The ISM Machine: Top 10 Albums of 2017

Stay tunes after the countdown for the mutually-decided Album of the Year


Steffan’s #10: Shout Out Louds – Ease My Mind
Swedish Indie Pop band Shout Out Louds was our pick for Album of The Year back in 2013 for their album Optica. Ever since then, I have been excited every time I saw a rumbling or an announcement on social media. Their latest album, Ease My Mind is exactly what I have come to expect from Shout Out Louds. My favorite song on the album is still the first single, “Oh, Oh;” there’s even a second version that is slow and more melodic, “Oh, Oh pt. 2” – this one does not appear on the final album. -S.D.







Beau’s #10: Dan Auerbach – Waiting on a Song
Americana, rock, and soul fuse together to make what feels like a “best of” playlist from a great American songbook. Every single note and beat on this album is deliberately placed and performed. For fans of the Black Keys who are looking for something more refined and confident, Dan Auerbach’s first solo album after eight years is definitely worth the wait. -B.P.







Steffan’s #9: Ha Ha Tonka – Heart-Shaped Mountain
Formerly known as Amsterband, Ha Ha Tonka is an indie-southern rock group formed in Missouri. Their premiere album Buckle in the Bible Belt remains one of my favorite albums song-for-song. Whereas Buckle in the Bible Belt gave them their southern rock classification, it would seem that they are capable of a lot more. Heart-Shaped Mountain ventures into some pop-rock territory. It’s good, and I am excited for more in the future. -S.D.








Beau’s #9: Alex Lahey – I Love You Like a Brother
This one just kicks so much ass. Alex Lahey’s debut is both brutally honest and the only pop-punk record to make my list. She communicates messy subjects through lyrics that land with such punch and panache, and it’s a great album to sing along to for those days when you feel less than successful. I can’t wait to see Lahey’s career continue to take off from here. -B.P.







Steffan’s #8: Moonrise Nation – Glamour Child
This album shows up further down the list on Beau’s ranking. I’ll try not to steal that thunder. So, here’s what I’ll say about Glamour Child. I have to imagine that Moonrise Nation had several smaller EPs that were only seen by close friends and family. I don’t understand how a debut album can be so good. Every week that Beau brought in a song from Glamour Child you can almost bet that, off-air, I said “oh, I like this one! Who is it?” -S.D.








Beau’s #8: Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Nearly a decade after their rise to prominence and directly following a three-year hiatus, we got one of the great comebacks of 2017 with Fleet Foxes’ third studio album. Boasting an impressive 14 studio musicians in addition to the band’s current lineup of five, and featuring harps, drums, guitars, flutes, clarinets, and more from every corner of the world, this album is one of the most complex mosaics to release this year in any category of media. The dynamics on display are absolutely incredible, and there are constant changes in mood and instrumentation that surprise listeners through and through. I had the fortune to see Fleet Foxes on tour this year, and witnessing them bring this material to life was a remarkable experience. -B.P.






Steffan’s #7: The National – Sleep Well Beast
The National is a band that Beau introduced me to. I wonder, sometimes, if he regrets it. Anytime something “The National” happens, I am stoked. Maybe too stoked. Sleep Well Beast is no exception. This time around, I don’t love EVERY song like I do on High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me,, and The Boxer, but the songs that I do enjoy I reallllllly enjoy. “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” is the obvious favorite, but “Day I Die,” “Carin At The Liquor Store,” and “Born To Beg” will bring you some joy as well as the sound you have come to know and love. -S.D.







Beau’s #7: Balto – Strangers
Strangers is a love letter to good old-fashioned American acts of the 60s and 70s. This album has it all for classic rock fans in search of something new: catchy tunes centered on lost love (“Shots in the Dark”), quirky dance-alongs (“CA Luv”), and epic tales of growing old (“Celebration Smile,” “A Year Lasts a Lifetime”). They’re the kind of band that seems much more content with performing for a small room of devoted fans than a stadium of passive onlookers. These guys might hold the distinction of being the most unknown artist on my list, but they may also have the biggest hearts. -B.P.







Steffan’s #6: Armaud – How To Erase A Plot (Deluxe Version)
Armaud is a band I discovered as the DJ of a video game music show. The song “Town of Light” appeared in a game of the same name. It also appears on their 2017 deluxe-album How to Erase a Plot. I haven’t played that game, but I have played this album. The original version came out in 2015, but the Deluxe version came out earlier this year – so it counts! How to Erase a Plot is a part of my personal brand for 2017; chill dream-pop – quiet yet, somehow, dynamic. Of all these kinds of albums that came out this year, How to Erase a Plot is the best. Nothing expected, but nothing absurd – it’s a hard balance to achieve. My favorite track is “Ablaze.” -S.D.






