LISTEN TO TONAL RANGER RADIO EVERY FRIDAY FROM 4:20 TO 5 P.M., MST, ON KNCE 93.5 FM, TO HEAR SONGS FROM THE ALBUMS REVIEWED IN THIS SPACE, AND SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING NEW MUSIC (AND SOME OLD FAVORITES).
Editor’s Note: I’m just one guy who listens to a lot of music. I missed out on some really great music and some terrific albums throughout the year, but these are albums I was able to spend time with that really spoke to me and stuck with me throughout the year.
Look for a new format for album reviews in 2018 as the Tonal Ranger Quarterly Reviews will appear four times a year, beginning in March.
Top 50 Albums
No. 50 (tie) — Little Star, by Little Star (Good Cheer Records) — Quirky indie rock the way it’s done right: quirkily.
No. 50 (tie) — Whiteout Conditions, by New Pornographers (Collected Works Records) — Not the Canadian super group’s best album, but still pretty good.
No. 49 — Not Even Happiness, by Julie Byrne (Ba Da Bing!) — Beautiful, calming, succinct.
No. 48 — I’m Not Your Man, by Marika Hackman (Sub Pop) — Swagger: It’s not just for silly boys, y’all.
No. 45 (tie) — Gathering, by Josh Ritter (Pytheas/ Thirty Tigers) — Another fine collection of songs from the King of Idaho.
No. 45 (tie) — Yours Conditionally, by Tennis (Mutually Detrimental/ Thirty Tigers) — Denver duo keeps making catchy music.
No. 44 — Weather Diaries, by Ride (Wichita Recordings) — Shoegaze rides again!
No. 43 — Hang, by Foxygen (Jagjaguwar) — A step back in the right direction.
No. 42 — The Hiding, by Kacey Johansing (Night Bloom) — Nails that ‘70s sound.
No. 38 (tie) — The Wave, by Los Colognes (Thirty Tigers) — Pretty smooth stuff, but hey, the guitars sound so good.
No. 38 (tie) — You’re Not As ____ As You Think, by Sorority Noise (Triple Crown Records) — Hartford, Connecticut’s finest purveyors of pop punk.
No. 38 (tie) — II, by The Courtneys (Flying Nun Records) — Catchy Canadians but only one Courtney.
No. 38 (tie) — Out in the Storm, by Waxahatchee (Merge) — Second-best album about a breakup by a Crutchfield sister.
No. 37 — Drunk, by Thundercat (Brainfeeder) — What a delightful, zany and insightful record.
No. 35 (tie) — Capacity, by Big Thief (Saddle Creek) — Big hooks, beautiful sounds.
No. 35 (tie) — Heartworms, by The Shins (Apothecary/ Columbia) — Maybe they aren’t changing lives anymore, but they’re still pretty good.
No. 32 (tie) — Soft Sounds from Another Planet, by Japanese Breakfast (Dead Oceans) — Some soft sounds, some more abrasive, all mostly from Earth, but all mostly great.
No. 32 (tie) — City Music, by Kevin Morby (Dead Oceans) — “Oh, that City Music, Oh, that City Sound”
No. 32 (tie) — Oczy Mlody, by Flaming Lips (Warner Brothers) — Say what you want, they’re still geniuses in the studio.
No. 31 — Ctrl, by SZA (Top Dawg/ RCA) — One of the best debuts of the year.
No. 29 (tie) — Sunbelt Emptiness, by Pollen Rx (Austin Town Hall Records) — Big-hook rock ‘n’ roll that won’t make you sneeze.
No. 29 (tie) — Party, by Aldous Harding (4AD) — New Zealand singer/songwriter with unique delivery, I’m with me so far.
No. 28 — Tourist in This Town, by Allison Crutchfield (Merge) — Best album about a breakup from a Crutchfield sister, but narrowly.
No. 27 — A Crow Looked at Me, by Mount Eerie (P.W. Elverum & Sun) — Phil Elverum’s devastatingly honest document of grief.
