Every year since I was in high school I’ve had a tradition of compiling my favorite songs of the year and putting them together as a single mix. At first they were on cassette, then CD, and now digital. I only have a couple of rules:
- I have to have acquired the songs some time within the preceding year or else have been re-listening to them a lot during that time.
- Everything has to end up sounding good together, because a mix isn’t random, a mix is a carefully constructed montage of sound.
This year’s mix clocks in at around 2 hours and 2 minutes and features 31 of my favorite songs from 2017. I call it:
Note 1: these songs are not in order of rank they are in a play order from 1 to 31 and are designed to be listened to as such.
Note 2: I don’t have an online playlist of these songs anywhere other than the haphazard manner you find here because a) there’s no one service with a linkable playlist function that has them all and b)If you like them, you should buy them and make your own playlist. Streaming music is great for discovery, but a poor substitute for owning music and knowing you can play it anywhere … forever. Also, streaming pays musicians like crap.
Note 3: The actual list of songs was finished almost a month ago, it’s just taken me a while to finish this post.
1. At the Drive In
I’m all for reunions, especially of bands that I became fans of just as or just after they initially broke up, but new material from reunited bands is another thing altogether. There have been some lackluster reunion albums that I can recall (Dismemberment Plan, Get Up Kids, Refused), but from time to time bands defy the odds. Such appears to be the case with At the Drive In. While not my favorite album of the year, At the Drive In’s In*ter a*li*a was better than I expected and definitely had a few memorable tracks. “Hostage Stamps” feels like the missing link between their seminal Vaya EP and their pre-breakup LP Relationship of Command. Drenched in rock bravado and split second change ups, but lilting and sardonically playful. I thought it was a good way to start off this year’s mix.
2. Quiet Company
“Get Behind me Satan!”
It’s Not Attractive and it Changes Nothing
Eschewing a full release for a duo of EPs, Quiet Company in 2017 felt like a band pivoting and moving forward. I can’t quite put a finger on it, but since frontperson Taylor Muse‘s divorce, the various shifts in lineup, and the re-recording of their debut album Shine Honesty, Quiet Company has felt like they’ve been in a bit of a rut to me. On these two EP’s however I hear a band that feels both more comfortable and reinvigorated. “Get Behind me Satan!” Is a song that delivers all the best of what Quiet Company have to offer, with explosive pop-rock guitars, wispy introspection, and Taylor’s incendiary lyric writing and vocal delivery. It’s a track that’s got me excited about this band in a way that I hadn’t been in years.
“Nada de Nada”
This is the first of my SXSW finds of the year on this mix. A pop punk band from Columbia, 4×4 managed to impress me both on their album and live, proving that punk rock and music in general transcends language and perceived cultural barriers.
4. Basketball Shorts
With every release, Basketball Shorts up their game a little bit and while they weren’t terribly prolific this year, the single “This Summer” again showed just how much they have to offer. Packed with mellow riffs and wistful vocals, “This Summer” is a song about summer love and with nary a mention of Travolta or Olivia Newton-John. “This Summer” moves quick, but makes its mark with riffs that I absently find myself humming and a beat that’s easy to tap my toes to. This is the perfect song to throw on the stereo while relaxing by the water with someone you dig, holding hands, and watching the sunset. Once again, Basketball Shorts have proven themselves mix worthy.
Backpfeifengesicht b/w Airstrip One
Seemingly out of nowhere J. Robbins‘ Channels came back on the scene this year with a two song offering. Comprised of Robbins, his wife Janet Morgan, and drummer extraordinaire Darren Zentek, Channels had been on hiatus since the diagnosis of Robbins and Morgan’s son Callum with Spinal Muscular Atrophy in 2007. Robbins however continued to put out some solo work, a couple of collaborations, an LP for his Office of Future Plans project, and to continue is work as a noted record producer. There’s word that he has something planned for 2018, which may be a solo album or perhaps something from Channels, but regardless it was nice hearing this band again. As a fan of Robbins’ work there’s a specific quality he brings both in voice and guitar work to everything he does, but the unique combination of himself, Morgan, and Zentek on Channels was always enticing. Channels also tends to feature Robbins’ more political writing and “Backpfeifengesicht” is no exception in this regard.
