In the past, I’ve posted this mid-year list at the beginning of June, but I decided that to truly be a mid-year list, I needed to post it in July. This is list is comprised of some of my favorite albums released between January 1st and June 15th (there is a two week window in June because I didn’t want to put anything on the list that didn’t have time to marinate). 2017 started slowly in terms of great releases, but the past three months have been chock full of great work by both up-and-coming artists and veterans who have returned with outstanding offerings.
Do Make Say Think, Stubborn Persistent Illusions
Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up
Forming the Void, Relic
Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now
Oddisee, The Iceberg
Pissed Jeans, Why Love Now
Raekwon, The Wild
Real Estate, In Mind
Six Organs of Admittance, Burning the Threshold
Uniform, Wake in Fright
20. Little Simz
Stillness in Wonderland
[Age 101; 2017]
Over the past three years, Little Simz, the up-and-coming London hip-hop star, has shown her range. Her 2015 underground hit, “Dead Body”, hinted toward a dark and brooding artist while 2016’s AGE 101 DROPX EP aimed toward a more electronic approach. 2017’s conceptual effort Stillness in Wonderland continues in her path of unexpected turns with an album that is mellow and soulful, reminiscent of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun.
Stillness in Wonderland is a concept album, loosely based around the story of Alice in Wonderland, with Simz playing the part of the young woman trying to find here way around in a new, puzzling world. Whether this uncertainty is a statement on the world at large or her own ascension onto the music landscape is open for interpretation. Recurring references to white rabbits and Cheshire cats can be found throughout, but it doesn’t stay buoyed to the metaphor, venturing into discussions of Black Lives Matter and her own personal trials with a broken heart. Over the past three years, Little Simz has shown a lot of promise but has failed to produce a mixtape with superior production value and a thematic focus. With Stillness in Wonderland, Little Simz finally delivers on the glimmers of promise she’s shown over the past three years.
This past spring at SXSW I found myself standing at a Girlpool show due to them being sandwiched between two acts I wanted to see. I wasn’t too excited to see them based off of what I’d heard on their 2015 debut – the guitars a bit too loose, the singing a bit too off-key, the songs a bit too aimless. So imagine my surprise when Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker took the stage with a full backing band and put on one of my favorite performances of the week (in fact, I would see them twice that week).
The band’s debut may have felt quaint (and a bit sloppy as a result), but on their 2017 effort, Powerplant, the addition of a solid band behind them has filled in many of the gaps – the guitars more powerful, the vocals more tasteful, the songs more finely constructed. Those piercing harmonies still reign supreme, but they blend more seamlessly with the brooding basslines and slacker rhythms. Several songs on their debut merited the underground hype, and Powerplant shows their maturation as songwriters, telling tales of growing up and finding yourself.
“It Gets More Blue”:
A Hairshirt of Purpose
[Exploding in Sound; 2017]
Usually when you say a band has gone soft, fans will prepare themselves for a major let down, but in the case of Boston indie rockers Pile, a little dabbling into ballads may be just what the normally rowdy band needed in 2017. For the album, frontman Rick Mcguire traveled south in hopes of finding solitude and clarity. The results of this spirit quest can be found in their most fully realized effort to date in A Hairshirt of Purpose.
Throughout the album, Mcguire battles with his past decisions and disappointments, and the ornate arrangements match the volatility of this struggle. On “Ropes Length” he battles with his own depression singing “Stare at the dark and wait for the sun/ That always comes up on the wrong day” all while the guitars jerk from dissonant distortion to elastic, loping lassos of melody. Throughout the album, the guitars juggle a wide range of emotions – from solitude to ferocity, from dejection to elation. The result is one surprisingly intimate listen from a band known for rock and roll antics on the stage.
17. Sacred Paws
Strike a Match
[Rock Action Records; 2017]
The infectious, afro-pop melodies on Sacred Paws’ debut Strike a Match are the type of songs that could get a dancehall up and jiving. The fact that they can create such a large, boisterous sound is a bit surprising when you realize the band is comprised of only two members, guitarist Rachel Aggs and drummer Ellidh Rodgers.
