The 2nd Quarter’s Best Albums of 2017 evened out the year to a consistent rhythm of strong, if not revolutionary, albums from new and old artists alike. Oh, and a wallop from the Best Rapper Alive.
Settling into the rhythm of a year of music isn’t something that most non-critics think about. With the exception of the hip-hop explosion of the early part of 2016, years don’t evince any sort of concentrated story, save for the “prestige releases” that come out in early fall, and the “hot singles” that come out in early May.
2017, though, has relaxed into one hell of a vibe, providing a steady stream of enjoyable releases that hold on for a couple of weeks of consistent listening before fading away into the next relatively similar release. The second quarter of the year, and it’s best albums, markedly draw this trend. The difference between #15 and #2 on this list isn’t gigantic (the gap between everyone and #1 is), but for the sake of a listener looking for a relatively constant stream of interesting variations on themes, all the better.
The third quarter of this year promises to be something of a curveball in this rhythm, however. With big releases expected of The National, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Sheer Mag, War on Drugs (let’s not even mention HAIM) and a slew of others, July to September promises a rocky road of breathless debate about whether Arcade Fire have been good for the last decade (I’m not so sure) and whether, 20 years on, we won’t be referring to The National as essentially the Grateful Dead of our era (pity us, I swear).
In the meantime, below are the Best Albums of the 2nd Quarter of 2017.
15. Tara Jane O’Neil – Tara Jane O’Neil
A dreamlike bit of folk minimalism, O’Neil’s ninth studio album under her own name serves as a languid outpouring of well-executed guitar tone and ambient fill. O’Neil’s voice glides beneath spindling guitar melodies, provided by both O’Neil and collaborator (and masterful guitar virtuoso) James Elkington. When the guitars fade away, O’Neil finds an element to her singer-songwriter existence that had previously not made itself known: “Joshua” employs piano thumps and kick drums to slowly roll the dream along, only interjecting pedal steel or plucked electric guitar where necessary. It’s an easy, contemplative listen, but vastly rewarding for O’Neil’s command of her form.
Key Tracks: “Joshua,” “Cali,” “Great”
14. White Reaper – The World’s Greatest American Band
The Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life of the early Aughts, Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom expertly chronicles the heady days when The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend and Interpol were reinventing rock n’ roll in their own image, garnering the slobbering praise of every critic eager to see New York become a cultural mecca again. While that era has faded from view (all five bands still exist, if you can call what they’re doing existing), White Reaper is a stark reminder of what made the era so exciting in the first place. Combining the snotty flavors of those early NYC bands with the bombast and braggadocio of rock revivalists like Free Energy, World’s Best revels (unironically, praise the Maker) in solos, pounding snares begging for handclaps, and copious “woah-oh-ohs.” But dismissing White Reaper as another coattail rider of a genre that is rapidly falling out of favor (that new Japandroids isn’t very good, anyway) would be to discount the earnest, good faith effort the band puts in to make the product as excellently of itself as possible.
Key Tracks: “Judy French”
13. (Sandy) Alex G – Rocket
Weirdo Bandcamp folk superstar (Sandy) Alex G would put an incongruous mountain goat and candy caned album title on his cover. In what could be labeled intolerable schtick or fascinating idiosyncrasy, Rocket is a totem of Alex G’s manic obsession with cramming as many disparate ideas into the generic “white boy sings folk in his bedroom” formula and seeing if the resulting concoction holds together. Thankfully, Rocket is frequently a revelation, a competently executed (if loose in place, on purpose of course) collection of oddball gems, from the lounge keyboards of “County,” the dissonant, percussive electro-doom of “Horse,” the garage-slash “Brick,” to the roots-riddled and profound “Powerful Man” or “Proud.” Yet in a surprising turn, the greatest track — “Sportstar,” a candidate for Song of the Year — is a paean to autotuned hip-hop hooks, balladeering piano and The Edge-style guitar squeals, all nestled among Alex’s enthralling ode to modern fandom and obsession. It’s a masterfully crafted bit of bonkers music and reflects the best of the curveballs Rocket is able to throw at the listener.
