My Favorite Albums (and Concerts) of 2017

Kevin Orris
Dec 23, 2017 · 9 min read

December is a month of tradition. For some, it’s celebrating advent with a chocolate calendar, drunken work holiday parties, and gathering with loved ones to celebrate a seemingly secular version of Christmas.

For me, December brings a burst of excitement about documenting my end-of-year lists, increasing procrastination, and an eventual last-might effort to publish something before New Year’s Eve. Each time, I swear I’ll do better. So here I am, writing my first of three best of lists in 2017, this time covering my favorite albums, articles, and books.

I write these lists for my own documentation and amusement (did I really think Such Jubilee by Mandolin Orange was better than Coming Home by Leon Bridges in 2015??), but perhaps you can learn something from them as well.

You can check out my 2015 and 2016 best albums and articles lists here.

An intense period of introspection last winter allowed me to realize just how important music is to my happiness. Therefore, I made it a priority to attend more shows, buy more albums, and share more music in 2017. Despite my shrinking wallet, this strategy has created a bank of memories, particularly around concerts, including:

  • Eaux Claires (Chance the Rapper, Sylvan Esso, Bon Iver, Paul Simon with yMusic, The Staves, Perfume Genius, Mountain Man, and more)
  • Pitchfork (LCD Soundsystem, Hiss Golden Messenger, Vince Staples, and Danny Brown)
  • A bevy of shows at Thalia Hall (Houndmouth, Ben Gibbard, Julien Baker x2, Iron and Wine, San Fermin)
  • There was also Shovels and Rope for my first show at the Ryman
  • A free and energizing Cap’n Jazz show at House of Vans
  • Alanis Morisette at Ravinia
  • Andrew Bird at Fourth Presbyterian Church
  • John Mark McMillan and Josh Garrels at the House of Blues
  • Switchfoot at their annual Bro-Am
  • A multitude of street festivals and Schubas shows

Alas, here are my favorite albums from 2017, presented in an order I will surely second guess as soon as I hit publish and for eternity.

1. Melodrama by Lorde

If I made a best albums list in 2013, Pure Heroine would have topped it. This album marked Lorde’s shot at redemption to reach the highest accolade possible in one’s music career: my favorite album of the year. Welcome to the club, Lorde. Your trophy is in the mail.

2. Turn Out the Lights by Julien Baker

My admiration for Julien went into full force when she stole the show as an opener for Ben Gibbard at Thalia in January (this video serves as proof). In late October, she returned to the same venue as a headliner with a fresh album and an equal, if not more impressive performance. There’s a good chance this album stays with me more than any other from 2017, but I owed Lorde the top spot.

3. What Now by Sylvan Esso

In June, my friend Jerred and I ventured north to Eaux Claires for the first time. As we settled in to our camp site, Colin, a soul-searching 24-year-old, was struggling mightily to set up his tent. Our help allowed for an immediate bond and entertaining few days hearing about Colin’s broomball heroics, a free hip-hop dance lesson from Francis and the Lights, and a valiant attempt at acoustic versions of Blink 182 songs in the rain. I think of Colin often because of something he said about this album.

Definitely drunk and potentially under additional influence, Colin returned to his campsite on Friday night, looked to the night sky in thought, then stated, “You know, I think I figured out Sylvan Esso. It’s like coffee shop house music.” Months later, I heard Die Young, the hit single from this record, at a coffee shop in Russia. Point proven. Colin’s a freakin’ genius. Props to him on going from .86 GPA to corporate pay day (that’s the working title of a memoir he hopes to work on).

4. A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie

This record serves as a reminder of the power of vulnerability. You can read more about the album here, but in short, Phil Everum wrote this record shortly following the loss of his wife, Geneviève Castrée, to pancreatic cancer. It’s an emotional listen, but you’ll be glad you indulged.

5. Vision by Pet Symmetry

My love for adopted Chicagoan Evan Weiss continued through 2017. This album has it all and produced one of my favorite Audiotree Live sessions of the year. I spent more time with this record than any other this year.

6. DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar

My hip-hop obsessive days have mostly passed, but this album is a work of art. I appreciate everything Kendrick has done with this record.

