At the end of each year, it’s hard not to feel overwhelming gratitude for our city. Boston manages to house a sea of talent, especially when it comes to music. Day in and day out, there are artists breaking their backs just so they can create the folk, rock, hip-hop, electronica, metal, R&B, experimental, and soul songs that they love. It’s a city that runs on passion and community. That’s apparent in the music as much as it is in the listeners. It also explains why picking out the 30 “best” local albums of the year is so hard.
The easiest way to verify the strength of this list is by looking at the contenders who didn’t make the cut (despite churning out some quality records). Though no longer a Boston band, the Breeders reunited the Last Splash lineup for the sturdy comeback album All Nerve. We Can All Be Sorry polished off their charming indie pop on Grand Design. Ultra Chapelle made a post-twee anthem with WOMP WOMP, squitch found the meeting point between math rock and art rock with Uncle Steve in Spirit, and Daeves channeled his inner Stephen Malkmus for Whatever Before the Storm. Blues rock duo Mr. Airplane Man released Jacaranda Blue, their first proper album in 14 years. Barrence Whitfield & the Savages revived the vintage rock soul of R&B with Soul Flowers of Titan. The often overlooked trio E—Thalia Zedek, Jason Sanford of Neptune, and Gavin McCarthy of Karate—built off their various alt-rock backgrounds on their sophomore LP, Negative Work. Grindcore act Limbs Bin finally released the heavily anticipated One Happy World. Today Junior gave surf rock a face lift with Single Forever. Folk got a friendly bump thanks to Neon by Sam Moss and The Measured Mile by sundog. Gia Greene overcame emergency surgeries to reveal her debut LP Unexpected Guest. Indie rock act Cosmic Johnny established itself as a must-know name on the Allston scene thanks to Good Grief. Psych rock trio Sundrifter launched listeners to space with Visitations. Former Du Vide frontman Alexander released his barren solo debut Settle Down. Lowell favorites oldsoul played into the emo side of alt-rock with coy. Artists like Animal Flag and Good News played into the performative side of rock with Void Ripper and It Is Time respectively, and wowflower skated through the downtempo electronica scene with lo-fi record feverdream. Lesser Glow gave doom a post-metal spin with Ruined. At some point during all of this, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones released their first album in seven years, because ska refuses to die.
To help you catch up with all the music Boston-based artists released this year, we outlined our favorite full-lengths released from the bunch below. Whether you’re a diehard metalhead, a Newport Folk Festival regular, a DIY scene creative, a hip-hop champion, or someone just looking for new music to listen to, read everything outlined below (and stay tuned for our EPs of the year next week). The level of talent and quality in your backyard may surprise you.
Few Allston basement bands get the chance to crawl their way to fame. Rapid as it may be, Vundabar’s ascent is the product of doing hard work with a carefree saunter. After making its own label, booking its own shows, and sharpening its songwriting process, the surf pop trio has found a comfortable balance between lower-tier national fame and their DIY heart. Set to the band’s cleanest melodies yet, Smell Smoke centers around frontman Brandon Hagen’s four-year grapple with watching a loved one decline in health—reminding listeners that the band didn’t blow up on heedlessness and jubilation alone.
I’LL COUNT TO HEAVEN IN YEARS WITHOUT SEASONS
JOY VOID RECORDINGS
Spend one summer in Boston and you will ask the question every creative does: How do you capture this? It’s a season that lazily stretches into fall, all fresh foliage and relaxed flowers and flat beer. There’s a constant thickness to the air, yet throwing a layer on at night feels inevitable. But most of all, there’s the late-night hangs with friends, where the clock eats its own hands just so your group can talk until the conversation fades naturally. On bedbug’s newest full-length, i’ll count to heaven in years without seasons, they crack open a freshly bottled sampling of Boston in the summertime, in the fall, and in your memory. The gentle coaxing of bedroom pop combined with guest features from artists like Pink Navel and Puppy Problems results in an album that’s a feeling — one you wish never had to end — more than anything else.
