2017: Where's The Rock?

by Benjamin Ray

If the Grammy nominations for 2018 showed anything, it’s that rock and roll is definitely no longer a cultural force. And many of the big-name releases of 2017, as well as many on other critics’ Best Of lists, were in the hip-hop, R&B and pop genres. Where in 2016 rock artists stepped up to take on Trump and the election year, in 2017 they have largely fallen by the wayside, choosing instead to go disco (in one of the most depressing trends of the year), or soldier on as if nothing had happened. However, the better rock albums used the turmoil in America to admit that there are no easy answers but that we need to try something, and this list will look at 10 of the better rock releases of the year, as well as my usual callout of standout individual songs and disappointing albums.

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10. Depeche Mode – Spirit

Okay, so this one is political, and not afraid to pull punches, but rather than call out specific political targets, Dave Gahan and the guys call out all of us. Do you watch as your neighbors and Facebook commenters and co-workers spout racist or half-formed opinions? Are your total concerns for life getting dinner and watching NCIS without a thought of your fellow man? Then you’re part of the problem, as am I, as are many of us. There are no easy answers, but we have to at least try, and that’s where Spirit ends up. It may not be DM’s best musically, but it’s one of their most cutting lyrically.

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9. Cloud Nothings - Life Without Sound

Remember that moment when you hit 25 and started to think about the future? These guys do, and they capture it nicely on their fifth album. Sonically, the disc is an outgrowth of late-90s rock and early-00s indie and is the band’s best work to date, omitting some of the unnecessary anger of the last few records for something more thought-provoking.

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8. Minus the Bear - Voids

A hook-filled indie-arena-rock record, veering from hard rock to pop-rock to dream pop with ease and confidence. Yet the best part is that the majority of the songs never settle, outside of the ballads; there’s an edge pulsing through the album of uneasy maturity. Voids doesn’t take the easy way out, and it’s a better album for it.

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7. The War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

Grand and ambitious, the perfect follow-up to Lost in the Dream, the War on Drugs made their major-label debut by not really changing their approach. The gist of the music is to take one or two melodies/fragments of heartland rock and settle into a groove for several minutes, opting for stream-of-consciousness sound (like Dylan or Springsteen) while sounding like Tom Petty. The production fleshes out the tracks with personality, though, making each one a little world unto itself.

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6. Black Angels - Death Song

Pulling off a hypnotic drone in rock is tricky, of the type that Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Iron Butterfly used to do, but the Black Angels learned from the best and released their own voyage of the damned. The disc is of a piece and is not to be listened to when you’re in a good mood, but neither is it depressing, staying instead confident and hypnotic (as on “Comanche Moon”).

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5. Once & Future Band - Once & Future Band

Retro-sounding acts, as noted above, tend to wind up as a game as you play “spot the influence” instead of enjoy the music. OFB subverts this by leaning into their influences and modernizing them. You can easily tell they listened to ELO, Chicago, Pet Sounds, Queen, Yes and the Alan Parsons Project right before recording this dense, sprawling disc, but the joy is in how they recontextualize these influences. The single “How Does It Make You Feel” is the best example of this, but “Magnetic Memory” and “Standing in the Wake of Violence” are quite good as well, the latter featuring a cool bassline and a prog-rock closing section. If you like ‘70s AM rock at all, check this one out.

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4. Queens Of The Stone Age - Villians

Queens go dance-rock? That was the gist of the early-album discussion, but the truth is that pop is only one element of this detailed, hooky and fun record. Cleaning up the haze of previous QOTSA outings, Josh Homme plasters guitars and stomping beats all over this one; Villians is best when it takes the standard sound in a new direction, rather than re-creating the past, as on “The Evil Has Landed.” The more you listen, the more you enjoy it.

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3. Spoon - Hot Thoughts

A smart, economical record with plenty of hooks and a restless, introverted spirit. And if that sounds like every Spoon record before it, the jazz-trance of “Pink Up” and driving, electronic title track are definitely of the moment, while “I Ain’t the One” recalls mid-period Radiohead and “Shotgun” pulses with an insidious beat. Quietly, Spoon made one of the best indie-rock records of the year.

