Out of the increasingly eclectic list of albums that makes its way into my Spotify playlists (and eventually my physical collection, wherever possible), here’s the stuff that I enjoyed the most in 2017, and that I would absolutely recommend, with no reservations, to anyone whose favorite type of music can best be described as “stuff that challenges me in some way but that is always super catchy”. (Is that not a musical genre? it should be.)
THE BEST OF 2017:
1. Colony House – Only the Lonely
If you had told me back at the beginning of January that my favorite record of the year would come from a band fronted by the adult sons of Steven Curtis Chapman, I’d have had a long, hearty laugh at your expense, since I haven’t consistently been a fan of Chapman’s music since my college years. If you had told me the same thing at the end of January, I’d have believed you, because Colony House’s second album dropped in the middle of the month, and it took me almost no time to realize what a fun ride this entire album was, emphasizing the band’s live performance chops by recreating that “everyone in the same room” sort of atmosphere as they jammed their way through one addictive rocker after another. Lots of bands have explored themes of loneliness, finally reaching the breaking point where you’re willing to cry out for help, and the relief of knowing you’re truly not alone, but Colony House did it in a way that simultaneously emphasizes how much they love playing for a crowd and how much their hearts ache to be with their loved ones back home when they’re all said and done. These four guys are a tight rock act, that demonstrates serious musical muscle while having tons of fun in the process. Their music isn’t overtly religious, so I think it’s approachable by pretty much anyone, though the sense of purpose heard in some of their father’s more heartfelt songs comes through loud and clear in a few of my favorites on this record. Colony House’s take on it just happens to be lot louder.
Live Footage: “You & I”
2. Everything Everything – A Fever Dream
I was not familiar with Everything Everything before this album, which is their fourth, but my first exposure to their music left me thinking that this is what might happen if TV on the Radio, Doves, and Radiohead had some sort of a freak love child. The manic energy, electronic experimentation, a few dreamy ambient passages, and little bits of sly political commentary all add up to a monolithic record that did a lot to show solidarity with the things that pissed a lot of Brits and Americans off and made us more than a little bit ashamed of what both our countries were doing this year. I wouldn’t exactly classify these as protest songs – and heck, some of ’em are just fun, danceable songs about more personal issues – but the majority of the album seems designed as a time capsule for us to look back on 2016 and 2017 much later on and think, “Wow, was the so-called ‘free world’ really that insanely drunk on its own power back then?”
Music Video: “Desire”
3. John Reuben – Reubonic
John Reuben is a “Christian rapper” – a term which I put in quotes because he often subverts expectations that would arise from either of those words being used to label his music – who I just assumed had hung it up somewhere around 2010 due to the complete lack of musical output or news regarding what we was up to for several years. He re-emerged this year with an album that seems to never run out of hard-hitting commentary regarding his status as a square peg in the round hole that is the world of faith-based music, and that openly addresses doubts and personal setbacks that have led him to re-examine what faith means in an age where the church seems sharply divided between the dogmatic, “Just do what you’re told” types and the genuinely curious types who are comfortable asking the difficult question. Reuben falls strongly into the latter camp, and though I can’t say I listen to this particular genre of music all that often, he’s got such a good balance of unorthodox hooks and sharp, witty commentary here that I feel like there isn’t a single dud in the bunch. It’s a lot to take in – and his language in the first couple tracks (while incredibly mild by hip-hop standards) might be strong enough to turn off a lot of Christian music fans, but sometimes when you’re calling out the bullshit for what it is, there’s really no room for mincing words.
Music Video: “Candy Coated Razor Blades”
4. Elbow – Little Fictions
Elbow’s music always goes down smooth, though it’s cautious and cerebral enough in most cases than I need a few listens to let the beauty of it fully sink in. Their approach on Little Fictions was a little more immediate, resulting in my absolute #1 favorite song of the year, “Magnificent (She Says)”, showing up right at the beginning of the album, with several strong, groove-based tunes to follow – an interesting development considering the loss of their drummer between their last album and this one. Even with the more prominent percussion in a lot of these tracks, the approach is still surprisingly minimalist in a few places, looping a subdued guitar or piano melody and not building up to climaxes as big as they have in the past, which caused mixed reactions from some long time Elbow fans, but the lyrics and Guy Garvey’s voice knocked it out of the park often enough that I really didn’t mind. Check out the title track if you’re looking for something with a truly epic build-up to a larger-than-life conclusion (quickly followed by the gentle explosion of autumn colors in the closing track “Kindling”, which I really wish they’d had the foresight to record John Grant’s duet vocal on before the album released – seek out that version individually, because it adds a lot to an already strong tune). Otherwise, go into this one expecting to tap your toes and set your heart all a-flutter.
