Top Albums and Tracks of 2017

For someone who consumes a lot of music, I’m usually pretty late to the party on a lot of things, so it’s always hard for me to compile a year-end list. I’m giving it a go this year because I think there’s been a lot of important work done – not to mention some certifiable bangers coming out.

1. Daddy Issues – Deep Dream
I would start this out by noting that 2017 was a rough year for women, but that’s not true – it hasn’t been any more awful than previous years. The only difference is that this year we’re talking about it. Nashville power-trio Daddy Issues’ debut full-length Deep Dream is my album of the year because not only is it well-crafted, catchy grunge with lyrical context that has been sorely missing from women in rock, but also because their take-no-shit attitude is refreshing in an industry that has long told us to sit still and look pretty. (Or shut up and sing, if you’re a Dixie Chicks fan.)

It’s awesome to not only discover such angsty, grungey music being made by powerful women this year, but they’re also young, and I can’t wait to hear what they have for us next.

Best Song: Emily Maxwell’s “I’m Not,” written about her assault trauma and played by me ad nauseum this summer as I worked through the same.

2. Cayetana – New Kind of Normal
Without Daddy Issues, I never would have found Cayetana. Early in the year I tweeted, soliciting songs that people listen to when they need some cheering up, and Bass Jenna suggested “Am I Dead Yet?” by Cayetana. And boy, did this record hit me right where I needed it. I’ve been open about my own mental health struggles and search to feel “normal” for most of my adulthood, and this album hits the nail on the head. “Am I Dead Yet?” echoes exactly the thoughts I have when I’m in a depression pit, “Grumpy’s” encapsulates the anxieties I’ve long had around dating (“was I your friend or your drinking buddy, your first call or the understudy?”) and “Mesa” looks back on a relationship that had potential but ended. It’s a realistic look at what it’s like to be a woman trying to navigate mental illness and living the life you want.

Cayetana is hands down my favorite discovery of the year, and I am so lucky that I got to see them play. Highly recommend checking them out – they were very sweet as I almost fell over myself fangirling them as well.

Best Song: “Am I Dead Yet?” and “Grumpy’s”

3. Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
No surprise that Craig’s third solo album ranks highly on my list, so I won’t drone on about it for too long. It’s an amazing album with more instrumental depth than previous records (that flute though) and continues his tradition of being one of the best writers in the game.

Best Song: “Birds Trapped at the Airport”

3. Cory Branan – Adios
I never thought there would be a year where a Cory Branan record would land so far down my “best albums” list, but here we all are. When I saw Cory play last summer, he said that the new album was his “death” record – and I immediately perked up. For me, his dark songs (“Survivor Blues” and “Hold Me Down” from MUTT, specifically) have always been where his writing shines, so I went into Adios with high hopes. It delivered.

Sonically, it’s very diverse – from the 80’s synth of “Visiting Hours” to the southern blues take on “Walls, MS” or “Cold Blue Moonlight”‘s waltz – but it all fits together well. “The Vow” is some of his most personal songwriting, a tribute to his late dad that his wife finally convinced him to record, and the killer-cop song “Another Nightmare in America” that floored me the first time I heard it (and continues to affect me on every listen.) He brought back a track from an old Jon Snodgrass split with “Yeah So What?” and I’m taking that as a personal victory after years of shouting to hear it live.

Best Song: “Visiting Hours”

4. Kesha – Rainbow
Thank you, Saint Kesha.

When she dropped “Praying” out of nowhere, I think everyone in a ten-mile radius heard my shrieks of excitement and subsequent sobs after listening to it on repeat for a few hours. Her very public sexual assault trial against Dr. Luke (and the treatment and reaction of the label afterward) was perhaps the first time a lot of people were hearing about sexual misconduct in the music industry and as a precursor to #MeToo, her career stagnated as she wrestled with getting out from under working with and for her abuser. It’s impossible to listen to “Praying” and hear it as anything but an anthem for survivors.

Rainbow is still full of the traditional Kesha-style bangers: “Woman”, “Learn to Let It Go,” and “Bastards” are all empowerment anthems to dance around your room in the style of her past albums – but with a little more substance.

Best Song: “Praying”

5. The Menzingers – After the Party
True to form, I was a bit late to the Menzingers party. A few years ago a friend played them during a drive around Nashville and passed me the CD when I said I liked it, but I never listened to it again. Late last year when I heard “Lookers” for the first time, I immediately got on board. I turned 30 this year, so the album’s theme of “aging punks” does feel just a little on the nose, but I don’t mind a little pandering in my music.

(And I love being Midwestern, so anything that pays tribute to my great nation helps hold some weight for me.)

Best Song: “Lookers”

6. Chris Gethard – Career Suicide
This isn’t the type of album most people would expect to see here, but this was the Year of The Geth for me. For the uninitiated, Chris Gethard is a comedian and host of The Chris Gethard Show now on truTV, occasional actor, pro wrestling fan, and very outspoken about mental health. His stand-up special from last year, Career Suicide, is so named because he tracks back his illness, starting from when he was first starting to realize that something was wrong and that having suicidal thoughts wasn’t normal, and tracking through diagnoses, addiction, prescriptions and side effects, and how to start feeling better.