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2. Tera Melos - Trash Generator

One of the most fun math-rock records you’ll ever hear, the disc is a 12-song 41-minute romp that packs a lot into its short songs. The guys are smart, ferocious and clearly having a blast, free from the constraints of what their newest record should sound like. If alt-math-punk sounds good to you, of the type that both Robert Fripp and Thurston Moore might enjoy, then check out “Don’t Say I Know” and “System Preferences.”

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1. Foo Fighters - Concrete & Gold

It’s pretty much a given that a Foo Fighters record will be a good thing, but the band started to sound a bit stale on Sonic Highways, failing to follow through on the conceit of recording a different song in a different musical city. Fortunately, they roared back with this disc, which got the expected airplay and Grammy noms and SNL appearances and which represents their best work since 2011.


OTHER NOTABLE ALBUMS

U2 - Songs Of Experience: The companion piece to Songs of Innocence is an unfortunate misstep lyrically and musically, trading in lightweight themes of love and light that should have hit harder, given the whole reason for this album’s delay was to rework it based on the Trump/Brexit twin peaks. The songs try too hard to be hits (RefuJesus!), the Edge is reduced to background noise or processed effects, Bono experiments with voice modulation (no!), and the quartet seems to have lost the grandiosity of their best work. Still, it’s U2, whose missteps and lesser entries are compelling and melodic, but it’s the first disc of theirs I haven’t felt the need to purchase in a long time.

Noel Gallagher - Who Built The Moon: Noel wins this round! The Gallagher sibling rivalry continued with two solo albums released only weeks apart; Liam’s was a fun party record, Noel’s was a more thoughtful, forward-looking disc and a fine third addition to his High Flying Birds project. You need not be an Oasis fan to enjoy, but if you are, you’ll love it.

Afghan Whigs - In Spades: The second comeback album isn’t quite as effective as Do To the Beast but is still unmistakably the Whigs.


NOTABLE SONGS

Surfer Blood, “Six Flags In F Or G”: Its parent album wasn’t much different from the now-standard sub-311 Surfer Blood sound, but this song stood well above the rest of the disc and is their best to date.

U2, “Red Flag Day”: The standout track on Songs of Experience recalls various points of U2’s history, much like the best songs on Songs of Innocence did, and call me nostalgic but I was glad to have the post-punk guitars and the Edge’s background vocals make a return. Those elements of the band cannot be lost, no matter how many producers try.

Broken Social Scene, “Vanity Pail Kids”: I was not a fan of the band’s “comeback” 15-person blowout album, with the exception of this song. Other critics will put this on their top rock records list; without this song, I don’t think it makes any lists.

Algiers, “The Underside Of Power”: The gospel-punk-Southern rock band’s album wasn’t quite the success it hoped to be, but its best moments were indicative of this unique band’s musical approach, and the title track hits all the right buttons. Worth checking out.

Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”: A great pop song that didn’t do as well in the charts as it should have, maybe because nobody likes being told they’re too attached to their phones and social-media-driven lives to care about the world. The beat is good, Perry’s voice (especially the up-and-down effect in the chorus) is solid, Skip Marley’s guest reggae-rap is fine, and the whole thing just works.

NOTABLE FLOPS

Roger Waters - Is This The Life We Really Want?: Not sure where this went wrong, but it felt like it should have been a lot better musically.

John Mayer - The Search For Everything: While sipping sherry on his yacht, a rich white dude softly laments a failed relationship with all the soul and passion of an insurance salesman from Cleveland. A man indebted to the blues should not be aping Steely Dan and Michael McDonald guitar licks and singing about his heartbreak with the offhand vocals of someone who got onions on their burger at McDonald’s by accident. When your personal pain soundtrack is so lame that it gets played on the Muzak at Kohl’s during the holiday season, perhaps you aren’t doing it right.

Foster The People - Sacred Hearts Club: I was so excited for this album – Supermodel was a great record – and so let down by the neo-disco personality-free black hole that this album was. There is nothing under the surface here, and the surface has been done already by many other bands. Skip this one.

Weezer - Pacific Daydream: I know a band has to expand and grow and not repeat the same formula over and over, but Weezer’s growth was a lateral move into pop that makes them sound like their fellow-aged contemporaries, not the idiosyncratic band that can still make good music. A pervasive melancholy on some of the numbers was a welcome callback to earlier Pinkerton days, but the bulk of the disc is forgettable.



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