Let’s get this retrospective party started! Five posts to come, hopefully over the next five days.
A few notes:
No rankings this year. I do reference what might have been ranked the album of the year, however.
Everything is listed alphabetically. I think. I hope.
There are five categories: Live Albums, Blasts from the Past, Americana, RVA, and 25 Favorites. I usually do an EPs category, but everything I was planning on listing seemed to fit better elsewhere this year.
Aside from the last category, I didn’t shoot for a certain number in each. The main priority was writing about as many albums as possible — around 60 total.
Each album appears in just one category. And if something could reasonably be placed in the RVA category, it was. So Butcher Brown’s excellent Live at Vagabond album isn’t listed here, even though it was one of my favorite live albums of the year.
Without further ado, here are the other live albums I enjoyed in 2017:
Animal Collective — Meeting of the Waters
My biggest regret from this year’s Record Store Day. I saw it with my own two eyes. I could have picked it up, taken it home, and there wouldn’t be this empty feeling in my soul. Oh wait, that’s because of the current political climate. Still, though… I thought this wouldn’t be my cup of tea because Panda Bear isn’t involved, but it’s great. Loose yet intense. Wild yet measured. Seeing it described somewhere as a return to the style employed on the group’s earlier recordings helped. By the way, 2017 turned out to be the year I got an OG copy of Sung Tongs. Good stuff.
Drive-By Truckers — Live In Studio · New York, NY · 07/12/16
I did snag this one on Record Store Day. I’m likely not alone in saying that many of my most meaningful DBT experiences have taken place in the live setting, and it’s great to hear tracks from American Band come to life like this. Especially “Ramon Casiano,” which showcases the great combination of depth and specificity that makes Mike Cooley’s songwriting so interesting.
Tour-only live album. No digital version, as far as I can tell, so no sample track to share. Just grab it if you see it. Gunn and frequent collaborator James Elkington at their best.
Jason Isbell — Live from Welcome to 1979
This is what I was obsessing over while I was overlooking that Animal Collective jam, in large part because of the cover of “Atlantic City.”
What can I say about “Atlantic City”? It’s on a very short list of “All Time” favorites on Spotify and I wrote a mini-essay on the song after spending time in the city for the first time, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Isbell perform it. I’m sitting here trying to think of a combination of artist and cover that would make we wake up earlier in the morning… Thom Yorke singing “Hallelujah”? Donald Trump singing “2 + 2 = 5”?
Old Crow Medicine Show — 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde
Say what you want about “Wagon Wheel,” ban it from being played by cover bands in your bar, whatever. I’ll always love the song, and I think it’s genuinely inspiring how it founded a mutual admiration society between Dylan and the Old Crow folks. The respect the band has for the man really shines through on 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde.
I do a spectacularly shitty job of keeping track of the shows I see. In the alternate universe where I manage to put together a “Top Shows I Saw this Year” list, Sufjan’s set at the Altria in May of 2015 — less than two months after Carrie & Lowell came out — would likely have topped that year’s list. This was recorded later in 2015, in November, but if I close my eyes and let it take me away, I can picture myself in the intense atmosphere of that Altria show, especially during the extended “We’re all gonna die” coda to “Fourth Of July.”
Last 2016 in Review post — I promise. That said, I lied about the “Top 10” part. I’ve included the rest of my top 25 at the bottom, as well as some albums that I couldn’t resist mentioning, because they’re also amazing.
Without further ado…
1. Lucy Dacus — No Burden
Earlier in December, in a New Yorker piece about her favorite songs of 2016, Amanda Petrusich wrote something that helped me name the reason I so badly wanted to place Lucy Dacus’ No Burden at the top of this list:
Whole musical worlds were invented this year, and, perhaps most notable, listeners seemed better equipped than ever to accept and navigate them. I sensed both a collective ache for progressive work and a willingness to metabolize it.
Between the in-town excitement that accompanied the February release of No Burden, the wave of nationalacclaim that rushed in, the consistently excellent shows she played all over town, and the poised atmosphere she commanded at each of those performances, Dacus really did establish her own new world here in Richmond. It never ceases to amaze me how truly talented musicians can create something out of nothing but their own experiences and insights. It feels like an exception to the rule in physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.