Music Video: “Gentle Storm”
5. Tennis – Yours Conditionally
Tennis unabashedly borrows from the soft pop and “yacht rock” sounds of the 70s when making their homespun brand of lovey-dovey indie pop. Just check out one of their music videos if you need proof. The imagery might remind me of my toddler years, but there are some smart nods to modern dream pop heard in the margins (taking some obvious influence from Beach House, just with a cheerier vibe overall). Occasionally an electric guitar bursts out with an unexpectedly noisy solo, or Alaina Moore works in a bit of sly commentary on gender roles. This record might sound like pure domestic bliss, but it’s not a domestic bliss that plays by anyone else’s rules.
Live Footage: “My Emotions Are Blinding”
6. Cool Hand Luke – Cora
This one’s another strong comeback after a long hiatus. In Cool Hand Luke’s case, it was planned as the sole remaining members, Mark Nicks, changed hats from touring musician to seminary student. His music has always been full of conviction, close examination of the teachings of Jesus, and wanting to listen fully to God’s plans before determining his next move. The mostly ballad-dominated and piano heavy sound CHL had become known for gets a bit of an electronic update here, which finds a few of the songs sporting unexpectedly catchy grooves, while moody guitar rock serves as the backdrop for a lot of deep questions and struggles with doubt and spiritual maturity elsewhere. Father, son, leader, follower… all of these roles get explored on an album that doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice artistic quality or entertainment value just because it has a well-crafted message to convey.
Audio: “Hidden in a Waveform”
7. Marah in the Mainsail – Bone Crown
It perhaps takes a band with a few screws loose to plan out an entire album that tells a story about vicious, power-hungry forest dwelling animals plotting all sorts of evil machinations to take over the titular crown and rule the surrounding land… even if being king leads to the destruction of everything you love. The raggedy indie folk/rock style heard on their previous record really comes alive with the addition of horns and more prominent interplay between the male and female vocalists, and every song is an important piece of the puzzle here, even if it can take several listens to work out exactly who all of the players are exactly what the heck is going on. Once you do, you realize that some of those catchy rock jams and eerie ballads actually tell the most harrowing parts of a dark and demented story ultimately meant to serve as a cautionary tale. Strap yourselves in – you’re in for a thrilling ride with this one.
Audio: “Fox Hole”
8. The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
While many are lamenting that resident weirdo Dan Bejar sat out the making of this album, the Canadian indie rock supergroup easily makes up in sheer power pop force what they may have lost in terms of bizarro experimentation, leading to an album so streamlined and consistently listenable that you might lose track of which song is which in the process. Ultimately, paying closer attention reveals the brains behind the operations, as Carl Newman’s lyrics are smartly written and dense enough to require several attempts before any hope of an interpretation makes itself available in most cases. The triple threat of Newman, Neko Case and Kathryn Calder switching the lead vocal role around as if it were a hot potato adds needed variance to a set of songs that mostly stick to similar upbeat tempos, and this turns out to be a brilliant move once you start to realize some of the dark and depressing situations that are being masked by the exuberant vocal and instrumental performances. The New Pornographers are some of the most entertaining contrarians making music today.
Live Footage: “Avalanche Alley”
9. Haim – Something to Tell You
While it’s not quite as strong right out of the gate as Haim’s debut Days Are Gone, the Haim sisters continue to thrill with pure pop goodness on this record, smartly mixing in elements of rock and R&B from the 70s up through the 90s, and throwing a few curveballs not heard on their previous work, especially in more texturally and melodically intriguing songs like “Ready For You”, “Kept Me Crying”, and “Right Now” that are a little more challenging on first listen than some of their more straight-ahead obvious singles. Still, tunes like “Want You Back” and “Little of Your Love” seem to have hooks for days and I can’t say I mind that those will draw the lion’s share of the attention here. It’s because of this delicate balance that Haim continues to get the mainstream exposure and the positive critical attention, and I sure hope they continue making it a priority to maintain that balance on future albums.
