As listeners, we typically assume that a debut album is an artist’s mission statement. Simply put, an artist’s first album is supposed to establish what that person or band sounds like. It’s supposed to lay the foundations for the rest of their career and give listeners some idea of what to expect later on down the road. But what happens when a debut album proves to be an anomaly? When the first record establishes a sonic identity that the artist doesn’t want to chase on future releases?
For more than a decade now, Cary Brothers has been asking precisely that question.
Brothers burst onto the scene in 2004, with a December release called All the Rage. It wasn’t until the next year, though, that he got his big break, thanks in large part to the Garden State soundtrack. Brothers’ beloved contribution, the song “Blue Eyes,” had already been a Hotel Café favorite when Zach Braff scooped it up for his quirky coming-of-age dramedy. Garden State took the song and immortalized it for listeners and movie fans who were of a certain age at the time. While the song gave Brothers the kind of boost that just about any songwriter would kill for, though, it also meant that he got the musical version of typecast. “Blue Eyes” was a singer-songwriter song, and Brothers’ full-length debut, 2007’s Who You Are, was a singer-songwriter album. You could hardly blame early Cary Brothers fans for making the assumption that he was an acoustic singer-songwriter, period.
There’s a song on the new Donovan Woods album Both Ways called “Next Year,” about the very-human tendency to put things off. “We’ll do it next year,” Woods sings—five words we’ve probably all spoken a time or two before. Those words could refer to a lot of different things, depending on your situation. They could be about a trip you’re going to take, or a renovation you’re going to do on your house, or something fun you’re going to do with your kids. Too often, though, next year never becomes this year. It’s just always next year, always tomorrow. And eventually, all those things you were going to do pile up and you realize that you’re running out of time to actually do them. That’s what happens at the end of the song, where Woods sings about an ailing father and his wish to see the Grand Canyon. Instead of making plans for later, the dad and his son just get in the car and drive. Because, as Woods states, “There ain’t no next year.” The sand in the hourglass is almost gone. It’s now or never.
Kacey Musgraves released one of the two or three most important country albums of the decade back in 2013. The LP—her breakthrough, Same Trailer, Different Park—tossed a whole slew of country conventions in the garbage disposal with an “I don’t give a fuck” smile. Musgraves sounded sarcastic, but not disrespectful. Jaded, but not overly cynical. Instead of praising hometowns like most of her contemporaries, she painted them as havens for close-minded, philandering burnouts. Instead of steering well-clear of anything resembling a progressive political message, she sang about kissing lots of boys…or kissing lots of girls, if that’s what you’re into. Compared to the bro country wave that was on a cruise at the time, Musgraves was a breath of fresh air.
In the years since, a lot more artists like Kacey have come out of the woodwork—to the point where there’s no longer even a point in painting an “us vs. them” battle between the country mainstream and the “insurgency.” These days, most of the biggest “insurgent” heroes are shifting a boatload of records, scoring Grammy nominations, and selling out major headlining tours. It shouldn’t be understated how instrumental Musgraves was in creating an environment where that kind of harmonious balance could happen.
Chris Porterfield is one of the most honest songwriters alive.
It might not seem that way from a cursory listen to the music of Field Report, the band Porterfield has fronted now for three albums. As a writer, he couches much of his observations about relationships and human struggles in layers of metaphor. But start to peel back the meaning of the songs and you’ll arrive at deeply moving messages about the heart and what keeps it beating. That was the case with 2014’s Marigolden, a starkly intimate record where Porterfield came clean about his struggles with alcoholism. That album often felt like a dreamscape, like coming down from the haze of a buzz for the first time in weeks, only to find that the clarity of an undrunk mind felt as surreal as being on an alien planet. “The fog’s been lifting, and I’m doin’ alright,” Porterfield sang on a sublimely beautiful song called “Summons,” “But I still can’t look nobody in the eye.”
Not too long ago, Brian Fallon sounded like he was broken. Get Hurt, The Gaslight Anthem’s fifth (and as-yet, last) album, sounded like a band on its last legs. Written and recorded in the wake of a grueling, never-ending tour schedule—as well as Fallon’s divorce from his first wife—Get Hurt felt like the end of something. When Fallon resurfaced on 2015’s Painkillers, his solo debut, he was retreating from the fallout of it all. “I don’t want to survive/I want a wonderful life” he sang in the first single, but the most revealing line came on the closing track: “You can’t make me whole/I have to find that on my own.” That song, and that album as a whole, were the sounds of a man whose recovery was still a work in progress.
