Sunday, December 17, 2017

My Top 40 albums of 2017

I listened to at least 150 albums full through this year, and these are the ones that stuck with me the most. As always, the usual caveats: 1) I only base the list on albums I own, so things I really dug but didn't purchase, like B Boys, didn't make it, 2) of course, there are many terrific albums I've never gotten around to, like Alvvays' latest, for example, and, 3) the rankings mean a bit less the further down the list this goes, the distinctions between 21 and 25, for example, are very small. I also had to figure out what to do with Run The Jewels, whose third album was offered for free in mid-December, but not physically out until 2017. I decided to exclude it. There are also a number of records that could have made the 40 during a different week. It's just a matter of when the wheel stops spinning.

1. Songhoy Blues - Résistance (Fat Possum): This quartet from Mali perfected its blend of funk, rock, Afro-pop, and, yes, blues on this sophomore effort. The band locks in right away, cooking up some excellent grooves. Unlike a lot of African music, Songhoy Blues keeps the songs concise, packing loads of energy into relatively small packages. While sometimes the virtue of Afropop is letting things unfold over time, this band attacks each song so thoroughly, playing with such obvious joy. MVP honors go to guitarist Garba Touré, who does the work of two or three guitarists on most tracks.

2. Nicole Atkins - Goodnight Rhonda Lee (Single Lock): I didn’t think Atkins could ever equal (let alone top) her superb debut album, Neptune City. But on her fourth LP, she focuses more than ever on showcasing her amazing pipes, while adding country and R & B styled songs to her repertoire, and showing a mastery of those genres. And there’s still room for the torch songs that are her raison d’etre. This isn’t what people usually think of when the term ‘Americana’ is bandied about, but she really hits many forms of classic American music here and excels.

3. Algiers - The Underside of Power (Matador): This sort-of-Atlanta-based trio melds so many styles into something distinctive and effective. The blend of gospel, and electronics, and rock, with lyrics addressing social concerns and soaring vocals was inspiring and perfect for the cluster-you-know-what that is 2017. In some respects, they remind me of Young Fathers, but Young Fathers doesn’t have singer like Franklin James Fisher.

4. St. Vincent - Masseduction (Loma Vista): I suppose that popmeister Jack Antonoff, who seemed to produce half of the big female fronted pop records of 2017, had some effect on the songwriting and hooks on this album. But Anne Clark is too original to simply go pop. Whatever concessions are made to contemporary radio here do nothing to conceal the quirks that help define (but don’t wholly define) Clark’s music. This is still arty, but where there are big hooks, they probably come through a bit clearer than on prior efforts. Even with less guitar than I would have liked, this was another St. Vincent triumph.

5. Rhiannon Giddens - Freedom Highway (Nonesuch): The problems that folks are facing now, particularly persons of color, aren’t, for the most part, that new. Thus, Giddens is able to address them by taking inspiration from traditional music of the past (like The Staples Singers song that is the title cut here) and put together a mix of passionate songs that have one foot in the past and one in the now. Her songwriting meets the standards of the covers here, and she even dabbles in some hip-hop flavored R & B. Her singing is fantastic, as always.

6. Kelela - Take Me Apart (Warp): Fans of electro-R & B have been waiting for Kelela to release a proper album since her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me announced her as a major talent. While there was a possibility that artists like FKA twigs and The Weeknd could have rendered her irrelevant, Kelela delivers the goods on this icy, soulful, and sensual collection. Similar to twigs, Kelela dispenses with lyrical pretense, offering direct words sung with passion that enliven the cool and memorable backing tracks.

7. Sparks - Hippopotamus (BMG): Not counting Sparks’ collaboration with Franz Ferdinand on the 2015 FFS album, Ron and Russell Mael hadn’t put out a proper pop album since 2008. But FFS reinvigorated the Maels' pop instincts, and led to this album, which finds them picking and choosing from the various styles they’ve played over the years, and coming up with something that doesn’t merely revive the past. That’s partly due to the Maels' aching need to make catchy pop music that deals with subjects that subvert their chances of achieving popularity. The second side is weaker than the first, but there are seven or eight Grade A songs here, which ranks this among the year’s best.