Key Tracks: “Sportstar,” “Proud,” “Powerful Man,” “Bobby”
12. Thunder Dreamer – Capture
On their second record, Indiana-based indie-rock newcomers Thunder Dreamer found a formula that only makes sense if you know the relationship of the core ingredients going in. It’s hard to square how much the title track sounds like late period The Shins played by a breakthrough emo band if you don’t know how much of an All-Star The Shins’ James Mercer was for being so emotionally vulnerable on his early work like Oh, Inverted World. Similarly, it’s easy to dismiss the post-rock of “You Know Me” without first listening to the Rogue Wave emo of Cymbals Eat Guitars’ fourth album LOSE. Yet, even without some of the core competency to understand the jumping-off points the band makes from their former rootsy Midwestern rock base, Capture is still a certifiable gold vibes record, mostly mid-tempo rockers accentuated by pretty, existentialist-tipped falsetto.
Key Tracks: “You Know Me,” “St-Malo,” “Victoria”
11. Big Thief – Capacity
Big Thief seemed poised for a successful, unsurprising career as yet another in a seemingly endless stream of roots-rock and alt-country bands seeking middling fame and consistent festival spots around the country. Then they made Capacity, an intimate, off-kilter gem of a record that sets them starkly apart from their companions. Whether it’s the noise-rock touches in the first few tracks (skittering drums all over “Pretty Things,” the beginning salvo of “Shark Smile”) or the hyper-focus of tracks like “Coma” and “Mary,” which leave Adrianne Lenker alone to wrestle with sensual and erotic relationships swimming among a sea of precisely placed romanticism and familial violence, Capacity is masterfully executed, highlighting the entrancing voice and guitar work of Lenker, whose spotlight as a vulnerable protagonist all over the record only underlines the stratosphere that Big Thief have opened up for themselves for the future.
Key Tracks: “Mary,” “Coma,” “Mythological Beauty,” “Capacity”
10. Cayetana – New Kind of Normal
In the long line of bands who didn’t make it past album one (RIP, ROMP, stay tight forever), Cayetana seemed fated to not make a mark. Yet after getting dropped from a label hell they didn’t anticipate, the band regrouped, formed their own sub-label, and made a record simultaneously free of expectations and commanding attention. New Kind of Normal is a deeper, wider Cayetana, capable of propelling past their pop-punk framework into secondary genres (“Dust,” “World” are dark rock at their best). Augusta Koch’s voice feels liberated, worn down by time yet energized by emotional heft (“Am I Dead Yet,” “Too Old for This”), and the band have never been braver with their sequencing; the second half of New Kind of Normal dares to slow the pace quite a bit below the mid-tempo, resulting in a dissonant second half that achieves exactly what the band were going for — this is the world Cayetana have chosen for themselves.
Key Tracks: “Dust,” “Mesa,” “Bus Ticket”
9. Palehound – A Place I’ll Always Go
Wedging herself neatly in between releases by the reigning indie-rock queens Allison and Katie Crutchfield, Ellen Kempner’s Palehound project turns in a powerful, intimate record about escaping constraints both physical and mental in order to achieve something close to peace. Following landmark releases last year by Mitski, Speedy Ortiz and this year’s bevy of garage rock (Crutchfields, Chastity Belt, Girlpool, Adult Mom, Vagabon, Charly Bliss, Pile, just for a few), A Place I’ll Always Go operates in a middle path that never feels like it needs to explode a la “Your Best American Girl,” maintain an almost uncomfortable intimacy (early Waxahatchee) or trade on power-pop or disparate genre elements (Charly Bliss, more on them later). Instead, Palehound hit a solid double into the gap of effective and honest indie rock storytelling.
Key Tracks: “Flowing Over,” “If You Met Her,” “Feeling Fruit”
8. Kevin Morby – City Music
As he continues to carve out his place in the Laurel Canyon folk pantheon, Kevin Morby always manages to get upstaged by lesser, more grandiose artists. This year, Father John Misty’s miserable album Pure Comedy stole headlines from the release of a similarly directed, yes more precisely and evocatively created folk-rock album, Morby’s City Music. Where his last record, 2016’s Singing Saw, focused intently and unevenly on Morby’s introverted psyche, City Music feels at peace with the restless heart of the player and is channeling that restless heart into themes of loneliness and isolation that can arise from being in the crush of humans in the big city.
