It’s hard to believe 2017 is halfway over already.
In many ways, the first six months of the year have flown by, but in others, it feels like ages have passed since Jan. 1. So far 2017 has been an unsettling and unsettled year, and that has led to strange new reality, where terrorists target pop music audiences, and leaders snipe at each other over social media instead of working together.
Although most of the albums released in the first half of the year were written before the 2016 election and its successive uproar, the best music of the year manages to reflect the anxiety and search for hope so many are experiencing.
And there’s been a lot of great music released in the past six months. So much that you’d be forgiven for missing some of the year’s best. But I’m here to help with my list of 10 best albums you might’ve missed in 2017.
To see my full top music-of-the-year so far list, check out my blog at calmacil20.blogspot.com.
Charli XCX — “Number 1 Angel”
For a while there in 2014, it looked like Britain’s Charli XCX would be the next great pop star — someone in the vein of Katy Perry with a sharper pen and darker sense of humor.
But as was obvious to anyone who listened carefully to her music, Charli leaned toward the alternative and eccentric, and so she took a few years to explore and work with fringe electronic artists on the PC Music record label.
In March Charli released “Number 1 Angel,” not an album or mixtape, but a “project” (between her and Drake, 2017 may well be the end of the album proper), and while it’s certainly not unrecognizable from her previous albums, it’s more joyful, glitchier, slinkier, and undeniably sexier.
This is all to the benefit of the music, and as can be heard on tracks like “ILY2” and “Lipgloss,” Charli may well have traded in becoming the next great pop star for being great by being herself.
Amber Coffman — “City of No Reply”
Bands that run into problems due to romantic entanglements are often a great hook for music writers like myself, and it often adds a (perceived) depth to the music released immediately after things fall apart. Just look at the way people parse every phrase on Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” for heaven’s sake.
But it’s rare listeners get to hear both sides to the story and its aftermath, and yet, that’s exactly what we got in 2017, with the release of a new album by the Dirty Projectors and Coffman. For many years, Coffman was a guitarist and vocalist for the Projectors, but she left the group after a breakup with the band’s writer, Dave Longstreth.
Release a couple months after the Projectors’ self-titled album, “City of No Reply,” is a warn blanket of a record, dripping in California folk and acoustic guitars. Calling it simply a breakup record is little too easy, as Coffman is a writer of nuanced simplicity and loveliness.
Spend some time with the album, and it’ll become a quiet favorite.
Allison Crutchfield — “Tourist in This Town”
There must be something special in the genes of the Crutchfield family.
Since 2010 Kate Crutchfield has been making some of the best indie rock around under the name Waxahatchee. And now her twin sister, Allison, has stepped up and released “Tourst in This Town,” one of the year’s best and most beguiling collections of songs.
Allison’s melodies and music lean more to pop catchiness than her sister’s, but her lyrics brim with novelistic and personal insights, and wit that can make you laugh or break your heart. “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California” is one of 2017’s catchiest songs, and “Dean’s Room” is one of the sexiest.
Consider me a believer in House Crutchfield, and all the music they make.
Craig Finn — “We All Want The Same Things”
For my money, Craig Finn is the best lyricist of the 21st century. As the frontman for bar rock gods The Hold Steady, Finn has told incredibly nuanced and freewheeling stories about boys and girls in America and growing up in the Midwest for more than 15 years.
On his third solo album, Finn continues to detail the mundane, but his storytelling has reached new levels of mastery, to the point where you almost wish he’d just sit down and write a damn novel already.
“God in Chicago” is less a song than a short story set to music, and can absolutely devastate you with its focus on two down-and-out travelers on a road trip. But my favorite is “Rescue Blues,” where Finn finds transcendence on an apartment balcony.
This album helps the listener to find the beauty in the everyday.
Future Islands — “The Far Field”
Future Islands finally broken through to the mainstream in 2014 with their album, “Singles,” thanks to vocal pyrotechnics and memorable dance moves of singer Samuel T. Herring.
But while Herring’s vocals are as powerful as ever, the band’s fifth album, “The Far Field,” probably won’t inspire much in the way of dancing, unless you’re a fan of slow dancing. Or the drunken, lonely shuffle home along after a late night at the bar.
Inspired by heartbreak and the doubts following the band’s monumental success after years of work, “The Far Field,” is one of the year’s prettiest albums, and sounds incredible coming through your headphones at night. Turn the lights low and switch it on.
John Mayer — “The Search for Everything”
It’s easy to take artists who make consistently good music for granted, especially when they step out of the public eye for a while. And while Mayer’s break from the spotlight in 2010 was necessary, he’s fully back in pop mode, and I couldn’t be happier.
There’s nothing particularly showy about the songs on “Search for Everything.” Mayer returns to the jazz, blues, rock amalgamation he perfectly created on his third album “Continuum,” and if this one doesn’t quite match that one, it just about equals it.
“Still Feel Like Your Man” is my favorite album opener of the year, and the sweet yearning of “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me,” might end up being my favorite closer of 2017. And everything in between hums along just beautifully.
The Menzingers — “After the Party”
After building a career as one of America’s most reliably solid punk bands, Pennsylvania’s The Menzingers added some classic rock swagger to their fifth album, and came up with what is easily one of the best rock albums of the year.
By delving into the challenges and joys of leaving one’s twenties behind with a keen eye for storytelling, the songs on “After the Party” are all instantly relatable because of their specificity. First single “Bad Catholics” will make anyone raised in the church laugh and grimace at the same time, and the title track is one of the year’s best songs for driving home at the end of the night.
Kevin Morby — “City Music”
When playing the fourth solo album by Kansas City’s Kevin Morby, you might think you’re hearing a lost Lou Reed record. Morby has the same dry wit and vocals as Reed, and his guitar work recalls the same fuzzy melodies that made The Velvet Underground such a unique and important group.
From a lyrical standpoint, “City Music” is all about being alone in a crowd. As more and more people pour into the world’s cities, it’s tempting to believe this means more interconnectedness with our neighbors, but instead, we’re just becoming increasingly isolated. Few albums could tackle this topic and be listenable, but Morby manages to make songs that are both enjoyable and wise.
Nines — “One Foot Out”
British hip-hop and grime has been having a bit of a moment in America over the past couple of years thanks to artists like Kanye West and Drake working with some of the country’s best artists and producers.
This is all to the good, as British rappers have some thrilling takes on the genre, and Nines is one of the most promising voices from the scene. His debut is dark and street-wise, with searing insights and some of the best beats you’ll hear on any rap album this year.
SZA — “Ctrl”
Being on the same label as Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q automatically means you have to be one of the best talents in hip-hop or R&B, and there are a mountain of expectations that go along with that.
Thankfully, on her debut album, SZA proves she is not only the equal of her peers, but one of the flagbearers for a new R&B sound that is at times funky, woozy, sexy and introspective. The sounds on the album are all encompassing, and SZA’s lyrical explorations reflect an empathetic and exploratory mind.
If we’re lucky, this is just the beginning of a long and varied career.
Clarke Reader’s column on how music connects to our lives appears every other week. A community editor with Colorado Community Media, he was a Number 1 Angel once. Check out his music blog at calmacil20.blogspot.com. And share your favorite releases of the year so far at firstname.lastname@example.org.