Last list, I promise. I limited this post to 25 albums, which is totally arbitrary, but I had to wave the white flag at some point. I always start writing these year-in-review posts with high hopes of streamlining the process in an effort to siphon as little time as possible from holiday celebrating with family, but something in me can’t help getting absorbed then overwhelmed. It’s a moth-to-the-flame thing. Odds are good it has something to do with mortality/the passage of time/wanting to hold onto and contain experiences so they — and by extension, I — don’t quietly disappear into a scary, nebulous past… but you didn’t come here for existential hand-wringing, did you? Oh, you did? Great! Let’s be sure to catch up after about physical media as an ineffectual bulwark against death!
A few notes before we get started:
- I made some additions to the previous lists — Steve Gunn’s tour-only Dusted album was added to the list of live jams, and Elkhorn’s Black River album was added to the Americana list. I snagged both at Steady Sounds with Christmas money and it’s still 2017, so…
- This is just the non-live, non-reissue, non-Americana, non-RVA top 25. Doing a ranked top 25 this year would have been really tough. I held on especially tightly to the music I loved this year. Maybe because I needed the distraction. Maybe because new music was just really good this year. It’s probably a little of column A, a little of column B.
- Like the other lists, this one is ordered alphabetically.
- I kinda regret not doing a list of EPs. Ian Chang’s Spiritual Leader EP was awesome, as was Delicate Steve’s Cowboy Stories. There’s also Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference — I’m still getting to know that one, but I’m fairly certain it’ll become a favorite, based on what I heard at his show at the National earlier this month.
Enough preambling. Here are the best of the rest:
Ryan Adams — Prisoner
I didn’t end up connecting with the self-titled album that came before this one, in part because of the sound palette he was working with — more focused on 1980’s guitar sounds than is usually my cup of tea. Prisoner draws from the same well, but he seems more present in this one. And “Do You Still Love Me?” is a truly dynamite opening track. I was hoping he’d open his March show at The National with it, and he delivered. Love when bands do that.
(Sandy) Alex G — Rocket
I went a little nuts over this one. Step 1 was hearing the album and digging it. Step 2 was finding out that he played on Frank Ocean’s Blonde album. Step 3 was feeling crushed when I saw that a first pressing of the album had sold out via his Bandcamp page. Steps 4-18 involved various internal arguments about whether to order the first pressing from an online reseller — something I hate doing. I eventually caved. Not sorry one bit. It’s about as varied an album as I can remember spending time with this year — so many different flashes of brilliance.
Dan Auerbach — Waiting on a Song
Did you know that John Prine has a writing credit on the title track? Or that Prine is pictured on the back cover? These are things I didn’t learn until I snagged a vinyl copy of Waiting on a Song the night Auerbach opened for Prine at The Altria Theater here in Richmond. What a show that was. That’s when this album went from something I enjoyed to something I really loved.
Bedouine — Bedouine
There’s a quiet strength that runs through this whole album. It feels elemental. Inextricable. The Spacebomb flourishes are welcome and wonderful, but that strength never strays from center stage, making for an exceptionally compelling listen.
Father John Misty — Pure Comedy
I believe Pure Comedy was recorded before the last presidential election, and politics aren’t the focal point here, but I’ve found it to be of great comfort these days. Sometimes you need someone to point out life’s absurdities so you can maintain a little distance. As lyrically dense as these songs are, the net effect — for me at least — is like taking a breath of fresh air, or like hitting a reset button.
