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Favorite Records of 2017


Every year, I compile a totally unsolicited list of my favorite albums of the year. I figured some folks here may be interested, and could also chime in with what they loved this year. Links to favorite tracks also provided in case people want to sample the goods.

  1. Hiss Golden Messenger — Hallelujah Anyhow. Hiss Golden Messenger is a folk-rock outfit out of Durham, and is probably my favorite band working right now. Fronted by Mike Taylor, they put out my third-favorite record of the decade with 2014’s Lateness of Dancers (behind Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic), and this one doesn’t fall far behind that one. Taylor writes deep songs about faith and fatherhood and everything in between, and his band has found the perfect sonic plane for them to live in. Favorite track: “When the Wall Comes Down
  2. Kendrick Lamar — DAMN. It’s borderline passé at this point to talk about how good Kendrick is. But Kendrick is really good. There were a lot of great hip-hop releases this year (such a strong crop of records overall that excellent albums by Vic Mensa and Big K.R.I.T didn’t even make my top 25), but none was as tight and relentless as Kendrick’s. Favorite track: “DNA
  3. Aimee Mann — Mental Illness. I’m not sure if there’s a songwriter who’s been more criminally underappreciated for longer than Aimee Mann. This record, which explores the titular subject matter with deep grace and empathy, is very sad but also very beautiful. Favorite track: “Goose Snow Cone
  4. Phoebe Bridgers — Stranger in the Alps. I came to Bridgers late, thanks to a tip from a friend. Bridgers is an LA-based songwriter who dwells in the Julien Baker sonic realm (think heavy reliance on electric guitar and generally hushed but penetrating vocals)  but, in my opinion, writes more interesting songs. Her sound drew me in, and her lyrics kept me there. Favorite track: “Georgia
  5. Sylvan Esso — What Now. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are Sylvan Esso. Another band based out of the Triangle, they both come from folk-ish backgrounds (Meath with Mountain Man, Sanborn with Megafaun) but discard that for electro-dance-pop. Heaven has no joys like a Sylvan Esso live show, if you ever get the chance. Favorite track: “The Glow
  6. Tyler Childers — Purgatory. There is a very tiresome tribal assault that a lot of “REAL country music fans” enjoy waging against pop country, so I hope my advocacy of the Kentucky-based Childers’ debut record isn’t misconstrued as me wading into country’s authenticity wars. I just think this is a damn good record. Produced by Sturgill Simpson, it will appeal to people who like Simpson, but I think it will also appeal to people who don’t. Childers is a more interesting lyricist and a better vocalist than Simpson, in my mind. Favorite track: “Feathered Indians
  7. Rhiannon Giddens — Freedom Highway. The second solo release from Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is pretty stunning. Although Giddens is often classified in the bluegrass genre, she’s not easy to pin down. This record draws from long traditions of roots music in general and black freedom songs in particular, with truly moving results that include explorations of enslaved persons having loved ones sold and reminiscences on the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. Bonus: her keynote address at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards this year is an awesome exploration of diversity and roots music. Favorite track: “Birmingham Sunday
  8. Open Mike Eagle — Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Mike Eagle grew up in the shadow of Chicago’s famous Robert Taylor Homes, and this record is a testament to the community there. The sonics here are smooth as hell, eschewing abrasiveness for texture. Intricate and soft-spoken yet nevertheless pointed and crucial, Eagle’s record holds up to any piece of songwriting that came out this year, whether in the hip-hop genre or otherwise. Favorite track: “Legendary Iron Hood
  9. The War on Drugs — A Deeper Understanding. There aren’t many players these days who can play a few opening notes and be immediately identified based on guitar tone alone. Working under the moniker “The War on Drugs,” Adam Granduciel is one of them. A virtuoso of the instrument and a fantastic composer of soundscapes, Granduciel writes great spaced-out but still really interesting rock, and is really in his element here. You could say that this War on Drugs record sounds like most War on Drugs records, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s a formula that works. Favorite track: “Up All Night
  10. Big Thief — Capacity. Big Thief comes out of Brooklyn, and I guess is “folk rock” even though I don’t think the label fits that well. (I’m not even sure what the label means these days, despite me using it throughout this piece.) Adrianne Lenker fronts the band, and she is a master at songs about family and about trauma. (And sometimes about family trauma.) She is also a remarkably strong writer when it comes to living inside the characters in her songs. These songs can be painful, but they are almost always powerful. Favorite track: “Mythological Beauty
  11. Waxahatchee — Out in the Storm. Katie Crutchfield is Waxahatchee, and she and her band are at their best on this, her fourth record. Listening to Crutchfield can produce some serious emotional swings (she literally asks the question “The margin’s gigantic, am I happy or manic” on this record), but the instrumentation is driving, the vocals are great, and the songs are strong. Favorite track: “Silver
  12. Cameron Graves — Planetary Prince. Graves is a jazz pianist, and was part of the ensemble who played on Kamasi Washington’s sprawling, masterful The Epic. For Planetary Prince, Graves basically reassembled that same core ensemble (including Washington), and while it doesn’t match up to Washington’s record, it is still really, really satisfying. Favorite track: “Satania Our Solar System