You can’t erase every trace of a scar, but you can reclaim it as it fades. That’s the mentality Olivia West tried to revel in while writing the crux of Glass Cannon, the long-awaited debut album by her band Edge Petal Burn. West confronts her past experiences with relationship abuse, emotional trauma, and long-term brain damage. Along with her band, West sets her darkest moments on fire with heavy bursts of sludge guitar, Korean folk music influences, and multilayered vocal harmonies. Songs like “Five Golden Rings” and “Letters” snake their way through dark corners while bearing the type of emotional vocal delivery that gives you goosebumps. It’s cathartic, to say the least.
Leaving Texas for Massachusetts was a major change for Aisha Burns, but one that’s since paid off for the violinist, vocalist, and songwriter. On Argonauta, her follow-up to her 2013 debut solo album Midwater, Burns finds new space to create twisted, delicate, open-hearted songs. The album centers around Burns’ mother and the grief that followed after losing her, including how a new relationship—the whole reason she moved to Massachusetts to begin with—factors into the picture of forming a new life. As heavy as that sounds, Argonauta is a gentle tread through folk and strings, all lush instrumentation and even more gentle singing. In working through her own life struggles through peaceful, though difficult, reflection, Burns finds a way to make space for you to take the same path, should you want to.
FREE YOURSELF UP
Lake Street Dive have straddled the line between idolizing retro motown and pushing jazz pop onto the radio for a long time now. But with Free Yourself Up, the band embraces the slicker side of pop that it used to mask in ’60s girl group tang. While that comes across as a safe move, it’s clear the band, from singer Rachael Price on down to upright bass player Bridget Kearney, wanted to inject edge into the lyrics. Want to remind an ex that you were the better kisser? Check. Want to reflect on our darkening regime under this government? Check. In that, Free Yourself Up a quiet reminder that nothing is ever quite as sweet as well-worded revenge.
With all the experience Theo Hartlett (Ovlov, Flat Swamp), Jesse Weiss (Palehound, Grass Is Green), and Morgan Luzzi (Ovlov) have racked up in other bands, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the three are treating Pet Fox like the headline-worthy act it could become. Stepping out of the shadows and into the driving seat, Hartlett, Weiss, and Luzzi showcase their skills as underrated songwriters on Pet Fox. With immediately catchy hooks and surprisingly polished production, songs like bummer favorite “How to Quit,” energetic jaunt “You Cry Wolf,” and guitar-heavy “Grown Up” go down easy. Though it’s only their first release, it’s already a staple listen for Boston’s indie rock scene and anyone who listens to songs on repeat for hours (hi there) while getting work done.
WHEN WE WERE LOUD
The O.C. superfans or underground indie rock obsessives may recognize the name Francine, but there’s a good chance most of you reading this don’t. There’s no better time to be introduced to Francine than right now with When We Were Loud, the band’s first new album in 12 years. The group recreates the quintessential alt-pop, breezy indie rock, feel-good melodies of the early 2000s that made bands like the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie famous. Over a decade later, Clayton Scoble’s voice still floats with a comfortable warmth, making it all too easy to fall in love with these songs. Next thing you know, you’re sneaking songs like “Fine Afternoon” and “One Benefit” onto mixtapes for your closest friends.
Patience pays off, though rarely do we expect it to when it comes to hardcore reprises. Boston trailblazers American Nightmare reformed with their 2004 lineup (guitarist Brian Masek, bassist Josh Holden, frontman Wes Eisold, and drummer Alex Garcia-Rivera) to release their first album in 15 years. Instead of picking up right where they left off, American Nightmare reach for more melodic elements, whether it’s stronger guitar hooks on “War” or the drums taking the lead on “Gloom Forever,” so that they can go harder, faster, sooner. American Nightmare is one of those rare instances where an old hardcore band doesn’t sound like it’s aged because it isn’t trying to recreate its younger sound. It’s similar youthful energy wrapped in high-end production, giving listeners a spike in energy without any cringe-worthy overdramatics. Everyone who waited 15 years for this can genuinely let out a sigh of relief.