Sleepwalkers, Fallon’s sophomore solo LP, is the natural conclusion to the trilogy that began on Get Hurt. It’s also the most wholly satisfying album of the three, blowing up an array of different influences to make the most vibrant, lively LP that Fallon has put his name on since the early Gaslight Anthem days.
More than any band I’ve ever loved, I associate The Dangerous Summer with a specific time and place. For three tumultuous summers, as I flailed about recklessly in the no-man’s land between youth and adulthood, there was no band on the planet that meant more to me. The summer of 2009 was encapsulated in the strains of their debut, Reach for the Sun, which caught me in the wake of my high school graduation as I wondered what the next chapter would hold. Their sophomore record, War Paint, played a similar role in the summer of 2011, which followed the worst semester of my life and forced me to question my dreams, my college major, and my entire view of my future. The summer in between was the one where I fell in love with the girl who I would marry, and I still remember driving home late at night from her house, feeling every note and every word of songs like “Northern Lights” and “Never Feel Alone.”
The Dangerous Summer never meant as much to me outside of those summers, or away from that town. This band was the soundtrack of growing up and of magical, lively Julys and Augusts in the town where I grew up—summers where the nights seemed to stretch on forever and the possibilities felt like they were truly endless. Once I finished college and left my hometown behind, it felt like The Dangerous Summer might not have anything left to say about my life. Hearing them again in the summer 2013—the summer after I finished college and tried to make a play for adulthood and the “real world”—the songs played like pale imitations of what I’d loved before. True, that year’s Golden Record was simply a sizable step down from the band’s peak. Even if it hadn’t been, though, I’m not sure it would have resonated with me personally. Again, this was a “time and place” band, and hearing them outside of that time and away from that place felt almost grotesque. It made me miss everything I’d left behind.
2017 was a frustrating, infuriating, and often heartbreaking year. From the politics to the abuses and scandals that trickled all the way down to our little music scene, it felt like every day had some scrap of bad news to serve up. It was a year where we really needed something to lean on and keep us resilient and resolute, and the artists featured on this list responded to that call of duty admirably.
The 25 records featured below are eclectic and far-reaching. Some are achingly personal reckonings with personal demons and mental illness. Others are scathing indictments of the political status quo. Some explore the cycle of getting older and losing your youth, while others revel in the excitement and confusion of being young. Some are pop records, while others are hip-hop or folk, country or post-hardcore, emo or classic-tinged rock ‘n’ roll. They are all distinctly different, but they all had at least one thing in common: for 30 or 40 or 50 minutes at a time, they all made 2017 feel a little more bearable.
So, without further ado, I give you Chorus.fm’s Top 25 Albums of 2017. In the words of one of the artists featured below, I hope you find something to love.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a music year quite like 2017. In terms of personal classics, it didn’t stack up to my favorite music years on record, like 2004 or 2015. But for maybe the first time ever, I would have been comfortable putting just about any album from my top 30 in my top 10. Indeed, every record up to about 19 or 20 was ranked in my top 10 for at least one draft of this list. Clearly, the breadth of good music from this year was stunning, and I feel fortunate to have been able to experience it.
Above all, this year was one of huge discovery for me. Of the 40 artists featured below, only 18 have made year-end lists of mine in the past. A few of the remaining 22 were artists I’ve known for awhile who realized their considerable potential in 2017. Most, though, were completely new finds for me, and a fair handful released debuts. Looking at those numbers, I can’t wait to see what new things will grace my ears in 2018. For now, though, I’m bidding farewell to 2017 by recounting the music that played as my life soundtrack during it. Here’s hoping my discoveries can become yours.
The top two bestselling albums in country music this year are both by the same guy. Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 1 (released back in May) and Traveller (released all the way back in May 2015) are unstoppable juggernauts despite the fact that neither ever notched a major radio hit. Depending on just how strong the Stapleton support is throughout the holiday season, there’s an outside chance he could own the entire top three for 2017, thanks to the fact that he just released his second album of the year: From A Room: Volume 2.
A cynical person would see Stapleton’s decision to release two albums in the same year as a shameless ploy to sell more records. There probably is something of a calculated approach there, given that Stapleton 1) still sells albums at all, and 2) thrives on full-length statements rather than singles. What’s probably truer, though, is that Stapleton just cut a lot of quality material while in the studio with producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb, and wanted to put it all out there for his fans to enjoy.
While he’s been coy about the exact details, Bono apparently almost died in 2017.
