20 of 2017’s best albums by indie and underground legends
BrooklynVegan's list of our 50 favorite albums of 2017 is
on the way (stay tuned!) HERE, but first we wanted to celebrate how many classic bands/artists returned with a worthy album this year. They don't all necessarily rank among our top 50 for one reason or another (though -- spoiler -- one of them does), but when we've come to love an artist as much as we love the ones on this list, it's worth celebrating the chance to hear anything new that they do. Some of these are comebacks that came 10 or 20 years since the artist last released an album, and others are albums by classic artists who have stayed consistently active and good over the years. It's always a big deal when an artist makes a long-awaited comeback, but consistency should be awarded too, especially because it's so easy to take for granted.
For the purposes of this list, we're defining "classic" as any artist that made an impact before the 21st century. That means this list doesn't touch on the major 2000s indie rock returns of 2017 that included Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade, The National, Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, Feist, Land of Talk, Fleet Foxes, The New Pornographers, Los Campesinos, Spoon, Dirty Projectors, and LCD Soundsystem (some of which you'll also find on our forthcoming year-end list).
What it does include, is long-awaited comebacks from a few artists who helped define such beloved subgenres as shoegaze, dream pop, post-hardcore, emo, noise rock, and G-Funk, plus one surprisingly great album from a guy who used to sing in some band called Led Zeppelin.
Check out our list of 20 (technically 21) albums below, in no particular order. Who do you think we missed?
This was an exciting year for fans of classic UK shoegaze, with Creation Records bands Slowdive and Ride making new records. Unlike Slowdive, who never made a bad record, Ride had a little more baggage to check. While their early EPs and first two albums hold up well today, 1994’s Carnival of Light found the Oxford band diving headfirst awkwardly into Britpop territory, and 1996’s Tarantula was a disaster that was only released for one week before being deleted by their label. (They had broken up shortly before its release.) It was a good sign that when the original lineup of the band reformed for shows in 2015, those last two albums were nowhere to be found on setlists. Then they announced they were working on a new album, with fan Erol Alkan producing and Alan Moulder (who worked on Nowhere and Going Blank Again) mixing. More good signs. Weather Diaries might not be the triumphant return that Slowdive was, but it’s their best record since Going Blank Again by a mile, with more than a few songs -- like the stunning opener “Lannoy Point” -- to justify its existence. [Bill Pearis]
Slowdive are one of 2017’s more unlikely comeback success stories. Never as poppy as Ride, as influential as My Bloody Valentine, or as popular as Lush, Slowdive were the ‘90s shoegazer cult favorites who were never quite as popular as they should’ve/could've been. When they announced they were reforming and playing Primavera Sound 2014 and other dates, it was a rare treat for fans who never got to see them back in the day. Then they announced they were working on new material -- who knew what to think? Even their biggest fans might have been a little taken back by Slowdive which is unlike anything they’ve ever done before yet still sounds like them. It’s also made them more popular now than they were in their original heyday. Deservedly so: it’s a great album, comeback or no. [B.P.]
Jim and William Reid reformed The Jesus and Mary Chain 10 years ago, touring regularly, seemingly happy to be playing the hits (and sometimes full albums) to fans. They finally decided to make a new record, Damage and Joy, which is their first since 1998’s Munki. Working with producer Youth, they picked right back up where they left off. Not that you’d expect them to do anything different. The JAMC have basically been making the same record since “Upside Down” in 1984, mixing girl group melodies with Velvet Underground cool, plus heaping helpings of guitar noise and attitude. So many groups from the last 20 years have stolen from the Reids’ playbook, it’s good to have them back showing folks how it’s really done. [B.P.]