When you take a moment to listen closely to the duo’s thrilling energy, it becomes clear that what they are doing is really quite simple. Aggs guitar lines are basic and cyclical yet they can quickly raise your spirits. Rodger’s drums are predictably persistent, yet they will have your feet consistently tapping along. One element that brings energy to the mix is the dueling voices, often overlapping into a constantly fluctuating melody. Sacred Paws’ ability to create music that is so bubbly and bright with such a simple recipe is a reminder to listeners that being happy isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
[Joyful Noise; 2017]
Why? have gained a following over the past two decades due to frontman Yoni Wolf’s deadpan, hip-hop tinged drawl, spouting lyrics of self-deprecating depression and degradation. Negativity permeated some of the band’s best works, but Wolf’s wit added drollery to the inescapable tragedies. I wouldn’t dare suggest that the band’s 2017 release, Moh Lhean, is a cheery venture, but there is a palpable change in the band’s tone and outlook.
One reason for the change in attitude could be the health scare Wolf suffered during the recording of the album. As a result, one of the most cynical voices in indie rock sounds eerily at peace with the questions of mortality that once riddled his lyrics. On album opener, “This Ole King”, Wolf gives what is the closest thing to a motivational speech he’ll ever give, singing, “There is no other/Only this, there is no other” and on album closer “The Barely Blur” he begs the listener to “hold on, hold on, hold on.” Sonically, the album is much warmer and softer than the dank and dark alleys of old. The album still has its darkened corners of fear and uncertainty, but there is a tinge of optimism and hope throughout – two words I never thought I’d use to describe a Why? album.
“This Ole King”:
15. Power Trip
Power Trip’s sophomore album, Nightmare Logic, is crammed with songs of fear, death, and destruction, and it is dominated by brutal riffage, deathly vocals, and breakneck speeds. With such a scary mix, it might come as a surprise to hear that Nightmare Logic might be the best party album of 2017.
No, Power Trip won’t be filling up the dance floor like Migos or Kendrick Lamar, but their take on classic 80s thrash rock is the kind of hard-cutting heavy metal that will have you holding up the devil horns, head-banging, and doing your best rock god scream. Metal as a genre can often take its self too seriously, but Power Trip have tapped into the type of carnal calamity that made 80s thrash like Metallica and Megadeth so much fun. It’s not just a throwback album though; the 8-song, 35-minute listening experience is solid songsmanship throughout. It may have taken the Dallas natives four years to follow up their 2013 release, but Nightmare Logic was worth the restless slumber.
“Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Ax)”:
14. Julie Byrne
Not Even Happiness
[Ba Da Bing; 2017]
Typically when you think of a road trip album, upbeat, anthemic classics like Lonesome Crowded West, Born to Run, and The Charm of the Highway come to mind. These albums are perfect for the road due to their energy and lyrics that describe life on the road. Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness is my favorite road trip album of 2017, but it’s not your traditional listen for a long drive.
If Lonesome Crowded West is auditory Trucker’s Speed, then Not Even Happiness is Xanax, Byrne’s alto voice lulling the listener into a calm state of mind as her soft finger-picking twinkles euphoria across the wide-open expanse. Her lyrics speak of life on the road, traversing from Arkansas to Kansas, from Wyoming to Montana, describing the mountains and plains with introspection and awe. The vivid imagery creates a sense of love for the road, but she also has deeper reflections on the experience, singing, “I have dragged my lives across the country/ And wondered if travel led me anywhere.” While most road trip albums capture the excitement of speeding down a country road with Dean Moriarty, Not Even Happiness is music for Sal Paradise’s final, lonely drive back home.
13. The Feelies
When you read up on the legendary 80s jangle pop band The Feelies, words like jittery, frantic, and urgent are often used as descriptors, but these profiles might need to be updated after the band’s most recent output after a 20-year hiatus. 2011’s Here Before was an unexpected, mellower return and 2017’s In Between continues in this placid production.