In general, it’s been a rough few years for the frontman of the world’s biggest rock band. The backlash against U2’s last record, 2014’s Songs of Innocence, was perhaps fiercer than for any other album released this decade (though the hate was more for the gung-ho iTunes release strategy than for the actual music). Then, a few months later, Bono crashed his bike, fractured his face, and shattered his arm. The injury, he later said, may have put a permanent end to his guitar playing days.
Still, neither Bono nor U2 have slowed down much. If anything, they sped up. This year, the band zipped around the globe playing The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary. Even at a relatively brief (by U2 standards) 51 dates, the tour grossed $316 million—enough to be the year’s highest grossing concert tour. Meanwhile, U2 have spent months tinkering with Songs of Experience, the sequel to their maligned 2014 album, which was supposed to come out a year ago. Even with the 12-month delay, Songs of Experience still arrives just three years and two months after its predecessor—the band’s briefest album-to-album gap since the early 1990s.
“I remember smelling smoke/I woke up, I was choking/Lorrie grabbed the baby and we made it safe outside.” So begins Turnpike Troubadours’ A Long Way from Your Heart, with a family fleeing a burning house. It’s a stark place to start. The characters in this song lose everything but their lives, a photograph, and a shotgun. But the song that takes those things away, called “The Housefire,” is rollicking and lively instead of being dark and downtrodden. There’s even a ripping guitar solo in the song’s extended outro, while the ever-present fiddle—a crucial element of Turnpike Troubadours down-home country sound—flits through the arrangement almost triumphantly.
“Lord knows that I’ve been blessed/I can stand up to the test/I can live on so much less/This much I’ve been learning,” Evan Felker sings in the chorus, because “The Housefire” isn’t about a burning house; it’s about bidding farewell to material encumbrances and realizing what really matters following a crushing tragedy. It’s about finding hope in a dark turn of fate. In a word, it’s about resilience.
On the whole, those same descriptors apply to A Long Way from Your Heart as a whole. These songs are tinged with tragedy, but they are also populated by characters who carry on regardless. The title of the album comes from the bridge of “The Housefire,” where the narrator starts lamenting the “heavy blow” his family has just been dealt. “I’ll bet you make it, it’s a long way from your heart,” his wife responds wryly. You’ll survive, in other words. ‘Tis but a scratch!
When Travis Meadows sings about hitting rock bottom, you can tell he’s been there. There’s a rawness and pain in his voice that tells you he’s not just playing a character or weaving a narrative. His songs ache with the scars of a hard life. As a child, Meadows’ younger brother drowned, his parents got divorced, and he ended up the odd man out between a mother and a father who started new families and moved on without him. At 14, he was diagnosed with cancer. He survived the disease, but lost his right leg in the battle. Eventually, he turned to alcohol as a crutch. He was already writing songs, and already had a publishing deal in Nashville, but he was such a mess that no one would agree to write with him. It took four trips to rehab before he could make sobriety stick.
Meadows has been off the bottle since 2010. In the interim, songs he’s written have been cut by Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, and Jake Owen—three of the biggest male stars in country music right now. His songs, though, remain haunted by his past. In a recent profile for Uproxx.com, Meadows said that he uses songwriting to admit the secrets about himself that he’s too scared to say out loud. That honesty radiates through First Cigarette, Meadows’ second full-length album and the most starkly intimate LP that anyone has made this year.
I’m not sure I have ever anticipated a new album with quite the furor that I anticipated Jimmy Eat World’s Chase This Light in the fall of 2007. Futures had been a game-changer for me, the album that transformed me from a budding music listener into a voracious, lifelong die-hard. As often happens when you’re young, the three years that stretched between the October 19, 2004 release of Futures and the October 16, 2007 release of Chase This Light seemed to last an eternity. (I was 13 when the former came out and 16 for the arrival of the latter.) The wait was eased a bit by the 2005 release of the Stay on My Side Tonight EP, but the dark, moody nature of those songs only made me want a full-length. An album packed of songs like “Disintegration” and “Closer”? Count me in.
Chase This Light was decidedly not that record. Futures gave the band two basic paths forward. The first was to embrace the moody, late night autumnal vibe that manifested on songs like “Polaris” and “23.” That path evidently led to Stay on My Side Tonight, which was made up of songs the band had written for Futures but hadn’t finished or put on the record. The second possible path was for Jimmy Eat World to keep following their arc as a glossy studio band. They’d made Futures with Gil Norton, a well-respected rock producer known for making big, robust rock albums. Futures sounded appropriately huge, and there was some feeling—particularly in radio singles like “Pain” and “Work”—that Jimmy Eat World could be a massive radio rock band for the new millennium if they wanted to be. They could prove that “The Middle” wasn’t just a fluke hit.
