The best album of the year is Damn. If you go by any metric – popularity, importance, influence- Kendrick Lamar’s Damn is this year’s champion. So go have a listen. However, here on the highway to hell some of us lost souls still need the guitar to haunt us. This year, it feels like everyone is running to ground, finding their own niches. The indie scene is sort of dead for the garage rockers, so every band is now an island. If there was a sound of 2017, it would be hidden in some detail of production. Nonetheless, some of these niches are quite gnarly. Here are the top 20 albums of the year, for those of us so rock inclined.
Metz – Strange Peace
Sometimes you just want to rip everything up. Metz’s fuzzy hardcore punk is the musical equivalent of destroying a bunch of garbage in a warehouse with a bicycle chain. The urge does not come from some terrible anger or pain, it’s just a dissatisfied, anarchic impulse.
Melkbelly – Nothing Valley
An uptempo Speedy Ortiz, Melkbelly has twisting lyrics and a punky musical path which is difficult to predict, married with bouts of sonic distortion.
OCS – Memory of a Cut off Head
Grungy Simon and Garfunkl, OCS’ are San Francisco’s resident cutting edge indie band and as usual, have provided us an experimental sounding album that wanders too and fro. May have more harpsichord than you’re used too but still decidedly modern.
The Cribs – 24/7 Rockstar Shit
Some quality Brit Garage rock from a group that road in on the big 00’s wave, this year’s album is pretty fun. They specialize in sounding a bit strung out but this is good lets-party-no-fuck-you rock.
Meat Wave – The Incessant
Some very pure hardcore. Meat Wave is a little more organized and methodical than many hardcore outfits, which I think makes The Incessant quite pleasing. Just the right amount of noise, the right shrillness in the voice, and the right furious guitar strumming, come together to make this surprisingly melodic.
The Orwells – Terrible Human Beings
A rock and roll album from with just the edge of fuzz, taking cues from the Pixie’s spare sound, while still bursting into anthemic tears. This album is solid front to back.
Dasher – Sodium
Droning anthemic acid rock. Sometimes you want to punch the wall but are not stupid enough to do so as the wall may break and also your fingers, both of which may distract you from your current problems but ultimately just pile more problems on. Instead click a youtube link.
LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
James Murphy wry, slightly accusatory tack returns for a “we quit but we’re back” album, a nice little 2017 gift for the errant hipster of yore. Though lacking world beaters, there are some pleasant nostalgic electro bumps in here.
Grizzy Bear – Ruins
The Brooklyn indie group hits with another album of dreamy underwater ballads. Ruins soars and dips, replacing guitar with synth as it searches for melodic hooks. Few bands can make music sound as effortlessly sonorous as Grizzly Bear.
Sufjan Stevens – Planetarium
The soulful mystery man collaborated with three other blokes here for a concept album that wasn’t content to represent a single state. With that much backing bloke bravado, Surfjan took on the whole solar system, giving personalities both new and classical to the major solar objects and christening them with soulful ballads. Coming from Surfjan of course means the planets are generally shy and riddled with affectations, but the journey is fun and the amount of musicianship and creativity on display here is frankly bonkers.
Okay, time to get serious! We are at the top 10! That means these are the albums I put on over and over again this year, so rich and rewarding were they. It also means that they charted a path into my personal emotional logic, from angry buzzers to twisty wounded poems. Take a walk with them and let them in if you can.
- Crystal Fairy – Crystal Fairy
Crystal fairy is a rollicking collaboration between Teri Gender Bender from Le Butcherettes and the Melvins. The mix ends up being not quite to the heights of the individual bands, but still provides a driving rock album with interesting key shifts, tempo changes, and Teri’s trademark sinister lyrics.
- King Gizzard – Murder of The Universe
A solar concept album with a slightly different approach, the lizard wizard uses narration and pulsating beats to narrate the end of our solar system brought on by the malevolent balrog. Less a Coheed-like twisting tale and more of a rollicking devil jam, the King Gizzards never let up on this album, which is a calling card for their best albums, but also creates an extremely unique apocalypse pastiche in which mythical creatures and our cyborg future collide.
- Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors
“We had our own little bubble, for awhile.” The Dirty Projectors frontman David Longstreth releases his indie rock answer to Lemonade, a bitter recriminating breakup album. What separates this self titled LP from the pop maven’s effort is that 1) The money was not good enough to stay together in this case so it’s an actual breakup and 2) David finds as much at fault with himself as his former girlfriend and bandmate. The entire album describes the screwed up tension that results from trying to be in a romantic relationship with someone. The identity politics of “You kept your name,” the fighting to convince someone else not to fight when “you want to blow us up” of Death Spiral, and in “winner take nothing.” These tracks describe the battlefield of emotions that everyone has been singing about for decades, but here with PTSD. Not completely cynical, Dirty Projectors leaves us with “I believe that the love we made is the art.” This album is an earnest fusion of Dirty Projector’s laconic jazzy indie rock to very specific pain and timing, making it a unique entry in their discography and in 2017.
