Friday, December 29, 2017

Top 10 of 2017

10. Valerie June - The Order of Time

Valerie June's second full length album really solidified her as one of my favorite new artists. Pushin' Against a Stone could have been a fluke, it was so good - but The Order of Time not only continues the story June was trying to tell, it enhances it and strengthens her staying power in this industry. June also embodies that old school, bluegrass, Willie Nelson sensibility about her and seeing her in concert in Philadelphia earlier this year made me realize that even more. She's full of tall tales about writing her songs in Memphis at home - cooking onions while thinking about "Astral Plane" - the onions sizzling on the pan as her mind is racing through the lyrics. I love that stuff! And if you do too, you will love Valerie June and her music. Key tracks include "Shakedown," "Astral Plane" and "Got Soul".

9. Haim - Something to Tell You
This album really surprised me. Days are Gone was solid but nothing special to me. I did appreciate their singles off the album and could sense greatness in these three ladies. But they REALLY stepped up their game on Something to Tell You. Like, they went from "Oh yeah, here's some hipster ladies trying to be Wilson Phillips and oh, they're friends with Taylor Swift, that's cool, I guess" to "Oh wow, yeah. They're the second coming of Wilson Phillips now." Some of you out there reading might not be on board with that, but I certainly am. Another thing to note about this album - their videos. "Want You Back" would have been all over TRL in the early aughts. It's a great video. Sometimes I'll watch it if I'm feeling down just because it's something I know I love and something familiar. It just makes me happy. They really thought about their vision for this album and embodied it in everything they did - the music videos, the marketing for the album, the sound of the album. Everything seemed to me that it was a cohesive project that these three wanted to complete from beginning to end in the way they wanted - I dig that. Key tracks include "Want You Back," "Nothing's Wrong," "Little of Your Love" and "Right Now".

8. Dan Auerbach - Waiting on a Song
I still say that The Black Keys are one of the most important rock bands of today. Dan Auerbach is a very large percentage behind that importance - probably 75%. I love Patrick Carney too and he's a brilliant drummer but let's be real, Auerbach is the mastermind. This album really showed his songwriting chops and I wish it were a more popular album and even got awarded some Grammy nominations. It seemed like this fell way under the radar very quickly. Maybe it's because Auerbach has had his many chances in the limelight and is a Grammy award winning songwriter, performer and producer. But I'm calling out the The Recording Academy - shots are fired. Nominate this for at least Best Rock Album.

Auerbach has had some rough patches recently (yeah, about Turn Blue - can we pretend that never happened? Except for "Fever." That song is dope.) but this album, to me, was a great metaphorical punch back to all the Turn Blue haters - myself included. He's still got it!

Key tracks include "Waiting on a Song," "Malibu Man" and "King of a One Horse Town".

7. The National - Sleep Well Beast
Sleep Well Beast was my favorite album from this band since High Violet, which I just realized was seven years ago! Maybe it's because of the Hudson Valley connections this album has, but I was immediately drawn to this album. The cover, for one, could be from a Vincent Price short; it's totally bizarre and unsettling but also alluring. You want to know more. And once you listen to the music, it all comes together. It's a damn good album. Some of these songs are some of the best rock songs I've heard in years. This is the seventh studio album from this brotherly quintet and I think it's one of their best. Key tracks include "Nobody Else Will Be There," "Day I Die" and "Walk It Back" (It just so happens I love the first three songs of the album, okay? They like to start strong, I suppose.)

6. St. Vincent - Masseduction
It took me a while to actually listen to this but when I did, I was immediately hooked. Annie's songwriting is just wacky but she also can create a really good hook. Put those together and you have Masseduction. There are a lot of really good pseudo political statements on this album ("I can't turn off what turns me on,") but it's masked by electronic pop wonderfulness. There are also songs that are intentionally very stripped down like "Happy Birthday, Johnny" and "Hang On Me" that are just beautiful and don't need the bells and whistles - and Annie knows that. It's everything you'd expect from a St. Vincent album but for some reason, I'm always pleasantly surprised. Key tracks include "Hang On Me," "Pills," "Los Ageless," "Savior" and "New York".

5. Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice
This album cover is just bad ass - full stop. There's no other word to describe it. The album on the other hand...

