Rosalyn

I barely recognized this as David Bowie the first time I put on this record. It’s not very often that David Bowie sounds so…unhinged. Well, Pin Ups is a covers record, and he made a point of picking weird and unexpected songs. This one is from The Pretty Things, one of the first garage rock bands, and the original sounds like it was recorded inside of a large dumpster. Which is the opposite of the usual Bowie approach, and which is what makes for a weird selection. It is, of course, trailblazing, because hardly anybody was doing cover records in 1973. It almost feels like a novelty record, because it’s very very campy, almost too silly. But fun.

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Roots, Rock, Reggae

Okay, here’s one you probably all know. It’s one of Bob Marley’s most popular songs. I’d say that for many of us, it’s been part of the wallpaper of our lives since childhood. It’s just one of those songs that’s about as universal as a composition can be. It’s nice to see a little video and get a sense of who made the music. Funny how Bob Marley and the Wailers were rarely asked to appear on Top of the Pops-type television shows. It’s probably because they didn’t look much like most of the artists who appeared on those shows. Ahem. Well, they probably didn’t love miming in front of a blank studio screen either.

Rootless

Marina Diamandis sure knows how to make angst poetic. She’s dramatic in her lyrics, in her vocals, and in her image. She may have pop diva sensibilities, but they’re constantly in a balancing act with her emo side. Because although her music might sound ‘big’ her topics are intimate. She writes a lot about things that are interior in a way that most pop doesn’t usually touch. Lots of songs about insecurity, about not knowing who you are and what you’re doing. That’s an essential part of being young, of course, and dealing with those feelings in a productive way is an essential part of becoming less young. That’s why Marina strikes a chord with the young and the not so much. She’s a figure study in how to be vulnerable and creative about it.

 

Room off the Street

I love pulling out the most obscure songs from albums I haven’t listened to in a long time, which you’ve probably listened to never. It’s like opening up a box in the attic. It’s memories and it’s feelings I don’t remember. I also really love it when the artist pulls out their most obscure songs. That’s like them giving us a gift box, from their own attic. I’m almost certain that Suzanne Vega never played this song after releasing it in 1990, until pulling it out for this show in 2000. If you’re familiar with Days of Open Hand, you won’t recognize the arrangement. You’ll notice she’s ditched the prominent woodwinds that made the original so mournful and made the handclaps snappier. Arrangements aren’t something I nerd out on, not being a musician myself, but what interests me is the value artists find in their own work. Certainly, they value the work that makes them the most money, but what about the things that don’t make money and just exist for the memories? Suzanne Vega, for one, has been very interested in reevaluating her own back catalog. She’s rerecorded a series of her old songs, releasing compilations that take songs from different albums and mix them together by theme. This repackaging might seem redundant, since the new recordings don’t sound radically different from the old ones, but it’s about changing the context of the songs to make them play in a different light. I can see how that can be an immensely fun project for the singer, and it’s really aimed at the fans who are deeply invested in the material. I admire that.

Romeo and Juliet

If there’s one literary allusion that people never seem to get tired of, it’s Shakespeare’s play about the two kids who fell in love and killed themselves. It’s become a collective byword for romance, even though, as a love story, it’s not very encouraging. Well, I’ve never understood it, but I don’t have much use for either romantic cliche or Elizabethan dialogue. Thankfully, in this case, the allusion doesn’t grate on me. I love Dire Straits, and smart writing is one of the things I love them for. It would take an idiot to think that Romeo and Juliet represent happy romance, and Mark Knopfler is not an idiot, and he uses the allusion to signal romantic failure. That’s not exactly accurate, either, since the titular characters didn’t fail at romance in the traditional sense, but it works. The romance crashed and burned, maybe not on the level of suicide and murder, but enough to look like a tragedy to the writer at least. That I can relate to a little.

The Best Albums of 2017

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Or dreading. Or, more likely, irrelevant and weeks too late to the party. 2017 is over and no one wants to think about it any more. It was a crap year, but crap years often inspire great feats of creativity. At least we had a tide of good music. Oh, so much good music…

1. Pure Comedy – Father John Misty

Pure_Comedy

This is the album we deserve and need. It’s depressing as fuck, its bleakness relieved only by Misty’s signature hyper-articulate mordant wit. After the wedding album comes the hangover album. It’s the work of a man who’s snapped out of his honeymoon haze, looked around and saw the world all gone to hell. If there was one record I leaned on all year, it was this one.