The second part of the Petrusich quote above also resonated — the idea that audiences are looking for something progressive. Something that will move us forward. I sense that in Dacus’ music in large part because meaningful change hinges on truth, and her writing displays an honesty that’s both outwardly and inwardly directed. It’s why she was such a joy to interview, and it’s why her lyrics have so much substance. Would this country still be in the mess it’s in if people took a hard, unflinching look at their own motivations? Probably, but the mess might not be quite so bad.
In these last days of December, I find it impossible to imagine what this year would have been like — what my world would presently be like — without No Burden in it. For that reason, it’s #1 in my book.
In a word, transcendent. Blackstar turned out to be RVA Magazine‘s #1 album, and I was given the opportunity to write about it. I tried to put in context why it loomed so large over 2016, and talking about it ended up being strangely therapeutic. Here’s the first bit:
2016 will be remembered as at least these three things: The Year We Hated and Wanted to End Early, The Year Donald Trump Was Elected and Brexit Happened, and The Year All the Famous People Died. David Bowie’s death in January, just days after he released his dark and jazzy masterpiece, Blackstar, cast a pall over months ahead in which we lost one towering cultural figure after another. Like Prince, Bowie dying felt especially cruel, because of the life-affirming, self-empowering spirit he brought to his art. Bowie was evidence that you can take control of your identity and invent yourself in the image of your choosing, and he carried that artistic approach with him from life into death. His last artistic act was nothing short of transcendent.
It was an honor to blurb this one as well for RVA Magazine — take a look here. I couldn’t help throwing a little shade at the start:
While plenty of artists in the realms of pop and R&B were out there cultivating a public persona drenched in faux sensitivity, Frank Ocean was quietly at work, making some of the most powerfully vulnerable music I can remember hearing.
Another one I wrote about for RVA Magazine’s year-end bonanza. Such a beautiful album, such heavy subject matter. A Moon Shaped Pool acts as a reminder that lists and rankings pale in comparison to the lived experiences that make music and lyrics possible.
To say that Teens of Denial grew on me would be misleading — you usually hear people say that when they were unsure about an album initially but learned to love it. But Teens of Denial did grow in my estimation in the sense that, every time I listened, Will Toledo’s genius would seem more profound. I was one of the people for whom Car Seat Headrest’s newest album acted as an introduction, despite the fact that Toledo’s already released more albums than many artists release in a career and a half. That said, I recently snagged a used copy of 2015’s Teens of Style at Plan 9, and I hear that same undeniable (sorry) gift for fusing melody and energy. I may be late to the party, but it’s great to be here regardless.
6. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had a Dream You Were Mine
This one probably has the highest ratio of number of times I listened to it to number of words I wrote about it. I did write a quickie review of it for the Winter RVA Magazine, and here’s how I closed it:
Hamilton Leithauser’s smoky vocals ascend seemingly without limit; when paired with Rostam Batmanglij’s knack for producing in styles both old and new, that voice — “the same voice I’ve always had” — soars with an inspiring freedom.
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are in a really interesting position right now. They have roots in a red state but personal politics that lean blue, and because they’ve been consistently making some of the best and sludgiest Southern rock around for decades, they have the ears of fans from all over the political spectrum. In my mind, that’s why this album was and is so important — it represents a bridge spanning the huge chasm that separates America’s populated coasts from its rural center. It’s honest, just as the band is honest at their shows about where they stand when it comes to social justice. (“Black Lives Matter” was prominently displayed in their stage setup when they came to The National in November.) At a time when social media algorithms are making it harder and harder to encounter opinions that conflict with your own, the Truckers make me hopeful. Fingers crossed people are actually listening.
I thought Bon Iver’s self-titled album would be a tough act to follow — maybe impossible — given that it was the realization of such a big, colorful, well-rounded vision. But 22, A Million is proof that Justin Vernon’s vision is a renewable resource. An unexpected joy this album has brought is seeing who it resonates with — identifying other people who like their musical beauty laced with a healthy dose of obfuscation. It’s like we looked at a Rorschach and all came up with the same answer.
In terms of style, Stranger to Stranger is cut from cloth similar to that of Graceland, Paul Simon’s 30-year-old masterpiece. That said, his new album doesn’t feel retrograde, in part because Simon’s witty, acerbic writing seems sharper than ever. (Who else could turn concert wristband drama into a genuinely enjoyable, insightful song?) A piece of advice: If you missed Simon on this year’s tour — I did — check out his recent Austin City Limits performance. It’s excellent and has probably earned squatter’s rights on my DVR by now.
