Featuring a bevy of singer-songwriters, several ascendent stars, and the return of a few all-time great acts, the first quarter of 2017 did not disappoint with its Best Albums.
The first quarter of each year used to be a time of disappointment. When iTunes and Record Labels pulled down the majority of their money from physical sales or album-length downloads, Q1 was meant to be the place to throw chaff, since most of the key demographic had just spent their hard-earned money on Christmas gifts and other assorted winter ephemera.
Streaming services — be they Spotify, Apple Music or frickin’ Bandcamp — threw this paradigm into sharp relief, and since then Q1 has been the place that many smaller record labels have stuck many of their smarter, more surprising releases in the hopes of garnering critical attention.
It’s also where Drake decided to place his bloated, overwrought carcass of an album More Life, but that’s the last we’ll speak of him here.
Albums released in the first part of the year still put themselves on a hard road toward success — since a ton of streaming traffic is driven by end of the year buzz, and even music critics’ ears get a little restless for the new thing come September, Q1 albums have a slight disadvantage.
However, the best albums of 2017 so far are some of the best a year’s first quarter has seen in a long time. So here they are, the Top 15 Records of the First Quarter of 2017, with an added bonus of Best Songs Not Featured on Those 15 Records at the end of the post. Enjoy.
15. Pile – A Hairshirt of Purpose
No critical evaluation, spoken word proselytizing or even proper record will ever top Rick Maguire, the mastermind behind Pile, performing his songs live. Partially the maniacal devotion of Pile fans and partially Maguire’s unbelievable ability to bring his atonal folk-punk Jesus Lizard-descended music to a relatable statement, Pile records have always suffered in the context of their nature as a titanic live band. Yet Hairshirt of Purpose is perhaps the band’s best play for LP glory, a vicious distillation and exultation of the things that make Pile great: shouted, magically realist lyricism, spontaneous guitar work that borders on completely atonal, and a rhythm section that somehow keeps the whole thing moving along at steady paces. A show might still be the best way to experience Pile for the first time, but Hairshirt is not a bad place to start either.
Key Tracks: “Rope’s Length,” “Milkshake,” “Leaning on a Wheel,” “Dogs”
14. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
With the acknowledgment that I’m a gawky, uncoordinated white man writing about a group of white dudes who play indie rock, Spoon’s Hot Thoughts is the grooviest, most tight-fisted, sexy as hell record this year has seen so far. From the jump of the title track, a shot of dance-rock coiled so tight that Britt Daniel’s vocal feels like an urgent release, to the shambling, horn-laden afterglow of “Us,” Hot Thoughts is the pure realization of what Thom Yorke said about Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief: “music for shagging.”
Key Tracks: “Hot Thoughts,” “WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” “I Ain’t the One”
13. Vagabon – Infinite Worlds
If it seems like one of the core tenets of an emerging band getting critical acclaim is laser focus on a specific genre, then by all rights Vagabon, the project of Lætitia Tamko, should fall flat on its face. Combining indie rock emotiveness (“The Embers”), trippy hip-folk (“Fear & Force”), chillwave instrumental vibes (“Mal a L’aise”) and pastoral folk (“Cleaning House”) into a debut record that doesn’t even pass thirty minutes, Infinite Worlds is a variety show where Tamko plays all the parts, somehow managing to plum emotional depths and frailty while stretching the sonics out as far as they can go. It’s an audacious, brave debut that only hints at enormous futures for Tamko, and Vagabon.
Key Tracks: “100 Years,” “Cold Apartment,” “The Embers”
12. Wild Pink – Wild Pink
The lack of crossover success of bands like Turnover and Foxing seems to indicate to a lack of enthusiasm for softcore emo ruminating music. Yet Wild Pink’s self-titled debut thinks differently, combining elements of slow and steady, aerated guitar techniques with more powerful indie-rock distortion breakdowns (“Broke On”) to arrive at a formula that works better than most of their forebears (Turnover excluded, because duh). Wild Pink is a thoughtful and well-executed debut, focusing on following through on the promises of fantastic early singles like “Great Apes.” With Turnover likely returning this year, Wild Pink might get lost in the morass of emo bands looking to carve out their own niche. Which would be a shame.
