The Best Records of 2017’s 3rd Quarter featured surprises, reformations, explosive expansions, and iterative growth, sometimes all within the same record. It was a quarter of thinking about some of the most carefully curated bands and their intentions, while also marveling at the simplicity that comes from a lack of expectation.
As 2017 begins to make its final turn, the 3rd Quarter of the year offered up a bevy of surprises, a welcome change from the consistent, yet unremarkable albums of the 2nd Quarter (always excepting Kendrick Lamar). While some of the albums didn’t exactly live up to expectations (Alvvays got sort of lost in their fuzz, Grizzly Bear lost their way five years ago and The National have never sounded so rudderless, lyrically or sonically), others were there to more than pick up the slack, filling in necessary gaps next to the big releases that didn’t disappoint (Katie Crutchfield, who has never disappointed with anything, ever).
Then, as if a bolt from the blue, surprises codified that this, despite the likely Album of the Year in a different quarter (Kung Fu Kenny!) has been the strongest qarter of the year so far. Check it out below.
12. Poppy Ackroyd – Sketches
Sketches is one of those albums you almost don’t even think you’re listening to as its happening. Ackroyd so deftly blends her unique blend of modern classical piano, violin and multi-instrumental composition into each movement that it’s a wonder she hasn’t been tapped to do soundtracks. Still, Sketches feels essential to her development, and a unique piece among the bevy of atmospheric classical releases of the year.
11. Katie Ellen – Cowgirl Blues
After the demise of Chumped (god, RIP Chumped), I was worried for a while that we might see Katie Ellen’s unique voice fade into obscurity (where you at, Madison Klarer of ROMP?!). Thankfully, she put out the wonderful single “TV Dreams” last year, and follows that up with a country-inspired take on pop-punk with Cowgirl Blues. The record covers the usual self-examination spiral of twentysomething indie songwriters, yet Ellen’s gaze has always been acutely focused on the subjects that make her most interesting. Consider this a better version of the country Best Coast turn.
Key Tracks: “Sad Girls Club,” “Wild Heart,” “Cowgirl Blues”
10. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet
After spending last year finishing up turning her diary entries regarding the death of her mother into the wonderful Psychopomp, I guess Michelle Zauner was ready to aim for the stratosphere with her sophomore Japanese Breakfast record. Soft Sounds is a leap into the cosmos, combining elements of Spiritualized’s space rock (“Diving Woman,”) and M83 danceable indie (“Machinist”). Plus, a surprising re-work of one of her greatest songs as Little Big League. It’s anyone’s guess where Japanese Breakfast might go next, but Zauner’s ambition couldn’t possibly exceed her grasp.
Key Tracks: “Boyish,” “Diving Woman,” “Planetary Ambiance”
9. Prawn – Run
Prawn are just one of those bands — Dowsing, Dads, Snowing, You Blew It!, Dikembe, Krill and others — that have been caught up in the massive emo wave of the past three years, brought on by The World Is A Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die, Pinegrove, and Into It. Over It. Their excellent Kingfisher came out a bit early for the crest of the wave, and Run might end up appearing a bit late for a straight down the middle interpretation of 4th wave emo. Yet it would be doing Prawn a vast disservice to disregard Run as a just-off-the-zeitgeist emo record, because the fastball down the middle that Prawn throws here is near unhittable. Combining groovy math riffs (“Hunter”) and shouted voices (“Hawk in My Head”) with welcome wanderings into alt-rock (“Northern Lynx”), Run is a naturalist emo whallop of a record, timing or no.
Key Tracks: “Hawk in My Head,” “Northern Lynx,” “Leopard’s Paw”
8. Great Grandpa – Plastic Cough
Plastic Cough is a tough listen if not fully prepared — “Weezer put through a meat grinder” might be the most appropriate. Singer Alex Menne’s voice is a warbly, squawking masterpiece, vacillating wildly as the scenery warps under her among vicious guitar riffs and chugging rhythm. If that doesn’t get you, and it might not, take a listen to the closing track, “28 Js Later,” which, as the pun indicates, is about Menne trying to navigate the zombie apocalypse while catatonically high. It’s a gem.
Key Tracks: “28 Js Later,” “All Things Must Behave / Eternal Friend,” “Fade”
7. Iron & Wine – Beast Epic
Sam Beam’s music has evolved from bedroom folk (The Creek Drank the Cradle) to dubby full band explosions (Shepherd’s Dog) to poppy AM folk-rock moodiness (Kiss Each Other Clean), so I wouldn’t fault you for being surprised that Beast Epic is the most digestible and up-front Iron & Wine record since Our Endless Numbered Days. While still retaining his full band, Beam turns in a record that sounds like a derivation of his earlier work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — the musicianship is top notch, and never has Beam’s voice been more suitably highlighted.