“My 85th Rodeo”
I’ve listened to a lot of Worriers this year. While having seen them play SXSW in 2016, I didn’t pick up their debut LP until 2017, just in time for their sophomore release Survival Pop. While their new album feels a little less political or pointed than the first, it’s no less woke and no less impactful. Worriers play a brand of singer-songwriter punk rock that’s reminiscent of Ted Leo, while standing firmly on its own two legs. Introspective, but energetic and determined, “My 85th Rodeo” is the perfect track to introduce their new LP.
7. Mutoid Man
“Melt Your Mind”
I hope Stephen Brodsky never stops making music. From the early (and later) days with Cave In, to his various side projects, and now Mutoid Man, Brodsky never stops being one of the most intriguing frontpeople in the business. With their third release and second LP, Mutoid Man continue doing what they do best, that being the playing of seriously face melting metalcore. Seeing Mutoid Man live tells you all you need to know about them. These guys are just having a great time and you can either join in or get lost. “Melt Your Mind” is a song designed to do exactly that and serves as a showcase for Brodsky’s full-throated metal crooning.
8. Otoboke Beaver
“Anata Ga Falling Love Shita No Ha Watashi Ga Kirai Na Onnanoko”
Okoshiyasu!! Otoboke Beaver
This is another of my SXSW finds this year. Seeing them live, they appear at first blush to be a quartet of demure Japanese girls as they come on stage in matching primary colored dresses. The illusion then shatters as they break into a set of raucous pop-tinged hardcore punk. It’s brutal and frenetic, and captivating all at once. These girls are doing what punk does best: taking expectations and turning them on their ear.
9. The Red Heroes
Six Sad Songs
“Melancholy memorial”, “soaring tribute”, “emotional outreach”, all these terms and more describe the musical rollercoaster that is The Red Heroes’ “Player 2”. Penned in memory of a band member’s son lost to Preeclampsia, the track opens innocently enough with a noodly bass line, the crisp patter of drums, and an upbeat punk rock riff underscoring a mournfully relatable lyrical lament. Halfway through the song, guitarist Travis “T-Baby” Bennett appears to be building towards a formulaic guitar solo to close the track out, but instead the song shudders to a stop and takes an emotional gasp of air before the band explodes together in a torrent of melodic anguish. No longer able to hold back, Bennett roars forth with a soaring, inspired guitar solo that’s both heartbroken and triumphant, a light speed journey through the stages of grief that culminates with the entire band joining together for the final refrains of “I’ll always remember you/I’ll always remember/Because you were my player 2”. After having stumbled upon then during Free Week a couple of years ago, The Red Heroes continue to be one of my absolute favorite local bands and “Player 2” is a perfect example of why.
10. GoGo Penguin
Another SXSW pick, but one I didn’t actually get in to see. A pseudo jazz/post rock band with a heavy piano focus, GoGo Penguin at first reminded me of the quieter moments on recordings by Canadian post rockers Do Make Say Think though in practice a comparison to the earlier works of BADBADNOTGOOD is likely more apt. Having gotten to know their work more since SXSW, I really wish I had gotten in to see them live. I’m betting it would have been a highlight of the week.
Hikes had been teasing their latest release for a couple of years and while I was not at all disappointed with the work, I was a little sad that it was only four songs. “Timothy” starts soft and simple with the soothing sound of Nathan Wilkins’ singing set to a folksy guitar riff, the track quickly becomes something much more energetic and complex as it evolves over the course of the next four minutes. Bouncing back and forth between quiet calm and exuberant electricity, “Timothy” takes simple themes and explores them in a variety of settings. Hikes experiment with the composition and complexity of the initial riff with each iteration, all the while ramping up the tension subtly. The whole thing comes to a head in the song’s final act as the band erupts in a joyous noise, a crashing crescendo that quickly slips back into the simple softness of the song’s opening moments. Quiet as a breeze, unexpected and invigorating as a passing storm, “Timothy” is Hikes in a nutshell.
I’m really happy that I’ve gotten the chance to see LITE twice in the past at SXSW. LITE produce the kind of super technical post rock that sets your brain on fire seeing it played live. Playful and experimental, yet tight as a drum and brimming with technical expertise, “Else” off of their latest LP is the perfect expression of what this band does best.
