Twelve Great Song-Oriented Albums of 2017

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, January 8, 2018 06:05pm | Post a Comment

By Michael Henning

I'm generally not that into traditional "song-oriented" music, finding myself more interested in music that is either instrumental (Ambient, Electronic, Experimental, etc.) or music that features singing in languages other than English (International and global sounds, both old and new). This year, however, I found myself enjoying a lot more music in this vein than usual. Here are a dozen great new albums from 2017 that worked wonders within the confines of rock/pop/folk music, bringing a freshness to the craft that makes them all deserving of recognition and attention.


12. Acetone1992-2001 (Light in the Attic)

Nice career-spanning retrospective from this underrated California-based group. Their lazy, laid-back music fused indie rock with folk and country influences, and this well-curated compilation mines their catalog and comes up with some real gold.



Julie Byrne

11.  Julie ByrneNot Even Happiness (Ba Da Bing)

A lovely record of mellow, ambient, folksy songs from this talented songwriter who lives in NYC. She's got a beautiful voice and, after a couple of very nice but not necessarily spectacular albums on smaller labels over the last few years, her talent really blossoms on this newest effort.


Wooden Wand, Clipper Ship

10.  Wooden Wand - Clipper Ship (Three Lobed)

Leaps and bounds beyond anything else I've heard from this guy, it feels like he finally made that "breakthrough album" right here on this one. The songs are interesting, the guitars sound great, the sparse instrumentation fits just right, and it all falls into place. The album features Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Jim Becker of Califone, who both add some subtle depth to the proceedings with their understated contributions.


The Bye Bye Blackbirds

9.  The Bye Bye Blackbirds - Take Out The Poison (Bye Bye Blackbirds Recordings)

This local Oakland group self-released another fine album this year, and it's filled with their typically catchy mix of power-pop, rock, and all other sorts of jangly guitar-centric tunes. Their deft melange of riffs and styles often brings to mind a number of great songwriters, yet their work remains uniquely theirs. They are obviously passionate students of songcraft; their work isn't simply pastiche, but rather the heady sum of all its parts and then some. A few guest vocalists and additional instrumentation (strings and horns!) on some tracks really expands the sound here, and the overall effect is stunning. It's easy to see that this is their finest album yet. Here's to there being many more records in the years ahead from this hard-working and talented band that deserves much more success than they have gotten thus far.
Neil Young, The Hitchhiker

8.  Neil YoungHitchhiker (Reprise)

An archival release originally recorded in 1976 (right between Zuma and American Stars 'N Bars), but never before released, this album finds him in stripped down solo acoustic mode. Several excellent tunes that were staples of his live sets for many years are here, including “Give Me Strength,” "Powderfinger,” and “Pocahontas.” A must for any fan, especially if you dig solo acoustic Neil, and who doesn't?


Fletcher Tucker, Cold Spring

7.  Fletcher Tucker - Cold Spring (Gnome Life)

California singer/songwriter Fletcher Tucker has been making music as Bird By Snow for over 10 years, and he finally drops that moniker to release an album under his own name. It's a good move, as it's easily his best work to date. Slightly dark and very atmospheric, this is moody ambient folk music that has a rural loner vibe and really takes you somewhere.


The Clientele, Music for the Age of Miricles

6.  The ClienteleMusic for the Age of Miracles (Merge)

After a hiatus of seven years since their last album, this UK trio returned with a new release that makes up for the lengthy wait. Their quiet, melodic songs are still led by some wonderfully intricate guitar playing, which sets the stage perfectly for Alasdair Maclean's wispy vocals and wistful lyrics. The music here is fittingly pleasant and romantic, sounding like a rainy autumn night spent inside an old house in the countryside, warmed by a wood fire.



5. Slowdive - Slowdive (Dead Oceans)

After a long recording hiatus of over two decades, and following some reunion shows and touring, UK shoegaze legends return with a very strong new album that sounds like it could have been the proper follow up to Souvlaki if it was released 20 years ago. Maybe it sounds better now because they haven't been around for quite some time, but it's definitely solid, and when you're in the mood for it, this one really hits the spot.


Tara Jane O'neil

4.  Tara Jane O'Neil - Tara Jane O'Neil (Gnomonsong)

An intimate, delicate, folk-rock gem, with great songs and subtle arrangements that give each song the perfect atmosphere. She's been making records for over 20 years, on quality labels like Quarterstick, Kranky, and even Mississippi Records, and this new album is easily one of her finest yet, if not perhaps the very best work she's ever done.


Kaitlin aurelia Smith, the kid

3.  Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid (Western Vinyl)

I've been a fan since seeing her perform a few shows around the time that she released her masterful record Euclid a few years ago. I might still prefer that album, but this one continues to grow on me, showing her continued evolution as both a songwriter and a synth guru. The lyrics here deserve special mention, as there's a lot to think about and learn from in the words she shares with us.



2.  Bedouine - Bedouine (Spacebomb)

LA-based songstress Bedouine writes and sings breezy, elegant songs with thoughtful lyrics. The subtle, tasteful arrangements from some studio heavies (including Smokey Hormel) are lush, the subtle grooves are perfect for the music, and it just feels classy all around. Something about the way these tracks sound reminds me of Nick Drake's masterful Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layer, so if you dig those, grab this today and luxuriate in this lovely sonic blanket.


Can, The Lost Singles

1.  CanThe Singles (Spoon/Mute)

The great Krautrock band Can was never really a singles band, instead cementing their legend via epic full-album statements that defined their career. Nonetheless, they (or perhaps more correctly, their label) also released a lot of songs from their albums as singles. This set compiles them all in one nice, chronologically organized package. You get a whopping 23 tracks of Can at their most succinct, with lots of catchy tunes, and several that are even worthy of the dancefloor! This set is worth picking up even if you already have most of the material simply because there are two fantastic cuts that are only available here: the pop anthem "Turtles Have Short Legs" and the organic, odd-time signature groover "Shikaku Maru Ten." So glad to have this available via a luxurious 3xLP set, but it's also on a single CD for ease of listening.


Relevant Tags

Michael Henning (9), Best Of 2017 (19), Songs (1), Acetone (1), Julie Byrne (2), Wooden Wand (2), The Bye Bye Blackbirds (1), Neil Young (36), Fletcher Tucker (1), Bird By Snow (1), The Clientele (2), Slowdive (10), Tara Jane O'neil (1), Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (2), Bedouine (1), Can (9)