In its early years in the mid-twentieth century, rock music faced a lot of backlash due to its nature of inclusivity and breaking down of racial barriers. It served as a massive economic opportunity for performers of color, with artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard marching to the forefront of the national conscience and opening up a door into a whole new world of minority voices. Sadly, this year, we lost Chuck Berry, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy of kickass dance moves and damn good guitar licks.
However, as the saying goes: When one door closes, another one opens. As such, in 2017, we found ourselves incredibly lucky to have so many minority voices present in the sphere of rock music during a year where they were most needed. In 2017, new albums from — and just the existence of — bands like Downtown Boys exist as an inherent protest to the policies of the current presidential administration, making these releases more than just good music, but also imperative parts of the national dialogue.
From the first days of the year, it was clear that rock music was going to have a strong outing over the twelve months, boasting releases from legends like Robert Plant to veteran indie rockers like The World Is… and Slowdive to relative newcomers like Vagabon and Australia’s Smith Street Band.
Throughout the year, some bands prospered, while others would fall, making 2017 simultaneously one of the most promising, horrifying, and constantly emotional years of recent memory. So here you have ’em: the best rock albums of 2017.
Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.
20. Robert Plant, Carry Fire
Carry Fire is one of the best solo offerings of Robert Plant’s career, and that really is saying something. While so many of his ’60 and ‘70s rock contemporaries have taken up full-time duties curating their own back catalogs, Plant has continued to push forward as an artist. Carry Fire is a project that features some of the most engaged writing he’s committed to tape in quite some time.
He looks outward on the world as it exists in this moment like on “Carvin Up The World Again…A Wall And Not A Fence”, and inward within himself, plumbing his own feelings for stunners like “Dance With You Tonight.” The only direction you won’t catch is his gaze is back over his shoulder. Even more impressive is the way he deploys his voice. That iconic lion’s roar has softened across the span of decades into a smoky, croon that sounds downright otherworldly on the album’s closing track “Heaven Sent.”–Corbin Reiff
19. Converge, The Dusk In Us
Earlier this year I tagged along with a new friend at a festival to see a certain iconic punk band play live at a festival in Canada. According to my friend, a live set from the Boston band, called Converge, was a rare enough occurrence to merit him traveling all the way from Europe to this event. With this kind of co-sign, I was expecting a remarkable show from the heavy, metalcore group, even if that isn’t the kind of genre I naturally find myself drawn to. But even my exceedingly high expectations couldn’t prepare me for the energy this band summoned live.
Frontman Jacob Bannon screams and writhes at the front of the stage, belting the lyrics like they’re final religious koan that will save him from imminent disaster. Upon leaving the show, I wondered if I’d ever feel the band’s energy in the same way again. Then, I learned that they were releasing their first new record in years, The Dusk In Us.
While no recorded album can ever quite capture the feeling of a live show, listening to this new collection of material — the first Converge record I’ve really spent time with — has continually transported me back to the fire of that initial encounter. It may not be changing the face of rock as we know it, but it does prove the mettle of this post-hardcore crew, who have been releasing music for almost twenty-five years and still put out one of 2017’s best rock records.–Caitlin White
18. The Killers, Wonderful, Wonderful
A few months ago, The Killers attested that there aren’t any huge indie rock bands today — you know, like The Killers — because they just aren’t good enough. The question now is: On their fifth album and first since 2012, are they good enough?
“Run For Cover” is a propulsive rock tune that shows the band sounding as urgent and excited as ever. “The Man” is an unexpectedly funky and joyous outing. The title track is a massive, booming anthem. The problem with placing any new Killers output in the context of their own history is just that: Their own history. Hot Fuss was such a defining and amazing record of its era that it’s basically impossible to take off the rose-tinted glasses while looking back at it. That said, Wonderful, Wonderful checks off all the boxes and proves itself to be a worthy addition to the band’s discography.–Derrick Rossignol
17. Manchester Orchestra, A Black Mile To The Surface
There may not be a more dedicated fan base in indie rock than that of Manchester Orchestra, and it’s easy to see why. The solid songwriting and idiosyncratic vocals of frontman Andy Hull have been an indie mainstay for years now — not to mention he’s the only original member of the band left on A Black Mile To The Surface.
