Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums of 2017

Cultural Critic
12.05.17 4 Comments

Polyvinyl/Matador/Mosy Recordings

Whenever I post one of these things I feel obligated to point out the following:

1) Ranking albums is dumb …
I can’t really justify ranking one album I like as my 47th favorite album of the year and another album I like as my 34th favorite album of the year. If I tried to count my specific degrees of like for each record, I would sound insane. When you make a list, you wind up making a lot of stuff up.

2) … but it’s kind of fun …
As long as we don’t take this exercise too seriously, and remember this is all based on personal taste and not really about declaring These Albums As The Best As A Statement Of Fact. My list is unabashedly personal and not an attempt to reflect what mattered most in the culture overall this year.

3) … because it’s really about discovering an album or two (or possibly more!) that you might not have known about otherwise.
It’s the spirit of sharing, my brothers and sisters! And also the spirit of me forcing my music taste on to strangers at the end of another year. Thank you for indulging me.

MY TOP 11 THROUGH 50 ALBUMS
That thing I said earlier about not knowing the difference between my 47th favorite album and my 34th favorite album is mostly true. Albums 11 through 50 are just records I liked a lot, though not enough to get into the Top 10. I kind of like them all equally. However, I will say that albums 11 through 20 had a slightly better shot of landing in one of the spots from seven to 10. None of these albums had a realistic show of making the top six, however.
50. Ryan Adams, Prisoner
49. Thundercat, Drunk
48. Destroyer, ken
47. Robert Plant, Carry Fire
46. Rozwell Kid, Precious Art
45. Wolf Alice, Visions Of A Life
44. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv
43. Kevin Morby, City Music
42. (Sandy) Alex G, Rocket
41. Queens Of The Stone Age, Villains
40. Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Vol. 1
39. Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up
38. Gunn-Truscinski Duo, Bay Head
37. Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
36. Jeremy Enigk, Ghosts
35. Cloakroom, Time Well
34. Old Crow Medicine Show, 50 Years Of Blonde On Blonde
33. Grizzly Bear, Painted Ruins
32. The Menzingers, After The Party
31. Strand Of Oaks, Hard Love
30. Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger In The Alps
29. Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds From Another Planet
28. Sheer Mag, Need To Feel Your Love
27. Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Navigator
26. Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
25. Girlpool, Powerplant
24. Liam Gallagher, As You Were
23. Jay Som, Everybody Works
22. Thunder Dreamer, Capture
21. Jen Cloher, Jen Cloher
20. Wild Pink, Wild Pink
19. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice
18. Oso Oso, The Yunahon Mixtape
17. The National, Sleep Well Beast
16. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile To The Surface
15. Alvvays, Antisocialites
14. Charly Bliss, Guppy
13. Alex Lahey, I Love You Like A Brother
12. Craig Finn, We All Want The Same Things
11. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, The French Press

MY TOP 10
Like I said earlier, four of these albums could easily be swapped out for albums in the 11 through 20 slots. The records in the sixth, fifth, and fourth slots I feel pretty passionate about, however, and the albums in the third, second, and first slots are the LPs I would save in a fire if all the music released in 2017 was in a burning building.

10. Oneohtrix Point Never, Good Time Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
While I enjoyed the intense Safdie Brothers’ crime film, it doesn’t compare with the movie of the mind that is conjured by Daniel Lopatin’s relentless electronic score. On the album, a dense web of undulating synths and jarring white noise is occasionally punctuated by explosive soundbites from the film. But Lopatin’s deeply unsettling psychedelic trance music evokes its own rich cinematic vibe, creating the same disorienting despair in the listener that is felt by Robert Pattinson’s character in the movie. And then comes the closing song, “The Pure And The Damned,” a demented space-age supper-club ballad crooned with creepy tenderness by Iggy Pop, who imagines a dream world where one is free to “pet the crocodiles.” On this sublimely queasy album, Pop’s sentiment qualifies as heartwarming.

9. White Reaper, The World’s Best American Band
This Louisville band cites Kiss and Muhammad Ali as inspirations. I would also add: Cheap beer, cool old cars, awesome jackets, and anything else that involves bad attitudes, laughs, and blowing stuff up. At a time when even the best rock bands lack a certain swagger, it was refreshing to see a bunch of young kids from the south shoot their mouths off and almost back it up. The World’s Best American Band surely ranks at this year’s best rawk record, where the riffs and rhythms and basically being an all-around rad dude are of paramount importance.

8. Ratboys, GN
This Chicago fourpiece calls itself as “post-country,” which sort of makes sense when a pedal steel materializes to lift Julia Steiner’s dreamy vocals and then slice through the band’s whisper-to-a-scream guitar jams. But the description works best as a signifier of the lonely, late-night mood that pervades GN. This is an album made for driving on scarcely illuminated country roads late at night, where vast openness inspires introspection and the threat of shadowy ditches requires extreme caution. This tension also exists in the band’s songs, which provide ample open space for restless guitar solos to wander without ever quite abandoning Steiner’s underlying rueful melancholy.

7. Big Thief, Capacity
The songs of Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker exist in the gray area between confessional autobiography and poetic abstraction. A track like “Mythological Beauty,” a highlight of Big Thief’s stunning sophomore release Capacity, seems upon first listen like an epic folk-rock excursion into blood-stained surrealism, spiked with vivid imagery about a mutilated thumb and a life-threatening head wound. But the song is actually a true-life story about a childhood accident suffered by Lenker, told from the point of her view of her mother. Similar violence pervades Capacity, whether it’s the shocking car accident that concludes “Shark Smile” or the stalker who hunts an innocent woman in “Watering.” Even the moments of delicate loveliness — Big Thief’s ensemble playing evokes the warm empathy of The Band — take wild, unexpected turns on Capacity, which make the album feel exciting and alive even after many listens.

6. Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound
The decision by one of the more outspoken critics of mainstream country music to call his album The Nashville Sound might have stuck some initially as a provocation. But in the context of the album, in which Isbell’s characteristically humane story songs are laced with timely anger and restorative hope, it feels more like a pledge to make the sort of music that connects with average people without condescension or lowest common-denominator pandering. Isbell is equally good at writing big statement songs that address the current political moment head on (“White Man’s World,” “Hope The High Road”) and smaller character studies about down-and-out folks from the fringes that have been left behind (“Cumberland Gap,” “Tupelo”). He can also pull off instant-classic love songs like “If We Were Vampires” that rip your heart out, too.

5. Gang Of Youths, Go Farther In Lightness
“While I have questions of mortality, the clear and present vast / They just yell the words ‘pretentious,’ with no clarity or class,” Gang Of Youths singer Dave Le’aupepe moans in the midst of “Fear And Trembling,” the hard-charging opener from the year’s most shamelessly outsized rock record, Go Farther In Lightness. Fortunately, Le’aupepe isn’t about to let critics or cynics chain him to the ground. Like any album that sprawls out to sixteen tracks and nearly 80 minutes, Go Farther In Lightness could probably benefit from some editing. But going big — or, in Le’aupepe’s words, throwing yourself fearlessly into that “clear and present vast” — is the whole point. Backed by a multi-racial band that worships golden-era ’00s indie-rock bands like The National and The Walkmen like Oasis once nicked an idea or 12 from the Beatles, Le’aupepe brings an arena-rock charisma that those groups could never quite muster. He makes enormous emotions feel intimate, and quiet truths ring out at a larger-than-life volume.

4. Julien Baker, Turn Out The Lights
When Julien Baker came out of nowhere with her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle to become the music press’ favorite emo-tinged folkie, she quickly established a reputation for writing hushed songs that reduce even the sternest people to tears. With Turn Out The Lights, Baker refines the craft of emotionally wrenching songwriting, turning in a set of insightful and candid songs about depression, addiction, and spiritual yearning. But the record is a true coming out party for Baker as a vocalist. Now it’s the sound of her voice — which rises to match the climaxes of her songs with piercing, devastating wails — that can instantly reduce you to a blubbering mess.

(Before we get to the top three albums, a confession: My top three records, in my mind at least, are tied for no. 1. But in the interest of not being a total wimp, I’ve decided to rank them anyway. Here was my rationale: The no. 3 album is the best-constructed album I heard this year — it’s the formally impressive record of 2017. The no. 2 album is the most interesting album I heard this year — it’s the album I most enjoyed thinking about in 2017. Finally, the no. 1 album is simply the one I listened to the most this year — it is the record that most captured my heart in 2017. I will probably want to re-rank these albums tomorrow.)

3. Lorde, Melodrama
Will Lorde be remembered as the chosen one to who finally ended the extremely tiresome and profoundly stupid rockism vs. poptimism wars of the early 21st century? In 2017, Lorde described Katy Perry’s blissful ice-cream-sundae of a song “Teenage Dream” as “holy,” and then she sat down with Marc “Vinyl!” Maron on WTF to sing the praises of Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac. (Even though Stevie Nicks was so much trendier this year.) Lorde’s music bridges a similar divide between pop escapism and classic rock idealism. As great as the opening track “Green Light” is as a single, it works even better as a tone setter on Melodrama, functioning as the opening scene in a night-long bender in which Lorde addresses matters of the heart with anger, humor, lust, sorrow, and finally resigned tenderness. Lorde has no use for old-school snobbery, but she hasn’t thrown out the rock and roll baby (first-person songwriting, the album-as-statement concept) with the bathwater.

2. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy
In many ways Pure Comedy was the anti-Melodrama. Young woman vs. middle-aged white guy. The personal vs. the political. The succinct vs. the over-long. But as someone who loves both albums, I appreciate Pure Comedy as a one-of-a-kind exploration of a supreme wise-ass’ wounded heart and wholly justified fury over the diseased state of the world circa now. Josh Tillman writes songs that I can’t make my mind up about after one listen, or 10, or 20. Sometimes I agree with him. Sometimes I can’t believe he’s going there. But no matter what, Pure Comedy gets under my skin. Oh, and the album also happens to be beautifully composed and performed, and sung by maybe the best male vocalist to come out of indie rock this century. Even when Pure Comedy hurts and pontificates, it also swoons and soars.

1. The War On Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
It’s impossible to talk about The War On Drugs without dropping a dozen references to rock bands from the ’70s and ’80s. At least it seems impossible based on all the hackneyed ways I’ve seen my favorite album of 2017, A Deeper Understanding, described by critics and fans. “This is like Bryan Adams fronting Dire Straits and playing Born In The USA.!” is how one person in my Twitter feed classified this band. (I don’t think it was a compliment.) It makes me wonder: When was the last time anyone actually listened to Bryan Adams, Dire Straits, or Born In The USA.? Because A Deeper Understanding, I promise you, doesn’t actually sound like any of those things. However, it does sound like your memories of that questing, widescreen heartland rock music. This is what Adam Graunduciel does best: He evokes the spirit of classic rock’s past without ever literally replicating Bryan Adams’ gruff vocals, Mark Knopfler’s bluesy guitar, or Born In The USA‘s glockenspiels. What he’s ultimately after is pure rock sensation — the tone of a vintage synth, the power of a particular drum sound, the emotional pull of a long, improvised guitar solo. What is it about these sounds that instantly evoke the mix of melancholy and exhilaration that feels like hitting the open road at dusk with nothing to lose and no particular place to go? Graunduciel’s understanding of that specific feeling can’t be put into words, but it is infinitely deep.

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