Live Footage: “Right Now”
10. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
Grizzly bear is probably the band that had to fight the hardest to crack my Top 10. I’ve found them intriguing ever since I got into their music on Veckatimest eight years ago, but their albums were never consistent enough to get a lot of repeat plays out of me until now. After taking a well-deserved break for a few years, the band seems to have figured out not only how to make music that they themselves can respect as artists, but that is also fun to make together considering the disparate creative personalities driving the band. The songs themselves can’t necessarily be described as fun and cheerful, since they find Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen (who trade lyrical ideas and lead vocals back and forth so much they seem to function as a seamless unit) reeling from relationships that have grown stale, leading to breakups and periods of loneliness and transience. So the subject matter’s as heavy and cerebral as a lot of their past work, but musically, the group seems to have more of a spring in its step on several of these tunes, leading to the rare experience of my actually enjoying a Grizzly Bear album on first listen. Is still took several more listens to really figure out what the heck was going on with half of these songs, and the guitar textures, the structure and pacing of several songs, and what a few of them consider to be chorus hooks still goes against the norm even by typical indie rock standards. So a lot of the things I love most about this album aren’t going to be obvious to people on first listen. All I know is that I keep reaching for this one over and over, and marveling at how well-timed each moody guitar riff, each layered vocal, and each climactic release of emotion comes across.
Music Video: “Neighbors”
These albums aren’t quite at “recommend with no reservations” level, and there might be some weak spots or experiments that just didn’t work dragging my overall score down on a lot of these, but I did still enjoy them all quite a bit overall.
11. Arcade Fire – Everything Now
I feel like I responded better to “indie rock stalwarts go full-on dance pop” than a lot of Arcade Fire’s fans did. Still, for all of the glossy, cynical celebration of excess, I do have to admit that it fell out of my top 10 due to the repetitive nature of some of its lesser tracks. Still, this one his hard right out of the gate with a string of infectious singles – the title track, “Signs of Life”, and “Creature Comfort”, while the emotional one-two punch of “Put Your Money on Me” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” makes it well worth sticking around to the end.
Music Video: “Signs of Life”
12. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
This is the first time Fleet Foxes have put out an LP that hasn’t landed at #1 on my list. That’s the price a band pays for having a style that goes down easy to start with and then getting more ambitious over time. The fragmented nature of a lot of these new songs makes them trickier to digest, though arguably it makes Crack-Up a stronger artistic statement than their first two records, which were melancholy and beautiful but could sometimes fall short in the lyrical department. Here, Robin Pecknold digs deep to repair broken friendships, to lament the treatment of marginalized women and minorities, and to try and make some sense of the self-imposed solitude he apparently went through during the long wait between records. Not all of this is my style, and a lot of it is confusing and challenging, but none of it is a mistake.
Live Footage: “Cassius-“/”-Naiads, Cassadies”
13. Eisley – I’m Only Dreaming
My disappointment at learning that Eisley had lost most of its key members, with Sherri, Garron, and sometimes Weston remaining the only members of the DuPree clan that once gave Eisley such a strong sisterly bond. While they’re down to one singer/songwriter fronting the band, Sherri explores her fatalistic and hopeless romantic side as best she can, giving Eisley more of a stylistically down-to-earth pop/rock sound for the most part, but throwing some fascinating instrumental curveballs on tracks like “Louder than a Lion” and “Snowfall”. A few guest appearances from Circa Survive’s Anthony Green and Say Anything’s Max Bemis (who not so coincidentally is Sherri’s husband) help to keep things interesting in ways we haven’t heard on an Eisley record before.
Music Video: “Always Wrong”
14. Barenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes
You’re probably surprised to see me saying anything positive about a BNL album this late in the game, much less putting them on a year-end best-of list. I can help it. They’re still as corny as ever, but this album just hangs together a lot better in terms of creative songwriting and instrumentation. Ed Robertson has wisely given more space for his bandmates to step up and contribute songs, which leads to a few strong cuts from keyboardist Kevin Hearn and one short little aside from bassist Jim Creeggan… and heck, I think I even hear drummer Tyler Stewart on a vocal part here and there. The bulk of Ed’s songs are stronger as a result of his not needing to pull as much weight on his own. These guys will obviously never replace Steven Page, but they’re making a much better case for themselves as intriguing songwriters than they did on Grinning Streak or Silverball.
