For proof that much of the best and freshest music being made these days is on the fringes or by acts on independent labels, look no further than this list of 2017 albums that didn’t get the attention they deserved.
These albums spent more time in my CD player than those included in my companion column, the top 10 albums of 2017 (the best of the year’s higher profile releases), and as a group, were more unique, ambitious and exciting than the 2017 albums that sold a ton more copies and got far more media attention.
Here are my rankings of some really good albums you probably didn’t hear this year:
No. 1: Curtis Harding, “Face Your Fear.” Harding's made waves for several years with collaborations with Cee Lo Green, Cole Alexander of the Black Lips and more recently with his debut solo album, “Soul Power.” Now comes “Face Your Fear,” confirmation of what all the fuss is about. Harding knows his classic soul. Just check out the Curtis Mayfield-ish “As I Am” and the title song, along with the Motown-with-more-muscle of “Need Your Love,” and “On And On,” which echoes Otis Redding. But mixed in with the soul is some psychedelic rock, “Wednesday Morning Atonement,” and some sleek balladry, “Ghost Of You,”, all topped off with Harding’s rich and rangy vocals. Clearly, Harding is doing just fine on his own.
No. 2: White Reaper, “The World’s Best American Band.” Judging from the title of White Reaper’s second album, this band doesn’t lack for ambition, audacity or humor. The thing is, “The World’s Best American Band” nearly delivers on the braggadocio implied in its title. Retaining the garage rock roots of the band’s first album, the slyly titled “White Reaper Does It Again,” the group from Louisville has sharpened their songwriting chops and come up with an album of rough, ready, rowdy and very tuneful, rockers. “Judy French,” “The Stack” and “Daisies” are among many the highlights that should have fans of bands like the Hives, Undertones or T. Rex smiling.
No. 3: Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls, “But There’s Nowhere To Go.” This L.A. band’s website bills their sound as “acoustelectric AGIT-pop arena folkountry rock.” Call the music on the group’s fourth album, “But There’s Nowhere To Go,” what you want, but the best word may just be "good.” The album opens with “South Of Babylon,” a muscular mid-tempo rocker, then accelerates into three brisk and hooky roots rockers: “In Love With My Gun,” “Fair Fight” and “Nowhere To Go.” Things only grow more diverse and creative from there. “Asphalt, Gasoline, Chrome, Flesh, Blood and Bone” is a ballad whose lean production accentuates the power of the song and its lyrics, while “Dead Stars” shows a poppier side to the band. To these ears, this talented band is very much going places.
No. 4: Alvvays, “Antisocialites.” This Toronto band’s 2014 self-titled debut was a college rock hit, and this follow-up effort is just as strong, if a bit different sonically. Here the songs are dressed in more of a psychedelic haze, lending a good deal of atmosphere to the proceedings. But the pop melodies of the songs on “Antisocialites” are bright and sweet enough to cut through the production, allowing this album to shine as one of the year’s very best guitar pop albums.
No. 5: Dude York, “Sincerely.” Two full-length albums in, Dude York keeps getting better, hitting a new high water mark on “Sincerely.” The band sounds more anthemic here, particularly on the intense “Paralyzed,” “Something in the Way” and “Black Jack,” but not overblown. “Life Worth Living” and “The Way I Feel,” meanwhile, are punkier and economical, but just as hooky — the kind of rocking pop songs that recall Weezer at their best. Throughout the album, Dude York build in guitar solos, fills and lead lines that add layers of melody and interest to songs that already have solid vocal melodies and riffs. This is the sound of a promising band coming into their own.
No. 6: Rips, “Rips.” On its debut album, this Brooklyn-based band’s songs sound rooted in classic guitar pop, but hip and modern at the same time — not an easy thing. The Rips cite the Feelies and Television as influences, and the angular, nervy side of those bands shines through in songs like “Break” and “Losing II.” But the Rips are just as likely to put a little jangle into their guitar pop sound, as on “No More” and “Save Room,” or kick up the volume and tempo and get punky on “Damaged” and “Spell.” With a cool sound and consistently catchy songs, you’ll give a rip about this band.
No. 7: Sheer Mag, “Need to Feel Your Love.” On this debut album, these Philadelphia-based newcomers bring together some of the bratty and brash spiirt and sound of ‘70s punk on the songs “Rank and File” and “Meet Me in the Street”, some glam-meets AC/DC metal on “Turn It Up” and some pure pop on “Expect the Bayonet,” “Milk and Honey” and the title track. The glue to it all is Tina Halladay, whose taut, high-pitched vocals add to the urgency of songs and make Sheer Mag’s sound immediately distinctive. Considering Sheer Mag has been together for just three years, this first outing is a tantalizing teaser for a band with a bright future.
No. 8: Japandroids, “Near to the Wild Heart of Life.” On this Canadian duo’s third album, its classic rock and punk influences remain, but their blend has grown seamless and sophisticated. “Arc Of Bar,” a slow-burning song that builds some serious intensity behind its droning tones, is an example of a track that can’t be pinned down as punk, classic rock or any other specific style. Elsewhere, hints of folk rock filter into the pop-tinged rockers “Midnight To Morning” and “North East South West,” while the duo rocks forcefully on “No Known Drink or Drug” and the title song. Though “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” has only eight songs, that’s more than enough to showcase a band whose music is gaining breadth, depth and focus.
No. 9: Wolf Alice, “Visions of a Life.” Touching on everything from goth to punk and alternative rock to progressive metal, “Visions of a Life” and Wolf Alice aren’t easy to label. Some songs themselves on “Visions of a Life” can be challenging, too, with melodies that are less than immediate, elements of dissonance and dense textures. But the more layers you peel away with repeated listens, the more approachable most of the songs get and the more you hear uncommonly creative parts and cool melodic twists and sonic wrinkles that elevate “Visions of a Life” into an immersive album with considerable depth and individuality.
No. 10: Hiss Golden Messenger, “Hallelujah Anyhow.” M.C. Taylor returned with his second album in as many years, and the output doesn’t seem to be hurting the quality of his music. On “Hallelujah Anyhow,” he fashions a rich cross-section of folk, soul, Band-ish roots rock and pop that will have Americana fans singing Taylor’s praises.
Honorable mention: The Willowz, “Fifth”; Low Cut Connie, “Dirty Pictures, Pt. 1”; Wavves,“You’re Welcome”; Banditos, “Visionland”; Girlpool, “Powerplant”; Barb Wire Dolls, “Rub My Mind”; Rainer Maria, “Rainer Maria”; The Weeks, “Easy”; Alduous Harding, “Alduous Harding”; Courtneys, “Courtneys II.”
Alan Sculley is a freelance music writer who lives in Florida.