Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren’t even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It’s a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they’re fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other’s unique qualities.
With that in mind, our list of 2017’s best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it’s hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don’t quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag… this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.
10. Priests – Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon)
9. The Mountain Goats – Goths (Merge)
8. The National – Sleep Well Beast (4AD)
The National’s newest release is as bleak as the album cover suggests. Seven records into their career, Matt Berninger and company are mature, polished, and at their strongest. Largely an album about a relationship falling apart, The National accentuate the distance with melancholy droning synths and electronic beats, while Berninger’s slow and deliberate delivery (see “Empire Line”) allows for contemplation of every word and feeling. Like so much of 2017’s music, there are also political undertones, as on “Turtleneck” when Berninger sarcastically offers, “This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for / Oh, no”. Although it may be difficult to grasp through the murky music and somber mood, The National offer hope for the future and urge us not to sleep through the hard times, but to do our best for the next generation. — Chris Thiessen
7. Spoon – Hot Thoughts (Matador)
6. Charly Bliss – Guppy (Barsuk)
5. Big Thief – Capacity (Saddle Creek)
Big Thief came out of the gate in 2016 with their undeniably strong debut album, Masterpiece, but somehow managed to outdo themselves in just over a year. Capacity has all of the jangly guitars and raw emotion of its predecessor and offers even more. The inclusion of more piano and acoustic guitar adds new depth and complexity and Adrianne Lenker’s emotive and narrative songwriting is even more prominent. She creates many illuminating moments throughout the album, from the deep, whispery chorus of “Pretty Things” to the melodic fluidity of the title track to the brilliant, unending snowball chorus of “Mary”. Capacity features well-executed indie rock sounds and some truly stunning songwriting. — Dan Kok
4. Oh Sees – Orc (Castle Face)
John Dwyer’s variously named, 20-year-running, garage rock project currently called “Oh Sees” have put out an average of an album a year since 1997. What’s truly impressive about that number, though, is that each album is unique from the other. They’ve done a rockabilly record, psych-folk, tinny sounding punk albums, and a groovy acid jazz-inspired album. The ability to keep the sound rotating but keeping many of the same elements is what makes Orc a success.
The production is cleaner than a lot of previous, über lo-fi Oh Sees albums and the songs are overall way more streamlined and accessible, but they don’t sacrifice oddity for accessibility. They just build the songs around tight riffs and engaging soundscapes and then stretch them and manipulate them. Orc is Oh Sees psychedelic jam-rock album, for lack of a better term. At about 50 minutes, Orc’s runtime is over 50 percent instrumental, usually dominated by a looping theme for minutes on end. They manage to cram a lot of depth and interest in those musical sections, though, and the result is an album you want to listen to over and over again. — Dan Kok
3. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
2. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up (Nonesuch)
1. Algiers – The Underside of Power (Matador)
The Underside of Power, Algiers’ follow-up to their 2015 self-titled debut, is everything that debut promised and more. The album fine tunes the balance between their dark, post-punk sounds and their soul and gospel groove. The group truly turns the post-punk genre on its head with double-time rhythms, bass grooves, and soulful vocals that come together like an AME church service in the Blade Runner universe. Vocalist Franklin James Fisher sings throughout the album about rising up, upsetting established power structures. It’s brimming with political fire and rage that’s tempered just enough with hope and youthful energy. The combination of elements is dense and seamless and reveals more with each listen and takes on new meaning. The Underside of Power is an album of resistance music and music for the people into the tradition of soul, folk, and punk. This album stands as one of the most unique and powerful examples of protest music in recent memory. – Dan Kok