Under the Radar’s Top 50 Albums of 2017 So Far

Jul 13, 2017
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In the past we've avoided posting midyear best albums lists. It seemed somehow impatient and premature to evaluate the year's albums halfway through. And how do you decide which period the list covers, which arbitrary release date do you work out is the cut off point, as every midyear list seems to cover a different period? But 2017 is a year that demands a partial evaluation. The first half of the year has already produced enough strong albums to easily fill a Top 50, but also the second half of 2017 is stacked with so many high profile releases that threaten to overshadow some of the gems released so far. For example, we've already heard some August and September releases that we're certain will make the upper echelons of our final best albums of 2017 list come December.

To make this list an album had to be released for the first time (no reissues) somewhere between January 1, 2017 and last Friday, July 7. That means there are some good albums out tomorrow (such as Waxahatchee, Japanese Breakfast, and The Dears) that may made this list had we extended the period that far. Fourteen of our writers and editors (including myself and my co-publisher/wife Wendy Redfern) each submitted a list of their 20 favorite albums released this year thus far. Their number one album was worth 20 points, their number two worth 19 points, and so on until their number 20 album and any honorable mentions were worth one point each. All of that was calculated into the final list. By the way, this year we've interviewed 38 of the artists in the Top 50 and reviewed almost all these albums, so continue reading Under the Radar, both in print and online, for further proof that in-depth music journalism is far from dead. By Mark Redfern

1.

Father John Misty

Pure Comedy

(Sub Pop)

The apocalypse has never sounded so sweet. Josh Tillman’s third record as Father John Misty could not have been delivered onto us at a more apt time or had a more appropriate title. Pure Comedy is 70-plus minutes of lush strings and jaunty piano with Tillman skewering everything from the technologically obsessed to the narcissistic singer/songwriter who has vowed to save us all with their guitar. “When the God of Love Returns They’ll Be Hell to Pay” points a finger back at the divine and righteous and asks what the point of it all really is, while “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” describes how modern debate and division has created a nightmare for discourse. Pure Comedy is a horror story for the vapid, and no record has better encapsulated the fear and bewilderment 2017 has brought us more beautifully. This is Tillman’s 1984, his critique and warning for the Facebook generation that perhaps we aren’t as all knowing or desirable as the Internet says we might be. If this really is the end of days, then we’ve been graced with an incredible sonic sendoff. By Ryan Meaney

2.

Slowdive

Slowdive

(Dead Oceans)

Perhaps it’s a bit surreal to think about the reality that one of 2017’s very best albums thus far is from a band that hadn’t released anything since 1995 (and really 1993 if you consider Pygmalion a Neil Halstead solo album released under Slowdive’s name). However, once it’s taken into account that other groups from the same era such as Lush, Swervedriver, and Ride have also come back and released exciting new music, it’s not such an unlikely scenario. Regardless, Slowdive would be an triumph in any era and a must-listen for anyone who likes ethereal, atmospheric shoegaze. By Matthew Berlyant

3.

alt-J

Relaxer

(Canvasback Music)

Over the short span of eight tracks on their latest album, Relaxer, alt-J cover a vast array of genres. “Deadcrush” has a hip-hop beat and a robotic chorus of repeated “zeroes” and “ones.” Opening track “3WW,” which featured the vocals of Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice, has lilting acoustic strums and folky lyrics about a “wayward lad.” Then there’s closing track “Pleader,” which is haunting and Gregorian in tone, fitting enough considering it was literally recorded in a cathedral. If any album this year was to defy its title it’d be the energetic, eclectic, frenzied Relaxer, and listeners are all the better for it. By Kyle Mullin

4.

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister

Planetarium

(4AD)

The stars ultimately aligned in the assembly of contemporary classical music composer Nico Muhly with friends Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, and the multidimensional James McAlister for their collaborative project with a far-reaching theme. With the cosmos as their muse, the unexpected quartet joined forces to design Planetarium, a concept album years in the making. Stevens is the quintessential celestial narrator and adapts to the scale of the musical medium through experiments modulating his already heaven sent voice, both with and without computerization. Where Planetarium is most brilliant is on the Vangelis-like soundscape “Black Energy,” which could have fit seamlessly into the Chariots of Fire soundtrack. Then just when the dark vortex of “Black Hole” pulls inward to a point of no return, there are resilient leaps into drum machine laid electro dance patterns on “Saturn” and “Earth,” no doubt augmented by the hand of McAlister. In the end and like a guiding light, the pure resonance of Stevens returns for the grand finale “Mercury,” giving way graciously to Dessner’s gravity defying, high scale guitar artistry that, true to form, simply and beautifully uplifts. In its entirety, the ambition and scope of the project is matched by the combined talent and imagination of four musical friends whose association seemed to just emerge from the ether. May there be more such fortuitous arrangements in the future. By Charles Steinberg

5.

