So at long last, here is the list that at least three (maybe four?) of you have been anxiously awaiting.
1. DAMN., Kendrick Lamar. Whether you listen to it frontwards, backwards or on shuffle, there's no questioning that "DAMN" was the best album of 2017. I didn't buy the reverse order "Collector's Edition," but I did create a reverse order version on my iPod, and I'm glad that I did because it really opened up the last three songs - "FEAR.," "GOD.," and "DUCKWORTH." - in a way that I hadn't been able to hear before. But for me, the heart of the album is the eight song stretch that begins (ends?) with "ELEMENT." and ends (begins?) with "XXX." "DAMN." may not be Kendrick's boldest statement to date - "To Pimp a Butterfly" could hold that title for the entirety of his career - but the streamlined, no frills approach appeals to me in a way that none of his previous albums did. As I told a fellow music enthusiast earlier this year, this may not be Kendrick's "best" album, but it's certainly my favorite.
2. The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Having the band back on board opens up some breathing room for the music, and lets Isbell flex his muscle in a way that he mostly avoided on "Southeastern" and "Something More Than Free." The most important changes in his now-sober life appear to have been the addition of a wife (Amanda Shires) and a daughter, both of whom have challenged him, although it sounds corny, to be a better man. Both of the solo albums were outstanding, but this is the first time that I've thought he's been able to sustain the quality of his best Drive-By Truckers songs over the course of an entire record. "Hope the High Road" is the realistic but hopeful anthem that we needed in 2017, and it's a fair bet that "If We Were Vampires" is the best love song ever written with the word "vampires" in its title.
3. Lotta Sea Lice, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. I'm assuming that this will be a one-shot, since Barnett's second solo LP is already in the works. And I'm not exactly certain why this has clicked so much with me, since much of it has such a slapdash and laid-back feel to it. At least emotionally, some of the songs have evoked in me a Grateful Dead feeling, and while I've never made the Dead a steady diet, I've periodically gone into a binge that ultimately ended up testing the patience of friends and/or family members. The album's opener, "Over Everything," was one of my favorite songs of the year - I love the way that the guitars just seemed to pile on to each other, creating a sound that might have struck some as cacophonous but really resonated with me.
4. Find A Room, Vol. 2, Chris Stapleton. See here for what I wrote about this album. Suffice to say, Chris Stapleton is going to be around for a long time.
5. Sleep Well Beast, The National. It took me a long time to discover The National, and I still haven't heard what many believe to be their best album (Boxer, 2007), but the band's approach is tailor made for my musical tastes and sensibilities. Some might call their music depressing, and maybe it is - but it also feels like a well and smartly spoken commentary on what real life is like, and let's face it - real life is depressing sometimes.
6. Carry Fire, Robert Plant. It's been nearly 40 years since the last Led Zeppelin album, which makes me wonder whether there are young fans of Robert Plant who know him only because of his solo work. He's now on a string of at least three consecutive winners, and when you listen to his eclectic mix on each, it seems like there's little he can't do. He probably can't quite reach some of those high notes which made him famous in Zeppelin, but other than that, nothing immediately comes to mind.
7. Way Out West, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. When I included a couple of their songs in my "Songs of 2017" series, I wrote that the album managed in the span of 45 or so minutes to evoke everyone from Tom Petty to Marty Robbins to The Grateful Dead. What I forgot to mention was the notion that with this here record, we had ourselves the very first cowboy surfer band.
8. Whiteout Conditions, The New Pornographers. "11 Soaring New Pop Songs," sayeth Robert Christgau, who picked it as his #4 album of the year. While not putting them quite that high on my own list, there's little doubt that this is their best album since their 2007 masterpiece (so sayeth I), "Challengers."
9. Wrangled, Angaleena Presley. The past (and perhaps future?) Pistol Annie continues the string of outstanding solo albums from that group's members. Songs like "Only Blood," "Wrangled" and "Groundswell" almost effortlessly transcend the label of "country," and are good enough to make one wonder whether labels are even necessary. Ashley Monroe, it's your turn now.
I know that every standard "Best Of" includes 10, but after spending about two weeks trying to nail down one last pesky album, there's just too many to choose from with too little separating them in terms of quality. So, consider this a list of "Honorable Mentions," with some brisk commentary on each:
4:44, Jay-Z. The most entertaining apology of all time?
A Black Mile to the Surface, Manchester Orchestra. Not quite just another American band.
Close Ties, Rodney Crowell. The old guy seems a little cranky and pensive, but it suits him.
A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs. I'm still not quite sure what it is about this band that makes Pitchfork QUITE so orgasmic (sounds a lot like Bruce Hornsby to me), but the best songs are hypnotic.
Everything Now, Arcade Fire. Certainly a step up from Reflektor, but I guess I'm just going to have to come to grips with the fact that the Arcade Fire which produced masterpiece after masterpiece is no longer with us.
The Far Field, Future Islands. There's no way they could have topped "Singles," and I don't think they tried. Believe it or not, I mean that as a compliment.
Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens. At its best, reaches levels of passion and depth that few can match.
From a Room, Vol. 1, Chris Stapleton. Just a step below Vol. 2. Check out "Them Stems."
Love and War, Brad Paisley. The dude can be a total cornball and like the rest of the world I'm really sick of his Nationwide commercials with Peyton Manning, but when he is on, he's about as close to universal as we can get in this day and age.
Masseduction, St. Vincent. At its best, I hear an artist who would have fit right in with the Talking Heads.
Out in the Storm, Waxahatchee. The band that Haim wishes it was. Or at least, the band that I wish Haim was.
Pure Comedy, Father John Misty. Sometimes I feel like the act is getting old, and sometimes he is just too damn clever for his own good, but when it works, it works.
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, John Mellencamp. The old codger ain't never going away. Thankfully.
Songs of Experience, U2. Not quite as good as the album that got them in so much trouble, but I'm frankly not sure what everyone expects at this point.
Trophy, Sunny Sweeney. At her best, right up there with the best of the new wave of women country singers.
Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker. Maintains a downtempo mood like no album since Sufjan Stevens' "Carrie & Lowell."
Windy City, Alison Krauss. I don't always go for the countrypolitan approach, but we've always known that Krauss' best instrument was her voice, and so this deviation from the usual bluegrass approach feels downright revolutionary at times.
And there you have it, folks. Happy listening.