Top 25 Albums of 2017
No. 25 (tie) — Losing, by Bully (Sub Pop)
Alicia Bognanno, guitarist, singer and songwriter for Nashville’s Bully is a studio wiz full of modern-day grunge rock anger and heroics. With lyrics that match her defiant scream, Bully’s sophomore effort builds on the potential and successes of 2015’s Feels Like. That this band hails from Nashville is a testament to the city’s growing status as not just a country and western town.
No. 25 (tie) — Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, by Open Mike Eagle (Mello Music Group)
I’ve been an Open Mike Eagle fan since I first heard his 2014 album Dark Comedy. Last year’s collaboration with English producer Paul White, Hella Personal Film Festival, only solidified my appreciation for Eagle’s poetic word-play and quirky observations. While those albums were lyrical wonders, packed with whimsy and social commentary, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is Eagle’s most cohesive, and best, work to date.
No. 24 — Best Troubador, by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Drag City)
The weirdest kid from Kentucky, BPB’s Will Oldham, covering his favorite songs from the legendary Merle Haggard? Sounds great on paper, and on album. Best Troubador stays clear of Haggard hits “Okie from Muskogee” and “Mama Tried” as Oldham dives into some deep cuts, obviously songs that are near and dear to the performer. This approach makes for one of the most compelling and enjoyable tribute albums in some time. (Full Review)
No. 22 (tie) — Lotta Sea Lice, by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile (Matador)
He’s a righty, she’s a lefty … he’s a boy, she’s a girl … northern hemisphere vs. southern hemisphere? Whatever the angle, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile are two of my favorite artists. Each is unique in their approaches to guitar and their respective abilities to make mundane everyday phrases sound hilarious, and/or profound. Lotta Sea Lice is brilliant at times (“Over Everything,” “Continental Breakfast”), and average at its worst (“Let It Go,” “Fear Is Like A Forest”). With several songs focusing on the actual process of making music, and traveling the world, it seems Courtney and Kurt have more in common than not.
No. 22 (tie) — Life Without Sound, by Cloud Nothings (Carpark Records)
Dylan Baldi returns with the band’s fourth full-length, a more mature, and polished effort that strives for the punk/pop balance of great predecessors like The Clash. Excellent production from John Goodmanson and an exposed vulnerability in Baldi’s writing are nice new wrinkles in the Cloud Nothings sound as is new guitar player Chris Brown. TJ Duke and Jayson Gerycz still make a tight rhythm section and of course, Baldi shreds with his guitar and his voice. (Full Review)
No. 21 — Plastic Cough, by Great Grandpa (Double Double Whammy)
OK, OK, I admit it: I love ’90s rock. But not Creed or any of that other stuff. I mainly love the stuff I wasn’t cool enough to love at the time, Pavement, Sonic Youth, etc. I did love early Weezer, who Great Grandpa emulates at times, but who didn’t? This Seattle band loves melody and big guitar rock sounds. What a coincidence, so do I? It’s a ballad, “All Things Must Behave,” though that is the album’s centerpiece.
No. 19 (tie) — Somersault, by Beach Fossils (Bayonet)
Beach Fossil’s third album is a layered, shimmering and jingly slice of relaxed new-shoegaze. Recalling bands like Real Estate and Wild Nothing, Somersault turns over (see what I did there?) hook after hook, all with a relaxed vibe that keeps things from ever being overstimulating. (Full Review)
No. 19 (tie) — Big Bad Luv, by John Moreland (4AD)
Moreland, a 32-year-old songwriter from Oklahoma, just doesn’t get the respect he deserves. With songs full of tension and heartbreak, Big Bad Luv was one of the most underrated releases of 2017. A songwriter’s songwriter, Moreland populates his songs with double meanings and open endings, leaving the listener to fill in the blanks. Sometimes it is even difficult to discern whether a song like “Lies I Chose To Believe” is an ode to a love lost, or a political statement. That’s good songwriting. (Full Review)
No. 16 (tie) — Cost of Living, by Downtown Boys (Sub Pop)
The follow-up to Downtown Boys’ brilliant 2015 album, Full Communism, Cost of Living picks up where Victoria Ruiz and company left off, with a whole lot of politically charged punk, bilingual rage and saxophone … yes, saxophone. The lyrics were all written prior to the Trump administration coming into the White House, but that doesn’t mean standout track “A Wall” isn’t any less relevant. It’s also one of the best songs of the year.
