Here are my favorite albums of 2017, which include a story of surviving domestic abuses, memorializing family members, and a new generation of female songwriters who shrug at their own strength.
Jessica Lea Mayfield, “Sorry Is Gone”: This year, while awareness of and outcry against assault and sexual harassment reached a fever pitch, Mayfield shared her own story of surviving domestic abuse publicly. Shortly after fleeing her marriage and undergoing surgery for injuries she’d sustained, Mayfield released “Sorry Is Gone,” an unapologetic and sobering collection of songs about staying, leaving, fear, triumph and the stigma surrounding domestic violence. With an ache in her warble, thorn in her humor, and defiant strength in her words, she owns her story openly, without shame – and in doing so encourages others to do the same.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound”: The Alabama-bred singer-songwriter (and former Drive-By Trucker) had a lot to live up to on the follow-up to his Grammy-winning album “Something More Than Free.” His ode to marriage – “If We Were Vampires” – is stunning. “Cumberland Gap” beautifully captures the small-town trap of poverty, family and drugs in Appalachia. “White Man’s War” uncomfortably addresses white guilt, race and inequality in 2017. Whether autobiographical or fictional, his streak as a literary songwriter is currently unmatched.
Sylvan Esso, “What Now”: The Durham electronic duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn forms sonic experiments – bleeps and bloops, untraditional percussion, glitchy guitars, and bassy and rippling synth – into warm and bubbly dance songs that are hummable and fun, but capable of revealing new layers upon repeated listens. Meath’s breathy vocals, unique phrasing and lyrics (which tackle the topic of making music, among other things) are as essential as Sanborn’s creative production.
Lily Hiatt, “Trinity Lane”: The daughter of veteran singer-songwriter John Hiatt digs deep and drives hard with the help of Shovels and Rope’s Michael Trent, who produced the record. Sober and single, she mines heavy topics like breakups, sobriety, embracing independence, her reliance on music, and her bond with the father – who raised her in the wake of her mother’s suicide.
Diet Cig, “Swear I’m Good At This”: Drummer Noah Bowman helped singer-guitarist Alex Luciano turn her skeletal folk songs into tough and sweet driving pop-punk, and in doing so, unleashed her unabashed, empowering lyrics. The New Platz, N.Y. duo is part of a movement of young female-fronted acts and solo artists (K. Flay, Melanie Martinez and Alex Lahey, among others) who wear feminism, vulnerability and frank honesty on their sleeve with a shrug. It’s bold without screaming; emo without the whining; girl power without cheese.
Cayetana, “New Kind of Normal”: Augusta Koch is the vocal heir apparent to Kim Deal, but her lyrical approach to heavy subjects (like dealing with mental illness on Philly indie trio Cayetana’s “New Kind Of Normal”) is all her own. The group – whose members learned to play their instruments as the band came together – really finds its footing musically as well, with one catchy, rocking track after another embedded with lyrical curiosities.
Alvvays, “Antisocialites”: Singing sweetly atop sonic bursts that echo English ’80s alt-pop like a John Hughes’ movie soundtrack (or the Primitives, which vocalist Molly Rankin count as an influence), this Canadian indie-pop outfit writes some of the most memorable songs of the year. Songs like “In Undertow,” “Not My Baby” and “Plimsoul Punks” are hard not to like.
The National, “Sleep Well Beast”: The National has topped my year-end lists for almost as long as I’ve been writing them. Matt Berninger’s voice, the Devendorf brothers’ rhythm section, and twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner don’t really make bad records. Its last three albums feel like a trilogy bound by their similarities in tone, tempo and mood, and even though this is my least favorite of the three, “Sleep Well” is a solid record that still charms fans while delving into more experimentation and giving subtle nods to The Grateful Dead (one of their influences).
Hazel English, “Just Give In/Never Going Home” and Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Rest” (tie): I discovered little-known indie-pop artist Hazel English in 2015 while listening to Soundcloud on my phone in the waiting area outside the Cardiac Care Unit of Duke Hospital, where my mother was in a coma we weren’t sure she’d recover from. Meanwhile, 46-year-old singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg writes about death – particularly that of her father, famed French musician Serge Gainsbourg, and more recently her sister and step-mother – on her new album, taking the lyrical reins for the first time in a career that spans 30 years. Sonically, these albums have little in common. English would be the voice of K Records if it were the mid-’90s, making catchy twee indie-pop. Gainsbourg’s electronic-based record is a grand production sung in breathy French and English. English’s is the sound of a career just getting started and Gainsbourg’s is that of an artist really finding herself and pouring decades of her story into it. Yet I associate both with the death or near-death of a parent, which gives both albums emotional weight.