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

 

 

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Pure Comedy

Father John Misty has reappeared, and if you thought he was acerbic before, buckle up. The honeymoon is over, and the singer takes aim at the world outside his boudoir. The last Misty album was, of course, the wedding album, and although it had some biting moments, it was essentially an ode to living happily ever after. That was two years ago, and perhaps the world hasn’t actually changed all that much, but the American landscape has been recast, to put it kindly, in a less flattering light. Josh Tillman casts his pen towards the way we live today, and the culture we’ve come to inhabit, and he finds very little to like. In the first minutes of the new album, he correctly identifies the root of all our problems in the biology of birth itself. Birth happens at great, possibly deadly, expense to the mother, and that’s just the beginning. The effort and compromise and sacrifice and danger of keeping alive a human infant – an unviable, helpless creature – are the basis of every structure of civilization, for good or for evil. The society that we’ve built, out of biological necessity, essentially to ease the burden of staying alive, is grotesque and absurd, barely redeemed by what we view as the highlights of human achievement. We’ve evolved and learned enough to mitigate most of the problems that plagued our ancestors; we can reasonably expect that our children will live to adulthood now, and we very rarely die of leprosy anymore. Yet the we refuse to let go of prejudices and superstitions formed centuries ago, we cling to traditions and social mores that no longer serve any purpose, we resist the march of progress every step of the way, all much to our own detriment. What do we even have to redeem us, as a species, except possibly our unique capacity to create shared experiences through art? Art gives us a collective experience of empathy and learning, of sharing our beliefs and feelings, the freedom to enjoy a crude music video prominently featuring Donald Trump and Pepe the Frog. In the end, we can admit, with a bitter spit, that each other’s all we’ve got.

Only Son of the Ladiesman

You wouldn’t immediately imagine it, but this reminds me strongly of early 70’s Elton John. Or, more vaguely, early 70’s albums in general, where stripped down narrative ballads lay hidden in between the amped-up pop hits. Father John Misty is too clever an artists to just write a straightforward narrative ballad – you couldn’t even really call this a narrative, more of a wordy stream of conscious. But the structure and performance call to mind a time when it was possible to get yourself a radio hit singing twelve to thirteen verses about a boat going down on Lake Ontario. This kind of soulful verbosity doesn’t get rewarded nearly as much anymore. I would say that’s a shame, but times change, and you know what? A lot of those long narrative hit songs from the 70’s were crap anyway. I’m not suggesting that this should be a hit. I love it but I don’t want to hear it on the radio. Some songs are meant to be discovered only after you’ve bought the album. Some songs are meant to lie far between the hits, hidden away on the end of Side A, (as if that were still a thing.)

Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow

Father John Misty, a married man now, is not really feeling the bar scene so much anymore. In fact, he’s positively dripping with contempt. Contempt for the old dive bar and all the floozies and scumbags that can be found there. Contempt for the game of trying to impress drunk strangers. Expressed with his usual delightful wordiness and grumpy humor. Someday Joshua Tillman is going to really come into his own as a curmugeony old man. Right now he’s just working up speed, the Father John Misty persona having emerged as a real cultural figure only in the past year or so. Now he’s gone from acclaimed but unknown to playing the love interest in a Lana Del Rey video. But in all seriousness, I believe this man is going to be a cultural colossus, at least in my circles. Especially with the old guard dying off, there’s a need for someone who checks all the boxes, someone with the charisma and the talent and the ability to assume or shed identities as the muse directs.

Best of 2015 II

Part Two. The Songs.

A little extra space for those whose albums didn’t quite make the top cut, or those who didn’t actually release an album. The songs I listened to. A lot. This year.

1. ★ – David Bowie

David_Bowie_-_Blackstar_song_cover_art

Nothing casts a longer shadow Blackstar. Released in November, it inspired the kind of fanfare only new stirrings by David Bowie could attract. Of course we didn’t know that it was meant as the artist’s swan song, a parting gift, a characteristically cryptic goodbye. We just thought it was mighty epic. In a season of electrosynth, it’s almost painful and wrong to receive something of this caliber, as a goodbye no less. We’re not worthy.

 

2. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King

Elle_King_-_Ex's_&_Oh's

The naughtiest, sexiest pop confection. So inescapable and so catchy, you almost didn’t notice how subversive it was. Elle King is one of a new breed of smart young pop stars, armed with the message that empowerment is fun.

 

3. On the Regular – Shamir

Shamir_-_On_the_Regular_cover

This Las Vegas-based new talent combines a soulful countertenor, a love for candy colored disco beats and a playful humor to create what critics have called ‘bubblegum hip hop’. If anyone is going to write this generation’s I Will Survive, it’s gonna be this kid. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s zooming along nicely.