Key Tracks: “Come to Me Now,” “Tin Can,” “1234,” “Downtown’s Lights”
7. Rozwell Kid – Precious Art
The mileage you get out of Precious Art, Rozwell Kid’s sophomore LP and (hopefully) their big break, depends on the degree of acceptance you have for Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and his self-deprecating humor. Propulsive opening single “Wendy’s Trash Can” is hilarious for its visual specificity, but also packs a puncher’s fist of “reality ain’t nothing like my dreams” insecurity. This visual focus never lets up (“South By” is an amazing piano ballad about finding parking at SXSW), but truly takes full flight on the chugging “Booger,” which, yes, while gross, manages to achieve a soaring romantic sentiment while talking about nasal discharge. Rozwell Kid are what Rooney could’ve been had they taken themselves less seriously, or what Diarrhea Planet could be if they stopped focusing on winning a Grammy so John Legend has to say their band name. If you don’t laugh listening to “Wish Man,” then maybe Precious Art isn’t for you… but I’m not sure why you wouldn’t.
Key Tracks: “Wendy’s Trash Can,” “Booger,” “Wish Man”
6. Charly Bliss – Guppy
Vibrant power-pop has become such a dirty word genre, it’s a revelation to hear Charly Bliss’ Guppy use Moog synthesizers and a superbly bubble gum-punk Eva Hendricks vocal to genuine, meaningful effect. Guppy is the long-awaited sophomore album from Charly Bliss, three years after their breakthrough debut Soft Serve, and seemingly every guitar has been punched to its highest fuzz point and the narratives evince a post-teen adult childishness (“I laughed when your dog died / It’s cruel but it’s true / Take me back for my soft side / Does he love most now that his dog is toast?”). Songs that trend more toward the pop side (the effortless chorus of glitter) and the chugging punk notes of “DQ” meld seamlessly together, forming a “punk rock cheerleader” persona that the band probably would hold as a badge of honor. And they should.
Key Tracks: “Glitter,” “Scare U,” “DQ”
5. Benjamin Booker – Witness
Mavis Staples is magic. This isn’t some particular revelation, or it shouldn’t be if you’re reading this article. But sometimes, like the video of her and Wilco performing “The Weight” in a dressing room before a show, floor you with Staples’ transformative wizardly. Just so, former noise-blues rocker Benjamin Booker gets a comparatively small cameo from Staples on the title track of his new LP, and suddenly Booker turns into a full-fledged blues rock star, dropping 25% of the noisey background and exploding into the stratosphere occupied by late period Staples and ascendant stars like Leon Bridges. Come for the noise-punk memories of “Right on You,” stay for the rest of this smooth drink of whiskey of an album.
Key Tracks: “Right on You,” “Witness,” “Off the Ground”
4. Tigers Jaw – Spin
Over ten years into their career, and now on their second album as, technically, a duo, Tigers Jaw continue to define what it means to be a consistent emo-punk band, never drastically veering from the sound that got them to the dance, but subtly tweaking their artistry, adding touches that only make the end result seem more precise. Just so, Spin takes liberally from shoegaze history, filling out the duo’s sometimes spare take on emo with wall of sound rock and shoegaze guitars. Ben and Brianna aren’t going away anytime soon, and Spin only further establishes Tigers Jaw as a band worthy of their namechecking by newer and more buzzy bands (peep that Camp Cope shoutout though).
Key Tracks: “Guardian,” “Brass Ring,” “Favorite”
3. Adult Mom – Soft Spots
Stephanie Knape, yet another in a growing dominant genre of emo-tilted songwriters taking their writerly intimacy to whole new levels, maintains a soft eroticism and distance in her fourth Adult Mom LP, Soft Spots. The zippy “Full Screen” talks about the effect that porn and romantic comedies have on a sexual relationship, and the repeated reference to the title of the album provides an argument against retreat and sensitivity. “There is a friction between what I want and what I need” Knape observes on “Steal the Lake from the Water,” and it’s not a particularly revelatory observation. However, Soft Spots is sharply recognized and cataloged, carried out with neat specificity, accentuating Knape’s considerable songwriting chops while deftly indicating toward a full band future for the solo project.
