Hudson's Best Records of 2017
As I was putting together this year’s list of my favorite records I came across a article from a music journalist claiming that lists such as this are idiotic. Since it’s impossible to hear every single album that was released over the year, nobody has the needed knowledge to proclaim anything as the year’s best records.
Come on. This is ridiculous. Nobody is claiming to have the definitive look at the year in music. I’ve never read any music critic claim to have heard each and every record.
But that doesn’t mean these sorts of think pieces aren’t worthwhile. Every writer, fan, or publication has an area of expertise, and if they’re honest they’ll admit to their cultural shortcomings. Mine just happens to include pop, hip-hop, and bro-country. I know that the new Kendrick Lamar is probably the year’s greatest musical achievement, but it’s not my thing. At the same time, I don’t need to hear the latest records by the likes of Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, or whatever Jonas Brother that still makes music. Why would I waste my time when I know I’m going to hate it?
The purpose of these lists aren’t for people to proclaim themselves as the world’s biggest music expert. They exist mainly because as fans we want people to discover records they may have overlooked. I look at dozens of these types of articles, from giant publications to local music nerds, hoping to discover something that I’ve missed. Inevitably, I find quite a few, and I hope that my yearly list does the same for others.
This is a good year for this type of exploration. It’s been the best year in music in quite some time. Oftentimes, finding 40 records worthy of inclusion is not easy. This year, I started with over 80 candidates, and it took quite a bit of soul-searching to cut it down to my usual length. It’s such a good year that artists that routinely reside near the top (The National, Spoon, Steve Earle) didn’t make the cut.
What is it about 2017? Why was this a fertile year for music? Given the state of the music industry these days, there really shouldn’t be such an abundance of fabulous tunes. My theory is that as the possibility of fame and fortune fades away we’re left with artists who just HAVE to create. It’s in their blood. A musician and/or songwriter is who they are, and they’ll carry on as long as they can.
What’s even more surprising to me is the number of great releases by veteran artists. So many of my favorites from years past came out with their best records in decades. Who would have predicted the return of The Jesus and Mary Chain? Or that Robyn Hitchcock would put out one of his best records? Or that Guided By Voices would release not one but two albums that weren’t full of half-assed, seemingly unfinished tracks?
So here are 40 records that I consider the best albums of the year, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on my picks. Let me know what records have turned your crank this year. Tracks from each of these albums were also aired on Live Ledge in a reverse, countdown format. Click here for Live Ledge #314, or nab it via iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, TuneIn, or many other online spots.
1. Bash & Pop, Anything Could Happen. Anybody that knows me well probably knew this would be my favorite record of year. Yet the return of Tommy Stinson’s first post-Replacements band is even better than I ever predicted. It’s every bit as good as the 1993 Bash & Pop debut. In fact, it may be even better, as the original was Stinson’s first serious stabs at songwriting. Almost 25 years later, Stinson’s skills as a tunesmith has deepened, and combined with the Faces-ish feel of his outstanding bandmates this would have been towards the of any year’s list.
2. The Courtneys, II. The best description I’ve read of this great Canadian trio is “fuzzy, slacker pop”. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Yet that would be meaningless if it wasn’t combined with sugary, singalong melodies. There’s a bit of a Blake Babies influence, but I also hear elements of late 80’s post-Jesus and Mary Chain bands such as The Primitives.
3. Ty Segall, s/t. James Brown used to be called the “hardest working man in show business”, but he’s a slacker compared to what Segall accomplished in a given year. Besides his usual album and a handful of singles, he’s involved with at least a half dozen other bands, and is inevitably a contributor as a musician or producer on a ton of his friend’s records. This year’s main release is also among his best, as it flows in and out of a number of styles.
4. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Damage and Joy. It was a big enough surprise that the warring Reid brothers reunited for a tour in 2007, but few thought that would result in a new album by the groundbreaking 80’s noise-pop veterans. The fact that it took a decade for it to happen is probably a sign that not all wounds have healed over the years. Yet this album is a pure joy for any fans of the original run. Yeah, it rarely deviates from the patented J&MC formula, but if it works why fix it?
