Friday, December 22, 2017

Top 17 Of '17

Okay, so I kinda forgot about this blog for a while and was really spending my time on other writing projects and assignments (and the 14 of my own albums that I recorded this year) but I’m trying to get back on track and so I figured, especially since my monthly Old Town Crier column has come to an end, that the best way to re-launch this blog is with my annual year-end best-of list. And there’s some good ones on here.

The world was a crazy place in 2017 but crazy worlds make for good music. And this year, there was quite a bit of that. There were also some big disappointments (ahem….U2) but for every weak link there are ten solid chains. Some of these records impressed me, some excited me, and some blew me away in such a manner that they will be albums that stick with me for life.

Without further adieu, my Top 17 of ’17:

The Suburbs: Hey Muse
A few years ago, Minneapolis legends, The Suburbs, returned from a long layoff with an album called Si Sauvage and that record was good, it was mature, it was the record that you would expect a veteran band to come back with. However, that record in no way prepares you for the brilliance that is Hey Muse! Every song on this album is a work of art. This album is such a deep nod to the 80s, from where this band came, but it sounds fresh as well. While the end result is their own sound and vibe, this album carries shades of Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Psychedelic Furs, and much more. I admit, I was not aware of this band prior to hearing this album and, after listening to several other albums by 80s-inspired new bands, I listened to this and thought it was yet another new band. I was really impressed at just how well they nailed it. Once I realized that they were an older band, I found myself even more impressed, at just how solid this album is. Not just solid for a veteran band, but for any band.

A bit lean with just ten tracks, every song on this album is spot-on. Catchy, clever, perfectly written and executed. It makes me wonder just how many songs did not make the cut – no one stumbles on ten songs this perfect. The title track was an NPR favorite this summer and is an exquisite way to kick off such an accomplished album, but my money is with "Lost You On The Dance Floor", which is my favorite single of the year. A more perfect jam, I defy you to find.

As soon as I heard this album I knew two things:
    1. It would be the first listen of literally hundreds.

    2. It would top my year-end best-of.

Check…..and check. You absolutely must hear this record.

And now, continuing in no particular order…..

Depeche Mode: Spirit
Growing up, I was never the biggest Depeche Mode fan and I could probably rattle off a lot of reasons why but there’s really no point to that. But this year, I gave a listen to their latest release and….holy shit. Few records, even the ones on this very list, succeed in doing what it’s trying to do as well as this album. Crazy times call for a big message and, unlike U2 (whose head is firmly planted up its collective ass), Depeche Mode is here to deliver it. This isn’t an album – this is a statement. "Going Backwards" and the brilliant "Where’s The Revolution" set the stage for an album that pretty much says absolutely everything that needs to be said in this day and age. For me to try and sum it up here is to miss the point – you just need to fucking listen to this record. Musically, they are more on-point than ever. It’s dark, it’s clever, and it’s grand. It is clearly Depeche Mode but it also sounds fresh and it sounds modern, and it does so without the appearance of trying too hard (again, U2, you blew it). Spirit is a late-career masterpiece and one of the most important albums of 2017.

Josh Ritter: Gathering
One of the most significant songwriters of his generation, Josh Ritter eases into his 40’s with this set of modern, dusty cowboy songs. Hot on the heels of his acclaimed collaboration with Bob Weir, last year’s Blue Mountain, Josh gets reflective and remains as joyous as ever. Aided, as always, by his trusty Royal City Band, these songs are brought to life with exquisite care and caution. Classic country grooves come about on songs like "Showboat", "Cry Softly", and "Feels Like Lightning", while others, such as "Strangers", "Myrna Loy", and "Thunderbolt’s Goodnight" quietly rage, like a distant thunder. And then there’s "Dreams", one of Josh’s most frantic, explosive numbers, and a total burner on stage. And there’s "Train Go By" which bears a resemblance to "Million Reasons" by Lady Gaga, but in all the best ways. Elsewhere, Bob Weir returns the favor, sharing the mic with Josh on the beautiful and poignant "When Will I Be Changed". Whether or not this is the best Josh Ritter album is neither here nor there. This is a man who is in for the long haul and this is just another beautiful stop on his long journey.