Album opener “In Between” begins with the sounds of crickets and campfire, and I can’t think of a better start to an album that is as calm and serene as a night spent out camping in the wild. The album continues with more jangly acoustic guitars and Zen inspired song titles like “Stay the Course”, “Pass the Time”, and “Time Will Tell”. In fact, the entire listening experience plays out like a meditation, the songs dreamily transitioning into one another, nothing standing out yet nothing breaking the 43-minutes of solitude. In Between closes with a reprise of the album opener, providing a recursive element to an album that replicates the circle of life. The Feelies might be getting older, but there music continues to expand with time.
“Stay the Course”:
[Young Turks; 2017]
A lot has happened since Sampha’s promising 2010 debut, Dual EP. Instead of capitalizing off of his first effort, Sampha spent the next seven years supporting his mother as she suffered with cancer. She passed away in 2015, and he would soon after discover his own health scare in the form of a lump in his throat. The result of this seven-year hiatus from releasing music is Process, an album with a depth and maturity far exceeding that of most debut, full-length efforts.
The album as a whole is one of bereavement. The impact of his mother’s death rises to the surface throughout. “Cora’s Song” takes on the perspective of a son witnessing his mother in her final days, Sampha pleading ““You’ve been with me since the cradle/ You’ve been with me, you’re my angel, please don’t you disappear.” Album closer “What Shouldn’t I Be” contemplates the double-edged sword of love and pain that comes with family, singing “Family ties/ Put them ’round my neck/I’m walkin’ ’round high/ A ghost by my side.” But the album doesn’t always look at the death in a negative light. The album’s finest track, “(No One Knows Me) Like My Piano” is a celebration of how his mother and father shaped his love of music and helped him find himself via his art. Seven years may seem like a long time to wait for a debut, but it’s evident on Process that this period of percolation allowed Sampha to take on the project with confidence, focus, and an unflinching honesty that cuts straight to the heart of the listener.
“(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”:
11. Perfume Genius
I was taken aback when I first heard Perfume Genius’s “The Normal Song” on a holiday themed commercial for Toyota. As with many of Mike Hadreas’s songs, “The Normal Song” deals with darker themes (in this case, struggling to move past memories of childhood molestation). The lyrics were slightly altered for the feel good message of the advertisement, but hearing the emotionally charged music on mainstream TV was jarring nonetheless.
2017’s No Shape doubles-down on this mass audience appeal. In the past, the music of Hadreas was often comprised of his distinctive, emotional voice and a watery piano. On 2014’s Too Bright he definitely stepped outside of this format, but it was such a challenging, experimental album that I never expected to hear it during a viewing of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. No Shape picks up where Too Bright left off, taking his distinctive sound into more interesting directions, erratic beats, evocative synths, and funkier basslines adding flavor to each unpredictable track. Thematically, No Shape is Hadreas finally breaking free of the shackles of his past. Songs sound celebratory and his message is one of confidence and positivity, best seen on “Wreath”, when he howls, “I’m gonna peel off every weight/ Until my body gives way.” Not only is No Shape Hadreas’s most triumphant album, but don’t be surprised to hear one of these tracks on a Target commercial.
10. Aimee Mann
Aimee Mann has always been at her finest when she sings of the downtrodden. She is best known for when she received an Oscar nod for singing about “the ranks of the freaks who could never have anyone” and arguably her finest album, Bachelor No. 2, was a 13-song meditation on isolation and unease. It’s no surprise that her best album in over 15 years happens to be entitled Mental Illness.
For years Mann has tried to shake off the stigma of being the patron of sadness, but on Mental Illness, she embraces her prowess, telling 11 tales of homesickness, anxiety, and unshakeable guilt. Her signature alto voice delivers the lyrics of insecurity with a matter-of-fact mumble, conjuring up emotions of defeat in each tale. In recent years, she has picked up the pace and doubled the production, but on Mental Illness, she allows the space around her to fill in the gaps, the echoes of her voice and guitar creating a sense of seclusion. She may visit a wide range of mental tweaks (addiction, depression, obsession) but in the end, they are all struggling to survive in this thing we call life.
