Talia Schlanger's 10 Albums That Made 2017 Brighter : World Cafe World Cafe's Talia Schlanger picks 10 records that made the world feel more colorful. They aren't happier records necessarily — they do infuse the grayscale of newsprint with the chroma of dreams.
NPR logo Talia Schlanger's 10 Albums That Made 2017 Brighter

Talia Schlanger's 10 Albums That Made 2017 Brighter

St. Vincent's Masseduction was one of Talia Schlanger's favorite albums this year. Needa Afsari/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Needa Afsari/Courtesy of the artist

St. Vincent's Masseduction was one of Talia Schlanger's favorite albums this year.

Needa Afsari/Courtesy of the artist

I loved Kendrick Lamar's arresting DAMN. I loved Father John Misty's sardonic yet strangely empathetic Pure Comedy. I loved how The National hurled grief like an empty solo cup into the abyss on Sleep Well Beast and the way Lorde cleaned up champagne glasses on Melodrama. I loved missing along to Big Thief's Capacity, mourning along to Rhiannon Giddens' Freedom Highway, raging to Fever Ray's Plunge, sinking into Rose Cousins' Natural Conclusion and slinking to SZA's CTRL. But in reflecting on the music I really wanted to write about at the end of 2017, I noticed the albums I clung to hardest this year were ones that made the world around me feel brighter. Not sunnier or happier necessarily, although in some cases that's true, but brighter. Music that infused newsprint grayscale with dreamscape technicolor in ways that made me feel alive and connected — if not entirely hopeful — were at least helpful in narrowing down hope's mailing address. I hope these albums make you feel a bit brighter at the end of 2017 too.

Talia's Top 10 Albums That Made 2017 Brighter

Cover for Harmony of Difference

Kamasi Washington, 'Harmony Of Difference'

With the use of precisely zero lyrics, composer and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington offers an instruction manual for humanity — one that, in some circles, could even be heard as radical. Harmony Of Difference unlocks a utopian universe where counterpoint is the basis of beauty — where every sound citizen contributes a different flavor to the exalted whole and there is space for every voice to be celebrated in its time. Throughout Harmony Of Difference, musical motifs recur in a way that rewards learning from the past, and carrying it forward with grace to build a more beautiful present. On "Desire," the inquisitive bass and playfully demure keys offer an invitation to pleasure rather than its assumption. "Humility" isn't sheepish or low, but a brave and joyful cause for brass-laden celebration. "Knowledge" seeks to discover rather than to demonstrate, as percussion pulses forward with patience and openness. "Perspective" is thick and funky or floaty and shimmering or fast or slow depending on which side of the prism you're listening from. "Integrity" is joyful and easy. "Truth," the final opus, is the only song to feature the human voice. With only a few notes sung at a time, the choral melodies are the least complex parts of the album.

Truth is simple. Truth belongs to all. To tour Washington's world only takes 31 minutes. It is not a big ask. Neither is hearing harmony in difference, if you just listen.

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Cover for Life Will See You Now

Jens Lekman, 'Life Will See You Now'

On Lekman's last album, 2012's melancholy I Know What Love Isn't, he crooned: "You don't get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully." On 2017's Life Will See You Now, Lekman has gracefully packed all the broken-hearted bits into a glitter bomb backpack slung over his shoulders and taken them skating at a tropical disco roller rink. As he glides around, the walls come to life with candy-coated, candid vignettes. A bride's cigarette break from her "Wedding In Finestère" turns into an existential examination of getting older and making big decisions. "How We Met, The Long Version" begins with subatomic particles turning into atoms, and follows life on earth from oxygen to methane to trilobites to bonobos to a first kiss in an empty backyard. On "Evening Prayer," Lekman recounts the night his friend who has survived cancer brings a 3-D model of his tumor to the bar. (They trade it for a beer from the waitress.) Stories like these shouldn't make for uplifting songs; stories like these shouldn't sound sincere in songs. In anyone else's voice, they likely wouldn't. But that is Lekman's songwriting superpower. He brings the bittersweet to life in ways that are surprising and genuine. He makes the characters in his stories, and by extension you and me, feel OK about things that don't feel so OK — not in an escapist way that ignores heartache, but in the kind of way that lets you print your pain out in three dimensions, put it on the table and look at it with a friend, and then choose to trade it for a beer. As Lekman vows to a different down-and-out friend on the song "Hotwire The Ferris Wheel": "If I'm gonna write a song about this I promise I won't make it a sad song. You'll go like this: 'Woo!'"