Beau’s #6: Moonrise Nation – Glamour Child
Five years or less from now, Moonrise Nation will be the next First Aid Kit, Lucius, or Wild Child. They are, in my mind, the next big thing in indie folk. On the scene since 2013, they have spent the last several years preparing for their debut release, which was pulled off with such great hits as “Common Fear,” “Eye to Eye,” and “Glamour Child.” While only two of the three band members are related, their voices and musical ability give the impression that these three women were born to make music together. Their sound feels universally appreciable, which makes them an easy recommend. I am excited about Steffan sharing my adoration for this record. -B.P.






Steffan’s #5: The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
I’d heard of The New Pornographers before 2017, but I’ll be honest – I wasn’t familiar with them. That changed this year. Whiteout Conditions is one of the first albums that really popped up on my “Best of-” radar. I knew when it came out that it would make my Top 10. And THEN I had the very fortunate opportunity to see them live at the Maha Music Festival in Omaha. They put on a great show, and they put out a great album. My favorites are “Whiteout Conditions,” “This Is The World of The Theatre,” and “Darling Shade.” But really, I can’t think of a song to avoid. The New Pornographers are, and will continue to be, one of the best names in the alt-pop scene. -S.D.






Beau’s #5: Bleachers – Gone Now
Some experiences simply cannot be communicated through normal speech. Take dreams, for instance: how do you precisely describe the sensation of dreams, or more specifically, that feeling of crossing over from dreaming to the state of being awake? Jack Antonoff immerses us in this (“Dream of Micky Mantle,” “Goodmorning”) and so much more on his sophomore release Gone Now. It’s an album that references his prior work and even itself. It has reprise, frantic emotion, and loss on both personal and massive scales (“Everybody Lost Somebody,” “I Miss Those Days”). Simply put, it’s full of ideas, often with remorseful sentiment, but wrapped in an amusing, anthemic package. -B.P.







Steffan’s #4: Day Wave – The Days We Had
Day Wave has been making semi-regular appearances on The ISM Machine since 2015 – emphasis on semi-. For almost 2 years the one-man project by Jackson Phillips was only releasing singles. After a while, I had just assumed that Jackson would continue that trend, but to my surprise, a full album dropped in 2017. I’m on board. I liked every single Day Wave single I had heard up to that point, and The Days We Had lived up to sound I was hoping for. Day Wave has actually been the gateway to a new-wave-rock sound that I did not know I was a fan of. If you are a fan of New Order, but also looking for something new, I think you should give this album a try. My favorites are “Something Here,” “On Your Side,” and (especially) “Promises.” Seriously. Listen to “Promises” on a loop. -S.D.






Beau’s #4: Hippo Campus – Landmark
Jake Luppen provided some of the most addictive vocals of the year on Landmark, my favorite debut of 2017. There’s a lot of range on display here, from the sun-drenched guitars of “Way It Goes” to the playful autotunes of “Epitaph,” continuing on to raw reflections on the process of songwriting with “Vacation” and a grief-ridden mourning of loss with “Monsoon.” It’s an album that starts as your average, everyday collection of catchy, indie pop songs, but where it goes from there is entirely surprising. This band is capable of so much more than what you may initially think. -B.P.







Steffan’s #3: Mappe Of – A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone
Beautiful – simply beautiful.
Obviously I can’t leave it at that, but that’s what it is. There is a mastery of all the things I value the most in music. The vocals are powerful and soothing. The harmonies are strong and present in all the right places. The dynamics are literally bone-chilling. The instrumentation is unique. This band was suggested to me by my cousin, Jake, and I am so glad that he did. If the premiere album A Northern Star, A Perfect Stone is an example of what is yet-to-come, Mappe Of will be in my Top 10 every time they release music. Even as I am typing the review and listening to “Unfound,” my arm hairs are standing up. Literally. I am a big fan of hard copies, and this album made my Christmas list. Mappe Of is also the kind of musical project that you hope to see next to “score composed by…” Mappe Of, if you’re reading this, I am telling you that you would be a welcome addition to film and/or video game scoring. Listen to this album, then listen to their singles, and then listen to this album again. -S.D.






Beau’s #3: The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
The War on Drugs double down on some of the things that made their past releases so great: a rich, full sound, complete with many layers of instrumentation to soak in, and an everlasting groove to ride from the moment you start listening. There are places that pound and zoom (“Holding On,” “Nothing to Find”) and others that take their time (“Knocked Down,” “Clean Living”). More than any other album on my list, this one is meant for those looking for a journey – perhaps an escape – to enter another mindspace for a while without a distracting thought of the real world. -B.P.







Steffan’s #2: The Wooden Sky – Swimming In Strange Waters
It’s hard to explain what it is about this album that puts it at my number 2. That might be because I don’t really know, myself. That’s not to say that it is bizarre or undeserving of my number 2 spot, it just isn’t anything like most of the other albums on my Top 10. As I recall, The Wooden Sky was a band that was recommended to me through an algorithm, and then appeared on my list when Swimming in Strange Waters came out. Usually the bands I find this way are plenty good, but don’t really stand out. Swimming in Strange Waters stands out. Each week when I brought in a new song for broadcast, I was listening to that song for the rest of the day after the show. I knew pretty quickly that this band would be in my Top 10. Not only that, but Swimming in Strange Waters features the song “Born To Die,” which is probably my favorite song of the entire year. In fact, I would be willing to bet that I am a majority of the plays this song has on Spotify. -S.D.