No. 16 (tie) — Goths, by The Mountain Goats (Merge)
No one takes the concept album as seriously as John Darnielle, and here he has directed his most legitimate songwriting skills at the age of the goth, the all-black clad, eyeliner wearing, emotive subculture that included some really good music (The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, et. al) and some interesting fashion choices. The age of the goth is (mostly) done, and this album catalogs, but does not necessarily celebrate. As Darnielle admits, he’s hardcore, but he’s not that hardcore. (Full Review)
New music from Jason Lytle is always a reason to celebrate, especially when that music marks the first album from his band Grandaddy in more than a decade. Sadly, the subsequent tour and victory lap was cut short when the band’s bass player, Kevin Garcia, died from the effects of a stroke. It’s probably now the true swan song from the scrappy underdogs from Modesto, but a fine swan song at that, with some of the best music of the year. (Full Review)
No. 14 (tie) — Pure Comedy, by Father John Misty (Sub Pop)
On his third album in character as the snarky, sarcastic Father John Misty, Joshua Tillman starts to bring down the curtain between himself and his pseudonym, or does he? It’s hard to tell if Father John Misty has taken a more earnest approach because that’s where the character is in the development of this thing, or because Tillman is too tired to keep up the charade. The results are brilliant at times, and only less so at others. (Full Review)
No. 14 (tie) — Masseduction, by St. Vincent (Loma Vista Recordings)
Artsy pop-rock in the vein of Bowie and Prince lives, and its name is St. Vincent. Since her early career as a guitarist touring with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, Annie Clark has cultivated one of the most successful and endearing personas in modern music, while also creating some devastatingly good music over the course of five albums and one excellent collaboration with David Byrne. Masseduction is a fine next step for Clark, a bit more polished than its predecessors but still just as lyrically quirky and musically ambitious as ever. “New York” is one the year’s best ballads.
No. 9 (tie) — Thawing Dawn, by A. Savage (Dull Tools)
Atop a great big log jam at No. 9 on this year’s list is A. Savage — Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts — with his first solo album. As a big fan of Parquet Courts, and also of the legendary Texas singer/songwriters — folks like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt — who helped inform and inspire Savage in some way, it’s only natural that I like this album more than most. Savage still has a great knack for lyrics and rhythm, and songs like “Buffalo Calf Road,” “Indian Style,” and the title track are some of Savage’s best songs.
