My favorite album of 2017 has no garnishing, no extraneous material — it is a modest record. Seven tracks, packaged digitally under a black-and-white cover of a young boy expressing disappointment in a botched throw at the bowling alley. After a year of flashy releases, which saw near-constant airplay and endless hype, Will Connolly’s “Freddie Won the Toss” is a much-needed respite from not only the extravagance and chaos of the music world, but the current state of affairs. It feels almost like a secret, a quiet break from reality that still manages to retain its emotional power and sonic beauty in spite of the lack of fanfare. We could all use a breather after the unceasing shock of 2017, and “Freddie Won the Toss” is the refreshing, recharging record to ease our nerves and clear our minds before entering the new year.

The man behind the album is Will Connolly, who is just as refreshing as the music he creates. If the name sounds at all familiar — and not just to fans of “House of Cards,” which stars his older sister Kristen — it is probably in relation to his work in the theater. Connolly was part of the original cast of the Broadway musical “Once” and has gone on to appear in several other plays and musicals, including the internet smash “Be More Chill” and “After the Blast.” He is a talented performer in every respect, from his enviable ability to settle completely into a role to his unique singing voice, but his most stunning skill is his musicality. There appears to be few instruments that he cannot handle with ease, and any footage of him playing quickly reveals a deep familiarity with music and its complexities. 

It is this musicality — this intimate understanding of every beat and note — that makes “Freddie Won the Toss” so remarkable. Connolly packs a great deal into just seven tracks, taking the listener on an unforgettable journey that combines his knack for penning memorable lyrics (“We’ve crossed these rivers countless times / left broken bones out on the ice” being one of many striking examples) and his musical prowess. Every song is so different, yet recurring progressions and audio samples keep the album cohesive and the listening experience linear. 

What sets this album apart from the innumerable other releases from an ever-rotating lineup of white men with guitars and egos is Connolly himself. His background in theater and writing for musicals (he was a co-writer for the sweet musical “Fly By Night”) is evident only in the richness of his lyrics — otherwise, there are no dramatics here. Even without knowing much about the man behind the microphone, one can pick up on the sensitivity of the artist through the nuances in the music. Connolly is an incredibly passionate musician: Listening to him speak at length about any project is a gift due to the sheer joy he seems to take in playing and performing. He appears to truly love what he does, and that translates into the music, which resonates with the same love and passion. Even more melancholy numbers like “Baby Brothers” retain a thread of hopefulness and light imbued with the spirit of the musician.

Perhaps it is because of the care that so obviously went into this album that makes it so deeply affecting. The few people I know who share my appreciation for Connolly all feel some level of connection to the record, to the point where even hearing the opening notes will unlock tear ducts and prompt smiles. There is so much to be taken from it that it seems like everyone develops a different, highly specific relationship with the music. For me, the record feels hopeful, but that may just be because I first listened to it during the frightening transition period from adolescence to the quasi-adulthood brought on by college. There are so many memories intertwined with each track — blasting “Ms. Guided” with my friends when I need to improve my mood, falling asleep to “Europe” on repeat — that the album has become almost personalized. It is a great piece of music on an objective level, but it is also a testament to the power of music to say so much to so many in so few words.

“Freddie Won the Toss” is not like most of the records released during 2017, a year frothing with rage and fear and uncertainty. Connolly has crafted something totally unique, something that seems almost to defy the prevailing atmosphere of the year without ever raising its voice. On the album’s Bandcamp page, Connolly has attached a note to the tracklist:

“This record was conceived from a game. 

A game that fell apart.  

I suppose this record is about that game. 

But more importantly, I think 

This record is about friendship 

Coping with defeat 

And whatever it takes 

To keep playing.”

This note leaves the listener with hope and perfectly encapsulates what makes this album so special. After such a crushingly bad year, it can be easy to give up on love and hope and beauty, but Connolly’s message advises otherwise with astounding grace and brevity. “Whatever it takes to keep playing” — we will keep playing, no matter what the next year brings.