Twiddle: Plump
I will suffer no shame in saying that Twiddle is a goddamned ridiculous name for a band. However, it is also a pretty fitting name for this band. So I’m okay with that. Darlings of the 4th generation jam-band scene, Twiddle lays down a vibe that sounds like (a far sunnier) Dave Matthews Band crossed with Blues Traveler, with a dash of Phish, a shot of funk, a toke of reggae, and a wee bit of pretty much everything else. Their third studio album, Plump, is a mammoth, 28-song double album that runs well over two hours. As with most double albums, there is a fair bit of filler in here (just what the fuck is the deal with "Juggernaut" anyway?!) but the strength of so much of this material more than makes up for the various mis-steps. In fact, the first dozen songs on this album are utterly flawless - just one positive vibe after another. Songs that, while not all that stylistically diverse, are very well written and executed, and full of lyrics that are beaming with positivity. Musically, these guys really have it too. Mihali Savoulidis is not only a great singer and writer but his guitar skills are brutal, and Ryan Dempsey’s piano adds a stunning shimmer to these tracks. The interplay of these four musicians is the band’s strongest attribute, as is generally the case in this particular scene, but songs are the key to any band and this band, and this album in particular, has songs. Great songs. So many that it’s hard to single out a favorite, though when "Amidst The Myst" comes on, I can feel it deep in my soul, and in my body, head to toe. There are a couple of weird tracks in the back half of the album but songs like "Nicodemus Portulay" and "The Fantastic Tale Of Rickey Snickle" more than make up for it. In a world so full of negativity, a band like Twiddle is more than just necessary. It is vital.

The Charlatans: Different Days
The sole survivors of the Madchester scene, the Charlatans have kept their jam going for almost three decades and remain as fantastic as ever. This is a band that has gone through many stylistic phases over its career but is unique enough that they always sound just like themselves. Their 13th album celebrates that diversity by offering detours that recall some of their most classic sounds, while pushing the band ever forward. "Plastic Machinery" continues the trend of throwing down strong singles while the title track is a haunting groove that makes you want to move, and "There Will Be Chances" sounds like it could be a lost outtake from Between 10th & 11th. There is a bit of an electro feel to some of this material but never comes across as overtly so - just enough to elevate these tracks to greater heights. One of the most reliable bands in the world – how many other bands can deliver such a strong album, 28 years into their career?

Sol Heilo: Skinhorse Playground
Taking advantage of Katzenjammer’s hiatus, multi-instrumentalist Sol Heilo delivers her debut solo album and it is one of the most accomplished debut albums to come around in a long time. On the surface, it has kind of a folk-pop feel, but there are several deep levels to this album, which finds Sol moving far beyond the overtly-European influences that her main band thrives upon. The singles from this album – "America" and "Killing Karma" – are definitely the high points of this set but the other songs are just as necessary. The only issue I have with this album is that, at just nine songs, it is far too short. But I’ll take nine songs over no songs. This album is a gem.

Anathema: The Optimist
For a band like Anathema to release an album called The Optimist, it sounds like an oxymoron. Especially when the album in question is one of the darkest and densest albums the band has ever created. No stranger to doom and gloom, Anathema has been enjoying a massive amount of success lately, over a quarter century into their career. Their fifth album of this decade finds them returning to the scene of the front cover of 2001’s A Fine Day To Exit and speculating how that bleak story continues. There is little joy in the themes of Anathema’s music but their songs are pure majestic beauty nonetheless. Musically, this album takes some of the dark electronic textures of 2014’s Distant Satellites and returns it to a more organic setting and the result is Anathema doing what they do best. Vincent Cavanagh and the exquisite Lee Douglas continue to be one of the greatest lead vocal duos in all of music, especially Douglas, who further cements her position in this band. Whether this album surpasses the triumph that was 2012’s Weather Systems is up for debate, but this is still one of Anathema’s most accomplished works and one of the best albums to come out this year.


Kim Seviour: Recovery Is Learning
Ex-Touchstone vocalist Kim "Elkie" Seviour makes a triumphant debut with this beautiful disc, produced by the genius that is John Mitchell, and chocked full of songs of hope and redemption. Sidelined severely by fibromyalgia, Elkie was forced to leave Touchstone a few years ago after several acclaimed albums. During that time, she completed her degree, but also suffered from crippling mental illness, which she has been very open and active about. This aptly-named album chronicles her journey to recovery through nine dynamic movements. "Chiasma", which opens the album, is one of my favorite singles of this year, while "Connect" is a propulsive act of beauty, and "The Dive" is as good as anything Touchstone ever did, if not better. Some of the tracks retain the heaviness of Touchstone while others introduce a more ethereal side, and Elkie is in the finest voice of her career. As with everything John Mitchell lends his talent to, the quality of work on display here is unparalleled. Truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard all year.

