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:

Ten Albums That Made 2017 Worth It

I can’t think of a year in my life that has been defined by numb horror quite like 2017. Between mass shootings and exposures of our pop culture heroes as abusive creeps and the erosion of political norms, it feels like we’re running on empty, coasting on the fumes of whatever we had that made us great. All year, I’ve not stopped thinking about Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and how we’re living in the wreck of the past, fighting an oppressive machine force designed to eradicate all that is good and human.

But, lo, there are bright spots. I moved back to Virginia this year just in time to cast my “I’m-so-progressive-don’t-just-save-the-whales-elect-them” vote as part of a Democratic wave that took back the state. I spent election night feeling as if a dam had burst inside me and every ounce of joy I’ve thought forever lost this year was flooding into the world. We’re still in the shit, but now we’ve got some hope back. We’ve got some proof that we can make a difference again. We’re a T-800’s fist closing into a thumbs up despite being lowered down into molten steel.

So, it’s not all bad. In fact, some of 2017 has been really good; mostly it was the music. Oh man, the music. The music was good.

I’m happy to offer a list of ten albums that have sustained me in 2017. I told myself that I was going to make it through this year if it killed me and these albums carried me, excited me, crushed me, or swept me away when I needed it most.

Two caveats:

First, the best album released in 2017 was Hanson’s Middle of Everywhere, an incredibly thorough retrospective of their 25 years as a band. If you’ve missed out on Hanson, or if you’re still making the same joke from 1997 about how cute those girls are, you owe it to yourself to get this record and experience a rock group that has been at the top of their game for decades. If you get a chance to see the Tulsa trio live, do not pass it up: they are one of the best American bands on the road. That being said, a greatest hits record doesn’t precisely honor the spirit of the list, so this recommendation will have to suffice.
Second, when I find myself in times of trouble, indie rock comes to me. I slept on so much hip hop, pop and R&B this year so my list is embarrassingly guitar-heavy and white, and therefore incomplete. I know for a fact that there are dozens of albums from more diverse artists that should be on this list and I’m excited to go back and listen to them. Send suggestions.

Sorority Noise – You’re Not as _____ as You Think
If rock and roll has any sort of eternal ethos, it’s this: when in doubt, stick to the basics. Guitars for melody, drums and bass for rhythm and earnest, honest lyrics to tie it all together with emotion. That combination never fails to get the listener dancing or crying or driving too fast. On You’re Not as _____ as You Think, Sorority Noise sound like the perfect evolution of the indie rock band (distilling, among others: Smoking Popes, Gaslight Anthem and Defiance, OH). This is a “first summer home from college” album, the one you drive around listening to with your friends, hoping to recapture some sort of magic, and knowing that instead you’ll have to settle for forging something new.

Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
No other band name in history has channeled the feeling of listening to their music better than Cigarettes After Sex. From what I can tell, Greg Gonzalez started Cigarettes After Sex nearly ten years ago to crickets. Then, somehow, a YouTube algorithm picked up his song “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby,” which went on to millions of views and inclusion in several prestige cable shows. Jump cut to 2017’s self-titled debut album, absolutely dripping with dark, wet songs about wanting sex, having sex, regretting sex, obsessing over sex, remembering sex and…well, you get it. I took a poetry workshop in college once and I brought in a pretty graphic poem about an imagined sexual encounter. Sharing it was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done and it was not received well. Cigarettes After Sex is an entire album full of that kind of awkward bravery, except the poetry works and it sounds like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Concrete Blonde. *shiver*

Lorde – Melodrama
Lorde surprised us all with Pure Heroine, which was pretty much a perfect album. Her long-awaited follow-up isn’t necessarily better, but none of her Top 40 competition has come close to delivering anything with the texture she achieves on Melodrama. Apparently, the album loosely traces a wild night out, a kind of long night of the soul set at house parties and LA nightclubs. I don’t know how much I connect with that, but I do connect with Lorde, who will not be denied her right to feel her feelings and dance like an escaped lunatic to sick darkwave beats. May we all be more like her in 2018.