“Goose Snow Cone”:
9. Roc Marciano
[Marci Enterprises; 2017]
Orson Welles’ 1941 cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane, focuses on millionaire newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. The film opens with Kane on his deathbed, looking into a snow globe and softly whispering “rosebud” before passing away. The remainder of the film is a series of flashbacks, providing hints as to what “rosebud” means. Roc Marciano’s Rosebudd’s Revenge is an obvious allusion to the classic film, and the album masterfully plays off the theme of lost innocence with each track playing as a crisscrossing flashback, reminiscent of the film.
Much like Kane, the narrator in Rosebudd’s Revenge sacrifices relationships in order to continue gaining power and money – the only difference with Marciano’s story is that the protagonist is a drug dealing gangster making his way in the world of crime. Amidst the verses of Tommy Guns and fish scales, motifs of materialism, isolation, and the broken American dream continually rise to the surface. On “Better Know” he brags of the riches that help bury his pain, and on “Pray 4 Me”, he revisits his rough upbringing in the hood, realizing the hypocrisy of his lifestyle: “Crack tore the fam apart but/ it paid for my first apartment.” The biggest difference between Rosebudd’s Revenge and Citizen Kane is that we never get the death scene. Instead, the narrator lives on, reveling in his fortunes while fearing the enemies that might be lurking around each corner.
[Profound Lore; 2017]
Back in 2012, Pallbearer’s debut Sorrow & Extinction spearheaded a resurgence of the doom metal sound that artists like Saint Vitus and Electric Wizard defined two decades earlier. The Arkansas band masterfully mixed their melodic tendencies with the sludgy, drawling tropes that the average doom-head knows well. The album also hinted that the band might be capable of taking the genre beyond the swamp, and 2017’s Heartless is evidence that they are much more than just another southern doom outfit.
It’s ironic that the album is entitled Heartless because it is brimming with just that – heart. Proggy guitars pump life into the gaping cavity of muck and mire while the constant, plodding drums set the pace. Brett Campbell’s voice, filled with the emotion and power of Bruce Dickinson, professes a message of bewilderment in confusing times. Throughout the album, Campbell prophesizes of a world filled with greed, suffering, and impending death, making Heartless a pretty fitting listen for an age of alternative facts and deregulation. At times, lyrics speak of giving up and ignoring the madness in the world, a feeling many of us have experienced over the past several months under the Trump regime. But by the time the final track, “A Plea For Understanding”, arrives, the message is no longer one of ambivalence: “Anger, fear, and regret keep the darkness at hand/ But these feelings are real/All I ask, won’t you please understand.” You know you’re living in dark times when doom metal provides a message of hope.
“Lie of Survival”:
7. Father John Misty
Whenever I listen to Father John Misty’s 2017 release, Pure Comedy, I can’t help but think about the works of one of my all-time favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. To place Josh Tillman, the man behind FJM, on the same level as Vonnegut would be a bit hyperbolic, but Tillman’s satirical portrayal of a misguided human race is reminiscent of Vonnegut’s hopeless take of humanity.
On Pure Comedy, Tillman has no interest in trying to follow-up his commercially successful tribute to love, I Love You, Honey Bear. Pure Comedy is a bit more obtuse with its sprawling 80-minute run time of slow paced songs filled with hyper-intimate lyrics of doom and gloom. His focus throughout is on the ego of mankind, whether it be our constant need for entertainment, the obsession of self-promotion on social media, or the reliance on religion to give meaning to life. To Tillman, it all means nothing, simplifying the human condition to “a speck on a speck on a speck” on album closer “In Twenty Years or So”. He may describe earth as a “Godless rock” and boil down its people to “mammals…hell-bent on fashioning new gods”, but his nihilistic takes are all delivered with a measured blend of wit and weary. Father John Misty’s nihilistic worldview isn’t new to music. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Lou Reed have all delivered similar apocalyptic imagery. What makes Tillman’s delivery on Pure Comedy so unsettling is his smooth, soulful voice unreeling satire and cynicism. Listening to the eerie combination of Tillman’s soothing voice espousing tales of an accursed human race, one can’t help but grin and think, “So it goes.”
