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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Top 10 Jazz Albums That Sound Like Children’s Book Titles

school daysThis is where we’re at with Top 10 Lists: we don’t need another “Desert Island Classic” list of the Top 10 Best Rock Albums and no one really cares what my favorite instrumental albums or Top 10 Live Albums are, but I wrote those lists anyway (and can I interest you in my Top Albums of 2013?).

Why not get even more random and silly with it: how ’bout the Top 10 Consecutive 3-Album Runs… or even the Top 10 Best Album Covers That Match the Best Albums from 2011?

So, as a casual jazz fan on a recent Miles Davis kick (and a father of two young boys), it popped in my head that there’s some good jazz album titles that sound like children’s books. And, just to teach about counting (or set a bad example of such), this Top 10 Jazz Albums (That Sound Like Children’s Book Titles) list contains 12 items!

  1. Miles Davis – Milestones
  2. Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out
  3. Stanley Clarke – School Days
  4. Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil
  5. Wynton Marsalis – Big Train
  6. Chick Corea – Children’s Songs
  7. Pat Metheny – Imaginary Day
  8. John Coltrane – My Favorite Things
  9. Herbie Hancock – Dis Is Da Drum
  10. Ornette Coleman – Soapsuds, Soapsuds
  11. Modern Jazz Quartet – Patterns
  12. Charlie Parker – Ornithology (Okay, so maybe this one woulda been called Big Book of Birds or whatever…)

The Top 10 Best Live Albums

These Top 10 Lists are impossible. I don’t know why we subject ourselves to doing them, but we do. And picking the Top 10 Best Live Albums is a particularly tough one, as easy as it might seem on the surface.

It’s hard enough just to get the performance/recording of actual live albums right, let alone properly assessing them in some form of a list. There’s always that impossible tightrope walk between the best performances and the hit songs; between the idea of releasing one complete show and mixing together the best sounding tracks from different nights. Depending on the band, and the expectations of their listeners, there are a myriad of stumbling blocks and inevitable drawbacks to the pursuit of a good live album.

How did this guy not make the list?

It’s an oxymoron within itself, the live album. Truly LIVE music isn’t really live when you listen back to it later. At its worst, it’s simply the songs you know but with canned crowd noise. But at its best, it can actually convey the energy and joy of the original performance (just as a “studio album” can capture a great take, that was technically played “live,” even if just in front of 3 engineers and not 3,000 screaming fans).

The difficult thing in identifying what I would deem the Top 10 Best Live Albums, for me, is the fact that it could be argued that the bands I most admire as live acts haven’t really made a truly great live album. Prince, The Roots, Radiohead, The Who, Black Crowes, and Led Zeppelin have all made attempts, but for some reason they haven’t quite nailed it yet on an official live release. (Maybe The Who and Zeppelin have come close, but for some reason they lack a flawless go-to set). U2, while they’ll make the honorable mentions list with Under a Blood Red Sky, I still feel like they are missing a career-spanning (but not too monstrous) live set. Continue reading →