Nostalgia reigned supreme in popular culture in 2017, probably because so many people are longing to live in any time other than the present. Is there a better way to explain the popularity of Stranger Things, little more than an ode to 80s culture right down to the grainy soft-VHS opening credits and the blockbuster horror film soundtrack? Or why we keep returning to the cineplex to see the Millennium Falcon on the big screen? Or why the Super Nintendo Classic console outsold not only the company’s new fangled Nintendo Switch, but also PS4 and XBox One in the last quarter? Nostalgia entertainment has become the comfort food of choice for Gen Xers, whisking us back to the (falsely) remembered simplicity of our childhood.
Which means, in about 15 years, you’ll want to invest heavily in fidget spinner stock.
The nostalgia trend has also left its mark on the 2017 music landscape. As I write about my favorite new music of 2017, you’ll hear me hail some of my favorite artists as bastions of “real country music” — my way of heaping praise on artists who sound more like 1978 than anything you’re likely to hear on the bro-country airwaves in Nashville today. I fell even more in love with the sound of The War on Drugs this year, a Philadelphia indie band with a knack for updating the traditional classic rock sound. And even those bands whose songs evoked the original feeling we’re longing to recapture — looking at you, U2 — asserted themselves anew in 2017. It’s no mystery that the highest grossing tours of the year include Guns ‘N Roses, Metallica, Depeche Mode and U2’s The Joshua tree tour.
But again, all of this nostalgia is indicative of something deeper. We’re increasingly consuming media as a form of escapism, a reliable way to at least momentarily fix our attention somewhere else…any where else other than the present. It says something that some of my favorite artists released songs this year entitled, “Anxiety“, “Pain“, “Doomsday“, and “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” 2017 has been that kind of year.
But as always, art reflects culture while seeking to transcend it. And this year has produced some truly uplifting music. In the end, it might be that we’re not really nostalgic for the way things used to be, but rather, we are simply for something that has yet to be fully experienced. And this is the beauty of art. It inspires hope.
Anyway, here is my list of my favorite albums released this year:
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. Like most people, Jason Isbell asserted himself into my consciousness with 2013’s Southeastern. Following his 2012 rehab stint, he emerged clear eyed and focused with a work of art borne out of a period of life he compares to a “dungeon.” And this liberated perspective sustains Southeastern though some of its bleaker moments. Isbell continued his hot streak with 2015’s Something More Than Free and he completes a rare trifecta with this year’s The Nashville Sound. For starters, the music is amazing; the 400 Unit have never sounded better. But with this latest batch of songs, Jason Isbell unquestionably cements himself as a master singer-songwriter. He channels world-weary troubadour on album-opener “Last of My Kind” and working class angst on “Cumberland Gap.” But the soul of the record is “White Man’s World”, a timely lament of race, gender, and class that is one of the most important songs of 2017, in my opinion. He takes aim at the male-dominated Music Row landscape (“Momma wants to change that Nashville sound / But they’re never gonna let her”) and uses that as a bridge to address broader social injustices. In short, this is country music with a soul. “Hope the High Road” forms a powerful companion piece to “White Man’s World“, unapologetically defiant in its refusal to wallow, opting instead for the higher ground of optimism. Even if that’s not your thing, I dare you not to get misty-eyed when you hear Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, on “If We Were Vampires“, the most beautifully affecting love song of the year. Even some of the album’s quieter moments are revelations of incredible depth — back side cut “Molotov” is a moving meditation on the compromises that come with aging made tolerable with a loved one by your side. From top to bottom, The Nashville Sound is an incredible album, my favorite music of 2017. Download this: “If We Were Vampires“, “Hope the High Road”, “Tupelo”, “White Man’s World”, “Molotov.”
- The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding. Their follow-up to 2014’s Lost in the Dream is a gorgeous major-label debut. Signing with Atlantic Records has simply given the band more toys with which to play as they create an even grander musical palette. This is 80s rock with a fresh coat of paint. If Dylan and The Police had a baby, it’d sound like The War on Drugs. One reviewer at Pitchfork calls The War on Drugs “a fascinating study in influence; it’s hard to think of a band with more obvious touchstones that also sounds so original.” That’s a great description of a band that should be headlining arenas. Download this: “Holding On”, “Pain”, “Nothing to Find”, “You Don’t Have to Go.”
- Chris Stapleton, From A Room, Vol. 1&2. Technically, Stapleton released two albums this year, one in May and one in December. But these songs were recorded in the same sessions in RCA’s historic “A Room” studio and I’m combining them into one killer double album. Stapleton still looks and sounds like he just left a gig at The Boar’s Nest on the Dukes of Hazard, and that’s what I love about him. Download this: “Second One to Know”, “Broken Halos”, “A Simple Song”, “Scarecrow in the Garden.”
- John Moreland, Big Bad Luv. I came across Moreland earlier this year and really fell in love with his Americana sound. It’s rare that the first song on a record is my least favorite, but Big Bad Luv keeps getting better from the first note. Download this: “Slow Down Easy”, “No Glory in Regret”, “Latchkey Kid.”
- Josh Ritter, Gathering. Ritter is as reliable as they come. I can always count on a couple of truly great songs with each Ritter LP. “When Will I Be Changed” is one of the best songs released this year. Download this: “Showboat”, “When Will I Be Changed”, “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight.”
- Sam Outlaw, Tenderheart. Outlaw was a Spotify find earlier this year. As you can tell from this list, I was in an Americana / country mood for most of the year. I wish this artist had more of a following; I think he’s great. Download this: “Everyone’s Looking for Home”, “Diamond Ring.”
- Ryan Adams, Prisoner. For months, this was the only 2017 release I could really get into. I love the alt-country groove Adams has settled into recently. Download this: “To Be Without You”, “Do You Still Love Me?”
- Son Volt, Notes of Blue. This was another early 2017 listen that had staying power for me. I’d forgotten how good Son Volt could sound. Download this: “Promise the World”, “Back Against the Wall.”
- U2, Songs of Experience. U2 have received some major love since releasing Songs of Experience earlier this month. Hailed as a counterpart to 2014’s Songs of Innocence (i.e., that U2 album you still can’t delete from your iTunes library), this batch of songs resonates sonically. But Bono’s earnest optimism comes off as a bit hokey here. Still, there are a couple of really great moments. Download this: “Lights of Home”, “13 (There Is A Light).”
- Danny & the Champions of the World, Brilliant Light. They may hail from London, but they make some fine Americana. Download this: “Waiting for the Right Time”, “Consider Me.”
There’s my list for 2017. I’d love to know what music you’ve loved this year.