Lydia Loveless – Boy Crazy and Single(s)
I’ve worshipped at the altar of Lydia Loveless for some years now and when I heard she was releasing an old ep and a bunch of B-sides for a new collection, it was like mana from heaven. Sure, a lot of this music pre-dates 2017, but it’s the first time it’s available for most folks in one place and it’s a great starting point in your spiritual journey towards Lydia. Loveless has my favorite voice in modern rock, pop or country and she absolutely shreds her vocals and her guitar to make sure we can still feel. She’s one of the last true rock and rollers, I think, giving us a direct line back to those roadhouses where they first amplified the blues. I’ve been a recovered punk long enough to know how loaded and dangerous the concept of “authenticity” is, but all I can think of when I listen to Loveless’ work is that she’s the real deal.

The Regrettes – Feel Your Feelings Fool!
When the revolution comes and men are meant to answer for our crimes, it will be well-deserved. Lest you doubt, look to the news. I’m sure some famous man has been found out to be a harasser or abuser in the time since you began reading this list. It’s probably reductive to say it, but 2017 felt like the first year where any attention has been paid to women fighting back. And, hoo boy, hearing 17-year-old frontwoman Lydia Night yowl “I’m like nobody else / so you can just go fuck yourself” as the hook to “Seashore” is more than enough of a reminder that women rock, and have rocked, forever. The Regrettes’ music is confessional, stripped down and built around the band members’ confidence in themselves. If this is what’s coming from Gen Z, then this try-hard millennial dude is happy to step out of the way.

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
I got to see Japandroids a couple weeks before Near to the Wild Heart of Life was released and they knocked me on my ass, as you’d expect from such a renowned live band. When I finally got to sit down with the album, I got knocked down again. As I said earlier in this list, the thing that makes rock music stick to your heart is earnestness. It’s a common thread picked up by all my favorite bands, and it’s the driving force on this album. It’s a departure from their punk-ier early stuff, but it’s still Japandroids using distortion and rat-a-tat snare hits to explore life, death, love and the importance of staying in motion. They mean every lyric and they bleed for every chord. The only thing they don’t do is apologize for it; they may be Canadian, but if you’re waiting for the “Oh, soory for rockin’ your face off, guy,” it ain’t comin’.

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without emcees sniping at each other over their bona fides. Who’s the meanest? Who’s the baddest? But this is 2017 and I feel genuinely bad for every rapper standing in Kendrick’s way. Is it too early to call him the GOAT? Probably. But, here, today, when Kendrick talks, everybody listens. We all rushed out to call To Pimp a Butterfly his masterpiece, and it feels like he took it as a challenge. This year, he slapped us with DAMN. and we were awed again. This is the album where he showed us he’s incapable of picking a dud beat, incapable of letting a stray word interrupt his flow and incapable of being anything less than the best emcee working today.

Harry Styles – Harry Styles
I would not have guessed in a million years that one of the biggest teen idols of all time would go solo, go quiet for a couple months, and then come back as the fully-formed second coming of everything good about 70’s-era classic rock. Harry’s debut is self-assured tribute to the music that apparently shaped him most: dad rock. You get the sense that in channeling Jagger and Plant and Prince, he’s letting us see his real self for the first time, and that real self wants to lie with you on the shag carpet and fill his wood-paneled basement with smoke from the finest Panama Red. The album has incredible songwriting that shades the small, quiet moments and amplifies the grandest emotions. By all accounts, the live show is excellent as well. But what really knocked me out about Harry Styles is how much bravery it must have taken to release it. Conventional wisdom tells us that tween girls don’t have any interest in their (grand)parents’ Donovan or ELO records. Harry bet against those odds big time, and while the results are out on if Harry Styles will herald of a rock renaissance, it is a stellar debut with songs that deserve to become part of the canon.

Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things
Probably the best I felt all year was when I was dancing in the pit at three nights of Hold Steady shows in Chicago. Something about the other fans and the sweat and wet confetti and everybody screaming “stay positive” lifted me higher than I thought I could go anymore. Craig is their lead singer, and We All Want the Same Things is his third solo outing. His first two albums were very, very good, but they didn’t always lift me as high as The Hold Steady could. We All Want the Same Things does. This is a record about self-care, about needing others and about loving your neighbor even when it’s hard. And now, more than ever, that’s the thing this country needs. Earlier this year, I was listening to this album in the car. My wife was out of town and I was a bit lonely. I was driving around, looking for something to do. It was raining. And then “God in Chicago” came through the radio and it felt like our love story was riding shotgun and like it was everyone’s love story and like everything would be all right and “four years didn’t seem like much anymore / we both want the same things / we kissed on the corner we kissed in the corridors / we fumbled with clothing / we all want the same things.”

