Welcome to the new year, a space that not only allows for renewal but for summation and reconsideration. Reflecting back on 2017, there was nothing outstanding by a new discovery for this music writer. I’m still waiting for a masterpiece equivalent to the one I found in 2014 (I did state that sort of album wouldn’t come by for at least five years). However, there were a few underrated rock albums of note, several of which were worth the experience on vinyl. All of the albums in this list were made by established bands who many consider have their best work behind them. This is the only reason why I would see that many of these albums were not included in year-end music lists (though a few were). The truth is, all of these works are strong albums that lie in the shadow of breakthrough releases for these artists. I find critics have little patience with sticking it through with bands that have found success and offer followup records. We love wielding phrases like “one hit wonder” or “their best work is behind them.” However, it’s lazy and closed-minded, which is a terrible attribute for any kind of critic.
Grizzly Bear still stands as my favorite young, progressive rock band. The dynamics in their music has grown with complexity with every release. Their Painted Ruins (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos) is no exception. The appearance of horns and digital beats in their songs never come across as gimmicks. The trade-off of dreamy vocals of multi-instrumentalists Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen against virtuoso playing that includes bassist Chris Taylor’s wind work and drummer Christopher Bear’s own multi-instrumental ability remains hyper-melodic and patiently stirring. Songs like “Mourning Sound” and “Losing All Sense” made for strong singles that never felt contrived but spoke to the quality sound construction that speaks to these musicians’ unique ability to harness obtuse playing to make for catchy songs.
Similarly, Fleet Foxes released an exceptional work of sound with Crack-Up (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos). The album opens with a strong, beautifully meandering song that highlights singer Robin Pecknold’s voice. The track is so intricate it of course has more than one name. “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” features elements like crashing waves, birds chirping and an amazing moment where a door creaks open and the a wall of massive strings falls away to leave Pecknold’s spare vocals, only for the strings to return at further ecstatic heights. From track one, this writer knew he had to order the vinyl, and it never disappoints offering complexly flowing tracks from one side to the next. The Seattle band’s first release for Nonesuch Records, a label well-known for producing quality vinyl for mostly classical music, makes a fitting home for their complex works. This will also mark the band’s first appearance in Miami, this coming March, at the appropriately grand Fillmore Miami Beach at Jackie Gleason Theater (get tickets here).
Another fine vinyl release by an artist similar to Fleet Foxes came out this year. Beast Epic (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos) was a return to form for Iron and Wine, the project of an old Miami friend of ours, Sam Beam. After a couple of collaborative works, Beam returned to Sub Pop Records, the label that first signed him and to a stripped back sound of guitars, pianos, some strings and drums. It’s nice to hear him skipping things like horns and compromising his songcraft by sharing writing credit with other musicians, even as good as some of those releases were. He has learned to project his voice more over the years, but his lyrics are no less evocative. It was nice that Sub Pop streamed this album on YouTube, but the work really gels on two sides of a vinyl record, unfolding at the appropriate, patient pace that requires you to flip to the other side.
Another roots rock/progressive artist returned in 2017. The War on Drugs released their major label debut on Atlantic Records, A Deeper Understanding (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos) at the end of August. After a 24 hour preview on the band’s website, I didn’t hesitate to order the deluxe version of the album from the band (it’s now sold out). It’s lush work, as cool as anything previous by the group led by singer/guitarist Adam Granduciel. There are moments that speak to the band’s Springsteen influences, like the gently strummed acoustic guitars against big keyboard chords and soaring electric guitar solos. It all works so nice on vinyl because of its throwback to classic rock roots.
Another band that’s been around for plenty of years with several releases under its best that released a strong album in 2017 was France’s Phoenix. For several years going, they showed great talent in releasing one better album after another. However, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix proved a tough follow-up. Bankrupt! came out four years later, and didn’t come close to its predecessor. It was hard to have much expectations for yet another follow-up, which came in the summer. The lead single for Ti Amo (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos), “J-Boy” — with singer Thomas Mars attempting a half-rap — didn’t bode well. However, the way the band embraced Italo disco throughout the album offered something refreshing for the group. Many of the songs were brilliantly buoyed by the active shimmer of synths. There’s an abandon to it that makes it a delightful release. This writer also personally loves how the band recycles the melody of “Fleur de Lys” for something more subdued in the album’s strong but mellow closer “Telfono.” It wasn’t a vinyl purchase, but such digital heavy works don’t often merit the format.