8. Ibeyi - Ash (XL): On this album, produced by XL head Richard Russell, the Diaz twins up the ante. The contrast between the minimal electronic backing tracks and their soulful folk music vocals is more striking than on the debut. Moreover, Lisa Kainde Diaz’s songwriting has moved up to another level -- the melodies are stronger, the choruses more memorable, and she never overwrites. Everything is tight and lean and so striking.

9. Ted Leo - The Hanged Man (SuperEgo): For his first solo album, Ted Leo gets more personal than ever. He also isn’t married to playing with The Pharmacists, so he makes some choices in what instruments to play, the arrangements, and other areas, that give this a different vibe than prior releases. The influence of his work with Aimee Mann in The Both is felt. But this isn’t Ted Leo subdued so much as Ted finding new frequencies to play with. And he still knocks off some rockers that could have come off any prior Ted Leo and the Pharmacists record.

10. SAVAK - Cut-Ups (Ernest Jenning Recording Company): There are certain bands (and records) that just scream college radio to me. Records where the band is going for something catchy and memorable, but in no way affiliated with any notion of pop. Even better, these bands, such as Big Dipper, Hypnolovewheel, The Sames, and others I’m forgetting now, have some roots in post-punk, giving the music a tension that pays off when it's released by an awesome chorus. SAVAK, comprised of vets of a slew of indie rock bands, are now part of this group of groups, with four guys who play together so well as a unit, particularly specializing in fantastic interplay between the guitarists, and terrific, intelligent songs.

11. SZA - CTRL (RCA): Frank Ocean has demonstrated that he doesn’t really want to build on what he did on his Channel Orange album, so thankfully, SZA arrived to pick up that thread. At times, she adds a bit of electro R & B to the mix, but, for the most part, SZA works the pithy melodies and minimal, but not sparse, backing tracks that percolate so nicely. She adds some personality in her vocals and a specific lyrical perspective that make this a thoughtful modern pop-soul effort.

12. Temples - Volcano (Fat Possum): Temples apparently thought there wasn’t enough pop in their psych-pop sound, and managed to find a way to candy coat the catchy sound of their first album without it inducing diabetes. These tracks come pulsing out of the speakers full of vim and sunshine, kind of like Tame Impala on happy pills. Just a really fun record.

13. Sampha - Process (Young Turks): This is a quintessential modern British soul record, with classic R & B songwriting melded with contemporary instrumentation and production. Sampha’s songs bring to mind folks like Bill Withers and Michael Kiwanuka, but mixed with more pop-minded soul purveyors. He sells them so well with his warm, engaging singing voice.

14. Protomartyr - Relatives in Descent (Domino): I’d have a hard time explaining why this is my favorite record so far by this Detroit band. I do know that they create a vibe that is similar to The Fall, mixed in with some Girls Against Boys menace. And I know that even if the words don’t hit my conscious, the way they are sung has meaning. And somehow, even though they make no concessions to true choruses, each one of these songs sticks. It might just be the more I hear them, the more I like them.

15. Rose Elinor Dougall - Stellular (Vermillion): It took forever for Dougall to release her second album, but she made it worth the wait. She opts for more electronic instrumentation, which sometimes gets a bit trance-y, but never detracts from her classic, melancholy pop sound. With her wan vocals, what else could she do but write smart pop songs that are tinged by sadness? If only she were more prolific.

16. Syd - Fin (Columbia): This prominent female member of the Odd Future collective, and, more recently, The Internet, demonstrated considerable confidence on her solo debut. This is sensual R & B, with a respect for neo-soul of the ‘80s (and even classic soul of an earlier era) blended with thoroughly modern production. Syd’s naked honesty makes this an intimate and romantic album like no other in 2017.

17. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory (Def Jam): Staples is a major hip hop talent who may not be getting his full due, as many talented emcees are being so overshadowed by the monolithic praise for Kendrick Lamar. I think Staples can stand up to anybody when it comes to his mike skills and lyrics. And he deserves credit for really expanding his musical pallet on this album, which incorporates all sorts of creative electronic approaches, making for a sonically diverse album. Staples also knows how to create hooks out of everything from melodies to memorable phrases.

