to. Given the rather mannered, diving-bell acoustics and reverbed-to-death guitars of these leisurely paced songs, a little bit of salaciousness seems like a tonic rather than a tasteless gesture. When Gonzalez sings, “You wanna go/Where the girls are young and dumb/And hot as fuck,” it doesn’t read as irony or a playful rejoinder to propriety. It’s a straight shot of desire. —Matthew Fritch

MAGNET’s #11 Album Of 2017: Japanese Breakfast’s “Soft Sounds From Another Planet”

Michelle Zauner is a firm believer in love; it was woven tightly into the fabric of Psychopomp, the brilliant 2016 outing by Japanese Breakfast. That LP took shape while she cared for her terminally ill mother, transforming various sorts of grief into uplifting and ebullient synthpop. While Psychopomp showed that pure devotion is bigger than any one of us, Japanese Breakfast’s equally strong follow-up outlines how the only thing keeping us from intimacy is ourselves. Soft Sounds From Another Planet shimmers in stylistically varied sounds, from opening krautrock pulsar “Diving Woman” to closing acoustic ballad “This House.” Each song is a different vignette, with communication—and a lack thereof—being a common thread. Sure, “Machinist” is on its surface a bizarro sci-fi story about a woman falling for a robot, but it’s also about coping with cold emotional distance. The strings on “Boyish” score a sad tale of lovers drifting apart, while torch song “Till Death” finds them rekindled, ruminating on the ties that bind. Zauner’s strength is songwriting that’s unflinchingly honest and vulnerable. On Soft Sounds, it pairs with some of the year’s most gripping playing and production, and Japanese Breakfast once again has us contemplating our experience with heartache and seeing hope within. —John Vettese

MAGNET’s #12 Album Of 2017: LCD Soundsystem’s “American Dream”

Anyone who took James Murphy seriously when LCD Soundsystem played its supposed last show in 2011 is a dope. Quit to do what? DJ? Do a signature coffee? Play percussion for David Bowie? Yes, but no. The manicured-scruffy Murphy was always born to take the music of his youth (Liquid Liquid, Talking Heads, Can, the Fall, Psychedelic Furs), exploit it and yank it into the future with a furious-yet-finicky, sense-of-melancholy, now-sounding dance rock/funk and an emotional wallop that’s as poignant as all get out. American Dream does what Sound Of Silver and This Is Happening did, but even more so. There is nostalgia, hurt and the whiff-sniff of sadness that comes with loss on “Oh Baby,” the title track (dedicated to the late Alan Vega) and “Black Screen” (for the passing of Bowie). But Murphy is forever the snarky unsentimentalist, as his dry-ice vocal take on “Other Voices” succinctly proves. What is a surprise is that LCD is now (albeit slightly) more of a democracy with each member in post-punk mode and contributing thusly, resulting in a theatrical sound that’s thicker, deeper and louder than in previous settings. If you thought you couldn’t be more impressed with LCD Soundsystem than you were in its pre-retirement past, you were wrong. There’s nothing retiring or AARP about American Dream—A.D. Amorosi

MAGNET’s #13 Album Of 2017: Laura Marling’s “Semper Femina”

In interviews, Laura Marling often says that she only speaks when absolutely necessary and takes that verbal discipline seriously. Her music is emotionally dense, expressing a full range of feeling, but it’s lyrically sparse with a sense of plainspoken poetry. The songs here investigate the ideas of gender and sexuality, maintaining a fluid stance that allows her to explore the difference between the emotions we feel and the way we choose to manifest them. “Nouel” surveys the wounds a thoughtless lover can inflict on those who care for her, with Marling’s simple, lilting vocal conveying a sense of quiet anguish. A booming drum loop and shimmering electric guitar introduce “Wild Fire,” a tale of unrequited love that’s delivered in a jazzy flow that falls before and behind the song’s measured tempo. Marling gets a lot of press for the passionate intensity of her vocals, but her skills on the guitar are just as impressive. On Semper Femina, she complements her burnished vocals with a solid display of fingerpicking prowess marked by showers of arpeggios and bluesy notes full of sliding overtones. On electric, she drops some solid rhythmic chord clusters and even a hint of country twang into the mix. —j. poet

MAGNET’s #14 Album Of 2017: Priests’ “Nothing Feels Natural”

To quote The Catcher In The Rye: Truer word was never spoken, boy. Released on January 27, Priests’ first full-length—following a scattering of singles and EPs—sounds fittingly like a post-inauguration thermometer jammed under the national tongue (or into whatever orifice you feel perpetuates the correct metaphor) of an America sick with the feverish staggers. Opener “Appropriate” blasts out of the gate, then switches tempos and progressions through a first, then a second false ending, as if Priests had so many musical ideas they couldn’t bear to leave any out. The rest of the LP follows suit, its lyrics at once expansively absurdist and unsettlingly specific: “Magical psychology, deceptive anthropology/All the wingnuts got a haircut/Bred and had babies” (“Pink White House”); “Tomorrow’s going to be a different life/The tower over me, it said oh, oh, oh/Trust me, trust me/Things could be much, much, much worse” (“Lelia 20”). Befitting an era in which the only predictable element seems to be our constant gobsmacked shock, Nothing Feels Natural whipsaws among styles and structures song by song. But taken as a jittery whole, Priests’ debut feels like the realest possible soundtrack to life in these current United States—not only a landmark bow for an immensely talented punk band, but the first LP that really bottles how it feels to be alive and kicking (against the pricks) in the new millennium. —Eric Waggoner