Tom Petty is the sound of summertime. “American Girl.” “Learning to Fly.” “Wildflowers.” “Free Fallin’.” Losing him is like losing summer, forever.
That was one of the first thoughts I tweeted out yesterday afternoon, following the deluge of bad news about Petty. It was already a hard day. Between waking up to news of the Las Vegas tragedy and spending the entire day thinking about my grandfather, who passed away on October 2, 2014, it was a lot to handle. Losing Petty out of nowhere, less than two weeks after he wrapped another summer-conquering tour, felt like the devil playing a trick. When news broke that Petty was not in fact dead and was “clinging to life,” I dared to hope that he might pull through—even as the sounds of Southern Accents and Into the Great Wide Open filled my living room.
Alas, those hopes were for naught. Last night, at 8:40 PST, Tom Petty passed on, surrounded by his family, friends, and bandmates.
You’d think that after 2016, we’d be used to losing legendary rock stars. After a year that took Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and a slew of others, we’d be a little more prepared to say goodbye to our heroes. That’s not the case. Losing Petty hurts especially for me, not just because I adored his art, but also because without him, so much of the music I love wouldn’t exist.
The Killers just can’t seem to catch a break.
You’d think that penning one of the most iconic, ubiquitous pop songs of the millennium would win you some points. Same with putting out a debut album that almost single-handedly prolonged the life of rock radio for an extra year or two. By all accounts, Brandon Flowers and company are nice guys who work hard, put on an exceptional live show, and have a better track record of radio singles than any other rock band this side of the Foo Fighters. But The Killers have never been cool. They certainly never earned the stamp of approval from critics, who took the “No Fun Police” stance against the singles from Hot Fuss and then vowed to bury the band when Brandon Flowers had the audacity to suggest that 2006’s Sam’s Town would be “one of the best albums in the last 20 years.” Most music writers expected The Killers to be a flash in the pan, and they were graciously willing to help the band reach their inevitable demise.
But a funny thing happened along the way: The Killers held on. As radio rock died, they kept writing hits. As the critical darling indie rock bands of the early 2000s slid toward mediocrity or obscurity or both, The Killers remained stubbornly present. Now, 13 years after Hot Fuss and five years after their last album, The Killers are back, and they are every bit as inescapable as they always have been. In the release week of September 22nd, which saw a massive deluge of new albums from acclaimed and up-and-coming artists, no one got as much press as The Killers.
2017 has been a miraculous year for young talent in the country/roots music space. From Colter Wall to Tyler Childers to Lindsay Ell, a fair chunk of the best albums in those genres this year have been made by twenty-somethings. Add Christian Lopez to the list. At 22 years old, Lopez is just crossing the boundary between youth and adulthood. His brand-new sophomore record, Red Arrow, is all about making the journey.
A crisp collection of roots-pop songs, built on a foundation of catchy melodies and organic instrumentation, Red Arrow is as immediate a record as you’ll hear this year. That might be a surprise, given Lopez’s youth. Shouldn’t a guy who’s only been on the planet since 1995 still be learning the ropes of this whole album-making thing? Apparently not. While Lopez is young, he’s not inexperienced. He’s been touring tirelessly for the past few years, building a following largely on the back of hard work and strong word of mouth. And it also can’t hurt that he’s made his first two albums with two of the best and most respected producers working in roots music right now.
In 2014, Noah Gundersen released his first full-length album. The record in question, Ledges, was a masterclass in contemporary folk music, loaded with confessional lyrics, acoustic guitars, and fiddles. By all accounts, Gundersen seemed like a traditionalist.
In 2015, Gundersen quickly followed Ledges up with his sophomore LP, the spiritually fraught Carry the Ghost. It was still a folk album, but Noah was fleshing things out, adding fractious electric guitar and other elements of full band instrumentation into the mix. It was clearly the work of a young songwriter who was yearning to grow.
Between the fall of 2015 and the early winter of 2016, Gundersen did two tours in support of Carry the Ghost. The first was a full-band endeavor, presenting the songs on Ghost as they were meant to be heard. The second was a solo tour, where Gundersen played songs from both Ledges and Carry the Ghost on acoustic guitar, solo electric guitar, and piano. It was a stark, intimate presentation, and it showed off what made Gundersen so special: his vulnerable, fragile voice; his songs that could work well no matter how much he built them up or stripped them down; and his honest, forthright lyrics.
