Last year I said that “They say that in times of strife good music is made. 2016 seems to be proving that adage correct for it was a great year for music despite the gutting losses of musical icons – literal paragons of their artform (David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and Phife Dawg to name a few). And the eerie final-works delivered just before their deaths from Bowie and Cohen (and Phife not too long after) only added to the pain of our loss.” If I only knew then what 2017 would end up like. I think there is something telling the albums I was drawn to this year. From the balm and salves of mid-tempo easy-rockers (e.g. The War on Drugs, Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Real Estate), to the orchestral (Why?, Grizzly Bear), to the soothing chillwave/vaporwave (Toro y Moi), to the cerebral and hard-hitting hip-hop (Joey Badass, RTJ, Kendrick Lamar)- I think they tellingly capture the zeitgeist of the <barf>Trump-era</barf>.
Here, in no particular order, are my Top-5 albums of 2017:
1. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins
This album caught me a little by surprise. Though, being an avid Grizzly Bear fan, I hadn’t heard that they were releasing their new album until it was nearly out. (But, you’ll have that when it’s been 5 years since you’ve put out an album.) I happened to have caught a live performance of the single “Mourning Sound” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
I was hooked. And normally I hate live tv performances. They are never able to capture the depth of the songs, often missing nearly all of the low end. Plus, the performers are generally tired and not as excited to be playing for a live studio audience as they might be a concert venue full of people. But there is something about this one (listen to that build-up to the solo at 3:30).
Getting the single right out of the way: while I normally am anything but on trend, this 80s resurgence zeitgeist that seems to be happening isn’t really my thing, but on “Mourning Sounds” I absolutely love the shimmery descending keyboard melody which recalls Simple Minds or Tear For Fears, and mixes well with the lush layering of the production. But “Mourning Sounds” is anything but an 80s throwback. The beat seems to play against the rest of the song unlike the bulk of the songs from 30 years ago. I also dig the fuzzed-out lackadaisical guitar solo melody played against the multiple acoustic guitar strums. The production on this is amazing. The official video is also delightfully weird.
Stepping back a minute, the opener- a strange ode to an all-wheel-drive 4-wheeler (instead of the obscure drum-machine or 4-track I thought it might be) is a lovely and interesting change of pace as an album-opener. Rather than coming out of the gates guns blazing, they hit you with a mellow song to draw you in. (The National did the same with their “Nobody Else Will Be There”on this year’s Sleep Well Beast.)
One thing I’ve learned from previous albums is that, while no one in the band is a slouch, drummer Chris Bear is their secret weapon. His syncopated beats playing against arpeggiated melodies from guitarist Daniel Rossen and layered keyboard washes are magical. Listen to the the zither-sounding above-the-nut strum-ssounding pedal-steel from Bear(!) that accent the chorus played against the beat on “Four Cypresses”, or the half-time breakdown and triplet-beat build-up to the chorus on “Aquarian”- followed by the saxophone laden outro- so good. It’s moments like these that make me love this band.
I’ve heard other reviewers reference hearing Steely Dan on this one (“Losing All Sense”, for sure), and though I can hear it in some places, I hear it mixed in with other things- more baroque orchestration like (the usual (for them)) Van Dyke Parks.
This album is layered, dense, and undulating. I love it. If I were to be ranking my list, it’d likely be at the top.
2. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
This came out of nowhere. I had heard of Kurt Vile as I am a big The War on Drugs fan, but never really checked him out until this year, actually*. And Courtney Barnett had long been on my “To Check Out” list for a while after catching her at Pitchfork a few years ago, as well as her contribution to last year’s Day of the Dead comp. But I never would have paired the two of these individual artists together, based solely on the the fact that they are guitar virtuosos.
I had gone down a music-video rabbit hole sometime this spring and had become obsessed with Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin”*, playing it pretty often on YouTube while working. At some point in late summer the single off this album, “Over Everything”, started playing in the random YouTube mix, and the charmingly simple video (that compliments the album art) on top of the lazy swagger of Barnett and Vile’s delivery had me hooked.
In addition to being just an amazing guitar record, I’m also a sucker for duets where the songwriters trade off verses, which Barnett and Vile do frequently and well. Normally, when you see collaborations like this it’s comprised of a set of throw-away songs that never made it onto a “real” album. But on Lotta Sea Lice, according to the artists, they wrote a few originals for the project as well as cover each other and, in my opinion, make the songs stronger as when Vile sings Barnett’s already released “Outta the Woodwork” or Barnett takes the lead on Vile’s “Peepin’ Tom” (and tears your heart out). They also cover a deep-cut Belly track and a song originally written by Barnett’s partner, Jen Cloher.