Guided By Voices: How Do You Spell Heaven
The second album into the most recent reconstitution of Guided By Voices (and their second album of 2017) is one of the best to bear the GbV name , possibly since 2004’s Half Smiles Of The Decomposed. The key to this one is that Bob Pollard really brought his A-game here. The problem with so many of the 2012-14 "classic lineup" reunion albums was that Bob seemed to be holding back his best material for his solo albums (which, honestly, during that period, were among the best work he ever did). And this year’s double-album, August By Cake, found the strongest material supplied by the other members of the band. This album, however, features nothing but Bob songs and it’s clear that it was just saving it all up for this one. As usual, the songs here go all over the map - they even get a little jazzy at times - and I would not call this a flawless album, but it is damn good.

Ryan Adams: Prisoner
Written and recorded in the aftermath of Ryan’s much-publicized divorce from Mandy Moore, Prisoner is the breakup album to end all breakup albums. The songs rock and they find Adams moving further into a classic vibe for much of this record, but the songs are heartbreaking, songs that reveal a lost and broken man. Even Blood On The Tracks had some hope in it, some anger. Prisoner is an album that is all pain. And while usually an album so full of pain ends with a hopeful upward swing, this album just sinks deeper and deeper until ending with the ominous "We Disappear". The upside of all of this – really, the only upside – is that pain usually yields the best, or at least the most compelling material. And that is most certainly the case here. Not that Ryan Adams has ever made a bad record (even the DJ Reggie albums were kind of cool) but this album, one that finds him baring his soul and scars for the world, is among his finest work.



Good Old War: Part Of Me
Ordinarily I would not include an EP on a list such as this. But Good Old War is no ordinary band. And this EP is one of the most special things on this list. Most of Good Old War’s records are all-killer-no-filler and this EP, at a solid five songs, is the textbook example of that. Every song on this is vital to their catalogue. "The River" is one of the best songs, if not the best song, I have heard from anyone all year, and the title track is one of the most beautiful songs this band has ever done. There are a million bands out there, doing a million different things, but Good Old War….the world is a far better place for them existing. Truly one of the most precious bands making music today, I feel privileged for being hip to them (thanks to Josh Ritter).

Blitzen Trapper: Wild And Reckless
Earlier this year, Blitzen Trapper put on a semi-autobiographical stage production that ran for a couple of months and they released a very limited edition soundtrack to that show, which was called Wild And Reckless, and it featured mostly new songs, along with a few older ones. I was one of the lucky few that snagged a copy of that vinyl and it was one of my go-to spins of the summer. Later in the year, they took most of those new songs and combined them with additional material for their 9th studio album and then compounded and confused the issue by titling that Wild And Reckless as well. While it was the limited edition soundtrack version that really pulled my strings this year, the proper album release also deserves inclusion on this list. There are a lot of bands out there nowadays that have a classic vibe but Blitzen Trapper continues to prove that they are the real deal. Their songs feel real. They are songs that you can relate to, and are songs that make you think. As a writer and a singer, Eric Earley comes off as a cross between Springsteen, Petty, and Dylan but, unlike the thousands who draw from that well, he never sounds like a put-on. When he sings, it is legit and you better damn sight listen. And, with songs as strong as "No Man’s Land" and the wistful title track, it’s hard to look away. This band is a gift and they just keep getting better.

Wolf Alice: Visions Of A Life
One of the most explosive bands to come from Britain as of late, Wolf Alice is the closest thing the new generation has to My Bloody Valentine, and they do a bang-up job at it. Their second album finds them growing, both as a band and also in terms of sheer volume. Not that all of their music is pure sonic assault, but man do they know how to lay it down. Ellie Rowsell is a force to be reckoned with, especially on the punch-in-the-face that is "Yuk Foo". Elsewhere they explore angular pop on songs like "Beautifully Unconventional" and the dreamy "Don’t Delete The Kisses", and they explore dark space on "Sky Musings", and the epic "St. Purple And Green" . This young band does it all with a keen sense of command but really their greatest strength lies within the layers of shattering guitar hiss and a loud thrash. While Wolf Alice is a band whose power is best displayed on stage, they do manage to capture that lightning in a bottle from time to time and you can find that lighting here.



