You’ve heard it a thousand times, but we’re here to tell you again: Boston’s music scene is stuffed to the brim with talent. Each year, we see more artists push themselves to create bold music and personable records. Most do so without seeking any type of verbal praise or written press. The only downside is how hard that makes it to find new music, but we’re here to give you a round-up of the artists who blew us away in 2017.
If our music scene wasn’t so ripe with talent, then this list would be far easier to make. Just look at what’s missing due to space. Passion Pit released the bursting electropop record Tremendous Sea of Love for free. Firewalker dropped a self-titled record that put aggressive, rapidfire hardcore punk on the frontlines. Dump Him carried the torch of Kathleen Hanna’s no-fucks-given punk on Venus in Gemini. Then came Scale Models of Atrocities, the scaling, melodic hardcore record from Pandemix. Ginger Sunburn made a name for itself with indie rock fuzz full-length Sleepwalk. Creaturos carved out their place in the local garage rock scene with a self-titled LP. Black El dropped summer-ready singles like “Another Dose” but not technically an album. Did we forget someone else? Of course we did. The list goes on forever.
To make sure you learn about the city’s best and brightest, this year’s end of the year content is broken up into two lists: the Best Local Albums of 2017 (Hello!) and the Best Local EPs of 2017 (Haasan Barclay? Dame? Lilith? Oh my!). So read onward for the records from Boston- or Massachusetts-based artists that we couldn’t stop blasting because, dare we say, they rival albums from Lorde and Kendrick Lamar this year.
A PLACE I’LL ALWAYS GO
Grieving is hard. It’s even harder when death visits twice in a row. At 22 years old, Ellen Kempner, the frontwoman of indie rock trio Palehound, lost a close friend and then lost her grandmother. Though much of the band’s sophomore record rides on catchy melodies and gruff guitar, it’s Kempner’s struggle to deal with the uncomfortable guilt of moving on with life post-loss that sticks with you long after the record finishes its runtime. Be it the dissonant hums of “Carnations” or the painful details in “If You Met Her,” Kempner penned a follow-up LP to one of our 2015 favorites, Dry Food, that feels like both a step forward and a deeper nuzzling into the sounds that make her one of Boston’s standout musicians.
REFLECTIONS OF A FLOATING WORLD
It’s been two years since Elder last won us over with its transcendent brand of stoner doom. On Reflections of a Floating World, it manages to leave us flat on our backs once again, but this time it feels strangely peaceful, like a country-tinged midlife catharsis led by flourishes of prog and post-rock. Toss riff-loving ’80s prog in a blender with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, a couple steel pedals, and your favorite mid-aughts quintessential “alternative” band, all shaken and stirred by a couple of metalheads. It’s a curious mix, but Elder has both the intensity and stamina to pull it off, turning 11-minute tracks into blissful escapes you’ll wish were even longer.
SOMEWHERE NICE, SOMEDAY
If you write about grappling with adulthood, your music will relate to the bulk of Boston’s residents. Though Infinity Girl, arguably the city’s most beloved shoegaze band after Swirlies, ruminate on the age-old topic with Somewhere Nice, Someday, their concerns rest more powerfully than others in their indecisiveness. Maybe that’s because the band’s future is more uncertain than ever before. Remember when Infinity Girl broke up in 2012? Obviously that didn’t pan out to be totally true, but this time, they really mean it—Somewhere Nice, Someday is their actual last record. Thank god the album shows off their emotional hook-and-line. It means trademark blows—near-painful reverb swelling on “Headlights,” companionship worries on “The Comfort of What I Had,” warped string bending on the My Bloody Valentine-esque “Derail Me”—make it the perfect album to hole up in your bedroom with to mourn their end.
