My favorite albums of 2017 so far

I’m not 100-percent sure, but I’m fairly certain that I’ve listened to more new music in 2017 than I have in any other year.

My New Year’s resolution was to listen to at least one album I had not heard before per week. I’m cruising along and already past 40 albums, so barring a monumental collapse I should hit my target.

About 90 percent of my first-time listens this year have been new music.

In no particular order, these are the releases from this year that I’ve enjoyed the most.

White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band

Truly, this is good, uh, rock’n’roll music. The second album from Louisville-based power-poppers, White Reaper, is one of the year’s most fun releases so far. It’s unabashed, straight-forward rock influenced by The Ramones, Cheap Trick, Big Star, The Replacements and The Exploding Hearts. There’s genuine guitar heroics, and the hooks are plentiful.

Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples released his second consecutive instant classic LP this year. He continues to rap about depressing realities over severe-sounding beats in a way that’s fun, mostly thanks to gallows humor punchlines and a rapid pace. Not a single song surpasses the five-minute mark and most are shorter than three minutes.

Jay-Z – 4:44

I expected this corporate partnership release to be as uninspired as Magna Carter Holy Grail or Kingdom Come or The Blueprint 3, and was floored to hear an album that can comfortable mingle in the upper echelon of Shawn Carter’s discography. Certainly not better than Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint , but it compares favorably to The Black Album and American Gangster. The No I.D. production sounds amazing. It is warm, slightly opulent and gives the album a cohesion lacking from some of Jay’s lesser works. The tabloid-fodder infidelity confessions are what’s drawn the most coverage, which makes sense because I can’t recall Jay-Z ever sharing this much of his personal life, but equally interesting are Jay-Z’s thoughts on race and black unity, which I don’t recall ever before being quite so explicitly dissected on an album by HOV. Strictly speaking, these aren’t Jay’s best bars. His flow sounds off, and the rhymes aren’t always particularly clever. But, it is some of his most interesting and personal work ever.

Kendrick Lamar – Damn. 

Kendrick Lamar continues his streak of dominating the rap game. His flow continues to be a dense labyrinth of internal rhyme and references, but in a way that’s more approachable than To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is a little less focused than some of Kdot’s other releases (I can’t picture a U2 feature on any of his other albums), but not every album needs to be a Statement.

Ty Segall – Ty Segall

Ty isn’t reinventing the wheel here in any sense. He’s even done a self-titled release before. But this might strike the best balance among the prolific garage-rockers prodigious-but-disparate strengths. There’s straight-ahead rockers, Sid Barrett-esque psyche-pop and a really sweet love song. Unlike some past releases (looking at you Manipulator) this album is a tight collection. This really is a virtuosic display of everything one of rock music’s best working songwriters does right.

(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

This album is equal parts hummable alt-country and industrial freakout. I prefer the warmer, mellow first half of the album. “Bobby”, “Poison Root” and “Proud” are fine, extremely pleasant and slightly weird pop songs with warm twang. That may sound like faint praise, but it’s meant as a rousing endorsement. That basically describes most of my favorite Wilco songs, after all. The string-filled melodies are made all the more remarkable because they share an album with “Brick”, which has more in common with Death Grips than a lot of songs on Rocket.

Charly Bliss – Guppy

Guppy is an entirely transparent attempt to replicate the soaring buzz of ’90s alternative-rock, and it accomplishes that modest goal with aplomb. Lead singer Eva Hendricks sounds downright effervescent, but her high, perky voice fits in with songs that are all forward momentum and chugging guitar. “DQ” is on my shortlist for songs of the year, and one that I’m sure will be in my rotation for years to come.

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

The hyper-literate twee punks I’ve loved for a full decade now have grown into a wonderfully dependable, mature indie rock band. As always, these songs are lyrically captivating. Gareth never stops being Gareth whether that means setting an almost literary scene, capturing a particular brand of malaise, whip-smart punchlines or super-specific sports references. Musically, this album includes some of the most energetic songs LC! has put out since the absolutely transcendent Romance is Boring. There’s also “The Fall of Home” which is just heart-achingly gorgeous. All snark is set aside to explore the sensation of seeing the places we come from crumble after moving on to some place ostensibly better.

Smidley – Smidley

 

 

I’m not a huge fan of Foxing, but Conor Murphy’s side project was unexpectedly winning. Lightly psychedelic indie rock will always be in my wheelhouse. “Hell” is one of the year’s better side one track ones. It sounds both dark and jaunty in a way that recalls The National, has group vocals that make me think of Local Natives (which isn’t something I’ve done often since 2012} and there’s some trumpet that somehow sounds perfectly in place. “No One Likes You” and “Pink Gallo” make good use of Murphy’s unique voice and are very good and just slightly odd. “Milk Shake” is an interesting, bare bones acoustic take that surprises with its vulnerability, but really shouldn’t considering singing in an emo band is Murphy’s main hustle. For me, the standout track is “Fuck This”, and it’s really what pushes Smidley’s eponymous debut onto this list. It’s essentially a perfect instant classic. A springy, midtempo number with a seesaw melody and shouted chorus that features multiple lengthy crescendoing chants of “Fuck this, fuck this” will always, and I mean always, have a spot in my heart.