7. Stranger In The Alps by Phoebe Bridgers

What a debut album. If you enjoy Julien Baker, you’ll love this record.

8. I Love You Like a Brother by Alex Lahey

I really appreciate the energy of this album. Female pop-punk anthems for the win.

9. Landmark by Hippo Campus

I view Hippo Campus in a similar ilk to Local Natives. It’s not a complex album, but I’d be comfortable playing it for anyone. I just really like it.

10. Mercury & Lightning by John Mark McMillan

I spent much of the spring listening to Live at the Knight, John Mark’s live album from a couple years back, so new material was much appreciated. Enemy, love. is one of my favorite songs of 2017, but the part of this record I appreciate most is “Death In Reverse” into “e s r e v e r n i h t a e d”. I admire John Mark for consistently pushing the envelope in the faith-based music space.

11. Birdie AND Motorcycle.jpg by Slaughter Beach, Dog

Last month, I listened to these records (YES, I CHEATED AND COMBINED TWO) more than anything and it wasn’t even close. I bought a ticket to see this groovy band at a small venue less than a mile from my apartment. I was super excited to go. Then the day of the show came and I was in serious need of some quiet time and rest. So I stayed home. In the end, it was the right decision, but I’ll be forever frustrated the timing didn’t work out.

12. GN by Ratboys

Ratboys is from Chicago. They played, like, a ton of shows in Chicago this year. My schedule didn’t allow me to attend any of them. I am sad.

13. Good Nature by Turnover

This album makes for great driving music. It’s the antonym of polarizing. And it has great cover art.

14. Tasha Sits Close to the Piano by Jaws of Love.

My favorite phrase used in an album review came in reference to this album: “overpunctuated pet project”. The only similarity to Local Natives is Kelcey Ayers’ vocals, but I still enjoy the music. It’s honest and forthright.

15. To Have You Around by Zach Winters

I was a proud Kickstarter backer of Zach’s fifth album, one I especially enjoy in times of solitude. Zach’s story of leaving his safe, full-time job to pursue a career in music is inspiring and relateable. Also, there’s this part on the third track, “Sometimes I Wonder”, where I believe it’s impossible to understand exactly what Zach says, but I swear it’s “come on, come on eat and me moan”, yet the lyrics sheet claims it’s “come on — come be near to me”. That tidbit has entertained me — and only me — for months.

16. Everybody Works by Jay Som

My biggest regret of 2017 is not seeing Jay Som live, solely because I long to be in the crowd for “The Bus Song” so I can shout “BUT I LIKE THE BUS” with the masses. Yet, I disagree with the lyric. I actually hate the bus. But I’m always down to be a part of a pop-punk sing-a-long.

Shoutout to Polyvinyl for another killer year. I hope to enjoy even more Airheads in 2018.

17. The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

This album reminds me of Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear in 2015 in that it seems to be on every Best Of list, but it’s liked most by suburban dads (which is a false narrative I’ve created in my head). I genuinely like this album, but I don’t want to be a suburban dad yet.

18. American Dream by LCD Soundsystem

Full disclosure that I haven’t actually listened to this entire album. In fact, I’ve only heard three songs at most. You see, I have an agreement with my friend Mike to gather and indulge for the first time together. It came out on September 1. That has yet to happen. But I keep telling myself it well. So for now, I’m placing my trust in a trio of singles, an intoxicating live performance at Pitchfork, and precedent. Don’t let me down, James Murphy.

19. A Black Mile To The Surface by Manchester Orchestra

Like Hippo Campus, I view Manchester Orchestra as an agreeable band. This record works in almost any setting. And then this tweet exchange only furthered my love for the record. I really hope this isn’t a joke.

20. Tell All My Friends by Will Reagan and United Pursuit

I initially planned on creating a separate list for worship albums, but the reality is, I spent more time with this record than most on this list. This has been my go-to for journaling, reading the Bible, solitude, and more. The lyrics of this album are perhaps more relateable than any other on the list. I couldn’t help but include it.

I’m making an effort to share the music, reads, art, and more that inspires me on a regular basis in 2018. Click here to join me on this journey.

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