TJ Foster: 2017 top 20

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A relatively awful year in general happened to be an incredible year for music. This could very well have been a Top 50 list. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope you find something new here to dive into. Happy New Year, everyone.

Honorable Mention: Frightened Rabbit – Recorded Songs

Only down here because it’s a far too brief EP, but all three songs are phenomenal. Bonus points for a guest appearance by Julien Baker (more on her later).

Favorite Track: How It Gets In

  1. Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude

The first of a few artists I had the pleasure of discovering this year. Twin Solitude is a subtle, warm delight. The atmosphere of this record is especially perfect for the winter months, so I expect it to get a lot more playing time as the snow starts to fall here in upstate New York. Favorite Track: Elegy

  1. Susto – & I’m Fine Today

When I first heard this record, I believe my exact reaction was “that was a little weird, but I kind of enjoyed it.” It’s grown on me every time I’ve listened to it since, which I didn’t expect for a record I’d describe best as prog-folk. (Trademark pending) Favorite Track: Diamond’s Icaro

  1. Alex Lahey – I Love You Like a Brother

I don’t know where Alex Lahey came from (spoiler alert: it’s Australia) but she sounds like she’s having the time of her life. Thankfully for us, it’s infectious–the musical equivalent of a late-night pillow fight. Favorite Track: I Haven’t Been Taking Care Of Myself

  1. Dave Depper – Emotional Freedom Technique

This probably wouldn’t have even shown up on my radar had he not joined Death Cab as half of Chris Walla’s replacement. Turns out, in addition to being quite good at filling those tough shoes, he can also write a killer indie-pop song with just the right amount of summery, 80s flare. Favorite Track: Anytime, Anywhere

  1. Lorde – Melodrama

With Pure Heroine, Lorde proved that ‘pop’ doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Four years later, that hasn’t changed. Melodrama seemed to fall under the mainstream radar, probably because to my knowledge it doesn’t don any mega-hits like “Royals” or “Team.” But I consider that a good thing, and the record as a whole is stronger because of it. Favorite Track: Supercut

  1. The Lone Bellow – Walk Into a Storm

While arguably not as strong as their sophomore release (Then Came the Morning), their 2017 output is still a showcase of masterful songwriting. And, I mean, those harmonies…! The only thing this record suffers from is being released in the midst of an insanely strong year for music. Favorite Track: Can’t Be Happy For Long

  1. Iron and Wine – Beast Epic

I’ve been waiting a long time for a worthy follow-up to Our Endless Numbered Days. A lot of people cite The Shepherd’s Dog as Sam Beam’s masterpiece, but for me it will always be OEND. That record is the perfect display of sparse beauty. Beast Epic is the closest thing to re-capturing those sensibilities I’ve heard from Beam in the last 13 years. I never thought I’d see the day, but I’m grateful I did. Favorite Track: Song in Stone

  1. Noah Gundersen – White Noise

This was probably one of my most anticipated records of the year, which is why it’s surprising to see it in the #13 spot. Don’t get me wrong–the highs on this record are fucking HIGH. But there are also moments that seem like drug-induced tangents (“Cocaine…”, “Wake Me Up…”). An editor would have helped this record, which clocks in at a whopping 67 minutes. I may not be able to listen to White Noise from start to finish most days, but it does include some of my favorite songs of the year, from one of the most underrated songwriters of our time. Favorite Track: Bad Desire

  1. Natalie Hemby – Puxico

January wasn’t even halfway over before I heard the first record I knew would make my EOY list, and it was by a singer/songwriter who writes for a lot of country artists down in Nashville. Normally an odd choice for me to step out and listen to, but I’m glad I did. Favorite Track: Cairo, IL

  1. Paramore – After Laughter

I admittedly haven’t listened to Paramore in years, and even when I did, I was never a superfan. Riot was good at the time, but I can’t really pinpoint anything they’ve done since besides that megahit “Ain’t It Fun” (which my daughter knew before I did… oof, I’m old). Anyways, I decided to give After Laughter a shot after hearing how focused on mental health its themes were. It lived up to the hype. Sure, there’s some weak spots (specifically, penultimate track “No Friend”) but digging deep into the words written and performed by superstar Hayley Williams is a treat in itself. Even if you’re a Paramore detractor, give this record a shot. It’s their best to date. Favorite Track: Fake Happy