Key Tracks: “How Do You Know If God Takes You Back,” “Battle of Bedford Falls,” “Wanting Things Makes You Shittier”
11. P.O.S. – Chill, dummy
Although he hinted at a record so colossal as to finally break him into the rap mainstream, Stefon Alexander, P.O.S., would dodge away from the best songs of his career (“Sleepdrone/Superposition” and “Wearing a Bear”) with the majority of his album Chill, Dummy. While still featuring those tracks, Chill ends up a belligerent noise-rap opus, digitally torn apart in places that might indicate toward funk. Stef draws from hardcore/grind (“Born a Snake”), dark-pop (“Lanes”) and house (“Bully”) to create a record that might not reach the heights of his Never Better or We Don’t Even Live Here, but still excels where few hip-hop acts dare to move.
Key Tracks: “Sleepdrone/Superposition,” “Wearing a Bear,” “Roddy Piper”
10. Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness
While Byrne’s voice might most closely relate her to that titan of female folkdom, Not Even Happiness dispenses with the similarities almost immediately, establishing Byrne as a much more atmospheric and melodic thinker, capable of living in the land between freak-folk traditionalism (“Sleepwalker”) and atmospheric pop (“Natural Blue”). Her technical capability of managing this feat largely with a guitar and effects pedals is the true feat of the sonics of Happiness, matching Byrne’s ghostly eroticism moment for moment. One instance she’s cooing to a lover, another she’s remembering the feeling of relying on friends for emotional support (“All the Land Glimmered”). A sterling sophomore album, Not Even Happiness presses Laura Marling for her crown as Folk’s eminent female genre-pusher.
Key Tracks: “I Live Now as a Singer” “Sleepwalker,” “Natural Blue”
9. Nana Grizol – Ursa Minor
Breezy and unassuming, Ursa Minor is a fitting comeback for Nana Grizol, at one point a potential successor band to Elephant Six crossover acts Neutral Milk Hotel. Wordy and poetic (“Mississippi Swells”) in between spurts of fuzzed-out indie rock and blasts of horns, Minor is one of those albums you realize you’ve had on for four full album loops, can’t get out of your head, and can’t think of anything else to listen to besides another round. Unassuming, easy listening bands like this largely went away with the turn of the decade and the dissolving of bands like Annuals. Gods willing, Nana Grizol will help usher in a necessary counter-balance to the sometimes overwrought existentialism of modern indie-rock (you can just call it emo).
Key Tracks: “Mississippi Swells,” “T.V. Song,” “Photos from When We Were Young”
8. Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound
Dylan Baldi came really close to falling apart. That is, if you take the downward, dark spiral of the last two Cloud Nothings records at face value, attributing their turbulent, tight as hell guitar work as referendum on emotional frailty. So in an effort to turn his increasingly belligerent punk touring band into something more sustainable, Life Without Sound presents a softer side of Baldi’s philosophical rumination. Slightly (slightly) brighter in tone than 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else, Life Without Sound finds Baldi never more exquisite at crafting manic, frustration-fueled guitar riffs to go along with his efforts to reckon with his own life; this time, there are just a few more keyboards and the guitar tone is ever so slightly lighter. What results is a transitional album for the rock-solid punk band, somewhere between the existential terror of the past and the staid safety of the future (notably, the album ends on its darkest note). Would that all bands could have such transitional albums.
Key Tracks: “Up to The Surface,” “Darkened Rings,” “Modern Act,” “Realize My Fate”
7. Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes
Somehow Los Campesinos! ended up the greatest Myspace success story. I know, crazy that the glockenspiel-wielding twee-punks have evolved into a consistently energetic and inventive rock band, never quite doing the same thing twice while always keeping the base in tact. Sick Scenes is yet another natural progression for Gareth and company, transitioning away from the synth-pop-punk of 2014’s No Blues into what essentially amounts to hyper-literate Britpop-punk on this record. After opening with traditional LC! fare — “Renato Dall’Ara (2008)” and “I Broke Up in Amarante” are LC! equivalent of fan service, excellent as they are — Gareth navigates the band down to soft-rock liberalism-come-lament about pimples in “5 Flocloxacillin.” Sick Scenes wanders around a Britain that has changed from the ten years Los Campesinos! have been around (“The Fall of Home” is sweeter version of Edgar Wright’s magnificent screed against suburbia, The World’s End), most of the time leaving the band behind in an unkempt middle space. If it feels like every album might be LC!’s last — they haven’t done a world tour in a long time, settling into non-van-based jobs — Sick Scenes smartly remarks at a future Campesinos!, continuing to evolve and be one of the young century’s most consistently excellent bands.