Foxygen

Hang

(Jagjaguwar)

Foxygen doesn’t need the inclusion in Amazon Home’s corny-dad-trying-to-show-his-kids-he’s-cool commercial to prove its hip cache, the seductive duo was born that way. At a quick half-hour, its latest, and most well received album, Hang, shows that brevity is Foxygen’s friend. Even with its limited length, Hang manages to fit a 40+-piece orchestra—and The Lemon Twigs—in each of its eight songs. The awesomely self-indulgent result is part musical theatre, part prog-rock, part big band, and part druggy retro feelgood vibes. Hang owes as much to David Bowie (“Mrs. Adams”) and Van Morrison (“On Lankershim”), as it does to ABBA (“Avalon”) and animated Disney musicals (“America”). For all this, Hang is as pop as Foxygen gets—albeit from a number of decades ago—and is the duo’s most realized musical vision yet. By Lily Moayeri

6.

Big Thief

Capacity

(Saddle Creek)

Brooklyn quartet Big Thief’s sophomore effort sees the indie folkers at their most tender and visceral. The music sinks and swells like waves as singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker’s revealing lyrics read like the most private of journals. Capacity is a varied, emotional journey where each track digs further and further into the sometimes frightening, mostly lovely hole of reminiscence. By Ryan Meaney

7.

Rose Elinor Dougall

Stellular

(Vermillion)

Stellular, the sophomore album by former Pipettes singer and Mark Ronson-collaborator Rose Elinor Dougall, comes a full seven years after her solo debut, Without Why. What marks any Dougall release, of course, is that voice; affective, adaptable and always shooting straight at the heart. Stellular opens with “Colour of Water,” a guitar-and-bass driven shimmering slice of dream-rock, with lashings of atmospheric keyboards. Dougall’s voice is on top form, shading emotions at the flick of a switch and veering this way and that with panache. It’s all warm reds and cool blues and leads straight into the rippling, swirling, “Strange Warnings,” a start-stop, quiet-loud four-minute wonder wrapped in a glittering bow. “Dive,” a duet with Boxed In, forlornly prowls the streets in search lost rainbows. The final third proves particularly strong. The fairy-tale piano, synth chords and shuffling drums of “Poison Ivy” lead us into a dangerous maze of wonder and danger. “Hell and Back” walks a razor tightrope beneath a Turner sky. “Space to Be” echoes and surges and quivers, while “Wanderer” provides a fitting end, bringing together blocks of piano, bright guitars, and possibly the most effective vocal on the album. Stellular brings to mind Propaganda and Wire, with an ’80s street-sensibility under stylish charity-shop mix-and-match clothing. Its greatest strength is that it feels effortless, moving from sleek disco to dark-hued punk and beyond without ever missing a step or losing its charm. By Chris Wheatley

8.

Fleet Foxes

Crack-Up

(Nonesuch)

Robin Pecknold and company have never opted to make music that was straightforward. On their latest Crack-Up, their first record in six years, Fleet Foxes return with sweeping song suites and tighter harmonies than ever. Songs grow and shift like a rising storm, keeping the tension tight throughout while Pecknold attempts to keep the ship steady with his virtuosic songwriting. It is a strong return to form for a group that sounds as fresh as ever. By Ryan Meaney

9.

Mount Eerie

A Crow Looked At Me

(P.W. Elverum & Sun)

“Death is real/Someone’s there and then they’re not/And it’s not for singing about/It’s not for making into art,” sings Phil Elverum on his ninth album as Mount Eerie. In 2015 Elverum’s wife, Genevieve, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 35, leaving Elverum to care for their young daughter. The resulting record confronts this in rippling guitar and soft piano chords. The tone of Elverum’s every-man voice is so ordinary it becomes utterly poignant. A Crow Looked at Me considers the conundrum of grief and the practical querying that comes with it: what to do next? Ignore your own advice—write a record about it. By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

10.