Liam Gallagher: As You Were
It was long accepted that the songwriting pen of Noel Gallagher was the true heart of Oasis, while his younger brother Liam was just the ugly mug that conveyed the band’s message. But then somewhere along the line, Liam learned how to write songs. And really good ones too. While his songs graced the last few Oasis albums, as well as the two albums that Beady Eye put out, this is Liam’s first solo album and he really delivers the goods. The album-opening "Wall Of Glass" is one of the best singles of the year, and the album never lets up from there. It’s clear that Liam still has a chip on his shoulder and there are a lot of songs here are make no attempt to hide the references to Noel. Like the heartbreak that we discussed earlier, vitriol makes for good tunes too. And this record is full of them. Good on ya, Liam, for moving out of your brother’s shadow, and for actually pulling it off.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Who Built The Moon?
One positive thing about the breakup of Oasis was that you got two solid bands out of the deal (like when Uncle Tupelo split up). Noel Gallagher formed his High Flying Birds while the rest of Oasis put out two albums under the name Beady Eye before Liam split that band to go solo. Each Gallagher brother has now led the charge on three albums and every one of them has been a scorcher. While Liam’s albums have showed him refining his skills as a songwriter, Noel’s albums have found him pushing the envelope as an artist, often moving far beyond his comfort zone, but rarely faltering, if ever. The first HFB album was a statement of purpose. The second was proof that the first was not a fluke. This third album establishes this band as a real thing. While it’s clear that these songs came from the pen of Noel, this does not sound like a lost Oasis album. In fact, much of it feels like the kind of album that the young Gallaghers would have taken the absolute piss out of. Especially "Keep On Reaching", with its horns and backing vocals. But, man, this record cooks.

Bent Knee: Land Animal
Bent Knee’s fourth album finds these Boston art-rockers coming further into their own, and reigning triumphantly. One of the most eclectic, impossible-to-pigeonhole bands I have ever had the pleasure to listen to, Bent Knee is one of those bands that sounds like nothing else in the world. They are jazzy, proggy, ethereal, noisy, catchy, obtuse, heavy, light….often within the same song. And, in Courtney Swain, they possess one of the most dynamic vocalists to ever step in front of a mic. An expressive vocalist, she can swing, she can whisper, and she can wail like a thousand banshees. Every song on this album is compelling but "Holy Ghost" has been the one that I just cannot get enough of.


Chuck Berry: Chuck
One of the original, and greatest, architects of rock ‘n’ roll issues his final album and it is a doozy. Announced on the guitarist’s 90th birthday, he sadly passed away before this album could see release, but he leaves the world with one of the strongest records of his career, or at least since his 1950’s heyday. His first album in 38 years finds Chuck doing what Chuck did best – being Chuck. His signature guitar licks color just about every track, and he sounds more energetic than he had in years. All but two of the songs are originals and they all have the same fire that propelled his original offerings into the upper echelons of popular music. It is a shame that Chuck did not live to see the album’s release, and the level of success it had. You don’t see a lot of 90-year-olds rock it like this. So long, Chuck. Thanks for, well, everything.

So that’s it. 17 reasons to keep on spinning those black circles. There were more, but these are the records that moved me the most this year – though I am sure there is at least one super obvious record that came out in like February or something that I am totally forgetting about. And this list is totally subjective. It’s not necessarily the best albums of the year, because there is no best. But these seventeen albums…they are ones that blew me away, ones that I just cannot get enough of, and ones that you totally should hear.

Sadly, we must pay tribute to the many musical heroes we lost this year – Chuck Berry, Tom Petty, Gord Downie, Fats Domino, Gregg Allman, Chris Cornell, John Wetton, J. Geils, Al Jarreau, Pat DiNizio, Tommy Keene, David Cassidy, Malcolm Young, Walter Becker, Glen Campbell, Butch Trucks, Charles Bradley, Grant Hart, Holger Czukay, Allan Holdsworth, Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.), and so many more. You may be gone but, thanks to your records and your legacy, you will never be forgotten. Play forever.

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