No. 9 (tie) — Ghost on the Car Radio, by Slaid Cleaves (Proper Records)
Cleaves taps into the resentment, struggles and issues of class that are visible in every issue and action in American life today, especially those that affect rural Americans. Ya know, the disenchantment and isolation that quite possibly led to the results of the 2016 presidential election. Some of these characters find the silver lining, and others wind up filling the juke box full of quarters and sad songs. (Full Review)
No. 9 (tie) — This Tall To Ride, by Robyn Ludwick (Late Show Records)
A refined set of songs from the talented Ludwick, who is no stranger to Taos stages. The Music on the Mesa alum revels in a healthy dose of Texas Country while also drawing on soul, country-punk, blues and rock influences. Ludwick creates great character songs with catchy choruses. It’s a dangerous and delightful combination. (Full Review)
No. 9 (tie) — Life & Livin’ It, by Sinkane (City Slang)
Sudanese-born singer/songwriter Ahmed Gallab, who performs as Sinkane, brings us an album’s worth of songs that feel universally celebratory; a challenging feat in these polarizing times. Sinkane mixes Afrobeat with Motown, reggae, bossa nova and indie rock. Life & Livin’ It proves that the combination of rhythm and melody still has great power. (Full Review)
No. 9 (tie) — Furnace, by Dead Man Winter (Thirty Tigers)
Trampled By Turtles frontman David Simonett turns in a roller coaster of an album documenting his own divorce, following in the footsteps of at least one other great Minnesotan who did the same. While Furnace isn’t necessarily on the same level as Blood on the Tracks, it is an honest collection of reflective, yet ultimately uplifting, songs from a gifted songwriter doing what a gifted songwriter does best (write what you know). (Full Review)
No. 8 — Crack-Up, by Fleet Foxes (Nonesuch)
This album is so achingly beautiful, strange and at times confounding, that is difficult to really classify it as folk rock. A landscape of beautiful imagery and soaring vocals, sparse instrumentation and stop-start song suites, Crack-Up is more of a collection of movements than an album of songs; more classical in scope than its popular music trappings might lead you to expect. Sonically captivating, Crack-Up is more challenging than the band’s earlier work, but it’s one of the more ambitious and rewarding albums of the year.
No. 5 (tie) — Hot Thoughts, by Spoon (Matador)
Another solid effort from Britt Daniel and company, as Spoon’s 9th album continues to build on the band’s reputation for making cool, timeless music. Produced by Dave Fridmann, Hot Thoughts might be a little more high-concept than some of the band’s previous albums, but it’s still got that great Spoon sound, and while Daniel claims “Tear It Down” is a song about empathy, the line “let them build a wall around us, I’ll tear it down,” rings as pure as anything else we heard in 2017. (Full Review)
No. 5 (tie) — The Nashville Sound, by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Southeastern Records)
Another characteristically top-notch collection of songs from Isbell, who continues to make it look like all you need to do to write great songs is have your shit together and have a good work ethic. Well, that hasn’t hurt Isbell, but you got to admit the guy has some serious talent as well. Heartland heroes, and goats, populate Isbell’s most politically charged album, while the music of the 400 Unit has never been more focused and driving. (Full Review)
For his third solo album, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn takes us on a character-driven exploration of the human condition, on a person-to-person basis. These are some of Finn’s best characters and best stories in years, and he has found a way to truly separate his solo work from that of his more famous band. (Full Review)
No. 4 — Damn, by Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records)
Kendrick strikes again with his follow-up to 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” This time around, some of the jazz flourishes are replaced by smooth beats and soul cameos from Rihanna (“Loyalty”), Zacari (hit single “Love”), and the surprisingly effective U2 (“XXX”). As lyrically dense as ever, Lamar touches on a wide range of topics, including the 2016 presidential election (in the middle of “Lust,” a song that is otherwise about sex), and apprehension about who is handling his finances (“Fear”). Wherever Lamar’s tangents go, he seemingly has a knack for taking us on an ever-reaching, thought provoking and sonically stimulating journey.