Up until late summer of 2017, Walter Schreifels seemed content to stick to the classics at Quicksand shows, while using his newer bands Vanishing Life and Dead Heavens as outlets to get out new ideas. Lo and behold, he finally changed his mind, and the results are awesome. It's no surprise that Walter could bang out a great album at this point in his career, considering Interiors is his third full length in the span of 12 months, but Interiors stands out amongst his other recent LPs for more than just the name Quicksand. The rhythm section of Sergio Vega and Alan Cage is as crucial to Quicksand's classic sound as Walter's songwriting and soaring voice, and having those guys back in the picture is a big part of what sets this apart from Walter's other recent music. Together, they really know how to deliver the same thick, bassy slabs of post-hardcore that they helped invent two decades ago. And while Interiors is very much a throwback-sounding album, it has a foot in the present too. They recorded it with the modern punk scene's go-to producer, Will Yip (who Walter previously collaborated with when they both worked on Title Fight's Shed), and Yip helps make Quicksand's sound fit in perfectly with the contemporary bands they've influenced. (In case you're unfamiliar, Will Yip has recorded several staples of modern post-hardcore, including the aforementioned Title Fight, Balance & Composure, Superheaven, Citizen, Code Orange, Pianos Become the Teeth, Touche Amore, Turnstile, and Angel Du$t, all of whom surely would cite Quicksand as a huge inspiration.) With Interiors, Quicksand have the power to be one of the key post-hardcore bands of the '90s and the 2010s, and that's no small feat. [Andrew Sacher]
At the Drive In's first album in 17 years had a recipe for failure. It had been years since Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López had written anything remotely close to At the Drive In-style music, and they were going into the album without one of their key members, Jim Ward, whose backing screams were essential to ATDI's classics. Somehow, though, they defied all expectations and wrote an album that totally rips. It basically sounds exactly like ATDI sounded 17 years ago, but that's what you would want from this anyway. If it was going to sound remarkably different, Cedric and Omar could've used the songs in one of their other various projects. It really clicked for me how killer these songs are when I saw ATDI play them live right next to songs from Relationship of Command and they worked perfectly together. "Governed by Contagions" especially feels like an uncovered b-side from Relationship. ATDI's new album also took on a new weight when the song "Incurably Innocent" became inextricably tied to the #MeToo movement. The song was released months before Harvey Weinstein's accusers opened the floodgates, but Cedric revealed later on that the song explicitly references actor and scientologist Danny Masterson, who was pressed with rape charges by Cedric's wife Chrissie Carnell Bixler. The music might sound like 2000, but few songs captured 2017 like this one. [A.S.]
Unlike the 2017 comeback albums that were prompted by reunions, Glassjaw's followup to 2002's Worship & Tribute was more of a Dr. Dre scenario, an album that had been talked about again and again over the years and kept failing to see the light of day. So it was less out of nowhere than other comebacks on this list -- some of these songs had been played live several times and one was released as a single before the album even officially had a name -- but it felt even more unexpected. And not only did Material Control finally close Glassjaw's 15-year gap between proper full-lengths, it proved that they can still crush the way they used to. Material Control is cut from exactly the same cloth as its predecessors, with a complex and powerful rhythm section, a constant juxtaposition of dissonance and consonance, and Daryl Palumbo's unparalleled voice that can still go from a harsh scream to an eccentric wail at the drop of a hat. Glassjaw's early albums spawned many imitators, and Material Control proved that still no one can do it quite like they can. [A.S.]
One of the main conversations that has happened since the indie rock-focused music press caught on to the recent "emo revival" is whether or not some of these bands are really just indie rock bands anyway. That's a redundant conversation for a band like Rainer Maria, who were toeing the line between those genres nearly two decades ago. 1997's Past Worn Searching is a classic of the sound some people call "Midwest emo," but subsequent albums really just sounded like the indie rock of the time. By the time they released their final album before breaking up, 2006's Catastrophe Keeps Us Together, they were basically a power pop band. Fast forward 11 years and Rainer Maria are reunited and finally releasing a new album, but they're refusing to repeat themselves. Some of the band's classic sound remains on S/T, but the followup to Rainer Maria's poppiest album ended up being their heaviest. Songs like "Communicator" and "Possession" are rooted more in the aggressive punk and hardcore you'll read about in Our Band Could Be Your Life than the teenage feelings you'll find in Nothing Feels Good (the book). S/T is the rare reunion album that represents a step forward for the band. Not just a way for longtime fans to revel in nostalgia, S/T could draw in a whole new audience for Rainer Maria. It feels less like a comeback and more like a new beginning. [A.S.]