He remains a poetic storyteller on tracks like “The Alien,” which begins with chill-inducing lyrics about ignoring your problems, “The lights were low enough, you guessed / You swapped your conscience with your father’s medication / Limped from Rome to Lawrenceville / And on the way wrote out a self-made declaration.” From there, the tale evolves into one of car crashes, love, and more drama than you’d have any right to expect from an indie rock track… unless you’re talking about Manchester Orchestra, that is.–D.R.
16. The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Always Foreign
When Donald Trump was elected, many thought that, at the very least, the results of the election would see an outpouring of good punk music. As it would turn out, sure, there were a few pointedly anti-Trump records, but for the most part the musical landscape did not shift under the new administration. That said, The World Is’ Always Foreign is an exception. With this record, the band had a story to tell, and they made it loud and clear with songs protesting the racist and classist policies of the Trump administration and the inherent and overbearing greed of a capitalistic society.
The record’s strongest lyrical moments come in its most instrumentally subdued, with lyrics like, “If there is a hell, it’s ready and waiting for you,” marking a transition in the track “Faker” from quiet reflection into a full-band onslaught. “Dillon And Her Son” is one of the shortest tracks on the record, but also one of the most direct and effective, combining a hammering drum beat with synth lines and wonderful harmonized vocals. The World Is has always been an instrumentally inventive band, and Always Foreign sees them at their best and most refined, making it one of the most impressive rock releases of the year.–Zac Gelfand
15. Wolf Parade, Cry Cry Cry
If you’re hearing a newfound simplicity on Wolf Parade’s Cry Cry Cry, the Montreal group’s first outing in seven years, it’s very much intentional.
“With [Cry Cry Cry], we thought, ‘Ok, let’s trim everything away,’” Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner previously told us. “Everything that wasn’t useful in a song was pretty much immediately discarded.”
This philosophy has lead to focused tracks like “You’re Dreaming,” which has a fun organ riff running throughout that almost makes the track sound like indie pop at times, and the more straightforward but still infectiously fun indie rock of “Valley Boy.” And don’t worry: There’s a pair of those 6-minute tracks you’ve also come to know and love.–D.R.
14. Smith Street Band, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me
One of the early standout records of the year from a somewhat unfamiliar name in America. Australian quartet Smith Street Band’s latest effort More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me documents a relationship from the very start to the very end, a story that frontman Wil Wagner truly lived. From the very first lines of “Forrest,” it is very easy to relate to Wagner’s character as he meets his one-time partner. “Passiona” describes the relationship from an external perspective, “Suffer” captures the rough breakup, and the closing “Laughing (Or Pretending To Laugh)” has Wagner meeting someone new. As such, once you’ve latched on to the character, the record proceeds to take you on an emotional journey in a way that is so intimately personal that, at times, it feels like it happened to you.
Smith Street Band’s Jeff Rosenstock-produced More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is without a shadow of a doubt their magnum opus, a record unlike anything else to come out this year. The detail with which these stories are told is at times painful, sometimes funny, and always brutally honest. By its conclusion, you feel like you’ve watched a life unfold, resulting in fresh eyes with which to view your own relationships.–Z.G.
13. Cloud Nothings, Life Without Sound
“If you like Cloud Nothings, you’ll like this” is a kind way of saying that the band’s fourth album sounds a lot like their first, second, and third albums. Even frontman Dylan Baldi would agree with that sentiment: “I don’t think the songs are that different,” he previously told us.
There are benefits to that, though. For example, Cloud Nothings have always been great at going a thousand miles an hour without going off the rails, and they’ve always been able to craft an album’s worth of songs that have an instant sense of comforting familiarity. The riffs are always driving, the hooks are always catchy, and the energy level is one that Cloud Nothings have been able to hit more consistently than perhaps any of their contemporaries. That all rings true on Life Without Sound, of course.–D.R.
