These lists seem to be getting harder and harder to do, especially when there's so much good new music being released in such a wide variety. The first half of 2017 was particularly good, and with new offerings coming in the second half from LCD Soundsystem, Queens of the Stone Age, War on Drugs, Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Oh Sees, Haim, Lana del Rey, Iron & Wine, Broken Social Scene, and more, there's far too much to assimilate into a mere list of "the best so far". However, we will attempt to list our favorite offerings so far now that we are at the halfway point. Maybe your favorite is here somewhere, or maybe you have one you'd like to check out, form a special bond with, and decide you need a hard copy to last for all time (don't put complete faith in streaming services...they can always take them away tomorrow...)
And so we begin...
1) FATHER JOHN MISTY--Pure Comedy
Josh Tillman blew us away with his last album, I Love You, Honeybear, and he continues to blow us away here. More thoughtful and broad in scope, Pure Comedy is like a modern protest album filtered through some great 70's Laurel Canyon-esque vibes, aided by producer and musician Jonathan Wilson (who also appears on the new Roger Waters album). The ability for Tillman to speak his mind as such also reminds us of prime period Randy Newman. In 20 years when someone asks what the best album of early 2017 was, Father John Misty will surely come to mind, It's a modern classic.
2017 seems to be the year of the ever expanding list of returning artists after decades away. Who would have thought Slowdive would even be a proposition in 2017? Not only did they make an album that does what Slowdive does best, it's also pretty great. After releasing three albums in the mid-90's, this new effort manages to synthesize all three into one united sound without losing the best parts of all of them. More please!
3) THE XX--I See You
Some people had a hard time with this new XX record, as they felt it amplified their commercial side a bit too much. Personally, we thought it was fantastic. Insecurity lurked in songs about parents who have died and fighting alcohol addiction, but it was all done with style and a sense of real depth. The vocals improved, and Jamie XX has really stepped up his role as a sonic engineer, giving these tunes some added warmth and variety. They are definitely on to something here.
4) FLEET FOXES--Crack-Up
Why anyone should be surprised that Fleet Foxes first album in seven years is rather impenetrable is beyond us. Robin Pecknold, fresh out of Columbia University, packs these songs with dense concepts, flipping back and forth like the listener is hearing two or three albums at the same time. This was completely intentional. It's probably a good thing Josh Tillman left so he could be Father John Misty, but this is pretty interesting and well written too...
5) SPOON--Hot Thoughts
Who says you can't teach an old band new tricks? Moving on from the great They Want My Soul, the latest Spoon record finds them really branching out and taking some chances sonically, heading into new wave territory. This was an unexpected turn of events for a band over twenty years old, and one that makes sense, unlike the craziness from the latest Linkin Park and Nickelback projects, who expect their fans to follow them into completely unrelated territories. Spoon did it right!
6) MAGNETIC FIELDS--50 Song Memoir
Definitely the longest album on this list at 2 1/2 hours running time, Stephen Merritt certainly embraced the challenge of making an album representing the fifty years he has spent on this planet. While not every song is perfect, it all coheres into a stunning story of a life in song, featuring several of his catchiest tunes. Not for everyone, but it's basically his best album since 69 Love Songs came out nearly twenty years ago.
7) JENS LEKMAN--Life Will See You Now
One of the greatest Swedish artists next to Robyn and the members of ABBA, Jens Lekman is like a more self-deprecating Stephen Merritt (is that possible?), and tells just as many tales, albeit in more digestible packages. After a bit of a break and some time brainstorming lots of song ideas, Lekman came up with his most immediate collection of songs ever, featuring some engaging lyrics, tropicalia rhythms, and the most Swedish of male voices around.
8) SUFJAN STEVENS & CO--Planetarium
Another expansive project hits this list as Sufjan Stevens returns from his intimate Carrie & Lowell album about his relationship with parents to a concept harnessing the solar system to personality archetypes in present day. It runs more along the lines with his Age of Adz album, yet features new sonic input from Bryce Dessner of The National, and particularly from string arranger Nico Muhly. Surging orchestrations collide with folky guitar plucks and electronic meltdowns to create something entirely new and disarming. One of the most fascinating pieces of music you'll hear this year.
