It would be inaccurate to define 2017 as a year of comebacks, given that many classic groups have also made their return in 2016. I would consider it, however, a year of disappointments: some of its most notable releases, coming from recent popular acts and classic bands alike, have very much failed to live up to expectations. In cases such as Arcade Fire, these new albums are seen as career low points. Of course, all of this is rather subjective, but I find it also safe to state that there have not been any “instant consensus classics” in the same vein as To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) or Blackstar (2016) this year either. However, even then, 2017 is not devoid of memorable releases.
This list is non-definite: not only can the difference in quality between two different records be very arbitrary, but my feelings on them and their placement can change as time goes on and as I listen to more releases that have come out this year. For the time being, these are the best albums to come out in 2017.
#10: Sparks – Hippopotamus
RANK: Alpha (High 7/10 – Low 8/10)
It has been 9 years since the previous real Sparks album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008). I considered it a disappointment back when I first listened to it, as I felt its focus on acoustic instrumentation (piano, strings) felt rather stale, especially since the two records before that did the same thing as well. While their 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand (FFS) was a nice stopgap, I yearned for more of the rock material that made their 1970s output so great.
Hippopotamus is not at all a return to their glam era, but it is an effective summation of their career so far, juggling between rock, chamber pop, and synthpop. What is most reassuring is that, even after all these years, the group’s classic sense of humor is still alive and well, and the opener “Missionary Position”, which could have fit on a glam rock effort like Propaganda (1973), amply demonstrates this. Perhaps a couple of songs could have been removed, but otherwise, this is just about up to the group’s standard.
#9: Dopplereffekt – Cellular Automata
RANK: Beta (Low 8/10 – Solid 8/10)
In hindsight, there doesn’t seem to have been many notable releases when it comes to electronic, which explains why my favorite of 2017 in this category goes to something that I came upon at random. Cellular Automata is very reminiscent of early 70s progressive electronic such as Tangerine Dream, but the contemporary production values make the songs sound both retro and modern at the same time. The mood is cold, mechanical, and ominous, and although some cuts suffer from a repetitive structure, the album as a whole hardly outstays its welcome due to its modest 38-minute length.
#8: Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
A few days into 2017, Phil Elverum, mastermind of folk project Mount Eerie, announced a new record following the passing of his wife Genevieve in 2016. A Crow Looked at Me is one of the most discussed albums of the year, and for many, it’s the primary contender for the best of 2017 also. Coming into it, I partly expected it to make little of an impression, since it was my introduction to Elverum’s output, but to my surprise, the opposite was true. This might be a tough nut to crack, given the understated melodies, direct lyricism, and bare instrumentation, but these three aspects work together to create a crushing, lonely atmosphere that I haven’t often heard. Admittedly, the record loses steam as it goes on, but even with its lack of musical variety, it’s a unique and worthwhile effort.
#7: Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
Folk group Fleet Foxes are recognizable for their lush sound, two essential components of which are the elaborate instrumentation and vocal harmonies present in their music. When listening to their first two records back to back, it’s easy to see the complexity of their material increase over time, and their new effort Crack-Up goes further down this road with their most intricate songs so far. The song structures are more daring, but most importantly, the scale is unprecedented, and thanks to the excellent production, some parts of the album (“I Am All That I Need […]”, “Third of May […]”) sound massive. Still, this does not take precedence over the multitude of memorable hooks and melodies, and the quieter moments are roughly as beautiful (“Kept Woman”) as the more bombastic ones. Aside from a few lesser cuts in the second half, Crack-Up is very consistent, and not far behind their 2008 debut as the peak of their discography.
#6: Ride – Weather Diaries
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
Back in 2013, the highly celebrated shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine made their studio return with m b v. In 2017, two other touchstones of the genre did the same: Ride and Slowdive. The former don’t seem to have gotten as much attention as their contemporaries in that regard, which is a shame, as Weather Diaries is a perfectly respectable return, roughly as good as their sophomore Going Blank Again (1992). What’s interesting is that, even though Ride’s classic output stands out in part because of its copious energy, this record has them experiment much more with atmosphere. The 7-minute title track, incidentally the album’s high point, best demonstrates this, with its melancholic mood and gradual increase in intensity, but the material that is more in line with their style, such as “Cali”, is notable as well.
As with the previous efforts on this list, a few numbers (the inconsequential “Lateral Alice” and “Integration Tape”) could have been removed to make for a more concise package. Nevertheless, Weather Diaries is a highly solid shoegaze release, and amply recommended for Ride fans.
#5: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
When it comes to some well-known bands and artists, they tend to put out albums every one or two years in their early stages, and as they turn into legacy acts, the span of time between records becomes larger and larger, sometimes reaching into a decade. Even then, however, it’s rare to see an act come up with more than one record a year. It’s with this in mind that King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s gimmick for 2017 is particularly interesting: they have released five different albums, each with a different experiment, whether it involves spoken word, jazz rock, or progressive rock. As daring as that is, the quality of the output varies greatly from one effort to another, with some being rather forgettable.