NO DOGS ALLOWED
Where most musically inclined students in Boston attend college during the day and write music at night, Sidney Gish seems to create full albums in her sleep. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter runs on a steady diet of never-ending hooks and self-taught production, using that fodder to create a delightfully surprising blend of anti-folk, pleasing pop, and indie rock licks. No Dogs Allowed arrived on New Year’s Eve of 2017—an arbitrary deadline she gave herself, much like with 2016’s Ed Buys Houses, to dump a year’s worth of song ideas onto the internet—with Gish’s best use of tracklist order yet. From the casual guitar solo in “Sin Triangle” to the self-aware sigh in “Rat of the City,” No Dogs Allowed demonstrates why the innate songwriting skills of Sidney Gish are just as much a breath of fresh air in indie rock as they are a pathway toward a bigger career in music.
SHADE AND THE LITTLE CREATURE
If wishes came true, we could all get a masterclass on brilliant songwriting from Deja Carr, the woman behind Mal Devisa. The experimental bassist and songwriter seems to be a natural talent in every way: Her basslines stir something deep within you, her voice seamlessly jumps from soulful questions to confrontational spitting, and her songwriting structures never go where they’re expected to. In what appears to be a big middle finger to whichever record label tried to sign her and capitalize on her talent (presumably XL Recordings imprint Young Turks), Mal Devisa uploaded a string of releases this November, the strongest of which is Shade and the little Creature. Over the course of 15 tracks, she skips between aggressive lo-fi raps, sweet cover songs, and manipulated grooves that feel sinister and warped. It’s immediate, intense, and inventive, the type of standout work that makes the final words in the album’s liner notes all the sweeter: “All the folks who work at Young Turks: fUCK You and hire Mack back.”
ITS SHAPE IS YOUR TOUCH
Wendy Eisenberg has tried more filters for her music than you have for your Instagram photos. In high school, the jazz guitarist practiced the straightforward genre. In college at the New England Conservatory, she learned how to fill concert halls with a more traditional sound. Outside of college, she rebelled by bringing that sound to experimental punk band Birthing Hips. And now, she finds herself stripping it all back to something more minimal. On her solo album Its Shape Is Your Touch, a nod to a Richard Brautigan poem, Eisenberg improvises on guitar to explore traditional structure, rich instrument histories, and the ways we’re taught language inside and outside of the classroom. It’s an experimental exploration of guitar and the ways in which our touch creates shape while interjecting absence, at once intimate and probing in the way experimental guitar should be.
SPRINGTIME AND BLIND
RUN FOR COVER RECORDS
Pull any hardcore-loving kid off the street and four times out of five they will tell you straight-edge group Have Heart changed their life. Frontman Patrick Flynn is a musical hero in that sense, as his words became scripture for a generation, and his new post-hardcore band Fiddlehead continues that tradition. As a post-hardcore group, Fiddlehead—Basement member Alex Henery on guitar, Casey Nealon on bass, Heave Heart member Shawn Costa on drums, Alex Dow on guitar, and Flynn on lead vocals—hurl themselves into heavy riffs and speedy punk payoffs like a combo of Fugazi, Samiam, and Archers of Loaf. But lyrically, Flynn grapples with the death of his father by analyzing, questioning, and empathizing for his mother’s grieving process. Springtime and Blind is abrasive and emotional, and at no point does it let up on either.
Eventually, you have to throw complacency to the side and stop hoping life will go as dreamed. After refining their musical path as a queer and trans artist for the past few years, Anjimile, the chosen moniker of Anji Chithambo, decided to take testosterone to feel more comfortable as a nonbinary transmasculine person. Their upper vocal range thinned and their lower vocal range widened. Anjimile set to work learning the changes of this modified instrument during a three-month artist residency at Industry Lab. The result is Colors, an album of self-acceptance and artful indie rock styles that captures where their personality, identity, and body meet. More than anything else, it’s a lesson in how to say “fuck it” with flying colors.
