If 2016 was the “it” year for hip-hop and R&B based on new releases, 2017 was the equivalent for alternative and indie rock. A quick perusal of my top 100 tracks from the year would show you this, from new discoveries I made to long-time favorites of mine returning. The common thread with the vast majority, though, is that they all have albums that released at some point this year. My musical tastes only continue to expand as time goes on, but I feel like I will always tend to gravitate more towards the alternative and rock super-genres.
- Vetusta Morla – Mismo Sitio, Distinto Lugar
I discovered these Madrid-based indie rockers on a bus ride back to the capital of Santo Domingo while living in the Dominican Republic a couple of summers ago. A new friend I’d made at the beach hostel where we both had been staying in the small town of Macao mentioned Vetusta Morla when discussing great music from her native Spain. Fast forward a year and a half later, and the Spaniard sextet has become one of my favorites. Though I’m not sure if it tops 2014’s La Deriva, Mismo Sitio, Distinto Lugar is your typical Vetusta Morla doing what they do best – rocking instrumentation and political lyrics.
- BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION Trilogy
The “best boy band since One Direction” burst onto the scene this year with their trifecta of full-length albums, all released within a span of six months. With nearly fifty tracks combined, SATURATION clocks in at just shy of two and a half hours. That’s a lot of hip-hop from a lot of dudes, and with a U.S. tour and a fourth full-length both on the slate for 2018, the 15-member collective doesn’t look like they’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Each volume of SATURATION has its own set of highlights, which together could likely make up their own super-album.
- Making Movies – I Am Another You
Kansas City-based quartet Making Movies was my favorite discovery of this year thanks to their song “Spinning Out,” but that’s far from the only great track on I Am Another You, which released this past May. Musically it’s an innovative blend of their Latin roots, with tracks in both English and Spanish; lyrically, it touches on everything from individual identity to immigration.
- THEY. – Nü Religion: Hyena
“Deep End” was one of my favorite tunes of 2016, so when the R&B duo behind that banger finally released their debut full-length on my birthday this year, I had to give it a spin. Nü Religion: Hyena sometimes rocks, sometimes bounces, and sometimes just vibes. Throughout, it has a great ebb and flow to it, with many moments even stronger than “Deep End.”
- Oddisee – The Iceberg
Speaking of albums released on my birthday (and also his in this case), socially conscious rapper and producer Oddisee unveiled the newest chapter in his extensive career on February 24th. I somehow only just caught wind of the D.C. native earlier this year with his track “Like Really,” but listening to The Iceberg in full has made me wish I had caught wind of his unique, jazzy brand of hip-hop sooner.
- Broken Social Scene – Hug of Thunder
Broken Social Scene has always felt less like a band and more like a movement, and that’s perhaps most evident on Hug of Thunder, the Toronto-based collective’s first LP in over seven years. Sonically, it’s massive at some points, brooding at others, and even sometimes a little bit of both, making Hug of Thunder one of the strongest indie rock efforts from all year.
- Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold
I will quote my own review when I say that Concrete and Gold feels like the Foos’ most complete effort yet, even after two decades’ worth of consistently solid material from the rock titans. Not only that, but it houses some of the strongest tracks the band has ever written. Boasting tracks like lead single “Run,” the explosive “Make it Right,” and the dynamic “Dirty Water,” Concrete and Gold is consistently chock full of a “wow” factor.
- Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface
Manchester Orchestra has been on my radar ever since I heard “Simple Math” over six years ago (which makes me a bit late to the party, I’m aware), but admittedly, I only started closely following the Atlanta natives when I heard this album’s powerful lead single “The Gold” for the first time. Of course, A Black Mile to the Surface has other killer tunes, including some of the indie rockers’ most visceral compositions in second single “The Moth” and the namesake for which the album is based, “Lead, SD.”
- Andrew Belle – Dive Deep
This year saw me really diving deep (pun intended) into Andrew Belle’s catalogue, in addition to seeing him live for the first time back in October. Personally I’ve found his latest effort to be my favorite of the three full-lengths he’s released thus far, and the cohesiveness of Dive Deep may have a lot to do with it.
- Glassjaw – Material Control
Glassjaw’s highly anticipated third studio effort (and their first in over fifteen years) is raw and intense, staking their claim for why the Long Island group has been considered one of the forefathers of the post-hardcore movement ever since the early 2000s. The aggressive, dissonant nature of Material Control is what makes it such a standout release for me – I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve heard this much energy packed into 36 minutes of music.
- Jay-Z – 4:44
Jay-Z once again makes a statement with his newest album. Lyrically 4:44 is a lament in some ways, with the Hov at arguably his most introspective at points. What really makes 4:44 a top-tier release, though, is the stellar production work from No I.D., whose sample choices work incredibly well in conjunction with the songs’ beats.
- St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION
And while I’m on the subject of phenomenal production, it would be a crime to neglect the work on the newest St. Vincent, helmed by Jack Antonoff and Annie Clark herself, along with occasional help from John Congleton and Lars Stalfors. The spacey electronics throughout give MASSEDUCTION an industrial feel, especially on cuts like the title track, “Sugarboy,” and second single “Los Ageless.” Throw in a guest spot from saxophonist Kamasi Washington on “Pills” and the fact that the penultimate track “Slow Disco” was co-written with Joy Williams (of The Civil Wars fame), and it’s no wonder MASSEDUCTION was one of my favorite releases of the year, alternative or not.