The Sadies – Northern Passages

The Sadies are absolutely crackerjack musicians, and that shines through on every track on Northern Passages. They sound equally comfortably on the rave up “Another Season Again” and the sleepy, Kurt Vile-assisted “It’s Easy (Like Walking)” and both songs are positively delightful. Not since The Band have Canadians so effectively mined American to thoroughly winning effect. I think this album has largely gone overlooked, and it might be because The Sadies have served as a backing band for the likes of John Doe and Neko Case in the past. If you’ve got a soft spot for countrified rock, you owe it to yourself to listen to this album.

 

Favorite albums of 2016 so far

The year is about halfway over, and there’s been the requisite wave of blockbuster releases over the last couple of months ramping up toward summer, so it’s time for the customary roundup of my favorite releases from this year.

These are going to be presented in no particular order, because I want to give the albums time to organically grow in my estimation and jockey for sweet, sweet supremacy in my end of the year list.

  • Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest

OK, so the no particular order caveat was a bit of a fib. This is my favorite album of the year so far. It contains some of my favorite songs of 2016 and those songs boast a ton of simple but insightful acerbic couplets. Will Toledo and Co.’s first major label album also draws from a ton of interesting inspirations without being totally beholden to its influences. It’s a wonderfully arch, well-thought-out rock album with plenty of roughness around the edges.

  • Life of Pablo by Kanye West

At this point, I think there’s three or four versions of this album lurking on my iPod. It’s not Kanye’s best album, but it continues in the wonderfully weird vein of Yeezus, and anytime a major pop star wants to advance the cause of weirdness, I’m on board. It’s also chock-full of interesting sounds and good ideas. Even the de facto bonus track , “30 Hours” is an interesting examination of a disintegrating long-distance relationship with frigging Andre 3000 providing  guest vocals. Plus, it presaged some of the year’s best and worst biggest hits by featuring Chance the Rapper and Desiigner doing what they do. Sort of feels indespinsible to this year’s pop culture landscape.

  • Lost Time by Tacocat

I was lukewarm about this album at first, but it’s grown on me. It’s a collection of hooky punk willing to take on some weighty topics with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Sure there are songs like my beloved “Horse Grrls”and the fantastically buoyant “I Hate the Weekend” but wanton internet misogyny, controversial next-day contraception and the literal end of the world all feature prominently in this album. I’m not sure if it’s as good as NVM, but it’s some of Tacocat’s catchiest work.

  • Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper

I just realized that this will be my third consecutive entry, where I kick things off by pointing out an album is inferior to one of its predecessors, but it bears saying, Coloring Book is no Acid Rap. It’s still a very fun, vibrant, positive statement from a singular, captivating artist, but it suffers from some bloat, and for someone whose stage name includes the title “the Rapper”, his virtuosic bar-spitting prowess really isn’t on display. Even if it isn’t necessarily the album I want it to be, I think it’s the exact album Chance wanted to make and it’s a blast of free-wheeling gospel-tinged positivity all the same.

  • ★ by David Bowie

When this album came out, it was the middle of a dreary, gray and cold winter. It was my first full winter in the Midwest in five years, and ★’s aural pallet seemed to use the same colors as my surroundings. I thought it was an extremely interesting, sort of haunting piece of spooky art. It was nice to see old man Bowie really going for it with a tight jazz-influenced backing band. Then Bowie died, and the dread, finality and transcendence packed into the songs became that much more profound. Honestly, it’s almost unlistenable now because of how much heaviness was retroactively added to the swan song of one of popular culture’s greatest innovators.

  • Down in Heaven by Twin Peaks

This album is a shambolic, delightful throwback to ’60s music. There’s lyrical allusions to the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” but somehow, the Rolling Stones song it seems to evoke the most is “Beast of Burden”. The shuffling album-closer “Have You Ever?” is a particularly glorious drunk-sounding shout-along.

  • Nice as Fuck by Nice as Fuck

    It hasn’t been out very long, but the debut from Jenny Lewis’ profane new band might be my favorite effort in her oeuvre. On albums The Voyager and Acid Tongue the lyrics suggested Lewis had a thoroughly spacey side, but it didn’t really come through in the music. Nice as Fuck changes that. It is a nine-song collection of artsy dance rock with driving drums and bouncy bass. I didn’t know I wanted Jenny Lewis, Gang of Four, Joy Division and Franz Ferdinand in a blender so badly, but here it is, and it rules.

 Honorable mentions: The Hotelier, Woods, PUP, Whitney, White Lung and A Giant Dog.