The history of American music is a history of protest.
Slaves on the Underground Railroad relayed coded messages through song. Woody Guthrie’s guitar famously bore the words “This machine kills fascists.” McCarthyism, segregation, sexism, Vietnam — all inspired entire genres of music demanding justice.
So it should come as no surprise that songs of protest feature prominently among the 80 tracks that were on heaviest rotation at InsideHook HQ this year.
The other dominant theme: revival, with a veritable who's who of the early-aughts indie scene — LCD Soundsystem, The National, Spoon, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes et al. — returning for what may very well be their last hurrahs.
Plus: the 17 albums that our editors deemed worthy of a listen from start to finish.
At top: A Tribe Called Quest at Panorama NYC Festival 2017. Mike Falco / InsideHook
In my mind, 2017 is the year of unafraid-to-be-intense women. New Zealand-born Aldous Harding, with her minimal folk and otherworldly vocal chords, chose the right time to creep onto the scene with Party. A thousand-yard stare and the beautiful, dynamic voices she commands (yes plural) keep her audiences stunned in rapt silence, unsure what they are seeing, but sure that the originality is a gift.
Standout track: What If Birds Aren’t Singing, They’re Screaming
Why you should care: Ever been too stoned? This song is the artist’s much more sonorous version of that.
Parquet Courts are a group I see and think, “They’re really having fun in life.” The punk band has had a slow and steady rise to popularity, but now you’re lucky if you get a ticket before the show sells out. But frontman Andrew Savage has revealed a softer, more poetic side on his first solo record. Less punk, more rock, I’ll propose and treasure it as a piece of vital Americana from this pivotal year.
Standout track: Thawing Dawn
Why you should care: Relatable nostalgia and existential dread have never been wrapped up in so tidy a package.
–Athena Wisotsky, Senior Editor
Sketches of Brunswick East
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Mild High Club
Let’s start with a little tally: no other band had a more productive year than King Gizzard & The Lizzard Wizard, the experimental Aussie group who pledged to produce five — yes, five! — full-length records in 2017 (the promised fifth is on the way). Sketches came out in August and it’s a rare, relaxed version of the band, a collaboration with Alex Brettin, a frequent Mac DeMarco collaborator who records under the name Mild High Club. It was my personal soundtrack of the year: a carte blanche of post-rock, soul, jazz and indie-friendly melodies.
Standout Track: Rolling Stoned
Why you should care: Jazz is more accessible than ever these days, and no matter how many times you listen to this record, you’ll discover something new.
Sza couldn’t have been more in-step with the 2017 music zeitgeist. CTRL is empowered and vulnerable. It’s a cool record — deliberate in its celebration of self and the female point of view, and consistent in its ‘90s R&B template. I saw Sza at Afropunk this year (pink track pants, tossing that big hair around) and her performance was a high note. Where she draws her boundaries I’m not sure, but I’m not asking questions — I’m listening. And that’s one thing all men could do a little more of.
Standout track: Love Galore
Why you should care: It’s music when you’re feeling confused, like maybe the world is collapsing. And as harrowing as that sounds, it’s ultimately redemptive.
–Michael Nolledo, Deputy Editor
Soft Sounds From Another Planet
I first heard Japanese Breakfast while driving down the New Jersey Turpike with my girlfriend this past summer. It was the single, “Road Head,” which begins: You gave road head / on a turnpike exit. I did not receive road head, despite the sychronicity. But I did fall in love with the song — and later, all of the others from Oregon-born Michelle Zauner's sophomore album — for its refreshing intimacy. In a year when everyone wanted to write about the big issues, this album felt remarkably personal, a paean to sh*tty boyfriends and family illnesses and twenties-induced ennui.
Standout track: Road Head
Why you should care: Because contemporary songwriting has too many preachers and not enough storytellers.
The first thing you need to know about this album is that 22 years into their career, one of the most important electronic groups of all time can still make you dance until your feet blister and your ears ring. The second thing you need to know is that it was recorded in one take. As in, the Brothers Dewaele sat down with three drummers, pressed a red button, and 49 minutes and 5 seconds later, had an album. It makes for a 12-track experience that feels more like one continuous movement than a series of discrete, individually composed units. It also means you can play it at a party and people will never — even for a second — stop dancing.