In the end, their first release of the year, Flying Microtonal Banana, is easily the strongest out of the five. Its use of microtonal tuning, combined with hypnotic krautrock-like grooves and elements of Turkish folk, gives it a fascinating post-apocalyptic / spaghetti western flair. In addition, the songs are very addictive (the opening “Rattlesnake” most of all). While the more energetic numbers are all at the start of the record, the last five tracks do a perfectly good job easing the tension that accumulates in the first half. This is the group’s one outing of 2017 that I recommend to newcomers or listeners who have only heard the preceding Nonagon Infinity (2016).
#4: The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
RANK: Beta (Solid 8/10)
Every year, it seems that I introduce myself to a group with a release that turns out to be one of my favorites for said year. I haven’t heard something quite like the War on Drugs’ fourth album A Deeper Understanding before: in parts driving Bruce Springsteen-style pop rock, in parts synthesizer-heavy pop, in parts Dire Straits prog, it feels gigantic, and bears a sound that doesn’t attach itself to any particular era. At its peak, it’s an outright classic, with the wistful 11-minute “Thinking of a Place” standing as one of the great songs of the year. At its worst, it remains very good. However, A Deeper Understanding still clocks in at more than an hour with only ten tracks, most of which last more than 6 minutes; by the time the end rolls around, the album feels a bit overlong. Cut out some of the fluff and it could rank even higher, but as is, it’s an experience well worth investing an hour into.
#3: Slowdive – Slowdive
RANK: Beta / Gamma (High 8/10)
As mentioned before, Slowdive have returned this year as well, and their new album is superior to Ride and MBV’s own comebacks. Slowdive yields nothing particularly experimental, but the most important difference between this and their earlier output is the cleaner, punchier sound. As great as, say, Souvlaki is, the abundance of reverb there can get overwhelming, and this issue is hardly present in Slowdive. After that, all there is to say is that the material is often fantastic — the only cut I would consider removing is “Don’t Know Why”. Otherwise, it’s highlight after highlight, with the more interesting numbers including the vigorous “Star Roving” (the energy reminds me of Chapterhouse, for that matter) and the subdued piano-based closer “Falling Ashes”.
#2: Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
RANK: Gamma (Low 9/10)
I will not go into too much detail, as I have already reviewed Villains, but while I would actually consider it my favorite album of 2017, it has flaws that prevent me from considering it the best. The main issue is that its over-sanitized production, which compromises a good deal of the Queens of the Stone Age sound, makes it feel less like a major step in the group’s evolution and more like a one-off experiment or fluke. Still, with songs as brilliant as “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, “Un-Reborn Again”, and “The Evil Has Landed”, Villains remains a more than worthy hard rock album, and I think that fans of that type of music will definitely get something out of it.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT:
#1: Gorillaz – Humanz: It’s impressive that an album that fails so badly at retaining its band’s core identity somehow remains a relative highlight of the year thanks to the quality of its songs.
#2: Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog: Mac DeMarco’s most mellow effort yet, adding cleaner production and a touch of synthpop to his folk pop style. Possibly his best so far.
#3: 岡部啓一 [Keiichi Okabe] & 帆足圭吾 [Keigo Hoashi] – NieR:Automata: a mix of electronic, ambient, and orchestral music. With a duration of nearly 4 hours, it’s much easier to digest in the context of the video game itself, but it has a lot of memorable cuts.
#4: Godflesh – Post Self: . The material is rather front-loaded, but I can see the album grow on me as time goes on.
#5: Neil Cicierega – Mouth Moods: Neil Cicierega’s new comedy mashup record is the better produced and most intricate of the “Mouth” series, with many surprisingly strong combinations (Oasis’ “Wonderwall” paired with Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”!).
#1: LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
RANK: Delta (Solid 9/10)
One of the big names of the “dance-punk” genre, LCD Soundsystem originally broke up in 2011 after a well-documented farewell concert at Madison Square Garden (see the movie Shut Up and Play the Hits as well as the live release The Long Goodbye). With this in mind, their reunion in 2015 soured some people’s view of the band, believing that they had intentionally overplayed the importance of the show for the sake of making more money. I cannot speak for whether this feeling is justified or not, but I can say this: their return was worth it, because American Dream is easily their best album.
As with LCDS’ first three records, the music therein consists of hypnotic dance cuts, but in stark contrast to the sharp minimalism of its predecessors, Dream also uses a range of synthesizer parts, giving the songs a maximalist feel that gels extremely well with their already anthemic style. Some songs also stray away from dance-punk and into post-punk or new wave, but on the whole, most of the cuts are career highlights. They are too many to list, but among them, “Call the Police” (an explosive rocker comparable to David Bowie’s “Heroes”) and “American Dream” (a very powerful ballad, perhaps the group’s most emotional cut) are particularly brilliant. American Dream has the allure of a climactic and important album, and with songs of this quality to back up this style, it deserves the title of the best release of 2017.
Happy new year!
What parts of this list do you agree or disagree with? What were your favorite albums of 2017? Be sure to post a comment and share your thoughts.