This is also why I never bothered with the new LCD Soundsystem on vinyl, though it was also a strong release for a band that also had much to follow-up on. After all, the group was supposed to have been retired by its founder and frontman, James Murphy. However, from the opening pulses of “Oh Baby,” it was easy to hear the band had far from lost its stride on American Dream (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos). Murphy’s self-deprecating lyrics and humor were intact, not to mention the band’s knack for driving, polyrhythmic songs. Hardly none of it sounds forced, except maybe the punky vibe of “Emotional Hiarcut” (LCD always sounds better as a dance band rather than a punk band).
One immaculate album that I still can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to getting on vinyl is by the band with the longest hiatus on this “list.” Slowdive returned with its first recorded album in 21 years, simply titled Slowdive (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos). There was an option to buy it direct from the band’s website as a limited edition silver vinyl, which has since sold out. But beyond the merchandising, it’s the music that counts, and it’s as if no time had passed during the decades in between — one of the original dream pop bands showing how dream pop is done. The opener, “Slomo,” is as classic as anything that came before: layers of guitars, lightly licked but reverbed the hell out against sporadic light rhythms with the hushed, breathy vocals of Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead harmonizing atop it all. Featuring tracks that averaged five minutes in length (and some as long as 8 minutes), there’s a dynamic to the record in all the gossamer din, from fuzzy, yet catchy, electric noise to crystalline charming melodies.
Finally, on to Modern English, the oldest band on this list and often considered a one hit wonder to the discredit of its early, grand and noisy single “Gathering Dust.” Their new album Take Me To the Trees (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos) truly stands as an underrated work of 2017. The band seems so forgotten by the record labels, they ran a Pledge Music campaign in order to crowdfund its manufacture. The campaign happened last year, and fans who supported the cause got early access to the album, but it wasn’t until 2017 that it hit the market for the rest of us, and what a surprise it was. For a band known for one hit (“I Melt With You”), the songs flow nicely and stand with individual quality. There’s an especially nice flow between the slow burn of “Come Out of Your Hole” to the ethereal and perky “Flood of Light.”
The last albums worth highlighting include two retrospective box sets. First is the comprehensive 20-year anniversary release of Radiohead’s OK Computer, retitled OK COMPUTER OKNOTOK 1997 2017 (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos). As a classic album that epitomizes Brit pop in the ’90s — not to mention a flare for prog that garnered the Oxford group comparisons to Genesis back in the day — it’s an album that this writer never tired of. The selling point, though was the box set, which is still available via the band’s official site. In addition to some outtakes that have never been made available until now, the box set came with a cassette featuring nearly 80 minutes of sketches and demos that would eventually make up the album, the quality of which flowed amazingly from one side to another as a kind of medley featuring many familiar sounds and even full songs. For those without a cassette deck, it also came with a digital download.
Finally, a year in review from this site will always be lacking if there were not a David Bowie release to write about, and the year brought a collection of vinyl reissues of some his most important and groundbreaking work without which many of the music on this list wouldn’t sound as it sounds. Starting in 1977 Bowie, sometimes aided by Brian Eno, invented the new wave sound by simply being as creative as he wanted to be. A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982) (purchase direct through Amazon to support the Independent Ethos) covers the so-called Berlin era into Scary Monsters and even features the Baal soundtrack oddity. It also features a crazy, amped up take on the mix of Lodger by producer Tony Visconti with lots of extra percussion and reverb, not to mention an extra clarity that allows the album’s diverse instrumentation to shine. The set has also been slagged off so bad by Bowie fans for other parts of the mix, specifically an audible volume drop in what is arguably the collection’s most important song, “‘Heroes.'” Paralophone addressed the gripes directly (read about it here). Ultimately it led to a new mix coming out for the album and offered to buyers as a free replacement on CD or vinyl. I should note that although I have enjoyed hearing some of the new mix of Lodger on Spotify, I plan to continue listening to my original RCA vinyl releases as the standards.