BORN ON THE STAIRS
There’s a certain charm to artists who can’t imagine a life without music yet consistently treat their art with a patient approach. Despite publishing music with a rapid-fire speed, Pink Navel is a rapper and beatmaker who wraps their work up in careful thought and stress-free environments—even if the subjects they rap about are rooted in stressful events. Following a live mixtape and a collection of beats built around Mario samples, Pink Navel dropped Born on the Stairs, a 12-track record that gets lost in the feeling of being stuck in between a higher and lower state. Pink Navel spits out words with enunciated care but deviates from the rigidity of down beats, occasionally slapping words on the tail end of a bar. Though the influence of alternative rappers like milo is obvious, Pink Navel stands rooted in their personality, letting the calculated stuttering on songs like “say-the-least.dev” add meaning to their words, an affecting example of art in motion.
TO THE NIGHT UNKNOWN
Since forming back in 2005, Morne have gone on to be one of Boston’s best atmospheric metal bands. A combination of doom, crust, and general bleakness, the band’s sound has grown louder over the years. On To the Night Unknown, Morne turn things up once again. Whether it’s the fuzzed-out guitar drone on “Not Our Flame” or the furious rhythm section on “Scorn,” the band meets the high expectations that followed a five-year silence by focusing on crisp production and lengthy timestamps, welcoming listeners back into its shadowed brand of doom. Those who ever found themselves wishing Neurosis and Obituary would cross paths will certainly feel seen listening to To the Night Unknown.
SAD CACTUS RECORDS
SUPERTEEN is the best Salem band you’ve (probably) never heard of. The five-piece indie rock band has been writing punk-tinged songs for six years now, but it was this year’s Over Everything that grabbed our attention. Over the course of 11 songs, SUPERTEEN showcase their deft and noisy songwriting: tuning guitars to sound gruff, overlapping male and female vocals with a manic dizziness, barreling forward with a feverish tempo that feels more anxious than anything else. Whether it’s the crossing guitars on “Sodium Pill” or the intense build up (and payoff) of shouts on closer “First Time Living,” SUPERTEEN have polished a sound that’s criminally underrated no matter who you ask.
FOR MY CRIMES
SACRED BONES RECORDS
When you’ve got a specific ache in your heart and the only way to handle it is to encourage it to deepen, then it’s time to put on Marissa Nadler. On her newest album, For My Crimes, she questions if love is enough to keep two people together despite differing needs and what to do if the answer is no. Nadler’s usual songwriting style has grown stronger. That means songs like the opening title track sweep through dark drama and acoustic guitar, but also that she turns to southern sideroads on “I Can’t Listen to Gene Clark Anymore” or “Said Goodbye to That Car.” Nadler is the queen of digging a hole and cozying up in its close quarters. Even with cameos from Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, and Mary Lattimore, For My Crimes is a trademark Nadler creation: a comfortably cold place to hide away while slowly addressing your sadness head-on.
EXPLODING IN SOUND RECORDS
In the past few years, Kal Marks frontman Carl Shane has seen a lot of people die. Two friends died from drug overdoses. One friend burned in a fire. He reached a new low, depression to the point of immobilization, before a new instinct rose within him to fight back, to live meaningfully, to outlast the world’s shadows. Thus the plot of Universal Care was born. The record sees the heavy rock trio welcome their bright side: Mellotron chords that wobble, a Stevie Wonder vibe on drums, lyrics that don’t want to give up. Though it still has monstrous songs—“Fuck That Guy” centers around a terrifying scream—the album is a change in the band’s catalog, showcasing a new side of Kal Marks and, with it, a reinvigorated performance style.
Aubrey Haddard is the life and soul of the party. On her debut full-length, Blue Part, her voice rockets outward like a beam of light, sounding equally raw and innate. It’s a natural gift that got her into Berklee and it’s the reason she chose to leave Berklee, a voice so eager to shine in the music scene that it couldn’t be weighed down by classes. But beyond her natural gift of a voice, Haddard stands tall as a local luminary on Blue Part because of her music itself. Joined by bassist Charley Ruddell and drummer Josh Strmic, she churns out sunny pop melodies, low-burning ballads, and rock-tipped grooves, showcasing her growing guitar talent along the way. If it weren’t for her steadfast determination to grow as a songwriter, Haddard may still be hidden behind the books at Berklee instead of racking up Boston Music Awards trophies.