12. Thelma, Thelma
If you haven’t spent ample time this year with Thelma, the self-titled debut from a musical project of the same name, helmed by Natasha Jacobs, then you’ve missed out on an eerie and sophisticated debut that will probably only grow in stature as Jacobs’ career continues to bloom. Across a simple selection of seven tracks, Jacobs asks and answers piercing questions, peers into the darkness of the human condition, and takes up space for herself with towering insouciance.
Plenty of artists are happy to use strange samples and keyboard loops to enhance their work, but Jacobs often builds a song entirely out of these two elements, returning to signature tones and percussive elements again and again, before losing the presets and doodling over them, like on the wavering, unraveled “Peach.” It’s when Jacobs abandons melody that Thelma most clearly snaps into focus though, revealing that experimental noise and straightforward synthpop need not get along.–C.W.
11. Queens of the Stone Age, Villains
Queens Of The Stone Age have steadily built up a reputation for being one of the more reliable rock acts of the 21st Century. Their latest album Villains has only advanced that general perception. A lot was hay made before this record dropped about the involvement of pop producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson, but in all honesty, it’s hard to hear, what if any influence he made on Villains. To my ears, it sounds like another bombastic, riff-stravaganza, filled with plenty of off-kilter melodies and dark, whimsical imagery.
Rock fans, in particular, can delight in the myriad of sounds and influences that Josh Homme and company draw on throughout the project, whether it’s early Sun Records-era jump blues on “The Way You Used To Do” the Bowie-esque “Fortress,” or gritty, Misfits-style punk on “Head Like A Haunted House.” In the end, however, The Queens come off best when they sound most like themselves, and the opening track “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” rests comfortably on the shelf next to some of the best singles the band have ever released like “No One Knows” or “Little Sister.”–C.R
10. Beach Fossils, Somersault
Next year will mark the tenth anniversary for Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks label, and the impact it has left has been felt widely, specifically with its most notable alumnus, Mac DeMarco. But the influence is greater than the artists that came through their doors, as a whole sound of woozy, hazy dream pop became associated with the work they turned out. So even a band like Beach Fossils, whose first album on their own Bayonet found the band leaving their Captured Tracks home behind, holds many of the fingerprints of the label, even after it said its goodbyes. But the precise songwriting of Dustin Payseur on Somersault is more notable for how he expands the project’s palette.
This includes frequent orchestral cues, guest slots from the likes of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell and Cities Aviv (in an unexpectedly beautiful bit of spoken-word poetry), and ’70s-inspired nods to classic rock. It’s an album that oozes growth without losing the band’s core identity, making smart use of lyrics as a way to open the curtain of their own reality and speak to the world at large. When bands like Beach Fossils first emerge, it’s more about aesthetic than anything. On Somersault, the band proves that they are built to last, and that their best work may still be ahead.–Philip Cosores
9. Downtown Boys, Cost Of Living
Long story short: Downtown Boys are just awesome. Their music has been described as “punk,” but they aren’t too big on that classification. However, they’re definitely a political band, a voice that is very necessary in 2017, especially when the band is made up of queer people, nonbinary people, and people of color. Throughout their third album Cost Of Living, Downtown Boys rally against the American status quo that is inherently oppressive to minorities, with songs entirely in Spanish and other songs that directly address the attempts to build walls around our society.
It’s a short record, clocking in at just over 30 minutes, but the message is perfectly clear. With their recent signing to Sub Pop Records, the band’s voice has grown exponentially, with the pristine and revolutionary Cost Of Living standing as their manifesto, calling for an American society that is actually more welcoming and safe for minorities.–Z.G.
8. Rozwell Kid, Precious Art
Epic riffs, infectious vocal hooks, and lyrical absurdity are a few adjectives that can be used to describe Rozwell Kid’s Precious Art. Twelve songs deep, Precious Art is the perfect remedy for the blues, a record equal parts supremely melodic and entertainingly thrashing. “Wendy’s Trash Can” begins the affair, a simple chord opening the door for the heavy insanity that is to come, complete with shredding guitar solos and perfect vocal harmonies. “UHF On DVD” highlights Rozwell Kid’s ability to build a song around a heavy riff, one that is instantly engrossing and will be difficult to shake.