6. Blanck Mass
[Sacred Bones; 2017]
On his third album as Blanck Mass, Benjamin John Power has delivered a soundtrack fit for these dark days we are living in. We know from his early work with Fuck Buttons that Powers can construct brutally crushing arrangements, but it has been a few years since he has traversed into such a sinister territory. The difference this time around is his ability to balance the noise with moments of serenity.
Album opener “John Doe’s Carnival of Errors” may hint toward rapture, but by the time “Rhesus Negative” arrives two minutes later, the floodgates of carnage have been swung violently open. The sputtering snares sound like locusts, the synths like an icy avalanche, the vocals like a carnal beast released from his cage. The bedlam escalates for nine minutes before “Please” arrives, a song that is as close to R&B as Powers will ever get. Even though this moment of solitude resembles a love song, the garbled vocals and ominous air that envelops the track continue the album’s sense of foreboding – yes, this is a break from the chaos, but there is certainly more to come. The album continues in this path of insecurity, blending feelings of anxiety, ecstasy, and rage. In a strange way, this unexpected mix of emotions makes for a cathartic listening in these frustrating, uncertain times.
[Dead Oceans; 2017]
There was a time when the 90s shoegaze band Slowdive were overshadowed by labelmates My Bloody Valentine, but in the past couple of years, publications like Pitchfork and NME have found a new obsession with the band that brought us underappreciated classics like Souvlaki and Pygmalion. A major cause of this rekindled admiration is due in large part to the band reuniting for a tour in 2015, but when the band announced they would be releasing their first album in 22 years, I feared that they would throw something together just to capitalize off their resurgence. Thankfully, I was wrong.
On their 2017 self-titled album, Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead pick up where they left off, building swirling guitar echoes over woozy synths and emotional lyrics. Vocally, the duo’s calming vocals hazily float into each other like specks of dust caught in a ray of sunshine. Each track exudes from the speakers like a wave of warmth, the guitars dancing about the ether. If you’re expecting something new from the band as My Bloody Valentine did with their 2013 return, you might be disappointed. Instead, Slowdive has revisited the shoegaze atmospheres that they helped define over two decades ago. In a way, this album is a well-deserved victory lap.
4. (Sandy) Alex G
We live in a time where realism is hard to come by. Our foods are packed with preservatives, our movies filled with CGI monsters, our music over-dubbed and auto-tuned to a point where humanity is completely lost. Alex G’s 2017 effort Rocket is not a perfect album, and that is part of what makes it such an endearing listen.
In the past, Alex G’s blend of lo-fi folk has often been compared to Elliott Smith, and even though there are still hints of Smith present, he has taken his approach into an unexpected territory – Americana. His countrified style is often reminiscent of American Beauty era Grateful Dead – breezy and languid. Despite this cheery demeanor, the songs on Rocket tell of insecurity, loneliness, and hopelessness. Alex delivers his lines in a drawling, matter of fact way, giving his earnest lyrics a sense of slacker resignation. On occasion, the album veers away from the country style, going in unexpected directions – from the euro-pop of “Sportstar”, gospel sing-alongs like “Guilty”, or the chaotic noise of “Brick”. Instead of sidetracking the album’s focus, these entertaining detours add to the album’s appeal in the same way Beck’s Mellow Gold was sprinkled with homespun diversions. On the surface, Rocket sounds sloppy, haphazard, and amateurish, but don’t be fooled. Alex G is one of the finest young songwriters of our time, and on Rocket he has fully realized what it takes to construct a beautiful album filled with sincerity and charm.