As someone who has spent years performing in indie rock bands, Michi Tassey didn’t expect to start a project like Nature Shots—and yet, and the same time, it was entirely unavoidable. The People Like You member picked up the moniker as a way to reflect on the loss of a dear friend, not as a method of coping with loss, but rather an extension of empathy to someone she still cared deeply about. The resulting album, Foreclosure, hangs Tassey’s voice like light strings around a bare room, her words echoing in an intentionally sparse landscape as finger-plucked guitar and slow piano fade in and out behind her. On first listen, it sounds like a blend of Grouper’s Ruins and the Antlers’ Hospice. The longer Foreclosure plays, though, the clearer it becomes the album is a bright light reflecting on the empty space of someone who passed: a beautiful, haunting, and lasting image that stands on its own.
MORE DOUG RECORDS
If the lyrics on Darlingside’s new album imply the world has ended bleakly, then the music suggests the remaining life is full of beauty. The Americana folk-rock act slows things down on Extralife to explore its sound more through their voices than their instruments. Their harmonies on “Futures” and “Singularity” will have you certain Local Natives joined them in the studio. That’s not to say the record is without its usual gorgeous instrumentation—clarinets and trumpets slowly cascade in the background of “Hold Your Head Up High,” and the band’s string instrument arrangements sound soft and gentle throughout—but that this record showcases what brought the band together in the first place: singing a cappella in college for the fun of it and realizing the beauty they could uncover when joined together. Oh, how sweet the reprise “It’s not ever too late” is.
Don’t let the slick production of Swatchbook fool you. Everything Nick Minieri created on this album was built on his iPhone. Aside from using a hand-picked sample library and a proper studio to master the final mixes, he created the 11-song record while riding the T, sitting in hotels, and chilling on park benches. That change of scenery explains why he was able to go from a lo-fi techno track or thick house number into a minimal drum and bass piece or downtempo electronic groove (The transition from “Look & Feel” into “Calibrate” is particularly *chef’s kiss*). Listen for bird chirps and distant chatter. Minieri smoothed those details out in the studio, giving the collection of songs the continuity of an album, hence its ability to suck you into a world of dance music that never quite lets you go, forcing you to move along.
Puppy Problems’ debut album was a long time coming. Despite playing shows for years and being a regular face on the scene, it took Sami Martasian, the musician behind the moniker, a long time to find the work-life balance needed to finish a record. Over the years, Martasian formed a proper backing band and transformed their sound from barren anti-folk to fleshed-out bummer rock. Sunday Feeling benefits from that long delay-turned-growth spurt. Acoustic guitar gets double tracked and the rhythm section drones in the background, bringing to mind the powerful subtleties of bands like Silkworm, Beat Happening, and Slint. Listening to Sunday Feeling is like lying in bed with a highlight reel of your worst moments and realizing how much you’ve grown. It digs up old wounds, but it treats them with honesty, reminding listeners that you can conquer life one unexpected bruise at a time if only by waiting for it to fade.
FOOL’S GOLD RECORDS
Boston’s funniest rapper is all grown up. With the “Michael Cera” days behind him, Michael Christmas enters his major indie label phase on Fool’s Gold with Role Model, and with it comes heavy hitters that never sacrifice his brand of humor. “Honey Berry” sees him play the celeb status name game again while “Girlfriend” sees him reference Beck and Beyonce in the same breath. Even when Cousin Stizz, Domo Genesis, and G Perico hop onboard to share bars, Christmas holds his own, returning to the mic with the right amount of confidence to keep the spotlight on him while still showcasing how a little collaboration can deepen your own story. It’s the step up his career has been building toward without trying to do anything overtly flashy.
