The 17 Best Albums of 2017

It was not a great year for music in 2017, in that we suddenly lost Tom Petty, as well as my earliest musical hero and influence: my Dad. On a lighter note, great music is still being made every day and every year. And whether this is read by 1 or 100 or 1000 people, I still feel compelled to spread the good word of great music for all to hear.

Let’s start with a quick nod for Special Musical Achievement in Film. The recent John Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane is a must watch. Just a beautiful tribute to an incredible musician and man who, as chronicled in the film, felt it was his higher calling to bring people joy and happiness through music. “Overall I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give to the listener the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe… That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life and we all try to do it in some way. The musicians way is through his music.”

With that in mind, here are my Top 17 Albums of 2017:

Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound
Easily one of the best singer/songwriters of this century/generation. However you measure time, fill it with this guy’s songs. If you’ve never heard of him, please just go listen to all his albums starting with this one (after you finish reading this).

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
Three straight-up classics in a row for Kendrick now, each with their own sound and identity. For his latest trick, Lamar conjured up a “choose your adventure” loose-concept album made to also work when played in reverse order. There’s little question that Kendrick Lamar is the hottest and deepest talent in hip-hop right now. Period. (Maybe that’s why K-dot put a period in the title? Either way, DAMN.)

The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
If you’re wondering why you keep seeing this album at or near the top of all the year-end best-album lists, just tune in, turn on, and get deep. You won’t drown, I promise you’ll float.

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains
Alt-rock isn’t dead. Art rock isn’t dead. Hard rock isn’t dead. Rock isn’t dead.

Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy
I was never a fan and just didn’t “get” anything about Odd Future, the hip-hop collective led by Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. Figured I was just too old, or they were just too weird for weirdness sake and I gave up. Then I tried this new Tyler the Creator album. Wow. With a very unique and interesting sound, musically all over the place, Flower Boy is mildly addictive but won’t cause drowsiness.

Chronixx – Chronology
Next-gen dancehall reggae with enough roots to keep the grooves grounded. My 5-year-old son’s review: “This sounds like the beach.” Standout track: “Big Bad Sound.” This is a talented young cat to keep our ear on in the future.

Leif Vollebekk – Twin Solitude
Quiet, haunting, and masterful.

Run the Jewels – RTJ 3
Perhaps the most dynamic duo in rap, and most consistent. Seems the combo of dual-threat producer/MC EL-P and costar Killer Mike just never miss. All three of their albums are among the best hip-hop of this century and installment #3 doesn’t disappoint.

Spoon – Hot Thoughts
Masterful blend of basic guitar rock with all the sonic trappings of modern technology. Like most Spoon albums, Hot Thoughts is instantly catchy and enough of a grower to keep satisfying after multiple listens. This one is also a sneaky-great “headphones” album.

Tony Allen – The Source
Former Fela Kuti drummer brings the funk on this set of jazz grooves. Also check out his other 2017 release, A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Jay-Z – 4:44
I was skeptical, and only half-interested. But damn if old Shawn Carter didn’t go and make another great album. Personal, yes, but still with trademark chops on the mic. Very much helped by the consistency of having one producer throughout: No I.D. is the unsung MVP of this one for bringing the beats.

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
The fact that most people seem to find Josh Tillman (“Father John Misty”) to be some pretentious douche who takes himself too seriously just proves that they in fact don’t even realize that they are the butt of his whole joke. And he’s never been funnier than on Pure Comedy, his third LP as FJM, and third masterpiece recorded with producer and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson at the helm. Can’t wait to hear what these two cook up for Father John Misty’s next routine.

Margo Price – All American Made
There’s real country music like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, and then there’s that fake-ass bullshit in a cowboy hat that they use to sell cola and prime-time football games. This is real country music, of course, but it’s also progressive and refreshingly feministic without distracting from this tremendously talented singer and songwriter who just made her second straight damn-good album.

Damian Marley – Stony Hill
Almost a decade in the making, Jr. Gong’s long-awaited follow up to Welcome to Jamrock finds him atop Stony Hill, a masterclass in reggae styles and vocal dexterity. Another set of crucial tracks to add to his already impressive cannon.

Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference
Young saxophonist’s first album was a critically acclaimed TRIPLE album, about 3 hours of music aptly titled Epic. Impressive feat, especially for a debut. How to follow that up in 2017? With a 6-song EP of course. Still clocks in at 32 minutes, not far off what a full-length album was back in the day. Smoother and more palatable than Epic, this concise effort is still somehow as effective.