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Cover for Hug Of Thunder

Broken Social Scene, 'Hug Of Thunder'

The past year has seen no shortage of "protest songs." Hug Of Thunder also includes one. It's called "Protest Song." Penned and sung by BSS' (and Metric's) Emily Haines, the song offers a funny, frank and self-aware assessment of the futility of the act: "We're just the latest in the longest rank and file that's ever to exist in the history of the protest song." But BSS' best "protesting" has never been lyrically instructional — it's musically embodied. True to the band's form, Hug Of Thunder seems to draw its urgency and vitality from a steadfast belief in the principle that caring is cool, and from a lovingly aggressive protest against any alternative — however easy or inevitable or clickable said alternative may seem. Formed out of friendship with up to 15 members contributing sounds at any given time — from tenor sax to synthesizer to electric guitar to the voices of co-founder Kevin Drew and Feist and newcomer Ariel Engle and more — Broken Social Scene's music is an inevitable celebration of the power of community. But not in a way that ever feels saccharine or earnest. On Hug Of Thunder's final song, co-founder and lead singer Kevin Drew grapples with an age when "our heroes are dicks" and "words of hope are a joke for the numb." And then he makes one final promise: "I'm trying for the living, and I'm staying so I can leave." There's a special badassery to playing rock and roll with people you love as if the world were ending, while clinging to the belief that it must not.

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Hug Of Thunder
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Hug Of Thunder
Artist
Broken Social Scene
Label
Arts & Crafts Productions Inc.
Released
2017

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Cover for Jardín

Gabriel Garzón-Montano, 'Jardín'

On the bumping, honeyed jam "The Game," Gabriel Garzón-Montano sings: "Have heart like a tangerine." Why a tangerine? When Garzón-Montano visited World Cafe he told me, "A tangerine is punchy, the acidity of it makes its presence known. When you bite into it, it cuts. Cut through — make sure your heart is still in it." On Jardín, French for garden, Garzón-Montano traces his tangerine heart's growth from the seeds first sewn in utero by his mother (a professional opera singer who continued to perform while pregnant with him), through the reaping of tangy R&B, juicy funk, colorful cumbia and punchy '70s pop. Garzón-Montano plucks a "Sour Mango" from a tree on top of a hill, croons of love as a "Cactus — in full bloom," and even glorifies the zen lessons taught by produce's inevitable if unwelcome guest the fruitfly: "Like fruitflies in the breeze, ill at ease, we try so hard to fight it but we can't change the way the wind blows." Jardín is flora served up with liquid sensuality, and it's so very ripe.

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Jardín
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Gabriel Garzon-Montano

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Cover for What Now

Sylvan Esso, 'What Now'