Pure Comedy

Ballad of the Dying Man

Total Entertainment Forever

 

2. Low In High School – Morrissey

morrisseylowinhighschool

You would think that Morrissey, with his nasty eccentricity and tone-deaf statements and complete inability to learn from controversy, has outlived his usefulness as a public figure. Yet he’s still capable of writing some of his punchiest music, and musically at least, he’s still relevant and on-point. He’s still both narcissistic and self-deprecating, angry at the world, romantic, petty, and inexplicably interested in Israel. He may even have matured a little; some of the new songs are quite sexy, as befits a man with some life experience under his belt, no longer pretending to be a celibate little naif.

Spent the Day in Bed

Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s up on the Stage

I Bury the Living

 

3. Woodstock – Portugal. The Man

Portugal._The_Man_Woodstock_album_cover

In a crap year, we kind of need a little escapism, a little fun. These guys have been plugging away for years, to little notice, but this year they finally hit the big time. They’ve always had a knack for great catchy tunes, tempered with a little darkness. They’re more catchy than ever, almost too catchy, like a tweaked out parody of catchy. Which is perfect, because we need to get tweaked on something that looks and tastes like pop sugar.

Feel It Still

Rich Friends

Noise Pollution

 

4. Lust for Life – Lana Del Rey

Lana_Del_Rey_-_Lust_for_Life

Well, I certainly couldn’t have predicted that Lana Del Rey would become one of the most consistent artists on the scene. She burst out in a blaze of way, way too much hype, and then she went and lived up to it. She likes to toy with romantic cliche in a way that both knowingly ironic and yet sincerely romantic, and she knows her way around retrofitted reference points. On this album she sounds like she’s beamed in from an alternate-universe Summer of Love, and it sounds nothing but timely.

Lust for Life

Love

13 Beaches

 

5. Masseduction – St. Vincent

St_Vincent_-_Masseduction

St. Vincent’s hi-fashion aesthetics may make her look like a ‘fun’ artist, but she’s actually a ‘dark’ artist, one who likes to explore the poses we strike in life. She can be depressing, she can be witty, she can be glamorous or scary, she can be all of those things all in one song. She’s one of those increasingly rare artists who work to please themselves, and end up with accolades they never aimed for, because they’ve hit on something pleases a lot of people.

New York

Los Angeles

Pills

 

6. Double Roses – Karen Elson

Double Roses

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for this record for years. Karen Elson’s first album became an instant classic for me in 2010. Now she’s finally back with her gorgeous voice, sophisticated songwriting and gothic folk/chamber-pop aesthetic intact. You gotta appreciate an artist who knows how to make the most of a harp solo.

Call Your Name

Wonder Blind

Distant Shore

 

7. Lotta Sea Lice – Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile

Courtney_Barnett_and_Kurt_Vile_-_Lotta_Sea_Lice

Courtney Barnett deftly dodges our elevated expectations. And after the big breakout of her debut LP in 2015, the expectations couldn’t be higher. Instead of trying to live up to the hype all over again, she offers instead an informal-feeling collaboration with fellow deadpan songwriter Kurt Vile. It’s just as articulate and insightful as you would expect, with irreverent observations about the mundane and a sense of friends just having fun. Maybe they should form a band.

Over Everything

Continental Breakfast

Let It Go

 

8. If All I Was Was Black – Mavis Staples

If_All_I_Was_Was_Black

I have a shameful confessionĀ  to make: I’ve never listened to Mavis Staples before this year. I know that she’s been a force in soul music for decades, and somehow, I’ve never paid attention. Maybe the thing that pushed this particular record into my conscience is its relevance. It’s an of-the-moment piece of work that’s politically relevant, from a veteran of the civil rights movement who can’t believe she’s still fighting the same old battle. But it’s not a work of anger and indignation, but an openhearted and optimistic one; as befits someone who made her name in the 60’s, Staples still believes that love can heal all of our rifts. And if she can, so should we.