Cayetana – New Kind of Normal
I’m glad Cayetana exists now, as I close out my twenties. If they had been around when I was 15 my heart would have never recovered. For my money, they’re the best punk-pop-riotgrrl-whatever band making music today. They might just be the best band making music today. New Kind of Normal, their second album, takes the idea of a sophomore slump to a shooting range, shouts pull and demolishes it in the air. The three-piece from Philly has delivered unto us one of the most heartbreaking collections of self-examinations to ever be pushed out through an amp. The songs here are bleak and uncompromising, full of fear and self-loathing, but sung as defiant anthems, each one imbued with enough hope to remind you that it ain’t over until it’s over. They’re not quite doing punk covers of the DSRM, but that’s the neighborhood. In a year of mass, shared depression, defiance in the face of hopelessness is what keeps us going. On “Easy to Love,” Augusta Koch is pleading when she sings “maybe you will find / someone easier to love.” Maybe that’s true. But I don’t want anyone else. I want you, Cayetana, with every bit of sadness, anger, volume swell and reverb you have to give me.

Favorite Albums of 2017

This year was an extraordinarily strong year for music, so much so that ranking my top 10 favorites was not an easy feat. That said, I included a supplementary 11-20 for some of my favorites from this year. I have linked to some of the reviews for some of those records below. Enjoy!

1. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

How do you describe an album that feels like a living document? A Deeper Understanding balances the line of immaterial and extraordinary weight, songs that feel huge in their emotion, sound and place, but have an incredible quality of reshaping themselves with every listen. The War on Drugs fourth album feels familiar – Dire Straits guitars, heartland rock propulsion with a Don Henley-esque delivery, but it’s not a tribute to those things. There’s something about it that combines these elements and infuses them with a feeling that’s impossible to explain without hearing. Frontman/mastermind Adam Granduciel labored for years combining synths, guitars, bass and drums that effortlessly weave into each other. Whether it’s the shimmering guitars that open “Pain,” the dramatic landscape of “Thinking of a Place,” or the E-Street Band-iness of “Holding On,” it runs the gamut of human emotion: It’s pensive, driving, achingly sad and at many points, euphoric.

Pick any of these instruments or emotions and follow the thread. Then replay the song and pick something else to immerse in. It’s a revelatory, choose-your-own-adventure listen. A Deeper Understanding is an album about feeling, understanding and exploring. It’s a prism that refracts its light in endless directions. No matter the approach, no two experiences will ever be the same.

2. Japandroids – Near to The Wild Heart of Life

Here’s the thing – Japandroids were never going to make another Celebration Rock, and it would be foolish to think they were going to in the first place, if ever make another record at all. After five years, what we did get was Near to the Wild Heart of Life, the third in the line of great Japandroids albums.

The production is larger and the songs have a sense of space not found on previous Japandroids records. The album still has plenty of the fiery romanticism and the hooks that made the band so irresistible, but there is simple separation in the sounds to take that all in. There’s prominent synthesizers, acoustic guitars –just small touches that show the band was creating distance from the bash-and-blaze chaos of the first two albums. In a sense, Near to the Wild Heart of Life reminds us of some truths that we all eventually face. Everything is constantly changing. Right now is the youngest you’ll ever be. Eventually, we have to all take chances if we want evolve. Sure, the album is not perfect, and some experiments don’t work. That sounds like life. It won’t bring us back to the time where we felt infinite. But when it’s over, it’s a small reminder to keep going in hope that next day will be better than the last. That in itself is a victory – at this moment in time, that is exactly what we need.

3. Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights

On 2015’s Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker somehow was able to reinvent what it is what a songwriter can do with guitar and voice. Two years later on her follow up Turn Out The Lights, there’s a little more experience under her belt, but her songs – deep meditations on spirituality, mental health, relationships – and simply what it means to exist – pack an even stronger emotional wallop with the simple addition of piano, woodwinds and strings. “Appointments,” the album’s meditative first single hits an unforgettable climax, revealing an expressiveness in her voice not previously heard in her songs. The album’s title track continues this feels like it could be a full-throated punk ballad, but the guitar’s ambience bypasses that and sends it into the stratosphere. But it’s those moments that reveal an intense vulnerability that are the album’s best. “Hurt Less,” is a gorgeous piano ballad with backing vocals by her Forrister bandmate Matthew Gilliam. It’s a song about losing someone important and having to live with it.