Do you ever need to turn off all the lights in your bedroom, stand on top of your bed and dance until you're drenched in sweat and you forget any world outside your body exists? Me neither. But if we pretend, for argument's sake, that your health plan has great chiropractic coverage and this is a practice you engage in for spiritual exorcism from time to time, there could be no better soundtrack than What Now. Sylvan Esso's sophomore release is full of instructions and invitations for movement. They are delivered lyrically by vocalist Amelia Meath (see: "Kick Jump Twist" and "Just Dancing") and otherwise musically by electronic wizard Nick Sanborn (hear: busted-up beats, jagged synths and infectious samples that often sound like playing video games with the plumbing under your kitchen sink). What makes What Now a special dance record among dance records is Sylvan Esso's sense of balance. Meath's sweet voice is balanced out by the salty wink behind her delivery and the biting wit of her lyrics, from the funhouse mirror she holds up to the ruthless world of pop hits on "Radio," to the mortally romantic "Die Young" to her gut-crushing plea on the nearly a capella come-down-from-your-dance-cloud "Slack Jaw." Sanborn's sense of balance is equally impressive — human touch forms the backbone to his experimental and inventive electronic sensibilities. He knows when to go wacky and when to bring it back. And then there's the balance of their interplay. If we can glean anything about the real-life romance between Meath and Sanborn from their dynamic as musical partners, What Now has #relationshipgoals written all over it. These two know when to bend together, when to give each other space, when to tease each other, how to elevate each other, and most importantly, when to dance. Which is, apparently, always.

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Cover for The Navigator

Hurray For The Riff Raff, 'The Navigator'

On the shaker-driven, shoulder-shimmying jam "Rican Beach," HFTRR's fearless leader Alynda Segarra sings of people living in a fictional place that sounds a lot like a real place: "First they stole our language. Then they stole our names. Then they stole the things that brought us faith. And they stole our neighbors and they stole our streets and they left us to die on Rican Beach." The Navigator is Segarra's proud expression of homecoming to her Puerto Rican roots in The Bronx from her adopted home in New Orleans. It was released in March; Hurricane Maria happened in September. As I sit and listen to this album again while many of our fellow American citizens living in Puerto Rico still do not have power, The Navigator rings out with an urgency and importance far beyond its initial impressive impact. It would be a disservice to HFTRR's inventive musicianship to dwell entirely on the album's messages. If you didn't understand a single word Segarra sang on this record, you could enjoy the tremendously creative integration of doo-wop, blues, bomba, gospel, salsa and 1970s New York rock and roll. It would also be a disservice to ascribe Segarra's message as solely applicable to one particular group. The album is overflowing with universal human questions about identity politics that encourage asking both ways — look inside yourself, look outside yourself too. While The Navigator relishes in understanding where we come from, its biggest triumph is in maintaining a focused eye on the horizon. In live performance, before launching into the Nuyorican beat poet anthem "Pa'lante," Segarra often explains her understanding of the word: It means to move forward. Then Segarra and her band explode into the most vital song of the year with the tenacity, strength, resilience and spirit required of anyone who has been cast out, degraded, ignored or denied, but still believes we must move forward.

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The Navigator
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The Navigator
Artist
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Label
ATO Records
Released
2017

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Cover for Poor David's Almanack

David Rawlings, 'Poor David's Almanack'

Poor David's Almanack is the best kind of houseguest. It arrives with warmth and familiarity, bearing thoughtful gifts with no expectation of anything in return. It's effortlessly there and not there — ready to spin a yarn or share a chuckle or reminisce — without demanding attention or maintenance. And it departs graciously just at the right time, so you look forward to the next occasion you spend together. Nobody bends and breathes between notes quite like David Rawlings on guitar, and nobody harmonizes like David and his longtime partner Gillian Welch — dipping into two-part convention and breaking it with effortless beauty. In writing Poor David's Almanack, David and Gillian set out to craft new folk songs that have the timeless quality of music passed down for generations. You might swear you'd heard "Midnight Train" sung around the fire pit at camp during the last days of summer, or that the young fiddler at the Irish bar down the street would end every Sunday night set serenading the regulars with a rendition of "Come On Over To My House." You might even be convinced it was your friend's grandmother who first said "Money Is The Meat In The Coconut" while she taught you how to play the hambone. The tunes are familiar, the sentiments comforting, but somehow neither ever feels boring or derivative. And with sweet simplicity, Poor David's Almanack acts as a salve for complex times while feeling utterly timeless.