 

4. New Americana – Halsey

Halsey_-_New_Americana_(Single_Cover)

Yeah, it’s a self-conscious, Balenciaga-referencing, portrait-of-my-generation anthem that wouldn’t exist without Royals. But Halsey has greater ambitions than riding Lorde’s coattails for a minute on the pop charts. Her debut was a concept album about an apocalyptic near future of her own invention. She has things to say.

 

5. Tongues – Joywave

Joywave_-_How_Do_You_Feel_Now-_cover_art

This has actually been stuck in my head since the fall of 2014, and I was waiting to see if Joywave’s debut album lived up to the delirium. It does. This is the best of today’s electric indie pop wave.

 

6. The Party Line  – Belle & Sebastian

480px-GirlsInPeacetimeWantToDanceBelleandSebastian2015

Didn’t Belle and Sebastian used to be known for making sleepy folk music? They’ve been at it long enough to have been a punchline in High Fidelity. But this… This you can dance to. I guess this is a band evolving with the times. Tired of being called twee, they take to electropop.

 

7. Black Sun – Death Cab For Cutie

Black_Sun_cover

Welcome to Ben Gibbard’s big divorce album. It would make a bigger impact if every Death Cab record didn’t sound like a breakup album. The romantic mope is what these guys do best.

 

8. Lifted Up (1985) – Passion Pit

Passion_Pit_Lifted_Up_1985

Passion Pit continues the trend for catchy, New Wave influenced indie pop. There’s been a lot of it lately, mostly of the one hit and out variety, and Passion Pit, with a total of three albums, is looking more and more like a keeper.

 

9. Leave a Trace – Chvrches

CHVRCHES_-_Every_Open_Eye

This could be a long lost Cyndi Lauper song, it’s that 80’s. And that’s great. Will Lauren Mayberry grow up to be a similarly iconic figure? Too early to tell, but I’ve been watching Chvrches since their debut a few years ago, and it would be nice if I could continue.

 

10. 10,000 Emerald Pools – BØRNS

Dopamine_Studio_Album_Cover

Ok, so maybe Garrett Borns, with his pretentious stage name and sensitive-guy hair, is pure hipster bait. Maybe I’m a sucker for that stuff. Maybe this is a pretty great song.

 

11. Paranoia – Max Frost

intoxication

Max Frost is now famous enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, but it’s only a paragraph long. So he’s still got a ways to go before he reaches real fame, but it’s when not if, and when he does, you heard it here first.

 

12. Painted – MS MR

MS-MR-Painted--300x300

Just when it seemed like Ms Mr wasn’t going to live up to the promise of Hurricane… This isn’t quite as great, but it’s nice to have them back, and it would be nice to have more fanfare about it.

 

13. American Oxygen – Rihanna

American_Oxygen_cover

Rihanna is hardly the first person to use a video montage of iconic images superimposed on an American flag to illustrate a basic political point. We get it, MLK would be aghast at the violence and injustice still being dished out upon a mostly black underclass, and the American Dream is big bust for most of us, etc. (And some viewers might find it objectionable that the singer’s nipples are clearly visible throughout.) But I want to take this as a sign that Rih is beginning to mature into a more serious-minded artist. She has the talent and charisma to become the kind of artist people pay attention to when she has something important to say.

 

14. Blank Space – Father John Misty

father-john-misty-blank-space-1989-lou-reed-billboard-510x510

Oh, hey, here’s a novelty song. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll curse the heavens for taking Lou Reed, and you’ll thank Glob that at least we have Father John Misty. Oh, and maybe, just maybe, possibly, Taylor Swift is not entirely a vortex on inanity in human form.

The Best of 2015

Part One. The Albums.

The less said about 2015 the better, and 2016 has already established itself as the worst year in all of recorded history. But at least we still have music.

  1. I Love You, Honeybear – Father John Misty

father-john-misty-i-love-you-honeybear

Mark my words, Father John Misty is going to take his place as one of the most important living artists in the canon. In fact, on the strength of only two albums (at least under that name and persona), he kind of already is. I can’t think of a better songwriter, capable of the most intense romanticism and the darkest sarcasm. A great voice, a sexy look, a charismatic presence, a rock star who hits all the points.

Bored in the U.S.A.

Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)

I Love You, Honeybear

 

2. What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World – The Decemberists

What_A_Terrible_World,_What_A_Beautiful_World

The Decemberists’ hiatus didn’t last too long, thank goodness. The world needs their brand of hyper-literate musical anachronism. In a culture where erudition often seems to hold no value, it’s pleasing to see the erudite succeed outside the small circle of the NPR crowd. See, Americana can still be a relevant influence!

