Twenty-seventeen was solid, in music terms. It won’t go down as an all-time great one in my book, as the year lacked a legendary album (or two) and the wave of solid tunes pretty much dried up in the final quarter. And, compared to last year, not nearly as many albums stuck with me. But, as always, there were plenty of songs that I listened to a lot over the past 12 months. So, in reverse order, here are my 26 favorites. For you Spotify users, there is a playlist containing them all. I’ve also included a YouTube link for each track’s video. I’ve also included one of my favorite lyrics of each song. Enjoy!
25 – “Westside” – Ratboys
This Chicago duo calls themselves “post-country”, a term that confuses me. Sure there is a little pedal guitar in some of their songs. And I certainly here some Americana influence in their sound. But I also hear a lot more mid–90s, college rock in their sound. If I tried hard enough I bet I could draw a pretty straight line from songs like Pearl Jam’s “Crazy Mary” to this one. And I guess folks thought “Crazy Mary” sounded country-ish when it came out.
But labels are dumb, and shouldn’t distract you from one of the best albums of the year.
“I fall asleep to the memories
Of my dreams”
24 – “Regional Echo” – Jen Cloher.
A simply marvelous piece of dreamy, laconic, and classic Aussie indie rock. A genre that just so happens to currently be defined by Cloher’s wife, Courtney Barnett. While Barnett released a fun and trippy album with Kurt Vile this year, it was Cloher who kept my attention.
“The Australian dream is fading
23 – “Aboard My Train” – Kevin Morby
Morby said he wanted to write a happy song for a change. What better way to do so than write an ode to all your friends and family who have supported you over the years? Every time I listen to it I think of my friends, ones I see often and others I rarely see, who are scattered here and there. And then I smile. I think Morby did what he set out to do.
“I have loved many faces, many places
All aboard my train but depart at different stations”
22 – “French Press” – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
An Australian Parquet Courts, perhaps? This band’s blend of art rock and jangle pop sounds quintessentially Australian. And the song’s video was the best of the year. Some days I wish I were young and Aussie and hanging out at parties like theirs.
“You find out
Who your friends are
When the city’s cold”
21 – “No Known Drink or Drug” – Japandroids
After five years in the weeds, Japandroids finally followed-up on their classic Celebration Rock album this year by largely following the same formula. If it ain’t broke… Thus it shouldn’t be a surprise that this was my favorite of their 2017 songs, as it mimics 2012’s “The House That Heaven Built” in sound, structure, and in place on the album (both are track seven on eight-song albums). “Heaven” was my favorite song of 2012. This being a (very good) knock off, it doesn’t chart quite as high.
“A slow-burning sermon to have and hold her
But ever since she started sleeping over
Oh, Lord, I’m living like a Holy Roller”
20 – “Never Start” – Middle Kids
OK, to be honest this song should not be on this list. This Aussie band released their first EP in the winter and it was about all I listened to for a week or two. But the highlight of the disk was a track that had actually been released early in 2016. It picked up steam on radio in late 2016 and suddenly was all over SiriusXM in early 2017. “[Edge of Town]” is a freaking great song. Unfortunately since it landed on my Favorite Songs of 2016 list it could not re-chart here. I mean, I guess it could have. If I broke that rule of allowing a song to chart in multiple years, it likely would have landed much higher than it did on the 2016 list. But they still required some love, and this is a damn fine song on its own.
“And I’m not trying to start a fight here
But it’s building up inside, yeah
And you don’t even know”
19 – “I’m Not” – Daddy Issues
This would be a powerful song without anything links to what is going on in the world right now. It is based on a sexual assault that drummer Emily Maxwell experienced in her teenage years, and the push by her family not to publicly name her accuser. With the #MeToo movement springing up over the course of 2017, Maxwell became part of one of the most important movements we’ve seen since the Civil Rights era. Hopefully this song has inspired some women to name their accusers, and even more, given women the power to say no and fight back when they face sexual threats.
“‘They wouldn’t get it sweetheart, please don’t tell on me’
I let my memories fall through
It’s not my fault
I blame my sexuality
I feel promiscuous but maybe I’m a prude”
18 – “Silver” – Waxahatchee
Each time Katie Crutchfield puts out a new album, it’s just a little bit better than her previous one. Thus, this song is the perfect distillation of everything great about her. Until the next album. Somehow she makes a singing about a breakup sound delightful.
“I’ll portray the old shag carpet
You can walk all over me”
17 – “Living Like the Rest” – Thunder Dreamer
While perhaps not directly in the vein of John Mellencamp, this band from Southern Indiana makes music that fits that part of the world. It’s somber, introspective music made by people who grew up in a region that increasingly feels left behind from the rest of the country. There’s a sense of unease and foreboding in the music. The lyrics speak of a war leaving people isolated and unprotected. Vagueness allows it to be applied to any war, real or imagined, physical or cultural.
“The war has stripped us cold and bare
And taken what we held so dear”
16 – “Living In The City” – Hurray for the Riff Raff
Some songs come out of nowhere, surprise you, and never go away. This delightful song, celebrating the joys of New York in the summer time, is bold, cinematic, and completely wonderful.