13. The Octopus Project
One of The Octopus Project‘s most consistent threads (aside from razor-sharp production and execution) is to expect the unexpected. As it turns out, their 6th LP is yet another expectedly unexpected release for the band. Memory Mirror maintains the singular electro-analog thread that has been the band’s sonic hallmark since their inception, while blazing forward into rocking new territories. Now that I’ve gotten to know it, it may actually be my favorite Octopus Project album ever. Simultaneously embracing the succinctness and brevity of their early albums, while continuing along the electro pop course set by more recent releases, Memory Mirror is a fun house reflection of where The Octopus Project has been, but distorted in bizarre and wonderful ways in the present. Brimming with enthusiasm, charmingly pop, and massively accessible, Memory Mirror is a solid summer album for digital and analog fans alike.
14. And So I Watch You From Afar
With their latest LP it feels like And So I Watch You From Afar have come full circle. Endless Shimmering takes everything the band has done over the last decade and mashes it together in ways that paradoxically still rock. “Dying Giants” itself is a mix of the pure fury of songs like “I Capture Castles” off of their self-titled debut, the delicate symphony of “7 Billion People…” Off of Gangs and the spacey, progressive vibe of songs like “Heirs” off of the album of the same name. It works brilliantly and I hope I get a chance to hear it live sometime soon.
15. Blissing Room
Comfort Life Eternal
The obligatory pop song. Although “pop” for me is still going to come from a band that you’ve likely never heard of. Blissing Room‘s LP was a decent effort, but in the end the only track that really stuck out was this one. The interplay of analog and digital with solid pop hooks really shines here and though there are attempts at the same thing on the rest of the album it’s never as successful as it is in “Know You”. That being the case however, I’m still going to be keeping an ear on this group in the future.
16. Born Again Virgins
Born Again Virgins
Born Again Virgins‘ self titled EP was one of those pleasant surprises of the year. I generally plan on discovering a certain amount of punk, post, and indie rock during the year, but good singer-songwriter stuff tends to come when I least expect it. Hailing from here in Austin, Born Again Virgins struck me as having a very 90’s sound with elements of Tracy Chapman immediately coming to mind and in a couple of instances the early experimentalism of late 90’s Radiohead. All told it was a nice taste of what I hope is more to come from this act.
17. Magia Negra
“Something You Want”
In the Dark
Magia Negra (now Lolita Lynne)’s debut LP In The Dark is rife with themes of seduction, obsession, and lust, relying heavily on the allure of front woman Lolita Carrol‘s breathy vocals to drive its narratives. Subtle and sensual, her delivery evokes a sense of hearing something secret, something personal, of private “dear diary” thoughts. On “Something You Want” the quiet introduction is juxtaposed by the full band crashing to completion in its final moments, an emotional counterbalance to the subtle build and sensual suggestion it proceeds. In The Dark is a rainy afternoon album wearing a mischievous smirk, a singer-songwriter confessional that’s also an ensemble jam with a simple beauty and quiet sophistication that underscores both the crashes and the subtlety.
Purchase: no longer available
18. The Effects
“Back and Forth”
Eyes to the Light
What can I say about The Effects? I feel like I’ve had a song by a Devin Ocampo led band on my mixes almost every year for the last 15 years. While no longer working with long time partner in crime Chad Moller, Ocampo still manages to craft a decent album’s worth of technical, but loose guitar noodling, baroque compositions, and mind-altering time changes. While less jazzy than his previous band’s efforts and more rooted in classic rock, I’m still down for what The Effects have to offer and “Back and Forth” off of their debut LP is a perfect example of why.