- Charlotte Gainesbourg – Rest
Gainesbourg’s approach is deceptively simple; she mixes English and French over synthetic beats. The angle of her approach though creates suspense, a rare sensation in music. Her bilingual lyrics tickle the sensations, whispering secrets, while the beats suggest something is about to happen. The result is an engaging yet light and pleasant album that can take part or all of your attention.
- Cherry Glazer – Apocalypstick
I think this is sort of a personal thing, but I have a particular weakness for clean soprano female vocals paired with clean guitars. Usually the sound is impossible to replicate live, where fuzz and strain creep into the sound, so it’s some sort of production worship thing, ever since Sleater Kinney perfected the formula. Cherry Glazer, the Los Angeles trio, is the latest band to attempt the formula and they’ve really nailed it. Paired with a just slightly so snotty punk ascetic in the lyrics, they rock through a half dozen very interesting and perfect sounding songs. I’m not sure any part of the formula is dramatically inventive, but they are the new stewards of a sound that always seems on the edge of dying with every HAIM and Paramoure that gets close and then bends off into pop. Cherry Glazerr is the real rock chiche deal.
- Wand – Plum
From the first warm vocals your mind will think of Radiohead, which the alternative guitar makes it sound like immediately. But unlike that super group, who are rowing further and further from Brit rock by the year, Wand grew up in the fuzz rock scene, opening for the likes of Ty Segall and hanging around SoCal. This difference informs their music, which is way more jammy and instrumental then you’d expect by the Radiohead comparison. Wand travels on sonorous journey’s, with an intense balance struck between the vocals and the band building energy on the other side of the room, energy which always threatens to overwhelm.
- Death From Above – Outrage is Now
This is probably the best “just leave it on repeat” album of the year. Death From Above 1979 consistently hits that groove, every track is a welcome noisy dance rock riff, thumping bass and crashing cymbals echoing around the plaintive singer. It’s not a cacophony though, Jesse and Sebastian are incredibly savvy and the record is full of key changes, down tempo drops, quieting slides into single instrument riffs, and focused moments of careful enunciacion in the lyrics. They create a varied landscape here, even more than their world beater rock album The Physical World, so that your brain can just keep hopping around even as the loop repeats. Granted, here in the top 4 we’ve reached perennial favorites territory which means we are into the depths of very personal taste. For me though, Death From Above would be the platonic form of pop rock on the radio, catchy heavy riffage with some ambiguous lyrics soaring around, even if for everyone else they perhaps sound like death metal.
- Ty Segall – Ty Segall
Speaking of perennial favorites, these days a Ty Segall record composed of bongo solos would probably make my top 10. No need to hedge though, Ty Segall’s second(?) self titled album, and 10th (!!!) solo album is friggin great, a big epic rock album with some very personal touches. This one in particular has a lot of different elements from his career, such as an 11 minute rocking jam, a couple 3 minutes and done classic rock songs, and a few experimental asides that sound very Beatles-esque. Perhaps that’s why Ty went with a self title this time, this album is sort of like a greatest hits collection but somehow with all new songs.
- Idles- Brutalism
Seething progressive pugilists the Idles sound like they’d be telling everyone to fight each other, but instead they spend a lot of time making fun of that pig headed type of punk. The Idles are on message, talking about how base people’s understanding of modern art is and how men come from a place of privilege. It’s sort of a shocking package when paired with the scathing angry punk music, which is driven by constant double bass drumming and noisy guitar, but like many punks from northern England you start to recognize the anger as the voice of the downtrodden, a place of righteous zeal. Fist pumping for a reason is nice.
- Queens Of The Stone Age – Villains
It was QOTSA’s game to lose, and the opposition had us in the first half. Reviews were quiet or lackluster, radio mostly ignored the album, and Homme punctuated the release by kicking someone in the head. Honestly, I think there is just something fundamentally QOTSA about my musical DNA, because Villains effortlessly turns in about 6 world beaters, great fucking rock songs perfectly composed and performed. It may have the ignominy of a few snoozers, but the run from Head Like a Haunted House through The Evil Has Landed stands against the tide of history as one of the greatest ever. Maybe you won’t agree with me, or maybe you can’t, maybe my ear maze is so perfectly tuned to this that they somehow made exactly what I want. If you love complicated guitar rock, sleazy jams, and fucked up tunings, QOTSA remains the game to beat for the foreseeable future. Long live the villain.
Thats it for 2017! Hope 50 albums is enough for now.
Originally published on Synthetic Error February 9, 2020