As originally published 12/31/17 on a now-deleted Facebook page
I locked myself in an Austin loft for 36 hours to finish this project. My only connection with the outside world was Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, email, text messages, phone calls, and the six times I unlocked myself to meet up with people or get food. That’s it.
And also HQ Trivia, the most insane ‘the-future-is-now’ app of the year. Essentially, it’s an interactive gameshow that allows anyone with a smartphone to participate and potentially win 10s of dollars. I’m not sure how innovative HQ Trivia truly is, but the app is communal, visceral, and intuitive. In an era where technology increasingly allows us to individualize our lives, shared experiences seem weirdly necessary.
With blockchain technology primed to move power from centralized institutions to the hands of the individual, this trend seems exponential, almost irreversible. Side note: I don’t really know how ‘The Blockchain’ actually works, so I’m kind of just repeating what everyone else says — but I think so is everybody else? As we move toward individual autonomy, the need for human belonging, for connection, will only grow stronger.
In 2015, Americans listened to 23.5 hours of music a week. In 2017, that was up to 32.1 hours of music a week, which is a pretty wild uptick — more than an additional hour of music every day. This was quickly attributed to on-demand streaming.
More and more, music gets discovered and listened to on streaming services because of playlists. Here are three great articles about this trend from the year, plus an article on the subject I wrote for Music Business Journal:
- The Secret Hit-Making Power Of The Spotify Playlist (WIRED, May ‘17)
- Not All Spotify Playlists Are Created Equal: An Unedited Look Behind The Green Curtain (Hypebot, June ‘17)
- The Rise of Curated Playlists (Music Business Journal, August ‘17)
- How A Hit Happens Now (Vulture, September ‘17)
Why is this important? A few reasons.
Just like Facebook and every other social media platform, music streaming services greatly benefit from keeping users engaged and active. The more you pay attention, the more they sell your attention. And on streaming services, who wants your attention? It’s not just advertisers. It’s artists. It’s managers who want to get their artists heard. It’s record labels.
Spotify collects data on listens, skips, drop-offs, searches, and everything in between, which it claims to use to select music for playlists. I’m inclined to believe Spotify on this point, because if their main incentive is to maximize the amount of time people listen to playlists, then it behooves them to make decisions that best maximizes the amount of time people listen to playlists. That means giving people more of what they want. However, Spotify is still a business, and TechCrunch reported in June 2017 that the streaming service was testing ‘Sponsored Songs.’
Those averse to ‘sponsored content’ may not like this development, but I’d posit that, in general, it’s better to know than not know when someone is paying to get something in front of you (not that that’s happening now).
Considering the incentives for streaming services, to keep your attention, that means that music is increasingly valued on its ability to command attention. It feels like a trend toward music as entertainment, as content, rather than toward music as art, as the purest manifestation of humanity. But at the same time, people are drawn to truth, to authenticity. And not “I need to be authentic” authenticity but pure, unfettered fucking honesty.
I don’t know what other people want. I don’t know what I want. I want entertainment sometimes and I want art other times. Is it possible for both to fully coexist?
I can hate someone to the core, and that person can hate me even more. But if we both love the same song, we’ll put our differences aside and sing along. (Didn’t mean for that to rhyme sorry)
As people grow further apart, what brings us together becomes more important. Music brings us together. Our shared soundtracks need to be carefully and transparently curated. It feels like things are going in the right direction.
If you’re just here for music recommendations, check out this spreadsheet (not created by me), which ranks albums by their collective rankings on ‘Best of’ lists.
As always, I listened to every song on every album this year, so I know everything. (Side note: please send me any recs you have!)
20. Future — FUTURE + HNDRXX
Favorite Tracks: Mask Off, Coming Out Strong
Cool story about how “Mask Off” supplanted the original single his team wanted to promote because of streaming data:
19. Yumi Zouma— Willowbank
Favorite Tracks: Persephone, Us Together, December
This is roadtrip / thinking music. Great for refocusing.