Mobile Eyes / Leopard Tat
I’ve been following Ballerino for a few years now and while I’ve enjoyed their psychedelic post rock style, I haven’t quite been able to find any one song that I’d recommend as a sort of thesis statement about their sound. On their latest release, Ballerino offer up a duo of new tracks, one of which may have finally given me the song to recommend the band on. “Leopard Tat” opens with layers of crisp, noodling guitar and bass, laced with just a hint of distortion. It’s a warm summer breeze, pleasant, but with a bit of a bite. A third of the way through the tempo adjusts, putting a spring in its step and adopting a folky, Allman-esque drawl. The drums tap along, lightly, but warm, and buoyed by delightedly indulgent fills. Breezy vocals waft in like a quick wash of rain, marrying perfectly to the instrumental mix. The back third of the song returns us to the slow breeze of the opening, but with a bit more edge. The intensity ramps up as the guitar noodling is accompanied by a jolt of vibrant chords and the crash of cymbals, ultimately petering out, drifting off into the afternoon.
20. Dude Elsberry
Another local band, but this time one that I randomly heard about through a tweet on one of my local music lists. Dude Elsberry immediately reminded me of Chicago-style instrumental post punk, bands like: Dianogah, Ghosts and Vodka, and really anyone connected to the Kinsella boys. If you’re familiar with that stuff than you know what to expect here: late 90’s emo/post punk, without the words. Lots of noodling, twinkly bits, and time changes, but with a distinct 90’s post punk sound coming from a pedigree of hardcore. “Flower Cup” really captures the essence of that for me.
21. US Weekly
The artful swagger of Nation of Ulysses, the hoarse vocals of Black Flag, the irreverent playfulness of Pixies, and the social awareness of countless bands before them. All and yet none of this describes US Weekly, though on their new self-titled LP they’ve come out swinging again, demonstrating why they’ve consistently remained one of Austin’s most interesting and vital acts. “New Obsessions” explores the scary realities faced daily by women both in the real world and online. “Tries to follow you home refuses to leave you alone / blocking out his fiendish moans / why why why” growls singer Chris Nordahl over the sound of flanged guitars and reverby strums, that serve to create a growing sense of unease culminating in a static-laden outro like something out of a horror movie soundtrack. US Weekly is easily the most “punk” album I’ve heard in a long time and another huge step forward for this band. It’s subversive, edgy without trying to be hip, and woke as fuck. In the age of Trump, so-called “men’s rights activists”, corporate cronyism, and actual goddamn Nazi’s, this is the kind of album we need.
22. Sweet Spirit
I was lukewarm on Sweet Spirit‘s first LP even though they were capturing the adoration of nearly every music critic in Austin. All the pieces were there for something I should have liked, but the construction didn’t please me. I wasn’t about the write them off however. For one thing, frontperson Sabrina Ellis is just too damn good to be ignored, both as a singer and a performer. So when their second LP dropped this past year I decided to give it a chance. What I found was much more to my liking, but the first track that really grabbed my ears was this soulful ode to Pamela Anderson. While I don’t share Ellis’ adoration for the former Baywatch star, I’ll listen to her sing about her all day long.
23/24. The Sour Notes
“Loose Leaf and Bleak” / “Parallel Action”
Having perfected their own brand of often dreamy, frequently rocking psych pop over nearly a decade, the sound of Darkest Sour at first blush will be familiar to anyone who’s heard The Sour Notes before. The band revels in brevity while still honoring classic pop-rock song motifs and strives to keep their songs short and sweet while eschewing repetition in favor of variety. Darkest Sour takes some new turns however. A greater focus on guitar tone and intensity is prevalent on much of the album and adds a welcome edge to The Sour Notes sound, while also allowing for the character of individual tracks to reveal themselves in new ways. “Loose Leaf and Bleak” closes out side one of the album with an ominous growl, bolstered by tense tickles of cymbal and the menace of a B5 sounding synth. The subtle bursts of lead guitar through the verse evoke the feeling of a thriller soundtrack to a movie where something unknown and dangerous potentially lurks around every turn. The song goes through several evolutions, quieting down about halfway through for frontperson Jared Boulanger’s wailing refrain of “No apologies, all apologies” and then ramping back up into a greasy, bluesy guitar solo before the final lines of “Here every night starts over with another dumb mistake” judder into the track’s final moments. “Parallel Action” comes seamlessly on “Loose Leaf”‘s heels with a poppy, psych rock instrumental, featuring layered guitars, both swaggering and dreamy, ultimately losing itself in a wild haze of an outro.