Key Tracks: “Renato Dell’Ara (2008),” “The Fall of Home,” “Got Stendahl’s,” “Hung Empty”
6. Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator
Selfishly, I feel pretty proud that Hurray for the Riff Raff has ascended to nearly the peak of indie folk stardom, and is poised to only rise higher with The Navigator. I wrote about them nearly 10 years ago, and in the intervening time Alynda Segarra has turned into a commander of folk standard-bearing and Puerto Rican cultural heritage-referencing, combining the two into a tuneful, yet challenging folk tome. The title track skitters along its percussive backbeat, “Living in the City” and “Life to Save” are bluesy folk shuffles, and “Halfway There” approximates plaintive folk. The real gift is the closing bow “Pa’lante,” where Segarra assumes the mantle of general of a minority class of folk songwriters now faced with an uncertain world, yet pressured to “be something.” It’s a gorgeous co-opt of a traditional Puerto Rican phrase, and it suits the power of Segarra’s magnificent new record. At times sounding like Fiona Apple, at others an almost carbon copy of Frances Quinlan from Hop Along, Segarra and Hurray for the Riff Raff have almost completed a ten year climb to the top — The Navigator will continue the ascent.
Key Tracks: “Pa’lante,” “Life to Save,” “Rican Beach”
5. Sorority Noise – You’re Not As _____ As You Think
As their compatriots in bands like Modern Baseball evolve and grow into unbelievable amalgams of mid-2000s pop-punk and modern emo, I sort of felt like Sorority Noise were getting left behind. Shame on me. You’re Not As ___ As You Think is a propulsive, depressive leap forward for Cam Boucher, a rumination on lost friends and the possibility that said lost friends might’ve gotten off easy. Less sorrowful than obsessive-contemplative, Boucher and company dull the bratty Say Anything references of Joy, Departed, instead steering headlong into the hard-edged pop-punk of bands like early Brand New to provide appropriate sonic companionship to Boucher trying to reckon with the loss of five of his friends in just over a year. The band have never been in the business of answering the existential questions that they posit, and You’re Not As resists easy solutions. Just so, it happens to be, by far, Sorority Noise’s best record.
Key Tracks: “No Halo,” “A Portrait Of,” “A Better Sun,” “Disappeared”
4. Run the Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
It’s frankly ridiculous that RTJ 3 is the worst Run the Jewels album, considering that it is an experimental, noisy, boom-bap shotgun blast of a victory lap that anyone this side of Kendrick Lamar would be lucky to even sniff. Yet once the palette’s cleansed on the near pop-rap “Down (feat. Joi)”, Jamie and Mikey literally don’t let up for nearly an hour, bringing violent, trigger-happy Heath Ledger’s Joker anarchism to braggadocio like no one else. For a group that consistently zags where an audience would expect zigging (remember the sheer joy hearing Zach de la Rocha go in on “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck”)), the second act of RTJ 3 is daringly experimental, El-P digging deeper into the grit and grime of his dungeon-level beats (“Don’t Get Captured”) while bringing genre-busting African voices to lend their mastery to the formula (Tunde Adebimpe and Kamasi Washington blend seamlessly). Horny, violent, hilarious, poignant and unrelenting, Run the Jewels 3 is yet another uppercut from the 90s Mike Tyson of hip-hop acts, rapidly approaching All-Time status with each success.
Key Tracks: “Legend Has It,” “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix),” “Talk to Me”
3. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
Although the first track, “Real Death,” will justifiably put this forward, Mount Eerie’s latest album, the spare A Crow Looked At Me, is not for listening to with a faint heart. An honest account of Eerie artist Phil Elverum’s thoughts and feelings about the death of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, the first track ends with a devastating anecdote about a gift arriving after death and the line “it’s dumb / and I don’t want to learn anything from this.”
The album gets no less devastating during its forty minute runtime. “Seaweed” is about bringing his wife’s ashes to an island with their eighteen-month-old daughter. “When I Take out the Garbage at Night” briefly darts towards a reprieve, then falls back into sorrow as Elverum sees the room where Castrée died, keeping the window open in winter just in case her soul still has to leave. A Crow Looked At Me is almost too much to bear in total: plaintive, exceedingly spare, raw in its emotional purity. There’s a robbery of emotional truth in even reviewing the thing. A Crow Looked At Me is impossible to encompass or describe fully, too raw and personal to ever feel ownership of the product. But god, what a product.