Make You Better

The Wrong Year

Carolina Low

 

3. Strangers to Ourselves – Modest Mouse

Strangers_to_Ourselves_cover

The hiatus of Modest Mouse was a long one, and hard to take. Promises of new material were made and rescinded. The words ‘long overdue’ were on everyone’s lips. When it finally came, it didn’t disappoint. Modest Mouse are up to their usual weirdness, mixing the catchy with the abrasive.

Lampshades on Fire

The Ground Walks, With Time in a Box

Coyotes

4. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

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It’s been a couple years since songs from Courtney Barnett’s EP began getting play on indie radio, but this full length debut was most people’s first introduction to her music. Now the world is heralding the arrival of a very major talent. As the title of the records suggests, Barnett’s talent is spinning wordy, witty songs out of the mundane, all delivered in a heavily accented deadpan sing-speak reminiscent of Lou Reed, if he had been born a snarky Australian lesbian with bangs.

Pedestrian At Best

Dead Fox

Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party

5. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence and the Machine

Florence_and_the_Machine_-_How_Big_How_Blue_How_Beautiful_(Official_Album_Cover)

The title of the album refers to the Pacific Ocean, but it could refer to Florence herself; a force of nature. She’s grown into a bona fide Major Artist since her debut, and it seems she’s still gaining momentum, if this third album is any sign. I’ve rarely seen anyone so commanding, and especially someone so young. As a performer, she was born to fill coliseums, yet despite its grandiosity her music retains intimacy.

What Kind of Man

Ship to Wreck

Queen of Peace

 

6. Dodge and Burn – The Dead Weather

dead-weather-300x300

Not even entirely new material, but new to us, and that’s enough. The Dead Weather churned out more material than one record could hold when they were at their most active. This is the overflow, with some new jams thrown in. It certainly doesn’t feel like leftovers. Alison Mosshart remains a goddess of the highest caliber, a love child of the lizard king.

I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)

Be Still

Three Dollar Hat

 

7. I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler – Yacht

Hear-ITTFWBC-Cover

An unfairly under the radar release from socially conscious electro Utopians Yacht. Claire L. Evans is an electropop genius, from her pixie cyborg style to her witty take on the issues of modern life. This is music you can dance to and think about at the same time. And it’s not without the kind of romantic sentiment a classy lady can get behind, either. How Yacht isn’t basking in fame, I have no idea, but I love this record so much I actually paid for it. So.

I Though the Future Would Be Cooler

I Wanna Fuck You Till I’m Dead

War On Women

8. The Fool – Ryn Weaver

The_Fool_(Official_Album_Cover)_by_Ryn_Weaver

A debut from a new talent I hadn’t even heard of until recently. Ryn Weaver is a singer who broke into my consciousness as an opening act for Billy Idol. So right away you know that she rocks. She also has impressive songwriting ability, a varied palette of influences and a voice that that brings to mind everything from the tremolos of folk singers like Judy Collins, to the breathy sultriness of Lana Del Rey, to the open-throated high notes of Florence Welch herself.

OctaHate

Promises

Pierre

9. Vulnicura – Bjork

Björk_-_Vulnicura_(Official_Album_Cover)

Bjork had been lying low for a while, but now she returns to purge the experience of her separation from Matthew Barney. So, here’s Bjork’s take on the classic genre of Big Divorce Album. As expected it’s a soundscape of emotion, with cryptic lyrics and surreal atmosphere, and of course, support from friends like Antony Hegarty, always on hand to bring a touch of the otherworldly.

Black Lake

Lionsong

Mouth Mantra

10. Sound & Color – Alabama Shakes

Alabama_Shakes_-_Sound_&_Color_album_cover

Here’s a band that went from near-unknown to everybody’s favorite in a blink of an eye. But you can’t say they don’t deserve it. If it seems like the throughline of rhythm and blues has gotten lost in the last two or three decades, well, it turns out it hasn’t. To call it ‘retro’ would be too obvious; it’s a reminder that roots music will never not be relevant.

Don’t Wanna Fight

Gimme All Your Love

Future People

 

The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.

Joshua Tillman, of course, is the given name of the musician we all know and love as Father John Misty. In this video he does indeed come to his own apartment, and engages in some mildly disturbing and/or erotic bad behavior. That J. Tillman sure is a funny guy! He spent a large part of his ACL set last year mocking the ‘VIP’ guests using the space in front of his stage as a thoroughfare, and he has some words to say about the hipster scene that his beard and skinny pants have gotten him associated with. He dials the snark way, way up here too. The phenomenon of hipster groupies is almost too easy to mock, but this is about as cutting a portrait of a certain kind girl as I’ve ever heard. We’ve all seen you, girl-who-abuses-the-word-‘literally’; you’re annoying.