While 2017 was an eventful year for me personally (I moved across the country, hence the lack of posts in recent months), it was a much less eventful year for music. If 2015 gave us some impressive debuts and high-quality albums by bands that have yet to let us down and 2016 gave us amazing albums by artists we haven’t heard from in quite some time, then 2017 gave us an abundance of…perfectly adequate albums. This might be because my listening priorities were focused on bands I’ve been a fan of for years, who were now releasing their fifth or sixth album, so I may have potentially shortchanged new and up-and-coming artists.
Either way, when I started reflecting on this year’s releases at the beginning of December, it was somewhat challenging to name ten that jumped out to me as exceptional.
This isn’t to say that the year was a total loss, as a number of indie heavyweights easily earned their spots on the list below. Getting this number up to ten required some scrounging though, so you may not want to assign too much weight to the higher numbers.
I listened to a total of 47 albums released in 2017, and listened to each at least ten times all the way through. Therefore, if your favorite album of this year didn’t make it, there’s a good chance I didn’t actually listen to it.
Note: The Indiecator is taking the lead of other music sites by omitting Brand New from this year’s countdown due to the shitstorm the singer found himself in recently.
10. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
Genre: Folk-rock, Americana
Last year, Conor Oberst released Ruminations, which made its way onto the top ten with its personal touches and hastily-recorded simplicity that made each track seem like a rough sketch of a song. Salutations answers the question “what if these sketches were filled in?” by reworking each song on Ruminations with a full backing band, and adding seven new tracks to the mix. While some songs benefitted from the somber solitude of Ruminations, the folk-rock sound of Salutations works well for others as accordion, violin, drums, and synthesizer are added to Oberst’s guitar, piano, and harmonica. The new tracks add to this liveliness, with the rockin’ “Anytime Soon” and “Napalm” in particular bearing little resemblance to the dismal Ruminations. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out” “A Little Uncanny” “Napalm”
9. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Genre: Indie Rock
In their 20+ years as a band, Spoon have been nothing if not consistent. In fact, if someone asked me to give an example of what “indie rock” sounded like, there’s a good chance I’d refer them to Spoon. While they may not like the label “indie rock” because it can carry the connotation of low-effort slacker-rock, the band’s no-frills and no-gimmicks approach to rock, and their history of consistently releasing high-quality albums, has set them apart in their own way. Hot Thoughts doesn’t upend this foundation, but instead gently pulls the band in directions new enough to avoid being overlooked as “Spoon album #9.”
There’s plenty of the classic drum-heavy Spoon we’ve grown to known and love on the album, with tracks like “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” and “Can I Sit Next to You,” but the album’s most intriguing moments come from the electronic directions the band expands upon, having previously given us a taste on their 2014 album They Want My Soul. The title track blends rockin’ Spoon with electronic effects, “WhisperI’lllistentohearit” builds slowly along a synthesizer melody until exploding with drum and bass, and the darker feel of “I Ain’t the One” is contrasted by periodic dance beats. Some electronic-oriented tracks don’t even sound anything like the Spoon you’d expect, like the chilled out “Pink Up” and the ambient closer “Us,” which really show the band is willing to push the envelope. Hot Thoughts doesn’t reinvent Spoon, but it does prove the band is nowhere near stale.
Standout Tracks: “Hot Thoughts”“WhisperI’lllistentohearit” “I Ain’t The One”
8. Feist – Pleasure
Genre: Somewhere between indie pop and rock
It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since Leslie Feist released her breakthrough album The Reminder, with hits like “My Moon My Man” and “1234” that served as the soundtrack for quirky hipsters and iPod commercials. Even though both of these things are on the decline, Feist has grown well beyond making radio-friendly hits and into making albums like Pleasure that are more ambitious.
With tracks that are on average five minutes long and that ebb and flow instead of reprising predictable choruses, Pleasure takes time to enjoy instead of providing immediate gratification. The songs rely heavily on Feist’s most obvious and prominent asset – her lofty voice – throughout, and tracks like “Get Not High, Get Not Low” and “Baby Be Simple” have almost nothing underneath her vocal melodies. This allows what would have been subtle shifts to really stand out, like the jarring guitar riffs on the title track and the rising choir at the end of “A Man Is Not His Song” that is drowned out by the sample of a metal band. Yet the album’s climax comes with “Century,” which is attention-grabbing as is with its crashing beats, but then ends with former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker making a guest appearance to whisper about the true meaning of one hundred years. Pleasure might not always be as gripping as its predecessors, but it’s potentially Feist’s most well-crafted release.
