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

 

 

Radio

Lana Del Rey is releasing her fifth album tomorrow. Del Rey has shown surprising longevity, and she’s grown considerably as an artist. That’s not easy in an industry that throws It-Girls into the stratosphere and then forgets them overnight. Six years of fame is an eon in the Instagram era, and in the age of widespread piracy artists often spend most their time generating #sponcon and designing capsule collections instead of making art. So we should tip our hats to Lana for managing to stay focused on her music; she’s released an album almost every year and each one has been a step forward for her. She’s also managed not to embarrass herself with drunken escapades, ill-advised love affairs, bad makeovers, or forays into fields where she has no talents. She suffered enough negative publicity when she first came into the spotlight, for her looks, for her aesthetic, for her amateurishness on stage. And she soldiered on and she earned her credibility. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited for the new record. But I think I’ll always love Born to Die the best.

Pretty When You Cry

This sounds piped in straight from the 1960’s. Partly for the West Coast psychedelic production, but mostly for the retrograde sentiment. It’s been at least four decades since “You’re pretty when you cry” was a legit thing that could be said to someone (one hopes.) And it’s certainly been at least that long since that kind of sentiment was a legit thing you could write an un-ironic song about. The 60’s were all awash with doe-eyed girls singing songs written by men about how their entire lives and identities were built around their men. Funny how, once those girls started writing their own songs, those sentiments faded out real fast. Almost no one writes or sings torch songs anymore, which we may take as a sign of some kind of social progress. For those of us who secretly enjoy crying into our pillow and contemplating soft-grunge suicide when we don’t get all of the male attentions, there’s Lana Del Rey.

The Other Woman

Lana Del Rey has a lot of nerve taking up a Nina Simone song – some would say – but I think she made a relevant choice. If nothing else, it’s deeply thought provoking how differently the same words sound, when separated by several decades of social progress. When Simone sang about the other woman, it was as an honest-to-god blues song. Coming in 1959, a time when women genuinely had little to no recourse about the situations they found themselves in in life, the figure of the other woman was a tragic one. Once a mistress, never a wife. Today, of course, the idea that getting involved with a married man is enough to tar one’s reputation for life, or that one even has such a thing as a ‘reputation’ to be tarred upon, is hopelessly retrograde. So when young Lana sings about it, it must be as a pastiche of social roles that some women may still inhabit but which can easily be cast aside for better ones. Is she really making a social point here? Or does she just enjoy the tone of self pity it allows her to take? Well, I’m not sure how self aware Lana Del Rey really is, but she has to grasp that what in Nina Simone’s time was a broken life is in ours just a mildly poor lifestyle choice, and that there is no way to really interpret it without some degree of irony.

 

Off to the Races

Light of my life, fire of my loins, be a good baby, do what I want...

Is it trashy to quote Lolita in a song? A song about being a gold-digging, coked-up sugar baby, no less? Well, that depends on how Lana Del Rey rubs you with her retrograde lounge hoochie Nancy Sinatra aesthetic. I know plenty of people hate Del Rey for…well, for a lot of things, from valid concerns about glamorizing suicide and adopting such a blatantly unliberated point of view, to vapid ones like speculating if she’s had her nose done. I think that the Del Rey persona has quite a strong element of camp in it, and you can enjoy her brand of sad sugar baby glamour without taking it too seriously. Her lyrical point of view is not exactly progressive; she plays the part of the seductive sugar baby, the eternal mistress who will never be a wife, the sad floozy, the casting-couch climbing wannabe fucking her way towards the top, the heartbroken girl who wants to die because she thinks she can’t live alone, the woman who is empty and void of purpose without a man to guide her rudder. And yes, she is the lady who publicly said that ‘feminism is not an interesting concept’. (BTW,  I think that asking female celebrities about their position on feminism and then ripping them a new one regardless of what they say is a sexist booby trap in itself.) Yet that is exactly what makes her an interesting artist. All of those roles are ones we see secretly ourselves in, at one point or another, no matter how strong a stance we take in public. It’s essentially adolescent to think that any of those roles are valid identities, but even when we’re old enough to know better, we still find them romantic on some level. There is a powerful appeal to playing those parts, be it because it makes us feel better about the things that make us feel sad, or because sometimes those parts can serve as legitimate survival strategies. Exploring roles that are complicated and problematic is more interesting, and more important, and rings true in a way that taking a simplistic and insincere stance of ’empowerment’ does. The false empowerment of pop stars who offer vapid platitudes about ‘girl power’ and reassurances that ‘it’s ok to have curves because that’s what men like’, is truly threatening and insidiously  anti-feminist because it’s nothing more than an inoffensive facade that puts a gloss of self-love over the same old sexist status quo. Lana Del Rey may not have the well articulated feminist consciousness that Beyonce does, but her understanding of and interest in playing with complex social roles makes her an important and thought-provoking artist, and inadvertently, a feminist ally.

