The edge of ’17
The RN&R’s resident music geek weighs in on the music that hit home this year
This is the ninth straight year in which I’ve written a list of the top 10 albums of the year. I used to call it the “best of the year” as if I was King Music with the Royal Scepter of Proclaiming my Dumb Taste Important, but nowadays I like to just present the list as my personal favorite new music discoveries of the year. Maybe you’ve heard some of these albums and also enjoyed them. Or maybe you’re looking for some new music to discover. Or maybe you don’t give a fuck. You do you.
There have been years when my list has been obsessively, meticulously crafted, honed from hours of research scouring the depths of Bandcamp and milking every last drop out of Spotify like an insatiable infant. (I’ve spent the last couple of weeks helping take care of a newborn, so forgive me if there are a lot of baby analogies.) I listened to the same pieces of music repeatedly, searching for some cracks of sound that would reveal hidden caverns, obsessed over tiny lyrical fragments, tried to map out arrangements with half-assed transcriptions, challenged myself to appreciate new genres or new sounds. I geeked the eff out.
This was not one of those years.
Listening to music is a personal, subjective thing, and I had a strange, stressful year—not a bad year, just a weird one—and I tended to listen to music more often for comfort than for challenge. So my list this year is heavily focused on the genres I usually enjoy most—rock and hip-hop—and there’s a lot of stuff from familiar, legacy artists. There’s not a debut in the bunch.
This songwriter’s idiosyncratic music exists in its own little world. It sounds like British folk-punk hero Billy Bragg got lost in the haze of a smoky nightclub—with a small jazz combo playing in the corner, but somebody forget to turn the house music off, and one speaker is busted, but the band members are pros, so they just start riffing off the half a song they can hear, and Bragg says screw it, and starts just free associating, singing off the top of his head. It’s a strange scene, only half-formed, like a dream, but addictive as all hell.
Rock N Roll Consciousness
The best thing to be produced by a former member of Sonic Youth since the band broke up in 2011 is Kim Gordon’s 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band. But this new album from her ex-husband/former bandmate is a close second. What I like most about this album is the presence of guitarist James Sedwards, whose playing is excellent, and in line with traditional, gritty blues-based rock ’n’ roll guitar playing. It contrasts and complements Moore’s now well-established guitar vocabulary of chiming harmonics, open tunings, and amplifier feedback. The result is one of the best guitar records I’ve heard in years.
Soul of a Woman
This fantastic album, posthumously released by the singer who died in 2016, is firmly entrenched in her idiom, but that idiom is heavily indebted to Memphis-style ‘60s soul, which is just about the best genre of music ever devised, so there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Relatives in Descent
This album nails my taste—moody, noisy, expressive post-punk with the sort of clever, cynical wordplay that’s often described as “literate.” It might not be for everybody, but it’s definitely for me. I’m still bummed I was out of town the only time this band played Reno.
Sure, purists might balk at including a live recording from 40 years ago among the “best new music” of 2017, but this year marked the first time this heavily bootlegged concert has seen a commercial release. And this pristine recording is taken straight from the soundboard—none of the muddiness or tinniness of so many live recordings. And it’s easy to hear why this concert is a favorite among Deadheads. Great song choices, well played, including a version of “Fire on the Mountain” that finally convinced me that it’s a good song after all.
The Grateful Dead can be difficult to listen to without loaded cultural associations, but this concert document is a nice gateway for neophytes, essential for Deadheads, and a good pick for casual fans. (And yes, we do exist.) Bottom line, few albums brought me more happiness this year than this one. If you don’t like it, write your own damn list.
A Hairshirt Of Purpose
Deconstructed noise rock paired with tears-in-the-beer country and western? It’s the flavor combination you never knew you wanted. But you do.
Is This the Life We Really Want?
To be honest, I haven’t paid much attention to Roger Waters’ post-Pink Floyd career. I remember hearing his 1992 album Amused to Death once or twice as a teenager. Actually, that’s not true. I just remember the album cover with a chimpanzee watching TV. I couldn’t tell you what the album sounds like.
But this album, helmed by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, sounds gorgeous. There’s plenty of allusions to classic Floyd songs, but the album also has some of the gravitas of other recent late-career classics, like David Bowie’s Blackstar or the last few Leonard Cohen albums. It’s everything I like about Pink Floyd without the stuff I don’t like (cheesy, melodramatic guitar solos). The focus is on Waters’ voice and lyrics, which are angry.
In “Déjagrave; Vu,” Waters claims, “If I had been God … I could have a done a better job.” And the attacks on institutions of power only get more vehement from there. One choice couplet from “Picture That” goes like this: “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains/Picture a leader with no fucking brains.” He cusses a lot on the album—which, as of connoisseur of profanity, I quite enjoy.
One weird note: In the same song, he says the word “casbah,” and he sounds a lot like Joe Strummer. And then it occurred to me that Waters and Strummer actually have pretty similar voices and, come to think of it, lyrical concerns. Turns out Pink Floyd and the Clash have a lot more in common than anyone with a stake in the old punk-versus-prog debate might have thought during the ’70s or whenever.
Big Fish Theory
“BagBak” is my favorite song of 2017. I’ve listened to it on repeat for days at a time. It’s the rare song that’s both a club banger and a politically charged rallying call. I’m not sure if it makes me want to dance naked or protest in the streets. Maybe both at the same time?
Bandleader Angus Andrew reinvents Liars for every album. From the disco punk of the band’s debut way back in 2001 to nocturnal electronica of the 2012 masterpiece WIXIW, every album is vastly different. (And oddly enough—like Star Trek movies or San Francisco Giants baseball seasons—only every other one is very good.) For this latest album, the band has become Andrew’s solo project. The music is constructed from strange, incongruous samples: Renaissance Faire music, hip-hop beats, “My Sharona” … over which Andrew sings, beautiful, somber, sad-bastard songs. Great stuff.
Listen, I realize that Kendrick Lamar’s Damn is the consensus critical favorite album of the year, and don’t get me wrong, that’s a fantastic album—and if I had the space and/or inclination to expand my list out to a top 20, it would make the cut. But I listened to 4:44 about 20 times more often than Damn. Just in terms of, “What new album did I listen to the most in 2017?” Jay-Z’s latest undoubtedly takes the cake. It rewards repeated listens. The MVP is probably producer No I.D., who made all the beats of the album—lots of chopped up samples from classic Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder tracks and the like. It’s a consistent, soulful sonic world over which Jay ruminates on family—his mom, wife and daughter all have guest features—and aging. He might not be the most nimble rapper anymore, but he can still teach the kids a few things. It’s great old dad music made by an old dad rapper and enjoyed by old dads all over the world, including me. It’s arguably the best album of 2017, but it’s definitely the best 13th studio album by a rapper of all time.