Throughout Precious Art, there are songs dedicated to boogers, Michael Keaton, and the difficulty of finding parking at the annual SXSW festival. Yes, that sounds absurd, and it 100% is. But Rozwell Kid’s delivery and mastery of their respective instruments yields a record able to justify its insane lyrical content with a cloud of abrasively catchy music.–Z.G.
7. Slowdive, Slowdive
We all had a good laugh when indie rockin’ Stranger Things’ kid Finn Wolfhard didn’t know what shoegaze is, but this is the reality of the world we live in. And it’s the reality that Slowdive returned to, releasing their first new album in 22 years that followed offerings in 1993 (Souvlaki) and 1995 (Pygmalion) that are considered classics both within their genre and in rock as a whole. But what few could have expected is for the English band to make a comeback that sounds as vital as they did in their heyday.
From the spectral opening of “Slomo” to the wall-of-sound rager “Star Roving” to the euphorically lovelorn “Sugar For The Pill,” there’s an immediacy to the music that sheds any preconceptions about reunions. Instead, the self-titled record plays out like an audio interpretation of the concept of fate. Of course Slowdive would eventually return and of course it would present a concise and focused eight songs that felt like no time had passed at all. It doesn’t matter much that the kids don’t know what shoegaze is; Slowdive’s expansive beauty is relevant regardless.–P.C.
6. Girlpool, Powerplant
From the first notes of “123,” it immediately becomes clear that Girlpool’s Powerplant is going to be a little different than their 2015 debut. During some time off after releasing and touring behind that album, Girlpool signed to Anti- Records and prepped their massively impressive sophomore effort, a record that showcases the duo’s increased mastery of interlocking harmonies while bringing in a more fleshed-out full band sound to emphasize the intensity of the lyrical content.
“123” opens the record to instantly show the power of the full band version of Girlpool, while “Corner Store” has an almost spastic nature to it, the melodic section of the verses broken up by a thrashing, distorted instrumental break. On Powerplant, aspects of Girlpool that got them on the map are not lost, but rather solidified, bringing out the best of Tividad and Tucker’s instrumental and vocal delivery, with clear aesthetic influence from friends like (Sandy) Alex G and Vagabon.–Z.G.
5. Spoon, Hot Thoughts
When Spoon get called consistent, it comes off as a double-edged sword. Yes, it is a compliment to admit that the Austin-based band always releases good albums, but it takes away from what each record accomplishes on its own. So where their ninth career album Hot Thoughts is easy to celebrate as another worthy offering from a band that always makes worthy offerings, the truth is that it also can stand tall apart from their career. Hot Thoughts is an album built on chemistry and craftsmanship rather than emotional stakes, which makes Spoon somewhat of an indie rock outlier. But that isn’t to say that leader Britt Daniel is without a perspective. “Let them build a wall around us / I don’t care, I’m gonna tear it down,” he sings on “Tear It Down,” taking a global approach where his sights had previously been hyper-local.
But most memorable about Hot Thoughts is the performances. There’s the hoot that Daniel makes when the title-track first kicks in to its prevalent instrumental hook; the rasp in his voice when he belts out the question “Do I have to talk you into it” on the song of the same name; the way the band can captivate with vocals as an afterthought on the ghostly “Pink Up.” Sure, the band is consistently good. But they are also constantly surprising, and one of the most sorely taken-for-granted rock bands of the last 20 years.–P.C.
4. Bully, Losing
Bully’s sophomore record is an emotional one, and these feelings are worn directly on the sleeve. Do it any other way and it “isn’t real music at all,” band leader Alicia Bognanno previously told us.