Key Tracks: “Full Screen,” “J Station,” “Same”
2. Harmony Woods – Nothing Special
Understanding a relationship through the actions that are done together is not especially new, but Sofia Verbilla manages to make her debut as Harmony Woods exist and thrive precisely on this energy. Standout lead single “Jenkintown-Wyncote” pivots on the worth of seven dollars to take a train to see a lover. “Negro y Azul” concentrates on the face of a lover as they watch a particularly brutal episode of Breaking Bad. “Parking Lot” is about the inability to move the car after being a funeral. All the while Verbilla twists the phrase “oh god I think I might need you” around her narratives, inserting commas in different places to make sure we’re never sure whether she’s talking about god, a lover, or herself. A chance meeting with fellows associated with Modern Baseball got Verbilla the outreach she needed to release her debut. Her next one should be waited on with bated breath.
Key Tracks: “Jenkintown-Wyncote,” “Renovations,” “Vignette #2”
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
The world warmed up to Kendrick’s game, so of course, he was going to start playing a different game. Two years after “Alright” became an anthem of the righteous movement of Americans fed up with the way the police treat minorities, and after “i” took an Isley Brothers tune and made it a blissful engagement of one’s insecurity in the face of those who would have you killed.
Then, DAMN, a moment about being weaponized as an artist. A moment about the anger of being used by the media, by the audience, and by his fellow artists. Kendrick has been so unfairly tied to Drake that DAMN can scarcely be seen as anything but at least a small amount of Drake shade. That Kendrick is back to “rapping” is almost an admission that everybody is just reaching for the clouds where Kendrick sits on a regular basis — his technique is so devastatingly precise on DAMN that it makes the free-form spoken word poetry of To Pimp a Butterfly feel a cut above. There’s Kendrick pushing the industrial second half of “DNA” to its breaking point. There’s Kendrick taking absolutely all of Drake and The Weeknd’s toys and killing them on “LOVE.” There’s “HUMBLE,” god.
DAMN is further proof that Kendrick is as inscrutable and slithery as the media and most other rappers in his era would want him not to be. He, and to a lesser extent, Vince Staples, are massive marketable commodities. Both could be Jay-Z circa 1999 if they wanted to. Yet both are locked down on telling their own particular black experience, however divisive that experience might be (Staples’ The Big Fish Theory is nothing if not divisive).
Yet Lamar, ever the hyper-intelligent technician he is, crafts DAMN to look like the most accessible Kendrick LP, even when it’s pivoting on a dime into uncharted territory for modern hip-hop. Its flow remains unassailable, his beats just south of the same. DAMN is yet another marker of an artist in full control of his being, unafraid to make art that wanders away from commerce because, as almost anybody knows, the audience will follow.
Kendrick is miles above everyone else and feels like he’s still ascending.
Key Tracks: “LOVE,” “HUMBLE,” “GOD,” “YAH”
11 Best Songs Not Featured on The Above Albums
11. Ryuichi Sakamoto – “andata” – Contemporary classical doesn’t often crack the best-of list literati’s purview, yet Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async is a fascinating trinket of the exploding modern classical movement, most often typified through soundtracks. “Andata” is a echoing, dark lamentation, pushed forward by choir organ and piano but flooded with cymbal noise and tape fuzz; a heavy-handed metaphor, if a well-executed one.
10. GAS – “Narkopop 7” – GAS turned in one of the most interesting ambient song cycles in a long time with Narkopop, and it feels somewhat cheap to highlight just one of the tracks that so effortlessly work together. Yet to go this entire article without mentioning Narkopop would be irresponsible of me, so here goes: “Narkopop 7” is a transcendent bit of realization ambiance, constantly appearing on the edge of an anthem, but the centrifugal force of the beat keeps the emotions tightly wound around a slow, womp-womp core. It’s a testament to GAS’ entire project — ambient that achieves an expansive array of feeling, while employ little of that obvious feeling in the composition itself.
9. Daddy Issues – “Boys of Summer” – It feels slightly wrong to put a cover in a best songs list, but Daddy Issues’ cover of Bryan Adams’ classic lecherous teenage cars-and-girls fantasy is such a wonderful, grunge-ground dirge it’s almost enough to believe the song is their own.
