Salutations

I really liked this record. I thought it was one of the best records of last year, even though I know – I know! – that half the songs were repeats from a previous record. Conor Oberst’s writing has always spoken to me, because apparently I’m a little angst-rat deep down inside, and now I like that he has something to say about growing up and being not quite disgruntled in middle age, but at least pensive about it. He’s still young, of course, and fans like me who grew up with his records are even younger. But you can’t carry on throughout life repeating the same angst. You would look stupid. You have to find some new angst. Surprisingly enough, finding yourself more mature and less dumb than you used to be is angst-making in and of itself for a lot of people. It seems that lots of us get very used to our lives being an ongoing garbage fire and it’s disconcerting to realize that it’s not. I mean, I suppose that it must be. My life is still a smoldering garbage fire.

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

 

 

The Rain Follows the Plow

Just as my parents’ generation have seen all of the dread of their own mortality made flesh in the still-shamelessly-strutting-it form of Mick Jagger, my generation has grown old enough to see its own It-Boys turn into men with wrinkles and midlife crises. Conor Oberst, for example, is pushing 40. The former teen prodigy used to exemplify the tortured feels of hyper-sensitive and hyper-articulate but poorly socialized post-adolescents. He had a quavering voice that seemed always on the verge of tears and the dreamy good looks of a baby owl. He got called “The New Dylan” a lot. Now he’s facing the challenge of somehow staying relevant now that his constituents are divorced, 15 pounds overweight, struggling to make their car payments and long ago given up on all their dreams. Fortunately, adulthood offers its own unique sources of angst, though tempered – if you’re lucky enough to actually have matured – by some wisdom and perspective. Oberst is in a position to segue into a really great second phase in his career, and he’s smart enough to see that. His last couple of albums have been surprisingly outstanding; clearly he still has a lot to write about, as a mature person, and I expect him to continue to lean into it. Maybe his best is still coming up, maybe he’ll find increasing inspiration from the perspective of age. Growing older is inherently embarrassing for a pop figure – besides seeing your own failings in the harsh camera glare, you’re also representing the failings of your audience. You have a choice though; you can put on your Peter Pan skinny pants and stubbornly carry on being exactly the same, or you can allow your ageing and decline to become part of your work. I expect Oberst to follow the leads of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, who discovered their best creative years well past the hump of middle age and just really owned the hell out of being withered old men.

Four Winds

Conor Oberst is so self-effacing to show himself getting pelted by an unruly audience. False modesty, Conor. It’s getting a bit cliche to keep saying, but I hold that Oberst is one of the few (if not the only) brilliant lyricists today who isn’t pushing towards or past retirement age. There’s plenty enough young musicians running around who are gifted and amazing, don’t misinterpret. But there aren’t very many who squirrel into the memory by words alone. Perhaps I’m not entirely objective here, because of how many Bright Eyes songs are tied up to me emotionally, but I’ve heard others say the same thing. The phalanx of critics lining up with laurels emblazoned “New Robert Zimmerman” stretches around the block and if it weren’t for the stigma of the ’emo’ categorization it’d be an even bigger crowd. Emo is an amorphous ‘genre’ that also includes dreck like Fall Out Boy and the insufferable Dashboard Confessional, so for casual observers it may be easy to dismiss Bright Eyes as something weepy teenage misfits listen and ascribe great importance to. It may sound belittling but it’s weepy teenage misfits who carried the torch for now canonized songwriters from Lou Reed to Morrissey. Also in regards to emo and its association with teenage weepiness, there’s a current of backlash from detractors who insinuate that Oberst gets an unfair amount of credit from critics who either are or formerly were weepy teenage girls and want to ascribe him great importance because he’s SO CUTE!! (An image problem Dylan never had to deal with.) But I’ve no doubt he will outgrow his dreamy-boy image and hold on to any and all credit on the sheer strength of his material.

Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe
There’s people always dying trying to keep them alive
There’s bodies decomposing in containers tonight
In an abandoned building where
Squatters made a mural of a Mexican girl
With fifteen cans of spray paint and a chemical swirl
She’s standing in the ashes at the end of the world
Four winds blowing through her hair

But when great Satan’s gone… the Whore of Babylon…
She just can’t sustain the pressure where it’s placed
She caves

The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s deaf, the Qur’an’s mute
If you burned them all together you’d get close to the truth still
They’re pouring over Sanskrit on the Ivy League moons
While shadows lengthen in the sun
Cast all the school and meditation built to soften the times
And hold us at the center while the spiral unwinds
It’s knocking over fences crossing property lines
Four Winds, cry until it comes

And it’s the Sum of Man slouching towards Bethlehem
A heart just can’t contain all of that empty space
It breaks. It breaks. It breaks.

Well I went back by rented Cadillac and company jet
Like a newly orphaned refugee retracing my steps
All the way to Cassadaga to commune with the dead
They said, “You’d better look alive”
And I was off to old Dakota where a genocide sleeps
In the Black Hills, the Badlands, the calloused East
I buried my ballast. I made my peace.

Heard Four Winds, leveling the pines

But when great Satan’s gone… the Whore of Babylon…
She just can’t remain with all that outer space
She breaks. She breaks. She caves. She caves.

Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)

Cassadaga is the last album Conor Oberst released under the Bright Eyes masthead. At first I didn’t like it, but it’s grown on me. It’s not as depressing as some of his other stuff. Yeah, I know, nothing makes me happier than depressing music, but I find Bright Eyes truly depressing sometimes. Anyway, Cassadaga is Florida community of psychics, spiritualists and occultists. It’s those people’s voices that open the album (and this being the opening track). Is there a loose theme going on dealing with the business of seeking and finding and believing? Possibly. Either way it’s nice to see our boy is capable of occasionally straying from his ‘on me oh my I’m sad’ confessional mode and taking a broader view on things.

Another Travelin’ Song

Want the definition of Emo? You’re looking at it. This is a man so emo, he performs under a name taken from an Art Garfunkel song. An Art Garfunkel song from an animated movie about rabbits. That’s emo. And unlike most of what falls under that label, Bright Eyes doesn’t suck. Conor Oberst has been called the second coming Dylan. (Why do we need a new Dylan when the old one is still alive and kicking?) That’s grossly unfair to anybody, for obvious reasons, but that’s the comparison that inevitably gets made whenever a songwriter comes along with thoughts in his head that aren’t crude sexual metaphors. Oberst is no Dylan by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s one of the strongest young songwriters we’ve got. That and cuteness levels that should be illegal have made him an icon for millions of the discerning depressed wilting wallflower types who like to wear hoodies, pout, mope and cut themselves. He also rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Non-believers say his songs are self-obsessed, teenage and whiny, and his voice is annoying. Good point. He unfailingly sounds like he’s on the brink of bawling his eyes out. A little bit goes a long way.

Well I’m changing all my strings
I’m gonna write another traveling song
About all the billion highways and the cities at the break of dawn
Well I guess the best that I can do now is pretend that I’ve done nothing wrong
And to dream about a train that’s gonna take me back where I belong

Well now the ocean speaks and spits and I can hear it from the interstate
And I’m screaming at my brother on a cell phone he’s far away
I’m saying nothing in the past or future ever will feel like today
Until we’re parking in an alley
Just hoping that our shit is safe

So I go back and forth forever
All my thoughts they come in pairs
Oh I will, I won’t, I doubt I don’t
I’m not surprised but I never feel quite prepared

Now I’m hunched over a typewriter
I guess you call that painting in a cave
And there’s a word I can’t remember
And a feeling I cannot escape
And now my ashtray’s overflowing
I’m still staring at a clean white page
Oh and morning’s at my window
She is sending me to bed again

Well I dream of dark on the horizon
I dream a desert where the dead lay down
I dream a prostituted child touching an old man in a fast food crowd
Oh yeah, I dreamt a ship was sinking
There was people screaming all around
And I awoke to my alarm clock
It was a pop song, it was playing loud

So I will find my fears and face them
Or I will cower like a dog
I will kick and scream or kneel and plead
I’ll fight like hell to hide that I’ve given up