These albums – from lesser-known but more-than-worthy artists – may not have burned through your playlists in 2017, but a Rolling Stone editor or contributor thinks at least one should have.
These six tracks unfurl, ritual-esque, across a minor-key soundscape that manages to update old-school darkwave with updated technological flourishes. A Place Both Wonderful and Strange rewind back to the textured atmospheres of early 4AD albums, stretching the gauze over ambient, drum ‘n’ bass, and the occasional cleansing stab of guitar. The best tracks here feature vocalist Okti, who’s definitely read a few pages in the Lisa Gerrard book of emoting. Arielle Castillo
Hawaiian steel guitar and ukuleles first popped up in Greek music during the 1920s, and no one made better use of them than composer, journalist and cartoonist Kostas Bezos. Born in 1905, Bezos worked and played hard (cocaine and stuff) until he died of tuberculosis in 1943. With his White Birds band, Bezos combined Hawaiian acoustic instruments and Greek song, and then spiced everything up with his zingy add-ons (such as replacing Hawaiian falsetto vocals with Alpine yodeling) and clever political satire. This collection of 78s simultaneously embodies local charm and international sophistication. Bezos’ giddy, animated spirit reflected a crazy world in flux. Richard Gehr
The debut LP from Detroit dynamo Stef Chura wrings fresh sounds out of the classic combination of electric guitar and voice. On “Slow Motion,” one of 2017’s best opening tracks, she sulks and sparks over Cobain-esque chords; by “Speeding Ticket,” 10 tracks later, she’s exhausted but no less compelling. Both songs show how perceptive Chura is about disconnection and crushed dreams, with a minor in sly irony. (Check those titles: “Slow Motion” is a fast one, “Speeding Ticket” rolls slow.) Those who heard this album when it came out this past January on the local garage label Urinal Cake Records are ahead of the game for February 2018, when it’s being reissued on the much bigger Saddle Creek. Simon Vozick-Levinson
Casey Dienel – who’s also recorded as White Hinterland – takes on the feminine imperative with lacerating humor and fortress-of-sound synths on this stunner of an album, which includes the zipless-fuck mini-opera “High Times,” the frantic rebuttal to fitting into “sample size” culture “Complicated Silhouette” and the paranoid synth-pop fantasia “Thrasher.” Dienel’s humor is honest and searing, and her songwriting is norm-averse. Imitation was a glittering rock hurled at femininity’s funhouse mirror when it was released in May, and it only grew more vital as the year dragged on and more men behaving badly slithered out of society’s firmament. Maura Johnston
This 49-minute live performance from the French instrumental drone-rock trio France sounds a bit like a superjam between Can, the Velvet Underground and Saucerful of Secrets–era Pink Floyd, the group blissing out on drums, bass and electric hurdy-gurdy. It begins with a metallic squelch and, five minutes in, the hurdy-gurdy begins feeding back, creating its own rhythm. Overtones creep in, Floyd-like squeals overtake the top end, and eventually it sounds like a plane taking off. It’s brittle yet warm, minimal yet hypnotic – and it all sounds deafeningly loud. Kory Grow
“You Don’t Know” – the first track on the debut album by this Brooklyn trio led by singer-guitarist-songwriter Emma DeCorsey – sounds like grunge never ran out of gas: a dark, roundabout guitar riff; the way DeCorsey’s sharp, plaintive voice harmonizes with that hook, Kurt Cobain-style; the snap to attention in the chorus. But then “David Bowie” pulls you hard into the present as DeCorsey confesses – in chant-like anguish against a hammering motif and yowling guitar – her competitive frustration (“Cursed here to have never made it/Victim of my own good nature”) and the compound ache of listening to the last music of a treasured icon. In this era of near-daily rock & roll passings, DeCorsey hits that intersection of pain where profound loss meets the fear that an age has truly passed and you’ve missed the chance for your own voice to be heard. The credits note that DeCorsey wrote these eight songs – including the Soundgarden-like avalanche of “Dead Cat” and the frantic, choral slice of the title song – over a decade. She didn’t waste the care or patience. On My Old Man, I Am the Polish Army have delivered the year’s best rock & roll album about time running out – and making the best of everything of you have to give. David Fricke
