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 2014

spoon album coverFor once I’ve actually waited until the very end of the year to do this nerdy music-geek exercise we like to call our Best Albums of the Year List.

Good thing I did: D’Angelo’s long-awaited new album dropped in December, and after seeing this guy named Sturgill Simpson with his ambitiously titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music on everyone else’s Best Albums of 2014 list, I finally decided to give it a bunch of spins. Both made my list this year.

Before we get to the very best and all the rest of my favorite albums of 2014, let’s start with a few words about The Album itself, and 2014’s best SELF-IMPORTANT ALBUMS:

U2 – Songs of Innocence
Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow
I wrote about the U2 album here, but that was as much about the release as it was the music. And, like with most music, it changes with time, as does our reaction and relationship with it. I think the U2 album is pretty good, but in 2014, in the midst of this evolving internet age, we must either hate U2 and glibly “destroy” any U2 fans and of course their Lord Bono. There’s no middle ground, which is kinda sad. You can’t just casually like U2. You’re either a U2 “apologist” or longtime fanatic drinking the kool-aid. All the nonsense and noise around the criticism eventually obscures the music itself. Yet it’s hard to be too sympathetic when the band and its tactics and PR create and fan the flames of said noise. Remember, this is a band that once named itself The Hype. And they still do The Hype as good or better than anyone.

Personally, I found myself liking the album a little more as it grew on me. But I also started to think differently about The Release, for better or worse. Without revisiting the story of their “giveaway” album that was essentially pushed to iTunes users… the big picture wasn’t just U2 wanting to say their album “reached” 10 Billion people or whatever. And it wasn’t just about the Current State of the Music Business that the alleged biggest band in the world was probably worried they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, sell even 1 Million copies given what’s happened to music sales.

The big picture I see is that so many artists still care about THE ALBUM. Not just singles and random one-off tracks, but the lost art of The Album. That’s why I’m grouping U2 with Foo Fighers and Wu-Tang Clan. Dave Grohl and the Foos built a TV series around their album concept and made one the rollout for the other and damn, forget the fact that the show is supposedly great (I haven’t seen it yet) but the album is really good too. Never been a Foo Fighters fan; I love Dave in all his other endeavors (especially the ones behind drum kits), but no Foos album ever grabbed me. They are so bland and safe and, yea, they rock, but it’s in this generic arena rock sense. Maybe this new album will fade out of memory like their other albums have always done. But again, the point is that Grohl put The Album and the album-building process into the forefront.

Same with the Wu. I already pointed out the album cover coincidence with Foo and Wu, but another similarity is stressing the Album as a piece of art. Not just the ongoing news items regarding Wu-Tang’s secret Only One Copy For Sale album (stunt?), but the actual new widely available official release of A Better Tomorrow. A reunion and swan song of sorts, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s “good” or “solid” or “just okay” or even “bangin.” They finally managed to get everyone together to make an Album. Not just a soundtrack single, or a “Wu-Related” project or solo joint with most of the Clan on some of the tracks. They made an album.

A bunch of other people made Albums this year. These are the ones I spent a lot of time with and loved the most. Apologies if your favorite band or album of 2014 isn’t reflected here. The comments section below is a great place for you to recommend more albums.

THE TOP 5:

Run the Jewels – RtJ2
The duo of El-P and Killer Mike is simply the best thing going in Real Hip-Hop. Their second album: a second consecutive instant classic.

Rich-RobisonCeaselessSightCoverLP_300x300Rich Robinson – Ceaseless Sight
Stunning solo album from the more anonymous of the Robinson Brothers famous for leading the Black Crowes. While Rich wasn’t gifted with vocal abilities of his hippie-jesus brother Chris, his guitar prowess and songwriting more than carry the weight here on this rich set of… Americana? Alt-country meets modern southern rock? Do we need to label it? No, but I’ll simply call it one of the best albums of 2014.

Jack White – Lazaretto
Despite his love of, and loyalty to, vintage equipment and antiquated recording practices, Jack White is nothing short of a master of modern rock. Not to mention one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters, guitarists, and producers. Lazaretto serves as yet another map to his worlds full of music.

Thurston Moore – The Best Day
If you miss Sonic Youth, this is a comforting visit.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
There’s a reason you keep seeing this weird band name and this album you’ve never heard of popping up at the top of every Best Albums of 2014 list. Go figure it out.

