2017: Apocalypse Wow

by Jason Warburg

In my little corner of the world, 2017 was a good year, with welcome moments of personal joy and accomplishment arriving right alongside the tougher stuff. Out in the world, 2017 had an almost apocalyptic feel at times—and then there was the smoldering debris of the music industry, which left me puzzled as to how to even approach putting this list together. For example: what does it even mean to be an “indie” act in an era when labels are dying on the vine and bands with multiple chart hits on their resumes are funding their albums on PledgeMusic? My favorite prog album of the year was from an independent band, but they’ve been indie for 20 years and eight increasingly successful studio albums, and their newest album charted in the UK. Meanwhile, one of my most-listened-to albums of the year was the aforementioned PledgeMusic release, from the multiple-charting act Fastball. It’s a muddle, but in the end I just did what I’ve always done: make it up as I go.


Late To The Party *Again* Award

Leon Bridges – Coming Home

It happens every year like clockwork—I catch up to an album a year (or two or three) late that everyone else discovered much sooner. This year the big winner in this category was Leon Bridges’ brilliant debut, a time-warping sunburst of early ’60s soul and r&b that’s authentically vintage in every sense except the often penetrating relevance of its lyrics.

Honorable Mention: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth


Live And Kicking Award

Gary Clark Jr. – Live In North America 2016

Seeing the phenomenally talented Clark live is on my bucket list; until then, this tasty slab of recent concert work will have to do, focusing on newer tunes from his superb 2015 studio disc The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim. The man can shred like Jimi, falsetto like Smokey, and write a rumbly back-porch blues that feels like lost Robert Johnson. The cherry on top comes when the aforementioned Leon Bridges guests on a fiery rendition of “Shake.”


Very Good Things In Even Better Packages Award

Dan Wilson – Re-Covered

Fifteen years after the terrific Semisonic went on extended hiatus, frontman and ace songwriter-for-hire Dan Wilson reviews his path since, covering songs he helped write for other artists. As good as the tunes and performances are, though, the packaging of the deluxe edition of this album was genuinely standard-setting, a hardbound book with lyrics and backstories about each song, illustrated by the multi-talented Wilson himself.


Tonic For The Times Award

Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors – Souvenir

“You’ve gotta fight for love / Fight for what you’re dreamin’ of” declares Americana singer-songwriter Drew Holcomb on an album that feels like a gentle, steadfast reply to the madness that seemed to overtake the nation last November. While it has somber moments, Holcomb’s eighth studio album is dominated by a sense of dogged optimism and belief that love will indeed win out in the end. I hope he’s right—and sometimes hope is enough to get you through the day.


Finishing Strong Award

Ronnie Montrose – 10 X 10

When Ronnie Montrose died in 2012, he’d been working on this project for years, a return to his hard rock roots featuring an all-star cast of guest vocalists atop 10 backing tracks he’d cut with bassist Ricky Phillips (Styx, The Babys) and drummer Eric Singer (KISS). After his death, and with his widow Leighsa’s blessing, Phillips picked up the reins and finished the project, recruiting the last few vocalists and a series of guest guitarists to add the solos Ronnie never completed. The end result is surprisingly cohesive, a powerful final statement from one of American hard rock’s original guitar heroes.


All That Jazz Award

Sammy Miller And The Congregation - Sammy Miller And The Congregation

My favorite kind of “best of” award is the one that goes to an act I’d never even heard of when the year began. But after catching Sammy and band playing live early in the year, I joined the small-c congregation, picked up this terrific debut, and caught their raucous, endlessly energetic live show a second time at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September. “We play joyful jazz,” declares their website, “music that feels good. It is a style that entertains, enriches, but most of all uplifts.” I can testify to that.

Honorable Mention: Wynton Kelly Trio / Wes Montgomerey – Smokin’ In Seattle: Live At The Penthouse (1966)


Earworm Central Award

Fastball – Step Into Light

PledgeMusic is not where I expected to find my most-listened-to album of the year, but such is the state of the music “industry” today. Power-pop trio Fastball returned in 2017 without a label, but with what just might be the best album of their career, brimming with irresistible hooks, snappy turns of phrase, and singalong choruses. Step Into Light is indeed “a terrifically appealing blast of tight, buoyant guitar-pop enriched by the group’s characteristic intelligence and wit.”


Prog Album of the Year

Big Big Train – Grimspound

It’s another year, another spectacular album from this remarkable eight-person prog collective, seamlessly melding pastoral folk, rippling classic prog, and limber post-rock. Grimspound—the first of two full-length releases the band surprised fans with in 2017—is another winning collection of songs about “science and art, beauty and music, friendship and love,” a sort of extended ode to The Enlightenment that ranges from the gentle, lyrical, concise “Meadowlands” to the muscular multi-part epic “A Mead Hall In Winter.”


Indie Album Of The Year

Pete Mancini – Foothill Freeway

Butchers Blind frontman Mancini stepped out this year for his first solo album, leaning more to the country-folk side of the musical space he occupies, which he calls “American music”: a rich mélange of country, folk, blues and rock. What really makes this a singer-songwriter album, though, is the quality of the songs, a cinemascope series of vignettes of modern America through the eyes of a sharply observant writer who simultaneously loves his country and fears for its soul.


Major Label Album Of The Year

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

Can an album feel grounded and humble, yet also epic and huge? It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but Jason Isbell strides across that chasm likes he’s ambling down the sidewalk without a care in the world, a singer-songwriter whose natural swagger comes not from bravado but from the bracing honesty of the tunes he crafts. In a musical year that felt dominated by Americana, The Nashville Sound stood out for the sheer quality of its songs; there simply isn’t a weak link among this album’s ten superb tracks.

Honorable Mention

David Corley – Zero Moon
“[T]hink Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen backed by Van Morrison’s band circa Tupelo Honey, loose-limbed, confident tunes that surge and sway and ramble and rumble.”

D.B. Rielly – Live From Long Island City
A concise showcase for talented songsmith Rielly’s craft: it’s just his voice, his guitar, and a handful of songs that range from lyrical to laugh-out-loud funny to devastatingly poignant.

The Americans - I'll Be Yours
Vintage early-rock sounds frame modern, gripping songs sung with purpose and fire on this very strong debut.

Elbow – Little Fictions
As its title implies, Little Fictions is an album of small moments rather than grand gestures, a series of “songs that unfold like flowers blooming in slow motion.” The word I keep coming back to is “lovely.”

Robert Hunter – Afterglow (EP)
Proving once again the importance of investing yourself 100 percent in the words you’re singing, Afterglow makes it here on the strength of its honesty, authenticity, and raw emotion.

Josh Doyle - Modern Times (Wave One EP)
“[S]urging, tidal, Celtic folk-rock, with strains of Van Morrison, Jeff Buckley, David Gray and Glen Hansard leeching in, his urgent, intense vocals framed only by acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and violin.”

Disappointment Of The Year

Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic
A really frustrating listen: “brooding, synthesizer-heavy electro-pop cut loose from every musical element of The Spirit Room that appealed to this listener, other than Branch’s voice and words.”

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