Sunny Day Real Estate may have written the blueprint for emo as we know it with Diary, but Jeremy Enigk and the rest of the band have sort of stayed out of the emo revival craze that saw tons of '90s emo bands reunite and tons of new '90s-influenced emo bands break through. They reunited before the whole thing took off (in 2009), and now that it has sorta died down, Jeremy came back with his first new album in eight years. It's also quite possibly his best album since the '90s. Of all his solo albums, it's the one that sounds most like SDRE's best album, How It Feels To Be Something On (Diary is their most influential, but How It Feels is their best), and Jeremy's songwriting is more focused than it had been since that album. He's also got a little of Return of the Frog Queen's art folk, a little of the orchestral stuff he experimented with in the mid-2000s; Ghosts is sort of a combination of all the sounds Jeremy has toyed with since SDRE's first breakup, with all possible fat trimmed. It's a solo album, but talented guest musicians are brought in and the whole thing is brilliantly arranged. In many ways, it's the album Sunny Day Real Estate fans have been waiting for. [A.S.]
Leading lights of the ‘80s Los Angeles scene dubbed the paisley underground, The Dream Syndicate were a powerful live band that channelled the Velvet Undergound and Dylan without succumbing to pastiche, thanks in part to killer musicianship, roaring unhinged guitars and frontman Steve Wynn’s magnetic presence. The band broke up in 1989 and Wynn rarely looked back, launching into a solo career as well as other bands such as Gutterball and The Baseball Project. Wynn reformed the band in 2012 and the warm reception and rekindled creative flame led to the band’s first new album in almost 30 years. How Did I Find Myself Here?’s title may wink at his previous don’t-look-back attitude but the 11-minute title track (and other cuts like “Out of My Head” and “The Circles”) show that this is The Dream Syndicate in spark and fury, not just a Steve Wynn record by an old name. While co-founder Kendra Smith (also of Opal who morphed into Mazzy Star when she left the band) did not return to the fold, she did sing lead on the album’s closing track, “Kendra’s Dream,” which marks her first appearance on a Dream Syndicate album in 35 years, and first recorded anything since her 1995 solo album, which makes this record exciting just for that. [B.P.]
My most played album of every year is Mazzy Star’s discography, and I know I'm not alone in my modern day obsession with Hope Sandoval's voice and a band most associated with music that came out in the '90s. Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions records never fully scratch the itch for new Mazzy Star, but they always do a fine enough job of keeping things a little more (calm and) (Colm and) interesting. The most recent and great Warm Inventions full length actually came out at the end of 2016, but 2017 was a year filled with Hope, including the very worthy Son of a Lady EP featuring three unreleased tracks and an especially amazing acoustic version of "Let Me Get There" which doesn't feature Kurt Vile like the album version from last year's Until the Hunter does. Getting Kurt on a Hope album was already such a treat, but getting an amazing stripped down version of the track may have turned out to be even better. 2013 still wins as the year Mazzy Star returned with a new album, but 2017 brought this EP, a tour, Hope performing with Acetone, the new Lana Del Rey album, and more importantly, even more hope for the future. [Dave]
Unlike some of the bands on this list, UK trio Saint Etienne have never gone away, but they definitely work at a leisurely pace, and usually reinvent themselves each time out. In the case of Home Counties, though, Saint Etienne are almost in greatest hits mode, pulling from their indie disco years, as well as the live band vibe of 1997’s In Good Humor, and even their many crate-digging vintage pop compilations. That is not to say Bob, Pete and Sarah are going through the motions. What unifies Home Counties is a concept -- suburban life in the cities just outside London -- and the band’s impeccable taste. [B.P.]
The Feelies have always done it their way, at their own pace. The Hoboken band are known for rarely touring, with what live shows they did play often falling on holidays. With the members of the band more far-flung than ever, any spurt of activity -- be it live dates or recorded work -- seems extra special. Like the Jesus and Mary Chain (elsewhere on this list), Bill Million, Glenn Mercer and the rest of the band have never strayed too far from the post-VU, percussion-crazy, strummy sound heard on their 1980 debut. Luckily it’s also a sound that never really goes out of style and one that they have made their own. Nobody but The Feelies could have made In Between and Million and Mercer’s guitar interplay is one of a kind. May they never stop. [B.P.]