The special is available on Hulu, and I can’t recommend it highly enough (with the suggestion that it’s maybe best viewed on a Good Mental Health day.)

7. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Another band I was late to the train on, it took me a long time to get into them – and it wasn’t actually until I saw them live that my mind was changed. I love how big the guitars are, I love the energy of the live show, and the sing-along choruses on songs like “North South East West.” (Plus I love geography songs, so that’s really just hitting me where I live.) The shift in “Arc of Bar” gives a nearly-8 minute song a refreshing shift in tone, and “No Known Drink or Drug” is a great album closer, and one of the year’s most romantic rock songs.

Best Song: “North South East West”

8. Paper Tiger – In Other Words
If you’ve been around me for longer than five minutes, you will have heard the following words come out of my mouth: The Hold Steady, Daddy Issues, Cory Branan, Doomtree. Paper Tiger’s In Other Words was released this year, a full album version of four four-song EPs he put out over the course of a year. The first installment came out last year on the day Prince died, and while everyone else was blaring through his catalog, I was lost in In Other Words, Pt. 1. I described it as “musical Xanax,” and Paper Tiger continues his streak of releases that always make my year-end list.

Best Song: “Light Music”

9. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Potential controversial opinion: I think Jason Isbell is much better when he’s playing with the 400 Unit than his solo releases. While I take issue with the sequencing of The Nashville Sound (how do you not open with a song like “Anxiety”?) it’s a great Nashville rock album… and yes, I probably did just invent that genre.

Best Song: “Anxiety”

10. Penny and Sparrow – Wendigo
I discovered Penny and Sparrow a few years ago and their sparse, literary songs really resonated with me. 2017’s Wendigo sees them continue on with their tributes to Les Miserables and explore more complex musical compositions. It’s perfect music for cozy winter nights, so let Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke soothe your winter blues.

Best Song: “Smitten Pt. 2”

Favorite Songs:

That Dog’s Retreat from the Sun is a Gift to the Awkward

Before blogs, music websites and Tumblr, LiveJournal was the place where angsty teenagers gathered to pirate music, post bad poetry and connect with others who felt the same. That time – 2003, to be exact – was when I joined a community called “redletterday,” named after the 1997 Get Up Kids EP of the same name, that was dedicated to lyrics that users related to or just wanted to share in an effort to be internet cool. Words were often posted without attribution, but I’d fall in love with them just the same. But then a set of lyrics appeared: “by definition/a crush must hurt/and they do/just like the one I have on you.” That’s the story of how I discovered “Long Island” by that dog.

I couldn’t believe that a band could so eloquently articulate the feelings I couldn’t. It spoke to my fifteen-year-old heart – while many of my friends were diving into relationships for the first time, often with boys I too had a crush on, I was crying to NSYNC songs. I wish I was kidding. Unable to open up, I was left alone to brood over them on Friday nights with only my tenor saxophone and my bass clarinet and a dial-up connection. For my entire sophomore year of high school, I played the song over and over. It didn’t occur to me at the time that they might have more music.

Eventually, I discovered Retreat From The Sun, the album “Long Island” is from. It sounded different than anything I’d been listening to until that point. Until then, my Napster queue was full of New Found Glory, The Movielife or any number of Drive-Thru Records bands. What set them apart is that they were girls. Sure, I could relate to sappy Something Corporate piano jams, but it wasn’t my voice. Anna Waronker and the Haden sisters had a way with words that spoke to me in a way I understood – and that bands made of boys never could.

Album opener “Annie” was familiar to a high schooler – “can we take your car/‘cause I don’t have one,” even if the rest of the song felt so alien. I didn’t know what a breakup felt like, but I knew wanting someone to take me out. In “Being With You,” Waronker sings of emptiness and pining over someone’s continued rejection. Whenever I would silently long for a classmate (without any ounce of action to pursue them) it really did feel like a cold rejection – how did this band know? “I sit with emptiness waiting for your call/an open phone line, but I still hit your walls” seems pretty pedestrian now, but at the time, it felt like I was the only girl in the world willing a phone to ring.

Despite a song like “Hawthorne” being pretty short of a revelation, lyrics like “Driving/Looking for your parents house/Striving/To find a piece of you/And I saw a punk rock show/In a car garage/And I saw you” felt like something I could have poured into a composition book on the way to a VFW hall show. Even more” adult” tracks “Minneapolis” filled me with longing. I wanted to sit around at the bar and date the touring musician! I wanted to go to the Low show! (And I definitely still wanted that car.) The title track talks about “younger people happy,” and I just wanted to jump through the computer to tell Anna that not all younger people were, that those people must be imposters.

Of course, by the time I found that dog., they’d already broken up, and it was years before I dove any deeper into their catalog. But Retreat From the Sun was the first time that I was able to get a glimpse of what my future might be like. A time where boys reciprocated my feelings, stories about my time spent in bars, the one night stands I had, what it was like to have a hangover and what a breakup feels like. Not all of those things are good, and they weren’t to go through, but for that girl stuck at home on a Friday night, the promise of those experiences were everything. For a while it was just enough to scrawl that lyric from “Long Island” in all of my notebooks. But what it really taught me is that I had a voice, that girls could make rock music, and made me think that maybe I had a musical future beyond the nerdy woodwinds. For that, I’m grateful and I’ll never forget it.