25. Ted Leo
The Hanged Man
Ted Leo came out of semi-exile last year after kickstarting a campaign to record a new album under his own name, the first in 7 years. As it turns out, Ted’s been through a lot in that time and not all of it was good. As fuel for the fire, the result of those experiences come through in an album that’s spans the breadth of Ted’s stylistic growth, while adding something new to the mix as well. It’s a much more personal album than previous releases, at times evoking the isolation of his first album Tyranny of Distance. “Lonsdale Avenue” is such a song and recalls Tyranny opener “Biomusicology” for me, but nearly two decades removed and aged by the maturity of life experience.
26. Frank Turner
“The Sand in the Gears (live)”
The Sand in the Gears
Frank kept busy in 2017 by touring (what else is new) and preparing a new album with some very new ideas on it. Early in the year however he surfaced this single, recorded live at a show in Maryland. Never one to shy away from political discourse, “The Sand in the Gears” is at once lament and rallying cry, a reaction mainly to the election of Donald Trump, but also to Brexit, and the backwards ideas coming out of the formerly dark corners of social media. This is a proper protest song full of anguish, outrage, and hope.
27. L.A. Salami
“Going Mad as the Street Bins”
Dancing with Bad Grammar
The last of my SXSW 2017 finds in this year’s mix, L.A. Salami immediately conjured images of Frank Turner in my head. Obviously the accent helps, but there’s something in the style that feels distinctly punk, but maybe it’s just a British thing. As I spent more time with his music, I evolved my analysis toward something more akin to a fusion of Hendrix and Dylan, with some Billy Bragg thrown in for good measure. The core is folk, but there’s a heart of soul and a smattering of hip-hop/punk outsider status as well. “Going Mad as Street Bins” is a pretty good primer for what to expect.
28. Jason Isbell
“Hope the High Road”
The Nashville Sound
My only chance to see Frank Turner live this past year was opening for Jason Isbell down in New Braunfels. I hadn’t heard of Isbell before, but if Frank was touring with him I figured I’d give him a shot. My mileage on more traditional Country and Americana tends to vary, but Isbell is right in my wheelhouse. Not too twangy, a good mix of solo skill and band prowess, and absent the politically and socially problematic parts that regrettably often come with this style of music. “Hope the High Road” almost feels like a companion piece to Frank’s “The Sand in the Gears”. Both songs reference recent turmoil and the personal toll it’s taken and both offer hope as well. There’s a sentiment throughout Isbell’s entire album that it’s time for old things to go away and that while change is hard, it’s both good and necessary.
29. Conor Oberst
“Too Late to Fixate”
Oberst‘s full band version of last year’s solo piano and harmonica songs plus several new tracks got a lot of play from me this year. This may be the most I’ve played anything by Oberst since Bright Eyes‘ I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning. This is Conor Oberst the way I like him and this is the way I like my folk music, full of harmonicas, accordions, fiddles, pianos, and plenty of finger plucking.
30. The Accidentals
The first time I heard this song off of The Accidentals‘ latest LP Odyssey was on the last night of SXSW this past March. The show was upstairs at some barbecue place on Congress and they had cleared the dining area to make room for a stage and seating. I recall sitting there in the crowd, transfixed by this song, much the same way I had been when I first saw this band play the previous year. When I heard the song again after it was released I was transfixed all over again, sitting at my desk at work, and oblivious to anything around me for 6 whole minutes. I don’t know what it is, but these kids have a power over me … and they’re still way too talented for their age!
31. Do Make Say Think
“Return, Return Again”
Stubborn Persistent Illusions
I was both surprised and happy to hear last year that Do Make Say Think had not disappeared as I thought they had. While it had been 7 years since their last release, the band was back with a new LP and it did not disappoint in the slightest. This band just doesn’t sound like any other instrumental rock band. It’s not merely the addition of brass, woodwind, and string instruments to the mix that does it, there’s an ineffable quality that makes them unique and puts them in a class all their own. I hate to end a mix with someone’s final album track, but I needed DMST on this mix and “Return, Return Again” is just a lovely, joyful, mesmerizing, and entrancing track to end on. I hope it doesn’t take the band 7 more years to follow-up and maybe they can find their way down from Canada to Austin as well.