  1. The National – Sleep Well, Beast

I feel similarly about this record as I do about Noah Gundersen’s above. While it isn’t necessarily too long, the pacing is strange, particularly due to “Walk it Back,” which brings things to a screeching halt after just two tracks. That being said, every time I listen to Sleep Well, Beast I like it more (with the exception of the strange, closing title track, which sounds like Matt Berninger decided to switch bodies with Leonard Cohen in some weird unreleased episode of Black Mirror). It’s definitely a grower, but it’s also The National. Everything they do is calculated and flawlessly executed. The three records that precede this one contain some of the best material of the 2000s. And there are songs on Sleep Well, Beast that also fit that mold. It may not be the best National record, but even when the National aren’t at their best, they’re still in the upper echelon. Favorite Track: Born to Beg

  1. Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah, Anyhow

Somewhere between The Tallest Man on Earth and The Lone Bellow lies Hiss Golden Messenger. This record transports me to a decade I wasn’t even alive for, and it’s really an incredible journey. The songs on Hallelujah, Anyhow are somewhat formulaic, but not in a bad way. The consistency is something to take comfort in. Most of these songs are perfect for an impromptu dance session with your spouse on a Sunday evening. There’s no major “WOW” moments or mindblowing twists, just damn fine Americana songwriting. This one snuck up on me, and if you haven’t yet heard it, expect it to do the same for you. Favorite Track: Harder Rain

  1. The Wild Reeds – The World We Built

First off… Goddamn these gals can sing. The harmonies on this record are a thing of beauty. Add to that the group’s ability to seamlessly switch from a driving rock song to a gorgeous folky ballad on a dime and you’ve got one of the best under-the-radar releases of the year. I was hooked from the first song, when a chorus of “The only thing that saves me are these songs I sing, baby…” explosively kicks in, giving listeners a quick indicator that they’re in for quite a special listen. It’s another record that has a knack for transporting you to another time; The Wild Reeds strike me as a band who would not have been out of place at Woodstock. Despite that, I am certainly grateful they’re coming up at a time when I can bear witness. Favorite Track: Patience

  1. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

Right in the middle of the penultimate track on The Nashville Sound, Isbell declares “Last year was a son-of-a-bitch for nearly everyone we know / But I ain’t fightin’ with you down in the ditch / I’ll meet you up here on the road.” Released just a few months after our most recent tumultuous election, it’s a blunt, powerful declaration about the state of our country, as is a lot of this record (“White Man’s World” being another shining example). But amidst all this turmoil that Isbell and co. navigate through, they also find plenty of moments to share with us some undeniable beauty with songs like “Tupelo” and “If We Were Vampires,” the latter being a universal contender for song of the year, and more proof that Isbell is one of the best songwriters of our generation. Favorite Track: If We Were Vampires

  1. Manchester Orchestra – A Black Mile to the Surface

I was obsessed with I’m Like a Virgin… when it first came out all those years ago. MO’s catalog since has been hit or miss for me… until 2017. A Black Mile to the Surface is a return to form in every sense of the word. Andy Hull’s voice has never sounded better. The songwriting has never been stronger. The recordings have never been more polished. On first listen, it’s a lot to digest, but the record shines even brighter because of this. It also just so happens to be a perfect encapsulation of their entire discography to date, featuring hard-hitting moments a la Cope, more melodic moments a la Simple Math, and sparse, delicate moments akin to their flawless aforementioned debut. Long story short, there’s something for everyone here, and I’m not ashamed to say this might be my new favorite Manchester Orchestra record. Favorite Track: The Grocery

  1. John Moreland – Big Bad Luv

Looking back through this list, I’m astonished at how many country-ISH records there are on here. A former self would relentlessly mock me upon reading this. What’s always struck me about John Moreland is his pure embodiment of the old country mantra, “four chords and the truth.” When people (me included) think of country today, they hear what’s on the radio, which is essentially just really bad pop about pick-up trucks and beer sung with an accent. No wonder country gets a bad rap. To my own astonishment, once you sift through all that garbage, there’s some good, authentic stuff, and John Moreland is arguably at the top of the pile. It’s a little more (dare I say) upbeat than his previous couple records, but there’s still plenty of moments to give you chills, and perhaps even a few tears. Favorite Track: No Glory in Regret

