We have arrived at the time of the year when we reflect on our Favorite Albums of 2017. These are the records that will forever hold places on our vinyl shelves and digital libraries because they are timeless treasures. Our list features the triumphant return of several legendary bands, the meteoric rise of some of music’s finest, and spectacular debuts that have us eagerly waiting the future. As usual, we start with ten LPs in alphabetical order so you can fully enjoy and (re-)discover their brilliance.
Aldous Harding (NZ) – Party
(via Flying Nun/4AD)
Aldous Harding‘s debut album was a calm, serene collection of intimate folk music, full of stories of a young woman finding her place in the world. Her sophomore album, Party, is the flipside of the coin. Gone is the innocent singer-songwriter of three years ago; in its place is a force of nature.
Party is still very much a folk/alt-folk album, but it’s more gripping than its predecessor. Harding is more vulnerable with her unique, enchanting voice quivering at times and her stories revealing more personal details in cryptic ways. The subtle eloquence of “Party” is Harding herself, a young girl blossoming into a confident woman. The darkly mysterious “Horizon”, though, offers the first hint of weakness of one learning to cope with disappointment. Darkness also falls on the stirring “Living the Classics” while a battle with alcohol is revealed on “I’m So Sorry”.
There still remains a hint of the young woman in this Party. The breathtaking yet bone-chilling “Imagining My Man” is a fairy tale for the 21st century. On “What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming”, Harding’s wit comes to the forefront, as she sings about the thoughts that percolate in one’s mind while under the influence of marijuana. The stripped down “The World Is Looking For You” feels like a song of undying love and endless adventures or journeys to distance places to find oneself. For Harding, her sophomore album is indeed just that – it is her “coming-out” Party, a fascinating and rich record to be celebrated for a very long time. ~~~ Ben
Algiers (USA) – The Underside of Power
(via Matador Records)
In a year filled with political albums and songs, one stands above them all Algiers‘ The Underside of Power. Their sophomore output builds on the jaw-dropping intensity of their eponymous debut, which made our list of Favorite Albums in 2015 with its fiery mix of rock, post-punk, blues, soul, and gospel. There is one difference, however – this latest effort is even more explosive than the first. And it should be because Algiers have captured the emotion and anger of a population not willing to succumb to the hate, bigotry, and fear sweeping the world.
The album opens with three of the most feverish, politically hard-hitting songs of the year: the gripping anthem “Walk Like a Panther”, the scorching, Krautrock-infused “Cry of the Martyrs”, and the emotionally charged title track. But the album doesn’t let up from there as the post-punk rocker “Death March” condemns the “crypto-fascist contagion” that has infected the world. The ferocious “Animals” describes how so many have become willing patients. The LP’s second half is literally the resistance on the move. The solitude of the brooding, piano-driven “Mme Rieux” provides the symbol of the movement while the gospel- and industrial-infused “Cleveland” provides the place, as Algiers reflect on the continuing police violence plaguing the African-American community.
Many may speak to resistance, but few do it with the power, emotion, and lyrical prowess of Algiers, who are unlike any band around today. They represent hope for better things tomorrow. ~~~ Ben
Alvvays (CAN)– Antisocialites
(via Royal Mountain Records/Polyvinyl Records/Transgressive Records)
We can continually count on Alvvays for producing dreamy tunes that can become a part of a long road-trip or chilling at the lake during the summer. Their self-titled debut was a marvel, impressing tastemakers far and wide, including ourselves as it made our Top 50 Albums of 2014. On Antisocialites, they once again deliver with their formula of Molly Rankin’s serene vocals and lyrical content that is both smart and sometimes humorous.
Alvvays have a way of writing and recording songs to which every person on the planet can relate. Songs such as “Not My Baby” and “Forget About Life” tackle the end of a relationship or the loss of someone. The upbeat “Hey” could easily be on some of our favorite ’80s movie soundtracks. “In Undertow” and “Dreams Tonite” speak to relationships that seem to be drifting apart while “Already Gone” remembers warm summers now past.
It is on “Plimsoll Punks”, however, where Alvvays shine, infusing their jangle-pop to a The Ramones-like punk-rock approach. And like the great New Yorkers, Alvvays take on all the fakers and followers. Following closely behind as a highlight is “Lollipop (Ode To Jim)”, which takes us on an awesome trip as the track is either a bunch of metaphors or an experience based on LSD as Jim Reid (from The Jesus and Mary Chain) is referenced on the track. In the same vein, Antisocialites takes us on a familiar journey, where since hearing “Archie Marry Me” three years ago, we always knew Alvvays would have long career of created albums that would be reveled each and every day. ~~~ Wendy
Arcane Roots (ENG) – Melancholia Hymns
(via Easy Life)
With a four-year gap since Arcane Roots’ previous album release, there was an excitement building after the announcement of Melancholia Hymns. Early release “Indigo” had deservedly been chosen as BBC Radio One’s hottest records of the week. Deciding to lay back a bit on their heavier roots, the British trio’s more emotional and melodic choices really paid off.