2014 Albums of the Year

2014 was a year of extremes. It was, in terms of world events, rather extravagantly bad, marked by violence and unrest. If there was any piece of music that could sum it all up, it would be Merry Clayton wailing out a warning of rape and murder for The Rolling Stones. That was many years ago, but the storm is threatening darker than ever. For myself…it was a year of extremes, ranging from about as good as it gets, to close to as bad. Most of the defining moments of the year are things I’d rather not talk about publicly. Let’s just say that there was more drug use and anonymous bathroom sex than usual. Fortunately, there was also a lot of good music. So without further ado, the year’s best albums.

1. Lazaretto – Jack White

You knew this would happen. Of course Jack White would take the top spot. I’ve been a fan of pretty much everything Jack does, and he doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing feels tight and angry, fierce and confident. He’s really become a master at what he does, and Lazaretto is exactly everything you would want from a Jack White album. And, of course, it all comes with the usual visual delights; Jack never shorts us on imagery and artistry. The videos make me wish he’d go ahead and make a movie. The songs range from wordless to heartbreaking. Once again, Jack White presents the total package.

High Ball Stepper

Lazaretto

Would You Fight For My Love?

2. Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen

I had marked Cohen’s previous album as good, but this one is better than good. It’s his best since The Future, and it’s been a long time. Cohen is a sprightly 80 years old now, and somehow he sounds livelier than he has in years. It helps than the songs here are more catchy than somber, and the poet’s graveyard wit is still about him. The favored themes of love and desire and death and life are all lined up, along with darkly comic commentary on the bleakness of the world. “There’s torture, and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews…”

Almost Like the Blues

Did I Ever Love You

Slow

3. This Is All Yours – Alt-J

Congratulation to Alt-J for avoiding the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ that affects so many people’s second albums. They escaped the twin pitfalls of either repeating their debut note for note or abruptly reinventing themselves to better suit their newfound fame. They’ve remained satisfyingly weird and clever, while also growing into their sound. It’s great to see a band keeping psychedelic weirdness alive – and being successful while at it! (Also 10,000 bonus points for taking Miley Cyrus’s boneheaded affirmation of Confederate pride and making it into something awesome and actually empowering.)

Hunger Of the Pine

Left Hand Free

Every Other Freckle

4. Ghosts of Download – Blondie

Blondie has consistently produced good albums since their late 90’s comeback, so it’s no surprise they’ve made another good one. However, this one feels particularly timely. Right now, Blondie’s euphoric New Wave pop sound is really having a moment, with so many new bands striving to emulate their energy and sass. So it’s right on cue that the original punk princess returns. The new record is unabashedly high on hooks and dance-floor ready. I first heard many of these songs live in concert, just about a year ago, and the new material stood well beside the classics. It’s like the 80’s never ended.

A Rose By Any Name

Sugar On the Side

I Want to Drag You Around

5. Hotel Valentine – Cibo Matto

I can’t believe I’ve never listened to Cibo Matto before! They’ve been flying just under the radar for years, and this album for some reason received more than the usual amount of publicity. Let me tell you, it was a case of instantly falling in love. Why would’t I love a concept album about a haunted hotel? Or a song with “Don’t throw the fucking oyster shell at me” as a chorus?  If the ghost in the hotel appears to be that of Yoko Ono, it’s no coincidence; Ono is a longtime friend and mentor. It’s nice to discover a band of serious eccentricity.

Mfn

Deja Vu 

10th Floor Ghost Girl

6. El Pintor – Interpol

*Belated discovery of the year*

Another band I’d never listened to before that really struck a chord this year. Interpol are just back from a hiatus, so the new record came with loud and serious buzz. Well earned, it turns out. Having done my research with all of their previous albums, I can safely say, this is awesome by their own and any other standards. It’s Mancunian New Wave reborn, in a different decade, as New York City grunge.

All the Rage Back Home

My Desire

Everything Is Wrong

7. Ultraviolence – Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey is a divisive artist, to say the least. She gets flak for her looks (plastic surgery or nah?), her stage presence (wooden), her public statements (dumb), her fanbase (hipsters), her everything basically. She’s both blessed and cursed for having arrived on the scene fully formed in the age of internet-based instant gratification, and she’s sparked some deep debate about image and authenticity. Right away she struck me as an interesting songwriter and an original voice, and she’s grown since then. On her  new album she’s more mature, less in love with her own sex kitten image, more emotional and more perceptive. And she’s ready to parody herself and her hipstery ilk as well.