Standout Tracks: “Pleasure” “A Man Is Not His Song” “Century”
7. Destroyer – ken
Genre: Indie rock/Baroque pop with touches of jazz and electronica
When Dan Bejar was noticeably absent from this year’s New Pornographers release to work on his pet project Destroyer, I expected him to release another jazz-infused rock album that knocked it out of the park. Instead, ever the brooding, cryptic sage he is, Bejar’s latest album ken takes Destroyer in a new, more electronic and traditional rock direction. If you only heard the album’s lead single “Tinseltown Swimming In Blood,” you could be forgiven for thinking ken would be a reprise of 2015’s jazzy, showy Poison Season, but the remainder of the album is more understated, reverberating through layers of new-wave sounding synthesizers and strumming guitars. “In The Morning” employs New Order-reminiscent keyboards at its chorus and the back-to-back “Ivory Coast” and “Stay Lost” sounds straight out of the 80s, but the pulsating drum machine driving “A Light Travels Down The Catwalk” is the most notable electronic standout. Even more unexpected are the album’s rock moments, like the ironically sunny-sounding “Cover From the Sun” and the electric guitar solo on of “La Regle Du Jeu.” Its lyrics are so abstract that they occasionally border on self-parody (“come one come all dear young revolutionary capitalists, the groom’s in the gutter and the bride just pissed herself”), but the unpredictable twists of ken clearly define it as another great work by a band all about expecting the unexpected.
Standout Tracks: “Tinseltown Swimming In Blood” “A Light Travels Down The Catwalk” “La Regle Du Jeu”
6. St. Vincent – Masseduction
Genre: Indie pop
It’s odd to think that while some entries on this list were already well-established acts a decade ago, St. Vincent (the stage name of Annie Clark) had just released her debut Marry Me. Since then, she’s released three critically acclaimed albums, and quickly became one of the most distinctive figures in indie music. And as her fame has increased, her musical style has evolved from being a fairly rock-oriented singer-songwriter to a more eclectic pop star, as she blended rock, electronic, and hip-hop elements together on her 2014 self-titled album. Masseduction is her most overt foray into pop music to date, with tracks like “Los Ageless” and the title track blending slick production with electric guitar riffs and plentiful synth effects. At the same time, it’s an intensely personal release, with songs like “New York” and the devastating “Happy Birthday, Johnny” ensuring the album’s brightly-colored pop sheen doesn’t mean it’s at all artificial. It may not reach the highs of its predecessor, but Masseduction really solidifies how far St. Vincent has come in a decade.
Standout Tracks: “Masseduction” “Los Ageless” “New York”
5. Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder
Genre: Indie rock
It had been seven years since we last heard from Broken Social Scene, which is bound to happen when you have fifteen people in your band, most of whom each have their own fairly well-known musical projects. Yet none of those individual pieces could capture the collective energy that Broken Social Scene harnesses, as evident on Hug of Thunder. After all, where else you can you hear Kevin Drew lead a shout-along chorus on a track like “Halfway Home” before segueing into Emily Haines softly singing on a track like “Protest Song?” Even the aforementioned Feist takes the lead on the chilled-out title track. And aside from the various talents you’ll find on the album, Hug of Thunder continues the band’s movement towards relatively straightforward and upbeat rock songs, while still sounding unmistakably like a Broken Social Scene release. For instance, “Skyline” and “Towers and Masons” both echo the same Broken Social Scene of a decade prior, but with fewer quirks and a more sophisticated delivery. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Protest Song” “Skyline” “Towers and Masons”
4. !!! – Shake the Shudder
Genre: Dance, electronic, disco-rock
Probably the biggest dark horse on this list, I’m in the camp that believes !!! have only grown better with age (2007’s Myth Takes notwithstanding). While the band have slowly dropped the “punk” from their “dance-punk” roots and moved towards electronica with funk and disco influences, they’ve shown a quick mastery of these latter styles, and Shake the Shudder might be their most consistently great album yet. Aside from the pumping dance beats and synthesizer melodies found each track, the album includes several female guest vocalists who really make it stand out, including Meah Pace, Nicole Fayu, Cameron Mesirow, Molly Schnick and Lea Lea. The results are songs like “NRGQ” and “The One 2,” which do not hesitate to get the party started. At the same time, Shake the Shudder also features the slower-building disco-rock tracks “Dancing Is The Best Revenge” and “Imaginary Interviews” where !!! frontman Nic Offer give us some of his greatest performances. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Dancing Is The Best Revenge” “NRGQ” “Imaginary Interviews”
3. The National – Sleep Well Beast
Genre: Grumbly indie rock
The National are one of the few true indie rock titans around, right up there with Arcade Fire in terms of their ability to quickly sell out a large venue. However, while Arcade Fire’s 2017 release failed to live up to the hype, the National have yet to let us down with their seventh album Sleep Well Beast. Although the band are best known for making the soundtrack to having your head on the bar while you contemplate where your youthful idealism went, the album is surprisingly varied. For instance, the thundering drums and electric guitars of “Day I Die” are bookended by the more subdued “Nobody Else Will Be There” and “Walk It Back.” Tracks like “Turtleneck” and the chorus of “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” are among the hardest the band has rocked since “Mr. November.” And like so many of their contemporaries, the National experiment with electronic noises on Sleep Well Beast, giving us the drum machine backtracks on “I’ll Still Destroy You” and “Guilty Party.”