5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. Easily the most acclaimed Americana album of the year, and it deserves each and every accolade. Isbell is at the top of his game, as rousing anthems comfortably sit next to heart-wrenching looks at crumbling relationships and the difficulties of chasing the American dream.
6. Guided By Voices, August By Cake/How Do You Spell Heaven. Robert Pollard has always been one of rock’s most prolific songwriters, and is also quite possibly the worst at quality control. Each and every year has seen a handful of albums that are frustratingly dominated by half-baked song fragments. 2017 saw the release of his 100th and 101st albums, and both of them Pollard’s best efforts in well over a decade.
7. Juliana Hatfield, Pussycat. How can a record of bitter politics sound so sweet? Juliana Hatfield is not happy with what’s happening these days, but it’s somehow inspired her to write some of her catchiest songs ever.
8. Warm Soda, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up. Let’s get this out of the way. Matthew Melton found himself dropped from his label earlier this year for comments he and his musician wife said about immigration. Having said that, the final record by Warm Soda is easily the best power pop record of the year. Can one separate the music from the opinions of the person who creates the music? That’s definitely a major question these days, and I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.
9. Kevin Morby, City Music. One of my favorite new finds of this year. Formerly of Woods and The Babies (not the 70’s pop band), Morby’s fourth album has been described as a tribute to New York City. While there is a definite nod to the Ramones (“1234”), the record’s nods to the metropolitan experience works with almost any skyline.
10. The Feelies, In Between. Hoboken’s greatest band’s first album in six years actually feels like a sequel to 1986’s The Good Earth. Those same loud/quiet dynamics are again the focus, but not in the Pixies/Nirvana way. Instead the record’s best songs feature a gradual buildup that ultimately turns into a cacophonic roar.
11. Beaches, Second of Spring. Certain albums deserve to be played in full. This is one of those records, even if it’s a 17-track double album. Each and every song of the all-female Australian psych rockers’ third album perfectly fits with what precedes and follows it. Sonic landscapes of fuzzy instrumentals dissolve into catchy pop nuggets, which then spins into more experimental fare.
12. L.A. Witch, s/t. This fabulous new trio is pretty much impossible to pin down. There are elements of 60’s girl groups, but it’s mixed with surf, rockabilly, psych, and garage rock. It’s sort of like if The Runaways had a bigger record collection (and minus the dictatorship of Kim Fowley).
13. Matthew Ryan, Hustle Up Starlings. Only a handful of songwriters can create intense environments with (relatively) quiet sounds. Matthew Ryan is one of them, and it’s simply because he completely inhabits the identities of the subjects of his songs. Those subjects tend to be the forgotten members of society. The people who struggle to find work, let alone keep their jobs. The people with regrets over past mistakes. People who need their voices heard.
14. Danny Dodge, Baby Let Me Be Your Mess. I know next to nothing about Danny Dodge except that I love this record. Discovered via bandcamp, the only information I’ve been able to find is that he’s a veteran of various garage and glam bands in Portland. This album definitely has elements of those genres, but there’s also a does of sugary jangle pop.
15. Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm. I’m not going to lie. I’ve found most of Kate Crutchfield’s prior releases to be a bit hit and miss. However, her fourth album under the Waxahatchee name is great from beginning to end. Credit may have to go to producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth), who primarily recorded the band playing live in the studio.
16. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv. After the success of 2015’s mostly acoustic High on Tulsa, it would have been pretty easy for Moreland to just copy the sound and production of that record. Instead, he wisely expanded into a full-band sound that accentuates his hook-laden songs of heartbreak.
17. John Murry, A Short History of Decay. Murry has lived quite the life. A second cousin of William Faulkner, his childhood was marked by undiagnosed autism. He eventually turned to drugs, and was hospitalized for both psychological and drug issues. Music may have saved his life, but it also led to other issues too numerous to list here. His second solo album was recorded in five days with help from members of Cowboy Junkies, and his heartbreaking songs detail much of his life’s lower moments.