As one half of the minimalist duo Sundy Best – two guys with a guitar and a cajón – Nicholas Jamerson did a helluva lot with very little, thanks to a molasses-thick voice and a knack for writing brutally honest songs like the can’t-outrun-your-roots ballad “Smoking Gun.” On his first-ever solo album, the indie released NJ, he spreads his wings, diving deep into jammy folk-country territory. Recorded live in Jamerson’s native Prestonsburg, Kentucky, with a rotating roster of musician buddies, the album is a postcard from his corner of the Bluegrass State: the harmonica-heavy “Riverbank” is all lazy-day nostalgia, while the self-aware “Let It Go for a While” realizes there’s no place like home. The standout, though, is “Veteran’s Day,” the true tale of his carpenter granddaddy who taught local prisoners the trade. It’s the satisfying kind of greasy country funk that wouldn’t sound out of place on Shotgun Willie. Joseph Hudak
There may be no more purely truth-telling moment in 2017 pop than on the blithely pistoning lead track “Want Ur Love,” from South African dynamo Spoek Mathambo’s latest, when vocalist Nongoma Ndlovu matter-of-factly declaims: “For fuck’s sake, love!” Then turns it into a playground chant: “For fuck’s sake, for fuck’s sake, f-f-f-f-for fuck’s sake, love” as a post-punky tangle of guitar filters through the groove. Such exuberantly giddy, self-knowing bits constantly pop up throughout Mathambo’s fifth studio album. After signing with indie titan Sub Pop for a 2012 one-off – darker, more rock-leaning, polygot assault Father Creeper – the frontman/raconteur has been on a collaborative tear. With Mzansi Beat Code, he reclaims his “township techno” sound, goosing it into a joyous free-for-all with a hotbox collective, including South African producers DJ Spoko and DJ Mujava, Argentinian cumbia-rap crew Fantasma and Mexican singer-songwriter Ceci Bastida, among others. Charles Aaron
Whether in the hands of Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman or John Zorn, the alto saxophone has long been an instrument of radical change in jazz. The influence of all three giants is audible in the work of young NYC altoist Chris Pitsiokos, but on this harsh yet revelatory quartet album – featuring fellow intergenre avant-gardists Brandon Seabrook, Tim Dahl and Weasel Walter on guitar, bass and drums, respectively – he puts forth his own startlingly original vision. Tracks like “Fried” and “Death in the Afternoon” move from hyperactive freeform scramble to viselike compositional precision, while “Quantized” and “Wet Brain” suggest a herky-jerky punk-funk outfit’s bent take on prog. Throughout the record, the leader’s astonishingly fleet sax work – sometimes darting and soulful, sometimes squalling and unhinged – explodes with urgency and feverish invention. Hank Shteamer
This Chicago band calls its sound “post-country” but “cuddlecore country” might be a better way to sum up their mix of friendly guitar swirl and cozy jangle and twang. Julie Steiner’s songs are full of shakily proud unburdenings and fun imagination. The gently rocking “Molly” gets big points for being about a person, not a drug (even if the Molly in question sounds like a bit of both); on “Elvis in the Freezer” horns and steel guitars stripe a goodbye to a beloved family pet; and “Crying About the Planets” is Pavement-worthy guitarscaping with lyrics about an Antarctic explorer that serve as a casual metaphor for real-life peril and survival. A few songs here might’ve had a shot at alt-rock radio back in the old days but, like all the good neo-Nineties rock, GN reimagines that sound if bands back then never had to waste a second wondering if their dreams would eventually add up to owing some record company money. As Steiner sings on the dreamy, dyspeptic, Liz Phair-ian “Wandered,” “rock & roll is my escape.” Indeed, this works rock & roll’s best myth: that the freedom to become whatever you are is all you’re ever going to need. Jon Dolan