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Cover for Antisocialites

Alvvays, 'Antisocialites'

2017 has been filled with moments that demanded 20/20 vision — when looking at the world through informed, engaged and active eyes has felt imperative. But if you've ever worn glasses or contact lenses to help you see clearly, you know there's a moment when you need take them off at the end of the night and let your eyes rest. The world around you drifts out of its edges and it can be quite pleasant to discover that, for a moment, nothing is terribly sharp anymore. Antisocialites served that purpose for me this year when I needed it. Lead singer Molly Rankin is Judy Garland meets Tiffany underwater, and her band has mastered the sepia filter of jangle pop in a way that's both hazy and energized. There are small subtle pleasures all over the album, like the way Rankin turns her mouth into a fruit roll-up on the word "don't" in the phrase "No need to turn around to see what's behind me — I don't care," or the way she sings "a place to decompress," sighs gently, and then follows the thought with "a vat of chlorine's close enough I guess." The cleverness in those lyrics and in Rankin's delivery suggests that she's seen the world in 20/20, and she's using Antisocialites as a woozy getaway too. Rankin also knows your shared escape ends when the album does, as she sings on the final track: "Did you want to forget about life with me tonight under condominium signs?" And you realize that for album's entire 32-minute duration, you hadn't noticed the condominium signs once.

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Antisocialites
Artist
Alvvays
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Polyvinyl
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2017

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Cover for Aromanticism

Moses Sumney, 'Aromanticism'

If you are brave enough to go soul spelunking in the fissure between love's ideals and life's realities, trust Moses Sumney to bring the perfect falsetto flashlight. His voice creeps into corners where fellow lonely souls hide out and rises in jagged bits like smoke fighting through mesh. Aromanticism slinks between ethereal underground, bedroom jazz and heavenly R&B, while Sumney processes his own self-awareness in real-time: "Can I tell you a secret? My wings are made of plastic." Sumney is joined by a cast of instruments who make their own evocative confessions — there are flutes gasping for and finding air, strings that overcome suffocation to soar and harps made of broken heartstrings that ring out. When Moses Sumney named his album after a term for the inability to experience romantic love, I don't imagine he intended Aromanticism to be entirely uplifting. But in crawling through the caverns of his own longing, Sumney offers a shared ache and an outstretched arm to help us climb out of ours towards something brighter.

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Aromanticism
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Aromanticism
Artist
Moses Sumney
Label
Jagjaguwar
Released
2017

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Cover for Masseduction

St. Vincent, 'Masseduction'

Death. Despair. Disconnection. Pill-popping. Life-threatening depression. Fear of the future. On Masseduction St. Vincent rattles through those topics like she's pitching a fit while trapped inside a snowglobe. Without playing armchair psychologist to decipher what the inclusion of this album on this brightness-themed list says about me, or about 2017, let's get one thing out of the way. I love this record so much that if my organizing principle for this list was "2017's albums that make you want to brush your cat's teeth," I would have found a way to shoehorn Masseduction in. But I do maintain this is an album that made the year brighter — which in this case doesn't mean happy or hopeful, but vivid. Masseduction is shocking, funny, poignant, heartbreaking, rude and tender. "New York" captures my understanding of the Portugese concept of saudade — a word for which there is no English equivalent, meaning a nostalgic ache for something you might never have again, or may never have had in the first place. "Smoking Section" teeters on depression's tightrope, between desperately needing to not be seen and to be noticed. "Pills" will scare the bananas out of you. On "Young Lover," St. Vincent lets out an operatic expulsion that will shatter your windows. And while a big bubblegum meal has been made of St. Vincent's shift away from guitars towards synthesizers, she still chooses meaningful musical occasions to shred like a monster. The cover of Masseduction is done in blinding fluorescent pink — as bright as it gets. St. Vincent has said, "Fluorescents look very friendly at first. If you look at them too long, they become very aggressive." As with fluorescents, and best-of album lists, the difference between friendly and aggressive or dark and bright is always in the ear of the beholder.

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