Season’s Song

 

It’s nice to see that Robert Plant has repented some of his old ways. Not so much the rampant plagiarism, which is what he should be repenting for, but definitely his old desire to be as ear-piercing and bombastic as possible. If anyone had to lay their money down, back in the day, it would have seemed like a good bet that Plant would be one of the ones who didn’t age well, still whipping his shirt off and screaming about his juicy lemons at the age of 700. Yet here he is, looking quietly dignified as he croons pastoral songs with lots of strings and harpsichords. Also you have to admire his refusal to hit the nostalgia circuit. A Led Zeppelin reunion stands to collect what has to be about a year of God’s salary. It takes a pretty big man to not jump all over that payday. It’s just nice to see an old god do well and not act stupid.

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Savior

So it seems that St. Vincent got saved from what she wanted, but she’s not going to be anyone’s savior. Or something. I doubt that it’s a conscious throughline. Maybe you can hear the artist growing as a person, though I personally don’t parse St. Vincent’s lyrics all that closely given that she’s adamantly not a gut-spiller. You can certainly hear the person growing as an artist, though. There’s a difference between the sound of a relative beginner who’s still building her sound, and a confident artists who’s very clear about who she is and what she wants to sound like. Her latest record was so universally praised and acclaimed it feels obvious to say that it was one of the year’s best and a new height for her blah blah blah, but it really was. Here is an artist in full control of her aesthetic, and that’s a marvelous thing to behold.

Saint

 

Bjork’s Utopia was one of the most acclaimed records of 2017, but not by me. Nobody has been stopping me on the street to ask why I didn’t love the new Bjork album, but here it is anyway: too many birdsong sound effects and woodwinds. Yes, I know I was just saying that I’m in favor of woodwinds and want to hear more of them in general, but a word to the wise, woodwinds should never be combined with birdsong sound effects lest you summon the vengeful spirit of Enya. When I put on a Bjork album, I don’t want to hear Music for Yoga Studios. Bjork is nothing if not an edgy artist, and if anybody can make it work with the nature sounds and overall spirit of optimism, it is she. But if her last record – which I adored – was the Big Breakup Album of her career, this is her Buck Up Sister and Put Yourself Back Out There album, and I’m happy for her that she’s gotten herself to that point. You’re still young, Bjork, you’ve got so much to offer and I promise you, you’ll find love again, with someone who truly deserves and appreciates you. Now get back to making music that’s dark and discomfiting.

Sacrifices

Kelela or Kehlani? Tinashe! Tinashe is the alt-R&B diva of my heart. Too bad she’s still not getting the widespread love and acclaim she deserves. I hear she’s playing another South by Southwest showcase this year, which may or may not give her profile a boost. That’s how I discovered her in 2014 and I’ve been a fan ever since. She sings and dances like a big-league pro. She has the looks. She seems like a nice and smart person. She really just needs that one big hit.

Saboteur Blues

If there’s one band who should never be forced to perform sitting down, it’s Gogol Bordello. But I guess that everyone has to compromise, and the small enclosed studios that radio and web broadcasts record in aren’t conducive to the chaos and sweat that Gogol Bordello’s regular live shows are famed for. You could say that it has to be pretty weak music if it can’t be played tamely, but for these rabble-rousers, that’s missing the point. The point is screaming communion of the sort that only a wine-drenched mosh pit can provide. Still, you can certainly enjoy their records in the comfort of your own home. It’s not as cathartic as the live show, but it rewards deep listening, because there’s always points and references to be gleaned, and yeah, there’s a lot of literary allusions going on that you’re likely not going to pick up on when you’re raging drunk.

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 confession  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

 

 

Rock & Roll Angel

We’re gonna roll through the next few days examining the redemptive power of rock music, in all of its various forms and permutations. That’s necessarily going to focus on the big players for the most part, but we’ll hear some less well-known artists. Like Wild Belle, who aren’t really a rock band – but you don’t have to be in a rock band to be a rock star. Wild Belle are so not-well-known their second album doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, which implies that there’s literally nothing to say about it except to acknowledge that it exists. I can say that it’s a good record and you should buy it. Wild Belle are different from most of the other sibling duos in that they really like roots reggae; their sound is half island, half Laurel Canyon. It’s still, on some level, lifestyle music, which, it seems, is what most light indie pop is geared to be. As in, you can hear these songs being unobtrusively pleasant as you shop, and they evoke hashtag-ready imagery of girls with long blonde hair and fringe suede boots. There’s nothing wrong with pleasant music evoking pleasant images, and I certainly am not shading Natalie Bergman for her fair hair. The way those things have been monetized via social media is also not inherently wrong, despite the misgivings of people raised on traditional media. In fact, young stars like Bergman have means to control and market their image in a way that a comparably appealing young star in the 60’s never dreamed of. That’s progress, of a sort, though we haven’t made heads or tails of it yet. The nature of stardom is different today. Maybe stars can’t be larger than life anymore, but in exchange, they can be constantly in your life, like a friend who never stops forwarding you Groupon offers.

(Concert Photo by K. Nordstrom // Instagram: @kellenyousoftly)