Key Tracks: “Real Death,” “Seaweed,” “Ravens,” “Emptiness, Pt. 2”
2. Allison Crutchfield – Tourist In This Town
Tourist in this Town starts off placidly enough: Allison Crutchfield asserting her lilting voice over a swell of a capella backing vocals. Yet within the first minute of “Broad Daylight” Crutchfield turns the script on expectations of her solo debut into dust, transforming “Daylight” into soaring, synthy indie-rock. From there it’s a keyboard heavy separation from her pop-punk ascendent band Swearin’, Crutchfield giving her incisive pen a little bit more room to breathe; ruminating on locational, cultural and romantic displacement, attempting to forge a new reality for her in the margins. Nearly better than all her previous work, Tourist In This Town continues the Crutchfields’ takeover of indie rock. Long live Katie and Allison.
Key Tracks: “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California,” “Sightseeing,” “Secret Lives and Deaths”
1. Craig Finn – We All Want The Same Things
Since the departure of Franz Nicolay after 2008’s magnificent Stay Positive, it’s felt as though Craig Finn has been trying to reconcile the erosion of his songwriting bite with sonics that match his more mature philosophy. At times that’s appeared as overly preachy outsiders takes (Heaven is Whenever) or faulty synth moves (Faith in the Future), but it has never felt like Finn has been fully comfortable in his surroundings. Until We All Want the Same Things, an unbelievable shared storybook of lost potential, lost love, and just straight loss. Finn wanders away from standard sad bastard fare, instead following in the footsteps of Will Johnson or Jason Isbell to craft a set of stories (fictional or real, doesn’t matter) that bring characters with a defining characteristic together. This time, it’s the desire for redemption, or the recapture of a better life. It’s not an artist looking back into his young, wild life and prescribing a better way to live. Instead, here’s an adult songwriter looking around at his fellow generation and accurately diagnosing so many of their similar neuroses, arriving at an undeniably true aphorism: we’re all in search of the same things. Combined with a sonic ear that, untethered from requiring a cohesive thesis, darts back and forth as the narrative dictates, We All Want the Same Things is Finn’s best record since Stay Positive, and places him squarely in the pantheon of both contemporary singer-songwriters and 2017 Album of the Year Frontrunners.
Key Tracks: “Tracking Shots,” “God in Chicago,” “It Hits When It Hits”
11 Best Songs Not Featured on The Above Albums
11. Fred Thomas – “Brickwall”: A brash tongue-in-cheek blast of indie rock alcoholism, Fred Thomas is at his best when he’s doing his Ted Leo impression.
10. Sinai Vessel – “Looseleaf”: Overshadowed by some of the other emo releases this year, and just a tad late of the crest of the particular wave, Sinai Vessel nevertheless play excellent Johnny Come Lately’s.
9. Swordfish – “Social Drinker”: Somehow combining Thomas’ lament toward alcoholism, emo bonafides of Sinai Vessel, and a welcome inflection of early Frightened Rabbit bitterness, Swordfish indicate toward a massive album.
8. Julien Baker – “Funeral Pyre”: At some point this year, Julien Baker is going to release her second album… and it’s going to devastate everyone.
7. Camp Cope – “Keep Growing”: Georgia Maq continues her thoughtful and spare DIY hot streak with a split EP with Cayetana, somehow managing to make a split EP one of the better records so far this year.
6. Laura Marling – “Nothing, Not Nearly”: Her new album, Semper Femina, was a daring step forward from her traditional formula, but the real standout was Marling’s sideways glance at blues-rock here.
5. The Menzingers – “After the Party”: Suffering a tad from some male gaze problems, the title track from the Menzingers’ half-great new album is probably their first b-side track to really succeed like their opening singles.
4. Japandroids – “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”: The opening title track from the Japandroids’ third album hinted at more of the same: unstoppable punk triumphalism, peppered with flecks of doubt, if only to drive our energies further forward. Alas, the album wouldn’t keep the opening salvo’s energy up as high.
3. Dirty Projectors – “Little Bubble”: The rest of the album was an almost wholly colossal failure of unburdened experimentalism…but oh man, the moment the chorus hits on this song is nearly the best musical moment of the year so far.
2. Oso Oso – “Reindeer Games”: If you’ve been waiting for some Starting Line, Saves the Day era pop-punk, Oso Oso is here to quench every bit of your thirsts. If you haven’t been waiting…why?
1. Kendrick Lamar – “The Heart Part 4”: Kendrick’s coming. Watch Out.