In case you’re not already overwhelmed with year-end lists, here’s another one for good measure. This year, City Paper music writers dish about their five favorite albums from 2017, including at least two local albums in each writer’s list. You’ll notice that some artists appear twice — like Mechanical River, Contour, and DUMB Doctors — because we gave no restrictions here: Overlap is fine because it’s honest. So here are the records, local releases and beyond, that gave us the most pause over the
past 12 months. And here’s to another year of great music.
Happy holidays, friends.
Listen to a sampling of our favorite tunes of the year with our 2017 Spotify playlist.
SUSTO, & I’m Fine Today
Justin Osborne writes songs as if he’s the voice of his generation, or at least the generation I imagine myself being a part of. From the lushly orchestrated psych-rock opening of “Far Out Feeling” and the jubilant agnostic anthem “Waves” to the triumphant “always screaming fuck the cops” moment on “Cosmic Cowboy,” Osborne and company made a great alt-country album that is my number No. 1 this year because it also easily transcended that tag as well. “Jah Werx,” brother.
2 Slices, Best Believe
As good as Danny Martin’s band Octopus Jones was, I can’t help but believe that this is the music he was born to make. Slinking along to this hip-hop-meets-disco production with wide-eyed bedroom pop sensibilities makes for a heavenly headphone experience. It’s built for indie kids to groove the night away to once they’ve gotten their first drink in.
Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm
Most breakup records are either mournful or spiteful — and there’s a bit of both here, but what makes this Katie Crutchfield’s best collection of songs yet (and the best rock record of 2017) is the way she sifts through the romantic regret and disappointment in a way that embraces the electrifying sense of freedom and self-actualization that comes when you break up with the wrong person for the right reasons.
Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
The Greatest Rapper Alive™ dropped his most concise, filler-free effort yet with DAMN., and a graduate seminar could still spend the better part of a semester deciphering his thorny ruminations on race, spirituality, community, and self-doubt that populate this album. Oh, and he wrote some ridiculous good hooks too? Like that was even necessary to add to his arsenal. Shit.
Sylvan Esso, What Now
Sylvan Esso’s debut was miraculous because of how winsome their quirky and intimate folk-tinged brand of beats-based pop music was, but What Now does something even more incredible by blowing up that formula into bold, swift anthems that winkingly and bittersweetly aspired to make the distance between Bruce Springsteen and Madonna a meaningless distinction for music critics to argue over. Also “Slack Jaw” is low-key the best ballad of 2017.
Dan Auerbach, Waiting On a Song
It’s no longer necessary to reference The Black Keys when introducing Dan Auerbach. His resume as a producer is as impressive as his skills fronting a two-piece rock band. Auerbach’s skilled ear has honed definitive albums by Nikki Lane, Dr. John, and Ray LaMontagne. But in 2017, his 10-track solo collection firmly planted his name in Nashville as an all-time great among Nashville singer-songwriters. For Waiting On a Song, he took up co-writing (including with John Prine on the title track), and polished the best of the bunch. Every song is a sing-along single, and the music videos are supremely entertaining, from the spousicide of “Stand By My Girl” to the Dazed and Confused-esque title track, with a cameo from Mr. Prine himself.
Valerie June, The Order of Time
Memphis songwriter Valerie June has always turned heads with her coils of Medusa locks, but with her immaculately produced fourth album, she’s finally hooking listeners before lookers. Her distinctive nasal trill may take a listen or two, before you realize the song in your head days later is her “Astral Plane” or “Long Lonely Road.” Years ago, June performed at the Spoleto USA finale at Middleton Place on the side “stage” — a 10 x 10 pop-up tent near the beer vendors. She’ll almost certainly be back, and it may just be her face on the program cover next time.
Rogue + Jaye, Pent Up
A little bit Johnny and June, a little bit Fleetwood Mac, this album of duets from Rogue Wave’s Zach Rogue and songwriter Courtney Jaye plays like aural butter. It’s an album of tight songs held together with strong structure and pop sensibilities, framed by sweet harmonies touched with just the right amount of reverb. Rogue + Jaye strikes a perfect match of engaging but relaxing. They’re in their honeymoon phase, and it’s a blissful trip.
Sally & George, Tip My Heart
There’s a palpable chemistry when Joel Timmons (Sol Driven Train) and Shelby Means (formerly of Della Mae) sing together. From rockabilly to John Hartford happy-go-lucky poignant folk to heartfelt retrospection, Tip My Heart tells a loose story of a beautiful union. It’s both a local album and a product of Nashville, and it’s by far the most-played album of 2017 in our house — it doesn’t hurt that our one-year-old practically sings along, nodding his head to the familiar melodies.