It’s certainly an album you should spin in one sitting to get the full feel of it. Best described as a cinematic experience for your ears, it’s really a pure journey of emotion that you’ll get caught up in. It’s tough to cite any one standout songs as they seam perfectly into each other. Andrew Groves has shown his incredible vocal range, from the beautifully delicate intro “Before Me”, to his full-on metal screams towards the end of “Matter”. Not only is his voice impressive; so, too, is the fact he learned to play the piano for the album. Ending with another moving song in “Half the World”, you’ll sit back and be overwhelmed by the touching lyrics throughout this perfect album. ~~~ Paul
Big Thief (USA) – Capacity
(via Saddle Creek Records)
It’s rare for a band to release two albums within 12 months. It’s even more of a rarity for both of them to be recognized as among the year’s bests, but Big Thief pulled off this exact feat in 2017. Their debut album, Masterpiece, was indeed just that, but with Capacity they’ve outdone themselves with one of the most gorgeous and emotionally crippling records of not just this year but this decade.
From the stunning simplicity of opener “Pretty Things”, the desperation on “Watering“, and the soothing coolness of “Black Diamonds“, Big Thief mesmerize for 41 minutes. In particular, frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s warm, soft vocals and her intimate stories fully embrace the listener like blanket on a cold wintry day. Her tales, however, are often heartbreaking, but in ways that leave emotional scars on all those that hear what she has to share. For instance, while musically “Mythological Beauty” is enchanting, Lenker recalls an accident from her childhood and her mother’s strength and sacrifices to save her. Similarly, the groovy “Shark Smile” reveals one opening up for the first time to love and impossibilities.
And then there is “Mary”, which is without a doubt one of the year’s most remarkable songs. On this track, Lenker shares the memory of a woman she met in university and what their friendship meant to her. Full of bliss, remorse, and elation, the song is eloquence defined. For five-and-a-half minutes, you’re lost its beauty, which is just a microcosm of the beautiful devastation that is Big Thief’s world known as Capacity. ~~~ Ben
The Black Angels (USA) – Death Song
(via Partisan Records)
The Black Angels don’t nearly get enough credit for being one of the great psych-rock bands of all-time. For well over a decade they’ve created some of the most awe-inspiring and blistering stoner-heavy psychedelia. But with their fifth studio album, Death Song, which takes its title from a Velvet Underground song, the Austin quintet deliver their most complete and epic compilation and, thus, one of the year’s truly remarkable outputs.
Death Song feels like a band turning the page and starting a new chapter, focused more on writing complex and powerful material supported by a dense, hallucinatory fog. The dark opener, “Currency”, sees The Black Angels delve into gnarly melodic spaces to address consumerism and greed. The doom-and-gloom vibe of “I’d Kill For Her” perfectly complements this song about ultra-nationalism and patriotism. Companion pieces, the roller coaster “Comanche Moon” and the hypnotic “Estimate”, reflect on the centuries of damage done to Native American communities and families.
While there are still Zeppelin-like songs on the album (such as “Hunt Me Down”), Death Song is more about The Black Angels’ evolution, highlighted by the remarkable “Half Believing”. Here the five-piece slow things down considerably and offer a darkly suspenseful number. It’s not so much a face melter as it is a spellbinding, psychological experience. More importantly, it demonstrates a band finding new ways to pulverize us. ~~~ Ben
Bully (USA) – Losing
(via Sub Pop)
In 2014, Bully, the project fronted by Alicia Bognanno, were voted Nashville’s Best Band, giving the “Nashville Sound” a different dynamic. Forget about country or Americana; Bully’s full-throttle grunge brought the noise, attitude, and poignant lyricism to Music City. Their excellent debut album, Feels Like, followed a year after and rekindled the angst and grit recalled in the songs of Hole, Nirvana, and Garbage. For the encore, Bully recapture the spirit and energy of the early ’90s with a record that is both a personal account and a political statement, and it’s awesome.
Losing is a tsunami of a rock album. Through 12 songs and 37 minutes, Bully unleash wave after wave of bangers, commencing with the urgent and explosive “Feel the Same” and ending with the gritty attack, “Hate and Control”, which could be directed at an ex or the current occupant of the White House. The propulsive grunge number, “Kills to Be Resistant”, is a masterful display of escalation that builds into an intense, fiery drama. A soul-shaking intensity simmers on “Running” while angst is the calling card on “Seeing It”.
