Best of 2017

Our favorite albums, artists, books, films, and TV shows of the year

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This year was ripe with political conversation and conflict. That’s a given. At The Smart Set, we reflect on the things that brought us joy this year. These were the texts in which we found comfort: the noise control from the constant squawkings of pundits and politicians invading our spaces, from the bad feelings and vibes that permeated and settled into our skins. Here are the salves and balms that made 2017 a bit more pleasant. Some of us stayed in the present, finding these bits and bobs that helped accentuate some of the truly cool stuff that happened this year, that amplified some of the positive energies that erupted in 2017 — collective formations, activism, points of solidarity. Others looked back, finding pleasure in artifacts once looked over and discovering their relevance and pleasure. In a post-KonMari method world, it’s necessary to think of pleasure. In her 2011 book on tidying, she suggests holding each of your artifacts and asking “Does this bring me joy?” If yes, keep and cherish. If no, discard. This question is just as relevant to maintaining your body/mind/soul as it is your abode. With all the noise and distractions, the following items were the standouts that, when sorted into the piles of texts we consumed over the year, we could say in earnestness: this brought me joy.

Byshera’s Top Three:
1. HEAVN, Jamila Woods, 2016
This album is the embodiment of Black girl joy, sadness, power, and magic. It gives a detailed and complex look at the inner lives of Black women in America, which is refreshing and needed especially this year. This album got me through a lot of bad days. In my favorite song of the album, “Holy (Reprise),” Woods gives us this mantra: “Woke up this mornin’ with my mind set on lovin’ me.” The whole song focuses on self-love and validating the choice to move through the world alone. The song “Lonely” takes you through states of feeling lonely and disconnected from the world. Woods announces, “I don’t wanna wait for our lives to be over / To love myself however I feel.” The song experiments with the idea that loneliness is not always a bad thing but something needed to reflect. In “Blk Girl Soldier,” when talking about a history of social injustices, she declares, “They make her hate her own skin / Treat her like a sin.” Through her relatable and powerful lyrics, voice, and minimal backing music that only helps to emphasize her words, Woods is able to mixes activism, poetry, and R&B to create an authentic and powerful album.

Recommended tracks:

  • “Holy (Reprise)”
  • “Lonely (feat. Lorine Chia)”
  • “Way Up”

2. Ctrl, SZA, 2017
SZA’s is not a new artist, but Ctrl is her first studio album, and it has made waves. It’s an R&B/soul/rap album that allows us to see heartbreak, gender roles, sex, relationships, and what it’s like to deal with those things when you are 20-something in today’s society. SZA both raps and sings on this album. It is not the Beyoncé or Adele type of album that you listen to for high notes and runs. Her voice has grit, allowing her to transition smoothly from rapping to singing. SZA tells a story of self-doubt, because she is not an airbrushed-perfect woman but still wants love and respect. This struggle is beautifully articulated on “Drew Barrymore,” when she says “I get so lonely I forget what I’m worth,” and then in the next breath apologies, “I’m sorry I’m not more attractive.” From the lyrics, to the music, to the features, everything on this album is masterfully crafted. She has been nominated for five Grammys: Best R&B Song, Best New Artist, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, Best R&B Performance, and Best Urban Contemporary Album.

Recommended tracks:

  • “Broken Clocks”
  • “20 Something”
  • “The Weekend”

3. War & Leisure, Miguel, 2017
This album is new, but it is already one of my favorites. Miguel is an R&B/soul artist who infuses rock, rap, and Latin influences into his music to create a fun, sexy, and insightful project. This album is all about finding joy even though the world is crumbling around us. One of my favorite songs is “Pineapple Skies” because it’s so upbeat and describes a kind of perfect that doesn&rssquo;t exist: “It’s pineapple purple skies / Promise everything gon’ be alright.” Through the absurdity of these different analogies, Miguel is able to make you focus on a feeling instead of a realistic image. Then there are more mellow songs like, “Come Through and Chill (feat. J. Cole).” This song is the embodiment of “Netflix and chill” on a rainy day: “It’s been a minute since we last kicked it / And by the way, just got in town / And I won’t let cumulus clouds all in the sky ruin my vibe.” Even though the majority of the album is focused on love and fun, “Now” discusses the current political climate: “CEO of the free world now / Should we teach our children hatred? / Chase the innocent and shoot them down.” No matter which song you are listening to, Miguel’s range as a vocalist and the production really add another layer to the lyrics and make it an album worth giving a try.