Portugal The Man – Woodstock
Last time these guys put out an album it topped my list (Evil Friends in 2013). This one is almost as good. Unique and groovy from beginning to end, highlighted in the middle by the feel-good finger-snapping hit of the year “Feel It Still.”

Ryan Adams – Prisoner
Yes, I have to put Ryan Adams on my list every year he does an album.

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Best Albums of 2012: Not Just a List!

I knew when the Fall new-album schedule had Bob Dylan, the Avett Brothers, and Patterson Hood releases on the same Tuesday morning that it would be the best September 11th ever.

Sure enough, none of them disappointed.  Bob Dylan returned with Tempest, a gritty and at times scathing stew of blues and folk serving as an amazing reminder of the late-career consistency he’s shown on record in the new century. Great Bob Dylan records are the reason people like me make lists like this every year.

Whether willingly or unconsciously, the Avett Brothers and Patterson Hood (lead driver and navigator of the Drive-By Truckers) are indeed disciples, descendants, and torchbearers of the folk-rock tradition personified and perfected by Dylan. And neither act seems to cower from the challenge, even if they’d scoff at my assertion that they belong in the same sentence as the legendary Dylan.

Seth and Scott Avett are blessed with much sweeter voices of course; and the songs (from the Beatlesque harmonies and tearjerkers to the more rockin’ numbers) on The Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter are perfect showcases for their natural talent.

phood-hlritdPatterson Hood’s Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance might actually be his best album to date. Fronting the Drive-By Truckers, Hood had already built a career as a gifted storyteller and master painter of pictures, and now the solo Heat Lightning flashes it right in our faces. There’s one scene where he shows up just after midnight at a liquor store in the next county cuz it’s Monday now and the liquor laws allow them to start selling again. It’s sad and lonely, but then Hood’s protagonist sees some “friends.” Even sadder, there’s already a line of “zombies” there when they flip the sign to open. This all transpires within the first verse of the first song.

From that first track on, it’s apparent that this will be a strange and telling ride, from that bleak scene at the liquor store in “12:01” all the way to where it “winds around dead-man’s curve where the lady from the Sunbeam bread wrapper was killed in that head-on” in “Untold Pretties.” Easily one of my Top 3 Albums of the year.

The other two were Chuck Prophet’s Temple Beautiful, reviewed here, and Jack White’s Blunderbuss (which I wrote about over the summer in this Heavy Rotation column). Other albums that I blurbed about in the first half of the year that make this Best Albums of 2012 list are:

Dr.John – Locked Down
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
KRS-One – The BDP Album
DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Father John Misty – Fear Fun

soundgarden king animal artOne of the most pleasant surprises of the year was Soundgarden’s King Animal. They were always a good band, and made a few great records back in the day. But after such a long layoff, I was only expecting a shell of a bland Soundgarden-by-numbers album. I was wrong, this album really is great. The first two tracks might fit that bill of as-expected uninspiring rockers, but from track 3 through the end King Animal sits right up there with the bands’ finest moments from their Badmotorfinger-Superunknown peak.

At the end of the year, December saw the release of an album called Carry On, by a guy named Willy Mason. Never heard of him, but started noticing some good reviews so I checked it out. Really glad I did, as this album is both instantly likable and a slow-burning grower. Terrific songwriting meets production that ranges from trippy and atmospheric to stripped down and raw. Think Beck meets Daniel Lanois. Or just forget my half-assed attempts at catchy descriptions and just go buy Willy Mason’s Carry On right now. It’s like a secret gem. An out-of-the-blue underdog landing on my list of Best Albums of 2012.

The Rest Of The Best:

Jimmy Cliff  Rebirthjimmy cliff rebirth
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Jason Isbell – Live in Alabama
Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (reviewed here)
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Various Artists – Country Funk 1969-1975
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
Bill Fay  Life Is People
Band of Horses Mirage Rock

Rush – Clockwork Angels. That’s right, I’m risking what little credibility I might have by putting the polarizing RUSH on this list. Fact is, or my opinion is, this new Rush album rocks. There’s no synthesizers or cheesy electric drums. It’s not just guitar-driven, but the guitars actually sound like guitars. I realize most people hate the sound of Geddy Lee’s voice, and I’ll admit I can only take it in small doses. But this is a solid showing by the aging-but-legendary trio from Canada. I know it’s not cool to admit liking Rush, that’s why I hid this part all the way at the end.