18. The New Pornographers - White Out Conditions (Concord): The New Pornos keep humming along, with Carl Newman finding ways to keep things fresh. Here, Newman takes on all of the songwriting, as Dan Bejar was too wrapped up in work on a Destroyer album (the fine Ken LP, btw) to contribute here. Newman delves further into electronics, with some Krautrock vibes bubbling through at times. The sleek new wave-y power pop is a subtle variation on prior work, and yields some more New Pornographers classics.

19. Ibibio Sound Machine - Uyai (Merge): This Nigerian-British act does another great job blending Afropop with British dance and synth-pop. Lead singer Eno Williams is such a compelling frontwoman, and the songs are tight and danceable. Ibibio Sound Machine simply do a great job executing a concept that isn’t obvious, but totally makes sense when it comes out of the speakers.

20. Ambrose Akinmusire - A Rift in the Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note): Akinmusire’s two recent studio albums had conceptual threads that made them stand out. Here, in a live setting, he simply unleashes a bevy of wonderful compositions that allow both bandleader and band to show off all their skills. But the songs never get overwhelmed by aimless improvisation. All that is overwhelming is trying to absorb two discs worth of high quality modern jazz.

21. Grizzly Bear - Painted Ruins (RCA): While most of my favorite Grizzly Bear music is the floating, Brian Wilson-inspired indie pop of their last couple of albums, I appreciate how this band doesn’t go to that well too often. In fact, on this album, the more upbeat, change of pace tracks are the strongest, with a couple in the vein of prime Shearwater. And the floaty stuff still sounds quite good.

22. Joan Shelley - Joan Shelley (No Quarter): On her fifth album, Joan tapped Jeff Tweedy to produce her. I presume that Tweedy heard the demos of these terrific folk songs and instantly realized that less is more. And in taking that tack, Shelley's voice is front and center, an arresting presence on this top notch batch of songs.

23. Mavis Staples - If All I Was Was Black (ANTI-): Meanwhile, Tweedy teams up for the third time with Staples, and they create an album in response to Donald Trump’s election. Like their first collaboration, Tweedy leans heavily on Mavis’s touring band, but ups the R & B/funk touches a bit. The result is a cohesive and inspiring work, which is only lacking a killer song or two to sum up its power.

24. Mark Lanegan Band - Gargoyle (Pias America): Lanegan continues to incorporate keyboards more into his sound. Given the atmospheric songs he’s cranking out, the keyboards enhance the disquieting vibes. And Lanegan still sings like Mark Lanegan, which is always a treat.

25. Robert Plant - Carry Fire (Nonesuch): Working again with his current live band Sensational Space Shifters, Plant takes on folk and blues in his distinctive way. His voice may not quite hit the heights of his glory days, but it is still a wonderful instrument. A couple of these songs are more rocking in a way that most would want to hear Plant, and he has no difficulty blending that in with the more laid back material.

26. Laura Marling - Semper Femina (More Alarming): It’s getting hard to write much about Marling’s records. She is a top notch songwriter and performer, and while you can still find evidence, if you listen carefully enough, to inspirations like Joni Mitchell, they are pretty much subsumed by her now distinctive and enduring style. This is terrific modern folk rock.

27. Yusuf - The Laughing Apple (Verve): You know something is up when Yusuf allows the record company to tack on his former identity, Cat Stevens, on the spine. Then you see he’s back together with old producer Paul Samwell-Smith and his old lead guitarist, who both date back to the Cat’s classic early ‘70s period. It turns out this is a mix of new songs and songs from the late-‘60s. And this fits in so well with his classic period. A warm and enjoyable effort.

28. Blue Note All-Stars - Our Point of View (Blue Note): So Blue Note got six of their top (relatively) younger talents together, musicians like Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire, to see what they could come up with. And it worked out quite well, as the sextet finds a way to work together and make fine modern jazz that doesn’t ignore earlier traditions. And with guests like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, it’s hard to go wrong.