Standout track: Missing Wires
Why you should care: Because sometimes you just need to turn off your brain, turn out the lights and exorcise (sic) your body.
–Walker Loetscher, Editor in Chief
You Can't Stay Here
“Iron Chic is a decent band from Long Island, NY. They play songs that are acceptable.” Most honest band bio ever? That sly sense of humor pokes its head out occasionally on You Can’t Stay Here, the third full-length from this more-than-decent punk band (see: punny song titles like “Planes, Chest Pains, and Automobiles”). But after a four-year break between albums and the death of founding guitarist Rob McAllister, this is a somber affair. As well as cathartic: Some bands were built to write songs where every lyric demands a shoutalong — preferably, while piling on stage.
Standout track: My Best Friend (Is a Nihilist)
Why you should care: It’s the first hardcore band that NPR digs, which is fun to tell your fam. And a line (from “My Best Friend”) like “It's hard to be a human being/How can we?/When we're not quite sure what being human means” is sort of the much-needed antithesis of The Smiths “How Soon Is Now” (since Morrissey is now a total dick).
The World's Best American Rock Band
These Louisville rockers deliver a garage/pop-metal hybrid that falls somewhere in-between Titus Andronicus and The Darkness. Meaning, it rocks and doesn’t take itself seriously. (WR’s debut album was called White Reaper Does It Again. These guys know what they’re about.) Between these guys and Cardi B, let’s make music fun again.
Standout track: The World’s Best American Band
Why you should care: Cool car, beautiful woman (Alexandra Daddario) shredding and posing in front of an American flag, guitar riffs straight outta Van Halen ... “Judy French” should have been the music video of summer.
–Kirk Miller, Managing Editor
At What Cost
GoldLink (given name D’Anthony Carlos) grew up in each letter of the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia), and his debut album feels a bit like the 24-year-old’s rapper’s commandeered one of one of those old-timey tour buses you see at the National Mall, only he’s bypassing the Tidal Basin and the Smithsonian, and decided instead to show anyone willing the rest of our Nation's Capital: each and every Ward, each and every wart, the lunch dates and mistakes, parties and gunfire, all of which played a role in his coming of age. Expect knee-jerking bangers, (“Crew”), soul-searchers (“Pray Everyday, Survivor’s Guilt”) and quick-grooved anthems (“Kokamoe Freestyle”). At its core the work feels heartfelt, honest and hard-earned. Still sounds fresh, too, and that’s after a good eight months of listening.
Standout track: Herside Story
Why you should care: Because “localized” hip-hop feels almost like a new genre when executed this well.
– Tannery Garrity, Editorial Intern
Near to the Wild Heart of Life
As an experimental haunt rock and doom metal fan, I knew something had to change. In November 2016, I said to myself, “You're going to need some seriously more positive music to make it through 2017.” And in these tough with a capital “T” times, Near To The Wild Heart Of Life is exactly what the doctor ordered. The Canadian duo's buffet of punk brings an extra dose of cheese with glorious songs like “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will" and "I'm Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner).”
Standout track: Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Why you should care: Sometimes, you shouldn't care. This is rock music devoid of cynicism, and you probably need it right now.
–Shari Gab, New York Editor
This album from mad scientist Thundercat feels like it was made by an R&B and Yacht Rock enthusiast who also frequents Reddit (there's a song in which he coos “I wish I was a cat” and meows for the duration). It features short, uptempo tracks and goofy lyrics over sultry synths, with eclectic guest appearances from Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald and Kendrick Lamar. Overall, it's an entertaining album that will scratch your funky bone and give you some interesting lyrics to spout to your friends.
Standout Track: Show You The Way
Why you should care: It's pays homage to the music of the past while unequivocally being influenced by the cultural phenomenons of the present.
