Thursday, January 25, 2018

My Favorite Albums of 2017

Like most of the music-listening world, the digital age has changed the way that I listen to music.  I still buy CDs and rip them onto my devices rather than buy music straight from the online vendors, but most of my listening (in the car, at work, on the plane, or while running) is of the playlist variety.  For the purposes of putting this list together, I put in a concerted effort over the past six weeks or so to actively listen to each of these recordings as they were intended to be listened to: from start to finish.  Because I know that throughout the history of rock 'n roll, rare has been the album that gripped me immediately upon first listen.  Some just take time.  There were a lot of albums that I wanted to give a shot before making my final decisions.

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.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Songs of 2017 - "Broken Halos," Chris Stapleton

Scroll down a bit and you'll find what I wrote about the two albums Chris Stapleton released in 2017.  They were both outstanding, and between the two of them there are probably close to a dozen songs that I could choose for this series.  But there's no doubt that "Broken Halos" is one of his best.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Linger," The Cranberries

Every now and then, a song is released that is so perfect that it feels like a miracle.  The Cranberries' "Linger" is such a song.  It's been a while since I listened to the car radio on a regular basis, but back in the Nineties, this was a song that I always looked forward to hearing.  A song that, for the little more than four minutes of its playing time, would make all right with the world.  I never bought the album, so

Last fall, I stopped at a garage sale, and found the album buried in a big box of old CDs.  I bought it for this one song, and have yet to listen to any of the others.  Sometimes, the space in the CD cabinet is worth spending for one song.

Today came the news that lead singer Dolores O'Riordan has died, much too young at the age of 46.  But her voice will live on forever, with this song (and many others).


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Songs of 2017: "I Don't Care Anymore," Rodney Crowell

This is not a young man's song, and Rodney Crowell hasn't been a young man for a while now.  You look at him in this video, and "grizzled veteran" is the first thing that comes to mind.  Not unlike Sam Elliott in the film "Hero," Crowell is an artist who probably has a list of things that he would do differently if given the chance, but on the other hand, so what? 

"I Don't Care Anymore," Rodney Crowell.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Songs of 2017: "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness," The National

The National is another band that I came to enjoy rather late, and even now I've yet to discover a couple of their older albums that many longtime fans consider their best.

"Trouble Will Find Me" was probably my favorite album of 2013, and while 2017's "Sleep Well Beast" won't reach quite that level, it was a more than worthy successor.  "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" is a good example of what the band does best, and rather than try to explain what that means, I'd suggest you have a watch and a listen.

Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson: R.I.P.

In the span of less than a month, we've lost two of the all-time legends in sports broadcasting: Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson.

Fun Fact: from 1980 through 2006, Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson called 24 of the 27 Rose Bowls (Brent Musberger helmed the other three).  That alone would probably be enough to cement their legacy in sports broadcasting, but there was oh so much more for each broadcaster.  For Enberg, the resume included the Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Super Bowl, Summer and Winter Olympics, NFL, NBA, Wimbledon, the French Open, the U.S. Open (golf and tennis), PGA Golf, NCAA basketball, and Major League Baseball.  Meanwhile, Jackson's resume included the Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, NCAA regular season football, NBA, Major League Baseball (including the World Series), the NFL (the very first play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football, in 1970), Winter and Summer Olympics, and NCAA basketball.

For all their brilliant work in a variety of settings, Enberg is probably best remembered for NCAA basketball, with his signature moment being the 1979 NCAA Championship Game between Michigan St. and Indiana St.- one of the most famous NCAA games ever, and the game which kick-started the legendary rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.  And without question, Jackson will be remembered best for his work on college football.  It is not a stretch to say that, for more than three decades, Keith Jackson WAS the voice of college football.  Appropriately, he closed his career with one of the most famous college football games ever, the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC.

For any sports fan who grew up in the Sixties, Seventies, or Eighties, Dick Enberg and Keith Jackson will always hold a special place.  They were both magnificent at their jobs, and from all accounts great people to work with.  Farewell to both.

"Oh My!"

"Whoa Nellie!"

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Songs of 2017: King Kendrick

Son #2 asked me yesterday when the "Songs of 2017" series would get around to Kendrick Lamar, and now is as good a time as any.  Part of the problem was deciding which song to pick - there are so many classics on "Damn" that it's impossible to narrow it down to one.  The album may not have quite the epic scope of "To Pimp a Butterfly," but it's a pop masterpiece, and will almost certainly be my "go to" album for Kendrick for a long time.

Like I said narrowing it down to one was impossible, so here are two songs that demonstrate the scope and range of the album and the artist.  And yes, the standard advisory, for both lyrical and visual content, applies.  If you think there might be something here that you're not comfortable with, you should probably not watch.


"Love" (feat. Zacari):

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Songs of 2017: "The Gold," Manchester Orchestra

I like to think that I'm up-to-date on most of the new bands and music of the day, but every now and then one manages to slip through the cracks.  So even though they've been around since 2004 I'd never heard (or even heard of) Manchester Orchestra, a band I would not have guessed was from Atlanta, Georgia.  Their page on Wikipedia describes them as "an American Indie Rock band," which basically demonstrates the meaningless of that word as a descriptor.

Last summer, someone that I follow on Twitter was talking about how good their new album was, so I figured what the heck, I'd check it out.  And while not all of it has truly sunk in for me, there's no denying that this is one of the best songs of the year.

"The Gold," Manchester Orchestra

Monday, January 01, 2018

Songs of 2017 - Two from Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Task #1: Happy New Year!  Even though we're into a new year, we're still in the midst of wrapping up the "Songs of 2017" series, with a few entries yet to come.

Task #2: A hearty thank you to Larry Aydlette, who tipped me off to "Way Out West," the record on which tonight's two songs appear.  It's one of the year's best, and manages in the span of 45 or so minutes to evoke everyone from Tom Petty to Marty Robbins to The Grateful Dead.  Well worth your time and listen.

First up, "Old Mexico":

To these ears, it sounds like the follow up to "El Paso" that Marty Robbins never got around to recording.

And second, "Time Don't Wait," a flat-out rocker that would have sounded just fine being played by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers:

"Old Mexico" and "Time Don't Wait," Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.