  1. Phoebe Bridgers – Stranger in the Alps

If there was any credibility behind the Grammy award for ‘Best New Artist’ it would go to Phoebe Bridgers. Her full-length debut is absolutely stunning. There are a lot of records on this list that will make the hair on your arms stand straight up, but the moment when Bridgers sings “Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself / When I remembered someone’s kid is dead” might take the cake. Add to that, stellar Bowie and Lemmy references in the very first song, a Conor Oberst guest vocal on the penultimate track, and an atmosphere best described as a fireside snuggle in the middle of winter, this record is a recipe for massive success. If you’ve yet to check it out, give it a spin and come get sad with me. Favorite Track: Funeral

  1. Ryan Adams – Prisoner

It’s crazy to think that after 20+ years and who knows how many records (released and non-released), Adams put out one of his strongest ever earlier this year. Prisoner is pure, heart-on-your-sleeve gold. When you’re a songwriter as prolific as Adams, you’re bound to release some filler. Most of his records have at least one or two songs that would qualify as such, but quite honestly, Prisoner may finally be the one that’s filler-free. It’s comforting to know that after all these years and all these songs, he still has so much to say. There’s nothing groundbreaking here necessarily, especially for Adams, it’s just fantastic songwriting. And that’s the blueprint for every great record. It’s really that simple. Adams has never been one to overthink his decisions when it comes to recording and releasing music. As his own mantra goes, he just sits his ass in the chair and fucking writes. It’s an inspiring methodology for a songwriter, and one that I’ve started trying to let seep into my own musical subconscious. And for that, along with this incredible record, I am eternally grateful. Favorite Track: Outbound Train

  1. The Menzingers – After the Party

I admittedly don’t listen to a lot of pop-punk anymore. And I’m pretty out of touch with the scene, so most of what I do listen to is mainly for sentimental value. But, After the Party hit home, and just like Prisoner above, it did so all the way back in February. This was without a doubt my most played record of 2017. It accompanied road trips, summertime commutes to and from work, introspective times in headphones – even my daughter learned some of the words (none of the bad ones, don’t worry). From the second the chorus of “Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” kicked in on track one, I knew this was going to be a record I needed in 2017. The end of my twenties just so happened to coincide with this collection of songs that focuses so heavily on growing out of a very specific phase of one’s life, the phase The Menzingers refer to multiple times as “the party.”  “All our stick and pokes, all our inside jokes, we’ll regret ’em when we’re dead and sober / But we’re still breathing and the party ain’t over” they sing on “Midwestern States.” People may tell you to stop messing around, but in a life full of so many daily stresses, maybe “the party” is the perfect medicine. So the question is, what happens when the medicine runs out? If you ask me, you put on a record like After the Party – simply put, they fucking nailed it. Favorite Track: Your Wild Years

  1. Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

It took the better part of a year for a record to have a stronger emotional impact on me than my runner-up record did, but when it came, it hit hard. There was never a doubt in my mind that Turn Out the Lights would tug at my heartstrings, there was only a question of how hard it would tug. When I listen to Julien Baker, everything feels perfect while simultaneously feeling like the world around me is shattering. For someone so young, she truly understands the ins and outs of pain. The torture of it all, the beauty of it all. There is rarely a moment throughout these 42 minutes where I’m without chills, and that’s accomplished with almost nothing but a guitar, a piano, and a voice that ranges from a solemn whisper to a powerful belt that would give Adele a run for her money. There are so many verses on Turn Out the Lights that are soaked with layers of emotion, but the pinnacle comes at the tail end of the record where Baker sings “I’m better off learning how to be living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints / If you keep it between us, I think they’re the same.” Lyric of the year? It certainly has my vote. One day, I hope to be as well-versed as she is, but if I never get there,  at least I’m still able to get lost in her words and feel all the feels. Thanks for everything, Julien. Favorite Track: Hurt Less

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