9) GOLDFRAPP--Silver Eye
Goldfrapp continue their run of brilliant albums with the dark and brooding Silver Eye. This was quite a change after the previous Tales of Us album, which was also rather dark, but featured lots of strings, and seemed very personal in nature. This record is more in line with Sufjan's Planetarium (albeit in smaller scope), as there is much talk of planets, the moon, and earthly elements like fire and water. A certain primeval tone makes Silver Eye a compelling listen.
10) SAINT ETIENNE--Home Counties
How can this trio with 25 years behind them still manage to find new things to say about their home towns? Home Counties finds them returning home (metaphorically) after years spent in London, and finding that some of the pleasantries have devolved into cold neighborhoods where Brexit has taken hold and people close their doors to the outside world. The music has a different feel from their previous albums, even though it's a completely logical progression, incorporating elements of many of their past works. Sarah Cracknell's voice is a beautiful and comforting thing too, having developed significantly through the years in depth and confidence.
11) ROGER WATERS--Is This the Life We Really Want?
Well, it's Roger Waters alright. It's also probably his best or second best solo album, and could have been a worthy successor to The Wall. Produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), it sounds like Roger is intact, and he ruminates on politics and the state of the world, continually asking the question posed in the album's title track. Things were supposed to be getting better, but he's not so sure. If you like The Wall, this is comfortably up your alley.
12) JESUS & MARY CHAIN--Damage & Joy
Another band who had virtually disappeared for almost twenty years, the Reid brothers patched things up and got back together for this really great reunion album. It works in the same way the Slowdive and Saint Etienne records do, in that it references several past stages of the band, yet presents them in a fresh new way that is not off-putting. Even when featuring duets with female guest stars (Sky Ferreira for one), they remain a fully JAMC proposition. If only most returns were on this level.
Hard to believe it's been seven years since the last Gorillaz album too (although Damon Albarn made Blur and solo albums). Supposedly there were over 100 tracks recorded for this record, and it sure feels like it. Damon whittled it down to a group of tracks that worked together in a post-millenial tension sort of way, and while some griped about a general lack of Damon throughout parts of the album, there is plenty of him in there, and this may be the most fun-house sort of album this "group" could have released now. Looking forward to their cartoon series!
14) CIGARETTES AFTER SEX--Cigarettes After Sex
2017 is the year Twin Peaks returned after 25 years since the TV show (and storyline) supposedly ended. In celebration, we now have the debut of the incredible Cigarettes After Sex. Granted, these songs may sound rather similar throughout, They are, however, bolstered by the effortless and sweet vocals by lead singer Greg Gonzalez, and aside from some really dark and sometimes humorous lyrics, the mood created is that of a band dreamily vibing at the Twin Peaks Roadhouse. This is what modern music from El Paso, Texas sounds like? It's not all country music out there folks...
15) PHOENIX--Ti Amo
Phoenix return after a four year absence with their most playful and bright album yet. Ti Amo is like a French love letter to Italy, and a romanticised version of it at that. The breezy electro rhythms recall something like New Order on holiday (they even have a song called "Tutti Fruitti", the name of a New Order track on their last album), and while they may not reach their former level of popularity with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009), they sound like they're still having fun nearly two decades after beginning as Daft Punk's more rock-minded friends.
Well this was a shocker. I guess we should just come to expect the unexpected from these guys. Their last album was a bloated and unfocused mess, and here we have a succinct and detailed effort loaded with creativity and musicality. What it all means is anyone's guess, but they sure make it sound like something important. If you like mid-70's Queen and the tin pan alley side of Randy Newman, this is highly recommended. Where do they go next? Hopefully more of this now.
17) MARK EITZEL--Hey Mr. Ferryman
The American Music Club frontman continues making great music with this new album, produced by Bernard Butler of nineties British rockers Suede. Butler's touch adds a thicker dimension to Eitzel's tunes while staying completely out of the way when it's appropriate on songs like "In My Role as Professional Singer and Ham". Eitzel is an incredible artist still making it happen decades on.