We Go High

Peaceful Dream

If I Was Was Black

 

9. The Far Field – Future Islands

Future_islands_the_far_field

I can’t get enough of Future Islands’ retro-synthpop romanticism. Their music sounds like a collage of 80’s New Wave elements, but it’s far too emotional to ever be called a retreat. It’s something beautiful and brand new that sounds like something that’s been around forever. That kind of instant familiarity is what we look for in new music, and we rarely find it, but when we do, it’s like an addition to the family. Samuel T. Herring remains one of the most unforgettable vocalists of the moment.

Ran

Cave

Time On Her Side

 

10. Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – Halsey

Halsey_-_Hopeless_Fountain_Kingdom

Halsey is a young songwriter whose work is both intimately confessional and ambitiously high-concept. On her second album, she writes about the effects of fame (it’s no cure for loneliness) and the challenges of challenges of love, quotes Shakespeare, and ties it all together with a loose narrative about disaffected youth in a near-future world. It’s catchy, modern, and ready for heavy airplay on indie radio at least, but satisfying challenging and personal.

Now or Never

Bad at Love

Alone

 

11. Every Where Is Some Where – K.Flay

K.Flay

K.Flay is an artist whose work can be called post-genre. She’s been called – nominally – a hip hop artist, but that doesn’t cover it. She’s pulling sonic influences from all over, but her writing is confessional, almost emo. It’s also her strength. Sometimes dark and laced with profanity, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes funny. She’s part of a new generation of female artists who present themselves as unapologetic anti-heroines, telling their stories, taking pride in their honesty and pain, not afraid to be get weird and ugly. This is her second album.

Blood in the Cut

High Enough

You Felt Right

 

12. Melodrama – Lorde

Lorde_-_Melodrama.png

Last but not least in the series of outstanding second albums by precocious young women. Who could forget about Lorde? She was the teenage prodigy sensation of 2013 and now she’s almost all grown up. Sure, first love and first fame aren’t exactly fresh topics, and, no, there’s no way anything could be as unexpected and original as Pure Heroine was. But Lorde is approaching those topics with her usual wiser-than-her-years aplomb, and she’s still unique in her eccentricity.

Green Light

Perfect Places

Homemade Dynamite

 

13. Salutations – Conor Oberst

Salutations_(Front_Cover)

Conor Oberst used to be the teenage prodigy sensation of his time. Now he’s just another nearly-middle aged man who’s not as relevant or as cute as he used to be. That could be a cue to drop off the map. Or it could be a cause for renewed inspiration. It’s frankly great to see a major songwriter, who the emo generation grew up with, becoming mature and staying interesting. Also, what best of- list is complete without a shoutout to Oliver Sacks?

A Little Uncanny

You All Loved Him Once

Gossamer Thin

14. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream – Open Mike Eagle

Open_Mike_Eagle_-_Brick_Body_Kids_Still_Daydream

This is the first time I’ve featured a hip hop album as one of my favorites. As you may have noticed, hip hop accounts for a huge swath of today’s pop culture, and it’s something I’m slowly educating myself about. This is a great place to start; it’s free of the aggressive posturing and machismo that makes most mainstream rap (and frankly, most mainstream anything anymore) so unappealing. Open Mike Eagle isn’t here to beef with other rappers or name-check the designer brands in his closet. What he offers is smart, personal, relevant songwriting that cuts across genres. Michael Eagle does standup on the side, and his wit lightens every track (and especially evident in videos.) Also, bonus points for year’s best Bowie shout-out.

Brick Body Complex

95 Radios

Happy Wasteland Day

 

 

Romany Soup

Marc Bolan never did write a book about the adventures of Kingsley Mole and Lionel Lark. He became a famous rock star and lost interest in fairy tales and whimsical creatures. Or rather, fairy tales and whimsical creatures went out of fashion along with peace, love and idealism at the end of the 1960’s and Bolan was at the cutting edge of fashion. He was. This doesn’t sound like the composition of a man who was at the cutting edge of anything, but letĀ  me assure you that in 1969 all of the coolest people were reading The Wind in the Willows and trying to incorporate its rustic charms into their own writings. It wasn’t a more innocent time by any means, but there was a belief that the world could become more pure and loving, somehow, and reverting to childlike whimsy was part of that mindset. Then, of course, everyone gave up on that pipe-dream and starting doing a lot of cocaine and heroin instead. But it was a wonderful, charmed time while it lasted.