18. Dan Croll — Emerging Adulthood
Favorite Track: Bad Boy, Sometimes When I’m Lonely, Educate, Tokyo
17. Calvin Harris — Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1
Favorite Tracks: Slide, Feels, Rollin’, Faking It
16. Sampha — Process
Favorite Tracks: Plastic 100°C, Reverse Faults
15. St. Vincent— MASSEDUCTION
Favorite Track: Pills, Los Ageless
Los Ageless is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.
14. Slowdive — Slowdive
Favorite Tracks: Don’t Know Why, Falling Ashes
13. Father John Misty— Pure Comedy
Favorite Tracks: Total Entertainment Forever, Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution, The Memo
So many great and poignant lyrics in this incredibly ambitious album. Like all things Father John Misty, it feels dark and cynical, but there’s a more-positive-than-negative undertone. Dude is brilliant and entertaining and jaded and provocative and open.
I made a fun little playlist called ‘American Nightmare’ that was inspired by the third track on this album’, a totally normal thing to do, thanks for asking.
12. SZA— Ctrl
Favorite Tracks: Love Galore, The Weekend
11. COIN— How Will You Know
Favorite Tracks: Talk Too Much, Feeling
One of my favorite new bands this year. Saw them at ACL this year — great performers. Will be exciting as they continue to develop and grow.
10. N*E*R*D — No One Ever Really Dies
Favorite Tracks: Lemon, Don’t Do It, Rollinem 7's
So many awesome features on this one as well. Thanks to my buddy Cole for giving me the heads up that this came out a few weeks ago. On that note, it really is a shame that so many ‘Best of 2017’ lists get published in early December. I guess they missed this one! These are the important issues facing the world today.
9. Khalid— American Teen
Favorite Tracks: Young Dumb & Broke, Saved, 8TEEN
Khalid came out of nowhere this year. His voice is infectious. The lyrics can get a little too millennial for me, but he’s young (and dumb and broke) and just saying what’s on his mind. He’ll be in rotation for a while.
8. Charly Bliss— Guppy
Favorite Tracks: Percolator, DQ, Totalizer
It’s refreshing to hear something so raw and real. Heard about Charly Bliss on Jake’s Weekly Newsletter’s collaborative playlist:
7. Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile— Lotta Sea Lice
Favorite Tracks: Over Everything, Fear Is Like A Forest, Continental Breakfast
The vocals may be an acquired taste for some, but the instrumentation and song structures are magnificent. Great songwriting, too.
6. Spoon— Hot Thoughts
Favorite Tracks: Hot Thoughts, whisperandi’lllistentohearit, Pink Up, Can I Sit Next To You, Tear It Down
One of the most consistent bands of the last 15 years, Spoon continues to create new/familiar music. Feel like they get taken for granted. Loved this album.
5. Priests — Nothing Feels Natural
Favorite Tracks: Jj, Lelia 2020, Nothing Feels Natural
Nobody else could have made this. So much perfectly channeled energy. I can’t wait to see Priests perform live.
4. LCD Soundsystem — american dream
Favorite Tracks: i used to, how do you sleep?, tonite, pulse (v1.)
3. BROCKHAMPTON— SATURATION I/II/III
Favorite Tracks: GOLD, GUMMY, SWAMP, BOOGIE, BLEACH, SISTER/NATION
I missed an opportunity to see BROCKHAMPTON. A few months out, tickets were $18. I figured I’d buy closer to the show. Well, four weeks later the show was sold out, and four weeks after that, tickets were going for $120 each! That’s INSANE.
These guys came out of nowhere and they show no signs of stopping. Three albums and a full-length documentary in six months! They’re wanting to redefine what it means to be a ‘boy band’ (which I don’t really get yet but I’m definitely paying attention).
Regardless, BROCKHAMPTON has a new sound, a new style, and I’m happier because they exist. Here’s a fun interview they did with MTV.
2. The War on Drugs — A Deeper Understanding
Favorite Tracks: Holding On, Pain, Nothing To Find
I was at a conference in Boston in late September, and one of the keynote speakers recounted a conversation he had with Elon Musk at a dinner party. The speaker asked Elon (first-name basis, obviously) how he was able to accomplish so much with Tesla and SpaceX. Apparently Elon mentioned something about seeing the world in vectors. Basically, if you have two arrows that are one inch long but going in opposite directions, you have no arrows. If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. Or in other words, -1 + 1 = 0.
