Radio & Music

One Year Late Review: On the songs of 2017

Today our comment and review media lurch from Hot Takes to History without pausing for a moment to get a sense of what actually happened. The concept of the One Year Later Review was that we might be able to get a better understanding of what mattered and what effects it had with a little bit of distance – one year of distance in fact.

I think I first noticed the reaction-focused sense of the media in the end of year song lists that came out halfway through December—before the year had even ended. That didn’t seem to be enough time to understand or feel or assess what had just happened. It seemed so flighty and empty and vacuous. And once I recognized that I started to see it everywhere.

I think reviewing what happened a year previously in a regular fashion would give us a bit more of a sense of where we came from, a bit more context on which events ended up proving meaningful and which were just flotsam and jetsam that appeared and disappeared into nothing. I think it’s a really strong idea. I wish media organizations would consider doing something like it about all the major events.

But let’s be honest. I like the idea, but I’m not going to be the one to write them. So I’ve restricted myself to writing a few words about the songs that meant something to me a full year after the end of the year in question. It’s a fun, simple project that doesn’t take too much time. And who knows, maybe you might find something you missed from it.

(This particular review has ended up being written considerably after the fact, in May 2020 rather than (as intended) in January 2019. Please forgive me. Life got in the way.)

Charlotte Gainsbourg: Deadly Valentine

This year somehow managed to produce fewer songs that I love than most others in recent memory and yet at the same time I love them so much. And this is a prime example – Gainsbourg had been working a bit on the arty-not-catchy end of things and then suddenly this thing comes out and it is Charismatic Art Disco. It’s so damn good. The weird lyrics about marriage, the disco stomp underneath, the great loud releases of the chorus, the unconventional structures. Every single part of it makes me want to stride down the street like I own the place. Wonderful track that I listen to all the damn time.

Father John Misty: Total Entertainment Forever

Now, let’s be clear. Everyone knows what Father John Misty is like, and without question he gets more and more self-involved and performatively ‘deep’ every year. There’s a lot not to like and a lot to be bored of in his work. It’s very strongly flavored and there’s not a lot of contrast between his tracks. And yet if you look around carefully there are such bleak gems in it too. Guess what, this is one of them.

This particular gleaming chunk of value starts off looking like a comment on technology in modern life and as such it should step very heavily on one of my personal landmines (musicians complaining about the effects of technology in clumsy ignorant ways while using the shit out of it), but it turns out it’s much more about entertainment and perpetual stimulus and weirdly that makes way more sense and feels much more relatable. It’s very open about the horrors of a total entertainment culture while being quite clear that we’re all complicit with, and totally enjoying, it. That’s a narrative with a bit more nuance and elegance. And I recognize myself in it.

Plus, I mean, the language. “Bedding Taylor Swift, Every Night Inside An Oculus Rift. After Mister and the Missus, Finish dinner and the dishes…” I mean, the image is vibrant, the concept interesting, the language beautifully assembled. Seriously, the man can write and he has something to write about.

Kygo & Selena Gomez: It Ain’t Me

I’m pretty old now so I don’t have the grasp on what the kids are into, but if this is the standard of even 1/100th of the pop music they’re listening to, then wow… It’s a variant of an older Selena Gomez song, resampled and mangled, beautifully reassembled and restructured in ingenious new ways that are musically interesting and evocative. It’s also a song with a really simple, clear and clean message that’s exactly the opposite of the kind of torch songs we’re used to. Who’s going to walk you through the dark side of the morning? It ain’t me. It’s fresh and immediately classic. I love it. I absolutely love it.

St. Vincent: New York

God this year had a lot of great songs and this is without question one off the best ones. It’s without question my favorite St Vincent song, it’s also one of my favorite songs of the year and it’s probably in my top fifty songs of all time too. It’s just wonderful.

I listened to St Vincent talk about this track on Song Exploder and she revealed a few things that were very surprising to me – firstly that it was originally two songs sort of stitched together in an unholy union. You cannot tell. It feels so perfect. And secondly that it was the first song that she wrote that she felt could be someone’s favorite ever song. And she is absolutely right. It’s perfect. It moves me. I love it completely and absolutely. I could listen to a version ten times the length and I’d not get bored.

Arcade Fire: Everything Now

I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about most Arcade Fire albums over the years, but this one was a bit of a disappointment. I can’t really explain why. It just didn’t feel right. The songs felt flat and underwhelming, the insight like it was something out of a bottle. And the new sound they tried to push for was an odd fit for the band.

Which is why it’s so impressive and puzzling that the best song on the album is the one that pushes that noise the furthest into ABBA-like pop territory. A bit like Total Entertainment Forever, it’s a song about being overwhelmed by the excess of culture and content and consumption. And also like it, it accepts that we’re all complicit with it and all love it, even as we know it’s a delicious fruit with a worm at its core.