18) DEPECHE MODE--Spirit
Depeche Mode are still around. Oh yes, they are. Spirit is their most fired-up album politically speaking in a long, long time, and man, are they angry. Martin Gore keeps bringing the moody blues-tronica sound they've perfected over the last few albums, but there is a new sense of urgency in Gahan's delivery. Maybe it seems disingenuous for millionaires to be singing the plight of the downtrodden, but it's also rather brave for those who do have wealth to sing for those who do not, instead of ignoring it completely. U2 built an entire career on it. Spirit remains a very good album.
19) ALISON MOYET--Other
On the other side, and coming from the same town Depeche came from, Alison Moyet (formerly the singing half of Yaz, featuring Vince Clarke, Depeche founder), continues to plough a very personal and creative artistic solo career. Pairing up again with producer Guy Sigsworth (Bjork, Madonna), this partnership has been Moyet's strongest since working with Pete Glenister in the 90's and Sigsworth's strongest since Imogen Heap. Other shows Moyet honing her writing skills to a fine point, while Sigsworth provides the detailed bed of sound for her aching vocals. A triumph of art and artist, Moyet continues growing 35 years after she started. Will Adele eventually be this brave?
20) AFGHAN WHIGS--In Spades
The Whigs continue their excellent return trajectory with this second album since reforming a couple years ago. The songs are short and to the point, and Greg Dulli's voice is just as cutting as ever. If anything, it's even darker than its predecessor, and the band is on fire more often than not. So glad to have them back.
21) AIMEE MANN--Mental Illness
Her best album since the Lost in Space era. Fractured hymns for haunted souls. It's all quite beautiful.
Debbie Harry and co. may have found a bunch of collaborators for this album (Sia, Johnny Marr, etc.), but Pollinator is their best, most rocking album since Eat to the Beat (1979).
23) RYAN ADAMS--Prisoner
Ryan Adams delivers one powerful breakup album in Prisoner, his first original material in three years (his last, 1989, was a Taylor Swift cover album).
24) PAUL WELLER--Kind Revolution
What can't Weller do at this point? One of his strongest solo records in a string of albums back to the late seventies as part of the Jam.
25) NEW PORNOGRAPHERS--Whiteout Conditions
This band just keep delivering time and time again, with catchy anthems that just light up the room everytime they're on the stereo. Another winner.
26) PERFUME GENIUS--No Shape
Mike Hadreas continues to develop and grow, moving on from the glammy aspects of the last album to something even more transcendental here, also a tribute to his longtime partner.
27) MARK LANEGAN--Gargoyles
Lanegan makes great music, and Gargoyles feature some of the former Screaming Trees frontman's most immediate tunes ever. Like his friend Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), they just keep improving.
28) JAPANDROIDS--Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Fantastic return for the indie duo as they sort of hit the big time with this catchy album after a bit of a break. If this is where they continue to go, they're headed for big things.
29) BEACH FOSSILS--Somersault
For those who love The Shins or Real Estate, while both of those bands made great records this year, this album is generally along those lines, and even with a bit of spoken word, might actually be better than both of them. Can't wait to see what comes next.
30) BNQT--Volume 1
Functioning as a sort of indie Traveling Wilburys, BNQT features Texas band Midlake fronted by a cast of guest singers (from Band of Horses, Franz Ferdinand, Travis, and Grandaddy). "Real Love" is the best George Harrison song he never wrote.
And the rest:
FUTURE ISLANDS--Far Field
ALGIERS--Underside of Power
BRITISH SEA POWER--Let the Dancers Inherit the Party
ERASURE--World Be Gone
DUTCH UNCLES--Big Balloon
OLD 97'S--Graveyard Whistling
MENZINGERS--After the Party
LAURA MARLING--Semper Femina
JARVIS COCKER & CHILLY GONZALES--Room 29
REAL ESTATE--In Mind
KING GIZZARD & THE LIZARD WIZARD--Flying Microtonal Banana
Bring on part 2!