Best of 2017: Top Albums

featured / News / Special Features / January 5, 2018

Best of 2017:
Top Vinyl Variants
Top Music Packaging
Top Sound Quality/Reissues/Songs
Label of the Year

It’s been a year. In 2017, blink-182’s Tom DeLonge replacement Matt Skiba fended off Fyre Festival’s bad mojo with witchcraft, while DeLonge himself unearthed a U.S. government program to probe into the existence of alien life. Throw that in with a president that continues to urinate (or get urinated) on American democracy, the Hollyweed sign, and Mark Zuckerberg’s sights on public office, and 2017 just seems like the latest entry in a world that continues to make less sense as it turns.

With all this dark corporatism looming over us (not to mention a potential 280-character nuclear threat from 45), it’s important to remember that art is still a hopeful, resilient force that’s worth celebrating. (And that, nerds, is what Star Wars is about, canon or not.) 2017 may have been harrowing and overwhelming, but it brought with it some of the most remarkable moments in audio. (I’m not talking about Jake Paul’s apology raps. Sorry, Seth Rogen.) We’d like to capitalize on that. Instead of standard album-of-the-year verbiage, we’ve asked our staffers — responsible for the clear contenders and left-field picks comprising our top albums — to zero in on certain moments (a line, a hook, etc.) solidifying a release as “AOTY material.”

Top Albums of 2017

Presented in alphabetical order, compiled by MV staffers.

(Sandy) Alex G — Rocket
Domino Recording Company

It’s not often a single track diverts so vastly with an overall record that initial opinions can be distracted by this left-field inclusion. But thus was the case with Rocket and its seventh track, “Brick,” a confrontational, soot-covered 2 minutes, more a match in tone with Twin Peaks: The Return‘s landmark “Episode 8” than the alt-folk you find elsewhere on this album. Whether the track’s confronting nature was born of chaos, purpose or somewhere in between, it challenges and at first, could reject a listener. Don’t let it. Stay for “Proud,” stay for “Bobby,” and stay until you’re able to recognize the instrumental elements carried over from “Witch” and “Horse” into “Brick.” The breadcrumbs are there, and if one follows, you’ll encounter an incredibly rewarding 14-track effort from the prolific 20-something. Variety may scare at first, but with repeated listens? It’s the record’s greatest strength.
— Chris Lantinen, Editor-in-Chief

Big Thief — Capacity
Saddle Creek

The reserved power of Capacity revealed itself to me within a few minutes of my first listen. The guitar in opening track “Pretty Things” possesses a haunting quality that embraces and magnifies the emotion in Adrienne Lenker’s voice. As she shifts perspectives, speaking carefully about her own experience in lecturing the listener, she adopts wise, maternal tones. It’s so entrancing that it may take another listen to realize the title isn’t uttered until its conclusion, with the advice: “Don’t take me for a fool; there’s a woman inside of me, there’s one inside of you too,” while then slowly, intentionally warning, “…and she don’t always do pretty things.” With “Mary,” the second-to-last song of the album, you’ll be struck by Big Thief’s ability to so seamlessly fit a five and a half minute song into an tracklisting comprised of briefer experiences. But in those few minutes are layers of stories, conflicts and resolutions told with a depth of feeling rarely picked up in a single track. It builds, gaining power with every passing second, in the style of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” until the floodgates open and Lenker’s consoling voice guides you over the summit you have just scaled. The depletion, and sort of emotional gut-punch, contrasted with the darkness of “Pretty Things,” placed Capacity unequivocally as my favorite album of 2017.
— Callie Tansill-Suddath, Staff Writer