West Coast

Shades of Cool

Ultraviolence

8. Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant 

Robert Plant had some bad years as a solo artist, mostly in the 80’s. (Didn’t everyone?) In recent years he’s reinvented himself as something of a folksy man of the world, in the sense that the world is his inspiration. On his latest, he’s gathered musicians from all over the globe to form The Sensational Space Shifters, and they’ve all brought a piece of their home culture. It’s Plant’s liveliest and most diverse album, and it might actually be the most diverse album by anybody this year. And he still has the voice of a golden god. No wonder he’s ‘not bored enough’ to get the Led back on.

Rainbow

Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)

House of Love

9. Give My Love to London – Marianne Faithfull

I love it when Marianne Faithfull rocks out a little. Nobody does gloom and doom better than she, but high spirits become her too. She’s definitely in a spirited mood on this outing. And she brought friends! Nick Cave, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Mick Jones and Steve Earle all show up, and it seems that collaborating with the masters of morbid really brings out everyone’s cheery side. Some of the tracks sound like they’ve been piped in straight from the sixties, others like they’ve escaped from one of Cave’s own albums, all delivered with a hint of a wink. Faithfull sounds like she relishes digging her teeth into everything from Cave’s extravagantly morose Late Victorian Holocaust to classic Everly Brothers to standout late period Leonard Cohen.

Give My Love to London

Sparrows Will Sing

Going Home

10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St.Vincent has become quite the critics’ darling – and rightly so. She’s quirky enough to satisfy lovers of eccentricity, and yet (just barely) accessible enough to actually sell an album or two. She also has the David Byrne stamp of approval (not that she needs the validation); the two made an album and toured together. But Annie Clark is in no one’s shadow. She’s the thinking man’s new rock goddess.

Birth In Reverse

Digital Witness

Prince Johnny

11. Cheek to Cheek –  Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga 

All is forgiven, Lady Gaga! If Born This Way was all gigantic choruses, then Artpop was all drawn-out middle eights. It felt like Gaga, having concurred the world of pop, was treading water in search of a new direction. So she did the last thing anyone would ever expect. She made a jazz album. With Tony Bennett. Does it add something profound to the genre? Not really. Is it campy and bombastic at times? Yes, somewhat. But it’s been a long time since I’ve heard those old standards belted out with such joy and enthusiasm. Lady Gaga finally shows off her vocal chops, and she sounds swell. It’s plain to hear that Gaga and Bennett had an absolute ball working together. It’s a contagious feeling.

Anything Goes

I Can’t Give You Anything but Love

I Won’t Dance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born To Die

Not long ago I mentioned Lana Del Rey in relation to another artist, and if I made is sound derogatory to Del Rey, that was not my intention. I think she’s fabulous. She is a divisive figure. Some people think she’s stylish and original, others think she’s just another overhyped starlet sliding through life on looks. Yeah, she’s hyped up all right. She went from having a lot of hits on YouTube to instant fashion icon in something like a few weeks, which is a big jump. A few criticisms; she can’t really sing, her persona is a cynically constructed stab at mass appeal, she bombed on SNL, she’s had too much plastic surgery. Well, she did bomb hard on SNL. Not everyone is born with a natural stage presence. And, yes, her face does appear to be made entirely of beeswax. I don’t if Del Rey herself has addressed these things that critics have taken issue with, but Kristen Wiig did, and I think she said all that there is to say. However I think that all of those things are basically unfair, and that Del Rey does deserve her stardom. She did create a mass appealing persona, and it works for her. She’s far from being a great singer, and that too works in her favor. In an age where anyone not boringly competent can expect to be auto-tuned to the point of sounding like an android, it’s incredibly refreshing to hear an imperfect voice with all of its idiosyncrasies intact. Del Rey ranges from a girlish squeal to a breathy coo – a limited range, but memorable, sexy, and just right for her “Lolita lost in the ‘hood” persona. I also would like to point out, and this doesn’t usually get mentioned; Del Rey writes all of her own material. In all the fuss surrounding whether or not she had her lips done, no one talks about her skills as a songwriter. Personally, I think she’s very good. She has a way of turning out evocative imagery, putting together lines that shouldn’t work, except that they do, for her. Being able to write any semblance of an original lyric is extremely rare, and I think that Del Rey really deserves praise for her writing. She writes songs that only she could have written, and that only she could possibly sound good singing. That, together with a clearly well thought-out image, makes for a potentially long and serious career, if she doesn’t torpedo herself anytime soon.