  13. Iron & Wine — Beast Epic. I completely lost interest in Iron & Wine a couple of records ago, so didn’t pay the release of Beast Epic a lot of attention in the days leading up to its drop. I was wrong to not be excited about it. My complaint with Sam Beam’s recent work was that he experimented with new sonic ideas so much that he lost the core essence of what Iron & Wine had first been. (This is basically me saying that I want Beam to make the records I want him to make, not the records he wants to make, which is obviously unfair.) But this record gets back to basics while still drawing in some of the recent Iron & Wine experiments that did work. From the first track through the last, this left me really satisfied. Favorite track: “Claim Your Ghost
  14. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound. Like certain other LGM writers, my love for Isbell’s work goes back to his days with the Drive-By Truckers. (Beyond my life as an academic and writer, I moonlight as a singer-songwriter and got a chance to share a bill with Isbell a few years ago in Wisconsin, and I can confidently call that a highlight of an otherwise pretty unremarkable second career.) The Nashville Sound finds Isbell and his band blending the quiet acoustics of Southeastern with some of the more churning electrics of of his days with DTB. This isn’t my favorite Isbell record, but it’s still really damn good. Favorite track: “Tupelo
  15. Valerie June — The Order of Time. Singer-songwriter Valerie June’s voice is as distinctive an instrument as any out there, and her writing is superb. She blends folk and gospel in a way that captures some of the best parts of both. She often sounds world-weary when she sings, but it works perfectly for the things she sings about — especially because this new record is largely and on multiple levels a lyrical exploration of time. Favorite track: “Long Lonely Road
  16. BROCKHAMPON — Saturation II. This hip-hop collective comes out of Texas and is now based in L.A. They’re insanely young, insanely ambitious (they released three records this year alone), and insanely good. This record may have ended up higher on my list if I’d had more time to spend with it, but I didn’t get tipped to them until a couple of weeks ago. As my buddy that provided said tip put it, “Imagine Odd Future, but better.” Indeed. Favorite track: “Gummy
  17. Hurray for the Riff Raff — The Navigator. I will never forget the first time I heard Hurray for the Riff Raff. I was living in Madison, WI and wandered to a free lakeside festival on a Sunday afternoon to watch my friends in a band called Communist Daughter play. They were followed by HFTRR, and from the second that Alynda Lee Segarra and company launched into “Blue Ridge Mountain,” I was hooked. On The Navigator, Segarra very intentionally blends influences from her Puerto Rican heritage in with the Americana sound that fans of hers have come to know and love. The results are excellent. Favorite track: “Living in the City
  18. John Moreland — Big Bad Luv. Loomis and I both love Oklahoma-based John Moreland. Another distinctive voice and excellent writer, Moreland produces some of the saddest songs imaginable, but rarely do they feel melodramatic. I didn’t love this record to the same degree that I loved his previous one (High on Tulsa Heat), but it’s got some exceptional offerings. Favorite track: “Old Wounds
  19. Susto —  & I’m Fine Today. Five-piece Charleston-based psych-folk-rock band Susto explores a lot of different subjects here, from substance abuse to, as one track is titled being “Gay in the South.” It’s not a totally even record, but the good parts are really good. Favorite track:  “Hard Drugs
  20. Algiers — The Underside of Power. Algiers is a polarizing band, in my experience. Drawing heavily from punk, gospel, and hip-hop traditions, Algiers’ sound could maybe be best described as “barely controlled chaos mixed with not-at-all-controlled fury.” The first single they ever put out into the world, “Blood,” is still one of the most arresting music videos I’ve watched. The Underside of Power picks up where their previous work left off, but brims even more intensely with anger, anguish, and defiance. It begins with a Fred Hampton soundbite re: doing battle with “the pigs,” and continues from there. Sonically it is most assuredly not for everyone, but if there’s any record that best captures how we should all be feeling about 2017, this is probably it. Favorite track: “Cry of the Martyrs
  21. Lilly Hiatt — Trinity Lane. My history of listening to Lilly Hiatt is very, very short, but so many people I admire were talking about her new record when it came out that I had to check it out for myself. The critics are right: this is a fantastic assemblage of driving, burning songs. Favorite track: “Records
  22. Humbird — Elsewhere Where Else EPs. Full disclosure: Minneapolis’ Siri Undlin, who records as Humbird, is a friend of mine, so take this with a grain of salt. But the two EPs that she put out this year are beautiful pieces of work, which lean heavily on Siri’s deft lyricism, transcendent voice, and compositional skills that make me jealous every time we play together. My favorite track captures 2017 in this country pretty well: “This is the same America, but I don’t recognize a thing.” Favorite track: “Kansas City
  23. Colter Wall — Colter Wall. Colter Wall gets forced into country music’s culture wars in the same way that Tyler Childers does (maybe even more so than Childers does), even though a lot of his stuff evokes folk singers like Greg Brown as much as anything else. Regardless, Wall’s unforgettable voice (listen to him and try to wrap your head around the fact that he’s only 22) and stripped-bare style make for some fantastic songs. Favorite track: “Motorcycle
  24. The Wild Reeds — The World We Built. The Wild Reeds are fronted by a threesome of excellent players and singers in Kinsey Lee, Mackenzie Howe, and Sharon Silva. Some of their songs are hushed and lean heavily on harmonies; others explode into good-old fashioned rock-and-roll. They played twice at a local venue in Indianapolis this year, and both shows were highlights of the concert-going year for me. Favorite track: “Fix You Up
  25. Haim — Something To Tell You. If you love 80s/90s anthemic pop songs that lean on synths and really bold production, this is the record for you. It is fun as hell. Favorite track: “Want You Back

Five for the road:

  1. The Weather Station, The Weather Station 
  2. Los Colognes, The Wave
  3. Vic Mensa, The Autobiography
  4. Big K.R.I.T, 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time
  5. Molly Tuttle, Rise
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