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

 

 

Raven

The wait is over. I’ve been holding my breath for seven years, waiting for Karen Elson’s second album. Well, she’s done it now, and I can report that she’s done it again. I’m not disappointed; on Double Roses Elson sounds just as lovely and darkly romantic. I am, of course, just as in love with Elson’s kinky English rose aesthetic as I was in 1997, the first time I saw her flaming red hair in Vogue. I can’t help but idolize someone whose incredible style goes with incredible substance. So it cheers me to see her defy expectations and make her own eccentric way, even if it means waiting all of those years between projects.

Pretty Babies

It may be under the radar for some of you, but for me and a small group of fans, the music event of the year is Karen Elson’s new album. We have been waiting seven years for this! Numerology may be bunk, but seven is a significant number. It’s long time in the life of an artist, and of course, I’m excited to know where Karen Elson is in hers. I was expecting her to start recording heartbreak songs after her 2013 divorce, as many artists do. But she proved that she’s classier than that. It seems that Elson is not the kind of artist who creates compulsively, but one who does so slowly and deliberately. So, I will shortly be coming back with my impressions of the newly released Double Roses. In the meantime, enjoy a throwback from The Ghost Who Walks.

100 Years From Now

The good news is, Karen Elson has promised to put out a new album this year. That’s really all the confirmed details I know, though I understand that she’s still affiliated with Third Man Records and has been recording in Nashville. She’s been performing live with some regularity, including a duet with Michael Stipe at the David Bowie memorial and an appearance at Dylan Fest. And of course, her day job keeps her busy as well. Take your time and make the best album you can, Karen, no pressure. It’s just that six years is a really long time.

Mouths to Feed

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The iconic and gifted – but underproductive! – Karen Elson. Elson has something that’s rare in both of her lines of work; a fully fledged personality. Fashion models, obviously, roll off the production line like Mattel products, but young women singer-songwriters are nearly just heavily molded to suit a marketable standard. Elson has a face that tells a story. She’s always presented herself as an eerie meld of silent film gamine and glam rocker. So it was no surprise when she came out as a songwriter, that her songs would be about things like sharecropping in the Great Depression, and would carry more debt to Patsy Cline and Tom Waits than anything that could be used to sell perfume.

Lunasa

One of my favorite people, the glamorous Karen Elson. A professional beautiful person turned maker of darkly romantic alt country, Elson was the breakout debut of 2010. She hasn’t been very musically active since then, which frustrates me no end, but I suppose she’s terribly busy with her day job. It’s ok Karen, I understand. You’ll have plenty of time to make all the records you want once the modeling career peters down, if ever it does.

The Last Laugh

Karen Elson has done an unusual thing. No, she’s done many outstanding and unusual things, but the one that just came to mind is her musical achievement. She’s made only one album, which came out three years ago. And that album has since then been a consistent favorite. There’s lots of new albums that come out, sometimes by very important artists, which I listen to, go ‘hmm, nice’ and never think about again. So it’s pretty unusual for an album to go into regular rotation, instead of being shoved off to the side while I listen to L.A. Woman for the 18,433rd time. But I haven’t got tired of listening to The Ghost Who Walks yet. That’s partly because I’ve been a fan of Karen Elson ever since she sashayed down her first runway back in the nineties, and it made me inordinately happy when she revealed her musical abilities. And it’s because her record is, simply, just so good. It’s not a regular one-off ‘I’m a model who wants to make records’ production. It’s a distillation of everything that’s fascinating about Elson as a person; her dark romanticism, her love for all things retro, her sense of drama, her refinement. That’s what elevates it to an important work of art, in my playbook. It’s too bad that Elson hasn’t got around to recording another one, but I get that she’s been busy. Her modeling career is still red hot – unlike others her age, she still does runway – and she’s as much in demand as she’s ever been. I do wonder if she may feel leery about re-entering the recording studio without the implicit stamp of approval that comes with being married to Jack White (though I’m certain that Jack White and Third Man still fully support her as an artist). I’m sure there are people, both in the business and in the audience, who saw her more as a Jack White production than as a fully formed artist in her own right, and disabusing them of that perception could be a challenge she’s not ready to deal with yet. I have total faith that she will, when she’s ready, move forward in her music and shatter everyone’s misconceptions yet again.

(Photo by Craig McDean)