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound
Southeastern Records

It was the week after the inauguration that Jason Isbell and his band went into the studio to record The Nashville Sound. Understandably, then, political themes run through the record, from the troubled songs (“White Man’s World”) to the optimistic ones (“Hope the High Road”). But the moment where The Nashville Sound ascends into “classic” territory has nothing to do with Democrats, Republicans, Donald Trump, or the stars and stripes. On “If We Were Vampires,” Isbell harmonizes with Amanda Shires, his wife and mother of his child, over nothing but an acoustic guitar. And for just over three and a half minutes, it feels as if nothing and no one exists on this planet but them. Every line radiates devotion and steadfast commitment. It’s a song about love, but not in terms of first spark, infatuation, or lust, as is the norm for most songs about love. Rather, “If We Were Vampires” conveys the durability of a marriage and the simultaneous triumph and sadness of “forever love.” Because no bond between two people can truly last forever, not when mortality gets in the way. On “If We Were Vampires,” Isbell and Shires fantasize about living forever. In the magnificent second verse, they sing: “If we were vampires and death was a joke/We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke/And laugh at all the lovers and their plans/And I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.” But then they stop, because they recognize that the fleeting nature of life is what makes love precious: “Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift/And give you every second I can find/And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”
— Craig Manning, Staff Writer

Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

In just five years, we’ve seen Kendrick Lamar become the Steven Spielberg of music. Given that he subtitled his first record as a “short film,” the conclusion feels obvious — all four of his major releases are aural cinema, musically diving into storylines with engrossing themes and character nuances, while provoking narrative choices. DAMN. continues the trend, and in a year that’s seen some incredible low points, the album is a singularly devastating epitaph. It’s the project that links Kendrick the most to the Spielbergian effect, in that few other musical artists at this moment are making projects that actually mature and grow alongside them in tandem. DAMN. is, at this moment, what Kendrick is at this moment: at the crossroads between who he is in fame and who he is inside, an unstable balance of portraying what it is to be black and what it actually is to be black in an America that seems fraught to see any other color than white or green.

There’s an underlying internal struggle between believing in choice or fate, providing an achingly poetic dialogue that’s aggressive even by his standards, brewing with potency while still being accessible and certainly momentous. It begins with life and ends with death, ultimately revolving in 180-degrees (to the point that it can even work backwards), reaching a conceptual high note in a short career that only tops a production so full of grit that even a U2 feature can’t detract. You won’t find the often luscious jazz instrumentation of To Pimp A Butterfly or the braggadocio vibe of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but DAMN. itself is jazz and is large in its execution, sporadic in its display of hard-hitting beats and defined arrangements, as one’s composure when they’re angry might just be. If Kendrick wasn’t King before, he is now.
— David Fisch, Staff Writer

Lorde — Melodrama

Lorde’s Melodrama, an ode to a past relationship and the healing that came with it, is filled with one-liners that cut you to the core. Perhaps its most significant, “in my head, in my head I do everything right,” echoes throughout the second half of the song “Supercut,” the songwriter talking about the romanticization of not only a relationship, but yourself in said relationship. You watch your past love in a supercut: you only see the good parts, not the bad parts that led to your downfall. And in your head, it all seems right. You don’t notice the negative aspects; or maybe you do notice and just chose to ignore them. Nobody wants to be wrong, right? Lorde is admitting that looking back on the relationships, she takes out the bad parts, and makes it all right. And this is exactly when the album goes from “breakup album” to 2017’s best bit of self-reflection.
— Nina Braca, Staff Writer

Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked At Me
P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.

I’ve not heard an album as emotionally devastating as Mount Eerie’s 8th studio effort, A Crow Looked At Me. For Crow, Phil Elverum, the solo artistic force behind Mount Eerie, created a moving, primarily acoustic work that beautifully and poetically explores his emotions and observations during the year following the death of his wife Geneviève Castrée Elverum to cancer. A hard listen to be sure, and if you’ve experienced the loss of someone close to you, it’s even harder, Elverum’s lyrics explore the nuances of grief and loss. Throughout the record, he details the day-to-day activities he once engaged in with his wife — ones he must now do alone, or with his baby daughter — and he painfully airs out his thoughts and emotions surrounding how these encounters have changed. On “Swims,” Elverum sings of going to therapy with his wife before she died; however two months after his wife dies, the therapist dies, and the office now sits, without any lights on, empty inside. It’s these moments of emotional intensity that makes Crow so different, and so important. On “Toothbrush/Trash” Elverum writes: “Today I just felt it for the first time/Three months and one day after you died/I realized that these photographs we have of you are slowly replacing the subtle familiar memory of what it’s like to know you’re in the other room/To hear you singing on the stairs, a movement, a pine cone, your squeaking chair.” Just beautiful.
— Zach Behm, MV Artist 