Father John Misty — “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” [Spotify/iTunes]
Fleet Foxes — Crack-Up
Speaking of dense… I’m not sure I’ve really cracked the surface of Crack-Up. Listening to the episode of Song Exploder about “Mearcstapa” was startling, in that I didn’t realize how much about the album’s sound was flying under my radar. That said, it’s absolutely gorgeous, and I’m wildly curious as to what this album will mean to me in five or 10 years.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Luciferian Towers
Part of an unholy trinity of excellent albums I’ve been playing loudly when I’m working from home in an empty house. Lots of tension and anger here, but so much light as well. The climaxes of these tunes can feel joyous — the melody at the end of “Undoing a Luciferian Towers” sounds like it could have been lifted from a Christmas carol written a hundred years ago.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard — Murder of the Universe
Another member of the unholy trinity. It occurred to me recently that King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard could be the Russell Westbrook of the musical world. Both band and baller set ridiculously ambitious goals for themselves (five albums in a calendar year for KG&tLZ, a season-long triple-double for RW) and it looks like both will be successful. Just amazing. Of the albums they put out in 2017, Murder of the Universe was my favorite by far. It’s pure fun — fast paced and delightfully creepy. On vomit splatter colored vinyl, no less.
Pokey LaFarge — Manic Revelations
Pokey’s sound has grown bigger and bolder, as has the St. Louisan’s writing voice. “Riot In The Streets” speaks to the Ferguson, Missouri protests, concluding:
Our past won’t go away
It haunts us to present day
There’s so much left to learn
As the bullets fly and the buildings burn
Kendrick Lamar — DAMN.
I decided not to rank this year’s list, but this probably would have been #1. Lamar is this generation’s lyricist of record, in my opinion. To Pimp a Butterfly may have been more musically immersive, but DAMN. is just as vital to understanding our country and its culture.
Landlady — The World Is a Loud Place
A few words from my February post about the album:
I had a chance to see and hear a few of these new tunes when the band came to Hardywood in August  — “Driving In California” for sure, and I think “Nina” and “Electric Abdomen” made appearances as well. It’s a fantastic album, every bit as imaginative, tightly executed, and soul replenishing as Upright Behavior. In fact, Landlady has become one of the bands –maybe you have a similar list — whose shows are more like exercises in spiritual fulfillment than just a pairing of people playing music and people watching those people play music.
Aimee Mann — Mental Illness
A very, very good album that was there for me in a difficult time. Here’s what I said in an April post after typing out the lyrics to the chorus:
What a thing to have sung to you while standing in the backyard of your new home on a windy night, watching clouds zoom past the moon. That place she’s describing — the pocket of time before life grabs hold of the course you’ve plotted and adds twists and turns to it — that’s exactly where my family is right now.
Mdou Moctar — Sousoume Tamachek
From the post I wrote after seeing Moctar perform in October as part of a screening of his Purple Rain remake, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai:
I also walked away with a vinyl copy of Moctar’s newest LP, Sousoume Tamachek, signed by the three-man band I’d just seen in-person and onscreen. I’ve been spinning it nonstop — it paints a really varied and intimate picture of Moctar’s approach, with a nice mix of acoustic and electric guitar.
I’ve been seeing Sousoume Tamachek in other year-end lists, which makes me happy. Especially after hearing during the screening’s Q&A how tenuous the initial connection between Moctar and Sahel Sounds owner Christopher Kirkley was. A couple of missed phone calls and this album might not have been in my life.
Mount Eerie — A Crow Looked at Me
I listened all the way through once, cried at my desk at work, and decided I needed some time before I listened again. I haven’t gone back yet, though I did almost buy a used copy at Reckless Records in Chicago while we were there on a family trip in November. It’s such a powerful album, and I could imagine it being there for me when I need it, but I never want to need it, and just thinking about needing it is terrifying. I have seen people talk about how listening to A Crow Looked at Me has actually been a life-affirming experience, and I get that, since it made me want to reach out to the people I love and let them know how much they mean to me. Still… it’s a little like looking directly into the Sun, emotionally speaking.
Mutoid Man — War Moans
This completes the unholy trinity! Come for the masterful riffing, stay for the lyrics about impregnating Satan’s daughter!
