Last year kept us busy listening to new music at festivals across the West, in our cars and on our headphones. It was tough to winnow down a favorites list, but here are the 2017 albums we keep playing and will continue to play.
The War on Drugs
“A Deeper Understanding”
Adam Granduciel, the architect behind The War on Drugs, fronts an explosive live band. But the studio is where he does his most obsessive work, playing most instruments and meticulously layering sounds to create colorful, emotive indie rock. “A Deeper Understanding” is his deepest dive into his usual sound lab; Granduciel revealed he was suffering from anxiety while recording, and immersing himself in the album was therapy. You can feel his sense of purpose in standouts like “Holding On,” a driving anthem that draws on the 1980s heartland heyday but sounds fresh with shiny modern synths and perfectly placed ascending guitar notes. When Granduciel sings, it’s with hints of iconic folk-rock narrators—Dylan, Petty, Springsteen—grounding his celestial soundscapes with old-school interests. It makes for universal head trips navigated via comforting studio magic.
After a five-year break that included studying at Columbia University, Robin Pecknold reunited Fleet Foxes to release this wildly ambitious record. “Crack-Up” has plenty of the band’s trademark transcendent harmonies and uplifting swells of acoustic strumming, but Pecknold clearly wanted to take a bold step forward, experimenting beyond the band’s initial trend-setting indie folk aesthetic. The result is a dense record full of twists and turns. Orchestral embellishments mingle with prog-rock-minded tempo shifts and understated atmospherics to create moments of quiet introspective tension and soaring emotional release. Lyrically, Pecknold reflects on personal insecurities through historical and literary references both near and far. In the eight-plus-minute ebb and flow of “Third of May/Odaighara,” he asks “Was I too slow?/”Did I change overnight?” in reference to the band’s current place in the musical landscape since the release of its last album on May 3, 20011. Unpredictable energy makes this comeback statement compelling from start to finish.
“Goodnight Rhonda Lee”
Realizing it’s time to grow up can be a bummer, but New Jersey-bred, angel-voiced singer Nicole Atkins makes the reality check go down easy on “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” The record is her ode to dispensing with a party-time alter-ego, and she delivers the kiss-off to past mistakes with retro grace. To make the album, Atkins traveled to Ft. Worth, Texas, and recorded at Niles City Sound, working with the crew that crafted Leon Bridges’ “Coming Home” to hone a sound that mixes vintage soul and pop. “Listen Up” is a personal wake-up call through hard-hitting infectious R&B, and “A Little Crazy,” penned with Chris Isaak, is a classic torch song that builds in intensity, thanks to Atkins’ powerful vocals. It’s vintage revivalism done right.
Ryan Adams has long been a great songwriter, but in the two decades since launching his solo career, he’s become an improved and adept editor, too. “Prisoner” is arguably his most focused and cohesive set of tunes to date. Music media has beaten his source material to death; he wrote the lyrics following the dissolution of his marriage to actress Mandy Moore, and it chronicles the stages and emotional fallout of a failed relationship. From the hard-charging opener, “Do You Still Love Me?,” to the icy, lonesome ballad “Shiver and Shake,” Adams delivers diaristic revelations with urgent honesty—covering blame, anger, sadness and eventually hope for the future.
In many ways, the album channels the raw sonic atmosphere of Adams’ 2000 breakout “Heartbreaker,” another take on lost love, but the songs on “Prisoner” are less freewheeling, more succinct and honed. You still hear his alt-country roots, but these days he’s more interested in gritty heartland rock. Overall, Adams keeps the arrangements lean and spacious enough to deliver the message, and, as his voice fades in the closer, “We Disappear,“ he leaves us with a timeless break-up album.
“Sleep Well Beast”
On the National’s seventh album, the band sounds refreshingly unshackled; an effect it attributes to recording in the liberating environment of the upstate New York countryside. While these songs still follow The National’s lengthy catalog of darkly engrossing, smart rock, the record showcases a tastefully expanded palette. With co-writing help from his wife, deep-voiced frontman Matt Berninger tackles the mundane struggles and emotional intricacies that come with keeping a lengthy marriage intact.
In “The System Only Sleeps in Total Darkness,” he sings, “I thought that this would all work out after a while/Now you’re saying that I’m asking for too much attention.” Meanwhile, the band pulses forward with collective swagger, eventually making space for a disarmingly jagged guitar solo. Blame is cast aside, though, in “Guilty Party,” which starts with a Radiohead-approved glitchy drum track then sets a melancholy mood as it proceeds with slow-burning blend of synth effects. More extreme surprises: Berninger takes a side trip to rage about our current political situation in the art-punk stomper “Turtleneck,” and later comes around to deliver a tender-hearted declaration, “I’m gonna keep you in love with me for a while,” in the New Order-flavored ballad, “Dark Side of the Gym.” The National found the way to stretch out without losing its edge.