It’s hard to believe that we’re already a quarter of the way through 2017, especially since the hangover from 2016—a year that bewilderingly delivered phenomenal music up until the bitter end (RTJ3 dropping on Christmas Eve felt like a cruel prank toward exhausted critics who thought they finally had breathing time after a particularly difficult AOTY list season)—lingered until very recently. However, although we’ve already been treated to a plethora of good and great records, 2017 hasn’t yet birthed anything that screams AOTY. Then again, comparing anything to the anomaly of a year that 2016 was, both culturally and politically, is perhaps unfair—especially this early on, given that the overwhelming majority of last year’s best records emerged after the first quarter. Nevertheless, there’s a lot (too much, really) to work with so far.
January had an understandably slow start, gradually gaining momentum halfway through from Code Orange’s industrial-loaded, beatdown metalcore barrage Forever and Yucky Duster’s pleasantly lo-fi indie-pop EP Duster’s Lament; then hitting the gas during the latter half with a slew of high-profile indie rock records from Cloud Nothings, Japandroids and Allison Crutchfield. Unfortunately, the former two are the least compelling in their respective careers and will most likely go down as slump albums, and Crutchfield’s solo debut didn’t deliver on the promise of its singles. The best record of the month came from the ever-prolific garage-rocker Ty Segall, who effortlessly shut down the unrelenting “rock is dead” sentiment that once again stirred up during his release week and was being used to somehow justify Cloud Nothings’ and Japandroids’ flimsy outputs. Segall is nine records deep into his 10-year career (without mentioning his literal dozens of collaborative efforts and EP’s) and is still managing to release genuinely exciting, varied and memorable material using standard rock band instrumentation. Step it up, indie boys.
February was greeted by a pretty solid new Menzingers record (outdoing their previous two was unlikely, though a bit more experimentation would’ve been nice), a noble return from Surfer Blood after losing a guitarist to cancer (Snowdonia’s standouts are surprisingly chipper given the circumstances), and a shimmering, spectral debut from UK electro-soul up-and-comer Sampha that pulls from the minimalist, though crisp production of Frank Ocean’s Blond(e). The middle of the month saw Swedish art-pop songwriter Jens Lekman return with the colorful and clever Life Will See You Now, as well as the characteristically quiet release of Hand Habits’ breezy psych-folk debut Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void); a record that critics will hopefully return to later in the year and give the “ICYMI” plug.
The release cycle seemed to explode at the end of the month though, as highly anticipated albums from Dirty Projectors, Xiu Xiu, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Power Trip were unveiled. Xiu Xiu’s Forget is one of their most accessible records to date, featuring impeccable production and a handful of legitimately catchy, electro-heavy tunes that still exhibit the band’s signature oddness; King Gizzard’s first of supposedly five new records this year is an incredibly gratifying, perfectly concise selection of driving psych-rock with heavy Eastern influences that clearly carves out their own niche; the Texas badboys didn’t move out of their comfort zones on Nightmare Logic, but Power Trip are undeniably the most thrilling crossover thrash band in the game right now; and songwriter David Longstreth’s transformation of Dirty Projectors into his solo venture proved successful, as tracks like “Death Spiral,” “Winner Take Nothing,” and “Up In Hudson” contort Bon Iver’s auto-tuned exposé into a beastly combination of wonky R&B, hip-hop and art-rock.
February’s backend was also graced with gifts from the underground. Vagabon explored vulnerability on her versatile, lo-fi indie rock debut Infinite Worlds, blowing the Brooklyn songwriter up and dominating the indie press with high praise from Pitchfork, NPR and Stereogum. The new and seemingly yet to be discovered Philly band No Thank You intertwined synths with their fuzzy, swaying, catchy and hopeful debut Jump Ship that dropped discreetly via Lame-O Records (Modern Baseball). However, the most understated of the bunch was Elvis Depressedly/Coma Cinema frontman Mathew Lee Cothran’s Judas Hung Himself In America, released under Cothran’s own name with little-to-no promotion. Like most of his work, these eight songs are smoky, dark, bedroom-pop numbers that may seem underwhelming at first, but gradually become more enticing with each listen as the intricacies and melodies drip out.
March was met with the apocalyptic and jarring World Eater by electronic producer Blanck Mass, which is great for guitar fanatics who’re looking for a palate cleanser without foregoing intensity or dynamics. San Francisco multi-instrumentalist Jay Som’s commercial debut Everybody Works is an impressively diverse grab bag of different sounds (dancy indie-pop, hazy indie rock that’s speckled with synths and careful vocal layering, and rip-roaring fuzz-punk that puts even Nothing to shame) that never once feels like a messy pile of individual singles. With the handling of that record and Xiu Xiu’s, plus the forthcoming PWR BTTM and Palehound releases, Polyvinyl Records is on track for a banger year.
In contrast to Som’s sonic cocktail, Sorority Noise—whose last record was equally assorted as Everybody Works—put out their most cohesive album yet, yielding to the punky portion of their wardrobe that they wear so well. On You’re Not As _____ As You Think, songwriter Cameron Boucher’s intimate narratives are as potent as ever, the band’s chemistry is double knot-tight, and bringing in producer Mike Sapone (the dude who’s done every Brand New record) made an obvious impact. However, the hooks on this thing aren’t quite as sweet as some of their past work. Longtime fans who fell in love with the simplicity of their earworm debut Forgettable should check out the self-titled premiere from Oakland slack-rockers Snooze; a Bandcamp gem that dropped the week before. Channeling (and at times scarily emulating) early Weezer while giving it an anxious makeover that’s fit for the post-“Constant Headache” (Joyce Manor) era of punks, Snooze do power-pop an incredible justice on this delightfully addicting slab of riff/synth-age.
The rest of the month was rounded out by a new Real Estate record that took the band’s sleepy lounge rock out back and got it stoned off some medical-grade product. There’s a heavy psych-pop influence on this thing that pulls from Tame Impala and last year’s Mild High Club release; a style that melds wondrously with the band’s lackadaisical grooves. However, Real Estate’s assumed doobie-indulgence is baby aspirin compared to whatever The Spirit of the Beehive were on during the creation of Pleasure Suck, a record that truly feels like an out-of-body experience. Describing their challenging sound exceeds musical terminology. Think of it as Teen Suicide joining the entire Exploding In Sound roster in a decrepit Philadelphia loft for a party that lingers until sun-up, ultimately coalescing into a conversation between people who’ve just met yet already feel intimately connected.
Nothing though, regardless of musical allure, has delivered, nor most likely will deliver, the unfettered heartbreak of Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. It’s a record that comes about as close as music can to evoking legitimate empathy, not sympathy, for the now-wounded songwriter Phil Elverum. Despite having never experienced a loss like his (the cruel, rapid death of his 35-year-old wife to cancer) Elverum’s candid expression of utter emotional desolation gives listeners some semblance of what it’s like to undergo such devastation. It’s not a fun listen. It’s not even really a listen, moreso an exercise in hearing someone’s justifiably unsolicited release of overwhelming anguish. It’s an aural document of the harshness of human existence, and it’s probably the least musical yet most impactful portion of this list. As we enter the second quarter of our race to AOTY, Crow deservedly has the lead.