I thought about splitting this year’s lists into weirder categories like “Albums I Was Going To Like No Matter What” (Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson) and “Albums I Know I’m Going to Like Later But Haven’t Spent Enough Time With” (Beyoncé, Solange). MY WOMAN made me want to create a category called “Albums By Artists Who Had A Whole Other Gear We Didn’t Know About.” I thought Angel Olsen had truly found her form with her last album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but Olsen’s direct, intense writing is just as effective in a setting that calls to mind early rock and roll. This may be my dad’s Memphis roots talking, but I hear a ton of Roy Orbison in MY WOMAN, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” is quite simply one of the strongest songs of the year.
Here’s the rest of the Top 25 I submitted for RVA Magazine…
11. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like a Levee
12. Wilco — Schmilco
13. Lambchop — FLOTUS
14. Clair Morgan — New Lions & the Not-Good Night
15. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
16. Steve Gunn — Eyes on the Lines
17. Allen Toussaint — American Tunes
18. Dori Freeman — Dori Freeman
19. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
20. The Lumineers — Cleopatra
21. Julian Lage — ARCLIGHT
22. Solange — A Seat at the Table
23. Avers — Omega/Whatever
24. Durand Jones & the Indications — Durand Jones & the Indications
25. The Head and the Heart — Signs of Light
…and here are 15 more albums I loved dearly but am too tired to rank…
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down — A Man Alive
Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Cian Nugent — Night Fiction
Daniel Bachman — Daniel Bachman
Kyle Craft — Dolls of Highland
Nels Cline — Lovers
The Avalanches — Wildflowers
Colin Stetson — SORROW
Anna Meredith — Varmints
Carl Broemel — 4th of July
Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Animal Collective — Painting With
Negative Gemini — Body Work James Supercave — Better Strange Andy Shauf — The Party
OK, I swear I’m stopping now. If you’re still reading, you’re a peach. See you in 2017.
I hadn’t listened to Delicate Steve in a while, and I hadn’t listened to his 2015 live album at all, but I spent some time with it earlier this week. Hot damn, it is good. Really makes me wish I’d caught him a couple years back at The National. Come back to Richmond plz!
Animal Collective does vinyl porn right. Hand-numbered (just 2,000 made — mine is 1,998) and meticulously put together — complete with a reprint of the characteristically trippy poster from the 2013 show the album documents — the whole thing is gorgeous. The kicker: From the back cover art, it would appear that the front reacts to black light. I don’t have a black light, which makes this the Schrödinger’s cat of album packaging — as long as I don’t try to verify the black light thing, it’s both true and not true.
Art Angels would have made this list on the stunning cover art alone (designed by Claire Boucher herself), but the vinyl package includes individual pieces of art for each track, and I’d bet the farm — easy for me to say, because I don’t have a farm — that Boucher designed those as well. It’s a flood of distinctive, expressionistic creativity — so fitting for a collection of songs that offers the same.
Much like Art Angels, there’s an insert for each song in the Divers vinyl package, but these feel more practical. The designs are simpler, and they function nicely as a delivery mechanism for Newsom’s lyrics, which can fly past so quickly that whole stanzas get lost. But practical and amazing aren’t mutually exclusive, and the experience of listening to Divers and reading it at the same time really is amazing. It reminds my of something I wrote about Lucy Dacus recently — “You read the song and listen to it at the same time, like two forms of art unfolding simultaneously” — except even more literal.
Hats off to the Positive No gang for this one. When they decided against pressing vinyl for Glossa, they didn’t forget how engaging the medium is — how a physical object with detailed notes and beautiful design can strengthen your connection to a collection of songs. Guitarist and founding member Kenny Close produced 12 unique pieces of lyric art and put them togehter in a 7×7, 28-page lyric book, which came with a digital download of the album and a bookmark. The package I got in the mail even included a copy of the band’s entry in the Negative Fun Singles Club 7-inch series. What an awesome surprise, and what an awesome way to start a relationship with a new album.