3. Juana Molina
[Crammed Discs; 2017]
Juana Molina’s Halo is based around the Argentinian folk legend of “luz mala,” a halo of light that floats above a spot where bones have been buried. It is believed that these circles of eminence contain souls that have escaped their body, screaming to be released.
It’s fitting that Molina would build her album around this concept because after six albums, her true voice has been released on this seventh effort. Back in 1996, a young Molina released Rara, an EP of acoustic pop songs, but a lot has changed since then. Over the years, the young musician has evolved and on Halo, she has mastered her art, blending synths, drum loops, and whispered lyrics in a way that is both haunting and warm. There’s no need to brush up on your Spanish to appreciate Halo; the atmospheres within are hazy and thin, like a spirit on the wind. Molina’s minimalism allows for the space within her songs to glow with a pulsating peculiarity. The legend of “luz mala” also contains stories of brave men finding gold beneath the hovering rings – on Halo, Molina’s musical exploration has finally unearthed hidden treasures for listeners to bask in.
2. Magnetic Fields
50 Song Memoir
If 50 Song Memoir is proof of anything, it’s that Stephen Merritt is at his best when facing a monumental challenge. In 1999 he released 69 Love Songs, a box-set that was just that – 69 songs about love, each told with Merritt’s signature bittersweet, often humorous lyrics. Since that seminal release, Magnetic Fields have stagnated a bit with a handful of meandering, mixed-bag albums. But in 2017, the songwriter has returned to his muse with another gargantuan challenge: to write 50 songs about his 50 years on this planet. Not only does he meet the quota but the massive task helped him to shake off the cobwebs and write some of his best material in over 20 years.
Some may find the idea of a five-CD, 50 song album to be a bit too tedious, but Merrit masterfully tells his story in a way that is endlessly entertaining and continuously mysterious. This isn’t a straight-forward memoir (we never learn the names of his parents, if he has siblings, or the names of his lovers); instead, each song plays as a snapshot – sometimes a hilarious story (a mean cat, failing an ethics class, why surfing is dumb) and sometimes a heartbreaking revelation (the impact his mother’s boyfriends would have on him, fear of the AIDs epidemic, mental illness). Merrit is at his finest though when the songs are a combination of both his signature snark and sadness. On the second to last track, he lays out the purpose of his album with “I Wish I Had Pictures”. In the song, he wishes that he could be an artist, a poet, or even an actor. Instead, he is what he is: a songwriter. In the final, self-defeating verse, he encapsulates the entire album: “I’m just a singer; it’s only a song/ The things I remember are probably wrong/ I wish I had pictures of every old day/ Cause all these old memories are fading away.” Thanks to 50 Song Memoir, these memories will stick with him and his listeners just a little bit longer.
“Life Ain’t All Bad”:
1. Mount Eerie
A Crow Looked at Me
[P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2017]
“Death is real.” This is the opening line to Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me, and while it may seem like a pretty basic statement, the rest of the album ensures that this message resonates with the listener. Over the past several years, artists like Sufjan Stevens and Mark Kozelak have released deeply moving albums that focused on mortality, but there’s something different about Phil Elverum’s focus on the death of his wife Genevieve to pancreatic cancer at the age of 35. The latter two albums were fully realized ruminations on loss; Elverum’s 13 songs of mourning play more like a series of grief journals rather than an intentional focus on the futility of life.
The entirety of the album was written and recorded on a laptop computer in Genevieve’s bedroom, using her instruments and even her paper (it also happens to be the room where she passed away). The songs play not so much as fully formed melodies; instead, the album feels like a series of stream-of-consciousness reflections, each labeled in the liner notes by the day they were written, starting with the day she died and ending 4 months later. These are raw songs for raw wounds, a man attempting to make sense of the world around him. In her absence, he notices symbols in nature, asking, “Were you into Canada Geese?”, “…foxgloves? Is that a flower you liked?” From ravens to a half moon to waves on the ocean, no symbol provides the answers he’s seeking. It’s not until the final line of the final track, “Crow”, that he finally starts to find closure and strength to face his future as a single father.