- Nothing But Thieves – Broken Machine
Nothing But Thieves burst onto the scene in 2015 with their self-titled debut, but they have handily topped that with Broken Machine, which is about as complete as a rock record can be, from groovy, to edgy, to subdued, and everything in between.
- Residente – Residente
No one album from 2017 is better travelled than Residente’s solo debut, which took recording in 7 different countries and countless musical guests in order for the Puerto Rican rapper to truly feel he had adequately explored his roots. The result is a trip around the world, not only sonically but lyrically as well.
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
The themes of life and death are strong on Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album, from the bone-chilling opener “BLOOD.” all the way through the contemplative “DUCKWORTH.” Every time I listen to DAMN., I hear something new that I didn’t hear before, and with up’s and down’s that give it a human quality, it’s only natural that Lamar’s most inward-looking effort is one of the best hip-hop releases of 2017.
- N*E*R*D – NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES
My final review of 2017 was of the latest (and greatest) from Pharrell Williams’ perpetually underrated rock band N*E*R*D, and in the review I assert that the Virginia-based trio’s eponymous disc is exactly what the world needed to hear this year. It’s not the best album from 2017, but no other release better embodies everything that went down this year in musical form than NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES.
- MUTEMATH – Play Dead
My favorite band of all-time of course had to make an appearance here. We reviewed this one as well, and I must say, Ryan G. nailed it when calling Play Dead “a sonic marriage” of Odd Soul and their debut, and “a proper sequel to the latter.” In addition to featuring my #1 song of the year, “War,” the band’s fifth LP is also packed with fun sing-alongs (“Pixie Oaks,” “Placed On Hold”) and heady compositions (“Hit Parade,” “Achilles Heel”) that wouldn’t make any sense had they been on, say, the quartet’s 2015 effort, Vitals. The end product is a rollercoaster of a record that has an eyebrow-raising sense of finality to it.
- Sampha – Process
British singer-songwriter Sampha first caught my ears at the end of last year with “Blood On Me,” which was the second single released in advance of his full-length debut. As a whole, Process is magnificently electronic, sometimes with ethereal water-like effects and sometimes with nasty 808’s, but always with Sampha’s soulful vocals at the center of it all.
- Matisyahu – Undercurrent
Matisyahu has been a big name in reggae music for quite some time now, but his newest album is a journey that transcends genres musically. Symbolically, it’s also a journey, marking the Jewish star finding his way back home. At a runtime of 68 minutes, Undercurrent is longer than most other full-length efforts nowadays, yet it never grows tiresome. No, Undercurrent is a masterpiece from start to finish, with no semblance of filler present anywhere across the album’s 8 tracks.
- Noah Gundersen – WHITE NOISE
It’s hard to put into words the sense of awe that overcomes me every time I spin WHITE NOISE. The strings, particularly the guitar tone, but no doubt the other strings as well, throughout the entire record, are phenomenal. Of course, it helps that Gundersen’s unique powerhouse vocals are at the forefront. WHITE NOISE is an indie rock record made up of subdued ballads, driving anthems, and often a hybrid of both, but one thing is for certain with this record: Gundersen as a singer-songwriter has cemented himself as one of the most talented (if not THE most talented) of his generation.
Honorable Mentions (in order of release)
Incubus – 8
Most know Incubus from their alt.-rock hits that dominated the airwaves in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, but the California group has continued to crank out solid records even beyond the fall of “alt. radio’s glory days.” Their appropriately titled eighth full-length is a 2017 update on the classic Incubus sound, with co-production from Skrillex that gives this driving rock an extra electronic bite.
London Grammar – Truth is a Beautiful Thing
English indie pop trio London Grammar made waves with their sophomore effort, Truth is a Beautiful Thing. Instrumentally the LP is dreamy and ethereal, while frontwoman Hannah Reid effortlessly alternates between soaring highs and mid-range croons. Needless to say, I’m very grateful my friend Kaitlyn showed me these guys (and girl), and hopefully more folks here in the States can catch on to the Nottingham natives before it’s too late.
SZA – Ctrl
Electronic, trap-like beats throughout serve as the foundation for SZA’s long-awaited debut studio album, and while Ctrl is primarily a soul and R&B record, it has quite a bit of hip-hop appeal as well, from holistically bouncy vibes to big names being featured as guests throughout, from Kendrick Lamar to Travis Scott to Isaiah Rashad.
Derek Webb – Fingers Crossed
One record from 2017 that I criminally overlooked was the ninth studio effort from Derek Webb. I was aware of Fingers Crossed when it first released in September, but it was only this month when I finally gave it a listen. From the eerie chord progression of “A Tempest in a Teacup,” to the haunting buzz of “Love Is Not a Choice,” to the booming title track, among other highlights, Fingers Crossed is a solid indie folk album that I should have heard sooner.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Polygondwanaland
Rock and roll’s most prolific act put out FIVE (yup, count ‘em) separate full-lengths over the course of 2017, but it’s their fourth, November’s free download Polygondwanaland, that really stands out from the rest of the pack. Anyone still sleeping on this Melbourne-based 7-piece should seriously change that, as soon as possible.
Top EP’s of 2017
jmr – Boyish
AllttA – Facing Giants
Hembree – Had It All
Making Movies – You Are Another Me