Heavy Rotation

I’m not gonna call this my Top 10 Albums of 2012 (So Far), because if there’s anything geekier than posting annual Best Albums of the Year lists, it’s doing them in July for the first half of the year. So instead just consider this a Top 10 Best Albums I recommend you add to your rotation for the rest of the summer. And, in one way or another, all of these albums are heavy.

Jonathan Wilson Gentle Spirit cover art by Mike Sportes.

Jonathan Wilson – Gentle Spirit
Okay right off the bat I have to cheat a little bit: this is the only non-2012 album on this list. This one was actually released in August of 2011, with some recordings dating another year or two older. But I’m using the “it’s new to me this year” rule, and it’s one of my favorite recent album discoveries. Phenomenal guitar tone with a voice smooth as silk. Born at the end of 1974, it’s like he was infused with the best of what Neil Young and Jerry Garcia had been offering around that same time. And “Natural Rhapsody” even ventures near Pink Floyd territory. Wilson, who just wrapped up an opening slot for Tom Petty’s European tour, also produced the Father John Misty Fear Fun album listed below, as well as both acclaimed albums by the band Dawes.

DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles – Kolexxxion
Premo drops a straight banger here, this time partnered with hard rhymer Bumpy Knuckles, aka Freddie Foxxx. It turns out to be a winning combo, roaring straight out of the hip-hop heyday of the 90’s: classic-sounding Gang Starr beats with Premier’s signature chorus cuts working along side Freddie’s aggressive but underrated wordplay.

Dr. John – Locked Down
Supreme grooves by the legendary master. These jams are fun for all ages. Whenever someone like Dr. John (as if there’s anyone else like him) drops an eclectic gem like this, writers like myself run to their blogs to use the word gumbo. It’s not that we’re lazy and predictable, it’s just that it’s so damn tasty.

Jack White – Blunderbuss
I’m gonna try not to wear my Jack White man-crush on my sleeve, so maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all. If you’d heard that Jack’s first official solo album in his own name was a successful blend of the sounds he cultivated with the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, then you heard right. It’s both nuanced and immediately likeable, and while most diehards would rank his White Stripes albums in the top few slots of his resume (in some order), dare I already claim Blunderbuss is Jack White’s best album ever, and let’s argue about where to rank the rest.

Killer Mike – RAP Music
Killer Mike mixes Chuck D’s booming clarity on the mic with a voice quality more akin to something between Ice Cube and Big Boi. This one jumps out of your speakers like an instant classic. Produced entirely by El-P, this is a brilliant collaboration that spawned something I would call futuristic/old-school hip-hop. El-P’s beats aren’t too frantic or busy and he somehow manages to make Rick Rubin-style 808 beats sound more like tomorrow than yesterday.

Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful
I reviewed this one when it came out, but just wanted to confirm it was not a flash in the pan. Still love this album.

Father John Misty Fear Fun cover art by Dimitri Drjunchin.

Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman follows his stint drumming/singing on the Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues with this oddly interesting piece of art. I don’t know if “Misty” refers to mist and fog or if it’s shorthand for mysterious, but from the mellow to the catchy, Father John paints a beautiful-sounding picture.

KRS-One – The BDP Album
With someone as prolific as KRS, who inexplicably works just outside the spotlight, it could be easy to miss this ultimate return to form. The BDP Album finds KRS picking back up on the Boogie Down Productions vibe in more than just name only. His brother DJ Kenny Parker provides the back drop and Kris does his usual wrecking of the mics.

Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
Another one I’ve already reviewed here that I’m still rocking several times a week. I know, I have a problem. But six months later, I’m still reveling in the crunching sounds of a happy, healthy, and sober Eddie Van Halen in top musical form, the surprising pulse of his son Wolfgang on bass, and the not-surprising thunder of drums from Wolfie’s uncle Al.

Dr. Dog – Be the Void
Sometimes I think the albums and bands I love the most “don’t sound like anything else” and have some unique, indescribable sound and quality. But that makes them the most difficult to write about, hence “indescribable.” The best I can come up with for Dr. Dog is that they are like a modern-day psych-folk revival of The Band; recommended if you like Felice Brothers.