There are more “tender” moments – such as on “Blame” and “Focused” – yet a fire still burns inside. A fire, a rage, a desire to be heard, seen, and understood because in this day, it’s difficult to get through all the noise. But with an album like Losing, all eyes and ears are pointed towards Bully who rise above the pack by delivering one of the year’s most honest LPs. ~~~ Ben
Chelsea Wolfe (USA) – Hiss Spun
(via Sargent House)
While some choose to grow old gracefully, Chelsea Wolfe has chosen to get louder, harder, and gloomier. She’s still in her 30s, but with each passing year and album her sound gets fuller and darker. Her seventh record is her most personal, which explains why Hiss Spun is also her heaviest and most menacing effort. It is not for the faint of heart, but those who make it though the 48-minute masterpiece will be rewarded with one of the most intense and rewarding experiences of the year.
The walls come crashing in immediately on the doom-metal opener “Spun”, and they keep crumbling with the hypnotic “16 Psyche”, the brooding and hallowing “Vex”, and the eerily seductive “Offering”. Even in the moments where there is a reprieve, such as on slow building “The Culling“, Wolfe still finds a way to burn a hole through our soul. This time, it’s her lyrics, as she reveals wounds inflicted upon her by her family. Even in the fairy tale-like storyline of the graceful “Twin Fawn”, there is still devastation in Wolfe’s path.
To fully comprehend why the album’s atmosphere, one must experience “Scrape”, the most honest of Hiss Spun’s twelve songs. Wolfe’s voice ranges from aggressive to stunning to piercingly urgent as the song centers around her pedophile great-grandfather who “fucked up every woman in my family.” It is a startling admission by the fiercely private Wolfe on an album that surprises on every turn. This album’s biggest surprise isn’t how foreboding it is but that Wolfe has persevered and now offers a glimmer of light within the darkness. ~~~ Ben
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile (AUS & USA) – Lotta Sea Lice
(via Matador Records)
Two of the weirdest, quirkiest songwriters get together and create an album. That’s what happens on Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile’s Lotta Sea Lice. It should have been obvious from the start that these two would make a killer record together. Songs like Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin’” are a strange type of anthemic while Barnett tackles The mundane struggles on “Avant Gardener”. Together, they’re unstoppable and crafted one of the year’s finest records.
The first words sang on Lotta Sea Lice are a rambling exclamation that Kurt Vile likes playing guitar while he’s alone. On “Over Everything”, they sing about wearing proper hearing protection. Even when Vile exaggerates the word “periphery”, there’s something awesome about his delivery. In addition to the quirky lyrics, the two jam real hard or just like in the living room, such as the family-influenced “Continental Breakfast”. Barnett and Vile trade tracks from their catalog as well with Vile singing Barnett’s “Outta The Woodwork” and Barnett tackles Vile’s “Peepin’ Tom”. Both tracks are highlights of the record. They also cover “Fear is Like A Forest” by Jen Cloher, Barnett’s girlfriend. The record gets really silly with “Blue Cheese”, singing about food, and most notably, a strange place to place blue cheese.
It’s obvious Vile and Barnett had a ton of fun making this record. From singing “nanny nanny poo poo” in “Blue Cheese”, or all the different ways Kurt Vile can describe being alone, it’s a blast to listen. And the fact that it features two amazing guitarists doesn’t hurt. ~~~ Rich
Curtis Harding (USA) – Face Your Fear
(via Anti Records)
The world has had plenty to fear in 2017 – namely from threats both natural and political – so the powerful Face Your Fear album from American soul artist Curtis Harding offers much-needed strength. And like his fellow Atlanta peers Algiers, Harding stares down those fears with an unflinching fusion of soul, blues, punk, and gospel. We have been fans since his 2014 debut, Soul Power; now we relish in the depth he displays on this album’s 11 tracks.
For his second album, Harding teamed up with Danger Mouse, known for his production work with artists as varied as Adele, The Black Keys, and U2. This was a wise move since Danger Mouse produced British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka’s brilliant 2016 sophomore LP, Love & Hate. A similar raw honesty permeates each of Harding’s songs, from the psychedelic haze of opener “Wednesday Morning Atonement” to the Motown-inspired grooves of “On and On.” But where Harding excels is on the exuberant, highly danceable “Need Your Love” and the silky-smooth “Ghost of You.” These two songs showcase his immense vocal range, with powerhouse chops in one and falsetto crooning in the other that will leave you breathless and speechless. Face Your Fear has lethal charm that will turn any listener into an instant fan. ~~~ Hollie
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