Lots of new music was released in 2017; here at Iowa Public Radio, we received more than 2,000 albums. If wading through all of that sounds overwhelming, never fear. During this hour of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Tony Dehner and Mark Simmet of Iowa Public Radio's Studio One about their favorite albums of the year.
We've also had our most musically-minded staff curate their top five favorite albums of this year, including Morning Edition host Clay Masters. Check out our Spotify playlist and read album reviews below.
Clay Masters, Morning Edition Host
1. Big Thief – Capacity
The Brooklyn-based quartet wasted no time following up its incredible debut last year with a vastly different and quieter sophomore album. The timbre of lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker’s voice, her writing and the arrangement of these songs make for a vulnerable and intense listen. Check out the band's performance at this year's Newport Folk Festival.
2. Run The Jewels – 3
El-P and Killer Mike return with a third cunning and clever hip-hop record. If you didn’t hear Killer Mike and George Clinton talking music and barbershops this year on Morning Edition, you should hear it.
3. Josh Ritter – Gathering
The Idaho singer-songwriter seems to have hit a new stride with his last couple of albums. In an interview with NPR Music about Gathering, Ritter says he hears “uncertainty, mania, laughter and sadness, all vying for their place on the album.”
4. Simon Joyner – Step Into the Earthquake
The Omaha legend continues to add to his massive discography with an album that sounds like a modern day Blonde on Blonde.
5. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell blows up stereotypes of country music recorded in Nashville with an album looking inward and tackling social and political themes.
Tony Dehner, Studio One Tracks and Gas Money host
1. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
The fourth full-length album from The War On Drugs is full of big melodies, heartfelt lyrics, soaring electric guitars, and songs that stay fresh and urgent despite occasionally running well over 6 minutes. Contemplative at times and pulse-pounding at others, this album is a remarkable achievement.
2. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
This record is a collaboration between two singer-songwriters who became friends about 4 years ago. After listening to it just once, though, it's hard to believe they haven't known each other their entire lives. Every song here sounds instantly familiar and reassuring.
3. St. Vincent – MASSeduction
The follow-up to Annie Clark's self-described Near-Future Cult Leader album from 2014, this record is much more personal and relatable, while still sounding like St. Vincent. If she weren't a bona fide rock star before, she is now.
4. Gloom Balloon – Drying the Eyes of the Goddess of Gloom, Underneath the Stars and Moon
The Des Moines-based duo of Patrick Tape Fleming and Christopher Ford released their highly-anticipated second album this year, which manages to sound both intimate and majestic at once.
5. Spoon – Hot Thoughts
One of the world's most consistently reliable and inventive rock bands, Spoon shows no signs of slowing down on their latest album.
Mark Simmet, Studio One Tracks and Gas Money host
1. The Shins – Heartworms
Earworms, you mean. Sure, it’s a kind of rarified pop music, but smart lyrics plus hooks galore equal a great listen. Nice set at 80/35, too.
2. The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Canadians know how to assemble top notch musical groups (see: Arcade Fire) and this band out of Vancouver has been at it for twenty years. Urgent music, exuberant harmonies. And Dan Bejar.
3. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
That’s a provocative title, considering the times we are in. Turns out that frontman James Murphy has a lot to say about this American dream. It’s the thinking person’s dance music.
4. Wolf Parade – Cry, Cry, Cry
Like LCD Soundsystem, Wolf Parade reunited after a years-long hiatus. Like fellow Canadians The New Pornographers, the band members have plenty of side projects. Here's a quote from their label Sub Pop Records that praises the “soaring choruses, rousing anthems, sprawling guitars and chaotic keys” of Wolf Parade. Also, the ghost of Bowie haunts this record.
5. Ani DiFranco – Binary
Another timely commentary on the state of the nation, although the songs were written before the 2016 election. It doesn’t matter, because Difranco’s music is about a broader spiritual humanism, conveyed very well by the artist and her band.
Lindsey Moon, Talk of Iowa producer
1. Susto – & I’m Fine Today
Susto is a fan favorite at Codfish Hollow in Maquoketa. The band hails from South Carolina originally and has played a handful of sold out shows in Iowa this year. This album is a mellow and thoughtful assessment of existential dread. If you like this album, also check out the single they released this year “Chillin’ On The Beach With My Best Friend Jesus Christ.” Jah werx.
2. Elizabeth Moen – That’s All I Wanted
This album is good all the way through, over and over, especially if you’re single in your late 20s (wait, did I just say that?). In all seriousness, Liz Moen is the real deal. Sultry vocals with catchy lyrics, this gem was recorded at Flat Black Studios in Lone Tree. I’m already eagerly anticipating her next album.
3. San Fermin – Belong
San Fermin came through Iowa on tour for their new album Belong in September. They also played at Gabe’s in Iowa City during the Mission Creek Festival in 2016. If you’re a fan of bands with dueling male/female vocals and enjoy albums that tell a story, this one is for you. They definitely have some awesome brass players in this band who bring a jazzy influence.