As much as I enjoyed Fresh Blood when I streamed it via NPR First Listen, having the deluxe vinyl edition — which includes an alternate, stripped-down mix of the album called No Skin — is a whole different ballgame. I keep going back and forth between the two discs, and I’d even recommend starting with the No Skin version. It’s a great way to take in the structure of the songs, Cameron Ralston’s amazing bass lines, the texture of White’s voice, the full glory of the guitar build that brings “Holy Moly” to a close…
Switching then to the official version is like opening the shutters on a bright and beautiful day. With apologies to Beyoncé, I’m finding Fresh Blood to be a very visual album. All the depth and shading that come from the string, horn and choral arrangements make the songs feel sculptural, and I think having No Skin as a second vantage point has a lot to do with seeing that third-dimension. (I’m reminded of the “Camera 1, camera 2” routine from Wayne’s World, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Centipede Hz just became available for streaming, which means it’s time to break out your machetes and slather on the bug spray — we’ve got some exploring to do.
Animal Collective’s world can be a little crazy. There is screaming. There are monsters. Layers of electronic production saturate songs, flooding them with sounds, not all of which are tethered to the rhythm and melody they accompany. It’s a sonic rainforest as dense as any you’ll find, and there’s nothing quite like hacking your way through a new release.
I have a few more things to share about my trip to Nashville (I promise they don’t involve vomit or Jack White), but I have to butt in and right a writing wrong that I, myself, have perpetrated. It’s been 302 days since I last wrote about Animal Collective. How the hell did this happen? AC and I certainly aren’t feuding or anything. As Big Boi once said of his distinguished colleague, André 3000, “Not clashing, not at all.”
I guess one reason might be that they haven’t released a conventional* LP since Merriweather Post Pavilion, but that wasn’t that long ago, right? Let me just check Wikipedia and find out when that wa… January of 2009? WTF?!? There’s no way 40 months have passed since that album came out. It just can’t be true. The songs still feel fresh, despite the fact that I’ve heard them god knows how many times over the past few years. In fact, I’m pretty sure the album hasn’t left my phone’s iPod, and I’ve had at least two phones since January of 2009. The more I think about it, the more it seems like this is a major indicator of an album’s greatness — the amount of time after its release that it stays in the front of your mind (and on the smaller hard drive of your primary listening device).
You know what’s fun? Getting a sneak preview of something. There’s nothing like mixing exclusivity with instant gratification. Simply deee-vine. In just a second, I’m going to pass along a not-so-sneaky trick for getting your grubby paws on new tunes before they’re released, one that doesn’t involve going around the artist’s back and finding an involuntarily leaked copy.
Here’s the totally above-board trick… if it’s feasible, go see the band whose album you’re salivating over. Not only will you probably hear how the new material sounds live, you may even walk away with the album in hand. This happened late last year at the RVA Music Festival, when the Trillions were selling advance copies of their new album (which is fantastic), and it happened again his past Saturday night when I saw Dana Buoy open for Youth Lagoon at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington D.C. During his set, Buoy proprietor Dana Janssen, who is also the percussionist for a group called Akron/Family, announced that even though his debut solo album Summer Bodies isn’t out yet (it won’t be until May 8), advance copies were available for purchase at the merch table.
Special Two-Part Coverage of the Most Hipster Thing I’ll Do All Summer Part 2: There Will Be Merch
I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half months now, and (sigh) it’s time. It’s time I shared with you that… here goes… I have a merch addiction. A raging one. Show me a merch table, and I’ll show you all the cash I have in my wallet. My triggers include concerts, NASCAR races, baseball games, basketball games, political campaigns, SXSW was a t-shirt collecting shit show… it’s bad, OK? So when I walked into Saturday’s Animal Collective concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, my love for merch and my vinyl habit teamed up, and things got a little out of hand. I snagged a t-shirt, a copy of Animal Collective’s Fall Be Kind EP on vinyl, a 7″ single of Panda Bear’s “Last Night at the Jetty,” and a lime green Merriweather Post Pavilion bag (What? Sometimes a guy needs to tote some stuff around for a few hours). Did I feel a little guilty? Sure. Did that stop me from tweeting about it once I saw that the venue’s giant screens were set to scroll through posts related to the night’s concert? Nope! I informed the entire Merriweather Post Pavilion lawn that I was “All merched up,” and gleefully watched the post scroll by a handful of times. The other tweets were far more entertaining, though. Post after post of hipsters making fun of other hipsters. It was a sight to behold — through thick-rimmed glasses, of course. While I can’t condone my merch-first-ask-questions-later approach to money management, I can wholeheartedly endorse the music I picked up. Panda Bear’s single is fantastic (as is the rest of the album) and Fall Be Kind is one of the best EPs I’ve ever heard. Check out “What Would I Want? Sky,” which is historic, in that it features the first licensed sample of a Grateful Dead song, and grab the album here.