Beau’s #2: Roadkill Ghost Choir – False Youth Etcetera
My favorite song of the year might be “Vision on Vision / Undo,” a grand and sweeping 10-minute odyssey that builds and builds, extending from peace and ethereality to an infectious explosion of energy. This is how we begin the hour-long False Youth Etcetera, and from there we move into more digestible gems like “Classics (Die Young),” “Cassette Memory,” and “Suit Said Sing.” On the last track, we get “Out of Existence,” a 9-minute epic that wraps a giant bow on top of it all. The album has a lot, from folky harmonica to walls of electric instruments, and frontman Andrew Shepard’s fascinating voice carries a lightness throughout the record. This was originally planned as a two-part EP, but the decision to combine all 12 songs into one release was a home run. -B.P.






Steffan’s #1: Walk By Sea – I Am What Survives Of Me
I will start by stating that I do have a personal relationship with members of this band (Brandon Ramos, the drummer, even designed the logo for The ISM Machine). I will follow that up by saying that is not the reason I Am What Survives Of Me is my favorite album of 2017. I discovered this band while interning in the Summer of 2016. Up until that point, I had struggled to really fall in love with any of the bands in my hometown. But I did fall in love, and I fell hard.

Walk by Sea also went their separate ways this year. I attended their farewell show. I left that show in tears. I am in tears now. I started drafting a longer review after that show in June, as well as a music video. This music means so much to me, but I will keep this review tame as not to overrun our entire Top 10 list.

I Am What Survives Of Me… You just feel it, man. You really do. This album came out in February. When I found out about the upcoming album, I got in touch with the guys in the band asking them if they wanted to play on our 6 a.m. program before the album release show, expecting them to hesitate about the early-morning performance. Much to my surprise, they agreed and performed unreleased songs on The ISM Machine – easily the most memorable session of our show to date. I know it sounds dramatic to say it, but I knew then that I Am What Survives Of Me was going to change my life. It’s not rare for music to elicit a physical response for me; it’s a little bit harder to find music that makes me tear up the way “Awakening” does – especially in the first 45 seconds.

No other band, near or far, has mastered dynamics in such a way that impacts my physical and emotional state. There is some very raw emotion in these songs. It is common to distort sound when such things are put out there for the world. That is not the case here. You get to feel what they feel, but it still sounds so beautiful… So vulnerable. When I listen to this album I can feel the love and friendship that these four feel for each other, giving the song “Brother” extra gravity. This album is more than just a collection of songs from talented musicians. I Am What Survives Of Me is the embodiment of doubt, loss, fraternity and experience. This album is life and love incarnate, and I don’t think that any other set of friends could have pulled it off. Walk By Sea is one more great band that ended too soon, but there is comfort in knowing that the bandmates are still close friends. Even though Walk By Sea is no longer together, I know that their music and their impact will Survive well beyond that farewell show in June. Thanks, guys… For everything. -S.D.

Beau’s #1: The Wild Reeds – The World We Built
It was an incredible year for folk rock. My top ten list alone is host to quite the handful of remarkable singers and talented string-pluckers. So what sets The World We Built apart? What puts it above the rest? Well, probably just my subjective taste and opinion! But seriously, here are the things the Wild Reeds do for me: first, and quite simply, their music is beautiful. The harmonies are angelic, the rhythms have a lively energy, and the tracks are masterfully paced. I eat up songs that start with near-silence and build to intense emotion, and they do it all over this LP with such grace.

Second, it’s a great album from top to bottom. I don’t think there’s a weak song in the bunch here; not one stinker to push aside. I can start listening with any track and have a good time. I will abstain from recommending any one song, because to do so is to diminish the quality they each share.

Third, because it is so beautiful and great all throughout, it is endlessly listenable. I can safely say this is one I will go back to time and time again and never tire of what it continues to give.
Finally, it got me more involved in discussion with our station’s listeners than any other album. Throughout 2017 I had several instances of people reaching out to me asking about the Wild Reeds, which is something that rarely happens for any artist in any year, let alone this one. We relish any discussion that lessens the gap between us and our listeners, and this band did wonders for my outlook on what we do by emphasizing the “community” part of community radio.

The World We Built has music that is so powerful that it shatters barriers and inspires outspoken acclaim. And so, after all that, I must admit there’s not much more I can ask of five strangers who made my favorite album of the year (other than a live in-studio performance and complimentary interview? That would be quite the indie cherry on top). -B.P.

Moonrise Nation – Glamour Child

Listen to a sample of these albums on Spotify

Beau and Steffan host “The ISM Machine” every Monday from 6 to 8 a.m. on KZUM. Like the program on Facebook and listen to archives of recent episodes via Radio Free America.


2018-01-16T20:49:32+00:00 January 8th, 2018|SigningOff2017|