The Top 50 Indie-Rock Songs of 2017

Note: This playlist follows a loose chronological structure reflecting when these songs were released during 2017—which I like to think provides a more accurate snapshot of the year as it was lived, as opposed to a ranked list based on totally unquantifiable criteria.

The cruel irony of being a music critic in 2017 is that the very thing that makes the gig easier—i.e., plentiful, push-button access to practically the entire history of recorded sound—is also the very thing that threatens one’s sense of expertise. The truth is, the two cornerstones of the job description—a) being an authority in your field and b) staying current—are becoming mutually exclusive ideals, as your listening queue perpetually extends like an unchecked email account. Spending quality time with a given record means missing out on another 50 probably-amazing albums that came out this week. I’m at the point now where artists whose work I’ve loved for years, or even decades, will release a new record, and it takes me months to get around to giving it a cursory listen, if I don’t outright forget that it even exists. (Sorry, Liars!) These days, music writers essentially play the role of sommelier, giving records a momentary swish before spewing ’em out and moving onto the next one.

It’s an especially pervasive condition in the perennially over-populated field we call indie rock—a term that now encompasses everyone from aspiring Bandcamp chancers to Grammy-winning arena acts. And in between those goalposts you have annual bumper crops of hotly tipped breakout artists, modestly successful mid-career acts still slogging it out, solo albums, side projects, and ‘90s veterans who decide to take a crack at the reunion circuit. And this is to say nothing of the stylistic variation that field covers. Forty years ago, you wouldn’t deign to lump Bruce Springsteen, The Fall, William Onyeabor, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, and Hawkwind into the same genre category. Yet when you consider those artists’ contemporary spiritual offspring—Japandroids, Sleaford Mods, Pierre Kwenders, The Weather Station, Moses Sumney, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard—they’re all huddled under the umbrella of indie.

As such, there is no narrative through-line or overarching theme that could possibly connect the songs on this collection of my favorite indie-rock songs of 2017. (Well, other than it was an exceptionally good year for Australia!) Certainly, in this never-ending shit-show of a year, there was a need for music that could help us navigate these tumultuous times, be it Priests’ emotionally fraught dream-punk (“Nothing Feels Natural”), Algiers’ palace-storming soul stomps (“The Underside of Power”), or Weaves’ freak-flag rallying cries (“Scream”). But then, 2017 was so fucked up and draining on so many levels, you could forgive America’s fiercest rabble-rousers—Philly DIY heroes Sheer Mag, pictured above—for wanting to take a momentary break from the brick-tossing and seek solace in the discotheque (“Need to Feel Your Love”).

At a time when the very fate of humanity felt more perilous and unknowable than at any point in our lifetime, you take comfort in the little things. Sometimes all I wanted was to escape into a fully realized fantasy of Stevie Nicks making a Cure album (Louise Burns’ “Storms”) or King Krule going Krautrock (via Mount Kimbie’s “Blue Train Lines”) or The Go-Betweens being brought back to life (Rolling Blackouts C.F.’s “The French Press”). In some instances, it was an especially outrageous lyric that provided levity (from Alex Cameron and Angel Olsen’s misfit-romance anthem “Stranger’s Kiss”: “I got shat on by an eagle, baby/ now I’m king of the neighbourhod/ and I guess that I could/ just tear the gym pants off a single mother”); in others, I was transfixed by an extended instrumental build-up (Thurston Moore’s gong-crashing “Exalted”) or a perfectly messy guitar solo (The National’s “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” The War on Drugs’ “Up All Night”). It was a year of being taken by surprise by bands I had taken for granted (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s “Ambulance Chaser,” Guided by Voices’ “Nothing Gets You Real”), awestruck by long-dormant artists who seemingly reemerged from out of nowhere (be it Land of Talk with the intensely aching “Heartcore” or former Only Ones frontman Peter Perrett’s winsome “Troika”), and blindsided by artists I had never heard before (noise-punk powerhouse Dasher’s “Go Rambo,” Montreal sound collagist Joni Void’s “Cinema Without People,” art-pop phenom Jay Som’s magisterial “For Light”).

Of course, there is also a regional bias at play here. Even as it’s become the province of national late-night talk shows and destination mega-festivals, indie rock is still nothing without its local scenes, and this playlist inevitably reflects my roots in the Southern Ontario corridor. This year, several under-the-radar acts I’ve been fortunate enough to see come into their own over the past few years—stoner-prog titans Biblical, avant-pop activist Petra Glynt, the Slim Twig/U.S. Girls-led fuzz-boogie supergroup Darlene Shrugg, industrial-electro trio Odonis Odonis—all released excellent albums that effectively bottled up their onstage energy for the world to see.

But mostly what you get on this playlist is a lot of great, seasoned, chronically under-appreciated artists doing what they do and continuing to do it very well, from Chain and the Gang’s anti-capitalist garage-punk manifesto “Devitalize” to British Sea Power’s crestfallen “Don’t Let the Sun Get in the Way” to The Dears’ triumphant “1998” to Pavement co-founder Spiral Stairs’ sweetly slack “Angel Eyes” (a touching tribute to his late drummer, Darius Minwalla). There are few rewards for consistency in life, and especially not in the incessant, feed-refreshing world of indie rock. But in a time of insatiable suck-it-up-and-spit-it-out musical consumption, these songs handily passed the swish test, and demanded to be savored.

P.S.: Ty Segall’s Drag City catalog isn’t available on Spotify, otherwise I would’ve included his gonzo 10-minute “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”-scaled tour de force, “Freedom (Warm Hands).” Ditto for Boss Hog’s ace comeback album, Brood X, which just goes to show that getting featured in Baby Driver wasn’t the only great thing to happen to Jon Spencer this year.