Recommended tracks:

  • “Come Through and Chill (feat. J. Cole)”
  • “Anointed”
  • “Pineapple Skies”

Maren’s Top Four:

1. Fleabag, 2016
Fleabag is dirty British humor for the modern woman. It follows the main character, Fleabag, a young woman who owns an unsuccessful guinea-pig themed cafe, as she mourns the death of her best friend and navigates her relationships with men, her sister, and her father. It’s awkward, self-aware, unashamed, and full of sex-positivity and fourth-wall breaks. The only sticking point for me is that the show’s feminism isn’t fully intersectional, but between (and sometimes during) the laughs, it manages to do a decent job of exploring loneliness, grief, female relationships, dating, money, body insecurity, and self-doubt. When I finished watching the last episode of Fleabag and looked up the release date of season two, my heart sank. 2019 is too far away.

2. Children of Men, 2006
Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men was released over a decade ago, but I only saw it for the first time this year. Good apocalyptic films reflect the issues of the time they’re made, and this one is no different. In Children of Men, some of those issues are immigration, class structure, climate change, nuclear war, terrorism, activism — sound familiar yet? The future that seemed imminent in 2006 now looms around the corner. I found the cinematography captivating, particularly one gorgeously long take near the film’s end. It’s beautifully acted, it’s bleak and funny, and it’s due for a rewatch.

3. Downtown Boys
Downtown Boys (from Providence, Rhode Island) is a punk rock band headed by the incredible and powerful Victoria Ruiz. In a very white, very male genre, Downtown Boys is “brown and smart” (as the lyrics from “Monstro” proclaim) and full of strong, anti-establishment people. My favorite album is Full Communism (2015), but their most recent, Cost of Living, is also excellent. This band came onto my radar because I pledged this year to listen to more music made by women, non-binary people, and people of color. When I dug through my favorite albums, I was surprised (thought I shouldn’t be) by how many were written and performed exclusively by white men. The genres I love most — rock, folk, alternative, and punk — tend to skew very white and (less so) male. Downtown Boys is the punk I love and is all the better for the diverse perspectives of the humans who made it.

4. Ear Hustle, 2017
This new podcast just finished up its first season in October. It is produced inside San Quentin State Prison by Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, two men currently incarcerated there, and Nigel Poor, an artist from the Bay Area. From the perspectives of several inmates, it discusses race, health, despair, gangs, death, hope, friendship, sex, love, and life in a place people on the outside too often know nothing about. It made me cry in public and pushed me to write a long-overdue letter to someone in prison — I can’t recommend it enough.

Emily’s Top Three 

1. So Sad today, 2016

Melissa Broder saw me into 2017 with this collection of personal essays, a genre I have a desperate attraction to, as it reassures me that other women in their twenties have survived much more than I have, and gone on to make money writing about said survival. She writes from the perspective of a white woman, with the usual middle class American privilege, but is intensely relatable in her stories of mental illness, sexuality, and relationship with self. The frank admittance of her interest in fat lesbian porn was one of my favorite things I read this year, and her chapter on open relationships still has me thinking outside of the strict bianaries I grew up within.

2. Baby Driver, 2017

This movie. By the director of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver is exciting, clever, well directed, and beautifully scored. Ansel Elgort greatly portrays the hearing impaired protagonist who has only a handful of spoken dialogue, and signs with his wheelchair bound foster father at home. This inclusion was refreshing, and I am looking forward to more in Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Baby’s relationship with the world and dependance on music is artistic and compelling, as we watch him navigate a complicated web of love and crime.

