The 22 most underrated albums of 2017

They may have flown under your radar this year, but they're all here for you now as we step into 2018


Annie Zaleski
December 29, 2017 11:59PM (UTC)

Keeping track of album releases became even more of a chore in 2017. The usual avalanche of new material came paired with an even longer list of archival releases, boxed sets and reissues. The result: There quite literally weren't enough hours in a given week to absorb all of the music available to buy or stream, making it easy to gloss over or simply ignore even excellent records.

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As a writer, this also made whittling down year-end lists particularly challenging. Some had glaring omissions — for example, Spoon's much-lauded (and quite excellent) "Hot Thoughts" was surprisingly excluded from most round-ups. Really, anyone could have doubled their list in length and still missed some essential entries.

For these reasons, the field of underrated or overlooked 2017 albums feels even more full of great records than usual. Whether your yen is for slinky R&B or fractured pop, riotous rock or barnstorming country, chances are good there's something for you on the list below.

Alex Lahey, "I Love You Like a Brother"
There's clearly something in the water in Australia these days. The country that produced Courtney Barnett is also the home of singer-songwriter Alex Lahey, who made waves in 2017 with her debut album, "I Love You Like a Brother."

The record brims with taut, hook-sticky songs (the effervescent punk-pop opener "Every Day's The Weekend," giddy rocker "Lotto In Reverse") and nods to dreamy surf-pop ("I Want U"). Better still are the record's reflective and confident lyrics, which are honest and vulnerable but never wallow in melancholy. Take the shambolic highlight, "I Haven't Been Taking Care of Myself." An anthem for self-care, the song features a protagonist who realizes she's mired in an unhealthy relationship and needs to make changes: "I've forgotten what it's like to be in good health/I've gained weight and I drink too much/Maybe that's why you don't love me as much/I need to start taking care of myself."

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Purchase it here.

Game Theory, "Supercalifragile"
In summer 2017, the new album from Game Theory, the beloved '80s power-pop band headed by the late Scott Miller, emerged after a fan-funded Kickstarter campaign. The release was bittersweet: Miller had been working on "Supercalifragile" and planning to reboot the band when he died. Months before the record was issued, the band's long-time drummer, Gil Ray, passed on as well.

Still, "Supercalifragile" — which was finished with the help of artists such as Ken Stringfellow, Aimee Mann, Doug Gillard, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Mitch Easter and other former Game Theory band members — is true to Miller's genius-level artistic vision. Occasional sampled sound effects add whimsy throughout and enhance the record's fractured rock (the synth-spackled "Valerie Tomorrow," dizzying "Time Warner"), acoustic indie-folk ("No Love") and jangly pop ("Say Goodbye"). "Supercalifragile" could've easily been a reminder of what we lost when Miller died. Instead, it comes across as one more chapter of the lovely body of work he enjoyed creating.

Purchase it here.

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Valerie June, "The Order of Time"
Why Valerie June isn't yet a superstar is a mystery; after all, the Tennessee-born musician has released four soul-blues albums that defy categorization. The most recent of these, this year's "The Order of Time," is even more bewitching.

Although there are upbeat moments (in particular the brisk, twang-rocker "Shakedown"), the album places June's singular, experience-weathered voice at the forefront. Minimal guitar and optimistic organ drive the stunning "Two Hearts," which is about the moment someone feels love's lightning bolt; the ominous, roots-blues song "Man Done Wrong" hints at a troubled relationship; and "With You" is a lilting, sparse folk song dusted with mincing strings and June effectively hovering at the top of her vocal range. "If And," meanwhile, is a cautionary tale about living right while you're alive: "If and you ain’t lovin’ your woman/If and you trust and believe in your man/If and you don’t show them you love them, it will be too late."

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Purchase it here.

Miguel, "War & Leisure"
Albums released later in the year tend to be left off best-of lists due to timing. Early holiday deadlines means critical consensus tends to coalesce in mid-November, which precludes many writers from even considering December-issued. In the case of Miguel's "War & Leisure," don't be surprised if the album lands on some "Best of 2018" lists. The chameleonic R&B/soul artist has crafted another winning record.

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Credit for that goes to collaborators such as Kali Uchis, a guest on the Latin-electro swerve "Caramelo Duro," and Rick Ross, who contributes a laid-back bridge to "Criminal," which features typically retro-saturated production from Dave Sitek. Other songs end up pastiches of neo-soul, blues-rock and disco-pop, while "Now" even skims off part of Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" for effect. And, let's be honest, only Miguel could get away with improving upon elements of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," which he does with verve on the standout "Pineapple Skies."

Purchase it here.

Natalie Hemby, "Puxico"
"Puxico" — the debut album from the Nashville-via-Missouri artist, who's written songs for Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town — was one of country music's best-kept secrets in 2017. The record emphasizes keening folk and Americana, with Hemby's smoke-curled voice at the forefront sharing hard-earned wisdom such as, "I find the finer things worth keeping are worn."

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Purchase it here.

The Bats, "The Deep Set"
In early 2017, New Zealand rock legends the Bats very quietly released their ninth album, "The Deep Set." The well-crafted LP sighs with both melancholy and optimism, courtesy of gentle (and proud) chiming guitars and the gorgeous vocal interplay between Robert Scott and Kaye Woodward. "The Deep Set" will more than fill the Go-Betweens-shaped hole in your heart.

