These are the albums I couldn't keep out of my earbuds or off the turntable
Apparently I didn't listen to much pop music this year, and I definitely have a thing for female-fronted folkies. It's a mostly peaceful list, too; several of these records provided welcome respite amid the turmoil of 2017. Here are 10 personal favorites from a bizarro year.
1. Big Thief: Capacity
Big Thief's debut album, Masterpiece, ended up in my top 10 last year, and the Brooklyn four-piece managed to make an even better record this year. Adrianne Lenker processes her present in light of her past, but rather than defaulting to nostalgia, she mines childhood scenes for bits of truth, employing an eye for detail while striking an empathetic tone. With Lenker at the helm, two guitars, bass and drums can still break new ground.
2. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound
Whether soaking his country-soul in distortion, as he does on the rattled-nerve rocker “Anxiety,” or stripping a song down to just his dusky vocals and an acoustic guitar (see “If We Were Vampires,” a devastating meditation on the finite nature of even the strongest of loves), Jason Isbell's songwriting is a paragon of the Nashville sound.
3. Spoon: Hot Thoughts
I've said it before, I'll say it again: Since '96, Austin indie-rock act Spoon has released nine albums and a handful of EPs, and each one is top-notch. Hot Thoughts pushes the band into new territory, with saxophone jams and the like, but it's still unmistakably Spoon, which means it's awesome.
4. Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.
As I stated in my live review of Kung Fu Kenny back in August, the duality of Kendrick Lamar is what I find most compelling about this collection of songs. The Compton-born rapper explores lust and love, pride and humility, and he recognizes both sides of the coin in himself. He can feel as powerful as the God to which he prays, but he also reminds himself (and us) of what that same God asks of him: Sit down. Be humble.
5. Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps
I recently read myself describing Phoebe Bridgers as “smooth folk-pop reminiscent of the Weepies but with a resonant pathos that recalls Julien Baker,” and you know what? I have to agree.
6. Sampha: Process
Sampha previously lent his voice, production and songwriting talents to marquee names like Drake, Beyonce, Kanye West, Solange Knowles and Frank Ocean, but it's on his gorgeously soulful debut album where the singer truly shines, particularly the record's stark and stirring solo piano track, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.”
7. Angelo de Augustine: Swim Inside the Moon
Sufjan labelmate Angelo de Augustine set up a mic in his bathroom, sat on the edge of the bathtub with his guitar and recorded nine delicate songs with an intimacy that makes it seem like you're sitting right next to him on the tub (or maybe the toilet?). The reel-to-reel tape hiss lends a layer of warmth to each song (like a bathmat or a shower curt… OK I'll stop). A good morning-coffee album for Elliott Smith fans.
8. Joan Shelley: Joan Shelley
My kids listen to Joan Shelley every night as they fall asleep. Literally every night. So it's a testament to her Judy Collins-esque voice and rich songwriting that I'm not pulling out my hair when I hear one of her songs for the 800th time. For this album, Shelley enlisted Jeff Tweedy's production help, and he wisely stayed out of her way, allowing the Kentucky songwriter's pure voice to lead the way while Nathan Salsburg's guitar flourishes perfectly complement Shelley's own.
9. The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding
I'm a huge fan of the War on Drugs' 2014 album, Lost in the Dream (“Red Eyes” forever and ever, amen), and when I initially heard this follow-up I was disappointed and bored. But somewhere around the third listen, a switch flipped and I got addicted to Adam Granduciel's Dylan-isms and the layered, cascading waves of guitars, synths and keys all over again. Here's to the slow reveal.
10. Kane Strang: Two Hearts and No Brain
New Zealand rocker Kane Strang's follow-up to Flying Nun debut Blue Cheese is one of the most overlooked rock records of 2017. Two Hearts and No Brain, Strang's first for Dead Oceans, specializes in sad songs with big hooks; you may find yourself smiling and bobbing your head back and forth even as Strang sings, “Kill me now, I want to die” on the supremely bummed-out “My Smile is Extinct.” Long live Kiwi pop.
(Bonus) Ipps: Life's a Mess
I forgot to include Ipps' superb sophomore release in my local albums list, and the garage-pop record from Bo and Emily Davis (Necropolis) deserves inclusion. It's a loose, fun album that reflects the personality of artists who make music because they love to make music.