Listening to BAERD is like watching a forest bloom and grow before you, all sped-up sprouting and season-changing beauty. The seven-piece Americana band pulls the best parts of folk, jazz, and classical music into their work. On Crete, that combination swells like a beautiful meeting of Fleet Foxes and Skinny Bones. From the cooling vocals and dreamlike banjo of “Out of The” to the stomping energy and manic drawl of frontman Isaiah Beard’s voice on “Stand,” Crete is an album that uses crisp production to highlight how a dozen different pieces, big and small, can create a massive sound—proving folk doesn’t have to be a quiet genre after all.
The biggest allure of Prior Panic’s debut album is how comfortable the record is with its imperfections—a way of living few people will accomplish in their lifetime. You can hear finger slides on guitar strings. People chatter in the background of the opening track. The cymbals occasionally flood over one another. But the way in which frontperson Julia Fulbright sings, all while plucking at their cello, makes it clear Finicky Things stands on pride and pride alone. It’s an addicting type of confidence, the kind you wish you had. By the time “Float” kicks in, Fulbright’s ability to weave their instrument through Zachary Ellsworth’s drumming or Otto Klammer’s guitar feels like a hypnotic new dance, the kind you want to learn immediately and obsesses over with repeat viewings, eager to be just like them.
Dutch ReBelle is tired of reductive hip-hop tropes. For her long-awaited album BANG BANG, a reference to her live show catch phrase “Kiss kiss, bang bang,” she decided to let influences muddle together to reflect her current identity. That means ReBelle drew as much from her Haitian heritage and recent tours in Africa and Europe as she did from an understanding of the music industry and her fellow Boston colleagues (two of which, Latrell James and S Black Winner, make guest appearances on the album). The result is a blend of Afrobeats, dancehall, and downtempo electronic loops that she can lay her verses over. Whether it’s hearing her rap over peaceful harp on “Credit” or the hypnotic buoyant chorus of “Fitted Down,” it’s easy to listen to BANG BANG and see not only how many complex ideas Dutch ReBelle got to flex, but why other artists can and should try breaking from the usual hip-hop structure the way she has.
CLOSED CASKET ACTIVITIES
Vein got the memo about going big or going home. Though it opens with a seemingly random flash of late ’90s touchstones—a burst of DnB drum samples, mega-produced bass drops, overlapping distortion pedals—on “virus://vibrance,” the hardcore band’s debut album, errorzone, is stuffed to the brim. Vein’s brand of hardcore is an erratic fury of rage that gets by on being perfectly synchronized. It’s a lot to take in, for sure, but the band’s blend of math, metalcore, and screamo leaves a strong impression, ultimately leaving you with no choice but to play the mosh pit-primed onslaught again.
HERE COMES THE WOLF
In the quiet corners of Allston, singer-songwriter Matt O’Connor finally fleshed out his slowcore moniker Tuxis Giant to become a full band. On Here Comes the Wolf, their first record in three years, Tuxis Giant take up all the space they can find, though not necessarily through volume. The record appears to sit in a massive landscape, letting songs like “Regan” and “Fiona” stretch outward until you can no longer see their notes as they fade into the distance. Instead of trying to control time, Tuxis Giant let it do its own thing. The record moves at its own pace. Seats creak beneath them. Deep breaths are shrouded in emotion. Guitar strings buzz quietly from a note that hangs on the edge of a fret. The album is full of massive, moving crescendos, but it’s the quieter moments of piano and empty space that feel the most powerful, like a folk-favoring interpretation of Pedro the Lion.
Speedy Ortiz does more in a year than most bands do in five. So when the band found that its initial demos of Twerp Verse material sounded better than expected, it came as a surprise (to them and to listeners) that they would decide to run with those instead of rerecording their parts in a studio. That decision explains the off-kilter sound of Twerp Verse. Though it’s filled with frontwoman Sadie Dupuis’ usual bizarre chord progressions and unexpected midsong pivots, the real hook of Twerp Verse is its ability to sound both rough—as if performed live right in front of you—and polished, the trickery of grade-A studio work. Lean in when she suffers, yes, but lean in everywhere else too, because hearing the way the music comes together highlights how Speedy Ortiz continue to push themselves creatively the way no other band does.