Take the first chorus of “Feel The Same,” for instance: “And I cut my hair / I feel the same / Masturbate / I feel the same / Hope you’re okay / I feel the same.” Trying to get over what something was and no longer is can be numbing, and these raw, anecdotal examples are an extremely effective way of getting that across. All of these introspections are wrapped in a punk-influenced indie rock package, the most striking feature of which is Bognanno’s impassioned and energetic vocals. They can shift from reserved singing to a genuine rocker shriek at the drop of a hat, without ever feeling like they’re losing control, even if it seems like the song’s narrator might.–D.R.
3. Ryan Adams, Prisoner
There was a time that we could expect a Ryan Adams album a year. Hell, there might even be two or three. But as he’s gotten older, he’s taken longer to reflect, and that’s resulted in generally more consistent and refined records. Still, Prisoner is a special album, taking Adams typically countrified songwriting and adding a helping of Smiths influence, all while expelling the demons of his failed marriage with Mandy Moore. There are moments of bitterness, of pain, of exhaustion, and, by album closer “We Disappear,” redemptive closure. “You deserve a future, and you know I’ll never change,” Adams sings, as clearheaded as ever. Adams knows better, though, than to make an exorcism of personal torment a drag on the listener.
Whether he’s pushing explosive rock and roll through “Do You Still Love Me?” or intimately reflecting on gorgeous “Shiver And Shake,” Adams is always inviting to share in his pain and heal along with him. The album works as catharsis for both parties, and feels more generous than when he was overflowing with new material a decade ago.–P.C.
2. Cayetana, New Kind Of Normal
The story of Cayetana goes that the three women behind the group learned their instruments specifically to play in the band. Of course, a few years passed between the formation and their first record, 2014’s spirited Nervous Like Me, but that kind raw exuberance made up a lot of that album’s appeal. But in the three years that passed between then and sophomore LP New Kind Of Normal, expectations reared their ugly head, whether the band welcomed it or not. At that, Cayetana’s success lies in their ability to not disappoint, writing songs that take their time a little more and showcase improved chops from all members.
But maybe the biggest accomplishment of New Kind Of Normal is in how the band’s greatest strengths are expanded upon. One of these, Augusta Koch’s voice, is at its best when it cracks, lilts, and squeals, bursting with personality and emotional urgency. And these qualities pop up often, whether it’s the raging “Bus Ticket, on the windblown single “Mesa,” or the album’s soaring one-two punch of mid-tempo anthems, “Certain For Miles” and “Phonics Failed Me.” Providing the ballast is a tangible chemistry that makes the fun that the trio has making music feel infectious, even while tackling serious topics like mental health. It’s a deft balancing act that far more experienced bands could struggle with. But in the hands of Cayetana, everything feels a little easier, and a little more natural. On only their second album, the Philly rockers sound like they’ve already got it all figured out.–P.C.
1. Waxahatchee, Out In The Storm
After three albums of tightly-coiled, silvery indie rock, Katie Crutchfield was ready to crack open her heart and let out some of the anger, despair, and loss that had been building up during a toxic relationship. Fleshed out by contributions from Sleater-Kinney’s touring guitarist Katie Harkin, her equally talented sister Allison Crutchfield on keyboard and percussion, and John Agnello helming the production, this album careens toward a new echelon for Waxahatchee, one that runs on buzzy ‘90s grooves and sometimes sneered kiss-offs.
Sonically, Out In The Storm is a world apart from her lo-fi debut American Weekend, incorporating twinkling synths, growling guitars, and loping drums more than ever before, but stylistically, it might be the closest thing to that initial album she’s put out in the intervening years. Both records share innermost thoughts with quiet, assured tenderness, even if Storm brings those feelings to roiling new heights.
Crutchfield is harder than ever, standing up for herself and naming the poison what it is, but still finding time to look inward and marvel at her own growth. Perhaps this is best exemplified on the album standout “Sparks Fly” (word to Taylor Swift), when she sees herself through her sister’s eyes and lights up: “I’m a live wire, electrified.” On Storm, the jolt of her current has never been easier to embrace, and it’s never been more wild.–C.W.