Lina Tullgren has come a long way. The Maine native and Boston resident dropped on the scene with last year’s lo-fi Wishlist EP, but set to work finding a darker, heavier indie rock sound for Won. The production change doesn’t leave fans in the dust, though. With the breathtaking, unshaken honesty of Big Thief or the drained exasperation of Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, Tullgren still pulls cobwebs back to examine what’s behind them, only this time she utilizes a full band to capitalize on her songwriting strengths. There’s a lot of vague you’s thrown around, but the album dodges break-up album tropes. Instead, Tullgren poses questions that help listeners, especially emotional transplants, just as much as they help her: “How do you find a home / when your home won’t leave you alone?”
YELLOW K RECORDS
Carefree summer tunes are hard to come by, if only because Boston devotes itself to pummeling rock and bass-heavy rap. Kaley Honeycutt moved to Boston from Orlando not too long ago and brought her musical moniker Baby! with her—and we get to benefit. Once here, she released her debut EP, Pick Me, which got a nod from DigBoston almost immediately, followed by Sunny., F.L. The breezy indie pop tunes bring to mind more pleasant times. Lead single “Weather Girl” brings back that summer mood in barely three minutes. “Bite My Tongue” carries you to the edge of a rooftop to swing your legs off the edge, all carefree mess and youthful charm. As we enter a new year, Baby!’s debut is the type of optimistic vibe you will lean on for a handful of reasons, some more obvious than others.
MASS AVE & LENOX
EAST COAST RAP
Of all the rap releases in 2017, none sit with you quite like Avenue’s Mass Ave & Lenox. The South End rapper pays tribute to the fixtures of his city—not necessarily traditional Boston figures—through slick strings of words that prioritize respect above all else. It’s a 15-track release where a shout-out to defunct sneaker mecca Harry the Greek’s or a Roxbury sidestreet sounds just as familiar as a much-needed reminder that Boston’s hip-hop scene is bursting at its seams. Put on “Aint Shit Funny” on the way to a packie. Call the radio request line and tell them to blast “Nobody.” It’s the soundtrack Boston’s been craving. Avenue tells his story with deft lyricism above timeless beats, propelling verbatim about this history of Boston, a tale only he could tell.
Boston listeners who are driven toward the forward-thinking, self-aware, occasionally tongue-in-cheek guidance of the Mountain Goats will be pleased to know Boston’s got its own version of that: the Michael Character. James Ikeda has been waxing his own brand of Jeff Rosenstock-style positive folk punk since the dawn of time, but Fame Swoll, his ninth release, is arguably his most complete. He reflects on everything from Boston University bros harassing people in Allston to the Cuban Revolution’s impact on black radical solidarities. Lyrically, it’s a treat, but it’s equally rewarding instrumentally; it’s the first release in four years to feature a full band—and the record shines because of it.
DEAD AND LOVING IT: AN INTRODUCTORY EXPLORATION OF PESSIMYSTICISM
EXPLODING IN SOUND RECORDS
Back in 2007, glum anti-folk act Bad History Month was stuck in basement routes delivering ribald jokes and oddly phrased self-deprecation, the type of downer ballads that any Allston kid could get behind. Fast-forward a decade and Sean Bean, the main songwriter, is still keeping a low profile, even if his music has blown up. Bad History Month always presented itself as an open wound, letting listeners press their palms to the visible pain, but this year’s Dead and Loving It is a surprisingly optimistic guide to self-help. It’s hard not to buy in giving it’s coming from an artist who never seemed to carry any hope to begin with. With gentle yet tangled guitar work, Bad History Month offers up a powerful selection of songs ruminating on death-trip empathy—the very freedom that comes when you realize maybe death isn’t so bad after all. Best of all, physical copies come with a proper manual to the songs, artwork breaking down the tracks, and a list of books Sean Bean found helpful during his own struggles. The world isn’t so shitty if you look at the toilet from a different angle.
It’s been awhile since Guerilla Toss was in the sweaty depths of Elks Lodge, stripping naked and playing ridiculous, seemingly unreal sets. Now, it’s signed to DFA Records, the infamous label of LCD Soundsystem, and released its second full-length on the label earlier this June. The art rock group reels things into a tangible format on GT ULTRA, where songs sound like a mix of Talking Heads, Factory Floor, and some bizarre ’80s electro funk sale bin finds. Most importantly, its inimitable sound gets the production it’s long needed, making each elastic bass line or wiry synth become a welcoming glitzy spasm, the type you can latch onto with glee instead of feeling intimidated by the intensity of it all.