oso oso — the yunahon mixtape
Seal Mountain Records

Self-released in the second week of 2017, the yunahon mixtape borrows its cohesion not from structure or arrangements, but its thematic gravity. Its 11 selections bounce between stringy pop-punk, as on “reindeer games,” and sauntering indie, like “the slope.” The glue holding all these guitar music modes together is an unapologetic survey of love, from honeymoon phase to sputtering heartbreak. Just listen to “get there (when you’re there),” a delicate and sparse ballad that aligns devotion with crossing an ocean, which precedes “great big beaches,” continuing the nautical journey. On the latter offering, Lilitri lets his guitar snap into climax, while he belts, “You’ve got great big beaches from an even bigger ocean/And I’ll complete them ’till I learn how to swim.” For oso oso, love is an all-encompassing affair that’s worth the risk of drowning. It’s hard not to agree with a record that floats this well.
— James Cassar, Managing Editor

Paramore — After Laughter
Fueled by Ramen

2017 was an absolute dumpster fire of a year, but releases like After Laughter did their best to save it. Hooked on first listen, enamored on the fifth, “26” was the moment that solidified its top ranking. This isn’t just because I’m 26 (although it helps), but primarily because of that chorus: “Hold onto hope if you got it/Don’t let it go for nobody.” A trying year for most, and personally in regard to my mental health, as soon as I heard that song in May, something clicked. As I found myself slinking back into a pit of depression, I clung to this album to add color back into my life when times seemed bleak.

Songs like “Caught In the Middle” and “Fake Happy” seemed to match how I was feeling: when you reach low points in your life, it’s hard to find something that resonates with you to a point where you want to scream it at the top of your lungs when people ask how you’re doing. In the chorus of “Caught In the Middle,” Hayley Williams proclaims: “I try to keep going but it’s not that simple/I think I’m a little bit caught in the middle/I gotta keep going or they’ll call me a quitter.” “Fake Happy” shows that you can have the sunniest disposition, while hiding things without trying to admit defeat. If I had to sum up how the rest of my year went, it would be with the song’s bridge: “I know I said that I was doing good and that I’m happy now/I shoulda known that when things were going good that’s when I’d get knocked down.”
— Meghin Moore, Managing Editor

Power Trip — Nightmare Logic
Southern Lord

Texas thrash metal quintet Power Trip hits a high point early on in their sophomore LP, Nightmare Logic. The second track, “Executioner’s Tax,” is justly receiving best-of-the-year nods all over, and for good reason. It’s a stellar, chugging, piece of thrash. It also manages to swing enough that you’re not just circle pitting — you’re damn near dancing when it hits those riffs. The moment Nightmare Logic goes from really good to absolutely great comes when you flip the record, however. “Waiting Around to Die” starts off with an intro by industrial artist Prurient, and sounds like a forgotten outtake from the Escape from New York score. Horns-high guitars continue the beginning, like announcing gladiators entering the arena, before everything slams into high gear with a “Wow!” from vocalist Riley Gale. It continues on, getting bigger and faster and louder, peaking with a squealing guitar solo, before it slowly melts into a breakdown. “Waiting Around to Die” then swirls into an outro, leaving just the way it came in, complete with another “Wow!” from Gale. It’s a perfect bell curve of metal. It’s almost exhausting to listen to, and it’s the rare thrash song you can dissect beyond something like “Sick riffs, dude!” The band demonstrates some real craftsmanship here, and in the midst of a very solid thrash album, this amazing glimpse of what might be lurking around the corner takes Nightmare Logic to the next level.
— Nick Spacek, MV Writer