Live Footage: “Canada Dry”
15. Mew – Visuals
The quick turnaround time between + – and this album means more of a streamlined indie rock approach and less of the expansive stuff that really drew me into past Mew albums. They still know their way around an effervescent keyboard melody and an unusual guitar riff, sometimes with the two colliding in bizarre and amusing ways. The opening three tracks, “85 Videos” and “Twist Quest” easily rank above some of Mew’s catchiest and most enjoyable material. I just needed a good long ballad or two to really take me deeper into the experience… then this thing might have been Top 10-worthy.
Live Footage: “The Wake of Your Life”
16. MuteMath – Play Dead
Also following up an album that is barely two years old, MuteMath gives a little more space for their jammy and exploratory sides to show through after the more straight-forward and radio-friendly Vitals. Some fans are praising it for that after not responding well to that record; I was a little on the fence at first because the hooks took longer to sink in and a few of the tracks seemed to be drawn out a few minutes past what was necessary just to live up to fan expectations after seeing them live. Despite how alarming it is that MuteMath keeps losing members abruptly in the months leading up to an album’s release, and the departure of drummer Darren King hit us all especially hard, at least he was a full participant on this record before calling it quits, and boy howdy, does he get his fair share of percussive highlights before taking his final bow.
Live Footage: “Stroll On”
17. The Killers – Wonderful Wonderful
The Killers are a band that hasn’t had any reason to hang around near my Top 20 since their very first album. I don’t know if anything they do could ever delight me as much as Hot Fuss did, but this is a darn good try, with the opening combo of the moody, bass-driven title track and the glammy lead single “The Man” turning out to be the best way they’ve ever opened an album. (Yep, I said it. Even above “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and “Mr. Brightside”. The trend doesn’t quite continue from there, though.) There are still a few ballads where Brandon Flowers either tries too hard or not hard enough, making this an uneven ride, but when this album’s hot, it’s really hot, as evidenced in the lively rockers “Run For Cover” and “Tyson vs. Douglas” that show up in the middle of the album, proving that The Killers can still win over a crowd and have something intriguing to say in the process.
Live Footage: “Tyson vs Douglas”
18. Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold
The Foo Fighters possess a savvy balance of raw rock energy and melodic savvy that seems increasingly rare in 2017, when rock music as a popular genre has largely gone the way of the dodo, at least according to a lot of music critics and taste-makers. While the band’s less convincing experimental side drags this record down a bit in the back half, they’re clearly back at the top of their game on the heavier rock tracks heard on this album, and that’s more than enough to keep me spinning it time and time again.
Live Footage: “The Sky Is a Neighborhood”
19. Sylvan Esso – What Now
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are such an adorably strange electropop duo – their love of making music is clear in their compositions, even if sometimes the idea of an experiment is more exciting than actually listening to the results. The creative process becomes a bit self-referential at times here, particularly on tracks like “The Glow”, “Kick Jump Twist”, Just Dancing”, and well, “Song”, that reminisce about the emotional effects a well-timed piece of music can have on a person – or on two people just getting to know each other. And the furiously catchy “Radio” is quite a blunt way to stick it to the execs that wanted exactly what they delivered – a three-and-a-half minute radio single. This one’s a bit uneven, with nothing hitting me quite as hard as the standout tracks from their self-titled, but it also shows some growth, most notably in their willingness to go to mad genius lengths when concocting their beats and loops.
Live Footage: “Die Young”
20. Ed Sheeran – ÷
I’m just gonna be honest and say that while this is a really hit-or-miss album, it manage to scrape its way onto my list due to a combination of strong singles, strong would-be singles (Seriously, is nobody pushing “Dive” to radio in an official capacity yet? It’s way better than “Perfect”), and some fun bits of musical tourism amongst the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition – “Barcelona”, “Bibia Bi Ye Ye”, and “Nancy Mulligan”, the latter offering a more traditional take on his collaboration with Beoga that also led to the bizarre rap/Celtic fusion of “Galway Girl”. The standard edition might not have had quite enough to tip the balance in favor of putting Ed on the list, but despite a few of its tracks being tough going, it’s worth sticking around for the tear-jerker “Supermarket Flowers” at the end, even if you don’t have those delightful bonus tracks to cheer you up afterwards.
Live Footage: “Nancy Mulligan”