Vikki Matsis, Good Life
When OHM Radio founder Vikki Matsis writes a song, she knows how to bring it to life, and who to call. The five-track Good Life features her husband, guitarist Lee Barbour, along with notable local musicians like Gerald Gregory (organ), Michael Quinn (saxophone), Charlton Singleton (trumpet), Stuart White (drums) — and the list goes on. But it’s the positivity and good vibes of the songs that keeps this smile-inducing EP on repeat in our car.
Roz & The Rice Cakes, Devotion
Devotion seems less like a collection of individual songs than an extended suite of gorgeous, electronics-laced dream rock. It sounds like the trio (Roz Grace on vocals and keyboards, drummer Casey Belisle, and bassist Justin Foster) took the icy landscapes of The Cure circa Disintegration and added their own, more propulsive rhythms, creating a blissfully blurry atmosphere that twinkles like a distant star. There are moments when the music comes into sharper, more precise relief, taking on a more focused indie-pop bounce, but overall these 10 songs are best heard as one long, hazy dream.
Gregg Allman, Southern Blood
There could scarcely be a better last will and testament for Gregg Allman than Southern Blood. A tight, tough collection of swampy, stretched-out Southern rock, soulful ballads and mournful blues, it’s as if Allman wanted to take one last stroll through his musical strengths before departing this mortal coil. His rugged howl sounds strained in some places, maybe a bit thinner than in its prime, but that just makes the lyrical themes of love, regret, reminiscence, and resilience all the more moving. And Allman’s version of Little Feat’s road-weary classic “Willin'” might just be definitive, both for the singer and the song.
Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child
It takes quite a songwriter to update Mark Twain’s saying “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” and Willie Nelson is about as qualified as it gets. But even without “Still Not Dead,” with its genius opening couplet “I woke up still not dead again today/ The Internet said I had passed away,” serving as its calling card (and one of the year’s best singles in any genre), God’s Problem Child would still be reason to celebrate that ol’ Willie is still around. An endlessly melodic collection of wiry, don’t-give-a-fuck acoustic honky-tonk head-nodders, Nelson and his band are in top-flight form throughout, shining on seven newly-written Nelson originals and epic covers like the title track (written by Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White). By the time Nelson toasts the late Merle Haggard with the closing track, Gary Nicholson’s “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” you’ll be more thankful than ever that the Red-Headed Stranger is still with us.
Sondor Blue, You Will Find Love On Ashley Avenue
You Will Find Love On Ashley Avenue is so deeply melodic, so richly produced, and so well-crafted that even at five songs, it seems like an embarrassment of riches. The influence of The Beatles is all over this EP, from the Ringo-esque thud of the drums to the impossibly airy vocal harmonies to the tightly-coiled electric guitars, and it’s a testament to Sondor Blue’s skill that this never sounds like mere imitation. It’s simply a bold, intricate slice of pop-rock that dares to be great.
SUSTO, & I’m Fine Today
They went big for the follow-up, and that was a gamble. Justin Osborne and company’s first spin as SUSTO was built on intimacy, from Osborne’s confessional lyrics to the haunting cosmic-country music he created, shrouded in mystery and thick, smoky atmosphere. This time, there are strings, operatic backing vocals, and even — gasp — electronics, and that’s just on the first track. But damned if this isn’t an even better album than SUSTO’s first, building the band’s mythology (“Cosmic Cowboy”) mixing in anthemic rock (“Waves”), and featuring even grittier lyrics (“Hard Drugs”). It’s a cinematic reconception of the band’s sound.
The Secret Sisters,
You Don’t Own Me Anymore
This duo out of Alabama harmonizes like only sisters can, with a tone so identical they almost sound like one voice singing two pitches. Yes, their harmonies are gorgeous, but You Don’t Own Me Anymore offers so much more than just that. The album is very much a genre piece, never straying from its folk/Americana roots, but the lyrics and songwriting are never stale or uninspired. The opening track, “Tennessee River Runs Low,” is hard to top. It’s a minor, old-fashioned folk tune that sounds straight out of Depression-era Appalachia. From there, the album bounces around to every corner of the genre — from heartache tunes to narrative ballads to toe tappers. It’s never cliché and the earworm melodies are plentiful.
Seriously, Future Pollution
No one sounds like Timber Timbre. That remains true with their new album, Seriously, Future Pollution. In a way, it’s vintage Timber Timbre — dark, downtempo arrangements immensely full of space, paired with smart and quirky lyrics laced with odd imagery. But sonically, it’s quite different. They may still be considered freak folk, but on this album, the music behind lead singer Taylor Kirk’s velvety baritone sometimes sounds like it could be the score for Twin Peaks or Stranger Things. I know that sounding like an ’80s band is “in” right now, but I honestly think this music required these textures — lots of synth and delay — to best convey the quasi-dystopian mood of it all. It is a compositionally intelligent collection of dark and drone-y tunes.
Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over
Far From Over is jazz the way I like it — fiery and unabashed. These fellas are not afraid to push the boundaries of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Each player is a virtuoso in his own right, so together you can imagine the complexities. But it’s far from unapproachable, even at its most adventurous. There are several tunes that are more straightforward and there’s even a funky, almost hip-hop-inspired number called, “Nope.” On the other side of the spectrum, the title track is an odd-metered wonder, with Eastern European and Indian nuances. This diversity is definitely part of the draw, but what makes this a truly special album is the fearlessness and fun exhibited by the players and composers.
How could this band not be great? Comprised of Charleston jazz royalty — Quentin Baxter, Charlton Singleton, Kevin Hamilton, a brilliant vocalist in Quiana Parler, and an accomplished jazz guitarist in Clay Ross, whose devotion to music history and innovative thinking essentially brought the band together. Ranky Tanky takes traditional Gullah music — ranging from children’s games to lively shouts to spirituals — and arranges them to best fit the quintet. Playful call-and-response, driving rhythms, and virtuosic solos abound. Harmonically straightforward and listener-friendly, the uptempo tunes are endlessly fun and the downtempo tunes are soaked in soul.
Fusing elements of hip-hop, jazz, electronica, world music, and more, Terraphonics is unique to the Charleston music scene. And all of that eclecticism is on display on Tarab, while still remaining wholly cohesive. Terraphonics mastermind Thomas Kenney has beautifully constructed these mostly instrumental soundscapes, weaving together a staggering myriad of textures — multiple synths, keys, electric drums, live drums, guitar, bass — and yet it all feels so natural. It’s simultaneously, and perhaps antithetically, relaxing and energizing, with a beat that keeps the head bobbing and rich instrumentation that is perpetually interesting. You’ll discover something new with every listen.
Tyler the Creator, Flower Boy
It feels like all of Tyler’s work and growth over the past decade has been building up to Flower Boy. What’s really beautiful about it is that it feels like an album that he made for himself, we’re just lucky enough to be in on it. The production has a lot of pop and every song has a distinct catching point, whether it’s a lyrical hook or a microscopic point in the beat that pulls you in. The album isn’t so much about Tyler’s rapping as it is about the production and musical composition. It’s the perfect mix of everything that he’s picked up on over time from NERD to Tom Browne.
Ctrl is maybe the most important album of the year. It looked like SZA was going to disappear for a while but instead came back with an unapologetic masterpiece that is not necessarily trying to send a social message. In talking about what she knows, SZA made a beautifully empowering album. The lyrics are brutal, and the production is in a dreamlike state. Even on an album that’s so thematically connected and stays in such a consistent flow, every song stands on its own. From the second she comes in on “Supermodel,” you know SZA’s kicking ass and not even bothering with taking names.
Camp Howard, Juice EP
Richmond, Va.’s Camp Howard seem to have found their niche by seamlessly crossing various styles of rock music. They typically have something of a Spanish feel to their songs. Sometimes it’s in the percussion (“Juice”), and other times the lyrics are straight up in Spanish (“Mismo”). On the Juice EP, Camp Howard knows exactly when to tone it back and let their tight guitar-playing and drumming take center stage, and also when to rev up and pound out 10-ton power chords. In a year where a lot of the most recognized releases came from R&B and hip-hop, Camp Howard made one of the musically interesting and gripping rock EPs of the last few years. Be on the lookout for these guys.
Dumb Doctors, SUX EP
With the SUX EP, Dumb Doctors made one of the most fun punk rock releases of the year, and not just on a local level. There’s a good balance between all-out fuzzed guitar ripping, while still clear enough that you can hear the instruments and Scott Dence’s vocals. All four tracks on the EP have really memorable hooks, and while it’s easy to wish that there was more than nine minutes worth of material, the short length works for the best. It gives the whole thing a punch — there’s no fluff about it.
Softer confirmed why Contour is so important to the slowly growing presence of soul and R&B artists in South Carolina. Contour’s voice and beats mesh flawlessly; both have a very haunting but welcoming quality. And while there is a consistent darkness to the sound of Softer, each track does stand out. Every song finds its own flow and stays with it, never throwing the listener for a loop but keeping them going with the moment that it creates from the second the beat creeps in. I appreciate that Contour held nothing back in making something that is both so clearly his own and also pushes forward a buried style of art in South Carolina.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3
I’ll admit, I didn’t want to do this. I have my gripes with RTJ3. It’s not as fiery as RTJ2, it’s not as boundary pushing as El-P’s solo material, and it’s not as soulful as Killer Mike’s previous albums. Some of its social targets are even a little vague. At this point you just expect these guys to do great stuff, so it’s hard to be impressed by the killer brag track “Panther like a Panther” or the intelligent mediation on riots “Thieves!” But, there’s something to say about a group that’s so good, I’m disappointed when I’m not impressed. And at the end of the day, despite my complaining, I spun this record over and over again. “Down” is still song of the year.