For the love of Papi, stop listening to the Weeknd already. There’s better R&B out there—and you don’t have to look very far for it. Put on Che Ecru, the backyard crooner who’s been making late-night rounds with Buries, his debut tape. Over the course of 14 tracks, Che Ecru makes a name for himself, laying the foundation with silky groove “Lonely” before swapping over to “2AM,” a bass-thudding jam primed for remixes, and minimalist dance beats on “Luckily.” With over 2 million plays and counting on Soundcloud, his tape is spreading through word of mouth, a discussion we’re proud to be a part of—and honestly, you should be talking too.
MIDNIGHT WEREWOLF RECORDS
There’s not a lot of room for Americana in Boston. Those who pursue it do so with an invisible cowboy hat on their head, like they would yearn for the Southern sunset no matter what heat they’d get from New England sports fans. Milk saddles up on Horsetown Threshold, a record that’s not full-frontal country but places just the right number of desert pangs and dusty guitar solos at its center to relocate listeners to Tennessee for an hour. Don’t let that mislead you. Horsetown Threshold climbs every valley and mountain in sight. There are slow-burning blues in the second half of “Horsetown,” stoner metal-style weight on “Fishin’,” and a classic rock chase scene in “Vietnam.” It’s the way locals would want Americana to sound: raspy, twisted, and with a devilish grin.
Mini Dresses are a household name in Boston’s underground scene, yet they haven’t had much to show for it. Sure, there’s been a slew of EPs and singles, but it wasn’t until this year, with the aptly self-titled debut full-length, that Mini Dresses finally showed the world what patience can do. The lo-fi indie rock trio have been pushing themselves to evolve over time, and Mini Dresses is a testament to the dedication of figuring out one’s sound. For fans who loved their earliest style, you’re in luck: The album’s slightly distant vocal delivery gives it a hazy, dream-like feel that recalls their earliest sound when they entered a scene as a dream pop band, without sacrificing the complex melodies and attention to detail the band has learned over the years.
SEED OF HYSTERIA
SIDE TWO RECORDS
To people unfamiliar with punk, the aggressive tone of hardcore or frantic yelling of frontmen can make the whole genre seem like a comical, though well-intentioned, genre marked by back patches and leather jackets. But that world has been and continues to be a force of marginalized representation, DIY ethics, and political rebuttal. On its long-awaited follow-up to 2015’s self-titled album, Exit Order returns to remind listeners why they need to be listening. Raw yet clean, this year’s Seed of Hysteria sees the band speeding through an impressive collection of 10-track hits. It has frontwoman Anna Cataldo to thank for much of that. The band’s melodic choruses (“Seed of Hysteria”) and structural change-ups mid-song (“Mass Panic”) are catchy on their own, but Cataldo’s delivery grabs you by the lapels and stares straight into your soul. By the time the album wraps, your heartbeat is racing and your brain keeps asking one question: Where can I buy a copy?
ED BUYS HOUSES
How can we summarize the understated genius of Sidney Gish in a way that we haven’t already? For starters, she’s a freshly minted 20-year-old who’s got the talent of a young Regina Spektor with the peppiness of Vampire Weekend and DIY heart of Frankie Cosmos. Secondly, she recorded all of it through an iPhone earbud and a USB microphone, neither of which you could guess based on her immaculate tone and production. Third, she released Ed Buys Houses mere hours before the end of 2016, but there hasn’t been a month in 2017 where we weren’t playing it. Really, it’s that good. Sidney Gish is all that—sliced bread, a bag of chips, various grocery items used to measure impressiveness—and then some. It’s best to just listen and see what we mean. No, we don’t know how she does it either.
