After posting my favorite songs of 2017, I’m now ready to unveil my 10 favorite albums from another outstanding year of new music. For your reference, here are my favorite albums lists from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Before I get to my long-form thoughts on the 10 best albums I heard this year, here are albums 20 through 11 on my list, accompanied by one song from each.
20. Future Islands – The Far Field (“Beauty of the Road”)
19. Big Thief – Capacity (“Mythological Beauty”)
18. Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love (“Hey K”)
17. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (“HUMBLE”)
16. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice (“Continental Breakfast”)
15. Real Estate – In Mind (“Darling”)
14. Spoon – Hot Thoughts (“Hot Thoughts”)
13. Lorde – Melodrama (“The Louvre”)
12. The Courtneys – The Courtneys II (“Silver Velvet”)
11. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins (“Three Rings”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2017:
Julien Baker wrote and recorded Turn Out the Lights at 21. She approaches her music with stunning pathos and maturity for someone so young, asking lofty questions of herself and the world. It’s a recipe for a heart-wrenching record with 11 beautifully-crafted and extremely soft songs. As best I can tell Turn Out the Lights is completely absent any percussion, with the focus on guitar, piano and Baker’s expressive vocals. If I could sum up a theme, it’s Baker grappling with the pains of becoming a fully-formed person. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink” she sings over and over at the end of “Sour Breath.” It’s a battle everyone faces, but not everyone can enunciate it as clearly as Baker, and that’s what makes this record so special.
Lots of people claim to be, or have reputations to be, what Annie Clark really is: an artist. She uses music to paint vividly-colored pictures and puts on visually-captivating live performances providing a window into her mind. On MASSEDUCTION, her fifth album as St. Vincent and first alongside mega-producer Jack Antonoff, Clark reaches brave new places in pop, rock, electronic and everywhere else that interests her, with eclecticism recalling everyone from Bowie and Prince to Billy Joel and INXS. There’s massive power-pop on “Pills” and “Fear the Future”, galactic funk on the title track, gothic snyth slinks on “Los Ageless” and Killers-style loud/quiet fun on “New York.” There’s even devastating, tender country-tinged rock on “Happy Birthday Johnny.” Clark might fear the future, but her own is secure.
In the five years between the xx’s second album, Coexist, and this year’s I See You, the proverbial “other guy” in the trio, Jamie xx, became an indie star. His 2015 debut In Colour topped all the year-end lists and was hailed as a house/EDM masterpiece and made him more popular than the band he shares with Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. It’s no surprise, then, that I See You captured more of Jamie xx’s keen sampling talents than the band’s previous releases, while still showcasing the myriad vocal, lyrical and guitar/bass talents of Croft and Sim. We hear that awesome mix on many of I See You‘s highlights, like the rousing opener “Dangerous”, the sandblasting “Say Something Loving”, the dramatic “I Dare You” and the joyous “On Hold.” It’s a gorgeous mix, and a very promising one of them going forward.
The Haim sisters are everywhere now. This wasn’t difficult to predict after their debut Days Are Gone broke them into indie-pop superstardom in 2013. They’re accessible, not just in their personalities but their sound. Plus, how many other bands put out videos with choreographed dance moves these days? Second albums are always the toughest, but Something to Tell You lived up to the loftiest of expectations. Danielle, Este and Alana kick so much ass here: “Little of Your Love” is their most fun son to date; “Want You Back” crackles from the first note; “Walking Away” tests the waters of sultry R&B; “You Never Knew” is ’70s California rock redux at its finest. You can tell how much of their own hearts and souls they put into each of these songs. It’s all there, it’s all them: Something to Tell You doesn’t just succeed. It soars.
Patiently, we waited for Japandroids to return. 2012’s Celebration Rock was truly something to celebrate, one of the best pure rock records of the decade, the ultimate cathartic expression. And then after a few years of tours, there was nothing from Brian King and David Prowse. For a long time. But they resurfaced late in 2016 and in January came Near to the Wild Heart of Life. Like Celebration Rock, it contains eight life-affirming rock songs, tying together a loose narrative about getting out there and experiencing the world. From short rockers, to epic rockers, to acoustic and electric road trip songs, to fiery love songs: it covers the gambit of emotions, and all of it feels so real. In a tough year, these guys provided a much-needed lift. That’s something to celebrate.
After turning 40, James Murphy decided he wanted to do something besides being the LCD Soundsystem guy. So in 2011 he broke up the band, played a sold-out farewell show at Madison Square Garden, and disappeared into the ether, occasionally resurfacing as a producer and doing weird things with sound. But all along, I suspected LCD Soundsystem wasn’t done. It took a while after the initial announcement of their reunion, but in September, the fourth LCD Soundsystem arrived. American Dream is an LCD Soundsystem record at its core: a genre-bending mix of indie dance punk, inspired by Bowie, Eno and Byrne, unstuck in time and not sounding like anyone but LCD Soundsystem. American Dream contains several pantheon-level LCD songs, including the star-soaring title track, the scathing, bile-filled “How Do You Sleep”, the synth-dance jam “Tonite” and the “All My Friends”-recalling, winding, world-beating “Call the Police”, my favorite song of 2017. You may ask: is American Dream as good as Sound of Silver or This is Happening? Here’s a better question: does it matter? This exists. And it’s awesome.