Grandaddy may have been willed back into existence by the state of things in our country (and planet), as their lyrical worldview -- alienation in a world of creeping urban development and technological advances -- feels more of the moment than ever. Sonically it's right back where they were before on Last Place, with its fuzzy guitars, arpeggiating synths and Jason Lytle’s warm, weary vocals sounding like they could’ve been made in 1999. That’s not a bad thing at all -- it’s like finding a forgotten favorite sweater at the bottom of a drawer that still fits and feels great. Sadly, the sudden death of bassist Kevin Garcia just two months after the release of Last Place, derailed Grandaddy’s return. Whether Grandaddy decide to continue on or not, Last Place is a welcome addition to their catalog and a terrific record in its own right. [B.P.]
It's been six years since Sonic Youth broke up, and almost all of those years have given us at least one album by the group's three vocalists. This year we got proper rock-oriented albums from Thurston and Lee (both with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums), and while neither are quite like the real thing, both are pretty damn close. Maybe it's because they meet our expectations but don't exceed them, or maybe it's because they aren't exactly Daydream Nation or even Murray Street, but there are very few Best Albums of 2017 lists that you'll find these albums on. Ours is no exception, but these albums are still worth celebrating because Sonic Youth is one of the most groundbreaking bands in indie rock history and we should treasure the fact that their members are keeping their unparalleled style of music alive. Another thing that's cool about both of these albums, is that both of them come closer to '60s psychedelic rock than Sonic Youth usually do. (I wonder if that was a coincidence or not?) '60s psych has always been in SY's DNA, especially thanks to Lee's Grateful Dead obsession, but these albums really embrace the sounds of that era. Thurston's albums have jammy, real-deal guitar solos that sound like old school acid rock (or Thurston's friend J Mascis), and Lee dives into the dark, trippy songwriting of the psychedelic pop bands from back then. (Lee's album also sounds a bit like R.E.M.) Both are very cool, very impressive takes on a sound that never goes out of style. And PS: Kim Gordon released her most rock-oriented solo single since SY broke up towards the end of 2016. Will we get an album from her in 2018? [A.S.]
Before Which Way Iz West, MC Eiht hadn't released an album since 2006, but the G-Funk veteran reached a new, younger audience in 2012 when Kendrick Lamar featured him on the song "m.A.A.d city." For anyone who hadn't listened to Compton's Most Wanted or seen Menace II Society, Kendrick put his West Coast rap forefather back on the map, and surely is responsible for creating some hype for Which Way Iz West. And whether or not you're coming to this album as a longtime fan or a newcomer, it acts as a very effective time machine back to the G-Funk era. It was executive produced by East Coast rap legend DJ Premier, but otherwise most of the guests ran in the same West Coast rap circles as Eiht back in the day. He brings in other artists who helped define the G-Funk sound like WC and Kurupt, other West Coast vets like Xzbit and Cypress Hill's B-Real, and members of the bi-coastal group Outlawz, who were once led by the late legend Tupac. He reunited with his former Compton’s Most Wanted groupmates Tha Chill and Boom Bam on "Last Ones Left." And one of the album's best verses comes from former Death Row rapper The Lady of Rage, who lives up to her name in 2017 as much as she did on The Chronic and Doggystyle. Everyone might be a good 25 years older, but for the most part, Which Way Iz West holds its own next to any handful of G-Funk classics. Eiht picked a good time to bring this sound back, too. In addition to Kendrick shining a light on classic West Coast rap, there's been a G-Funk revival bubbling up with YG, Kamaiyah, and G Perico. If you've been digging those rappers lately, you might wanna throw Which Way Iz West in your rotation too. [A.S.]