A HAIRSHIRT OF PURPOSE
EXPLODING IN SOUND RECORDS
Boston’s long-beloved rock band Pile turns 10 this year, and its unofficial celebration included the release of a highly awaited new LP. A Hairshirt of Purpose is the band’s most complete work to date, one that manages to both outdo its early work while simultaneously paying homage to it. The stripped-down country blues of Jerk Routine and anthemic guitar rock of Dripping take on new shape with its most thematically solid, well-transitioned, intentionally ordered album. The band tries its hand with orchestral strings. There’s clunky piano interludes. It’s an album of new steps (“Dogs”) sandwiched by comforting shredders (“Fingers”). Pile not only earned the title of your favorite band’s favorite band but pushes itself forward, both in regards to iconic musical feats and in regards to the unrelenting acrobatics of frontman Rick Maguire’s modesty.
YOU CAN’T SEE INSIDE OF ME
DON GIOVANNI RECORDS
Though the members technically hail from the land of Narragansett, What Cheer? Brigade is a Boston staple. The brass ensemble frequently takes to our city’s streets to perform its brand of marching music, a unique hybrid of political action and performance art. With roots in Providence’s DIY punk and experimental community scene, it changes the narrative of what it means to be a loud party band, all horn and tuba instead of drunken frat bros dabbing to dub. On its third LP, the group displays arguably its best work yet, drawing on early material as well as Balkan and Eastern European traditions, while utilizing the instrumental voice of each of its 20 members.
HARD TO KILL RECORDS
Hayley Thompson-King isn’t from Boston, but the alt-country singer-songwriter certainly sounds at home here. After bouncing between our city and New York, she finally found her home in Cambridge over a decade ago. With a degree in classical music and further prep as a grad student at New England Conservatory, Thompson-King’s music should sound rigid and uptight. But with Psychotic Melancholia, she shakes that free. On single “Teratoma,” she sways through a blues rock fire. Elsewhere, like on “Large Hall, Slow Decay,” she embraces honky-tonk Southern stomping, and she warps her voice to enter a range comparable to Nikki Lane or late-night country stars. It’s an album of emotional energy bursting forward and finding its own path, and Thompson-King was smart enough to let it run wild so it can capture you in its vividness.
Boston’s best rappers stay under the radar until it’s time for them to cross over into national media. Vintage Lee is right on the cusp of that moment. The 21-year-old Roxbury rapper has been close pals with the likes of Cousin Stizz, Michael Christmas, and OG Swaggerdick for a while now. While hearing their praise for her should get your attention, her debut mixtape, PiMP, will take the reins immediately. Vintage Lee rocks an unmistakable style: slow draw, lackadaisical lyrics, and a self-proclaimed vocal limp. From the soon-to-be summer hit “Hennythings Possible” to the childlike bounce of “Lean Lean,” Vintage Lee is putting herself out there not just for Boston’s rap scene, but this year’s rising crop of 20-somethings, too.
The release of Bat House’s debut LP has been a very, very, very long time coming—or at least it feels that way. The psych rock four-piece began becoming a staple at house shows and lower-tier venue gigs in early 2016, but took its time recording a full-length as physical evidence of such. The way all four saw it, there’s no need to rush an album if you want to make it sound the best it could be. And Bat House, the band’s debut album, is exactly that. It skips its way through finger-tapping math rock on “Woods,” riled-up drum fills on “Chemical X,” and fuzzed-filled mania on “Patterns.” No matter how familiar you are with psych rock, Bat House’s LP is a perfect introduction or a welcome extension of the genre with undeniable character from start to finish.