When I heard that the former guitarist of The War on Drugs, and now solo artist Kurt Vile, was going to make an album with one of my favorites in the game, Courtney Barnett, I was like "Okay, I like some of his stuff. Let's see how it goes." I love Barnett but I know that Vile is hit or miss for me so I didn't have my hopes up. I also found out that Vile wrote more songs than Barnett on the album before listening to it, which was a slight gut punch being more a fan of Barnett, so it took a while to listen to this after it released. Vile wrote four songs on the album and Barnett wrote three. And one from each of their counts is a cover. But then I did listen to it and all of my assumptions about it wasn't true. It combined Courtney Barnett's random story telling and power chord choruses and Kurt Vile's twangy guitar and dylan-esque way of annunciation really well. It's a great album and these two have found a balance that doesn't completely over shadow the other. I'm really glad I came around and gave it a shot. Also really shocked and appalled that this didn't get a Grammy nomination but there's a possibility Justin Bieber could win a goddamn Grammy this year. Seriously, I thought The Recording Academy were doing better this year. Still a lot of work to do, obviously.
Key tracks include "Over Everything," "Let It Go," and "Continental Breakfast."

4. Arcade Fire - Everything Now
So, this was probably Arcade Fire's most disliked album so far, by fans and critics, but I loved it. From the Boston Globe:"the band has doubled down on snotty yet trite social criticism," while adding that "'Peter Pan' and 'Chemistry' could duke it out for the title of Arcade Fire's worst-ever song." Agreed with "Chemistry" but "Peter Pan" deserves better. I wouldn't say that Everything Now's social criticism is any more or less trite from The Suburbs either. They wanted to do something new. I'm okay with that - especially a band like Arcade Fire who have accomplished a lot in their tenure. As long as the experimentation is genuine and not intended to raise their paychecks, which I guess, is debatable if that was the intention or not, I'm not Win Butler, I don't know. It doesn't seem like it to me - I think there's still heart and hard work behind those songs. Regardless, there are some gems here. It's not what we're used to getting from Arcade Fire which is jarring at first, but my gateway to this record was "Signs of Life" - a song that could very well be plucked out of The Suburbs track listing. Then I listened to "Creature Comfort." Then I saw them in concert and they blew me away. Started listening to "Electric Blue" a lot. It just keeps growing on you and you notice something different every time you listen to it.
Key tracks include "Signs of Life," "Creature Comfort," "Electric Blue" and "Put Your Money on Me."

3. Kesha - Rainbow
One of those albums where I'm like, "how do I even begin to write about this?"

It took five horrible, frustrating years for this album to see the light of day. I can't imagine being a musician and by law, not being able to release the music you've created. Being a musician and having to put your career on hold. Not being able to go forward. Having to deal with the aftermath of a man abusing you for years and when you finally have the courage to say something, being essentially punished for it. Her fans stood by her throughout the entire trial with Dr. Luke and Sony/RCA. She updated us on social media about what was happening. She finally decided to tour because at least it was performing her music and sharing new stuff with her fans. It seemed like that was something she did in order to cope. The idea that if she ever wanted to release new music, she possibly would have to work with a man who abused her and belittled her for years. She would have to work with a record company that did not support her concerns and refused to compromise with her regardless of how long this trial to get out of her recording contract went on would be.

Due to unfortunate decisions Kesha Sebert made as a young starlet, she ended up being unable to get out of her contract with Sony, which consists of a six album deal that profits her abuser. Even though they did settle that Dr. Luke wouldn't be involved in future recordings of these albums, he would still profit from her work. Which is totally ridiculous. But with the advice of her legal team, Sebert accepted it and she now has three more albums to go until she can get out of her contract with Sony. Rainbow was a huge "f*** you" to all of this, in pure Kesha fashion. Sure, it profited her abuser and recording company that didn't support her, but the entire album she released is about self love, having confidence and hope within yourself that someday it's all going to be okay. Kesha struck back with nothing but positivity. Every song on this album is explaining her journey through this legal mess. It's about what she was thinking for the five years she was unable to record, about finding herself again and making the best out of a shitty situation. I will seriously love and support Kesha forever. She's always been a smart songwriter and has that intuition when it comes to her music that makes a pop song from good to great. This album deserved the positive reviews, the popularity and the Grammy nominations. I hope she takes home a few of those in February. She deserves it. She put herself out there for the world to see. That's when the best music is created.