No. 3 — Memories Are Now, by Jesca Hoop (Sub Pop)
Timeless songwriting, and unique phrasing and delivery — these are the tools employed by Hoop on her fifth full-length album. Hoop uses humor, intelligence and melody to create another world, whether it’s an affirmation of independence or fantastical sweetness. Other arrows in Hoops quill include a keen sense of observation, the ability to deal a deadly line, a powerful and well-trained voice, and a percussive sense of timing on guitar. (Full Review)
No. 2 — Need To Feel Your Love, by SHEER Mag (Wilsuns Recording Company)
Classic rock riffs, soulful vocals, funk guitar fills, loads of reverb and a simultaneous punk rock and lo-fi ethos make Need To Feel Your Love one of the year’s best albums. Vocalist Tina Halladay packs a wallop while Kyle Seely does his best imitation of a modern-day rock guitar here (which is exactly what the world needs now). Rhythm guitarist Matt Palmer is the primary lyricist and he mixes it up as well, with kick-ass love songs, power ballads and political anthems. (Full Review)
No. 1 — A Deeper Understanding, by The War on Drugs (Atlantic)
Adam Granduciel and company deliver another grand collection of atmospheric ’70s- and ’80s-inspired rock ‘n’ roll. The band’s first since its outstanding 2014 breakthrough Lost In The Dream, and the first on major label Atlantic, A Deeper Understanding is perhaps a bit more subtle in its charms than its predecessor. Keep listening though, and you’ll be relieved to know that the band managed to catch lightning in a bottle one more time. (Full Review)
50 albums I wish I’d had more time with:
All American Made, by Margo Price (Third Man Records)
Any Other Way, by Jackie Shane (The Numero Group)
Aromanticism, by Moses Sumney (Jagjaguwar)
Beast Epic, by Iron & Wine (Sub Pop)
Bedouine, by Bedouine (Spacebomb Records)
Big Fish Theory, by Vince Staples (ARTium Recordings/ Blacksmith Records/ Def Jam Recordings)
Boy Crazy and Single(s), by Lydia Loveless (Bloodshot Records)
Changer, by Fred Thomas (Polyvinyl)
Close Ties, by Rodney Crowell (New West Records)
Everybody Works, by Jay Som (Double Denim Records/ Polyvinyl Record Co.)
From A Room, Vol 1, by Chris Stapleton (Mercury)
Hallelujah Anyhow, by Hiss Golden Messenger (Merge)
Halo, by Juana Molina (Crammed Discs)
If All I Was Was Black, by Mavis Staples (Anti-)
Imaginary Enemies, by Hiccup (Father/Daughter Records)
Infinite Worlds, by Vagabon (Father/Daughter Records)
INHEAVEN, by INHEAVEN (PIAS)
Joan Shelley, by Joan Shelley (No Quarter)
Kinder Versions, by Mammút (Bella Union)
Light Information, by Chad Vangaalen (Sub Pop)
Love What Survives, by Mount Kimbie (Warp)
Milano, by Daniele Luppi and Parquet Courts (30th Century Records/ Columbia)
Mountain Moves, by Deerhoof (Joyful Noise Recordings)
Multi-task, by Omni (Trouble in Mind)
No Shape, by Perfume Genius (Matador)
Outside (Briefly), by Froth (Wichita Recordings)
Painted Ruins, by Grizzly Bear (RCA)
Paradise, by Jenn Grant (Ba Da Bing! Records)
Phases, by Angel Olsen (Jagjaguwar)
Powerplant, by Girlpool (Anti-)
Relatives in Descent, by Protomartyr (Domino Recording Company)
Rocket, by (Sandy) Alex G (Domino Recording Company)
RTJ3, by Run the Jewels (Run the Jewels, Inc.)
She-Devils, by She-Devils (Secretly Canadian)
Sincerely, by Dude York (Hardly Art)
Slowdive, by Slowdive (Dead Oceans)
Sorry Is Gone, by Jessica Lea Mayfield (ATO)
Sudan Archives, by Sudan Archives (Stones Throw)
Tell The Devil I’m Getting There As I Can, by Ray Wylie Hubbard (Bordellow Records)
The French Press, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (Sub Pop)
This Old Dog, by Mac DeMarco (Captured Tracks)
The Navigator, by Hurrary for the Riff Raff (ATO)
The OOZ, by King Krule (True Panther Sounds)
The Weather Station, by The Weather Station (Paradise of Bachelors)
Three Futures, by Torres (4AD)
Turn Out the Lights, by Julien Baker (Beggars)
Utopia, by Björk (One Little Indian Records)
Uyai, by Ibibio Sound Machine (Merge)
Visuals, by Mew (PIAS)
Watercolor, by Porter Ray (Sub Pop)