Baker sings, “I just don’t want to be alone/And as long as you’re not tired yet/of talking, it helps to make it hurt less.” Julien Baker’s ability to take her emotions and filtering them with intense focus is only scratching the surface of what she’s capable of as a songwriter Take a seat. You’ll be grateful you did.

4. Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow

Released under a year after last year’s magnificent Heart Like a Levee (and the deluxe edition bonus album Vestapol), M.C. Taylor and company return with a looser sounding collection of songs than the more pristine sounds of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s any less gorgeous. Opener “Jenny of the Roses” kicks things off rather breezily, but sets the tone pretty quickly as he sings, apparently quoting the subject of the song: “I’ve never been/Afraid of the darkness/it’s just a different kind of light.” This theme continues with “Lost Out in the Darkness,” buoyed by an insistent kick drum and choppy acoustic guitars. Harmonica bleeds in and out of the song as Taylor sings something that sounds optimistic – “I’ve been waiting for you patiently/I’m trying to be hopeful for you, brother” and “If you carry the good news/show me/I’ve been looking for a sign down among us.” Hiss Golden Messenger crafted a record to be the balm for a persistent burn. It is not a record made as a reaction to terrible times, instead it is a beautiful example of creating great art in spite of them. What it says is that we’re all in this together, moving forward and doing the best we can. That, truly, is Hallelujah Anyhow.

5. St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Annie Clark’s fifth record under the St. Vincent name again blows the debate wide open as to if she’s created her best record. Each record seems to build on the last, and this one might somehow be the most obtuse and accessible yet. It’s a diverse collection of neon-hued pop – the slinky “Los Ageless”, title track “Masseduction” with the lyrics “I can’t turn off what turns me on” to the devastating “Happy Birthday Johnny” and piano ballad “New York”. The arrangements are just as dense as they have been on previous releases, but here they feel streamlined and tighter. Highfalutin it is not. It’s St. Vincent, David Bowie and sex filtered through hell.

6. The Smith Street Band – More Scared of You Then You Are of Me

Over three albums, The Smith Street Band, a Melbourne-based foursome have earned fans with emotionally unguarded songwriting that tiptoes the line between from totally moving to pure euphoria. Frontman Wil Wagner has never been one to pull punches with his confessional songwriting. On their fourth album, More Scared of You Than You Are of Me, Wagner and the band doubles down, creating their best record yet. On the unforgettable “Birthdays,” Wagner spells out his feelings pretty clear: “And I’ll be intense/And I’ll be too much/And I’ll get too high/And I’ll get too drunk/But in between episodes/I will love you more than anyone you have ever known” – it’s a perfect encapsulation of starting something new but setting expectation early. Those are things that sound scary in theory, but through the lens of a new relationship, their impact is dulled.

Immediately after is “Death to the Lads,” a shitkicking rocker with one of the most over-the-top hair-metal guitar solos in a punk song in recent memory. This is a band with a mastery of dynamic shifts – starting with the pensive light guitars that bloom into a march on “Passiona,” or the atmospheric “Run Into The World” where the band gets some vocal help from Laura Stevenson and Tim Rogers, many songs on the album seem to tide with Wagner’s full-throated delivery. But some of the most fascinating moments are when they step outside the box. The album’s closing track, “Laughing (Or Pretending To Laugh)”, is a classic New York story that finds Wagner with far more tender deliver. It feels like he’s letting us on a secret. The song never explodes, just gently crests, while he sings “And just because I’ve got a lot to learn/Does not mean that I am inherently a piece of shit/Just because I don’t think I know everything/Doesn’t mean that I don’t know anything”. Sure, he’s talking to someone specific, but it’s a good lesson to learn. With just a little foresight, tomorrow’s another chance to be better than yesterday.

7. Craig Finn – We All Want The Same Things

I’m obviously very close to this project, so I’ll make it brief. It’s the strongest solo record yet from CF – he has found a very game collaborator in Josh Kaufman. The songs feel lush and full, stories that hit hard where they need to. Tracks like the flute accented “Preludes” and “Be Honest” contain some of his best lines (“My password is be honest/my network is evolved,” while the sweet wash of synths on “Birds Trapped in the Airport” hint at a sound that couldn’t have been dreamt of from the sound of Hold Steady records. But all of this centers around the all-time great “God in Chicago,” a sad meditation that’s less song as it is story, exploring the aftermath of loss. Just listen to it and let the feelings wash over you.

8. Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

If you’ve followed the career of Katie Crutchfield and her albums under the name Waxahatchee, it’s clear that she never rests on her laurels. Whether it’s the lo-fi intimacy of American Weekend, the assured full-band sound of Cerulean Salt or the atmospherics of Ivy Tripp, each record shows Crutchfield confidently adapting new elements to her sound. On her latest, Out in the Storm, Crutchfield makes Waxahatchee’s best album to date.

“Never Been Wrong,” the album’s opener, makes this abundantly clear. A distorted, plunging riff form the backbone of the song as Crutchfield’s voice takes front and center in the verse. It’s an awesome loud-quiet-loud rock song, full of driving guitars, pummeling bass and an insistent beat. Elements of Crutchfield’s earlier songwriting find a place here, albeit improved. Both “Recite Remorse” and “Sparks Fly” are built on beds of keys and percussion that wouldn’t sound out of place on Ivy Tripp, but here they feel less weightless and more grounded, something only a seasoned musician and performer could pull off. Out in the Storm is the best work from a musician and songwriter who has grown up band-by-band, album-by-album in front of an audience through much of her adult life. Everything up until this point has shown Katie Crutchfield’s ability and brilliance, its an album that represents the point when Waxahatchee’s ambition and ability and confidence run alongside one another. Where she goes next is anyone’s guess. The bar has been raised. Out in the Storm sets it high.

9. The Menzingers – After the Party

We’re in the golden age of “crisis rock,” a term I’m playfully using about bands that write songs about the fading embers of youth, crystallizing when the sun starts to set on the familiar and new responsibilities and realities take hold. On “Tellin’ Lies,” the opening track on The Menzingers latest record, they make the album’s thesis abundantly clear: “Where are we going to go when our twenties are over?”

The answer hits like a ton of bricks. After the Party is 13 songs that revive the feelings about being “in your adolescent room” rummaging “through the boxes labeled “former you”/The souvenirs of happiness in the moment” on “Your Wild Years,” the duality of living different lives to different people” “To everyone, you’re such a sweet church girl/But I know your secret” on the aptly titled “Bad Catholics,” among others. It’s a wistful, sometimes celebratory, often elegiac love letter to youth. The open-heartedness is palpable and authentic, but on “Lookers,” it feels personal. Co-vocalist Greg Barnett sings, “We were both lookers/In a 5″x8″ black and white/On the night stand of my mind/From a time I hardly recognize.” Suddenly, all those half-memories from high school and college come rushing back in full color.

10. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

After two major critical successes under his own name, Jason Isbell restores his backing band The 400 Unit to top billing on The Nashville Sound. It’s for good reason, returns, as they take more of a central role on Isbell’s songs. What’s immediate from the album is a sense of looseness in Isbell’s songwriting and the band’s playing that hasn’t really felt a part of their sound since 2011’s Here We Rest. Whereas songs on 2013’s Southeastern and its follow up, 2015’s Something More Than Free sounded great, but had a sort of insularity absent on the earlier 400 Unit albums. Album opener “Last of My Kind” fades in, as if you’re getting a glimpse of a group of people playing together in a room, as Isbell sings about being left behind by the changing world. The song picks up with subtle intensity with every verse. This naturalistic style of production is a hallmark of longtime producer Dave Cobb’s style – here, it reintroduces the The 400 Unit as, well, a unit.

“If We Were Vampires,” is an arresting duet between Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires. The song sounds gothic on title alone, it’s anything but. Essentially, it’s an acoustic ballad where Isbell and Shires ruminate on the limited time they have together while they’re alive. “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever/Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/Maybe we’ll get forty years together/But one day I’ll be gone/Or one day you’ll be gone.” It’s spare, beautiful and nothing short of a classic.

“Anxiety” is a seven-minute epic about just what the title suggests. The guitars are stormy and the rhythms insistent. Isbell’s lyrics may be familiar to those who struggle with it: “You got to give me a minute/Because I’m way down in it/And I can’t breathe so I can’t speak/I want to be strong and steady, always ready/Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak”. They eventually give away to a furiously strummed bridge which kicks into a wily guitar solo. The lyrics, although familiar, may be a tough sell and with many artists shouldn’t have worked, but Isbell’s earnestness and the mastery of The 400 Unit sell it. The Nashville Sound is a record that may have gotten lost in the shuffle of a glut of great 2017 releases, but it is a testament to excellent songwriting from a group in its peak.

11. Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness
12. Priests – Nothing Feels Normal
13. White Reaper – The World’s Best American Band
14. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
15. The National – Sleep Well Beast
16. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
17. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
18. Ted Leo – The Hanged Man
19. Sincere Engineer – Rhombithian
20. The World Is A Beautful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Always Foreign


Bully Sharpen Their Attack On Losing

With Losing, the second full-length release from Nashville-based indie rockers Bully, frontwoman Alicia Bognanno has thrust a handful of simple, effective, relatable songs into the world, addressing matters ranging from a diverse array of relationships to mental health. In the fluctuation between matters of the heart and the head, perhaps the most striking through-line of this album is, as Bognanno sings on “Seeing It,” how it is quite a “blurry place to be / Stuck in your own body.”

Bognanno cut her audio engineering chops at Chicago’s Electrical Audio studio and has masterfully engineered all of Bully’s releases. I’m sure plenty of studios—such as and including EA—can be wonderful places to work, but there’s also no doubt in my mind that the cards are stacked against any female recording engineer who steps behind the board. Bognanno’s resume, in addition to the poignant lyricism we hear on Losing supports the idea that being a person “stuck” in their own body, getting “anxious too” is hard, but being a woman is a certain, special, other kind of hard, too.

Notably, these twelve songs are not all explicitly political—or even overtly feminist. There are few details to flesh out the exact circumstances of the interpersonal events described in songs like “Focused,” (“And I still remember / What you went through when we were sixteen”) or “Blame” (“Think we both know what’s been going on / Can we make this quick?”). Nonetheless, even without the complex narratives that are often hallmarks of albums dealing in so many fraught topics, it’s easy to see how Bognanno’s songwriting slams up against social and political forces—some unfair, others just bewildering. When the album begins with a one-two punch explicitly calling out her sexuality, ambivalence, and frustration, specifically when she sings, “Cut my hair / I feel the same / Masturbate / I feel the same,” you know we’re about to get right up close to the tension between this feeling of being “stuck”—both in body and mind.

In “Blame,” for example, Bognanno tackles the catch-22 so many women will find familiar, where stoicism or confidence is perceived as bitchiness: “And I wonder sometimes you think / That you’ve created a monster / A bitch who can’t even blink.” Then the chorus stands up and announces, “fuck it”, as Bognanno declares: “Can’t keep my mouth shut / Can’t keep my mouth shut, I won’t / If you don’t want to hear it / If you don’t want to hear it then don’t.

Bognanno’s lyrics are sharp and insightful, but musically Losing stays impressively close to its simple and effective mission. Bognanno’s style is fuzzy, but she lets the layers in her songs expand to fill their own spaces. As on “You Could Be Wrong,” where guitar sounds crumple and get drowned out for a verse, only to ring clearly through a chorus.

Left and right over the past week, it’s been hard to it’s been hard to find a conversation about Losing that won’t make reference to the parade of 90’s greats who also made their ways through Electrical—The Breeders and The Pixies, Nirvana, etc., and with good reason. In fact, Losing and other Bully recordings are mostly recorded using analog instead of digital technology, which contributes to that 90’s sound. “Feel the Same” leads the album off with a persistent, shoegaze-y intro that descends into smooth genre-blending guitar screams. Conversely, there’s a contemporary, upbeat optimism peeking through the grungy vibes of the crunchy guitar on “Either Way.” Then there are pop songs like “Not the Way” that just plain work.

Losing also notably marks Bully’s departure from Columbia subsidiary Star Time International and onto Sub Pop. (Apparently no “Loser”/Losing puns intended here.) The through-line of the band persists, however, and my personal favorite song on Losing recalls the best of what has always cemented Bully as a great band. Reminiscent of “I Remember,” a leading single off 2015’s Feels Like, my favorite song on Losing, “Kills to be Resistant,” is a singable, screamable post-punk anthem. And I can’t speak for any other women, necessarily, but something to scream along with is just what this girl needed lately.

Losing is out now, and Bully tour dates can be found here.