–Eli London, Director of Audience Development
A Deeper Understanding
The War on Drugs
If there’s any one band that could unite generations it’s The War on Drugs. They made waves with Lost in the Dream (2014), but A Deeper Understanding finds the band, orchestrated by frontman Adam Granduciel, in its fullest form. Their sound is a combination of the synthy atmospheric sounds of ‘80s Springsteen, Dylan and Tom Petty, with songwriting worthy of those titans to boot.
Standout track: Holding On
Why you should care: This is chicken soup music that’ll always make you feel good. Don’t road trip without it.
I’ve revisited Elbow’s Little Fictions more than any other album in 2017 because it always reveals a new layer with each listen. Sometimes it’s the intricate rhythms. Other times it’s the steady, simple melodies. And then there are the poetic lyrics that have something to say without clubbing you over the head with it.
Standout track: Gentle Storm
Why you should care: It’s just a great love song, and like most of the album, its mellow vibe will calm you.
–Reuben Brody, LA Editor
Love and War
This September I went to a music festival in El Dorado, Arkansas, where Brad Paisley headlined alongside ZZ Top, Ludacris and Migos. Not being intimately familiar with any of them, I made a random mix of their songs to listen to while getting ready in the morning. “Last Time for Everything” played while I was in the shower, and once it was over I ripped open the curtain, dried off my hands, and smashed the repeat button. The song is a flawless nostalgia anthem that avoids the pitfalls that have made people wary of the sentiment, and employs instantly memorizable lyrics with curveballs that will win over even country music-skeptics — the last line especially. The rest of the album follows suit, at once hyper-aware and deeply sincere.
Standout Track: Last Time for Everything
Why you should care: Because if you can get past the overplayed tropes in the “Last Time for Everything” music video (see: Stranger Things title card) and “Chicken Fried”-level Southern posturing (in “Heaven South”), this is masterful country music that even haters can love.
Dreams and Daggers
Cécile McLorin Salvant
My default music is vocal jazz. And if you’re anything like me, you don’t let new artists lightly into the pantheon of Sinatra, Fitzgerald and Holiday. Well, the time has come, heralded by this 23-song album from critically acclaimed singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. Part studio recording, part live cuts, Salvant sews together the disparate jazz domains of contemporary (aka polarizing) and vocal standards (aka accessible). Put this on at your next party and someone looking to tout their music literacy will surely ask, “Is this Sarah Vaughan?” No, it’s Salvant.
Standout Track: You’re My Thrill
Why you should care: Because there’s so much more happening in this genre than Michael Buble and Seth MacFarlane.
–Alex Lauer, Associate Editor
The Marcus King Band
Produced by Warren Haynes of Government Mule/Allman Brothers fame, Due North shows off not only what Marcus King and his band are, but also what they could be. For proof, listen no further than the final three songs of the EP’s closing five-song medley, covers of Chicago’s “25 Or 6 To 4,” Funkadelic’s “I'll Stay” and Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday.” The band is already adept at putting a bruising, bluesy touch on covers; soon their own material will be just as good.
Standout Track: Sharry Barry/Sliced Milk/25 Or 6 To 4/I'll Stay/Gloomy Sunday
Why You Should Care: Because with the passing of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley in recent years, there’s a huge hole in modern soul. Marcus and his band don’t fill it, but they’re at least providing hope the genre won't remain understocked in the future.
First Weapon Drawn: A Narrated Adventure
This album is not for everyone, but if you’re looking for some good background music to read comic books by, your search is over — that’s just what First Weapon Drawn was made for. A rap album that’s paired with its own comic book and comes laden with hip-hop beats, odd cuts of cartoonish dialogue but no actual rhyming, this album puts beatmaster 7L’s skills on full display while fellow group members Esoteric and Inspectah Deck take a backseat. Maybe not great for a party, but your headphones will dig it.
Standout Track: Godspeed Soldier
Why You Should Care: Because sometimes you just have to let the DJ get his, and albums that come with reading material beyond the liner notes are rare these days. Hip-hop beats matter — as do the people that make them.
–Evan Bleier, News Editor