18. The Cairo Gang, Untouchable. Discovered due to his summer appearance in town, Cairo Gang leader Emmett Kelly is best known for his presence on the last two Ty Segall records along with various Bonnie “Prince” Billy releases. The fifth album under The Cairo Gang, produced by Segall, is truly a solo album, as Kelly plays that vast majority of instruments.
19. The Buttertones, Gravedigging. Another great bandcamp find, the debut release by this Los Angeles band is sort of like rock and roll history condensed into one full-length album. What other record combines surf, rockabilly, post-punk, garage, and psych with elements of The Clash and Cramps?
20. Meatbodies, Alice. I’m not going to lie. The name Meatbodies threw me off a bit. Yet once I heard this latest album by Chad Ubovich and crew I was itching for the rest of their discography. A little bit of research explained exactly why. Ubovich has spent time in Mikal Cronin’s band, and also plays in Fuzz with Ty Segall and Charles Moothart. Yep, it’s part of that L.A. orbit of musicians and bands.
21. Hurray For the Riff Raff, The Navigator. This record could have easily made the top ten, as the first half is about as exquisite as one could expect. Most of the second side doesn’t live up to that standard, though, so while it contains one of the year’s most inclusive record. Inclusive? Yes, leader Alynda Segarra combines various elements of Latina styles with classic American doo wop, folk, gospel and Motown sounds.
22. Alex G, Rocket. Alexander Giannascoli started off as a bedroom singer/songwriter who somehow got the attention of Frank Ocean. This led to his guitarwork appearing on a recent Ocean album, which has given him a weird notoriety that has very little to do with the lavish dream pop-ish sounds of his latest album.
23. Together Pangea, Bulls and Roosters. I first discovered this great band thanks to Tommy Stinson, who recorded their 2015 EP, The Phage. Their sound is firmly established in garage rock, but a bit quirkier than most bands of this type.
24. CFM, Dichotomy Desaturated. Here we go again. CFM is Charles Francis Moothart, who we’ve already noted is Ty Segall’s drummer. He’s also toured in Mikal Cronin’s band, is the guitarist/vocalist with Segall in Fuzz, and also participates in other Segall side projects. CFM is his band, though, and this second album is a great companion to that self-titled Segall album at the top of this list.
25. Old 97’s, Graveyard Whistling. After a few albums where the alt-country veterans took some mini-detours, this year’s model harkens back to the mid-90’s revved-up country roots. Leader Rhett Miller is still a master at turning a clever phrase, and the rest of the band has not lost a step.
26. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Lotta See Lice. This is something I’d love to see more often. Two critically acclaimed songwriters befriend each other on the festival circuit, and decide to collaborate on an album. Each of them brings some new tunes, and they both sing a song written by the other. Plus they cover a Belly song, and another tune written by Barnett’s girlfriend, Jen Cloher.
27. John Wesley Harding, Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding. Let’s get everything straight. The artist known as John Wesley Harding was born Wesley Stace. He uses his birthname on his novels, and has also put out a few records under that name. This year’s album, his best in decades, attempts to clear up the confusion over his name. His writing is still full of wit and snark, and who can’t love an artist who makes fun of the music industry? It’s also worth noting that his band on this album is The Jayhawks, who do a masterful job at staying out of his way but adding whatever elements are needed.
28. Flat Worms, s/t. Flat Worms would be considered a supergroup in some circles, as everybody in the band has played with artists such as Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, Kevin Morby, and Dream Boys. Regardless of where they’re from, this collaboration doesn’t rely on the usual sounds that generally come out of the Segall/Cronin/Thee Oh Sees circle of friends. Instead, this is a bit of a tribute to the heavier postpunk bands of the past. There’s a bit of Wire, later Buzzcocks, and even some pre-grunge Seattle in their sound.