3. Sense8, 2017

This show is probably the best thing that Netflix has put out. The second season aired this year and shortly thereafter it was cancelled, much to the its loyal following’s dismay. Few shows seem to be featuring . The basic premise is that eight people from around the globe suddenly find themselves mentally linked to each other, and learn to communicate and band together to fight those who wish to control and destroy “people like them”. The cultures of each character is richly explored as the plot unfolds, and each of their personal stories is uniquely compelling. The show also gets kudos for one of the 8 being a trans woman played by a trans woman, something we don’t see often enough. Nomi is a badass coder with a mother who denies her identity and a badass girlfriend with sick colored dreads. Representation in GOOD shows is not only important socially, but leagues more interesting than the white boys who usually get to see all the action. (Ok, there is one white boy from Boston, but only one.)

Melinda’s Top Five

1. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, Anne Helen Petersen (2017)

First, I have to lay all my cards out on the table: I am a Petersen fangirl. Her transition from academia to Buzzfeed was inspiring for me and her profiles for the site have not disappointed. As a writer, Petersen is able to make even the complex concepts simple, accessible, and enjoyable. I engulfed her 2017 book. A compilation of case studies, Petersen unpacks the ways in which women have been, as the kids say, extra, and how this extraness has been treated as problematic by media outlets. What I love most is the book&rsquuo;s ability to exist in grayness. This narrative is not about putting celebrities on a pedestal and feeding into sympathetic narratives. Rather, this book is about highlighting the dichotomy between celebrities needing these outlets to maintain their status and negotiating the bullshit surrounding their bodies and personas fueled by these same outlets.

2. 30 for 30 Podcasts, ESPN (2017)

As a media scholar, there’s something to be said for ESPN’s documentary series which, along with quality true crime series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, helped rejuvenate documentaries as a popular form of infotainment. I spent a lot of time proselytizing this podcast to my colleagues. The stories are compelling in and of themselves, but the production adds texture. The podcast also plays fast and loose with sports, using baseball as a means to explore fandom or football to touch upon conglomeration. For sports fans, this podcast legitimizes why they’re not just “games” and for non-fans, each episode is just bloody interesting.

3. You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth

Another fangirl moment. Until this podcast ends, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This will be forever on my list. She presented three seasons this year: “Dead Blondes,” “Jean Seberg and Jane Fonda,” and “Bela and Boris.” Each episode functions separately, but there is such pleasure in listening to all these puzzle pieces fit together to develop a rich and yet still underdeveloped history of Hollywood. Longworth’s stories range from popular figures to cult stars, each having their own triumphs and tragedies. I truly get sad after each season and thrilled when each hiatus comes to an end. These three seasons have greatly enriched my 2017.

4. CTRL, SZA

I have been waiting so long for this album. “Julia,” from SZA’s EP Z, has been on repeat for me for the past three years. Much anticipated, SZA delivered. It is both ethereal and cutting, reflective and reactive. Her lyrics are incredibly intimate, and listening felt like sitting down with a friend and rehashing and commiserating over our mistakes. I think it’s credit to SZA that this album appears twice on this list — that this album can be just as relevant to Byshera and I despite being a decade apart in age. SZA is transcendent. I completely adore her and this album.

5. Eating Raoul, Paul Bartel (1982)

Much of my 2017 has been dedicated to film history (partly inspired by Longworth’s deep dive into the archives). 1982’s Eating Raoul had me at the promise of its premise: sex and cannibalism. There is something so filthy and fun about two squares creating their own rules and maintaining their moral high-ground. Part Buñuel and part Waters, this film provided catharsis at a point where I thought none would be found. And yet, despite its 35-year distance from the present moment, it still seems just as relevant and biting.

 

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.

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