Lice, Lice 3
Oh, great. Another indie rap super group. This time from Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman. What kept me coming back to this EP and Lice is their adherence to simple fun. “Comfy,” “Pizza and Burgers,” and “Panacea” show two pros proving that they not only know their craft inside and out, but still enjoy rapping just for the sake of rapping.
METZ, Strange Peace
Have you ever felt a bolt of psychosis at that curmudgeonly saying “punk is dead?” Do you find yourself in the midst of a lawless rage when you hear claims that Blink-182 was the height of punk? Have you given up hope in your search for music that isn’t afraid of distortion and feedback? If you answered yes to any of the previous questions, I have advice for you: shut up and listen to METZ. Album opener “Mess of Wires” announces that three albums deep, this Canadian noise trio is still out for blood, while “Lost in the Blank City” and “Escalator Teeth” signal that musical growth’s afoot. Don’t worry, they aren’t abdicating their edge in a hackneyed attempt at maturity. METZ is still destructive as hell, just the way punk should be.
Mechanical River, Posterity
Damn you, Joel Hamilton. Writing about this album when it came out was an incredibly rewarding experience, but I had no idea how to describe some of the material. A couple months later and I still don’t know how to put into words how I felt when I first heard “Pomelos” or “Two Things at Once.” You’re making this job harder than it needs to be, man. So, damn you, Joel Hamilton. But, also, thank you for Posterity.
Quis Kingsoul, Godis
Maybe I’m a sucker for anime references, or maybe I just know perfect production when it smacks me in the face. Maybe this album made me think as much as it made me smile. Maybe Quis Kingsoul just proved that he’s yet another local rapper we aren’t paying enough attention to. Basically, yes to all of the above. There’s too much to discuss on this one, so I’ll make it short: LISTEN NOW.
KELLY RAE SMITH
Infinitikiss, Productive Leisure
Normally when I want to do my end-of-the-year best-album list, I take time to review all of my social music platforms, like Spotify and LastFM, to see what I listened to the most. Or I look over other lists, like NPR’s and Paste’s, to make sure I’m not forgetting something I discovered months and months ago. But this time, I just went with the first five albums that came to mind, the ones that I can distinctly remember stealing my heart at some point. The first album to do that this year was Productive Leisure by Infinitikiss, released on January 1, not a moment too soon. We had a few more days of Obama as president, but the dread had firmly set in. This perfect record was and firmly remains a beacon in the night.
The thing about Khari Lucas is that he isn’t satisfied with merely releasing a collection of music for you to enjoy — he delivers so much more than that. With the release of Softer, the latest from his project Contour, came an accompanying short film, produced by Lucas, that played to an awestruck audience at the release show back in February. Contour’s set was not merely Lucas stationary with a keyboard and a computer. He enlisted jazz musicians — a pianist, bassist, and drummer — to perform with him, an unforgettable way to present the album live for the first time. Softer has been something that stays with me ever since.
DUMB Doctors, SUX EP
DUMB Docs have been a fave of mine from the start, with its stupid-good blend of psych, garage, rock ‘n’ roll, punk, all the fuzz, and zero fucks. From a band whose Instagram handle is dumbdoctorssux, the self-deprecating rockers gave birth a few months back to the SUX EP, a wham, bam, thank ya, Sam zinger of an album. The four-track collection, complete with a song that sounds like the Ramones, Runaways, and Beatles tripped together at an ’80s prom (“DUM DUM DAZE”), is perfectly punchy and a satisfying follow-up to the band’s equally wonderful self-titled LP released back in the summer.
Mechanical River, Posterity
Some of the songs on Posterity are familiar for longtime fans of Mechanical River/Joel T. Hamilton — he rereleased a few older tracks along with new ones after signing onto Electric Lady Records this year. Still, hearing some of these tunes in a new context, surrounded by a different set of songs, makes for an entirely new, achingly beautiful beast. I cannot get enough of it.
Hurray for the Riff Raff,
This record is my safe place, the one I turn to when I don’t feel like figuring out what to listen to, because I know I can never tire of Alynda Lee Segarra’s timeless masterpiece. Here, she moves beyond her folk roots, combining what she learned from the streets of New Orleans with doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, Puerto Rican sounds, and a whole host of protest poetry. The singer takes on everything from white supremacy and gentrification to whitewashing history and immigration, packaged inside a story about Segarra’s alter ego, Navita Milagros Negrón. Brilliant. And it is as pretty as it is powerful.