This thirdhand anecdote isn’t terribly important to the Brian Certified Second-Favorite-Album-Of-The-Year, but this concept, the idea of making all of your energy move in the same direction, has stuck with me over the last few months. I wanted to stay in Boston to explore and ruminate, but I flew home early to see The War on Drugs perform. I went to the show by myself, and I’m not sure I would have wanted it any other way.
1. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
Favorite Tracks: DNA, FEEL, HUMBLE., LUST.
Early in December, Kendrick Lamar released the DAMN. COLLECTORS EDITION, which included the exact same music as the April release but with the songs presented in reverse order.
This added a fascinating element of duality to an already honest and provocative album. Or it was a gimmick. Considering Kendrick’s track record (and an obvious hint in the last track of the record), I’m trusting that this supplemental release was not a gimmick.
And that’s a big thing, trust. Nobody else could have made this Kendrick Lamar album. I keep coming back to that concept, because it’s so important for me to know that what I’m seeing is what I’m getting.
We have this insane entertainment machine that seemingly requires ‘name-brand’ people (celebrities) to almost take credit for the work of others, at least in the public eye. Kendrick Lamar talked about a subset of this concept in an August interview with specific regards to ghostwriting in hip-hop.
I believe Kendrick Lamar made this album, and I believe he made this album because he has something to say. And on that, I’m inclined to let the music speak for itself.
It was always me versus the world Until I found it’s me versus me
It feels like we’re all inadvertently telling stories in reverse. I don’t wait for someone’s full Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn profile to load and start from the beginning. I see the last thing they shared, and read backwards.
When I’m reading someone’s profile, I’m subconsciously asking, ‘How did this person get from where they were to where they are now?’ But I’m getting the answer to ‘How does this person want me to think they get from where they were to where they are now?’ And that’s because we (myself included) only share our highlights on social media. There’s no room for anything else in the stories we’re telling ourselves.
20. Cardi B — Bodak Yellow
19. Hippo Campus — The Way It Goes
18. Charly Bliss — Percolator
17. Luis Fonsi — Despacito (ft. Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee)
16. John Mayer — Helpless
15. Priests — Lelia 2020
14. Migos — Bad & Boujee (ft. Lil Uzi Vert)
13. LCD Soundsystem — how do u sleep
12. Kendrick Lamar — LUST
11. Electric Guest — Oh Devil
10. Spoon — whisperandi’lllistentohearit
09. Portugal. The Man — Feel It Still
08. BROCKHAMPTON — GOLD
07. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever — French Press
06. Calvin Harris — Feels (ft. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry, Big Sean)
05. Lorde — Perfect Places
04. The War on Drugs — Nothing To Find
03. Father John Misty — Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution
02. Kendrick Lamar — DNA.
01. St. Vincent — Los Ageless
- Drake, for calling his album a playlist, I guess
- Taylor Swift, for trying out a new model for concert tickets
- Lorde, for making a great album that I (and almost only I) overlooked
- Nick Holder, for making an album about sandwiches and the brands who make them
- Neil Cicierega, for making the album I didn’t know I needed (and apparently Potter Puppet Pals way back when!)
And a few upcoming events I’m working on…
- Thursday, 1/18 — Building Trust On Social In The Age Of ‘Fake News’ (Social Media Dallas) (More info)
- Thursday, 2/15 — Predictive Analytics in Social Media w/ Christopher Penn (Social Media Dallas) (More info)
- Thursday, 3/15 — Playola: Reckoning With Music’s Newest Kingmager (SXSW) (More info)
- More to come!
Thanks for the time & Happy New Year!
Editor’s Note: As mentioned at the outset, this is a re-published version of an essay + link created in December 2017. Would I rank things differently now? Probably! Who cares! That said, don’t think I’ll keep myself away from a decade list. If you wanna contribute to that and/or chat and/or join a private Slack group dedicated to talking about 2010s music, shoot me a note!