What I’m Listening To: October 2017

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice: This album between the Melbourne-based Barnett and the Philly-based Vile is a minor work in both of their catalogues, but it’s a lot of fun. There’s a few playful originals – “Over Everything” and “Continental Breakfast” – covers of each other’s songs – Vile’s “Peepin’ Tomboy” becomes “Peepin’ Tom” here, similarly, “Out of the Woodwork” is graced with Vile’s signature drawl (and some great Barnett backing vocals). The covers are great too – Barnett’s cover of her partner Jen Cloher’s “Fear is Like a Forest” and the album-closing take of Belly’s 1993 track “Untogether”. It’s a fun, unserious record that somehow only feels like it could come from these two. It’s a hang you’ll want to feel a part of.

St. Vincent – Masseduction: Annie Clark’s fifth record under the St. Vincent name again blows the debate wide open as to if she’s created her best record. Each record seems to build on the last, and this one might somehow be the most obtuse and accessible yet. It’s a diverse collection of neon-hued pop – the slinky “Los Ageless”, title track “Masseduction” with the lyrics “I can’t turn off what turns me on” to the devastating “Happy Birthday Johnny” and piano ballad “New York”. The arrangements are just as dense as they have been on previous releases, but here they feel streamlined and tighter. Highfalutin it is not. It’s St. Vincent, David Bowie and sex filtered through hell.

Margo Price – All American Made: Price’s 2016 album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter positioned the Aledo, Illinois native as one of brightest country stars with a sound that hews towards traditional twang with lyrics that convey personal heartbreak and devastation. Here, the tone is a little more political, as there are songs that confront sexism and wage inequality. It’s an assured LP, a great new chapter in her story – “A Little Pain,” “Weakness” (the title track from the EP of the same name from earlier this year) as well as tone-perfect duet with Willie Nelson called “Learning to Lose” are standouts. Every new Margo Price record unfolds her story just a little more. We learn as she does.

Hiss Golden Messenger Find Hope in the Dark on Hallelujah Anyhow

It’s hard to feel good about the world right now for a variety of reasons. Take your pick: politics, natural disasters and the simple passage of time claiming many of our heroes are just a few examples. It would be easy to be resigned and depressed about all of this, but thankfully there are reminders of some light peering through the darkness. M.C. Taylor seems to think that, or that’s the idea you get on Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest album, Hallelujah Anyhow.

Released under a year after last year’s magnificent Heart Like a Levee (and the deluxe edition bonus album Vestapol), Taylor and company return with a looser sounding collection of songs than the more pristine sounds of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s any less gorgeous. Opener “Jenny of the Roses” kicks things off rather breezily, but sets the tone pretty quickly as he sings, apparently quoting the subject of the song: “I’ve never been/Afraid of the darkness/it’s just a different kind of light.” This theme continues with a song succinctly titled “Lost Out in the Darkness,” buoyed by an insistent kick drum and choppy acoustic guitars. Harmonica bleeds in and out of the song as Taylor sings something that sounds optimistic – “I’ve been waiting for you patiently/I’m trying to be hopeful for you, brother” and “If you carry the good news/show me/I’ve been looking for a sign down among us.

The instrumentation feels more like a delivery device for Taylor’s searching than it has previously – there’s simply much more that needs to be heard this time. It’s an album that’s feels like shades of color than a progression of sound. The songs here sooth in their autumnal hues – “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind,” and “Domino (Time Will Tell)” feel like sunsets, and “John the Gun” reappears here, revived from a serene acoustic take first found on Vestapol, fleshed out with an awesome full band arrangement.

There are also moments on the album that strike familiar tones. Multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook’s piano flourishes combined with soft horn hits and the roughhewn texture of Taylor’s voice lends itself to some irresistible Van Morrison comparisons, especially on “Harder Rain”. The song carries the intimacy and romance of people playing in a room together. It doesn’t break as much as it crests, building to a dewy crescendo. You can almost feel the collaborators looking to each other where to go next.

The album’s finest moment is it’s last – the instant-classic “When the Wall Comes Down”. It’s unclear if Taylor is referincing about that wall, but moments here feel more like advice than political statement. “What you oughta do is let it lie,” Taylor says. Then some more advice. “Step back, Jack, from the darkness.” Taylor is talking about being hopeful when there’s something in your way. “It’s a beautiful world but painful, child/Tear it down.” He’s right.

Hiss Golden Messenger group has crafted something to be a balm for a persistent burn. It is not a record made as a reaction to terrible times, instead it is a beautiful example of creating great art in spite of them. What it says is that we’re all in this together, moving forward and doing the best we can. That, truly, is Hallelujah Anyhow.

Halleujah Anyhow is out today on Merge.