“Hot long summer days
We’re just sneakin’ by the river
Well, I’ll lock my dreams away
And I’ll watch the city quiver”
15 – “Motion Sickness” – Phoebe Bridgers
In certain circles, Bridgers was the most hyped artist of the year. A wonderful song writer who had worked with Ryan Adams and opened for Julien Baker before her first album was released, Stranger in the Alps arrived with massive expectations. It delivered in nearly every way, a completely beautiful work. This song raised a few eyebrows with the line “You said you met me, you were bored.” Although most folks have come to believe it was purely coincidental, that line can be interpreted as a direct response to a line in another song we’ll get to later in the countdown.
“There are no words in the English language
I could scream to drown you out”
14 – “Hot Thoughts” – Spoon
Spoon keeps chugging along. Every couple of years they put out an album that tweaks their sound just a hair, but still provides at least one fantastic track. I didn’t like this album nearly as much as Spoon’s last. But this song was inescapable for awhile. In fact, one day C asked me, “Dad, why do they play this song so much?” “Because Spoon is great!” was my response. Truth.
“Hot thoughts all in my mind and all of the time
You must be trouble for sure”
13 – “Rained On” – Frightened Rabbit
FR released only a three-song EP this year, consisting of two tracks recorded during the sessions for last year’s Painting of a Panic Attack and a new track recorded with folk artist Julien Baker. But it was a good year for the band. I feared after the tumult of the summer of 2016 that when they wrapped up their touring cycle for Panic Attack the band might go their separate ways and never reconvene again. Instead, they continued touring throughout the year, both on their own and opening for other acts. Scott Hutchison, after a lengthy interlude in LA with his girlfriend, returned home to Scotland. And just a few weeks ago he announced the band is already in the process of putting together their next album. Very good news for 2018.
This track, which is another about his time in and frustrations with LA, is beautiful and lush, and has all the elements of classic FR: it is deeply depressing yet still remains optimistic.
“Saw the heavens letting go
In a melancholy burst
Everything got rained on
Didn’t even hurt”
12 – “Star Roving” – Slowdive.
This was a year for musical comebacks. Over the summer, every couple of weeks it felt like there was a new album from a band that hadn’t been around in 10 or 15 or 20 years. Slowdive made their return after a 22 year break from recording.(fn) This has to be considered one of the greatest ever come-back tracks, taking their early 90s, shoegaze sound and updating it perfectly for the 21st century. Hopefully it has kids listening to Slowdive’s classic from the early 90s.
“In a flash of time
Said she’s feeling love for everyone tonight”
11 – “Day I Die” – The National.
I was really pumped up for the latest National album, Sleep Well Beast. Sadly, it was a big disappointment to me. But this song…wow! Not sure if it fits into my pantheon of greatest National songs, but it’s damn close. That little Flock of Seagulls-ish guitar riff pushes it over the top.
“I don’t need you, I don’t need you
Besides I barely ever see you anymore
And when I do it feels like you’re only halfway there”
10 – “This Time” – Land of Talk.
Elizabeth Powell took over six years off from making music to help care for her father, who had suffered a stroke. Her return album, Life After Youth, was a total triumph. This highlight is a perfect, atmospheric, dream pop song.
“I don’t wanna waste it, my life
And know it was in front of me”
9 – “Plimsoll Punks” – Alvvays.
What a shiny, bright, undeniable track. Don’t let folks get you down.
“You’re the seashell in my sandal, that’s slicing up my heel.”
8 – “Hope The High Road” – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
2017 was a perfect storm for Isbell to complete his move from alt-country to the mainstream. As the Trump era began, an outspoken, liberal voice from the south who sings songs that about “the common man” and issues we all face was the perfect anecdote. There are angrier songs on his breakthrough album The Nashville Sound. But I picked this one because it is, ultimately, a hopeful one. He believes we’re going to get through this. But he believes that in order to do so, we have to keep our dignity rather than dive into the mud where Trump lives. This song sounds and feels like the perfect background music for the campaign that beats Trump in 2020. I know more than a few folks cranked it up last Tuesday after the special election in Isbell’s home state of Alabama.
“There can’t be more of them than us.”
7 – “Atlas Drowned” – Gangs of Youth
When Donald Trump was elected, there was an immediate burst of “Well, this will mean we’ll get some great music at least!” The idea being our joke of a president would inspire artists to craft dynamic songs of protest to counter his idiocracy. Here is one of the most powerful early responses, and from Australia of all places. While not directly aimed at Trump – it is a more general critique of the corporate wing of the Republican party – its anger and power are undeniable. Every time I hear it I want to run through a wall and break some stuff. Fortunately I’m 46 years old so I just nod my head and pump my fist.
“To you bells in the curve
I will love you but love not the powers you serve”
6 – “Baby Are You In?” – Kristin Kontrol
Released as a single in late December, 2016, this is the latest evolution in Kristin Welchez’s persona and sound. For the first time since she became Kristin Kontrol, her vocals recall the power of her days as Dee Dee in Dum Dum Girls. I wasn’t sure about the whole Kristin Kontrol thing, but this song made me a believer. Sadly her single released early this fall was not nearly as strong.
