Here we are, halfway through 2017 already—okay, okay, halfway plus two weeks; I’ve been busy, all right? — and so far this year, my earbuds seem to be partial to past favourites. Three of the acts listed here have graced my annual top 10 lists in recent years, while a fourth put out one of my go-to albums of the decade a while back. And my number one pick? I’ve been listening to him off and on for decades. Damn, that must mean we’re both old! I’m hoping some fresher sounds will catch my attention in the remaining months of 2017, but for now, here’s a tried-and-tested top five.
5: Phoenix – Ti Amo
Like 2009’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” a career high point for this impish French foursome, “Ti Amo” is an ear-pleasing blend of buoyant hooks, bubbly synth flourishes, and delightfully droll lyrics. The title track is catchy to the point of annoying in its insistence on punctuating the verses with words and phrases that end in “o,” including gelato, prosecco, and Beethoven’s Concerto. “Lovelife” is another standout, but the entire album is disposable fun, perfect for summertime beach listening, suitable for shelving and forgetting come wintertime.
Phoenix — “Ti Amo”
4: Austra – Future Politics
I’ve been digging this Toronto band, led by opera-trained vocalist/songwriter Katie Stelmanis, since hearing the bracingly propulsive 2011 debut, “Feel It Break.” On this third album, Stelmanis and company dial back the BPMs and settle on a more subdued, somber tone. “There is nothing in your soul tonight, I see only darkness,” Stelmanis laments on the gloomy track “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.” Likewise, her sometimes piercing voice remains relatively constrained throughout. “Future Politics” is unapologetically melancholy, but on certain gray days it sounds just right.
Austra — “Future Politics”
3: The xx – I See You
I adored this London trio’s hushed, alluring 2009 debut, but the follow-up, 2012’s “Coexist,” sounded like more of the same. With “I See You,” the xx adds a few more colours to its palette—check out the club-ready grooves of the lead-off track, “Dangerous” and the lead single “On Hold.” Fortunately, the flashier arrangements here don’t overwhelm the sultry interplay between vocalists Romy Madly Croft and Oliver Sim, one of the sexiest duos in rock. A solid step forward for this most intriguing group.
The xx — “On Hold”
2: Real Estate – In Mind
New Jersey’s Real Estate said goodbye to a founding member, Matt Mondanile, last year, but it hasn’t lost its trademark jangly indie-pop sound. “In Mind” is the quintet’s first release since the gorgeous 2014 effort “Atlas,” to my mind one of the best records of the decade. This one doesn’t quite reach that high mark, but the band still makes the coolest hipster-easy-listening music around and this is probably the album that I will listen to the most in 2017 and beyond.
Real Estate — “Darling”
1: Robyn Hitchcock – Robyn Hitchcock
After more than 40 years of turning out offbeat tunes with clever, absurdist lyrics, one might expect eccentric singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock’s creative well to be running a bit dry. Wrong. His 21st solo effort is a short but sharp set of memorable songs that serve up some of his wittiest wordplay in years. Hitchcock’s recent move to Nashville has left its mark on two twangy tracks here, “I Pray When I’m Drunk” and “1970 in Aspic,” although I can’t think of another country song that boasts lyrics like the latter’s “Good and evil took you upstairs and explored you on all fours.” But most of the album is made up of muscular rockers bedazzled with Beatles-inspired embellishments. On the final number, “Time Coast,” Hitchcock reflects on his rock-and-roll journey and seems to suggest a possible terminus. “I made it just in time,” he sings with a mixture of joy and relief. But this invigorating album gives one hope that his long, strange trip won’t end anytime soon.
Robyn Hitchcock — “Time Coast”