Key tracks include "Woman," "Praying," "Learn to Let Go," "Finding You" and "Hunt You Down." Brb, going to listen to this entire album and cry my damn eyes out.

2. Ryan Adams - Prisoner
This might be the first time I've done a top 10 of the year list on this blog and not have Ryan Adams as the number one spot, when he's released an album. I thought about this a lot and while I absolutely love Prisoner, every fiber of it's being and Ryan Adams in general, I can't with 100% certainty say it was my #1 album of the year. It was definitely a contender, but Adams music in recent years has stabilized and his last three or four albums have been ridiculously consistent and predictable. That's not a complaint, by the way. But it didn't excite me the way the self titled did. He's doing great, I hope he keeps up the inspiring work and is holding his head high after this Mandy Moore bullshit. Which I won't get into because that will be a rambling mess but let's just say, it's been hard to watch This Is Us when the woman who deeply hurt one of your favorite people possibly in the universe, starring right back at you from the television. Hey, at least we have Prisoner from all the pain and suffering that was experienced. On a related side note, finally, he has discovered the genius of The Beatles - praise be. Praise be. If you follow him on any social media, you'll know it's been a riot reading his comments while he goes through the fab four's discography.
 Key tracks include "Prisoner," "To Be Without You," "Anything I Say To You Now" and "Broken Anyway."

1. Sylvan Esso - What Now
This line from an A.V. Club review is too accurate: "a record so good it answers its own title question and makes you eager to ask it again." This Durham, North Carolina duo that are both seasoned musicians in their own rights, sound similar to a lot of other alternative/indie bands out there, but joined together, Amelia and Nick could make anything sound incendiary. Plus their use of electronic instruments pushes genre boundaries and makes something of their own. Some of their songs and lyrics are an uncomfortable matter-of-factness and some are for just dancing (hence "Just Dancing"). The cold, calculated production of "Die Young" gets me every time. Through Amelia's voice and Nick's sounds behind it all, there's this vibe of dark, unfortunate certainty that makes the song what it is.

It was an important album for the duo too because their first album was more of an experimental side project for them than anything else. Amelia Meath is part of the folk trio Mountain Man originating from Bennington, VT. and Nick Sanborn is a freelance producer and DJ, heavily collaborating in the past with Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver,) and another Durham local band Megafaun. Nick and Amelia knew each other through mutual friends and started jamming together. Little did they know, their jam sessions would become an album and that album (the self titled,) would become more popular than either of their personal musical endeavors. After the success of the self titled, they got signed (because you know, that's important, I guess,) and decided to create a sophomore album. So when they created What Now, it was their first record as a full fledged band where they were able to prepare more and really figure out what they wanted to say, who they wanted to be as Sylvan Esso, what their vision would be, what instruments they wanted to use, etc. It's more polished than their self titled and the songs have more of a cohesive sound. Just when we thought they were showing off on self titled, they come out with What Now and totally blow the music industry away.

Recommended video on the topic: this performance of "Radio" from Jimmy Fallon is amazing. I love the clock in the background counting the seconds down.
Key tracks include: "The Glow," "Die Young," "Radio" and "Just Dancing" 

Honorable Mentions:

Ed Sheeran - Divide
Ed Sheeran needs to stop being so awesome. I don't want to like him as much as I do because music cred and hipster tendencies, but I do. I just do. Impossible for me to dislike. He's a great songwriter, a vibrant performer and he's got what it takes to stick around. "Shape of You" is pretty brilliant. Damn it.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound
Alt Country? Check. Husband of Amanda Shires? Check. Friend of Ryan Adams? Check.
When I heard all three of these things about Jason Isbell, it intrigued me. Every time I told someone about Amanda Shires in the past, people would be like, "UH DO YOU KNOW HER HUSBAND?" like I'm going to stop raving about Amanda Shires after hearing Jason Isbell. This was my apprehension because the excitement was intense and I'm partial to people telling me what I will and will not like. (And yes, I see the irony in that.) But then I heard "If We Were Vampires" and sobbed like a baby. Check mate, Jason Isbell.

LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
I knew he'd come back.

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