Key Tracks: “Claim Your Ghost,” “Call It Dreaming,” “Right for Sky”
6. Ratboys – GN
An expansive move from their jangle-rock debut AOID, Chicago’s Ratboys manage to bring together dirgy grunge, Americana rolling rhythms and focused perspective to create a sophomore album infinitely more interesting than most of the indie rock being put out by other bands this year.
Key Tracks: “Control,” “Molly,” “GM”
5. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm
At some point, Katie Crutchfield will make an album that isn’t a complete banger that simultaneously recalls her previous high-water marks with Waxahatchee while also investigating new soundscapes and narrative pathways. But 2017 is not that point. Out in the Storm is as emotionally vulnerable as Crutchfield has ever been, her craft and control over the sonics have never been greater, and the record is stultifying for its breadth of wisdom.
Key Tracks: “Recite Remorse,” “8 Ball,” “Brass Beam”
4. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
It didn’t seem possible after Lost in the Dream that The War on Drugs could get bigger, but Adam Granduciel somehow managed to bring Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen into the fold and fully explode A Deeper Understanding. While the title betrays a little of the “white boy woke bro” stigma that Granduciel is a little guilty of (something he’s always had since breaking away from Kurt Vile’s band), A Deeper Understanding is frequently as introspective as it is grand and sweeping. Through the album’s mammoth runtime (ten tracks, over an hour), Granduciel combines the most innovative and pulsating sounds the band has ever produced with moments of quiet self-awareness, as if the gigantic wall of guitar and synth were pushing him ever closer to a… cough… deeper understanding of himself.
Key Tracks: “Up All Night,” “Strangest Thing,” “Thinking of a Place”
3. Young Jesus – S / T
Emo points its way north steadily, and Young Jesus seem to be the next forebears of what might, someday, turn into emo’s “fifth wave.” While their sonics currently trend a little bit more toward Built To Spill-level indie rock, S / T is unabashed in its worship of the kind of TWIABP-esque post-rock blended with hardcore guitars. A last three tracks that clocks in at over twenty minutes never lingers in moments that feel unearned, and the more accessible, shorter tunes at the front half of the seven-track LP lay the framework for the final movements’ gyrations in sonic space. S / T is a calming listen, even for its sometimes shouted vocals or storming guitars — a introverted romance album concerning itself more with the geography of feelings than the outward explosions of emotions that fellow emo standard bearers-to-be might take on, and Young Jesus are an incredibly exciting band for it.
Key Tracks: “Desert,” “Storm,” “Eddy”
2. Brand New – Science Fiction
The first words of Science Fiction are a selection of a found cassette tape — “This tape recounts a dream…” — and it’s easy to interpret those words as any number of metaphors for the entire existence of Brand New’s eternally awaiting fifth studio album. Science Fiction was a surprise, yes, and in those heady moments, as enterprising fans uploaded CD copies to SoundCloud, the album felt very much like a dream. How was this possible? How was this Brand New, firmly divorced from the Jesus Lizard-worshipping grunge punk of Daisy or the feckless C-grade singles “Mene” or “I am A Nightmare”? Where did this Brand New come from? Then, realization — this is Brand New now, an almighty alt-rock burst from a chrysalis of sixteen years consuming pop-punk, emo and grunge to their own ends. Science Fiction feels like the end, but as an end it’s stultifyingly beautiful, fully formed and thought-out, less a comeback and more a “yes, your fandom was well placed, here we are.” That Science Fiction exists at all feels like a miracle. That it’s this good feels unfair.
Key Tracks: “Same Logic / Teeth,” “In the Water,” “Batter Up,” “Can’t Get It Out”
1. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps
When I put this list together and ended up with Phoebe Bridgers ahead of Brand New, I sort of stared for a moment, wondering how the debut album from a blossoming country-emo songwriter could possibly unseat a reunion album I had been dreaming of for nearly a decade. Yet Stranger In the Alps is that powerful, combining the introspection and razor-sharp wit of Julien Baker with prime-era Ryan Adams knowledge of alt-country song structures and Kathleen Edwards’ knack for crafting a poppy phrase out of depressive self-assessment — and Bridgers is a superstar in the making. Worthy of nights driving thinking of the one you love, or candlelit evenings spent trying to reckon with one’s lot in life, Stranger in the Alps is a ghost of an album, haunting the listener at every step with brief reprieves and shocking bloodletting in equal measure. It’s a startling debut, capable of captivating even the most jaded ear. For that, the Album of the Quarter.
Key Tracks: “Smoke Signals,” “Motion Sickness,” “Scott Street,” “Would You Rather”
10 Best Songs Not Featured on The Above Albums