by Jeff Fiedler
“The year’s best” is such a subjective term that I hate to even employ it; the phrase only invites criticism from those who might question why a particular album isn’t included. Instead, I’d like to think of this feature as simply a list of my personal favorite albums and singles of 2017. Like the rest of my record collection, this list should be fairly amusing, if not unintentionally comical, in its sheer eclecticism – one of my three favorite albums of the year, for instance, comes from a mainstream country band, while my favorite single of the year was by a rap artist (and someone OTHER than Kendrick Lamar, I might add, lest you fear that this article will be too predictable and similar to every other year-end-list you may have read recently.) Enjoy reading, and as always, we’d love to hear from you should you discover any new favorites from looking over our selections and giving any of these albums or singles a shot! We begin our feature by counting down my twenty favorite albums of the year …
20. Southern Blood, Gregg Allman
Recorded during the final days of Allman’s life (the rock legend would pass away from liver cancer the night after approving final mixes for the album), Southern Blood is a fine final note indeed. There’s only one Allman original here, but it’s an excellent one (“My One True Frend”), and the covers are all extremely well-chosen and suit Allman well. The most devastatingly powerful moment of all here, though, is the closing cut, a cover of Jackson Browne’s “Song for Adam” (performed as a duet with Browne himself) that memorably finds Allman choking up in the final verse after the line “Still it seems he stopped his singing / in the middle of his song” and stepping away from the microphone at that very moment. (Reportedly, he and Don Was were going to take another crack at the verse the next day if not for Allman’s passing, but it’s actually to the benefit of the track’s emotional resonance that they didn’t get a chance to do so. It’s a truly beautiful and tear-jerking moment.)
19. Hot Thoughts, Spoon
It’s not necessarily their catchiest batch of songs – there’s nothing here that’s quite as immediately infectious as, say, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” or They Want My Soul’s “Do You” – so it may take an extra spin or two before you really start to warm up to it, but few bands in alt-rock are as remarkably consistent as Spoon, and this disc reveals its own charms with just a little bit of patience, particularly on such standout cuts as the piano rocker “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” (which would have been a much more solid choice for the album’s first single than the title cut) and the danceable “First Caress.”
18. Rainbow (Clean Version), Kesha
I can’t say as I exactly recommend the unedited version of this album – you certainly can’t play it with kids within earshot, anyway; the amount of strong profanity on the album is downright jarring for a mainstream pop album, even in light of the increasing explicitness of albums from the likes of Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus – but, Kesha’s oft-comical lack of any sort of filter aside, you can’t help but admire the sheer gumption it took to put out this album. Finally free of the artistic stranglehold of prior producers like Dr. Luke, Kesha uses this full-length to thoroughly reinvent herself as an artist and take some very big chances creatively. This means that the hip-hop and dance-pop of her prior albums has almost completely been jettisoned here in favor of gonzo rockers with the likes of Eagles of Death Metal (the deliriously fun “Let Them Talk”); vintage-styled soul workouts with the Dap-Kings providing the horns; piano ballads helmed by Ben Folds (no, really!); folk tunes like the comical “Godzilla” and the excellent “Finding You”; a cover of an old Dolly Parton hit from the early ‘80s (“Old Flames”) that was written by Kesha’s mother; and an all-out country hoedown that turns out to be both the most fun and the most wickedly catchy song on the disc (“Hunt You Down”). Though there’s many a memorable melody here, the album is simply too quirky and too uncompromising to modern pop trends to stand much of a chance at garnering much play on Top 40 radio, so it’s not likely to be as big a hit as any of her prior albums, but this has also got far more personality than any of those discs had and is far and away her most original and artistically admirable record yet.
17. I See You, The xx
Equal parts lovely and pure fun, this atmospheric-yet-danceable third full-length outing from this English trio is their most accessible and approachable yet. It takes some real brilliance to take Hall & Oates’ oft-sampled “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” and actually do something fresh with it, but these three do exactly that on the unforgettable lead-off single “On Hold.” Tracks like “Say Something Loving,” “I Dare You,” and “Brave for You” similarly show the group trying some new things creatively to fine results and hint at even greater things down the road from this band.
