In 2017, the most intriguing and satisfying popular music was both familiar and fresh, a result of talented musicians embracing risk and blurring the lines between genres to explore new sonic modes. Here are a dozen of my favorites among the great works by veteran artists and compelling newcomers who excelled in rock and pop.
Now in its 25th year, Spoon marries customarily assured performances and
smart, traditional rock songwriting with adventures in arrangements on its “Hot Thoughts” (Matador). If the Beatles come to mind while the album unfolds, it isn’t merely as an influence but as a sign of the recording’s superior quality.
On “Prisoner” (Pax-Am), his 16th studio disc as solo artist,
writes of the time when a man realizes his marriage has ended but he isn’t ready to move on. Far from weepy, its 12 songs are conveyed with a powerful, determined mix of Americana, arena rock and pop that suggests Mr. Adams leaned hard on his ample gifts in a quest for equilibrium.
With “The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone” (ATO),
Lee Ann Womack
places her pure, powerful voice and knowing, bittersweet delivery amid a loose, occasionally nasty—snarling rock guitars, crunchy drums—mix of traditional country, gospel and roots music. The album bristles with a “take me as I am” attitude that’s a gutsy reflection of Ms. Womack’s maturity and hard-won independence some 20 years after her debut.
Though Grizzly Bear retains its gorgeous vocal harmonies and gift for unconventional song structures, on “Painted Ruins” (RCA), its first album in five years, the quintet inches away from light folk-rock and projects a tougher, heavier sound that’s no less melodic. Informed by bassist and producer
the darker environment is ideal for the troubling lyrics of the disc’s dual themes of lost love and a society under threat.
Since 1996, Thievery Corporation has employed dub and reggae in its down-tempo trip-hop, and with “The Temple of I & I” (ESL) it does so again in a big way. Percolating tracks feature a pleasing mix of vocalists and rappers whose contributions, along with the versatility of
band, give it the feel of an easy-flowing mixtape with a Jamaican heart.
On “The Iceberg” (Mello Music), Oddisee delivers his raps in a crisp, textured setting that taps into funk, Go-Go, hip-hop, jazz, pop and R&B for its propulsion, aided ably by bassist
and guitarist Olivier St. Louis. Oddisee, a Sudanese-American artist whose birth name is
Amir Mohamed el Khalifa,
tops the music with provocative, up-to-the-minute commentary about racism, sexism and xenophobia.
A form of electronica that came to the fore in the 1990s, footwork has been liberated from its definition as frantic dance music by Jlin, stage name of composer-producer
On “Black Origami” (Planet Mu), she explores Middle Eastern and South Asian modes, African percussion and chants, and a variety of tempos and unexpected interludes that at times drive her compelling tracks to sound like minimalism filtered through house music and the rattle of Chicago’s L.
The subtle insistence of
long-awaited and gorgeous debut, “Aromanticism” (Jagjaguwar), is the result of his patient application of his falsetto, often layered to create a choir, that’s supported by his guitar and lightly applied brass, clarinets, flutes, harp and strings. There are elements of the blues, chamber music, folk, folktronics and soul in “Aromanticism,” but they meld into a feathery work that is as distinct as it is beautiful.
On “I See You” (Young Turks), the xx blossoms from a quiet, introspective ensemble into a trio that creates music that has the vitality of unbridled electronica, magnetic appeal of from-the-heart ballads, and undeniable vitality of pop.
Romy Madley Croft
emerge as powerful singers amid the seductive, subtly unorthodox settings by producer
Twenty-two years between albums hasn’t diminished the impact of Slowdive’s atmospheric shoegaze. On their superb self-titled return on the Dead Oceans label,
voices are bathed in creamy clouds of synths, guitars and
Great pop for grownups is a rare commodity, but on “Fake Sugar” (Virgin) Beth Ditto delivers; the former singer of the punk-meets-dance-music band Gossip doesn’t so much burst into song here as slyly slink in until the music requires her to let go. With producer
Ms. Ditto sands away her former punk edge but keeps intact her natural defiance.
“Reflections of a Floating World” (Stickman) by Elder is brooding, powerful metal-meets-prog rock that builds deliberately to its roaring peaks and, despite flawless unison playing and abrupt tempo changes, has the feel of improvisational music. Drummer
are the brutal engine that drives guitarist Nick DiSalvo, who is full of tricky, thoughtful surprises.
—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.
Appeared in the December 13, 2017, print edition as ‘Sounds Both Familiar and Fresh.’