Though rooted in Indian ragas and partially driven by the sitar of Yoshida Daikiti, the percussive art-punk of Saicobab sounds like no fixed point on the map, at times reminiscent of American noise-rock and jazz, Arabic folk music, German psychedelia and the underground sounds of the quartet’s native Japan. The percussive vocals come courtesy of Boredoms drummer/OOIOO leader Yoshimi, whose gymnastic performances – often distorted and distended – recall everything from Yoko Ono to Aphex Twin to the Stooges. Riffs cycle and a riq jangles well outside the world of of 4/4 time signatures: Playful and mesmerizing. Christopher R. Weingarten
Bob Dylan has spent recent years demonstrating the Great American Songbook’s greatness – however, he’s hardly the only one re-animating it for a new era. Salvant, regularly and rightly, is considered one of the greatest jazz singers of her generation, but that label sells her short. She’s also a master curator, deconstructing American artifacts like a bomb squad technician (see her 2013 cover of Valaida Snow’s “You Bring Out the Savage in Me”). This double LP is less about crate-digging cultural critiques than re-imagining classics hiding in plain sight. A mix of live recordings made last year at the Village Vanguard with her sharp trio and studio recording backed by strings, it’s a showcase for her jazz bonafides: her playfully cocky, abstractly virtuosic swing on Irving Berlin’s “The Best Thing for You (Would Be You),” her sexy time-warping on Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” She also finds humor and tragedy in the queer subtext of Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy” and smirking, simmering anger in the double-standard of “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” And with Salvant, 28, now writing her own stuff – including “Fascination,” a chamber-music setting of Langston Hughes’ writing – it also shows a fully-formed artist still evolving. Will Hermes
Playing solo under the moniker Sneaks, D.C. post-punker Eva Moolchan dresses down her own songs and lets her bass and synthesizers do the talking, while her voice, charmingly disaffected, floats along for the ride. Produced by Mary Timony (Helium, Ex Hex), Moolchan’s sophomore LP is dense when compared to the cool austerity of 2016’s Gymnastics; the saunter of her past songs races to a sprint in the freestyle-centric opener “Inside Edition,” and slows to a power strut in the cutting “Hair Slick Back” and “Future.” S.E.
The vocal turn of Dan Tyminski on Avicii’s 2013 EDM smash “Hey Brother” seems to have been more than a one-off. The bluegrass guitarist and vocalist’s 2017 solo album Southern Gothic plays around with a similar palette of sounds, mixing traditional acoustic instrumentation with buzzing electronics and programmed drums. The title track slithers along to swampy dobro riffs and beatboxed percussion, while Tyminski ruminates on crooked preachers and politicians, infidelity and the shadowy corners of prim Southern towns. These skittering beats and top-shelf picking accompany Tyminski’s brooding looks at his world, from toxic relationships (“Perfect Poison”) to confronting pain (“Hollow Hallelujah”), culminating in the stunning, all-build-no release album closer “Numb.” It’s a wild clash of sounds that proves traditional sensibilities don’t have to be covered in dust. Jon Freeman
Rapper Billy Woods is a familiar but under-appreciated name, with a catalog dating back to the early Aughts and New York’s pre-Beast Coast underground. Known Unknowns alludes to Woods’ unheralded reputation while also announcing his intentions to finally reach a wider audience. He casually raps about “zero merch sales,” clueless undercover cops and diehard fans who “know every verse” on the whimsical “Police Came to My Show.” He flips the names of rap icons like Nas and Kool G. Rap into a lament of fading hip-hop values on “Superpredator,” and trades bars with fellow NYC heads Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman on “Wonderful.” He rhymes in knotty language and makes twisty narratives, and producer Blockhead adds a muddy boom-bap element, making sure the music bumps even as Woods’ verses whizz past. Mosi Reeves