Purchase it here.

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Rachel Kiel, "Shot From a Cannon"
Sure, the North Carolina-based Kiel is influenced by the Bangles — and, more, specifically, that band's cascading harmonies and predilection for '60s rock 'n' roll. But her latest album also encompasses Dylan daydreams, rootsy folk and wrought-iron pop with ornate melodies.

Purchase it here.

The Dream Syndicate, "How Did I Find Myself Here?"
The first record in 19 years from '80s noise-rock merchants Dream Syndicate contains exactly what you'd want to hear from them: tornadic guitars, laser-burned keyboards and a droning psychedelic-meets-Krautrock sheen that's a tall, cool drink of water.

Purchase it here.

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Open Mike Eagle, "Brick Body Kids Still Daydream"
The latest release from Open Mike Eagle appeared on the lower reaches of some year-end lists, but it deserved a much wider audience. The Chicago-via-Los Angeles artist crafts inventive, vivid hip-hop based on his recollections of growing up in the public housing project Robert Taylor Homes.

Purchase it here.

The Regrettes, "Feel Your Feelings Fool!"
Headed by Lydia Night, the Regrettes stormed out of Los Angeles with their debut, a ferocious record indebted to '70s and '80s punk, and girl groups. Lead single "A Living Human Girl" smartly summarizes pressures faced by modern women and decides that embracing imperfections is the way to go.

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Purchase it here.

Foxygen, "Hang"
Albums released earlier in the year tend to get lost in the shuffle when considering best-of lists. That fate befell Foxygen's ambitious "Hang," an orchestra-burnished collection of theatrical '70s rock gestures that nod to Elton John, David Bowie and any number of AM Gold stalwarts

Purchase it here.

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Neil Finn, "Out of Silence"
Finn documented the recording process for this album via a series of weekly marathon YouTube studio sessions. The results are vulnerable and sophisticated, with piano and strings adding ornate intimacy to his typically heartfelt songwriting.

Purchase it here.

Amber Coffman, "City of No Reply"
The ex-Dirty Projectors guitarist/vocalist finds her own unique footing on this solo full-length debut, which encompasses sunburned soul ("No Coffee"), buzzy electro ("Dark Night") and sinewy R&B ("If You Want My Heart").

Purchase it here.

Stokley, "Introducing Stokley"
Earlier this year, Stokley — who's also the leader of Mint Condition — toured as a vocalist with The Revolution. Such immersions in funk inform the snappy music on this record, which is full of pristine old-school soul and R&B.

Purchase it here.

Sweet Apple, "Sing The Night in Sorrow"
The J. Mascis-featuring Sweet Apple enlisted guests such as Robert Pollard and Rachel Haden for album number three — which, like the rest of their catalog, is a brash, loud rock 'n' glam record with a grimy underbelly and hooks for days.

Purchase it here.

Michelle Branch, "Hopeless Romantic"
Anyone who only remembers Michelle Branch from her early '00s pop days is missing out on how she's evolved as an artist. Her first full-length album in 14 years hews toward blues-rock, '80s new wave and glittering retro-soul.

Purchase it here.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, "The Punishment of Luxury"
Synth-pop legends Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (a.k.a. OMD) unleashed their latest stab at future-pop — and it contains both incisive social commentary and adventurous keyboard work that enhances their already-sterling legacy.

Purchase it here.

Leela James, "Did It For Love"
R&B artists had an especially strong 2017, which meant that Leela James' latest record was somewhat overshadowed (save for "Don't Want You Back," which hit No. 1 on the Adult R&B charts). Remedy that oversight: "Did It For Love" is a sleek, contemporary soul record with smoldering ballads and upbeat, horn-peppered revues.

Purchase it here.

PVRIS, "All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell"
This Massachusetts-based trio, who's opened for Muse in recent years, offers R&B-tinted synth-pop with midnight-hued programming on this introspective record. Crank up the atmospheric, goth-clouded "What's Wrong," which would hit the Top 40 in a perfect world.

Purchase it here.

Thundercat, "Drunk"
Thundercat received quite a bit of attention for collaborating with Yacht Rock kingpins Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on the soft rock-inspired "Show You The Way." The rest of the producer and bassist's 2017 album, "Drunk," is as funky, atmospheric, retro-sounding and eclectic as that outstanding track.

Purchase it here.

Temples, "Volcano"
Synth-splashed psych-rock bands are a dime a dozen these days, but Temples distinguish themselves from the pack by cobbling from pastoral prog, "Nuggets"-inspired garage-rock and airy, harmony-drenched indie-pop.

Purchase it here.

Whitney Rose, "Rule 62"
Good luck trying to pigeonhole Canadian country artist Whitney Rose. The Raul Malo-produced "Rule 62," which features steel guitarist Chris Scruggs and Mavericks drummer Paul Deakin, incorporates influences from hotrodding rockabilly, '50s rock 'n' roll and lace-edged soul.

Purchase it here.


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2017 Albums Amber Coffman Best Of 2017 Entertainment Hip-hop Lists Migel Music News Rap Reviews Rock

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