4. Simo – Rise & Shine
J.D. Simo is a virtuoso guitarist hailing from Nashville, Tennessee. This is his second album, and it’s full of amazing guitar work. He’s opened for Gregg Allman and his career got started because of a close personal friendship with Joe Bonamassa. If you’re a psychedelic rock fan, take a listen. J.D., please come play a show in Iowa!
5. Terra Lightfoot – New Mistakes
Terra is a Canadian singer-songwriter who played her debut show in Iowa at Codfish Hollow’s GARP festival in 2016. New Mistakes is a roots rock album with a bluesy vibe. Its vivid lyrics are playful and thoughtful and packs a whole lot of attitude. She’s playing a show in February 2018 at Sean Moeller’s GAS Fest in Davenport. If you like the album, go see her live. Her band is killer.
Sydney Hauer, Studio One Tracks host
1. Destroyer – Ken
Dan Bejar’s music is celebratory, dark and poetic. It is orchestral, ambient, electronic, and meditative all at once. It captures the spirit of someone who is well-traveled and experienced. It is full of life. I think Dan Bejar is one of the most nuanced and skilled songwriters we have working today. His 12th studio album features songs that are very different from one another, but they flow together in an interesting juxtaposition. It is an innovative step forward while remaining characteristically Destroyer.
2. Girlpool – Powerplant
I had the opportunity to see Girlpool at the Mill in Iowa City back in May, and it was there that I realized Powerplant would be one of my favorite albums of the year. The folk-punk duo out of Los Angeles made a big change to their sound on this album with the addition of a drummer. Their 2015 debut, Before the World Was Big, only featured a guitar, bass, and Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s vocals. The change equips them with a bigger, more impactful sound.
3. Midnight Sister – Saturn Over Sunset
The debut album from the avant-garde pop duo out of Los Angeles is theatrical, dark, and vintage-sounding. It’s dreamy and theatrical. It reaches into realms of baroque pop and 60s psychedelia while doing something completely new.
4. Hoops – Tapes #1-3
The band out of Bloomington, Indiana just recently released this collection of demos as a follow-up to their release from earlier this year, Routines, and I’ve been listening to it non-stop. It is imperfect, reverby, and dreamy in the best way.
5. Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds from Another Planet
The second album from Japanese Breakfast is filled with loss and anxiety. It is beautifully intimate and raw, but at the same time sounds like something that was made in outer space.
Troy Vogel, development operations manager
1. Nick Hakim – Green Twins
Listen to just a few minutes of Nick Hakim’s debut album and you’ll quickly realize why NPR Music called Hakim’s sound "soul music for outer space." Each track combines his haunting vocals with unique layers of sound—some of which border on bizarre. The result is a compelling album that is like nothing I’ve heard before.
2. Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear
It seems like soul music is making a bit of a resurgence. One excellent contributor to the genre is Curtis Harding, whose album Face Your Fear includes songs that sound like they’re right out of the the 1960s. Others, like the Danger Mouse-produced “Wednesday Morning Atonement” offer a modern twist on the genre.
3. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
I must admit that I didn’t become aware of the band The War on Drugs until this year, but A Deeper Understanding has me hooked. It’s a meticulously-produced album with so much depth and complexity that it takes several listens to begin to appreciate. It’s a truly beautiful album from beginning to end.
4. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
The music on Mac Demarco’s third album reflects his laid-back, easy-going reputation, but the lyrics show that he’s maturing. This Old Dog maintains his signature sound and tackles two personal subjects: his absent father’s cancer diagnosis, and DeMarco’s realization that he won’t stay young forever.
5. Dan Auerbach – Waiting on a Song
To me, it can feel a little strange when one member of a band you love puts out their own album, but Dan Auerbach’s Waiting on a Song just makes me feel good. The album has a brightness to it that you don’t always hear when listening to The Black Keys. It’s another stellar step in Auerbach’s always-evolving music career.
Sean McClain, broadcast operations specialist
1. Benjamin Booker –Witness
The second studio album from the New Orleans based musician is equal parts rock, soul, and blues. Witness is able to keep your focus with appropriate shifts between upbeat and slowed down tracks focusing on racial injustice, personal accountability, and inner conflict.
2. Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
A smooth and purposeful album, Brick Body Kids is an ode to life in the Robert Taylor Homes, which was a public housing project on Chicago’s south side. O.M.E spent much of his childhood there, and it was demolished in 2007.
3. Angel Olsen – Phases
Phases is a collection of unreleased b-sides, demos, and covers spanning the past five years of Olsen’s career that showcases her best qualities: vulnerable lyrics coupled with eloquent vocals.
4. Kevin Morby – City Music
The "urban" counterpart to the "rural" 2016 release of Singing Saw, City Music is the latest edition to his large discography. Morby does a great job of conveying how lonely life can be, even in a sea of people.
5. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
A soundtrack of hope and resistance, RTJ 3 delivers just as many insightful thoughts as it does moments of levity. The third project of the collaboration between two hip hop veterans, Killer Mike and El-P, has launched them to the top of the genre.