THE REST OF MY FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2014:

beckmorningphaseSpoon – They Want My Soul

D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Authentic. This is what the so-called music industry and its critics should wish Eric Church to be: real country songwriting and performance, without all the wanna-be Springsteen muscle-flexing or pale versions of Mellencampy small townery. Real folk rock with a twang.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

Beck – Morning Phase
I actually like this better than Sea Change. There, I said it.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Pink Floyd – The Endless River (which I wrote about here)

Old 97s – Most Messed Up
I’d all but given up on the last 10 years or so of Old 97s and Rhett Miller releases. As their winning formula got so formulaic that it diluted itself into the background, nothing had the biting humor and real-life honesty and catchy riffs we fell in love with on earlier albums Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care. Well this new one finally does it, in a You CAN Go Home Again sorta way. A worthy update to the classic model.

Miles Davis – At the Fillmore  1970

Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
I’m not the type of fanboy who always puts a Ryan Adams album on my annual Best-Of list every year he puts out an album… Wait, yes I am. That said, while this isn’t my preferred color of Ryan’s chameleon career, and on first listen thought “Welp, this might be the year I leave Ryan Adams off my annual Best-Of list…” I listened again and a few more times and it’s a real grower. Sure, there’s a couple songs that sound like Fleetwood Mac, but at least they sound like really good Fleetwood Mac songs! There’s still a few sad bastard acoustic tunes too, but it’s the slow burn of “Am I Safe,” haunting numbers like “Kim” and “Shadows,” and chuggers like “I Just Might” that give the album some depth.

And Finally, Some Random Old Shit I Was Diggin On This Year:

Donny Hathaway Live at the Bottom Line 1972. Amazing, just go: now.

Jonathan Wilson – His Fanfare was near the top of my 2013 list, but his 2011 debut Gentle Spirit is still in heavy rotation.

Pink Floyd – All of the classic mid-period stuff I’d “gotten sick of” back in college, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Amazing run that was. And I also had renewed discovery of just how great Meddle is.

Miles Davis – Almost everything from every era. I finally read his infamous autobiography this year and it had me diving in and out of all of Miles’ amazing incarnations. Remarkable body of work.

Top 10 Albums of 2001

Lost among the 20th anniversary hype around Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and U2’s Achtung Baby, and all the 10th anniversary energy only focusing on 9/11, let’s pause to look at the Top 10 Albums from 2001.

Earlier this year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, and elsewhere there was some brief hoopla about The Strokes Is This It album turning 10 years old. I loved it at the time and while I don’t think it holds up quite as well as the other albums on this list, it was certainly a touchstone release worthy of the mentions.

Interestingly enough, two albums I most associate with 9/11 for some reason (Radiohead’s Kid A and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the titles I originally thought would anchor this list), were actually misremembered. They were from 2000 and 2002, respectively. Also, this list is short on hip-hop, but if you check the record books, there were several classics dropped by Outkast, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Eminem, Mos Def, and Common in either 2000 or 2002 (or in some cases both).

On to the list of the Top 10 Albums of 2001:

10. The Strokes – Is This It
Let’s go ahead and include this aforementioned Strokes debut. Mostly since this original banned-in-the-US album cover would look nice here on our website.

9. Explosions in the Sky – Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever
I admit I only recently discovered this band and their fine brand of instrumental rock goodness, and after investigating their back catalog, this is one gem I certainly missed back in 2001.

8. Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera
One of their most famous and celebrated albums, the DBT’s “concept album” surrounding the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the deep south is no longer their best. It’s long since been surpassed by their continuing output, but this one put them on the map.

7. Radiohead – Amnesiac
Sometimes overlooked and underrated, this follow-up to 2000’s Kid A album is usually dismissed as simply the second album of Radiohead’s Bleeps’n’Blips Era. Kid B, if you will. But Amnesiac stands on its own as yet another solid entry in the band’s great catalog.

6. Whiskeytown – Pneumonia
Actually recorded in 1999 as a follow-up to Strangers Almanac, this one didn’t see the light of day until 2001 after the band broke up and Ryan Adams released his first solo album. Finished up with producer Ethan Johns, Pneumonia was called “easily Whiskeytown’s most ambitious and eclectic work” by AllMusic.com. A really catchy record that some people might not have caught when it was released.

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