2017 was a big year in music, with many of the industry’s biggest names releasing records that lived up to expectations (Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Foo Fighters) while others did not (The xx, Arcade Fire). And then there was Taylor Swift, who probably deserves a category unto herself.
Unfortunately, some of the best music often passes under the radar while the likes of Bush (yeah, the “Glycerine” band) and Will Smith received radio play. Not to mention the fact that YouTuber Jake Paul’s “It’s Everyday, Bro” and porn star Riley Reid’s cringe-worthy rap track both became things, somehow.
So, in case you missed them, below is a collection of 2017’s highlights that probably deserve more love.
Slowdive – “Sugar for the Pill”
Some 22 years after releasing what many thought would become their last record, ‘90’s shoegaze icons Slowdive are back with one of 2017’s all-around best albums. “Sugar for the Pill” is soft, stripped-down, and less fuzzy than anything the band had done before. The song’s best surprise is Rachel Goswell’s backing vocals as they move from providing the octave melody throughout the first verse and chorus to a more subdued ghostly harmony to begin the second.
The War on Drugs – “Pain”
What does it say about the music industry when an album nominated for “Best Rock Album” at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards ends up on this list? The War on Drugs have been carrying the torch for alternative rock since 2014’s Lost in the Dream (and possibly even since Slave Ambient), and 2017’s A Deeper Understanding does nothing to change that. The production detail on ADU is impeccable, often layering ten or eleven instruments without ever nearing the point of convolution. “Pain” is slightly melancholy, mostly melodic, and completely mastercrafted.
The Menzingers – “Lookers”
Making a great pop hook is challenging enough, but knowing how to balance and iterate it within the song itself is a decision that can both make or break a tune. Take a well-known track like “Reptilia,” for example, in which The Strokes managed to capture a truly infectious guitar riff and chorus only to grossly under-employ both. The Menzingers, fortunately, avoided the same mistake with “Lookers,” a track that sees the Scranton, Pennsylvania outfit ponder the whereabouts of Wonderbar’s very own “Julie” across a steady helping of infectious “Sha La La’s.” The real genius in “Lookers” composition, however, lies in the band’s decision to re-tool the song’s underlying chord progression beneath a static vocal melody in the final chorus – a subtle and poignant flourish that changes the mood entirely.
Tuxedo – “2nd Time Around”
Most know Michigan-born Andrew Mayer Cohen as the Grammy-nominated Mayer Hawthorne — the singer, producer, writer, and talented multi-instrumentalist whose distinct blue-eyed soul has quickly won over the West Coast masses. Jake One — Tuxedo’s other half — is best known as the producer for underground rappers like Brother Ali and mainstream giants like Rick Ross and Drake. Together, it’s Steely Dan and Chic meets Battlecat and west coast g-funk like Snoop and Nate Dogg. Seriously, hit play and just try to stand still.
The Movielife – “Ghosts in the Photograph”
If 2017 had a musical theme, it very well could have been the year of the comeback story. Like Slowdive above, The Movielife came storming back after a lengthy hiatus. Cities in Search of a Heart became the bands first release since 2003, and while previous members jumped ship to join established acts like Taking Back Sunday and Bayside, Long Island mainstays Vinnie Caruana and Brandon Reilly are still keeping Drive-Thru Records glory days alive.
Charly Bliss – “Westermarck”
If Charley Bliss were a thing 20 years earlier, we could have had 5 years of “Westermark” instead of 5 years of Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.” Goddammit.
A Will Away – “Here Again”
With an effort this meticulous and polished, it’s hard to believe that “Here Again” is the title track to the band’s debut LP. Sparkling melodies, driving beats, big pop hooks, and lyrics that are introspective beyond their years are just several reasons why A Will Away are already establishing themselves as the future of pop-punk.
Trae the Truth – “I’m On 3.0”
Who said the posse cut was dead? “I’m On 3.0” marks the third installment of Trae’s “I’m On” series, which sets the bar for what constitutes having a “deep bench.” In 2011, Trae hooked up with Wiz Khalifa, Lupe Fiasco, Big Boi, Wale, and MDMA to drop the first track of the series and in 2012, he followed up with 2.0 – featuring Big K.R.I.T., Mark Morrison, Jadakiss, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, B.o.B, Tyga, Gudda Gudda, and Bun B.
But if you thought he’d never outdo himself, wait until you see the cast Trae assembled for number three. Snoop Dogg, T.I., Rick Ross, G-Eazy, D.R.A.M., Dave East, Tee Grizzley, Fabolous, Chamillionaire, Curren$y, Styles P and Royce tha 5’9″ join the Houston heavyweight for a banger, which, like the previous two versions, samples Mark Morrison’s classic “Return of the Mack.”
Beck – “No Distraction”
One-part Police, one-part Bruno Mars, and one-part cheesy Bar Mitzvah reception song that features its own pre-chorus dance instruction. Delicious.
Gorillaz – “Let Me Out”
The newest Gorillaz album doesn’t feel much like a Gorillaz album at all. Instead, it comes across as a collection of other music that Gorillaz co-creator and mastermind Dabon Albarn might have playing on his iPod at an end-of-the-world party. Take for example the bouncy Vince Staples-led “Ascension” in which we don’t hear much from Albarn until the song’s brief vocal breakdown before the final chorus. As such, “Humanz” is oft received as more of a Gorillaz production than a real Gorillaz record.
“Let Me Out” follows the same blueprint with the cartoon crew teaming up with Pusha T and soul legend Mavis Staples to create some true gangster gospel magic. And in this instance, the banging drums, haunting pianos, Staples’ trembling chorus, and Pusha’s dark delivery do more for this track than anything 2-D, Murdoc, Russel, or Noodles might have contributed.
Japandroids – “No Known Drink or Drug”
It took five years for the Canadian two-piece that brought us Celebration Rock to launch their follow-up, but Japandroids’ Near to the Wild Heart of Life is everything fans had hoped for. The drug romance metaphor being employed in “No Known Drink…” is nothing new, but David Prowse’s drum arrangement creates a dynamic that fits perfectly with the track’s ever-building soundscape.
Lucky Boys Confusion – “Burn a Little Brighter”
It’s actually kind of amazing that this record was even made in the first place. The Chicago punk rockers enjoyed some moderate success in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s but called it quits soon after the tragic passing of guitarist Joe Sell in 2012. After bouncing around other side projects for years and occasionally reconvening for a New Year’s reunion show or two, LBC got back into the studio and dropped Stormchasers in 2017. The album would go on to become the band’s most successful to date despite the fact that it was released independently.
Waxahatchee – “Silver”
Katie Crutchfield’s “Silver” is catchy and instantly memorable despite the fact that the song’s chorus doesn’t actually have any words. And in a genre that typically goes full overkill on vocal texturing and reverb saturation, it’s refreshing to hear an indie band go with an only slightly wet vocal mix that doesn’t get lost in the rest of the track.
Dan Auerbach – “Shine On Me”
The Black Keys’ singer and guitarist traded in his blues rock chops and went the way of the Traveling Wilburys for 2017’s Waiting On a Song. There really isn’t much to say here, other than the fact that Shine On Me is upbeat, happy, and joyous – a feeling that any of us who made it through 2017 would be crazy not to latch on to.