16. Pollinator, Blondie
It’s stunning to think that Blondie is even still active as a band, never mind one capable of making an album this solid; after all, Debbie Harry is now in her seventies. Furthermore, while the band turned in a surprisingly good reunion album in 1999’s No Exit, they’d artistically been on a steadily downward spiral ever since, releasing a string of largely forgettable follow-ups, the most recent of which (Ghosts of Download) was crassly issued not as a standalone product but as half of a two-disc package (Blondie 4(0) Ever) otherwise comprised of new studio re-recordings of past hits – not exactly the mark of a band that’s aging gracefully. So it’s a pleasant surprise that their latest studio outing is nearly the equal of No Exit, complete with a knockout opening cut (“Doom or Destiny”) that’s every bit as fabulous as their 1999 comeback single “Maria” and even features Joan Jett singing backup. The album isn’t entirely without filler – but then, nearly all of Blondie’s albums, even in the band’s commercial heyday, had their padding – but, track for track, this is easily the band’s strongest batch of material in nearly two decades.
15. Something to Tell You, Haim
While it tapers off a bit in its back half and lacks anything quite as deliciously upbeat and rock-tinged as their breakout hit “The Wire” from its debut disc Days Are Gone, this very underrated trio’s sophomore outing is still a wildly fascinating listen, not in the least since they’ve opted to take a page from the playback of their idols Fleetwood Mac and create a disc that’s every bit as glossy, atmospheric, and ear-candy-laden as the legendary British band’s 1987 studio swan song with the full Buckingham/Nicks/McVie lineup still intact, the enchanting and often chilling Tango in the Night. Something to Tell You is perhaps a bit more interesting for its production than its actual songwriting, but then, so was Tango in the Night, and the remarkable studio craft on display here goes a long way towards keeping the listener engaged. Not that the album is without its rewarding individual moments, mind you – “Want You Back” and “You Never Knew” both pull off the difficult trick of being both hypnotic and catchy at the same time. That this gifted band has still yet to have one of their singles even so much as dent the Hot 100 is a sad commentary on the state of pop radio today.
14. Lindsey Buckingham / Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie
The last studio album from Fleetwood Mac, Say You Will, definitely suffered from the absence of Christine McVie (whose oft-underrated songs like “Everywhere,” “Little Lies,” “Say You Love Me,” and “Hold Me” always brought some much-needed levity to what otherwise, without her, could have easily become a much-too-serious band for its own good), and while Stevie Nicks’ absence here may prevent this from being a full, proper Fleetwood Mac reunion, hearing Lindsey and Christine on disc together again is great, great fun, even if the songwriting isn’t quite as flawless as you might hope or expect it to be. The disc also has the added bonus of containing what is easily the catchiest song Lindsey Buckingham has written in well over ten years, “In My World,” which sounds so remarkably and distinctly like vintage Fleetwood Mac that it would fit seamlessly onto Mirage.
13. Haiku from Zero, Cut Copy
One of the most criminally underrated bands in all of indie-pop (only one of their five albums to date, 2011’s masterful Zonoscope, has even so much as dented the Top 50 in the U.S.), this Australian dance-rock outfit emerges from a four-year layoff without missing a beat and turning in one of their most intoxicating discs to date. Few bands in rock today can work a disco groove quite like these guys can, and tracks like “Airborne” and “Black Rainbows” are near-impossible to resist dancing to.
12. Guppy, Charly Bliss
The mere existence of this album is something to savor if you’re a power-pop fan (the genre in general has been waning in popularity on mainstream alternative-rock radio in recent years, sadly, so it’s not exactly to a band’s commercial advantage these days to peddle this sort of fare); that Guppy is a textbook example of the genre at its very best is practically a bonus. Eva Hendricks is a revelation as a singer and lyricist both – the line “Am I the best / or just the first person to say yes?” from “Glitter” in particular is one of the year’s most brilliant lyrical hooks – and her bandmates are no slouches, either, putting some real punch into their brand of pop and recalling some of the finer alt-rock outfits of the mid-‘90s.
11. Colors, Beck
Though it lacks a true knockout single, this disc is, from start to finish, arguably the finest – and certainly the most fun – album Beck has made since at least 2006’s The Information and possibly even 2005’s Guero. Simply put, this disc not only finds Beck back in bright spirits again (after the downbeat and meditative Grammy-winning Morning Phase) but crafting some of his catchiest songs in over a decade. Even non-singles like “I’m So Free” (which features Beck’s finest rapping on record to date) and the driving piano pop of “Square One” are outrageously great and surprisingly catchy for being mere album tracks.