THANKS FOR THE CHAPSTICK
The unassuming confidence of TeaMarrr’s album name is a fitting set-up for what it actually sounds like. On Thanks for the Chapstick, the Boston-based artist offers up liquid R&B pop, the type that soaks in fluffy synth and spacious production—in part thanks to Latrell James, Rilla Force, and her partner, Keith Bell. Though the seven-track release could technically be categorized as an EP, TeaMarr structures it with the synchronicity, thematic development, and gusto of a full-length, topped off with Yu-Gi-Oh! references and heartbreak vendettas. From “I Do…But” to “I Know Nothing,” it all hangs on her impressive vocals. Don’t categorize her as an R&B shoe-in. She’s got massive lungs that propel her to pop heights, and the way that she climbs scales with an even-headed coolness could see her soaring to new heights in the new year.
There’s a rare type of calm at the core of People Like You’s music that’s hard to find, not just here in Boston, but in the music world at large. The five-piece wants to deliver “a sense of genuine authenticity through music as their creative, unifying outlet.” The music it draws its sound from—avant-garde jazz, Japanese math rock, minimalism, and Midwestern emo—lends itself toward exactly that. Verse ditches the gimmicky tricks bands of a similar genre fall on. Instead, it’s full of warm trumpet, pointed lyrics, and calculated instrumentation that breathes easy, culminating in a sound that Boston is too often dry of. And while it’s tempting to point to acts like American Football, Joan of Arc, and Owen as influences, the diversity of People Like You’s sound comes from the extensive interests of its five-person lineup and what they can do when they join forces.
A BEEEF CD
There’s something about the stench of Allston in the summertime that’s bizarrely welcome year after year. Without any insult implied, Beeef is the soundtrack to those few blissful months. The Allston quartet released its debut full-length, the cheekily titled A Beeef CD, in February, and we swear it melted some of the snow just with its jangly pop chords. Think of it as a mix of the charm of Mac DeMarco, the blissful melodies of Real Estate, and the perfectly understated note progressions of Deerhunter. A Beeef CD is another indie rock album by a bunch of white dudes, yes, but it speaks to a time and place in a way that far exceeds generic sound. If meat is murder, then adding another vowel to it is life, and Beeef is dishing it out nonstop. There aren’t enough reasons to feel good, and the band’s single-handedly offering a record of cheery tunes with “carne diem” plastered across each one.
NEW MUTANT DISCO
Fans of Swim-era Caribou, Jamiroquai’s disco funk, and nonaggressive house will fall for the dance floor genius of Ryan Lucht pretty quickly. We suggest starting with “Blue Rose,” the lead single off his newest full-length, New Mutant Disco. It’s an immediate party hit that places ’90s keys perfectly amid skittering hi-hats and sliced diva vocals. Lucht landed guest features from singer-songwriter Sidney Gish, rapper Kool A.D., and MC Latrell James, all of which will be woven between his beats. Boston’s electronic scene is quiet, but when it comes out to play, it plays hard—and we know Camino 84 will lead us onto the dance floor with enough hits to last until the sun begins to rise.
Old-school folk is long overdue from mainstream fanfare. When it finally arrives, Honeysuckle will be ready and waiting to claim its fame. Though it rests just outside of the city limits, Honeysuckle inflates its sound with the rambunctious, foot-traffic heavy, colorful tone of Boston life, and on Catacombs, it returns with arrangements that whisk you away to hidden barns to dance. Holly McGarry wraps her voice around each song, bringing the instruments together in a single file line then threaded by the others’ harmonies. But it’s how the band pairs the infectious strength of songs like “Deep Blue Eyes” with the mild-mannered reflections of slower numbers like “Greenline” or “Constellations” that shows why it’s Boston’s hybrid of Fleet Foxes and the Punch Brothers.
THE DUSK IN US
Nine albums deep in its career, Converge shows no signs of stopping, though I don’t think even the end of the world could force the band to halt no matter how hard it tried. Frontman Jacob Bannon has spent over two decades putting Boston’s metalcore scene on the map. Known as one of the earliest innovators of metalcore—the genre meeting point of metal and hardcore—and general overachievers in the scene, Converge spent the five years that followed All We Love We Leave Behind to regroup. That reflection period gave it time to craft The Dusk in Us, an album of massive weight, force, and existential brooding. While Bannon isn’t quite as heated as he is on past albums, he does seem to have calmed. Perhaps it’s a counterbalancing reflection on hate’s general rise throughout the country. Whatever the reason, whenever Bannon proposes an answer—“It’s the fires that we quell that save us from our hells,” he sings on “Arkhipov Calm”; “It’s the wars that we don’t fight that keep love alive”—he seems more certain than ever that the only way to progress is to move forward, even if that means refraining from jumping in every fight.
