This past year — the year of mainstream reckoning with toxic masculinity; the year a racist with a history of sexual assault took office — demanded we pay closer attention to the outsiders, punks, and poets who’ve long been holding a microscope to all sorts of societally empowered men: cops, politicians, bosses, bandmates. In some of the best independent songs of 2017, outside of the pop machine, we heard voices raised against the imbalances of power that define our world, ones that decide whose histories are remembered, whose humanities are denied, who survives and why. Emerging from the ground up, these are songs that offered perspective through another year defined by walls and binaries; class war and state violence; gender inequity and more.
When I reflect on the past year in music, there are three songs that feel like a 2017 time capsule, a trifecta of opposition to capitalism, complicity, and authority: “Pink White House” by Priests, “A Wall” by Downtown Boys, and “Meet Me in the Street” by Sheer Mag. These are three bands with roots in interconnected punk scenes that have since attracted higher profiles; at their live shows last year, it felt meaningful to watch their messages resonate more widely and with new audiences. On Nothing Feels Natural, Priests expanded their palette of influences to draw on funk, pop, and jazz, and single “Pink White House” tore at our culture of instant gratification and hollow “puppet shows” that make Americans feel like they’re participating in political processes: “Consider the options of a binary,” repeats singer Katie Alice Greer, fervent and rhythmic. Lodged in my head are two particular 2017 performances of this song: on inauguration night in D.C., and when the band played Brooklyn on the same night as the protests against the Muslim Ban at JFK.
On “A Wall,” Downtown Boys offered a refrain that was passionately shouted back by crowds all year: “A wall is a wall/A wall is just a wall/A wall is a wall/And nothing more at all.” Equally important, the song reminded us of those whose actions or indifference led us to our current fucked reality: “And when you see him now/I hope you see yourself/I hope you see yourself.” Sheer Mag’s “Meet Me in the Street” was written while the band reflected on last year’s J20 protests, channeling its 1970s hard rock into an anthem about “battling on and on and on,” “throwing rocks at the boys in blue,” and the articulate truth that “no friend is the hand/that points and commands.”
The prolific artist and collaborator Camae Ayewa, who spent much of the year touring the world as Moor Mother, remained a most singular voice and vision in 2017. She released two records: One was Crime Waves, a collaboration with fellow Philadelphia producer Mental Jewelry. The second was with the improv free-jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements, on whose self-titled album her spoken-work poetry on systemic racism, Black trauma, survival, and power grew emboldened by horns, drums, and basslines from Luke Stewart, Keir Neuringer, Aquiles Navarro, and Tcheser Holmes. The nine-minute “Fireworks” is one of the year’s most searing songs: “You see them fireworks last night? We was up on a hill, I found myself thinking about war and outta nowhere we was dead, like ten bullets traveling throughout the city killing nothing but Black people.… We are post–World War III and everyone is dead or at home deleting the human parts of themselves. Control, alt, delete, backspace, escape, escape, escape…” It’s a recording that demands attention. There was nothing else like this in 2017.
Erika M. Anderson, also known as EMA, released Exile in the Outer Ring, on which the native Midwesterner confronts the people and places she came from: the hopelessness and poverty that pervades Middle America. Exile portrays a specific strain of the margins, the areas on the edges of cities where folks of varying ideologies might end up as a result of crushing inequality; along the way, she sings about isolation and destruction, of “kids from the void” and the dark parking lots, casinos and big-box stores. Anderson’s world of sound and poetry is filled with criticisms — “Aryan Nation” contains one of its most immediate lyrics: “Tell me stories of famous men/I can’t see myself in them” — but there is also empathy, a type of music where soaring hooks always find a way out from aggressive industrial noise and blown-out guitars. On “Down and Out,” one of the album’s highlights, she speaks directly to some of the systemic inequities suggested elsewhere: “Everyone thinks you’re worthless when you’re down and out…Think that maybe you deserve it/If you’re poor.”
On the personal-political side of the spectrum, there were ballads against male ego and fragility, about finding and trusting your own voice. In a culture where women artists are still interviewed about what it’s like to navigate the male-dominated music world, a quicker way to find answers might be to just listen to these songs. Take Waxahatchee’s Out in the Storm opener, “Never Been Wrong,” a razor-sharp goodbye channeling that constant walking-on-eggshells feeling one gets around an entitled man. Or Vagabon’s “The Embers,” an enormous song about being made to feel small, about a person trying to delegitimize your art and self-worth, about pushing back against that.
One of the year’s most moving songs came from Hurray for the Riff Raff, the songwriting moniker of Bronx-born Puerto Rican folk singer Alynda Lee Segarra. “Pa’lante” is a three-act epic piano ballad that reflects on Nuyorican identity and fights cultural erasure; it looks back to understand the history from where it came, and yet the title quite literally means “onwards, forwards.” The song comes from Segarra’s sixth full-length, The Navigator, a semi-autobiographical concept record starring a street kid named Navita; through her story, Segarra reconciles her own childhood and identity, sense of home, and the gentrifying city. The title “Pa’lante” is an allusion to a newspaper by the same name, published by 1970s Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords. And the song includes a sample from “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Pedro Pietri’s 1973 poem: “Dead Puerto Ricans who never knew they were Puerto Ricans…Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, Manuel.” Next, Segarra sings to these names: “From El Barrio to Arecibo, ¡Pa’lante! From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, ¡Pa’lante! To Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel, ¡Pa’lante! To all who came before, we say, ¡Pa’lante!” Released in March, it’s a song that only grew more necessary as the year progressed.
In Segarra’s songs, there is a crucial passing along of personal lived experience in historical context, the type of reclaiming and culture-shaping that reminds us one of music’s great purposes, that it can be a site where history itself begins to be rewritten.