But something was wrong. Gundersen was having a crisis of faith—not the same crisis of religious faith he wrote about on Carry the Ghost, but a crisis of faith in his own art. When I saw Gundersen on the solo tour for Ghost, he was pointedly reserved. He bantered with the audience occasionally, but during the songs, his eyes were cast toward the floor or closed entirely. And at the end of the show, when a condescending moderator led a Q&A session and suggested that Gundersen was “so young” and “couldn’t have possibly experienced what he sang about in his songs,” Noah seemed at a loss for how to answer—at least politely. When the Q&A ended, Gundersen headed quickly for the stage door.
The War on Drugs weren’t just a buzz artist in 2014: they were arguably the artist of the year. In a year that lacked an obvious consensus critical favorite—thanks in part to the fact that most of the “big artists” stayed quiet—an unassuming rock band from Philadelphia snagged a whole boatload of accolades. Sure, not every publication chose Lost in the Dream, the band’s grandiose third LP, for its top honors, but no album appeared on more lists or managed a higher average rank.
That breakout year could have fundamentally changed things for Adam Granduciel, the frontman and mastermind of The War on Drugs. The band made the jump from Secretly Canadian, the indie label that had put out their first three records, to the major leagues, signing with Atlantic. But rather than interfere or try to push Granduciel toward something more marketable or palatable to radio audiences, Atlantic seemingly just let the man do his thing. The result, a new album called A Deeper Understanding, somehow manages to improve upon its predecessor in every way without abandoning the signature sound it established.
Few albums sound more like growing up to me than Matt Nathanson’s Some Mad Hope. Last year, for my 26th birthday, I wrote a blog post where I chose one defining song from every year I’ve spent on the planet. “Car Crash,” the opening track from Some Mad Hope, was my pick for 2007. For me, that song—and this record in general—marked the end of youthful innocence and the beginning of something a little more complex and a little less black and white. It’s tough to imagine a better record for that moment in life than Some Mad Hope, which effortlessly pairs pop hooks and anthemic arrangements with emotionally weighty lyrical work. What is tough to process is the fact that this record—the one that marked the start of my journey from youth to adulthood—is now 10 years in the rearview.
Some Mad Hope would prove to be Matt Nathanson’s breakthrough, but it wasn’t his first record. On the contrary, in Nathanson’s catalog, Some Mad Hope holds the status of being the sixth LP. He’d moved the needle slightly in the past. His cover of the James hit “Laid” opened American Wedding, the final film in the initial American Pie trilogy, and his fifth album, 2003’s Beneath the Fireworks (produced by future Springsteen collaborator Ron Aniello) spawned reasonably well-known tracks like “I Saw” and “Curve of the Earth.” But until this record, Nathanson tended to be known as an artist who put on a fantastic live show, but could never quite translate the energy and fun of his concerts into compelling studio records.
Will Hoge almost got the dream.
In 2015, the independent Nashville-based recording artist seemed poised to win the country music lottery. He and his band had been picked by a major radio conglomerate as a spotlight artist, to be introduced on a mass scale to radio listeners nationwide. Looking back now, Hoge says the slot was virtually a guarantee of a top 10 record in the country music sphere. “This is exactly what the program is for,” the radio group told him and his band: spotlighting new artists or independent acts and helping them find a home in the infamously commercialized world of country radio.
For Hoge, being picked as a next big thing was the realization of a long-held dream. He’d released his first record—as part of the band Spoonful—in 1997, before going solo with 2001’s Carousel. What followed was a series of well-liked and respected records that melded country, southern rock, and heartland rock into something that sounded like a twangier Springsteen. For 2003’s Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, Hoge got scooped up by Atlantic Records, but the album failed to take off and it was back to the independent musician game after that.
Still, Hoge kept trucking and was eventually rewarded for his persistence. In 2012, Eli Young Band recorded a version of “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” a song from Hoge’s 2009 record The Wreckage. The song was the opening track and second single from Eli Young Band’s Life at Best album, and it ultimately reached number one on the Billboard country chart. Suddenly armed with a number one song to his name, Hoge landed his 2013 track “Strong” in a widely syndicated ad campaign for Chevrolet Silverado. The song charted modestly on country radio, but it was enough to convince Hoge that if he really tried to play the game, he might just be able to make some magic happen.