29. Curtis Harding - Face Your Fear (ANTI-/Epitaph): This Atlanta-based singer and guitarist is all aboard the early-‘70s retro soul train, with Curtis Mayfield being the most obvious influence. Harding shows he is up to the task of writing songs that sound like classics from the era, and sells them with his voice and axe.
30. Andrew Combs - Canyons of My Mind (New West): Combs has one foot planted in sophisticated ‘70s-style pop, and the other foot loosely touching ‘60s country. This probably is a death knell commercially, as he is a tweener. But he really knows how to write dramatic pop songs that have emotional choruses. I may have underrated this a tad.

31. Julien Baker - Turn Out the Lights (Matador): Baker is not just hype. She is a very talented singer-songwriter, whose songs are, at their root, very basic, but she knows how to embellish them with just the right accompaniment. I could see her having a career path somewhat akin to Laura Marling, as I’m guessing she has plenty of great songs in her.

32. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. (Aftermath): I’m actually a bit of a Kendrick Lamar skeptic. He records his fair share of filler, and his lyrics don’t, for me, rate with the top emcees in hip hop history - I think he gets credit more for what he raps about, rather than how well he raps about it. That being said, he has a great flow, and this album connected with me better than prior efforts, with its lean, mean backing tracks.

33. Gary Numan - Savage (Songs From a Broken World) (BMG): I’ve never really followed Numan’s music since he decided to take inspiration from Nine Inch Nails (who he inspired). But having seen him do some of his newer material live,  I took the plunge on this album and it was well worth it. The synth-pop pioneer has learned his lessons well, and he adds Middle Eastern influences on this epic album. Yet the hooks and his voice are pretty much the same as his classic early work.

34. Jay Som - Everybody Works (Polyvinyl): Melissa Duterte can write hit singles. Not the type you would hear on contemporary radio right now, but not many people in the indie world right now can pen such hooky creations. This album has a few of those killer songs, with her distinctive slacker, bedroom pop vibe. It is probably a byproduct of that same vibe, that some other songs on this record are simply pleasant and forgettable, but the best stuff on here is so strong, it had to rank. If she could string 10 of her Grade A songs together, it would be a classic.

35. Neil Finn - Out of Silence (Lester): After Finn worked with Dave Fridmann on an elaborate production on his last album, Dizzy Heights, Finn takes a much simpler approach here. Working with his wife and kids and others, Finn recorded the album live in the studio in four hours, streaming the process on the internet. The songs here are mostly piano-driven, and mid-tempo or slow. These are simple, emotional pop songs, well crafted by a master songwriter and performer.

36. Juana Molina - Halo (Crammed Discs): I had heard of this Argentinian folktronica performer, but hadn’t heard her music until I reviewed this disc for CHIRP. The mix of electronics and acoustic songforms is totally Molina’s own, and the strange sounds and textures, mixed with haunting melodies stuck with me, whispering, “Buy me.” I happily succumbed.

37. Ron Sexsmith - The Last Rider (Compass): At this point in his career, Sexsmith can always be counted on for a good album. This is a bit better than some other recent efforts, due to a few killer songs. Sexsmith remains a model of concision, not wasting a note or word.

38. Queens of the Stone Age - Villains (Matador): Working with producer Mark Ronson was a good idea, and he brings a brighter sound and a few ideas to the proceedings. But Josh Homme is always going to make sure the Queens sound like the 21st Century boogie machine they’ve always been. A couple just okay songs means a slightly lower ranking.

39. Charlotte Gainsbourg - Rest (Atlantic): Gainsbourg makes cool pop records, with wobbly electronics and wispy lyrics. Here, she works with a number of collaborators, including Sir Paul McCartney, and she is clearly in charge, as the album has a very cohesive sound, in line with IRM, her terrific 2009 collaboration with Beck.

40. Bedouine - Bedouine (Spacebomb): Delicate folk music with pop overtones. Bedouine doesn’t have the majesty of Judee Sill, but touches a somewhat similar place. The album is so organic, as if it has existed for years and finally found its place on earth. I could see Bedouine taking a big leap up on her next album.

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