Compton rap legend DJ Quik has already been having a better 2010s than most of his peers from back in the day. His 2011 comeback album The Book of David and its 2014 followup The Midnight Life were both widely acclaimed, and he kept the momentum going with last year's Rosecrans EP, a collaboration with newer Compton rapper Problem. Quik's experience and Problem's fresh hunger met in the middle, and they came out with a retro-futuristic Compton rap record that rivals likeminded albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city and Compton. This year, Quik and Problem expanded the Rosecrans EP into a full length, and the new version is even better. The added songs fit in perfectly with the ones from the EP, and the whole thing is both musically and lyrically a love letter to DJ Quik's city. You can feel the warm LA air on Rosecrans the same way you can feel the New York smog on Illmatic. Rosecrans is also notable because it acts as the official end of DJ Quik's storied feud with fellow Compton vet MC Eiht (whose own comeback album is also on this list). The two made up years ago, but they collaborate on two songs on Rosecrans, their first post-feud collaborations. On "Central Ave," they come together to show love for their city and for each other. And on "Funny How Niggas Gon Change Things," they dedicate the album to everyone who died on Rosecrans, the "long ass avenue that goes from the beach to the streets" (as DJ Quik puts it on the title track) that gives this album its name. The hook is "I just wanna change things around here," and there's a lot of wisdom in that coming from two neighbors who spent the bulk of their careers fighting each other. [A.S.]
Peter Perrett fronted The Only Ones, whose 1978 single “Another Girl, Another Planet” remains one of the great songs from the late ’70s new wave era. Apart from his shortlived ’90s band The One, and the occasional Only Ones reunions, Perrett had been dormant musically, but came back this year with his first-ever solo album, An Epic Story. Charting his romance and life with his wife Zena (whom he married in 1970 at age 18), it really is an epic story that's all the more personal as he made it with his two sons. While this is completely different musical territory -- there’s a loungey, spaghetti western vibe going on here -- his instantly recognizable vocals remain in fine shape, and this is clearly a work that Perrett needed to make creatively, which is always more appealing than if we’d gotten something more like “Yet Another Girl, Yet Another Planet." Catch him on a tour of North America in 2018. [B.P.]
Robyn Hitchcock has been making records and touring them for 40 years now, and doing so with such consistency, he is easy to take for granted. At 63, Robyn released his 21st album, which is another great example of his skills as a guitar player, melodicist, and wit. Lyrically, Robyn has grown less obtuse over the years, as he makes clear with the opening track, “I Want to Tell You About What I Want.” Still, you can’t take the Syd Barrett fan out of him, but psychedelics are now flourish rather than the whole point. Robyn Hitchcock also makes a pretty good entry point for the uninitiated to his wonderful, colorful catalog. [B.P.]
There is nobody else like Sparks. Lifelong weirdo geniuses, Ron and Russell Mael couldn’t be normal if they tried, though they have honed their style into an instantly recognizable glam/cabaret/disco sound. At 72 and 69 respectively, Ron and Russell sound as sprightly, whimsical and witty as ever on Hippopatamus and the record delivers at least three instant-classics (“Edith Piaf Said it Better Than Me,” “What The Hell is It This Time,” and “I Wish You Were Fun”). What they do may not be for everyone but any new record from Sparks is a gift that should be welcomed into the world. Thank you for continuing to exist and be awesome (joyous live show included). [B.P.]
It would be totally reasonable to assume that all the Robert Plant you need in your life is the Led Zeppelin discography, but if you haven't heard Carry Fire, you might rethink that assumption. Plant has put out some questionable stuff over the years, but he's been on a roll lately with his current backing band The Sensational Space Shifters (featuring members of his Strange Sensation band, including Portishead and Massive Attack associates John Baggott and Billy Fuller), who truly breathe new life into his sound. They released the very solid Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar and its followup, Carry Fire, might be even better. Plant dives head-first into psychedelic folk, African rhythms, and Eastern melodies -- sounds that surfaced in his Zeppelin days but never got explored as deeply as Plant is exploring them now.
Some might argue against Robert Plant’s inclusion on a list of “underground legends,” but no amount of radio play of “Stairway to Heaven” can change the fact that Led Zeppelin rose out of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Plant’s impact on underground music is also undeniable (his music has been covered by The Flaming Lips, Henry Rollins, Phish, Nirvana, Karen O, and tons of others including probably every stoner metal band), and he’s been sort of retreating back to “indie” lately, so to speak. It’s pretty damn indie to continue to play small theaters when all you have to do is reunite with two other guys to guarantee sold out stadiums everywhere, and it feels like he’s making an intentional statement by signing to Nonesuch Records and working with associates of Portishead and Massive Attack. Not to mention, the vibe of Carry Fire actually sounds pretty good next to modern indie. If you’re into stuff like Fleet Foxes, Angel Olsen, and Joanna Newsom, you might really dig this. [A.S.]