Phoebe Bridgers — Stranger in the Alps
Dead Oceans

What’s more impressive? That Phoebe Bridgers successfully turns “Walden” into a verb in “Smoke Signals” (“We spent a week in the cold/Just long enough to “Walden” it with you/Any longer, it would have got old.”)? Or that she’s a near fully-formed, top-flight songwriter by age 20? Either way, you’re looking at one of, if not the most critical, mass introduction of a songwriter in 2017. While soundscapes can expand, and likely will in future efforts, life experience will be the greatest benefit to Bridgers’ output. When asked if the songwriter had been through turmoil, and if that’s what drives the record’s darkness, she responded: “It’s hard because I don’t think my life has been particularly rough. I think human experience is insanely flawed.” And while she’s able to pull, quite skillfully, from that assertion of a flawed human experience this time around, extensive touring, the trials of the mid-20s, and more will only lead to a more robust, interesting creative well. Too good to be “the album before the album,” Strangers in the Alps isn’t just one of the most exciting releases this year, but Bridgers immediately becomes one of the more exciting voices to track, as future improvement is clearly visible.
— Chris Lantinen, Editor-in-Chief

Sleaford Mods — ENGLiSH TAPAS
Rough Trade

“We’re going down like B.H.S./While the abled bodied vultures monitor and pick at us,” proclaims Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson in typical bullish fashion on “B.H.S.,” the penultimate track of their ninth studio album, ENGLiSH TAPAS. A deft exponent of black humor, Williamson’s commentaries on British society have always been on-the-money, but this razor sharp chorus arrives out of nowhere, serving to humor and shock the listener simultaneously. The “B.H.S.” referred to on the track is British Home Stores, a popular chain of department stores in the U.K. and beyond. The chain was liquidated in the latter half of 2016, thanks to mismanagement by Sir Philip Green who was sailing around the world on a £100 million super yacht whilst his staff lost their jobs. Williamson, to this point, quite rightly points out: “Laying on a boat, well what do you do/Laying on a boat, mate look at you!” But “B.H.S.” is not just an angry tirade by Sleaford Mods about the closure of their grandmothers’ favorite department store, it’s a wider metaphor for Britain’s sharp post-EU referendum decline. The undertones of political and social discontent from tracks earlier on the record, such as “Carlton Touts,” where Williamson is pleading for a return of the Coalition government he once hated, and “Just Like We Do,” which examines some of the fundamental flaws in the English psyche, allow the finest moment on the record to maximize its impact.
— Alexander Chilton, Staff Writer

Vagabon — Infinite Worlds
Father/Daughter Records

Prior to relocating to Philadelphia this year, I lived near D.C. where I took public transportation almost every day, my commute feeling claustrophobic and ominous. It took one listen to Infinite Worlds — a record that grapples with this idea of personal transit — to solidify its rotation throughout the year. (Also consider Laetitia’s gorgeous set at SXSW, which furthered the admiration.) Laetitia opens the record with “The Embers,” a song that calls her by name and brands her a “small fish.” Over the record’s brisk (but weighted) eight tracks, the concept of scaling one up to expectations, other people, and the brass ring of self-care looms large and true. It’s a ride that explodes early and continues to flicker brightly, no matter where days start and end.
— James Cassar, Managing Editor

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

James Cassar
James Cassar is Modern Vinyl's Managing News Editor and a co-host of The Modern Vinyl Podcast. He is also an artist manager, co-owner of the record label Near Mint, and can be found in bed before 9 p.m. James lives in Philadelphia and no, he won't check out your band if you add him on Facebook.

You might also like