Barnett and Vile’s guitar work compliments each other, making it sometimes hard to tell which songs are Vile tunes vs. Barnett-penned ones. I’ve read some reviews that say that this album doesn’t really cover a lot of ground, and despite not knowing what they’d expect in the first place, I respectfully disagree. In addition to the complimentary covers, they turn up the Crazy Horse on Cloher’s “Fear is Like a Forest”, recall Silver Jews on “Blue Cheese”, and stay pretty true to the 90s country-lilt of Belly’s “Untogether”. And I can’t complete this review without touching on the backing band on the album, made up of Vile’s long-time Violator Rob Laakso, Warpaint’s drummer, as well as 2/3 of The Dirty Three and Mick Harvey of The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds fame!
Standouts are “Over Everything”, “Continental Breakfast” (I LOVE the subtle baritone guitar strums behind everything), “Peepin’ Tom”, and “Untogether”.
3. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Again one that almost slipped by me this year with its under-the-radar release this spring. I loved 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and looked forward to a follow-up beyond last year’s Untitled Unmastered.
While I think every Kendrick Lamar album is an introspective concept album in some way, I think DAMN. follows suit but also turns the mirror on the US and race relations today. Where Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a treatise on Lamar and his immediate environment (Compton), To Pimp a Butterfly was a more outward looking politically-charged album. DAMN. is the overlap in that Venn diagram.
The 70s-esque opener “BLOOD.” lulls you into a smooth sense of comfort, like it’s a Curtis Mayfield baby-maker of a cut, until (*spoiler*) the gunshot and the line “Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost – your life“, and that disgusting FOX News sample. And then the album takes its turn. “DNA.” follows, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Chock full of strong black man imagery, Lamar’s trademarked spitfire rhymes, and a hard hard beat. From then on, Lamar doesn’t let you settle with a particular kind of song. Banger then slow-dancer, then mumble rap number followed by a surreal interlude.
While many people criticize rap and hip-hop for being all about money and status (as if sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll wasn’t a thing), DAMN. feels like Lamar is actually struggling with success and what it means to achieve what you want.
As with all Lamar albums before, the samples are choice, often vacillating between the smooth and mellow and the psychedelic. “PRIDE.”and “LUST.” recall early Outkast and Kamaal the Abstract, “HUMBLE.”‘s ominous piano strut is infectious, and though I can’t prove it- I feel like Lamar has, at some point, referenced cLOUDDEAD or another early Anticon group.
Go-to cuts for me are “DNA.”, “YAH.”, “HUMBLE.”, and “XXX.”
4. WHY? – Moh Lhean
One my highly anticipated releases of 2017 was the new album by WHY?
Frontman Yoni Wolf gave some hints at the end of 2016 that an album would be forthcoming, and I was treated to some stripped-down piano versions during an impromptu photoshoot, which served to whet my appetite further.
I learned a long time ago to try to anticipate anything from this outfit, and while there is no denying that Moh Lhean is a WHY? album, it has taken a predictive swerve away from 2012’s Mumps, etc.
While there is a definite tie between previous albums Alopecia and Eskimo Snow, as they were recorded at the same time but released a year apart, you can tell there is something in the sound of the two that is intrinsically tied together. I once heard drummer/producer/eldest-Wolf-brother once describe those two as albums that are room-mic’d (Alopecia) and close-mic’d (Eskimo Snow). I think, generally, they are also generally categorized as an up-tempo album (Alopecia) and an a more intimate record (Eskimo Snow). There seems to be a similar, and at the same-time opposite, pattern to the feels of the last two records. Mumps, etc. had a taught feel- something immediate and in your face but, on the whole, generally more up-tempo. Moh Lhean, however is more spacious and inward-looking (but what WHY? album isn’t?). Ironically, this album was recorded at home by the brothers Wolf, primarily in Yoni’s intimate studio.
I would also be remiss in not mentioning the live performances WHY? gave promoting the new album. Depending on how one determines what is a canon lineup, whether it be who is in the band during the release of an album or length of time touring, Moh Lhean is a return-to-form, of sorts, reuniting the original quartet of Yoni Wolf, Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid, and Matt Meldon. While I initially came to like Moh Lhean, my real appreciation for it didn’t happen until I saw them perform it live as a quartet. While I love some of the expansive elements of the album, such as longtime collaborator (and Josiah’s wife) Liz Wolf and Cincinnati rising star (and personal friend) Molly Sullivan adding their lovely harmonies to several songs, what the four on tour could do to recreate and highlight what was on the album was impressive. There is something about these four individuals that really is something special- not to take anything away from any of the past iterations.
But since we’re talking about albums, I’ll just point out that I think Ian Cohen’s Pitchfork review of Moh Lhean probably says it best when he says: “If the genre-agnosticism of WHY? is no longer novel, it’s still stunningly unique. The arrangements are dazzling in their coherence, especially given the diversity of instrumentation and textures whizzing throughout.” Is this my favorite WHY? album? Maybe not. But is it the best one right now? Yes. Is it better than a lot of other things out there? Absolutely. It is compelling because it is good songcraft and there is nothing else that sounds like it today. When I try to describe it to people I spend more time coming up with compatible adjectives than I do just taking the time to put the album on to hear.
I keep going back to “One Mississippi“, “George Washington“, and “This Ole King“.
5. Joey Bada$$ – ALL-AMERI
This album came to my attention through my bandmate, Ben. Of all the albums on this list, this is the one that speaks most explicitly about the time we’re living in. On All Ameri
kkkan Bada$$, Bada$$ has made a break-up record, for lack of a better term, with America.
This album, not only got my attention topically, but also sonically. I’d not heard any of Bada$$’ work before this album, and I really hate to label it a ‘throwback’ album, but you can certainly hear some influences from early eras of hip-hop on All Ameri
kkkan Bada$$, which isn’t a bad thing. It just harkens back to a time in hip-hop that resonated with me. I like albums that use jazz, soul, and funk samples to build their sounds- or make something so completely fresh and new it piques my interest. While it’s no surprise that many young artists today are plumbing their parent’s music for inspiration (last year’s Car Seat Headrest, for example), it’s interesting to hear the same thing happening in hip-hop. There is something about the jazz samples, the scratching, where the voice sits over the music that seems to recall certain Wu-Tang, Mos Def, and Common; though he’s often compared to Black Thought, MF DOOM, and J Dilla.
Bada$$ opens the album imploring listeners to “wake up”, and asks the question “Now, what’s freedom to you? Take a minute, think it through”, setting the scene for the rest of the album. While I don’t think this album takes hip-hop into a new direction it is remarkably solid throughout. It is interesting to hear what I hear as a more contemporary rapping style over a more 90s or aughts sounding musical bed. Bada$$ stays true to his message and tackles different perspectives as he tries to wrestle with how he and America are supposed to treat each other. I generally enjoy all of the guest rappers, and I dare you not to be moved by the sample on “Temptation”.
Highlights include the ballad “For My People”, the verses on “Land of the Free”, and the hook on “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)”, and the album banger “Rockabye Baby”.
Oh, and I loved him in Mr. Robot.
6. Run the Jewels – RTJ3
I know, I know. I said ‘Top Five’, but this album got short shrift coming out early on December 26 last year, and was initially slated to come out this year January 2017.
While I have to agree with my friend Nick, this album doesn’t quite have the surprise and freshness of RTJ1 or the hard bangers of RTJ2, it’s a remarkably solid album. Killer Mike and El-P hit on all cylinders and compliment each other well, as we’ve come to expect from a Run the Jewels album. Nor do I think that was what the duo was going for. Where Joey Bada$$ is the most direct with his lyrical content on All Ameri
kkkan Bada$$, and Kendrick Lamar vacillates between pointed statement and a nearly prose delivery, Run the Jewels is poetic.
Killer Mike is one of the hardest working rappers in the business, twisting and alternating his turns of phrase to fit the meter to a dizzying effect, almost making it a relief when El-P takes the mic and he lumbers a tempered meter- not to take anything away from his delivery. You can’t have the yin without the yang. In fact, I like that fact that RTJ3 has more of a tense, beneath-the-surface, energy. You never want all of you albums to sound the same.
This was on heavy rotation for me the beginning of 2017.
And I can’t wait to hear “Legend Has It” in 2018’s Black Panther film (interestingly not “Panther Like A Panther”.
New Section! Single of the Year 2017
Only because this song bears re-sharing:
Honorable Mentions (I need to not limit myself to five)
The following are some albums that were released that didn’t get quite as much play-time as the five above.
Toro y Moi – Boo Boo (I LOVE that video!)
The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
Real Estate – In Mind
Fleet Foxes – Crack Up
Thundercat – Drunk
Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker – SpiderBeetleBee
G YAMAZAWA – Shouts to Durham
The National – Sleep Well Beast
…and some I, quite honestly didn’t get to, despite my best intentions:
Hug of Thunder – Broken Social Scene
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me
Waxahatchee – Out In The Storm
Slowdive – Slowdive
The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
The Feelies – In Between
Beck – Colors
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, James McAlister – Planetarium
Here are some bands that I discovered (and dug) this year:
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah