Rounding up 2017’s top five albums

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Rounding up 2017’s top five albums

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“You can stand me up at the gates of hell/But I won’t back down” the late Tom Petty sings confidently over a mid-tempo beat on his 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.” The five albums I’ve selected as my favorites of 2017 have been crafted by artists who embody a similar defiance and struggle Petty did on his multi-platinum selling anthem.

Each of the five artists featured below unabashedly confronts elements of the human condition like loss, anxiety, depression, addiction and religious conflict, creating an intimacy between you and them as though you’re the only person that will hear them out.

5. Neck Deep – “The Peace and the Panic” – Hopeless Records
Why it matters: When the youthful Wrexham, Wales, pop-punk unit Neck Deep entered the studio to craft their third full-length, “The Peace and the Panic,” they did so with a little more perspective on life. In summer of 2015, they enjoyed the success of their breakout album, “Life’s Not Out to Get You,” which placed them at the forefront of their scene in the eyes of fans and major music publications like Kerrang! and Alternative Press.

Soon after, ironically, life got them; former lead guitarist Lloyd Roberts exited the band following allegations of sexual misconduct – from which he would later be cleared. Then, while on tour in support for their second album, both lead vocalist Ben Barlow’s and bassist Fil Thorpe-Evans’ fathers passed away. While pain and loss colors some of Barlow’s outlook on LP3, he manages to balance himself on the albums metaphoric tightrope between disorder and serenity. Barlow and Thorpe-Evans ache out somber harmonies for a deceased friend on the creaking acoustic ballad “Wish You Were Here.” The warm, jangly pop of “19 Seventy Sumthin,’” meanwhile, finds the tattooed frontman offering comforting words to his mother after his father’s heart attack.

With a less naïve outlook than before, the band makes sure to water their roots on the heavy one-two punch of “Motion Sickness” and “Happy Judgment Day,” the latter a rebuke of modern political discourse. Appropriately, the sarcastic “rain, rain, go away” refrain on “Where Do We Go When We Go” finds the humbled Barlow trying to “get one up on life” before it kills him over new guitarist Sam Bowden’s roaring rock riff. “The Peace” is a solid representation of a young, but ambitioned, band on the rise.

4. Paramore – “After Laughter” – Atlantic Recording Corporation
Why it matters: Had the world known that Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams was in the process of separating from her husband and partner of over a decade, Chad Gilbert of Floridian pop-punk band New Found Glory, some music critics may have been able to see past “After Laughter’s” drastic sonic pivot to a neon-coated 80s soundscape. Album five, while exploding with Williams’ warm charisma and the tinny marimba and bells of returning drummer Zac Farro, is lyrically juxtaposed with the singer’s anxiety and depression. Lead singles “Hard Times” and “Told You So” chime along with guitarist Taylor York’s nimble afrobeat-inspired arpeggios, which curl around a shimmering bed of synths like flowered vines. The former harbors Williams’ darkest lyric inside the album’s opening minute: “All that I want/Is to wake up fine/Tell me that I’m all right/That I ain’t gonna die.” Williams recovers from her existential rumination in time to bring the chorus to a head-nodding bounce.

At the core of “After Laughter” is Williams’ commanding vocal delivery and lyrics which function like progress reports on her mental health. “…I’m gonna draw my lipstick wider than my mouth/And if the lights are low they’ll never see me frown…” she asserts on the hook-laden funk of “Fake Happy.” Meanwhile, “Pool” finds Williams struggling with her urge to “dive back into” a failing relationship through an aquatic, dreamlike atmosphere. She confronts a paralyzing depression on “Rose-Colored Boy,” which fizzes along with synths, glassy guitars and upbeat rhythms a la mid-80s Talking Heads.

The band’s days of ripping into those gruff riffs of “Misery Business” on the Vans Warped Tour may be over, but the Tennessee-bred trio seemed poised to expand their musical boundaries beyond any of their previous ventures.

3. Brand New – “Science Fiction” – Procrastinate! Music Traitors
Why it matters: The end is nigh for Long Island alt-rockers Brand New. During the eight years Brand New fans endured without an album, the stand-alone singles “Mene” and “I Am a Nightmare” dropped, and the leaked 2006 demos and long promised lyric booklets finally made their way to their fans’ doorsteps who got the memo to send $1 to a specified address — hinting ominously at the band’s end. And after eight years of incessant, trivial headlines asking, “Jesse Lacey [vocalist] prefers decaf, now what the hell does this mean for Brand New?” their brooding fifth album “Science Fiction” dropped within a week of its announcement in mid-August via a FLAC file on Reddit. Plop. Internet frenzy.

From the snaking basslines and smoky reverb of the seven-minute opener “Lit Me Up,” it is apparent that Lacey is struggling with something. “Something’s stirring in a deep Atlantic trench/Doesn’t forget the thousand years before it slipped” the enigmatic frontman sings on “Lit Me Up,” aching over an old vice. On “Same Logic/Teeth,” Lacey paints a ruthless, disfigured self-portrait, sharply criticizing his history with self-harm and addiction. “Well this is the same logic that got us into trouble the first time (when we discovered we could use)/The same logic to get us out of trouble/And shake off all the people we abuse,” he sings plaintively during the chorus.

“451” marries parched western guitars with a massive swinging chorus palatable enough for radio and dark enough to satiate longtime fans. Lead guitarist Vincent Accardi’s spiraling guitar solos emerge from the mix during the bridge while drummer Brian Lane drives the spectacle forward with artful flourishes and surgical precision. “Batter Up” refurbishes the finger-picked guitar work of their 2006 classic “Jesus Christ,” and continues Lacey’s letter to Christ: “In the valley of your slowly-fading memory/All the pastures, bathed in sun and sunlight where you won’t graze/Paths you won’t take?”

After two women made separate sexual misconduct allegations dating back to the mid-2000s earlier this month, Lacey addressed said allegations on his band’s Facebook page with a vague apology detailing his history of infidelities and sex addiction. Fellow artists and music critics alike have rightfully condemned Lacey’s actions, casting shadows over his band’s legacy.

2. Kendrick Lamar – “Damn.” – Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg Entertainment
Why it matters: On his critically acclaimed third album, 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Compton-born rapper Kendrick Lamar offered a dense narrative reflecting on black culture in America. After scoring a platinum record, five Grammy awards and 11 Grammy nominations at the 58th Grammy Awards for “Butterfly,” Lamar emerged into an elite category of artists. By 2017, the world was ready for the rapper’s next move.

On his fourth LP, “Damn,” Lamar focuses his first-person narrative on himself with his usual cinematic flair. While “DNA” sees Lamar unleashing scorched earth passages on political pundits and naysayers alike, “Yah” — which some theorize to be short for Yahweh (God) — dials down the vitriol for a tranquil lawn chair reflection on his faith and fame. Propelled by a gut-punching piano rhythm, lead single “Humble” laconically admonishes his peers with a two-line chorus: “sit down/be humble.” And, despite a history of questionable gender politics, Lamar also spends time critiquing contemporary beauty standards; however, his sharpest critique of the songs might be directed toward himself in the line, “I’m the realest after all,” before launching into the final chorus.

“Damn” is at its most though-provoking when Lamar examines his conflicts with his faith on deep cuts like “Fear.”

The track finds Lamar confessing his fears relating to the pleasures and indulgences of his profession: “I’m talkin’ fear, fear that my humbleness is gone/I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more/I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness.” The song’s outro features Lamar’s cousin Carl Duckworth citing from the second verse of the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah and the Christian Old Testament. Duckworth’s reading serves as the thesis for “Damn,” warning “Israelites” — which might be interpreted more broadly as society — to return to Moses’ Ten Commandments or risk “punishment for their iniquities.”

Whereas many rappers imbibe the superficiality of modern pop culture, Lamar offers insight into his struggles as a rich, socially and religiously conscious black man in modern America.

1. Julien Baker – “Turn Out the Lights” – Matador Records
Why it matters: Memphis-born singer-songwriter Julien Baker is only 22, but she writes about her complex battle with herself, her relationships and her Christian faith like a seasoned novelist. Now two albums deep into her career, “Turn Out the Lights” expands Baker’s delicate exploration of self with sweeping string arrangements and rich production to illuminate her traumas in the album’s darkest tunnels.

Guitar and piano remain Baker’s closest companions in her brand of downtempo folk, but her greatest weapon are her literary skills: her lyrics and feel for structure. A former English major, Baker builds a cohesive and cogent narrative of her outlook on life in all its granularity.

“There’s a hole in the drywall still not fixed/I just haven’t gotten around to it,” Baker sings on the powerful title track, setting up a prominent motif for the album. The fist-shaped hole she introduces serves as a reminder of mental illness as time progresses until the penultimate track, “Even,” when she gently admits to “putting her fist through the plaster of a Motel 6.”

Musically, Baker’s sparse instrumentation allows her vocals to hit harder when she sings vividly of an internal fight on “Shadowboxing.” Baker’s cracking voice swells over her twinkling guitars to full tidal wave on the poignant “Appointments” as she begins to accept her pain as part of her. Couched in somber piano and string interplay, album closer “Claws in Your Back” affirms this acceptance as she sings, “I’m better off learning how to be/Living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints.” In its closing seconds, Baker brings herself to the resolution that she can accept and even love her demons and the “sickness” with which God created her.

In a society where mental illness is stigmatized, Baker’s testimonies provide careful listeners with not only an idea of how she’s dealing with her pain, but also a moment to reflect on their troubles instead of letting it burrow any deeper.

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