8. Planetarium – “Saturn” – Planetarium is the (obviously) weird baby of Brooklyn Indie Hall of Fame members Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, James McAlister and Bryce Dessner (The National), charged with crafting songs about all of the matter in our Solar System. While the rest of the songs are alternatingly vibe-y and gorgeous, “Saturn” is only one to really achieve enough terminal velocity to ascend from the weird project’s gravity and stand on its own, mostly due to the clubby thump-thump that turns on the song’s final third. Stevens’ voice is ideally suited for astrological autotune, and Muhly keeps the disparate pieces in place for long enough not to completely fall apart.
7. Head North – “By Presidential Decree” – As fourth generation emo ages (oh god, what will I do now), the onus on new emo-leaning acts will be to provide a way forward for the genre that can keep it on the forefront of musical awareness, instead of again falling into the hands of Pete Wentz-style bad actors. While Head North’s record The Last Living Man Alive Ever in the History of the World doesn’t quite chart the course directly, opening single “By Presidential Decree” blends roots-rock anthemism with typical emo wanderlust. Hell, the kid’s talking about escaping town in a Chevy.
6. SZA – “Doves in the Wind” – The breakout hip-hop star of this year so far, SZA combines the horny musings of late-90s, early 2000s Ashanti and Missy Elliott with the blurred out afterparty beats of Solange, all filtered through SZA’s own incisive, insecure yet cutting observational poetry. “Doves in the Wind” garners notoriety for most clearly highlighting SZA’s apparent obsession with Forrest Gump metaphors, yet the song is also a wonderful little ditty about a woman’s ability to own their own sexual proclivities and decisions. TDE labelmate Kendrick Lamar drops in for an amazing verse that, as virtuosic as Kendrick is on everything lately, feels like K.Dot trying to keep up with SZA’s profound and weird wanderings through the club, turned on yet constantly discerning.
5. Hazel English – “Love is Dead” – That Hazel English hasn’t released a proper full-length debut yet should be a crime. After a series of singles culminated in a magnificent EP last year, you’d have thought an LP was on the way. Instead, English teases again with “Love Is Dead,” another one-off single that maintains English’s former laser focus on pretty, electro-tinged indie-rock, sounding just that ideal combination of vulnerable, young and furtive enough to endear for a little while longer. If she doesn’t drop an LP soon, though, my goodness…
4. Waxahatchee – “Never Been Wrong” – As if it’s some sort of dark competition, Katie Crutchfield gave her sister Alison merely a few months of being the highlighted Crutchfield in the indie-rock landscape, then released this titan of a first single from her newest forthcoming record. An angry little screed against a partner, Crutchfield combines her prodigious indie-rock vocabulary with Waxahatchee’s history as a close-knit selection of folk-inspired indicators (the harmonious “everyone” midway through the song). At this rate, I hope the Battle of the Crutchfields continues forever, just for all this wonderful music we’re getting from it.
3. Perfume Genius – “Otherside” – For a moment, “Otherside” is yet another gorgeous opening to another pretty Perfume Genius record. Mike Hadreas’ vocal has never been frailer (somehow), and the piano plinks fall like rain into the mix. All of the sudden the roof erupts and the song is flooded with light, sparkling and twinkling into a blurry, huge haze of musical escapism. It’s an immediately winning moment, and blows up the expectations for Hadreas’ latest record, No Shape. What’s below is a pale live cover… find the original.
2. Girlpool – “It Gets More Blue” – Girlpool expanded and refined their sound for their second album, drawing a neat comparison to Death Cab for Cutie’s refinement into The Photo Album. Powerplant is not nearly the misstep that might indicate, yet it doesn’t have the asynchronous lovability of their debut. Yet “It Gets More Blue” is all Pacific Northwest indie-rock at it’s best, exploding from a little propulsive number into a cavernous chorus that rings of the potential Girlpool will hopefully more fully realize next time around.
1. Alvvays – “In Undertow” – A defiant throwback to the mid-Aughts indie-rock maximalism further whets the appetite for Alvvays’ second record, their presumptive takeover record. In one song, the band manage to sound as lyrically piercing as Courtney Barnett playing a Death Cab for Cutie song with the band from The New Pornographers. It’s unbelievable.