Perhaps my favorite development in indie rock these last few years has been watching Katie Crutchfield grow into an elite songwriter. Cerulean Salt was good and Ivy Tripp was even better, but Crutchfield and her Waxahatchee mates made the leap on Out in the Storm this year. She keeps her shit simple, sticking to guitar, bass, drums and the occasional keyboard. But what she gets out of that simple structure has grown increasingly impressive despite trying out many different kinds of songs. On Out in the Storm, she’s got breezy, summery rock on “Never Been Wrong” and “Silver”, harsher indie power on “Brass Beam” and “No Question” and soft acoustic tones on “A Little More” and closer “Fade.” But it’s the quiet, building drama of “Recite Remorse”, a mid-album showstopper, that hints at Crutchfield’s expanding prowess. She weaves an vivid breakup tale that socks anyone listening in the gut. “I saw you as a big fish / I saw you as a conquest / And I know it’s easy for you to walk away / You would never ask permission or rue the day.” Crutchfield may be Out in the Storm, but she makes it a place you want to be, too.
Matt Berninger, the Dessners and the Devendorfs are now seven albums into their run as the National. They’ve cemented their place among the most acclaimed bands of this century, with a rabid following and the ability to headline festivals and sellout large venues. The easiest thing in the world for them, then, would’ve been to just make another National record. Instead, they made Sleep Well Beast. Sure, it contains their trademark broodiness and songs of deep melancholy and the debilitating, crushing depression of everyday humanity. But instead of relying on their typical sonic formulas and structures, they went a new, experimental route. The result is an eclectic mix that sounds simultaneously like a bold new direction and the National being the National. Cuts like “Day I Die”, “Guilty Party” and “Carin at the Liquor Store” are outstanding yet they don’t stray much from the band we’ve known the last 15 years. Things get weird, however, with the synths and odd voice effects on “Walk it Back”, “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Dark Side of the Gym” among others. On lead single and album centerpiece “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, the band completely goes for it, with strange vocals, synths, big-sounding choruses and, of all things, a guitar solo. Sleep Well Beast may not be the National’s best record, but it’s certainly their most ambitious. And that’s something to admire for a band that could’ve grown comfortable.
Melina Duterte came out of nowhere (OK, she came out of the Bay Area, but still) over the last year to dazzle us with her talent as a songwriter, guitarist, singer and performer. Her profile has risen exponentially thanks to her Jay Som project’s near-perfect major-label debut, Everybody Works. Like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker on my favorite album of 2015, Currents, Duterte plays every instrument on Everybody Works herself, a stunning accomplishment for a work of such shimmering complexity. This is the literal definition of bedroom pop: Duterte turned her bedroom into a studio and recorded Everybody Works there. The result is a beautiful statement melding dream pop, baroque pop, alt-rock, shoegaze, R&B and so much more that makes it hard to believe Duterte is only 22. You hear different influences throughout: My Bloody Valentine-inspired fuzz on “1 Billion Dogs”, Wild Nothing-style dreaming on “Remain” and Smashing Pumpkins-like dirge on “(BedHead)”. But these songs are undeniably part of something new Duterte is working to perfect, best exemplified on album centerpiece “Baybee”, which starts slow and builds to a gorgeous, ’80s-style pop jam. Beyond the music, Everybody Works is a work in stunning maturity. When she closes the album on “For Light” by singing over and over “I’ll be right on time / Open blinds for light / Won’t forget to climb”, her longing is painfully real. It’s a fitting sentiment to end Everybody Works, an intimate portrait of an artist as a young woman.
When Adam Granduciel and his War on Drugs cohorts released Lost in the Dream, I named it my favorite album of 2014 and wrote that it was an outlier for the times as a great guitar-driven rock record. Three years later, that pronouncement feels happily out of date. Each of my 10 favorite albums this year could be classified as a “rock” record. Maybe that says more about my own tastes, but I’d like to think guitar rock has made a resurgence. At the center of this is Granduciel. When we look back on this time in 30 years, the War on Drugs could stand out strongest. I say that because my favorite album of 2017, A Deeper Understanding, blazes its own trail and builds on the band’s legend. It’s not just that all 10 songs here are knockouts; they’re confident yet vulnerable, layered sonically but relatable lyrically, and sound like no one else besides Granduciel could have made them. It’s so successful because of the care, attention to detail and emotion Granduciel, a noted studio perfectionist, puts into them. You feel it on the propulsive opener “Up All Night”, the expressive guitar journey of “Pain” and the high-flying circus act of “Holding On”. You experience it throughout the 11-minute opus “Thinking of a Place”, with the monumental hook that detonates early on during “In Chains”, or on the tender moments of “Knocked Down” and “Clean Living”. And you cannot avoid it on the album’s emotional center, “Strangest Thing”, a slow-burner that becomes a towering inferno with Granduciel’s blistering guitar solo 4:30 in. I don’t know yet if A Deeper Understanding is as good as Is This It, Funeral or High Violet. But it’s in the conversation among the best rock records of this young century so far.