ONE NIGHT ONLY
He may have moved to California, but Cousin Stizz will always be your relative. The Dorchester-bred rapper has moved from the gruff mixtapes of his past to a proper major label debut. On One Night Only, he collapses into beach-ready beats, where palm trees sway and the sun hits hard on his words. It’s an airy listen that adds much-needed breezes to Stizz’s sound. Even when he’s joined by people like Offset and G-Eazy, Cousin Stizz maintains his flavor, showing that the brighter sound that comes with RCA can’t strip him of his hometown routes. Best of all, he knows it. “These days I run it like Ricky, I’m Ross,” he brags on “Headlock.” “What does it take, turn yourself to a boss?” There’s no need for response. He already knows the answer.
Zoom out of Boston for a second to refocus on Easthampton, the hometown of five-piece shoegaze act Kindling. After forming in the winter of 2014, the band began churning out original music that sunk its teeth into the early days of the genre. Now, Kindling finds itself staring at a standout album, Hush, with its name on the cover. Unlike most shoegaze musicians, singers and guitarists Gretchen Williams and Stephen Pierce, drummer Andy Skelly, guitarist Jeff Stevens, and bassist Aaron Snow manage to make music that feels genuine instead of arrogant in its warmth. From the opening chords of “For Olive” that slam into focus on through to the slow note slides on “Better World,” Hush is a shoegaze album of textured guitars, understated vocal harmonies, and full-throttle rhythms that don’t take themselves too seriously, even when they bust out a guitar solo.
ALL WE NEED IS TWO MINUTES
The best thing about Nick Shea isn’t how talented he is for a young age (he’s been busting rhymes since he was 14) or that the 20-year-old East Boston rapper used to spend his days beside the T as a part of the Wreck Shop Movement’s Subway Cipher. It’s that he’s been reviving old-school hip-hop in the most classic of ways, and he prefers to do so free of cost. When not rapping outdoors for free to any listeners who want to hear him, he’s sitting at home, sharpening his skills and pushing himself to whittle down his delivery. His debut album, All We Need Is Two Minutes, is a labor of love that promotes positivity. Like the old-school greats before him—De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Atmosphere—Shea flaunts his goofy side so that the virtues of knowing himself, and in turn you knowing yourself, rise to the top of beat boxing, funk samples, and gelatinous bass that’s more addicting than he would let on.
URGE TO MERGE
Birthing Hips have prided themselves on finding a melody in the middle of decomposing madness. Over the course of their career, the band has grown more in tune, learning how to spiral off another’s part, creating the type of pointed instrumental work that bands five years their senior showcase. On their final album, Urge to Merge, Birthing Hips sprint across a tightrope in a frightening but captivating manner. Singer Carrie Furniss, guitarist Wendy Eisenberg, bassist Andres Abenante, and drummer Owen Liza fall into sync, spiraling out of control and then picking one another back up, reminding us why it’s so easy to fall in love with nontraditional songwriting like theirs.
Over the course of 10 tracks, Bent Knee once again dives into the world of experimentalism and weds it to art rock, churning out a strange mixture that welcomes you as a surprise. Land Animal is the band’s first record on a major label. Make it a song in and that’s clear. The production feels slick. Each Pink Floyd-like psych touch sounds headier than usual. Even when it enters folk territory on “These Hands,” the band flips it into an expansive narrative. It’s an album about survival, struggle, and moving forward. Though the band addresses it with complicated tales and metaphors, the theme is one every listener knows well and one that Bent Knee sets into motion in a manner only it could pull off.