29. Wand, Plum. You know what I love about this band? First off, they’re prolific, as this is their fourth album in three years. They’re also a band that’s constantly changing, as none of their albums sound the same. Plum may be the best of the bunch. It’s certainly their most varied, which makes it next to impossible to describe as it flows in and out of various subgenres.
30. Dream Syndicate, How Did I Find Myself Here? Here’s another band I never expected to see release new music. And I certainly would have never predicted that anything they did record would be so great. Their first new studio album since 1988 is similar to the new Feelies record in that it’s like there hasn’t been any time between releases. It’s a perfect companion to their neo-psychedelic classics The Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show.
31. Palehound, A Place I’ll Always Go. Palehound leader Ellen Kempner recently lost her grandmother and best friend, and poured all of her grief into her second album. While that may sound depressing, it’s tempered by the fuzzy, alt-rock guitar rock that fans of Waxahatchee should love.
32. Son Volt, Notes of Blue. It’s been quite some time since anybody but the biggest Jay Farrar fans paid any attention to Son Volt. Weirdly, it took a recent obsession with Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell that led to a record that’s reminiscent of the band’s classic early records.
33. Robyn Hitchcock, s/t. Again, a veteran artist puts out his best album in decades. For his 21st album, Hitchcock actually gives a few nods to his Soft Boys power pop days, and that energy permeates through the entire album.
34. Ne-Hi, Offers. Chicago’s place in indie rock circles has certainly grown in recent years, thanks to the likes of Twin Peaks, Whitney, and our very own The Kickback. As they told me in an interview before playing Total Drag earlier this year, Ne-Hi originally formed to record a soundtrack for a friend’s film, and it worked so well they decided to become a “real” band. After a debut recorded in a basement, they hit an actual studio for this record, but the resulting still feels like the result of a marathon jam session.
35. Micah Schnabel, Your New Norman Rockwell. Two Cow Garage is one of our country’s most underrated musical jewels that took Americana and gave it a Replacements-ish edge. This record may be a solo record, but it’s really a more stripped-down version of a typical Two Cow Garage album. Which means, of course, that it’s brilliant.
36. Daddy Issues, Deep Dream. This list doesn’t have enough snotty all-girl punk rock, even though it’s been a great year for bands such as this. As my friend Gorman Bechard says, they’re so good that they can even make a Don Henley cover (“Boys of Summer”) sound great.
37. POW!, Crack an Egg. This is a record that one needs to hear on vinyl. The first time I heard this was a digital version, and it was way too dominated by their propulsive synths. The vinyl version, though, obviously still has this despised (by me) instrument prominently in the mix, but the analog version is highlighted by the deeper, fuller sounds of the entire band.
38. Damaged Bug, Bunker Fun. John Dwyer is another artist who obviously had little to no free time this year. Besides running a busy, successful indie label that’s well-represented on this list, Dwyer released records under the names Oh Sees and OCS. (Thee Oh Sees name was retired after two 2016 releases.) He also had time for his solo side project that relies more on electronics than his other bands. His third release under this name is a bit heavier, a bit funkier, and heavier on prog elements than his main band.
39. Greg Ashley, Pictures of Saint Paul Street. Although a veteran of Texas garage-punk bands, along with a number of solo records, this record was my first hearing of this interesting songwriter. From the very first song, I heard a bit of Flowers-era Stones, mid-period Kinks, a pinch of Dylan, and even a touch of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. Ashley’s songs may primarily deal with despairing, hopeless characters living on the fringes of society, but he manages to turn them into messengers of righteous anger.
40. David Nance, Negative Boogie. Describing this lo-fi Omaha musician is next to impossible, as he’s anything and everything. There’s a bit of Crazy Horse at their one-take coked up best, quite a bit of Pere Ubu-weirdness, and maybe a bit of the Velvets and The Chills, and even a touch of 70’s outlaw country. Yet it somehow works, even when he throws in a surprise shambolic cover of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings”.