Broken Social Scene

Hug of Thunder

(Arts & Crafts)

For anyone who had forgotten the influence of Broken Social Scene on the indie rock genus, their agonizingly long awaited album of reunion, Hug of Thunder, dropped out of the skies to dispel any notion that years both apart and along might make for a pitch that falls flat. These 12 carefully composed and selected songs cover all of the bases of why fans swoon to their style of ambitious rock music—delivering anthems of full instrumental force, hybrids that make subtly romantic use of electronic accent and sleepy ballads for when you just want to lie down and mingle with the day. As always, there is a rushing forward with steady basslines and gorgeously mixed background horns acting as boards under the surfing vocals of Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Leslie Feist, Emily Haines, Amy Millan, and others. All 15 original members of the Canadian collective make a majestic return and all of a sudden, it’s as though an enormous void was filled. By Charles Steinberg

11.

Perfume Genius

No Shape

(Matador)

12.

Jens Lekman

Life Will See You Now

(Secretly Canadian)

13.

Feist

Pleasure

(Interscope)

14.

Temples

Volcano

(Fat Possum)

15.

Future Islands

The Far Field

(4AD)

16.

Spoon

Hot Thoughts

(Matador)

17.

Elbow

Little Fictions

(Concord)

18.

Nick Hakim

Green Twins

(ATO)

19.

Jay Som

Everybody Works

(Polyvinyl)

20.

Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzalez

Room 29

(Deutsche Grammophon)

21.

Kirin J Callinan

Bravado

(Terrible)

22.

The xx

I See You

(Young Turks)

23.

Grandaddy

Last Place

(30th Century)

24.

Beach Fossils

Somersault

(Bayonet)

25.

Little Dragon

Season High

(Loma Vista)

26.

Marika Hackman

I’m Not Your Man

(Sub Pop)

27.

The New Pornographers

Whiteout Conditions

(Collected Works/Conchord)

28.

Joe Goddard

Electric Lines

(Domino)

29.

Saint Etienne

Home Counties

(Heavenly)

30.

Kelly Lee Owens

Kelly Lee Owens

(Smalltown Supersound)

31.

Algiers

The Underside of Power

(Matador)

32.

Goldfrapp

Silver Eye

(Mute)

33.

Kevin Morby

City Music

(Dead Oceans)

34.

The Flaming Lips

Oczy Mlody

(Warner Bros.)

35.

Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

(Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

36.

Gorillaz

Humanz

(Warner Bros./Parlophone)

37.

Ride

Weather Diaries

(Wichita)

38.

Mac DeMarco

This Old Dog

(Captured Tracks)

39.

London Grammar

Truth is a Beautiful Thing

(Columbia/Metal & Dust)

40.

Phoenix

Ti Amo

(Glassnote)

41.

Mew

Visuals

(Play It Again Sam)

42.

POND

The Weather

(Marathon Artists)

43.

Julie Byrne

Not Even Happiness

(Ba Da Bing!)

44.

Little Cub

Still Life

(Domino)

45.

Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors

(Domino)

46.

Fazerdaze

Morningside

(Flying Nun)

47.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

Damage and Joy

(ADA/Warner Music)

48.

Hoops

Routines

(Fat Possum)

49.

Real Estate

In Mind

(Domino)

50.

Dutch Uncles

Big Balloon

(Memphis Industries)

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robin
July 15th 2017
11:07am

you NEED to listen to Pet shop boys ‘‘super’’ it should be in top 50 easy!!! future islands??...be honest NOTHING new   i love them but BORING!!..PEACE robin

Douglas
July 15th 2017
9:46pm

While I like and even love several albums represented here, this list is basic A.F. I looks like Sirius XMU’s 50 artists that they play over and over and over and over and over…... Dig A little deeper folk, there’s a lot more great music that is truly under the radar.

Steve
July 17th 2017
6:03am

This is trash. Rose Dougall top ten before FF, and Kendrick at 35? Don’t make me vom. Too many industry backhanders here mate.

Stuart Strathearn
July 17th 2017
12:42pm

Nice list ,however I would certainly have included the latest albums from Clock Opera and Depeche Mode!

Kevin
July 18th 2017
9:13pm

The Sadies Northern Lights
Dan Auerbach Waiting on a Song

Luke
July 19th 2017
7:18am

Solid list, but how is Portugal the Man’s new album Woodstock not mentioned?

Kevin
July 19th 2017
12:31pm

Northern Passages ~ The Sadies

Alex
July 19th 2017
3:06pm

Well deserved for Father John Misty !
Where are King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard ?
They released 2 fantastic lp already this year (Flying Microtonal Banana and Murder Of the Universe) and there’s at least another one coming this summer.
And Phoenix album wasn’t great, quite expected and easy.

Rich
July 20th 2017
10:16am

HAHAH nope. This top ten is nonsense! Who made this up and tried to make out any of these were half way dece?