MAGNET’s #15 Album Of 2017: Spoon’s “Hot Thoughts”

Britt Daniel and Co. are the Swiss watchmakers of indie rock: fine purveyors of quality and precision. Sure, the surface aesthetics change, but they’re always, undeniably, Spoon, from their metronomic underpinnings to Daniel’s blue-eyed soul. So it goes with Hot Thoughts, a record that hears Spoon’s lockstep instrumentation increasingly beckoning listeners to the dance floor. With most bands, this would raise fears of disco-fication, a slide into frivolity. Spoon, however, is likely the only band since the Cars that can bring the keyboards and still sound rock ’n’ roll. Case in point is “Can I Sit Next To You,” unafraid to use dramatic washes of synth, but at its core is an irresistible, badass strut, built from sounds fit together like expertly milled gears. Indeed, it’s a goddamn miracle of mechanical beauty, a cause for rump shaking by humans and robots alike. Similarly, the opening title track delivers Prince-ly amounts of funk with the painstaking efficiency of a German automaker. Why does Hot Thoughts deserve honors this year? Because it’s a Spoon record. Given the guys’ consistent track record, let’s just plan on reserving a slot for their every release here and ever after. —Matt Ryan

MAGNET’s #16 Album Of 2017: Hurray For The Riff Raff’s “The Navigator”

In a country with a short, shameful history and an even shorter memory, you can live in a place for years but never really understand where you are, let alone where you come from or where you’re going. On The Navigator, Alynda Segarra, the sole permanent member of Hurray For The Riff Raff, fights the tendency to erase and assimilate, instead celebrating the lives of the displaced and dispossessed through snatches of gospel and bomba, doo wop and Dylan. In the guise of Navita Milagros Negrón—part Boricua street kid, part Ziggy Stardust, part Segarra herself—the Bronx-born multi-instrumentalist leads listeners on a journey through the projects, the subways, the clubs and the luxury condos of The City. From “Hungry Ghost,” which inhabits the same sonic space as Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” to “Rican Beach,” a slow-grooving anthem of resistance against gentrification, to the proud “Pa’lante,” Hurray For The Riff Raff draws a solid line from striving ancestors to all still dealing with the fallout of colonization. In the process, Segarra wrests Americana from those who would reduce it to banjos and beards, planting her flag decisively in the place—geographically and culturally—where she and her people, as much as anyone, truly belong. —M.J. Fine

MAGNET’s #17 Album Of 2017: Peter Perrett’s “How The West Was Won”

To anyone unfortunate enough to have witnessed the Only Ones’ pitiful reunion a decade ago, the very idea that their waif-like singer Peter Perrett would still be alive in 2017, let alone responsible for producing one of the year’s most life-affirming albums, would have seemed ludicrous. Here was a man who’d drifted out of the music scene, a man whose long-term addictions to heroin and crack had so utterly ravaged his lungs he was barely able to breathe, let alone sing. And yet, 10 years on, he’s back, apparently drug free, in (relatively) good health and making marvelous music on par with his glory days. How The West Was Won is nothing short of a revelation, a ridiculously heartwarming return to form, by turns louche, laconic and impossibly romantic in the most literal sense. Throughout, Perrett comes on like Lou Reed’s long-lost transatlantic cousin—think Loaded or Street Hassle filtered through a grimy South London lens. It’s languidly lyrical, laced with mordant wit and unflinching candor, all the while beautifully complemented by his two sons, who provide a perfect musical foil throughout. (Which is something in itself, seeing as they previously backed incorrigible ex-junkie dilettante Pete Doherty, a man who’s spent most of his career copying Perrett’s worst aspects.) A minor miracle of sorts then, a true gem, one for wide-eyed gutterpunk romantics everywhere, and the best back-from-the-dead trick since Lazarus. —Neil Ferguson

MAGNET’s #18 Album Of 2017: Valerie June’s “The Order Of Time”

Valerie June takes her time and doesn’t give away too much of herself, but she fills The Order Of Time with a lifetime’s worth of experience: being born, falling in love, forming a family, falling apart. Her voice—by turns girlish and womanly, wistful and wise—touches the heart where it is, where it is unspoiled, where it is tender, where it is broken, where it is scarred but yearning to open again. On the clear-eyed “Love You Once Made,” June condenses a marriage into one moment; on “Shakedown,” with its relatively raucous electric guitars and keyboards, she makes an urgent desire feel like it could last indefinitely. Though her guitar and banjo are frequently buried beneath layers of horns and strings, there’s no tension or distinction between country and jazz here; like Norah Jones, who contributes backing vocals on a couple of tracks, June disregards artificial boundaries between genres. As the Tennessee native sings on gently rollicking album closer “Got Soul,” “I could sing you a country tune … I could play you the blues.” Of course, by then, any listener can tell the transcendent truth, and the chorus confirms it in word and deed: “But I got soul/I got sweet, soul, soul.” —M.J. Fine