As expected, all of the tracks are relative lyrical downers with lines like “I try to save it for a rainy day, it’s raining all the time,” but the National excel at creating beauty around the gloom. As other indie rock bands wane or transform into something completely different from their past selves, Sleep Well Beast shows that the National only need make a few minor tweaks to remain on top of the rest.
Standout Tracks: “Day I Die” “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” “I’ll Still Destroy You”
2. The xx – I See You
Genre: Electronic, rock, pop
For the first album I acquired in 2017, the xx’s I See You has held up surprisingly well in my opinion, with very few other albums acquired over the year blowing me away as much as this did. Combining the delicate minimalism of the first two xx albums with the EDM dexterity demonstrated on Jamie xx’s solo album In Colour, I See You is the best of both xx worlds. For example, the lead single “On Hold” and the album’s opener “Dangerous” both rely heavily on Jamie’s sampling for their instrumentation, but would be nothing without Romy and Oliver’s back-and-forth vocals. Similarly, the singles “Say Something Loving” and “I Dare You” have the same drum machine and muted guitar strumming that made the xx’s debut album a smash hit, but all of the pieces of these tracks, especially the vocals, feel much less restrained than before. There’s also tracks like “Brave For You” and “Test Me” if you preferred minimalist xx that much more, and “A Violent Noise” for those who like their xx more EDM-tinged. You can read a full review of the album here.
Standout Tracks: “Say Something Loving” “On Hold” “I Dare You”
1. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
Shortly after this album was released in September, I started to write a review comparing the paths of LCD Soundsystem and Arrested Development. If it sounds odd, realize that both had three, glorious seasons/releases several years ago that slowly earned them a massive, fervent following, before both ended at the seeming height of their popularity. While both could have basked in their past successes, knowing they had solidified a place in TV/musical history, fan demand lead to the creation of a fourth iteration that would have to live up to the rosy retrospection.
In the end, Arrested Development’s fourth season dramatically altered the show’s narrative and was met and was met with a mixed reception, but LCD Soundsystem fortunately managed to match all hype by picking up exactly where they left off with American Dream. Right from the opening synth notes of “Oh Baby” that slowly give way to the track’s beat, harmony, and then James Murphy’s voice, it’s as if LCD Soundsystem never announced their last hurrah at Madison Square Garden in 2011. And while other artists tend to overstay their welcomes with excessively long tracks, LCD Soundsystem is in their prime when giving songs the proper time to develop, hence the reason why all but one of the tracks on American Dream exceed five minutes. “Other Voices” is just getting warmed up when keyboardist Nancy Whang takes over vocals five minutes in, and “How Do You Sleep?” certainly doesn’t feel like it’s over nine minutes long as Murphy croons about betrayal over thundering synthesizers. Additionally, American Dream also has “Call The Police,” one of the best dance songs the group has made, the repetitive bop and Murphy rants on “Tonite,” and a boozy waltz of a title track. LCD Soundsystem could have just made a decent fourth album and would have been fêted regardless, but American Dream is more than a comeback – it’s a triumph.
Standout Tracks: “Oh Baby” “Other Voices” “Call The Police”
(Below is a YouTube Playlist of the videos above)