When it comes to entertainment media, whether it’s games or music, I live for the big moments. Those points in which the entire experience comes together to produce a feeling of such rightness that it cannot be ignored. If I can look back over a year and remember many of these kinds of moments, I know it was a great year for entertainment. As 2017 fades behind us, I can say without a doubt that it was one of the best years I’ve ever had.
In the spirit of the year’s end, I will be highlighting 20 of my absolute favorite moments and experiences from entertainment in 2017. I started with my top six gaming experiences, then the second piece featured television. Whether you already know these albums and want to share in another consumer’s perspective, or if you’ve yet to try them and want to know what there is to like, I hope you enjoy the list.
Much of my music taste lies in the ’60s and ’70s. Though I knew each of the three artists below, I wouldn’t have considered myself a major fan of any until this year. These albums made the difference for me. Let’s get started.
Note: this list does not include video game music. For that, check out the soundtracks of Sonic Mania, Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, and Nier: Automata.
Ed Sheeran – The Emotion
I’ve encountered bits and pieces of Ed Sheeran’s music since the credits of The Desolation of Smaug in 2013, but I wasn’t cemented as a real fan until his 2017 album ÷. The symbol is technically the correct name, but I’m going to call it Divide from here on out.
There are so many distinct elements to like about Divide. There are some pure fun jam-in-the-car moments like “Galway Girl” and “Barcelona,” sorrowful ballads like “Supermarket Flowers” and “Save Myself,” and some excellent if sappy love songs in “Perfect” and “How Would You Feel.” There’s even a fairly impressive rap and an Irish-influenced story about Sheeran’s grandparents’ elopement.
The heart of what makes this diverse collection so strong, the common thread that runs through almost every song, is Sheeran’s ability to convey strong emotions directly from his voice to the listener’s brain. Or, at the very least, to mine.
Sheeran’s voice is like toast. It’s warm, easily digestible, and just the right amount of scratchy when he wants it to be. No matter what message he’s trying to convey, he knows how to push his voice to the limit, let it break a little, and drive the point home where it hurts.
In “Castle on a Hill,” Sheeran takes us back through his childhood, and when the grit in his voice escapes into the chorus you can feel his desire to return to his friends and the life he once had. In my favorite song on the album, “Dive,” the grit is out in full force to portray feelings of longing and caution in equal measure.
Even more impressive is that Sheeran can convey other people’s feelings just as well as his own. “Supermarket Flowers,” the point of greatest sadness on Divide, depicts the aftermath of Sheeran’s grandmother’s death, told from his mother’s perspective. It’s her pain we feel, not Sheeran’s, but we feel it just the same.
Sometimes there’s not even an actual source of the emotion. “Perfect” is Sheeran’s best love song to date, and he didn’t even write it about anyone. He admits the song was a challenge to himself to write a better love song than the popular “Thinking Out Loud” from his last album in 2014. Despite this rather mundane motivation, the result is still loaded with tangible feeling. I’m getting married in March, and the truth this song evokes tore me up the first few times I heard it.
The fact that the sentiments in these songs don’t always come from 100% truth in Sheeran’s life is not a concern for me. He created these songs that the common man can easily enjoy, and he infused them with emotion that anyone can hear. The music now exists beyond him, and it works, regardless of the origin. “Perfect” is one of my favorite love songs of all time (and that’s a fleshed-out opinion: I spent three months making a top 100 list this summer).
No matter what part of this diverse album you fancy, Ed Sheeran uses his writing and vocal gifts to bring pure, unadulterated emotion to the forefront, if you’ll only let it in.
Sam Smith – The Voice
If Ed Sheeran’s voice is toast, then Sam Smith’s voice is butter. It’s smooth, delicious, and he can spread it around wherever he wants. The Thrill of it All, Smith’s second album, puts his all-time great voice even more at the center than the last one did.
Most of the subject matter of The Thrill of it All comes from the end of Smith’s 5-month-long relationship. Every single line, even the relatively unimportant ones, are delivered with such beautiful vocal fragility that they seem like the end of the world.
It starts with “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the album’s first single that skyrocketed as soon as it hit the airwaves. It’s refreshing to see an artist who knows what he’s good at and keeps doing it. “Too Good at Goodbyes” is a similar gospel-influenced ballad as “Stay with Me” and other songs from the first album, but it surpasses them all save “I’m Not The Only One” in my opinion. Smith doesn’t try to venture off into some unknown musical territory just to exercise creative license, as so many others do. Instead, we get more incredible vocal performances from the depths of Smith’s wheelhouse.
“Midnight Train” portrays Smith’s thoughts leading up the breakup. It’s a tad faster and more head-bob-inducing than other entries on the album, but Smith still holds out the important notes to drive home the reluctant resignation of a love gone south. “Burning,” the song I put on repeat the most often, tells of Smith’s self-destructive habits in the breakup’s wake.
And the list goes on. Most of the songs on The Thrill of it All aren’t really that special apart from Smith’s voice. He is the centerpiece to a dangerous extent, but he makes it work. His voice is an instrument.
“HIM” leaves the breakup story to express the judgment Smith has faced since coming out as gay and his struggle with guilt, confusion, and helplessness in the face of that. “Scars,” an extremely moving piece from the album’s special edition, thanks both of Smith’s parents for their love for him throughout a rough period of divorce. Seriously, the special edition (free to listen on Spotify) is a must.
As long as Sam Smith continues to put out vocally-driven, emotionally fraught music, I’ll be around to listen. And cry.
Paramore – The Paradox
Paramore’s 2017 album After Laughter is every bit as plaintive and hopeless in theme as Sam Smith, but you’d never know it on first listen.
After Laughter is a departure from the punk-rock sound that made Paramore famous. For the most part, it’s derivative of ’80s pop, synthesized and upbeat. Almost every track could be used as party music, if not for the lyrics.
In complete contrast to the sound, After Laughter is a bottomless well of lyrical pain and insecurities. “Fake Happy” denounces the hypocrisy of disguised brokenness, “Rose-Colored Boy” gives up all hope of redemption, “Caught in the Middle” reveals the crippling pressure of societal expectations, and “Hard Times” is self-explanatory.
It’s a brutally, painfully honest album carefully wrapped inside a fun techno-pop sound. This tenuous dichotomy is held together by the powerful and convincing vocals of Hayley Williams. Fluctuating between bubbly and vicious, Williams walks the line, somehow catering to both the sound and lyrics at once.
This paradox of sound and meaning is without a doubt my favorite experience with music in 2017. I can drive to work with After Laughter on and choose whether I’d like to turn my brain off and jam or focus and contemplate.
A few songs break the mold and lean unabashedly into the sad side. The slow and mournful “26” has a tearjerking ballad sound, but comparatively it’s got some of the more hopeful lyrics on the record. Meanwhile, “No Friend” is annoyingly incomprehensible due to a sound mixing choice. However, if you can make out the words, you’ll find the most brutally honest thing Paramore has ever written.
After Laughter, in different ways, is equally appropriate for a party or a funeral. I can’t explain exactly why I love that sound/theme relationship so much, but it just works.
That’s it for my best music experiences of 2017! What are your opinions on these albums, and what are your own favorites for the year? Let us know in the comments or on social media.
Keep on the lookout for the final entry in my Best of 2017 series: films.