Ask A Music Critic: Was 2017 A Bad Year For Music?

Cultural Critic
01.04.18 10 Comments

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Readers will often send me questions — over email or social media — about super nerdy music topics. And these questions are often pretty amazing, so amazing that it seems like a shame not to share them with a wider audience. So, on a semi-regular basis, I’m going to answer these questions in a new column called “Ask A Music Critic.”

Do you have a question for me? Hit me up at!

In my debut “Ask A Music Critic” column, the topics include the usefulness of concert encores, the importance of Fiona Apple, the “social listening” greatness of Tom Petty relative to other classic rockers, and the ’90s one-hit wonder band Spacehog. But first, a question about whether 2017 was a good or bad year for music.

I personally thought 2017 was a great year in music, so I was surprised to hear so many year-end recaps pan the year as a whole. In thinking about this, it seems to me that the lack of great traditional indie records is potentially driving this narrative. It was a really good year for rap (Kendrick, Vince Staples, Run The Jewels, Cousin Stizz), female-driven R&B (SZA and Kelela) and female-led indie rock (Waxahatchee, Japanese Breakfast, Vagabon). I wonder if the year just missed the mark on what people look for in traditionally great music years. What did you make of 2017?— David from Portland, Ore.

SH: I thought 2017 was totally fine! As I wrote in my own year-end recap, there were at least six albums (by The War On Drugs, Father John Misty, Lorde, Julien Baker, Gang Of Youths, and Jason Isbell) that I feel really passionate about, and a couple dozen after that I’m really quite fond of. And I’m sure there will be dozens more albums from 2017 that I discover in subsequent years that I might end up loving more than what I already heard.

That’s the thing about judging the output of a given year right as that year is ending: You might not discover the really good stuff until much later on. In fact, you probably won’t. Great albums often reveal themselves over time, while music that seems immediately great can wear out after the early acclaim.

Recently on Twitter, I modestly proposed that culture writers wait at least three years before imposing their grand narratives about What It All Meant. Stuff that seems to matter now will, in all likelihood, be forgotten by 2020. And things we ignored in 2017 could really wind up being significant. If I wrote about 2014 now, I would marvel at how people like Taylor Swift and Mark Kozelek had just hit their respective career peaks, right before they both went kind of insane. And I’d also discuss the debut EP by SZA, which did okay on the charts but garnered minimal coverage from music critics at the time.

My point is that the relative goodness or badness of 2017 won’t be made clear for another few years. There will inevitably be records that seem overrated in retrospect and artists that didn’t get their due who will go on to great success. At that point, it might indeed look like a down year … or the beginning of a golden age we were too dumb to notice as it was happening under our noses.

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