Now, wonderful as it is, it does go a bit over the top on occasions. I can’t tell if the Pan Pipes make me laugh with delight or make my eyes roll with embarrassment. It might be both of them at the same time. Maybe that makes it better? I don’t know. Take a look for yourself and tell me – is this laughably silly or laughably wonderful? I sure as hell don’t know. I just know I like it.

LCD Soundsystem: oh baby

So the band that disbanded and then rebanded once again came back with an album that was reviewed extremely positively but mostly left me cold. I don’t know that I know precisely why most of it didn’t work for me, but work for me it did not. I still love the band. I saw them live in Berkeley and they were amazing. And they played all the classics and they were all amazing. And yet somehow in the middle of the whole thing, without me even really understanding what was happening, this song swept out and blew me away.

I’m not 100% sure what it is about it that makes it so moving. It’s definitely at least partly the bass line, pulsing out like a communication from an alien lifeform. It’s definitely partly the contrast between that bass, the slightly frantic metronome like noise and the gentle, slow and dreamlike lyrics, filled with longing and regret and desire and support and love. It may be partly just the experience of being in that place at that time, feeling all the things that it wanted to talk about. It may be the break they added in the live performance or the gap that it leaves in the recorded version. I don’t know. All I know is that it is everything, and I love it.

The video is extraordinary too. Directed by Rian Johnson and starring Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn who are in love and perfecting matter transportation. It’s hard to explain, but it’s wonderful. I’m using the word too much. I don’t care. This deserves it.

Sharon Van Etten: The End of the World

Looking back at the songs I’ve chosen this year, there’s a lot of longing and sadness and emotion in them. Not many of them are particularly up beat. I’m sorry about that. Maybe I had an emo year.

This is a cover of the old classic performed by Sharon Van Etten for The Man In The High Castle TV show / soundtrack album. It feels like a rediscovered old Patsy Cline song somehow and yet immediately contemporary at the same time. A song for the moment, without doubt.

Víkingur Ólafsson: Glass – Études, No. 2

Pretty much every year I end up giving myself a bit of a cheat. And I guess this is the one for 2017. It’s a track from a newly created album playing some classic works of Philip Glass. It’s a track that I intend to learn how to play as soon as a I get a piano again, along with Reverie by Debussy. It’s not a massively complicated piece of music, it’s almost like Für Elise in that it feels like an exercise piece. But I love it so much. It’s just hypnotic and stark at the same time.

Aimee Mann: Patient Zero

I heard Aimee Mann talk about the origins of this song. She was at a party with Andrew Garfield who would end up being the new Spider-man. And she seems to have looked at him and thought to herself that he resembled nothing more than a piece of fresh meat about to be chewed up and spat out by Hollywood.

I find it a bit puzzling that she’d speak so openly about this origin for the song. It’s a sad and tragic song really and you feel like Andrew Garfield might actually find it quite a difficult song to listen to later. It feels a bit cruel, to be honest. And yet it’s also beautiful. And it’s pretty self-evidently right as well. Maybe that makes it worse.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful song, but like all beautiful songs that end up meaning a lot to you, I see a lot of myself in it and it’s come to mean something particular to me. I sometimes think about what I was expecting when I moved to America and what the reality of that has actually been. I don’t find this a particularly easy song to listen to.

Tonya Harding (in Eb major)

Okay well we’re through the year and looking back at the songs above … well, they’re not cheery, are they? Hard to know what was going on. Maybe it was a post-Trump election time of sadness and introspection?

I’m going to end with one of my favorite songs of all time, but I’m going to warn you, it’s not a fun one.

Sufjan Stevens did two versions of this song about Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater who had a pretty colorful backstory and got into some substantial trouble.

One of these versions is more conventional. This is the other one – the one with a gentler twinkle and a slower, more empathic pace. The other version is fine, but this one is sensationally beautiful.

It doesn’t veer away from describing the human catastrophe that she was. You get every detail of her degrading acts and the degradation she experienced as a result. And I think while that’s hard to listen to, it’s never mocking or exploitative. It communicates nothing more than empathy and a desire for understanding.

Even more, it encourages us all to see the equivalent catastrophe in all of us, and it asks us to accept that this catastrophe is part of what it means to be human. And finally it asks us to look at our own catastrophes with recognition, sympathy, respect and love.

That might make it sound cheesy, but it’s not. It’s raw. And loving. And hard. And beautiful. And tragic. And sad. And great. And uncomfortable. And they’re just some of the reasons that you should listen to it, and understand it and take it into your hearts.

And with that, I’m done. Thank you for staying with me through this retro legacy look back at 2017. And stay tuned for my One Year Later Review special for 2018 – coming soon.