“Do you think about me?
When sun has set?
When the day is done?
When there’s nothing left?”
5 – “Outbound Train” – Ryan Adams
Although it’s clear now that Ryan Adams had been singing about his marriage to Mandy Moore ending well before they publicly announced their split, this year’s Prisoner LP will always be labeled as his “divorce album.” He treads ground cut by Springsteen on Tunnel of Love over much of the album, including this highlight. On an album more about being alone, sad, and confused, he saves his one, gentle repudiation of their marriage for here, when he sings, “Swear I wasn’t lonely when I met you, girl. I was so bored…” That line, Adams’ admission that some of the songs are about a relationship he had after his split with Moore, and the similarity of it to a line from Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness” prompted speculation Adams and Bridgers were writing about each other. Folks in the know suggest that is not the case, but the connection between the songs is interesting.
While on his promotion cycle for the album, Adams made major changes to the sounds of some of the songs on Prisoner. The performance above of “Outbound Train” is a perfect example. He cranks up the amps, removes some of the tenderness and vulnerability, and roars through the track. I like to think this means he is through the pain of the divorce.
“Sometimes a man don’t know
When he’s got to walk away
I hear a rumbling and a moan
I feel like an outbound train”
4 – “Desire” – Lydia Loveless (No video available)
The second song on this year’s countdown that is a leftover from an album that was featured on last year’s countdown. This remnant from 2016’s Real LP is further evidence that Loveless is one of the best artists in music right now. She’s been through a lot in her young life – bitter romantic failures, addiction and recovery – but manages to channel all of her pain into amazing music. Here Loveless is the other woman, and not at all pleased about having to play second fiddle. What begins as a smoky, modern torch song turns into a scorching, ass-kicking beast of a performance.
“Well, I wanna lay down
That’s when the phone starts to ring
But I know I should just lower my expectations, man
Are you out on vacation with the missus again?”
3 – “Shark Smile” – Big Thief
Big Thief announced their presence with last year’s fine Masterpiece, the title track of which landed at #17 on my favorites of the year. But this year’s Capacity is the album that made band leader Adrianne Lenker a star. Her songs are built upon bits of her rather crazy upbringing(fn) combined with wonderful fictional tales. “Shark Smile” is a fine representation of her style. It first reads as a tale of two lovers involved in a car accident; one dies, one lives. Lenker said it was inspired, though, by losing three friends in car accidents over a rather brief period. Her delivery is haunting and perfect, and that guitar is one of the most unforgettable music moments of the year.
“And she said woo
Baby, take me
And I said woo
Baby, take me too”
2 – “The Gold” – Manchester Orchestra
Every year one song ends up in high rotation on the SiriusXM alt/indie rock channels and sticks around all year. Last year it was Wild Nothing’s “To Know You,” which ended up being my favorite song of the year, too. This was 2017’s track, which I still hear a couple times a week.
For good reason; it’s fantastic. And it’s a nice return to MO’s best sound, something they got away from a bit on their past two albums. Here they find that perfect area where the drama builds and builds but never push it too far. The chorus is the one I sang more often and louder than any all year. And the lyrics are spectacular, a fine rumination on the moment when all the early passion of a relationship fades and you’re forced to decide if it is worth dealing with all of a lover’s flaws that were masked by the blooming of love.
“I believed you were crazy
You believed you loved me”
1A – “Strangest Thing” – The War on Drugs
1B – “Pain” – The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding was the perfect, and ultimate, version of everything Adam Granduciel has been working toward over his career. Although I still say 2014’s Lost in the Dream is a (slightly) better album, Understanding was still amazing. From it, two songs stood out. I’ve spent the past three months trying to separate those two songs from each other. I was unsuccessful. So, I’m taking the easy way out and proclaiming them co-champions of 2017.
“Pain” is the more traditional song, although Granduciel never writes classic, radio-friendly songs. But at least this one you can sing along to parts of it. The guitar solo in the song’s final third is one of the best moments in music this year, especially the final of that solo’s three sections, at the 4:33 mark of the song, when things get just a little hazy and it feels like the band has launched you into the air, leaving you to soar weightlessly until gravity claims you again. “Pain” also contains what could be the ultimate TWOD lyric, which kind of sums up everything the band is about.
“I want to find what can’t be found”
“Strangest Thing” blew apart the music blogosphere upon its release in July. I think I can sum up the general reaction with two words: “HOLY FUCK!” An epic song for a time when epic songs like this just aren’t made anymore. Where “Pain” contains one of the best musical moments of the year, “Strangest Thing” contains no fewer than three of those moments. There is the first time the song’s main riff is heard, at the 2:40 mark. Nearly a minute later, at the 3:33 mark, we get our first epic guitar solo. And, finally, at the 4:27 mark, the entire world melts, new galaxies are born, and life as we know it is replaced by something completely new and amazing.
“Be the writer of your own story
Let it turn you to love again”