The National — Sleep Well Beast
This is the first National album that has grabbed me. Two contributing factors: 1. Reading this Amanda Petrusich piece about it, and 2. Listening for the first time when I was very sad for reasons I’m not sure I want to share here. What I will say is that I found exactly the right kind of musical sadness to soundtrack a moment of real life sadness, and that sense of harmony helped me find peace where I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
Orchestra Baobab — Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng
One of my favorite assignments this year was writing about an earlier Orchestra Baobab album for Off Your Radar. I hadn’t spent a ton of time considering why that album — Specialist in All Styles — had wormed its way so deeply into my consciousness, and I came out the other side loving it even more. I’m enjoying this one a great deal, as well. Here’s what I said about it in that Off Your Radar piece:
[Original band member Ndiouga Dieng’s] death prompted the band to reunite and release a new album this year called Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Gone is Barthelemy Attisso’s virtuosic guitar — he’s back in Togo tending to his day job as a lawyer — and in its place you’ll find oodles of kora noodling. While I initially missed that brilliant, nimble guitar work, I’ve come to appreciate deeply how different this new release is. Another masterful move from a band whose musical chessboard spans the globe.
Rostam — Half Light
I feel like this was one of the year’s most misunderstood albums. While it was reviewed reasonably well, I feel like the reviews I saw missed something crucial about how bold the album is in making his voice the center of attention and using it as a muse for experimentation. This was his big moment to step into the spotlight, and he did so in a way that strikes me as exceptionally brave. It reminds me of a one-word answer he gave in an interview earlier this year when asked what he hopes people will remember him for:
Skyway Man — Seen Comin’ from a Mighty Eye
From my May post about the album:
Seen Comin’ from a Mighty Eye is tailor-made for someone embroiled in exactly [my] obsessions, with the spacey aspects of Cosmic American Music, the voluminousness and spirituality of gospel, Tyler’s exploratory spirit, and references to early 1980’s production that remove songs from the present moment, like they’re wandering untethered by time. It’s all here, along with the signature Spacebomb sounds that consistently fill my heart with joy.
Devon Sproule — The Gold String
I learned just this week that Sproule put out a new album earlier this year called The Gold String, and it’s lovely in all the ways I Love You, Go Easy is, especially when it comes to the way the lyrics flow. In fact, she touches on a similar idea in the title track when she imagines an endless strand that connects everyone and everything. Her description of it is nothing short of elegant, in large part because form and theme are one; she describes this inspiring connectedness using verses that lead into one another and this amazing rolling rhyme scheme that weaves together phrases in ear-pleasing clusters. Her words become the string she’s singing about. It’s really incredible.
St. Vincent — MASSEDUCTION
So my daughter, who is three and half and loves the color pink, keeps choosing this when I tell her to go pick a record from the shelf that has 2017 albums on it. Let’s just say the cover art is quite the conversation starter. Also, “New York” is one of the best songs of the year. Hands down.
Moses Sumney — Aromanticism
The only album I could envision ranking above DAMN. It’s a towering achievement, both in terms of vocal performance and emotional articulation. While I didn’t manage to win a Vinyl Me, Please pressing at the Triple Crossing listening party in October, I managed to find a used VMP copy on the trip to Reckless Records I mentioned earlier. I know I put way too much stock in getting this or that pressing and having a physical copy of something that I can listen to online, but I love that Vinyl Me, Please did a pressing. It gave me an opportunity to sit around a table with new and old Sumney fans talking about all the ways in which Aromanticism is incredible.
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
From a Friday News and Notes post earlier this year:
Quick story — when Bob Dylan’s Tempest album was announced and I saw “Scarlet Town” on the track list, I desperately hoped it would be a cover of the Gillian Welch song from The Harrow & The Harvest. It wasn’t. So when I saw that a “Scarlet Town” was on this Thile/Mehldau album, I braced for disappointment…
No disappointment here. Just an hour and three minutes of next-level interpretation and collaboration. And, yes, it’s the “Scarlet Town” I was hoping for.
Tinariwen — Elwan
This is the year I truly fell in love with Tuareg desert blues. So glad BK Music had a copy of this. I was wearing out Sousoume Tamachek.
The xx — I See You
I liked the first two xx albums, loved Jamie xx’s solo album, and found this to be a great middle ground. It’s funny this comes last alphabetically, because it was the first top-tier album released this year, and it makes me think about how fucking long 2017 has felt. Good lord. Hey 2018, maybe don’t be like that?
More 2017 in Review: